Who wants to be outside enjoying the beautiful weather when the fantasy football season is a mere 86 days away?
Sure, there are people who will tell you that it's too early for fantasy football. These are likely the same people who will tell you that it's too early for a cocktail. They mask their poisonous lies with golden tans, bursting social calendars and healthy heart rates.
And good for them. That jet ski picture will look great sitting on the mantle next to a Toilet Bowl trophy.
Now, stir yourself a Tequila Sunrise—hey, don't look at your watch, no one's judging anyone here—and pull up a chair, because the early bird gets the worm.
1. Aaron Rodgers (GB) — Aaron Rodgers is the safest pick in fantasy football, bar none. He's coming off an MVP campaign that included a career-best 4,643 passing yards and an incomprehensible 45:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His arm is the meat and potatoes, but the gravy is his rushing averages of 281 yards and four touchdowns over the last four seasons.
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In my estimation, the next four quarterbacks are virtually indistinguishable from each other, so the fifth owner to draft a quarterback scores the optimal value.
2. Drew Brees (NO) — Call me crazy, but I just don't care about the contract squabble, the absence of Sean Payton or the Bountygate distractions. Nor do I care about the departures of Robert Meachem (an ancillary piece) or Carl Nicks (who was replaced by Ben Grubbs). Drew Brees is a savvy veteran, and the system and pass-catchers are familiar, so he should have no problem stepping in and slinging it whenever he signs. Over his final eight games of 2011, he totaled 31 touchdowns against just five interceptions, while averaging 385 yards per contest. Don't be scared.
3. Tom Brady (NE) — You know what you're getting when you draft Tom Brady. In addition to 39 touchdowns in 2011, he amassed career highs in attempts (611), completions (401) and yards (5,239). The signing of Brandon Lloyd and the continued ineptitude of New England's secondary ensures that Brady will continue to air it out on a weekly basis.
4. Matthew Stafford (DET) — After finishing third in both yardage (5,038) and touchdowns (41) last season, many are predicting that Matthew Stafford will take a step back this season. I'm not one of them. He closed out the final four games of 2011 with 16 touchdowns and a 416-yard average, he throws to the best wide receiver on the planet and he plays in a division that can't defend the pass.
5. Cam Newton (CAR) — Cam Newton is a tricky figure this year. As a passer, his modest rookie numbers (4,051 yards, 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions) were virtually identical to Ben Roethlisberger's (QB14). That line is sure to improve in his second season. My fear is that the inevitable decline in rushing scores (from an NFL-record 14) will offset his progression as a passer. Nine of Newton's 14 scores (64.3%) came from inside the 10-yard line. Unfortunately, that's where new backfield mate Mike Tolbert (whose role is still being established) excels—seven of his eight touchdowns (87.5%) last season came from inside the 10-yard line.
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Here's where we enter the risk/reward portion of the QB rankings.
6. Michael Vick (PHI) — Last season, everything that could have gone wrong did, yet Michael Vick still ranked No. 6 among quarterbacks in fantasy points per game. He scored just once on 76 carries, so he's sure to rebound from that impossibly low touchdown rate, and with a seemingly happy and healthy receiver group, he should fare better through the air as well. You know not to expect 16 games, but Vick is still a guy who can carry you to victory on any given week.
7. Eli Manning (NYG) — As a fantasy quarterback, Eli Manning finally took the next step in 2011, amassing 30 total touchdowns and 4,933 passing yards (a whopping 912 yards more than his previous career high). He won't miss a beat with Rueben Randle stepping in for the departed Mario Manningham. While he's still prone to the occasional hiccup, Eli solidified his stock with a scintillating Super Bowl run.
8. Peyton Manning (DEN) — Admittedly, this is an optimistic ranking that is still very fluid, but early reports out of Denver have been glowing. In his last two seasons, Manning averaged 4,600 yards and 33 touchdowns, production Tony Romo hasn't sniffed since 2007. Continue to monitor Manning's progress—if he passes the eye test into the season, he'll do some serious fantasy damage utilizing his emerging tandem of strapping receivers (Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker).
9. Matt Ryan (ATL) — Matt Ryan has taken baby steps in each professional season. I expect Michael Turner to fall off the cliff in 2012. Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and the ageless Tony Gonzalez should ensure that Ryan he cracks the 30-touchdown mark for the first time and builds upon his 2011 career-best 4,177 yards.
10. Tony Romo (DAL) — It's always something with Tony Romo. Whether it's girlfriends or golf, he never seems completely focused on carrying your fantasy team to the promised land. It's like he doesn't even know you're playing for money. In addition to the never-ending distractions, we're constantly dealing with injuries to both Romo and his receivers. He contributes nothing on the ground despite above-average mobility, and he's finished inside the top-five just once in the last four years. There's no reason to expect anything more in 2012—I'm done making excuses for Tony Romo.
