Raise your hand if you're sick of hearing about Mike Shanahan's running back committees. Apparently, Shanahan must have been tired of them too after watching a couple of Bells (Tatum and Mike) fail to ring up consistent performances in 2006. So the Broncos signed Travis Henry in the offseason and immediately hailed him as their feature back, something Denver hasn't truly had since the days of Terrell Davis.
The plan to make Henry the unquestioned No. 1 was going swimmingly until he sprained his knee over the weekend (more on this later). But provided Henry is OK -- and it sounds like he avoided the worst -- we might be spared the constant complaints from fantasy owners about Shanahan's treatment of backs.
The Broncos traded Tatum Bell, who was in and out of Shanahan's doghouse, to Detroit for cornerback Dre' Bly. Bly will team with Champ Bailey to give Denver one of the most formidable cornerback units in the league. But the development of the defensive line, which lost Ebenezer Ekuban over the weekend, will be the key in determining whether the Broncos' defense can become an elite fantasy unit.
Projected draft round Player Round Jay Cutler, QB 9-10 Travis Henry, RB 2 Mike Bell, RB 12 Javon Walker, WR 3 Brandon Marshall, WR 11 Daniel Graham, TE 15-16 Jason Elam, K 17 Defense/special teams 13-14 Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league with a 17-round draft. DND: Do not draft.
Key additions: CB Dre' Bly, TE Daniel Graham, RB Travis Henry, WR Brandon Stokley Key losses: RB Tatum Bell, QB, Jake Plummer, LB Al Wilson.
Javon Walker, WR. After missing nearly the entire 2005 season because of a torn ACL in his right knee, Walker joined the Broncos and got back on track despite Denver going through a transition to Jay Cutler at quarterback. Provided Walker's knee holds up -- no sure thing given he had it cleaned out this offseason -- there's potential for him to build on last year's 1,084-yard effort. Draft him as a No. 2 fantasy wide receiver if you can, but expect No. 1-like numbers. Despite the knee problems, Walker is a deep threat who can change games quickly, but he's also big enough (6-3) to work well in the red zone.
Travis Henry, RB. Henry sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the preseason game against Dallas. The sprain is classified as a Grade 1 (mildest form), and though the Broncos haven't given a definitive timetable for his return, he is expected to be ready for the regular-season opener. The injury will probably cause some fantasy owners to feel squeamish about using an early-round pick on Henry, so he could become a potential bargain if he slips into the third round. Just be sure to get some decent insurance a round or two later. If he stays healthy, Henry is the perfect one-cut runner for the Broncos' zone-blocking system.
Jay Cutler, QB. As it turned out, Cutler forced Jake Plummer into retirement, or semi-retirement as it may be, by being an efficient quarterback who mixed in some big plays. In five games, Cutler threw nine touchdown passes and had five interceptions. Don't expect him to keep up that pace with the TD passes, though 22-24 seems doable if he continues to improve this season. And because Shanahan won't let Cutler get all crazy with the ball, you'll get those numbers without Rex Grossman-type mistakes. Cutler is a good pick if you miss out on other second-tier QBs like Philip Rivers or Tony Romo.
Defense/special teams. With Bailey and Bly, the Broncos should be tough to pass against, but unless the line improves, teams will be able to avoid them by simply running the ball down Denver's throats. The Broncos added Sam Adams to help their run defense, but his born-on date (June 13, 1973) means his shelf life as an every-down player likely is done. Meanwhile, a couple of losses at linebacker (Al Wilson and Warrick Holdman) because of injuries will put further pressure on the run defense. If they somehow bring it together, the Broncos could be an elite group, but you shouldn't spend more than a late-round pick on them.
Jason Elam, K. Because the Broncos' offense was in transition last season, Elam had his lowest number of field-goal attempts since 2000 and his fewest extra-point attempts since '01. But his field-goal accuracy of 93.1 percent ranked second only to Matt Stover. Provided the Broncos' offense continues to improve like we think it will, Elam should have no problem maintaining his spot among the top 10 kickers. And, oh yeah, he gets to kick in Denver's thin air, too.
Champ Bailey, CB. Bailey is coming off a 10-interception season that will be difficult to repeat. But with Bly manning the other side, teams won't be able to completely avoid throwing Bailey's way. Bailey is considered by many to be the best cornerback in the league, but his fantasy value hinges on those interceptions. He should provide enough big plays to be a borderline No. 1 defensive back.
