Predicting the Top 50 Fantasy Football Performers of 2012
With the NFL season right around the corner, fantasy owners are knee deep in draft preparation.
The NFL has never been more popular, and fantasy football only helps fans enjoy the game more. With fantasy, NFL fans know more players and watch more games than just their hometown favorites.
So, what does the fantasy landscape look like for the 2012 season?
The following rankings are a prediction of the top fantasy scorers for 2012. Note: This is not a draft guide. Do not expect Arian Foster and Ray Rice to be 1-2 in scoring just because they're (rightfully) being drafted 1-2 in most leagues. This is a quarterback league, and plenty of average QBs outscore great running backs and receivers in fantasy.
This also isn't a list that answers, "Who's better?" Plenty of great players have situations that negatively impact their fantasy stats. This list takes those factors into account.
So, who will score the most fantasy points in 2012?
50. Ryan Mathews (RB San Diego Chargers)
The Upside: Athletic and steady, Mathews finally looked to have a chance for fantasy stardom with his goal-line carry nemesis (Mike Tolbert) shipped to Carolina.
The Bottom Line: Available late because of his injury, he should be a second-half stud, but the totals will be lower because of the time missed.
49. Aaron Hernandez (TE New England Patriots)
The Upside: A complete matchup nightmare, the upside for Hernandez is sky high. There isn't a defensive coordinator in the league who knows exactly how to stop him when he's on a roll.
The Obstacles: How many footballs are the Patriots going to play with?
The Bottom Line: Hernandez is going to fight for targets, especially in the red zone, but in the Patriots' pass-heavy offense, he's going to get his chances. When he gets his chances, he usually converts.
48. Blaine Gabbert (QB Jacksonville Jaguars)
The Upside: With fantastic athleticism for his size and a good arm, Gabbert could be very good if he ever puts it together. He has better targets in 2012 as well.
The Obstacles: Himself, mostly. Gabbert doesn't make very good decisions, and he often collapses under pressure. He has lots of tools, but he's a poor craftsman.
The Bottom Line: In the deepest of leagues, Gabbert's a guy to keep around because you know he'll start. Mike Mularkey was brought to Jacksonville specifically to help Gabbert, so Chad Henne won't get playing time unless there's an injury or Gabbert is actually worse than last year.
47. Fred Jackson (RB Buffalo Bills)
The Upside: A fantastic all-around back, Jackson would be even higher if this was a PPR list. In the cold of Buffalo, you know he's going to get his carries, especially late in the season.
The Obstacles: Know who else is going to get carries? C.J. Spiller and Brad Smith.
The Bottom Line: Jackson is a terrific back, but with a split load in the backfield and a "Wildcat" option to boot, Jackson isn't going to be the workhorse he's been in the past.
46. Percy Harvin (WR Minnesota Vikings)
The Upside: Almost a gadget player from a matchup standpoint, Harvin is also solid when asked to consistently line up at wide receiver.
The Obstacles: Harvin hasn't been used as creatively in the pros as he was at Florida. He also has to deal with Adrian Peterson's constant demand for carries.
The Bottom Line: Christian Ponder should get better in year two, and if he knows what's good for him, he will go to Harvin early and often. This rating is low, with a ton of room for upside.
45. Matt Flynn (QB Seattle Seahawks)
The Upside: Did you see Week 17 last year? Flynn is obviously capable of putting up huge numbers.
The Obstacles: Flynn didn't bring Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and company along with him to Seattle.
The Bottom Line: Flynn has talent, but without Green Bay's supporting cast and Detroit's lackluster pass defense to play against, he's a low QB2 play in most leagues.
44. Julio Jones (WR Atlanta Falcons)
The Upside: Jones is one of the most physically gifted receivers in the NFL. The Atlanta Falcons traded a lot of capital to move up and grab Jones, and they're not going to forget about him on offense.
The Obstacles: Matt Ryan hasn't shown he can be a truly elite high-volume passer quite yet. Will Jones get enough targets (especially in the red zone) to keep fantasy owners happy?
The Bottom Line: Jones is a freak, but as long as Ryan has Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White to throw to, Jones' fantasy upside will be limited.
