Manning returns for his 18th season to chase that elusive second ring, but he'll need a better stretch drive than he had last year. Through 11 games, Manning led the league in touchdown passes (34), was second in yards per game (323.5) and third in YPA (8.05). The last five games, though, he threw five touchdowns to six interceptions, averaging just 233 yards per game. In Week 14, he attempted only 20 passes, his fewest since 2006 in a full game as he broke a streak of 51 consecutive games with a touchdown. He scored the next week but again attempted only 20 passes, marking the fewest in consecutive games in his career (not including Week 17 playoff rests). His struggles carried into the playoffs as he was held to 211 yards and one score in a loss to the Colts. A torn right quadriceps was partly responsible for the late-season swoon as Manning struggled to step into throws with waning arm strength that no longer stretched defenses downfield or to the sidelines. Despite all that, Manning still finished with the second-most passing yards and third-most touchdowns of his career, just missing becoming the first quarterback with three 40-touchdown seasons. And he still has the one of the league's best receiving units, even after losing tight end Julius Thomas to the Jaguars. New head coach Gary Kubiak likely will adapt to Manning more than forcing Manning to adapt to a new offense, but Manning's volume could decrease if Kubiak follows his running-game roots and leans more heavily on C.J. Anderson. Still, as long as the 39-year-old Manning stays relatively healthy, he should be productive, though the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady could make that a bit more challenging.
Considering he was in his age-37 season, it was rather odd timing for Manning to have the best year of his career in 2013. In his second season with the Broncos, Manning upped his touchdown rate from 6.4 percent to 8.4 percent, and the most important supporting parts from that offense will return in 2014. Leading receiver Demaryius Thomas is one of the league's elite downfield threats, Wes Welker is a high-grade chain-moving threat in the slot and 2013 breakout tight end Julius Thomas has rare big-play ability at the position. The loss of free agent wideout Eric Decker (1,288 yards, 11 touchdowns in 2013) is a concern, but the Broncos accounted for Decker's departure by adding Emmanuel Sanders (free agency) and Cody Latimer (draft). Manning should also benefit from the return of left tackle Ryan Clady (foot), making an already solid offensive line even better. The neck injury concerns that ended Manning's time with the Colts appear to be a thing of the past, and his remarkably dominant 2013 season has his stock at an all-time high. He threw for at least 400 yards or three touchdowns in all but five games last year, making him the sort of week-to-week force that can carry a fantasy squad.
After missing a year due to multiple neck surgeries, Manning not only returned to form in 2012 – he actually performed at a level not seen since his prime. Manning's 8.0 YPA was the third best mark of his career, his 37:11 TD:INT ratio was in line with his best seasons and he led the league in completion percentage at 68.6.
Things could get even better for Manning this year as Wes Welker’s presence should make the Broncos' passing game even harder to defend, and Manning's rapport with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker should only improve during their second seasons together. Moreover, Manning could see more attempts as Welker gives him an elite chain mover and short-yardage weapon the team lacked last season.
The only issue to monitor is age – Manning will be 37 this season – but the quarterback has taken such great care of his body you'd think he'll be able to sidestep any setbacks.
A "minimally invasive" neck surgery on May 23, 2011, seemed harmless enough at the time – he would be out for just 6-to-8 weeks, Colts owner Jim Irsay said. He’ll be ready for training camp, no problem. But Manning never recovered. First he was ruled out for the preseason, then his Week 1 status came into doubt, and finally, on Sept. 8 Manning underwent another surgery – a cervical fusion that ultimately knocked him out for the whole year. While there’s no way to tell from the outside whether he’s fully recovered yet, the Broncos were willing to gamble $18 million in guaranteed money on that proposition as part of a five-year, $96 million deal in March. A healthy Manning’s skills speak for themselves, and Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are a promising wideout duo, but the enduring and severe nature of Manning’s ailment makes him a major risk. His pass attempt volume is also difficult to anticipate. The John Fox regime called a slightly higher-than-average 35.5 passes per game in the four weeks it started a real quarterback (Kyle Orton), but it’s possible Manning will be eased back into a heavy workload gradually.
Like Drew Brees, Manning’s actual play took a step back last year, the elite fantasy numbers notwithstanding. Manning’s yards per-pass average fell from 7.9 in 2009 to 6.9 last year, so his career high of 679 pass attempts – 108 more than he had in 2009 – resulted in only 200 more yards, and the same number of touchdowns (33). You have to like his chances of improving his efficiency in 2011, however, because Indianapolis finally focused on fixing up its offensive line this offseason. That means a better running game to keep defenses honest as well as more time for Manning to stand in the pocket. First-round pick Anthony Castonzo has a good chance to be the team’s best tackle since losing Tarik Glenn, and second-round Villanova product Ben Ijalana should give a good boost at guard. And while he won’t be as up to speed in the team’s system, fourth-round running back pick Delone Carter might be a better pure runner than either Joseph Addai or Donald Brown. It also can’t hurt that Dallas Clark will be back in action after missing 10 games last year or that Austin Collie, who missed seven games, is healthy for training camp. Manning himself underwent surgery to repair a bulging disc in his neck in May, but is expected to be healthy in time to participate in some of training camp.
