Are the Broncos Stunting Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker with Wes Welker?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystMarch 27, 2013

Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker did a lot of celebrating in 2012.
Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker did a lot of celebrating in 2012.USA TODAY Sports

The popular opinion is that the Denver Broncos couldn’t go wrong pairing Wes Welker with Peyton Manning. The popular opinion may end up being 100 percent correct, but it seems like such a good marriage that no one stopped to think about how it might impact Denver’s offense.

Surely the team considered how Welker might help them, but in our rush for instant analysis, it was glossed over. We quickly shouted “great move” before moving on to the next free-agent signing without considering all the ramifications of signing such a high-profile player.

If Welker signing with the Broncos shifted the balance of power in the AFC, that means they got considerably better with his addition. It also means that Welker will not take away too many opportunities from Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker, as doing so may hinder their continued development.

To know if signing Welker is going to stunt the growth of Thomas and Decker, there are a few things that need to be considered. Have Thomas and Decker already reached their potential? Will Welker take away opportunities from Thomas and Decker? To what extent do total opportunities aid in the development of a receiver?

That last question is extremely difficult to answer. A player needs opportunities to develop, but to what extent they need opportunities is hard to tell. Players can build confidence and produce more on a per play basis if they are given only opportunities where they have a good chance to be successful.  A good example would be how Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman revived Alex Smith’s career with the 49ers. Fewer opportunities are not always a bad thing.

Distribution of Targets

Manning produced more yards per attempt in 2012 than he had since 2005, which is a direct result of having a handful of good receivers. Manning’s 2009 season (lost the Super Bowl) and 2006 season (won the Super Bowl) were both close to his 2012 season in yards per attempt (7.9 versus 8.0).

Why is this relevant and what does it have to do with Welker, Thomas, Decker and the Broncos offense? It’s actually quite simple. In 2005, 2009 and 2012, Manning had four receivers who produced the bulk of the yardage in the passing game. In each season, Manning had two 1000-yard receivers and two 500-yard receivers (Dallas Clark had just 488 yards in 15 games in 2005—close enough).

The 2012 Broncos had Thomas, Decker, Brandon Stokley and tight end Jacob Tamme as the primary receivers for Manning. Stokley and Tamme were the two receivers used primarily in the slot, and they combined for 137 targets, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription).

Welker is a slot receiver and Stokley’s replacement, but that still leaves him about 100 targets shy of the number he received with the Patriots last year. Even if Welker receives all of the targets Stokley and Tamme had last year going forward, he’d still be about 30 targets shy of the 160-plus targets he had in New England in each of the last two years.

Welker will take 30 targets from Thomas and Decker, he will not get as many targets in 2013 or the Broncos will throw more next season. Each and every situation is possible, but none of them necessarily bad for Thomas, Decker or the Broncos.

Manning has been able to keep three receivers happy in the past. Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Stokley all had a 1000-yard, 10-plus touchdown seasons back in 2004. Manning had the best year of his career that year, with career-highs in touchdowns, yards per attempt, yards per completion and passer rating.

The Colts also had the highest-scoring offense in 2004, with Harrison, Wayne and Stokley splitting Manning’s completions 26/23/20. Those numbers compare favorably with the 24/21/24 split of Manning’s completions in 2012 between Thomas, Decker and Stokley/Tamme. Both groups caught about 70 percent of Manning’s completions, which highlights his consistency distributing the ball.

Manning attempted 497 passes in 2004, which is 86 fewer than he did in 2012. The NFL is becoming more and more pass-heavy, with six quarterbacks attempting over 600 passes in 2012 (Matthew Stafford also obliterating the record with 727 pass attempts). More attempts will mean more receptions and yards to go around.

Put it all together, we can see that there are more than enough targets to distribute, and Welker shouldn’t take away many opportunities from Thomas or Decker. At worst, the Broncos will throw about the same number of passes in 2013 as they did in 2012, and Thomas and Decker will lose a target or two per game. Whatever Thomas and Decker lose in opportunity, they will likely make up in production.

Although 2004 wasn’t Wayne’s best year in terms of receptions or yards, he had career-highs in touchdowns and yards per completion. Although Harrison didn’t have his best year in terms of receptions or yards, he tied a career-high in touchdowns at the age of 32. This goes back to how having more opportunities is not necessarily a good thing and that sometimes fewer opportunities are a good thing if they are better opportunities.

Having a weapon like Welker is going to help the Broncos offense, which is going to help Thomas and Decker. It’s possible neither one equals his yardage and reception totals from 2012, but it’s just as likely they see a spike in touchdowns, which should be pretty scary considering Thomas and Decker combined for 23 of them last season.