43. Marshawn Lynch (RB Seattle Seahawks)
The Upside: Lynch might be the best (only?) weapon Seattle has this season, and if Pete Carroll is smart, Lynch is going to get plenty of carries.
The Obstacles: One off-the-field mistake and Lynch is looking at a long talk with Roger Goodell. Also, the line in front of Lynch isn't going to pay him any favors.
The Bottom Line: It isn't going to be an easy season for Lynch, but he's a workhorse that has been in this position before. He's not the guy you want as your RB1, but in a pinch, you know he's getting the rock.
42. Mark Sanchez (QB New York Jets)
The Upside: A former first-round pick and currently a starting quarterback with plenty of tools on a team with playoff aspirations, Sanchez could take a step forward and be "the guy." He'll at least have the opportunity.
The Obstacles: Sanchez hasn't been the quarterback the Jets hoped for, and now he's got Tim Tebow stealing time and breathing down his neck.
The Bottom Line: If Tebow is getting snaps in the red zone, Sanchez's stock plummets. If he can keep Tebow off the field for good, then he should be a solid QB2.
41. Jamaal Charles (RB Kansas City Chiefs)
The Upside: Electric, sure-handed and versatile, Charles is a serious weapon for a Chiefs team that is looking to compete in the AFC West this season.
The Obstacles: Coming off an injury, 2013 might be the year to start expecting big numbers from Charles again. He can also expect to lose some red-zone carries to Peyton Hillis.
The Bottom Line: Charles should be healthy and should get enough carries to do damage to your fantasy opponents. Maybe he won't have his trademark explosiveness, but he's still a solid fantasy play.
40. Steven Jackson (RB St. Louis Rams)
The Upside: Jackson is, without a doubt, one of the most physical runners in the NFL. Once he gets a full head of steam, any defender between him and the goal line will regret it.
The Obstacles: His own age, the make-up of the young team around him and the first real backup he's had in a long time (Isaiah Pead) all mean Jackson is probably on a steep fantasy decline.
The Bottom Line: The overall numbers should be down for Jackson this season, but he'll still be a solid play and will win some games for you as an RB2.
39. Tim Tebow (QB New York Jets)
The Upside: The backup quarterback is always the most popular guy in town, and Tebow could make Sanchez yesterday's news just as fast as he did it to Kyle Orton.
The Obstacles: For the first three quarters of any given Sunday, Tebow can't hit the broadside of a barn.
The Bottom Line: In the red zone, out of the Wildcat or as a potential starter, Tebow will get his chances. The touchdown totals this season will surprise a lot of unsuspecting fantasy owners.
38. Maurice Jones-Drew (RB Jacksonville Jaguars)
The Upside: When fully healthy, MJD is one of the best backs in the NFL. No one runs harder and no one makes more out of less.
The Obstacles: Right now, he's not in camp. Could this end up like Chris Johnson's season last year? Are the Jaguars going to run him right into the ground?
The Bottom Line: He's a low RB1 right now, which means he should fall into some very lucky laps. It would be surprising, however, for him to match the elite production fans have become accustomed to.
37. Matt Hasselbeck (QB Tennessee Titans)
The Upside: He isn't the flashiest guy around, but Hasselbeck can still sling the rock. Kendall Wright will be better than any weapon he's had as a Titan.
The Obstacles: He absolutely could lose the starting QB job to Jake Locker (and Locker's ranking would be slightly higher).
The Bottom Line: If Hasselbeck keeps the job, he's a solid backup for your roster in deep leagues.
36. Victor Cruz (WR New York Giants)
The Upside: Heir apparent to the title of "best slot receiver in the NFL," Cruz has all the upside in the world.
The Obstacles: The Giants weren't exactly built to run the ball last year, but have re-invested with the selection of David Wilson. The defense should be better as well, which should lead to less high-scoring games.
The Bottom Line: Cruz is going to continue to be a force in real football, but that doesn't mean his numbers will be as lofty.
35. Darren McFadden (RB Oakland Raiders)
The Upside: A phenomenal athlete, McFadden can run over defenders or pull away from them at the second level. Why would the Raiders hand the ball to anyone else?
