There were already questions surrounding Wes Welker’s availability for week 1 after his concussion in the third preseason game of 2014. After his four game suspension, however, it is definite that Denver will be without their starting slot receiver for a portion of the season. As Manning’s main safety blanket, Welker saw a lot of targets last season. He caught 73 passes in 13 games, which equates to 90 catches over a full season. Who do those passes go to now?
There are a few different personnel formations the Broncos can run to make up for the loss of their premier slot receiver. This injury won’t have a large effect on Demaryius Thomas' production. He may get a few more looks now, but expect him to produce his third straight 90 catch, 1400 yard season. The next most talented receiver is newcomer Emmanuel Sanders, who made a great impression in his one preseason game. A versatile player, he can play the outside or slot. Without Welker available, he could conceivably take over that inside role and rack up catches. Another smaller guy is Andre Caldwell, who has been one of Manning’s most reliable targets in Denver. With a low ceiling and good veteran knowledge, Caldwell will receive the benefit of the doubt from coaches to fill Sanders’ role on the outside when the Broncos run three receivers for now.
The dark horse in this situation is the rookie chomping at the veterans' heels, Cody Latimer. A true physical specimen, he has a similar body type to Demaryius Thomas and displayed great ball skills throughout training camp and preseason. Some expected him to be raw coming out of Indiana, but he’s exceeded expectations in limited work. Even though he's only about one step ahead of this cornerback in the gif below, Latimer has the length to extend and pull the ball in with ease.
Many in Denver expected his breakout season to come in 2015, but he is suddenly on the brink of an extensive role. One injury to Sanders or Thomas, and Latimer becomes a must add in fantasy circles. While it was seemingly precautionary, Sanders did sit out the first two preseason games with ailments and his absence at any point mid-season could spell big time opportunity for the rookie out of Indiana. It is only a matter of time until Latimer's talent is too overwhelming to hide on the sideline. But it may happen sooner than anyone expected after the Wes Welker suspension. While long balls and curls on the outside are the rookie's specialty, he has very quick feet and can line up in the slot as well, as evidenced here in the preseason game against Dallas. He lines up in the middle of a three receiver bunch set before curling underneath for a slick one handed grab which he turned up the field for 54 yards.
Behind Welker on the depth chart at slot receiver is undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse, but don’t expect him to get much playing time. He will be used mostly as the team’s punt returner and shouldn’t see offensive snaps except for in garbage time. Recently, the Broncos signed youngster Nathan Palmer off their practice squad to join the active roster, but he also doesn’t seem to figure into Denver’s passing plans this season.
A sneaky player who has been flying under the radar is Jacob Tamme. Listed as a TE, he is very similar to Welker. Both possess good agility and the ability to play the slot. A long-time favorite of Manning, he should receive a few more snaps now that Denver’s main slot weapon is watching from home. In Manning's first season in Denver, without Welker, Tamme was the third most targeted player on the team after Thomas and Decker. He looked good in training camp and is poised to at the very least get some more snaps.
Even when Wes Welker does come back, he’s at a high risk of another concussion the way he plays the game, constantly cutting across the middle on slant routes. Other Broncos receivers will be looking to fill the void for the first four games, and could even have more opportunities should Welker suffer another concussion after his return. Still though, it’s a smart move to wait until after week 1 to add a Broncos weapon. There are several combinations because of the versatility at the WR and TE position, so a guy like Cody Latimer could see 5 snaps or 20 snaps pending on where Sanders, Tamme, and Caldwell play. The solid, low upside add is Caldwell. If you need some TE help, Tamme could be a shrewd pick-up as a suddenly respectable TE2.
What you're looking for on the waiver wire, however, is upside. The clear player to add here is Latimer. Already included in the team’s red-zone packages, he could flourish on the outside opposite Demaryius Thomas against teams’ second or third best corner while lining up in the slot on occasion as well. He has the ability and athleticism, he just needs to leap frog Caldwell on the depth chart. When it comes to the last WR spot on your bench, go big or go home in the world of fantasy football. Latimer just may be a sleeping giant.