QB Peyton Manning
In past years, an analysis of Peyton Manning’s fantasy football prospects would be about how remarkably consistent and highly productive he has been. This year, it’s about his health and his role with a new team, the Denver Broncos. Reports out of Denver indicate that his arm strength is nearly back to full capacity after having multiple neck surgeries but training camp and the preseason will tell us if that is truly the case. Preseason games will also give us an indication of how well his body responds to physical contact. As to the Broncos offensive philosophy, let’s just say that they didn’t get Peyton Manning to hand the ball off anywhere near as much as they did last season. With a pair of emerging wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, two solid receiving options at tight end in Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen and an intriguing rookie out of the backfield in Ronnie Hillman, there are more than enough weapons for Manning to finish as a top five fantasy quarterback provided he can remain healthy for the entire season. More on to the consistency factor: Prior to last season, Manning had thrown for over 4,000 passing yards in 11 of 13 seasons (missing the mark in his rookie season and in 2005 when he was rested at the end of he year) and had at least 26 touchdown passes in every pro season. And we all know that he had never missed a start prior to 2011. Given his health status, Manning should be taken as the 9th or 10th quarterback but his upside is certainly greater than that.
RB Willis McGahee
Having been signed by the Broncos prior to last season to supplement Knowshon Moreno, nobody can say that McGahee did not exceed expectations in his first year in Denver. Rather than supplement Moreno, he supplanted him and by season’s end had topped 1,000 rushing yards for the first time since 2007, his first season with the Ravens. McGahee finished the year with 1,199 rushing yards, 51 receiving yards and five total touchdowns. While you could make the argument that Tim Tebow pilfered some touchdowns from McGahee, you could make an equaling compelling argument that Tebow’s presence necessitated a run-first philosophy and also forced opposing defenses to account for him in the running game. Either way, it’s all moot for 2012 with Tebow having been jettisoned to the Jets and Peyton Manning in town to lead a far more heavily passed based offense. Look no further than the Colts rushing production during the 2008-2010 seasons as the team finished 29th, 32nd and 31st in rushing yards. On the plus side, McGahee is clearly the Broncos best short yardage back and there doesn’t appear to be a player on the roster capable of stealing his starting position by opening day but his ability as a receiver has steadily eroded over time as evidenced by his 41 receptions over the past three seasons. Basically, his fantasy value will come as a rusher so you need to believe that the team’s offense will generate enough red zone touches and 4th quarter clock eating work if you want to draft him as a starter. He will likely be chosen as a low end RB2 but I would be more comfortable grabbing him as my RB3.
RB Ronnie Hillman
With aging starter Willis McGahee ill-suited to handle a full workload in a Denver offense that will rely on the passing game far more than it did in 2011 and Knowshon Moreno at a career crossroads due to injuries, ineffectiveness and off the field issues, the Broncos used a 3rd round pick to acquire Hillman. At 5’9” and 200 pounds, Hillman doesn’t have prototypical size but he may possess enough quickness, speed and lateral agility to eventually start in the Denver backfield. But that’s not likely to happen with Willis McGahee coming off a solid season in 2011. As with all rookie running backs, Hillman will need to prove his worth as a pass blocker in order to earn significant playing time, especially so with Peyton Manning having missed all of 2011 due to injury. Hillman rates as a high-end RB4 with upside in 2011 and move him higher in leagues that utilize the PPR scoring system. As a dynasty prospect, Hillman has a solid chance to earn the starting role as early as next season making him a valuable commodity.
RB Knowshon Moreno
Let’s sum up Moreno’s 2011 season: he lost his job to veteran retread Willis McGahee, he tore his ACL in Week 10 and then he was busted for DUI. After three seasons in the league, Moreno has done little to warrant having been taken with the 12th pick in the 2009 draft and his current situation indicates that he is unlikely to get an opportunity to change that assessment in 2012. Moreno will enter training camp in a battle to retain a roster spot, not fighting for a starting position or even significant playing time. Willis McGahee seems entrenched as the team’s starter and rookie 3rd round pick Ronnie Hillman will likely assume a pass catching role, leaving Moreno fighting with Lance Ball for scraps. Moreno has no fantasy value in Denver but a preseason trade is a possibility and Moreno was productive enough in 2009 and 2010 to suggest that he could be a solid fantasy option with a new team.
RB Lance Ball
When Knowshon Moreno was lost for the year with a torn ACL, Ball was thrust into a major role for the first time in his three-year career. The 5’9”, 220 pound bowling ball (get it!) carried the ball 96 times for 402 yards and caught 16 passes for 148 yards to go along with two total touchdowns. While Ball was effective last season, he is facing an uphill climb to replicate those touches in 2012. Willis McGahee is entrenched as the Broncos starter while Moreno will try to resurrect his career while coming back from the ACL injury and the team also used a 3rd round pick on Ronnie Hillman. Barring injury or subpar performances in the preseason by Moreno and Hillman, Ball won’t be worth owning in your fantasy league in 2012.
