Fantasy Football 2012: Power Ranking the 25 Safest Draft Picks

Bryan Fontaine@Bryan_FontaineFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2012

Fantasy Football 2012: Power Ranking the 25 Safest Draft Picks

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    Fantasy football is like the stock market in many ways.

    We must make sound investments with our draft picks with a limited amount of information. In addition, we need to forecast expected results based on history and trends.

    There are different investing strategies for everyone. Some are risk-averse and invest in the safety of blue-chip investments. Others prefer to invest in high-risk, high-reward investments.

    Just like in the stock market, there are no guarantees in fantasy football. You can invest in high-upside, unknown or injured players with a wide array of possible outcomes.

    Most fantasy football owners do not want that sort of risk with their early draft selections.

    The safest picks in your draft are not always the top-ranked players at each position. However, they are the players who you can count on to produce consistent results with less risk.

25. HB Doug Martin

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    Doug Martin is now the safest rookie available this year with Trent Richardson undergoing a minor knee surgery before the start of the season.

    Rookies are not often considered safe options, but Martin has the skills and, most importantly, the opportunity to be one of the top fantasy running backs.

    His coach, Greg Schiano, has already said that Martin is in line for feature back duty, and his teammates have compared him favorably to Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew.

    Martin’s pass-protection skill will keep him on the field for all three downs.

24. WR Jeremy Maclin

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    Jeremy Maclin, at just 24 years old, has emerged as Michael Vick’s favorite target and is primed for a breakout season. Vick has gone as far as comparing Maclin to Michael Irvin.

    Maclin struggled with a few minor injuries last year, but he was well on his way to a top-10 finish before missing a few games.

    There are plenty of other established wide receivers who did not make this list over Maclin. Maclin is a safer week-to-week option with considerable upside because of his age and quarterback situation. He has an excellent chance to finish inside the top 10 among wide receivers.

    Maclin’s floor is, at worst, a WR2.

23. WR Victor Cruz

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    Victor Cruz was the toast of the fantasy football world in 2011 and is out to prove that last year was no fluke.

    He is primarily a slot receiver, but as Grantland's Chris Brown indicates, Cruz has the ability to find open holes in the defense using the run and shoot concepts in the Giants’ playbook.

    Ideally, the Giants want rookie Rueben Randle to take over Mario Manningham’s role so that Cruz can maximize his talents in the slot.

    While Cruz’s nine touchdowns seemed fluky (only scored one touchdown in the red zone), his touchdown rate was not that much more than the league average. He will see some regression in his numbers, but not enough to knock him outside the top 15 wide receivers in 2012.

22. HB Darren McFadden

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    How can an injury-prone player like Darren McFadden be one of the safest options this year? Name another player who is going to see significant carries in Oakland.

    The feature back duties will fall all to McFadden, and by all accounts, he is not limited in training camp.

    There are no lingering concerns about McFadden’s injuries. Most have been unfortunate because of his hard-nosed playing style on every play.

    McFadden is a weekly difference-maker when healthy.

21. WR Hakeem Nicks

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    It seems that Hakeem Nicks is dealing with minor health ailments often, but there are only a few wide receivers in the league who can be as dominant as him in the passing game.

    The emergence of Victor Cruz actually helped Nicks and did not hinder his production. Eli Manning has shown he can support multiple starting fantasy wide receivers.

    Nicks has averaged over nine targets per game the past two seasons, a figure that will remain unchanged.

20. HB DeMarco Murray

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    A fractured ankle cut DeMarco Murray’s rookie season short after 13 games, but he returns fully healthy this year as Dallas’ feature back.

    Before he was lost for the season, Murray had five games with over 20 carries. His main competition for touches this year, Felix Jones, only has two games with over 20 carries in his career.

    If Dallas is willing to give Murray between 15 to 20 touches per week, he’s a lock for the top 10 among running backs this year.

19. HB Darren Sproles

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    Darren Sproles was in the perfect place last season in New Orleans. He was essentially the player that Reggie Bush was supposed to be when he was drafted in 2006.

    Sproles is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, and the Saints do what they can to maximize his touches. Last season, he accumulated 173 touches. While Sproles is never going to be mistaken for a feature back, he is by far the most efficient player in the league on a per-play basis.

    There are no indications that Sproles’ role will change this year. Expect more of the same in 2012.

