Ranking the 10 Surest Bets in Fantasy Football This Year

Leo Howell@LeoHowell8Contributor IIIAugust 14, 2013

Ranking the 10 Surest Bets in Fantasy Football This Year

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    Doug Martin or Adrian Peterson? Arian Foster or Ray Rice? In fantasy football this season, there are plenty of hard questions in the first few rounds, and many of these questions relate to the safety of the player being drafted.

    How sure are you that you're going to get good value out of your early picks? 

    In this article, I will rank the 10 surest bets in fantasy football this year. This is not a "10 best players" list. Instead, it's the 10 players that you should feel confident taking when they're near the top of your cheat sheet.

    My criteria for these rankings are simple:

    1. How low is the worst possible outcome for these players, relative to other players near them in most rankings?
    2. How confident am I that these players will finish close to, if not ahead of, their projected statistics?
    3. Are there any notable injury concerns or depth chart battles that will have a chance to take away from the productivity of these players?

    So without any further introduction, let's get to the list.

Honorable Mentions

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    Before we get started with the full list, here are three guys who just missed the top 10.

    Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys, TE - If you're playing in a PPR league, and you missed out on the elite tight ends at the top of the charts, feel confident that Jason Witten will deliver for you in 2013.

    Since 2007, Witten has 79 or more catches in every season, with a career yards per catch average around 11. In other words, you can count on 80 catches for 800-900 yards with a few touchdowns, which is more production than you can expect from any of the mid-to-late round tight ends.

    And after last season's breakout performance from Witten, you can have hopes of even higher production. If Tony Romo can find a way to get Witten the ball in the red zone more often, he could have an amazing season.

    Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots, RB - If you're in a standard league, and you're drafting in the 10-14 range, you can't find a safer running back than Stevan Ridley.

    The Patriots actually like to run the football, contrary to what you might believe. In an article for ESPNBoston.com late last year, Mike Reiss pointed out that the Patriots ran the ball 34.5 times per game at the time of writing. Ridley got the lion's share of these carries, as he would take a handoff 290 times in 2012.

    But Ridley's value isn't just from his opportunity. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry last year, and started off the preseason with an impressive 8 carries for 92 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles. He's ready to handle the workload at running back in New England, and all indications are that he'll continue to carry the offense from a running perspective.

    Matt Bryant, Atlanta Falcons, K -I couldn't bring myself to put Bryant in the top 10, because I don't believe in taking kickers before the last round of a fantasy draft. But Bryant is so rock solid, and in such a good situation, that he might be worth it.

    He gets to kick indoors for more than half of his games, as his home contests are played in the Georgia Dome, and he travels once per year to the Superdome to play the New Orleans Saints. 

    And since taking over as the Atlanta kicker on a full-time basis, he's knocked home 86% or more of his field goal opportunities every year, and has added 44, 45, and 44 extra points in his three years as the starting kicker with the Falcons.

    The Atlanta offense is going to be high-powered yet again this season, so he's going to get opportunities. So if you insist on taking a kicker early, snag Matt Bryant and don't worry about the kicker position for the rest of the year.


10. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals

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    A.J. Green has a perfect storm of opportunity and ability in Cincinnati this season, which is why he comes in at No. 10 on my list of the safest bets in fantasy football this year.


    Worst Case Scenario

    Green was heavily targeted by young quarterback Andy Dalton last season, seeing a whopping 164 targets. But unlike similarly targeted Larry Fitzgerald, who saw 153 targets in Arizona last season, the targets Green received from Andy Dalton were of sufficient quality to haul in 97 catches for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    The amount of targets means there's a "high floor" of production for Green, or in other words, the worst case scenario is that he'll be targeted often, and still manage a decent season even if he slips up or if Dalton regresses.


    Confidence in Projections

    In addition, Green could see improvement in his numbers thanks to the progression of his signal caller, Dalton. As pointed out by Bleacher Report's Sean ODonnell this offseason, Dalton has the skills to rise up the NFL quarterback rankings. He has some work to do, but having a reliable target like Green will help immensely. 

    The projections for Green and his current draft position have him among the wide receivers who fill out the top five, but aren't named Calvin Johnson. Green is a virtual lock to finish as a top five receiver, as he's the only show in town at receiver for a team that will be competitive in 2013.

    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    The Bengals only added a duo of rookies to their offensive arsenal this offseason, and while both Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert are good pass catchers for their positions, neither will cut into the intermediate to deep throws Green will receive.

