Like any respectable human being, I revel in my opportunities to ignore my responsibilities and focus all of my energy and brain power on analyzing sports. And not just any sports, but fantasy sports. And not just any fantasy sports, but fantasy football when there may or may not even be a season this year.
So, is this a colossal waste of time? Yes. Is that going to stop me from delving into historical statistics and future projections for the next several hours in order to compile a list of players (by position) who I think are better than the others and then rank said players from 1 – 10 in an attempt to prove how smart I am about these types of things? Absolutely not.
As the senior football analyst for Interrobang Sports – a title I have given myself both because I am older than my counterparts and because I’m the only one of us who has watched every episode of “Friday Night Lights” – it is my duty (read: obligation) to present the 2011 NFL Fantasy Football Preview.
Here are the rules: ESPN Standard Scoring League, Snake Draft, 10 teams. Starting Line-ups are 2xRB, 2xWR, 1xQB, 1xTE, 1x RB/WR, 1xD/ST, 1xK.
I am NOT going to waste my time ranking the kickers. Just use your last pick on whoever you feel like. And try for a team that doesn’t get in the end zone very often.
For D/ST just play the matchups. Unless you draft an elite D/ST (PIT, GB, or CHI), you are going to be adjusting for matchup every week. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I’m not rating these either.
Lastly, I’m not rating the TE position. Look, if you get Antonio Gates then congratulations. If you get anyone else, it doesn’t really matter. Aside from Gates the points you are likely to get each week from your TE varies very little from #2 – #12. In a 10 team league, you are GOING to get a Top 10 guy, so don’t sweat it. Again, feel free to grab Gates any time after the 5th round, no one will judge you. For all others, just wait until all the reasonable RB/WR/QBs are taken and then pull the trigger.
I will preface all of these rankings by stating that I think the draft is much less important than being active on the waiver wire and acquiring players as you go. Guys like Michael Vick and Tim Tebow may not have even been drafted in some leagues, but they single-handedly won games for their owners down the stretch. Players get hurt and have bye weeks, and the guys you get to replace them are critical to success. However, if you don’t get a few crucial pieces in the draft, you will playing catch-up all season.
Without further adieu…
The Running Backs
Often regarded as the most important position in fantasy football (FFB from here on out), the true work horse RB has become somewhat of a mythological creature as teams have begun to platoon their backs into split roles. Luckily, there are a few stalwarts that warrant your top pick in the draft.
I am a believer that if you hold a Top 5 pick, it should be used on a RB. You need at least 3 of them (I’d draft 5 or 6) and if you don’t get one by Round 2 it could be slim pickings. That being said, feel out how the picks are going and it may not be crucial to use your first pick on one of these guys (2010 stats in parentheses):
- Adrian Peterson – MIN: (283-1,298, 12TD, 1FB / 36-341, 1TD – 232pts)
There are very guys who have the consistency of AP. There are fresh faces like Arian Foster and Peyton Hillis popping up, but they’re not a sure thing like this Viking. Also remember, the QB situation in Minny isn’t good, so the running game will be a focus.
- Chris Johnson – TEN: (316-1,1364, 11TD, 2FB / 44-245, 1TD – 216pts)
Another RB that doesn’t really split duties with anyone, CJ2K is almost assured to hit 1,000yds and 10TDs every season. His speed makes him a threat to hit pay dirt with every touch. The only downside is that teams can focus on him because the Titans’ passing game is in disarray. For a big back like AP this isn’t a problem, but for a speed guy it can complicate things a bit.
- Jamaal Charles – KC: (230-1,467, 5TD, 2FB / 45-468, 3TD – 223pts)
Charles separated himself from others last season by averaging 7yds per touch. Had he gone in the end zone more often, he’d be a sure fire Top 3 pick. I believe he still is. The KC offense hit its stride when Dwayne Bowe began to open things up, and I would expect more of the same in 2011. Charles could have the biggest upside of all the RBs.
- Arian Foster – HOU: (326-1,614, 16TD, 2FB / 66-604, 2TD – 313pts)
Many people would put Foster as the #1RB after his 2,200yd, 18TD performance last season. I would argue that CJ2K had a significant drop off after his 2,000yd season, and Foster had too many touches to not expect the same from him. Plus, Houston is a pass-first offense with a lot of weapons and will spread the ball a lot. And I haven’t even mentioned that the anemic defense may force them into a lot of shootouts.
- Matt Forte – CHI: (237-1,069, 6TD, 2FB / 51-547, 3TD – 199pts)
I’ll admit that this pick is based more on the fact that he was my top RB last year, but it’s still sound judgment. A great mix of running and pass-catching led Forte to be the focal point in the Bears’ offense. Consider also that he lost a few TDs last year when the O-line crumbled. If the line is any better in 2011, Forte should be looking for a season like he had in 2008.
