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Fantasy football players want to know: Who will be Russell Wilson's top target?

Sutton and Jeudy would appear to have the best chance of big seasons, but Patrick also got paid after two solid years. And the speedy Hamler can it open it up.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In a span of three days over their bye week in late-November last year, Broncos general manager George Paton committed $90.8 million in contract extensions to his two best veteran receivers, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick.

Each big receiver – Sutton and Patrick are both 6-foot-4 with Patrick listed four pounds lighter than the 216-pound Sutton -- had too much past production to call the payouts a leap of faith. But the timing was curious because each was in the midst of a slump.

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Sutton, a second-round draft pick out of Southern Methodist, had a big season in his second year of 2019 when he had 72 catches for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. One of his best games that year was against Paton's Minnesota Vikings when Sutton caught 5 passes for 113 yards, plus threw a 38-yard completion to his good friend Patrick.

Sutton was limited to one half of one game in 2020 because of a shoulder and then a torn ACL but he was rebounding well early in 2021 as he had monster games against Jacksonville in week 2 (9 catches, 159 yards), Pittsburgh in week 5 (7 catches, 120 yards, 1 TD) and Las Vegas in week 6 (8 catches, 94 yards, 1 TD).

Through six games, Sutton was on pace for 94 catches for 1,335 yards and 6 touchdowns.

He finished with 58, 776 and 2 (zero touchdowns in his final 11 games).

In particular, Sutton’s production dropped over a seven-game skid in which he had two or fewer catches for 40 or less yards. His four-year, $60.8 million extension came three games into that slump.

The undrafted Patrick had a breakout season in 2020 with 51 catches for 742 yards and 6 touchdowns and he posted nearly identical numbers in 2021 with 53 catches for 734 yards and 5 touchdowns – consistency that earned him a three-year, $30 million contract extension. But his financial security came during a seven-game stretch late in the season, when he compiled just 13 catches for 118 yards and 1 touchdown.

With the Broncos now nine days away from reporting to training camp on Tuesday, July 26, can those seven-game slides by Sutton and Patrick be blamed on the quarterback play? Was it the play calling? Or were the receivers struggling to get open?

As former Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak would have said, ‘We’re fixin’ to find out.”

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett takes part in drills during the NFL team's practice at the Broncos' headquarters Monday, June 13, 2022, in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Broncos hired Nathaniel Hackett in January not only to replace Vic Fangio as head coach but Pat Shurmur as offensive play-caller. And then in March, Paton made a big move to protect his investments in Sutton and Patrick by acquiring Russell Wilson to replace Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock at quarterback.

In Wilson’s previous three years with the Seattle Seahawks, Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf were his co-No. 1 receivers. In the four years before that, Doug Baldwin was pretty much Wilson’s 1A receiver with Lockett the 1B. There was always a fairly sizeable drop-off in stats for the No. 3 receiver.

On paper, the Broncos have a chance to go four receivers deep as they complement the veteran Sutton and Patrick with youngsters Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, who were the Broncos’ first and second-round selections in the 2020 draft.

If only the paper didn’t become crumpled with injuries. Jeudy seemed ready for his breakout season last year as he had a terrific offseason and training camp and 5 catches for 72 yards early in the second half of the season-opener against the New York Giants. But Jeudy was carted off from the MetLife Stadium field with a high-ankle sprain that caused him to miss six games and he didn't seem to play with the same confidence upon his return.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos wide receiver KJ Hamler looks on during a voluntary veteran minicamp football practice Monday, April 25, 2022, at the team's headquarters in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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The speedy Hamler showed periodic flashes of deep-ball impact until he suffered a torn ACL and hip injury early in game 3 against the Jets. Hamler seemed to be progressing way ahead of schedule during the Broncos’ offseason. But he still needs to regain strength. If there’s a hiccup in his recovery, Kendall Hinton continued his development as a legitimate slot target during the offseason.

Another receiver who made a leap during OTAs and the minicamps was Tyrie Cleveland. He's going to be a core special teamer so he'll make the team as a No. 5 or 6 receiver. Cleveland suffered a pretty bad ankle sprain on the last day of minicamp June 14 but he is expected to be ready by the start of training camp next week.

Don't look for 5th-round rookie Montrell Washington to contribute much as a receiver this year, although he is line to be the team's punt and kickoff returner.

Wilson during his career has averaged 10.4 wins, 3,706 passing yards and 29.2 touchdowns passes a season. And that’s mostly within 16-game seasons. With the NFL now playing 17 games, at least two Broncos receivers figure to be in line for 70-catch, 1,000-yard production. The first-rounder Jeudy and second-rounder Sutton would be the best bets.

Jeudy had a difficult offseason as he was nicked up with injuries and was arrested on misdemeanor domestic charges that were later dropped. He didn't get much chance to stack days with his new quarterback. Sutton played with a brace on his injured knee last year and while he consistently said it was of no encumbrance, he looked quicker and smoother without it during the recent offseason.

Sutton, Patrick, Jeudy, Hamler and Hinton now get to play with Wilson for the first time. Considerably more catches, yards and touchdowns should be available.

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