1. Arian Foster (HOU) — In a league that continues to shift towards heavy passing and multiple-back attacks, dual-threat superstar Arian Foster might be the closest thing we'll ever see to LaDanian Tomlinson's prime. Ben Tate, you say? Yeah, he's a stud, but he's merely used to keep Foster fresh. The new Fantasy King averaged 27.0 touches for 152.6 combo yards and 15 scores over his final 14 games. He's the rightful No. 1 pick in all formats.
2. Ray Rice (BAL) — With Willis McGahee running the option in Denver, Ray Rice finally broke through for a career-high 15 touchdowns in 2011. He hasn’t missed a game in the last three seasons, and over that span he’s averaged 284 carries, 72 receptions (yes, you read that right) and 1,963 combo yards. Don't let him fall past No. 2 on draft day.
3. LeSean McCoy (PHI) — No matter his opponent, the shifty and versatile LeSean McCoy is certifiably clunker-proof on a week-to-week basis. He averaged over 100 combo yards per game last season, in addition to his league-best 20 touchdowns. The scoring will dip, but his 126 catches and 5.0 YPC average over the last two seasons make him a very safe pick.
4. Ryan Mathews (SD) — Vulture Mike Tolbert is gone, and he took his 21 touchdowns over the last two seasons with him, so dual-threat stud Ryan Mathews has a clear path to fantasy superstardom. His per-touch production was outstanding last season, so if he can stay healthy, that efficiency should result in monstrous production in an expanded 2012 role.
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There's really no room for discussion here—the top four are locked in. As you're about to find out, there are very few sure things this season at the running back position.
5. Trent Richardson (CLE) — Trent Richardson is shaping up to be one of the busiest backs in the league in his rookie season. It's far from an optimal situation in Cleveland, but the popular exercise in the fantasy community is to look back to what Peyton Hillis—a lesser talent—did with a similar workload in 2010.
6. Darren McFadden (OAK) — Darren McFadden couples top-tier talent with nagging durability concerns, so while many are rejoicing at Michael Bush's departure, I'm worried that we've lost an airtight insurance policy. Over the last two seasons, McFadden has notched at least 18 touches in 16 games, and in those 16 games he averaged 139 combo yards and scored 15 times. Unfortunately, he's missed 12 games in those two seasons, so drafting him without the Bush handcuff is like jumping off the Oakland Coliseum without a safety net. Still, when he's on the field, he'll never let you down (ahem, Chris Johnson).
7. Marshawn Lynch (SEA) — Yeah, it bugs me that it took a contract year for Marshawn Lynch to stop sucking. Still, you can't ignore the fact that he scored 13 touchdowns in his final 12 games and racked up over 120 combo yards in six of his last nine. He'll continue to be the engine of Seattle's offense, and by sheer volume he should easily justify his second-round status.
8. Maurice Jones-Drew (JAX) — Without any semblance of a competent supporting cast, it wouldn't have been humanly possible for MoJo to improve upon last season's 1,980 yards and 11 touchdowns. This, of course, means that there's only one direction his production can realistically go in 2012...and that would be down. He enters this season in a contract holdout, still deprived of any surrounding talent, and bearing another year of heavy tread on his tires. Included in MoJo's 386 touches were a league-leading 343 carries—a whopping 42 more than the next back on the list. An across-the-board decline is imminent.
9. Chris Johnson (TEN) — After mailing in his 2011 campaign, the common opinion is that Chris Johnson will rebound in a big way this season. However, his complete lack of professional pride has left me skeptical. He showed no desire to adjust to Tennessee's new run blocking scheme, and frankly, he's a one-trick pony (speed) and the rest of the league knows it. Maybe he returns to 2010 levels, when he ranked No. 5 among fantasy backs, but you can forget about his 2009 numbers.
10. DeMarco Murray (DAL) — DeMarco Murray was a monster during a four-game (Weeks 7-10) midseason binge in which he rolled up 682 combo yards and ran at an 8.0 YPC clip. However, his average plummeted to 3.4 YPC from Weeks 11-13 without fullback Tony Fiammetta, who bolted for New England this offseason. Fiammetta has been replaced by Lawrence Vickers, who I view as a minor downgrade. Additionally, Murray carries a less-than-stellar injury history, and change-of-pace back Felix Jones will figure in to some degree. Still, cracking these rankings in front of established veterans like Steven Jackson, Matt Forte and Michael Turner is nothing to scoff at.
