Recently, myself and some fellow NCB staffers released our 2014 fantasy football rankings to the public for consumption. At quarterback, Peyton Manning was unanimously ranked first, to nobodies surprise. After a record setting 2013 season, you would be hard pressed to find too many rankers that think differently. However, when it came to the overall ranks, there was something that stuck out like a sore thumb. My cohorts ranked Manning 4, 8, and 9 overall. My ranking? 44.
I obviously think that Peyton is very good, but there is a clear dissension amongst myself and the rest of the team. To me, quarterback is incredibly deep, and for one to be worthy of a high pick, he would have to clearly distance himself from the pack (Aaron Rodgers was the only other QB in my top 60), much like Manning’s season a year ago. I think that there are some reasons to believe that Peyton sees more than just a minor regression on his 2013 numbers, which would make him an overdraft in the first (or second, or third) round:
1. His Schedule
Last season, Peyton and the Broncos faced a rather easy schedule, going up against just 4 of the top 16 pass defenses in football. I used the RotoViz Game Splits App to see how he fared against these teams in relation to the rest of his schedule:
As you can see, the difference in production is significant. Peyton averaged about 4.5 points per game less in matchups against defenses in the top half of the league, averaging 43.17 yards and .58 TD less in those contests (the app uses 5 points per passing TD). Of course, none of this matters if we don’t expect Manning’s schedule to change. Last season, Denver played the NFC East and AFC South divisions, which accounted for 3 top 16 pass defenses in football. This season they will play the NFC West and AFC East, who accounted for 7 top 16 pass defenses a year ago. Defenses definitely fluctuate year to year, but the numbers would suggest that Manning’s schedule will be at least a little harder. What’s that you say? Peyton feasted off of an inferior AFC West and will do so again in ’14? Not so fast my friend:
2. Division Play
It is easy to assume that the AFC West defenses were accountable for much of Manning’s production. After all, the Chiefs, Raiders, and Chargers finished 18th, 28th, and 29th respectively in pass defense. Using again the Game Splits App, we can see that was not the case:
Manning played better against his division than against the top defenses he faced, but not better than he did against the rest of the league, averaging about 3 fantasy points less against the AFC West. Considering that the Chiefs are really the only team that has much room to get worse defensively, there is no reason to assume Manning plays much better this year against his division. Remember also, the non-divisional games INCLUDE the 4 games he played against top 16 defenses, so that means that he really dominated the 6 non-divisional defenses outside of the top 16. In case you were wondering, they were (in order) the Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys, Jaguars, Colts, and Redskins. Only the Colts remain on Denver’s 2014 schedule. So, in short, we have established that Manning will face better defenses in 2014 than in 2013.
3. Touchdowns While Ahead
A big factor in Manning’s touchdown totals last season was how many he threw with the lead. It was no secret that the Broncos were trying to get him the record last year, as he threw 8 touchdowns in the last two weeks of the year, 6 of which came with a lead. That seemed to be a pattern all year for Peyton. Here are his passing touchdowns with the lead and up two or more touchdowns over his last 4 seasons:
Clearly Peyton’s TD totals were outrageously inflated by those he threw while ahead last year. Almost half of his 2013 touchdowns came with a lead! In the three years prior he only threw 38.8% of his touchdowns while ahead. Furthermore, he threw nearly as many TD up two scores or more last season (9) as he did the previous three seasons COMBINED (10). That number is sure to come down in 2014 and with the Broncos expected to have a better defense than last year, this could have a huge impact on Peyton’s touchdown totals.
4. Long Touchdowns
Manning also threw a lot of long touchdowns. Check out the table below showing his touchdowns of 20 yards or more over his last four seasons:
The data here isn’t as compelling as with touchdowns thrown with the lead, but Peyton did throw more long touchdowns last season than in the previous two seasons combined. From a percentage perspective, his 32.7% mark last year bested his 3 year average (29.1%) by 3.6% which is probably good to shave a touchdown or two off of Manning’s total on its own. What all of this data does is confirm just how much of an outlier year he had. You’ll notice that I have made it this far without even talking about personnel. Speaking of which…
It is important to note amongst all of this that Peyton will be without one of his top targets from a year ago, Eric Decker. The Broncos brought in two different receivers this offseason, Emmanuel Sanders (free agency) and Cody Latimer (the draft) so it is fair to wonder if they will be able to replicate what Decker was for this offense. I’ll start with Sanders. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Sanders is not an apt replacement for Decker. He is 4 inches shorter and 34 pounds lighter than the former Minnesota standout, and that is incredibly significant. It is highly unlikely that Sanders will be able to make the same kinds of plays Decker did on the outside, and the slot position (one he is more suited for) is currently occupied by Wes Welker. There’s also this tidbit from Davis Mattek of Sports Wunderkind, RotoViz, and Rotoworld:
74% of double digit TD seasons the last 5 seasons have come from players 6’2 or taller.
— Davis Mattek (@DavisMattek) July 22, 2014
Decker has had 11 and 13 TD respectively the last two seasons. Sanders is 5’11’. Just saying. To me, we’re basically asking Latimer to both get on the field and perform, as a rookie, at a close level to Decker in order for Manning to get similar production from that spot. Color that unlikely. Lastly, I’d like to remind readers that the reason it took Julius Thomas until his third season to break out (or just get onto the field) was that he had trouble getting and staying healthy. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him go down at some point this season as well.
It looks to me as though there are a myriad of factors that stand to reduce Peyton Manning’s production level significantly from 2013. His schedule should be harder, he doesn’t dominate the division as perceived, he should throw less touchdowns with the lead and from long distances, and his receiving core figures to not be as strong as it was last season. Considering the depth at the position, I think that it would take a season fairly close to his record-breaker to justify a pick in one of the first couple of rounds this year. The data suggests that to be unlikely, and I would have to agree. Are we too high on Peyton Manning? You bet we are.