Room to Grow

It’s worth wondering just how much better Thomas and Decker can get. Thomas was one of the best receivers in the league last year, and Decker was probably top-10. If Thomas and Decker get much better, the Broncos are going to be an absolute nightmare to defend. Considering Decker will be 26 years old for the entirety of the 2013 season and Thomas will not turn 26 until December, it almost seems like a forgone conclusion they will get better.

Jerry Rice did not have his best seasons until he was over 30 years old. Terrell Owens had his best season at age 28, Randy Moss had his at age 30, Isaac Bruce at 28, Tim Brown at 33, Cris Carter at 35, Marvin Harrison at 27, Reggie Wayne at 29 and finally Rod Smith at age 30. Receivers take some time to put together their best seasons, even the best ones to ever play the game.

It’s reasonable to think that Thomas and Decker can be even better in the future just based on anecdotal evidence. We don’t ever really know when a player is going to peak, but Denver’s duo certainly left a few plays on the field in 2012.

Star receivers having their best years later in their careers also might indicate that it takes teams some time to put the right players around them to maximize their potential. Welker is a star in his own right, but he might still be that complementary player who makes Thomas and Decker even better.


Learning from the Patriots

Based on a little history and the players involved, it’s safe to say that Decker and Thomas have room to grow and that their opportunities shouldn’t be significantly reduced in 2013 just because Welker is on the team. However, the situation is somewhat unique.

Welker himself is a unique player, as there isn’t a small and speedy slot receiver in the league like him who is as involved in the passing game. Welker led the Patriots in receptions and reception yards in each of the past five seasons, but in Denver, he will have to coexist with two young receivers, which is something he has never done.

Perhaps the best evidence to suggest that having Welker will not hinder Thomas' or Decker’s development was the 2011 season. Welker had his best year with a league-high 122 receptions for 1,569 yards, and it did nothing but help a pair of 22-year-old tight ends become household names.  

Although Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are tight ends and not receivers, the line has increasingly been blurred in the NFL. Hernandez is basically a receiver because he rarely gets into a three-point stance to block. If Welker helped two of the best young tight ends, he’s probably not going to hurt two of the best young receivers.  If anything, Welker is going to help them dramatically.


Welker the Wizard

The only thing Welker can do that would stunt the growth of Thomas and Decker is to make sure they don’t face a double-team or heavily shaded coverage on a regular basis. You can’t learn how to beat something you rarely have to face, right?

Welker puts pressure on safeties, which will open up one-on-one opportunities on the outside for Thomas and Decker. It doesn’t mean Thomas and Decker will not ever draw extra coverage, but it means they will have more opportunities to make plays against a single defender.

Rewind to Week 3 of 2011. The Patriots go five receivers on first down with Welker in the tight slot right and Gronkowski in the slot right. The Bills counter with man coverage underneath and two safeties helping over the top.

Welker is going to attack the lone linebacker on his route, which is clearly a mismatch. The deep safety knows in the back of his mind that Welker could slip away from the linebacker and that the outside defensive backs will have their backs turned to the play. Gronkowski is going to run a fade, trying to work the defender who is shading him to the inside.

Midway through the play, the safety has to make a decision on whether to provide deep help or support his linebacker in coverage on Welker. From the safety’s perspective, Welker is a much bigger threat than Gronkowski.

Brady puts the ball right on Gronkowski’s hands for the touchdown, and the safety never had a chance to get back into the play. The Bills had six players in coverage against five Patriots and still couldn’t stop Gronkowski, but it was all possible because the safety had to respect Welker in the middle of the field.

The Broncos brought in Welker so Thomas and Decker can attack one-on-one coverage. If they can’t beat their man, Manning has always been content flipping short passes to his slot receiver to move the chains. Flipping short passes to Welker can go from a short gain to a big gain if the defense isn't careful. 

Thomas and Decker proved last season that they are more than capable of beating one-on-one coverage, which is a skill they will be able to refine even more with Welker on the team because they will have more opportunities. Thomas and Decker can continue to grow in just about every area with Welker in the fold. If Thomas or Decker are open, Manning is going to find them.

There’s just not much that indicates the addition of Welker will stunt the growth of Thomas and Decker. Unless the Broncos play Welker on the outside, throw less than they did in 2012 and Manning drastically alters the way he distributes passes, this is a great thing for Thomas and Decker.

All stats except targets pulled from Pro-Football-Reference.com. Target data is via ProFootballFocus.com.