Along with the issues the Broncos have on the offensive line, there is a debate as to whether or not Andre Caldwell should continue to return kicks for the Broncos and whether or not they would be better served by letting Cody Latimer see more time on the playing field.
There is some merit to the argument, but the argument might also need to include another player who has not been performing well this season: Wes Welker.
Before people start asking what Welker has to do with Caldwell and Latimer, let's go back to the preseason. The Broncos were trying to determine who would return punts and kicks, with Caldwell, Jordan Norwood and Isaiah Burse the leading candidates. Norwood was leading the race to be the return man, but he was lost for the season to a knee injury. Had Norwood not been injured, he likely would have taken on the return duties and we might not be having the discussion about Caldwell.
Let's now take a look at Latimer. The Broncos drafted him because Welker and Demaryius Thomas were both free agents after this season, so they needed to have a receiver who could be ready to enter the starting lineup by the 2015 season. The Broncos would certainly like to re-sign Thomas, but they were likely preparing to part ways with Welker after this season. And given they have more free agents to consider resigning than just Demaryius Thomas, signing a well-known wide receiver in free agency isn't likely to happen, unless they allow Demaryius to depart.
Thus, it makes sense that the Broncos view Latimer as the receiver who is ultimately going to enter the starting lineup and not be utilized on special teams, as is currently the case with Caldwell and Burse. They probably would like to get him some special teams work, but they haven't done so in most games.
I suspect they have a valid reason, and it's less likely to have anything to do with the Broncos liking Caldwell better, and more likely to do with Latimer struggling with special teams during practice and the preseason. I don't have access to preseason game film to make that determination, but it is an area that can be overlooked when we concentrate so much on what a receiver does on the offense and as a return man. If Latimer is struggling with special teams play in general, then it doesn't make sense to replace Caldwell with Latimer on special teams.
But given that Latimer is expected to take over as one of the top three receivers next year, it might make more sense to have him replace Wes Welker.
Let's be honest when it comes to assessing Welker's performance -- he is not an elite receiver. Throughout his career, Welker has had issues with dropped passes, and that has not been corrected since he came to the Broncos. In fact, one only needs to go back to last season, when Welker's stat line shows he played well, but there were multiple instances of him dropping catchable balls.
During the preseason, Welker had a concussion, his third in two seasons. He also was suspended for a couple of games for violating the substance abuse policy. The suspension was later reduced when the policy was modified, but ever since Welker has returned to the field, he has been ineffective. He has just 30 catches in eight games for 264 yards. Based on current averages of 3.8 receptions and 33 yards per game, he will finish with just 53 receptions for 462 yards.
His lack of production can't be entirely explained by the presence of Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Last season, when Eric Decker was in the lineup, Welker had 778 yards on 73 receptions in 13 games, for averages of 5.6 receptions and 59.8 yards per game. Over a 16-game season, those averages would amount to nearly 90 receptions and 957 yards. This season. Welker's averages in 16 games would amount to 61 receptions and 528 yards. Thus, it's clear that Welker is in decline.
I do agree that it's time to get Latimer more involved with the team on game days, and this week's game against Miami is a good time to try him out, especially if Emmanuel Sanders isn't cleared to play because of the concussion he suffered against St. Louis.
However, the player Latimer should ultimately replace in the lineup is not Caldwell, but Welker. Given that the Broncos intended for Latimer to replace one of their pending free agent wide receivers, it makes sense to get Latimer into the lineup to see if he can be more effective than Welker has been.
This does not mean the Broncos should not get Welker involved for any reason for the rest of the season. Instead, it may be time to utilize Welker more often on special teams, similarly to how they have been utilizing Jacob Tamme this and last season, after Tamme saw much time with the offense. It is true that Welker will be paid a lot of money this season, but you have to set that aside at this stage of the season, given Welker's ineffectiveness.
By utilizing Welker on special teams and as the veteran receiver who is available if necessary, it allows the Broncos to then deactivate Caldwell on game days in which they do not wish to keep six receivers active. The Broncos could utilize Omar Bolden on kick returns, which they tried for one game, but stopped doing after he missed a game with a concussion.
If the Broncos are worried about utilizing anybody on special teams after they get a concussion, they need to not be that way. They certainly need to follow the proper protocols, but once players are cleared to return to the lineup, they need to be utilized where they will do the most benefit, not where they are most likely to avoid further injury.
There are valid criticisms regarding Caldwell, but that does not mean Latimer is qualified to take on those special teams duties that normally fall on Caldwell. But given what the Broncos would like Latimer to become, it does make sense to get him involved on offense, and that needs to come about by replacing Welker as much as possible, given that Welker is struggling just as much as Caldwell has.