The Obstacles: Can McFadden stay healthy? Will the Raiders defense keep them in football games enough to give him a heavy workload? Will Carson Palmer utilize him better in the passing game?
The Bottom Line: McFadden is the one truly dominant player on the Raiders offense. There are hurdles in his way, but if healthy, McFadden should be able to clear them with ease.
34. Matt Cassel (QB Kansas City Chiefs)
The Upside: Remember his time in New England?
The Obstacles: This isn't New England and Bill Belichick isn't walking through that door. Cassel was bad last year and finished the year injured. He'll need to bounce back to warrant a draft pick.
The Bottom Line: Everything went wrong for the Chiefs last year, and Cassel should be better than he was. He's not a fantasy stud, but he should be fine in spot starts.
33. Chris Johnson (RB Tennessee Titans)
The Upside: The guy thinks he's faster than Usain Bolt, and he's the one guy in the NFL who would make people actually think twice before laughing that statement off.
The Obstacles: Last year was a throwaway year, and Johnson's career doesn't have many of those left before he's stuck in decline.
The Bottom Line: Johnson has plenty left and, if motivated, should put up RB1 numbers. If the Titans season goes south, however, Johnson's production could follow.
32. Christian Ponder (QB Minnesota Vikings)
The Upside: With Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson (not to mention Percy Harvin), Ponder has a lot of targets that can find the end zone.
The Obstacles: Will the Vikings let him do more than hand the ball off?
The Bottom Line: Ponder has the tools to succeed in the NFL, but he has to be better than he was as a rookie thrown into the fire. It's an upside play, but he's a decent backup QB option for your fantasy team.
31. Jimmy Graham (TE New Orleans Saints)
The Upside: With one of the best quarterbacks in the world throwing to him and as a matchup nightmare for all defenders, Graham has limitless potential.
The Obstacles: Brees loves to throw to Graham, but he loves to throw to a lot of different guys. More importantly, the Saints backs are healthy and we could see a more balanced approach.
The Bottom Line: Graham is to your fantasy team what he is for Drew Brees—wide receiver production from the tight end position.
30. Matt Forte (RB Chicago Bears)
The Upside: One of the best duel-threat running backs in the game and could easily be a top player, especially in PPR leagues.
The Bottom Line: Forte may get forgotten for stretches, just like any running back with a good passing attack around him, but he should get every chance to be a solid RB1 in fantasy.
29. Carson Palmer (QB Oakland Raiders)
The Upside: With the speed demons Palmer has around him, every completion can potentially turn into a long touchdown.
The Obstacles: Palmer hasn't been the elite quarterback he's been painted as, and the Raiders lack a truly elite No. 1 wideout.
The Bottom Line: He's a QB1 in most leagues, but there should be plenty of other options out there. Still, if pressed into action, he has potential for numbers based on the matchup.
28. Rob Gronkowski (TE New England Patriots)
The Upside: Like the other tight ends on this list, Gronkowski has a ridiculously high ceiling. The Patriots offense is explosive, and Gronkowski has become Brady's favorite red-zone target.
The Obstacles: With more options in New England, the targets will be harder to come by. He can't possibly be as good as last year, can he?
The Bottom Line: Plenty of leagues will see Gronkowski overdrafted, but if you can get him in the top of the third or later, you've had a good day. He's easily the top TE in fantasy for 2012, and arguably the best ever.
27. LeSean McCoy (RB Philadelphia Eagles)
The Upside: In an explosive offense, there may not be a bigger touchdown hound than McCoy in 2012.
The Obstacles: Will Michael Vick rebound, and if he does, will he be running the ball in himself? If the offense shuts down, McCoy's stock goes with it.
The Bottom Line: McCoy is ridiculously talented, but he has a tough schedule to deal with in the NFC East and plenty of lofty expectations for an Eagles offense that failed last year. McCoy has top RB upside and should come off the board very early—even second overall in some leagues.
26. Brandon Weeden (Cleveland Browns)
The Upside: With the numbers he put up at Oklahoma State, it's easy to get excited over a Browns QB who can actually sling it around the field.
