Why Emmanuel Sanders Is the Denver Broncos' Biggest X-Factor in 2014

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Why Emmanuel Sanders Is the Denver Broncos' Biggest X-Factor in 2014
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

The 2014 NFL offseason was a big one for the Denver Broncos, the defending Super Bowl runners-up. After a 43-8 walloping at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos decided that they may need some help on the defensive side of the ball. 

No one can blame them for coming to this assumption, and Denver's proactive approach should be commended. The Broncos hit the market with vigor, signing many big-name defensive free agents such as safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib. They also opened their 2014 NFL draft by picking former Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, making a clear statement to the league that they will not be an offense-only squad in 2014. 

Amid these great defensive developments, Denver also made a few changes on offense. Most notably, they parted ways with running back Knowshon Moreno and wide receiver Eric Decker. Replacing Moreno is fairly simple, as Denver has two great, young running backs in Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball. Decker, however, was a huge component of last year's stellar offense, and he was the recipient of 11 of quarterback Peyton Manning's 55 touchdown passes. While he may not have the most unique skill set when compared to other NFL wide receivers, replacing the 6'3" wideout is no easy task. 

Enter Emmanuel Sanders, the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver who, for a variety of reasons, may be Denver's biggest X-factor in 2014. 

Let's make one thing clear here: Sanders is in no way an exact replacement for Decker, as the two are very different receivers. Decker's "exact" replacement will be rookie Cody Latimer, whom Denver drafted in the second round of this year's NFL draft. Latimer is full of potential and could very well break out this season,(hint, hint, fantasy players) yet his development will be a season-long project. 

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Welker's injury could further lead to Sanders' breakout in Denver.

The signing of Sanders, who has shown great promise in four seasons at Pittsburgh despite limited opportunities, seems more like fate now than it does good strategy. Wide receiver Wes Welker, the former New England Patriot and one of the league's best slot receivers, is currently out with a concussion, and many are predicting that it may be the end of the road for the injury-prone Welker. This being said, Sanders—a natural slot receiver—may be the team's new Welker, who last season caught 73 balls for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. 

Even if Sanders takes over a stat line similar to Welker's this season, don't expect him to be making his money the same way. Throughout his time in the NFL, Sanders—while being a bit on the shorter side at 5'11" and possessing great speed with a 4.41-second 40-yard dash—has been much more of an outside receiver than a slot receiver. Welker collected over 50 of his 73 receptions last season from the slot position. Alternatively, Sanders only played 14.3 percent of his plays from the slot position last season in Pittsburgh. 

With Welker sidelined, however, Denver will be looking for Sanders to be more versatile and vital to the offense than they had expected him to be coming in. He was signed as the No. 3 wide receiver, yet he is now the second man on the depth chart after superstar wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. You can expect him to not only be lining up on the outside with Latimer, but also on the inside, in the slot spot, with tight ends Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas. Additionally, Thomas—a tight end/wide receiver hybrid type—will be lining up outside in some three- and four-receiver sets. 

They say the third preseason game in the NFL is the most telling of how the season will go, and if this is the case, then Denver fans should feel great having Sanders on the offense. In an 18-17 loss to the Houston Texans, Sanders caught five balls for 128 yards and two touchdowns. 

While the sidelining and potential long-term loss of Welker certainly stings, Denver is fortunate to have made the smart offseason move to sign Sanders. His talent is undeniable, and if this season goes as it should, he will soon have the stats to back up his skills as a premier NFL wideout. 

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Joe Rapolla Jr. is a Featured Columnist for the Denver Broncos and Bleacher Report's Community Moderator. Contact him with compliments at jrapolla@bleacherreport.com. 

All additional stats courtesy of NFL.com. 

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