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It’s a classic case of “be careful what you wish for”: Broncos fans had grown tired of Mike Shanahan… but at least that took 14 years. In about five months on the job, Josh McDaniels has Denver wishing for the old days of 2008. The NFL’s youngest head coach—and fifth-youngest ever, right after Lane Kiffin, Harland Svare, John Michelosen, and David Shula and right before John Madden and Don Shula—roared into town ready to create Patriots West. What owner Pat Bowlen may not have bargained for is that the new regime would result in the team’s Pro Bowl quarterback leaving town and their top wideout asking to follow suit.
Okay, so perhaps it’s not exactly the restart the Broncos were hoping for. But Bowlen certainly saw something—another Shanahan, perhaps?—in McDaniels, who zoomed past Jason Garrett as the hot young offensive mind. McDaniels put himself on the map as OC for the Patriots’ 2007 offensive fireworks, then solidified his cred by helping backup Matt Cassel direct the Pats to an 11-5 record after Tom Brady’s season-ending knee injury.
Recreating the Brady-to-Moss Patriots magic might have been easier with Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, but McDaniel’s futile attempt to acquire Cassel cost him Cutler’s trust and eventually led to a trade. Now McDaniel starts with Kyle Orton, acquired in the deal that sent Cutler to Chicago. Orton wasn’t asked to be much of a thrower in Chicago, at least not as much as he was in college when he was matching Drew Brees’ passing records at Purdue. And if McDaniels can take Cassel, who hadn’t started a game since high school, and turn him into a productive NFL quarterback it would stand to reason that he can do something similar with Orton.
Problem is, last year’s Broncos offense was hardly broken; Denver averaged 395 yards of offense per game, second in the NFL. It was the defense that ranked 29th in yards allowed and 30th in points surrendered that kept Denver out of the postseason and prompted Shanahan’s ouster.
The key for Orton—and for the entire offense, really—will be an improved completion percentage. Orton hasn’t topped 59% in four years in the NFL and sports a career mark of 55.3%; last year Cassel completed 63% of his throws and averaged almost one yard per attempt better than Orton. Asking for the quarterback upgrade is enough, but asking Orton to pull this off without Marshall might be sheer lunacy.
If Marshall sticks around, the Broncos may just have the horses to help Orton do a serviceable impersonation of Cassel. In addition to Marshall (approximating the role of Randy Moss in this iteration of the offense) Denver has Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokley working out of the slot a la Wes Welker, newly signed Brandon Lloyd, and former Patriots Jabar Gaffney and Chad Jackson.
Also, don’t overlook tight end Tony Scheffler. The subject of offseason trade rumors—New England’s offense has tended to prefer blocking tight ends to pass catchers—Scheffler demonstrated a willingness to work with the new administration and may find himself rewarded this season. For starters, Orton is plenty familiar with throwing to the tight end; Greg Olsen was the Bears’ second-leading receiver last season. Also, in McDaniels’ first season in charge of the New England offense, their tight ends ranked second in the league in yardage (1,039), fifth in catches (81), and fourth in fantasy points per game (8.7). You can’t give all those numbers to Scheffler, however, as ex-Patriot Daniel Graham—a McDaniels favorite, by the way—will siphon some of those stats as the blocking tight end and sometimes-pass catcher. But the scheme suggests that Scheffler shouldn’t fall too far down fantasy cheat sheets just because there’s a new sheriff in town.
It’s been easy to overlook the Patriots’ running game under McDaniels, at least from a fantasy perspective, because during his tenure no back has received 200 carries in a season while the past two seasons three and four different backs have carried at least 60 times. Fantasy owners who were quick to bid adieu to the Shanahanigans of Denver’s revolving door feature back spot have to cringe at the ongoing prospect of multiple backs getting touches. Worse, LaMont Jordan comes to Denver from New England, where he stole 80 carries and four touchdowns from Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and the others.
Big picture, however, this is good news for Denver. In McDaniels’ three years at the helm in New England, Patriots RBs finished 4th, 9th, and 6th in fantasy points at the position compared to Denver’s 18th, 21st, and 22nd. Granted, you had to consult a Magic 8 Ball to figure out who’d be getting the carries, but the numbers were there. Sound familiar to anyone who’s used Bronco backs in the past? The difference in Denver this time around might be the presence of first-round pick Knowshon Moreno. While he doesn’t project to be a 300-plus carry guy as a rookie, it wouldn’t be at all that surprising to see him wind up with close to half of what should be 500 or so touches for Denver RBs.
What would be nice is defined roles—Jordan on third downs, Peyton Hillis at the goal line, etc.—so as to accurately predict fantasy production. Don’t expect it, but if you have a hunch on Moreno (or Jordan or Hillis or Correll Buckhalter, for that matter), feel free to play it on draft day. After all, the one unit that seems to be actually enjoying the new McDaniels regime is the offensive line—which, it must be noted, returns intact.
Given the way the offseason has progressed—McDaniels coming off as a dictator brimming with entitlement, the Broncos losing one and potentially two of their most productive players—it’s tempting to write this off as yet another failed experiment from the Bill Bellichick coaching tree; it’s not as if Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weiss, and Eric Mangini have set the world on fire. But there are enough pieces in place that if McDaniels is as brilliant an offensive mind as he thinks he is—and the stats in New England back up that assertion—then there is some sneaky fantasy value to be found in the Mile High city this season.