Now healthy, Caldwell ready to prove himself
DENVER —It might not conjure memories of Tim Tebow, whose No. 15 jersey was worn by legions of fans in Denver.
Still, Andre Caldwell was swarmed for autographs after a recent Broncos scrimmage. One man asked Caldwell to hold his baby before pulling out his cell phone for a quick shot of the two.
"That was something new for me," the wide receiver said of the request.
The Broncos no longer have Tebow, the quarterback they traded earlier this year to the New York Jets. But at least they now have Caldwell, who starred at the University of Florida and was one of Tebow's favorite targets during his Heisman Trophy season of 2007.
"It's my time in the city now," Caldwell said with a laugh. "I'm the Gator in (Denver)."
He's another former Gators player whom Broncos fans could grow to love. Caldwell, a fifth-year man who signed during the offseason after four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, could be a pivotal target in Peyton Manning's first Denver season.
Caldwell, a Tampa native known as "Bubba," caught 51 passes in his second NFL season, 2009, and looked bound for impressive things. But then he was bothered by an injury to his midsection for two seasons, and nobody could figure out exactly what it was.
Caldwell slumped to seasons of 25 catches in 2010 and 37 last season. Caldwell missed the final two games of 2011, but the good news was a specialist had discovered during that time he had a sports hernia. He previously had been diagnosed with an abdominal strain.
"I went in and got a second opinion," Caldwell said. "I had had a sports hernia for two years, so I finally got that corrected and this offseason I was finally healthy and running fast and just being able to be my old self and make plays."
With Caldwell doing much better, the Broncos figured he would be an ideal deep threat to pair with Manning after they signed the legendary quarterback in March as a free agent. So they soon dialed up Caldwell, who said the Bengals had told him "pretty much see you later" in free agency.
"After they contacted me, it was, ‘Who wouldn't want to play here?' " said Caldwell, who chose Denver over the Atlanta Falcons and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. "It's great playing with (Manning). He makes the game a lot easier. He always puts you in the best position to be successful. He's going to put the ball on the money, so I just got to get to the spot and get open. It's every receiver's dream to play with him."
Caldwell is the Broncos' No. 3 receiver, after starters Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Caldwell said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds before training camp, the best time has had.
"Bubba Caldwell has excellent speed," Manning said. "It's a rare speed to get deep on corners. You can tell when they're covering him, if you miss one step, he can run right by you. . . . I like working with Bubba, and I think he has a lot of explosive plays in him."
It's good news for a ball catcher to be Manning's teammate and be liked by him. Four times in Manning's star-studded 13 seasons (not including missing 2011 because of injury) with the Indianapolis Colts, he had four receivers catch 50 or more balls. And another four times, he had three guys catch 49 or more.
"I'm definitely making up for lost time," Caldwell said about finally being healthy. "I think I'll be a big playmaker."
Caldwell, Florida's all-time leading receiver, with 185 catches, might have been used mostly as an inside slot receiver in Cincinnati when the now-named Chad Johnson was his teammate from 2008-10 and when Caldwell wasn't healthy. But he's getting no argument from Denver coach John Fox about his prediction.
"He's got great downfield speed," Fox said. "I think he's worked very hard to learn our system. . . . We have high hopes for him, and we'll see how it works out."
If it works out well, there might be another Gators favorite in Denver. Then start looking for his No. 17 jersey in the stands.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson