Days before the season opener, the Denver Broncos offense suffered a serious blow.
Slot receiver Wes Welker was suspended for four games for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy, the league said Tuesday.
The Broncos learned of the suspension while coaches were deep in game-planning mode for Sunday's opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
"Tonight's news regarding Wes is very disappointing for our team. ... I have full confidence in our wide receivers and expect that group to continue playing at a high level," Broncos coach John Fox said. "I have no doubt that Wes will remain focused on his preparations for the season and stay in excellent shape during his time away from the team."
Welker, a five-time Pro Bowler in his second year with Denver, tested positive for a banned amphetamine and appealed the penalty two weeks ago, a person with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports, but it was rejected. He'll be eligible to return in Week 6 against the New York Jets. He will miss games vs. the Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.
Though Welker's receptions dropped in 2013, his first year playing with Peyton Manning in Denver, Welker was an invaluable piece of the Broncos' record-setting offense. He had a career-high 10 touchdown catches despite missing three games while recovering from his second concussion of the year.
Welker suffered his third concussion in 10 months Aug. 23, days after his appeal hearing concluded. He sat out of practice last week but returned to participate in individual drills Monday. He had yet to be cleared for contact or to play in Sunday's game.
He is the second Denver player suspended this season. Kicker Matt Prater will also miss the first four games for a violation of the substance policy for repeated alcohol violations.
Though the Broncos were blindsided by the timing of Welker's suspension, his concussion and knowledge of his appeals hearing gave the team time to prepare to play without him.
The most likely option for the offense is that wideout Emmanuel Sanders, signed in March to help replace Eric Decker, plays more in the slot while Andre Caldwell sees more time as an outside receiver. Welker's absence could also lead to playing time for rookie Cody Latimer and veteran tight end Jacob Tamme, who can also play from the slot.
Caldwell has filled in well for Welker before, catching 11 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns over the final three weeks of last season while Welker was out.
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