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Can Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders Possibly Return Value? Let’s Do the Math


The short answer to the question posed in the headline of this article is “If Peyton Manning repeats his historical season, yes they can return value.” The more likely answer is that they can’t.

I can see a scenario where both come close to returning value, or where one returns value because the other wildly missed. But it’s just really tough to see them both return value based on an ADP of WR22 for Welker and W32 for Sanders.

Let’s look at why the math is tough.

Note: the following analysis was done with the Projection Machine and the Career Graphs App. Those two tools provide pretty much everything you need to do top down projections of offenses.

Peyton Manning

First, Peyton Manning had a historic season but also did it essentially running up the score. They were pass heavy while winning and then ran a lot of plays as well. A total of 67 of Manning’s 659 attempts came while up two scores in the second half of games. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to think that some part of the Broncos play calling last year was focused on getting Manning the TD record back once they saw it was in reach. There’s actually not a more reasonable explanation for their play calling in 2013.

If you think the Broncos will do that again AND be as efficient doing it as they were in 2013, then go crazy and take Sanders and Welker to your heart’s desire.

But a more likely scenario has to be some regression both on the pass tendency and the pace (which will be affected by running the ball more). Recall that in 2012 Manning only attempted 583 passes. Considering that Manning has only topped 600 passes twice in his career, and considering that the Broncos are expected to be leading a lot this year, I think 619 pass attempts is a reasonable expectation. It’s within two attempts of his average in Denver.

Demaryius Thomas

Then, consider that in 2013 Demaryius Thomas actually dipped in his percentage of team targets. He accounted for 24 percent of team targets in 2012 and then just 21 percent last year. When Peyton Manning was in Indy, Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne were regularly up in the 25-27% range (reTRGMS in the heatmap below).


Thomas’ share of targets has been held lower because he was the team’s 1a while Eric Decker was the team’s 1b. There is no 1b now because Decker is gone, Welker is near the end of his career, and Sanders just isn’t good enough to take targets away from Thomas. Thomas should probably be penciled in for 25% of team targets barring injury. That’s above the league-wide average for a WR1, but Thomas is also separated from the competing receiving options in DEN by more than the league average as well. For further discussion of Thomas’ upside this year see Jacob Rickrode’s article.

Julius Thomas

In 2013 Julius Thomas accounted for just 15 percent of the DEN passing targets. That’s a low amount for a top TE.


The next lowest TE shown in the heatmap above accounted for 18 percent of his team’s targets (reTRGMS). If you bump Thomas up to 17 percent of DEN’s targets, it works out to 105 targets based on the assumption for Manning’s attempts I lay out above. Is it a leap to say that Julius Thomas’ targets will increase as a share of the offense’s pass attempts? Only if you believe that Julius Thomas isn’t the 2nd best option to throw to after Demaryius Thomas.

The Rest

You can probably dial back the share of RB targets from 17 percent, the number in 2013, to 14 percent or so. That’s based on the RB unit losing its best receiver in Knowshon Moreno.

Then it’s reasonable to pencil in about 11 percent of targets to receivers outside the Big Four (the two Thomases, Welker and Sanders) that also aren’t RBs. The primary receivers on a team can’t catch every pass.

The Problem

That leaves about 33% of targets to be split between Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders. If those targets were split 18/15 percent in favor of Welker, as is probably implied by their ADP, that’s 112 targets for Welker and 93 targets for Emmanuel Sanders.

Welker is coming off of a season where he saw exactly 111 targets. Sanders is coming off of a 112 target season.

Here is what I have projected for the DEN WRs using the assumptions I lay out above:

Scenario 1

WR1 Thomas, Demaryius 154.93 99.15 1471.82 14.84 11.62 0 0 5.83 0 2 2 316.05
WR2 Welker, Wes 111.55 74.74 814.3 10.9 7.25 0 0 4.34 0 22 26 199.67
WR3 Sanders, Emmanuel 92.96 56.7 743.66 13.11 5.11 0 0 3.73 0 32 38 161.75

Getting to these levels of production just required assumptions in line with Welker and Sanders’ recent history of yards/target, catch rate, and touchdown rate.

welker sanders

The columns that you want to pay attention to are ADP and RNK13. ADP is the positional rank for the player’s current ADP. RNK13 is how the player would have finished in 2013 with those numbers. Both Welker and Sanders miss value under this scenario.

