Early 2011 fantasy football rankings
Talk about presumptuous. Here we are nine months before the 2011 NFL regular season is set to commence, facing a potential player work action and a new collective bargaining agreement, before the onset of free agency and April's draft. And yet I'm about to blow your minds by precisely telling you the relative values of fantasy football's best players for the '11 season.
Wait. No I'm not.
I mean, I'll try. But this is, of course, a purely academic activity. Maybe it's a good baseline from which to build our lists going forward, as players change teams and depth charts become muddled or unmuddled. But without foreknowledge of these events -- and the health issues that will no doubt plague several of the people I'm about to talk about -- let's face it: We're just taking guesses.
But it's fun, right? So here's what I'll do: I'm taking a shot at each of the four major positions, and I'll jot a few notes about each player. Of course, I could go on at length about everyone mentioned here and a bunch more. And I will: For the next few months, I'll be writing full-length capsules for most every skill-position player in the NFL and greatly honing these ranks. For now, though, let's look at the ultrahazy crystal ball and do an overview. My one constraint here is I'm rolling with rosters as currently comprised. Clearly, some big names have the potential to move (DeAngelo Williams, Cedric Benson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Kyle Orton et al), but I'm ignoring that for now.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: I give. Rodgers missed the better part of two games with a concussion and still ran enough to make him a clear No. 1.
2. Drew Brees, Saints: My '10 No. 1 didn't disappoint with passing yards (4,620) or touchdowns (33), but his 22 interceptions doomed him.
3. Peyton Manning, Colts: His offensive line is kind of a mess, but he'll have all his weapons back, and 679 attempts are ludicrous.
4. Tom Brady, Patriots: A 36-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio is superhuman, but he didn't get to even 4,000 yards this season.
5. Michael Vick, Eagles: My most controversial rank, I'm sure. I know Adam Schefter thinks he should be the No. 1 overall pick next year. But I saw too much of "Old Mike" as the season wore down: bad decisions, and too many hits taken.
6. Philip Rivers, Chargers: He slowed down off that Dan Marino pace as defenses started keying on nothing but the pass, and he produced just one of his six 20-plus-point days in the season's final six weeks. Still, he's steady.
7. Tony Romo, Cowboys: The collarbone will be healed, and his weapons are just too good for him not to be a starter in all fantasy leagues.
8. Matt Schaub, Texans: He had double-digit fantasy points in his final eight games, making up for an inconsistent first half.
9. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: His O-line will be healthier, and he, too, was a double-digit fantasy guy throughout the second half of the season. But he takes so many huge hits.
10. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers: Rush yards make a big difference, as he finished second among quarterbacks behind only Vick. Have to believe some rushing touchdowns are imminent.
11. Matt Ryan, Falcons: I maintain that Ryan's fantasy limitations are what make him such a good real-life quarterback: He doesn't take chances against zone defenses.
12. Joe Flacco, Ravens: Wow, the quarterback position is kind of deep. I really like Flacco. I just didn't see any sort of consistent pass-based offense develop in Baltimore this season.
13. Eli Manning, Giants: Back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons, but way too many turnovers for Eli. You have to take the bad with the good.
14. Jay Cutler, Bears: The only way Chicago could keep him upright this season was to change Mike Martz's offense into a conservative dump-off-fest.
16. Matthew Stafford, Lions: No question, there's all kinds of upside here, but you've got to be concerned about his shoulder problems.
17. Matt Cassel, Chiefs: He had an underrated great statistical season, but anyone who watched him play knows he looked lost against better defenses.
18. Mark Sanchez, Jets: He's surrounded by superior talent, but after two years I've still got big-time questions about his accuracy.
19. Tim Tebow, Broncos: Defenses will scheme to limit his aerial effectiveness, but he could easily lead Denver in rushing touchdowns.
20. Carson Palmer, Bengals: Can't throw the deep out any longer, but the removal of at least one prima donna wide receiver could be addition by subtraction.
2. Chris Johnson, Titans: But CJ2K (perhaps hereafter known as CJ1.364) isn't a bad consolation prize. The big plays were less frequent in '10 but were sweet when they did come.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: He accounted for 1,641 yards from scrimmage in 14 games with cartilage damage in one knee. From what we know at this point, surgery should restore him.
4. Michael Turner, Falcons: He doesn't get you anything in the receiving game, but he's still a great combo for rush yards and touchdowns.
9. Frank Gore, 49ers: I warned folks off Gore last season because he's injury-prone, but now I think people are too down on him. In Jim Harbaugh's offense, he'll be intriguing.
10. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers: Tied for second in rushing touchdowns behind a makeshift offensive line. He's solid.
12. Jahvid Best, Lions: I know. Too early. He wasn't healthy after the season's first two weeks, but that was the knock on him coming out of college. Yet he'll be the unquestioned starter again, and he has too much ability to ignore. He might be my Jamaal Charles of '11.
13. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants: His breakout season was marred by seven fumbles (six lost), which let Brandon Jacobs back in the picture. But Bradshaw could be elsewhere in '11.
14. LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers: The knock against him is his lack of receiving chops. But that didn't stop him from racking up 1,000 rush yards despite not starting until Week 7.
15. Matt Forte, Bears: No question he bounced back in '10, finished 11th among running backs. But his short-yardage inadequacies and O-line still spook me.
18. Steven Jackson, Rams: Ten touchdowns the past two seasons combined is scary enough, and 751 touches in that same span is downright terrifying.
19. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos: Love that he earned the every-down job once he got healthy this season, but Tebow could severely limit his upside.
20. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers: By the end of '10, I thought Stewart was an obvious top-10 talent, and if D-Willy goes elsewhere, Stewart will have to climb this board.
21. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers: If the new CBA has a franchise tag, expect Carolina to exercise it on Williams. Then it becomes a question of whether someone wants to pay a king's ransom in draft picks for him.
22. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots: BJGE scored 13 times and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, numbers that would normally put a guy in the conversation to be a No. 1 fantasy back. But it's New England.
23. Felix Jones, Cowboys: Once Jason Garrett took over as head coach, Jones became as reliable as they come, managing at least 80 yards from scrimmage in every game. But a lack of short touchdowns hurts.
24. Cedric Benson, Bengals: He never got a new deal from Cincy, and there are real suspicions he won't be back. Benson broke very few big runs this season, and it's possible '09 was a one-off.
27. Beanie Wells, Cardinals: I still love the size. I still love the speed. I still think he's a much better player than Tim Hightower. But a nagging knee injury ruined his '10 and shook his coaches' confidence.
30. Ryan Torain, Redskins: Torain played very well when healthy, and Mike Shanahan likes him. But that's the problem: It's tough to imagine him making it through a full season.
1. Andre Johnson, Texans: AJ's touchdown production in '10 was consistent with his recent past; I'll chalk the sub-1,500-yard season up to his bad ankle.
2. Roddy White, Falcons: Took a leap in receptions, one that I think is sustainable. Doesn't have to make huge downfield plays to be great.
3. Calvin Johnson, Lions. Had only four 100-yard days in '10 but scored 12 times playing with three different quarterbacks.
4. Greg Jennings, Packers. Had a slow first month and struggled without Rodgers, but it's never been clearer who really makes Green Bay's offense go.
5. DeSean Jackson, Eagles. Somehow exceeded 1,000 yards with only 47 grabs but missed time with a concussion and a bad ankle. The fastest player in the NFL, and he got eight targets inside the 10 this season compared to four in '09.
6. Mike Wallace, Steelers. He's a secret no longer. I remember all the resistance I got to ranking him high this past spring. That won't happen again this season.
7. Reggie Wayne, Colts. Rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Did he have some down weeks? Sure. He was also second in the NFL in catches and third in targets this season.
8. Hakeem Nicks, Giants. Eleven touchdowns, 79 grabs and a whopping 18 red zone targets in just 13 games. He could be injury-prone, but he's a beast.
9. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs. I'll eat my words on Bowe; I just never thought it would click for him. He proved he's the NFL's best leaper this season and scored 15 times.
10. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals. Seeing him finish 16th in fantasy points among receivers this season is distressing, but he was second in targets (174) and tops in red zone targets (26). We've seen the worst he'll ever be.
11. Mike Williams, Buccaneers. He could do it all coming out of the gate as a rookie and is already a top-five red zone threat. It only gets better.
12. Dez Bryant, Cowboys. When he was healthy, I think we saw that he, not Miles Austin, was the freak in Dallas. He has more learning to do, but if he works hard, Bryant's upside is as the No. 1 receiver in fantasy.
14. Brandon Lloyd, Broncos. This is a flat-out shame. Why can't I convince myself Lloyd is for real? He was the No. 1 wideout in fantasy in '10. Yet the prospect of Tebow and a rebuilding Denver squad scares me too much.
15. Miles Austin, Cowboys: It's been a terrific two-year ride, and Austin is a talented dude. But he's not special. Dez Bryant is special.
16. Santonio Holmes, Jets: He'll be limited by Sanchez's accuracy, but six touchdowns in the season's final eight games tells me he's the best player on New York's offense.
17. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles: In a lot of offenses, he'd be the primary deep threat. In Philly, he's a counterpoint to Jackson and a superlative red zone weapon (he had 21 such targets in '10).
18. Marques Colston, Saints: He had 22 red zone looks but suffers from the multifarious New Orleans offense that can ignore him in any given week.
19. Austin Collie, Colts: We have a lot to learn about his concussions, but assuming he can return, he's deadly out of the slot, especially when defenses have to focus so much on Peyton Manning's more-heralded weapons.
20. Santana Moss, Redskins: A great bounce-back year for Moss with a career-high 93 receptions. He got more involved out of the slot and finished sixth in the league in targets.
21. Brandon Marshall, Dolphins: In a maddening season, Marshall was somehow able to finish fifth in targets. He's uber-talented, but what will Miami's quarterback situation look like in '11?
22. Vincent Jackson, Chargers: He likely will be franchised, but everyone would be better suited if they dealt him away. The risk of another holdout is very real.
23. Steve Johnson, Bills: He's not huge and he's not a burner, but Johnson showed great all-around ability in '10. Unfortunately, he also slowed down quite a bit once defenses caught on.
24. Terrell Owens, Bengals: We can be relatively sure he won't be back in Cincy, and his true value will depend on where he lands. But he was tremendous before a knee injury sapped him in December.
25. Wes Welker, Patriots: He'll be another year removed from his torn ACL, and his chemistry with Brady is nonpareil. Unfortunately, there are so many guys to throw it to in New England.
26. Johnny Knox, Bears: A burner caught on a team without a top offensive line. Knox may wind up higher on this list because he'll have more weekly upside than many.
27. Sidney Rice, Vikings: He'll strike it rich this spring either via free agency or the franchise tag, but in Minnesota, he's got major quarterback questions.
28. Percy Harvin, Vikings: Harvin and Rice would both be better off, fantasywise, if Rice goes elsewhere. But if a veteran signal-caller comes in, each enters No. 2 receiver territory.
29. Pierre Garcon, Colts: He was just horrible for three months, then turned it on in December. The speed is there, but how long will Manning put up with his hands?
1. Antonio Gates, Chargers. The finest testament to his greatness is that he missed six games this season yet still finished second in fantasy points at his position.
3. Jason Witten, Cowboys. The position's top fantasy point getter after a massive December, he was the only tight end to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving this season. And so much for the notion he can't score touchdowns.
4. Jermichael Finley, Packers. Played only four games because of a torn knee meniscus but instantly showed what the buzz is about in September. He's a star.
5. Vernon Davis, 49ers. Davis survived the Smith-based mess at quarterback to finish third in fantasy points at his position but was maddeningly erratic. (As were his Smith-based quarterbacks.)
6. Owen Daniels, Texans. Slow to recover from a torn ACL and then limited by a bad hammy thereafter, Daniels turned it on late with 22 grabs, 271 yards and two scores in Houston's final four games.
7. Zach Miller, Raiders. Suffered a bad foot injury in Week 8 and didn't produce much thereafter, so he's still looking to put together his first truly great season. The potential is there.
8. Chris Cooley, Redskins. Fortunately for fantasy owners, Fred Davis didn't turn into much of a threat. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Cooley has just six touchdowns the past three seasons combined.
9. Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers. He didn't score his first touchdown until Week 10, and one of these years his knees will give out. But the Tampa offense is on the upswing.
12. Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars. A very good all-around tight end, Lewis broke out huge in the red zone this season. Not a great source of yards, but we'll take those touchdowns.
14. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons. Had 111 targets and six touchdowns, but his burst appeared to be lacking for much of the season, and retirement talk has sprung up. Assuming he's back, I don't have him as a fantasy starter.
15. Dustin Keller, Jets. Why don't they use him more? He had five touchdowns in the first four weeks of '10 and zero thereafter.
16. Tony Moeaki, Chiefs. If Kansas City stays on the conservative side offensively, Moeaki should build on an impressively consistent rookie year.
17. Jared Cook, Titans. I want to finally believe in Cook's freakish athletic gifts, based on his strong final month. But for now, he's not more than a high-upside reserve.
18. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots. The more receiverlike player of New England's rookie tight end duo, Hernandez isn't on the field as much as Gronkowski, who's a better blocker.
19. Jermaine Gresham, Bengals. Cincy finally showed some use for the tight end position. Gresham's gifts could make him a breakout player if he's used correctly.
20. Brent Celek, Eagles. He was limited by a wrist injury for much of this season, but he also fell behind at least three other guys for targets in the high-flying Philly offense.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.