Envisioning the 2016 Denver Broncos: Life After Peyton?

It's long been speculated, but it gets more likely with each passing year. What happens when Peyton Manning hangs up the cleats?

It’s certainly been an interesting offseason for the Denver Broncos.

With the specter of a quarterback about to retire and a highly-paid wide receiver departing to free agency looming, even the promise of a young and talented running back seizing the reins isn’t enough to shake the Mile High City out of its doldrums. Another regime change has happened as well, leaving the team with an uncertain identity and direction, and fans aren’t sure whether to be hopeful or disappointed. Fortunately their division hasn’t improved much either, so they will still have a fighting chance to make the playoffs.

But there still might be hope for the 2016 season.

Today, I decided to do a thought experiment looking at the Broncos’ future and projecting what seems most likely to happen one year down the road, after the 2015 season. With speculation always swirling about Peyton Manning’s retirement, this seems an appropriate time to use our analytics to look a little forward and see about what could be. What will the 2016 Denver Broncos look like, and will “The Sheriff” still be under center?

Future Sight

This is the big question on everyone’s minds about the future of the Broncos.

My analysis here will begin anecdotally, but I promise there is concrete evidence behind it; bear with me. Peyton Manning -- perhaps like career quarterback record-holder Brett Favre before him -- seems to have an air about him of being too intensely passionate about the game of football to walk away. He doesn’t view his Super Bowl XLI championship as an achievement as much as he sees it as a part of an incomplete masterpiece -- one that was set back tremendously in Super Bowl XLVIII.

We know that Manning and general manager John Elway are gunning it to win the title now, and many of the team’s personnel decisions indicate this.

One dilemma is whether or not they can afford it.

Manning’s contract is signed through the 2016 season, and he took a significant pay cut to help the team this past offseason, to the tune of $4 million. This is important, though: according to Spotrac, his 2016 cap hit is around $21.5 million and the dead cap if he was cut would be only $2.5 million. That means that should he suffer a major loss of performance in 2015, the Broncos could cut him and save $19 million of cap space. So, how likely is it that Manning falls off the table in this, his age-39 season?

Time Spiral

We’ve done career analysis for quarterbacks before, and also some specific analysis about quarterbacks in the twilight years of their career. We base this research in our comprehensive signature football metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Peyton’s last five years of production via the Passing NEP and Total NEP metrics. Do we see a downward arc that indicates the end is nigh?

YearAgePass NEPPer Drop BackTotal NEP
200933188.80 (1st)0.32 (t-2nd)187.88 (1st)
201034138.36 (3rd)0.20 (5th)142.00 (3rd)
201236164.88 (2nd)0.27 (2nd)166.90 (3rd)
201337278.52 (1st)0.41 (1st)262.88 (1st)
201438167.47 (2nd)0.27 (4th)155.65 (2nd)

We can see that in each season, Manning has sustained an exceptional level of production both in terms of pure Passing NEP, per-drop back Passing NEP, and Total NEP. There’s no clear arc to this span of time, which indicates that he is currently still in a production plateau. Where on the typical quarterback arc is he, though?

To cite my research on quarterback careers, we often see the peak of a quarterback’s career in Years 6 to 9, and then they have a two-year “post-peak plateau” in Years 10 and 11. Sure enough, Manning’s Passing NEP jumped from 139.85 in 2003 (Year 6) to 231.10 in 2004 (Year 7). He then put up Passing NEP scores above 185.00 through 2006 (Year 9) before settling into his current typical 140.00 to 160.00 Passing NEP range that he is currently in.

He is clearly on the latter half of the production curve over the course of his entire career, but he’s sustained elite production through his post-peak plateau, which has been nearly four times as long as the average long-term starting quarterback’s post-peak stage. On top of that, he still has historical potential even at this phase of his career. In summary, Peyton’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and I’m certain he will be a Bronco in 2016.

Planar Chaos

What does that mean for the rest of the team? Certainly Peyton’s decision to return would influence wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in his decision on whether or not to sign an extension with the team. Still, one would imagine that Peyton will continue to leave his future uncertain until each new offseason, and the idea of his quarterback playing year-to-year may not appeal to one of the league’s top wideouts if he can sign for “Calvin Johnson money” for the rest of his career.

Peyton’s returning could solidify running back C.J. Anderson as one of the league’s most productive running backs for a second straight year. With the kind of prolific passing threat that a Manning-led offense provides, Anderson wouldn’t face nearly as much opposition in terms of loaded defensive fronts. With a full slate of touches in 2015 and 2016, he may crack 1,800 all-purpose yards in two consecutive seasons.

Emmanuel Sanders is a 2017 free agent like Manning and may walk when the production dries up if Manning retires. Sanders will be 30 himself, and may look to sign a strong last contract of his career wherever he can, parlaying a stellar resume with the Broncos.

Cody Latimer, Virgil Green, and Owen Daniels would be the three remaining certain holdovers from the “Peyton Era” if both Sanders and Thomas walk, meaning the team would have to get active with its free agent budget.

As for Peyton, I think he could play in the NFL at a quality level until he’s 45. We know his upside is exceptional, but his longevity and toughness is also legendary in an inimitable way. If he wins one more Super Bowl with the Broncos, does he ride into the sunset? Maybe. Or maybe that spurs him on to try until he just can’t throw anymore.

I’m hoping for the latter.