Even now, seven months after the fact, it's hard to believe Jacoby Jones got so open, so deep, with eight men in coverage. It's tough to believe Joe Flacco's hang-time pass wasn't batted to the ground. It's also tough to believe the Broncos took a knee at the end of regulation, with 31 seconds on the clock and two timeouts remaining. And even now, it's tough to believe Peyton Manning threw that terrible across-the-body interception in OT.
Many aspects of Denver's double-overtime postseason loss to Baltimore continue to defy belief — hell, how does such a good team lose at home when it gets a pair of special teams touchdowns? Crazy.
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But we need to give this organization full credit for moving forward, smartly. The Broncos enhanced the roster in multiple areas during the offseason. They signed guard Louis Vasquez to a four-year deal, poaching one of the best available free agent linemen from a division rival. When Wes Welker's contract discussions with the Patriots flat-lined, Denver pounced on the five-time Pro Bowler. The team also snagged Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, the all-time FBS touchdown leader, in the second round of April's draft. The Broncos managed to address every level of the defense, too, coming to terms with DT Terrance Knighton, LB Shaun Phillips and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and using a first-round pick on DT Sylvester Williams.
So this franchise was definitely not idle. We can argue about the degree to which they actually improved — remember, they lost Elvis Dumervil (ridiculously), plus Von Miller is facing a six-game suspension. But we can't say Denver has been inactive.
This team's passing attack will be an unrelenting terror machine in 2013, led by an inner-circle Hall of Fame quarterback and featuring a trio of dangerous receivers: Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Welker won't see the same target volume that he'd grown accustomed to in New England, but it's not like his workload will be slashed severely. If you simply give him Brandon Stokley's old targets (4.1 per game), plus a share of the looks that went to Jacob Tamme (5.7) and Joel Dreessen (3.6), then it's not tough to imagine a WR2/3 sort of season. Welker has been a remarkably durable player, considering the number of hits he's absorbed over the years. He's still approved for fantasy use in all formats.
Thomas erupted in his third NFL season (also his healthiest season), hauling in 94 balls for 1434 yards and 10 scores. He ranked twelfth among all wide receivers in targets (141), establishing himself firmly as an early-round fantasy asset, a player who should not fall outside the top-25 picks in your draft. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Thomas is a stellar red-zone option; he saw 21 targets inside the 20-yard line last season, fifth-most in the league.
The player who actually led the league in red-zone opportunities was Decker, yet another enormous Denver wideout. I won't make any promises about his receptions or yardage this year — he went 85-1064 last season — but when he's healthy, he'll score. Decker caught 13 touchdown passes last season, and his quarterback had radar lock on him in short-field situations (25 RZ targets). Decker hasn't exactly been a steal in Yahoo drafts — his ADP is 50.8, same as Welker — but I'm not scared off, either. He's a decent bet to reach double-digit TDs, which isn't something we can say for many wide receivers.
If there's a tight end worth owning on this roster, perhaps in a deep league, Julius Thomas is the guy. He's caught 12 balls on 14 targets during the preseason, gaining 123 yards. Tamme and Dreessen have both dealt with injuries this summer, opening the door for Thomas. He has the hoops-to-gridiron backstory that everyone likes in a sleeper tight end, so you can feel good about that. I'd be willing to snag him in a two-TE fantasy format, or perhaps in deep dynasty, but I'm not expecting him to emerge as a must-own commodity in standard 10-team leagues.
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Considering the uncommon strength of Manning's receiving corps, it's tough to not view Peyton as a top-five fantasy quarterback. On my board he ranks third at his position, a nod to his history, his remarkable consistency and his excellent performance in 2012. Peyton delivered 4659 passing yards last season, he led the NFL in completion percentage (68.6), and he gave us nine games with three touchdown passes. Last August, maybe it seemed reasonable to question Manning's fantasy potential, returning from multiple neck procedures. Today, he's back in the circle of trust.
Brad Evans and I had the Cam-vs.-Manning argument not long ago, if that's a debate in your world...
...and I took the Peyton side. For me, he's the guy with the best shot at keeping pace with Brees and Rodgers. His schedule looks plenty friendly, and it's not as if the AFC West is a minefield. I've rostered Manning in both the Friends & Family League and the highly incentivized Stopa League, so this isn't a case where my ranks say one thing and my draft/auction habits say another.
Fantasy owners were hoping that one of the Denver running backs would separate from the pack during the preseason, but that simply hasn't happened. This backfield is not going to be a one-man show.
"This is going to be a by-committee backfield," offensive coordinator Adam Gase recently said. "We've never shied away from that."
Yeah, OK. John Fox teams have done this to us before, so no one should feel blindsided.
Second-year back Ronnie Hillman had been running with the varsity Broncos, and he's had the top spot on the official depth chart throughout camp. But he also fumbled three times during exhibition play, losing two (both returned for touchdowns), ultimately playing his way into a situation where coaches felt he needed confidence carries in Preseason Week 4. That's hardly a good sign.
Ball has seen a decent share of first-team reps as well, and he's been a productive enough runner in the preseason (25 carries, 80 yards, TD). However, he's also had some spectacular failures in pass-protection, none worse than this play against Seattle...
The blue-green blur in that image — right there between No. 38 and No. 18 — is Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, blitzing with malicious intent. Ball tried to slow down Wagner, but he was swatted away easily. A second later, Manning was lifted off the ground and driven to the turf.
In Denver, if they can't trust you to keep Peyton safe, then you can't play. So Ball has some work to do. He'll get a decent number of touches this season — "Montee Ball is going to play a lot," Manning recently said — though he's clearly not the only back in the mix. Knowshon Moreno had a respectable second-half for the Broncos in 2012, we should note, rushing for 510 yards on 130 carries over the season's final six games. He's a member of this messy committee, too, and his draft price isn't steep (122.8).
Still, Ball has been my priority fantasy target in this backfield, based on talent and touchdown potential. He's not the flashiest runner you'll ever see, and his collegiate workload was significant (356 carries in 2012, 307 in 2011). But he usually gains every yard that's blocked, plus the kid has a nose for the end zone (83 career TDs). Of course if you've chosen to avoid Broncos backs altogether, I get it. You definitely don't want to start hoarding them.
Denver's defense seemed like a decent fantasy play not too long ago, but the Miller suspension an issue, as is the injury to Champ Bailey. You'll stream this D/ST against the user-friendly teams within the division (Oakland and San Diego), but it's not a unit you'll need to hold all season. If you're shopping for IDPs, linebacker Wesley Woodyard is the guy you want. Don't burn a bench spot waiting for Miller.
2012 team stats: 30.1 points per game (2), 291.9 passing yards per game (6), 114.5 rushing yards per game (16)
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