Fantasy Football's Starting Quarterback Rankings, Pre-Training Camp Edition
The following fantasy countdown touts my pre-training camp rankings of the presumed starters from each NFL team, 1 through 32.
To clarify, this listing represents my best guess of the Week 1 starters—not necessarily who will be taking the reins for clubs in Weeks 8 or 12.
Obviously, high-profile talents like Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), Jake Locker (Titans) and John Skelton (Cardinals) have plenty of time to wrest starter's reps from their positional competition.
But all that stuff will play out next month. For now, I'm merely focused on setting my board for 12-, 14- and 16-team drafts.
Enjoy the show!
32: Matt Moore, Miami Dolphins
2011 Stats: 2,497 Yards Passing, 18 TDs (2 Rushing)
For what it's worth, Matt Moore is not the NFL's worst starting quarterback heading into the 2012 season.
From a fantasy standpoint, he actually crossed the weekly "star" threshold of 275 total yards and/or three touchdowns three times.
But taking the season-long view, he's also one of the few non-entrenched starters at his position.
That's a consequence of a new coaching regime (Joe Philbin), new veteran competition at QB (David Garrard) and a bonus-baby rookie from April's draft (Ryan Tannehill).
Bottom line: Short of Moore throwing for 250 yards/two TDs every week and leading the Dolphins to a 6-2 record into late October, it's reasonable to believe Tannehill will be Miami's starting QB around Week 9, when the club travels to Indy for an eminently winnable game.
In the meantime, Moore would be a serviceable fantasy backup as Miami's presumed starter.
31: Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Stats: 2,214 Yards Passing, 12 TDs (0 Rushing)
I find it laughable that some people have already formed definitive opinions of Blaine Gabbert after one middling rookie campaign.
The list of successful quarterbacks who floundered as NFL rookies is too long to mention, but when seeking a roundabout comparison to Gabbert, look no further than Hall of Famer John Elway.
In 1983, Elway threw for 1,163 yards, seven TDs and 14 interceptions in 11 games while leading a cast of modest playmakers that included tailbacks Sammy Winder/Nathan Poole and receivers Steve Watson/Rick Upchurch/Clint Sampson.
As a result, if fantasy football magazines had been in full circulation nearly 30 years ago, I'm sure Elway would have been ranked in the bottom half of fantasy QBs in the summer of 1984—primarily based off a sluggish first year.
To clarify, I'm not bestowing Elway-esque greatness on Gabbert for this season or his career, at large. But I'm also willing to cut the kid a break from last year's ennui—especially with the upgrades at receiver (Laurent Robinson, Justin Blackmon, Lee Evans) and head coach (Mike Mularkey).
Bottom line: Don't be afraid to take a last-round flier on Gabbert in 12-team drafts. I expect him to take a solid leap forward this fall.
30: Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
2011 Stats: 4,727 Yards Passing, 38 Total TDs (Oklahoma State)
It's difficult to believe that, even at age 28, Brandon Weeden is further along the development curve than a typical 22- or 23-year-old rookie quarterback like Kirk Cousins (Redskins) or Nick Foles (Eagles).
For five seasons (2002-06), Weeden toiled at various levels of Single-A baseball for the Yankees, Dodgers and Royals (career ERA: 5.02), and even if he was (hypothetically) throwing footballs to his minor-league teammates everyday, before night games, it still couldn't have accelerated his prep work for a possible NFL career.
And if it did, why aren't the top programs in college football demanding their quarterbacks hang out with minor league baseball players during the summertime?
Yes, Weeden amassed 9,004 yards passing and 71 touchdowns in two stellar seasons as Oklahoma State's QB (2010/11) while posting a remarkable completion rate of 70 percent. But he still missed out on starter's reps for seven football seasons (2002-08) while failing to capitalize on the athletic-prime ages of 18-25 (from a football standpoint).
It's true that Weeden has been around pro sports longer than Cousins, Foles and 2011 first-rounders Christian Ponder and Jake Locker. But it's also unwise to believe that type of baseball-specific experience gives him a decisive NFL edge as a first-year talent.
Bottom line: You can pitch all the minor-league baseball games you want and toss a thousand touchdowns to Justin Blackmon in college...but there's no real simulation for running an NFL offense. Failure is an inescapable fate for 95 percent of rookie QBs.
To counterbalance that, fantasy owners must hope Weeden attempts 30-plus passes at least seven times.
29: Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
2011 Stats: 2,164 Yards Passing, 6 TDs (0 Rushing)
In my opinion, the next two featured quarterbacks are the biggest wild cards in the fantasy realm.
In Sam Bradford's case, he'd possess top-15 fantasy talent on a team with more stability at receiver.
But the Rams are currently stuck in cluster-mode, trying to find separation (or elimination) among their eight wideouts (Danny Amendola, Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson, Brian Quick, Greg Salas, Austin Pettis, Chris Givens and the other Steve Smith).
I'm going to Vegas this week for a bachelor party, and just for kicks, perhaps I'll make a wager on the precise yardage order of the top six St. Louis receiverS by season's end.
Or, perhaps I'll make a wager on the number of times Bradford crosses the weekly star threshold of 275 total yards and/or three TDs.
Looking at the Rams' schedule...I'll set Bradford's over/under at 4.5 games.
28: Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs
2011 Stats: 1,713 Yards Passing, 10 TDs (0 Rushing)
I took plenty of heat from Chiefs fans last summer for declaring Matt Cassel wouldn't duplicate his 27 passing TDs from the 2010 season.
Well, in the sacred interest of "regression to the mean," I'm here to proclaim that Cassel will eclipse last season's per-game averages of 190.3 yards passing and 1.1 touchdowns.
And it might not even be close.
As someone who has been touting Jamaal Charles' fantasy-based greatness since his days at the University of Texas, I cannot wait to track his progress during the preseason games. When fully healthy, the kid's a top-five fantasy asset. Bar none.
I'm also excited to watch receiver Dwayne Bowe remind the fantasy world that he's closer to the guy who scored 15 touchdowns in 2010 than the one who found the end zone only five times last year.
Throw in the free-agent addition of Peyton Hillis, second-year development of receiver Jonathan Baldwin, injury return of tight end Tony Moeaki and expected veteran contributions of Steve Breaston/Dexter McCluster...and it's hard to find a gaping hole in the Kansas City attack.
But Cassel is the real catalyst to the Chiefs' fantasy success. For starters, he'll need to end last year's rough trend of zero or one touchdown on consecutive Sundays.
27: Matt Hasselbeck, Tennessee Titans
2011 Stats: 3,571 Yards Passing, 18 TDs (0 Rushing)
Similar to Miami's Matt Moore, Tennessee's Matt Hasselbeck possesses greater talent than his pedestrian QB ranking might suggest.
But when factoring in Hasselbeck's season-long viability, one has to figure that backup QB Jake Locker will start at least six games, health permitting.
It's all part of the Titans' masterful two-year plan to help Locker (542 yards passing, five total TDs in 2011) transition into the opening-day starter role for 2013 and beyond.
As a consequence of this high-profile platoon, it makes little sense to draft Hasselbeck without Locker in August. After all, the bye weeks don't kick in until late September, and fantasy owners are going to want the Titans quarterback's numbers for all 16 games.
That's a result of Tennessee boasting one of the NFL's most underrated receiving trios—Kenny Britt (14 catches, 23 targets, 271 yards, three TDs in his first two games last year), Nate Washington (74 catches, 1,023 yards, 7 TDs in 2011) and electrifying rookie Kendall Wright.
Wright just might be the league's second-fastest running back or receiver. Incidentally, he might also be the Titans' second-fastest running back or receiver behind Chris Johnson, a reasonable play for 1,700 total yards/eight TDs this season.
26: Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
2011 Stats: 1,853 Yards Passing, 13 TDs (0 Rushing)
It's hard to recap Christian Ponder's rookie season without referencing the ugly finish (96 combined passing yards for Weeks 16 and 17).
