It’s been 11 days since the curtain officially closed on the 2011 fantasy football season. By now, league winners should be back from Disney World, and the rest of you should be transitioning from bargaining to acceptance.
Whether you’re chasing redemption or a repeat, your 2012 preparation starts here!
1. Arian Foster – In a pass-heavy league where multiple-back attacks have become the norm, dual-threat superstar Arian Foster might be the closest thing we’ll ever see to LaDanian Tomlinson’s prime. Running behind an elite-level offensive line in a system that fits him like a glove, he’s put any injury concerns to rest over his last 13 games, tallying 14 touchdowns and an average of 152.5 combination yards.
2. Ray Rice – We’ve always been able to count on Ray Rice for all-purpose yardage, but in 2011 he finally began finishing drives, posting a career-high 15 scores. He hasn’t missed a game in the last three seasons, averaging 284 carries and a jaw-dropping 72 receptions over that span. With a shallow pool of surefire running backs, Rice and Foster belong ahead of any of the growing pool of top-tier signal callers.
3. Aaron Rodgers – Aaron Rodgers’ efficiency (45 touchdowns against just six interceptions) is off the charts, and as an added bonus, he’s averaged 281 yards and four touchdowns on the ground over the last four seasons. He’s the safest pick in fantasy football.
4. Drew Brees – You can literally flip a coin between Rodgers and the NFL’s new passing king, Drew Brees. Over his last seven games, Brees has been the league’s best signal caller, totaling 27 touchdowns, three interceptions and an average of 374 yards. The potential loss of Marques Colston shouldn’t deter drafters—Colston needs Brees, not vice versa.
5. Calvin Johnson – Calvin Johnson scored 18 times in 17 games (including playoffs), and cracked 200 yards in three of his last four contests. After averaging over 100 yards and a score per game, regularly destroying double-teams and displaying uncanny chemistry with Matthew Stafford, he’s the unquestioned top receiver heading into 2012.
6. LeSean McCoy – LeSean McCoy was the rock in a sea of chaos in Philadelphia, averaging over 100 combination yards per game and leading all backs with 20 scores. Realistically, that touchdown number can only go one direction in 2012 (that would be down), but his explosive versatility makes him virtually clunker-proof on a week-to-week basis.
7. Rob Gronkowski – When Rob Gronkowski was done destroying the NFL record books, we were left with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Those numbers would be good for No. 2 amongst wide receivers (behind Calvin Johnson). The third best fantasy tight end, teammate Aaron Hernandez, fell 10 touchdowns and over 400 yards shy of Gronk’s production. Considering the dramatic drop-off at the position, a strong case could be made for Gronk moving up even higher than this in drafts.
8. Maurice Jones-Drew – For my money, league rushing champ Maurice Jones-Drew had the most impressive fantasy season of any player in the league. To rack up 1,980 combination yards and 11 scores as the only NFL-level skill position player in Jacksonville is stupid good. With a better supporting cast, we’d be debating MoJo and Arian Foster as the No. 1 pick.
9. Tom Brady – Top-level quarterbacks are typically a safe investment, and the glut of running back injuries (not to mention the league-wide passing explosion) has made signal callers a hot commodity in 2012. Brady’s coming off a career-high 611 pass attempts, and New England’s woeful secondary ensures that he’ll be chucking it early and often again next season.
10. Matthew Stafford – Matthew Stafford spends his Sundays playing pitch-and-catch with a mutant of a man, and he dispelled injury concerns by playing a 17-game slate. He closed out the season by racking up 16 touchdowns and averaging 416 yards in his final four games. What’s not to like?
11. Cam Newton – No, he’s probably not going to break his own record of 14 rushing scores next season, but as Carolina’s preferred goal line back, he’s not going to fall off the cliff like Michael Vick, either. He should more than make up for his expected decline in rushing production with his progression as a passer.
12. Jimmy Graham – Two tight ends in the first round? Trust me, you’ll never regret the weekly advantage. The wide receiver pool is deeper than ever, and this is the point where you’re gambling on second-tier backs. No position is more top-heavy than tight end. Jimmy Graham is just a step behind Rob Gronkowski, and the 6’7” power forward’s catch radius is wider than Rex Ryan’s backside. Move along, Marques Colston.
13. Marshawn Lynch – Lynch has been reborn in Seattle, where he’s expected to stay despite his impending free agency. The arrow is pointing up for his offensive line, and his 13 touchdowns in his final 12 games were no fluke. The Skittles-popper topped 120 combo yards in six of his last nine games, and he should be the engine of Seattle’s offense again in 2012.
