Commentary

Peyton helps value of Broncos WRs

But health questions make Manning the ultimate risk/reward player for 2012

Updated: March 20, 2012, 3:22 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

It's not every day a guy like Peyton Manning changes teams. Let's all just take a breath.

OK, forget it. Let's hyperventilate. This is fun.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCan Peyton Manning return to his past glory in Denver, especially after missing the entire 2011 season due to injury?

There are still many uncertainties left on the return road to fantasy glory for Mr. Manning as a member of the Denver Broncos. But only the most dyed-in-the-wool Tim Tebow fan wouldn't see this as the most exciting moment in franchise history over the past decade-plus. The Broncos now have a chance to become a legit AFC title contender. For our immediate purposes, Denver's offensive weapons may have just become elite fantasy options.

Let's break this down step by step:

1. The downside. We'll get this out of the way first. Manning is about to turn 36 and has had four surgical procedures on the right side of his neck over the past year and a half. I believe the experts who've seen Manning throw, and who say his old ability looks like it's gradually returning. And I know that when he's clicking, Manning tends not to take that many direct shots. (He's routinely averaged less than one sack per game over the past decade.) But he will be hit. And until he is, we simply won't know. We won't know whether he's one harsh blow away from retirement. We won't know whether his arm will instantly regress again. This risk just has to be figured into any assessment of Manning's fantasy value, and the values of his potential weapons. For this reason, I don't think we can instantly return him to his customary top-five QB status. If he plays 16 games, I have confidence that he'll produce a 4,000-yard season with 25-plus TDs, because that's what he does. But I don't know that he'll play 16 games. Nobody does.

2. The offensive philosophy. It's not feasible that Manning will instantly transform the Broncos into "Colts West." I have every confidence that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who reportedly was instrumental in getting Denver's philosophies more in accord with Tebow's abilities last year, will do everything in his power to make Manning comfortable. That will almost certainly include unlimited license to make changes at the line of scrimmage, and call whatever plays he sees fit. But the simple fact remains: Manning and guys like Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Dallas Clark built up that insane, instinctive chemistry over years and years. Offenses don't usually completely wipe out terminology and force everyone to re-learn everything; this is probably a technicality, but what the Broncos wind up running in '12 likely will be a hybrid of terminology, play calling, route-running and philosophy. John Fox does still prefer a defensive brand of football, though he was able to adjust when he had a gunslinging Jake Delhomme working with Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad those years with the Carolina Panthers. And Willis McGahee is coming off a pretty good season. Obviously, Manning will be the focal point. My larger assessment is simply that assuming you'll see a carbon copy of everything the Colts ever ran is na´ve.

3. The receiving corps. Demaryius Thomas is now the man with all the fantasy upside on the planet. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds with terrific straight-ahead speed (he never had an official pre-draft 40 time because of a foot injury), Thomas presents Manning with the kind of physical freakiness he's never had in a receiver. If you woke me up from a year-long cryogenic nap in March 2013 and told me the guy known as "Bebe" turned out to be fantasy's No. 1 wide receiver, I wouldn't be stunned. For that reason, the risk-lovers among us may consider drafting him as a top-10 receiver in August. But even outside the risk of injury to Manning, we must remember Thomas himself had a serious foot injury in college and then tore an Achilles just more than a year ago. In addition, it's been convenient to blame Thomas' hands problems on Tebow's inaccuracy; that excuse will likely be gone if Manning stays upright.

Demaryius Thomas/Eric Decker
Michael Tullberg/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas and Eric Decker may be the biggest winners of the whole Peyton Manning sweepstakes.

Eric Decker is just about the same size as Thomas (6-3 and 218 pounds) and is only perhaps slightly slower, though he has a history of foot injuries and he also hurt his knee during the playoffs. It's easy to imagine these two wideouts jockeying back and forth on a weekly basis, racking up targets as opposing defenses keep shifting their focus, trying to figure out whom to stop first. I'm not going to put either of these guys in my top 10 fantasy WRs because of this high-risk situation. But at least until this roster undergoes further change, I'm putting Thomas inside my top 20 WRs and Decker inside my top 30. (As always, click here to see my Top 100 ranks for '12.) As for ancillary receiving weapons, I won't be surprised if the Broncos add more veterans to complicate matters (Dallas Clark, perhaps?). If they don't, incumbent second-year tight end Julius Thomas has immense athletic upside and could become a deep-league sleeper, and Matt Willis could be a candidate for slot duties.

4. The running game. These numbers are obviously skewed by Tebow's 122 rushing attempts, but overall the Broncos ran on 56 percent of their play calls last season, tops in the NFL. Completely remove Tebow's runs, and they still would've ranked fifth in the run-heaviness of their play calling. That's not going to stick. McGahee was a revelation in '11, showing life in his legs after a couple of down years in Baltimore, but he turns 31 in October and I can't imagine he has anything close to another 1,199-yard season ahead of him in '12. But don't sound the death knell for his fantasy value just yet. If McGahee can stay healthy, he's got a shot for significantly more goal-line work than he had last season during Tebowmania; remember, despite that resurgent year, McGahee scored only two red zone rushing TDs (and four rushing TDs overall), compared to six for Tebow. One thing you can be fairly certain of: Manning isn't taking too many QB sneaks in Denver. Knowshon Moreno could return from his torn ACL to fight for carries and receptions, though one gets a sense that the Broncos are tired of him. Lance Ball might be in the mix. And heck, it's within the realm of possibility that the team gears up for a big Manning-related run and trades for someone like Jonathan Stewart. But while there's a temptation to lower McGahee in my RB ranks simply because of this potential deal, I've resisted the urge to do so. He still sits at No. 24 for now.

5. Peyton's ranking. This is so tough. Can you really draft him to be a fantasy starter in a 10-team league? And if you decide the answer to that question is "yes," how high do you go? I have him as my No. 8 QB right now, which I think encapsulates the excitement and upside that comes with his decision, and douses it with a splash of reality. That puts him one spot behind his brother, Eli Manning, but one slot ahead of Tony Romo, who's followed by Philip Rivers. I mean, there are a lot of variables here, right? And I haven't even talked about the weather. I'm sure he'll handle it, because he's one of the best players in NFL history. But has the elder Manning consistently given us great bad-weather games? Deciding whether and when to bite on Peyton will be a fantasy-draft-defining decision in every league this year.

6. NFL-wide fallout. Right off the bat, you hear that Tebow will be traded. First off, good luck with that. The Broncos' brass has done everything possible to tell the world how little it thinks of Tebow despite all he did for the team last year. Who's going to pay much for him now? Jacksonville Jaguars GM Gene Smith has stated fairly unequivocally that he isn't interested. I guess the Miami Dolphins could give it a whirl just for the fun of it. But it seems mighty unlikely that Tebow ends up on a team where a starting gig is guaranteed, and that completely knocks the fantasy wind from his sails. He's a late-round flyer at best. Alex Smith is likely to return to the San Francisco 49ers, which puts a damper on excitement surrounding Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. Jake Locker can go back to being the QB of the future (and perhaps the present) and Matt Hasselbeck doesn't need to look for a new zip code. (I'd love to see Locker play well enough this summer to win that Tennessee Titans gig, and watch him and Kenny Britt hook up regularly this year.) And there are further ripples, including whether any of Manning's other erstwhile teammates will join him a mile high.

For now, though, let's bask in this excitement. There are questions we won't have answered for months and months, though it will be fun to speculate. Fantasy drafts will be won and lost based on these risk/reward assessments. And Manning will either write a dashing postscript to his Hall of Fame career or go down hard, bringing John Elway with him. But you know one thing: It won't be boring.