15. Ryan Mathews, Chargers (36) - Despite missing two games and sharing playing time with Mike Tolbert, Mathews finished as the No. 7 fantasy back in his second season. Although fumbling and minor injuries remain a slight concern, Mathews forced 30 missed tackles, averaged a stout 3.2 yards after contact, and topped 5.1 YPC in over half of his games. Tolbert is expected to hit the open market as a free agent, leaving Mathews as the top candidate to join the ranks of the NFL’s elite fantasy backs.
14. Chris Johnson, Titans (3, 1, 5) - As a long-time Johnson devotee, I had more than one fantasy team derailed by 2011’s most disappointing NFL player. I’m willing to overlook Johnson’s sabotaging effects due to several factors: The Titans boast an underrated collection of young playmaking offensive talents; coach Mike Munchak and GM Ruston Webster have resolved to fix the interior of the offensive line with the intention of boosting the ground attack; Johnson will have the entire offseason and training camp to prepare for a comeback season at age 26.
13. Jimmy Graham, Saints - One of the rare offseason “hype” players to actually exceed expectations, Graham broke Kellen Winslow Sr.’s tight-end yardage record only to see Rob Gronkowski sail by minutes later. Not bad for a first-time starter just three years into his football career. The prototypical athletic mismatch will have NFL think-tanks scratching their heads for a faster linebacker or bigger safety who can hang with the new breed of freakish tight ends.
12. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals (20, 15, 11) - Only 19 receivers since the 1970 merger have more than two seasons of 10+ touchdowns. Fitzgerald is tops among active receivers with four such seasons. A top-five fantasy receiver in four of the past five seasons, Fitz somehow managed to finish fourth with 1,411 yards despite the worst QB situation of any top-20 receiver. If Peyton Manning finds a way to the desert, records will be shattered.
11. Matthew Stafford, Lions - Stafford just turned 24 this week after authoring the best age-23 season since Dan Marino’s magical 1984. “He’s got a Hall of Fame trajectory if he can stay healthy,” opines ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer. The NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year ranked third in the NFL in both passing yards (5,038) and TDs (41) while playing through a high-ankle sprain and fractured index finger on his throwing hand. As long as the Lions lock up Calvin Johnson, Stafford should be good for top-five production on an annual basis.
10. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots - How dominant was Gronkowski’s record-breaking season? His 240 fantasy points were 26 more than the second-highest wide receiver. Not just a red-zone threat, Gronk’s 641 yards after the catch is over 100 more than any other tight end since Pro Football Focus began tracking four years ago. Only five tight ends in NFL history have managed two seasons of double-digit touchdowns. Gronkowski reached that rare air by age 22. For fantasy purposes, he’s essentially a rocked-up WR1 going forward.
9. Matt Forte, Bears (13, 17, 3) - Before the late-season knee sprain, Forte was battling Fred Jackson for most productive back in the NFL. Forte racked up 1,487 scrimmage yards in 12 games while boasting a career-best per-carry average of 4.91. The best non-Sproles receiving back in the league is only held back by a lack of red-zone success.
8. Drew Brees, Saints (16, 13, 20) - In addition to breaking Dan Marino’s single-season passing record, Brees also set new marks for completions (468) and completion percentage (71.2) with Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham entering the starting lineup. As a topper, Brees averaged an eye-popping 462 yards and 3.5 TDs in a pair of playoff games. He leads the NFL’s most unstoppable offense into the 2012 season.
7. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars (17, 3, 2) - Much like Ray Rice, there’s a workload alert attached to Jones-Drew’s 2011 season. MJD led the league in rushing attempts with 343, adding another 43 receptions for easily the highest workload of his six-year career. The good news is Jones-Drew shook off knee surgery to lead the NFL not only in rushing yards (1,606), but also in yards after contact (952). One more 2012 concern is that Jones-Drew will struggle to find the end zone with Blaine Gabbert holding the offense hostage.
6. Ray Rice, Ravens (4, 6) - Workload alert! Fantasy’s No. 1 back also topped the charts in touches, finishing second in receptions and third in carries while piling on 47 more touches in the playoffs. Rice has talent, youth, and top-notch conditioning on his side, but the track record for backs coming off 400-touch seasons is cause for pause.
5. LeSean McCoy, Eagles (7) - If Philly had been eliminated by Week 17, Shady likely would have played the finale and finished as fantasy’s top back after leading the league with 20 TDs. That total will come down in 2012, but McCoy still finished fourth in rushing yards while adding 48 receptions. He’s essentially a slump-proof fantasy back entering his age-24 season in a highly explosive offense.
4. Cam Newton, Panthers - The sky is the limit for the owner of the best rookie season in NFL history. In one season, with limited preparation due to the lockout, Newton produced the only combined 4,000-yard passing, 500-yard rushing campaign the league has witnessed. Along the way, he broke Steve Grogan’s long-held record for rushing touchdowns while producing 35 total scores. Hold on tightly and enjoy the ride.
3. Aaron Rodgers, Packers (8, 11, 31) - The landslide MVP winner is coming off a season that ranks with Tom Brady’s 2007, Peyton Manning’s 2004, Kurt Warner’s 1999, and Dan Marino’s 1984 as the most unstoppable of the modern era. For added perspective on Rodgers’ fast-break attack in Green Bay, his completion percentage jumps to a mind-blowing 80.5 percent once drops, QB hits, batted balls, throw-aways, and spikes are removed. With a loaded offensive core, Rodgers will be tough to dethrone atop the NFL over the next few seasons.
2. Calvin Johnson, Lions (10, 16, 12) - It’s the Randy Moss effect all over again. Johnson’s vertical and red-zone prowess will continue to grant historical seasons for his quarterback while opening space for the other Detroit weapons to make plays. Despite an Achilles flare-up, Megatron closed out the season with three 200-yard performances in his final four games. On the heels of that preposterous four-game run of 9/193/1.5, Johnson posted the most yards by any receiver since 2003. He’s the single most dominant skill-position player in the NFL.
1. Arian Foster, Texans (4) - Of the 12 playoff teams, only two (Steelers, Ravens) possessed a leading rusher acquired through the first two rounds of the draft. Even with the maximum restricted free agent tender lowered to first-round level, Foster is highly unlikely to be stolen away from Houston. Franchises simply don’t place that much value in running backs, especially one whose talents are ideally suited to a zone-blocking scheme run by only a handful of NFL teams. Foster’s playoff average of 168 yards against two top-seven defenses bodes well for his chances of picking up where he left off in 2012. He’s led all back in fantasy points per game for consecutive seasons.