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Player Spotlight: Denver Wide Receiver Corps

A detailed look at Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker's fantasy prospects for the 2013 season

Last season the Denver Broncos finished 2nd in the league with 481 points scored, and Peyton Manning threw for 4,534 yards and 37 touchdowns in his first season in the Mile High City.  Denver would've been a hot bed of fantasy relevance this season even if they stood pat personnel wise; but we know that's not what happened. Instead, the Broncos took advantage of a contentious contract negotiation in New England and pounced on Wes Welker with a 2-year, $12mm contract. In terms of real NFL value, there's no discernible downside to adding a perenniel 100-catch slot receiver to an already potent offense. But in fantasy terms, Welker's addition brings both risk and reward.

History says we (probably) can't have it all...

Needless to say, it's rare for an NFL team to field three 1,000-yard receivers in a single season. In fact, it's only happend FIVE TIMES in league history. 

  • 1980 Chargers
  • 1989 Redskins
  • 1995 Falcons
  • 2004 Colts
  • 2008 Cardinals

When something has only occurred five times in league history, it's not smart to bet on it happening again. Is it POSSIBLE that Thomas, Decker and Welker could eclipse the 1,000-yard mark? Sure, but it's HIGHLY UNLIKELY. The silver lining here is that Peyton Manning was responsible for one of the five instances:

2004 Indianapolis Colts

  • Reggie Wayne -- 77 receptions for 1,210 yards and 12 TDs
  • Marvin Harrison -- 86 receptions for 1,113 yards and 15 TDs
  • Brandon Stokley -- 68 receptions for 1,077 yards and 10 TDs
Demaryius Thomas = Elite and Fairly Valued

If you're going to draft one of the trio, it's Demaryius Thomas. Thomas broke out in his third season, emerging as Peyton Manning's top weapon -- 94 receptions for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Thomas remains the unquestioned top target and will be the one receiver who lines up outside the majority of snaps. He was targeted 141 times last year (12th) but finished 4th in yards, thanks to an impressive 66% catch rate. As long as Thomas is healthy, there's no reason he shouldn't see another 140+ targets and be the Broncos answer to Marvin Harrison for years to come. You're going to have to draft Thomas in the 2nd or 3rd round, but he should deliver as a cornerstone of your lineup.

Wes Welker = Overvalued in his New Role

Wes Welker is currently being drafted 14th among receivers.  In the last five seasons, the 14th ranked fantasy WR scored between 151 and 165 fantasy points -- averaging 157.8 points. Now let's consider the combinations that would equate to 158 fantasy points in a standard scoring format (1 point per 10 yards receiving, 6 points per receiving TD). 

  • 900 yards (90 points) and 12 touchdowns (72 points) = 162 FPTs
  • 1,000 yards (100 points) and 10 touchdowns (60 points) = 160 FPTs
  • 1,100 yards (110 points) and 8 touchdowns (48 points) = 158 FPTs
  • 1,250 yards (125 points) and 6 touchdowns (36 points) = 161 FPTs

Do any of those totals seem likely for a team's third wide receiver? Even if you think Welker is going to be targeted 2nd most on the team, you can't possibly expect him to receive as many targets as he did in New England, yet his current ADP assumes he has a season the looks a lot like his typical season as the Patriots' top option.  Unless Decker or Thomas get hurt, Welker is HIGHLY UNLIKELY to offer anything more than fair value on draft day.

Eric Decker = The Value Play

Eric Decker is current being drafted 22nd among receivers in spite of finishing 7th last year.  Clearly fantasy owners believe Decker is the person losing out in this equation. But has the worry gone too far? In the last five seasons, the 22nd ranked fantasy WR scored between 132 and 140 fantasy points -- averaging 134.8 point. Let's once again consider the combinations that would equate to 135 fantasy points in a standard scoring format.

  • 750 yards (75 points) and 10 touchdowns (60 points) = 135 FPTs
  • 800 yards (80 points) and 9 touchdowns (54 points) = 134 FPTs
  • 900 yards (90 points) and 7 touchdowns (42 points) = 132 FPTs
  • 1,000 yards (1000 points) and 5 touchdowns (35 points) = 135 FPTs

Decker scored 13 touchdowns last year on 132 targets, so even without the addition of Wes Welker it would be logical to expect some regression on the TD front. But will Decker really suffer a significant cut in his overall targets and yards COMBINED with cutting his TDs in half? It's not impossible, but it certainly does offer far more upside than Welker does at their respective ADPs.

Myth Busting the Risk to Decker's Numbers -- It's All About the Slot... 

