These rankings are likely to differ greatly from fantasy football cheatsheets you find elsewhere on the web and magazine storeshelves. The primary difference is my low quarterback slotting based on VBD (Value Based Drafting). I explained my quarterback take here and here. Rather than lead with another exhausting intro, let's cut to the chase for my latest rankings update.
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1. Arian Foster (ADP: 1st overall) -- Foster brings to the table elite talent and versatility, but workload and scheme separate him from McCoy and Rice. Foster has made 30 starts over the past three years, in them averaging 24.9 touches a game. McCoy has a 19.5-touch average across 34 starts. Rice has averaged 22.3 touches per start over those three seasons. The Texans have the run-heaviest offense in football, and their zone-blocking system is a well-oiled machine.
2. LeSean McCoy (ADP: 4th overall) -- McCoy doesn't get the rock quite as often as Rice or McFadden, but he's more efficient with his touches and plays in an offense I think will explode in a post-hype year. McCoy's fantasy running back ranking has improved in each of his three NFL seasons, and he's still just 24 years old. He's the only player I'd briefly consider taking over Foster.
3. Darren McFadden (ADP: 7th overall) -- Though its annual occurrence gives the mirage of a trend, DMC's injury history is rooted in bad luck. In exchange for a shot at the league-winning reward, I'm willing to make McFadden a top-three pick as an insanely talented every-down back whose path to goal-line carries is clear for the first time in his career. McFadden is so good that he could miss two games and still outscore the running back field. He is an awesome player.
4. Ray Rice (ADP: 2nd overall) -- Rice doesn't have quite the juice Foster, McCoy, and McFadden offer as a sheer running talent. But he is a durable workhorse who quietly may be headed for a career high in snaps considering the failure of a No. 2 running back to emerge in Baltimore. Third-round pick Bernard Pierce can't separate himself from UDFA Bobby Rainey.
5. Marshawn Lynch (ADP: Mid 2nd round) -- Lynch's position and volume lock him into upper-echelon fantasy value, and he's impressed with improved quickness and burst in August after cutting offseason weight. Despite his July DUI, Lynch no longer appears in danger of league suspension. The installation of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson will make Lynch all the more dangerous, and potentially devastating. OL coach Tom Cable's zone-run scheme showed the ability to take over games last season, and a dual-threat quarterback will increase the efficacy of outside zone runs. Look for Lynch to record a career-high yards-per-carry average this season.
6. Chris Johnson (ADP: 8th overall) -- I wrote a late-July column charting Johnson's 2011 snaps and detailing the collection of excuses offered for his career-worst year. I've watched his preseason and can say with certainty Johnson still possesses uncommon elusiveness and burst. I remain concerned that his heart will stay in it as Tennessee's interior offensive line continues to allow constant penetration. He's still a monster talent slated for a monster workload, though, and can be every bit worth the risk in the middle of the first round.
7. Calvin Johnson (ADP: 6th overall) -- Megatron is the only receiver valuable enough to draft in the first round, and that's because he's head and shoulders above the rest. He's the most physically dominant wideout in the game playing in the league's pass-heaviest offense with the NFL's strongest-armed QB. For "last year's stats" guys: Johnson scored over three more fantasy points per week than the No. 2 receiver (Jordy Nelson). Megatron gives you a huge edge.
8. DeMarco Murray (ADP: 12th overall) -- Dallas' interior line is a concern, but Murray lacks any hint of competition for carries and can compensate with pure volume. Assuming he gets good luck and stays healthy, Murray is a darkhorse to lead the league in rushing attempts. The Cowboys' passing game will likely start slow with Jason Witten and Miles Austin nursing injuries. Murray can be the early-season offensive centerpiece, and his passing-game role is sure to rise.
9. Steven Jackson (ADP: Late 2nd round) -- I've found Jackson to be among the league's most impressive runners through three weeks of preseason. Having dropped at least ten pounds, S-Jax has displayed improved quickness and speed while shedding the "hop-step" behind the line of scrimmage he bad-habited even in his prime. Jeff Fisher is going to run the ball early and often in St. Louis. I think Jackson may well approach the 379 touches Fisher gave Eddie George in his own age-29 season. I have a first-round fantasy grade on S-Jax, but he can be had in the second.
10. Jamaal Charles (ADP: Mid 2nd round) -- The Texans tied the Broncos for the 2011 league lead in rushing attempts. Denver will be a pass-first offense as Peyton Manning replaces Tim Tebow, and Kansas City now may be Houston's most viable competitor for the NFL's run-heaviest team. Workload should not be a major issue for Charles, who has avoided training-camp setbacks following last September's ACL tear while rediscovering pre-injury explosion and moves. Through three exhibition games, J.C. is averaging 5.08 yards a carry and 6.06 yards per touch.
11. Jimmy Graham (ADP: 14th overall) -- The first-round quarterback argument applies much more smoothly to tight ends. For the last-year's-stats crowd, Gronk scored nearly six more points per week than the No. 3 tight end. Graham, who finished second, scored 2.5 more points per week than No. 3. These tight ends tilt weekly scoring in a particular owner's favor and are unto a tier of their own. I like Graham to outscore Gronkowski ever so slightly because he's the clear-cut No. 1 option in his offense and blocks less. They are both late first-round picks.
