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Broncos target DaeSean Hamilton in Emmanuel Sanders’ absence

DaeSean Hamilton began fitting a diamond chain with earrings to match in the Broncos’ postgame locker room last week. But before the fourth-round rookie wide receiver had time to finish his look, the mob of Denver media crowded a half-circle surrounding Hamilton’s locker with cameramen standing on stools in the back row to catch a shot.

“All y’all want to talk to me?” Hamilton asked.

Absolutely.

Because entering Week 16 at Oakland, after two games without veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (Achilles), the Broncos’ passing game focus has shifted to Hamilton, who has had a team-high 21 targets from quarterback Case Keenum the past two weeks. Hamilton trails only Tim Patrick in yards over that span, 150 to 93, but Hamilton has recorded the team’s lone receiving touchdown (from 1-yard out at San Francisco).

Sanders established himself as Keenum’s most consistent target. Although Hamilton was likely to assume Sanders’ on-field role, it didn’t guarantee similar usage.

“It’s not by design; it’s just by who’s open and who’s first, second or third in Case’s read,” coach Vance Joseph said. “It’s just reading defenses and making the right decision. It’s not about the person, it’s about the position. DaeSean has played well the last couple games, and obviously being a young guy, he’s going to improve each week he plays.”

It’s a small sample size with large implications.

Sanders turns 32 in March and has a cap hit of $12,937,500, per the industry website Spotrac. The Broncos must decide if Hamilton will follow the same path as rookie teammate Courtland Sutton, whose early star  justified the team parting ways with veteran wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Hamilton still has much to prove. He led the team with 21 targets the past two games, but managed only 14 receptions for a 66-percent catch rate.

“With Sanders gone, you’re losing a guy that did a lot of different things; in the slot, coming out of motions, jet sweeps and things of that nature,” said Raiders’ coach Jon Gruden. “The young kid (Hamilton) from Penn State, he’s going to have to step up.”

Hamilton, 23, was lauded for exceptional route running through his NFL draft evaluation. Those talents don’t fully translate, though, without confidence.

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