Can Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders Have Fantasy Football Success in a Balanced Offense?
It's not often that two top-five fantasy football receivers come from the same team, but when the duo is on a team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning, then the circumstance is a little more understandable.
That was the case in 2014 -- in point-per-reception (PPR) formats -- for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, as Sanders came 0.2 points away from giving Denver two receivers with 300.0 PPR points last season.
Now, despite Manning's age, the two receivers are being drafted as top-13 receivers this year and both are going in the first three rounds of PPR drafts.
It makes sense, of course, but the new coaching staff -- and the new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison -- plans to implement a balanced approach for the offense. Of course, it'd be a bit of a misconception to say that the Broncos were uber pass heavy in 2014. Their pass-to-run ratio of 1.41 ranked 19th in league, so would it actually be an overreaction to stay off the elite wideouts?
What should we do?
Breaking Things Down
The most promising variable for the Denver wide receivers is efficiency. Both Thomas and Sanders finished as top-14 receivers in PPR points per snap in 2014. Sanders also ranked 12th in PPR points per target (2.14) last season despite seeing 141 targets, which ranked 11th in the league last year.
The league leader in targets, Thomas, finished just 35th in PPR points per target, scoring 1.90 PPR points on his 181 targets. The volume, though, helped lead to a second-place finish in PPR formats at the wide receiver position.
So, if the Broncos were just the 19th-most pass-heavy team in 2014 and both wideouts did just fine, perhaps their draft-day prices are justified.
Both receivers also fared well in on-field performance, measured by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures a player's performance, quantifies it, and compares it to league expectation level based on historical production. Among the 40 receivers who saw at least 100 targets last year, Sanders ranked fifth in Reception NEP per target (0.89), and Thomas (0.76) ranked 14th.
As for cumulative Reception NEP, both ranked in the top six in this 40-player subset. Thomas' Reception NEP of 140.59 ranked third, and Sanders' 125.70 ranked sixth.
Further, the red zone was kind to both players last year. Thomas led all players in red zone targets (39) last year, and Sanders (19) finished 12th (and ninth among wide receivers). Again living in the top five, Thomas's 18 red zone receptions tied for first, and Sanders' 16 was fifth among all players.
As for touchdowns, they tied for 11th with 6 apiece, and factoring out tight ends, they tied for 7th.
With Julius Thomas, his 15 red zone targets, 13 red zone receptions, and 9 red zone touchdowns now out of town, then they'll have even more opportunity, right?
Know this: the Broncos ran 180 plays in the red zone last year, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. They passed it 112 times, which was most in the league. They passed it on 62.22 percent of their red zone plays, which ranked third in the NFL. Their 68 red zone rushes was just 16th in the league.
The Broncos might play slower, but if they keep any semblance of their red zone attack the way that it was, then each receiver has a significant role on a pass-heavy offense inside the 20 -- on a team that lost nine red zone scores from their tight end, too.
Running Into the Ground?
So the actual question, then, is how many chances will they need to live up to -- or surpass -- their draft-day costs.
Again, Thomas is currently being drafted as the fourth wide receiver in PPR drafts, and Sanders is 13th. Because ADP isn't static, let's just assume Thomas needs to finish as roughly the WR5 and Sanders needs to finish inside the top 15.
That means Thomas needs to hit, roughly, 300.0 PPR points, and Sanders needs to secure at least 230.0 or so.
To hit those arbitrary bases at their points per target from last season, Thomas would need to secure 157.9 targets, and Sanders would need to see 107.5.
Now, those efficiency marks won't be identical, but on a per-target basis, they could each see significant dips in targets and still live up to their draft day cost, especially considering the ostensibly up-for-grabs red zone production.
Given that the team already ranked 19th in pass-to-run ratio last year and the efficient play of both receivers and of Manning -- whose Passing NEP per drop back of 0.27 ranked third among the 37 quarterbacks to attempt at least 200 drop backs last year and his 0.53 fantasy points per drop back ranked fifth last year -- both Thomas and Sanders should be able to overcome a "balanced approach" in 2015.