Can Trevor Siemian Keep the Broncos' Offense Afloat Beyond Week 1?

Trevor Siemian has big shoes to fill for the Denver Broncos' offense. How did he perform in his first start?

No one is ever truly ready for adversity.

In times of stress or turmoil, I’ve found that most people have a little saying that we turn to for emotional strength. One of my go-to’s is the Socratic paradox, which goes: “All that I know is that I know nothing.” Socrates suggests with this sentiment that he is no wiser than anyone else, but paradoxically demonstrates that this is superior wisdom to his peers.

Still, not even the wisest football philosopher would have confidently predicted the way the first game of the 2016 NFL season would go last night, as the Denver Broncos eked a win out over the Carolina Panthers in a heated rematch of Super Bowl 50. It wasn’t that the Broncos won that was surprising, but that they never looked out of control with second-year former seventh-round quarterback Trevor Siemian at the helm.

Our own Jim Sannes and I have embraced both the upsides and the flaws of Siemian this offseason in his quest for the starting job. Now that he’s secured it and played in meaningful games, there are plenty of things to derive from Siemian’s Week 1 performance.

Can Trevor Siemian keep the Broncos’ offense afloat beyond Week 1?

A Posteriori

The prevailing theory on how crazy the Denver Broncos were for naming Siemian their starting quarterback this year -- as defending Super Bowl Champions, no less -- went something like, “Well, at least it’ll be really hard for him to be worse than Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler.”

On numberFire, we use a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) to measure a player’s contributions to their team on the field. NEP is an analytic helps us look deeper than the box score and show how that player did versus expectation in any situation on the field. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

So, how low is the bar for Siemian to hurdle? The average Passing NEP per drop back rate of a starting quarterback over the last five years has been 0.07. Manning and Osweiler combined in 2015 for a rate of 0.02 Passing NEP per drop back, with 645 drop backs between them. For comparison’s sake, this placed the Broncos’ team quarterback as a whole a few notches below Teddy Bridgewater -- it wasn’t pretty.

Siemian now has registered his first result of the season, and it turned out to be about a -0.04 Passing NEP per drop back rate (per, a well below-average showing and a rate lower than Peyton Manning’s 2015 season. His line ended up a middling 18-for-26 for 178 passing yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. Now, with that said, this came against numberFire’s second-ranked passing defense in the league in the Panthers. Our projected Defensive NEP for them is 1.70 standard deviations better than the NFL average this year, and Siemian put up a Passing NEP per drop back just 0.30 standard deviations below the 2015 average.

Still, as fans of fantasy hoping to see the Denver passing offense sustained, we were hoping for slightly better from Siemian in his debut. This subpar showing should have us a bit nervous for where the Broncos go from here. If the passing game diminishes this much, will there still be fantasy value to go around in the Mile High City?

I Think, Therefore I Am

We all knew the Broncos’ passing game was going to regress somewhat with the weak-armed Siemian under center. His biggest strength as a passer is that he doesn’t usually make mistakes -- and that’s just fine for NFL purposes. But in fantasy football, we like passers who lock in on their top targets and deliver the ball downfield. How much value did Siemian deliver in Week 1?

The table below shows the Broncos who had multiple targets and their receiving production in terms of receptions, targets, yards, and touchdowns.

Player Position Rec Targ recYD recTD
Emmanuel Sanders WR 5 8 49 0
Demaryius Thomas WR 4 6 48 0
C.J. Anderson RB 4 5 47 1
Virgil Green TE 4 5 28 0

Each of running back C.J. Anderson, wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and tight end Virgil Green received at least five targets in this game. There were no frills, no tricks, no crazy audibles -- the Broncos just lined up and did what they’ve showed they were going to do all offseason: grind out production and keep the chains moving. There were key passes to the running back and play-action rollouts targeting the tight end, but Thomas and Sanders still saw the most targets on the team, giving Sanders a 30.77 percent target market share and Thomas a 23.08 percent share.

The other effect of a limited quarterback on an offense’s production is usually that the running game gets leaned on. Did that pan out last night? The table below shows the production of the Denver rushing attack.

Player Position Rush rushYD rushTD rushYPC
C.J. Anderson RB 20 92 1 4.60
Trevor Siemian QB 5 20 0 4.00
Devontae Booker RB 3 8 0 2.67
Andy Janovich FB 1 28 1 28.00

With 29 rushing attempts last night (a 0.90 pass-to-run play calling ratio), the Broncos showed that they plan to play smashmouth football behind C.J. Anderson all season long. They are going to focus this offense on the ground game, which means Anderson has become the primary fantasy contributor on the team.

Life Imitating Art

All things considered, a 69.23 percent passing completion rate against a team as good as the Panthers is an incredible number to build on and proof that this passing offense can succeed within its limitations. In better matchups, it’s possible that he puts up more appealing passing yardage than a 6.85 yards per attempt. We as fantasy owners just have to be well aware that there is a much lower floor for the receivers in Denver than there has been in the past. Manning would usually get a score to his wideouts weekly, but Siemian may not be able to do that consistently -- or it will go to his running backs.

Siemian is a game manager through and through. While we may not know everything, we did see this coming. Ride C.J. Anderson in your fantasy leagues, but you’ll have an existential crisis trying to predict the Broncos’ receivers this season.