50. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers (12, 14) - Mendenhall turns 25 in April while recovering from ACL surgery on the heels of a disappointing fantasy season. There’s buy-low potential here with the Steelers ostensibly recommitting to the run under a new coordinator, but the payoff may be a year away due to the timetable on Mendenhall’s full recovery.
49. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles (45) - Maclin’s year-three numbers would have been more impressive if not for Week 1 rustiness due to a mysterious illness followed by second-half hamstring and shoulder injuries that caused him to miss three games and parts of two others. A healthy Maclin is a good bet for WR2 numbers going forward, and the upside is higher if DeSean Jackson departs via trade or free agency.
48. Vernon Davis, 49ers (49) - Reliable beat writer Matt Maiocco noted that Davis finally “clicked” late in the season after “struggling mightily” to pick up Jim Harbaugh’s offense. The statistical evidence supports that claim. Arguably the best player on the field in all three games, Davis averaged 136.7 yards with four total TDs from Week 17 through the NFC Championship loss compared to under 45 yards per from Weeks 1-16. Look out for double-digit scores and a first career 1,000-yard season in 2012.
47. Dez Bryant, Cowboys (50) - While the off-field news continues to be overblown, it’s true that Bryant’s nagging injuries, sub-optimal conditioning, and spotty route running prevented a true breakout season. The good news is that Bryant was credited with improving the latter as the season progressed, and he still finished as a top-15 fantasy receiver at age 23. Only Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald can match Bryant’s red-zone prowess. If the light finally flips on, Bryant could vie with those two for best receiver in the NFL honors.
46. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots - According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez forced 23 missed tackles in 2011, which is six more than any other wide receiver or tight end. Despite losing two games to a knee sprain, Hernandez finished behind only Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham in fantasy points among tight ends. Still one of NFL’s youngest players at age 22, Hernandez’s arrow is pointing up with the increased backfield snaps in the playoffs.
45. Marques Colston, Saints (43, 32, 32) - “Catch-Radius” Colston finished seventh in total fantasy points despite missing two games with a fractured collarbone. Averaging well over a surgery per season, Colston continues to produce borderline WR1 numbers as Drew Brees’ indestructible go-to receiver. The only kryptonite is an exit from the Big Easy, a possibility if Colston hits the open market in March. Move him up 5-7 spots if he re-signs with the Saints.
44. Kenny Britt, Titans (47) - The 23-year-old was emerging as one of the top five receivers in the NFL before his season-ending ACL injury in September. Britt was not only getting open with ease at the second level, he was also producing as a reliable possession receiver for Matt Hasselbeck. While there’s some risk due to the injury and Britt’s off-field track record, the upside is enormous in a Titans offense that could feature legit playmakers at quarterback (Jake Locker - 8.2 yards per on 66 attempts), running back (Chris Johnson), and tight end (Jared Cook - over 100 yards per over the final three games).
43. Vincent Jackson, Chargers (38) - Though his output was highly inconsistent in 2011, V-Jax has still finished as a top-12 fantasy receiver in each of his past three full seasons. One of the NFL’s most effective beyond 20 yards, in the red zone, and in percentage of receptions producing first downs, Jackson will draw plenty of interest if the Chargers allow him to hit the open market in March. His skill-set should translate to any offense in the league.
42. Miles Austin, Cowboys (24, 19) - Austin’s output was ravaged by a pair of hamstring injuries (one to each leg), though he still finished in the top-15 in fantasy points per game thanks to a career-high touchdown percentage. While his talent -- particularly after the catch -- is among the league’s best, keeper owners have to be concerned with so many mouths to feed in the Cowboys’ offense.
41. Jordy Nelson, Packers - Nelson closed out the season as a top-three fantasy WR due to single coverage, refined route running, explosive run-after-catch ability, increased trust from his QB, Greg Jennings’ late-season knee injury, and -- last but not least -- unsustainable good luck with the deep ball. Pro Football Focus notes that Nelson accrued half of his yards and scores on passes thrown 20+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The talent and high-powered offense may be legit, but the elite WR1 production is fleeting.
