Pop quiz, hotshot:
Who was considered the top pick in a majority of fantasy drafts last year?
Answer: Adrian Peterson (the pre-ACL/MCL-tear version)
Who else had a strong argument for No. 1?
Chris Johnson (pre-disappearing-act-for-most-of-2011)
Funny how player stocks can ascend like Apple and fall like Facebook in such a short period of time. Other top-10 names in a majority of 2011 drafts included Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall, KC’s Jamaal Charles and former London/Jacksonville holdout Maurice Jones-Drew.
And that’s the scary thought: We could end up having the same chuckle in 2013 about the top fantasy picks below. It’s why you’ll see durability as an overarching theme, along with strength of schedule in determining the final five:
5. Ray Rice
Over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns on a Ravens offense that finished only a decent No. 12 in scoring in 2011. Most attractive: Rice hasn’t missed a start since his rookie season four years ago.
Most unattractive: The AFC North is ripe with solid defenses: Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pitt were all in the top 10 in fewest points allowed last year—that’s potentially six tough meetings in a 14-game fantasy season.
2011: 45 touchdowns (previous high: 30) to only six interceptions. The real A-Rod has the deepest receiving corps in the league: Jennings, Nelson, Jones, Cobb, Driver, Finley. Rodgers has also been more reliable than an iPhone alarm clock in only missing one game due to injury in four years.
Also important: The Pack has the easiest schedule of all NFC teams (No. 31 overall).
3. Tom Brady
Another QB in the top five? That’s as insane as giving Kristen Stewart a promise ring (What? That actually happened!). But with 10 quarterbacks throwing for more than 4,000 yards in 2011 (there were just five the previous season), the fast-break-football dream of the league office has come to fruition.
Combine that with Brady playing in the AFC Least (Jets, Bills and Fins should all be sub-.500), a painfully easy schedule otherwise (another perfect regular season is entirely possible) and BCS Belichick having a certain…zest for living in running up the score, and you’ve got Brady-circa-2007 (50 TD, 4,800 yards).
2. LeSean McCoy
Would be No. 1 if not for that whole Mike-Vick-is-as-fragile-as-Matt-Schaub-aspect. Know this: No. 25 is one of the very few remaining threats to:
(A) Not lose carries to a goal-line specialist
(B) Be in a tandem situation or
(C) Lose receiving yards to a third-down specialist.
Also led the league in rushing TDs last season (17) and broken tackles (50). He’s a receiving machine as well, hauling in 128 passes for 900 yards over the past two seasons. Nickname is “Shady,” but still falls victim to beaten-to-death “He’s the real McCoy!” by writers and broadcasters on a weekly basis.
1. Drew Brees
Bountygate actually favors the future Hall of Famer from a fantasy perspective. The Saints defense was just OK last year (ask Alex Smith), and with multiple suspensions making that unit even more susceptible, comebacks and shootouts will be a weekly script for the Saints.
Throw in a dominant tight end (Jim Graham), the most elusive back in the league (Sproles), veteran receiving targets who have played in the system multiple years to perfect the whole timing thing (Colston/Henderson/Moore), and a division not known for strong defenses but favorable weather/domes (Tampa, Carolina, Atlanta), and what's the result?
Well, you’ve got yourself at least a 5,500-yard, 50-TD season. And have we mentioned that Brees has only missed one start since the Kerry-Bush election?
Sleeper: Titus Young
Sucker-punching a teammate in minicamp in May only illustrated Young finally buying into the Detroit way (See: Bad Boys 2.0). Attitude aside, Young will be this year’s Jordy Nelson, who caught fire towards the end of the 2010 season and extended his great play through the Super Bowl and obviously through last year.
Young scored four touchdowns in the Lions’ final four games (including two in a playoff loss), plays in a pass-happy offense and will get plenty of opportunities upon becoming Matt Stafford’s No. 2 receiver (2011’s No. 2, Nate Burleson, is slowing down at 31). And of course, Charles Johnson getting everyone’s attention will only benefit our sleeper, who can likely can be snagged south of Round 7.
Will a player like Young become the next Victor Cruz?
Are tandem backfields the only way to protect the longevity of quality running backs?
Will QBs like Brady and Brees be responsible for even more of the fantasy-point pie?
If the continuing rise of air-based offense is any indication, all signs point to yes.
Disagree or agree with these top-five selections and sleeper? Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org