But all in all, Ponder exhibited some flashes of real-world and fantasy goodness in his first go-round against NFL defenses.
Five consecutive games of at least one touchdown pass (Weeks 11-15). One outing of 395 total yards and three touchdowns (vs. Denver), and not one four-interception clunker on the resume.
Is that enough for Ponder to warrant the No. 26 ranking? Eh, probably not. But I have faith in Minnesota's Big Four of Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Toby Gerhart, Jerome Simpson.
I also have faith in receiver Greg Childs, one of the more notable steals from April's draft.
25: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
2011 Stats: 3,517 Yards Passing, 39 Total TDs (Stanford)
The day will come when Andrew Luck becomes a top-five fantasy quarterback and one of the undisputed stars of this decade.
But other factors come into play when detailing his 2012 ranking among passers, such as the lack of quality veteran depth at receiver (after Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie), the uncertainty at running back (Donald Brown, Delone Carter) and potential pratfalls of a young offensive line.
Then there's the usual difficulties that accompany a rookie who's being handed the keys to a franchise that's simply not ready for playoff contention.
Ironically, Peyton Manning inherited similar obstructions for his rookie season with the Colts in 1998, and despite the many foibles that year, Manning still finished with 3,739 yards passing and 26 TDs.
Now, I'm not prepared to make a similar assessment with Luck, but if the Colts are in line for a 3-13 campaign—just like Manning in '98—there will be plenty of opportunities for Luck to throw his way out of jams.
24: Matt Flynn, Seattle Seahawks
2011 Stats: 518 Yards Passing, 7 TDs (1 Rushing)
Anyone who loudly proclaims that QB Matt Flynn (132 career passes, nine TDs) will be an absolute gem in Seattle or a hopeless flameout is simply throwing darts at a board.
Yes, Flynn set the Packers' mark for TD passes in a single game last year (six), oddly throwing some water on Aaron Rodgers' seemingly unimpeachable campaign for NFL MVP. But how does Flynn project as a full-time starter without pass-catching dynamos Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones or Jermichael Finley as targets and with newfound pressures to carry a franchise that's pining for another Matt Hasselbeck (174 TDs, one Super Bowl berth from 2001-10)?
In 2011, Tarvaris Jackson passed 30 or more times in nine Seahawks games—an impressive total considering RB Marshawn Lynch (1,416 total yards, 13 TDs last season) scored at least one touchdown in 11 straight active games (Weeks 4-15).
If head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had that much confidence in T-Jax, just imagine the hubris they'll have when calling plays for Flynn, a 67 percent passer, against the Rams, Lions, Bears, Vikings, Patriots, Panthers, Bills, Cowboys and yes, Packers in 2012.
23: Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals
2011 Stats: 1,713 Yards Passing, 10 TDs (0 Rushing)
When of sound mind and body, Kevin Kolb has the tools to be a top-15 quarterback, especially with playmakers like Larry Fitzgerald (80 catches, 1,411 yards, 6 TDs), rookie receiver Michael Floyd (100 catches, 1,147 yards, 9 TDs with Notre Dame in 2011), incumbent tailback Beanie Wells and the soon-to-be-unleashed Ryan Williams wreaking havoc.
Regarding Williams (ruptured patella during the 2011 preseason), it's rare to find a non-rookie tailback with limitless potential after Round 12 of fantasy drafts. But he could have a DeMarco Murray-like impact midway through the season (once fully healthy).
But Kolb's real-world and fantasy fate will be determined by his success rate with Fitzgerald and Floyd, arguably the best 1-2 receiving punch among NFC West teams.
22: Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers
2011 Stats: 3,144 Yards Passing, 23 TDs (2 Rushing)
Alex Smith posted career highs in passing yards and pass attempts (445) last season while almost breaking new ground in TD passes (17) and fewest interceptions (five).
