The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. This is not an NFL power ranking. We're not predicting wins and losses here. In fact, we don't care about such things. Instead, we're reviewing each team's projected fantasy contributions — that's it.
Josh McDaniels, the fist-pumpy head coach of the Denver Broncos, got more out of his football team than anyone thought possible during the first six weeks of the 2009 season.
And then, as soon as we recalibrated our expectations, McDaniels arguably got less out of his team than any coach in the NFL. The Broncos missed the playoffs despite starting the season 6-0. They dropped four straight games following their bye. Denver somehow lost to Washington, Oakland and Kansas City in the second half. McDaniels deactivated receiver Brandon Marshall(notes) for disciplinary reasons prior to a must-win game in Week 17, then watched his team lose by 20 points.
In his 18 months on the job, McDaniels has dealt away the two most talented skill players from the '08 Broncos (Marshall and Jay Cutler(notes)), he turned a 91-catch wideout into a decoy (Eddie Royal(notes)), and he cut loose his defensive coordinator following a season of clear improvement (Mike Nolan). McDaniels is without question a me-first head coach, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The Broncos enhanced their long-term fantasy potential on draft day, using each of their first five picks on offensive players. No selection inspired as many headlines (or sold as many jerseys) as Tim Tebow(notes), the beloved quarterback/cult of personality from the University of Florida. Denver nabbed Tebow late in the first round with the 25th overall pick.
Depending on who you listen to, this was either a ridiculous selection or a brilliant move that forever changes the trajectory of the franchise. People on both sides of the Tebow debate — including McDaniels himself — generally agree that the QB's mechanics weren't NFL-ready a year ago, but that his intangibles are off the charts. (Although if you could actually chart them, perhaps they wouldn't be intangibles. Dunno). Tebow will likely begin the season as the Broncos' third option at quarterback behind vets Kyle Orton(notes) and Brady Quinn(notes). He's a solid dynasty league pick in fantasy, because the plan is undoubtedly for him to start for Denver in 2011.
But can Tebow have any relevance in standard leagues this season? I've never really been a Tebow apologist, but I can nonetheless imagine a scenario in which he becomes a meaningful piece in the Broncos' goal line attack. We're talking about a player who holds the SEC record for rushing TDs. And again, he was a first round pick. Those guys are usually expected to contribute. Doug Farrar outlined a plausible red zone role for Tebow just a few weeks ago. It seems unlikely that McDaniels would fail to develop a package of plays for No. 15, particularly when the coach's reputation is so connected to the player's success.
At the very least, Tebow is a troublesome X-factor when evaluating Denver's 2010 offense for fantasy purposes. Red zone touches are the currency of the realm. As someone who intends to retain running back Knowshon Moreno(notes) in a keeper league, Tebow's potential for goal line work concerns me in no small way.
In the final weeks of Moreno's rookie year, he hit a wall, badly. He gained fewer than 3.0 yards per carry from Weeks 14 to 16, during the most important stretch on the fantasy calendar. The offseason buzz surrounding Moreno is awfully encouraging, however, and there are no job security concerns here. He tops the depth chart ahead of Correll Buckhalter(notes) and he'll run behind an excellent line. It would not be a surprise to see Moreno make a value leap in his sophomore campaign. You'll recall that he was a late arrival in 2009 due to his contract situation, and he suffered an MCL sprain during the preseason.
This year, as the Denver Post's Mike Klis puts it…
There has been greater explosion and freelance running from Moreno during the offseason. He knows the playbook now. He doesn’t have to worry about carrying out his assignments now. He can play freely. No player, in any sport, does well if they think first, then play.
If you're the sort of fantasy owner who selects receivers and QBs at the top of a draft, then Moreno is a reasonable back to target in Round 3 or 4. His current Mock Draft Central ADP is 32.5, and he's capable of returning a profit — a significant profit if Tebow doesn't poach too many touches inside the 5-yard line. Which he may.
Everyone should have a basic understanding of Orton's profile at this point in his career. He was a fine quarterback for the Broncos throughout the first six weeks of '09, while Denver's defense was limiting opponents to 11 points per game. But Orton is not the guy you want on your side in a shootout, and his team routinely allowed 20-plus points per game between Weeks 8 and 17. So that didn't go well. He'll be a viable bye-week coverage option in 2010 — assuming he's still a starter at mid-season — but there's little apparent upside here. In 49 career games, Orton has thrown for 300 yards just three times and passed for three TDs only twice.
The optimistic take on Denver's receiving corps, without Marshall, is that they're an unproven group. The pessimistic take is that they're unproven and unskilled. Marshall accounted for 101 receptions and 1,120 yards last season by himself; Royal and Jabar Gaffney(notes) combined for 91 and 1,077. One of those two veterans — and we're generously classifying the 24-year-old Royal as a vet — will need to breakout if this team is going to maintain a respectable passing game.
Gaffney posted an outstanding line in the Week 17 loss last year (14-213), but he's never caught more than 55 passes in any of his eight seasons. He would seem miscast as a No. 1 receiver. (Gaffney was either the No. 3 or No. 4 on the '07 Patriots, depending on the week). Royal displayed plenty of talent in 2008, catching 91 balls for 980 yards and five scores, but he took a massive step backward last season. Many of us felt that Royal would occupy a Wes Welker(notes) role in the Broncos' offense (again forcing a Pats comparison that might be appropriate), but instead, Marshall was a one-man show. He was the Moss, the Welker, the David Givens(notes), the Irving Fryar, the Stanley Morgan. Royal will likely be the first Broncos receiver taken in 2010 fantasy drafts — he's No. 40 in the composite WR ranks — but there's not yet a clear hierarchy in Denver.
Rookie Demaryius Thomas(notes), a first-round draft pick from Georgia Tech, has the size (6-3, 229) and the athleticism to ultimately replace Marshall, but he's been limited by a foot injury during the offseason. He's a serious vertical threat, though Orton won't take many downfield risks. Thomas is definitely a receiver of interest in dynasty leagues, and he's a smart late-round option in standard formats. With only Gaffney and Royal ahead of him, Thomas has a solid opportunity to make a fantasy contribution in his first year. Another rookie wideout, Minnesota's Eric Decker(notes) (6-2, 215), will compete for targets in Denver. Like Thomas, he's recovering from a foot injury, but he's expected to be ready by the beginning of camp. Keep him on the radar.
The Broncos' defense is strictly a match-up play in fantasy, a middle-of-the-pack unit that will spend much of the season un-owned. However, there are a few high-end IDP options on the roster. Draft these names with confidence: LB Elvis Dumervil(notes) (17.0 sacks), LB DJ Williams(notes) (122 tackles), DB Brian Dawkins(notes) (116 tackles), DB Champ Bailey(notes) (74 tackles, 3 INTs). And consider this name in IDP, without confidence: LB Robert Ayers(notes).
OK, gamers, if there's anything else that needs to be said about this team, then please say it in comments. For the record: Dan Shanoff has been lobbying hard to get Tebow listed as a QB-RB-TE, even if such position eligibility is without precedent. I have the greatest respect Dan's efforts. He loves Tebow like a pet, and desperately wants to find a roster spot for him. Fight the good fight, sir.
Photo via US Presswire
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