- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
A week ago, one of the hot fantasy pickups was Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, coming off what many interpreted as his Week 2 breakout performance. I noted then that while I liked the rookie's upside and recommended the passing offense as a whole, we just didn't know which of the Denver wide receivers would take the lead from week to week. As a result, I didn't initially rank Thomas for Week 3, and for this I received much scorn. I can take it, though ... especially after Thomas caught only two passes against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, garnering four fantasy points.
Folks, the only thing we really know about the Broncos' passing game is that quarterback Kyle Orton is again underrated and worth more than believed a month ago, and that he has numerous wide receivers at his disposal. If you ask me which one of the crew I'd expect to finish the season with the most fantasy points, I would say the rookie Thomas ... but on a week-to-week basis, who knows which receiver will be the lead dog? That's why I rarely rank any of them too high.
The stats, as they say in this business, just don't lie:
Denver wide receivers: Week 1
Brandon Lloyd: 5 catches , 117 yards, 11 fantasy points
Jabar Gaffney: 3 for 34, TD, 9 points
Eddie Royal: 8 for 98, 9 points
Denver WRs: Week 2
Thomas: 8 for 97, TD, 15 points
Royal: 5 for 65, TD, 12 points
Lloyd: 3 for 53, 5 points
Gaffney: 2 for 15, 1 point
Denver WRs: Week 3
Lloyd: 6 for 169, TD, 22 points
Gaffney: 12 for 140, 14 points
Thomas: 2 for 43, 4 points
Royal: 4 for 23, 2 points
Matt Willis: 1 for 17, 1 point
What exactly does that show us? Well, some can argue that Thomas would have had a big Week 3 -- Orton threw an incredible 57 passes (37 completions) for 476 yards -- had he not been injured. Ah, there's the rub: Thomas is a first-round talent and was selected to replace Brandon Marshall, but health has been an issue. Recovery from a broken foot set him back over the summer and caused him to miss Week 1, and it was announced after Sunday's game that Thomas was dealing with an upper arm/elbow injury, so who knows how that affected his performance or what it means moving forward. Let's refrain from calling the kid brittle, but let's also realize he's a rookie (they're generally inconsistent) and this team has depth.
Denver's fantasy scoring for the season doesn't tell us much about the wide receiver hierarchy, and the team's intermittent running game doesn't seem to affect it, either. Lloyd ranks third on the team in receptions, second in targets, but he's easily first in yards. Gaffney and Royal have nearly identical statistics. All four players have one touchdown. Looks like parity to me!
Surely the loss and/or inconsistency of Knowshon Moreno and reserves Laurence Maroney and Correll Buckhalter could provide the wide receiver corps more opportunities, since the running game has sputtered, but let's not assume that helps any one individual over the others. Last week I discussed Moreno's late-week injury and its team repercussions. That played out, as newcomer Maroney was busier than Buckhalter, but 12 carries for 24 yards doesn't inspire faith for future opportunities.
Maybe Orton, currently 9 passing yards behind Philip Rivers for the NFL lead, will need to throw 50 times per game. I doubt it, especially with the upcoming schedule looking more challenging than in the first three weeks (from Jaguars, Seahawks and Colts to ... Titans, Ravens and Jets, oh my!). My overriding point is Orton and coach Josh McDaniels probably don't even know which Denver wide receiver will lead the team in catches or yards, and view the receivers equally. It generally depends on timing during games, defensive coverage and sometimes just luck. For the record, in order, Royal is owned in 68.7 percent of ESPN standard leagues, then Thomas (33.5), Gaffney (18.7) and Lloyd (13.2). Interestingly, Lloyd leads the crew in season points, and is fifth among wide receivers in scoring, but as noted, he's the least owned.
For now, since I see a lot of questions about potential starting fantasy wide receivers, and since Denver's options keep coming up, I'll say this: It's unlikely any of them will crack my Top 25 wide receiver rankings in a given week anytime soon, including this week, due to overall uncertainty/parity and the schedule. It's almost like a running back tandem. How can we rely on any one running back if we know the touches will be split? In Denver, I think Thomas is a future star and should be a bit more coveted, and the veterans he's playing with are competent enough to put up fantasy-worthy statistics (especially Lloyd, who should also be owned). But for now, it's tough to rely on any of them as fantasy starters.
Eric Karabell examines the Broncos' wide receiver corps in hopes of finding a reliable fantasy option.