NFL Fantasy Football Rankings:
QB Tier 1: Rodgers, Brees, Brady
You can pick your order, but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that these are the three best quarterbacks in the league right now. If you want one of them, you’ll have to take them in the first round, but I wouldn’t take any of them (personally) with a better than #4 overall pick. And I’m about to tell you why.
RB Tier 1: Rice, McCoy, Jones-Drew
I expected Ray Rice to be the #1 overall fantasy draft pick last year. Instead it was Adrian Peterson (ESPN), and I’m not going to question anyone on that. I think he deserves it every year, he’s the best athlete with the strongest character that I’ve ever seen. But we’re talking about Rice, who will be the unquestionable #1 RB this season. The Ravens are a run-first team and anyone who is at least tangentially familiar with Joe Flacco’s contract talks knows that Ray Rice is the star in Baltimore. (Remember when ESPN ran the banner with Manning, Brady, Smith, and Rice?) He’s got pro-bowl fullback Vonta Leach clearing a path for him, and he’s got the legs and vision to make plays happen on his own. 2000 yards from scrimmage and 15 TDs, but more than that he’s consistent: only two games last season with fewer than 8 points.
LeSean McCoy is on arguably one of the most (potentially) potent offenses in the NFL. There’s no question about his speed or skill. He had 1600 yards from scrimmage and 20 TDs last year, and only two games with fewer than 8 points. There are two arguments against him: Vick, a potent runner and passer, could vulture TDs, and those two games came at the most crucial of times, Week 16 and 17 of the regular season, AKA the Fantasy Superbowl. For the first argument, take a look at the Rushing TD leader for the 2011 season. Oh, hey there LeSean. If Vick is vulturing TDs, he’s not doing a very good job of it. As for his abysmal play at the end of the season? The Eagles were not in a position to be competitive at that time, having been knocked out of playoff contention, and so performance suffered. That’s a risk you run with anyone right?
Not so with the last man on our list, who deserves a place in this Tier for so many reasons. Maurice Jones-Drew, in addition to being a terrific human being with an amazing sense of humor, is a fantasy football aficionado himself. I traded Steve Smith (Carolina WR) for him in Week 2 and went on to win my league. He led the league in rushing yards and attempts, despite being on the deplorable 5-11 Jaguars. The 28th worst offense in the league revolved around MJD, who took the team on his back and finished the season as the most consistent running back, with ZERO games of fewer than 8 points. Any week you started MJD, you made the right call. If you are looking for more in a fantasy player, perhaps it is time to relax your standards. The question is: do you think MJD can do it again?
WR Tier 1: Johnson
Calvin Johnson is the only player of his caliber at his position. He will be the first WR off the boards in every Fantasy League. He is the go-to guy in Detroit, and even seeing triple-coverage for much of the season he still came up with 96 receptions, the fourth most of anyone and turned those receptions into a league-leading 1681 receiving yards, while leading his position with 16 receiving TDs. Detroit is developing other receiving threats, like TE Brandon Pettigrew, to take some of the pressure off CJ.
A brief word on Wes Welker (and the broader situation in New England). Welker, Julian Edelman, and Danny Woodhead are all the same type of player, and we see them used in similar ways. Welker is good, but only because of his role in the New England offense. I don’t trust anything to stay constant in New England, because Belichick is a wily character who knows that stagnation is death and the NFL is constantly adapting and evolving. I’ll talk more about him when I get to WR Tier 2.
QB Tier 2: E. Manning, Newton, Romo, Stafford
I’ve said before that if Peyton Manning had never played professional football, we’d never have questioned Eli Manning‘s status as an elite QB. With his second Superbowl win, I don’t think we ever should again. Beyond that, Eli threw for 4900+ yards, completed 359 of his 589 pass attempts, and 29 TDs. He did, however, throw for 16 interceptions. He has a lot of offensive weapons to choose from, with both Hakeem Nicks and the emergent Victor Cruz, which translates to fantasy value. Depending on what happens with the Giants backfield, we might see more Eli this year than last, and there should be no doubt that could only be a good thing, fantasy-wise.
Cam Newton wins the Sleeper of the Year award in my book. He set the record for most yards in a rookie season (4051) and is only going to get better. Of all the QBs in his class, I think he has the most potential. He did throw for 17 interceptions, and unlike Manning and Stafford who had similar numbers, Newton only had 21 TDs. I expect those numbers to improve this year. But they’re not the only numbers to consider. While throwing the most yards for a rookie, ever, Newton also ran for 700 yards and 14 TDs. When you think about rushing QBs, you think Tim Tebow (660 yards, 6 TDs, 5.4). You should think Cam Newton.
Tony Romo is perennially on the cusp of greatness, but never quite manages to cross over into the elite. He has a well-deserved reputation of choking at critical moments, which is why I won’t draft him this year, despite having won my championship last year with him (I acquired him via trade). He is a serviceable fantasy QB, with 4100 yards (7), 31 TDs (5), and a passer rating of 102.5 (4), but he also came through in a big way for fantasy owners who started him Week 16, and by “came through in a big way” I mean “was the biggest disappointment since Star Wars Episode I.” That said, let’s consider the Cowboys, who have some of the most talented players in the league, especially at WR. First, there is Miles Austin. Then, Dez Bryant, who everyone said was the next Miles Austin, except better. Then, Laurent Robinson, who is a very talented WR in his own right and a potent deep threat downfield. Romo has the weapons, and he has the skills to use them, its just a question of if he can handle the pressure that comes with being a great QB.
