The important thing to remember is that it gets ugly quick. Well, no. The important thing to remember is that this is crazy-early. This list will be changed, expanded and updated many times between now and opening day 2012. And the next thing to remember is that there's so much unknown. It seems like Stephania Bell was busier than ever this past season, as each week another big-name player went down with a major injury.
If I was to pick three major storylines from this past season -- and apparently, that's exactly what I am doing -- the amount of injuries would certainly be one, as would the quick ascension of rookies into fantasy relevance. Usually it's rookie running backs who make the biggest impact, but other than a few weeks of DeMarco Murray, Roy Helu and Mark Ingram, that didn't really happen this past year. Instead, quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, even Christian Ponder and T.J. Yates for a bit (and Tim Tebow might as well have been a rookie) along with wide receivers like A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Torrey Smith, Denarius Moore, Titus Young in deeper leagues (and again, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker before him, may as well have been rookies) all made their presence felt.
Finally, the emergence of the quarterback would have to be the third storyline. For all the grief I got about the whole "Michael Vick as No. 1," the theory behind it was dead on. Wrong player, sure, but no matter where you ranked Vick this year, chances are he disappointed. (Vick's average draft position in ESPN leagues was as a first-rounder).
The theory behind Vick was that quarterbacks and tight ends are more consistent, and that getting an elite producer at those positions was much more likely to get you wins on a week-to-week basis. In the Manifesto, I went back and looked at the top-10 finishers in fantasy points over each of the past three years for all the positions, and I won't bore you with all the math right now (Why? I'm saving it for next year's Manifesto!), but the end result was that elite quarterbacks and tight ends put you in a much better position to win. They are the most consistent, they have a much better chance of returning your investment and it is much easier to find elite production at running back and wide receiver in the middle and late rounds.
While Vick failed, the overall theory held up perfectly. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, along with newcomers Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton, helped their owners to multiple titles, as did midround finds like Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, Darren Sproles, Michael Bush, Willis McGahee and more.
That's all reflected in this first stab at a top 100. It's based on a 10-team league with standard ESPN scoring. You'll notice elite quarterbacks are ranked high, as are elite tight ends. You'll notice low rankings on some big-name running backs and wide receivers, though for different reasons.
That brings us to the thing you were supposed to remember but have probably already forgotten. It gets ugly quick. There are many questions at running back. What will be the opening day health status of guys like Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Darren McFadden, Fred Jackson, Rashard Mendenhall, DeMarco Murray and others? Were the unexpected seasons of Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush and Chris Johnson a fluke or legit? Where do many of the potential free agents and salary-cap casualties land?
As for wide receivers, there is unbelievable depth next season. The expected studs and/or fantasy starters like Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Hakeem Nicks, Larry Fitzgerald, Wes Welker, Roddy White , Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Marshall, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Lloyd, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace and Steve Johnson all showed up in some form or fashion. You add in guys like Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson, Percy Harvin, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Laurent Robinson, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Kenny Britt (if he's healthy), plus the re-emergence of Steve Smith and, potentially, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon if Peyton Manning is healthy and all of them are back with the Colts. And you can easily see Justin Blackmon having an A.J. Green rookie year if he lands in the right spot, plus potential bounce-back years for DeSean Jackson and Mike Williams. And none of this mentions Andre Johnson, who just needs to stay on the field Dude. Wide receiver is crazy deep.
After Calvin Johnson, you can make an argument for any number of wideouts in any sort of order. It's really personal preference. But I tended to go with longer track records and players I thought were safer rather than upside. Fitzgerald may not end up next season as the No. 2 wideout, but I have him there because I think he's a rock-solid bet to be top five no matter who his QB is. I'd rather have that safety than be on the roller coaster that is Andre Johnson's hamstrings.
So I tended to go lower overall on wideouts because of the depth there. And with that here we go:
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB -- Money in the bank.
2. Drew Brees , QB -- The other branch of said bank.
3. Ray Rice, RB -- You could make an argument for any of the next four RBs. I went Rice because there are no health issues, his value isn't touchdown dependent and this year, he added the touchdowns.
8. Tom Brady, QB -- Remember when Tom threw 50 touchdown passes? His offensive coordinator that year was … Josh McDaniels.
