Denver is the next place Peyton Manning will call home. Of all of his potential landing spots this offseason, it's the best fit for him. He'll be on a well-run team that proved it will do anything and everything to make a Super Bowl run happen in 2012. The offense has pieces in place and the defense has potential to be very stout. The division is winnable.
For Fantasy purposes, it's also the best fit.
Manning is coming off of multiple neck surgeries that cost him all of the 2011 season and reportedly caused some nerve damage in his throwing arm. No one can say for sure that he's "back," but Manning has worked out for the Broncos, as well as other interested teams, so signs seem to point to Manning being capable of throwing the ball.
Manning lands behind an offensive line that boasts a Pro Bowl left tackle in Ryan Clady, an up-and-coming right tackle in Orlando Franklin but not much else. The line is probably considered a bit below-average after allowing 42 sacks last year (eight teams allowed more) and finishing 31st in ProFootballFocus.com's Pass Blocking Efficiency Rankings. To be fair, Tim Tebow was sacked 33 of those 42 times (three per start) whereas Kyle Orton was sacked the other nine times over five games (almost two per start). The O-line isn't quite as bad as these stats make them out to be, and chances are long-time Colts teammate Jeff Saturday will be added to steer the big men from the center spot and keep Manning protected. There's room for improvement there but it shouldn't be considered a weakness.
There's not as much room for improvement from the receiving corps. Denver's fortunate to have one of the league's most explosive young talents in Demaryius Thomas, who was a big reason for Tebow's success in 2011. Thomas totaled 42 catches for 844 yards (a sick 20.1 yard average) and five touchdowns over 13 games (includes the postseason). And that's with Tebow, a career 47.3 percent passer, at the helm. Significant injuries have slowed Thomas down considerably in the past, so he's a bit of an injury risk, but his potential with Manning is sky-high.
The Broncos have another big weapon in Eric Decker, who didn't play quite as well with Tebow as Thomas did but also didn't have many opportunities to do well due to how Tebow went through his reads and his own injuries slowing him down. He doesn't quite have the explosiveness of Thomas but is a good volume-type receiver who can find mismatches in the end zone that Manning will like.
The Broncos added a quality possession-type receiver in Andre Caldwell, and he's a candidate to work exclusively in the slot and be a chain-moving option for Manning in the mold of Austin Collie. Caldwell doesn't have much speed and has missed time with injuries, so he's not exactly a great choice. He could catch 50 passes and be useful in PPR leagues.
We could see the Broncos add some more speed and depth to their receiving corps, but Thomas and Decker should catch the majority of Manning's passes. Jason Hill is a potential sleeper (he had some good moments as the Jaguars' top receiver for part of last season) but he's not yet worth drafting. Thomas should be drafted as a very solid No. 2 Fantasy receiver based on his potential (he could potentially be the best receiver in Fantasy if he can stay healthy and mesh with Manning); Decker should be drafted as a quality reserve with potential to finish as a Top 30 producer.
There was talk that Dallas Clark would sign with the Broncos, giving Manning another familiar face to throw to, but he hasn't signed as of yet. Instead, another Colts tight end joined the Broncos, and he might be even better and is definitely healthier. That would be Jacob Tamme.
Tamme had just 177 yards on 19 catches in 2011 with one score last year, but he worked behind starter Dallas Clark in a Manning-less Colts offense. Instead, our focus is on his 2010 numbers: In 10 games without Dallas Clark, Tamme caught 67 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns.That's a lot more attractive.
The Broncos have also reportedly signed ex-Texans tight end Joel Dreessen, who is good as an in-line blocker and No. 2-type receiver. He'll vulture some touchdowns from Tamme and the rest of the Denver offense but he'll ultimately benefit Manning. Tamme's the one we're looking at as a potential breakout, well worth a middle- to late-round pick as a borderline No. 1 Fantasy tight end to start the year.
