Heading into Thursday’s game between the Ravens and Broncos there were a number of questions on the mind of analysts throughout the country. These were legitimate inquiries too – as opposed to questions we just dreamed up because we needed to add some intrigue to the opening night matchup.
Last year’s AFC Championship combatants have each undergone significant chance over the offseason and Thursday night we got our chance to see the new look teams in action for the first time. While I’d like to underscore the importance of recognizing that this is simply too small a sample to make great inferences from, we can learn a lot by looking at how each player was used as much as how they performed. Again, though… small sample, yes, you should probably go add Julius Thomas if he’s available on your waiver wire but he’s not going to score two times each week… on that note, Manning probably isn’t going to throw for 112 Touchdowns this year, despite his current pace. With the avoiding overreaction caveat aside, here are a few things I noticed worth taking note of moving forward.
- As Ryley Henry pointed inside the Locker Room yesterday, Eric Decker hasn’t fallen off the fantasy map. He had an ugly game, including drops (one in the endzone… but, make note that that means he received an end zone target), a pass interference penalty, and a fumble out of bounds, but he’s still going to be a big part of Denver’s offense. After all, he received seven targets, he just didn’t do very much with them. The drop on a routine basket catch was brutal, but had he caught the ball fantasy owners are chalking it up as an 11 point night and not overreacting. His -5.5 overall grade via Pro Football Focus is the worst of his career by a wide margin, but he’s had clunkers before and was still a viable option.
- Julius Thomas received Peyton Manning‘s first target of the night. He got rocked, and he dropped the ball, but went on to get several more looks from there. He’ll be a big part of the offense, and his big, athletic body offers a nice complement to the receivers. When they shift coverage to Welker in the middle or Demaryius Thomas on the outside, JT is going to benefit. On his first score of the night, Thomas made Darryl Smith (always an unfair matchup vs. an LB) look ridiculous on a great sluggo/seam route that left him wide open. He is available in 52% of Yahoo! leagues and is worth the roster spot, clearly. Further, he played every single offensive snap for Denver.
- Neither Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce looked overly impressive, and the Ravens had to turn away from the run late in the second half as things got out of hand. While Rice received 20 touches to Pierce’s 9, the carry distribution was much closer (12-9) with Pierce getting carries on first down and a number of important situations. He’s not going to be deployed simply to spell Rice.
- Wes Welker got 11 looks for the Broncos and made good on 9 of them, looking very much like the same receiver in the same role as in New England. He won’t score twice every week, though. He was on the field the fewest of the three fantasy relevant wideouts in Denver, too. That is to be expected, given his role as slot receiver, but its worth noting. Still, 11 looks after I spent the offseason proclaiming he won’t come close to his New England target total is impressive.
- Torrey Smith caught just half of his 8 targets, but he did look every bit the part of a WR1 for the Ravens. He made catches on a variety of routes, an intermediate and a deep out route, a long catch on a go route, but the most impressive coming from Smith – still thought of by some as a deep threat only – was on a short dig route that he caught well short of the first down marker and fought off tacklers on his way to picking it up and setting up Vonta Leach’s first quarter score.
- Speaking of Leach, his value to Ray Rice was evident on Rice’s short TD. Without that block Rice owners were waking up extremely disappointed this morning.
- Before getting hurt Jacoby Jones was fairly heavily involved in the Ravens offense, and it seems clear that they are scheming ways to get him involved; the last play of the first quarter/screen pass, and while it was blown up it was still a designed play for Jones. After his exit, Marlon Brown looked good. Now, that’s easy to say because he scored a TD, but his work in the middle of the field was more impressive. He displayed strong hands and quickness in the open field. Brown is a player to keep an eye on if Jones is going to miss time, and perhaps even if he doesn’t. Brown saw a total of 58 snaps and caught 4 of his 6 targets.
- Owner’s of less impressive catch rates: The Ravens’ Tight Ends, who combined to catch 8 of 17 balls. Dallas Clark dropped numerous balls and would have been charged with a lost fumble had he not had his facemask tugged on the play. Of note, though: Flacco kept going back to his TEs (Clark in particular) despite the drops and often did so in critical situations. They didn’t convert a lot of their third down opportunities when throwing their direction, but if the drops can be curbed there is value to be found here. Clark, based on this week’s performance and target numbers, appears to be the TE to own. He saw 60 snaps to Dickson’s 41 as well.
- There wasn’t a ton of excitement from any of the Denver backs, though it should be noted that Knowshon Moreno was on the field more than twice as much as the other two backs and he played exceptionally well as a receiver. He did grade the worst of the lot as a pass blocker but should still see plenty of 3rd down work moving forward. Ball was the most explosive runner, and it should be noted that his first two carries of the game came from inside the 20 yard line. His first, a 9 yard gain from the 15, was impressive and followed immediately by a first down on 3rd and 1 from the 6th. I’m not sure what John Fox thought of that play, but I’d have rather watched him go in a straight line for one and pick up the conversion rather than try so hard to dart to the outside and nearly wind up forcing a field goal.
- Perhaps it was a result of his first game with many new receivers and the general ineptitude of the Baltimore offense for most of the night, but, Joe Flacco played poorly under pressure. The box score shows two picks but it could have been more, given a number of bad decisions under pressure, throws across the body, etc. Also, his chemistry with Brandon Stokley (understandably, given that he hasn’t been in town that long) is clearly lacking.
- Demaryius Thomas made something from nothing more the once such as his late screen TD, but also a similar 34 yard catch and run (on the play prior to Andre Caldwell‘s TD). After the reception three players were ready to tackle him and he switched gears and took it to the sideline.
So, there you have it, my quick hits. Oh yeah, Peyton put up one of the all time best fantasy nights with 450+ yards and seven scores to go with 0 interceptions. Again though, in the same line of thinking that reminds us all that it is ridiculous to assume that Manning can maintain that level of performance for 16 games, we have to be conscious of the fact that this is simply one game of football. We’ve made note of the important stuff, but none of the information calls for an overreaction. If I had to pick one piece of actionable advice, it would be to make a move on JT today.