- Rashard Mendenhall – PIT (324-1,273, 13TD, 2FB / 23-167 – 203pts)
The Steelers run a lot. Mendenhall is their featured RB. The math is easy. If the Offensive line is improved at all (and we can safely assume that they will at least start the season healthy), then Mendenhall could have a monster season. While I’m skeptical that he will duplicate his TD output with Big Ben playing all season, the yards and attempts will be there for sure.
- LeSean McCoy – PHI: (207-1,080, 7TD, 1FB / 78-592, 2TD – 206pts)
The man has 4 upper-case letters in his name! That means he’s twice the threat of other RBs (transitive property of naming conventions). The real reason for his success is that McCoy is a dual threat RB playing alongside a dual threat QB and one of the best WR tandems in the NFL. Sure, he’s going to miss out on some scoring opportunities because of his explosive teammates, but he’s still gonna get his (as 206pts with only 9TDs would indicate).
- Ray Rice – BAL: (308-1,223, 5TD, 0FB / 63-556, 1TD – 200pts)
Rice was the one of the biggest disappointments for most of 2010, but his overall body of work still made him a Top 10 RB. His biggest problem was Willis McGahee snaking his TDs at the goal line, and we can probably expect more of the same this year. However, I’d still wager that he scores more than 6 times this season, making him a top performer once again.
- Peyton Hillis – CLE: (270-1,177, 11TD, 5FB / 61-477, 2TD – 218pts)
I really wanted to jump on the Peyton Hillis band wagon, but one season does not a superstar make. His numbers made him the #4 RB last year, but since few people even knew who he was I have to assume it’s a fluke (like John Rocker in 1999). Then consider the Madden curse and it’s easy to see why I’m skeptical on this one. If he’s available in the 2nd round I might take the chance, but I would hate myself for it immediately after.
- Darren McFadden – OAK: (223-1,157, 7TD, 3FB / 47-507, 3TD – 208pts)
Run DMC could easily move up 5 spots on this list if he ever played a full 16 games. His injury history makes me question his ability to be there for the playoffs and win me a championship. Still, his upside would have me considering him early in Round 2 if he’s my #2 RB.
Other Notables: The following players have tremendous upside, but I am skeptical of their durability or that they will play a reduced role this season. Any of these guys would be phenomenal pickups in the second or third rounds of your draft, but I would hesitate to take them in Round 1.
Steven Jackson – STL, Maurice Jones-Drew – Jacksonville, Michael Turner – Atlanta, Ahmad Bradshaw – NYG, Frank Gore – SF
The Wide Receivers
These guys score fewer points than the RBs, but since you need at least 3 (again, I’m drafting 5 or 6) of these guys it is always a good idea to jump early if you’re confident in the pick. If you’re sitting at the #6-8 spot in your draft, a top WR is a good way to go. Get your RB in Round 2 if your favorites are off the board already.
Every top QB has a preferred target in their offense, and finding the guy who will get the most targets will exponentially improve a guy’s chance of scoring big for you. This list is comprised of guys who came up big last year and appear to be on the same page as their QBs. (Important Note: I didn’t include a single Saints WR or Patriots WR in this list. If you can figure out who will be the primary target for those teams each week, go to Las Vegas…and bet big)
- Calvin Johnson – DET: (77-1,120, 12TD, 137targets – 182pts)
I’ll ignore the fact that he plays in Detroit and the fact that he had a game-winning TD stripped from him. Johnson is the go-to guy in Detroit, and unless Best or Smith turn out to be the second coming of Barry Sanders, Megatron will have more targets and even bigger numbers in 2011. If he isn’t the first or second WR off the boards, your league is full of idiots and fanboys.
- Andre Johnson – HOU: (86-1,216, 8TD, 138targets – 164pts)
In an off year for Andre (roughly 20rec below his average), he still managed to be a Top 10 WR. If you agree that Arian Foster will have a decline, it stands to reason that Johnson will be the biggest beneficiary (statistically speaking – the rest of the AFC South will actually benefit most). All I can say about Johnson is that he is a perennial on this list, so even if he isn’t the #1 or #2 WR, you can be sure that he won’t leave you wishing you took someone else.
- Roddy White – ATL: (115-1,389, 10TD, 179targets – 193pts)
White led the NFL in targets last season despite Michael Turner having over 300 carries and Tony Gonzalez lining up in the same offense. So, I’d wager that White will put up similar numbers this season even if they do drop off a little. Atlanta has one of the most intriguing offenses in the NFL, and White is the focal point. His chemistry with Matt Ryan makes them one of the most dangerous combinations in the league.
