Manning and the Denver Broncos hosted the Houston Texans on Saturday and for the most part looked every bit like a Super Bowl contender. Peyton Manning threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns in only two quarters of work, with Emmanuel Sanders on the receiving end of both scores. All seemed to be going beautifully for the first-team offense.
Right until it failed in the one overarching goal of the preseason: keep everyone healthy.
Nearing halftime and with the ball near midfield, Manning connected with Wes Welker for a nine-yard gain. As Welker was coming down with the ball, Texans safety D.J. Swearinger landed a square shot on Welker's head with his forearm and shoulder.
Welker called for the trainers and immediately went to the locker room, where he was diagnosed with a concussion.
"It was determined it was a concussion," Broncos coach John Fox told reporters. "He'll go through the protocol. The biggest thing on him is, of course, player safety. He'll go through the protocol."
The first concern here is obviously with Welker's long-term health.
The 33-year-old wideout missed three games last season after suffering two concussions. His full concussion history is a little bit of a mystery—ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss speculated Welker also suffered one in his final season with the Patriots—but going down three times in less than a year is scary.
Last year, Jeff Pearlman (some language NSFW) was already imploring Welker to retire for his long-term safety. I doubt this concussion will do anything to halt that narrative, though Fox insinuated the team does expect him back—at least at some point.
"We'll leave that to the medical people and he won't come back until he's ready to come back," Fox said.
In the interim, a spot in the NFL's most prolific offense has just opened up. Sanders, who caught five balls for 128 yards and the two touchdowns, is the most immediate benefactor. He will likely be given a majority of Welker's slot duties, which last season meant scoring 10 touchdowns in 13 appearances.
As for where Sanders' targets will go, Saturday opened up an opportunity for Andre Caldwell or rookie second-round pick Cody Latimer.
Caldwell should get the first shot. He's been with Denver since Manning's arrival and can flank out wide when Sanders is handling the slot. While not an explosive playmaker, Caldwell has steady hands and is a solid route-runner—the type of player who fits well in a short-term caretaker role. He and Manning have connected only 17 times in 24 games as teammates, but he should be fine.
Latimer is the much more intriguing option. Taken No. 56 overall in May, the former Indiana star has been slowly gaining trust in the Denver locker room. He's worked hard to learn the playbook and establish a rapport with Manning, often working out after practice to absorb everything he can from the five-time MVP.
In game situations, Latimer has worked almost entirely with the second unit, struggling to make much of an impact. He has only two receptions, both from Brock Osweiler, for a total of 50 yards. The Broncos' second-team unit has been dreadful as a whole, but Latimer has done little in game situations to prove he's worth a look with the starting unit.
This is a shame because Latimer has a ton of big-play potential. Listed at 6'2" and 215 pounds, he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash while recovering from a broken foot at Indiana's pro day. He has the combination of size, speed and strength that turned Eric Decker into an overpriced offseason acquisition in New York.
Looking from a long-term football perspective, I'd be surprised if we weren't talking about Latimer as a sleeper next season. From a fantasy perspective, neither Caldwell nor Latimer are particularly relevant until we get more information on Welker's status.
Denver has a full two weeks until it hosts the Colts on Sunday Night Football Sept. 7. It seems like a bit of a stretch given Welker's injury history for him to be available then, but Week 2 or Week 3 both seem like reasonable possibilities. A three- or four-week window falls in line with Welker's length of absence at the end of last season. The Broncos also have a Week 4 bye, so Oct. 5 against the Cardinals feels like the very latest return date for Welker, barring a more serious conversation.
Unless you're desperate for a flex, Caldwell isn't going to have much value unless he's scoring touchdowns. With Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas available, he's still the fourth option on nearly every play. Latimer, a rookie making the transition at one of the most difficult positions to do so, doesn't have enough trust within the offense to make an impact this early in the season.
In deeper leagues, Caldwell might be worth a late, late-round choice. Latimer is still a dynasty-only player. Welker's injury is a shame and opens up a slight window of opportunity. But the key word there remains slight.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
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