Juggernaut Index, No. 18: Broncos blend familiar faces with new arrivals

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/den" data-ylk="slk:Denver Broncos">Denver Broncos</a> fans have reasons to be hopeful entering 2018. The franchise isn’t so far removed from a Super Bowl win, and there’s talent on the roster. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Denver Broncos fans have reasons to be hopeful entering 2018. The franchise isn’t so far removed from a Super Bowl win, and there’s talent on the roster. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Denver Broncos enter camp with a mix of uninteresting veterans and a collection of thoroughly interesting rookies on the roster. This team feels simultaneously in decline and on the rise, which probably means the franchise has struck a decent balance between old and young. Several key pieces from the squad that won Super Bowl 50 remain in place, so a total rebuild for the Broncos would seem a little crazy.

Case Keenum now finds himself in orange, and he’s at least a modest upgrade over Trevor Siemian at quarterback. But landing Keenum was like earning a runner-up ribbon in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes. There’s basically no chance he was Plan A.

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Keenum is coming off a career year in Minnesota, however, a season in which he completed 67.6 percent of his throws, averaging 7.4 yards per attempt and 236.5 yards per game. He tossed 22 touchdown passes and only seven picks, generally performing at a level that he’d never reached in any of his previous five pro seasons. He was accurate on deep attempts (40.7 percent per Player Profiler) and he avoided sacks (22) and giveaways. Denver only made a two-year commitment to Keenum, but he’s not a bridge to anyone in particular. Paxton Lynch has shown very little since entering the league. The Broncos finished next-to-last as a team in passer-rating last season at 73.0.

There’s no obvious reason to draft Keenum in fantasy leagues of standard size, because he’s a low-ceiling player at a loaded position. He finished outside the top-12 QBs in our game in 2017, during a best-case-scenario season. Think of him as a serviceable streaming option and/or bye-week placeholder.

Denver’s receiving corps gets younger, keeps trusted vets

There’s only so much left to say about the Demaryius Thomas-Emmanuel Sanders receiving tandem, now entering in its fifth season in Denver. Both receivers are on the wrong side of 30, and neither managed to reach the 1000-yard plateau last year. But the poor results from 2017 were largely related to messy quarterback play and, in Sanders’ case, to injury. Thomas has seen 8.9 targets per game over the past two seasons and Sanders has averaged 8.3, so this pair doesn’t lack volume. The upgrade to Keenum will clearly benefit both receivers. If healthy, these guys can each produce 75-1000-6 seasons. We’re not asking them to do anything they haven’t done before. When Scott Pianowski urges you to take the boring values where you can find them, he means guys like this. In an average draft, these two are selected as WR19 and WR32.

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24057/" data-ylk="slk:Emmanuel Sanders">Emmanuel Sanders</a> and Demaryius Thomas are back for yet another season, and the team upgraded at QB. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich, File)
Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are back for yet another season, and the team upgraded at QB. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich, File)

Thomas and Sanders will both be free agents in 2020, so their contracts are on the same schedule as Keenum’s. Denver used second and fourth-round picks on rookie receivers who could be key members of the receiving corps for the next 5-10 years. SMU’s Courtland Sutton was the third receiver selected in the 2018 draft, though he was the top player at his position on many boards. He delivered three straight excellent seasons at the collegiate level, averaging 16.5 yards per catch and visiting the end-zone 32 times.

Sutton doesn’t necessarily win with elite straight-line speed, but he crushed the agility drills at the combine (6.57 second 3-cone). He was a 94th percentile SPARQ athlete with good size (6-foot-3) and terrific tape. Sutton should see the field plenty in the year ahead as Denver’s third receiver. He has a path to first-year fantasy relevance, no doubt.

The Broncos also added Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton, another receiver who produced solid numbers over multiple collegiate seasons. He’s not quite on Sutton’s level as a prospect or athlete, but he’s a technician with decent size (6-foot-1) and good hands. No need to draft him except in deeper dynasty leagues. Hamilton’s arrival doesn’t seem like a good sign for Carlos Henderson, who had a rough offseason and simply hasn’t been able to stay on the field.

This team has a TE with (deep) sleeper appeal

Tight ends snaps are wide open in Denver, not that it was a high-volume position for this offense last season. For fantasy purposes, you want former Michigan star Jake Butt to receive as much playing time as possible. He missed all of last season while recovering from an ACL tear. (He suffered the injury in the Orange Bowl, in the final game of his final season. Brutal.) Butt is a gifted receiving threat who reportedly had a promising offseason:

“Very excited [with Butt’s progress],” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “He works so hard and he’s obviously a playmaker [when] you watch him catch the football. He’s going to be a great addition to our offense.”