    And with no chronic injury history to contend with, the young receiver for the Bengals figures to stand along atop the depth chart all season long. As Chris Moretensen of ESPN reported on Twitter, the knee injury he suffered early in training camp is no longer an issue, so draft with confidence.

9. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

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    I am not going to be the guy who takes Aaron Rodgers early in a draft, but that's due to a personal preference to wait on quarterbacks. If you want a lock for a first or second place QB finish in 2013, feel free to take Rodgers in fantasy football this year.

    Worst Case Scenario

    Rodgers has never finished a year as a starting quarterback with less than 3,900 yards and 28 touchdowns passing combined with at least 200 yards and 2 touchdowns rushing. If he only holds serve and has the most basic year he could possibly have, he's still a top five player at his position.

    But it won't even get that bad. The weapons at wide receiver are just too good to ignore for the Packers. Look for Rodgers to continue his recent trend of closer to 40 touchdowns, which makes him a dominant player at his position in fantasy football.

    Confidence in Projections

    ESPN.com's fantasy projections currently have Rodgers slated for a 39 touchdown season with just under 4,300 yards passing. They also have him chipping in 3 touchdowns and almost 300 yards as a rusher. I am not quite as confident in his ability to continue to earn points on the ground, and that's what knocks him down the list just a bit.

    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    No one is going to compete for Rodgers' job, and there are no indications that he's suffering from any sort of injury.

    The only possible concern is the injury suffered by Jordy Nelson, which removes a weapon from Rodgers' arsenal. But the plan is to have Nelson back in time for week one, according to a quote from Mike McCarthy obtained by Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel in Milwuakee.

8. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

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    Coming in just ahead of Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback I believe to be the best bet in fantasy football this year, Drew Brees.

    Worst Case Scenario

    I think we all saw the worst case scenario for Brees last season, as he struggled with his accuracy and the offense just wasn't as good without Sean Payton on the sidelines.

    ESPN.com's projections have Brees throwing another 18 interceptions in 2013, but I feel like that's the worst case scenario. Look for Brees to bounce back and have a better season even if he has taken a step back from the dominant QB he once was.

    Confidence in Projections

    As I stated above, I believe Brees is projected to have too many interceptions by ESPN, and I suspect it's his lack of control last year that is causing him to fall to second at the position on most fantasy websites.

    I think the arm of Drew Brees is the most reliable fantasy asset you can draft, I just choose not to based on my drafting style. The amount of quarterbacks who can do almost as well as Brees causes him to stay lower on this list, but if you want Brees, you're going to be happy with the results.

    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    No one is taking his job, and he has no present injury concerns.

    He has the same surrounding cast as last year with the exception of Chris Ivory, who was never healthy and was invisible in the passing game anyways.

7. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears

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    Remember how I said the targets A.J. Green will receive make him a valuable fantasy wide receiver? For Brandon Marshall, that statement is even more true, as the trusty receiver is the primary option for Jay Cutler and the Bears.

    Worst Case Scenario

    Brandon Marshall was targeted almost 200 times last season in Chicago, and turned those targets into a monster fantasy season with 1,500 yards and 11 scores. And at 6'4" and 230 pounds, he has the size and strength to be a force in the red zone as well as between the 20's.

    Marshall has had some "off" years in the past, but in the only other season in his career where he was targeted as often as he was last year, he still had more than 100 catches for over 1,250 yards and 6 scores. This would be a disappointment, but still a very strong fantasy season for a player taken in the second round.

    Confidence in Projections

    Marshall is one of a handful of wideouts who find themselves looking up at Calvin Johnson in the rankings. But it's Marshall who I have the most confidence in to live up to, or exceed, his expectations.

    And as Bucky Brooks of NFL.com pointed out this earlier this summer, new Chicago head coach Marc Trestman will bring a "quarterback-friendly" system to the Bears. This means that Marshall will get better opportunities and better targets from a more confident Jay Cutler, and that could translate into fantastic production.

    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett are both decent backups, but there's no doubt who Jay Cutler prefers to throw towards when he's running the offense. Cutler and Marshall have always had good chemistry, which is why his status as top dog on the wide receiving chart in Chicago is unquestioned.

    You will see Marshall pop up on the injury list from time to time, but he's never played fewer than 14 games in a season, and that only happened once. Marshall has the frame to handle a heavy workload, so there's no reason to fear injury with this incredible receiver.

6. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

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    The first of four running backs on my rankings of safest bets for the 2013 fantasy football season, LeSean McCoy is mid-to-late first round running back who is going to have the workload and the offensive scheme to give you everything you expect.


    Worst Case Scenario

    Apart from injury, which McCoy has suffered a couple of in the past, McCoy has delivered consistently for a less-than-consistent offense. His involvement in the passing game has been unlike any running back in recent memory, and the new head coach of the Eagles, Chip Kelly, is going to bring a fast-paced offense with a commitment to running the ball in Philadelphia this year.

    So while McCoy seemed like a bit of a disappointment last year, remember how awful the Eagles were over the course of 2012, and don't forget that he missed time due to a concussion. The Eagles will be better in 2013 (on offense, at least) and McCoy looks to be ready to resume his role as starter.


    Confidence in Projections

    ESPN.com has McCoy 10th in their running back projections, and that's the main motivation to rank him so high on my list. Unlike many of the previous players on the rankings, I expect McCoy to trump his expectations in 2013. 

    I think seven total touchdowns is far too few to predict for the biggest star on an offense that will run more plays than pretty much any other in the NFL. Double-digit scores and a yards from scrimmage total upwards of 2,000 should be the expectation for "Shady" this year, and that more than justifies a late first round pick.


    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    Bryce Brown is in town for the Eagles, and will take some carries from McCoy, but his inconsistencies and tendency to fumble will keep McCoy as the featured back for the foreseeable future.

    And while McCoy has had to sit out a few games in the past, there are no present injury concerns, and he has had the offseason to recover from his concussion and the symptoms it caused.

5. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

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    It's easy to forget that the versatile and reliable Ray Rice is still only 26 years old. With a Super Bowl ring on his finger, he heads into 2013 as one of the best bets to provide production to your fantasy team.


    Worst Case Scenario

    There may not be a runner more consistent than Rice, who has posted between 1,143 and 1,364 yards in his four seasons as the featured back in Baltimore. Add in his consistent receiving numbers, and you see no room for a letdown.

    Even if he stumbles on his per rush and per catch numbers, Rice will deliver 1,600 or more yards from scrimmage and is a virtual lock for 10 scores as the primary target in his offense.


    Confidence in Projections

    For Rice, there is absolutely no reason to doubt his projections. Most websites have him somewhere between fourth and tenth, and no matter where you select him, you won't lose your league because of picking the Baltimore back.

    I wouldn't even argue taking Rice first overall if you plan to play very conservatively, because I feel like Rice is the epitome of consistency at running back in the NFL.


    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    Bernard Pierce is a talented running back, and he will get his chances in Baltimore this season. But Rice was fantasy relevant with Willis McGahee in town early in his career, and he'll continue to be relevant and consistent with Pierce around.

    Rice will still get 275-300 touches thanks to a lack of other weapons on offense, and that means he'll have all the chances he needs to provide his usual steady production.

4. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions

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    This one isn't a surprise, is it?


    Worst Case Scenario

    Calvin Johnson is going to have to be injured to not be the best fantasy wide receiver in 2013. Matthew Stafford still only has one dominant target in Detroit, and that's the man known as "Megatron."

    We saw part of what would be considered a "worst case scenario" last year, as Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com pointed out during the final month of 2012. Johnson was tackled at the one-yard-line six times in 2012, robbing fantasy owners of up to 36 points.


    Confidence in Projections

    Calvin is projected to be the No. 1 receiver, and there's no reason to doubt that ranking. He's increased his receptions and yards for four straight seasons, and even a regression back towards 2010 or 2011 numbers would lead to a top finish at the position.

    Johnson just has more talent than any other receiver, and a perfect opportunity in a pass-happy offense. He would be at the top of this list if there weren't so many other great receivers to choose from this season.


    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    No one is taking any snaps away from Calvin.

    And as far as I'm aware, he's a robot incapable of feeling pain. He's missed a couple games earlier in his career, but there's no reason to project or suspect any time off for the best WR in the NFL.

3. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

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    Crazy expectations and a huge workload prevent AP from being at the top of this list, but don't hesitate for even a half of a second to select him to your fantasy team.


    Worst Case Scenario

    There is a wall that every athlete hits at some point, and they begin to slow down. I don't have any reason to believe Peterson will hit that wall in 2013, but considering the position he plays, it's not unfair to consider the tremendous workload he's had so far in his career.

