Coaching Carousel: Denver Broncos 2015
In the three years Peyton Manning has played for the Denver Broncos, the team has been the most prolific offense in the NFL, amassing more than 20,000 yards from scrimmage. But for the first time in Manning’s tenure with the Broncos, Denver is going through a complete overhaul of the coaching staff, with John Fox and Adam Gase being replaced by Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison as head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively. It could be assumed that a Manning-led offense will continue to rely heavily on the future Hall-of-Famer’s arm, maintaining the fantasy status quo for Denver’s skill position players in 2015. But there are a number of things pointing toward a changing dynamic in the Broncos offense, and savvy owners should take that into account when preparing for fantasy drafts this year.
Out With Old, In With The New
During Manning’s first season with the Broncos in 2012, Denver’s offensive coordinator was Mike McCoy, a coach known for adapting his system to the perceived strengths of his personnel. After utilizing a run-heavy offense with Tim Tebow at the helm in 2011, the Broncos threw the ball 22% more often than they ran it during the following season. When McCoy left to become the head coach in San Diego, new OC Adam Gase, who had been the quarterbacks coach under McCoy, furthered the Broncos’ disparity between the run and the pass with a system that focused on West Coast spacing and Air Coryell vertical concepts. Over the last two seasons under Gase, Denver attempted 1,282 passes, compared to 904 rushes, benefiting the fantasy values of Manning and receiving targets like Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders. But the John Fox Era in Denver came to a close in January, ushering in a regime change for the Broncos.
Enter Gary Kubiak, a man who has been an offensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL for the last 20 years. One week after parting ways with Fox, the Broncos introduced Kubiak as his successor, reuniting a coach and franchise that enjoyed great success together during the late-90s. Kubiak served as Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator in Denver from 1995 through 2005, including the Broncos back-to-back Super Bowl championship seasons in 1997 and 1998. He then spent eight seasons as the head coach of the Houston Texans before a one-year stint as the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator in 2014. Rick Dennison, who has worked for many years at Kubiak’s side, will be the OC in Denver, but Kubiak will handle play-calling as he has for most of the last two decades. And while there have been highs and lows in terms of winning games under Kubiak’s watch, one of the constants for his teams has been a reliance on a run-heavy, zone-blocking scheme that has generally enjoyed great success at all of his coaching stops.
The foundation of Kubiak’s offensive philosophy involves the running back moving east to west, making one cut, and taking off down the field. This includes inside zone, outside zone, and stretch runs, the latter being the bread and butter of the offense. The stretch play tests a defense by taking the ball out wide as the line moves laterally, with the runner waiting for a cut-back lane. The passing game is generally set up by play-action when defenders are focused on flowing to the ball carrier, which creates space for the quarterback and allows him time to throw the ball downfield. The play-action pass has been a major component of Manning’s success over the years, but Kubiak’s approach requires a bigger dedication to the run than the Broncos have typically utilized over the last three seasons.
A shift to Kubiak’s system is far from a death knell for Denver’s passing game, as a variety of quarterbacks and receivers have enjoyed success under the Broncos’ new coach. But Manning has attempted 613 passes per season since arriving in the Mile High City, while Kubiak’s teams have averaged 540 attempts over the last ten years. So it’s reasonable to assume No. 18’s volume will dip from recent levels, taking away targets from his receivers in the process. That might be good for extending the 39-year-old quarterback’s career, but with opportunity playing such a big role in fantasy football, it reduces the probability that certain players in Denver’s passing game will repeat recent successes.
When Manning was nursing injuries over the latter part of the 2014 season, Denver leaned more heavily on the running game, and that could offer a representation of what the Broncos offense might look like this year. After averaging 40.7 pass attempts and 28.5 fantasy points over Denver’s first ten games, Manning’s numbers fell to 31.7 attempts and 17.6 fantasy points per game during the last six contests of the regular season. Top pass-catchers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders also saw a downturn in fantasy production over the last six weeks of 2014, although Thomas’ decline (14.7 ppg to 13.6 ppg) was less pronounced than Sanders’ (14.0 ppg to 9.8 ppg). At OTAs in May, Sanders said that he doesn’t expect as much receiving production under the new coaching regime, and he may be the most adversely affected member of the passing game relative to last year’s numbers.
The biggest beneficiary of Kubiak’s arrival in Denver from a fantasy perspective seems likely to be running back C.J. Anderson. In his 20 years as an offensive coordinator and head coach, Kubiak’s teams have produced a 1,000-yard rusher on 15 occasions, with a bevy of different players acting as the featured back. In 2014, Justin Forsett became the eighth rusher to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau on Kubiak’s watch, joining Arian Foster, Steve Slaton, Mike Anderson, Ruben Droughns, Clinton Portis, Olandis Gary, and Terrell Davis. During those 15 seasons of 1,000 yards of more, Kubiak’s lead back has averaged better than 12 rushing touchdowns per year. Building on the success that he enjoyed during the last six games of 2014, when he amassed 649 yards on the ground and eight rushing touchdowns, C.J. Anderson could continue to establish himself as a fantasy cornerstone in Kubiak’s offensive system. Given the coach’s past successes with replacements rushers, guys like Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman are also interesting flyers to take late in the draft.
Finally, an analysis of Kubiak’s offense wouldn’t be complete without a look at the impact to the tight end position. Because it regularly utilizes them as pass catchers and often splits them out to create mismatches, tight ends have been very successful on Kubiak’s teams. From Shannon Sharpe with Denver in the late-90s to Owen Daniels in recent years with the Texans and Ravens, Kubiak’s top tight end has averaged almost 650 yards and better than four touchdowns per year over the last two decades. While it doesn’t rival Rob Gronkowski, those numbers can be useful for fantasy purposes, particularly for owners that stream tight ends or wait until late in the draft to address the position. Keep an eye on the battle between Virgil Green and the aforementioned Daniels, as the eventual replacement for Julius Thomas could be a sneaky source of fantasy production in 2015.
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Self-described fantasy degenerate that has been participating in fantasy sports leagues since the spiral notebook scoring era. If you can make a fantasy league out of it, I’m in.