18. WR Wes Welker

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    Wes Welker had a career-best season in 2011, and his reward was receiving the team’s franchise tag.

    Welker is one of the most dominant slot wide receivers in the league, and his consistency is unrivaled. In four out of his five seasons in New England he has topped 100 receptions, and he has 16 touchdowns in the last two seasons combined.

    Tom Brady appears primed for another all-time great season, and Welker is going to be one of the biggest beneficiaries yet again.

17. QB Matthew Stafford

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    Matthew Stafford finally lived up to his potential in 2011.

    He led the NFL with 663 passing attempts last year, and given the Lions’ running back woes, he could easily repeat that performance.

    Throwing the football to Calvin Johnson would make any quarterback look good; however, Stafford has plenty of other receiving options at his disposal.

    If you want a quarterback you can keep in your lineup each week, Stafford is your guy.

16. WR A.J. Green

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    A.J. Green is already one of the best wide receivers in the NFL entering his second season. His athleticism and ball skills were evident as a rookie. Even talent evaluators like Greg Cosell of NFL Films consider Green one of the best in the league.

    Green averaged over seven targets per game as a rookie, and that stands to increase given the lack of supporting talent in the Cincinnati passing attack this year.

    If Andy Dalton improves from his rookie season, the sky is the limit for Green.

15. WR Julio Jones

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    The writing is on the wall for Julio Jones to overtake Roddy White as the lead wide receiver in Atlanta. Jones is a superior talent, and the coaching staff believes he is on the verge of capitalizing on his upside.

    If you extrapolate Jones’ final five games of 2011 for a full season, he would have had 77 catches, 1,475 yards and 19 touchdowns.

    New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is installing a pass-heavy vertical offense that will feature Jones. Given his talent and opportunity, Jones has an outside shot of being the top overall fantasy wide receiver in 2012.

14. HB Matt Forte

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    Matt Forte has been the focal point of the Bears offense in recent years, and that will remain intact after he signed his contract extension last month.

    The featured running back is a dying breed in the NFL. However, Forte remains one of the few remaining ones in the league.

    Forte isn't traditionally a strong goal-line runner, and that will not change this year with the addition of Michael Bush as a free agent. He will remain a focal point in the passing game as one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league.

    The Bears will have a new offensive scheme in 2012, though Forte’s role will remain the same.

13. HB Chris Johnson

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    To say that Chris Johnson struggled in 2011 would be an understatement. He arrived in camp out of football shape after his contract holdout, and his play suffered at the beginning of the season.

    While Johnson’s 2011 season was technically the worst of his four-year career, it is not an indication of a looming downward trend in his career.

    Johnson has been one of the most durable feature backs in the league, and he still offers plenty of value in the first round.

12. WR Larry Fitzgerald

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    Larry Fitzgerald is the definition of "safe" at the wide receiver position. He has been a perennial top producer regardless of his quarterback situation.

    It will not be much different for Fitzgerald in 2012 with Kevin Kolb and John Skelton fighting for the Cardinals’ starting quarterback job.

    While you know what you will get with Fitzgerald based on his track record, he also has the talent to make a run as the top fantasy football wide receiver.

11. TE Rob Gronkowski

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    Rob Gronkowski set the all-time record for touchdown receptions by a tight end last season with 17—a mark that will be tough to break. That is after scoring 10 touchdowns as a rookie. Clearly, Gronkowski cannot be stopped in the red zone.

    While Gronkowski scores more touchdowns, his counterpart Jimmy Graham is a more consistent target in his offense, which led to his safer ranking.

    Touchdowns are tough to predict, though Gronkowski defies regression theory in that regard.   

    Not only is Gronkowski a lock to finish as one of the top tight ends, his relative value makes him one of the safest options on draft day.

10. TE Jimmy Graham

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    If Drew Brees says “the sky is the limit” for Jimmy Graham, I’m buying in even more than last year.

    Jimmy Graham not only took the league by storm last season, he became Brees’ favorite target along the way. In fact, Graham’s final numbers looked like those of an elite wide receiver—not an ex-basketball player still learning the position.

    Graham averaged nine targets per game last year and never had less than seven in any game. Expect his role to remain the same this year. The scary thing is, Graham can get better.

9. QB Cam Newton

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    Cam Newton was the biggest surprise in fantasy leagues last season. He rewrote the rookie record books and erased the names of Steve Grogan (rushing touchdowns) and Peyton Manning (passing yards) along the way.

