QB Peyton Manning
(2013 QB Rank—#1, 25.4 FPts/G)
Coming off of the greatest fantasy football season in history, it should be no surprise that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is the top quarterback on almost all lists heading into the 2014 season. Words truly cannot explain just how ridiculous Manning’s season was, so let’s just look again at the numbers: 5,477 yards, 55 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions. Simply unbelievable. Even if you were one of the brave few who had Manning as your top-ranked quarterback heading into 2013, there’s no way that anyone could have predicted that kind of fantasy output. Manning threw multiple touchdown passes in 15 of his 16 regular season games, including nine games with four or more touchdowns. While losing Eric Decker is certainly a concern, the addition of Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer, along with the healthy return of bookend left tackle Ryan Clady could mean that the Denver passing game has a chance of coming close to what it did in 2013. The numbers don’t look at all sustainable on the surface, but if there’s any quarterback who can engineer that kind of offense again, it’s Peyton Manning. Those looking to be contrarians might look at Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees as the top quarterback going into this fantasy season. Don’t be steered away by the likely regression in Manning’s numbers, though. Even if Manning saw a 20 percent reduction in his fantasy numbers, he would finish with 4,382 yards and 44 touchdowns. That yardage total would put him at sixth among quarterbacks from the 2013 season, while the touchdowns would still put him five ahead of any other quarterback. Understand that regression does not mean that Manning isn’t still the best fantasy quarterback for 2014.
RB Montee Ball
(2013 RB Rank—#42, 5.0 FPts/G)
When the Broncos selected Montee Ball with a second-round draft pick in 2013, it appeared as if the writing was finally on the wall for former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno to be worked out of the offense. That didn’t happen, however, as concerns in pass protection and fumbling problems led to Ball playing second fiddle to Moreno throughout the year. Ball finished with just 120 carries for 559 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season and he had just one game all year with over 100 rushing yards. Now with Moreno out of the picture, the door appears to be wide open for Ball to come rolling in and take the job in one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. The team appears to be fully invested in him and this is his chance to shine. There is no question that Denver is a pass-first offense, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still plenty of room for fantasy production from the running back position. Moreno finished as a top-five scoring running back in 2013 and that was with Ball still taking a significant number of carries. If Ball is given a more full workload, there’s no reason to think that his upside couldn’t mirror or even be better than what Moreno did a season ago. An emergency appendectomy has some worried that Ball won’t be in football shape by the time the regular season rolls around. That’s exactly the kind of thing you should warn other fantasy owners in your league about, effectively lowering Ball’s stock before you swoop in and draft him. Appendectomies are considered “major surgery” but they do not require a long recovery time. Barring some unforeseen setback that would likely have nothing to do with his appendix, Ball will be out there in Week 1. He is about as much of a lock to hit 10 touchdowns this season as any player in the league. He is a perfect No. 2 running back or even low-end No. 1 for the owner who opts to snag a top player at another position in Round 1.
RB C.J. Anderson
(2013 RB Rank—#124, 0.2 FPts/G)
The appendectomy procedure that has removed Montee Ball from training camp has given an unexpected opportunity to Broncos backup running back C.J. Anderson. Anderson, an undrafted free agent who also made his NFL debut alongside Ball in 2013, has not yet won a competition against Ronnie Hillman to be the team’s lead tailback until Ball returns, but appears to be the more well-rounded back, which will likely mean that he gets the majority of snaps for the time being. Anderson could hypothetically show some amazing flashes that force the Broncos’ hand in giving him more playing time. The most likely scenario, however, is that he and Hillman will split carries in the preseason before conceding the lion’s share of touches to Ball once the regular season begins. Both Anderson and Hillman’s value is essentially tied to the success of Ball. If Ball puts the ball on the ground too often for head coach John Fox’s liking or if he sustains an injury that puts him out for a long period of time, Anderson and Hillman could have value. Until then, though, both players will likely remain relatively useless for fantasy purposes.
WR Demaryius Thomas
(2013 WR Rank—#2, 13.8 FPts/G)
Back-to-back 1,400-plus yard campaigns have fantasy owners’ mouths salivating heading into the 2014 season with fourth-year wideout Demaryius Thomas. Thomas, who showed flashes of brilliance even with the likes of Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton behind center, has become the top target in the best passing attack in the history of the league. Needless to say, his fantasy value is immense. In addition to his incredible yardage totals, Thomas has produced in the other important categories for receivers with 94 and 92 receptions in 2012 and 2013, while adding 10 and 14 touchdown receptions, respectively. Thomas is the ideal combination of size and speed and the crazy thing is that the best may be yet to come from this incredible physical specimen. If it weren’t for Calvin Johnson, Thomas would be the unquestioned top fantasy wideout at the beginning of the 2014 season. In fact, many fantasy experts are flat out recommending Thomas as the No. 1 receiver on their lists. Either way, Thomas is a rare breed of a receiver who should and does crack the first round of most fantasy drafts. Another monster season is on the way for this talented young wideout. Make sure you don’t miss out.