Offseason Peyton Manning overtures aside, Smith has a good rapport with coach Jim Harbaugh and feels at ease with the 49ers offense, which now features RBs Frank Gore/KendallHunter/Brandon Jacobs/LaMichael James, TE Vernon Davis and wideouts Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss.
But does that make Smith a more palatable option in the fantasy realm? In 2011, he attempted 30 or more passes 10 times, and in those outings, Smith combined for 2,000 yards passing (200 per game) and 11 passing touchdowns (or 1.1 per game).
Comparatively speaking, Ravens QB Joe Flacco had 11 games of 30-plus passes last year; he also had per-game averages of 258.3 yards passing and 1.18 TD passes.
Bottom line: Even with the offensive upgrades, it's still a stretch to believe Smith will take a substantial leap in the red zone this season. (Too many running options.) That is, unless Randy Moss is feeling like his old 2007 self (23 TDs).
21: Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
2011 Stats: 3,610 Yards Passing, 21 TDs (1 Rushing)
Joe Flacco regressed in yards passing, touchdowns, interceptions and yards-per-completion last year, fueling the notion that he'll never be a 28-TD guy or top-10 quarterback.
On the flip side, Flacco had an uptick in completions (312) and attempts (542) from the 2010 campaign, an accomplishment that coincided with Ray Rice eclipsing 2,000 total yards for the second time in three years.
Last season, Flacco had five games of 300 yards passing and eight outings of two or more touchdowns—including five of the last six.
Bottom line: Flacco will be universally underrated in fantasy drafts this summer, but don't mistake the No. 21 ranking for weakness.
He can absolutely be a starting QB in 12-team leagues and a top-10 playoff performer for Weeks 15 (vs. Denver ) and 16 (vs. N.Y. Giants).
20: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
2011 Stats: 4,293 Yards Passing, 37 Total TDs (Baylor)
Griffin owes a sizable chunk of this cushy countdown spot to Cam Newton and Pierre Garcon.
In 2011, Newton shattered all long-standing myths about rookie quarterbacks in fantasyland by rolling for 4,757 total yards and 35 total touchdowns with Carolina.
Regarding Garcon, his move from Indy to our nation's capital gives Griffin—the club's Week 1 starter—seven stupendous playmaking options: receivers Garcon, Leonard Hankerson, Santana Moss, tight end Fred Davis and tailbacks Roy Helu, Evan Royster and Tim Hightower.
(And it could expand to nine if Chris Cooley and Josh Morgan can step it up.)
From an ADP perspective, Mock Draft Central currently has Griffin as the No. 12 quarterback (86th overall), and owners shooting that high are obviously thinking "starter"...not "pricey backup."
Thanks to Cam Newton.
19: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Stats: 3,398 Yards Passing, 21 TDs (1 Rushing)
It'll be interesting to see if 12- and 14-team owners draft Andy Dalton as a QB1 or QB2.
As a fantasy backup, most GMs would be thrilled with modest gains from 2011, but as a fantasy starter, there may be unrealistic projections of 3,900 yards/27 TDs.
Looking at Cincy's depth chart, tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis only drew 13 targets with the Patriots last season, catching nine balls for 159 yards, and backup Bernard Scott tallied only 13 catches last year.
Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a reasonable play for 60 catches, 600 yards and seven touchdowns.
On the wideout front, there's obviously A.J. Green (65 catches, 1,057 yards, 7 TDs as a rookie), but for Dalton to take a substantial step forward, he'll need either Armon Binns, Jordan Shipley, Brandon Tate, Marvin Jones or rookie Mohamed Sanu to emerge from the pack.
That may take a little longer than expected.
18: Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 Stats: 3,590 Yards Passing, 20 TDs (4 Rushing)
No fringe quarterback has benefited more from this offseason than Josh Freeman, who commendably racked up 3,592 yards passing and 20 total TDs in a fruitless 2011 campaign, team-wise.
And now, Freeman has Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn at receiver, Dallas Clark at tight end and LeGarrette Blount/Doug Martin at tailback.
It's a dream scenario for Freeman, who apparently slimmed down in the offseason. It's also a dream occurrence for Buccaneers fans, who haven't seen two 700-yard wide receivers on the same club in 12 years (Keyshawn Johnson/Jacquez Green).
Here's where things get tricky for Freeman: He threw 27 or more passes in all 16 games last season, a consequence to Tampa Bay's sluggish running game and early deficits (especially in the last 10 games).
Under Greg Schiano's run-oriented direction this year, it's hard to imagine Freeman airiing it out 30-plus times for more than, say, nine games.
17: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills
2011 Stats: 3,832 Yards Passing, 24 TDs (0 Rushing)
Ryan Fitzpatrick deserves some props for attaining career marks in yards passing (3,832) and touchdowns (24) last season.
He also warrants modest praise for eclipsing the per-game marks of 275 total yards and/or three touchdowns—my minimum weekly threshold for elite fantasy QBs—seven times.
But here's the killjoy fact of the day: Fitz tallied zero or one touchdown in eight of the 16 starts, meaning he single-handedly contributed to at least four or five fantasy losses in 2011.
To remedy that feast-or-famine approach, the Bills should see improved play from WR Donald Jones (one of my preseason super-sleepers) and more receiving reps for tailbacks Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller (711 combined receiving yards last year).
16: Mark Sanchez, New York Jets
2011 Stats: 3,474 Yards Passing, 32 TDs (6 Rushing)
This lukewarm ranking seems a tad unfair for a quarterback who racked up 32 total touchdowns last year and inked a lucrative contract extension in the offseason.
But then again...
1. With the presence of Tim Tebow in New York, Sanchez likely won't replicate last year's six rushing TDs.
2. After Santonio Holmes (51 catches, 654 yards, 8 TDs), the Jets currently have raw rookie Stephen Hill, Raiders castoff Chaz Schilens and some random cat named Jeremy Kerley atop their receiving depth chart. (Thank god for tight end Dustin Keller.)
3. The Jets would be smart to re-commit to the running game this season, presumably giving Shonn Greene and Joe McKnight more red-zone opportunities.
4. Even if Tebow is used in short-yardage and goal-line situations, his role would still cut into Sanchez's passing reps. In 2011, Sanchez attempted 30 or more passes 10 times, and yet he only crossed the weekly star threshold of 275 total yards and/or three TDs five times.
15: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
2011 Stats: 4,077 Yards Passing, 21 TDs (0 Rushing)
The transformation didn't occur overnight, but eventually, I have come to realize that Ben Roethlisberger's career-best tallies in passing yards (4,328 in 2009) and total touchdowns (34 in 2007) may be unattainable marks from this point forward.
Part of it has to do with the Steelers changing offensive coordinators (from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley).
Part of it had to do with Big Ben turning the big 3-0 in March.
And part of it has to do with the Steelers' offseason wish to re-emphasize the running game, even though Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer may be called upon for substantial carries in light of Rashard Mendenhall rehabbing from a January ACL tear.
Bottom line: Roethlisberger may be a classic big-game quarterback, but he's also a fringe starter in 12-team fantasy leagues.
At the very least, fantasy owners should buttress his Round 7 selection with a similarly skilled backup (or hotshot rookie) in Round 10.
14: Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
2011 Stats: 2,319 Yards Passing, 14 TDs (1 Rushing)
The specter of ex-Broncos Brandon Marshall, Jay Cutler and passing guru Jeremy Bates reuniting in Chicago should please fantasy owners to no end.
In 2008, Bates' one season of directing Cutler and Marshall in Denver, Marshall tallied 104 catches, 1,265 yards, six touchdowns and an NFL-high 182 targets, while Cutler threw for 4,526 yards and 25 TDs.
Both Cutler and Marshall enjoyed tangible success away from Bates in Chicago and Miami, respectively, but 2008 remains a defining campaign for a QB-WR combo that can be explosive between the 20s and virtually unstoppable in the red zone.
Even with Marshall (81 catches/1,214 yards/6 TDs in 2011) turning 28 and Cutler enduring season-ending injuries in 2010 and '11, fantasy owners should be very optimistic about the pair's prospects, especially if tailback Matt Forte plays a full season.
Throw in the upgrades of RB Michael Bush (free agency) and WR Alshon Jeffery (NFL draft), and the Bears might have enough power to match the Packers and Lions in the passing game.
Cutler targets: 4,208 yards passing, 25 TDs
13: Carson Palmer, Oakland Raiders
2011 Stats: 2,753 Yards Passing, 14 TDs (1 Rushing)
Carson Palmer acquitted himself nicely last year with the Raiders (2,753 yards, 14 TDs in just nine starts) despite little practice time or intimate knowledge of his receivers.
The main source of our 2012 optimism lies with burgeoning talents like Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, Mike Goodson, Jacoby Ford and Palmer's annual knack for eclipsing the 60-percent passing mark.
Looking for the most stable mid-round QB in platoon situations? Palmer might be the best asset in that realm.
Targets: 4,468 yards passing, 25 TDs
12: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
2010 Stats: 4,700 Yards Passing, 33 TDs (with Indy)
Peyton Manning may be on the short list of greatest QBs in NFL history, but that doesn't foster much clarity when projecting the season ahead.
Yes, Manning has two formidable receivers (Demaryius Thomas/Eric Decker), two productive tight ends (Jacob Tamme/Joel Dreessen) and three intriguing running backs (Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman), but who's to say how Manning will function in a new city, with a new club, new coaches and a seemingly good-as-new neck in the short term?
At age 36 and with little wear and tear (from the shoulders on down, at least), Manning has the capacity for five or six wonderful seasons in Denver, culminating with sustained playoff runs and maybe even another Super Bowl berth.
But for this year, I have no choice but to invoke a conservative tone with Manning and his on-the-fly adjustments to factors that can no longer be harnessed by the climate-controlled environment of Indy's Lucas Oil Stadium.
11: Matt Schaub, Houston Texans
2011 Stats: 2,479 Yards Passing, 17 TDs (2 Rushing)
Before I hand over a free pass to Matt Schaub for last year's incomplete stats from a truncated season (2,479 yards passing, 17 TDs in 10 starts), let's talk about the ridiculousness of his July standing on one Average Draft Position chart.
On Mock Draft Central, Schaub currently stands as the No. 17 QB or 123rd overall pick, a ranking unbecoming of a top-10 talent with regular access to a top-five receiver (Andre Johnson) and top-three running back (Arian Foster).
Or, maybe I just imagined Schaub's prolific numbers from the 2009 and '10 seasons: 9,140 yards passing, 53 touchdowns and a 66 percent passing mark.
10: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
2011 Stats: 4,624 Yards Passing, 28 TDs (1 Rushing)
Vincent Jackson may be property of the new-and-improved Bucs, but I'm willing to take a double leap of faith on Philip Rivers this season.
Rivers' final numbers from last year may have been OK, but he also had his worst completion percentage (62.9) and TD/INT ratio (27/20) in four years. The odds of back-to-back blah seasons are not very strong.
Next, it's time for Malcom Floyd (a must-have in Round 9) and second-year wideout Vincent Brown to take sizable steps forward in V-Jax's absence. They're physical freaks with a lot to prove in 2012.
Speaking of which, I'm not sure how to react to Robert Meachem's coveted signing with San Diego. Take away his 21-catch, six-TD explosion from Weeks 9-13 of the 2009 season, and Meachem was a maddeningly inconsistent performer with catches, targets and receiving yards in New Orleans (2008-11).
One more reason for Rivers optimism: Assuming he plays in at least 15 games, tailback Ryan Mathews is a solid bet for 1,500 total yards, eight touchdowns and another season of 50 catches.
9: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
2011 Stats: 4,177 Yards Passing, 31 TDs (2 Rushing)
Would it be a stretch to hail Matt Ryan as the Cole Hamels of fantasy football—a consistent, stellar force who's too quiet for his own good?
