Only those close to Peyton Manning understand exactly why the Broncos won out over the more talented 49ers as well as his adopted home state of Tennessee. Whatever the reasons, football czar John Elway’s successful campaign to lure Manning was a stroke of brilliance. In landing the league's most decorated quarterback, Elway has check-mated the billboard-wielding Tebow acolytes among the Denver fan base.
As much as Elway and coach John Fox have publicly praised Tebow, their actions spoke to an ingrained skepticism that an NFL quarterback can ultimately succeed with unconventional mechanics while struggling to read defenses and consistently throw the ball to the perimeter against man coverage. Sensing a window to compete in the AFC, the Broncos went from an experiment to a solution at sports’ most important position.
From a fantasy perspective, we are initially inclined to let another owner roll the dice with Manning in 2012. The Broncos’ non-divisional schedule looks brutal. Manning’s arm strength is still a question; he was already losing his deep-ball efficiency before the neck surgeries. There could be growing pains early on while Manning develops a rapport with his new offensive line and wide receivers. Removed from the cozy confines of a dome-field advantage, is he going to rally late in the season during the fantasy playoffs?
A final line of 4,300+ yards and 30 touchdowns is within reach if things break right, but those are no longer even top-five fantasy numbers. The Broncos were right to gamble on Manning, but fantasy owners shouldn’t feel obliged to follow Elway’s lead.
Here's a look at the rest of the fallout from Monday's bombshell.
Jake Locker / Matt Hasselbeck, Titans - Tennessee’s football people had plans to ignore Manning while putting a full-court press on Mario Williams early in free agency. Meddlesome owner Bud Adams may have cost his franchise the top defensive free agent on the market, but the front office and coaching staff is more than content to stage the Locker-Hasselbeck showdown in training camp. If Locker wins out -- and he should be the favorite -- this could be one of the most exciting offenses in the AFC with a rifle-armed passer, a game-breaking running back, an athletic tight end, and the return of Kenny Britt.
Alex Smith / Colin Kaepernick, 49ers - Multiple reports suggest Smith would rather swallow his pride and return to San Francisco than steal Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ money. When/if Smith does re-sign with the 49ers, he will find an improved wide receiver corps with Randy Moss and Mario Manningham working outside the numbers. A Manning signing would have blocked Kaepernick for 2-3 years whereas it would surprise no one if the 2011 second-rounder displaces Smith as soon as late this season.
Eric Decker, Broncos - Demaryius Thomas’ furious finish as Tim Tebow’s go-to receiver obscured Decker’s hot start under Kyle Orton. Still a neophyte in progression reading, Tebow can’t support more than one fantasy receiver because of that radar lock on his top target. Decker is a good route runner and an underrated athlete with size and special ball skills. Orton anointed him the “ideal” slot receiver last season, and Decker is more talented than Manning’s former slot machines, Austin Collie and Brandon Stokley.
Dallas Clark, Free Agent - The Broncos still have plenty of cap space. Their starting 2011 tight end just rejoined Josh McDaniels in New England. The 33-year-old Clark isn’t known to have made a single visit since being released by the Colts a week and a half ago. This fit makes too much sense not to happen; in which case, Clark would have low-end TE1 appeal even with his recent injury history.
Tim Tebow, Broncos - I went through Rotoworld’s depth charts trying to find a sensible landing spot for Tebow as a de facto starter. I whiffed. The narrative will immediately turn to Jacksonville, Tebow’s hometown with a fevered fan base. Although owner Shad Khan has made it clear that Tebow would be welcomed home if the opportunity arises, GM Gene Smith is not a believer and wants no part of that circus.
Tebow would fill seats in Miami as well, but why would new coach Joe Philbin want the least accurate quarterback in the league running his timing-based West Coast scheme? Expect the Broncos to find a Tebow trade partner willing to part with a mid-to-late round pick. Just don’t expect him to be under center for the season opener.
Willis McGahee, Broncos - From the Week 6 bye, when Tebow took the reins from Kyle Orton, though the end of the season, the Broncos ran the ball on 62 percent of their plays, easily the highest mark in the NFL. That run-dominant offense allowed McGahee to regain borderline RB1 status for the second half of the season. Now that Manning is essentially the play-caller, that run-pass split is going to flip. Don’t be surprised to see Manning’s passing-down security blanket, Joseph Addai, follow him to Denver. McGahee wasn’t trusted on third downs last season, as he offers nothing after the catch.
Demaryius Thomas, Broncos - As we outlined above, Tebow’s one-read tendencies actually helped Thomas late last season and Brandon Lloyd late in 2010. Extrapolated over a full season, Thomas’ final seven games would have left him as the No. 2 fantasy receiver in 2011. He can’t be expected to better that production with Manning spreading the ball around. While we love Thomas’ talent in Dynasty leagues, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that he remains one of the biggest red-flag injury risks in fantasy. While several wide receivers, including Stokley, have recovered from Achilles surgery to post productive seasons, they have had trouble staying in one piece for back-to-back seasons.