BRONCOS // 49ERS OVERVIEW
The Broncos are currently in a four-way tie for seventh place in the AFC — one spot behind the 7-5 Ravens — and as noted last week, the Broncos’ schedule is mostly soft down the stretch, giving them a legitimate shot at playoff contention. Hurting this team’s chances of making the bracket this year are unfortunate injuries to star corner Chris Harris and number one receiver Emmanuel Sanders (who blew out his achilles in practice on Wednesday). This passing attack is piecing together spare parts behind Courtland Sutton, creating an interesting setup for this offense as a whole.
The Broncos will be taking on a 2-10 San Francisco team that would be happy for the season to end right now so they could put a stop to their own injury parade. This run-heavy unit is now playing without both of the running backs they envisioned splitting time between this year, and they have played almost the entire year without their starting quarterback as well.
Vegas has given this game a middling Over/Under of 45.5, with the Broncos installed as four point favorites on the road. This game is unlikely to draw much viewership attention, but it has a chance to produce a few DFS-viable games.
BRONCOS PASS OFFENSE
With Demaryius Thomas shipped off to Houston and Emmanuel Sanders on I.R., this passing attack belongs to Courtland Sutton at this point — with only Tim Patrick, DaeSean Hamilton, and Matt LaCosse behind him. The matchup is not a concern against a 49ers team that ranks 14th in yards allowed per pass attempt and 26th in DVOA against the pass. San Francisco has not provided a major boost to wide receivers in the receptions or yardage department, but they have allowed the most wide receiver touchdowns in the league.
Working against Sutton is his attachment to Case Keenum, who has a disappointing 62.3% completion rate on the year, and who has thrown for 205 or fewer yards in three straight games. The last time Keenum topped 300 yards was way back in Week 6. Sutton has recently seen target counts of 5 // 6 // 4 // 7. Sanders is leaving behind a massive 8.25 targets per game over the Broncos’ last four, creating opportunity for Sutton to potentially push for double-digit looks as the main beneficiary. Keenum and Sutton have connected on an impossibly low 47.5% of their passes this year, but Sutton’s awesome 19.9 yards per reception (first in the NFL) keeps his upside intact. He’s still somewhat boom/bust, but at his rate stats, five or six catches and a touchdown could lead to a monster day.
This team has ignored Patrick (zero targets last week on 21 snaps) and Hamilton (zero targets last week on 47 snaps). Hamilton will be first in line for a boost in usage, with potential for an immediate four to six looks per game (and with outside potential for him to climb even higher). This is not a game script that should force the Broncos to lean pass-heavy, but even if Keenum throws only 25 to 30 times, those passes will need to go somewhere.
Last week, that “somewhere” barely included LaCosse, who saw one target on 47 snaps, in an offense that has used tight ends liberally all year. With volume unlikely to be on the side of the Broncos’ passing attack, LaCosse maintains a low floor this week, but his ceiling is higher than last week’s usage-dud showed. He’s a solid pass-catching piece on a team in need of pass catchers, and he should post one or two useful games down the stretch.
BRONCOS RUN OFFENSE
Our boy Phillip Lindsay knocked the matchup out of the park last week against the Bengals, to the tune of 159 total yards and two touchdowns on only 20 touches. Terrifyingly for those of us who bet on Lindsay’s upside in that matchup: he played only 25 snaps last week (to 21 for Royce Freeman and 13 for Devontae Booker) — though the Broncos did at least make sure to get him the ball when he was on the field.
He enters a tougher matchup this week against a 49ers team that ranks 11th in yards allowed per carry and has allowed 474 fewer rushing yards to running backs than the Bengals have allowed. Ultimately, this is a middling matchup — though with Lindsay’s price shooting up and his snap share still scary low, he’s a bit overpriced across all sites right now for his actual workload. Last week was the first time this season he cracked 20 touches with Freeman on the field, while Freeman added 12 touches of his own. Working in Lindsay’s favor is the fact that this team wants to lean run-heavy (an approach they should emphasize even more heavily with the loss of Manny). Another 15 to 20 touches can be penciled in here. He has an outside shot at seeing a further spike in workload — though at this point, this would require a significant rise in snaps as well.
