Fantasy football impact: Can the Denver running game remain elite?

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

With last year's star running back now in Miami, can Montee Ball & co. step up to help carry the offense? We break down the fantasy implications.

You know those basic-cable sitcoms, the awful ones? I mean, calling them "the awful ones" doesn't really narrow it down, I'll admit, but I've noticed a trend in the casting of the shows. They take a few actors you recognize from some other past show, and then add in one (or more, but whatever) people you've never really heard of.

I don't know why, or how it came to pass. It's sort of like the Wheel of Fortune casting "rules" (one attractive young woman, one middle-aged woman, and one man who under no circumstances can be taller than Pat Sajak, and break these rules no more than once a week), in that I guess it just kind of became a formula that worked, and they stuck with it.

Check my math:

The Exes started in 2011. It stars Donald Faison (from Scrubs), Kristen Johnston (from Third Rock from the Sun), Wayne Knight (Hello, Newman), and David Alan Basche, who might be a computer-generated hologram.

Kirstie started last year. It stars Kirstie Alley (Cheers), Michael Richards (Seinfeld), Rhea Perlman (Cheers), and Eric Petersen (nobody in particular).

Happily Divorced has Fran Drescher, John Michael Higgins, Rita Moreno, and ... Valente Rodriguez. The upcoming Jennifer Falls has Jaime Pressly, Jessica Walter, Missi Pyle, Ethan Suplee, and ... Nora Kirkpatrick.

Heck, it isn't unique to basic cable. When How I Met Your Mother started, everyone knew who Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segel, and Alyson Hannigan were, but I dare you to find me 10 people in early 2005 who could have picked Cobie Smulders or Josh Radnor out of a lineup.

Now, this isn't totally fair, I'll admit. Often times, the unknown actor is the least important character of the group (though that isn't true for HIMYM). There are budget restraints and the like. And some of the actors are coming from much more fame on stage. But still, it's pretty easy to notice.

This year, the phenomenon moves to a successful sports franchise, as the Denver Broncos are running out the equivalent of a no-name alongside the proven commodities in the 2014 season.

Injury risks aside, are there really questions of what we might get out of Denver Broncos' quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends? Sure, someday Peyton Manning will be old, and Julius Thomas has yet to prove his long-term durability. Maybe there's some concern about Demaryius Thomas and/or Wes Welker, but search me. But anyone seeking to ask or answer questions about Denver in 2014 basically has to start with the running backs.

Knowshon Moreno -- the team's leading rusher from a season ago -- signed a one-year deal with Miami, meaning some combination of (mostly) Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, and C.J. Anderson will take the reins in the backfield next season.

On the one side, hey, there are worse things in life, right? Everyone knows Manning-led offenses always create opportunities for running backs; Moreno had 972 total yards of offense and five touchdowns in the two seasons combined before going for 1,586 and 13 last year. Manning helped make stars or quasi-stars out of Joseph Addai, Edgerrin James, and almost Dominic Rhodes in Indianapolis, so asking him to turn that trick out of Ball, et al, shouldn't be too great a demand.

The flip side of that, of course, is that any running back kicking it in Peyton Manning's backfield had damn well better be able to keep Peyton Manning from falling down. A falling-down Peyton Manning is a "get me a new running back" Peyton Manning, for good reason, and Ball struggled in pass protection last year. In fact, his struggles in training camp and the preseason were likely a big part of why the team went with Moreno in the first place, despite Ball's pedigree as a second-round pick and the fact that he went some 15 spots higher among running backs than Moreno in fantasy drafts last year (seriously, Moreno was being drafted behind guys like Vick Ballard, Isaac Redman, and Bryce Brown).

I've never been in a Manning-led locker room, or a Super Bowl-caliber locker room (I've never actually been in any football locker room, but WHATEVER, non-fat people). But if the stories are true, there's not really any better place for a running back to learn his stuff than that locker room. If the Broncos (and Manning) were comfortable letting Moreno go, I'm comfortable saying that Ball has learned enough to pass-protect for Manning. And if he can do that, ain't nothin' keepin' him from being a top-flight fantasy running back in 2014.

