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Though the 2011 fantasy football season is now in the books, it's never too early to get a head start on your 2012 preparations, especially if you play in a keeper league.
Two good places to start: Our Backfield Chart, which analyzes teams' rushing and goal-line usage; and Consistency Ratings, which measure the most consistently reliable fantasy players.
As a refresher, the Backfield Chart shows teams' rushing trends, including players' combined rushing attempts and receiving targets, as well as their opportunities in those categories inside the opponent's 5-yard line. This helps identify players who are clear workhorses -- such as Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL's leader in rushes-plus-targets (407), and Arian Foster, who averaged an NFL-most 26.9 rushes-plus-targets per game -- or those who are goal-line vultures -- such as Jed Collins, who had four touchdowns on five rushes-plus-targets inside the 5.
Consistency Ratings, meanwhile, help identify the most consistent fantasy performers, including once again Jones-Drew, the only player in the NFL to manage a "Start"-worthy fantasy effort in all 16 games of the season.
With 2011 numbers now in the books, here are a few parting thoughts, thanks to the statistics available in those two resources:
• Whatever the Oakland Raiders decide to do with their two running backs, so long as they declare a clear starter from the two, their pick should only continue to thrive in fantasy in 2012. Darren McFadden, whose 5.4 yards per carry ranked fourth among running backs with 100-plus carries, was a perfect 3-for-3 scoring touchdowns on his carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line in his seven games -- as effective a finisher as the man who eventually replaced him as starter, Michael Bush. Bush, meanwhile, averaged 3.8 yards per carry in his nine starts, but more importantly was 4-for-7 converting runs inside the 5 in those games and 7-for-17 for the season. Fantasy owners are surely hoping the Raiders won't franchise Bush; it would free him to seek a starting role elsewhere, leave McFadden the Raiders' starter and give us two start-and-finish, top-10 capable running backs.
|Jermichael Finley was a disappointment in fantasy, but it wasn't because the Packers forgot about him in the red zone.|
• While the Raiders ran most often of any team inside the 5-yard line -- 83.3 percent of their plays -- the Green Bay Packers passed most often, at 70.6 percent. Sure, fullback John Kuhn served as an adequate goal-line back, but this is a team that managed 15 passing touchdowns inside the 5, most in the NFL. Here's why that's interesting: Both Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley managed as many targets (six) and touchdowns (four) inside the 5 as Kuhn managed rushing attempts and scores -- though Kuhn had 10 carries-plus-targets and five total touchdowns. Finley, in fact, might have gotten a bad rap for what was a "down" season; he actually led the team in red zone targets (19), so the case could be made that it's him, not any other individual player, the Packers call their "go-to" guy up close.
• Fear regression if you're a Cam Newton owner in a keeper league, not to say that he's without value or is a mere one-year wonder. But when you flip through the history books, there has never been a quarterback who had the kind of year that Newton had. He had the efficiency of an elite goal-line running back, going 8-for-14 on rushing attempts, his 57.1 percent success rate third best among players with 10-plus chances. Here's what to sweat, however: Rushing touchdowns can be unpredictable from a quarterback from season to season. Three times in the past 10 seasons a quarterback has managed at least five touchdowns rushing from inside the opponent's 5 -- Michael Vick in 2010, Jeff Garcia in 2003 and Daunte Culpepper in 2002 -- and those three combined to go 17-for-30 (56.7 percent) in those situations in those years, but only 4-for-10 (40.0 percent) in their follow-up seasons in two fewer games played (39, compared to 41).
That's not to say that Newton's perfect comparison is Vick, Garcia or Culpepper, but their examples help outline the possibility of regression. Another reason Newton might regress: Jonathan Stewart is a capable goal-line back, having gone 3-for-10 on rushing attempts this season and 15-for-40 in his career.
• BenJarvus Green-Ellis managed the most rushing touchdowns inside the opponent's 5 (10), and his 47.6 percent conversion rate on his carries in those situations ranked fifth (among those with 10-plus opportunities). It might feel like this was his breakout year as a goal-line threat; the truth is that he was 8-for-15 (53.3 percent) in that department in 2010. And that's a good thing as far as his future prospects are concerned, because in the New England Patriots' final five games, Green-Ellis had just 31 total carries, while Stevan Ridley had 47. Green-Ellis, up for free agency this offseason, might have to settle for a mere goal-line role if he returns to the Patriots, but maybe he'd find a larger role elsewhere.
• Speaking of free agents, Peyton Hillis might find it difficult to land as prominent a role with a new team in 2012 as the one he had with the Cleveland Browns the past two seasons. He struggled noticeably up close this season, managing only two scores on his 12 carries inside the 5, after going 6-for-13 last season. Prospective new teams might regard that as a reason to acquire a goal-line "partner"; the problem is that Hillis' 4.1 yards-per-carry mark since 2009 shows that he desperately needs to be the guy getting the touchdowns to make an impact for our purposes.
• Colleague Christopher Harris and I are big proponents of Value-Based Drafting (VBD) player analysis, which demonstrates a player's fantasy value relative to the average player at his position. Let's face it: If you drafted going merely off 2011 fantasy points, you'd have five quarterbacks at the top of your list; the reason for that is the significant weight that passing statistics have in our scoring system. VBD, however, balances the six primary fantasy positions, though this season still managed to be one of the most quarterback-heavy seasons, even in VBD rankings.
Take a look in the chart below. VBD numbers are offered in two formats: One is by the "full fantasy roster" system used in my weekly "Consistency Ratings" and the other is based upon an ESPN "starting lineup" system in which players are compared to the No. 10 quarterbacks, tight ends, kickers or defenses or top-20 running backs or wide receivers.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.