- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Oh, what a decade this has been in fantasy football! When 2001 began, LaDainian Tomlinson and Peyton Manning were already stars, Kurt Warner had made history, and Randy Moss and Terrell Owens were already controversial. You might think few things have changed, but in the eight years of this decade we've seen many terrific performances in fantasy football. Who has been the best of the best? Glad you asked. Here are the top 25 fantasy football players of the decade, so far.
1. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers: Along with a certain quarterback who comes next, LT is the only other player to finish in the top 20 for fantasy scoring each season since 2001. Tomlinson was a rookie then, and a very good one who totaled more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 times. He's been a top-5 fantasy pick all decade, and his two best seasons were the 2006 campaign, when he scored a record 31 touchdowns, and the 2003 season, when he amassed a career-best 2,370 yards from scrimmage and caught 100 passes, really upping his value in point-per-reception formats. Overall the man accounted for 141 rushing and receiving touchdowns -- plus another seven passing. Even now, as Tomlinson hits that not-so-magic age of 30, he remains a key fantasy performer. He gets my nod for No. 1, and it's really not as close as you might think.
2. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts: Oddly enough, Manning has never been fantasy's top player in a given season. In his best year, when he broke the league mark for touchdown passes, Daunte Culpepper topped him, and in the only season Manning was fantasy's top quarterback, Tomlinson topped him for fantasy points (2006). Still, fantasy owners have always been able to rely on Manning, more often than not as the top quarterback taken on draft day. Since 2001, he's topped 4,000 passing yards in all but one season, and he's averaged more than 30 touchdown passes per season. Yes, consistency matters. Sure, others have had monster seasons, but nobody has had this staying power at quarterback. Oddly enough, as far behind as Manning is from Tomlinson, there's really nobody all that close to Manning in my mind for No. 3, either.
3. Randy Moss, WR, Vikings/Raiders/Patriots: Moss hasn't been the most consistent fellow around, with basically four great seasons in his career, but they have been very, very good, and one of them was historic. The next two wide receivers on this list have been more consistent for fantasy owners, but they can't match 23 touchdowns in a season. Moss wasn't valuable in his two Raiders seasons, and in his last season in Minnesota, he did catch 13 touchdown passes from Culpepper but did it on only 49 receptions. Moss gets extra points for his amazing 2007 season, when he put up Jerry Rice-like stats. That's why he gets the nod as fantasy's top wide receiver this decade.
4. Shaun Alexander, RB, Seahawks: Things fell apart for Alexander after the 28-touchdown extravaganza in 2005, but consider that his worst season from 2001 to 2005 featured 16 touchdowns and 1,635 yards from scrimmage. His prime was longer than you might think, and even in those "other" seasons it was terrific. Priest Holmes had one more monster season, but he didn't do what Alexander did for a five-year span. Sure, it would have been nice had Alexander remained productive after the monster season. Fantasy owners who took him with the top pick in 2006 were not amused, but overall, who can complain?
All-decade team coverage
5. Terrell Owens, WR, 49ers/Eagles/Cowboys: The case can be made he's been fantasy's best wide receiver since Jerry Rice, but the fact remains that his final seasons in San Francisco, Philly and Dallas were nothing special. It's a good thing he's been so good in his first seasons in new places. Owens did miss half of 2005, as well as most of the fantasy playoffs in 2002 and 2004, but he's had double-digit touchdowns six times since 2001. He never had a 143-catch season like Marvin Harrison, but Owens has also caught 25 touchdowns the past two seasons. Harrison has six.
6. Clinton Portis, RB, Broncos/Redskins: A top-10 player -- not just running back -- in 2002, 2003 and 2005, Portis has been more consistent than people realize. He's reached seven touchdowns every season, and 1,550 yards from scrimmage in all but one season. His two best seasons came in Denver, but he's remained a top-10 running back in the Washington years, and they aren't over yet. Really, other than Tomlinson, has any running back been a top-10 player on draft day pretty much every season of his career?
7. Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts: Harrison has been fantasy's best wide receiver in three seasons, and while Terrell Owens has never held that honor, we still had to go with T.O. because he's been top 5 at this position for more seasons. Harrison did have two of his better seasons in 1999 and 2000, so they don't carry weight here, but his 2002 was outstanding, with 143 receptions, 1,722 yards and certainly a usable 11 touchdowns. Harrison hasn't done much the past two seasons, as injuries finally caught up to him, but he was in double digits for touchdowns each year this decade before that.
8. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots: Brady has always been a consistent contributor, and if you owned him in 2007, you probably made the fantasy playoffs, if not won the championship. I mean, 4,806 passing yards and 50 touchdowns are pretty good. Brady has been fantasy's top player more than Manning, winning 1-0. Of course, he's managed 4,000 passing yards only twice, 30 touchdowns only once, and he missed all but 11 throws of an entire season, but consider Brady's place in fantasy until the monster season. He did fantasy owners a great service by being underrated for four or five years and still being available in the fourth and fifth round of drafts, and then he teamed up with fantasy's top receiver this decade and got a lot more popular.
9. Daunte Culpepper, QB, Vikings: Yeah, he also played for the Dolphins, Raiders and now the Lions, but he hasn't done anything for fantasy owners since he and Moss were together. Boy, they put up some nice numbers. Culpepper beat out Manning for fantasy points in three consecutive seasons from 2002 to 2004, including Manning's 49-touchdown 2004 season, because of his legs. In 2002, Culpepper ran for 10 touchdowns. In 2004, he threw for 39 scores, ran for two more and totaled more than 5,100 passing plus rushing yards. His short peak counts against him; plus, he made few friends in fantasy by falling off the face of the fantasy earth after the record-setting season, but let's take another angle here: Culpepper's 2004 is considered the greatest fantasy season for a quarterback in the history of the league. That counts for a lot.