    127 players have had 1,000 yard seasons at age 28 or older since the AFL-NFL merger, according to Pro Football Reference, but only 10 have had more than 1,600 yards, which seems to be the expectation for Peterson this season.

    That said, the Vikings will have to use Peterson insanely often to have any hope of being decent on offense this year, so Peterson may grind out a productive season in 2013, even if he has lost a step.


    Confidence in Projections

    Peterson is the opposite of Rice and McCoy, because I just can't feel confident that he's going to meet or exceed his projections, and that's what brings him down this list. He's the unanimous number one player in fantasy football, with most projections putting him at or over 2,000 total yards from scrimmage.

    But he remains third because a "down year" for Peterson is still likely to be better than an average year from any of the other top 10 running backs. He's just so productive that he has at least two or even three "walls" to hit before he's not a top five NFL runner any longer.


    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    There's no one taking carries or snaps from Peterson. There's a reason he's called "All Day."

    And even though I suspect he might be due for a bit of a drop-off in 2013, it's not due to injury. Peterson has proven that he is genetically superior and can recover from and play through injuries in a way not many other human beings can.

2. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints

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    The only tight end to make the list is one of the most dominant players at his position in fantasy football history, and a player you should target in any and every PPR league you play in.


    Worst Case Scenario

    Like Calvin Johnson and LeSean McCoy, we saw the worst case scenario last season for Jimmy Graham. Injuries and a Sean Payton-less New Orleans offense held him back, and he still dominated the other tight ends in the NFL on the fantasy scoreboard.

    Get as conservative as you want with Graham's projections, and he's still 30-40 points ahead of the next best tight end.


    Confidence in Projections

    Many of Graham's projections, like the one found on ESPN.com, are somewhere between his dominant 2011 and his "disappointing" 2012. But with a full, healthy season under Sean Payton, I believe 2011 is the baseline, not the ceiling.

    Graham had 96 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 scores in 2011, and with an aging Marques Colston as his main competition for catches, he has a chance to gain a bigger share of the targets and catches in New Orleans.

    And again, even if he disappoints this season, he's still going to finish ahead of Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten, and will likely have a games played advantage over Rob Gronkowski, which makes him more valuable over the course of your fantasy season.

    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    Graham is the one and only tight end in New Orleans, and is one of the two best receiving targets on a pass-heavy offense.

    And while Graham did deal with a wrist injury last year, he had it surgically repaired this offseason and is expected to have a bounce-back season according to The Times-Picayune's Mike Triplett.

1. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    With a "higher floor" and an infinite ceiling, Doug Martin is the most sure bet you can place in the upcoming fantasy football season. I even advocate taking him first overall, because he's a lock to produce at a high level, with no obvious shortcomings.


    Worst Case Scenario

    With Martin, there is not a long track record of success or failure to fall back on. So instead, we'll resort to statistical analysis, and how similar players have fared in a similar situation as Martin.

    Matt Rittle of RotoViz.com crafted this article earlier in the offseason, and he used RotoViz's similarity scores app to project the best running backs for 2013. The answers he got from the app may surprise you.

    Doug Martin had the highest "low" score of any top running back, even when you remove his biggest games. The way Martin is used, combined with his physical abilities and the cast around him means there are no statistical indications of failure in 2013.


    Confidence in Projections

    I have done my own research into Martin's 2012 season, especially after hearing so many arguments that he was only good because of two good games. In an article for The Pewter Plank, I performed analysis of many top running backs in 2012 after removing their best and worst games, and came up with projected seasons based on a more "average" performance.

    Martin would have had a very similar season to many of the top running backs in the NFL, even without his biggest games included in the projections. And most 2013 predictions about Martin include a built-in suspicion that he's not going to be able to recreate his 2012 performance. That's where the value comes from, because many will pass on Martin suspecting he'll have a "sophomore slump."


    Depth Chart and Injury Concerns

    The depth chart is actually extremely encouraging for Martin, as it shows him atop the running back rankings in Tampa Bay, and it shows the return of guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, who missed some and all of last season, respectively.

    Martin will have a chance to run behind an even better line for an entire year, and he'll enter the year as the unquestioned starter, unlike in 2012 when incumbent LeGarrette Blount was challenging for playing time.

    And as far as injuries are concerned, there have been no signs of Martin being hurt or hampered at all. His work load was reasonable in 2012, so there's no reason for alarm just yet.