- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Here are some overall, seasonlong impressions as we close up shop on an exciting 2011 fantasy football season that, you might remember, was long-threatened by a labor action. Fortunately, we got in all 17 weeks and had some thrills, chills and spills. Here are a few things I learned:
• Good quarterbacks certainly make a difference, but the importance of grabbing an elite one will almost certainly be overstated in advance of next season's fantasy drafts. The top five scorers in fantasy this year were QBs. Eight of the top 10 were QBs, as were 13 of the top 20. The twosome of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees was excellent, and Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford weren't too shabby, either. Each of those five players scored more fantasy points than any single player did last season. But you know what? Despite scoring 385 fantasy points, Rodgers did not have the best relative season of 2011. Using the principles of Value-Based Drafting, we find that Ray Rice actually had a slightly more valuable season than Rodgers, and that LeSean McCoy barely outdid Brees. I'm not diminishing how awesome it was to own the best QBs, because it was awesome, except when Rodgers sat out Week 17 (the only game any of the top five signal-callers missed). As I've contended for a couple seasons now, Rodgers and Brees regularly deserve consideration as first-round picks. But are you positive Stafford can repeat his 41 TD passes next season? How about Newton? If they don't, they'll slink back down to the great QB morass: Valuable, but not worth reaching for. I'll have way more on VBD as the offseason progresses.
• But let's give a shout-out to Stafford, shall we? When I planted a flag on Stafford this summer, I wrote this: "I vividly recall our '09 rankings summit. I could get no traction for Matt Schaub. I pushed for him as our No. 6 fantasy quarterback because he looked awfully good when he was healthy, and while he missed big chunks of '07 and '08, I wasn't going to accuse the guy of lacking toughness. It wasn't a case of him being brittle; he took shots. Anyway, Schaub wound up outside our group top 10, but subsequently led the NFL in passing yards, completions and attempts in '09." My logic in endorsing Stafford was similar. He'd played in only 13 out of a possible 32 NFL games, but that didn't necessarily make him injury-prone. It just meant he was human. There's no way I would've said Stafford would wind up with more than 5,000 yards passing this season, so I'm not saying all this to pat myself on the back. Instead, there's a lesson to be learned here: All injured players shouldn't be regarded the same. If a guy missed time because he got thumped, don't overreact.
• A couple of guys sure did go wacky with touchdowns this year. I'm specifically thinking of Newton -- who rushed for a QB-record 14 in his rookie campaign -- and Rob Gronkowski, who scored 18 (17 receiving, one rushing, on what turned out to barely be a lateral), setting a record for tight ends and becoming the first man at the TE position ever to lead the NFL in receiving TDs outright. Listen, both Newton and Gronk were more valuable than expected even without their personal scoring chops; without a single rushing TD, Newton still would've finished seventh in fantasy points among all QBs (those 706 rushing yards sure did come in handy), and Gronkowski would've finished second among TEs even without a single trip to the end zone. But clearly, what made these guys elite was the unbelievable consistency with which they ran to paydirt. The repeatability of this phenomenon is going to be a leading topic this spring and summer. If you could guarantee each man would generate even three-quarters as many rushing/receiving TDs in '12 as they did in '11, you'd probably have to consider them first- or second-round picks.
• Speaking of repeatability, one Michael Vick proved why we shouldn't overreact to a single spectacular season of TD glory. Vick famously rushed for nine scores in '10 and wound up a first-rounder (if not first overall) on many draft lists. I'll admit, I also fell for Vick a little too hard, as I rated him sixth among QBs to begin the year. He finished 11th, thanks in part to his all-too-predictable midseason rib injury, but also because he rushed for a single TD. This is a stunning drop (give Vick eight more scores and suddenly he's seventh in fantasy points among QBs, and finishes with only 30 points fewer than his 2010 total), but also entirely predictable. Vick might actually wind up being a value play next year, one season after being a bloated selection. Whether or not Vick's Law (newly coined phrase) applies to Newton is a fascinating question.