12. Rob Gronkowski (ADP: Mid 2nd round) -- Barring injury, Gronkowski and Graham's 2011 catch and yardage totals are reliable barometers as to their 2012 production. Aside from perhaps Gronk's TDs, I don't think there will be dramatic downturn from either of their final-year stats. I think Antonio Gates has an outside chance to approach Gronk and Graham's catches and yards, and Aaron Hernandez, Jermichael Finley, and perhaps Vernon Davis will at least keep you competitive. But Gronk and Graham are weekly matchup tilters and every bit worth top-12 picks.
13. Ryan Mathews (ADP: Late 2nd round) -- Fantasy footballers have every right to be shaken by Mathews' fractured collarbone considering his past durability woes. But the facts of the matter are it was a hard-luck injury, and Mathews is expected to miss no more than two games. Mathews was a top-seven weekly running back scorer with Mike Tolbert in the 2011 picture and won't struggle for top-five per-week statistics with Tolbert gone to Carolina. Commonly available throughout the second round of drafts, Mathews is a value pick anywhere beyond the top 14.
14. Julio Jones (ADP: Early 2nd round) -- If any receiver can give Calvin Johnson a run for the 2012 fantasy scoring lead, Jones is the NFL's best bet as a freakish talent becoming the featured player in a pass-first, up-tempo offense. Julio is going to shred defenses this season. Through roughly six preseason quarters, Jones has 13 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown.
15. Fred Jackson (ADP: Late 2nd round) -- Jackson isn't a "sexy" pick as a 31-year-old running back who plays in Buffalo. But the preseason has shown he remains locked in as the featured runner ahead of C.J. Spiller. Chan Gailey's Pistol Spread offense floods the field with four and five receivers, creating running lanes. F-Jax should be secure as a top-12 fantasy back.
16. Matt Forte (ADP: 11th overall) -- The No. 10 fantasy pick seems rich for a back who never got goal-line carries in the first place, and now threatens to lose precious open-field touches to Michael Bush. The Bears may look to "preserve" Forte a bit after committing big money to him.
17. Doug Martin (ADP: Late 3rd round) -- I've viewed each of Martin and LeGarrette Blount's August snaps, and there is no question that the rookie brings more to the table in every facet of the game. The Bucs know it, giving Martin six full possessions as the every-down back in their third preseason game, while Blount played a series. At worst, Martin will open the year as a 14-18 touch-per-week RB2 in Greg Schiano's run-first, smash-mouth offense. By October, Martin should be handling the ball 20-plus times a game. He is way better than Blount. RG Davin Joseph's year-ending knee injury is only a slight concern. While Joseph has a reputation as a mauler, Pro Football Focus graded him 68th out of 78 qualifying guards in run blocking last year.
18. Andre Johnson (ADP: Early 3rd round) -- This guy was a first-round pick last year. Johnson's 12 missed games over the past two seasons combined with an early-camp groin injury appear to have sunk his Average Draft Position, making him a value pick. He's lost nothing off his fastball, evidenced by three 90-plus yard efforts among his last four "real" games and preseason circus grabs in double coverage. Matt Schaub's surgical August instills even more confidence.
19. Larry Fitzgerald (ADP: Late 2nd round) -- Fitz drafters and keeper-league owners need John Skelton to win Arizona's quarterback job. The Cardinals' signal caller must accomplish two tasks: 1) Stand tall as his pocket inevitably collapses behind a sieve of an offensive line, and 2) Get the ball to Fitzgerald. When Skelton played more extensively in 2011 games, Fitz averaged 94 yards per contest. His per-game average fell to 82 yards with Kevin Kolb under center.
20. Dez Bryant (ADP: Early 4th round) -- I think Julio Jones has the best shot at unseating Calvin Johnson for the receiver fantasy scoring lead. I think Dez is the best bet to challenge for Johnson's receiving touchdown crown. Particularly with Jason Witten (spleen) and Miles Austin (hamstring) nursing worrisome injuries, Bryant is headed for a target-heavy breakout season.
21. A.J. Green (ADP: Early 3rd round) -- Andy Dalton's rough preseason is cause for some pause, but Green is dynamic enough to be quarterback-proof. Green can "go get" poorly placed passes, and Dalton has shown a willingness in August to throw it to him up for grabs. Green is a sneaky candidate to lead the league in targets. The Bengals really have no one else.
22. Antonio Gates (ADP: Late 4th round) -- Fantasy owners should wait until the third round to even begin considering Gates in light of his late fourth-round Average Draft Position, but I'm confident he'll meet expectations and then some. Philip Rivers has lost something off his deep ball, and Gates is still capable of dominating underneath. I expect him to lead San Diego in pass targets, receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns, and to rank third among fantasy tight ends.
23. Hakeem Nicks (ADP: Early 4th round) -- Even after Victor Cruz's breakout year, Nicks is the Giants' best receiver. I think he's a value pick at his current ADP. His spring foot injury no longer an issue, Nicks has resumed practicing in 11-on-11s and will be 100 percent for Week 1.
24. Adrian Peterson (ADP: 13th overall) -- Peterson's recovery has proceeded smoothly by all accounts, but I remain skeptical that he stands any chance of living up to his top-of-round-two Average Draft Position coming off ACL and MCL tears with damage to both meniscuses. He's someone I'd let another owner draft. Peterson isn't going to be a full-time back early in the season even if he's active for games, and the possibility of setbacks remains as he begins to face contact.