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Sunday, January 2, 2011
Instant Replay of the 2010 season

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

If there was one thing to learn from the 2010 fantasy football season, it was not only to expect the unexpected, but to expect greatness from the unexpected.

It was a season of revelation: Arian Foster, who went undrafted, spent half his 2009 rookie year on the practice squad and was guaranteed nothing entering 2010 training camp, exploded for 313 fantasy points, tops of any player in the league.

It was a season of realization: Darren McFadden, and out-and-out bust of a 2008 No. 4 overall pick his first two seasons, finally reached his full potential, tallying more fantasy points (208) in 2010 than in his first two years combined (144).

It was a season of rejuvenation: Dwayne Bowe, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2008 who suffered through both a miserable 2009 and first five weeks this season, rebounded with a hot streak that placed him atop the wide receiver leaderboard.

And, perhaps most importantly, it was a season of redemption: Michael Vick, the burgeoning Atlanta Falcons star of a half-decade ago who spent nearly two years in prison for operating an illegal dogfighting ring, not only captured the starting role for the Philadelphia Eagles in his second season since returning to the NFL, but also the No. 2 spot overall on the fantasy leaderboard.

Michael Vick
Michael Vick: 2010 Fantasy MVP.

For it, he's my 2010 fantasy MVP.

There are so many statistics to back up the choice, but perhaps none better than this: Vick resided on 21.85 percent of championship-matchup rosters (Weeks 16-17) in ESPN leagues, tops by more than 3 full percentage points (Arian Foster was second, at 18.60). That's not bad for a player who went undrafted before the season in a high percentage of leagues and wasn't even the unquestioned No. 1 pickup of Week 2. Of the seven leagues in which I played this season, he was the No. 1 FAAB bid/waiver claim in only two of them (Brandon Jackson was a popular claim).

In standard ESPN leagues, Vick averaged 25.0 fantasy points per game, and narrowing it down to simply his full games -- starts he completed -- he averaged 27.7. Ten times he had 20 or more points. Three times he was the week's leading scorer (he tied Anquan Boldin for the lead in Week 3), more than any other player in the league. Three times he had 30 or more points. And once, in Week 10, he totaled 49 points, which is the most of any quarterback in a game since at least 1950, and might very well have been the greatest single-game fantasy point total by a quarterback in NFL history.

Since Week 9, when he returned from a rib injury, Vick managed 223 fantasy points (27.9 per game), 33 more than anyone else (Tom Brady had 190). During Weeks 14-16 -- widely regarded as the fantasy playoff weeks -- Vick paced everyone with 79 points, or 17 more than Josh Freeman. And if you don't understand the impact of those fantasy-playoff performances, consider this: Vick's 38 points against the New York Giants in Week 15 represented the most any quarterback scored against that defense all year (and 23.7 more than the Giants' per-game average versus quarterbacks), and his 20 points against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16 represented the second-highest total any quarterback scored against them (and 6.3 more than their per-game average). He also, incidentally, scored 23 points in Week 12 against a Chicago Bears defense that averaged 11.1 allowed to the position. Vick rose above the matchups week after week, including those weeks that mattered most to us.

Vick's skills didn't erode at all during his absence from the game. He's as quick a runner as a quarterback comes; he has a cannon arm, evidenced by career highs in 20- and 40-yard completions (48 and 12, respectively); and he has the wits and ingenuity to take what the defense gives him. Plus, the Philadelphia Eagles, in spite of their offensive-line inadequacies, did a fantastic job blocking for him.

Vick now enters free agency, but it's highly unlikely the Eagles would let him go. He's an ideal fit for their offense, one that should return the majority of its personnel; DeSean Jackson is the only other noticeable name who hits the free-agent market. If you're making keeper-league plans, project based upon similar circumstances for Vick & Co. He's a first-round value for sure, capable of challenging for the fantasy-points-per-game crown again, but as always, the primary worry will be health risk; he can wear down from a lot of hits as a result of his aggressive style.

Tristan's MVP ballot

Arian Foster
Arian Foster came from nowhere, relatively speaking, to lead all players in fantasy scoring in 2010.

1. Michael Vick.
2. Arian Foster, Houston Texans: He was a fifth-round pick -- and even later if your draft occurred early in the preseason -- who wound up tops in fantasy scoring.
3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots: Again, he was No. 2 in fantasy points from Week 9 forward, which was coincidentally the same week he began his streak of consecutive multi-touchdown, zero-interception performances (9).
4. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: He didn't finish as strong as he started, but for most of the first half, he was head and shoulders above the rest at his position.
5. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders: He was the week's top scorer twice, ranked fourth overall in fantasy points in Weeks 14-16 (57) and resided on 18.26 percent of ESPN teams that reached the championship, third-highest in the league. All for the price of an 11th-round pick, on average (107.9 ADP, 107th).
6. Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs: He had an insane 148 fantasy points from Weeks 6 to 12 alone (a seven-game stretch), and added another 21 in the all-important (for many) fantasy-championship week (Week 16).
7. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: He'd have ranked higher if not for his early exit in Week 14 (concussion) and absence in Week 15, but outside of that, he has been as reliable as a quarterback can be since October.
8. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions: Bad team, revolving door at quarterback, yet still top-five for the season among wide receivers.
9. Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns: Another waiver-wire gem, Hillis ranks this low only because he went without a double-digit fantasy game from Weeks 13 to 17. Those are critical weeks.
10. Brandon Lloyd, Denver Broncos: Ditto Hillis, though Lloyd at least cracked double digits in Weeks 15, 16 and 17. To think, it took him eight years and four different organizations before he finally found his groove.

