2012 Fantasy outlooks: Denver Broncos

When most teams lose in the second round of the playoffs, they typically re-tool the roster as necessary without making major changes. The Broncos replaced their quarterback of the future with someone else's quarterback of the past and present.

Go figure that John Elway, the Broncos' Hall of Fame quarterback and current Executive Vice President of Football Operations, would jump at the chance to sign Peyton Manning . After chasing him and signing him, the Broncos jettisoned last year's hero -- Tim Tebow -- and steered the direction of the franchise in a whole new direction.

But it's not a cinch for Elway: Manning had multiple surgeries to repair his neck last year, surgeries that ultimately cost him his 2011 season with the Colts. When Indianapolis released Manning, it wasn't because the team thought he was done -- it was done to make room for Andrew Luck . But no one in Indianapolis or Denver or anywhere in between can say with absolute certainty that Manning will be healthy for 16 games given the state of his neck. One big hit and ... well, we'd just assume not think about it.

But that doesn't seem to matter to many Fantasy owners, especially after Manning threw with trademark accuracy and almost all of his velocity during offseason camps with his new teammates. Armed with a pair of exciting young receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker , Manning should be in good shape to reclaim his 4,000-yard, 25-touchdown form. In this day and age of football that's pretty good but not elite production. Manning will likely get drafted accordingly.

With Manning's arrival, the entire focus of the offense changes. Last season the Broncos led the NFL in rushing attempts and yardage because of the scheme that best suited Tebow. You can bet your Rocky Mountain Oysters the Broncos will try more than the league-low 429 pass attempts they had in 2011.

With Manning, the Fantasy draft plan is simple: Until we see him look like his old self in the preseason, aim for him with a pick in Round 6 or so. If you draft early on that could pay off because once Manning makes some highlights against live competition his stock will soar. Potentially, he could be a Round 3 selection just before the start of the season.

Fantasy Value Chart
Player Draft Day value Estimated round
Peyton Manning 6
Running Backs
Willis McGahee 6
Ronnie Hillman 10
Knowshon Moreno ND
Wide Receivers
Demaryius Thomas 4
Eric Decker 7
Andre Caldwell ND
Tight Ends
Jacob Tamme 9
Joel Dreessen ND
Matt Prater 14
Broncos DST ND
ND - not expected to get drafted

Breakout ... Demaryius Thomas , wide receiver
This one is obvious on the surface: Top playmaking wide receiver on a team that adds a quarterback with a laser-rocket arm. But Thomas has scary potential -- Calvin Johnson-like potential. We're not just saying that because they went to the same college, but because they're both big, strong, fast receivers that are tough to match up with. Thomas has never played regularly at 100 percent with a good quarterback, much less a passer like Manning, so there's some untapped potential here. Though he's an injury risk given his preseason issues over the last two years, he's in his third NFL season and should be acclimated to what he sees in coverage by now. And he clearly has the skills to catch mid-range and deep passes and burn past defenders. If there ever was a breakout candidate to get behind, Thomas is it. Round 4 isn't too early to take him.

Sleeper ... Jacob Tamme , tight end
If Thomas is roaming as the big-play receiver and Eric Decker does his thing on the other side of the field, then the offense is just a tight end away from being similar to what Manning has been operating in throughout his career. Tamme not only should be that tight end, but he's a guy who followed Manning to Denver from Indianapolis and is the only young pass catcher on the roster with experience working with the quarterback. In 2010 when Dallas Clark got hurt, Tamme stepped up and caught 67 passes for 631 yards over 10 games with four touchdowns. Two years later, Tamme has the potential to exceed those numbers in 16 games. Figure him to line up all over the place and be used in matchup situations against smaller, slower defenders. His potential is good enough to draft him as a starting Fantasy tight end once the rounds get to double digits.