• My top 10 RBs for this season were: Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, Rashard Mendenhall and Darren McFadden. I nailed only 50 percent. Gulp. Rice, McCoy, MJD and Foster were the actual top-four finishers, and other than Foster's early hamstring problem and McCoy unexpectedly sitting out Week 17, they were the picture of consistency. Peterson was also terrific until he hurt an ankle in Week 11, whereupon he missed three killer games, and then of course suffered his catastrophic knee injury. The others? Charles tore an ACL, so we'll cut him some slack. Gore flat-out stopped catching the ball, Mendy got stuck in a pass-first offense that didn't need him on the goal line, and Run-DMC was electric until he suffered what turned out to be a teasing, mocking, season-ending foot injury in Week 7. (Unlike Stafford, it is eminently fair to fret that McFadden will always be injury-prone.) But of course, it was CJ1Kb (the "b" is for "barely") who makes headlines as the season's biggest fantasy bust. Johnson tied Matt Forte for 16th among fantasy RBs, despite the fact that Forte missed most of the season's final six games. Johnson failed to top 100 yards rushing in three-quarters of his games, and scored only four times. If we'd known that his contract holdout would be such a massive distraction, none of us would've drafted him. What a nightmare.
• Those top four RBs of '11 -- Rice, McCoy, MJD and Foster -- figure to be the highest-ranked RBs of '12, too, in some order. What about the unexpected (to me) top-10 interlopers? Michael Turner, Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, Ryan Mathews and Steven Jackson were (again, to me) surprise top-10 finishers in fantasy points. I worried Turner and Jackson were due to fall apart, and I still have that worry for next season. Sproles is an utter enigma, perhaps unmatched in NFL history. Mathews stayed healthy, and followed through on his rookie promise. And Lynch? I have no explanation. In fact, I was the slowest adopter of Lynch you could imagine as the season, and his TD streak, wore on. How does a guy with a below-average QB, an injury-decimated offensive line and a recent history of mediocrity suddenly rush for a career-high 1,204 yards and 12 TDs? Um, Beast Mode? Lynch is a free agent in '12, and I don't know what to make of him. I find it hard to believe he'll be in my top 10 RBs next season, but we'll see. Mathews is the only one of these five interlopers who's a lock.
• Yes, what about that pesky Sproles, who as a Charger had never eclipsed 343 yards rushing or 520 yards receiving, but went on to total 1,313 yards from scrimmage and also set a record for the most total yards (including special teams) in NFL history? Back in October, I made kind of a production about what I deemed to be the unsustainability of Sproles' early-season magic. And indeed, after scoring double-digit fantasy points in each of the Saints' first four games, Sproles posted single digits in six of his final 12 contests. But he still was awesome; in fact, he almost became the first back in more than a decade to catch more passes than he had carries and still score more than 100 fantasy points. (Sproles wound up with 87 carries and 86 catches.) Producing 1.01 fantasy points per touch is just incredible, and gave Sproles the third-most-efficient fantasy season of the past decade among players who touched it at least 150 times from scrimmage. Can he do it again? My instinct tells me no. Mark Ingram will be a larger factor, and defenses simply have to do a better job on the mighty-mite Sproles going forward (don't they?). But as I learned the hard way, you underestimate Sproles at your peril.
• Alas, fantasy football continues to be defined as much by its running back carnage as by anything else. In most leagues, you still need to select very good RBs to field a strong team, but doing that seems to be getting harder and harder. Charles, McFadden, Forte, Peterson, Fred Jackson, DeMarco Murray, Jahvid Best, Knowshon Moreno and Tim Hightower all suffered season-ending injuries after providing their fantasy squads with hope. And of course, NFL teams realize this more than ever and roll with platoons almost reflexively. Only two running backs, Jones-Drew and Turner, exceeded 300 carries this season. Seven RBs eclipsed that mark in '10; the league hadn't seen as few as two men with 300-plus carries since 1993. (And no RB hit 400 touches from scrimmage, which in the past I've posited as an alternative to the "Curse of 370.") Before you go off about how it's a pass-first league and teams don't run as much, realize that the average team had 27.3 rush attempts this year (compared to 34.0 pass attempts), and 27.2 rush attempts in '10 (compared to 33.7 pass attempts). No, this is platoon football, and it ain't going anywhere.
• Calvin Johnson is good. He's just really, really good. I owned him in several leagues, and except for a five-week blip from Week 10 to Week 14, Megatron was impossible to stop, both on the field and on fantasy teams. But give it up for Victor Cruz, too, my nominee for the Most Valuable Player of 2011, provided you accept the definition of "value" as "outperforming your draft slot." Cruz, of course, was drafted neither in standard 10-team fantasy leagues nor in the NFL draft back in '10, but he finished fourth in fantasy points among WRs and rendered Mario Manningham (a favored preseason sleeper of mine) valueless even before a knee injury ruined his season. And we should also nod in Laurent Robinson's direction, for he shrugged off getting cut by the Rams and Chargers to sign with the Cowboys and replace a hobbled Miles Austin, becoming a fantasy darling for half the season. Robinson was a favorite of mine ahead of the '10 season, which bit me in the butt. Better late than never, I suppose.
