Welcome to Rotoworld's third annual pre-free agency Dynasty Rankings. The next six months are the prime season for Dynasty start-up drafts. These rankings will necessarily skew substantially younger than they would, say, in the bye-week crunch of early November when owners are scrambling for depth and sacrificing talented reserves for a shot at the championship banner. One of the major keys to success in start-up drafts is to anchor each position (QB, RB, WR, TE) with at least one young nucleus player who can be expected to produce at a high level for the next half-decade.
As we explained early last month in the Top-50 Keeper Ranks, the NFL's Robin Hood coaches have been stealing fantasy value from running backs and distributing it among quarterbacks and tight ends of late. The trend toward pass-heavy offenses with tandem attacks in the backfield wasn't merely an aftershock from the lockout. The four highest NFL seasons in rushing yards per carry are 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008 -- in that order. Much like Marshawn Lynch's post-touchdown Skittles reward, coaches have received positive reinforcement upon assigning specific roles for their cadre of injury susceptible running backs. With the ongoing innovation in play-calling as well as the NFL's illegal contact rules inhibiting pass defenders, quarterbacks are poised to remain in the fantasy spotlight for years to come.
As opposed to last season, there are only a handful of stud running backs under the age-26 first-round barrier for start-up leagues this time around. Staying power has taught us in the past that it was never a bad idea to go quarterback or wide receiver early in a Dynasty draft. It's an even better strategy this year with high-end running backs scarce after the fix half-dozen picks. Released on Twitter over the weekend, here are my top 12 overall Dynasty players:
1. Calvin Johnson, WR
2. LeSean McCoy, RB
3. Aaron Rodgers, QB
4. Cam Newton, QB
5. Arian Foster, RB
6. Ray Rice, RB
7. Rob Gronkowski, TE
8. Larry Fitzgerald, WR
9. Chris Johnson, RB
10. Ryan Mathews, RB
11. Julio Jones, WR
12. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB
On to the quarterbacks.
Note: Age is listed as Years_Months as of September of 2012. The final two columns indicate Rotoworld's rankings from February of 2011 and 2010 respectively. This is the first year that rookies have been included in the rankings prior to the NFL draft.
I participated in DynastyLeagueFootball.com's industry start-up mock with a group of Dynasty analysts in early February. All four of the quarterbacks above went off the board in the first 10 picks of the draft. It was another three and a half rounds before Tom Brady was chosen as the fifth quarterback off the board, indicating a major gap between the top two tiers.
DLFMock: Rodgers 1.05, Newton 1.06, Brees 1.08, Stafford 1.10
The best player in the NFL for the past year and a half, Rodgers tops the list for the third consecutive season. Although Brees is close, no QB has a deeper collection of quality weapons to go with one of the league's most creative schemers and play-callers. ... Buoyed by an outstanding offensive coordinator of his own, Newton is coming off the most impressive rookie season in history. It's imperative that the Panthers find a successor to Steve Smith within the next two years. ... Brees' Saints have the top "Offensive Touchdowns-per-Play" rate of the past four years. Although he might lose safety blanket Marques Colston to free agency, mismatches Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles emerged as Brees' two most-targeted options in 2011. ... Stafford ranked third in the NFL in both passing yards and touchdowns in the best age-23 season since Dan Marino's magical 1984. As long as he stays healthy, Calvin Johnson will ensure that he remains an elite fantasy QB for the foreseeable future.
DLFMock: No. 1 Rookie 2.09, No. 2 Rookie 4.02, Brady 5.04, Vick 6.11, E. Manning 5.12, Romo 6.04, Ryan 6.06, Rivers 6.05, Roethlisberger 7.11
I took to Twitter earlier this week for an informal poll atop tier two: should it be RGIII, Luck, or Brady at No. 5? Spare me the "haven't played a game arguments" for Griffin and Luck. That philosophy leads to egregious mistakes such as ranking Fast Willie Parker over Adrian Peterson, or placing Calvin Johnson below T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason of 2007. Healthy skepticism is encouraged, but there's not a lazier protest than "hasn't played a game." Potential difference-makers must be ranked high right out of the starting gates. It's not just that trade value skyrockets after the first breakout game; it's that they get taken off the table in trade talks immediately thereafter. If you want an untouchable player, you must assign a high value before the rest of your leaguemates.
Before you bet, you count what's in the pot. I can buy the argument that Brady makes more sense for a contender because you can project two more top-three fantasy seasons, perhaps a third top-five season and a fourth top-10 season. Is that a safe assumption, though, or a dangerous one? Father Time is undefeated. Even the cream of the fantasy crop in their mid-to-late 30s have a hard time staying healthy before the grim reaper arrives in the blink of an eye (see Brett Favre and Rich Gannon, even Steve Young and Kurt Warner). Brady may have a cushioned floor afforded by Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but it's a steep fall if you're projecting 16 games apiece for the next four seasons.
