Broncos still sorting out receiver after Emmanuel Sanders trade

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On Sunday, the Denver Broncos will play their fourth game since trading wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to the San Francisco 49ers.

Sanders wanted out; he had made that clear to the Broncos. And the Broncos, specifically president of football operations/general manager John Elway, were frustrated enough send the 10-year veteran and a fifth-round pick to San Francisco for third- and fourth-round picks in next April's draft.

It's the second season in a row that the Broncos have shipped out their No. 1 receiver just before the trade deadline after trading Demaryius Thomas during the 2018 season.

What's left in the post-Thomas/Sanders receiving room is Courtland Sutton and a lot of uncertainty.

Quarterback Joe Flacco had already anointed Sutton as a "No. 1-type receiver … he's already that guy" weeks before the Sanders trade, but the Broncos are still sorting out where the ball will go if Sutton isn't the one catching it.

Especially now, with Brandon Allen starting for the injured Flacco.

"I think we have a lot of weapons," Sutton said. " ... My job is to go out there and make a play. Everybody in our room, our job is to go out there and make a play. It doesn't matter who's back there throwing the ball."

But Sutton needs help. The double coverage he received on the last possession against the Minnesota Vikings underscores the need for others to lift their games.

"It's going to take everybody," said Broncos coach Vic Fangio.

There's a lot of youth when it comes to Broncos' potential pass-catchers. Running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, tight ends Noah Fant and Troy Fumagalli, tight end/fullback Andrew Beck and wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick, Fred Brown, Juwann Winfree and Sutton are all 25 or younger. None of them have been in the NFL more than two seasons.

Toss in 27-year-old Diontae Spencer, who is in his first full NFL season after four years in the CFL, and it's clear the Broncos are in the midst of a youth movement at the skill positions.

Fant, the team's first-round pick in 2019, seems like the most likely threat beyond Sutton, especially after his his three-catch, 115-yard performance against the Cleveland Browns. His 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown was the eighth-longest scoring catch by any rookie in the franchise's history and the longest by a rookie tight end.

In the three games since Sanders was traded, Fant has been targeted 24 times, one more than even Sutton during that period. After a rocky start for Fant, at least in terms of penalties and drops, he believes he has turned a corner. He has said "we want success for everybody" as the Broncos try to ramp up their work on offense.

"It's good to attain milestones, but I'm pushing forward," Fant said. "I think you always try to attain bigger goals."

While Patrick should continue to have some impact in his lineup return -- he had four catches for 77 yards against the Vikings, his first game since being move off injured reserve -- beyond Fant and Sutton, the jury remains decidedly out on where the ball will go.

In Hamilton's case, Fangio said last month he wanted to see more "oomph." Hamilton has no catches and has been targeted just once in the past three games.

"It takes all of us," Lindsay said. "We all have to make plays, that's it. We have to help [Allen], stay on the field, score points and when the ball comes our way, make plays."