• Rookie WRs lived up to their hype this year, too. Standing around the ESPN newsroom back in August, I remember telling Herm Edwards I thought A.J. Green would be Rookie of the Year, and having Herm nearly bite my head off. "Rookie receiver! Rookie quarterback! Are you crazy?" Well, I was eternally down on Newton, so let's not pronounce my rookie radar flawless, but I was right on Green. What a stud. He wound up with 65 grabs for 1,057 yards and seven TDs, and on a per-game basis, Julio Jones was even better. Jones managed 959 yards on 54 catches with eight TDs, and missed four contests with hamstring injuries. The standard Mike Williams warning applies here; Williams finished the 2010 season as fantasy's No. 12 WR and suckered us all in, then faded to No. 51 in 2011. So you're allowed to proceed with a bit of caution next year.
• I'd say the biggest wideout bust of '11 was DeSean Jackson, and I'm not sure it's close. Sure, we had Andre Johnson rated No. 1 among WRs, and he finished the year tied for 69th (when you tie with Roy Williams and Devin Hester, you have problems), but injuries happen, and AJ appeared in only seven games. Otherwise, the best wideouts pretty much played like the best wideouts. My top 10 before the season began was: AJ, Megatron, Larry Fitzgerald, Greg Jennings, Hakeem Nicks, Roddy White, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson and Dez Bryant. Except for AJ and DeSean, everyone else ended up 18th or higher in fantasy points. But oh, D-Jax. After two seasons of up-and-down fantasy glory, Jackson forgot the "up" part in '11. Gone were the deep strikes. (After averaging 14.7 yards at the catch in '10, Jackson averaged 12.2 in '11.) Gone were the TDs. (He's gone from nine to six to four the past three seasons.) And D-Jax himself might be gone, as he groused about his contract all year, becoming a poster child for the Eagles' failures. If Philly re-signs him, it's crazy. And depending on where Jackson lands, he might be a fantasy afterthought in '12.
• Philip Rivers finished the year ninth in fantasy points among QBs, but that doesn't come close to describing the dog-like nature of his season. From Weeks 7 through 12 (in other words: when you needed him most), Rivers produced exactly one above-average fantasy outing, and averaged 13.6 fantasy points in that six-week span. Mark Sanchez averaged 15.0. Considering Rivers was believed by some to be an MVP candidate this season, and was drafted as a surefire fantasy starter, that's not good enough. If there's a silver lining, it's that by coming on strong after his fantasy owners were dead, Rivers proved that he wasn't lying when he told folks he wasn't hurt. And the surprising news that pass-friendly Norv Turner will return for another season as Chargers head coach means Rivers is a bounce-back candidate.
Finally, here are some fun facts I'm guessing you wouldn't have believed when the season began. Thanks for a great year!
• After throwing for 25 TDs and 6 INTs in '10, Josh Freeman had 16 TDs and 22 INTs this season.
• Tim Tebow rushed for 71 yards more than Vick.
• Sam Bradford had more lost fumbles (7) than TD passes (6).
• Darren Sproles' 111 targets would've made him a top 25 WR in that category.
• Chris Johnson finished 40th in yards per carry among qualifying RBs, one spot behind Jackie Battle.
• Michael Turner finished third-worst among qualifying RBs in the percentage of his carries on which he was tackled behind the line of scrimmage. It happened on 15 percent of his totes.
• Cam Newton led every qualifying NFL player in percentage of runs that went for 10-plus yards (21.4 percent).
• Peyton Hillis was next-to-last (52nd) in that same category.
• Cruz tied Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald for the most receiving plays of 25 yards or more.
• Chad Ochocinco tied for 102nd among qualifying WRs in catches per game, with 1.0.
• Percy Harvin's 52 carries from scrimmage were second-most for a WR since '94 (and most for a fantasy-relevant player, since only Josh Cribbs from '09 was higher, with 55).
• Jimmy Graham finished fifth in targets among players at all positions, with 149.
• Brent Celek led every qualifying non-RB in yards after the catch per reception, with 8.1.
• David Akers' 166 scoreboard points were the most recorded by a kicker in NFL history, and the third-most recorded by any player at any position since the merger. Of course they were.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.
Christopher Harris recaps the 2011 season, discussing top values, disappointments and offering interesting tidbits.