The new Broncos teammates grace the national cover of this week’s SI along with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker
With fantasy football drafts around the corner, this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED previews the top fantasy football players at each position and also takes a closer look at some of the NFL’s star players. Among the highest rated at their respective positions in SI’s fantasy rankings—Peyton Manning (No. 3 QB) and Wes Welker (No. 14 WR), along with Broncos teammates Demaryius Thomas (No. 6 WR) and Eric Decker (No. 15 WR)—appear on the national cover of this week’s SI, on newsstands now. Senior writer Chris Ballard spent time with both Welker and Manning for this week’s issue and writes that the fantasy dream duo is now the league’s most frightening reality. Ballard also reveals more about the little known Welker.
Despite making five Pro Bowls, playing in two Super Bowls and setting an NFL record by catching more than 110 passes in each of his five seasons with the Patriots, Welker is still somewhat unknown. “After six seasons inside Bill Belichick’s cone of silence, in which thou shalt not raise any individual above the team, it turns out we know surprisingly little about Wes Welker,” writes Ballard. (PAGE 32)
Upon becoming a free agent last winter, Welker says “there were only two places I was going to play [Denver and New England], in my mind.” Once the Broncos came into the picture, Welker texted Manning, who enthusiastically wooed him. “Reminded me a little bit of the old college recruiting days,” Manning says. (PAGE 32) After being offered a two-year, $10 million deal from the Patriots, Welker decided to sign with Denver for two years and $12 million, joining Manning as two of the most unlikely free-agent pickups in sports history. Asked if they’ve talked about their parallel narratives, Manning pauses for a moment. “We haven’t really shared that,” he says. “I think each situation is unique. I know that was not an easy time for him. For me, I know I became more comfortable when I got back on the field.” (PAGE 38)
Toward the end in New England, Welker says Belichick got on him in a way he never had before, admonishing him in front of the team. “It was just kind of hard,” Welker says, “one of those deals where you have to endure him, put up with him. . . .But he does it to everybody, it’s the way he is.” (PAGE 34) Belichick’s ways still affect Welker. “When I’m answering questions from the Denver media, I’m not worried about what the Broncos’ people are going to think,” Welker says. “I’m worried about what Belichick will think. Isn’t that crazy?” (PAGE 34)
So what does he think of his former quarterback, Tom Brady? At first, he couldn’t stand him. “He was very intense, wanted it done a certain way and was like, You can’t do it a different way,” says Welker. He says he soon came to appreciate Brady’s intensity; that he’s one of the toughest players in the NFL; that he is a slave to “the best moisturizers”; and that, in the end, he became a combination of Welker’s big brother and best friend. (PAGE 31)
Welker is working hard to learn Denver’s new offensive system. He says, “In New England, if the middle of the field was closed, I’d run a seam route. It’s something I’ve been doing for six years now, so I have to teach my brain to do it the way he’s [Manning] expecting me to do it.” Asked if he could still try to be creative on his routes, Welker laughs. “At the end of the day you run it the way he wants it, or he won’t throw it to you,” he says. (PAGE 38)
A key to Welker’s success is his renowned work ethic—he says his mantra is “Dominate every day”—and he believes it’s a key to his success .“Guys will play basketball with their boys and think that’s their workout for the day,” Welker says, amazed. “That’s not a workout. I wish they gave us more time off, to be honest. This is where I gain on other players.” (PAGE 33)
Welker, who has been doubted since his high school days, says he doesn’t mind flying under the radar. “Most people growing up just want to get famous, then they get famous and want to be normal people,” he says. “I blend in a lot more than most.” He adds, “Everything in the game is about making something look one way, and it actually being the other.” (PAGE 39)
While Peyton Manning’s arrival may be the most credited reason for Denver’s ascent to the top of the AFC this season, the maturation of Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller from one-trick pony to a complete linebacker may be just as significant writes senior writer Jim Trotter in this week’s issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. After earning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 thanks in part to his 11 ½ sacks, Miller has taken his game to the next level this season, having recorded 18 ½ sacks, six forced fumbles and his first career NFL interception (which he returned for a TD). While initially being known just as a dominant pass rusher, Miller now wants to be considered amongst the best all around defenders in the league. “I’m a true linebacker. I believe that in my heart,” says Miller. “I want to be a dominant run stopper. I want guys to say when they see 58, they’ve got to go to the other side.”
Miller grew up in East Texas in a home where his parents instilled values such as hard work, respect and accountability. His father once told him, “You have to be your biggest critic.” At only 23 years old, he has certainly taken his dad’s advice to heart. “It’s not the amount of success you’ve had,” says Miller, “it’s the respect you get in the locker room as a leader, as The Guy. The organization brought me in to be that guy, and I feel like I’ve taken steps in that direction. But I still have a long way to go (page 58).”
In the 42 years since Tom Dempsey kicked the longest field goal in NFL history, his mark has been matched three times but never surpassed. Now the most mysteriously enduring record in sports may finally be ripe to fall. Sixty-three should have fallen years ago, as kickers became more deadeye snipers – more explosive, more accurate and better schooled from a younger age-but the record remains intact, shared by a logjam of four kickers across 42 years of football. It has been protected by circumstance, strategy, worship at the altar of field position and, in no small part, the inherent challenge of guiding a football 63 yards through an opening 10 feet off the ground and 18 feet, 6 inches wide.
Peyton Manning’s commanding performance against Pittsburgh put many Broncos fans worries at ease. After completing 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, there is a feeling in Denver that this team could have a special season. Manning’s dominating performance in first game in more than 20 months lands him on the cover of the Sept. 17, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands now. This is the 11th time Manning has appeared on the cover, the first time since Nov. 16, 2009.
After signing with Denver in March, Manning immediately moved in with his old college teammate, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. Throughout the summer Manning would put in long hours, rehabbing his neck, learning the playbook and gathering his receivers for informal throwing sessions. Wide receiver Eric Decker told senior writer Alan Shipnuck (@AlanShipnuck), “We were trying to keep it light, but it was a pretty serious vibe. We wanted to show him that we could do things the right way and that coming here was the right choice”.
With a performance like this on opening weekend, the expectations in Denver will grow larger. When asked about that possibility, Manning said, “I don’t really carry that burden. I know how hard I’ve worked to get back to this position, how much time I’ve put into rehab, how much time I continue to put in. I’m gonna play as hard as I possibly can. That’s all I know to do.”
The four quarterbacks on the regional covers of Sports Illustrated’s NFL Playoff Preview—Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New England’s Tom Brady, New Orleans’s Drew Brees and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger—have combined to win seven of the past 10 Super Bowls, including four Super Bowl MVP awards. Senior NFL writer Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) predicts that Brady and Brees will square off in a duel of record-breaking quarterbacks in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, with the Saints beating the Patriots 34–24. King’s complete predictions are listed below: