Peyton Manning broke the two most significant single-season records at his position last season — passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55) — and he destroyed a few of the lesser-known records, too. He delivered nine games with at least four TD passes, which is ridiculous, and 15 games with a passer-rating over 90.0.
As a team, the Broncos accomplished a whole bunch of insane things on offense, including (but not limited to) the following:
• first team in NFL history to score more than 600 points in a season (606);
• most total touchdowns in a season (76);
• third team in league history with over 7,000 net yards (7,317)
• first team to have five players reach double-digit touchdowns;
OK, hold up just a sec. Let's take a moment to appreciate that last bullet: Denver had five players who finished with at least 10 TDs last season. That's nuts, a ridiculous thing to type. I've checked and re-checked and re-re-checked just to make sure. Crazy.
• first team since the merger to score 50 points in three different games (plus they scored 49 in the opener);
• Matt Prater booted the longest field goal in league history (64 yards), and he kicked the most extra-points in a season (75);
This list could continue without end, but you get the point. The 2013 Denver Broncos were an awesome offensive machine, the greatest the NFL has ever seen. This team was absurd.
Sure, eventually Denver was punished by an all-time defense in Super Bowl XLVII, but that loss didn't erase a phenomenal season — at least not for fantasy owners who rode Peyton to league titles.
Manning doesn't throw the prettiest ball you'll ever see, and, at this stage, his arm strength isn't quite Staffordian. But he's almost certainly the best on-field thinker in football, the de facto offensive coordinator for the game's most prolific passing attack. He isn't likely to repeat last season's record performance, obviously, because that's not how career-years work. He is, however, one of just two quarterbacks you can reasonably project for something close to 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. (Brees, of course, is the other). By mid-season, Manning should break Brett Favre's career passing TD mark (508). Next year, he'll likely claim Favre's yardage record ... at which point, Brett might very well return to quarterback the Titans.
The Broncos' receiving corps is led by a guy who's topped 90 catches and 1,400 yards in back-to-back seasons, establishing himself as a rival to Calvin Johnson's crown. Demaryius Thomas has ideal size (6-foot-3) and terrific after-the-catch ability, and he closed the 2013 season by scoring 10 touchdowns over his final 10 games. If you want to argue that he should have been the first receiver taken in standard drafts, considering his team context, then I won't fight you too hard. That's not a crazy position. As long as Peyton is at the controls, Thomas is a first-round wideout.
Wes Welker's fantasy value, as you may have heard, is not exactly trending in the right direction. Not only is Welker dealing with the effects of another concussion, his third such injury since November, but he's also suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's policy on performance enhancers. Our mission here is not to judge the player or the policy or the circumstances of the violation, but simply to consider Welker's fantasy value. If you drafted him in the fifth round, say, last weekend, then this is sort of a mini-disaster. But you need to recognize that Welker will return, presumably in Week 6 for a matchup with the Jets. (Denver has its bye in Week 4.) At that point, we can assume that all post-concussion symptoms will have cleared and Welker will again emerge as a high-volume receiver in an elite passing offense. He averaged 8.5 targets per week last season, crossing the goal line 10 times in 13 games. Concussion risk is definitely an ongoing concern, but Welker should function as a useful fantasy asset over the second-half of your season. If you have the space to carry him for five non-playing weeks (and you probably do), don't make a panic move now. Hold until you see where this story goes. No one is going to give up a serious trade chip today.
With Welker sidelined, the widespread perception is that Emmanuel Sanders will see a spike in production, but I'm not so sure that's true. Sanders, after all, was already going to play a substantial role for the Broncos. It's not as if his snaps were some huge unknown. This is a spread-the-wealth offense that happens to generate a massive amount of wealth; no receiver on this team ranked top-10 in the league in targets last year, but four different players saw 90-plus. Three Denver receivers averaged between 8.5 and 8.9 per game. If Sanders is nudged to the slot — entirely likely, given his history and versatility — he'd simply run shorter routes and risk bigger hits, while seeing no great bump in opportunities. That's hardly a win.
Still, Sanders remains an appealing fantasy play, a quality receiver tied to an almost flawless quarterback. I liked him before the Welker news broke. Remember, Eric Decker left behind 137 targets, many of which were ticketed for Sanders. He entered the season with a top-25 setup. The receivers who clearly stand to gain the most from the post-suspension shuffle are rookie Cody Latimer and anti-rookie Andre Caldwell. Latimer is a second-round draft pick out of Indiana, a kid with good size (6-foot-2) and strength, plus respectable-if-not-otherworldly athleticism. I'm afraid the fantasy guru community might be over-promising a bit on the rookie — he's not a Watkins-level talent (or Cooks or Moncrief, necessarily). But Latimer can certainly make degree-of-difficulty grabs, and, again, you can't beat the team context. He's clearly worth a speculative pickup. Caldwell is a vet entering his seventh NFL season, his third with Manning. He didn't exactly blow up down the stretch in 2013, when Welker was sidelined by injury, but he did have that one nice game versus the Chargers. While Caldwell doesn't have the thrill-of-the-unknown factor like Latimer, he surely has the trust of his quarterback. He too is on the pickup radar.
No one should have any burning questions about tight end Julius Thomas entering 2014. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if his usage increased this year, with Decker out of the mix. Thomas finished with 12 touchdown catches and 788 receiving yards on 89 targets last season, hauling in 73.0 percent of the passes thrown his way. On my final pre-draft board, he's the No. 2 player at his position for fantasy purposes. He's proven, he's dependable, he's healthy, and he's actually still developing as a receiver. Oh, and he's in a contract year, too. No red flags here, only gold stars. Jacob Tamme is behind Thomas on the depth chart, lurking as a viable fantasy play if injuries create a path to targets.
If you doubt Montee Ball's ability to thrive as the featured running back in Denver, I'll remind you that this team turned Knowshon Moreno into a fantasy monster last season. Moreno, prior to 2013, had been a fumbly and perfectly league-average runner — nothing special in his game. But when you're the primary back for the Denver Broncos, you're running against nickel and dime packages more often than anyone. It's simply a huge advantage for any back. Montee had his issues with both pass-pro and ball security as a rookie, but those aren't unusual first-year flaws. He still averaged 4.7 yards per carry (better than Moreno) in a year that we all considered a disappointment. Ball's early-August appendectomy had been a brief worry, but he returned to preseason play. If you're concerned about his September workload, the Denver Post has you covered:
So, Montee, how many carries do you expect to get against the Colts [in Week 1]?
"I couldn't tell you, really couldn't tell you," he said. "I hope 30. Twenty, 30, whatever. But we have a great offensive coordinator [in Adam Gase], and whatever he calls, we have faith it's going to work if it's executed. My biggest difference this year is confidence. Last year, I was real timid and afraid to make a mistake, but this year, I know mistakes are going to happen. It's how you deal with them, how you react to them. I'm a lot more confident. ... I'm antsy, ready to go, anxious in a good way. Most definitely well-prepared, really excited, really, really excited."
Ball is clearly atop this hierarchy, positioned for a stellar year. Ronnie Hillman is running as the No. 2, followed by C.J. Anderson and undrafted camp star Juwan Thompson. But Ball, without much question, is the man in this backfield.
Denver's defense looks outstanding on paper, following the additions of DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. Linebacker Danny Trevathan is dinged, but he's expected back in October. Fantasy-wise, we never like to see one of the league's most explosive offenses attached to a lock-down defense, so that's a small buzz-kill. Also worth noting: Denver's first-half schedule is loaded — Ind, KC, at Sea, Ari, at NYJ, SF, SD, at NE — so this D won't often be an appealing matchup play prior to November.
And there it is, another Juggernaut season is in the books. On Thursday, the stats roll in. Game on.
2013 team stats: 37.9 PPG (NFL rank 1), 348.3 pass YPG (1), 55 pass TDs (1), 117.1 rush YPG (15), 28.8 rush attempts per game (11), 42.2 pass attempts per game (2)
Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay, 22. St. Louis, 21. NY Giants, 20. Kansas City, 19. Houston, 18. Arizona, 17. Minnesota, 16. Pittsburgh, 15. San Diego, 14. San Francisco, 13. Atlanta, 12. Cincinnati, 11. Washington, 10. New England, 9. Indianapolis, 8. New Orleans, 7. Seattle, 6. Philadelphia, 5. Dallas, 4. Detroit, 3. Green Bay, 2. Chicago