2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning Montee Ball
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Pretty much everyone who wore a Broncos jersey last season was fantasy relevant. Denver set numerous records last season as the best offense we’ve seen thus far in NFL history, but all of those points are now in the past. Regression has become part of regular fantasy vernacular these days, and there’s a decent amount of natural regression we can anticipate for this offense coming into the 2014 season.

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Green Bay Packers

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Arizona Cardinals 

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Detroit Lions 

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Washington Redskins

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Cincinnati Bengals

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Buffalo Bills

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Seattle Seahawks

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Chicago Bears

Week   Opp
1 Indianapolis Colts
2 Kansas City Chiefs
3 @ Seattle Seahawks
4 Bye Week
5 Arizona Cardinals
6 @ New York Jets
7 San Francisco 49ers
8 San Diego Chargers
9 @ New England Patriots
10 @ Oakland Raiders
11 @ St. Louis Rams
12 Miami Dolphins
13 @ Kansas City Chiefs
14 Buffalo Bills
15 @ San Diego Chargers
16 @ Cincinnati Bengals
17 Oakland Raiders

 

Let me provide the token drop of treading lightly over strength of schedule analysis this far in advance, but Denver draws a tough front half slate on paper. They will see the three best defenses in the NFC West, a revamped Patriots secondary, and the Chargers, a team that held them under 30 points scored in all three meetings in 2013. In fact, counting their three postseason games, Denver scored under 30 points in four of their final six games. Over the back half, they draw the Chiefs and Dolphins, who each allowed only five top 12 quarterbacks a year ago, before seeing the Chargers again with the Bengals in the fantasy playoffs. It’s a far cry from the 2013 powder puff dance with the AFC South and NFC East teams.

There’s still little to worry about big picture, because this offense is going to score its share of touchdowns. Here’s a look at the 10 highest scoring offenses in NFL history and what they provided for an encore.

[table id=101 /]

Only the Rams were able to post consecutive seasons in which they reached the 500 point mark. They did so in three straight years from 1999-2001 and the 2000 team was the only one to improve on the previous total. Even though the offenses listed dropped an average of 98 points in their follow up, all remained in the top eight in the league in scoring the following season. Denver may lose foam off the top, but there’s going to be plenty of fantasy liquid left over to make an impact on 2014 scoring.

Peyton, Destined to Be Over Drafted in 2014

What else can we really say about the magic Peyton provided owners a year ago? He posted 11 top eight scoring weeks, threw multiple touchdowns in every game except for one while throwing for four or more in nine. You don’t throw 55 scores and eclipse 5,400 yards without being ridiculously stellar for the entire campaign and Manning was that. He’s now thrown 30 or more touchdowns in seven of the past eight seasons.

Back to that regression word, it’s very simple to point to where Manning will have natural gravity for fantasy production. NFL quarterbacks benefit from positive offensive game script far more than being in pass heavy, catch up mode and no one had it better than Manning in 2013. Denver led at some point in all 16 games and led by double digits in 12 games a year ago. One fourth of Manning’s touchdowns (14) were thrown when Denver was already ahead two or more scores and they called for pass only 48 percent of the time.

The Broncos are still going to be very good and lead in plenty of time for Manning to deliver plenty of the points we’re accustomed receiving from him. He’s not going to whither up and die on your roster this fall, but reaching for him in the first three rounds is sacrificing a world of in season versatility when factoring in that kind of opportunity cost at running back and receiver. If you still want a piece of Manning, the preferred method is to chase after acquiring his teammates.

Mile High Receiving Output

Manning also added an insane 40 passing scores in the red zone. Really. To put that in perspective, Nick Foles attempted only 40 red zone passes total. Of course, this inflated every Bronco receiver into the top end of red zone production, but the most surprising of all was how Manning affected the fantasy output of Wes Welker in this area.

Welker RZ Production 2007-2013

[table id=102 /]

Welker nearly doubled his career average conversion rate of 23 percent in the red zone before last season. In fact, the PPR behemoth has never relied on touchdowns in any season to the extent that he did in 2013.

Welker

It’s not like Welker was receiving more targets in this area of the field with Denver than he did in New England, so this is another mark we have to anticipate coming back to normalcy to some degree. Welker held a five percent career total of catches for scores mark before the 13.7 percent he notched in 2013. The more troubling part is he topped 90 receiving yards only once all season. If those scores come back down, so will all that intriguing equity owners are investing into him in his age 33 season.

With the concussion concerns surrounding Welker coupled with him entering the season with an expiring contract, along with the departure of Eric Decker, the Broncos went out and added Emmanuel Sanders in free agency. Sanders is a far cry from providing the deep play and red zone production that Decker did long-term, so he’s likely just a placeholder for one season before sliding into the role that could be vacant if Welker indeed isn’t back. Sanders is already inflated beyond where I’ll be willing to spend to acquire him for fantasy, currently sandwiched between Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace in terms of ADP. I see him as a solid fourth receiver on your team that could finish as a WR3 in terms of overall scoring, but with his own ability paired with the offense coming to earth some, he’s avoidable at that cost.

Since he’s likely just keeping the seat warm for second round draft pick Cody Latimer, there’s also zero risk being cooked into that ADP if Latimer exceeds year one expectations. If I do happen to grab Sanders, you can bet I’ll be adding Latimer later on. Latimer is extremely similar to Decker in build, and was a player I had ranked in the top six at the position this spring. Decker also shows up in a range out outcomes for Latimer’s career arc conducted by Jon Moore of RotoViz. He’s the cheapest player of this receiving unit for redraft, so if the news is glowing throughout the summer, take a swing in the later rounds with the proper expectations that you may have to hold him on your bench for a good portion of the season.