14. Matt Forte – The fact that Matt Forte plans on playing in the January 29th Pro Bowl tells us everything we need to know about his season-ending MCL sprain. The injury shouldn’t factor into his 2012 draft status. However, one has to wonder why it took a contract year for Forte to dominate on a consistent basis (he amassed 1,489 combination yards in 12 games). Even if his newfound efficiency wasn’t money motivated, he’s averaged just six touchdowns over the past three seasons, capping his ceiling.
15. Wes Welker – Wes Welker leads the league in receptions over the past three seasons by a wide margin, as he’s hauled in 331 Tom Brady bullets. Obviously, he should be elevated in PPR leagues. I’ve slotted him in as the No. 2 wide receiver behind Calvin Johnson, and while someone may leapfrog him due to his lack of scoring prowess, this is a very safe pick.
16. Jordy Nelson – Although Greg Jennings will likely be drafted before Jordy Nelson, as he’s built up more equity, I prefer the breakout superstar. Only Calvin Johnson and Rob Gronkowski caught more than Nelson’s 15 touchdowns, and while his 22 percent touchdown rate (touchdowns/receptions) will be virtually impossible to replicate, his career trajectory puts him on pace for another big step forward from his 68 receptions. After finishing the season’s final two games with 15 catches for 277 yards and five touchdowns, the sky’s the limit.
17. Ryan Mathews – Ryan Mathews certainly comes with a fair amount of injury risk, following in the footsteps of fellow dual-threat California yardage monsters Darren McFadden and Frank Gore. However, he may possess more upside than any back left on the board. When healthy, he’s a fantasy force regardless of vulture Mike Tolbert.
18. Greg Jennings – I gave the 6’3” Jordy Nelson the edge over the 5’11” Greg Jennings, but with Aaron Rodgers playing at an otherworldly level, both Green Bay receivers will again be major boons for fantasy owners. Especially if Jermichael Finley departs via free agency.
19. Roddy White – Over the past three seasons, Roddy White’s 523 targets lead the league. His 300 receptions trail only Wes Welker’s 331, and he’s a safe bet to push double-digit touchdowns each year. White catches passes from Matt Ryan in a controlled climate, and Julio Jones ensures that he’ll get some extra room to roam. Finally, White hasn’t missed a game in his entire seven-year career. Not a sexy pick, but a safe pick.
20. Larry Fitzgerald – In my eyes, Fitz is still the best all-around receiver in the game. For fantasy purposes, however, he suffers from Maurice Jones-Drew Syndrome. Without competent quarterbacking, Fitz’ unlimited upside is, well… limited.
21. Hakeem Nicks – Mario Manningham was supposed to keep defenses honest for Hakeem Nicks. Instead, Victor Cruz took a 1,450-yard bite out of the Giants’ pass production. I gave Nicks the nod over Cruz, as he’s a more proven commodity with a star pedigree, but Cruz is not far behind.
22. A.J. Green – I want to go higher with A.J. Green after the rookie burst onto the scene with 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. A couple things are stopping me, however. Not only is Green a twig, but he’ll play six games against the three best fantasy pass defenses in the league again next season (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland). He needs to add some bulk this offseason.
23. Andre Johnson – The current run of wide receivers is a matter of opinion, but none may be more freakishly talented than Andre Johnson. However, he’s missed 12 games over the last two seasons, and shockingly, he’s still never scored double-digit touchdowns in a season.
24. DeMarco Murray – It was a relatively small sample size, but DeMarco Murray (ankle) proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s the fantasy star in Dallas’ backfield, and Felix Jones is nothing more than a change-of-pace compliment. His potential was on full display during a midseason four-game stretch in which the rookie rolled up 682 combination yards.
25. Chris Johnson – We’re in the midst of risk/reward running backs, and I threw Chris Johnson a bone here. Not that he deserved it. He played like a pig last season after getting paid, and he was a poor fit for Tennessee’s new zone-blocking scheme. However, he’s getting the benefit of the doubt based on two things: durability (he hasn’t missed a game in three seasons) and the fact that he has a record-smashing season in his back pocket. Although I gave Johnson the edge over declining backs like Michael Turner, Steven Jackson and Frank Gore, I’ll be happy to bump him for Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles or Fred Jackson if their respective recoveries pass the eye test in August.
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