For a receiver, having Peyton Manning as the quarterback throwing you the ball is like a dream come true. Manning has been great for the careers of many wide receivers.
When the team used its second-round pick on wide receiver Cody Latimer, the first thought that crossed everyone’s mind was how he would get playing time. Even in a pass-happy offense, there aren’t enough targets for Cody Latimer when Manning has to feed the ball to Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas.
While opportunity is a factor, earning Manning’s trust is actually the key to playing time for Latimer. If Manning trusts him, the Broncos will figure out a way to get him on the field.
The 2014 NFL draft was a deep draft thanks to a record number of underclassmen, and it was particularly deep at wide receiver. Except for the quarterbacks, the 55 players drafted ahead of Latimer should be Day 1 starters or significant role players as rookies, which is in stark contrast to last year.
Even though wide receivers, quarterbacks and cornerbacks tend to be more forward-looking positions when it comes to the draft, expectations shouldn’t be tempered too much when it comes to Latimer. The Broncos sacrificed a fifth-round pick and a 2015 fourth-round pick just to move up seven spots to get him and a seventh-round pick.
What do you expect from Cody Latimer as a rookie?
The fact that the Broncos felt the need to move up and get Latimer should tell us something. It could tell us that Latimer was by far the top player on general manager John Elway’s draft board. It could tell us that the Broncos felt they needed a wide receiver. It could be a combination of both.
The consensus seemed to be that there was a significant drop-off after Latimer at the position. NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller had Latimer ranked 34th overall in his final rankings. Davante Adams, who went two picks before Latimer, was ranked 36th. Miller ranked the two receivers drafted after Adams 58th and 61st overall.
Miller also had Marqise Lee, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews and Paul Richardson lower in his rankings than Latimer, and they all went before him. Even accounting for some variance between NFL teams and Miller, it’s not hard to surmise that there was a huge drop at the position after Latimer.
Don’t assume just because there’s a crowded group of wide receivers in Denver that Latimer is some sort of afterthought in 2014. Not even if Latimer himself is trying to keep his rookie expectations low.
Denver’s 33-year-old slot receiver, Welker, will be a free agent after the season, so the plan is likely to slide Sanders inside to the slot in 2015. Sanders was in the slot 67.0 percent of the time in 2012 and 65.2 percent of the time in 2011 per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That was prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers losing Mike Wallace to free agency.
If Latimer earns Manning’s trust as a rookie, the transition from Welker to Sanders could happen in 2014. It also may need to happen because you never know when or how the injury bug is going to bite.
Welker missed three games last season after suffering two concussions in the span of 22 days. It’s entirely possible that Welker is one concussion away from calling it a career.
New York Times best-selling author Jeff Perlman implored Welker to retire in the middle of last season. Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post laid out the scary reality that no one really knows what will happen the next time Welker has a concussion.
Welker’s production also sharply declined in Denver last season. Welker ranked 36 out of 43 qualifying receivers last year in drop rate, according to Pro Football Focus.
Walker was also 30th out of 43 with 1.64 yards per route run. In the six years prior, Welker’s yards per route run had never been lower than 1.98 yards. Welker was still productive, but he wasn’t the receiver he was in New England for so many years.
In the slot, Welker had a catch rate of just 64.0 percent in 2013, which was 15th out of 33 qualifying receivers. In the previous six years, Welker had never caught fewer than 70.4 percent of his passes in the slot or ranked outside the top five.
If Welker’s production continues to trend down, there is going to be an opportunity for Latimer to earn playing time as Sanders moves to the slot. Sanders has averaged more yards per catch than Welker for the past four seasons, so it may just be a matter of giving him more opportunities.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase said he is already considering Thomas, Latimer and Sanders down near the goal line, according to the Arnie Stapleton of The Associated Press.
"I think I saw him — 50-50 balls, he came down with it every time," Gase said. "That's a dimension that we're always looking to improve on, especially in the low-red area. That was probably one part of our red-area game we struggled on, where we probably kicked too many field goals inside the 5 (-yard line)."
Although you knock on wood, cross your fingers, rub rabbit feet, wish upon a star and do the sign of the cross that no receiver blows out an ACL or something like that, it would get Latimer more playing time. If everyone is healthy, Welker will likely lose targets to the rookie.
It’s not easy to earn Manning’s trust as a rookie, and many receivers before him have failed. In fact, only one or two have even gotten close to great production in Year 1.
Latimer has been compared to Reggie Wayne, who was Manning’s receiver in Indianapolis for many years. Wayne had just 27 receptions for 345 yards his rookie season in 13 games. It worked out for Wayne but not until Year 2 and beyond.
Only two rookie receivers with Manning had 50 or more receptions during their rookie year. Just three rookie receivers have gone over 500 yards.
Multiple rookie receivers every year go over 700 yards receiving, but the most any rookie receiver has with Manning is 676 yards. That was fourth-round pick Austin Collie in 2009.
In 2007, Anthony Gonzalez had nine starts after Marvin Harrison went down. Despite very little competition at the position, Gonzalez had just 37 receptions for 576 yards. Gonzalez and Collie were the only two rookie receivers with Manning to average over 40 receiving yards per game.
Unlike Latimer, Collie and Gonzalez were not 6’2” and 215 pounds. Nor did they have Latimer’s speed. What made the difference is how much Manning trusted them.
Manning spent 75 to 90 minutes with Collie every Thursday after practice watching tape alone with him when he was a rookie, per Peter King of Sports Illustrated in 2009. Why would he do that? Former Colts and Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley called that offense “overwhelming to learn,” and it hasn’t gotten less complex over the last four years.
According to King, then-Colts general manager Bill Polian said work ethic was a key trait for every wide receiver they drafted “because he has to fit with Peyton's demands.” As King wrote at the time, Collie was successful because he arrived early, stayed late, shut his mouth and did what Manning said.
"I've heard players say they have to adjust to the speed of the pro game," Collie told King. "The difference between here and college is not the speed. It's the knowledge you have to have, what you need to know about how your route is going to change and how Peyton expects you to change.”
If Latimer wants to make an impact as a rookie, he needs to earn Manning’s trust as Collie did. If Manning can’t trust you, there’s a good chance you aren't going to see playing time until he does.