This was, without question, the most difficult position to sort through. Perennial superstars are at risk of being overtaken by an impressive group of up-and-comers, and big-time personnel shuffling has caused certain stocks to skyrocket or plummet. For these reasons, expect broad discrepancies as you compare different wide receiver rankings—starting here, of course.
At least there's one guy we can all agree on...
1. Calvin Johnson (DET) — Calvin Johnson regularly beat double- and triple-teams last season, averaging over 100 yards and a touchdown per game. In his final four contests he compiled a staggering stat line: 52 targets, 36 catches, 771 yards and six touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Johnson's final four games would have ranked No. 32 overall for the entire season. The most un-coverable receiver in the history of the league, Johnson is a surefire top-five pick in any format.
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Megatron is on his own planet. The chaos begins immediately at No. 2. A case could be made for at least a dozen guys here, some of whom won't even make this top-10 list.
2. Larry Fitzgerald (ARI) — Due to wretched quarterbacking, Larry Fitzgerald may not finish this high, but he's simply the safest pick in this spot. Fitz hasn't missed a game in four years, he's been one of the most targeted (a loose term in Arizona) receivers in the league his entire career, and despite all the misfires he still managed to crack 1,400 yards and score eight times last season. Rookie Michael Floyd should allow John Skelton to find Fitz more easily, but if Kevin Kolb wins the job, go ahead and drop Larry right out of the top 10.
3. Brandon Marshall (CHI) — I thought I was really going out on a limb here, but current ADP data shows Brandon Marshall being drafted as the fifth receiver off the board. And for good reason. His reunion with Jay Cutler forces us to look back to his 2007/2008 averages of 103 catches,1295 yards and 6.5 touchdowns. Sure, the scoring was a bit light, but six games against the fantasy pass defenses of the NFC North (No. 31 Green Bay, No. 30 Minnesota and No. 27 Detroit) should take care of that. Marshall is a jackass, and drafting him as a WR1 is not for the faint of heart, but the reward could be huge.
4. Mike Wallace (PIT) — It was a tale of two halves for the league's premier deep threat in 2011. In his first nine games, Mike Wallace averaged 5.2 catches for 96.4 yards and .67 touchdowns. In his last eight games, Ben Roethlisberger got dinged up and defenses failed to adjust to the emergence of Antonio Brown, resulting in an average of 3.5 catches for 43.9 yards and .25 touchdowns. I expect more of the former than the latter in 2012. Big Ben is healthy, Rashard Mendenhall is not, the offensive line is improved, opposing defenses have tape of Antonio Brown and Todd Haley is expected to open things up. Currently being drafted as WR11, there's a lot of value to be had here.
5. Hakeem Nicks (NYG) — Although Victor Cruz stole his thunder in the regular season, the real Hakeem Nicks stood up in a four-game playoff binge that yielded an average of 7.0 catches for 111 yards and 1.0 touchdown. After finishing with a flourish in 2011, Nicks may start slow in 2012 as he recovers from a foot injury, but when healthy he has as much upside as anybody this side of Calvin Johnson.
6. Andre Johnson (HOU) — I like Andre Johnson as much as the next guy, and we all know that he has the ability to lead the league in catches and yards in any given year. My issue is that he'll turn 31 this summer, and has battled troubling injuries in each of the last two seasons. Is he breaking down? I don't know. What I do know is that he's still never recorded double-digit touchdowns and that there are much safer options out there.
7. Jordy Nelson (GB) — On the strength of 15 touchdowns, Jordy Nelson finished second to Calvin Johnson among wide receivers in standard scoring last season. Sure, his 22 percent touchdown rate was a bit flukey, but his career trajectory puts him on pace for another uptick in receptions (he had 68 in 2011). In a potent passing offense in which defenses will always focus on Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley, I expect Aaron Rodgers to continue to exploit lesser defensive backs with Nelson's athleticism and catch radius.
8. Julio Jones (ATL) — The law of gravity (or something like that) says that things as big as Julio Jones aren't supposed to move that fast. The 6'3", 220-lb. sophomore has stupid potential, which he flashed by cracking the century mark five times and notching multiple touchdowns three times in his rookie season. After compiling 457 yards and six scores in his final five games, he's set to surpass counterpart Roddy White.
9. Greg Jennings (GB) — Atop the depth chart in an explosive offense, there's virtually no chance of Greg Jennings busting. However, we know what we're getting, and he's not someone with the unlimited upside of some of the other guys on this list (he's never topped 80 catches, 1,300 yards or 12 touchdowns). As Jordy Nelson emerged, Jennings was merely a decoy down the stretch, averaging 44.6 yards and .6 touchdowns per contest over his final seven games.
