Broncos'™ Demaryius Thomas'€™ off year affected passing game

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the NFL’s scouting combine set to open Tuesday and free agency to follow March 9, today marks the third installment of a position-by-position look of where things stand for the Denver Broncos at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitment, free agents, and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Wide receivers/tight ends.

Thursday: Offensive line.

At first glance, with two 1,000-yard receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to go with a 46-catch tight end in Owen Daniels, it would seem the Broncos' passing game in 2015 was a consistently productive affair. But the season didn’t really unfold that way.

It seemed to always be a good-news, bad-news deal when the Broncos threw the ball. For example, Thomas had a 105-catch season -- seventh in the league -- but he also dropped more passes (18) than in any other season of his career. Thomas consistently said he felt “OK," but after taking a big hit against the Minnesota Vikings in early October and suffering a neck injury, Thomas would often be seen shaking his arm and hand following plays.

Sanders battled an ankle injury, missed one game and went without a catch in another because of the injury. Peyton Manning led the league in interceptions when he was pulled from the Nov. 15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Add it all up and things were never that smooth when the Broncos put the ball in the air. It culminated in a Super Bowl 50 win when the Broncos completed just 13 passes for 141 yards and Thomas had just one reception for eight yards.

The Alpha: Thomas, although he didn't look like himself at times despite 105 catches. That was especially true after the big hit he took from the Vikings’ Harrison Smith. Defenses often gave Sanders the most attention and elected to single-cover Thomas, yet Thomas only had five receptions of more than 30 yards on the season.

Salary cap: As a result of the five-year, $70 million deal he signed last July, Thomas has a $15.2 million salary-cap charge for 2016, second only to Manning’s $21.5 million. Sanders, who will be in the last year of his deal in ’16, counts $6 million against the cap and Cody Latimer checks in at $1.01 million. The Broncos have three players under contract at tight end in Daniels ($4.5 million against the cap), Virgil Green ($2.9 million) and Jeff Heuerman ($695,201).

Pending free agents: Tight end Vernon Davis is an unrestricted free agent. Davis, who the Broncos acquired in a trade in early November, had 20 catches in his nine regular-season games with the Broncos but had just one reception in the last four games of the season and did not have a catch in the postseason. Wide receivers Andre Caldwell and Jordan Norwood are also unrestricted free agents while Bennie Fowler is an exclusive rights free agent who can only negotiate with Broncos as long as they retain him.

Who could stay: Norwood’s work on special teams, as well as his work as the No. 3 receiver down the stretch, will make him a player the Broncos will want to retain. He’s not just a low-maintenance player, the nose-to-the-grindstone Norwood is a no-maintenance player who uncorked the longest punt return in Super Bowl history (61 yards).

Who could go: Davis was a non-factor down the stretch despite the hopes the Broncos had when they made the trade for him. He’s unlikely to be back with Heuerman set to be in the rotation after spending his rookie season on injured reserve with an ACL tear he suffered in the team’s minicamp. Caldwell also had just 10 catches on the season as Norwood, and then Fowler, took most of the snaps that were once Caldwell’s. Caldwell did not have a catch in four of the last five games of the regular season.

What they like/want: Heuerman is the total package the Broncos want at tight end. The Broncos believe Heuerman can be an impact player in the passing game and projects to be the best blocker at the position. The Broncos weren’t thrilled with how the tight ends blocked this past season.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It’s right in the middle at 3. The Broncos will give a look to both positions in the draft, and certainly in free agency if the Houston Texans release tight end Garrett Graham. He is a player Broncos coach Gary Kubiak would have an interest in.