Football, an inherently violent sport, often carries with it a ‘next man up’ mentality. Whether this applies to front office executives, coaches, or players, the mentality appears pervasive. Furthermore, perhaps no other professional sport experiences the NFL’s level of constant personnel turnover. This can make free agency a daunting possibility for players; as a result, they seek long-term stability. For the Denver Broncos, it means they must be careful with whom they contractually provide long-term stability. If the 2021 Denver Broncos want to build off of the silver linings of 2020, they must bring Tim Patrick back for next season and beyond.
Making the Case for the Denver Broncos to Re-Sign Tim Patrick
Early in the 2020 season, commentators remarked on Patrick’s perceived lack of explosiveness relative to his fellow wide receivers. By the time the season ended, however, commentators and fans alike were lauding the Utah alumnus. He more than earned this praise. His 2020 season prompted fans, by and large, to call for the team to bring him back on an extension. We can more accurately contextualize expectations for Patrick by examining his 2020 performance through the lens of potential 2021 contributions.
The Year of Tim Patrick
On September 21st, 2020, number one wide receiver Courtland Sutton tore his ACL against the Tennessee Titans. Unfortunately, this forced him to miss most of the 2020 season with a mere 31 snaps under his belt.
The position group is full of rookies and question marks. As such, the team expected Sutton to lead the group after his breakout 2019 season. Clearly, this was not to be. 2020 became, instead, a microcosm of dysfunction and turnover. A perpetual carousel at quarterback. A new offensive coordinator still learning how to properly utilize unfamiliar players to their strengths. No clear-cut number one wide receiver.
Next man up.
Tim Patrick’s 2020 Campaign
With Sutton sidelined for the year, Patrick started 15 of 16 games and accrued 51 catches for 742 yards and six touchdowns. With 79 targets to his name, he was one of two receivers in the league with 70 or more targets and no drops, per Pro Football Focus. Despite the team only winning five games, Patrick (and his performance in and of itself) served as a building block from which Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler have crafted their foundation.
What was most impressive about Patrick’s 2020 campaign was his consistency. After never having played more than 40 percent of offensive snaps in his career, Patrick played in 74 percent of the snaps. He even played 80 percent or more in nine games. Throughout the year, he saw 10 or more yards per target and in average depth of target in eight and 10 games, respectively. The team was undefeated in games in which Patrick had 100 or more yards receiving. Additionally, quarterbacks earned a 104.5 passer rating on plays in which he was targeted.
All in all, his 2020 seems like a precursor to a bonafide breakout.
2021 Denver Broncos Wide Receiver Depth
When the 2021 season kicks off, the Broncos will, in all likelihood, have Sutton dressed and ready to go. With that said, however, it may prove an uphill climb for the talented young wideout to get back to a true 100 percent. After an ACL injury, his playing strength, cuts, and agility may take more time to fully get back to speed. As a result, it would not be surprising for Sutton to cede snaps to other wide receivers early in the year. Nonetheless, Sutton is the undisputed number one wide receiver heading into 2021.
2021 also represents year two for Jeudy. With a returning quarterback and offensive coordinator, it seems likely the Alabama alumnus will see more targets and more schemed throws. This means he is poised to significantly improve upon his numbers from his rookie season. With Sutton back on the field, Jeudy should also be able to take advantage of his route-running fluency against defensive backs further down the depth chart. The pair of these two receivers is enough to make someone question the size of the remaining pass distribution.
Hamler offers the team an electric playmaker from the slot. While his dimensions leave something to be desired, his speed, agility, and route-running savvy pose a serious problem for the AFC West. He put together several surprisingly solid performances as a rookie in 2020. His performances in Weeks 9 and 14 were his most notable, alongside his game-winning go-ahead touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers. Hamler predominantly plays from the slot and can be used for trick plays and deep shots. Even so, he should see far more than the 56 targets he received in 2020.
In the final year of his contract, DaeSean Hamilton headlines the current depth beyond three-wide personnel. Hamilton has never really broken through in Denver, failing to earn enough playing time for fans or the team to have a true sense of his capabilities. Despite this fact, he has flashed some impressive skills, as he did with his acrobatic catch at the end of the Week 17 game this past season. He is arguably not fully suited for stepping into a starting role in the event of an injury.
To many, former Florida Gator Tyrie Cleveland came seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the 2020 season with a six-catch, 63-yard performance. His primary contributions throughout the year, however, were on special teams. In fact, he totaled nearly triple the number of special teams snaps as he played offensive snaps. He is still a question mark in terms of long-term, consistent contributions if he were to see more playing time.
Diontae Spencer is the most interesting receiver on the depth chart. He has shown the ability to break for long returns and touchdowns but has shown virtually nothing on offense. As a result, it is difficult to consider him a true part of the receiver depth chart as much as he is at the top of the punt/kick return depth chart. If the team becomes confident in Cleveland or Hamler (or a draft pick) to assume return-man responsibilities, Spencer becomes expendable. 102 total returns, 11 yards per punt returned, and 23.9 yards per kick returned in his two-year career is certainly hard to replace, though.
What Tim Patrick Brings to the Table
The previously outlined 2021 receiver depth chart lacks size and veteran savvy behind Courtland Sutton. Tim Patrick provides both. In relief duty for Sutton in 2020, he produced like a legitimate number two wide receiver. He also helped set the example; mentoring Jeudy and Hamler in their impressive rookie campaigns.
He led the 2020 team in touchdowns with as many as or more than any two other Broncos combined. What makes this even more impressive is that he did so as a substitute starter for Courtland Sutton. Sutton, however, is primed to return to the field. Who knows what kind of red-zone offense the team will explore with the size options Sutton, Patrick, and Noah Fant would present when deployed simultaneously?
In addition to his consistent production in the red zone, Patrick displayed a surprising command of deep route nuances. This is not something Jeudy or Hamler were able to master as effectively in 2020 despite their superior speed and explosiveness. A proven chain-mover, Patrick would compensate well for the offense’s weaknesses.
Off the field, Patrick’s return to the team presents a financial ‘no-brainer’. With only one season of 50 or more catches and 300 or more yards, he likely will not command a large contract on the open market. As a result, the team could place a second-round tender on the receiver. Similarly, they could re-sign him to a team-friendly deal of three or four years. This makes him a more financially responsible move at receiver than a free-agent signing or bringing in another inexperienced rookie.
The Last Word
The sure-handed Tim Patrick’s importance to the 2020 Denver Broncos cannot be understated. Often, rookie growing pains made it appear as if Patrick was the only consistent wide receiver option on the team. Luckily, the pass-catcher is poised to become a restricted free agent. Patrick could very well return to the team with a new deal or a second-round tender in place. Relative to other free-agent options at the positions (and the costs they would incur), re-signing Patrick seems financially logical as well.
In a sport as violent as football, the chances are high that any combination of Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler, and even Hamilton will miss time in 2021 and beyond. Given the slender frames of Jeudy and Hamler, this is even more likely for the two second-year receivers. Patrick has already gone above and beyond in proving himself a suitable starter in a bind. Likewise, his established chemistry with the incumbent starting quarterback represents an attractive option for the offensive coaching staff.
With the high volume of passes thrown in the Broncos offense, having healthy, fresh, and talented depth at the receiver position is necessary. To maintain long-term health and explosiveness, bringing Patrick back to the offense seems necessary as well. By allowing the team to focus draft and free-agent resources elsewhere, the return of Tim Patrick should all but close the 2021 Denver Broncos wide receiver room.
Or will there be yet another case of ‘next man up’?
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