The Denver Broncos will be without wide receiver Wes Welker for the first four games of the 2014 season. Adam Schefter from ESPN broke the story that Welker was going to be suspended four games for violating the National Football League’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. According to the report, the suspension was for the use of amphetamines.
There were already concerns about Welker due to his third concussion of his Broncos career. Welker suffered another concussion in the Week 3 preseason game against the Houston Texans. He was back on the practice field this week, and there was a good chance he was going to be able to play in the regular-season opener.
Welker was a big part of the Broncos offense last year as it set multiple single-season records in 2013. He’s been a steady player for multiple years, and losing him is going to sting.
Over past seven seasons, Broncos WR Wes Welker has caught 745 passes -- 53 more than any other player in NFL in that span.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 3, 2014
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Welker led the NFL with 89 targets out of the slot in 2013. He ranked third in the league with 57 receptions out of the slot. Welker was also second in both receiving yards (688) and receiving touchdowns (7) out of the slot.
More stats from ESPN Stats & Info show how the Broncos adjusted their passing game last year without Welker for three games as he dealt with concussion problems.
Denver ran a pass play 64 percent of the time and averaged 6.8 yards per play when Welker was on the field last year. Without Welker, the Broncos passed on 53 percent of their snaps and averaged 5.4 yards per play. Denver still averaged 30.3 points, 336.0 passing yards and 6.5 yards per play in the three games Welker missed in 2013.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
Welker will be eligible to return to the Broncos’ active roster on Monday, October 6, following the team’s October 5 game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Broncos head coach John Fox was frank when talking about Welker’s suspension.
“Tonight’s news regarding Wes is very disappointing for our team, but we understand the league’s authority in this area. While it’s unfortunate to not have him to start the year, I have full confidence in our wide receivers and expect that group to continue playing at a high level.” Fox concluded, "I have no doubt that Wes will remain focused on his preparations for the season and stay in excellent shape during his time away from the team.”
Without Welker for four games what will the team do? The answer is simple: start featuring rookie Cody Latimer.
Latimer was the second-round pick for the Broncos in the 2014 NFL draft. The team moved up from 63rd overall to 56th overall to secure his services. The San Francisco 49ers were their trade partner for that move, and the pick was originally acquired when they traded quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The rookie from Indiana can be moved around the formation. In the preseason finale against the Dallas Cowboys, the Broncos moved Latimer to various spots, and they featured him on different routes. Latimer is ready for a larger role, so let’s take a look at the many different ways the team could use him in 2014.
Latimer in the Slot
Here we see Latimer lined up in the slot for the Broncos. He can run the entire route tree, and Latimer is fearless when running routes over the middle. Latimer shrugs off his courage at that point of the field, saying, “It’s a part of football. I’m not afraid of getting hit.”
He can use his size to box out smaller defenders for the ball. Latimer has the wingspan and strong hands to rip away contested passes from an opponent. He’s not going to break any ankles running routes out of the slot, but Latimer only needs a crease to get big yards after the catch.
On the play below, the formation is flipped from the picture above. Isaiah Burse is lined up at the slot inside of Latimer, but the big man is still inside of the outside receiver on this play. He makes a fantastic grab, and then Latimer turns on the jets for a 57-yard reception.
The main position for Latimer should be on the outside. In 2015, we could see Latimer on the outside opposite Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos could move Emmanuel Sanders into the slot to replace Welker.
Sanders lined up in the slot for only 104 snaps in 2013 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was 76th among all wide receivers in the NFL. This year is only the second season Sanders has lined up outside the slot. It’s his natural position, and Latimer is more natural when put on the outside.
This play actually features tight end Jacob Tamme lined up in the slot.
On the outside, Latimer can use his deep speed to attack a defense vertically. Even though Latimer is a big receiver, the rookie can get a clean (and quick) release off the line of scrimmage. He uses a lateral move to get by press coverage at the line, but Latimer can also just outmuscle a defender out of his way.
Once in his route, Latimer has good speed and ball-tracking ability. He can find passes over his shoulder, and he will adjust his speed to catch a deep pass in stride. Once the ball is in his hands, Latimer can pull away.
Latimer in a Bunch Formation
On this play, the Broncos use Latimer in a bunch formation. Latimer can run the entire route tree, and here he’s used on a screen pass.
The Broncos can run a lot of the same plays for Latimer in the same way they use Demaryius Thomas. Latimer is a strong runner, and he will easily sluff off smaller corners who try to bring him down.
Expect to see Latimer in the bunch formation from time to time. This formation keeps him away from press/man coverage, and it also gives Latimer a couple of blockers in front of him. Just like any formation, Latimer will also line up in different spots in the bunch.
This formation should be effective in the red zone as well.
Who gets more targets while Wes Welker is out?
The Broncos are one of the deepest teams in the league. They certainly have a wealth of talent at the wide receiver position, and that will help them while Welker is out.
Losing Welker is not what the team wanted, but the Broncos are ready to move on without the perennial All-Pro receiver.
Yes, Andre “Bubba” Caldwell will be asked to do more while Welker is out. Tamme can line up in the slot as previously noted, and the Broncos may use more “13” personnel than they did in 2013.
However, Latimer is bigger, more versatile and a better blocker than Caldwell. The rookie has the makings of a star in this league. The Broncos won’t be able to hold this talent down for long.
Latimer has a real opportunity to impress over the first four games of the year. The talent is there, and the Broncos might accelerate the original schedule they had for developing the rookie over the 2014 season.
Simply put—Latimer is the future for the Broncos, and the future is now.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.