Should the Broncos Keep Featuring Emmanuel Sanders Over Demaryius Thomas?

Through Week 4, the Broncos are featuring Sanders, but should he be out-targeting Thomas?

The Denver Broncos' passing offense features two high-profile wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

From 2012 to 2015, Thomas was clearly the lead wide receiver in the offense, seeing no fewer than 141 targets in all four years. In 2012 and 2013, he had more targets than running mate, Eric Decker, and in 2014 and 2015, he received more targets than Sanders.

However, Sanders has now out-targeted Thomas for the past six games when including last year's final two playoff games with the opening four from this year. Last season, Sanders actually outperformed Thomas significantly based on our advanced analytics.

Being that we are a quarter of the way through the year, it's fair to question whether this pace should continue for the rest of the season and see if Sanders is again outperforming Thomas.

With Sanders on pace for 168 targets this year, let's see if the transition to him as the top receiver is the right choice.

Bucking the Trend

Right now, Thomas is on pace for only 108 targets. This would be about 70 and 80 targets fewer than his targets from each of the past two seasons.

Furthermore, Thomas has not seen fewer than 140 targets in a year since his second year in the league -- Tim Tebow was his quarterback at the time. Now, with Trevor Siemian leading the offense, Thomas is again not the focal point in the offense.

So, using traditional statistics, and our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric we can analyze the situation.

Player Tar Rec Rec Yd TD Yd at Rec/Rec Yd/Tar Rec NEP Tar NEP Rec NEP/Tar Rec Success%
Demaryius Thomas 27 21 332 2 9.52 12.3 27.15 22.33 1.01 90.48%
Emmanuel Sanders 42 25 293 3 8.84 6.98 26.38 2.59 0.63 88.00%

Before breaking down the overall efficiency numbers, note that the two have similar marks in yards at the reception per catch. This suggests the two are, on average, catching the ball at a similar level of the field.

By all accounts, Thomas is performing at a much higher level than Sanders is. Although he has about two-thirds as many targets as Sanders has, his traditional statistics and NEP metrics are far ahead.

While Thomas' yards per target mark makes him appear like the big-play target, this is due to his ability to catch more of his targets than Sanders has. Thomas has caught 78% of his targets. Sanders has caught 60% of his targets.

Due to the catch rate difference, Thomas' yards per target has soared to 12.30 while Sanders' has floundered to 6.98.

To illustrate Thomas' success over Sanders further, his Reception NEP per target is nearly twice as high as Sanders'. Sanders' 0.63 mark is slightly below last year's league average of 0.67. Thomas' 1.01 would have ranked third last year among receivers with at least 27 targets.

Needless to say, Thomas has been far more efficient than Sanders once the ball is in his hands.

More Thomas

While we are early in the season, and Sanders' Target NEP can come closer in line with his Reception NEP like Thomas' -- meaning less wasted opportunity and better efficiency -- it is clear that Thomas is both the safer and more explosive receiving option in this offense through four games.

Going forward, the Broncos need to make a concerted effort to involve Thomas in the offense more than they have so far this year.