2012 NFL Free Agency: Projecting 8 Stud Fantasy Football Performers

Rob TongContributor IIIMarch 20, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agency: Projecting 8 Stud Fantasy Football Performers

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    Manning is officially a Bronco, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    But he's not a lock to be a fantasy star as he was in Indianapolis.

    While Demaryius Thomas is a budding star, he's not a star just yet—same with Eric Decker.

    And since Reggie Wayne stayed behind with the Colts, Manning would find himself with a lot fewer bullets than he recently did in Indy when he had Wayne, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, and Dallas Clark.

    It's possible the Broncos could make a play for elite Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace. The Broncos have a low first-round pick that is easily worth giving up for a player of Wallace's caliber and would give Manning a true go-to weapon to complement Thomas and Decker.

    But until that happens, Manning will have to channel his inner 2005 Tom Brady and be a stud with limited options.

    He'll also need to be careful with his surgically-repaired neck.

    Quite a few red flags there. But considering that your other options would be Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco, Kevin Kolb and Josh Freeman, Manning is still a worthy alternative.

    And considering a big part of Manning's elite ability is in his head, he should still be better than other free-agent quarterbacks who have to come in to a new system with new teammates, like Matt Flynn.

    Expect Manning to be a low-end QB1 or high-end QB2 with the current Denver offense. If the Broncos do get Wallace, Manning rises to a mid-to-high QB1.

1. RB Arian Foster, HOU

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    Considering the weak free-agency moves this offseason, the best fantasy performer of them all will be the running back who re-signed with his team.

    Arian Foster staying in Houston assures him of being one of the top five picks in next year's fantasy drafts.

    Behind a stout offensive line, Foster has proven he can produce with or without a healthy Matt Schaub. Further, Foster was the primary ball-carrier for the Texans despite backup Ben Tate's fine 2011 season.

    With Foster showing, he can overcome these obstacles, he will be—by far—the best fantasy football performer among the 2012 signed free agents.

2. WR Marques Colston, NO

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    Colston averaged 10.3 FPPG last year, good for 16th among fantasy wideouts—and a solid WR2.

    Returning to the team that features Drew Brees maintains his status as a solid fantasy WR2 option in drafts this summer.

    And with teammate Robert Meachem gone, Colston should see even more targets than he usually does and potentially be a high-end WR2 or low-end WR1.

3. WR Vincent Jackson, TB

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    Jackson went for the green in Tampa Bay but is likely to find that the grass isn't always greener on the other side.

    Even with a poor year from quarterback Philip Rivers, Jackson still finished 15th among fantasy WRs with 10.4 FPPG—a high-end WR2.

    Now catching passes from the less talented Josh Freeman, Jackson's fantasy production should drop him to a low-end WR2 or a high-end WR3.

    In 2010, when Freeman played surprisingly well and receiver Mike Williams was having a stellar year, Williams finished 23rd among fantasy WRs with an 8.3 FPPG average. That's a reasonable place to expect Jackson to finish in 2012 since free-agent WRs typically see a drop in production upon changing teams, especially when the new team has a worse quarterback than the former team.

    Whereas Jackson was more valued than Colston in the past, you would not be wise to do the same in fantasy for 2012.

4. WR Steve Johnson, BUF

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    By staying with the offense with which he is familiar, Johnson remains a low-end WR2/high-end WR3 as he was in 2011 where he averaged 8.8 FPPG, good for 24th among fantasy WRs.

    Nothing has significantly changed offensively for Buffalo, but the addition of elite DE Mario Williams could provide the Bills with better field position, esp. after turnovers, which could provide more—and better—scoring opportunities for Johnson.

    Expect Johnson to finish 2012 as a low-end WR2.

5. TE Tony Gonzalez, ATL

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    Gonzalez quietly finished third among fantasy tight ends with an 8.6 FPPG average.

    By re-signing with the Falcons, he assures himself of being in a familiar offense with a quarterback who trusts him in the red zone.