I ranked Ball as my No. 20 fantasy player for the season, and the 10th running back. It's bold, considering his relative inexperience, but what can I say, ol' Peyton keeps me believing.

Behind Ball are Hillman and Anderson. Based on experience, it would seem that Hillman would be the nominal No. 2 back over Anderson, as he has 729 career yards and two scores against Anderson's 38 and, well, zero. Still, if the team were ever going to go to Hillman, it would have happened by now. Between fumbles and poor production, Hillman has been suboptimal.

I think that if the Broncos go into 2014 with their current crop of running backs, Hillman and Anderson will be close to equal on the depth and usage charts, but both will be so seldom used that it won't be worth much. That said, I will be pretty surprised if they do run into the season with just those guys; I think they spend a late draft pick on someone3 or otherwise find a way to bring one more guy in, a guy they can trust.

Okay, I covered the David Alan Basche of the Broncos; what about the guys we're familiar with?

Peyton Manning

There are some guys who have earned the benefit of the doubt as far as normal aging processes go; there are no guys who have earned more benefit of the doubt than Manning. Until and unless (yes, unless; I'm not yet convinced he's not a cyborg) Manning starts showing serious decline, I'm still going to slot him as a top two or three quarterback at worst and just accept my loss in the season he eventually does slack off.

Even with the departures of Moreno and Eric Decker, Manning won't be hurting for targets with the Thomases, Welker, and Emmanuel Sanders and Andre Caldwell there to catch passes. I'm listing Manning as my top quarterback -- No. 6 overall -- and taking my chances.

Tight end

Julius Thomas is Rob Gronkowski with a little off the edges. Gronkowski could be a record-breaking tight end and the best receiver in the game, or he could sleep wrong and never play again. Thomas, meanwhile, has a ceiling of an upper-echelon (but not historic) tight end, while his injury concerns are there, but not overpowering like they are for the Patriots guy.

Thomas caught 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 scores a year ago in 14 games. He's unlikely to ever go much above that, because, well, no one is likely to ever go much above that. But as long as that offense maintains its basic level of personnel, there's no real reason to think a healthy Thomas does much below that, either. I have Thomas as my No. 3 tight end -- one spot behind Vernon Davis -- and 36th overall. You might want to invest in a backup tight end if you have Thomas, but otherwise you'll enjoy the draft pick.

Wide receivers

Demaryius Thomas is a No. 1 wide receiver. He's my No. 2 guy at the position, 10th overall.

Wes Welker is basically a No. 2 wide receiver. I have him No. 10 at the position, 28th overall, but in retrospect would probably move him down a slot or two. But that's it; if you have him, you're happy.

If you think I need to address the relative values of Thomas and Welker beyond that, I can't help you. That's who they are, and unless they get hurt they ought to continue to be themselves.

No, it's after those two that we start wondering about value. With Decker gone to the Jets, Sanders and Caldwell become the team's next group of receivers. Caldwell got all sorts of attention last season when he had that two-score game against the Chargers and is a player out of the Welker mold. This is why it isn't a shock that his big game came when Welker was out and why he might need some help to be super productive on his own. At the same time, though, Sanders isn't exactly not that type of receiver. He stretches it a bit more than Caldwell, but neither guy is going to be Torrey Smith out there.

Unlike other seasons, when Manning's targets go super-deep and any guy who is on the field could be worth a starting slot in fantasy, it seems unlikely Sanders or Caldwell will offer significant value in 2014. Grab Thomas or Welker if you can. If you are strong elsewhere, Sanders might give sneaky value in a WR4 sort of way, but he's not going to come anywhere near the type of value Decker offered a year ago. And Caldwell will likely be below that.

So that's it. We basically know what we're getting from a good portion of the Broncos' offense, while the running game will be unknown-sitcom-actor-ing about out there. But water finds its own level. Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders made a hit on HIMYM, while I don't know if there's anyone in the world who has ever seen The Exes or Kirstie. If you're an unknown newcomer, surround yourself with talent and there's every chance you'll be fine. Montee Ball sure hopes so.

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