The track record of running backs with Peyton Manning is pretty obvious: Marshall Faulk (one), Edgerrin James (five), Joseph Addai (two) and Dominic Rhodes (one) have all run for over 1,000 yards with Manning under center. Only four times has a running back not had 1,000 rush yards while with Manning; two were because of injuries (2008 and 2010) and two still totaled over 1,100 yards (James in 2002, Addai in 2009). And in Manning's 14 seasons in Indianapolis, his running backs have totaled at least a dozen touchdowns 11 times. Point being, if you run in Peyton Manning's offense, you're going to have a great shot at some very good numbers.
That jells with how successful running backs have been on John Fox-coached teams. Last season the Broncos led the NFL in rushing thanks in large part to Tebow's 660 rush yards, but Willis McGahee outperformed expectations with 1,199 rush yards of his own. He only scored four times on the ground (five times total) but was largely considered a huge success. Combine the Broncos' already-strong run game and run principles with how rushers have done playing with Manning and there's a lot to like about whoever runs the ball in Denver.
But that would mean we're assuming that there will be one guy running. That's a terrible assumption. McGahee is likely to get some company. The Broncos probably didn't envision McGahee rushing nearly 250 times last season -- he averaged effectively 10 carries per game when Knowshon Moreno played. The belief is that the Broncos will add another back and thus put a cap on McGahee's expectations this year. The younger and fresher the running back, the less appealing McGahee will be for Fantasy owners. Figure McGahee to end up as a No. 3 option and be a potentially decent mid-round draft pick.
Knowshon Moreno is coming off of a torn ACL and could struggle to be ready for the start of the season. There are already murmurs about his time in Denver being up even if he comes back strong from the injury. Lance Ball is a nice role player who pitched in admirably last season but the Broncos probably wouldn't want to lean on him. Again, look for the Broncos to add some talent here, and for whoever that talent is to be a good Fantasy option.
You might think that the kicker associated with Peyton Manning's teams in Indy was a lock to be among the best at his position in Fantasy. But it's not the case. In the 13 seasons Manning played for the Colts, his kicker finished as a Top 10 option seven times.
Matt Prater is the Broncos' placekicker, a job he's had for four years. In those four years he's finished as a Top 10 kicker in Fantasy just once. Not all of that is his fault as the Broncos offense was a mess over the last two years. He's hit 80 percent of his field goals over that time, which isn't bad but isn't great either. To his credit, he's nailed 12 of 16 field goals from 50-plus yards. Prater's fine with a final-round pick but don't be married to him if he's not productive right away.
And finally ... Quarterback
In the past, Manning was considered as safe as they come. But after being out for a year and having issues with his arm while recovering from neck surgery, there's obviously some risk. Tack on Manning being in a new city with new teammates (and probably his old offense) and he's not the easy choice he once was.
Many are nervous about an injury ending his season early and it's all right to be cautious with Manning for now. Roughly one out of every two Fantasy owners I polled on Twitter said they need to see more from Manning before being confident enough to draft him. Those jittery owners should indeed see more.
If Manning is the guy we once came to know and love, we'll see it before the start of the season. He'll take part in training camp and preseason games (Manning values scrimmaging to work out any kinks in the offense). If he looks as good as we remember, he'll be in the discussion as the seventh quarterback taken in drafts, right behind brother Eli, in Round 3 or 4. If he's not quite as smooth but clearly on track to play, he'll be more of a fifth-round pick with the likes of Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger. And if he's not playing at all but still expected to be ready for the season, Fantasy owners might start gambling with him starting in Round 6 or 7.
And if he's not practicing and if there aren't encouraging reports, Fantasy owners should run away from him.
Between now and then, play it cool and take a wait-and-see approach. But know this: no one knows better the importance of good quarterback play than Broncos vice president and Hall of Famer John Elway. If he's making a $96 million bet on Manning, then it can be assumed that he's satisfied with where the quarterback is at in his recovery is glad to trust him with the Broncos offense. If it's good enough for John, why shouldn't it be good enough for us?