From a big-picture standpoint, Ryan has evolved into an annual threat for 4,200 yards passing and 30 touchdowns.
But here's why he'll garner a ranking ahead of Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers (barely) in August:
Of Ryan's three sub-200-yard passing games last year, he accounted for four, two and two TDs, essentially wiping out any weekly cries of mediocrity.
Bottom line: Ryan has officially earned his wings as a fantasy ace. It also helps that he has the NFL's No. 1 or No. 2 WR/WR/TE combo—Roddy White (100 catches, 1,296 yards, 8 TDs last year), Julio Jones (54 catches, 959 yards, 8 TDs in just 13 games) and Tony Gonzalez—in close proximity with the Packers' own vaunted trio.
One last thing: The Falcons will likely be the only NFL team to have 16 ideal-weather games for the regular season. That's a nice tiebreaker between Ryan and Philip Rivers.
8: Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
2011 Stats: 3,303 Yards Passing, 19 TDs (1 Rushing)
There's a reason why ESPN fantasy guru Matthew Berry had Michael Vick listed as the No. 1 overall talent during the 2011 preseason.
Vick is quite possibly the NFL's most gifted athlete—even in his 30s—and plays in a progressive offense with LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and DeSean Jackson, among others.
When healthy, Vick has the capacity for 4,800 total yards and 30 TDs, but that's the whole crux of the matter:
Would it be callous to believe Vick won't start and finish all 16 games? I'm never one to assume injuries, but Vick only has one 16-game season on his resume (2006 with Atlanta).
Verdict: The idyllic guru in me wants to rank Vick at No. 6, but the rational, track record-oriented guru in me wants to attach a No. 10 or 11 ranking.
As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
7: Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
2011 Stats: 4,184 Yards Passing, 32 TDs (1 Rushing)
I'll leave the "Who's the better real-world QB—Tony Romo or Eli Manning?" debate to lazy sports-radio and TV hosts.
From a fantasy standpoint, I only care that Romo attempted 30 or more passes 13 times last season (15 full games).
I care that Romo has per-game averages of 22.5 completions, 263.1 passing yards and 1.95 touchdowns in his last 22 games (covering 2010/11).
I care that Romo has five dynamic—and healthy—weapons at his disposal entering training camp: Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten, Felix Jones.
And I care about Romo being a full-season lock for 4,100 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Put it all together, and fantasy owners should have their pick of the NFC East's three top quarterbacks in Rounds 3 and 4. It's a carrot that comes with focusing on tailbacks and receivers with the initial two or three draft picks.
6: Eli Manning, New York Giants
2011 Stats: 4,933 Yards Passing, 30 TDs (1 Rushing)
From Weeks 4-15 last year (spanning 11 games), Eli Manning averaged 40.36 passes per outing, a dream figure for fantasy owners who worship at the church of More Reps, Bigger Numbers with quarterbacks.
On that alone, Eli deserves to be recognized as a top-six quarterback and top-35 overall asset in the August drafts, regardless of scoring or how the Giants might handle the rigors of repeating as Super Bowl champs.
Obviously, if Manning wasn't an efficient passer, we wouldn't put so much stock in attempts. But he had nine separate games of 60-percent proficiency last year.
Of equal importance, he crossed the weekly star threshold of 275 total yards and/or three touchdowns 10 times—the requisite amount of an elite passer.
5: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
2011 Stats: 4,051 Yards Passing, 35 TDs (14 Rushing)
Here's the deal with Cam Newton heading into 2012:
Even if he's not a lock to replicate last year's output in total yards (4,757) or touchdowns (35), every fantasy owner—at least those who haven't already drafted Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady—should feel obligated to grab him in Rounds 2 or 3...because of last season's mind-blowing rookie numbers.
The individual highlights are staggering: two 400-yard passing outings in Weeks 1 and 2 (an NFL rookie record), 10 games of 30 or more passes, 12 games of 275 total yards and/or three touchdowns, seven rushing TDs from two yards or less and a rock-solid completion mark (60 percent).