- Dwayne Bowe – KC: (72-1,162, 15TD, 132targets – 200pts)
Bowe made his presence felt in a big way in 2010. Everyone knew he was going to be KC’s top WR option, but Bowe exceeded all expectations. He had some disappointing weeks, but the overall body speaks for itself. Then factor in that nothing has changed in KC, and Bowe should be right back at the top of this list.
- Mike Wallace – PIT: (60-1,257, 10TD, 100targets – 182pts)
As a Steelers fan, it amazes me that I get to write a Pittsburgh WR into this list. Wallace really came onto the scene in 2009, and though his 60rec in 2010 weren’t great, he made the most of them and finished #5 in receiving yards. He also didn’t have Big Ben throwing to him for a quarter of the season, and we saw in the playoffs that Wallace is the favorite target Roethlisberger. Also consider that Hines Ward is at the end of his career and probably won’t be as productive as he has been.
- Gregg Jennings – GB: (76-1,265, 12TD, 125targets – 193pts)
It would be irresponsible to not include the best weapon on one of the best passing offenses. Jennings is a game changer and will have plenty of opportunities to do just that in 2011. He is Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target and – unlike the rest of the team – isn’t injury prone. If GB has a running game this season, the numbers may drop a bit, but I wouldn’t count on it.
- DeSean Jackson – PHI: (47-1,056, 6TD, 96targets / 16-104, 1TD, 1FB / 1RTD – 152pts)
No one in the NFL did more with less than Jackson. He is a threat to score every time he touches the ball and the Eagles are very good at putting the ball in his hands. He would be higher on my list if thought that Philadelphia would be throwing more this year – he had fewer than 60 touches in 2010. However, with Vick at the helm it is likely that Jackson’s numbers won’t change much.
- Reggie Wayne – IND: (111-1,355, 6TD, 173targets – 162pts)
Yep, 111rec and only 6TDs. He was also #3 in targets. I’ve done the math, and it’s improbable that his TD numbers remain that low in 2011. He does share receptions with more WRs than anyone outside of New Orleans could fathom, but he is Manning’s favorite target and that counts for a LOT. He is consistently among the most productive WRs every year.
- Miles Austin – DAL: (69-,1041, 7TD, 119targets / 7-93, 1TD – 150pts)
The absence of Tony Romo hurt Austin’s numbers last year. He was on pace for a monster season prior to Romo’s injury, and even though he was still great, I expect that he could do better if Big D gets better. Not a first or second round choice in my book, but Austin could be a solid #1 WR if you hold out until Round 3 to take one. Also beware the Dez Bryant presence that threatens targets and TDs from Austin.
- Hakeem Nicks – NYG: (79-1,052, 11TD, 128targets – 165pts)
The Giants are a run-first team with two solid RBs, but Nicks is the first option for Eli on passing plays. He got nearly 10 targets per game (missing 3 games) and lived in the Red Zone all season. He is the reason Bradshaw isn’t a Top 10 RB for me, and the only reason Eli should ever be drafted as a fantasy QB.
Other Notables: Again, all of the following players are solid and could pay dividends as a #2 WR on your team. I simply question their situations at QB. If ARI or BUF trades for Kevin Kolb, the Fitzgerald and Johnson stock soars. Brandon Lloyd has to hope that Orton remains the starter, and Jeremy Maclin will be good as always, but he’s not a Top 10 FFB Wideout so long as DeSean Jackson and Mike Vick head up the offense.
Larry Fitzgerald – ARI, Brandon Lloyd – DEN, Steve Johnson – BUF Jeremy Maclin – PHI, Mike Williams – TB
QB is the most important position on the football field and the most potential on a FFB field. However, I suggest waiting until Round 2 or 3 of the draft before picking one up (if you have the #9 or #10 pick in Rd 1, I may jump on a QB in Rd 2). There are few guarantees at this position and if you don’t get Aaron Rodgers, you may as well wait until Rd 4 or 5 and get Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisberger.
Again, read the draft board and get a feel for what will be left by your next pick. If the people drafting around you have already grabbed one QB, you can probably wait. If it looks like everyone is waiting, it may be worth jumping early and forcing their hands. Just remember, you only have to draft 1 QB for your season. Pick one up off the waivers to cover your BYE week or wait until the very late rounds to grab your back up. Injuries aside, you should only need to sub your guy out once all season.
- Aaron Rodgers – GB: (3,922, 28TD, 11INT, 1FB / 64-356, 4TD – 292pts)
Forget about the fact that Rodgers just won a Super Bowl. His stats for the regular season were outstanding. He’s a downfield thrower with a great corps of WR and TE, the GB running game is almost non-existent, and he’s the best running QB outside of Big Ben and Michael Vick. A no-brainer as the first QB off the board.
