There is rarified air in Denver. But it is not from the altitude; it is from the gasps of fans at training camp watching Peyton Manning huck passes to his new band of receivers.
The last season Peyton Manning was at the helm of an NFL team, he was second in passing yards and touchdowns. Indianapolis also had a top-five receiver in Reggie Wayne. Can we expect the same with a year removed and a neck deal going on? We shall soon see if his injury is fully healed during the preseason, but I assume that John Elway did not sign Manning to a $19 million contract per year if there was a serious doubt about his ability to return to form.
If we delve into Peyton Freaking Manning’s (PFM) numbers a little deeper, we find a bit of a tricky speculation in terms of fantasy production. Besides the obvious of PFM and Reggie Wayne, the next best fantasy receiver on the team was Pierre Garcon averaging a bit over seven points per game; a decent flex play. Then it settles down a little and Austin Collie and Jacob Tammie, scoring about six points and five and a half respectively. That from the number two passing attack in the league!
Point here is that PFM 4700 yards and 33 TD’s in 2010 were spread out very well. There were not a 2-3 studs; there were seven players in the top 200 receivers on the Colts. Actually in each of Manning’s seasons from ’07-’10 this was a similar case. In 2006 however, the Colts had two top-five receivers in Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison.
The Broncos do not have a top five receiver on the team, yet. They have a ton of good young receivers however. If Kyle Orton had played the whole season last year, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker would have both had 1000+ yard seasons (and the Broncos would have had 3 wins). A lot of people forget that Thomas was actually a first round pick a few years ago, and drafted ahead of Dez Bryant.
This year, they added Andre Caldwell (extremely fast receiver from the Bengals), Brandon Stokley (PFM favorite from Indy), Jacob Tamme (Dallas Clarks backup from Indy), and Joel Dreessen (blocking TE from HOU). To go along with that, they still have Julius Thomas who they drafted last year, who is a freak of a human. He is a converted basketball player that the Broncos hope can do the same thing Antonio Gates did for San Diego when he switched to football.
Because of the huge amount of talent, I see this season being more like the 2007-2010 seasons with one big producer and a lot of other guys, than 2006 where there were two out-of-this-world receivers.
While a lot of fantasy owners maybe salivating over the Broncos’ presumed improvement in the passing attack, you need to take caution. It would seem that Demaryius Thomas would be the easy choice as the WR to take this year early in drafts. He is currently projected to go about the fifth round for a standard 10-team league, while PFM is going in the sixth, and Eric Decker is going in the eight. This is obviously because people are scared about PFM’s health right now. I assume this number will rise drastically after a few preseason games for all of these players with Manning going as a top-10 QB and Thomas probably a top-15 WR.
The secret about Manning in Denver this year is that he has been spending countless amounts of time with Eric Decker. Both of these guys took up residence in suburban Denver, and had tons of offseason workouts together. Along with center JD Walton, they practiced secretly at a local high school (where the Broncos’ new defensive coordinator’s, Jack Del Rio, son happens to be the starting QB this season).
Manning needs to feel comfortable with his players more than they need to be amazing players. I am not taking anything away from Decker. If it weren’t for a sprained ankle in college, he probably would have been a late first round, early second round pick. The point though is that Manning is going to be a lot more comfortable with Decker than everyone else. Even though Thomas has the size and athletic advantage, it is the time spent that is going to translate into production.
I predict that Decker is the top WR on the Broncos this season, and probably the only one you really want to actively target. If Thomas actually falls to the fifth round, then snatch him up for sure. My thought is he rises quite a bit as it becomes clear Manning is back to his normal form. If Thomas is going in the first couple rounds, that is too high. Remember that PFM produced a top-five receiver in each of the previous four seasons, while the next best player was a flex player at best. Thomas will be that next best player this year. He will have huge games, but with few receptions, and some games with little or no production. Decker will get the majority of looks this season.
The other question will be at tight end. The obvious pick is Jacob Tamme based on Manning’s history with him. One thing to note though; while the Broncos are obviously going to pass a little more than with Tim Tebow behind center, John Fox still will want to run, a lot. I am sure John Elway has been telling Manning how much Terrell Davis racking up 1700, and 2000 yards helped him win his super bowls. I do not see Tamme playing as much as one would expect, because of his thin build, he is a real liability as a blocker.
I would not draft any Broncos TE expecting them to be my starter. The player I might take a flyer on is Julius Thomas however. He will probably go undrafted, so you can pick him up in the last few rounds, but his upside is huge. Of the three TE’s to see significant time, only Thomas is big enough to block effectively, while also athletic enough to be a receiving threat. If it turns out he can overcome his injury plagued rookie season, he could definitely be Denver’s Dallas Clark.
Bottom line is you are probably going to see similar production out of most of the Broncos receivers this year, save for one or two guys. Envision the Saints last year. Sure there were guys with a ton of yards, but besides Jimmy Graham, you really couldn’t trust anyone else to perform week in and week out. That will be the Broncos WR fantasy year; a ton of promise and flashes of fantasy stardom, but no consistency.