Can Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos offense surpass their record-breaking 2013 season this year?
Without question, 2013 was the Year of the Broncos. (Of course, the beginning of 2014 looks more like the Year of the Seahawks, but that’s a different story.)
On the strength of Peyton Manning’s arm, the Broncos came through with one of the greatest fantasy seasons of all-time. Manning broke several records -- both NFL and fantasy -- when he threw 50 touchdown passes, and Knowshon Moreno emerged from a crowded backfield to become a top-five fantasy running back.
With Moreno now in Miami, Denver hopes that second-year tailback Montee Ball will continue to build on his impressive late-season performance, when he rushed for 362 yards and three touchdowns in the final seven games. The problem for fantasy owners is that the hype is so great on Ball moving up to be RB1 in Denver, that you’ll have to spend a late first- or an early second-round pick to get him.
Ball is coming off of an emergency appendectomy in early August, but he’s expected to be ready for Week 1. Unfortunately, that means he’ll have missed working with the first team for the entire preseason. While the surgery isn’t necessarily major, and it won’t be a recurring issue, it’s still something that will keep him off the field for an extended time. But it should make fantasy owners pause a bit before taking him in the first couple rounds.
Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker finished as top-20 wide receivers, and Thomas’ amazing season was barely overshadowed by Josh Gordon’s huge breakout year in just 14 games. Thomas had one of the best seasons in the past decade for a fantasy wide receiver and now sits just behind Calvin Johnson in the rankings. A case can certainly be made to move Thomas ahead of Megatron (both are going in the first round, anyway), but the Lions’ superstar has a track record that’s easier to trust.
Manning even got his tight end involved, as Julius Thomas caught two (of Manning’s seven) touchdown passes in the season opener against a stymied Ravens team. Thomas went on to score in 10 games last season, despite missing a couple games with a knee injury. He’s a top-three tight end in 2014, especially with Decker moving on to the New York Jets.
The Broncos signed Emmanuel Sanders away from Pittsburgh, and the speedy five-year veteran will now be the third wheel to Thomas and Welker. Unlike Decker, Sanders doesn’t have a great presence near the end zone, but he’ll still be utilized everywhere in this offense.
Finally, there’s Manning -- some consider him to be a first-round pick, and it’s tough to argue against it. A quarterback coming off a 50-touchdown season does so much for an owner right out of the gate. The Broncos also protect him exceptionally well, which makes him a week-in and week-out lockdown lineup spot.
But in order for him to live up to a first-round pick, he essentially needs to duplicate his performance last year. There are so many good quarterbacks available late in drafts -- even a fourth-round quarterback (Matthew Stafford) compared to a 10th-round quarterback (Russell Wilson) is the projected difference of only about 30 fantasy points (or 2.5 fantasy ppg).
Most overvalued player
Montee Ball, RB -- Sure, pick on the guy that just lost his appendix. But I’ve been skeptical of Ball getting picked in the first round or early second round all summer.
Last year, Ball was battling with sophomore Ronnie Hillman for the starting job in Denver, but Moreno became healthy enough to blow past both of them. The point being -- Ball was getting drafted too early even before the surgery. He had fumble issues early in the season last year that he seemed to get over, but I’d rather spend a first-round pick on young guys I’ve seen do it already -- like Le’Veon Bell or DeMarco Murray.
Most undervalued player
Emmanuel Sanders, WR -- Sanders, who gets to play with yet another future Hall-of-Famer, will get plenty of the targets that once went to Decker, but not necessarily in the end zone. One issue, though, is that the Broncos also drafted Cody Latimer out of Indiana, who has more of a Decker-like build. You can get Sanders in the sixth round, despite the fact he has proven to be a capable receiver, will be moved all around the scrimmage line and replaced a former top-20 wide receiver. A fifth-round pick on Sanders over a player like T.Y. Hilton also works for me.
QB: Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler
RB: Montee Ball, C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman
WR: Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders, Cody Latimer, Andre Caldwell
TE: Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme
K: Matt Prater
Latimer makes for a nice late-round pick, as Manning has been known to find lesser-known receivers to key on, like Anthony Gonzalez, Austin Collie and Brandon Stokley. Prater set an NFL record with 75 extra points made last season. If you believe the Broncos will be as good as they were offensively last season, then he’s a good pick for all the one-pointers. If you believe the Broncos will step back offensively, then he’s a great pick for all the three-pointers.
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This Broncos defense should be huge in fantasy play this season for several reasons. Linebacker Von Miller (knee) hopes to be back in time for Week 1. The team added pass-rush specialist DeMarcus Ware to hurry the quarterback into mistakes. On the other end of those mistakes, Denver hopes, will be their two other new acquisitions, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. This defense gave up 29 touchdown passes last season (a number so bad only six other defenses eclipsed it) and the hope is their additions will bring that down. But this unit will face some of the best offenses in the league with a schedule that brings in opponents from the AFC East, AFC West and NFC West.