    While I expect wide receiver Julio Jones to step up in his second year, Jones' production should eat into Roddy White's stats, not Tony Gonazalez's, since Jones is more a deep threat than a ball-control receiver.

    Gonzalez should finish with very similar numbers as 2011, making him again a high-end TE1.

6. WR Reggie Wayne, IND

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    With a revolving door of skank at quarterback, Wayne posted 7.5 FPPG in 2011, placing him 33rd among fantasy WRs—a low-end WR3.

    By re-signing with the Colts, Wayne will pair up with highly talented rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

    With Austin Collie on the opposite side, that's not a bad pair of receivers for Luck to start with.

    Considering that rookie A.J. Green averaged 10.7 FPPG (13th among fantasy WRs) with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, Wayne should rebound and produce like a high-end WR3.

    Obviously, an aging Wayne is not the same receiver as a young A.J. Green. But Green often got the bulk of the attention from opposing defenses whereas defenses will need to split their attention between both Wayne and Collie. And Wayne will benefit from having Luck, a much more talented quarterback than Dalton.

    Wayne is a sleeper WR pick this summer.

7. WR Mario Manningham, SF

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    The "other" free-agent wide receiver in San Francisco is one to watch.

    While all eyes naturally will be on Randy Moss in the Bay Area, expect Manningham to surpass Michael Crabtree on the depth chart to claim the No. 2 role.

    Will that matter? After all, the 49ers have been a rushing team in the Alex Smith-Frank Gore era.

    Smith chucks the football up an average of only 28 times a game; Eli Manning airs it out an average 37 times.

    But the lack of pass attempts could simply be a function of "do with what you got." The 49ers didn't have an arsenal of passing weapons. So their M.O. was required to be a running offense.

    But now with both Moss and Manningham joining the team to add to the rejuvenated Vernon Davis—not to mention the aging miles on Gore's legs—the identity of this team could very well do a 180 in 2012.

    In 2011, Manningham was off the radar in all but really large leagues, thanks to a 5.1 FPPG average that placed him tied for 56th among fantasy wideouts—a solid WR5.

    In an offense with more of a passing focus, Moss likely would be getting the bulk of the defensive attention in the passing game. And then we can expect a focused Manningham—out to prove he's better than just the No. 3 option on the Giants passing offense—to make a fantasy impact as a high-end WR3.

8. TE Jermichael Finley, GB

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    Finley finished fifth among fantasy tight ends, with a 7.5 FPPG average.

    Re-signing with the Packers was a strong move that will keep him as one of the Packers' three best receiving threats.

    Finley could be highly motivated to become an elite tight end like Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. Or he could be the same highly talented player who always falls short now that he's secured his payday.

    At this point, expect him to produce marginally better than last year, which would still make him a high-end TE1, but just not in the elite class.

Honorable Mention: QB Peyton Manning, DEN

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    Manning will be a Bronco, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    But he's not a lock to be a fantasy star as he was in Indianapolis.

    While Demaryius Thomas is a budding star, he's not a star just yet—same with Eric Decker.

    And since Reggie Wayne stayed behind with the Colts, Manning would find himself with fewer bullets than he recently did in Indy when he had Wayne, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, and Dallas Clark.

    It's possible the Broncos could make a play for elite Pittsburgh receiver and restricted free agent Mike Wallace. The Broncos have a low first-round pick that is easily worth giving up for a player of Wallace's caliber and would give Manning a true go-to weapon to complement Thomas and Decker.

    But until that happens, Manning will have to channel his inner 2005 Tom Brady and be a stud with limited options.

    He'll also need to be careful with his multi-surgically-repaired neck.

    And Manning's Broncos face the second-toughest schedule in 2012.

    Quite a few red flags there. But considering that your other options would be Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco, Kevin Kolb and Josh Freeman, Manning is still a worthy alternative.

    And considering a big part of Manning's elite ability is in his head, he should still be better than other free-agent quarterbacks who have to come in to a new system with new teammates, like Matt Flynn.

    Expect Manning to be a low-end QB1 with the current Denver offense. If the Broncos do get Wallace, Manning rises to a mid-to-high QB1.