ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Wes Welker’s suspension didn’t exactly send the Denver Broncos into a scramble. Their adaptable offense is built to weather such setbacks.
Sure, they were miffed at the timing of the NFL’s punishment, five days before their opener against Indianapolis. And Peyton Manning acknowledged it won’t be easy to replace the game’s pre-eminent slot receiver over a brutal first month, especially on third downs.
They’ve been preparing for this eventuality, however.
With Welker’s history of head injuries — he had two last season — they’d have been remiss not to have other solutions available in the slot.
Welker sustained his third concussion in 10 months on Aug. 23. He returned to practice this week. But 24 hours later, the league banned him from the Broncos’ facilities for a month for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy.
Receivers are interchangeable in offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s scheme.
“The thing is, even when Wes was here, we were all playing everywhere,” Emmanuel Sanders said. “The outside guys were playing the inside. The inside guys were playing the outside. This isn’t one of those systems where you have an outside receiver and you have an inside receiver. Everyone is moving around.
“And I’ve told you guys before, this is one of the toughest offenses I’ve been a part of and why is that? Because you have to know every single position on the field, because you never know where Adam Gase is going to stick you.”
Even star receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Jacob Tamme, both of whom are 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, can run routes over the middle in place of Welker, who’s 5-9.
It’s all about being on the same wavelength as Manning and making the right decisions to get open while getting jostled by defenders.
“It’s kind of the way that we’ve developed our system. One of the ways I describe it is that X, Y, Z, F, it’s irrelevant,” Gase said of the NFL’s nomenclature for the different receiver positions. “I can put blank circles here, and we should understand who should do what just by our play calls.
“So, that’s why (Welker’s suspension) wasn’t really a big shell shock for anyone in that room.”
With flexibility at such a premium in Denver, GM John Elway made the versatile Sanders his top target in free agency and signed him to a three-year, $15 million deal in March.
Sanders missed much of camp with a strained thigh but put on a show against Houston with five catches for 128 yards and TDs covering 67 and 29 yards.
Sanders said he’s “really comfortable in the slot,” where he played almost exclusively his first three years in the league before moving outside almost full-time his final year in Pittsburgh last season.
About the only receiver who’s not comfortable inside yet is second-round draft pick Cody Latimer, who nonetheless figures to get plenty of snaps on the outside with Welker out.
So does Bubba Caldwell, who stepped in during Welker’s absence last season and caught two TD passes against San Diego in a December game.
Welker caught 73 passes for 778 yards and a career-high 10 TDs last year despite missing the final month of the season. He caught 18 passes for 160 yards and a TD in the playoffs.
Welker practiced Monday for the first time since his latest head injury, a result of Houston safety D.J. Swearinger’s hit Aug. 23. And he was expected to be available for their opener before he was suspended.
It’s not like the Broncos had to crumple their game plan and start from scratch, though.
“Every receiver, every tight end knows what’s going on at every position, so you can always put somebody in a different spot,” Thomas said. “I’m not going to say everybody can do it like Wes. But everybody knows what to do. So, as long as you got people in that know what to do, I feel like Peyton will be comfortable with that.”
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By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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