Denver Broncos: Rookie receivers need to contribute immediately

Dec 23, 2016; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Louisiana Tech Bulldogs wide receiver Carlos Henderson (1) runs after catching a pass against Navy Midshipmen cornerback Tyris Wooten (17) at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Louisiana Tech won 48-45. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 23, 2016; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Louisiana Tech Bulldogs wide receiver Carlos Henderson (1) runs after catching a pass against Navy Midshipmen cornerback Tyris Wooten (17) at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Louisiana Tech won 48-45. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

The Denver Broncos picked up a pair of rookie wide receivers in the 2017 NFL Draft and the pair of pass-catchers need to contribute right away.

Going into the draft, the Denver Broncos were assured to spend their 20th overall pick on either an offensive tackle or a playmaker to complement Pro Bowl alternate receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Although targeting a tackle to address the team’s most obvious deficiency was the practical approach all along, the playmaker options swiftly dried-up once running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receiver John Ross, and Alabama tight end O.J. Howard were all nabbed before the Broncos could act.

This year’s headline acquisition of Utah tackle Garett Bolles should provide reasonable comfort that the left tackle position will be improved in 2017. After all, last year’s starter, the beleaguered Donald Stephenson, registered as the league’s worst offensive lineman according to a postseason survey from Pro Football Focus.

Bolles talks a good game about bringing nastiness to the position. He speaks of wanting to bury his foes in the dirt and to pummel those seeking to blindside his quarterback. Like a young politician vowing to shake up the establishment, his take no prisoners rhetoric inspires confidence. But it remains to be seen whether his mighty 6-5, 297-pound frame can stack up in the pros.

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Wax paper mannequins Stephenson and backup Ty Sambrailo were the primary culprits in defiling the offensive line with their soft play at left tackle last season. But the Broncos had another significant handicap on offensive that hampered the adjustments of young quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.

Denver’s starting wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are one of the league’s elite receiving duos — having hauled in 90 and 79 receptions, respectively, in 2016. Beyond that first wave, however, output from the supporting cast was minimal, as rookie tailback Devontae Booker finished as the team’s third-leading receiver with 31 (mostly checkdown) catches.

Reserve wideouts Jordan Norwood, Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler, and Jordan Taylor left a lot to be desired production-wise; and the tight end corps of Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman, and A.J. Derby didn’t fare much better. Therefore, you have to appreciate how general manger and vice president of football operations John Elway used three of his eight draft picks to add more competition to the positions with receivers Carlos Henderson (Louisiana Tech), Isaiah McKenzie (Georgia), and tight end Jake Butt (Michigan).

Fans and media alike have seized on first-year head coach Vance Joseph’s refrain of wanting more “juice” on offense this year. And despite using their first two picks to shore up the offensive and defensive lines with Bolles and Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker, the Broncos used three of its ensuing four picks in the middle rounds to fresh squeeze some Vitamin C into their 27th-ranked offense.

The fifth-round pick of Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie aside, many draft experts are applauding Denver’s selections of Louisiana Tech receiver Carlos Henderson (Round 3) and Michigan tight end Jake Butt (Round 5). Although competing against a lower-level of competition at Louisiana Tech, Henderson has electrifying potential in the NFL as a combination receiver and kick returner. He amassed 23 touchdowns — the fourth most in the nation — on 121 total touches as a receiver, rusher, and kick returner in his final collegiate season in 2016.

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At 6-1 and 191 pounds, he’s commonly described as a shifty, “big-play” threat who’s dangerous in space, and ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ranked him as the draft’s second-best returner.

Butt was hailed as a surefire early round selection prior to tearing his ACL in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30. The injury and the odds his recovery would extend well into training camp sent him plummeting into the draft’s fifth round. Because a player of his upside was available on the down-low, Denver’s competition at tight end this summer can only improve, thereby spelling someone’s release.

Likewise in the receiver group, the additions of Henderson and McKenzie will likely edge out at least one incumbent. With Jordan Norwood already out of the picture, the likes of Latimer, Fowler, and Taylor will have to scratch and claw in training camp to remain on the payroll. Of that group, Taylor led the way with 16 receptions, good for seventh-most on the team and fourth-most among receivers behind Norwood’s 21 catches.

The Broncos will need a viable third receiver and a decent pass-catching threat at tight end if they’re to maximize the spread-style of new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. An emerged presence at tight end in particular would pay appreciable dividends in the red zone, where the Broncos ranked 28th in touchdown efficiency.

How imperative is it that Henderson and Butt distinguish themselves right away? The answer depends on whether or not the Broncos still consider themselves a title contender. Progress of developing Butt into an NFL-ready tight end will be slowed due to his rehabilitation, yet one hopes he’ll be optimal by midseason or earlier. The defense figures to be a top-tier unit once again, but the offense must grow in the year ahead if there’s to be any do-or-die games for Denver come January.

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And while it might be unfair to saddle a pair of rookies with any undue pressure, the immediate success or failure of Henderson and Butt to lend Denver added offensive versatility may have a profound impact on the team’s destiny in 2017.