manning-eyes2

A really talented quarterback has many really talented targets. Much good will come of this.

The Housekeeping

Notable Additions: Wes Welker

Notable Draft Picks: Montee Ball

The Marquee Men (the elitest of the elite)

Peyton Manning (ADP: 33.4): Manning’s post-injury praise last year was somewhat overshadowed by what that Adrian Peterson character was doing. But to review, here’s what he did after sitting out for a year, and undergoing several really complicated neck procedures:

  • Averaged 8.0 yards per attempt. In his 14-year career, it was only the third time his YPA had reached or exceeded that number.
  • Threw 37 touchdown passes. In his 14-year career, it was only the second time he had reached or exceeded that number
  • Threw a touchdown pass on 6.3 percent of his throws. In his 14-year career, it was only the second time he had reach or exceeded that number.
  • Averaged 291.2 passing yards per game. In this 14-year career, it was only the second time his yards per game had reached or exceeded 290.0.

Now Manning has been blessed with the gift of Welker, and far more bruising backfield support in the form of Montee Ball. This will end well for all involved, through I’m contractually obligated to remind you that buying a quarterback early is/was unwise as a strategy. If you’ve followed standard 2013 draft procedure by taking two running backs right away, to get Manning you’re likely passing on a fine WR1 in the form of Roddy White or Victor Cruz, and you could then have Matt Ryan or Colin Kaepernick up to two rounds later if taking a quarterback early is really a burning desire.

Demaryius Thomas (ADP: 26.2): And about those WR1′s, Thomas is definitely one of them. His 89.6 receiving yards per game last year ranked fourth, and usually his yardage came in chunks, as 30.8 percent of Thomas’ receptions were for 20 yards or more. Even better, over his 141 targets, his average depth of target was 10.9 yards according to Grantland’s Matt Borcas (who does a fine job of debunking the myth that Welker hurts the value of both Decker and Thomas). To put that in even better terms, on average when he was targeted Thomas earned nearly 1.1 fantasy points, and he caught 66.6 percent of his targets.

Wes Welker (ADP: 46.8): Since he was signed, the great minds of our time have been trying to determine how much of an impact Welker will have on the production of Thomas and Decker. But with Welker aging and slowing, I think we should be asking a different question: why can’t they all just get along?

Even with his slowing, Welker is still a much more talented slot receiver than Brandon Stokley. And during a time when he was a little more spry, Stokley’s highest single-season output with Manning in Indianapolis was 1,077 yards on 68 catches with 10 touchdowns. All of that came on 102 targets, meaning that year (2004) a still useful yet far inferior receiver next to Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison was targeted on 20.7 percent of Manning’s throws. That sounds like a fair amount for someone of Stokley’s stature (literally of figuratively), and it is until we also note that he didn’t subtract from Wayne’s targets (115) or production (1,210 and 12 TDs), and ditto for Harrision’s targets (139), or his production (1,113 yards and 15 TDs). All of those totals are taken from a time when the sheer volume of passing in the NFL wasn’t nearly as high, which led to Manning finishing with 497 attempts that year. In 2012, he threw nearly 100 more times (583).

Welker will get his short-yardage catches in space, but his function is entirely different from what’s being asked of Decker and Thomas. He’ll still have a fine year, and he’ll still be especially useful in PPR leagues. But there will be a clear separation between the output and usage of Decker and Thomas compared to Welker.

Eric Decker (ADP: 63.3): See above. Directly above.

Decker’s average depth of target was a touch ahead of Thomas at 11.4, putting him in even less danger of being significantly impacted by Welker.

The Middle Men (middle-to-late round options)

Montee Ball (ADP: 52.9): And thus the steaming pile of confusion begins in the Broncos’ committee backfield. On a fundamental level, a Broncos running back has two things he can’t ever screw up: ball security, and pass protection.

Ball security is important for any team at any level of football, because only coaches who chug children’s cough syrup before games enjoy fumbles. But those ball turfings are particularly problematic when they undermine everything a thoroughly-greased passing machine has accomplished, a description that now certainly applies to the Broncos’ offense. There’s a similar justification for the importance of pass protection: only coaches who don’t want to be coaches for long like to see their quarterbacks get whacked, but preventing that outcome increases in importance when the QB’s neck has been carved up four times, and 18 months ago there were thoughts of his career ending.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying that the utter disaster in Denver’s backfield will exist because two guys (Ball and Hillman) can’t fully be trusted to protect Manning yet, and one guy (Hillman) may or may not have a fumbling problem after coughing up three this preseason (two of which were lost, if that matters at all). But of the potentially three backs involved, Ball has the most fantasy value since even if a time share persists, he’ll get the goal-line and short-yardage work. He had 77 rushing touchdowns over three years at Wisconsin, including a single-season high of 33. If you’re a Ball owner now, the safe play is to flex him until any clarity at all emerges in this mess.

Ronnie Hillman (ADP: 106.2): Once a fine sleeper, Hillman’s fumbles may have doomed him, though he’ll likely still see work on passing downs and therefore be a PPR flex option. In limited playing time throughout his rookie year behind Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, Hillman had 62 yards on 10 catches, including a 29 yarder in Week 4.

Knowshon Moreno (ADP: 103.4): He hath risen, again. Hillman getting all the work in the Broncos’ final preseason game while Ball and Moreno sat is a soft indication that the latter two will lead, while Hillman gets sparse passing down opportunities. Or the Broncos and offensive coordinator Adam Gase could just bow to the Mile High ghosts of Mike Shanahan past, and screw with us all season long. What we know right now is that for anyone drafting over the last two nights of draft season, Moreno has great sleeper potential at his current ADP. The touchdowns may not be there, because Ball will get most of them. But as a deep-ish league flex play, Moreno will provide sufficient production through yardage alone.

He plodded along last year on his way to 525 rushing yards at a pace of 3.8 per carry. In your flex spot he still provides the potential for six-to-eight fantasy points per week, which sounds pretty meh at first, but it’s far from it in deep leagues during the heart of bye weeks.

The Menial Peons (sleepers, flex plays, and matchup plays)

Julius Thomas (ADP:undrafted): All other sleeper tight ends are the weakest Lemmings compared to Thomas, who wrestled the top TE job away during the preseason with his 123 yards on 14 catches, including a 31-yard reception. Whatever ceiling he has is ultimately restricted by the presence of Welker, who will suck back intermediate targets. That’s fine, though, because Thomas will be available on the waiver wire long after all drafts are completed, and likely after Week 1 is done too. Then he should be the first target for you TE streaming folks.