Training camp is in full swing, but that doesn’t mean draft season should be. Jeremy Maclin and Dennis Pitta have already served as hard-luck reminders of how unpredictable this time of year can be. But while injury and preseason performances are shaking up the bottom of Rotoworld’s rankings, the top should remain largely unchanged between now and Week 1. Without further ado, here’s my stab at my 10 favorite players at the four main fantasy positions. Come for the Doug Martin at No. 2 running back, stay for the Jordan Cameron at No. 10 tight end.
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1. Drew Brees, Saints — He’s the Atomic Clock of quarterbacks. Brees’ worst season the past five years? He threw for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns. His five-year averages (4,946 yards, 38 touchdowns) are mindblowing. 50 percent of the 5,000-yard campaigns in NFL history belong to Brees. At a position that’s been redefined the past 10 years, Brees has set the standard — a standard you can set your watch to.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers — Look around, and you’ll generally find Rodgers atop fantasy quarterback rankings. It’s understandable. He’s a prolific, Super Bowl winning, MVP quarterback. But for fantasy purposes? He’s been consistently outplayed by Brees, finishing second to Brees’ first each of the past two years, and three of the past five. On the honest to goodness gridiron, Rodgers is the (slightly) better quarterback. He averages more yards per attempt, and turns the ball over far less. But for bulk fantasy goodness? He’s a cut below Brees. That’s not a slight, just the truth.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots — It’s hard to predict what form the Patriots offense might take this season. One thing we do know? Brady will be good. Like Hall-of-Fame good. Like he always is. The cast of characters may be different, but the trains will still run on time. Brady’s not just a surgeon, he’s the surgeon general. Is it possible he won’t approach the 5,031 yards he’s averaged the past two seasons? Quite. Is he still a safer bet than the series of question marks that follow behind him in these rankings? Absolutely.
4. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers — You already know the questions. How will Kaepernick fare without Michael Crabtree? How will he adjust to a league that’s had a whole offseason to adjust to him? Here’s an answer: Kaepernick’s freakish, almost supernatural ability on the football field. This is a player with once-in-a-generation type talent. He’s an ostrich with a howitzer. A wrecking ball with the touch of a feather. Don’t overthink it. Instead, think back to what you saw Kaepernick do on the football field last season. Odds are, they were things you had never seen before.
5. Cam Newton, Panthers — If Newton is nearly Kaepernick’s equal in talent, he’s a notch below in the things he can’t control. Kaepernick is playing for perhaps the league’s best coaching staff, while Newton is playing for the fourth best in his division. And even without Crabtree, CK has a superior supporting cast. These are two very similar players with very different circumstances. Let that be your tie breaker when deciding between these gifted dual-threat quarterbacks.
6. Matt Ryan, Falcons — Ryan is a boring guy. He’d probably tell you that himself. But even boring guys can beat you over the head sometimes. Take, for instance, this stat (courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info): Of Ryan’s 615 pass attempts last season, 40.2 percent resulted in a first down or touchdown. Only Tom Brady was as proficient at moving the chains and finding the end zone. Ryan doesn’t light up the sky with deep ball after deep ball, or slash and burn the middle of the field until all that’s left are the smoking embers of opposing linebackers. He just gets the job done, racking up 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns in the process. He’s as safe a pick as there is in fantasy football.
7. Peyton Manning, Broncos — Manning has three elite receivers — almost one for every neck surgery. Therein lies the yin and the yang of Manning’s 2013. One of the best players in league history has never had a better supporting cast. He’s also 37, playing behind a beat up offensive line and was throwing ducks when last we saw him. No player is risk free in a league where 320-pound linemen with 4.50 speed can cannonball into you at any given moment. But at such a deep position, Manning’s neck is at least something to think about. Odds are you will, decide it’s worth the risk and reap the benefits.
8. Matthew Stafford, Lions — As you may have heard, things didn’t go as planned for Stafford last season. Whether you want to blame his sloppy mechanics, his sidearm obsession or plain bad luck, he took a step back from his revelatory 2011. But that’s focusing on the negative. How about the positive? Take, for instance, his connection with Calvin Johnson. It was only the most prolific WR/QB combination of all time. Or the fact that he, you know, came within 33 yards of 5,000 even though his would-be No. 2 receiver violated the Espionage Act. For all the hand wringing, Stafford still finished No. 10 overall in fantasy quarterback points. Stafford is only nine months older than Russell Wilson. He’s made just three more career starts than Sam Bradford. Instead of focusing on what went wrong last season, step back and consider everything that almost went right. No. 8 is a conservative estimate for a quarterback with perhaps the most arm talent in the league, and its No. 1 overall receiver.
9. Russell Wilson, Seahawks — A stick of human dynamite disguised as a quarterback, Wilson is as exciting of a player as there is in football. But where Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick both have superhuman size and strength to fall back on, Wilson is a pinball in a league full of bowling balls. His margin for error is smaller than his read-option compatriots’, while his offense is perhaps the most run heavy. There’s so much to like here, but be careful not to overpay for last year’s hot finish.