10. Tiki Barber, RB, Giants: If only he had kept playing. When Barber called it quits, he might have been a top-5 player for the following season, but he finished with three years of at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage, and in three of his last five seasons he scored 11 or more touchdowns. Barber was very underrated, and somewhat forgotten, coming off the much-maligned two-touchdown season of 2003. What did Barber do after that? He scored 15 touchdowns the next season.
11. Priest Holmes, RB, Chiefs: Here's the running back version of Culpepper, essentially. Some would argue that Culpepper and Holmes are being short-changed a bit and should be given more credit for their monster seasons. Well, we need to take into account longevity as well. Upon joining Kansas City in 2001, Holmes was the No. 2 running back for fantasy points that first season, and fantasy's overall best in 2002 and 2003. In his two monster seasons, he scored 24 and 27 touchdowns respectively, and for half of 2004 he was well on his way to making it three straight before a bad hip derailed him. Holmes was never the same after that, but we all have the memories.
12. Drew Brees, QB, Chargers/Saints: It's not like he was bad in San Diego, but he finally became a top-10 player in New Orleans, with 26, 28 and 34 touchdown passes, and this past season he threw for 5,069 yards.
13. Torry Holt, WR, Rams:The bloom came off the rose in 2008, but before last year, Holt's season low in receptions was 81 (2001). His season-low in yards was 1,188 (2006). He it made into double digits in touchdowns three times. He never had a really big season, but until this past season, they were all very good.
14. Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles: Injuries ended a few seasons early, but on a per-game basis, he's been more impressive than you think. McNabb's passing numbers might seem to pale in comparison to those of Brett Favre, but throw in the running and he's been a top-5 fantasy quarterback twice this decade.
15. Chad Johnson, WR, Bengals: Once considered an equal to Terrell Owens, Johnson's rep took a large hit in 2008. What nobody can take from him is an average of 90-plus receptions and 1,300 yards from 2003 to 2007, with nine touchdowns per season.
16. Brett Favre, QB, Packers/Jets: Oh, those interceptions. Favre's base numbers in yards and touchdowns are impressive and consistent, but the picks have kept him out of the top 5 for fantasy quarterbacks each year this decade.
17. Brian Westbrook, RB, Eagles: The diminutive one was scoring touchdowns by 2003, but last season featured his most with 14, and it was an erratic season at that. Twice he's rushed for 1,000 yards, and if your league counts receptions, Westbrook would move up this list some. Oddly enough, his lasting legacy in fantasy might be for the touchdown he didn't score, when he dropped at the 1-yard line rather than crossing the goal line in a 2007 playoff week.
18. Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers: Tony Gonzalez might get the nod for longevity, but Gates has been recognized as the better tight end fantasy option from 2004 to 2007, as he reached 900 yards and nine touchdowns each time. Gonzalez didn't come close in a few of those seasons.
19. Edgerrin James, RB, Colts/Cardinals: Clearly his best seasons came to start his career before 2001, but James has been underrated since wrecking his knee. Even in his first two seasons with Arizona, he ran for 13 touchdowns and 2,300 yards. That's not bad.
20. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs: He's fourth among active players in receptions, including wide receivers, but Gates trumps him when it comes to production. Still, few tight ends get 75 receptions per season, and an average of 98 in the past two years, so being No. 2 at his position isn't bad at all.
21. Jamal Lewis, RB, Ravens/Browns: The assumption is that he's done little since rushing for 2,066 yards in 2003, but Lewis has rushed for better than 1,000 yards every year but one, and his 11-touchdown campaign upon joining the Browns was a nice surprise.
22. Corey Dillon, RB, Bengals/Patriots: He certainly wasn't done when he left Cincinnati, as the last three seasons of his career playing with Tom Brady netted 13 touchdowns each, and in the first of those campaigns, he rushed for 1,635 yards. Touchdowns can carry fantasy owners, and Dillon produced them.
23. Ahman Green, Packers/Texans: He's done next to nothing with the Texans, but do you remember how good this guy was for you and the Packers in 2003, when he ran for 1,883 yards and scored 20 touchdowns? Green had four other seasons in the decade with 1,000 yards and enough scores to matter, making him a bit underrated.
24. Trent Green, QB, Chiefs: Don't laugh. Green's run in Kansas City had him on par with Tom Brady for years, as his five-year run saw him average close to 4,000 passing yards and 24 touchdowns. He's not Favre for longevity, but he played an important role in fantasy.
25. Larry Johnson, RB, Chiefs: Once he got the chance to perform, he was terrific, topping 1,700 rushing yards in 2005 and 2006, and totaling 40 touchdowns. Johnson was a fantasy hero, a top-3 pick. Of course, that's about all he's given us, with the theory being he was so overused in his short prime, he's had nothing left. Still, those two seasons were fantasy gold.
Who didn't make it: Kurt Warner was awesome in 1999, before the decade started, and in 2001, but he didn't do much else until 2007. He wouldn't get the nod for me over Carson Palmer or Marc Bulger either, but maybe over Matt Hasselbeck. Running backs of note who missed: Curtis Martin, who ran for 1,000 yards the first four years of the decade and twice reached double digits in touchdowns; the Saints' Deuce McAllister, who ran for 1,000 yards on four occasions; also Warrick Dunn, Thomas Jones and Fred Taylor. At wide receiver, you might be wondering what happened to Steve Smith. His 2005 was terrific, but that's also the only time he produced double digits in touchdowns. Other wide receivers of note include Hines Ward, Muhsin Muhammad, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Reggie Wayne and Donald Driver.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.