Tristan's 2010 Bust

Randy Moss
Randy Moss: B-U-S-T.

Randy Moss was drafted 11th overall (12.1 ADP) and second among wide receivers on average before the season, but come season's end, he didn't even place among the top 60 at his own position, let alone the NFL at large, in terms of fantasy points. He wore out his welcome with two different organizations, was plopped onto the waiver wire by the Vikings in mid-November and claimed by just one team, the Tennessee Titans … who got only 16 targets and six catches out of him. That's right, for roughly $563,333 per catch, the Titans got Moss for nine games, and by season's end, he wasn't even of value to them as a decoy (which is what he was in his first few appearances for the team). Fantasy owners, meanwhile, hung on to him primarily due to his name value, despite it being a smarter strategy to simply shed him by Thanksgiving to free up room for playoff-week sleepers. At season's end, he remained on 85.3 percent of rosters in ESPN leagues, and while some of that is probably due to teams that were on autopilot during the waning weeks, it also underscores how many people waited for any sign of life from him. Moss might, in fact, suffer the steepest decline in ADP of anyone from 2010 to 2011, since he'll have a difficult time landing anything close to a prominent gig elsewhere.

Worst of the rest

Shonn Greene
It was an often frustrating season for Shonn Greene and his fantasy owners.

2. Shonn Greene, New York Jets: He was a third-round selection who quickly lost the starting job to LaDainian Tomlinson, and even after Tomlinson cooled and opened the door for Greene, he was unable to walk through it.
3. Beanie Wells, Arizona Cardinals: Be it from injuries or ineffectiveness, it seemed as i f every week was "the week" he'd finally break out. Seventeen weeks later, it never happened.
4. Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers: Much of the blame belongs to John Fox and the team's terrible quarterbacks, but it's hard for fantasy owners to be forgiving of such a disappointing fourth-round pick.
5. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers: He was a rookie bust, injured for much of the season, outplayed by Mike Tolbert and inferior on passing downs to Darren Sproles. Mathews shouldn't be picked among the top 25 overall in 2011, which is exactly where he was selected this year. I'm thinking about No. 40.

Week 17 observations

• While the storyline of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason might be the likely departure of Terrell Owens, the potential departure of Chad Ochocinco and the ever-so-slight chance of departure of Carson Palmer, it's actually the emergence of Jerome Simpson you should keep tucked away. With back-to-back 100-yard performances to conclude the season, Simpson received an expanded opportunity and was every bit up to the task, in those 120 minutes alone showing the kind of big-play potential and route-running skills you like to see in a starting NFL wide receiver. By all rights he should enter training camp as the Bengals' top wideout, assuming the veterans leave and no bigger name is brought in. Even if he's not the top dog, he'll probably start and be a potential late-round sleeper.

• If you were a Jahvid Best owner this season, beware of falling into the "dead-to-me" trap, taking a dismissive future approach to the player because he caused you such heartbreak this season. Yes, he never topped 65 yards in a game after Week 5. Yes, his nagging toe injury might tempt people to apply the "injury-prone" label. But let's not forget that the kid is just 21 years old, showed glimpses of his immense potential in Weeks 1-2 and caught 58 passes, demonstrating how much of a multifaceted threat he can be. An offseason of rest will do a world of good for a turf-toe injury, and Best's struggles might serve to deflate his 2011 price tag. Again, I'm cautioning strongly against the "dead-to-me" approach, though I know some won't listen.

Michael Bush
Free-agent running back Michael Bush would be a great addition for the Packers.

Credit Michael Bush: When he gets a chance to be "the guy" in the Raiders' backfield, he meets the challenge. Starting in place of the injured Darren McFadden, Bush ran 25 times for 137 yards and a touchdown, also catching four passes for 34 yards. That gives him 16 career games with double-digit carries, and in those games, Bush has averaged 4.6 yards per carry, 91.6 total yards per game and totaled 12 touchdowns. He's now a free agent, and other teams would be foolish to ignore his production in limited action the past three seasons. Keep careful tabs on Bush's landing spot; his value could soar in the right situation.

• While the season-ending result was surely frustrating to them, there was a bright spot for the San Diego Chargers: the hot finish by rookie Ryan Mathews, tabbed as one of my busts above. Granted the start with Mike Tolbert sidelined, Mathews ran 26 times for 120 yards and three touchdowns, giving him five scores and a 4.2 yards-per-carry average in his final four games. That puts him in good standing entering the offseason, as he'll probably be on even footing with Tolbert (if re-signed) or any other free-agent or draft acquisition for the starting job, and by all rights, his talent should allow him to claim the gig fairly easily. Mathews' final numbers might leave a bad taste in his owners' mouths, but like the aforementioned Best, he could wind up quite the 2011 bargain, especially if he slips beyond that fourth-round target I laid out above.

Injury report

This week's edition focuses on players who will enter 2011 with significant injury questions.

Dez Bryant (fractured fibula): His injury required surgery, so his rehabilitation will need to be checked when training camps open. Most interesting will be the Dallas Cowboys' approach to his role on kickoff returns. He suffered the injury on one, and he's way too valuable to the team as a wide receiver.

Dallas Clark (wrist surgery): He should fully heal by the end of January, which provides plenty of time for him to be ready for training camp. Expect Clark to reclaim the primary tight end role from Jacob Tamme, which robs Tamme of any keeper-league value (Clark is signed through 2013).

Austin Collie (concussion): Three concussions will have the Indianapolis Colts taking a cautious approach to Collie's training-camp workload, but there's no indication that he won't be at 100 percent in time for the 2011 season. He has loads of talent but will be quite the risk/reward pick.

Jermichael Finley (knee surgery): He has already had two surgeries on his right knee, the second due to an infection in the joint, meaning he's suffering from largely the same problem Tom Brady did in 2008. Brady made a full recovery, and Finley should too, but keep tabs on any possible setbacks.

David Garrard (finger surgery): The surgery he underwent Thursday will require two months of rehabilitation, leaving him plenty of time to be ready for training camp, but the Jacksonville Jaguars could always target quarterback depth in the draft. Garrard will likely start in 2011, but keep tabs on the team's offseason moves.

Frank Gore (fractured hip): Lost for the season in Week 12, Gore fortunately was able to avoid surgery, and might be able to resume running by early February. He should be ready for training camp, and while he'll be 28 years old at that point, that's still young enough for him to remain a top-three-rounds fantasy pick.

Andre Johnson
Andre Johnson should be well past his ankle surgery by the start of 2011.

Andre Johnson (ankle surgery): He finished the season on a sour note, missing the final two games, and was sent for surgery before the year ended. There was no concern at the time that he wouldn't be ready for training camp, however, so expect him to again enter 2011 as a top-tier fantasy wide receiver.

Terrell Owens (knee surgery): ESPN's Adam Schefter reported last week that the Bengals are unlikely to re-sign Owens, though it's probably more due to his outspokenness than his age or prognosis for recovery. He proved he can still play, though, so someone will likely take a chance on him. Assuming it's in a clear starting role, he'll again be a top-20 candidate at his position.

Clinton Portis (abdominal surgery): He'll turn 30 -- the proverbial brick wall for running backs -- next Sept. 1, so while he claims he'll be fully healthy entering 2011, Portis might actually deserve the "injury-prone" label people tend to slap on him. He might have to compete for a job, and will be a risky fantasy pick.

Tony Romo (fractured collarbone): It wasn't long ago that the Cowboys believed Romo might make an appearance before the 2010 season ended, so there's little doubt he should be fine well before training camp. He still has the arm and the weapons, so a return to top-10 status isn't out of the question.

Matthew Stafford (separated shoulder): Talk about injury-prone; Stafford has played 13 of 32 games in his two NFL seasons, limited by injuries to both shoulders as well as his knee. He's expected to be fine for the Detroit Lions' offseason workout program and has top-10 potential when he's healthy, but there's that number hanging over him: 40.6 percent of his team's games played so far.

DeAngelo Williams (foot): He dodged surgery and is expected to be healthy within a matter of weeks, but he's a free agent, and therefore his 2011 role is largely unclear. In the right situation, he'll be a top-20 candidate, but he might not be completely guaranteed a starting job wherever he lands.

Vince Young (thumb surgery): Ah, the interesting one. Young shouldn't have much trouble rehabbing his thumb in time for training camp, but repairing his relationship with coach Jeff Fisher (or building one with a new coach, if that's how things work out) is another matter. Young did have a promising 2010, but that's a lot of obstacles to overcome for him to be a significant draft asset.

Flash-forward

A quick preview of Tristan's top 10s by skill position for 2011.

Quarterbacks: Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Josh Freeman, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Matt Schaub.

Running backs: Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Jamaal Charles, Darren McFadden, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Michael Turner, Rashard Mendenhall.

Wide receivers: Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Hakeem Nicks, Greg Jennings, Roddy White, DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, Larry Fitzgerald.

Tight ends: Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis, Zach Miller (OAK), Jason Witten, Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley, Kellen Winslow, Dustin Keller, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Pettigrew.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.