Matthew Stafford went in the 9th round last year, but don’t expect that to happen again. Last year Stafford was battling injury concerns, which simply don’t remain. Despite getting sacked 36 times (T-6), Stafford played every game, and did pretty well, too. 5000+ yards (3) and 41 TDs (3), 663 attempts (1) with 421 completed (2), finishing for a passer rating of 97.2 (5). He threw for more yards than Rodgers and more TDs than Brady. He is perhaps the most statistically sound of any of the QBs in his tier. He did throw 16 interceptions (T-7), but the rest of his numbers help me to overlook that. I don’t trust the RB situation in Detroit, which makes me value Stafford even more. Even with all the chaos in the Detroit backfield, he took them to playoffs in what is perhaps the best turnaround performance by a team in recent history. This is a young, hungry team, and Stafford is at the helm.
RB Tier 2: Foster, Lynch, Sproles, Turner
There’s something about Arian Foster I just don’t like in a fantasy player. He wasn’t the most consistent, with five weeks scoring fewer than 8 points, but he also had eight weeks where he scored more than 16 points, including one 40 point performance. He has the skills to go off and be a top tier RB, and he also features in the screen game. I think Matt Schaub is about as vanilla as QBs come, and T.J. Yates is still relatively unknown, both of which spell positive for Foster. But his off-field antics, particularly his tweets, make me wonder about his focus.
Marshawn Lynch is a beast. He’s an explosive downhill back that breaks tackles like he breaks hearts. Whatever the QB situation in Seattle is, we can be assured that Seattle will continue to rely on Lynch and his Skittles obsession as they have last season. He’s got 1200 yards and 12 TDs on a season where he didn’t really take off until Week 9. I like Lynch to continue strong next season.
You might wonder why Darren Sproles, with only 600 rushing yards and 2 rushing TDs makes the cut at Tier 2. You might wonder why any Saint’s RB makes it into this level at all, with Sean Payton favoring the RBBC that seems to be so good for the NFL and so bad for fantasy. You might wonder how many yards remain for a RB if Brees is throwing for 5400+. But then you might look at those yards and see that 700 of them went to Sproles, and that he tacked on another 11 receiving TDs to give him 1300 combined yards from scrimmage and 13 TDs. Sproles is a Tier 2 RB that you’ll be able to draft when the others are off the board, so don’t use a high pick on him. Last year, he went in the 12th round, but don’t expect the same. (I’d put him at 6-7th round this year).
There is no doubt that Michael Turner is a skilled athlete, and that he is an important part of the Falcons offensive scheme. Since joining the Falcons he has, with the exception of 2009, rushed for 300+ attempts, 1300+ yards, and 11 TDs. Ryan is a decent enough QB, and Roddy White stretches the field, giving Turner the opportunity to run. The question is, how long can the now 30-year-old weather the kind of damage that players at his position, especially of his bruising, downhill style, routinely suffer?
WR Tier 2: Cruz, Fitzgerald, Nelson, Smith, Welker
When defensive coordinators face the NYG offense, they get to pick their poison: Victor Cruz (82 receptions, 1500 yards, 9 TDs) or Hakeem Nicks (88 receptions, 1200 yards, 7 TDs). One or the other is going to score more than 16 fantasy points every game next season. The other will score more than 8. My bet is that Cruz will have more points, despite being the official WR2, so he gets the spot in Tier 2. Incidentally, Mario Manningham is on my list of sleepers next year.
Larry Fitzgerald has long been unquestionably one of the most talented players, but without Kurt Warner he continually underwhelms in Arizona. Depending on the QB situation there, we might see him be as good as Johnson, or he might deliver another performance like last season (80 receptions, 1400 yards, 8 TDs), which while good, was not significantly better than any of the others in this group.
Aaron Rodgers likes to spread the ball around, but a significant number of his balls find themselves in the hands of Jordy Nelson. More impressive is what Nelson does with the catches he makes, turning 68 receptions into 1200 yards and 15 TDs. Nelson is quick, has good hands, and runs his routes well. He has all the skills necessary to be one of the great receivers in the league, and he has Rodgers.
Steve Smith‘s fantasy value is tied to Cam Newton, there is no doubt about that. If you think Cam Newton will play well, which I do, you also think Steve Smith will do at least as well as he did last year, with 1400 yards and 7 TDs on 79 receptions. Nonetheless, he has been playing since 2001, and I wonder how much more we can expect out of the veteran who will be 33 for the 2012 season.
Last we come to Wes Welker, who with a league-leading 122 receptions, 1500 yards and 9 TDs is arguably at the top of this tier. Welker is an average receiver whose performance is inflated by the presence of Brady and Belichick. There is no doubt that he has been fantasy relevant. If nothing changes in New England, I would expect him to continue to be fantasy relevant. I think things will change in New England. The Patriots have 2 first round picks in the 2012 draft, and 2 second round picks, and if you think they aren’t looking for more toys for Brady (not least of which is a deep threat to replace Branch), you are mistaken. Belichick understands that defenses are adapting and have adapted to his offensive scheme and is looking to shake things up. We saw him do this with his tight ends, but I expect he is looking to add another dimension, a “third heat” to his offensive scheme, and I expect this third heat to affect Welker’s numbers more than anyone else on New England’s.