Called Out!: An early look at our 2009 rankings


So here we are in mid-February, less than two weeks removed from Super Bowl XLIII, and just days after the Pro Bowl. What a perfect time to look ahead to the 2009 NFL season, right?

That's right, let's get cracking with those … fantasy football rankings!

OK, OK, I know, I'm throwing you for a curve (pun intended). Spring training is just around the corner for you fantasy baseball junkies, and don't you worry, we've got you covered, with rankings, projections and the most comprehensive draft kit in the biz.

But to the fantasy football faithful: You know the offseason is no time to nap, lest you fall behind in your preparations for a championship next season. Offseason? Bah! Some of us are already gearing up for the combine, free agency, the NFL draft … you get the idea. We've got you folks covered, too!

To that end, we assembled 12 members of ESPN.com Fantasy -- Pierre Becquey (PB), Stephania Bell (SB), Matthew Berry (MB), myself (TC), Christopher Harris (CH), Eric Karabell (EK), Keith Lipscomb (KL), AJ Mass (AJ), James Quintong (JQ), Nate Ravitz (NR), Brendan Roberts (BR) and Kevin Rounce (KR) -- and asked them to pick their top five players by position for the 2009 fantasy season. Then we weighted their rankings in reverse order -- a first-place vote was worth five points, second-place four points, and so on -- and compiled totals to determine our overall top fives.

What follows are the results, broken down by position:

Top 5 Quarterbacks

An "x" means no vote. Five points were awarded for each first-place vote, 4 points for second, etc.

The No. 1 player in fantasy points in 2008 is No. 1 in our early rankings for 2009, as Drew Brees earned top dibs from all but two of our rankers (Bell and Mass). They both picked Peyton Manning -- who finished sixth at the position in fantasy points but finished strong, averaging 16.8 points per game from Weeks 8-17 -- as their top quarterback.

"Without the knee surgery and with a full camp, I think Peyton starts stronger, and with the development of Pierre Thomas in New Orleans, I think Brees' stats take enough of a hit to fall to No. 2," Mass explains.

After those two it's a noticeable drop-off, with Kurt Warner narrowly getting the nod as the consensus No. 3. Among those beneath-the-cut quarterbacks most supported by our individual rankers: Tom Brady, ranked second and third by Berry and Bell; Aaron Rodgers, ranked third by Karabell; and Philip Rivers, ranked third by Roberts.

Why Rivers, B-Rob? "Just look at the numbers," Roberts said. "Thirty-four touchdowns, 4,000 yards, fourth in all of fantasy in [ESPN standard] fantasy points in 2008, and he's in the prime of his career. I'll turn it around and ask everyone else: How can you not?"

Top 5 Running Backs

An "x" means no vote. Five points were awarded for each first-place vote, 4 points for second, etc.

Berry and Lipscomb were our lone dissenters in the race for No. 1 running back -- and therefore presumably No. 1 player overall -- as Berry picked Michael Turner and Lipscomb selected Brian Westbrook as his top back. The other 10? They went Adrian Peterson across the board … despite the fact that he finished third at the position in fantasy points in 2008, 39 behind DeAngelo Williams. ADP, Turner and Westbrook did comprise our top three, with no one else even in the ballpark.

Says Lipscomb: "Westbrook had a down year, but I think he has one more big season in him of 2,000-plus yards from scrimmage. I'm not convinced Turner can repeat his season to that level or that Peterson can handle that same workload [an NFL-high 384 touches] again."

Lipscomb might have been the most pro-Westbrook of the group, but three rankers -- Harris, Karabell and Ravitz -- didn't even rank him in their top five.

"And Westbrook won't be in my top 10 either," Karabell said. "He'll be 30 by Week 1, and we have enough evidence from others that a sharp decline is ahead. Really, it's here. My first-round pick has to be a lot healthier and safer than this."

A real point of contention for fantasy owners heading into 2009 is LaDainian Tomlinson's value. Opinion was divided on him, as he finished sixth in fantasy points among running backs in 2008 yet failed to crack the top five on eight of 12 ballots. Becquey and Ravitz are most optimistic that LT2 has another season left in him, though, ranking him third.

"I'm not convinced it's reasonable to assume he'll slip further just yet, and 12 touchdowns in a 'down' season is pretty darned good," Ravitz said.

Top 5 Wide Receivers

An "x" means no vote. Five points were awarded for each first-place vote, 4 points for second, etc.

Here's where opinion was least divided. Larry Fitzgerald earned top honors on all but Berry's ballot -- he ranked Randy Moss first -- and the Johnsons (Andre and Calvin) were neck-and-neck as the consensus Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers. Not that such a ranking is all that shocking; that's the exact order the three finished in fantasy points in 2008.

But here's a bit of a twist: No. 4 point-getter Greg Jennings managed to crack just one top five from the experts: Karabell placed him at No. 5.

Meanwhile, Anquan Boldin, who ranked seventh despite playing only 12 games, also made only one ballot, and that was Quintong's.

"If he stays with the Cardinals and Kurt Warner is back -- two really big 'ifs,' I know -- I see no reason why he couldn't put up similar numbers to Fitzgerald," Quintong said. "They've always seemed to both put up huge stats in that offense. Remember, he had one fewer touchdown catch than Fitzgerald, despite missing four games."

Top 5 Tight Ends

An "x" means no vote. Five points were awarded for each first-place vote, 4 points for second, etc.

Opinion was divided nearly evenly between the "Big Three" of Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates, with the three separated by only six points in our balloting. Gone are the days when Gates routinely dominated the tight-end position, but also gone are the days of the top tight end going in the top 25 spots in the draft. Tight-end production dropped considerably in 2008, but both Becquey and Ravitz have faith that Gates can make up those 49 fantasy points between him and No. 1 Gonzalez last year.

"If Gates can fall one touchdown short of being the second-best tight end in fantasy in a season where his health is an issue, imagine what he'll do when fully healthy?" Becquey said.

Another note: After the top three and No. 4 Dallas Clark, there appears to be a noticeable drop-off. Eight different players -- including Kevin Boss, John Carlson and Zach Miller -- earned a fifth-place vote.

Top 5 Kickers

An "x" means no vote. Five points were awarded for each first-place vote, 4 points for second, etc.

Not a lot to be said about kickers, as the famed "dart-board" strategy might conceivably have come into play on a ballot or two. Apparently the group still has faith in the Patriots' offense, though, as eight people listed Stephen Gostkowski as No. 1 for 2009. But Pro Bowler John Carney, third in fantasy points among kickers last season, cracked only one ballot: that of Becquey, who ranked him fourth.

Top 5 Defense/Special Teams

An "x" means no vote. Five points were awarded for each first-place vote, 4 points for second, etc.

Pittsburgh and Baltimore continue to get the most respect, but let's be fair about defensive rankings: Draft picks, free agency and other personnel changes might have no greater impact on any other position than this one. Our defense rankings might change drastically by mid-April, June 1 or Labor Day, but for now, the Steelers drew nine first-place votes and two seconds, while the Ravens had two first-place votes and five seconds. Mass was the only ranker to keep either out of the top five; he excluded Baltimore.

"This will still be a top-10 defense; I just envision age catching up to them enough to put them just out of the top five right now," Mass said. "Ask me again after the draft and free-agent signings and I might change my mind."

Don't worry, AJ, we will!

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.