Brandon Marshall, WR. Marshall has the size (6-4, 222 pounds) and speed to draw comparisons to Terrell Owens, and he showed flashes of brilliance last season as he started to move in on Rod Smith's territory as the team's No. 2 wide receiver. Now that it appears Marshall has solidified that role, he has the talent and opportunity necessary to take a big step this year. And it's interesting to note that he and Cutler have a nice rapport going since they worked together last preseason as members of the second-team offense before coming into their own late in the year.
Daniel Graham, TE. We have a feeling Shanahan is going to love Graham's blocking ability so much that he will be on the field much more than Tony Scheffler. And since Denver's offense has had a strong history of going to the tight end, Graham should get more looks in the passing game than he did in New England. That means Graham is a potential sleeper as your No. 2 tight end.
Dre' Bly, CB. With Bailey on the other side, teams will be forced to target Bly. He has the ball skills to take advantage of the situation, and is capable of providing big plays. Draft him as your No. 3 defensive back, and with some luck, he could provide No. 2 numbers.
Mike Bell, RB. Bell strained his hip in the preseason game against Dallas, but the injury is considered to be minor. The same could be said of Bell's role in the running game should Cecil Sapp continue to make noise. Bell flashed onto the scene as a rookie last season when he was the starter in Week 1, but he never established himself in that role, which is part of the reason the team went out and signed Henry. Bell is a Henry owner's handcuff pick and an occasional goal-line vulture.
Tony Scheffler, TE. A broken left foot suffered in minicamp has put Scheffler behind Graham in the tight end pecking order. But even when he was healthy last year Scheffler, who was a popular sleeper pick in '06, wasn't able to make much of an impact until the end of the season. If he gets healthy and starts stealing touches from Graham, you should be able to find Scheffler on the waiver wire.
Cecil Sapp, RB. It seems like every year around this time, some fantasy expert is pointing to Sapp as a potential sleeper. But that's what the preseason is for, for guys like Sapp to carry the load. Once the regular season starts, Sapp will likely fade into the woodwork. But with the injury status of Henry and Bell, Sapp is worth keeping tabs on in case his role increases.
Rod Smith and Brandon Stokley, WRs. Smith is recovering from hip surgery and has yet to appear in a preseason game. He's also a 37-year-old receiver who is coming off his worst season since 1996. It was nice having Smith, who has compiled eight 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his career, but it's time to move on.
As for Stokley, we'll always remember him for posting a 1,000 yard season with 10 touchdowns as the Colts' No. 3 receiver in 2004 -- you know, the year Peyton Manning broke the TD pass record. But Stokley is coming off Achilles' tendon surgery and is never going to be in an offense as explosive as that one in Indy.
D.J. Williams, LB. Williams moves into the middle linebacker spot, where he'll be worth tracking in IDP leagues. Although Williams doesn't make enough big plays to be a big factor, he could get enough tackles to merit that attention. Hey, somebody has to step up for Wilson and Holdman, and Williams could be that guy.
Ultimate Fantasy Football Tip: At $1.2 million, Brandon Marshall is an absolute steal among fantasy wide receivers. He is priced just $100,000 more than Robert Ferguson, who just joined the Vikings, and just $30,000 less than Az-Zahir Hakim, who hasn't played like he deserved to be on team for years.
TO KNOW LIST
Coaching: The Broncos base their offense around a strong running attack, and that shouldn't change with Henry in the mix. But we're not talking about a primitive scheme here where the idea is just to knock heads with the opponent. There's plenty of creativity, including use of trick plays, misdirection and bootlegs. The Broncos will get their tight ends and backs involved in the passing game often.
On defense, the team added coordinator Jim Bates, who is considered one of the top coaches in the league. He will have the linebackers flying around the field in a 4-3 setup as big interior linemen attempt to occupy blockers.
Offensive line: The Broncos' line has been so good for so long, that it is almost a given that they'll perform well in the zone-blocking scheme. But since Matt Lepsis is coming back from a serious knee injury and the team must replace Cooper Carlisle, we have them ranked 10th just to be safe. But chances are they'll be right back near the top by the end of the season.
Schedule analysis: Weeks 14-16 (otherwise known as the fantasy playoffs) look good for the Broncos' running game as the Chiefs and Texans are opponents before the big, bad Chargers in Week 16. Four games with the AFC South are an overall boon to the running game, too. In fact, besides a Week 12 game at Chicago, there are some soft run defenses from Weeks 8-15. Fantasy Strength of Schedule: 22nd toughest (or 11th easiest).