WR Wes Welker
(2013 WR Rank—#21, 8.1 FPts/G)
Not known for being a particularly excellent red zone threat, Wes Welker lit the fantasy world on fire in 2013 when he started the season with nine touchdown receptions in his first eight games. Welker’s incredible first half had many owners scrambling to acquire the former Patriot, but that kind of pace was simply unsustainable. Welker would go on to catch just one more touchdown in the second half of the regular season, while never eclipsing the 10 reception or 100 yard mark in any single game. Those numbers were skewed by the fact that he missed the final three weeks of the regular season, but it’s still worth noting the incredible drop-off in production. Welker did return for the playoffs where he caught a total of 18 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown over three games, but that isn’t enough for us to be highly optimistic about his fantasy outlook for 2014. Given the loss of Eric Decker, Welker should see more targets come his way in 2014 than he did in 2013, but there’s a serious question of durability and simple degradation of physical skill at this point. Welker is 33 years old and while there’s still gas in the tank, it would not be surprising to see him slowly start to fade away over the next couple of seasons. Still, Welker remains a top-20 receiver in standard scoring formats and a top-15 receiver in PPR formats. Drafting him could pay huge dividends, but make sure to have a reliable option on your bench should things start off looking like they did near the end of 2013.
WR Emmanuel Sanders
(2013 WR Rank—#21, 8.1 FPts/G)
As the newest addition to the Denver offense, Emmanuel Sanders steps into a situation that could not possibly be better for the fifth-year receiver coming off of his best season yet. Sanders’ 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns with the Steelers in 2013 were all career bests as he played opposite Antonio Brown for the majority of the season. On a new roster, Sanders will have to learn a highly complicated offense that requires tremendous focus and execution if he wants to see any looks from Peyton Manning. The Broncos run more three-wide sets than just about any team in the league, which means Sanders will see plenty of playing time. That does not necessarily mean that he is going to simply slide in and replace Eric Decker’s 87 receptions for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. While Sanders possesses big play ability, his 5’11”, 180-pound frame is not a comparison for the 6’3”, 215 pound Decker. Sanders will be used differently in the Denver offense than Decker was and that should both excite and worry potential fantasy owners. Don’t expect to see anywhere near as many targets go Sanders’ way as did Decker’s, but look for those opportunities to be potential huge plays. It would not be surprising to see Sanders improve on his yardage and touchdown totals from 2013 while actually seeing a small dip in total receptions. The hype train on Sanders has been strong this offseason with him being drafted as a WR3 in most leagues. While the hype may be warranted, having Sanders as a WR4 would be much more palatable given the strong possibility of some serious inconsistency from him this season, especially early in the year while he’s still gaining Manning’s trust.
TE Julius Thomas
(2013 TE Rank—#3, 9.0 FPts/G)
The fantasy breakout star of 2013 had to be tight end Julius Thomas, who burst onto the season in Week 1 with a monstrous five catch, 110 yard, two touchdown performance. He didn’t look back from there, as Thomas would go on to catch a total of 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year. After being a training camp darling in both 2011 and 2012, Thomas finally put that talent to use in 2013 and is now considered one of the elite tight ends as we head into 2014. Peyton Manning has been known to make the careers of wide receivers, but the same could be said for his tremendous success in throwing the ball to tight ends. Thomas is now the beneficiary of that success and there’s little reason to believe that he won’t be one of the top-scoring players at the position again. If it weren’t for a knee injury that kept him out a couple of games and seemed to slow him down a bit in the surrounding games, Thomas could have very well finished close to New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham as the top-scoring tight end in all of fantasy football. A natural regression in the touchdown category seems likely, but like Manning and the other players in this offense, even a significant reduction in stats would still mean a big fantasy season for Thomas. He’s currently being drafted as a high-third round pick, but Thomas could see that stock rise over the next month, especially if reports continue to be less than stellar regarding Rob Gronkowski’s likelihood of playing in Week 1. If Gronkowski is out, look for Thomas to move up a few spots as the tight end position becomes even thinner heading into 2014.