Programming note: This is not the placement I'd originally planned for the Broncos, just so you know. But I'm headed to Soldier Field on Thursday night for their preseason opener (in the rain), so today seems like a decent time to go on-record with a few thoughts about the team. Clearly Denver isn't going to show us anything during the exhibition season that the coaching staff doesn't want us to see, but it's still gonna be fun to see Peyton back on the field, if bizarre to see him in a new uniform. Anyway, please forgive the rearranging of these meaningless ranks.
It's tough to imagine any NFL offense undergoing a more substantial year-to-year shift in style than what we're about to see from the Denver Broncos. Last year's quarterback directed a low-scoring option attack, rarely throwing more than 25 times a game, passing with all the accuracy of a Nerf gun.
With Peyton Manning at the controls in 2012, things are going to look quite a bit different. We don't yet have all the answers about the strength of his arm, following multiple neck surgeries, but the camp reports all suggest that he still has the same old meticulous approach and weapons-grade accuracy. There's no reason to think that the 2012 version of Manning will look just like the 2004 model, but this is an inner-circle Hall of Famer we're discussing. Between 1999 and 2010, he never finished outside the top-six at his position in fantasy scoring. Manning has topped 4,000 passing yards in 11 different seasons, and his lowest TD total in any year is 26.
If anyone can lose a little something off the fastball yet remain a fantasy asset, it's Peyton. Denver will obviously run an offense that incorporates Colts-style concepts, plus there's a fair amount of talent in the receiving corps. There's a lot to like here, fantasy-wise. The Broncos are backing up Manning with a dreadful veteran (Caleb Hanie), a rookie (Brock Osweiler) and an undrafted second-year QB (Adam Weber), which suggests a certain confidence in Peyton's ability to navigate a full 16-game season. He's available outside the first five rounds in an average draft (ADP 61.1), which hasn't been the case in forever. If you eye him as the top option in a fantasy platoon — pairing him with someone like Cutler (85.7) or Ryan (72.6) or RGIII (93.1) or Palmer (119.0) — then you'll have a great shot to get top-tier numbers from the position. I've invested already, and won't be afraid to do it again.
Demaryius Thomas was a beast down the stretch for Denver last year, finishing as the No. 11 scorer among wideouts over the final five weeks, despite being tied to a run-first game-plan and a scattershot QB. Thomas has ideal size (6-foot-3, 230) and athleticism, and he's earning the trust of his new quarterback:
"He's a guy we're going to feature," Manning said of Thomas. "His size and strength and speed just allow you to do certain things with him that other players just can't do."
"You just can't throw down the field every time," Manning said. "You got to be able to take a 5-yard hitch or a 10-yard hookout. He's kind of shown those kinds of plays."
Peyton will demand new levels of reliability, consistency and route-precision from Thomas, and of course Demaryius will need to finally stay healthy if he's going to meet the expectations of the fantasy community. We're drafting him at a spot that fits his talent and opportunity (ADP 45.0, WR16). It's tough to imagine how any receiver could possibly excel in last year's system and not in this year's offense.
Eric Decker gives Manning another big target (6-foot-3, 220) with big-play ability, and he's reportedly developed quick chemistry with his new quarterback. In the first half of the 2011 season, when the Broncos were operating a more traditional pro offense, Decker was the receiver to own. He scored seven of his nine total TDs in Denver's first eight games. He's getting taken a full round later than Thomas in mocks, but it certainly wouldn't be a huge shock if he finished the season with more catches. In any case, it's not unusual for a Manning-led offense to deliver 3-4 start-worthy WR/TEs, so there's no need for fantasy owners to choose sides between Thomas and Decker. Veteran slot receivers Andre Caldwell and Brandon Stokley are the only other wideouts on this roster that deep leaguers might need to consider at the draft table.
Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen will see plenty of targets in 2012, and both have displayed receiving competence in prior years. I'm not about to make any Gronk-Hernandez comparisons here; let's just note that we'll see plenty of two-TE sets from this team. Back in 2010, Tamme took over for an injured Dallas Clark in Indianapolis and delivered outstanding numbers, catching at least six passes in eight of 10 games. So he and Manning have a nice history together. Tamme figures to be a useful fantasy option this season, potentially a PPR star. He's the eighth TE off the board in recent mocks at Fantasy Football Calculator (ADP 82.4), so I can't really call him a steal right now. Still, I'm willing to endorse him at the current price.
Willis McGahee remains the top option in Denver's ground game, even at age-30. Please don't over-think this backfield. It's McGahee at the top, then everybody else. I understand the fantasy community's desire to skip ahead to the Ronnie Hillman era — he's a third-rounder out of San Diego State, coming off two great collegiate seasons — but McGahee was awfully good last year. The man averaged 4.8 yards per carry, the second-best rate of his career, and he topped the 100-yard mark seven times. He had big games with Orton at quarterback, and big games with Tebow. His full-season success was not merely the byproduct of some rarely seen system. McGahee seems like a terrific value pick, at least for the non-PPR crowd, as 24 different backs are chosen ahead of him in an average draft. He's going just a round-and-a-half ahead of Roy Helu, who isn't guaranteed a thing this season. This is a quality back, tied to an offense that's going to make a statistical leap. Draft and enjoy.
Lance Ball is actually listed at No. 2 on the depth chart at the moment, not Hillman. Remember, Denver head coach John Fox is the guy who once thought Deshaun Foster deserved 100 carries more than DeAngelo Williams, so there's no reason to expect him to hand anything to a rookie. Hillman is a nice late flier for PPR owners, and he's definitely on the radar in dynasty. But that's as far as I can go. If he's going to make a splash this season, it's not likely to happen early in the year, unless injuries start piling up. Knowshon Moreno is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered in November, and can't be considered an immediate threat to McGahee, either.
Denver's defense has some terrific pieces, but this was a middle-of-the-pack fantasy entity a year ago. The Broncos only pulled in nine interceptions and forced just 10 fumbles, so they didn't score particularly well in the fake game, despite the 41.0 sacks. I'll gladly take Von Miller (11.5 sacks, 64 tackles), Elvis Dumervil (9.5 sacks, 42 tackles) and Wesley Woodyard (97 tackles) in IDP leagues.
Before we all head to the comments section for refreshments, please enjoy ... well, whatever this is ...
2011 team stats: 19.3 PPG (NFL rank 25), 164.5 rush YPG (1), 169.3 pass YPG (31), 25.78 yards/drive (26), 0.146 turnovers/drive (22)
Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati