This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
The Broncos had one of the least inspiring 9-7 seasons of all time in 2016 — and 2017 will probably be worse. The ghost that was 2015 Peyton Manning is now a warm memory, and the boys of the Gary Kubiak-Wade Phillips summer have gone home. Just 18 months removed from a Super Bowl victory, the team couldn’t be further from the big game. For the Broncos and General Manager John Elway, 2017 shouldn’t be about regaining their 2015 form. It’s about building for 2018 and beyond.
Head coach Vance Joseph is a rookie who rose through the NFL ranks on the defensive side of the ball, so he’s likely to rely on the guidance of offensive coordinator (and former Chargers HC) Mike McCoy. But that’s not to say that Joseph is offensively ignorant. He was a backup quarterback and running back with the Colorado Buffaloes in 1990-94 before entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 1995, switching to defensive back, and playing two professional seasons. Eventually he returned to Colorado for a three-year stint (1999-2001) as a graduate assistant before serving as defensive backs coach at Wyoming (2002), Colorado (2002-03), and Bowling Green (2004). After a year (2005) with the 49ers as a defensive backs assistant, Joseph was promoted to secondary coach, filling that position for a half-decade (2006-10).
With Jim Harbaugh taking over the 49ers in 2011, Joseph joined the Texans staff, serving as defensive backs coach for three seasons (2011-13) under Phillips. After Kubiak and then Phillips were dismissed from Houston, Joseph served as the defensive backs coach in Cincinnati for two years (2014-15) before joining the Dolphins for a season (2016) as the defensive coordinator.
While Joseph and new DC Joe Woods (Denver’s defensive backs coach for 2015-16) both have familiarity with Phillips’ 3-4 defense, they have only one season of NFL play-calling between them. The Broncos defense was a top-five unit in yards and points allowed and top-10 in takeaways for the past two years under Phillips — but it’s possible (and maybe probable) that Joseph and Woods won’t be as good as @sonofbum was. The defense could underperform its lofty expectations thanks to the inexperience of Joseph and Woods.
If that happens, the way in which McCoy calls plays for the offense will be impacted. During his eight years as an OC (Denver, 2009-12) and HC (2013-16), McCoy has exhibited the ability to be intelligently adaptive to his circumstances and personnel. In 2009-10, McCoy coordinated an Erhardt-Perkins offense under HC Josh McDaniels with Kyle Orton as the quarterback. In typical Patriots-esque fashion, McDaniels wanted an up-tempo pass-heavy offense, and that’s what McCoy gave him: The Broncos were top-five in neutral pace both seasons and on average were top-12 in pass/run ratio.
In 2011, when McCoy was reunited with John Fox — for whom he’d worked for nine years (2000-08) in Carolina primarily as the quarterbacks coach and then passing game coordinator — he switched to the West Coast system and, with Tim Tebow starting the majority of games, he ran a slow-paced offense that was last in passing attempts and first in rushing attempts.
In 2012, with Peyton Manning on the team, McCoy again adapted. The Broncos were second in neutral pace to maximize the number of drives they had per game, and they were also top-10 in pass attempts. At the same time, because the defense was transforming into its dominant self, finishing second and fourth in yards and points, McCoy didn’t need to feature a pass-heavy offense, and so the Broncos were also top-10 in rush attempts.
In 2013 McCoy joined the Chargers as the HC. In his first two seasons he had a defense that on average was 12th in points allowed. As a result, the team played at a slow neutral pace (27.5 out of 32 teams) and skewed toward the run (13.5 out of 32 in run/pass ratio). In his final two seasons, the defense was 25th in scoring, so the offense played faster (17th) and passed more (ninth in pass/run ratio).
A smart play-caller with a strong familiarity of the AFC West, McCoy will probably run an offense highly responsive to the success of the defense. If the defense plays at a less-than-elite level, we should expect to see the offense pass more than it has over the last two years, when it was 15th and 16th in pass/run ratio. In that time, the Broncos were also fifth and sixth in neutral pace. McCoy has overseen an offense with a top-five pace three times, so it’s possible the Broncos will continue to operate quickly. That said, in San Diego not one of McCoy’s offenses had a top-12 rate of play.
So much of what happens on offense will depend on whether the defense continues to play as a top-five unit. If it doesn’t, the Broncos will likely be forced to rely more on quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
Aside from the receiving mainstays in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, much of the offense is in flux:
- QB: Trevor Siemian/Paxton Lynch
- RB: C.J. Anderson/Devontae Booker –> Anderson/Jamaal Charles/Booker
- WR: Demaryius Thomas
- WR: Emmanuel Sanders
- WR: Jordan Norwood/Jordan Taylor/Bennie Fowler –> Fowler/Taylor/Carlos Henderson
- TE: Virgil Green/Jeff Heuerman/A.J. Derby
- LT: Russell Okung –> Ty Sambrailo/Garett Bolles
- LG: Max Garcia
- C: Matt Paradis
- RG: Michael Schofield –> Ronald Leary
- RT: Donald Stephenson/Ty Sambrailo –> Stephenson/Menelik Watson
The team still needs to choose between the 2015 seventh-rounder Siemian and the 2016 first-rounder Lynch, who last year combined for just 3,898 yards passing and 6.7 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). Anderson is likely to lead the team in carries, but this backfield hasn’t had a true season-long workhorse since Knowshon Moreno in 2013. The rookie Henderson is promising, but Denver hasn’t had three fantasy-relevant wide receivers since the record-setting 2013 campaign. Green just turned 29 — and he’s probably not any closer to his long-hyped breakout season.
Okung is a league-average tackle now with the Chargers, but he’ll be missed: Sambrailo had one of Pro Football Focus’ worst offensive line grades last year with an overall score of 37.6. Sambrailo has opened camp as the starting left tackle, and it’s concerning that the rookie first-rounder Bolles (who just turned 25!) hasn’t already established himself as the certain blindside protector.
Coming over from the Cowboys, Leary is a strong upgrade on Schofield, who’s been relegated to the bench, but at right tackle Stephenson and Watson are expected to compete for the starting job. Last year Stephenson had PFF’s second-lowest overall grade (31.0), and while Watson’s grade was better (56.0) it was still poor. Overall the Broncos have PFF’s eighth-lowest ranking on the offensive line entering the season. Last year the line was 27th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 7.4 percent (Football Outsiders).
Other than losing Phillips, the defense is almost entirely intact:
- DE: Derek Wolfe/Billy Winn
- NT: Sylvester Williams –> Domata Peko/Zach Kerr
- DE: Jared Crick/Adam Gotsis
- OLB: Von Miller
- MLB: Brandon Marshall/Corey Nelson –> Marshall
- MLB: Todd Davis
- OLB: DeMarcus Ware/Shane Ray –> Ray/Shaq Barrett
- CB: Aqib Talib
- CB: Bradley Roby
- SCB: Chris Harris Jr.
- SS: T.J. Ward/Will Parks
- FS: Darian Stewart/Justin Simmons
The strength of this defense is the secondary, and all its core players are returning. The Broncos have been first in the league each of the last two years in passing yards and net passing yards per attempt allowed, and it’s probable that they will be strong once again in pass defense with the former position coach now serving as DC.
The front seven, though, isn’t as certain. The Broncos were 28th last year in rushing yards allowed, and they haven’t done much via free agency or the draft to acquire players likely to make an impact as run defenders. If teams can control the ball by running at the Broncos instead of testing their secondary, that’s almost certainly what they’ll do.
Of any offense in NFL history to support two 1,000-yard receivers, this one is probably the worst. And, yes, I know about the Scott Mitchell Lions of the ’90s.
Trevor Siemian, QB
Last year Siemian held off Lynch to win the starting job and managed to keep it all season, missing two games only for injury. He reportedly has outplayed Lynch in offseason practices, and he took the first snaps of training camp. Honestly, 2015 Freedman can’t believe I just typed this paragraph.
Chosen with the 250th pick two years ago, Siemian was at best a middling college quarterback. He was a three-year starter at Northwestern in the Big Ten, but he averaged only 302.7 attempts per year for 178 completions, 1,891.7 yards, and eight touchdowns (to 7.7 interceptions). Only once in those three years did he throw double-digit touchdowns (11). Never in any season did he even complete 60 percent of his passes or have a 7.0 AY/A. Amazingly, he was also a horrible runner, averaging -42 rush yards per season (in college, sacks are counted as rushing attempts). That he’s even on an NFL roster is a triumph of scouting (he said ironically).
Given that Siemian was horrible in college, his lackluster 2016 campaign was both expected and impressive. Naturally, he was dreadful: Per PlayerProfiler, Siemian was 30th in completion percentage against pressure (27.0), 29th in deep-ball percentage rate (23.5), 28th in overall completion percentage (59.5), 27th in fantasy points per dropback (0.36), and 26th in Production Premium (-11.8). At the same time, he was occasionally not awful. In his 13 full games he had a subpar 46.2 percent Consistency Rating, so he was by no means reliable, but he averaged 15.84 DraftKings points per game (PPG) with a +1.45 Plus/Minus (per our Trends tool). He sometimes wasn’t the worst quarterback in the league.
That said, he might not start Week 1. Kubiak liked Siemian’s work ethic and made the final call last year to start him over Lynch. When there was in-season pressure to make a quarterback change, Kubiak stuck with his guy. With Kubiak gone, Siemian has lost his biggest supporter, and it’s possible that Joseph and Elway will want to see what they have in Lynch. Right now Siemian is -260 to start Week 1 for Denver; the field is +180. Siemian showed last year that he’s nothing more than a tolerable talent. It wouldn’t be surprising if in preseason action Lynch flashed enough potential to win the starting job. If Lynch opens his second season without being the Week 1 starter, that’s a seeming short-term failure for the Broncos front office. For reasons that have nothing to do with ability, Siemian could lose his job,
If Siemian is the starter, he might be an exploitable daily fantasy asset in certain situations. Last year he was better on the road than at home and better as an underdog than a favorite. The sample is small, but as a road dog he’s been at his best, averaging 18.87 DraftKings PPG with a +4.32 Plus/Minus at just 1.9 percent ownership in large-field tournaments. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s possible that sharp players will take advantage of the ownership discount Siemian has offered as a road dog, especially since he has two dynamic receivers to use as stacking partners. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Broncos each week. If you want to construct Siemian-Thomas/Sanders stacks, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Paxton Lynch, QB
Like Siemian, Lynch was a three-year starter in college. Unlike Siemian, he was good as an undergraduate. After redshirting at Memphis in 2012, Lynch started all 38 of his career games before declaring for the draft as an early entrant in 2016. He averaged 401.7 attempts per year for 252.7 completions, 2,954.3 yards, and 19.7 touchdowns (to 7.7 interceptions). Importantly, he progressed each season:
- Passing attempts: 349 (2013) –>413 (2014) –> 443 (2015)
- Completion percentage: 58.2 –> 62.7 –> 66.8
- Yards: 2,056 –> 3,031 –> 3,776
- Touchdowns: 9 –> 22 –> 28
- Interceptions: 10 –> 9 –> 4
- AY/A: 5.1 –> 7.4 –> 9.4
Also, although he wasn’t a great runner in college, Lynch wasn’t a liability, averaging 229 yards and 5.7 touchdowns on the ground per season. Given his elite size (6’7″ and 244 lbs.) he could possibly nab a couple of goal-line scores each year. In addition to being large, Lynch is athletic (82nd percentile SPARQ-x score, per PlayerProfiler) and in possession of a strong arm (59 mph ball velocity). It’s not a surprise that he was chosen No. 26 overall just last year.
What’s surprising, though, is that he couldn’t beat out Siemian for the starting job. What’s worse is that in his two starts as an injury fill-in he completed just 59.3 percent of his passes for a putrid 5.1 AY/A, averaging 9.50 DraftKings PPG for a -4.64 Plus/Minus.
Still, I don’t want to make too much of a two-game sample. Siemian is almost certainly not a long-term player in Denver, but Lynch might be — and eventually the team will let him show what he can do in a game. Of the two quarterbacks, Lynch is the likelier to be a Black Swan. He’s an end-of-roster upside Hail Mary pick in the best ball format. Right now he has an average draft position (ADP) of 215.6 in DRAFT leagues.
C.J. Anderson, RB
Anderson is the favorite to open the season as the lead back, but that doesn’t mean much. McCoy usually skews toward the passing game. Only once has a McCoy unit been top-10 in rushing yards — the Tebow year. Never has a McCoy offense been top-10 in rushing touchdowns. Over the last two years, even with volume hog Melvin Gordon and playmaker Danny Woodhead on the roster, McCoy’s Chargers were on average 22, 28.5, and 27 out of 32 teams in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns.
Additionally, McCoy is not a backfield monogamist. When Knowshon Moreno was Denver’s lead back in 2009-10, Correll Buckhalter still played significant snaps. While Willis McGahee was the lead back in 2011-12, Lance Ball and Moreno still saw action. Ryan Mathews started 20 games for the Chargers in 2013-14, but Danny Woodhead played significant snaps when healthy and Branden Oliver flashed with his opportunities. And, in 2015, even though Gordon was the lead back, he was substantially ‘supplemented’ (read: outplayed) by Woodhead. McCoy has ridden one back exclusively in only one season (2016), and that was because the Chargers had no other NFL-caliber backs on the roster after Woody’s season-ending injury — and, still, no McCoy lead runner has managed 20 carries per game (CPG) in any season.
It’s better to be a lead back than not, but being a lead back for McCoy is nothing special. Historically, McCoy’s lead backs have averaged 83.5 scrimmage yards and 0.47 touchdowns per game for 13.72 DraftKings PPG. Anderson’s 2016 campaign ended early with a knee injury, but he’s been Denver’s lead back in his last 11 games (including the team’s 2015 playoff run to the Super Bowl). In his 17 games with double-digit touches since 2015 (the bad Manning-Brock Osweiler/Siemian-Lynch era), Anderson has 77.7 scrimmage yards and 0.59 touchdowns per game for 13.88 DraftKings PPG. Anderson will probably be the typical McCoy lead back this season.
Jamaal Charles, RB
In Week 5 of the 2015 season, Charles tore his right ACL. Through the first month of the campaign he was third at the position with 24.18 DraftKings PPG. Even though he was 28, he was still the stud JC Superstar of 2009-14. In 2016 Charles had the most disappointing season of his career, accumulating a 12/40/1 rushing line in only three games. He never fully recovered from the ACL injury/surgery of the previous season and eventually needed to have another surgery on his knee. He was placed on the injured reserve in November, and for the second year in a row his season ended early. He was released by the Chiefs in February.
Many people currently assume that Charles — who will be 30 for most of the 2017 season — has lost his athletic ability. But what if his 2016 season sucked merely because he returned to action too soon? What if now he’s recovered? He has been cleared by doctors and is participating in training camp. He reportedly has “zero knee pain” (Peter King).
Remember that McCoy has almost always used a change-of-pace back in his offenses, giving them an average of 10.2 touches per game. Over the last four years in San Diego, Woodhead — who returned to action in 2015 after a season-ending knee injury in 2014 — averaged 11.4 touches per game for 14.4 DraftKings PPG. In 2013-15, Charles averaged 5.5 targets per game and was one of the best receiving backs in the league.
It’s possible that Charles could see five to eight carries and four to six targets per game in 2017, even if he’s not as athletic as he once was. And if Charles is close to his old self and Anderson struggles? Charles could become the lead back. As Woodhead-plus, Charles has 1,200-yard, eight-touchdown upside at his 132.4 DRAFT ADP. He warrants speculative exposure in a diversified portfolio.
I’m thinking of Charles as the pivot play to Adrian Peteron, who has a 59.8 DRAFT ADP. If you’re going to invest in an old back who has a history of knee issues and just got dumped by his longtime franchise, why not wait till later in the draft so you can roster the guy who A) leads all running backs in the modern era with 5.5 yards per attempt, B) is the superior receiver, C) has the younger body, and D) doesn’t have to compete for touches with Mark Ingram, who’s a top-12 producer over the last three years?
Devontae Booker, RB
A fourth-round rookie out of Utah last year, Booker has good size (5’11” and 219 lbs.) and the potential to be a three-down workhorse. In his two seasons at Utah, Booker was a beast, averaging 24.4 carries and 3.5 receptions per game for a 147.7/1.0 stat line across 25 games. Last year, though, he disappointed. As the change-of-pace back behind Anderson, he impressed with 44.7 yards per game (YPG) on just 8.6 touches, but after Anderson’s injury Booker was a pathetic lead back, averaging just 62.7 YPG and 11.16 DraftKings PPG on a healthy 16.1 touches. For the season, he was 58th at the position with 0.30 fantasy points per snap. Nevertheless, Booker has some upside at his 199.8 DRAFT ADP. Although he’s out with a fractured wrist, Booker is expected to be ready by Week 1 and could emerge as an in-season breakout if/when Anderson underperforms.
De’Angelo Henderson, RB
If Charles fails to make the team, Henderson could function as the receiving back. A sixth-round rookie out of Coastal Carolina, Henderson benefited from playing against Football Championship Subdivision competition. That said, he dominated, averaging 140.5 yards and 1.66 touchdowns on 18.3 CPG and 2.66 receptions per game across his 35 contests as the Chanticleers workhorse. He’s old (25 in November) and short (5’8″), but he’s thick (208 lbs.) and fast (4.48-second 40). Henderson has the potential to be a better version in Denver of what Oliver was for McCoy in San Diego.
Also, with Booker out and the team likely to limit Charles’ snaps, Henderson could be a preseason DFS superstar. Are the Broncos going to give preseason touches to Stevan Ridley?
Demaryius Thomas, WR
Turning 30 near the end of the season, Thomas is still a volume monster. Over the last two years he’s had to play with bad Manning, Osweiler, Siemian, and Lynch — and his numbers have declined as a result — but the only players to out-target him in that time are Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham, Jr. As I note in my piece on the top 100 NFL players, only Antonio has more than his 790 targets, 492 receptions, and 6,870 yards over the last half-decade. The first of Thomas’ five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons came with McCoy as OC in 2012. I hope you like Champagne: With McCoy back in town, Thomas is about to open a bottle of bubble screen.
Yes, that’s officially the worst joke in the history of the site. For now.
Thomas is fair value at his 31.6 DRAFT ADP.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR
A versatile pass-catcher — last year he lined up 362 snaps out wide on the right, 282 snaps on the left, and 207 snaps in the slot — Sanders is perhaps the best No. 2 receiver in the league. He’s yet to surpass Demaryius in DraftKings points in any given season . . .
- 2014: 322.8 vs. 379.9
- 2015: 238.4 vs. 281.4
- 2016: 221.6 vs. 234.3
. . . but last year he got pretty close. Averaging 16.66 DraftKings PPG over the last three years, Sanders has actually been more efficient than Thomas on a per-target basis:
- Catch percentage: 61.8 vs. 60.6
- Touchdown/target: 0.048 vs. 0.044
- Yards/target: 8.63 vs. 7.93
In yards per route run (YPRR), Sanders barely trailed Thomas last year 1.91-1.97 (PFF). Going more than two rounds after Thomas at his 60.2 DRAFT ADP, Sanders is the preferable option. With the Broncos he has never had more yards in a season than Thomas, but if any sportsbooks are taking action on who will lead the team in receiving I’m interested in exploring those lines.
Carlos Henderson, WR
Last year the quartet of Norwood, Taylor, Fowler, and even Cody Latimer played as the No. 3 receiver, but I’m not excited to talk about any of them. Instead, I want to spend the next
1,000 250 words discussing Carlos Henderson, the team’s third-round rookie. I know what you’re thinking:
Two Hendersons? The Broncos have two rookies with the Henderson surname? And you’re talking about both of them? Oracle, I love you. You’re the best.
Thanks. That’s nice of you to say.
An all-around playmaker out of Louisiana Tech, Henderson was something of a divisive draft prospect because he didn’t lead the Bulldogs last year in receptions or receiving yards. Still, he was pretty impressive as a redshirt junior, turning 82 receptions into 1,535 yards and 19 touchdowns in 13 games. On top of that he had a 14/133/2 stat line as a runner and added a couple of touchdowns as a returner. Although he lined up primarily on the outside, he also saw snaps in the slot and out of the backfield. He’s not big (5’11” and 199 lbs.), but he has adequate athleticism (4.46-second 40). Last year he emphatically led all draft-eligible receivers with 48 missed tackles and was fourth with 3.55 YPRR (PFF).
Barring an injury to Thomas or Sanders, Henderson is unlikely to make much of an impact as a rookie, but he does have some big-play ability for deep best ball leagues, and as a late-round selection in dynasty startup drafts he’s delicious.
Virgil Green, TE
I don’t like Green or any of the other tight ends — but we should probably remember that over the last four years McCoy’s tight ends in San Diego have scored 45 touchdowns — and 17 of those have gone to players other than Antonio Gates. Maybe — maybe — one of the Broncos tight ends won’t be a total disaster. Green is penciled in as the starter.
In the futures market the Broncos currently have a 2017 win total of 8.5 games with a +125 over and -155 under. They’re also +190 to make the playoffs and -230 not to. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Broncos the hardest schedule of the season. Not too long ago the over on the win total was -125 — but those days are gone. The public is bearish on the Broncos for good cause. They have negative uncertainty at quarterback, and we have little reason to believe the offensive line and run defense will be improved this year. And it doesn’t help that they have a new coaching staff with a rookie HC overseeing everything and a first-time play-caller coordinating the defense. It’s nice that McCoy is familiar with the division and even some players on the team, so his transition to Denver shouldn’t be rough, but that’s relatively minor. I don’t see much advantage to betting against the Broncos given the current lines — but I’m not about to bet on them.
The Broncos are currently +2,500 to win the Super Bowl, +1,200 to win the AFC, and +350 to win the AFC West. While the divisional rival Raiders are implied (by their Vegas odds) to be the second-best team in the AFC, the Chiefs are comparable to the Broncos — except in one future:
- Super Bowl: +2,500
- AFC: +1,200
- AFC West: +240
Given that they have the same odds to win the Super Bowl and AFC, it’s curious the Broncos have significantly worse implied odds than the Chiefs to win the AFC West. If you’re fading the Raiders and looking for someone else to emerge, the Broncos are most investable relative to the Chiefs at+350 to win the division. Even so, I’m not betting on them to win the West.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Broncos Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz and Matt LaMarca contributed research to this article.