State of the Franchise
There were plenty of question marks in Denver heading into last season and all of them revolved around one man: Peyton Manning. With the quarterback coming off five neck surgeries and missing the entire 2011 season, the Broncos made the biggest splash of the 2012 offseason and signed him to a five-year, $96 million contract. The risk/reward was pretty clear. Either Manning was healthy enough to return to his former All-Pro self or he wasnít and the signing would be a disastrous event for the franchise.
Luckily, Manning turned out to be nearly better than his old self, finishing the season with 4,659 passing yards and 37 touchdowns, levels he had achieved only once in his career in Indianapolis. The Broncos went 13-3 in the regular season and were primed for a long playoff run. Unfortunately, Manningís playoff woes from Indianapolis (other than 2006 and 2009) followed him to Denver, and the Ravens bounced the Broncos in the divisional round.
Despite the disappointing finish to the 2012 season, there is still plenty of good going on in Denver. Career years by wideouts Demaryius Thomas (1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Eric Decker (1,064 and 13) helped Manning achieve his level of greatness and it only got better in the offseason when the Broncos signed former Patriotsí WR Wes Welker to a two-year, $12 million contract. Following the June release of veteran Willis McGahee, draftee Montee Ball would appear to have the inside track to claim the teamís starting running back gig, assuming he proves himself a capable blocker. The elusive Ronnie Hillman has a shot to compete for the job too, but heíll probably do most of his damage as the teamís third-down back. Knowshon Moreno remains in the mix, but he is still looking to return to form after dealing with knee issues. Lance Ball and fullback Jacob Hester round out the teamís backfield.
The defensive side of the ball is as strong as ever, with LB Von Miller coming off an 18.5 sack season. Heíll be joined in the pass rush by former Charger Shaun Phillips, who was signed when the team had to let fellow linebacker Elvis Dumervil go after a confusing contract snafu that eventually landed him in Baltimore. Nevertheless, Dumervilís career may have already peaked, while Millerís future still looks very bright. Champ Bailey returns for his 15th season (10th in Denver) and the left cornerback will have considerable talent on the other side of the field thanks to the free agent signing of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a one-year contract.
The Broncos are easily the favorites in the AFC West again and should certainly contend for a Super Bowl if the teamís nucleus can stay healthy.
Wes Welker - WR, Patriots
Comes to Denver after a prolific six-year run in New England that saw him average 112 catches for 1,243 yards and six touchdowns per season.
Montee Ball - RB, WISCONSIN
(Round 2, 58th overall)
After a productive collegiate career, he should have a major fantasy impact assuming he can ascend the teamís RB depth chart.
Shaun Phillips - LB, Chargers
Brought in after a contract issue led to the release of Elvis Dumervil. Could get plenty of lanes to the quarterback if Von Miller requires consistent double-teams.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - CB, Eagles
Looking to turn his career around after a dismal year in Philadelphia. He should see lots of balls thrown his way with Champ Bailey shutting down the left side of the field.
Sylvester Williams - DT, North Carolina
(Round 1, 28th overall)
Bolsters the defensive line corps, while slated to start at left defensive tackle.
Elvis Dumervil - LB, Ravens
Contract snafu led to his release, which then landed him in Baltimore.
D.J. Williams - LB, Bears
Former team leader in tackles was cut after too many off-field incidents, some of which resulted in suspensions.
Willis McGahee - RB, FA
His release likely opens the door for Ball to head the Denver backfield.
COULD WE SEE THREE 1,000-YARD RECEIVERS?
While Denver fans were likely thrilled with the offseason signing of Wes Welker, fantasy owners immediately began to wonder if there will be enough passes to go around for Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker to at least match last seasonís stats (the three combined to catch 297 passes for 3,852 yards and 29 touchdowns). Only five times in NFL history have three teammates had at least 1,000 yards receiving, and it should be noted that Peyton Manning was the quarterback for one of those trios: Namely Reggie Wayne (1,210), Marvin Harrison (1,113) and Brandon Stokley (1,077) back in 2004. Even better, they each had at least 10 touchdowns. In addition to the wideouts, tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen return, not to mention a number of quality pass-catching running backs. Itís an embarrassment of riches for Manning this season, which will only heighten the teamís expectations for a Super Bowl run.
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS FOR BALL AND HILLMAN
It seems like every year fantasy owners are left wondering who will get the majority of the touches out of the Denver backfield. Over the last 10 seasons eight different running backs have led the team in rushing yards. With Willis McGahee sent packing in June after two seasons as a Bronco and 2009 first-rounder Knowshon Moreno still dealing with knee issues, second-round selection Montee Ball, who finished his career at Wisconsin as one of the most prolific runners in college football history, looks like the best bet to emerge as the teamís top backfield option. While he isnít the fastest back around, Ball is a powerful runner with very good hands and, if he does win the job, immediate fantasy relevance can be expected while working in the Broncos powerful offense. Meanwhile, change-of-pace back Ronnie Hillman returns for his second season after finishing 2012 strongly. Heís known as a speed back, but in anticipation of an increased workload, now likely in a complementary role behind Ball, he added 15 pounds to his frame this offseason.
THE PIECES ARE IN PLACE FOR Peyton Manning
No one truly knew what to expect from Manning last season after he returned from a year off and five neck surgeries. This year, the expectations are high, as Manning is coming off a monster fantasy season and now gets an added weapon in Welker. With so many pass-catching options at his disposal, Manning could be looking at a record-setting campaign. 5,000 passing yards seems like a possibility with Thomas, Decker and Welker out wide; could we also see 40 touchdowns?
Rising: With a full year in the Broncosí offense under his belt, plus the addition of Wes Welker, Peyton Manning could be the top fantasy quarterback this season.
Declining: Knowshon Moreno had a bit of a resurgence toward the end of the 2012 season, but any thought that he could regain his starting job was thrown out the window when the Broncos drafted Montee Ball.
Sleeper: Ronnie Hillman slots in as the change-of-pace back on third down, while his excellent hands and speed could make him valuable in PPR leagues.
Supersleeper: After taking over as the starting fullback late last season, Jacob Hester vultured touchdowns in Weeks 16 and 17. If he can keep the job, he could continue that trend.
Von Miller - LB
18.5 sacks in 2012 garnered him a second-place finish for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Shaun Phillips - LB
Has recorded at least 9.5 sacks in two of the last three years and will try to fill the void left by Elvis Dumervil.
Wesley Woodyard - LB
One of only two players in the NFL last season with at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions.
RotoWire Rank: 3