It’s far too early to project the situations and opportunities that will shape the 2012 fantasy season. Free agency and the draft will have a major say in that. However, it’s not too early to evaluate talent.
Really, talent should be the driving force behind any fantasy draft. We want guys that will absolutely explode when given the opportunity and will force their coach to get them the rock consistently. So before we turn the page on the 2011 season, we need to file away these players.
Here are 10 guys that jumped off the screen as difference-making, elite talents in 2011:
1. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons: A midseason hamstring injury was the only thing that could slow down Jones as a rookie. The 4.39 40-yard dash he ran at the NFL Combine was jaw-dropping, but he appeared to be even faster on the Georgia Dome turf. Perhaps more impressive was Jones’ ability to shrug off tacklers near the goal-line, showing a nose for the end zone. In his final four games of the regular season, he scored six touchdowns. Jones’ raw talent makes teammate Roddy White appear ordinary.
2. Roy Helu, RB, Redskins: We knew that Helu would immediately step into the league as one of the best receivers out of the backfield in the league. He backed that up by catching 37 passes in his final eight games. What we didn’t know was that Helu had the ability to bust through NFL arm tackles at will and burst through the hole like a Mike Shanahan one-cut runner should. As seen in this Week 12 highlight, Helu’s agility and power is something that doesn’t come around that often.
3. Jared Cook, TE, Titans: It’s impossible to explain why the Titans didn’t use Cook over the first 13 weeks of their season. He’s 6’5/248, possessing the same massive frame as Antonio Gates. But as seen in this Week 16 play, Cook can line up in the slot and run past a linebacker for a touchdown like Jermichael Finley. It’s a unique skill set that led to 21 catches for 335 yards and a score over the final three weeks of the year.
4. Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions: Don’t give Calvin Johnson all the credit for Stafford’s obscene 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. Stafford throws the tightest spiral and has the strongest arm in the NFL. Period. In this league, that’s going to take you a long way. Stafford, who played without any semblance of a running game for the majority of the year, was able to fit the ball in tiny windows thanks to his natural ability.
5. Denarius Moore, WR, Raiders: Being able to track a deep pass, adjust to it and make a play on the ball at the NFL level is a rare skill. Moore has it. He averaged 18.7 yards per catch this season and five of his 33 receptions went for touchdowns. Twelve of his catches went for 20-plus yards and five went for 40-plus yards. Carson Palmer’s strategy of chuck it up and pray works when he’s throwing to Moore.
6. C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills: When the Bills were ravaged by injury at the wideout spot, they officially moved Spiller to the wide receiver position. And after Fred Jackson went down, they moved Spiller into the feature back role. There’s not many players in the league that can do both jobs effectively. While Spiller doesn’t move the pile and his tackle-breaking in the hole leave something to be desired, it’s his ability to make people miss in the open field and outrun them to the edge that makes him special. Among backs with at least 100 carries this season, only six had a better yards-per-carry average than Spiller.
7. Jake Locker, QB, Titans: When a quarterback is able to combine a really powerful arm with elite running ability, we need to take notice. It’s what has made Michael Vick, Cam Newton and even Aaron Rodgers to a certain degree so special. Although Locker saw significant action in just three games this year, we saw plenty. Check out this touchdown run against the Saints in Week 14.
8. Dwayne Bowe, WR, Chiefs: Bowe isn’t a newcomer to the party like a lot of guys on this list, but it’s impossible not to notice him on the film. Consistently jumping out as the best player on the field, Bowe muscled his way to 81 catches this season despite playing with one of the worst quarterback situations in the league. He’s finally gotten “it” over the last two seasons, showing meticulous route-running and consistency.
9. Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers: It’s impossible to watch a Panthers game and not call them crazy for dropping the Brinks truck off at DeAngelo Williams’ house. Stewart’s 5.35 yards-per-carry average this season could be considered a fluke if he didn’t come into the year sporting a 4.69 mark. More importantly, Stewart made major strides in the passing game this year as the Panthers recognized the need to get the ball in his hands as often as possible. Stewart racked up 47 catches compared to 16 for Williams.
10. Aaron Hernandez, TE, Patriots: Even Bill Belichick knows that Hernandez is a rare breed. At various points this season, they handed the ball off to him as a true running back, ran reverses for him and got him the ball on bubble screens. There aren’t many tight ends getting that kind of usage. And when in the open field, Hernandez makes sharp cuts like an elite wideout.