6. Aaron Rodgers
, QB, Packers - If Brady’s 2007 season isn’t statistically the best ever by a quarterback, it’s because Rogers was even more lethal on a per-play basis a year ago. Brady and Peyton Manning
were unable to repeat their outlier seasons, but they weren’t blessed with as many talented young offensive weapons entering the prime of their careers. Not to be overlooked is Rodgers’ scrambling ability, good for an extra 40-50 fantasy points.
7. Arian Foster
, RB, Texans - Can Foster really go up from here? He’s one of just five tailbacks in history with back-to-back seasons of 1,000 yards rushing and 600 yards receiving. He’s also finished first in fantasy points per game in consecutive seasons. Even with a new right side of the offensive line, Foster has one of the highest floors in fantasy. We may have already witnessed his ceiling, however.
8. Julio Jones
, WR, Falcons - Jones tops the list of impressive players witnessed by CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco in his extensive training camp tour. “If he doesn’t catch 85 passes for 1,500 yards, I will be shocked,” writes Prisco
. I feel the same way. Julio is a mirror image of a young Terrell Owens
, without the accompanying drama.
9. Cam Newton
, QB, Panthers - Even if we expect improvement as a passer this season, it’s quite possible that Newton hit his fantasy ceiling as a rookie. In addition to shattering the rushing touchdowns record, Newton became the first quarterback in history to pass for 4,000+ yards and rush for 500+ yards. He’s not going to start this season with back-to-back 400-yard games.
10. Drew Brees
, QB, Saints - If you believe in bad voodoo, the Saints certainly seem cursed in 2012. Brees may be without offensive mastermind Sean Payton this year, but he averaged 438 passing yards in the final three games of last season with OC Pete Carmichael Jr. calling the shots. Jimmy Graham
and Darren Sproles
are arguably the most unguardable players at their respective positions and old reliable Marques Colston
still sports one of the game’s most impressive catch radii.
11. Rob Gronkowski
, TE, Patriots - As I alluded to in the Tom Brady
comments, Gronk has bypassed Hall of Famer Mike Ditka for the best tight-end start in NFL history. In the first 34 games of Gronkowski’s career (including the playoffs), he piled up 31 touchdowns. He’s the league’s premier red-zone weapon.
12. Matthew Stafford
, QB, Lions - Finally over a November finger injury on his throwing hand, Stafford closed out the season with a per-game average of 416 yards and 3.75 touchdowns over the final month. Those numbers are so funny they hardly seem believable.
13. LeSean McCoy
, RB, Eagles - Shady has emerged as perhaps the best all-around talent at his position, but he’s not going to repeat last year’s franchise record-breaking total of 20 touchdowns.
14. Ryan Mathews
, RB, Chargers - The most efficient per-play starting running back in the NFL last season, Mathews’ counting stats are set to spike with Mike Tolbert
out of the picture. Coach Norv Turner spent the offseason dropping hints that Mathews would break out behind the league’s heaviest workload. Remember: Turner’s primary back finished in the top-five in touches 11 times from 1991-2008.
15. DeMarco Murray
, RB, Cowboys - Offensive line and injury questions aside, we caught a glimpse of Murray’s potential with a seven-game average of 136.1 scrimmage yards at nearly six yards per rush before a fractured right ankle ended his season in Week 14.
16. Jimmy Graham
, TE, Saints - Why send a skinny slot receiver over the middle to get pulverized when Graham can’t be guarded by a linebacker or a safety? Although the college hoopster still has room to grow, Gronkowski has a decisive 31-19 touchdown advantage through two seasons.
17. Ray Rice
, RB, Ravens - Including the playoffs, Rice has averaged 400+ touches over the past three seasons. Those numbers aren’t going to go up as the Ravens put more responsibilities in Joe Flacco
’s hands via the no-huddle attack.
18. Adrian Peterson
, RB, Vikings - Who am I to doubt this athletic freak?
19. Percy Harvin
, WR, Vikings - From Week 7 -- when Christian Ponder
took over as the starter -- to the end of the season, Harvin racked up 100 touches. The next closest receiver didn’t even top 75 over that span. Harvin finished as the No. 7 fantasy receiver even though his coordinator didn’t figure out how to use him until November. Over the final eight games, Harvin averaged 103.3 scrimmage yards and a touchdown on 11.3 touches per week.
20. Dez Bryant
, WR, Cowboys - Barring debilitating injury or harebrained arrest, Bryant is a lock for a breakout season. He’s a darkhorse candidate to overtake Calvin Johnson
for the most touchdowns among wideouts.
21. Steve Smith
, WR, Panthers - Why? Because “89 ... bottom line
22. Andre Johnson
, WR, Texans - Johnson isn’t going to pace the NFL in receiving yards per game as he did in three of four seasons from 2007-2010. The Texans are now a run-oriented offense.
23. Larry Fitzgerald
, WR, Cardinals - Give him back Kurt Warner
and I wouldn’t rule out a run at a 2,000-yard season. As it now, though, Fitz’s upside is handicapped by the league’s worst offensive and quarterback situations.
24. Marshawn Lynch
, RB, Seahawks - Lynch isn’t heavily involved in the passing game, and his monster nine-game stretch to close out last season was volume-driven and unrepeatable.
25. Doug Martin
, RB, Buccaneers - After decisively outplaying LeGarrette Blount
, Martin is poised to enter the season as an every-down back in Greg Schiano’s run-heavy offense.