If you adjust the assumptions so that Julius Thomas doesn’t increase his share of targets, and then you split those targets between Sanders and Welker, they both essentially hit value.

Scenario 2

WR1 Thomas, Demaryius 154.93 99.15 1471.82 14.84 11.62 0 0 5.83 0 2 2 316.05
WR2 Welker, Wes 117.75 78.89 859.54 10.9 7.65 0 0 4.34 0 22 22 210.76
WR3 Sanders, Emmanuel 99.15 60.48 793.23 13.11 5.45 0 0 3.73 0 32 34 172.53

I’ll spare you the boredom of looking at another table, but if you re-adjust the targets so that Demaryius Thomas again gets just 21% of the DEN targets, and then assign the difference to Welker and Sanders, they both exceed their value by a couple of WR spots.

The Broncos Schedule

The Broncos are going to start the season in a likely shootout with the Colts and this article will probably look pretty stupid on that day. I look forward to my Twitter mentions during week one.

But then the schedule goes: KC, SEA, BYE, ARI, NYJ, SF, SD, NE, OAK, STL.

By week 11 the Broncos will have seen the three very best cornerbacks in the league, along with SF, and a STL defense that is likely to be vastly improved.

One More Thing

Emmanuel Sanders is being drafted ahead of Mike Wallace, who he played with for a few years, and who he was outplayed by for those years as well.


Sanders never reached even 15% of the targets in the PIT offense when Wallace was there. Last year, while Antonio Brown was consuming 28 percent of the targets, Sanders saw 19 percent of targets.

So how realistic is it to expect that a player that can’t take targets away from Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown is going to take targets away from Demaryius Thomas?

Here’s a table which shows Ben Roethlisberger’s Adjusted Yards/Attempt when targeting Wallace, Brown and Sanders (2009-2013):

Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown WR 396 250 3393 15 7 8.53
Ben Roethlisberger Mike Wallace WR 346 209 3622 29 12 10.58
Ben Roethlisberger Hines Ward WR 263 179 2041 11 6 7.57
Ben Roethlisberger Emmanuel Sanders WR 254 146 1763 11 10 6.04

Throwing the ball to Sanders was almost as likely to produce an INT as it was a TD. I left Hines Ward in the table just to show that Sanders’ production couldn’t even surpass the production of an aging Ward.

The funny thing is that you can actually just draft Wallace after Sanders comes off the board, and Wallace is at least the primary receiver in his offense1.

At the End of the Day

Could Wes Welker or Emmanuel Sanders exceed value? Under one or more of the following scenarios they could:

  • Peyton just reproduces 2013. This seems unlikely both because a 2013 level season is unlikely in the first place and also because QBs that have put up similar performances have come back to earth in the following year. Also I think it’s likely that the loss of Decker could be in part responsible for Manning coming back to earth.
  • One of the Broncos receivers gets hurt and creates a vacuum of targets for one of Welker or Sanders to fill. Cody Latimer might be just as likely of a beneficiary in that case, so I think it’s tough to bank on.
  • Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas don’t account for a larger share of passing targets than they did in 2013. Again, Wes Welker is getting older, so I think it’s tough to see him really accounting for more targets. Emmanuel Sanders couldn’t take targets away from Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown.

Is there a better plan to take advantage of the situation in DEN than to just stay away from Welker and Sanders? It might be to draft Cody Latimer as a really late flier instead. Based on his physical profile he probably has the most upside after the Thomases. If an injury does take place then Latimer could be the beneficiary. However, there are so many values late this year – like Jerricho Cotchery – that taking a flier on a player only likely to see significant snaps after an injury seems kind of tough. I’m probably targeting Demaryius Thomas and that’s about it in Denver.

  1. as a word of caution, I’ve now written several pro-Wallace pieces because I do think there are some value components there, however he recently tweaked his hamstring in practice so right now I’m neutral on him  (back)

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