- Michael Vick – PHI: (3,018, 21TD, 6INT, 3FB / 100-676, 9TD – 300pts)
I’m not as high on Vick as some people are, but he has amazing potential for FFB. The Eagles’ offense is set to spread the field, meaning big plays and openings for the league’s fastest QB. Vick would be a solid 3rd RB for most FFB teams and his passing stats are quality as well. The only risk with Vick is injury due to the number of hits he takes. I would hop on the band wagon in the second round if he’s still available.
- Peyton Manning – IND: (4,700, 33TD, 17INT, 1FB / 18-18, 0TD – 279pts)
This one is simple – he’s never injured and the Colts throw A LOT. The elder Manning is a perennial Top 10 FFB QB and the closest you’ll get to a sure thing. Still, I’m waiting on this one because I don’t expect him to WOW me any more than the 6 QBs behind him. His stability is what makes him #3 on this list.
- Phillip Rivers – SD: (4,710, 30TD, 13INT, 4FB / 29-52, 0TD – 270pts)
Rivers really burst onto the scene on 2010 – leading the league in yards and throwing 30TDs. With Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates back and the emergence of Malcolm Floyd, the numbers should be big again. Yes, Ryan Matthews may take away from the stats a bit, a strong running game could actually help open things up even more for the Chargers’ QB.
- Tom Brady – NE: (3,900, 36TD, 4INT, 1FB / 31-30, 1TD – 289pts)
Many people will have Brady higher than this, but I am more of a historian than a “Who’s hot now?” kind of guy. Brady’s numbers – while consistent – tend to be middling in most seasons. Statistically, he’s never really been in Manning’s league (2007 and 2010 aside). But, like Manning, he plays every game (2008 aside) and has big upside every week. If you land him with your 4th or later pick, consider it a win.
- Drew Brees – NO: (4,620, 33TD, 22INT, 2FB / 18 – -3, 0TD – 263pts)
Don’t worry that the Saints drafted Mark Ingram, Brees will still be the focus of the offense. Over the past few seasons there hasn’t been a better bet than Drew Brees. I consider 2010 to be an off year for him (22INT) and he still finished 6th in FFB QB points. The Saints are going to be passing the ball and putting up big offensive numbers. I wouldn’t deign to figure out which WR will catch all the TDs, but I rest easy knowing that Brees will be the one throwing them.
- Matt Schaub – HOU: (4,370, 24TD, 12INT, 3FB / 22-28, 0TD – 237pts)
The emergence of Arian Foster is a scary prospect for the Texans’ QB, but I don’t expect Foster to repeat his 2010 performance. I DO expect Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels to help Schaub put up big numbers again. As long as the pieces of the Houston offense stay healthy, there’s no slowing down Schaub. Also, their defense is atrocious, so they’ll be gun-slinging quite a bit.
- Matt Ryan – ATL: (3,705, 28TD, 9INT, 3FB / 46-122, 0TD – 238pts)
He should possibly be higher on this list, but I can’t move him up when he relies so heavily on one WR. If Michael Turner stays healthy and keeps the running game viable, Ryan will have another big year. If Turner breaks down and allows teams to play a 5th DB, it could be a long season for Matty Ice.
- Ben Roethlisberger – PIT: (3,200, 17TD, 5INT, 3FB / 34-176, 2TD – 201pts)
In only ¾ of a season, Roethlisberger managed 201pts. He showed how much he loves throwing bombs to Mike Wallace and short routes to Hines Ward and Heath Miller. If healthy, he scrambles better than most QBs (Vick and Rodgers are my only exceptions) and will make plays out of nothing. That being said, injuries are a big question right now as well as the O-line. I think both will be fine and Big Ben will put up big numbers.
- Joe Flacco – BAL: (3,622, 25TD, 10INT, 4FB / 43-84, 1TD – 221pts)
I drafted Flacco on every team I had last year, and I was never truly disappointed. He isn’t going to single-handedly win games for owners, but he’s the guy you can get in the 6th or 7th round and still feel good about your situation. His stock may be rising in the FFB ranks, but he’ll still fall behind Eli Manning and Josh Freeman in most drafts. Consider this my warning that I’d rather have him than either of them.
Other Notables: These are the guys that you draft late or as a backup. They may also be good of mid-season trades when other starting QBs miss time.
Eli Manning – NYG, Josh Freeman – TB, Jay Cutler – CHI, Sam Bradford – STL
That’s all for now. Expect more advice to follow as the season nears (hopefully) and throughout the FFB season. I’ll be hitting the waiver wire frequently and passing along my picks for the week once the BYE weeks kick in.