Fantasy Football 2012: Updated Starting Quarterback Rankings, Nos. 1-32
The following slideshow touts my countdown of the presumed starters at quarterback for 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.
And that includes the awkward situation in Seattle, where the Seahawks are flirting with the notion of playing rookie Russell Wilson over big-money free agent Matt Flynn—who, incidentally, has no control over whether Terrell Owens can still catch picture-perfect bombs during the preseason.
Enjoy the show!
32: Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
2011 Stats: 3,744 Yards Passing, 33 TD (4 Rushing at Texas A&M)
Skinny: The No. 32 ranking among starting fantasy quarterbacks isn't a referendum on Ryan Tannehill's immense talents or mental capacity to handle being Miami's first-ever rookie QB starter for opening day.
By all appearances, Tannehill throws a silky-smooth ball with superb velocity, and his knowledge of the Dolphins offense—a replica of the system he orchestrated at Texas A&M (thanks to coach Mike Sherman)—has been well-documented over the last six weeks.
However, when you're being thrown to the proverbial wolves in Year 1, and Davone Bess, Legedu Naanee, Brian Hartline and two virtual unknowns (Julius Pruitt/Marlon Moore) likely comprise your five primary receivers...then success should be hard to come by in Tannehill's inaugural campaign.
Besides, someone has to rate last here.
31: John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals
2011 Stats: 1,913 Yards Passing, 11 TD in seven starts
Skinny: I roundly praised John Skelton for his excellent substitute-teacher work with the Cardinals last season, leading the club to a respectable 8-8 finish and helping Larry Fitzgerald amass 80 catches, 1,411 yards and nine touchdowns.
But here's where things get tricky: Even at his high point last year, I never figured Skelton to be the Cardinals' opening-day starter in 2012, barring an injury to Kevin Kolb. I didn't think he had the physical gifts to be a sustainable asset.
Well, here we sit, less than two weeks before Arizona hosts Seattle on Sept. 9...and Skelton has seemingly earned the right to be the Week 1 starter—and maybe hear his name called in 12- or 14-team fantasy drafts.
30: Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
2011 Stats: 4,727 Yards Passing, 38 Total TD (Oklahoma State)
Skinny: 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: Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Stats: 2,214 Yards Passing, 12 TD (0 Rushing)
Skinny: It's funny 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, Elway would likely have been ranked in the bottom half of fantasy QBs in the summer of 1984—primarily based off a sluggish first year. Within that context, former Browns QB Paul McDonald (remember him?) might have been positioned ahead of Elway (perish the thought).
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) 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.
28: Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
2011 Stats: 598 total yards (542 passing), 5 TD
Skinny: One of my favorite research sites, FantasyFootballToday.com, has Jake Locker earmarked for 3,144 passing yards in his first season as the Titans' starting quarterback.
To me, that estimate seems a tad high, even if Locker has access to running back Chris Johnson (1,465 total yards, 4 TD in 2011) and perhaps the NFL's premier receiving foursome (Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams).
On the flip side, FFToday.com only has Locker slotted for 82 rushing yards in 2012, a figure that hardly takes into account the second-year quarterback's quick feet, good speed and excellent scrambling prowess out of the passing pocket.
Locker's two rushing touchdowns against the Saints alone (one preseason...and one regular season) should tantalize prospective fantasy owners into believing that 350 yards over 16 games is eminently doable this season.
Put it all together, and Locker has the physical upside to far exceed his pedestrian ranking here.
But then again, he's yet to start an NFL game. It pays to be conservative—for now.
27: Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
2011 Stats: 2,164 Yards Passing, 6 TD (0 Rushing)
Skinny: 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).
In fact, as of Aug. 23, the Rams' website has 12 receivers listed on the active roster.
Bottom line: Bradford's day of fantasy reckoning will come sooner than later. But for this season, the over/under for outings of 275 total yards and/or three touchdowns is only four.
26: Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
2011 Stats: 1,853 Yards Passing, 13 TD (0 Rushing)
Skinny: 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 a top-20 ranking? Eh, probably not. But I have faith in Minnesota's Big Four of Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Toby Gerhart and Jerome Simpson.
I also have faith in the following:
Ponder has a golden opportunity to post stellar stats in the first five games (Jaguars, Colts, 49ers, Lions, Titans), including a tough Week 3 home matchup with San Francisco (playing from behind).
As a result, I will likely consider Devin Aromashodu (45 targets in Weeks 13-17 last season) as a last-round pick in Points-Per-Reception leagues...knowing Simpson (three-game suspension) won't be a huge factor in the opening month.
25: Matt Flynn, Seattle Seahawks
2011 Stats: 518 Yards Passing, 7 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: Anyone who 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 pressures to carry a franchise that's pining for another Matt Hasselbeck (174 touchdowns, 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 TD 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.
(As you can guess from above, I'm not buying rookie Russell Wilson as Seattle's opening-day quarterback).
24: Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers
2011 Stats: 3,144 Yards Passing, 23 TD (2 Rushing)
Skinny: 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).
Smith also has a good rapport with coach Jim Harbaugh and feels at ease with the 49ers offense, which now features RBs Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, 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 TD).
23: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
2011 Stats: 4,293 Yards Passing, 37 Total TD (Baylor)
Skinny: If Cam Newton hadn't taken the NFL world by storm last season as a rookie (4,757 total yards, 35 touchdowns), Robert Griffin's fantasy ranking might be noticeably lower.
But when you're blessed with a rocket arm and world-class speed, it has suddenly become commonplace for fantasy owners to overlook the first-year woes of most NFL rookies and believe Griffin's amazing physical gifts can translate into immediate fantasy success.