40. Steve Smith, Panthers (NR, 31, 16) - As expected, it took only a QB upgrade to prove that Smith remains one of the NFL’s few true No. 1 receivers capable of producing WR1 numbers while drawing double coverage. Only Calvin Johnson boasted more 20-yard receptions than Smith’s 29, evidence that the soon-to-be 33-year-old still has plenty left in the tank. As long as he and Cam Newton both stay healthy in 2012, another top-eight fantasy finish is not only possible but likely.
39. Philip Rivers, Chargers (27, 33, 43) - A tattered offensive line, depleted receiver corps, and his own errant passing killed Rivers’ fantasy output over the season’s first two months, but he did respond with 270+ yards or three TDs in each of his final five games -- finishing in the top-10 among QBs for the fourth consecutive season. His value drops to the low 40s if Vincent Jackson doesn’t re-sign with the Bolts.
38. Percy Harvin, Vikings - Despite the early-season hand-wringing over Harvin’s playing time, new OC Bill Musgrave still put the ball in his hands once every 2.3 snaps. From late November on, Harvin was utilized as a double-threat on the ground and through the air, turning back the clock to his Gator days as the most explosive player on the field. Still just 23 years old, Harvin averaged 103.3 scrimmage yards and a touchdown on 11.3 touches per game from Week 10 on while easily establishing career-highs in receptions (87), receiving yards (967), and rushing yards (345). Only Wes Welker finished with more yards than Harvin’s 616 after the catch.
37. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks - Was Lynch’s career-year merely a contract push or an epiphany for a player who recommitted after falling out of playing shape in 2010? Even first-round talents can’t get away with minimal effort at this level. The good news is three-fold: Lynch is still in his mid-20s, a prime candidate for the franchise tag, and -- with the exception of Adrian Peterson -- no back ran harder in 2011. The bad news is that Lynch’s fantasy value was inflated by a high touchdown total not likely to be repeated.
36. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs (44, NR, 44) - It seems counterintuitive, but Bowe is ranked higher this year than he was after last year’s career-season of 15 TDs. Whereas Bowe feasted on the league’s friendliest pass defense schedule in 2010, he was often the best player on the field against stiffer competition in 2011. The 27-year-old could find greener pastures this offseason if the Chiefs eschew the franchise tag.
35. DeMarco Murray, Cowboys - Citing Murray’s vision, “dimension of power,” and finishing ability, owner/GM Jerry Jones confirmed that the 24-year-old will remain Dallas’ primary early-down back in 2012. Murray’s immense fantasy potential in a high-powered offense is somewhat offset by a checkered injury history and the presence of Felix Jones as a potential receptions vulture.
34. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (15, 36, 39) - Boasting three superstar-level talents among their offensive skill-position players, the Panthers did themselves no favors in limiting one of them to the supporting cast. Only LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, and Maurice Jones-Drew earned a higher running grade from Pro Football Focus, and Stewart forced 20 missed tackles on 47 catches (more than any other back on receptions) compared to DeAngelo Williams’ three on 16 catches. Cam Newton won’t hog 14 TDs again in 2012, but the threat of the run will continue to open wide lanes for Stewart to flirt with 5.5 - 6.0 YPC.
33. Darren Sproles, Saints - Thanks to league-highs among RBs in receptions (86), receiving yards (710), and receiving scores (7), Sproles finished 10th in standard-scoring fantasy points and 5th in PPR formats in his New Orleans debut. Drew Brees’ offense now runs at peak efficiency when exploiting mismatches created by the uncoverable Sproles and Jimmy Graham. With Marques Colston due to hit free agency, Sproles’ role could even be expanded in 2012.
32. Victor Cruz, Giants - Hakeem Nicks is the superior talent, but Cruz’s knack for finding open spaces and creating after the catch is legit. The breakout star finished the 2011 with more yards per route run (3.08) than any other receiver in the league.
31. Tony Romo, Cowboys (26, 29, 29) - Romo produced his highest career passer rating and second-highest touchdown total despite two painful fractured ribs that hindered his ability to throw downfield for over a month. Among all QBs in NFL history, Romo sits second in passer rating and fifth in yards per attempt (behind only Aaron Rodgers among active players in both categories in addition to Passing TD %). I’m buying at every opportunity this offseason.
Keepers 1-30 coming Thursday.