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We get another divisional throw down tonight, and one that presents a number of intriguing fantasy-related questions that are handily explored below. The quarterbacks couldn’t possibly be any more opposite too: over his last 10 seasons Peyton Manning has rushed for 167 yards, while Terrelle Pyor has nearly tied that mark in two games (162 yards).

Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos

1. A quarterback who runs fast and far: can he be the difference?

When sizing up a game that features a quarterback known much more for his legs than his arm, without fail the first thing I do is look back to see how the defense in question has done against other like-minded QBs in the relatively recent history. This gives us a surface layer, and a nice place to start the prognosticating process.

With the Broncos there’s little to look back on, and we end up settling at Week 9 last year, when they hosted the Panthers. Of course, a healthy and not suspended Von Miller was available to help with the Cam Newton containment effort back in that far away time, and it was also long before Elvis Dumervil lost his battle with a fax machine. Nonetheless, here’s the base we have: Newton was held to just seven rushing yards on four carries, and his longest run was six yards. That’s coming from a quarterback who averaged 46.3 rushing yards per game last year, and he had a single-game high of 116 yards.

But now that Miller and Dumervil have been subtracted it’ll be interesting to see how that effects Denver’s defense in their first game this season against a quarterback of this nature. Tonight will function as a litmus test for what we can expect fantasy-wise from Michael Vick next week, as in Week 4 the Broncos host Chip Kelly’s carnival ride.

Early on it’s become clear that while he enjoys running as much as one Timothy Tebow — who he’s often compared to, at least from a fantasy perspective — Pryor is much more of a threat with his arm than the current NFL castaway, and the Raiders don’t at all feel the need to make their offense one dimensional.. Over his first two games Pryor has attempted 53 passes, and 22 runs. Tebow’s split over his first two starts? 24 throws and 18 runs.

2. Darren McFadden: he hath returned?

Maybe, but probably not, though this night is when we’ll begin to find out if what we saw last week from the man formerly known as Run DMC was just a Jaguars mirage. Believe it or not, statistics recorded against the Jaguars actually count, as do the results of those games, and last week McFadden ran for 129 yards against them at a pace of 6.8 per carry while also adding 28 yards through the air. That total of 157 yards is his highest single-game output since Week 3 of the 2011 season.

Kidding aside, the Jaguars are still an NFL team, and for a long time — a whole season — it didn’t seem like McFadden was capable of posting those numbers against any team, ever. A year ago in August as we cycled through fantasy drafts, the book on him was well worn: an injury was assumed along with an absence of four or so games at least, but when he’s healthy he can be great. That hurt part happened last year (he missed four games), but the productive when not broken part didn’t (only 707 rushing yards at a pace of 3.3 per carry). For some painful perspective, in 2011 McFadden finished within reach of his 2012 rushing total with 614 yards, even though he played in five fewer games that year.

Much of the blame for McFadden’s slogging was placed on a faulty zone-blocking scheme which has now been abandoned. It’s nice that he might not be horribly awful anymore, and he might even be useful. But let’s face it, the defenses he’s run against so far (Colts and Jags) have combined to allow an average of 148.3 rushing yards per game.

3. Can Manning keep sharing the love almost evenly?

The moment Wes Welker signed on in Denver there was some fantasy concern, though I’m using the loosest possible definition of the word. Suddenly between Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker there were a lot of highly talented hands available to catch balls, the sort of hands that combined for 301 catches and 3,852 yards last year. That’s a lot of skill which has so far translation into a lot of yards, and it’ll keep leading to wins. But for fake footballing, there was a time not so long ago when the potential for a problem loomed in the darkness.

With only one ball to distribute on any one play, who would have the pair of hands that’s targeted less, and therefore they’ll produce less? The answer so far is no one. Here’s how Manning has distributed targets thus far over two games between his top three receivers:

  • Decker: 20
  • Welker: 19
  • Thomas: 17

This is when I give you the standard disclaimer that it’s still early, which is only sort of true because after tonight’s game we’re officially one week away from the quarter mark of the NFL season.

When Welker first came aboard there were two widely discussed outcomes: either Welker would drop off as he ages and slows, or Decker would see less work since his intermediate role is similar to Welker’s. Although he may still be getting plenty of targets, the latter scenario could be on the horizon. Of those 20 opportunities, Decker’s buttery fingers have dropped five of them, a staggering pace at this early point. It adds up to a drop rate of 31.3 percent, the third highest of any receiver who’s been targeted at least five times. Eventually if that continues trust will wear thin, especially with Julius Thomas also emerging, and even Knowshon Moreno has been targeted frequently out of the backfield.

So far Manning’s 57 completions have been spread among nine pass catchers, four of which have double digit receptions. As the deep option Demaryius Thomas leads in yardage and it’s not close (213 yards at a pace of 21.3 per catch, while the other Thomas is second with 157), and Manning has become good friends with Welker in the redzone, with his three touchdowns already putting him halfway to his 2012 total. With a lesser defined role and slippery hands, Decker may lose the target battle eventually.

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