Manning remains a sound investment and likely to outperform the majority of the league at the quarterback position. The only risk with him lies in where you have to draft him. With many other QBs emerging, we can see Manning being a value pick as the fourth or fifth QB taken in many leagues. You’re guaranteed with Manning 4,000 yards and 28 TDs, with an upside of 40 TDs and closer to 5,000 passing yards. This receiving corps is as good as he’s ever had. Reggie Wayne is still near the peak of his career, and Pierre Garcon is a home-run hitter who has also proven to be reliable. Plus Dallas Clark capably mans that vital hash area of the field. You can see how alluring Manning’s upside is if the Colts defense cooperates and puts more pressure on Manning to regularly hit the 30s in points scored. Any regression relative to 2009 is likely to be very mild if it happens at all.
Jim Caldwell is the new head coach and had served as Manning’s QB coach previously, so no changes, of course, in the Colts offense. The only person on the planet insane enough to do that would be Josh McDaniels, who probably would have traded Peyton like he did Cutler.
Manning has to be the most unselfish player ever, considering his greatness coupled with his play-calling authority. Manning maddeningly keeps calling running plays near pay dirt even with non-descript backs. He’d throw 40 TDs easily if he called his number more inside the opposing 10. Last year, he gave himself 33 attempts (including two rushes), which generated 17 TDs. The backs had their number called 31 times and had 10 TDs. Those splits should be 70/30 in favor of throwing because Peyton is the rare QB where a run in the red zone is a win for the defense. If he did that, Manning would have generated about 35 TDs, which makes him worthy of the high pick.
But he’s in the high 20s now and fell 1,000 yards off the pace of the league-leading passer. That’s a nice piece to the puzzle, but you can approximate that with a quarterback drafted four or five rounds later if you just give yourself the chance.
In reality, though, he’s just a wonder, and it’s fun to own a player so spectacularly good. And, yes, you can make the case that last year was the floor for Manning as he really had to drag his offense behind him by their collective chinstrap. Without Manning, the Colts offense would be far below average, and the team would have been lucky to win six games.
Donald Brown was brought in, but that only means more running as he’ll complement Joseph Addai, who took a big step back in ‘08. Marvin Harrison was cut, but it would not surprise us to see him back this summer as the Colts did not seriously fill his spot in the draft. Anthony Gonzalez is a better fit in the slot in the Colts three-WR packages than he is outside the numbers.
Still the perfect QB. He's always going to get
you 30 TDs no matter what happens to his supporting cast. Last year, Marvin Harrison missed
almost the entire season, and it was no big deal.
He makes the receivers into stars, not vice versa.
The loss of Harrison hurt him on some of those
intermediate throws, as teams were able to roll
safeties over to Reggie Wayne's side.
Rookie Anthony Gonzalez showed flashes replacing
Harrison, especially late, but couldn't stay
healthy himself. And when Gonzalez was sidelined,
Manning literally had waiver-wire caliber
talent with which to work. Dallas Clark stepped
up and surprised with a big year allowing Manning
to attack the hash area of the field. But the
Colts would be better with Harrison back and
Gonzalez providing support on third-down sets.
We won't know if Harrison can stay healthy until
well into training camp.
One thing that hurts Manning
is the strength of the Colts defense and its mastery of the Cover 2 scheme to such an extent that it gives up very few big passing plays – a league-low 20 passes of 20-plus yards last year and just one TD. So the Colts can win now with scores in the 20s and thus can be more conservative in their play calling, especially late and with the lead.
The gold standard at the position and now an inner-circle Hall of Famer after capturing the elusive championship. While we advocate waiting on quarterbacks, Manning’s awfully tough to pass up once the Top-10 running backs and sure-thing receivers are off the board. He’ll always have that 2004-level of upside. And his floor is 30 TD passes. There is very little injury risk, given he’s impossible to sack (14 last year).
Blitzing Manning is suicidal, as he threw for 12 TDs, no picks and had a 127.4 passer rating in 119 attempts when teams did it to him in ‘06. And most incredibly, he was sacked less frequently (percentage of attempts) when blitzed (three times) than when he wasn’t. Manning is also atop our functional arm strength rankings, with a 120 QB rating on passes traveling 11-to-20 yards from scrimmage. He threw these intermediate passes about 23 percent of the time, well over the average rate of 19 percent. Given this downfield efficiency, it’s unsurprising that 65.7 percent of his passing yards were in the air (the mean is about 55 percent). Manning’s reliance on deeper passes makes his above average mark of 14 percent poor passes even more impressive. Yes, the receivers are good. But Manning makes the receivers, not vice versa.
