Fantasy Breakdown: Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders
Merriam-Webster defines “trust” as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”
I’m here to provide you with a breakdown of whether or not we can apply that definition to the two Wide Receivers who sit atop the Denver Broncos’ team depth chart: Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. While these two household names have been consistent fantasy producers throughout their careers, there are serious questions surrounding their outlook for the upcoming season that makes fantasy players skeptical. We will go over as much practical and relevant information on these players as possible so that you can make the best decision come draft day. After all, it will be you, and you alone, who will be making these decisions when you are on the clock.
As it stands here in early July, Thomas’ ADP in PPR leagues stands at 32 overall, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. That puts him as the WR15, going in the back end of the 3rd round in 12-team leagues. Thomas sits at No. 30 in our own Gridiron Experts’ Fantasy Football Rankings for 2017. Emmanuel Sanders, on the other hand, has an ADP of 78 and is being drafted as the WR34 in 12-team PPR leagues, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. Our rankings currently have Sanders at 57 overall. In this writer’s humble opinion, both Broncos will have the opportunity to smash their projected values this season.
By his standards, Demaryius Thomas had a down year in 2016. The hip injury Thomas suffered on the first play of Week 1 last season plagued him throughout his entire 2016 campaign. He has since noted significant improvement and, even despite the injury, Thomas was still able to haul in 90 catches for 1,083 yards with 5 touchdowns last season. While those are respectable numbers for most, Thomas hadn’t seen numbers that low since 2011. Emmanuel Sanders’ 2016 season was very similar to his year in 2015. Last season, he posted a line of 79 receptions for 1,032 yards and 5 touchdowns. Sanders’ consistency and overall performance as compared to that of his teammate have been recently highlighted by Pro Football Focus statistics.
It’s clear that whoever wins the starting Quarterback battle in Denver will have some of the best weapons in the league at his disposal. However, this very battle is what leaves potential fantasy owners wary of drafting these talented receiving options. The battle is between 2016 starter Trevor Siemian and 2016 1st-round draft pick, Paxton Lynch. According to Denver beat reporters, the battle between the two young Quarterbacks has been very close throughout OTAs and Minicamp. So close, in fact, that it truly depends on which day you read the practice reports to see who has the upper hand. Both Quarterbacks have aspects of their game that they need to improve upon. It’s safe to assume that the team wasn’t thrilled with the performance that Siemian put forth last season as the starter, finishing 27th out of 32 starting Quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus grading. Between Siemian’s inconsistency as a passer in 2016 and the draft capital spent on Lynch, it would be surprising if the Broncos didn’t give Lynch every opportunity to win this job. Unfortunately, we likely won’t know the winner until well into the preseason. Let’s take a look at how each Quarterback would impact Thomas and Sanders, should they win the job.
We’ll start with Siemian, the starter from last season. The former Northwestern Wildcat fared better than most prognosticators predicted but was still lackluster in comparison to other Quarterbacks around the league. He finished in the bottom-half of all qualifying passers (minimum of 200 pass attempts) in the following categories: Quarterback rating, completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, adjusted yards gained per pass attempt, and yards lost due to sacks. These stats would reflect the low rating from Pro Football Focus, but some of these numbers can tell a different story in terms of his rapport with Thomas and Sanders.
According to Sharp Football Stats, Siemian’s overall Passer Rating (note: this differs from QB rating) of 78.1 ranked 25th out of 34 eligible passers (minimum of 200 attempts). However, his Passer Rating stood at 92.1 on 123 attempts when targeting Demaryius Thomas, which would be good for 9th in the league. He had less success when targeting Sanders, ending up with a Passer Rating of 75.7 on 109 pass attempts. These numbers are reflective of Siemian’s strengths and their relation to the strengths of both Thomas and Sanders. Siemian showed the most success in the short to intermediate routes, in which Demaryius Thomas excels. Siemian’s Passer Rating on passes thrown to Wide Receivers that traveled less than 14 yards was 81.3. Demaryius saw 82% of his total targets on the season come in this short area of the field, earning Denver Quarterbacks a Passer Rating of 85.6 on such routes. Sanders saw 74% of his 2016 targets come on passes shorter than 14 yards, with a Passer Rating of 83.3 when targeted by Bronco Quarterbacks.
When targeting the Wide Receivers on passes greater than 15 yards downfield, Siemian experienced less success, averaging a Passer Rating of 70.6. Thomas saw only 17% of his total targets come on these throws, earning Bronco Quarterbacks a Passer Rating of 95. Sanders, in comparison, received 27% of his targets on deep throws and earned his Quarterbacks a Passer Rating of 91 when targeting him on those routes. Siemian didn’t take many shots down field but did slightly favor Sanders in those situations. If Siemian were to win the camp battle, these numbers would indicate an edge in targets towards Demaryius with Siemian’s propensity to throwing in the short area of the field, with potential for big gains from Sanders when he does decide to go deep.
