From now till Thursday, September 1 — the day of the final preseason games — FantasyLabs is releasing our 2016 team previews: 32 previews in 32 days. Are you ready for some football?
Denver Broncos Team Preview
As you may have heard, the Denver Broncos finished the 2015 season as Super Bowl Champions. The Broncos claimed their throne atop the NFL with a nasty defense (fourth-best scoring defense during the regular season) and just enough offense (19th-best scoring offense). Also important: Peyton Manning no longer has to hear, “Oh yeah? How many super bowls have YOU won?” from Eli at the dinner table.
The Broncos defense shouldn’t miss a beat in 2016. Returning are the terrifying pass rush combination of Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and the trio of stud cornerbacks in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby. For the first time since Tim Tebow won a playoff game, Denver has a question mark at quarterback, as the retired Manning will likely be replaced by either Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian — or maybe even first-round rookie Paxton Lynch, whom Denver was hoping to develop for a year but about whom head coach Gary Kubiak has recently said this: “He’s always been in the mix.”
Vegas has set the Broncos’ 2016 win total at 9, which is closer to the Broncos’ 2015 expected win total of 9.7 than its actual total of 12. The Broncos’ offense returns its top rushers and receivers from 2015, but will the change at quarterback mean fantasy futility in Denver?
Through 72 career starts, Sanchez has posted an incredibly average 86:84 TD/INT ratio. More recently Sanchez has started 10 games in the last two seasons, averaging a Plus/Minus of +0.62 and scoring just 14.52 DraftKings points per game (per our Trends tool). This is not good.
Sanchez isn’t as bad of a quarterback as the public makes him out to be, but his upside is limited. Having thrown for more than two touchdowns in just six of his 72 career starts, Sanchez won’t win you too many tournaments, but (in all fairness) starting wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are by far the best duo of receivers Sanchez has had in his seven-year NFL career.
Oh, and Sanchez also is far from guaranteed to start this season. While Sanchez started the Broncos’ first preseason game of 2016, Siemian got the start in Week 2. Regardless of who ends up being the starter, he won’t carry too much upside on a weekly basis. Friendly matchups are still available (especially in Weeks 10-14, when the Broncos face four opponents that last season ranked in the bottom six of fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks), but Sanchez would need to show a new level of play to become a reliable fantasy option on a regular basis.
The Broncos’ seventh-round pick last year, Siemian is yet to attempt an NFL pass. At 6’3” and 215 lbs., he sort of looks like a quarterback, but his college stats don’t look like those of a future NFL starter. In his final season, he completed only 58.2 percent of his 392 attempts for only 2214 yards. He ‘rushed’ 68 times for -123 yards, which means that he took too many sacks. He threw only seven touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions. That he could become an NFL starter in 2016 is honestly puzzling to say the least.
Projecting Siemian as a NFL quarterback should mostly be based on his preseason performances. Last year, Siemian completed 23 of 40 passes in the preseason for 283 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. As for this year, an underwhelming Week 1 performance consisted of 88 yards and no touchdowns, and Siemian’s first start in Week 2 produced just 75 yards passing on 14 attempts with a pick six. If Siemian manages to earn the Broncos’ starting job, don’t be surprised if it’s just a short-term means to give their first-round quarterback more time to develop.
Out of the three quarterbacks in Denver, Lynch may have the most upside as a fantasy commodity. At 6’7” and 244 lbs., Lynch is larger than Ben Roethlisberger and has great arm strength and athleticism (80th percentile SPARQ-x rating) to go along with this size. A three-year starter at Memphis, Lynch improved his completion percentage each season, capping off his collegiate career with a strong junior campaign consisting of a 66.8 percent completion rate, 3,778 yards passing, 28 touchdowns, and just four interceptions.
While Lynch displayed a nose for the end-zone running the football (13 rushing touchdowns as a sophomore) he never totaled over 321 yards rushing in a season. His mobility is more Big Ben than Cam Newton. Lynch was solid in his preseason debut (and also his second preseason game), but the Broncos may choose to give him time to develop before making him the starter. Lynch was the third quarterback selected in 2016 and a first-round pick. Even with that, Lynch could very well not start a game this year.
At this time last year, I was locked in as a CJA believer. I mean, his 158 fantasy points in the last eight games of 2014 were the most among any running back, so what was the worst that could happen?
Anderson posted a brutal Plus/Minus of -3.48 through the Broncos’ first eight games of 2015 and exceeded his salary-based expectations just twice. While Anderson’s Plus/Minus jumped to +5.17 for the second half of 2015, this was more due to his expected point total dropping all the way to 6.67. For the season, Anderson finished as the league’s 45th running back in average DraftKings points per game.
Anderson’s success in the playoffs (234 yards and two touchdowns with a 4.33 yards-per-carry average) could carry over to 2016, but unless the passing game takes a step forward Anderson could struggle as the focal point of the offense. Signs are pointing toward Anderson being the bell cow in the Denver backfield, and if this is the case he’ll have a very friendly stretch in Weeks 5-10, facing four defenses (Atlanta, San Diego [twice], and New Orleans) that finished 2015 in the bottom six in fantasy points allowed to running backs. Kubiak loves to feature a single running back in his offense (see: Foster, Arian), but Anderson will need to return to his 2014 form to be a RB1.
Ronnie Hillman averaged nearly three more carries than Anderson per game in 2015 and was the better running back for nearly the entire regular season. Ranked as fantasy’s 25th running back in average DraftKings points per game, Hillman offered consistent value last year especially in the second half of the season:
It still appears that Anderson will have the first chance to be the Broncos’ lead back, and Hillman will certainly need to hold off rookie Devontae Booker, but Hillman has shown the ability to rack up fantasy points in this Denver offense.
For a team that struggled to pass the ball, it’s somewhat surprising that Denver finished just 17th in total run plays in 2015. The Broncos had the 11th-quickest pace on offense last year, but this could change without Manning at quarterback. Hillman’s fantasy relevance could also be lessened in a potentially split backfield. While Anderson is the better receiver of the two, Hillman caught only one less pass in 2015 and received nine carries inside the five-yard line (scoring three touchdowns) compared to just four carries for Anderson (one touchdown). Hillman can certainly provide plenty of fantasy value if the Broncos lean on him, but his usage will be very difficult to predict until the Broncos’ backfield is more clear.
At 5’11” and 219 lbs., Booker has ideal size for a running back and demonstrated in college that he has the ability to be an three-down back. Booker averaged over 145 yards per game with Utah, scoring 23 touchdowns in 23 games as the Utes’ premier offensive weapon. A knee injury cut Booker’s senior season short and prevented him from performing anything other than the bench press at the NFL combine, but a healthy Booker could breathe new life into the Broncos’ backfield.
Bigger than Hillman and a better receiver than Anderson — Booker had an 80-622-2 receiving stat line in two years at Utah — he has the potential to supplant both players if given the opportunity. Booker is only a fourth-round rookie, so you can’t bet on his success, but he wouldn’t be the first back with receiving skills to enter the NFL as less than a top-100 pick to become a star in Kubiak’s system.
In 2012-2014, Thomas averaged 99 receptions, 1,494 yards, and nearly 12 touchdowns receiving. While Thomas’ 105-reception, 1,304-yard campaign last season was far from terrible, his six touchdowns exposed the fact that Thomas is far from a reliable red-zone receiver.
Over the past two seasons, Thomas has converted just six of his 26 targets inside the 10-yard line into touchdowns. These 26 targets inside the 10 put him behind only Antonio Brown in the category, but Thomas’ six touchdowns are tied for 22nd over that span. Thomas’ average of 4.33 targets per touchdown inside the 10-yard line is just brutal. This is the fifth-worst rate among the 52 receivers to record at least 10 targets inside the 10-yard line in 2014-2015.
Thomas’ large size and tantalizing athletic ability would make it foolish to write him off after one ‘down’ season, but Thomas’ double-digit touchdown days may be gone. Thomas will still have the opportunity to produce big games in 2016, especially early in the season against Indianapolis (Week 2) and Tampa Bay (Week 4), both of which last year had bottom-eight defenses in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers. Thomas will be a low-end WR1 with the potential to regain his status as a top-5 receiver in the NFL.
A season-long Plus/Minus of just +1.25 in 2015 is somewhat surprising considering that Sanders posted by far his second-best season as a pro, but this speaks to just how high expectations were for him coming off his 101-reception, 1,404-yard, nine-touchdown 2014 campaign. Sanders’ inconsistency in 2015 prevented him from repeating as a top-10 fantasy receiver, as Sanders failed to surpass 22 yards in four separate games.
Sanders is the clear No. 2 to Thomas in this offense (Sanders averaged nine targets per game compared to Thomas’ 11), but his role in the offense over the past two years has given him production rivaling that of most WR1s. Thomas and Sanders accounted for 49 percent of the Broncos’ receptions in 2015, a very high total that shouldn’t change much in 2016 with essentially the same receiving options back.
Don’t worry about Sanders’ ability to coexist with Thomas as a premier fantasy option: In 2015, Sanders averaged 15.1 fantasy points during Thomas’ nine games in which he produced 18 or more fantasy points. Sanders may not have quite the same upside as Thomas (especially with the uncertainty at quarterback), but Sanders should still be a weekly WR2.
The Broncos’ current No. 3 receiver is none other than Fowler, who averaged just over 12 yards receiving per game last year. Fowler was not targeted more than four times even once, and it’s hard to imagine this changing in 2016. While Fowler boasts decent combine measurable (including a 4.52-second 40-yard dash), the Broncos offense is a two-receiver show. He might not be rosterable even if he were to see an increase in usage in the event of a Thomas or Sanders injury.
Of course, he’ll also need to overcome his own injury. He suffered a small fracture in his elbow in the first preseason game. He apparently will be ready for Week 1 of the regular season, but it’s possible that someone could still his No. 3 job before he returns.
Norward has a miserable combination of size (5’11” and 179 lbs.) and athleticism (SPARQ-x rating is in just the 37th percentile among all wide receivers), and he has scored just one touchdown since entering the league in 2009. As a member of the Eagles, Browns, and now Broncos, Norwood has topped 50 yards receiving just four times in 29 career games, most recently back in 2012. Barring a miraculous change in both personnel and talent, Norwood should not be rostered in any fantasy format in 2016.
Posey is yet to score an NFL touchdown and has never surpassed 50 yards receiving in a game. Perhaps that’s due to opportunity: He has just two career games with more than four targets. Posey does possess nice size at 6’2” and 211 lbs. and has above-average athleticism. Selected by the Texans in 2012 when Kubiak was with the team, Posey is something of a pet project for the head coach. He has a chance to make the team but has never shown that he has the ability to be anything more than a special teams player.
Drafted in the second round two years, Latimer is big and fast and had a good final season at Indiana before declaring early for the draft. Of course, since entering the NFL he has been a massive disappointment starting just one game and earning just 15 targets, which he turned into eight receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown. Of course, in the playoffs last year he appeared in three games and turned three targets into three receptions and 31 scoreless yards, so . . . #Improvement — right?
In the first preseason game he was targeted eight times and made seven receptions for 82 yards. In the second preseason game, he was targeted five times for two receptions and 29 yards. Maybe he’ll win the No. 3 job before the season starts. If that happens, he could elevate is capacity to disappoint to a new level.
An undersized tight end at 6’3” and 249 lbs., Green is very athletic (with a SPARQ-x score in the 91st percentile among all tight ends), but he has failed to make much of an impact in his five years in the league with only 379 yards on 35 career catches. Of course, he has been targeted no more than three times in any game of his career. Even though he was a strong receiver (and occasional runner) in college, he has been primarily a blocking tight end in the NFL and has simply never had the full opportunity to contribute in the passing game.
In 2016 he’s likely to get that chance. He has a very strong 79.5 catch rate and appears poised to break out as the No. 1 option at the position. The presence of Jeff Heuerman (the team’s third-round pick last year) could produce a two-tight end system that could lower Green’s upside, and the team’s heavy reliance on Thomas and Sanders won’t help Green get lots of targets either. Still, Green should shatter his career highs and could be a weekly fantasy option if the Broncos decide to feature the position more than they did last year, when Owen Daniels had just 46 catches as the No. 1 tight end.
The former Ohio State Buckeye Heuerman missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL. Heuerman has solid size at 6’5” and 254 lbs., but he had underwhelming combine numbers. Heuerman dealt with some injuries in his last collegiate season, which explains his 17-reception senior campaign, but he showed that he could be an explosive presence down the seam in 2013 when he produced 466 yards and four touchdowns on just 26 catches. Heuerman is also a great blocker. It’s possible that he could be the No. 1 tight end sooner rather than later.
The Denver Broncos find themselves in an interesting predicament in 2016. For years the recipe for winning a Super Bowl has revolved around having a great quarterback, but Manning’s 2015 season was arguably the worst for any quarterback to win a Super Bowl . . . ever.
And now they are without the starting quarterback who just won the Super Bowl.
The uncertainty around the Denver quarterback position and backfield is reason enough to approach the Broncos offense with a healthy dose of caution, but there are still proven fantasy commodities on the team. The offense will almost certainly not be as dynamic as it was in 2014, but it might be better than it was in 2015. Don’t write off the Broncos just yet.