Fantasy Football Booms/Busts 2018: The Denver Broncos

Will Royce Freeman be a luxury fantasy football vehicle in his rookie season? Brad Evans and Liz Loza offer differing opinions. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Will Royce Freeman be a luxury fantasy football vehicle in his rookie season? Brad Evans and Liz Loza offer differing opinions. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

As the mercury rises and we inch closer to the open of training camps, our resident fantasy football sickos, Brad Evans and Liz Loza, will profile their favorite booms/busts of every NFL team. Today’s topic: The Orange Crush.

This year’s rookie RB class is unusually deep and talented, Royce Freeman included. In .5 PPR, OVER or UNDER 20.5 final RB rank for the Oregon product this season. (OVER = outside top-20; Under = inside)

Brad – UNDER. Pull the rug out from under your leaguemates by drafting Freeman at his absurdly affordable 59.7 ADP (RB27). Yes, it’s Denver, an organization steeped in backfield unpredictability. However, long gone are the days when wildcards Mike Anderson, Rueben Droughns and Tatum Bell tormented owners. Oh, that devilish Lucifer Shanahan. This is a team recommitted to Gary Kubiak’s run-heavy system. Within it, Freeman will soon seize control from Devontae Booker. It’s practically a foregone conclusion.

The former Duck is about to take flight. Different from the undersized, scat-type backs Oregon produced in recent years, he’s big bodied (5-foot-11, 235 pounds), an incensed moose between the tackles (3.39 YAC/att in ’17) and surprisingly fast (4.54 40-yard). His vision, patience, footwork and hands are also pluses. Over his decorated college career, he routinely ripped through arm tackles and shook defenders in the open field (No. 11 in elusive rating last fall).

Freeman’s odometer reading is already high which limits his longevity, but he’s the clear-cut favorite to eclipse 250 touches right away. Booker and De’Angelo Henderson are weak challengers. Suffice it to say, he’s the franchise’s new, and more talented, C.J. Anderson, a rusher capable of finishing inside the position’s top-15 Year 1. Keep in mind, Case Keenum is a massive upgrade at QB and the Broncos’ supposedly ineffective offensive line ranked No. 9 in run-blocking efficiency last year according to Football Outsiders. With a strong camp and Preseason, Freeman should open the regular season as the starter earning 15-18 touches per game. Assuming that comes to fruition, he’s capable of 1200-1300 combined yards with 7-9 TDs this season. Gleefully invest.

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Liz – OVER. Freeman was selected in the third round to replace C.J. Anderson, who managed a 1,000-yard effort last year, finishing just inside of the top-20 fantasy RBs. That means the rookie is a shoo-in for lead back duties, and that managers should pay up for him, right? WRONG. That’s simple plug-and-play analysis.

Like it or not, this is a crowded backfield. Devontae Booker is a favorite for starting duties. While Booker’s 2017 massively underwhelmed, it’s important to remember that he was recovering from a broken wrist for the first half of the season. Once given a shot upon the urging of OC Bill Musgrave, the back-up managed two top-24 outings between Weeks 11 and 17.

While those performances came against two of the worst run defenses in the league (CIN and WAS), it’s important to additionally note that Booker’s workload increased as the year wore on (and his health improved). When Booker was on the field, Anderson averaged 14.3 totes per contest. While Booker was sidelined, however, C.J. managed over 18 attempts per game. That shows me the team’s dedication to and belief in Booker… regardless of what #footballtwitter has to say.

With first-year wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton breathing down their necks are Demaryius Thomas (44.5, WR20) and Emmanuel Sanders (79.6, WR35) OVERVALUED, UNDERVALUED or PROPERLY VALUED?

Liz – UNDER. Thomas hasn’t missed a start since 2012. He’s also been a top-twenty fantasy producer for six consecutive seasons, clearing 1,000 yards in five of those years (he missed the milestone by 51 yards in 2017). While he’s no longer an elite option, the former first-round pick remains a target hog (#8) with an incredible catch radius. He’ll also get an upgrade at QB with Case Keenum coming to Mile High. While Courtland Sutton remains the future, Thomas is the NOW.