Thanks to Cam Newton.
It's a risky proposition, for sure, believing anyone can match or eclipse Newton's 2011 numbers. But then again, the Redskins are flush with seven stupendous playmakers (Pierre Garcon, Fred Davis, Roy Helu, Evan Royster, Tim Hightower, Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson).
Has a starting rookie ever had a deeper supporting cast on offense?
From an ADP perspective, Mock Draft Central currently has Griffin as the No. 11 quarterback (74th overall) and owners shooting that high are obviously thinking "starter"—and not "pricey backup."
22: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
2011 Stats: 3,517 Yards Passing, 39 Total TD (Stanford)
Skinny: 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 and maybe 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.
21: Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs
2011 Stats: 1,713 Yards Passing, 10 TD (0 Rushing)
Skinny: 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 for him to go full-bore on Sept. 9. 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.
20: Mark Sanchez, New York Jets
2011 Stats: 3,474 Yards Passing, 32 TD (6 Rushing)
Skinny: 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, Mark 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 recommit to the running game this season, presumably giving Shonn Greene, Bilal Powell 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, only crossed the weekly stat threshold of 275 total yards and/or three TDs five times.
19: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Stats: 3,398 Yards Passing, 21 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: 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, Brandon Tate, Marvin Jones or rookie Mohamed Sanu to emerge from the pack.
That may take a little longer than expected.
18: Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
2011 Stats: 3,610 Yards Passing, 21 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: 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. 18 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. NY Giants).
17: Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 Stats: 3,590 Yards Passing, 20 TD (4 Rushing)
Skinny: No fringe quarterback has benefited more from this offseason than Josh Freeman, who commendably racked up 3,592 yards passing and 20 total touchdowns in a fruitless 2011 campaign, team-wise.
And now, Freeman has Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Jordan Shipley 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 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 airing it out 30-plus times for more than, say, nine games.
16: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills
2011 Stats: 3,832 Yards Passing, 24 TD (0 Rushing)
Skinny: 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).
15: Carson Palmer, Oakland Raiders
2011 Stats: 2,753 Yards Passing, 14 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: 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: 4,268 yards passing, 25 touchdowns
14: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
2011 Stats: 4,077 Yards Passing, 21 TD (0 Rushing)
Skinny: 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 will 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 in Round 8 or 9.
13: Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
2011 Stats: 2,319 Yards Passing, 14 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: 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 TD 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 all 16 games.
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.
12: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
2010 Stats: 4,700 Yards Passing, 33 TD (with Indy)
Skinny: 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 TD (2 Rushing)
Skinny: 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 TD in 10 starts), let's talk about the ridiculousness of his standing on one Average Draft Position chart.
On Mock Draft Central, Schaub currently stands as the No. 17 QB or 113th overall pick, a ranking unbecoming of a top-10 talent (who led the NFL in passing just three years ago) with regular access to a top-five receiver (Andre Johnson) and dominant 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 completion percentage.
10: Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
2011 Stats: 4,184 Yards Passing, 32 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: From a fantasy standpoint, I only care that Tony 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 weapons (when healthy) at his disposal: Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten and Felix Jones.
And I care about Romo being a full-season lock for 4,100 yards and 28 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.
9: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
2011 Stats: 4,624 Yards Passing, 28 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: Vincent Jackson may be property of the refurbished Bucs, but I'm still willing to take a leap of faith on Philip Rivers this season.
His final numbers from last year may have been OK, but Rivers 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.
Plus, it's time for Malcom Floyd (a must-have in Round 9) to take a sizable leap forward in V-Jax's absence. He's a physical freak with much to prove in 2012.
Speaking of physical freaks, tailback Ryan Mathews and tight end Antonio Gates have the capacity for double-digit touchdowns each—assuming full health (which should never be assumed).
On the flip side, 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).
8: Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
2011 Stats: 3,303 Yards Passing, 19 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: 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 touchdowns, 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 (including injuries) in me wants to attach a No. 10 or 11 ranking.
As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
7: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
2011 Stats: 4,177 Yards Passing, 31 TD (2 Rushing)
Skinny: 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, Rivers, Romo, Vick and Peyton Manning:
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 TD last year), Julio Jones (54 catches, 959 yards, 8 TD 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 Vick.
6: Eli Manning, New York Giants
2011 Stats: 4,933 Yards Passing, 30 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: 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-30 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, Eli 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 TD (14 Rushing)
Skinny: 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 Round 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 TD (3 Rushing)
Skinny: 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, 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, Jabar Gaffney 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 TD
Skinny: 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 TD (1 Rushing)
Skinny: For the game-by-game battle of Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady, we could have flipped a coin to determine the better option for Weeks 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12 and 16, reiterating just how close Brees and Brady will be in fantasy drafts, regardless of scoring rules.
How close are the passers in the fantasy realm? I only favored a quarterback on the road over a home-standing QB one time (Brees in Week 14...at the Giants).
In Mock Draft Central's latest Average Draft Position rankings (account required), Brees has an ADP of 10—just two spots ahead of Brady.
I expect Brees and Brady to eclipse the elite QB threshold of 275 total yards and/or three touchdowns at least 12 times. Last season, Brees (14) and Brady (13) combined to hit that mark in 27 games.
For the fantasy playoff period of Weeks 13-16, Brees gets the nod over Brady three times, including a start for the Week 16 title game.
1: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
2011 Stats: 4,643 Yards Passing, 48 TD (3 Rushing)
Skinny: 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 a deep 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 metal.