9. Rob Gronkowski, TE -- And this is where it got ugly for me. You can poke a hole in any player ranked from this point on. Here's why I went Gronk: Take away every single touchdown he scored this year -- all 17 of them -- and he still finishes with 132 fantasy points, making him the second-highest-scoring tight end this year. He had 124 targets and is a matchup nightmare for any defense; this all goes back to my elite QBs and TEs theory.
10. Matthew Stafford, QB
11. Marshawn Lynch, RB -- He's just 25. This ranking will change if he leaves Seattle, but he's a young player with an improving offensive line that will be a lot healthier next year and a coach that likes to run. Also, no committee. But again, so many question marks with the health of other guys here.
12. Larry Fitzgerald, WR
13. Cam Newton, QB -- I expect the rushing touchdowns to come down, but still. Imagine when he has a full training camp.
14. Chris Johnson, RB -- I think he returns to stud but not "Oh, damn, watch out" levels.
15. Matt Forte, RB -- Seemed like his injury was the least worrisome of the all the big-name guys.
16. Jimmy Graham, TE -- Had 149 targets; another matchup nightmare who, like Gronk, is young and -- scary thought -- still learning.
17. Roddy White, WR -- For all the Julio talk (and yes, Jones did miss games), White had 181 targets.
18. Wes Welker, WR
19. Andre Johnson, WR -- Depth of position and health concerns keep him this low.
20. Greg Jennings, WR
21. Jamaal Charles, RB -- At least he was injured early on.
25. Victor Cruz, WR -- I went Nicks over Cruz and Jennings over Jordy based on track record, but they're all studs.
28. Michael Vick, QB -- A year after I'm all in on him, you know he's gonna go off. I'm already banging my head.
29. Percy Harvin, WR -- Injury to AP helps boost his value. I don't expect AP to be the same guy next season, meaning they will lean on Harvin a bit more.
38. Michael Turner, RB -- Forget the Week 17 game against a horrific Tampa Bay team that had already checked out. In Turner's final five "real" games (Weeks 12-16), he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and just 56 rushing yards a game; he had fewer than 80 yards in all five and scored only once. In their playoff game, on a crucial fourth-and-1, the Falcons decided to have Matt Ryan run it instead of Turner. I'd rather jump off the bandwagon a year too early than a year too late, and there's so many guys with more upside than Turner that I'd rather have.
39. Adrian Peterson, RB -- This rank will change quite a bit once we see where he is healthwise. But if I had to draft today, this is where I'm comfortable taking him. And not before. It looked bad, kids. Bad.
45. Miles Austin, WR
49. Brandon Lloyd, WR -- This will go up if Lloyd winds up in New England, but right now, I have to rank him as if he's on the Rams.
53. Eli Manning, QB -- Possibly the quietest 4,900 yards in history.
56. Kenny Britt, WR -- If healthy, and can stay healthy, will be a steal here.
60. Peyton Manning, QB -- So much unknown right now. The ranking reflects that.
63. LeGarrette Blount, RB -- Depending on who the new coach is, this could also go up. I still believe in the player. No coach earned more Shanahan-esque fantasy venom than Raheem Morris this past season.
64. Isaac Redman, RB -- I don't think we see Rashard Mendenhall until midseason or so.
65. Peyton Hillis, RB -- All depends on where he winds up.
66. Demaryius Thomas, WR -- I'm a believer.
67. Pierre Garcon, WR-- See Manning, Peyton.
68. Ben Roethlisberger, QB
69. Tim Tebow, QB -- Do you believe?
70. Laurent Robinson, WR -- I'm assuming he's with another team.
71. Michael Bush, RB
72. C.J. Spiller, RB -- If Fred Jackson is healthy, think it's still his gig, but you see Spiller more involved in a high-end, Ben Tate, 10-to-12-touches-a-game sort of way.
75. Reggie Wayne, WR -- See Garcon, Pierre.
81. Justin Blackmon, WR -- Stud in the making.
87. Brent Celek, TE -- Fourth among tight ends in receiving yards over the second half.
88. Mario Manningham, WR -- Assuming he is not with the Giants next year.
91. Trent Richardson, RB -- Could easily go up, depending on where he gets drafted.
98. Jay Cutler, QB -- Believe it or not, Mike Martz being gone will help Cutler. Cutler's best statistical season with the Bears was his first one, without Martz.
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