The Obstacles: Pro-style offenses, especially the West Coast flavor advocated by Brad Childress, are miles apart from what Weeden is used to. This is a young team, so don't expect too much, too soon.
The Bottom Line: The sky is the limit, but so is the floor. Weeden is a solid backup QB, but it shouldn't surprise anyone when he ends up with fringe QB1 totals.
25. Calvin Johnson (WR Detroit Lions)
The Upside: There's reasonable expectation for Calvin Johnson to break records this year, considering he's the most physically gifted receiver in the NFL and has one of the strongest arms throwing to him.
The Obstacles: Injuries to Johnson, injuries to Matthew Stafford, injuries anywhere along the shallow offensive line—all of those are reasonable expectations too.
The Bottom Line: There's a whole lot of "ifs" when it comes to the Detroit Lions, but Johnson (when healthy) is a legit mid-first-round pick and the top receiver who should come off your board.
24. Ray Rice (RB Baltimore Ravens)
The Upside: Rice is fantastic both rushing and receiving. He is the cornerstone of the Ravens offense.
The Obstacles: The Ravens offensive line is the weakest it's been in years, and Rice's production could suffer. Also, how much will Flacco start passing now that he has had a full offseason to work with Torrey Smith?
The Bottom Line: Rice is a top-two back in all leagues and could go first overall in PPR leagues.
23. Alex Smith (QB San Francisco 49ers)
The Upside: Smith had the best season of his career in 2011, and the 49ers have recently added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, among others, for Smith to target.
The Obstacles: Smith has had promising offseasons in the past and has always fallen short. Will he finally break through?
The Bottom Line: Smith has more stability on the offense and coaching staff than ever before. Expect a career year and low QB1 numbers.
22. Matt Schaub (QB Houston Texas)
The Upside: When Schaub and Andre Johnson heat up, they're one of the top duos in the league.
The Obstacles: How much should this team pass with Arian Foster in the backfield and an expected lead early in most games?
The Bottom Line: This ranking doesn't reflect Schaub as a quarterback as it does a fantasy option. Schaub is certainly a QB1, but don't expect top production like he's given in years past.
21. Robert Griffin III (QB Washington Redskins)
The Upside: RGIII put up ridiculous numbers at Baylor, and the Redskins grabbed a collection of wide receivers to help his transition into the pros.
The Obstacles: This isn't Baylor, and the New York Giants aren't a Big 12 defense.
The Bottom Line: Griffin will be a fantastic NFL quarterback, but expecting too much out of his fantasy numbers is going to burn some Washington-area fantasy owners. Low QB1 production with a few rushing touchdowns is icing on the cake.
20. Andrew Luck (QB Indianapolis Colts)
The Upside: Luck is the best quarterback prospect since John Elway, and Reggie Wayne is the best receiver he's ever thrown to. Oh, he's got his college tight end, Coby Fleener, as well.
The Obstacles: He's a rookie, and the Colts are a mess at every position not mentioned.
The Bottom Line: Luck will be asked to throw the Colts out of games, which should mean inflated passing attempts and interception numbers. Solid QB1 production is likely for some matchups (especially for a rookie), but don't be surprised if the bottom drops out against tougher defenses.
19. Sam Bradford (QB St. Louis Rams)
The Upside: Bradford's rookie season showed everyone he can handle a heavy passing load, and this Rams team is the best he's had around him.
The Obstacles: Last year showed everyone how bad Bradford can be, and that the passing offense still needs a lot of help from the front office.
The Bottom Line: Solid QB1 production with upside if Brian Quick gets going, Bradford probably isn't the guy you want to pin your fantasy hopes on. However, he'll provide good numbers late if you go elsewhere at the top of the draft.
18. Ryan Fitzpatrick (QB Buffalo Bills)
The Upside: Stevie Johnson, C.J. Spiller and Scott Chandler are all solid weapons, and the Bills are poised for a big year.
The Obstacles: Fitzpatrick doesn't have the highest upside to begin with, and when you add Buffalo weather and three tough divisional defenses (yes, even the Patriots), there's plenty in Fitzpatrick's way.
