Broncos Year in Review
2015 Pass Attempts Rank: 13th (606)
2015 Rush Attempts Rank: 17th (411)
2015 Total Offensive Plays Rank: 9th (1,056)
2015 Yards Per Play Rank: 19th (5.4)
Projected Starting Lineup
Passing Game Outlook
An early sign that Mark Sanchez isn’t long for the Broncos’ quarterback job came when he was outplayed by 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian at OTAs. The reddest flag is Sanchez’s recent play. Always short on arm strength, accuracy, and decision-making skills, the 29-year-old journeyman has a 19:23 TD-to-INT ratio over his last 16 games. The Broncos acquired Sanchez for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in March, only to continue pursuing a trade for Colin Kaepernick before moving up in the draft for Paxton Lynch. While offseason coachspeak might lead you to believe Gary Kubiak‘s staff is pleased with Sanchez, Kubiak’s post-minicamp statement that Sanchez and Siemian are “looking each other in the eye” for starting duties is most revealing. For as long as Sanchez lasts under center, expect the Broncos to utilize him similarly to how he was by the Jets. Sanchez will be asked to manage games and not turn the ball over as the Broncos lean on their elite defense and running game to compete. Sanchez’s turnover-laden history suggests he would do well to keep the job for more than 6-8 games.
Drafted six picks before 2015 Mr. Irrelevant, Trevor Siemian had a decidedly unimpressive resume coming out of Northwestern. He earned just 14 college starts, completing 58.9% of his throws with a 27:24 TD-to-INT ratio before Siemian tore his ACL in November of his senior season. In Denver’s preseason finale last year, Siemian went 11-of-24 passing for 104 yards with one touchdown, one pick, and three sacks taken against the Cardinals’ third-string defense. Although first-round pick Paxton Lynch is considered raw, it would be concerning if he were not able to outplay Siemian in training camp. Lynch is a massive man (6’7/244) with shocking athleticism for his size and an ability to make power throws on the run, which theoretically suits Gary Kubiak‘s bootleg-centric offense. There is a conceivable scenario in which Sanchez, Siemian, and Lynch all make 2016 starts. Regardless of their quarterback’s identity in a given week, expect the Broncos to manage and control him in a low-volume caretaker’s role.
Demaryius Thomas is a polarizing fantasy commodity this year. Although Thomas’ 2015 raw stats weren’t far off his career norms (105-1,304-6), a look beneath the hood reveals horrific efficiency metrics. He set career lows in fantasy points per target (0.93), yards per reception (12.4), and yards after catch per reception (4.6). Thomas set a five-year low in yards per target (7.4) and a four-year low in catch rate (59.3%). Thomas has been one of the NFL’s least effective red-zone presences in back-to-back years, scoring on just 3-of-20 red-zone targets (15%) last season and 6-of-41 chances (14.6%) the year before. Approaching age 29, there is reason to believe Thomas is entrenched in his decline phase. And an efficiency uptick seems unlikely considering the Broncos’ ugly cast of quarterbacks. The good news is Demaryius’ seasonal target projection remains lofty based on Denver’s shortage of alternative pass catchers beyond Emmanuel Sanders. And Thomas’ ADP has fallen into the mid-third round. It’s within the realm of possibility Thomas proves a 2016 value pick. I personally sold off my Demaryius Dynasty shares and am having a difficult time pulling the trigger in re-draft, even at his reduced cost.
All while playing through a high ankle sprain, shoulder, and finger injuries, Emmanuel Sanders outproduced Thomas in fantasy points per target (1.09), yards per reception (14.9), yards after catch per reception (4.8), and yards per target (8.35) last season. Despite Thomas’ superior size (6’3/224), Sanders (5’11/186) has been much more effective in scoring position the past two years, converting nine of his 33 red-zone targets (27.3%) into touchdowns. While quarterback play is a concern for both Denver wideouts, it’s fair to wonder if the target pendulum will shift to Sanders this year. He drew more targets (24) than Thomas (21) in the Broncos’ three playoff games, also beating him in receptions (16/7) and yards (230/60). At age 29, Sanders enters his contract year as Denver’s most efficient pass catcher. His Average Draft Position has fallen near the sixth round, which looks like a potential bargain compared to Thomas’ third-round ADP.
With Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis out of the picture, Broncos tight end jobs are up for grabs. Team higher ups will be pulling for Jeff Heuerman to nail down starting duties. The 92nd pick in last year’s draft, Heuerman missed his rookie campaign with a left ACL tear after battling a foot injury throughout his final season at Ohio State. Heuerman is an above-average athlete and was considered one of the top blocking tight ends in the 2015 class. Holdover Virgil Green has been typecast as merely a blocker by multiple coaching staffs since entering the league in 2011. He set a career high with 12 receptions last year. If Heuerman proves not up the task, journeyman Garrett Graham is a fallback option to work in tandem with Green. Graham spent the first four years of his career with Gary Kubiak in Houston. He posted a 49-545-5 receiving line across 13 games with the 2013 Texans, finishing that season as the TE14 in fantasy points per game.
Running Game Outlook
Demoted into a committee with far-inferior Ronnie Hillman following a string of early-season nicks and bruises, C.J. Anderson was a 2015 fantasy flop relative to his preseason ADP. In real-life terms, Anderson did not bust. He led the NFL in yards-per-carry average from Week 6 on (5.93) and was the Super Bowl champions’ best offensive player in the second half of the year. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, it wasn’t until Super Bowl 50 that Kubiak re-enlisted Anderson as Denver’s bellcow. He capitalized with 100 yards and a touchdown on 27 touches in the Broncos’ 24-10 upset of the Panthers. Re-signed to a four-year, $18 million contract after flirtations with the Dolphins, Bears, and Patriots, Anderson was declared “ready to be an every-down back” by Kubiak during June minicamp. Barring another hard-luck start, Anderson is set up for a voluminous workload. Obstacles include a sub-par line and offense as a whole, which last year ranked 19th in points per game (22.2) and seems unlikely to improve with Sanchez, Lynch, and/or Siemian under center. A first-round fantasy pick in 2015, Anderson’s ADP has dipped into the fourth round. I’m viewing him as a high-floor, low-ceiling fringe RB1/2 this season.
Ronnie Hillman will attempt to hold off fourth-round pick Devontae Booker for the Broncos’ No. 2 tailback job. Although Hillman teases with quick feet and sometimes-impressive burst when given a crease, he has long struggled with ball security and pass protection, and managed 584 yards on 173 carries (3.38 YPC) over Denver’s final 13 games last season. He’s also been one of the NFL’s least effective receiving backs the past two years. Entering camp, Hillman’s year in Kubiak’s system figures to give him an initial leg up on Booker, an intriguing rookie out of Utah who caught 80 passes in 23 college games and is built like a feature back (5’11/219). Booker was arguably a day-two talent, but slipped to round four due to medical concerns stemming from a 2015 meniscus tear. Position coach Eric Studesville praised Booker for his blitz pickup skills following minicamp. Booker should be given every opportunity to land No. 2 duties.
2016 Vegas Win Total
The World Champs enter 2016 with a Win Total of 9.5 games, tied with Arizona and Cincinnati for the NFL’s sixth best win-loss expectation. They are pre-season favorites in 12 of their first 15 games. Before schedules were released, Warren Sharp assessed Denver with the NFL’s 11th-toughest slate based on opponents’ Win Totals. While an elite defense should keep this team competitive most weeks, the Broncos’ quarterback situation does not instill confidence, and they will need to impose their will through the running game in order to consistently move the chains. The latter figures to be a tall task for a team with a patchwork offensive line. Facing the Panthers and Colts in Weeks 1-2 followed by roadtrips to Cincinnati and upstart Tampa Bay in Weeks 3-4, it’s not difficult to imagine the Broncos starting slow. While the rest of the AFC West has improved around them, I’m going with the under on a Denver team I expect to take a step back.