PROPERLY VALUED. Interestingly, Sanders is my WR35, so his current ADP feels spot on. Entering his age-thirty-one season and coming off a high ankle sprain, the vet’s stock is undeniably low. While I’m confident a return to health and stability under center will allow him to best last year’s showing (WR61), it’s hard to imagine Sanders racking up the yards or TDs necessary to keep him inside of the top-thirty players at the position. After all, Royce Freeman can catch, and Courtland Sutton is a big-bodied red zone target. These new additions won’t be enough to unseat Sanders, but they will depress his production.

Brad – UNDERVALUED. Admittedly, there are occasions I wouldn’t trust DT to hold my beer. Over the years, the man has logged his fair share of drops (10 in ’17). Still, it’s hard to ignore his consistent full body of work. Through the organization’s peaks and valleys he’s snagged at least 80 passes in six consecutive seasons and finished inside the position’s top-20 five times. A certifiable targets magnet, he should again attract 24-26 percent of the team’s vertical attempts. Yes, even with the increase in competition.

Thomas has ranked top-10 in total red-zone receptions in back-to-back seasons, but tallied only 10 scores during that span, an anomalous result. Keenum, who ranked QB10 in red-zone accuracy in 2017, should establish an instant chemistry with the 6-foot-3, 230-pound weapon near the goal line. String it all together and DT could wind up with a final tally around 90-1100-7.

VERY UNDERVALUED. Recall two years ago Sanders ranked WR17 in fantasy points per game. Why? He was connected to competent passers. Last year, his numbers greatly suffered primarily due to Denver’s triumvirate of suck – Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch. A right ankle setback only exacerbated the situation. He was WR53 in catchtable target percentage and WR103 in overall success rate. Blame the situation, not the player.

The presence of Sutton and Hamilton combined with a more run-aggressive approach should cap his target share in the 21-23 percent range. Still, Sanders possesses attractive qualities. He’s an astute route-runner and versatile. It’s likely he’ll see more slot work this season, a position Keenum leaned on while in Minnesota. In what could be his swan song in the Mile High City, a return to 70-1000-5 is plausible.

Fill in the blank. Coveted offseason acquisition Case Keenum totals ___ passing yards and ___ passing touchdowns; finishes No. ___ among QBs.

Brad – 3,917 pass yards; 23 passing TDs; QB19. Though John Elway and Co. would like to stress pounding the pill this season, Keenum, off a breakthrough campaign with Minnesota, won’t be a glorified game manager. Bill Musgrave’s system isn’t a major departure from what Keenum played in last year, a scheme which transformed the journeyman into a roster cornerstone. Last fall, he finished top-10 in four different completion percentage categories.

With Denver’s strong stable of WRs, expect a multitude of 3WR sets and, possibly, more no huddle. More importantly, if TE Jake Butt steps forward in his development, Keenum has excellent odds of finishing close to his QB15 output from 2017. Going behind the likes of Dak Prescott, Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky, he’s an unpopular late-round pick (167.8 ADP) with significant profit potential.

Liz – 3,750 passing yards; 21 passing TDs; QB20. The long-time journeyman finally saw his star turn in Minnesota. Except… the Vikings didn’t keep him, and, come the fall, he’ll be under center for his fifth team in seven years. An undeniable improvement over Trevor Siemian/Brock Osweiler/Paxton Lynch, Keenum is 100 percent capable. But Denver remains a run-first operation with a top-ranked defense. Value-minded managers in 2QB or Superflex leagues should keep an eye on sophomore TE Jake Butt’s development. He could be the key to Keenum’s ROI.

Bring the blitz on Twitter. Follow Brad (@YahooNoise) and Liz (@LizLoza_FF).