Bust ... Willis McGahee , running back
On the basic premise that the Broncos won't run as much as they did last season, you cannot expect another big campaign from McGahee. Averaging an unbelievable 4.8 yards per carry on 249 tries, McGahee's four rushing touchdowns came on 249 reps with another touchdown among his 12 receptions. His total yardage? 1,250. Turning 31 this October and creeping up to 2,000 career carries, McGahee would have to keep drinking from the fountain of youth while fending off rookie Ronnie Hillman and low-end veterans Lance Ball and Knowshon Moreno to even put up good numbers. McGahee finished 2011 as a low-end No. 2 rusher but shouldn't be counted on this season as anything more than a No. 3 with limited upside. Figure that McGahee is a running back you settle for, not aim to have on your roster.

Schedule breakdown

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Tough start for the Broncos going up against the Steelers, Falcons and Texans in Weeks 1 through 3. After that, the Broncos appear to be in for some shootouts with consecutive games against the Patriots, Chargers, Saints and Bengals (three of which are on the road). The good stretch for Peyton Manning & Co. comes at the end of the year with a five-game stretch that offers only a game at Baltimore as a challenge for this offense. It's a good but hectic schedule.

Training camp topics

2011 Touches Leaders
Player Touches
Willis McGahee 249 carries, 12 catches
Lance Ball 96 carries, 16 catches
Knowshon Moreno 37 carries, 11 catches
Eric Decker 44 catches, 1 carry
Demaryius Thomas 32 catches, 1 carry

Manning's arm will be dissected daily by the media hordes, that much is certain. But assuming he's back to his old self, the talk around the team will go away from Manning's arm and to the Broncos' hands. Thomas and Decker have their spots sewn up and Tamme should see a lot of playing time, but Joel Dreessen was also added this offseason to serve as a threat and could take some work away from Tamme (and the receivers). There's also a battle for the third receiver spot between Andre Caldwell and Brandon Stokley , two receivers with good hands but questionable speed. Unless a receiver emerges in camp, we could see a lot of the two-tight end set from the Broncos this year.

Meanwhile, it's safe to assume we'll see only one running back on the field at a time, typical for a Manning-led offense. McGahee might get the bulk of work at first but there are plenty of people who will be nipping at his heels for snaps in camp. Ronnie Hillman is a back in the Marshall Faulk mold (he even broke some of Faulk's records at San Diego State). Knowshon Moreno is still on the team and could stay there if he proves that he's over his torn ACL injury last season. Lance Ball did some nice work backing up McGahee last season. Hillman has the speed and fresh legs to make the biggest impact, especially if he can improve his pass protection this summer. As for the notion that John Fox doesn't trust rookie running backs, go check out Jonathan Stewart's rookie season. We love the idea of drafting Hillman with a speculative mid-to-late pick.

Even the Broncos' kicker is worth a draft pick. Matt Prater signed a contract extension this summer and will attempt to at least maintain his NFL-record 75 percent accuracy on kicks of 50-plus yards. He's only finished as a Top 10 kicker once in four seasons with Denver but the Broncos' offense didn't exactly afford him a lot of chances to kick. That should change: In the 13 years Manning played for Indianapolis, his kicker finished as a Top 10 option seven times. Remember Prater's name in the final round.

Defensively, the Broncos have a chance to make offenses hurt. The combination of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller rushing the passer is always dangerous and the secondary got a lot of really good depth with the additions of cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence , both of whom signed after Manning joined the Broncos. Top pick Derek Wolfe also provides depth against the run, which ranked 22nd in the league last season. We could see the Broncos DST be effective in weeks against poor offenses but they might have their hands full otherwise.

So long as Manning can do the same to the defenses he faces, the Broncos have a very realistic shot at going back to the playoffs -- and lasting longer than they did in 2011.

Injury update

Peyton Manning (neck; probable for the start of training camp) ... Eric Decker (knee; probable for the start of training camp) ... Knowshon Moreno (knee; questionable for the start of training camp) ... Andre Caldwell (knee; probable for the start of training camp) ... Julius Thomas (ankle, probable for the start of training camp.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with NFL.com at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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