Ideally for Manning owners, the Colts pass defense becomes more vulnerable after the turnover in the secondary. But that’s gravy. The Colts are very aggressive throwing the ball in the first half (58 percent of plays). And while we’d like to see Manning throw every time the Colts are inside the 10 rather than on just 44 percent of those plays, you can’t argue with the results – 18 TD passes on those 39 attempts. Of course, one of the reasons he doesn’t throw on a higher percent of inside-the-10 plays is that he’s so efficient in converting them into scores.
Manning regressed to the mean last year, which seems so obvious now but didn’t at the time. There’s a chance he can pile up those kinds of numbers again, especially with the Colts running game in flux after the departure of Edgerrin James. Since he calls all the plays, Manning only has himself to blame for being too conservative. The Colts were 18th in overall pass percentage. They won so easily and so often that this isn’t surprising. But more concerning is the first-down numbers, where Indy ranked 21st in pass percentage despite Manning’s second-best 10.2 YPA on those throws. The Colts were also very conservative inside the 20, just 20th in red-zone pass percentage (43 percent). In his record-setting 2004, Manning called his own number on 53 percent of red-zone plays (10th overall). But there’s no denying the decrease of efficiency, with just 18 TDs in 69 attempts last year (11th most efficient) vs. 31 scores in 82 attempts in ’04 (most efficient). With James gone, don’t expect Indy to run the ball 103 times again in the red zone, second most attempts in the NFL. But the difference might not be striking, as Manning has not altered his play calling significantly in the past even when James has been sidelined. On 126 passes thrown 11-to-20 yards, Manning had an 85 QB rating, down from 123.3 the prior year. In ’04, his YPA was 9.2, and it’s 7.7 for his career. So, 40 TD passes is the ceiling and 27 the floor. Last year, Manning had a ridiculously low 25 attempts in the fourth quarter when leading or trailing by seven or less points and his QB rating on those throws was 98.7.Despite the question marks, there's little debate that he's still the top fantasy choice at his position.
Everyone’s well aware of Manning’s record-breaking 49 touchdowns last season, but many probably don’t realize Manning posted his 2004 numbers while attempting fewer passes than in any year of his career. As a result, he had an eye-popping 9.17 yards per passing attempt, second-best all time among passers with 450 attempts or more in a season. Considering he threw just 10 interceptions and took just 13 sacks, Manning’s 2004 is not only the most prolific touchdown-passing season ever, it’s the most efficient yardage one, as well. That’s like breaking Barry Bonds’ home run record while hitting .400. Nonetheless, for the first time since his rookie year, Manning heads into a season as a fantasy question mark. While in years past, you could count on an automatic 28-30 touchdowns, this season you have to wonder whether he’ll earn his value as an early first-round pick by throwing 35-plus. The bar has been raised, and now Manning will need to out-produce the Trent Greens and Tom Bradys by a lot. The continued emergence of wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley alongside old standby Marvin Harrison contributed to Manning’s monster season, and all three, along with pass-catching tight end Dallas Clark, are in the fold for 2005. Finally, don’t forget about a defense that gave up 371 yards (fourth most) and 22 points (tied for 14th most) per game, forcing Manning to look downfield early and often. While the Colts draft was heavily slanted toward defense – the Colts took cornerbacks in the first two rounds – the unit still projects as mediocre at best.
Pick Manning, and you'll never need to give the quarterback position a second thought. Although Manning was a streaky performer last year, tossing a whopping 18 TD passes in just four games (or a mediocre 11 scores in his other 12 starts), Manning was just the opposite in 2002, failing to top three TDs in any game, but compiling nine multi-score games (versus only seven last year). In sum, last season’s streakiness aside, Manning is as consistent as it gets from the quarterback spot. Manning is also one of the NFL’s most accurate passers – only 12 percent of his throws were poor last year. But consistency and accuracy aren’t the only reasons to like Manning in 2004. In fact, there is some upside here, given that the Colts will be fielding a very strong receiving corps, by far the best of Manning’s career. With two quality receiving tight ends and a trio of dangerous receivers (including slot-man Brandon Stokley), Manning is impossible to defend vertically and horizontally, and last season’s playoff contests against Denver and Kansas City, (681 yards, 8 TDs) could be a taste of what’s to come. Moreover, the Colts don't have much cap room left for defense, so Manning is likely to be forced to put up points early and often.
While Manning probably won't be the first QB drafted in your league, there's a case to be made that perhaps he should be. For while he might not have the upside to finish No. 1 overall at the position, he's got virtually no downside as a fantasy candidate, and early picks on draft day are usually about floor more than they are about upside. It's very hard to imagine Manning not being in the top five when quarterback points are added up at the end of the year.