2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Denver Broncos
The Broncos made it to the Super Bowl last season but lost more than 40 percent of their offensive production with Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker leaving as free agents.
Can they actually get better?
The simple answer is yes. Last we checked, Peyton Manning is back for another season, and the Broncos upgraded on defense -- at least in name recognition -- with the additions of DeMarcus Ware , Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward .
For Fantasy owners, the question becomes who will step up to replace Moreno and Decker, because those players should be popular options. You already know Manning, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas will be the first players drafted at their respective positions, and Wes Welker will remain a Fantasy starter in the majority of leagues.
But is Montee Ball ready to take over for Moreno and be a Fantasy star? Can Emmanuel Sanders actually play as well or even better than Decker? We'll find out as the season unfolds, but Ball is someone to target with a late-first or early-second round pick in all formats. And Sanders should develop into a quality Fantasy receiver getting an upgrade from Ben Roethlisberger to Manning.
Denver set all kinds of offensive records in 2013 -- most points (606), total touchdowns (76), passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477) for Manning -- so the last thing we want to see is change. But Moreno and Decker had to move on, and we hope the replacement options in Ball and Sanders will keep this offensive juggernaut on track. We're confident it will happen.
Breakout star ... Montee Ball
There's trepidation with Ball because he was hyped as a rookie last season as the potential starter but watched as Moreno took the job and ran with it. Moreno was awesome with 241 carries for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns and 60 catches for 548 yards and three touchdowns. He had 11 games with double digits in Fantasy points and was the No. 5 Fantasy running back in standard leagues.
We hope Ball is ready to fill those shoes, and he showed promise last year with 120 carries for 559 yards and four touchdowns and 20 catches for 145 yards. Ball played well when he had touches, with at least nine Fantasy points in four of the six games he had double digits in carries.
His best friend will be Manning. In 32 games as the starter for the Broncos in the regular season, Manning has helped Denver's running backs reach double digits in Fantasy points 23 times.
The Broncos made it clear he's the starter by not adding anyone of significance once Moreno left, so we're buying in as well. He's worth drafting toward the end of Round 1 or beginning of Round 2, and we hope Manning and the Broncos can produce another Top 5 finish for their starting rusher.
Career year coming ... Emmanuel Sanders
Sanders is not Decker, so don't expect the same results. Decker was a big target at 6-foot-3, and Sanders is more of a speed threat at 5-foot-11. Decker was predominately an outside receiver, but Sanders can also move inside and play the slot.
What we're trying to say is don't expect the exact same production. Decker had 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013 on 137 targets, and Sanders is coming off a career-year with the Steelers with 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns on 112 targets.
The Manning factor will help Sanders shine. This isn't a critique on Roethlisberger, who might have maximized the talent for Sanders. Only time will tell. But playing in this offense where he's the No. 4 option -- Demaryius Thomas , Julius Thomas and Welker are higher in the pecking order -- should allow for plenty of single coverage.
Someone has to pick up the majority of Decker's targets, and Sanders could easily crack 75 catches, 1,000 yards and score six touchdowns again. He's worth drafting as a No. 3 Fantasy receiver with a mid-round pick, but he could definitely be a Top 20 receiver by the end of the year.
Wait until 2015! ... Cody Latimer
|Knowshon Moreno||301 (241 car., 60 rec.)||32.6%|
|Montee Ball||140 (120 car., 20 rec.)||15.2%|
|Demaryius Thomas||92 rec.||10.0%|
|Eric Decker||87 rec.||9.4%|
|Wes Welker||73 rec.||7.9%|
I'm sticking to my theory that the Broncos drafted Latimer in the second round of the NFL Draft from Indiana to replace Welker in 2015 and not play a significant role this year. His time will come next season.
Welker is in the final year of his contract, and the Broncos laid out the plan for their receiving corps in 2015. They signed Sanders this season, and he will eventually be the slot receiver next year. Latimer will play outside, and they should be set assuming Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas sign contract extensions.
The key to it all is Manning playing at least one more season, so take that into account. But we like Latimer as a receiver to target in dynasty and keeper formats more than seasonal leagues. He will likely be the No. 4 receiver to open the season, but he could be No. 2 on the depth chart next year if things go his way.
The Broncos open the season with three-consecutive games against playoff teams from last year in Indianapolis, Kansas City and at Seattle. It will be interesting to see how Fantasy owners approach Manning against the Seahawks on the road after what happened in the Super Bowl. Denver only has six opponents that did not make the playoffs last season, and the Broncos get the unenviable task of facing the NFC West. The playoff matchups aren't easy for the Broncos either with road games at San Diego and Cincinnati, but you can expect Manning and Co. to still be started in the majority of leagues at that point in the year.
Training camp battles
Who's the No. 2 running back? We know Ball is No. 1 on the depth chart, but does he have a handcuff option? The battle for the backup job is between C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman , and the winner of the No. 2 role is worth a late-round pick. As much as we like Ball this season, there's still the chance he can fumble away the job or get hurt. As stated above, the starting running back for Manning has a good chance to shine, so keep Anderson or Hillman on your radar, with Anderson the likely winner.
Who's the No. 4 receiver? Latimer should win this job based on where he was drafted and how the Broncos want to use him in the future. But Andre Caldwell is a veteran, and Manning likes players he can trust. We hope you never have to use the No. 4 receiver for the Broncos, but we saw last year that Caldwell could do well when called upon after he had six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers in Week 15. Latimer is worth drafting with a late-round flier in deeper formats if he earns the job, but Caldwell will be someone to watch just in case you need the No. 4 receiver in Denver for a one week spot start.
It was great to see Moreno play as well as he did last season, but I consider Ball a better talent. I expect him to play at least at the same level as Moreno and post higher stats. He will never see a stacked line of scrimmage as long as Manning is starting and healthy, and he averaged 4.7 yards per carry compared to 4.3 for Moreno. He should do better at the goal line, and 15 total touchdowns wouldn't be a surprise. I was asked in a radio interview this offseason who was better between Eddie Lacy and Ball. Lacy is the safer pick because we know what he can do, but Ball has more upside. I have no problem taking Ball as early as No. 8 overall in all formats, and I expect you'll be happy if you follow suit.
Cody Latimer (foot), questionable for start of training camp. ... Joel Dreessen (knee), questionable for start of training camp. ... Von Miller (knee), questionable for start of training camp.