As good as the Peyton Manning to Wes Welker connection has been, the Broncos wouldn’t be off to such a hot start if it wasn’t for the contributions of 6-foot-3, 229-pound Demaryius Thomas and 6-foot-3, 215-pound Eric Decker. Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase are maximizing the advantages that come with the size of these receivers.
Thomas is so strong after the catch that the Broncos put an emphasis on getting the ball in his hands and letting him make something happen. Manning can supplement the ground game by throwing quick-hitting screens to Thomas when he sees one safety high and eight men in the box.
Monday against the Raiders, the Broncos hit Thomas on a designed screen over the middle against a three-high safety look on a third long. While he didn’t pick up the first down, Thomas had plenty of room to work against this soft coverage. Denver also threw a screen to Welker out of a bunch formation with Thomas and Decker leading the way for him.
As far as Decker is concerned, his size and toughness gave the Raiders problems when he lined up in the slot and worked over the middle. He also did damage working on the outside. While he clearly doesn’t have breakaway speed, he did a nice job of spinning away from the corner and picking up yards after contact downfield on his 61-yard catch.
It’s not like Thomas and Decker are the only "big" receivers making an impact by any stretch. Atlanta’s Julio Jones (6-3, 220) and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (6-5, 236) are arguably the best in the league. They have rare blends of size and speed, which is why the Falcons traded up to take Jones with the sixth overall pick in 2011 and the Lions drafted Johnson with the second overall pick in 2007.
Tennessee's second-round pick in 2013, Justin Hunter, and Cleveland's second-round pick (in the 2012 supplemental draft) Josh Gordon are a notch below Jones and Johnson, but they both showed they have the size and speed combination to make an impact on game days.
At 196 pounds, Hunter is lean and doesn’t have elite, top-end speed but he does have above-average, top-end speed and can win 50-50 balls downfield. The 6-foot-4 rookie elevated over 5'11" DC Shareece Wright for the game-winning touchdown against San Diego on Sunday. At 6'3", 225 pounds, Gordon doesn’t have that elite, second gear either, but he gashed the Vikings for 146 yards and a touchdown. He showed he can stretch the field when corners bite on a double move. On his 47-yard touchdown catch, Gordon showed he can break tackles after the catch.
San Francisco WR Anquan Boldin (6'1", 220) and Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald (6'3", 218) posted below-average 40 times leading up to their respective drafts, but they have enjoyed productive careers because they know how to throw their weight round. They are physical route runners who use their strength to separate and make plays in traffic.
Here’s a look at two 2014 draft-eligible receivers with above-average size and athletic ability. Both project as second-round picks at this point in the process.
Ole Miss WR Donte Moncrief (6'3", 226)
Moncrief may be lighter and slightly shorter than listed. Even if that is the case, he still has above-average size for the position and provides the quarterback with a big, reliable pass catcher. He can box out smaller defenders and make plays in traffic working underneath, plus his length, explosive leaping ability and body control allow him to get an advantage on any jump balls downfield. Moncrief doesn’t have to rely on his size to get the job done, either. He is an above-average route runner who can separate from underneath man coverage and who's fast enough to punish defensive backs who underestimate his top-end speed.
There is, of course, room for improvement. Moncrief's footwork can be more crisp at times and his effort running backside routes is inconsistent. Additionally, he has good, but not elite, speed. He doesn’t show much of a second gear running down the deep ball or running away from pursuit after the catch.
Texas A&M WR Mike Evans (6-5, 225)
Throw on this year’s Alabama tape if you want to see what Evans brings to the table. He caught seven passes for 279 yards and a touchdown against the Tide and he showcased his skill set in the process. He masks his average top-end speed with his ability to get a clean release and he tracks the deep ball well. His ability to elevate gives him the edge competing for 50-50 balls, whether that’s in the red zone or downfield.
Finally, his competitiveness stands out. He never stops working as a route runner, he runs hard after the catch and he is a tenacious blocker who looks for someone to hit when QB Johnny Manziel scrambles.
The downside is there’s a reason Evans has to make so many contested catches. On tape, he isn’t as fast as Moncrief, and like a lot of receivers his size, doesn’t show great burst transitioning out of cuts. Consequently, he doesn’t separate from man coverage all that well. In addition, he isn’t going to make many defenders miss and he won't run away from NFL pursuit after the catch.
One of the ways teams, including Denver, can get size on the edge and create favorable matchups is playing its tight ends in the slot or on the outside. It would be tough to build a more perfect receiving tight end than New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (6'7", 265) and he provided an excellent example of the kind of problems his size can cause on a fourth-quarter touchdown catch against Arizona on Sunday. Graham lined up wide left opposite talented Cardinals' cornerback Patrick Peterson. At 6-foot-1, 219 pounds, Peterson has excellent size for a corner, but he’s much smaller than Graham. Graham got inside leverage working off the line. The play is pretty much over at that point because even Peterson isn’t long enough or strong enough to fight through Graham.
The Broncos moved TE Julius Thomas (6-4⅝, 246) around Monday night as well and his touchdown catch is an example of the problems athletic tight ends can give linebackers in space. Oakland blitzed safety Charles Woodson off the edge and rotated weakside linebacker Kevin Burnett over to cover Thomas. Burnett underestimated Thomas’ speed and took a poor angle, making it too easy for Thomas to get into the end zone.
Washington WR Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6'6", 276 pounds)
There are off-the-field and on-the-field concerns that could prevent teams from taking a chance on Seferian-Jenkins in the first round if he declares for the 2014 draft. Washington suspended him for the season opener after he was charged with driving under the influence after wrecking his car in March 2013, so teams will want to look into his maturity and off-the-field decision making. In terms of his tape, Seferian-Jenkins graded out as a four in competitiveness, which translates to below average in our one-as-best, five-as-worst grading system. His effort both as a receiver and a blocker is too inconsistent.
Here’s why we still gave Seferian-Jenkins a fringe, first-round grade in the preseason. At 6'6" and 276 pounds, he’s athletic and fast enough to line up on the outside where his size gives defensive backs all kinds of problems. He is a smooth route runner who can create enough separation working against man coverage and settle into pockets working against zone looks when he lines up at the traditional tight end spot. Finally, his ball skills are outstanding, regardless of where he lines up. He can adjust to back shoulder throws when he lines up on the outside and can make contested catches over the middle when he lines up at tight end.