In Part I of the Top-50 keepers, we covered the changing nature of NFL offenses, the dynamics of keeper leagues, the near misses, the fallers, and players 31-50. Let's move on to the top 30 keepers.
Rank from the previous two seasons (2010, 2009) in parentheses.
30. Brandon Marshall, Dolphins (25, 21, 15) - The on-field antics and off-field baggage leave Marshall as a less desirable commodity than upside receivers such as Dez Bryant and Dwayne Bowe in pure Dynasty leagues, but he still has the edge in keeper formats. Marshall’s 609 targets over the past four seasons are more than any other player in the AFC. If he stops dropping touchdowns, Marshall could regain WR1 status under Matt Flynn or Peyton Manning.
29. Eli Manning, Giants - The Super Bowl MVP posted a 9:1 TD-to-INT ratio as the playoff’s premier QB, finally staking his claim as one of the top-five signal-callers in the league. How much has the NFL morphed into a pass-heavy operation? According to CBSSports.com’s stats, the average top-12 QB in 2011 scored more fantasy points (365) than the No. 1 fantasy QB in 2010 (Tom Brady, 359) and 2008 (Drew Brees, 362). With a pair of studs in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Eli should keep rolling with the top-six fantasy finishes.
28. Mike Wallace, Steelers (34) - Supremely talented, Wallace would be ranked 10-15 spots higher had his per-game average not dropped from 100 yards in the first half of the season to 46.6 yards in the second half following the emergence of Antonio Brown. The 25-year-old still finished 8th in receiver fantasy points after a top-five season in 2010. I’m buying low this offseason; he’s a lock for 1,200 yards and 10 TDs with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.
27. Wes Welker, Patriots - Similar to Wallace, Welker averaged an unsustainable 8.25/120/0.75 line in the first eight games compared to 6.8/71/0.36 the rest of the way -- including 7-of-11 games in which he failed to crack 60 yards. On a side note, Welker has the three highest yards-after-catch totals in the NFL over the last four years. He’ll be back in New England via the franchise tag or a long-term deal.
26. Roddy White, Falcons (14, 24, 23) - Having turned 30 in November while splitting per-game fantasy production with Julio Jones, White is entering the decline phase of his career. Similar talents Reggie Wayne and Chad Ochocinco offer two different career paths. Wayne’s seasonal numbers dropped slightly from 88/1,271/9 at ages 26-29 to 92/1,181/6.5 at ages 30-33. Ochocinco’s plummeted from 93/1,379/8 at ages 26-29 to 52/674/5 at ages 30-33. White does have one advantage: No NFL player has seen more than his 636 targets over the past four years, and his 175 targets in 2011 is the highest total in the last three years.
25. Darren McFadden, Raiders (11, NR, 48) - McFadden was the No. 1 fantasy back through six weeks last season. So why is he ranked just 25th among keepers? The late-season foot sprain isn’t as much of a red flag as the 19 missed games over four seasons in the NFL. Health isn’t the only concern, however. McFadden struggled under Tom Cable’s zone-blocking scheme, only to break out once Hue Jackson molded the offense to fit McFadden’s considerable talents. New coordinator Greg Knapp is expected to bring back a zone-blocking attack, perhaps leaving McFadden as a trade chip. If the Raiders franchise Michael Bush, McFadden’s ranking slips to the 30s.
24. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs (5, 10) - Charles will be 11 months removed from reconstructive knee surgery by the start of the season. For a back so reliant on speed and sharp cuts, it’s reasonable to suspect that Charles won’t regain pre-injury form until mid-season or later. At peak health, he’s an elite back who won’t have Thomas Jones around to steal carries. According to Pro Football Reference, Charles is the only back in NFL history with a career per-carry average of 6.0+ on at least 150 carries.
23. Michael Vick, Eagles (1) - Outside of interception rate, Vick’s passing numbers from 2011 are almost identical to his 2010 stats. The problem for fantasy owners was that his rushing touchdowns dropped from nine to one, thanks to randomness and the emergence of LeSean McCoy as a goal-line horse. That total figures to meet in the middle in 2012, leaving Vick as a top-five fantasy QB -- when he’s in the lineup.
22. Greg Jennings, Packers (28, 30, 25) - Jordy Nelson’s 216-143 fantasy-points edge over Jennings is misleading. Jennings outscored Nelson in the season’s first 12 games before a knee injury forced him to miss the first three games of his NFL career. Although his per-game average dropped from 96.7 the first seven weeks to 44.6 the rest of the way, Jennings has been a consistent WR1 over the past five years.
21. Hakeem Nicks, Giants (21) - Victor Cruz may have outscored Nicks by roughly four fantasy points per game after earning a starting role in Week 3, but Nicks’ talent edge shone through with 148 more receiving yards than any other receiver in the postseason. The only factor keeping Nicks out of the top-20 is a predisposition toward nagging injuries.
20. Adrian Peterson, Vikings (2, 2, 1) - There's no denying the risk associated with Peterson after a knee shredded by ACL, MCL, and meniscus damage. His commitment to excellence, though, is unquestioned, and Wes Welker’s career-year two seasons removed from a similar injury bodes well for Peterson’s chances of regaining pre-injury form by 2013. Owners will have to suffer through a down season for the chance to roll with Peterson once he regains elite status.
19. Tom Brady, Patriots (32, 34, 36) - His last four healthy seasons have produced two first-place fantasy finishes, a third place, and a sixth place. Age is becoming an issue as he turns 35 in August, but Brady should enter the 2012 season with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and a newly acquired vertical threat -- his best collection of receiving talent since the record-setting 2007 season.
18. A.J. Green, Bengals -“I love A.J. Green. He looks like a big Marvin Harrison to me,” former Colts coach Tony Dungy said recently. “He’s got the same wiry frame, he’s got the same deceptive speed, and he’s got all the hand-eye coordination and the skill Marvin had. But he’s big.” Brandon Marshall wanted no part of Green comparisons at the Pro Bowl, insisting the Bengals budding star is “in a league of his own. He’s totally different.”
17. Julio Jones, Falcons - How explosive was Jones as a rookie? After leading all receivers in points during the fantasy playoffs, Jones finished tied with Roddy White for 9th place at 11.1 per game on the season. In fact, if you extrapolate Jones’ 11 full games to 16, he would have ranked fifth among all receivers and tight ends in fantasy points. His career arc is going to resemble Terrell Owens -- without the melodrama.
16. Andre Johnson, Texans (9, 7, 9) - Johnson is leaking Dynasty-league value entering his age-31 season while coming off a pair of serious hamstring injuries. In keeper formats, though, Johnson remains a safe bet for WR1 production over the next 2-3 years after shaking off a near season-long rustiness to average 100 yards with raw rookie T.J. Yates at QB in his first two playoff games.