Juggernaut Index, No. 24: Broncos have an elite fantasy defense, messy offense

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Andy Behrens
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The Broncos offer a few mid-draft fantasy options, but no stars (except the D).
Denver has talent at the skill spots, but a potentially disastrous QB pileup.
(Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos’ offense did nothing well last season. This team ranked in the bottom-third of the league in passing, rushing, scoring and turnovers. Trevor Siemian set a new standard for meh at the quarterback position, completing 59.5 percent of his throws and averaging 7.0 yards per attempt. Denver’s ground game was actually sub-meh, gaining just 3.6 yards per carry.

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Naturally, the Broncos are running it back with the same cast of offensive skill players, plus a few modest additions. Mike McCoy returns as the new/old offensive coordinator, which can’t hurt. But Denver’s O-line wasn’t anything special last season, and it’s likely to start a rookie left tackle in 2017.

Simply put, it’s tough to feel good about any aspect of this team’s offense. All we can do is look for well-priced fantasy assets, so let’s get to it.

Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch? Who ya got?

This is a terrible position battle — legit terrible. This team’s lousy quarterback situation limits the fantasy ceiling for every player on the Broncos’ roster.

Siemian was considered a QB of only marginal ability at the collegiate level. His numbers at Northwestern certainly did not scream “prospect.” He deserves credit for treading water in Denver last season despite his limited physical tools. The Broncos rarely looked deep last year, finishing with the third fewest completions of 20-plus yards. Siemian averaged only 3.6 deep attempts per game, yet still completed less than 60 percent of his total throws. Basically, he’s a scattershot passer with an ordinary arm and no discernible upside. Fantasy owners should not target him in leagues of any size.

One of these men will start for Denver in Week 1.
The Broncos haven’t yet chosen an opening week QB. (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

If Siemian continues to start for the Broncos in 2017, it’s really an indictment of Lynch, last year’s first round pick. Lynch has a four-inch height advantage over Siemian, he’s substantially quicker and he has plenty of arm strength. He’s the better pure athlete in this competition, no question. While he’s not the incumbent, there’s no reason to think incumbency is a critical factor in this competition. New head coach Vance Joseph sounds like he wants someone to outright win the job in August, working from the new OC’s playbook:

So how much weight will spring ball, when players run around wearing shorts in the sun, carry when it comes to evaluating Lynch and Siemian?

“This part? Probably zero to none, to be honest,” Joseph said Tuesday. “It’s going to be won on the football field. It’s going to be won in the games in the preseason. That’s where the evaluation starts.”

McCoy had success with every variety of QB during his first turn in Denver, you’ll recall, including Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. If Lynch can claim the starting role, it may unlock a few things that were absent from the Broncos’ offense last season. And if he can’t claim it … well, wow. Not a great sign for the former No. 26 overall pick, entering his second NFL season.

Four of five Yahoo fantasy experts had Siemian over Lynch in the preseason QB ranks, but I went with Paxton. This team should be much more difficult to defend with Lynch at the controls, at least in theory.

Before we discuss this team’s receivers, let’s also mention Chad Kelly, Mr. Irrelevant in the 2017 draft and nephew of Jim Kelly. Chad’s 2015 season at Ole Miss was mostly excellent, highlighted by wins over Alabama, Auburn and LSU, plus a 302-yard, 4-TD performance in the Sugar Bowl. Over the past two seasons, he passed for 762 yards, seven TDs and zero picks against Alabama. He’s returning from ACL and wrist surgeries, however, so he’s no lock to be active at any point in 2017. He’s also a bit undersized, he has a tendency to make uh-oh throws, and he has a sketchy off-the-field history. There are red flags here, for sure. But it’s not like he’s trapped behind Montana and Young on the depth chart. When healthy, Kelly can play. He’s a decent late flier for dynasty owners.

Same old story in the receiving corps, right?

At the top, yes. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders dominate the targets here, to a ridiculous extent. Check the totals from last season:

D. Thomas – 145 targets, 90 receptions, 1083 yards, 5 TDs
E. Sanders – 139 targets, 79 receptions, 1032 yards, 5 TDs
All other Denver WRs – 101 targets, 56 receptions, 662 yards, 5 TDs

For fantasy purposes, this is great. We like a predictable receiving hierarchy. Thomas has strung together five straight 1000-yard seasons for the Broncos and he hasn’t missed a game since 2011. Sanders has also reached the 1000-yard plateau in each of his three years in Denver, and he’s been sidelined only once over the past five seasons. These guys are bankable fantasy assets, worthy of their top-60 draft positions. Sanders has been the better value in early Yahoo drafts, with an ADP of 57.7. Thomas goes 23 spots earlier in a typical draft, a price difference that can’t be justified by recent performance.

