Welcome to the sixth-annual Top-50 keepers spectacular. A few thoughts on the changing nature of NFL offenses before we get to the proceedings:
With three passers over 5,000 yards and another within 70 of reaching the mark, we realize 2011 was the year of the quarterback. Change happens quickly in the NFL, and last season brought a confluence from the lockout after-effects, illegal-contact rules inhibiting pass defenders, innovative play-callers, and a continuation of the trend away from workhorse running backs.
The league’s two most prolific passers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, were buoyed by the acumen of their front office and coaching staff in targeting athletic tight ends and almost immediately exploiting mismatches and loopholes created by the strict rules limiting contact by linebackers and defensive backs at the point of the catch.
While the tight-end position has been revolutionized, fantasy football continues to witness the decline of the running-back driven draft. The league’s most prescient coaches now institute plans to keep their most effective runners healthy for December and January through tandem attacks that play to a back’s specific back’s skill-set.
“I’m not interested in a 1,700-yard back,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in November. “It takes a pounding. I want James [Starks] as fresh as he was last year at the most critical time of the year. Same with Ryan [Grant]. It’s important to play with multiple backs. I’m a big believer in that.”
Fantasy owners can rail against the committee attack, but it’s not going away. The four highest NFL seasons in rushing yards per carry are 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008 -- in that order.
The result? There are only seven running backs in our top-20 keepers this year, down from 12 in 2011, 10 in 2010, and 13 in 2009. The average positional breakdown in five previous editions of this list is 7 QBs, 23.5 RBs, 17 WRs, and 2.5 TEs. This year’s list has produced 9 QBs, 15 RBs, 22 WRs, and 4 TEs.
A few more thoughts on keeper-league dynamics:
1. The key to fantasy football success will always be acquiring as many difference-makers as possible. As we’ve pointed out in previous editions of this article, roughly half of the Top-10 at any position will repeat their performance from the previous year. Any player can post a good or even great season, but it's the uniquely talented and driven studs that produce year-in and year-out. These players must be valued highly even if a flavor-of-the-month might post better stats in a best-case scenario (i.e. Peyton Hillis, LeGarrette Blount last season).
2. These rankings are geared toward short-term keeper leagues where owners are generally keeping anywhere from two-to-five players from year-to-year. While keeper leagues value stability more than redraft leagues, they also value short-term production more than Dynasty formats. Rotoworld's Dynasty ranks (coming later this month) necessarily emphasize talent over situation while projecting value beyond the next season. Keeper rankings, on the other hand, must value talent and situation equally while focusing primarily on the upcoming season and secondarily on the long view.
3. The upcoming prospect Combine will serve as a handy reminder that player values are anything but static even in the offseason. Free agency, trades, the NFL draft, OTAs, and training camp will keep player values fluctuating right up to the start of the fantasy drafts in August.
Where will Peyton Manning land? Could his addition lead to career-years for Larry Fitzgerald or Brandon Marshall? Will Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, and DeSean Jackson be hit with the franchise tag or be granted their freedom? Will a Panthers coach provide clues that Jonathan Stewart could be headed for a much-deserved increased role? Is Ryan Mathews a top-five fantasy back if Mike Tolbert walks?
Keep up with Rotoworld’s always-fresh news page, and you will be prepared when it’s time to finalize keeper selections later this spring or summer.
These keeper rankings assume the scoring is for a standard non-PPR league. PPR leaguers should make the necessary adjustments on receivers and pass-catching backs.
On to the near misses!
Previous ranks in parentheses
DeSean Jackson, Eagles (31, 26) - While Jackson remains a unique talent, he’s now reached the “show me” stage of his NFL career. A one-trick pony who refuses to go over the middle, drops too many wide open downfield passes, and disappears for long stretches, Jackson is purely a wild card for the 2012 season.
Matt Ryan, Falcons - A strong second-half produced career-highs in yards and TDs, but Ryan’s playoff breakdown was another reminder that he doesn’t trust his offensive line or his own ability to make stick throws into tight windows. Unless he gains arm strength and confidence, Ryan will stall out as a low-end QB1.
Peyton Hillis (40) - Increasingly injury-prone with a fumbling problem and dwindling per-carry average, Hillis is a bit of chimera. He’s most valuable as a workhorse, three-down battering ram, but his body can’t withstand the pounding while staying healthy and effective. As a free agent, his Browns future is up in the air.
Beanie Wells (NR, 42) - I hate to drop Beanie out of the top 50 after a stellar season, but he doesn’t catch passes, can’t stay healthy, will lose touches to Ryan Williams, and relied too much on touchdowns for 2011 fantasy value.
