2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Denver Broncos
August 24, 2015 | Chet
The Denver Broncos 12-4 2014 season and Divisional Round playoff loss felt like a disappointment after making the Super Bowl in the previous season and ownership took notice. Despite a 40-18 record and making the playoffs in four consecutive seasons (the first time in franchise history), Denver moved on from the entire coaching staff and brought back ex-Bronco Gary Kubiak to run the organization in hopes of keeping their immediate window open longer. With the changes at the top and possibly in scheme, will the Broncos remain the fantasy juggernaut we’ve grown accustomed to?
2015 Broncos Schedule
This deep in the summer you’re already aware of how to handle schedule analysis, but with a quick one over of the paper slate, Denver doesn’t run into many rough patches in any capacity. Even in tougher matchups, this isn’t an offense you’re going to fade anyways. Rick Dennison takes over offensive coordinator duties under Kubiak and he’s inheriting one the premier units in the league as Denver was a top-10 offense in just about every measure in 2014.
Paying for Peyton
Entering the season at age 39, Peyton Manning is essentially entering what could be the final year of his career. He has one more season left on his contract, but all of his guaranteed monetary investment to the organization is tied into 2015. Arguably the best quarterback in history and for fantasy, Manning has been a pillar of excellence, reeling off 16 consecutive top-10 fantasy seasons in years he’s played.
After his historical 2013 campaign, 2014 wasn’t all peaches and cream for those who sunk the required draft capital into Manning. Manning suffered a torn quad in week 15 versus San Diego and seen his production plummet down the stretch. The quad injury had an effect on his play, but it’s also worth noting that Manning was the QB20 and QB31 in the two weeks prior to that injury. Then, in the three weeks to close the season he treated owners to QB15, QB20 and QB24 weekly finishes as the season closed as he was the 26th highest scoring fantasy quarterback cumulatively over the final five weeks.
Over those final weeks, Denver geared down from a 62.3 percent passing rate to just 49.8 one as they attempted to preserve Manning. That downshift also coincides with C.J. Anderson’s breakout, so there’s slightly more to it than just nursing Manning’s injury, but despite that horrible close to his season, Manning was still an elite fantasy option at his apex as he averaged 23.9 points per game and had nine top-10 scoring weeks prior to week 13.
Only once in 15 seasons has a team under Kubiak reached 600 pass attempts in a season with just three reaching 570, so there’s still some expected volume loss in store here for Manning. Kubiak himself has also entertained the notion of having Brock Osweiler spell Manning more this season in hopes of preserving him from another late season decline. Still, even with Kubiak coming in and those thoughts, it’s hard to envision Denver rolling over such a dead even pass to run split that they had to end the season. Manning is still the best player this offense has, so it’s hard for me to even envision a 55/45 pass to run split, but I still don’t believe Manning throws it 600 times again.
As C.D. Carter states, Manning still has a demonstrated elite ceiling on par with Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers, so there’s equity to be had within the gap from that group to him in drafts; it just depends on where he falls. He’s still the QB3 off the board, but there are circumstances in which he hits the seventh round or later. In those scenarios, he’s a strong buy since your roster has already laid a foundation of backs and receivers with high capital down. You’ll have to play the draft by ear with him, but as with Drew Brees, I keep a close watch on Manning potentially sliding into that portion of the draft.
Bucking the Bronco Pass Catchers
Historically, simply attaching yourself to any player catching passes from Manning has been an easy play to make in fantasy, even when they’re expensive. But now that we’ve had a taste of father time’s floor, should we be all in again on the Denver receiver duo?
Last season, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were the first set of teammates to reach 1,400 receiving yards since Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in 2005. Both benefited from injuries to Julius Thomas and no real third wide receiver presence as the pair combined for 53.9 percent of the Denver targets on the season.
Thomas was already an elite receiving option in 2012 and 2013, so pouring on inflated volume was icing on the cake. Thomas had 10 100-yard receiving games which led the NFL and he had 12 top-24 scoring weeks, the second most in the league behind Antonio Brown’s 13 weeks. Thomas also led the NFL in red zone targets at 39, the most ever recorded in a season since target data has been tracked. The slight downside here is that Thomas will undoubtedly see a volume dip since he was well above the normal totals he’s normally had while this offense was throwing it over 600 times.
Even if his target totals fall back into the 140-150 range, Thomas is still completely worthy of his draft stock as a set and forget WR1. I mentioned the increased red zone usage he had last season, and Thomas actually could have positive touchdown production still coming to hold off any volume decline. Thomas converted just six of 39 red zone targets (15.4 percent) for scores last year after converting 13 of 41 (31.7 percent) over his first two seasons with Manning.
In his first year attached to Manning, Sanders notched career highs across the board. In fact, he almost matched his career totals through 56 games in just his first 16 games in Denver.
Sanders had seven 100-yard receiving games last season after zero in his career as a Steeler. He had eight top-24 scoring weeks with seven top-12 scoring ones. Each category was on par or better than Randall Cobb and T.Y. Hilton, two players currently being selected over him. The issue with Sanders that doesn’t pertain to Thomas is that with Manning’s volume dip to close the year; Thomas still had four top-17 scoring weeks over those five weeks while Sanders had just one.
