The Denver Broncos off-season can be summed up in one word: chaos. Things began with Mike Shanahan. After failing to make the playoffs for a third consecutive year, Shanahan was fired in a surprising move by the Broncos organization. In 2008 the Broncos shortfalls were clearly defensive in nature, allowing 28 points per game (third worst in the league). Since Shanahan is known as on offensive genius (particularly with his zone-blocking schemes) rather than a defensive minded coach, most did not peg the Broncos faults on him. Alas, owner Pat Bowlen deemed a change necessary, “After giving this careful consideration, I have concluded that a change in our football operations is in the best interests of the Denver Broncos.”
So how do you replace an established offensive mastermind? Apparently with a 33-year-old similarly offensive minded coach in Josh McDaniels. McDaniels comes from New England where he served as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2006-2008, while retaining his quarterback coaching responsibilities. (The Patriots did not name an offensive coordinator during the 2005 season, but according to the New York Times in 2008, McDaniels handled the play calling that year).
Yet despite the drastic move, initially it seemed an ideal fit. After a brief defensive stint, McDaniels began his offensive coaching career as the Patriots quarterback coach. He is credited with the rapid development of quarterback Matt Cassel during the 2008 season when helped guide the Patriots to another dominant 13-3 season. These qualities would assuredly help with the development of one of the most gifted (yet still raw) young quarterbacks the league has seen in years in Jay Cutler.
Unfortunately the McDaniels/Cutler tandem would not last long. In the end, Broncos ownership decided to back their new coach and in a blockbuster deal, Cutler was traded to the Chicago Bears for quarterback Kyle Orton and a package of draft picks. The 2009 off-season will be remember for drastically changing the dynamics of one of the youngest and most high powered offenses in the NFL. Inciting tremendous shifts in real life and fantasy implications for the Broncos offense in 2009.
QB: Kyle Orton, Chris Simms
RB: Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan, Darius Walker, Ryan Torain
WR: Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Stokley, Chad Jackson
TE: Tony Scheffler, Daniel Graham
PK: Matt Prater
Quarterback: There will be a transition period as the Broncos offense shifts from the gun-slinging Cutler to the accurate, quick firing of Kyle Orton. McDaniels himself will encorporate a variation of the West Coast offense, utilizing three and four WR sets. Orton, who shares a similar skill-set to Cassel, should do well in this system. Check-downs, good/quick decision making, and accurate throws will be essential.
Thus, while the offense as a group figures to take a step back under new direction, Orton himself should see a nice bump in value. The weapons around him him are considerably better than what he grew accustomed to in Chicago. All in all, Orton is a high upside QB2 this season.
Running Back: As the passing game is due for dramatic changes, so is the running game. We’ll see a shift from Shanahan’s run-heavy West Coast offense to McDaniels more pass-dependent attack. McDaniels, without question, brings in a history of multiple-back running back committees from New England, a fact fantasy players would be wise to keep in mind.
As can be seen above in the depth chart, the Broncos carry a wealth of options at the position. Yet one man clearly sets himself apart. I’m of course referring to the twelfth overall draft pick in 2009, Knowshon Moreno. Moreno has good speed, great vision, and excellent agility. He’s also tough to bring down and has soft hands for a running back. In other words, he’s the complete package. He should quickly establish himself as the starter and is pretty clearly the rookie to own this season in fantasy leagues.
Wide Receiver: The New England/Denver comparisons run deep. Randy Moss saw his value fall following the Tom Brady injury, as Cassel wasn’t able to get him the ball deep. Unless Brandon Marshall is traded, which is still unlikely, he can expect him to follow a similar route. Although unlike Moss, Marshall is one of the best WRs in the league after the catch. His physical attributes allow him to get great separation from opposing defensive backs, and his ability to run after the catch keeps him as a low WR1 or elite WR2 option in fantasy leagues.
While Marshall’s value will suffer slightly under new offensive leadership, second-year player Eddie Royal has a chance to improve on his impressive 91-reception rookie season. Royal will likely see a Wes Welker type role in McDaniels new offense, which just means he’ll see an abundance of balls his way. A 100-catch season is a distinct possibility. All things considered, Royal has a good chance to be a PPR monster this season, though Brandon Marshall will limit his TD potential.
Jabar Gaffney (who follows McDaniels from New England and benefits from knowing his system) and Brandon Stokley will battle each other for number three on the Broncos depth chart. While McDaniels’ system should benefit whoever wins the job, neither deserves serious fantasy consideration as anything other than a late-round flyer right now.
Tight Ends: Tony Scheffler shared an excellent chemistry with Jay Cutler. Cutler’s absence severely limits Scheffler’s upside. Also working against him is his troubling injury history and the reality that he isn’t a very good fit for McDaniels’ offense (which relies on solid TE blocking). Daniel Graham is a far better blocker than Scheffler and is likely to steal a good portion of his playing time. Unfortunately, Graham isn’t a great receiver and these two will limit one another’s fantasy potential. Unless a trade happens (and that might not even change things), neither is a good TE to own this year.
Team Defense/IDP: The Broncos defense is a poor fantasy bet once again this season. In 2008 this defensive unit allowed 374.6 ypg, ranking 29th in the league, and as previously mentioned, 28 points per game (30th in the league). They were equally abysmal against both the run and the pass. They added a few quality players in the draft, notably LB Robert Ayers, who should make an immediate impact and is worth consideration in IDP leagues, but they simply didn’t add enough talent to drastically change their circumstances this year. Royal brings an appealing dynamic to their return game, but it simply isn’t enough to propel them into fantasy relevancy. As a unit, they should be avoided in all but the most favorable of matchups.
Mike Nolan steps in as the team’s defensive coordinator after being fired from his head coaching position in San Francisco. LB D.J. Williams should do well in the occupying the role that Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis played under in Nolan’s system. Williams has the opportunity to be a servicable LB2 in IDP leagues.
Champ Bailey is one of the best cover corners in the league, but that doesn’t always translate to fantasy success. Bailey is also still recovering from an elbow surgery in the off-season. The only other player of note is the newly acquired Brian Dawkins, yet he shouldn’t be trusted for anything other than depth at the DB position.
On the whole, the Broncos have an intriguing team that is bound to struggle as they adjust to new coaching, yet they are still packed with talented players at the skill positions. While they now lack a legitimate fantasy superstar, they do still have plenty of players capable of helping fantasy leaguers.
Jake Sheets is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Jake in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of jake_twothousandfive.
Questions or comments for Jake? Post them in the Cafe Forums!
Want to write for the Cafe? Check out the Cafe's Pencil & Paper section!