Denver Broncos Fantasy Football 2017 Preview: Demaryius Thomas Is Best Bet
It was less than four years ago that the Broncos beat the holy hell out of the Ravens in a nationally televised Thursday-night season opener, but it seems as if an epoch has passed since Denver’s 49-27 victory on Sept. 5, 2013. The Broncos have appeared in two Super Bowls since then, losing one and winning one. Peyton Manning, who torched the Ravens for seven touchdown passes in that game, would soon decline precipitously, then retire. Wes Welker, who had two TD catches against Baltimore, has also retired. Julius Thomas, who had five catches for 110 yards and two TDs in that game, left Denver and has scarcely been heard from since. The three running backs who ran the ball for Denver that night—Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and Ronnie Harmon—are all out of football.
The Denver offense, a finely tuned machine in 2013, is now rusting and badly in need of fresh oil. From a fantasy perspective, the 2017 Broncos offer little juice. The team is punchless at the quarterback and tight end positions. Multiple running backs will compete to take handoffs behind an offensive line that Pro Football Focus projects to be the league’s eighth worst. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders figure to be useful assets, but there probably isn’t room for any of the other Denver wide receivers to make meaningful contributions.
|Emmanuel Sanders||WR34||WR21||Come runnin’|
Thomas and Sanders have accounted for 51.3% of the Broncos’ targets and 49.5% of team receptions over the last two seasons – an extraordinarily huge share. Thomas has had 90 or more receptions and 1,000-plus receiving yards for five consecutive seasons, though he posted five-year lows in catches, receiving yardage and touchdowns last year. Still, his 90-1,083-5 stat line was good for a fantasy finish of WR19. Denver’s problematic quarterback situation is a Tupperware lid on Thomas’s ceiling, but his fourth-round Fantasy Football Calculator ADP of WR18 reflects that, and his sturdy floor is made of Italian marble. Thomas is a solid buy.
Sanders is on a three-year run of 1,000-yard seasons and has outperformed Thomas on a per-target basis in each of the last two years. I confess that I’ve been slow to come around on Sanders. I felt as if I didn’t have a good handle on what sort of player he was, and whenever a player confuses me, I’ll stand back and let others take the plunge. That was a mistake. Sanders has finished WR18 and WR21 over the last two years but carries a modest ADP of WR35. Cut out that Emmanuel Sanders coupon and take advantage of the terrific value.
The candidates to abscond with whatever crumbs Thomas and Sanders leave behind include rookie third-rounder Carlos Henderson, rookie fifth-rounder Isaiah McKenzie and veterans Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler and Jordan Taylor. McKenzie will probably be used exclusively on kick returns, but Henderson has at least an outside chance of gaining fantasy relevance as a rookie slot man after rolling up 1,535 receiving yards and 19 TD catches in his final season at Louisiana Tech. He should be a substantial upgrade over the departed Jordan Norwood, who played 51% of Denver’s offensive snaps last season. Fowler, Latimer and Norwood all played a little over a quarter of the Broncos’ offensive snaps last year, and none of them could eke out even 250 receiving yards. Their battle for roster spots might help keep Broncos preseason games interesting.
|Virgil Green||N/A||TE44||Hit snooze button|
Denver’s tight end position is an arid fantasy wasteland. Rookie Jake Butt, a fifth round pick from Michigan, is considered a good two-way TE prospect, but he scored only 11 touchdowns in four years in Ann Arbor and is still recovering from a torn ACL. Longtime sleeper Virgil Green has never panned out and has graduated to sleeper emeritus status. A.J. Derby and Jeff Heuerman will also compete for your lack of attention.
|Paxton Lynch||QB26||QB30||Not yet|
|Trevor Siemian||N/A||QB33||Don’t bother|
Quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch have ADPs in the low 30s, and justifiably so. If you watched Siemian play quarterback for the Northwestern Wildcats, you’re as shocked as I am that he started 14 NFL games last season and is a candidate to start more. Siemian’s completion percentage (59.5%), yards per attempt (7.0) and TD-INT ratio (18-10) with the Broncos last season were actually improvements over his career numbers at Northwestern. That suggests Siemian was playing well over his head in 2016 just to qualify as a mediocre NFL starter.
At some point, the Broncos will turn to 23-year-old Paxton Lynch, whom they traded up to take with the 26th overall pick in the 2016 draft. The rangy Lynch can become the greatest quarterback of the Super Bowl era 6-foot-7 or taller merely by besting the career accomplishments of Dan McGwire, Mike Glennon and Brock Osweiler, and any competent pole vaulter should be able to clear a bar set at 6 feet, 7 inches. Lynch’s long frame can generate a great deal of velocity, and he’s surprisingly nimble for a quarterback of his size. The problem is that Lynch is as raw as sashimi-grade tuna. As someone who bet on Memphis in Lynch’s final college game, then watched him complete 16 of 37 passes for 106 yards in a 37-16 loss to Auburn, I’m pessimistic about Lynch’s NFL future. (Sorry, but my wallet holds grudges.)
|C.J. Anderson||RB25||RB20||Approach cautiously|
|Jamaal Charles||RB40||RB49||Gamble carefully|
|Devontae Booker||RB63||RB58||Kick the tires|
Denver’s running back situation is hard to discern, and I’m not sure how much effort we should put into the divination of these chicken bones, considering how shabby the Broncos’ run blocking was last season. But perhaps the drafting of first-round offensive tackle Garett Boles and the power-running scheme being installed by offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will open up holes that didn’t exist in 2016.
The enigmatic C.J. Anderson is the incumbent starter, though his grasp on the job seemed to be loosening just before a torn meniscus ended his season in October. Anderson has a career average of 4.6 yards per carry, but he hasn’t ever rushed for more than 849 yards in a season and has done his best work as part of a rotation. His fifth-round ADP is reasonable, but CJA might struggle to provide an adequate return on such an investment if he serves in a two- or three-man committee. I rank him RB20, but please don’t misinterpret that as enthusiasm; it’s more about the lack of quality at the position.
Drafters often throw caution to the wind when it comes to an accomplished performer returning from injury, but the public has stayed relatively sober on Jamaal Charles, whose current ADP is RB40. Charles has had four surgeries on his knees, which are creakier than cemetery gates. The Broncos signed him to an inexpensive, incentive-laden one-year deal, so the team isn’t investing much more than the fantasy owners who are willing to spend a mid-round pick on a once-great running back. Charles is obviously a health risk, but “risk” is a relative term. At Charles’ current price, I might be willing to throw a dart or two, though I’ll limit my exposure. Just realize that Charles’ ADP could quickly spike on any morsel of positive news.
Devontae Booker’s rookie season started well enough, with flashes of potential in a change-of-pace role behind Anderson. When Anderson went down, a lot of fantasy owners exhausted their waiver budgets to acquire Booker, but that money would have been better spent on a handful of magic beans. In nine starts, Booker averaged 40.9 rushing yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry. In his defense, he squeezed out four touchdowns over that span and was useful in the passing game (22 catches). An ADP of RB63 suggests that drafters have already soured on Booker. It’s too early to write him off, though, and I’ll make it a point to get at least one share of him in one of my deeper leagues. (Note: Booker recently had surgery for a fractured wrist, but the Broncos expect him to be ready for Week1.)
Sixth-round draft pick De’Angelo Henderson is a potential party crasher. He averaged 1,786 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Coastal Carolina and bears watching in the preseason.