Antonio Brown, Steelers - Brown is a more refined route runner than Mike Wallace, seeing more targets with just 88 fewer yards in a breakout season. While he may continue to feast on the single coverage afforded by Wallace’s presence, he’s never going to match the deep threat in touchdowns. I need to see a repeat before anointing Brown as a bonafide top-15 WR.
Steven Jackson (22, 6, 4) - An underappreciated warrior on a string of embarrassing teams, S-Jax is one of my favorite players of the past decade. It’s not his fault that running back is a young man’s bailiwick. Turning 29 in July while embarking on another rebuilding season, Jackson is better left for redraft leagues.
Frank Gore (19, 5, 6) - A series of nagging injuries slowed Gore’s production to a crawl in the second half, and Jim Harbaugh’s offense rendered him a fantasy non-factor as a receiver. Like Jackson, Gore is looking down the barrel of age 30. The Niners would do well to work Kendall Hunter in next season, saving wear and tear on Gore for the season’s stretch run.
Jermichael Finley, Packers (46) - There’s reason to believe Finley’s 13 drops were a one-year aberration, but the bigger problem is that he’s been passed by Jordy Nelson in Aaron Rodgers’ pecking order. As a free agent, Finley’s Green Bay future is cloudy.
Antonio Gates (39, 41, 46) - Once a no-brainer keeper due to his edge over the rest of the NFL’s tight ends, Gates can no longer keep up with the new guard while battling chronic foot injuries. The 32-year-old (in June) remains a top-five redraft tight end, but the risk is no longer worth the reward in keeper formats.
Ben Roethlisberger (NR, 35) - Big Ben flirted with QB1 status under pass-heavy coordinator Bruce Arians, but there was never much separating his fantasy production from the ranks of Ryan Fitzpatrick or Mark Sanchez. While still an elite NFL QB, Roethlisberger isn’t worthy of keeper status until he emerges as a weekly advantage.
The Next 10: C.J. Spiller, Demaryius Thomas, Roy Helu, Fred Jackson, Reggie Bush, Stevie Johnson, Mark Ingram, Fred Davis, Michael Bush, Brandon Lloyd
Editor's Note: For offseason NFL news and analysis, follow @ChrisWesseling,@EvanSilva,@AdamLevitan,@RotoPat and @Rotoworld_FB on Twitter.
Falling off the List
Ranking from last three seasons in parentheses
Peyton Manning, Colts? (18, 9, 21) - The 36-year-old (in March) is impossible to rank not only due to the uncertainty of his 2012 team, but also the numbness, atrophy, and loss of arm strength in his upper throwing arm. Gun to my head, I’d bet against Manning placing in the top-10 among fantasy QBs more than once from here on out.
DeAngelo Williams, Panthers (23, 18, 14) - Don’t cry for D-Will’s removal from the top-50 keepers. He’s going to sleep soundly on top of the $21 million the Panthers foolishly guaranteed last July.
Reggie Wayne, Colts (29, 12, 13) - Wayne was a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver in his own right, but a substantial percentage of his WR1 value was tied up in his quarterback. The odds are stacked against that reunion in 2012, and Wayne’s skills are clearly slipping at age 33.
Michael Turner (30, 8, 8) - Rotoworld has developed a reputation as Turner detractors, and we can’t apologize for it. While “Burner” was a strong fantasy bet early in his Falcons career, he’s now an aging back worn down by heavy workloads and a nagging groin injury with no role in the passing game. An offensive millstone down the stretch, Turner will have his role reduced in 2012 if the Falcons opt to pay his $5 million salary.
Ahmad Bradshaw (33) - Obviously the better of the two Giants backs, Bradshaw continues to lack stability in keeper formats due to chronic foot/ankle woes and an inconsistent workload. He’s a committee back.
Knowshon Moreno, Broncos (35) - The No. 12 overall pick in the 2009 has fallen from the prospect ranks after losing his job to Willis McGahee, tearing his ACL, and capping it off with a drunk-driving arrest.
Jahvid Best, Lions (37) - Best’s six games produced top-10 fantasy output, but his football future is bleak after three known concussions in the past three seasons. While the talent may be undeniable, Best is no longer in control of his football career. A best-case scenario would be a return to a limited role as the Lions’ answer to Darren Sproles.
Shonn Greene (41, 48) - Greene’s role should be scaled back after finishing 30th in yards-after-contact among running backs and losing goal-line duties to Mark Sanchez. A third of his fantasy output came in just two December games.
LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers (42) - A poor man’s Michael Turner, Blount lacks lateral agility, isn’t trusted in the passing game, fails too often in short-yardage, and can’t hold onto the football. This is a role player, not a foundation back.
Felix Jones, Cowboys (48, 50) - Lacking the power and the durability to succeed between the tackles, Jones is headed back to his ideal change-of-pace role behind DeMarco Murray.