A lot to discuss with this position group, isn’t there? Let’s get to it:
What about Marshall? Make no mistake, this is the No. 1 issue for the Broncos this offseason. If the Broncos decide to cut ties with Marshall – and it seems like a likely outcome after a controversial end to the season – they need to find a trading partner. No matter how talented Marshall is, that might not be a slam dunk. After a very public spat between McDaniels and Marshall in Week 17 the Broncos might have lost some leverage, and Marshall already had some well-documented baggage. A team would not only have to trade Denver some valuable draft picks, but any team has to know Marshall won’t be happy without a long-term contract. Getting full value for Marshall – which could happen if a couple of receiver-hungry teams get in a bidding war, much like last year’s Jay Cutler situation – could be a challenge for the team.
Is there a chance Marshall could return? That can’t be completely ruled out if Marshall is a restricted free agent (he will be if there’s no new collective-bargaining agreement) and the Broncos don’t find a willing trade partner. It would be another odd season, but so was 2009 after what happened in training camp. The way the Broncos relied on Marshall – he had 68 catches over an eight-game stretch before the final game, and no other Bronco had more than 19 – says that Denver needs Marshall more than it would probably like to admit.
Losing Marshall would mean a gaping hole in the offense. Keeping Marshall, especially without a long-term extension, would make for – at best – an uncomfortable relationship. That’s why it is absolutely crucial for the Broncos to make the right moves when it comes to Marshall this offseason.
What to make of Royal? There’s been plenty of debate on Twitter about Eddie Royal. One thing I will refuse to argue: Royal had a shockingly unproductive year as a receiver in 2009. He had 345 yards, which ranked 125th in the NFL, with no touchdowns. He averaged 9.3 yards per catch, which is really low for a receiver. Jabar Gaffney had 282 yards and two touchdowns in just two games (which Royal missed) to end the year, which should bring some context to Royal’s season, and make one wonder why Denver let Royal cut into Gaffney’s playing time. What might be worse is Brandon Lloyd, inactive for 14 games to start the season, had 95 yards in the finale with a long gain of 44. Royal’s season high in a game was 90 yards (he had only two games of more than 32 yards), and his longest gain was just 20. Ouch.
Josh McDaniels tried explaining Royal’s inactivity this season by blaming himself.
“I know that I’m frustrated and disappointed that we couldn’t do more in terms of using Eddie Royal,” McDaniels said. “I’ve been asked that question a bunch. I know Eddie is frustrated with it, too. I’m not happy with that, and I don’t want that to be the case. That’s not stereotypical of Eddie this year. We’re going to work hard to try to fix that and get that to change dramatically going into next season.”
That rings a bit hollow – it’s not like McDaniels didn’t know Royal was rarely being used, considering that was a common question from the media all season. But, the Broncos apparently still think he can be a big part of the offense. Royal will be watched closely again this season, especially if Marshall leaves. Either his 2008 season was an outlier (and perhaps his low 10.8-yard average was obscured by his 91 catches, which is possible considering how overrated catches has become for measuring a receiver’s worth) or he will become the next Wes Welker in McDaniels’ offense, a year later than expected.
Is Gaffney better than everyone thought? I left the Broncos’ season finale wondering if Gaffney is a real sleeper for 2010. One could easily argue Gaffney had the Broncos’ best receiving day of last season, even better than Marshall’s NFL-record 21-catch effort. Gaffney had 213 yards to Marshall’s 200. Gaffney had five 20-yard catches (and an 18-yarder); Marshall had only one 20-yard catch. Gaffney came 1 yard short of Shannon Sharpe’s Broncos record for receiving yards in a game. That performance, after he had a pair of touchdowns against Philadelphia, made me wonder if he could be a true No. 1 if given the chance.
Perhaps Gaffney was underutilized. According to footballguys.com, before the final two games of the season Gaffney had 60 targets in 14 games (Royal had 79 and Marshall had 154 for the season). Only once did Gaffney start over a healthy Royal, and that came against New England. Gaffney will turn 31 next season and there’s little evidence over his career that he can be a standout No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but I’m interested to see what he could do with a bigger role in 2010.
What about the rest? With or without Marshall, the Broncos probably need to make receiver a priority in the offseason. Fans liked to criticize the playcalling or Kyle Orton for the lack of downfield passes, but the receivers share the blame too. There’s not one great deep threat on the roster – the best one is probably Marshall, who is at his best when being used as a possession receiver. Denver should look long and hard at signing or drafting someone who can stretch the field. Acquiring one or more receivers would make sense considering McDaniels likes to use multiple receivers. He kept six on the roster this year.
One interesting case will be Brandon Stokley, a reliable veteran who didn’t play much in 2009. However, in limited time he did have four more touchdowns and only 17 fewer yards than Royal. Depending on what the Broncos do at the receiver position this offseason, Stokley could be on the roster bubble in 2010.