10. A.J. Green (CIN) — There's no denying A.J. Green's freakish talent, but a few situational factors cap his ceiling in my eyes. Unlike other guys on this list, Green won't be playing in a high-flying aerial attack. That depressed weekly upside is evidenced by the fact that, despite an impressive 65/1,057/7 rookie campaign, he only cracked 90 yards and scored in the same game once all season. Moreover, he never scored multiple touchdowns in a game. A twig-thin receiver in a black-and-blue division that boasted three of the top-five fantasy pass defenses in 2011, I just can't justify a higher ranking.
To further illustrate the ridiculous depth of this position, I'll touch on a handful of other guys with top-five potential.
While I expect Julio Jones to overtake Roddy White, the veteran has averaged 100/1,279/10 over the last three seasons.
As bullish as I was on Peyton Manning in these rankings, I'm even more excited about Demaryius Thomas. The third-year specimen closed out the final seven games of the season by scoring five times and averaging 106.4 yards per contest, despite fielding ducks from a left-handed running back.
The addition of Brandon Lloyd is one more mouth to feed in New England, and it's put a sizable dent in Wes Welker's stock, but the slot sensation is a Brady favorite who's reeled in a league-best 555 passes over the last five years.
Victor Cruz's improbable breakout season was no fluke, and dynamos Percy Harvin and Steve Smith certainly warrant mention here as well.
There's no clear break between Tier 2 and Tier 3, as guys like Jeremy Maclin, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston and Kenny Britt are all contenders for WR1 production.
1. Rob Gronkowski (NE) — Gronk shattered records with his regular season line of 90/1,327/17, and then he went 10/145/3 in the Patriots' divisional playoff game against Denver. Duplicating that gaudy stat line is unrealistic, but he was so far ahead of the pack that even a 25 percent reduction in his 2011 numbers (68/995/13) would be top-tier production. He's worthy of a first-round selection.
2. Jimmy Graham (NO) — A 6'7" power forward, Jimmy Graham has an otherworldly catch radius and he knows how to use it. His 1,310 yards fell just 17 shy of Gronk, he led all tight ends in targets (149) and catches (99), and there's room to improve on his 11 touchdowns. Graham closed out the season with six scores in his final five games.
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It's a two-man battle for the top spot.
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3. Vernon Davis (SF) — Once he finally became comfortable with Jim Harbaugh's system, Vernon Davis was an unstoppable force. In his final three games of the season he totaled 18 catches for 410 yards and four touchdowns, and with San Francisco's revamped receiver group now warranting coverage, Davis should continue his momentum into 2012.
4. Aaron Hernandez (NE) — Brandon Lloyd is now in the fold and Aaron Hernandez isn't even the No. 1 TE on his own team, but the Patriots will continue to find creative ways to establish mismatches with his athleticism. Hernandez finished strong last season, totaling 59 catches for 491 yards and four touchdowns in his final six games.
5. Jason Witten (DAL) — Jason Witten is one of the more dependable players in fantasy football. He's never injured, and over the past five seasons he's averaged 127 targets, 89 catches, 1,014 yards and 5.4 touchdowns. You can pretty much take that production to the bank.
6. Antonio Gates (SD) — Vincent Jackson is gone, and a healthy Antonio Gates has built up 74-touchdown equity over the last eight seasons. With that said, Gates turns 32 next week, he isn't nearly as spry as he once was and it's only a matter of time before his body fails him again.
7. Fred Davis (WAS) — Washington upgraded their receiver group this offseason, but 26-year-old Fred Davis is still the team's most talented pass-catcher, and he should flourish with RGIII under center. There's a lot left to prove, but Davis has as much upside as anybody in this tier.
8. Jermichael Finley (GB) — Will Jermichael Finley ever live up to the hype? There's a litany of excuses for his modest career highs of 55 catches, 767 yards and eight touchdowns. With so many weapons in Green Bay, Finley owners will be fed inconsistent weekly production with a side of frustration.
9. Brandon Pettigrew (DET) — Brandon Pettigrew finished third in tight end targets in 2010 (111), and second only to Jimmy Graham in 2011 (126). Matthew Stafford has proven himself elite, and with defenses pulling out all the stops to slow down Calvin Johnson, the fourth-year tight end could make a legitimate run at top-five production.
10. Tony Gonzalez (ATL) — Tony Gonzalez turned 36 last season. He also posted his best yardage (875) and touchdown (7) numbers since 2008. He's a fitness freak, so we shouldn't be surprised that, unlike teammate Michael Turner, Gonzo is still passing the eye test with flying colors. He simply hasn't given us any reason to worry.
Ryan Boser is a member of the FSWA, and a staff writer for Fantasy Victory. He can be followed on Twitter at @Ryan_Boser.