WR Demaryius Thomas
Not much was expected of Thomas last season due to the ruptured Achilles suffered in the off-season. He missed the first six weeks but came back with a vengeance, catching 32 passes for 551 yards and four touchdowns over the Broncos final 11 games despite having two games where he received one total target. Even more impressive was his performance in the post-season where he caught four passes for 204 yards and the game winning touchdown against the Steelers and then followed that up with a six-reception, 93-yard game in a losing cause against the Patriots. Just imagine what he could have done without scattered arm Tim Tebow chucking him the ball. Oh wait, no imagining required. Peyton Manning is in town for the 2012 season. Manning has said that Thomas is the most physically gifted wide receiver that he has ever played with but let’s not confuse physically gifted with production. Since Thomas hasn’t come anywhere close to reaching the heights of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, the question is – will he? Thomas possesses freakish natural ability with outstanding speed and strength to go along with a willingness to be a physical player. While Thomas was a top five fantasy wide receiver from Week 10 on last year, those lofty heights aren’t likely to be reached in 2012. Consider him an upper tier WR3 with a huge upside in redraft formats and an outstanding dynasty league prospect.
WR Eric Decker
The Broncos 2010 3rd round pick put together a reasonably productive season in 2011 with Tim Tebow at the controls of the team’s offense, catching 44 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns. He started the season strong with 37 receptions for 527 yards and all eight of his touchdowns over his first 11 games before fading badly down the stretch with seven receptions for 85 yards over his final five games. There are two big concerns with Decker entering the 2012 season. One is his completion to target percentage which checked in at a woeful 46.3% last season. While that was partly the result of having Tebow as his quarterback, that explanation is partially negated by the fact that Decker was often used as the team’s top threat on short and intermediate routes. Equally concerning was his lack of production when Demaryius Thomas returned to the lineup. With Thomas out of the lineup for the first five games of the season, Decker caught 22 passes and then caught 22 more over the final 11 games with Thomas in the lineup. With Peyton Manning now in Denver, Decker is certainly going to catch a higher percentage of his targets and he has the speed and athleticism to emerge as a 1,000-yard receiver. Consider him a WR3 in 2012 although he lacks Thomas’ huge upside.
WR Brandon Stokley
You have to love Stokley. At 36 years of age, he signed with Denver to join with Peyton Manning and hopefully provide the team with a receiving threat out of the slot. What you don’t have to love is his fantasy prospects. Stokley makes for a nice story but his best receiving season since topping 1,000 yards in 2004 came in 2007 when he caught 40 passes for 635 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, he caught one pass for seven yards in two games with the Giants.
WR Andre Caldwell
In an off-season filled with several solid player acquisitions for Broncos management, the one head scratcher has to be the decision to sign former Bengal Andre Caldwell to challenge for the team’s slot receiver role. Despite the Bengals having a gaping hole at wider receiver opposite A.J. Green, they made little attempt to re-sign Caldwell.
TE Jacob Tamme
It’s all about opportunity and Tamme got his in 2010 when Colts starting tight end Dallas Clark suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Over the final ten games of the season, Tamme caught 67 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 8.7 fantasy points per game over that stretch, which placed him third in that category amongst tight ends who played ten+ games behind only Antonio Gates and Jason Witten. He gets another solid opportunity in 2012 having signed with the Broncos as a free agent and joining former teammate Peyton Manning in Denver. He is getting pegged as a breakout candidate this season but you’re not getting a buy in on that here. He isn’t anywhere near as talented as the upper echelon players at his position and Joel Dreessen isn’t chump change as backups go. Tamme can be a solid contributor to your fantasy squad but he isn’t worth reaching for and it looks like that is what will be going down on draft day. He shapes up as a lower tier starter or upper tier backup at this point.
TE Joel Dreessen
It is not often that we need to do a fantasy write up on a team’s backup tight end but when Peyton Manning is the team’s new quarterback, it seems justified. Of course, it also helps that Dreessen is a backup who figures to get plenty of playing time and the player ahead of him (Jacob Tamme) isn’t an overly established starter. With ten touchdowns over the past two seasons in Houston, Dreesen knows how to find the end zone and while he isn’t the most talented tight end, he is a decent route runner and knows how to find the weak spot against zone defenses. Tamme is the clear favorite to win the starting job but this situation is worth monitoring in the preseason.