49ERS PASS OFFENSE
The Broncos lost star slot corner Chris Harris last week — and after cutting Adam Jones, they were left pulling Justin Simmons down from safety to cover the slot, while Bradley Roby and Isaac Yiadom handled the outside. Yiadom had seen limited action before last week, and he has only been targeted 18 times this year, but he has allowed 162 yards on these 18 targets, good for 9.0 yards per target. The Broncos still boast one of the fiercest pass rushes in the NFL, but the matchup is otherwise winnable for Nick Mullens and the 49ers.
With Mullens throwing his average pass only 6.8 yards downfield (only Derek Carr has a lower average intended air yards on the year), volume will be important for any San Francisco pass-catcher to have a clear shot at a strong game. In the two games in which Mullens did go pass-heavy (39 attempts in Week 10 against the Giants // 48 attempts in Week 13 at Seattle), targets among primary pass catchers on the 49ers looked like this:
Right now, it appears that Garcon will miss another week, but Goodwin will return. In Week 10, this setup led to Bourne playing 69 snaps while Pettis played 41 — but Pettis has shown more upside in this offense in recent weeks and may rise above Bourne this week. Any of these three wide receivers could hit for a big play (Bourne is the only one who hasn’t done so yet, but he has seen enough downfield looks to create opportunities), and all three are attached to a third-string quarterback in an inconsistent offense. Consider these three to be volatile plays with viable ceiling. None of them can be counted on for floor.
Kittle continues to dominate looks in this offense — with recent target counts of 10 // 13 // 9 — but he and Mullens have struggled to connect the last couple weeks, with only 12 catches on 22 looks (54.5%). In spite of allowing a below-average number of catches to tight ends, the Broncos have allowed the seventh most yards — and as a team, this unit is adding 8.0% to the league-average YAC/R rate, playing into the hands of what Kittle does best. As with the wide receivers, his attachment to this offense makes him a volatile play, but the upside remains.
49ERS RUN OFFENSE
If we take away the 43 carries for 427 yards that Crowell and Gurley pasted the Broncos for in back-to-back weeks midway through the season, this team has allowed only 3.92 yards per carry to running backs. This creates a tough spot for Jeff Wilson, who is playing because of injuries on this team to Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert. On the year, Wilson has posted a respectable 4.3 yards per carry on 22 totes, while adding 9-81-0 through the air on 10 targets (with most of this aerial production coming last week). With such a difficult matchup on tap, and with the 49ers regularly looking to limit running back carries to around 14 to 18, the best bet for production from Wilson would be for the Broncos to force a pass-heavy game plan out of the 49ers, and for Wilson to once again be involved through the air. He’s a low-floor play in this spot, but there is enough upside on any back who projects to see 15+ touches — with potential for work in the pass game — for Wilson to be part of the low-cost conversation this week. Behind Wilson, Alfred Morris is expected to be active this week and to soak up ineffective “change of pace” duties. Alf would require a miracle to become relevant on this slate.
Betting on pass catchers in a Case Keenum offense has been a roller coaster adventure this year, and there is certainly no guarantee that Sutton suddenly sees a spike in downfield looks with Sanders on the sidelines — but his seven targets from last week are likely a strong baseline for the rest of the year, and it won’t be surprising if he climbs to nine or 10 looks a few times down the stretch. He’s a bit of a boom/bust play, but the “boom” potential is big on a guy with great red zone attributes and the most yards per reception in the NFL.
Trailing Sutton in this offense is everyone else, for me, with the pass catchers too unpredictable for me to want to bet on them on a slate with plenty to like elsewhere, and with Lindsay priced too high for me given his likeliest-scenario workload. I love Lindsay’s game, and it won’t surprise me if he pops for another long play or two, but last week was, obviously, a better spot than this.
I fully expect one or two viable scores to emerge from the 49ers’ side of the ball, but I don’t expect to have any interest myself, as it is too difficult to predict where these quality games will come from, and guessing wrong will likely leave you with a dud. The likeliest bets are Kittle and possibly Wilson, followed by Goodwin, then Pettis, then Bourne. There are plays priced around all these guys that I like more.