Demaryius Thomas still leads this team's receiving corps, coming off his fifth straight 1000-yard campaign.
Demaryius Thomas could be one of the more under-appreciated players of his era. He’s topped 1000 yards in five straight seasons. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Assuming Thomas and Sanders remain healthy, there’s really no path to fantasy relevance for any other member of this team’s receiving corps. Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler and Jordan Taylor are undraftable depth. Carlos Henderson, a third-round rookie, was an explosive playmaker at the college level (Louisiana Tech). He’s coming off an 82-catch, 1535-yard season, which included an insane 326-yard game. Quality of competition was of course an issue. If Denver ever reintroduces a vertical dimension to its passing game, Henderson could get fun.

There’s no reason to think this team will produce a roster-worthy fantasy tight end, as most of you already know. Please let this be the year that Virgil Green’s name is absent from your cheat sheet. A.J. Derby has (very) deep sleeper appeal, but only in two-TE leagues. Michigan rookie Jake Butt could be a thing in 2018 or 2019, but, for now, he’s simply a first-year tight end recovering from an ACL tear.

What are odds that Jamaal Charles makes a fantasy splash?

Charles is joining a team that had almost no success running the ball last season, so we can’t dismiss him. Again, Denver gained just 3.6 YPC on the ground and 92.8 rushing yards per game.

For now, it sounds like the plan for the Broncos is to roll with a two or three-man backfield committee, with C.J. Anderson as its head. A meniscus injury limited Anderson to just seven games last season, but he was the best of an unimpressive group when he was healthy (4.0). CJA has averaged 4.6 YPC for his career and he’s a capable short-range receiver, too. He deserves consideration as a low-end RB2, which is consistent with his current draft price (ADP 57.9). But he’s routinely selected multiple rounds ahead of LeGarrette Blount (74.9), Mike Gillislee (79.6), Dalvin Cook (81.8) and Ameer Abdullah (101.2) in Yahoo drafts, which I cannot endorse. If you can’t get Anderson at a bargain price, don’t chase him.

Jamaal Charles joins a once-great backfield.
Two of these players are NFL legends. The other two led the Broncos in rushing last season. (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charles is entering his age-30 season and he barely saw the field last year, coming back from his second ACL tear. Still, he’s an all-time back, one of the most efficient runners in NFL history (5.5 YPC), so we shouldn’t be quick to discard him. He could get interesting in a supporting role for Denver, if he can return at, say, 90 percent of his peak ability. Charles is definitely talking a good game, full of pre-camp optimism…

“I am doing everything. I’ve been cutting the last couple of days with the guys during the offseason workouts. I feel like the way I am cutting that I am back to the normal me, man. It feels good to be moving around again.”

…so let’s keep an open mind. Hopefully we’ll see him during exhibition play. His draft price is friendly enough (113.8), appropriate for a once-great back in a rotational role.

Devontae Booker was briefly a must-own fantasy RB last season, following the CJA injury. But he face-planted in a big way as a featured runner in his first season, averaging just 3.5 YPC on 174 attempts. His highest single-game rushing total was 83 yards, and he didn’t deliver a multi-TD game until Week 17, when most fantasy seasons were finished. Booker enters camp as a handcuff to the handcuff. Rookie sixth-rounder De’Angelo Henderson is worth a look in deep dynasty formats, in part because the talent in this team’s backfield is so ordinary and/or old. Henderson is an MJD-sized back (5-foot-7, 205) out of Coastal Carolina, a school that keeps spitting out NFL talent.

Denver’s D is as good as it gets.

This defense keeps the team in the playoff conversation. Last season, the Broncos ranked among the NFL leaders in sacks (42), takeaways (27) and defensive touchdowns (4), while erasing pretty much every opposing passing attack. Denver allowed just 185.8 passing yards per week, a silly number in this era. The team finished with more interceptions (14) than passing TDs allowed (12). Drew Brees was the only quarterback who topped 275 yards against this shutdown secondary. Von Miller remains a nightmare for opponents, too.

Denver’s defense obviously faces a challenging division schedule, and it also has to contend with Dallas, New England, Washington, Indy and Cincinnati. So that’s not ideal. But this D remains loaded, too well-established and talented to doubt. It’s a group that should rank inside the top-three fantasy Ds on any draft board.

2016 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 20.8 (22)
Pass YPG – 244.6 (21)
Rush YPG – 92.8 (27)
Yards per play – 5.1 (26)
Plays per game – 63.8 (15)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) NY Jets, 31) San Francisco, 30) Cleveland, 29) LA Rams, 28) Baltimore, 27) Chicago, 26) Minnesota, 25) Detroit, 24) Denver