ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it comes to wide receivers and job descriptions, Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio likes to take the express lane to the bottom line.
"I like the ones who catch the ball," Fangio has said. "Of course you like speed, route running, football intelligence, but catching the ball, that's a big thing, consistently catching the ball in adverse situations. Simple, but not always simple, if you know what I mean."
Enter KJ Hamler, who the Broncos selected in the second round last month -- one of three receivers the team took in their 10-player draft class and one of five rookie receivers they have added to the roster over the past five weeks. Hamler had moments last season with Penn State when he simply didn't catch the ball as consistently as he did the season before or, as the Broncos believe, as he will in the future.
Hamler is breathtakingly fast -- many teams considered him among the fastest player on the draft board this year. He is a joystick player who had catches of 20 yards or more on just over a third of his receptions in his two seasons at Penn State.
Hamler can return kicks, run the ball out of the backfield and repeatedly turn seemingly harmless plays into touchdowns with defenders shaking their heads in his wake. But last season the game video showed eight -- or nine depending on how tough the grade curve was -- drops.
It was an issue the Broncos tried to peel the onion about before they made him the 46th player selected.
"That was something that we looked at," said Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway. "I think that when you looked at his ability to catch the ball, it's not because he doesn't have good ball skills. Obviously, he's got just the concentration drops which are the easy drops that you don't concentrate looking in. ... We felt like we could coach him through that."
Former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who played 15 seasons in the NFL, looked at Hamler's work and agreed with Elway's assessment. That Hamler's drops were more a product of the kind of player Hamler is, one who is routinely looking to use his speed and didn't always concentrate on securing the ball first.
"From what I've seen I don't think Hamler has bad hands, he's just trying to make a play too quick, every time he touches the ball," Stokley said. "He has a good hands, just a lack of focus, trying to do too much. He's a home run hitter and the things he can do, that little bit extra to secure the ball isn't going to limit his impact, when he trusts that, he shouldn't have any issues. Or, a lot fewer issues."
Stokley said Hamler should simply simulate the action for securing the ball and turning upfield, over and over again, in between drills as well as before and after workouts. Start with someone throwing passes at a slower speed to make sure "your fundamentals, your technique are sound," secure the ball and turn up field. Gradually pick up speed, maintain technique and be ready to rinse and repeat as many times as possible.
"It's repetition and confidence, and the repetitions give you the confidence," Stokley said. "Get on the Jugs machine over and over again. A lot of guys let a little shaky confidence keep them from just grinding. Just work, you caught the ball before, but it's a skill you have to keep working and refining, it's not something you just leave alone because you did it, you have to keep working on it. Sounds simple, but do the work."
Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan agreed.
"A guy can't let a mistake, or if something didn't go well, keep him from working to fix it," Shanahan said. "Your confidence, your technique aren't going to get better if you shy away from fixing it. So, a young guy has to get over the making a mistake part of it and work to fix it."
In the end, the Broncos saw too much explosiveness and too many big plays in big moments from a player who won't even turn 21 until July to leave his name on the draft board. Also, during his freshman season at Penn State in 2018, Hamler really had no significant issues catching the ball in a year he averaged 18 yards a catch.
When the Broncos get the green light to return to the field in some fashion, the 5-foot-9, 176-pound Hamler will get to work.
"I've been the underdog my entire life, I've always had something to prove just because of my size, so I had to develop in other areas to help out," Hamler said. "The 'dog' mentality is something I do on and off the field. I don't take anything from anybody. I don't back down to anybody."