He’s the sleeper here. Keenum connected with Kyle Rudolph for eight TDs last season, so we know he’s a friend to tight ends. Wisconsin rookie Troy Fumagalli was an interesting add as well, but he’s more of a dynasty flier.

Broncos backfield has the look of a committee

It’s difficult to imagine Devontae Booker as any team’s full-workload, all-situation back. That probably isn’t happening, whether or not he draws an opening week start. (PLEASE stop caring about starting status in the NFL. It’s not baseball. It’s largely a non-issue.) Booker is a competent receiving threat and hasn’t been a disaster as a runner, though he also hasn’t averaged more than 3.8 YPC in either of his two seasons. He’s no one’s idea of an every-down featured RB.

“We want two or three guys to be our main core backs,” Coach Joseph has said.

Fantasy owners should take him at his word. Don’t draft any of this team’s backs at a price at which you need them to see 280-plus touches. The most likely situation here is a committee. The coaches keep telling us as much.

“The bottom line in this league is, you need [two] or three guys with diverse skills to get you through a season,” said position coach Curtis Modkins.

Rookie <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/31041/" data-ylk="slk:Royce Freeman">Royce Freeman</a> finds himself in a camp battle with vet Devontae Booker. This backfield is likely headed for RBBC status. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Rookie Royce Freeman finds himself in a camp battle with vet Devontae Booker. This backfield is likely headed for RBBC status. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Booker has a camp battle on his hands for positioning in the committee hierarchy. Some of you may have big plans for rookie third-rounder Royce Freeman, but, again, this team wants to use multiple runners. Freeman had a distinguished four-year career at Oregon that seemed to last a decade. He handled an incredible 1026 total offensive touches over four seasons, gaining 6435 scrimmage yards and scoring 64 TDs. Freeman isn’t a burner, nor is he particularly elusive by NFL standards, but he has the size of a heavy-workload back (5-foot-11, 231). His best collegiate season was 2015, his sophomore year, when he topped 100 scrimmage yards in every game, finishing with 1836 rushing yards at 6.5 YPC.

It’s still tough for me to believe the Broncos passed on Derrius Guice when they clearly needed backfield help, but that’s what they did. Freeman certainly has a path to 200-plus touches, so we need to take him seriously as a fantasy asset.

Freeman is selected 85 spots ahead of Booker in an average draft, according to FF Calculator. We seem to be treating this camp competition as if the rookie is not only a clear and overwhelming favorite to head the committee, but that he’ll immediately slide into a C.J. Anderson-plus role. That’s where our friend Brad Evans is at on Freeman, just for the record. Denver’s offensive line isn’t anything special, at least on paper, even if we assume its recently injured key pieces will be fully healthy in 2018. If we’re ranking rookie backs for either dynasty or redraft, I’d slot Freeman sixth, well behind Barkley, Guice, Jones, Penny and Michel.

Denver’s D is still a thing

The Broncos added Bradley Chubb to a defense that already featured Von Miller, so this team’s pass rush should be obscene. Five-time Pro Bowler Aqib Talib was dealt to the Rams back in March, but Denver still has quality corners, including three-time Pro Bowler Chris Harris. This team has a tricky division schedule, but there are plenty of friendly opponents ahead (such as Baltimore in Week 3 and the Jets in Week 5).

Denver might just be a frisky team in reality in 2018, but this club isn’t likely to be a fantasy powerhouse. Keenum will clearly help, because this team’s quarterback play was brutal last season. Fans will be delighted to know that if we were producing a meaningless NFL power ranking instead of a meaningless fantasy power ranking, the Broncos would be closer to the top.

2017 Offensive Stats & Ranks

Points per game – 18.1 (27 in NFL)
Pass YPG – 208.3 (20)
Rush YPG – 115.8 (12)
Yards per play – 4.8 (28)
Plays per game – 67.2 (2)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Buffalo, 31) Miami, 30) NY Jets, 29) Baltimore, 28) Oakland, 27) Cleveland, 26) Indianapolis, 25) Washington, 24) Chicago, 23) Tennessee, 22) Jacksonville, 21) Dallas, 20) Tampa Bay, 19) Cincinnati, 18) Denver

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