The Bottom Line: Expect QB1 production out of Fitzpatrick, and don't fret if he's your starter. Just have a good backup plan in place.
17. Josh Freeman (QB Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The Upside: Freeman's a talented quarterback, and he just added Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Dallas Clark to his arsenal.
The Obstacles: The Buccaneers have a lot of moving parts in 2012, and fans shouldn't expect everything to click at once. Chemistry takes time.
The Bottom Line: The touchdown numbers should be there for Freeman, so he's a QB1 with good upside. Don't be surprised when Greg Schiano keeps it on the ground, however.
16. Andy Dalton (QB Cincinnati Bengals)
The Upside: Dalton is a rookie stud turned sophomore sensation and has a full offseason to sync with A.J. Green.
The Obstacles: At their core, the Bengals are still a run-first, defensive team, and Marvin Lewis isn't going to start throwing 50 times a game against the Steelers and Ravens.
The Bottom Line: The Bengals are even better than last year, and Dalton should take the next step as a passer. He's a solid QB1 option for owners waiting on the position.
15. Arian Foster (RB Houston Texans)
The Upside: Simply the best fantasy running back, Foster's production is only limited by the team around him. Thankfully, the Texans have a pretty good team in 2012.
The Obstacles: The offensive line isn't as stout as it was last year, and the division has gotten tougher.
The Bottom Line: Foster is the top RB in all standard leagues and the 1b to Ray Rice's 1a in all PPR leagues.
14. Joe Flacco (QB Baltimore Ravens)
The Upside: Flacco has a ridiculously strong arm and finally some team speed to go with it. He also has the NFL's best safety valve in Ray Rice.
The Obstacles: The offensive line is a mess, and none of his receivers have shown they can handle a heavy amount of targets.
The Bottom Line: Flacco is a low-end starting fantasy QB with plenty of upside if he and Smith click early in the season.
13. Peyton Manning (QB Denver Broncos)
The Upside: He's Peyton Manning.
The Obstacles: Those aren't the Indianapolis Colts receivers out there, and that isn't Jeff Saturday snapping him the ball. The Broncos are an entirely new team in 2012, and it's probably too soon to expect them to click on all cylinders.
The Bottom Line: He's still Peyton Manning! No matter who is around him or what obstacles are in his way, he's still one of the best QBs the NFL has ever seen. Don't expect elite QB1 production, but he's a solid starter.
12. Ben Roethlisberger (QB Pittsburgh Steelers)
The Upside: An elite QB with a bevy of deep threats and a re-enforced offensive line, Big Ben is primed for big fantasy numbers.
The Obstacles: His best receiver, Mike Wallace, is in a holdout, and the running game is a mess. If that offensive line doesn't click right away, he'll be running for his life.
The Bottom Line: The Steelers may use 2012 to reload for greater things in the 2013 and beyond, but expect Roethlisberger to keep on keepin' on as a legit fantasy starter.
11. Michael Vick (QB Philadelphia Eagles)
The Upside: Vick is the most electric quarterback in the NFL not named Newton. He's in an offense that has been built for speed, and he's put up tremendous numbers in the past.
The Obstacles: He didn't put up those numbers last year, however, and it's a leap of faith to expect him to return to greatness.
The Bottom Line: Vick is a fantasy starter, but there's risk involved. How high you draft him is going to be based around how much faith you have in him putting 2011 behind him.
10. Jay Cutler (QB Chicago Bears)
The Upside: Cutler, an already near-elite QB, is getting Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery for the 2012 season.
The Obstacles: He's also getting Michael Bush, who could steal touchdowns, and this is Soldier Field, so late-season numbers may fall flat.
The Bottom Line: Cutler is going to put up sick numbers this season, but he's always a risky play to throw a few interceptions as well. Leaning on him week-to-week for the bulk of your scoring isn't advisable, but the totals at the end of the season should be amazing.
9. Tony Romo (QB Dallas Cowboys)
The Upside: The Cowboys have put together a better offensive line than Romo has ever had, and a defense that should keep them in every game.
The Obstacles: Will Romo put the haters behind him? Will that receiving corps stay focused for 16 straight games? His numbers are somewhat tied to Dez Bryant's attitude, which is always risky.