Luck and RGIII are the most impressive pair of rookies I've seen since Peterson and Johnson entered the league a half-decade ago. I'm not alone in that sentiment. ESPN.com analyst Ross Tucker "can't remember a year" when he was this sold on two quarterbacks in the same draft. ESPN's Trent Dilfer anointed Luck the "most complete football player" he's ever evaluated at any position coming out of college while long-time NFL executive Gil Brandt, the Wikipedia of football knowledge, insists Luck is more prepared for the NFL now than Peyton Manning was in 1998. Matt Williamson of ESPN's Scouts, Inc. labels Luck a "total freak" when noting that his unbelievable athletic ability for his size "isn't even close to his best QB trait."
In weighing Luck vs. Griffin, I'm not wild about the arguments that RGIII has the edge simply due to expected surrounding talent and rushing ability. Change happens too quickly in the NFL for rookie-year supporting cast to be a deciding factor. The same "rushing ability" argument was wielded by Michael Vick supporters ranking him above Peyton Manning back in 2002-2004. Manning won hands down, of course, with no help from his feet. The smart play in Dynasty formats is to come to a strong conviction on which player has a better long-haul career. Supporting cast and rushing ability are secondary factors.
Don't think that I'm picking on RGIII, however. After pouring over his YouTube cut-ups earlier in the week, I walked away convinced the Redskins and Browns should pay whatever it takes to get the Rams' No. 2 pick. Rare athleticism aside, Griffin boasts great pocket awareness and movement (and will absolutely stand in to take a hit), anticipation, easy arm strength on a lightning-quick release, the ability and willingness to make stick throws, and accuracy. The difference between Vick and Griffin is that the latter projects to make his biggest impact in the passing game. Ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick gushingly referred to RGIII as the best dual-threat QB prospect in a long time, "far better" than Vick or Cam Newton as a passer. One Rotoworld writer believes the Heisman winner could become the "biggest athlete in America" if things break right.
A reasonable argument can be made for any of the trio atop the second tier. I have Brady as my No. 1 QB on a contending roster, and I'm still taking RGIII or Luck. Riverboat gamblers should swing for the fences on Griffin, though there's certainly nothing wrong with going the safer route on Luck.
The rest of the tier: The wild mood swings of fantasy owners leave Vick as a fine "buy" this offseason. He's primed for a bounce-back season. ... Coming off a career year, Eli's value should remain steady behind Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. ... As has become his lot in life, Romo is once again underappreciated. Second only to Rodgers in passer rating, yards per attempt and passing touchdown percentage among active QBs, Romo completed 70 percent of his passes with a 16:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 117.4 passer rating in the six games after his broken ribs healed last season. ... Ryan is coming off his best statistical season thanks to the emergence of Julio Jones as one of the most dangerous game-breakers in the NFL, but he has as much to prove in 2012 as any QB in the tier. ... Rivers may be too low on this list, but he failed to remain a reliable QB1 last season even with Vincent Jackson. Throw in a declining Antonio Gates and a offensive line in major need of repair, and Rivers is less than appetizing for the next year or two. ... With the loss of pass-happy play-caller Bruce Arians, Big Ben will continue to be the poster child for great NFL player, average fantasy QB.
DLFMock: Manning 12.05, Locker 11.01, Freeman 11.09, Bradford 11.04, Schaub 14.11, Tebow 11.08, Cutler 14.01, Flacco 13.07
It's fitting that Manning will end up as perhaps the most ballyhooed free agent in NFL history, as he joins Luck, RGIII, and Matt Flynn to form one of the most entertaining quarterback markets we've seen in recent memory. His arm strength is reportedly "way on the ascent" from where it was in December, and history suggests Manning could be back to 100 percent around NFL draft time. Although NFL insiders have preached caution, I fully expect a free agent blitz. Conventional wisdom has the aggressive Dolphins as the favorites. Don't be surprised, though, if Manning follows the lead of head coaching candidates over the past couple of years and uses Miami for leverage on a better deal elsewhere. Manning will be the calling the shots, not the other way around. I've been predicting Arizona since the beginning, and nothing I've seen would convince me otherwise on the eve of free agency.
Locker averaged 8.2 YPA in three rookie-year relief stints. With Kenny Britt returning, Jared Cook emerging late in the season, and Chris Johnson bouncing back to pre-holdout form, the Titans are a sneaky pick for a far more explosive offense the next couple of years. ... Freeman should get a minor boost from the addition of Mario Manningham (or someone of his ilk), but the biggest improvement must come from the quarterback himself. ... I can't believe the Rams won't even entertain the idea of drafting RGIII. With the caveat that Bradford's supporting cast has been a catastrophe, his touchdown rate through two seasons is embarrassingly low. The team's new brass must believe he can stay injury-free and gain effectiveness with better surrounding talent. I'm not quite as confident.
I've been high on Tebow's fantasy potential since he entered the league. In fact, he was actually ranked higher last offseason. His one saving grace as a passer the past two seasons is that no QB in the league takes more chances downfield. Tebow took more than double the shots downfield than Tom Brady did per attempt last year, and his average depth of throw was 3+ yards more than that of the elite NFL quarterbacks. I just can't imagine maintaining week-to-week confidence that Tebow will hold off his backup for the entire season in 2012. Hang on tight for the roller coaster ride. ... Cutler has settled in as an unremarkable QB2 option. ... I must be one of the few unflagging Flacco supporters left. He would be ranked significantly higher if the Ravens added a go-to receiver and ditched predictable schemer and play-caller Cam Cameron.