Only Calvin Johnson has more fantasy points over the past two years than the amount Demaryius Thomas has put up in his time alongside Manning. Still in the prime age of receiver of performance at age 27 this season, Thomas has back to back seasons of 90/1400/10 to build on. With nine weeks of top 16 performanceshe’s exactly what you look for in a top flight receiver for both real and fantasy football and is an easy call to be one of the first three receivers off of boards this summer.

Fellow XN colleague C.D. Carter implored owners to take a late round stab on Julius Thomas last season and it was more than beneficial for those who did. Thomas turned in ten top 12 scoring weeks, scored at least one touchdown in ten weeks and added another ten weeks of four or more receptions. With Decker gone, Thomas has a good opportunity to roll over that scoring production without much decline if at all. Of course, if you want him this season, you’re going to have to open your wallet. Third round tight ends aren’t really the approach I’m taking in traditional, start one tight end leagues, but I won’t fight those who want to select him there this summer.

Get the Ball Rolling

The biggest and most polarizing fantasy news this offseason to come from Denver stems from starting running back Knowshon Moreno being allowed to leave via free agency to the Dolphins. When that news dropped, there was an initial outcry by those who don’t believe Ball is talented and those who believe it doesn’t matter considering the opportunity he has in front of him from simply being attached to a Manning led offense. Inheriting the spot Moreno held is important to us as Moreno was in the top 12 backs in terms of fantasy points per touch, short yardage touchdown effectiveness and percentage of touches that were touchdowns.

Ball fumbled only once over his final 147 touches last season, so playing that card as a deterrent to his outlook is grasping for straws. So is pointing to his pass protection, when in fact he was asked to stay in pass protection more often per snap (14.3 percent of snaps) than Moreno (11.9 percent) a season ago in a season where Denver was without Ryan Clady and he delivered. He also caught three or more passes in five of the final seven games of the season while sharing duties with Moreno, so he’s definitely instilled the trust of the organization in being able to handle the role as lead back.

The only real concern I have from those extrapolating his usage from a season ago into overall performance this season. 78 percent of Ball’s carries came while ahead with 47 percent coming with Denver coasting through games. If his 4.7 yards per carry falls more in line  or below the 4.3 total posted by Moreno, I wouldn’t be surprised, but that isn’t enough to keep his ceiling from a top six running back.

Even with a positive outlook, Ball is typically a player that I won’t draft early in a snake draft. I’m a little more guarded with my first few selections in a snake style, wanting consistent, known commodities. Even in a season like a year ago, that was volatile for top end running backs going early, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch were known entities with a body of steady work. Players like Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and Trent Richardson still required a leap of faith at their ADP a season ago. That approach won’t always save you, because players such as Arian Foster and Ray Rice also tanked at their cost, but I tend not to gamble on unknown ceilings that early. Ball will likely be a back I target more often in auctions than snake drafts due to opportunity cost as a top 15 pick. In an auction, I can mitigate some of the risk because you’re in greater control of you roster flexibility, but overall, I’m a believer that he’ll be a high end fantasy producer in 2014.

If Denver does indeed come back to the pack this season in the amount of in script offense they have, the real loser is going to be the backup running back. Those anticipating the same role that Ball had last season will see a good amount of those touches evaporate into game script purgatory. C.J. Anderson is a fine back worth adding if you’re not a believer in Ball or as a late round stash due to the Manning fantasy effect, but I don’t see him having standalone value this season without the proper injury dominoes falling. Instead, as much as we’d like to bury Ronnie Hillman, the door is still open for him since he’s a better pass catcher than both Ball and Anderson. I still believe he has shot to win that second back job outright from Anderson and if he does, he should taper some of Ball’s receiving production.

2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections

Passing

Player Att Comp % Yards TD INT FF PTs
Peyton Manning 616.2 413.5 67.1% 4937.4 40.6 9.2 341.4

 

Rushing

Player Att Yds YPC TD FF PTs
Montee Ball 254.9 1095.9 4.3 8.9 160.6
C.J. Anderson 41.0 184.3 4.5 1.2 25.4
Ronnie Hillman 77.4 309.5 4.0 2.3 44.1
Peyton Manning 31.9 12.7 0.4 0.6 -1.3

 

Receiving 

Player TGT Rec Yards TD PTS PPR PTS
Demaryius Thomas 146.1 93.5 1421.3 13.1 220.7 314.2
Wes Welker 127.1 82.6 916.7 7.4 136.3 218.8
Emmanuel Sanders 101.6 63.0 844.4 5.7 118.5 181.5
Cody Latimer 31.8 19.1 236.3 1.3 31.6 50.7
Julius Thomas 95.3 69.6 855.6 10.4 148.2 217.7
Montee Ball 44.5 33.4 250.1 1.3 33.0 66.4
C.J. Anderson 9.5 6.9 48.7 0.1 5.7 12.6
Ronnie Hillman 38.1 28.6 260.1 0.6 29.4 58.0

 

 

Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Julius Thomas – if Welker and Sanders aren’t the players in the red zone that they were in 2013, Thomas then stands with the most to gain from the absence of Decker.

Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Welker – injury concerns, age concerns, touchdown regression concerns are orbiting his 2014 outlook.

Best Waiver Wire Option: Latimer – he could uproot Sanders at some point or inherit more snaps through cause and effect from a Welker injury. He may be a late season stash and cash that pays off big.

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