    Newton’s 14 rushing touchdowns appear unrepeatable if you use regression analysis. Even if his touchdowns regress on the ground, he will continue improving as a passer to make up the difference in his fantasy totals.

    Do not be worried about a sophomore slump if you take Newton early in your draft.

8. QB Tom Brady

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    With the up-and-coming group of elite quarterbacks on the scene, it’s easy to forget that the future Hall of Famer is still playing some of the best football of his career.

    Tom Brady has been the model of consistency the last three years. All the important offensive weapons are returning to New England, and they added Brandon Lloyd in free agency. Lloyd will help fill the vacancy of a downfield threat they have lacked since Randy Moss left.

    The last time Josh McDaniels was his coordinator, Brady threw 50 touchdown passes.

7. HB Ryan Mathews

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    Ryan Mathews has struggled with minor injuries in his two seasons in the NFL. However, when he is on the field, he is one of the most efficient running backs in the NFL.

    The coaching staff has prepared Mathews for a heavy workload in his first year without Mike Tolbert backing him up. The goal would be for Mathews to make it through the entire season healthy and maintain his level of production.

    The biggest boon to Mathews’ fantasy success will be the increased responsibilities on the goal line that previously went to Tolbert. Mathews has an outside chance to be the top fantasy running back this year.

6. QB Drew Brees

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    Drew Brees continues the trend of safe signal-callers. Although the Saints have had a tough offseason with the bounty scandal and suspension of their head coach Sean Payton, Brees is locked and loaded for another top fantasy season.

    The only subtraction to the New Orleans offense was Robert Meachem leaving for the Chargers, so there will be plenty of continuity on offense.

    The Saints will remain one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league, and Brees will take full advantage of all his weapons on another likely top-two finish.

5. WR Calvin Johnson

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    Calvin Johnson is so dominant at his position that he merits some consideration for the top overall pick in PPR leagues. The Madden 2013 cover athlete is not going to suffer any curse, though we may see some regression from his 16 touchdowns of last season.

    Johnson has the benefit of being an unstoppable red-zone option and a quarterback in Matthew Stafford who will throw it up for him to go get the football.

    The Lions have added some more help on the offensive side of the ball, although the running back situation looks murky due to injuries. It is likely that the Lions will lead the league in passing attempts again in 2012.

4. HB LeSean McCoy

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    LeSean McCoy had his best fantasy season to date with 20 total touchdowns in 15 games despite seeing a decrease in 30 receptions from 2010.

    With Michael Vick struggling last season, McCoy picked up the slack on the ground. The team would likely prefer to see him less involved in the run game and used more frequently again in the passing game with less big hits to absorb.

    There are only a handful of feature running backs as involved in all facets of the game as McCoy is, so draft with confidence at the top of your draft.

3. HB Ray Rice

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    Ray Rice got the contract extension he was looking for this offseason after receiving the franchise tag. With his contract situation settled, Rice can now set his sights on returning as the focal part of the Ravens offense.

    Rice has been one of the most utilized running backs the last few seasons, but he has shown no signs of slowing or wear and tear. He is able to avoid large hits because of his running style, so there should be no concerns of injury this year.

    Another season of 350 combined touches will be on deck for Rice, making him one of the most consistent running backs on a week-to-week basis.

2. HB Arian Foster

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    Like Ray Rice, Arian Foster got the contract extension he was looking for early in the offseason. Unlike Rice, Foster did not need to hold out to accomplish it.

    Foster does it all for the Texans, including feature back duties, goal-line duties and a heavy involvement in the passing game. Foster has the edge over Rice and LeSean McCoy because of the run-first nature for Houston, and the system fits him perfectly.

    If there is a slight edge for Foster, it is in his usage—he has seen fewer touches than both running backs as an undrafted free agent from Tennessee.

1. QB Aaron Rodgers

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    Although he will not go off the board as the No. 1 pick in every fantasy football draft, Aaron Rodgers is the safest draft pick in 2012 because of his consistency.

    With his mastery of the Green Bay offense and his scrambling ability, Rodgers has the edge over his quarterback counterparts to put up consistent numbers week after week. The Packers have ranked in the top five in passing attempts in Rodgers’ reign as starting quarterback, and he remains efficient with his opportunities whether it is in a blowout win or keeping up in a shootout.

    There is almost zero risk in making Aaron Rodgers one of your first picks.