Whether you were looking from an analytics standpoint or just watching the film, Paxton Lynch didn’t provide much success from the position either in his limited 2016 playing time. In the two games he filled in for an injured Siemian, Lynch finished with a Quarterback Rating of 79.2 and a completion percentage of 59%. According to Pro Football Reference, that ranked him 30th and 34th, respectively, out of 42 qualifying Quarterbacks. His Passer Rating of 69.8, according to Sharp Football Stats, puts him 35th out of 51 Quarterbacks. That number rose to 88 when targeting either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders.
Digging deeper, Lynch’s Passer Rating was an impressive 86.8 when targeting Thomas and 88.9 when targeting Sanders. It needs to be noted that these figures are based on a very small sample size (50 pass attempts to be precise). Sample sizes aside, it’s been noted that Lynch has begun to develop positive chemistry with the offense and has looked more confident on the field. No matter who wins the starting job, it’s clear that both of these potential starting Quarterbacks know where their bread is buttered and can successfully get the ball into the hands of these two talented receivers. One thing to keep in mind, however, is the change in Offensive Coordinator going into the 2017 season.
Mike McCoy is back in control of the Denver offense and will be calling the shots in 2017, as he did for the Broncos from 2009-2012. He has had success coaching up a variety of Quarterbacks throughout his career, both in Denver and San Diego. In terms of total offense, this is still a Bronco team that realizes it needs to lean on the defense to win games, so we shouldn’t expect them to become an up-tempo offense. Between their assumed game plan and McCoy’s track record, we can likely expect their total number of plays to be right around the league average.
Head Coach Vance Joseph has, however, been vocal about his desire to have an offense that is designed around his players and their strengths, not around particular schemes. With McCoy’s track record of doing just that throughout his coaching career, he was an obvious choice for the Broncos to take over the offense in 2017. From this, we can assume there will be a good balance of player production like we saw from McCoy’s offense in his previous tenure with adjustments for the current players. For Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the change in play-caller should not be a concern. If McCoy executes Joseph’s design, he will look to manufacture touches for the team’s top Wide Receivers. Expect McCoy to tailor his scheme to their strengths, as well as the capabilities of whichever Quarterback ends up winning the job.
Pro Football Focus’ Scott Barrett recently tweeted out some very useful information regarding fantasy production under each Offensive Coordinator:
Offensive Coordinator PPR Splits (All Current OCs With >30 Games Experience Calling Plays Since 2000) pic.twitter.com/6vxBCozvJz
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) May 18, 2017
Barrett also tweeted out a stat that is particularly intriguing and highlighted Demaryius Thomas’ success on screen passes and his ability to gain yards after the catch.
Since 2007, there are 709 instances of a WR/TE seeing at least 75 targets in a season. Here's the top-15 in yards after catch per reception: pic.twitter.com/7o6c39FaDw
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) June 6, 2017
While the numbers paint a nice picture in favor of those who are looking to own Thomas and Sanders in Fantasy Football, we should give some consideration to the observations of team beat reporters. 104.3 The Fan’s Cecil Lammey, who doubles as a very sharp Fantasy Football analyst, shed some light on this subject on Twitter. Lammey, prompted by a follower’s question of which Bronco to target in fantasy in 2017, indicated that the Denver offense will be centered around Demaryius Thomas and find ways to create mismatches with him, getting the balls in his hands as much as possible.
— Cecil Lammey (@CecilLammey) June 15, 2017
Both Thomas and Sanders are poised to be very busy in 2017 as they are clearly the top options for this Denver offense. It’s also very positive to hear in press conferences and interviews that both Vance Joseph and Mike McCoy know that in order to get back to the successful Bronco offense of a few years ago, they will need their dynamic receiving duo to lead the way. Emmanuel Sanders expressed great excited in a recent interview about the offense this season and the attacking style with which he anticipates the team to use. Demaryius Thomas has been invigorated by Head Coach Vance Joseph to become consistently dominant throughout the entirety of games, and the veteran Wide Receiver has accepted the challenge and seems poised for a big “bounce back” year.
For Sanders, we understand that he won’t see quite as much action as Thomas, but it’s also important to note that he won’t attract the same attention from opposing defenses. In my opinion, he is a bargain at his current ADP of 78 overall. He doesn’t have the appeal of being a “top option” in his offense, but he should still see plenty of targets this season. He’s being drafted around other receiving options like Stefon Diggs, Pierre Garcon, and DeVante Parker, all of whom have been popular topics of recent discussion. Sanders seems to be flying under the radar a bit this offseason but is a player who I would be very happy with as my WR2 or WR3, especially if you are employing a “Zero WR” draft strategy.
Yes, you are going to have to rely on the uncertain arm of whichever Denver Quarterback wins this battle. But note the high ratings and level of success that each Quarterback had with Thomas and Sanders in 2016. Couple this with the familiarity that “new” Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy has with this team, and we are looking at big bounce-back season potential from both of these Wide Receivers. Both Thomas and Sanders can be drafted with confidence at their current price tags and should continue to be productive fantasy players in 2017.