Over those five weeks, Sanders was the WR34, WR39, WR49, WR5 and WR25 while Thomas was the WR17, WR84, WR3, WR14 and WR11. I’ve already stated I don’t anticipate Denver as having as drastic of playing calling splits as that timespan, but if that’s a proxy of what Sanders’ floor can look like, than his WR14 price tag is awfully scary. Especially since Sanders has publicly stated his totals from last year will be dropping himself. The component I struggle with in moving Sanders down though is who to move ahead of him? Within the position I still feel he’s properly priced as his Equity Scores per C.D. Carter bear out. I’m still likely to take Jordan Matthews ahead of Sanders, but in circumstances in which Sanders hits the fourth round and I’m wide receiver shopping, his situation is still too hard to pass up.
The system change likely limits a breakout for sophomore receiver Cody Latimer. Latimer admitted it took him too long to catch on as a rookie and he played just 37 snaps on the season. The move from Gase to Kubiak’s system could very well mean far fewer three wide receiver sets on offense and that’s what I’m expecting to happen in conjunction with so many moving pieces along the Denver offensive line. Latimer is still an injury away from being a WR2 at any moment, so he’s worth a dart in leagues with deep benches, especially if you have to room to insure selecting Thomas or Sanders earlier, but I don’t see Latimer as having enough seasonal value on his own.
Since I’m anticipating Denver to play with two tight ends more often this year, that leaves both Owen Daniels and Virgil Green in play. Unfortunately, I believe both hurt each other from being standalone options I’m likely to pursue. At 33, Daniels is coming off of a 79 target season and still was only the TE18 for the year. Daniels did have three 60 plus catches in this system, but those all came in seasons in which Houston lacked a true WR2 presence. Daniels should come close to besting his career high of six touchdown receptions with Manning, but I don’t see a lot of filler in store for Daniels outside of touchdown potential since Manning only targeted Julius Thomas on 17 percent of his routes a season ago. There’s absolutely no way I’m buying in anywhere near his TE8 cost with high upside players still ascending on the board at his position. Virgil Green is a freak athlete and a solid run blocker so I definitely believe he finds the field. He’s so cheap that you’re not risking much by taking a shot on him being used more often, but I still project both of these players to limit the ceiling of each other along the way.
Being Bullish on the Lead Bronco Back
After receiving just 17 carries over the opening seven games, C.J. Anderson took over midway through week 10 after Ronnie Hillman was lost with an ankle injury. From week 11 on, Anderson then destroyed the fantasy circuit as he led the NFL in carries (149) and touchdowns (eight) while finishing third in rushing yards (677). He added 26 receptions for 217 yards and another score as he finished as the RB6, RB2, RB3, RB7, RB17, RB1 and the RB1 over those seven weeks.
The running back attached to Manning has always held important fantasy value and Anderson notched the 13th 1,000 plus total yard season from a back while playing in a Manning led offense. Anderson took over for Hillman after he produced as the RB14, RB4, RB11 and RB4 in the four games he started and finished, but make no mistakes about this role simply carrying Anderson’s totals as he was still the most effective runner from this backfield last season.
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He was a steady producer and consistently found the end zone as Anderson’s efficiency was something special since he only had two 100-yard rushing games over that hot stretch. Out of all backs with at least 200 touches, Anderson was third out of all backs behind Marshawn Lynch and Jonathan Stewart in forcing a missed tackled once every 3.6 touches.
Anderson has had a full offseason to prepare to be the starter and now gets Kubiak and his zone blocking scheme to help his cause. Kubiak’s run game prowess will be needed as this offensive line is a huge question mark coming into the season. Denver lost left tackle Ryan Clady for the season to a torn ACL and let left guard Orlando Franklin leave via free agency while trading right guard Manuel Ramirez during the draft. Denver’s back up plan to those positions is likely going to be starting three players who have never played a snap in those spots, with Matt Paradis, their sixth round pick a year ago at center and two rookies in Ty Sambrailo and Max Garcia on the left side of him. If the offensive line play is bad, that’s more of an issue for Anderson and the run game then it is for Manning since he’s so good pre-snap. Now that Denver has added guard Evan Mathis to the roster, one of the premier run blockers in the league, this issue is reduced a great deal.
That’s the only real hiccup on the horizon for Anderson, but as he showed last season in week 14 (21 carries for 58 yards, but three scores), his touchdown potential is still enough to overcome potential bouts of inefficiency. That scoring upside is what makes his RB6 cost warranted. Some may be running away from Anderson because of the pain Montee Ball caused owners who invested into the same position for similar reasons a year ago, but the difference here is that Anderson has already demonstrated that production ceiling where Ball was still a leap of faith based on situation alone. C.D. Carter has Anderson tabbed as a premier running back target and I have him right in the same tier as Eddie Lacy, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch right after Jamaal Charles and Le’Veon Bell. Given that Anderson is still in the prime apex range of running back production at just 24 years old, he leads that tier off for me when I’m on the clock at pick 1.03. Behind Anderson, Hillman was was better than Ball last year and has been all summer so far, so I believe he stays second in line.