Slot Routes by Denver Broncos, 2012

PlayerRoutesSlot Routes% Slot
Brandon Stokley 380 357 93.9%
Jacob Tamme 294 164 55.8%
Matt Willis 97 47 48.5%
Joel Dreessen 288 103 35.8%
Eric Decker 590 119 20.2%
Demaryius Thomas 570 44 7.7%
Total 1361 687 50.5%
  • In 2012, 94% of Brandon Stokley's 380 routes run came from the slot -- his percentage by far led the league
  • Matt Willis ran 97 routes and 49% of those were in the slot
  • TE Jacob Tamme ran 164 slot routes, more than 50% of his routes
  • TE Joel Dreessen ran 103 slot routes, 36% of his total
  • In total, those four players ran 524 routes in the slot last year

For all the worry that Eric Decker's role would be diminished, he only ran out of the slot on 20% of his snaps -- 119 routes out of 590 total. Compare that to Wes Welker's tally. Last year 508 of his 618 total routes came out of the slot, a whopping 82% of the time.  Eric Decker is NOT the loser in this equation!  Wes Welker isn't taking snaps away from Decker. Welker is taking the snaps that went to Brandon Stokley, Matt Willis, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen last year. Even if Welker is somehow targeted as frequently as he was in New England, there were still be enough slot snaps from that quartet to allow Welker to flourish without robbing a single snap from Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas

POSITIVES

  • Peyton Manning remains one of the league's premier passers
  • New OC Adam Gase wants to increase the pace, meaning the Broncos should be amog the league leaders in passing targets
  • Demaryius Thomas proved last year he's one of the few dominant all around receivers in the NFL, he was and is Peyton Manning's top target
  • Wes Welker is the perfect slot receiver and will be playing with a chip on his shoulder, and the Broncos had more than 1,000 slot routes run last year
  • Eric Decker is not a slot receiver, but is being discounted by fantasy owners over fears he will lose snaps to Welker

NEGATIVES

  • The Broncos lost centers J.D. Walton and Dan Koppen, and must protect Manning as his loss would derail everyone's fantasy outlook
  • The addition of Welker could mean inconsistency even if all three receivers have solid year end numbers, you could have a few complete bust weeks if the game plan calls for throwing to the other players
  • Thomas is being drafted as a 2nd round pick and he must be dominant to deliver value
  • Welker is being drafted as a fringe WR1, even in non-PPR leagues, which is a risky proposition given he will no longer be the most targeted receiver on his team
  • Eric Decker has ADP value, but is the most at risk to regression given his unusually high TD rate

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Denver Broncos offense is going to be a coveted gold mine on draft night, and with good reason. In Manning's first season in Denver he fielded a Top 5 offense and turned both Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas into top 8 fantasy receivers. Wes Welker has spent the better part of the last six years dominating out of the slot, and delivering exceptional value particularly in PPR leagues. It's possible that all three receivers will eat into each other and ultimately make it frustrating to own them all. Yet, I suspect the reality is all three will have their moment, but the only one positioned to disappoint is Welker. Not because Welker won't be effective, but because he's being drafted as though he'll retain 100% of his production from the Patriots, and that's simply illogical -- even Welker expects fewer targets. Decker is unlikely to match last year's WR7 finish, but at his current ADP there is virtually no risk in drafting him. Decker remains a good bet to finish as a fantasy WR2 yet you only have to pay low end fantasy WR3 prices. Welker isn't going to hurt Decker, he's going to 'hurt' Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen and he'll also gobble up the snaps Brandon Stokley earned in 2012. My recommendation? Target Demaryius Thomas with confidence as a WR1, let someone else bet on Welker sustaining his value, and be open to the idea of Decker as your WR3 with upside. 

PROJECTIONS

Demaryius Thomas Projections

 RecsYardsTDs
David Dodds 86 1,281 11
Bob Henry 88 1,350 11
Jason Wood 99 1,500 12
Maurile Tremblay 88 1,310 8

Eric Decker Projections

 RecsYardsTDs
David Dodds 70 924 8
Bob Henry 75 975 10
Jason Wood 75 955 8
Maurile Tremblay 69 899 8

Wes Welker Projections

 RecsYardsTDs
David Dodds 79 916 8
Bob Henry 70 820 8
Jason Wood 80 885 8
Maurile Tremblay 91 1,088 6

THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE WEB

Gladys Louis Tyler of Football Nation believes all three receivers will go over 1,000 yards receiving:

It is not inconceivable for three wide receivers to all eclipse 1,000 yards in one season. In fact Manning's 2004 Colts did just that, with Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Bradon Stokley. Manning's trio of Welker, Thomas and Decker is just as good if not better. Look for all three to go over the 1,000 yard mark. Count on Welker as a PPR top 10. Count on Thomas as a standard and PPR league top 5. Decker will be a serviceable WR2. If he remains a Bronco you can count Caldwell out.

Joe Fortenbaugh of National Football Post thinks all three will finish as Top 20 fantasy receivers:

The Peyton Manning acquisition transformed Thomas from a moderately productive, talent-rich youngster into a Pro Bowler. That’s what happens to the supporting cast when Manning lines up under center. And while we envision another highly productive season from the former Georgia Tech standout, it’s worth noting that Wes Welker’s inevitable 100+ receptions are going to take away some opportunities from other guys on the roster, which just so happens to include Thomas.

[Welker] Traded one future Hall of Fame quarterback for another this offseason, meaning he shouldn’t have an issue hitting 100+ receptions for the sixth time in seven years. Since 2007, no player in the NFL has caught more passes than Welker (672), with Chicago’s Brandon Marshall eating dust in second place (592). Don’t expect double-digit touchdown totals. Do expect high productivity on a very consistent basis.

]Decker] Ranked seventh in fantasy scoring at the wide receiver position in 2012, but between Demaryius Thomas and the addition of Wes Welker, we feel that Decker will experience a slight regression in 2013. There are only so many passes in John Fox’s conservative game plan to go around.


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