The Bottom Line: Romo is a high-volume passer and a legit QB1. He may not put up truly elite fantasy numbers in 2012, but there's no reason to fret if he's your starter.
8. Philip Rivers (QB San Diego Chargers)
The Upside: A talented QB in Norv Turner's offense is always capable of fantastic numbers.
The Obstacles: Last year Rivers fell off the map, and he's lost Vincent Jackson. There could be some growing pains with his new receivers.
The Bottom Line: New receivers or not, Rivers still has Antonio Gates and expects to throw a lot of touchdowns. With Mathews out, Rivers' numbers should be even better. Do not let 2011 scare you away from pulling the trigger on Rivers early.
7. Matt Ryan (QB Atlanta Falcons)
The Upside: The Falcons built a high-octane offense around Ryan and brought in Dirk Koetter to help Ryan put up big numbers in 2012.
The Obstacles: Ryan has yet to show he can truly command an offense like this. Will he take the next step?
The Bottom Line: Even as a fringe top-10 passer, Ryan's fantasy numbers expect to be great. He may not have elite touchdown totals, however, because Michael Turner is still a solid goal-line option.
6. Eli Manning (QB New York Giants)
The Upside: With Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to pass to, Eli Manning's numbers can go as high as the Giants need them to.
The Obstacles: How much will the Giants need to pass in 2012? With an improved running game and a better defense, the Giants might not need Manning to be the high-volume passer he was last year.
The Bottom Line: The reins were taken off Manning in 2011 and he delivered, proving doubters (including this writer) wrong. Expect good fantasy production in 2012, even if the Giants run a more balanced offense.
5. Cam Newton (QB Carolina Panthers)
The Upside: The most dynamic quarterback in the NFL, Newton finally has a full offseason to learn how to be an NFL passer.
The Obstacles: Newton still has a ways to go, and teams have also had a full offseason to scout him.
The Bottom Line: Newton is a solid QB1 as a passer, but owners can expect a solid amount of rushing touchdowns as well. This elevates his value and makes him a great fantasy starter.
4. Drew Brees (QB New Orleans Saints)
The Upside: With an even better offense in 2012, the record books could be assaulted once again by Drew Brees and the Saints.
The Obstacles: How much will the drama of Bountygate affect Brees? Will the Saints go to the rushing game more with Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles healthy?
The Bottom Line: Even with all the drama, Brees is still a top quarterback. Once in the red zone, the numbers may not be be as great in years past, so expect a small dip. Still, Brees is one of the few QBs to abandon the traditional two-RB drafting system for.
3. Matthew Stafford (QB Detroit Lions)
The Upside: With a running game in trouble, the Lions will need to keep throwing that end-zone fade to Calvin Johnson. Titus Young figures to be a bigger threat in 2012 as well. Stafford could flirt with 5,000 yards again.
The Obstacles: Health is still a concern for Stafford, especially with that offensive line ahead of him.
The Bottom Line: Stafford has as many quality targets as just about anyone, and the best receiver in the league at his disposal. If you're convinced the Lions can keep him upright, there's no reason he shouldn't be your QB1.
2. Tom Brady (QB New England Patriots)
The Upside: Arguably the best QB of all time, Brady has one of the NFL's toughest-to-defend offenses around him and has been known to embarrass even top-tier defenses.
The Obstacles: The New York Giants have shown teams, twice now, that if you get to Brady, you can rattle him. Will Brandon Lloyd pan out as expected? Can the offensive line keep him upright?
The Bottom Line: Brady had MVP numbers last year and returns with even better skill-position talent. Once the timing is there, expect elite fantasy production from Brady again in 2012.
1. Aaron Rodgers (QB Green Bay Packers)
The Upside: Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL, and the Packers are a pass-first, ask-questions-later offense. No one has more weapons.
The Obstacles: Any injuries along the offensive line will make 2012 a long year for Rodgers. An improved defense could negatively impact his fantasy numbers as well.
The Bottom Line: The top QB in all formats, Rodgers is good enough to make owners think twice before taking an RB in the top five. He will be the highest scoring fantasy player in 2012.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."