Don’t sleep on the Broncos’ wide receivers

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By Sam Lane (@FFStompy)


The Denver Broncos quarterback situation is bad. Arguably the worst in the league the past three seasons bad (though, the Browns do exist). Denver quarterbacks, dating back to 2015, have finished in the bottom third of the league in most major statistical categories. Their quarterback situation is so bad that their best player, outside linebacker Von Miller, is lobbying for Kirk Cousins out in the open. The team also traded away one of the best defensive backs in the league and a cornerstone of the “No Fly Zone” in Aqib Talib to the Los Angeles Rams for a 5th round pick and cap relief to possibly sign a quarterback.

 

Year QB ESPN’s QBR Passer Rating Cmp% Y/A
2015 Peyton Manning/Brock Osweiler 22 25 22 23
2016 Trevor Siemian 26 23 25 20
2017 Trevor Siemian 29 29 29 26

Rankings from https://www.pro-football-reference.com

How this affects the wide receivers

The quarterback situation has obviously affected the fantasy football output of the wide receivers, namely Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas was an annual contender to finish as a top-five fantasy receiver from 2012-2014. His lowest finish was WR6 in 2012 in that time span. Sanders, having only joined the Broncos in 2014, finished as the WR5 in his first season with the team.

Then the bottom dropped out of Peyton Manning’s career in 2015. Ironically, this was the year the Broncos won the Super Bowl. Fantasy production fell off across the board. A drop from top-five to a WR1 (top-12), in the case of Thomas, isn’t catastrophic by any means. His production continued to drop, however, finishing as WR16 two seasons in a row in 2016 and 2017. This drop for Sanders was much more drastic, seeing him finish WR19, WR20, and WR59 in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively (Note: Sanders missed five games in 2017).

One may ask if any of this could be the wide receivers’ faults, for instance, due to an inordinate amount of drops. However, according to foxsports.com’s wide receiver dropped passes statistics since 2014,  neither Thomas’ nor Sanders dropped passes have changed significantly. Also, according to sportingcharts.com’s team dropped pass statistics, the rate at which the Broncos’ team dropped passes as a team (drops/targets) has actually been better the past two seasons compared to the previous two. On the other hand, sportingcharts.com’s  “Quarterback Bad Pass Percentage” has been increasing since 2014 (2017 data for bad pass percentage was unavailable).

 

Year Thomas Dropped Passes Sanders Dropped Passes Team Drop Percentage Bad Pass %
2014 10 0 4.5 15.75
2015 9 3 4.3 16/18.73*
2016 7 0 2.5 18.52
2017 7 3 3.7 N/A

* Brock Osweiler/Peyton Manning bad pass percentage

The Broncos wide receivers are buy-low candidates

With this relatively precipitous drop in production as well as an at best-unresolved QB situation, dynasty players have understandably soured on both receivers. A once top five wide receiver asset in Thomas is now being ranked as the WR25 according to FantasyPros dynasty PPR rankings, below guys like Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver Alshon Jeffery who just had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and finished as the WR20 in 2017 in PPR. Sanders is ranked as the WR37.

Keep in mind, these rankings don’t include the incoming rookies, which could drop them further. Reddit buy/sell polls, as well as Twitter polls, show that Thomas is being valued anywhere between a late 2018 first and mid second round pick while Sanders is being valued as a mid to late second round pick.

There is hope

Of course, age is also a part of these rankings. Thomas is 30 and Sanders is 31, which is of some concern to dynasty owners. However, Mike Tagliere (@MikeTagliereNFL) wrote an article on the age of decline for wide receivers. In this article, he points out that wide receivers at the ages of 31 and 32 finish as a top-12 WR (WR1) at the highest rates over the 10-year window studied.

The same study showed that wide receivers finish as a WR2 at a high rate through 35. They finish as a WR3  through 36. From this we can gather that top wide receivers can be extremely productive through their mid-30s and that Thomas and Sanders could have several productive years ahead.

Summary

So, what is the point of this you may be asking? The Broncos seem to be on a mission this offseason to find a better quarterback than Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch. With the #5 overall pick and the moves they have made to free up cap space, they have options.

I am of the opinion that the Broncos can’t get much worse at quarterback. The available quarterback in free agency (Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, etc.) and certain incoming rookie quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Josh Rosen) are all better options than what is currently on their roster.

We also know that, though there was a significant decline in production, both Sanders and Thomas produced WR2 numbers even with bad quarterbacks under center. Meaning they both have relatively high ceilings barring injury. Peter Howard (@pahowdy) points out that the Pittsburgh Steelers Antonio Brown and Thomas are the only two wide receivers that have put up WR2 numbers the past six years.

With that being said, both Thomas and Sanders are low-risk high-reward candidates. If the Broncos are able to upgrade at quarterback, Thomas and Sanders have the potential to reach their 2015 levels of production. They should at the very least be able to put up WR2 numbers, possibly for several years. This makes them more than worth their current late first to late second round values. I would be buying stock in one or both receivers before it is too late.

Update #1

 The Broncos have signed Keenum to a two-year contract.

People may be skeptical of this move because Keenum was a below average quarterback for most of his career. His 2017 season, however, should give people hope. Keenum finished in the top half of the league in many statistical categories, including second in completion percentage and QBR, seventh in passer rating, and 12th in yards per attempt. This is head and shoulders better than any of the statistics the Denver Broncos quarterback finished with.

The Minnesota Vikings wide receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, also had great years. Theilen finished as WR8 and Diggs finished as WR19 in 14 games played in PPR. Thomas and Sanders are arguably as good of a duo as Thielen and Diggs. The Vikings receivers’ 2017 numbers are promising for the coming years.

The signing of Keenum is not the most ideal situation for the Broncos. The thesis still stands that Thomas and Sanders are primed for an upswing in fantasy production in 2018. This possibility makes them more than worth their early second to late second-round draft pick price tags.

Update #2

Keenum will have The Denver Broncos have officially picked up the $4M option on Thomas, per James Palmer. This means that Thomas will be with the Broncos through 2019. Sanders is also signed with the team through 2019. As of now, Keenum has at least two potent weapons around him for the next two years.

For more tips and analysis, follow Sam on twitter @FFStompy.  Read other awesome articles that will help you win your leagues here. Listen to the guys talk about news, analysis, and strategy on the podcast, and follow the show on twitter @F3pod.

stompy33
Started playing fantasy football with my dad 15 years ago. Still have no idea what I am doing. Just trying to pass on any analysis I can to help you win.