And Newton accomplished all this without a full offseason of film prep/practice reps (due to the lockout) or a viable No. 2 receiver during the season (after Steve Smith, of course).
To err is human; to assume that Cam Newton isn't a top-five fantasy QB borders on absurd.
4: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
2011 Stats: 5,239 Yards Passing, 42 TDs (3 Rushing)
As someone who has Tom Brady earmarked for a minimum threshold of 4,750 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, along with a top-four ranking amongst QBs, I've caught plenty of guff for pointing out the following facts:
1. It took 10 full NFL seasons for Brady to eclipse the 5,000-yard passing mark.
2. Brady's three greatest performances from 2011 occurred in Weeks 1-3—and in descending order.
3. In Brady's illustrious career, he has enjoyed a seasonal improvement in touchdown passes only three times.
In other words, Brady (who turns 35 in August) may be a first-ballot, no-brainer choice for the Hall of Fame (sometime around 2024), but he's hardly a lock to match or eclipse last year's amazing numbers—even with the presence of Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch as receiving targets.
Completion percentage aside, Brady has a history of wild statistical swings from year to year, so much that he's had a plus-minus differential of 15 completions and/or pass attempts just once—from 2005 to 2006.
3: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
2011 Stats: 5,083 Yards Passing, 41 TDs
Before we proceed with this stanza, let me reiterate that it does not matter if you prefer Tom Brady, Cam Newton or Matthew Stafford at the No. 3 slot. It also doesn't matter if you'd rather have Stafford, Brady or Newton at No. 2, ahead of Drew Brees.
Just grab an elite quarterback early and then concentrate on the truly vital components of a standard-scoring or PPR draft: The five running backs and five receivers on your roster.
That aside, there is nothing to dislike about Stafford's fantasy profile.
He crossed the magical threshold of 5,000 passing yards and 40 touchdowns before his 24th birthday. He threw at least one touchdown in all 16 games. He amassed 350-plus passing yards seven times last season—including four straight to finish the year.
(Props to Calvin Johnson and his 96 catches, 1,681 yards and 16 TDs last season.)
Even in moments of failure, Stafford still reigns supreme on the fantasy end. In his four-interception clunker against Chicago last year, the Lions star threw for 308 yards, one touchdown and helped "Bears D/ST" owners everywhere with a pair of pick-six interception returns.
He's the fantasy gift that keeps on giving.
2: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
2011 Stats: 5,476 Yards Passing, 47 TDs (1 Rushing)
We'll keep this stanza relatively short until the day Drew Brees finally inks a contract with the Saints.
At the same time, I'm not ready to do any substantive research involving Chase Daniel and his prospects for the 2012 season—should Brees remain a holdout.
Make no mistake, though. The yearlong suspension to head coach Sean Payton has diminished some of the delirium surrounding Brees's stat projections.
As of July 10, Brees (NFL-record 5,476 yards passing last season) remains a strong No. 2 in fantasyland—behind Aaron Rodgers. Both superstars are virtual shoo-ins for 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns.
1: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
2011 Stats: 4,643 Yards Passing, 48 TDs (3 Rushing)
Anyone who can pull a de facto Dan Marino, circa 1984, and rack up 48 total touchdowns (45 passing) in their relative prime deserves a plum spot at No. 1.
In fact, Rodgers' 15-game contribution in 2011 might have been the most efficient season of any quarterback in NFL history:
1. Sixteen straight games of a positive TD/INT ratio (including the playoffs).
2. Twelve games of 300 total yards or more and 10 outings of at least three touchdowns.
3. Zero games of two or more interceptions.
Yes, history has shown that quarterbacks who throw 45 or more TDs one year endure a noticeable dip the following season...but it's still not enough to bump Rodgers from the highest perch of an impressive class of elite passers.
After all, he has three of the NFL's best receiving targets to work with (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley), and he's blessed to have a head coach/offensive guru (Mike McCarthy) who's not afraid to keep the proverbial pedal on the medal (just like Bill Belichick).