10. Tony Romo, Cowboys — Romo’s 2012 ended like all of Romo’s seasons do: In utter despair, with the Cowboys headed for the golf course instead of the playoffs. But just as Romo’s devastating, comical season-ending interceptions have become ritual, so have his elite fantasy campaigns. Save for his collarbone-marred 2010, Romo has been a Top 10 fantasy gunslinger every year since 2007. Still only 33, Romo’s 4,903 yards last season were a new career high by 420 (Full disclosure: So were his 19 picks). Yes, Romo will get into some Scooby Doo-style misadventures along the way, but few quarterbacks are more proven when it comes to bringing home the fantasy bacon on a yearly basis.
Just Missed: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Jay Cutler.
1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings — This doesn’t require any explanation, but here it is anyway. In a league of commuter trains, Peterson has always been a speeding bullet. But in 2012? He went full hyperloop. Peterson ripped off 27 runs of 20 yards or longer. That was 15 more than anyone else. After being eased into action — remember, this was a man who blew out his knee in December 2011 — he averaged 23 carries for 152 yards over his final 11 contests. Now he’s gunning for 2,500 yards. Will he get there? He probably won’t even come close. But if football is the world’s most dangerous game, there’s no longer any question that Peterson is its most indestructible force.
2. Doug Martin, Bucs — More heralded rookie Trent Richardson entered the year as the No. 3 pick. Martin ended it No. 3 in yards from scrimmage, with 1,926. That total was third all time for a rookie. Along the way he finished second in yards after contact, third in fantasy points and first in awesome nicknames. Again, Martin did this as a 23-year-old rookie in an offense that finished 14th in pass attempts. Big things are coming.
3. C.J. Spiller, Bills — Former Bills coach Chan Gailey was afraid Spiller would get winded if he gave him the ball too many times. New OC Nathaniel Hackett? He plans to feed Spiller until he “throws up.” Advantage: Fantasy owners. Yes, there are questions about Spiller’s durability. No, it’s not something that should really concern you when you’re getting a player who averaged 6.0 yards per carry and 6.8 yards per touch. Leave with this nugget, ripped from the Rotoworld Draft Guide: Spiller’s 1,703 yards from scrimmage was fifth amongst running backs. That’s despite the fact he touched the ball just 250 times — 103.5 fewer times than the four players ahead of him averaged.
4. Arian Foster, Texans — The questions about Foster’s mileage and offensive line are legitimate — but so are the stats. Foster’s 15 rushing touchdowns led the league in 2012. He’s averaged 1,901 yards from the scrimmage the past three seasons, and 15.6 total scores. Is that really something you want to bet against? The injury risk is high with every running back. It’s worth gambling that Foster has one more elite campaign left in his 27-year-old legs.
5. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs — There are some weird predictions coming out of Kansas City. Namely, Charles may rush less so Alex Smith can throw more. That’s a terrible idea, even if Smith is throwing to Charles. Nevertheless, even if Andy Reid has designs on cooking up his typically frustrating running back stew, Charles’ talent is simply too special to let slide any further. He’s going to average more than five yards per carry. He’s going to catch 50 passes. He’s probably going to score a lot more than six total touchdowns. Will there be some invisible weeks? Yes. Will there be many more elite ones? You know it.
6. Ray Rice, Ravens — Has Rice peaked? It’s possible. His yards per carry slumped to 4.4 last season, while his 61 catches were his fewest since his rookie year, as was his 1,621 yards from scrimmage. He couldn’t stop fumbling in the playoffs, while Bernard Pierce couldn’t stop shining. But in a post Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin world in Baltimore, it’s not going to matter. The Ravens need Rice, even if they’re ready to pump up Pierce. One of the most durable backs in the league, he’s going to deliver.
7. LeSean McCoy, Eagles — Something you might not know: McCoy is younger than C.J. Spiller. He’s just six months older than Doug Martin. In other words, he’s got a lot of good football left. Throw out Shady’s injury-marred 2012. Every NFL running back is bound to have a lost season at some point. It’s the nature of the world’s most physical game. McCoy will be the heartbeat of what should likely be the league’s run-heaviest offense. Chip Kelly handed the ball off to his running backs an average of 39.2 times per game last season. Andy Reid? 20.2. McCoy is one of the league’s truly special talents. Expect him to rebound like it.
8. Alfred Morris, Redskins — It was the ancient Greeks who once said, “never trust a Mike Shanahan running back.” For thousands of years, that axiom rang true. Alas, the circle has been unbroken. Morris is Shanahan’s running back, and more importantly for fantasy purposes, he is one of the league’s premier pure runners. It’s a bit of a miracle considering Morris’ lack of speed, but his elite feet and vision are a match made in heaven with Shanahan’s zone-blocking attack. Morris is not a complete back, as he offers nothing as a receiver. But between the tackles, he’s as good as it gets, and one of the league’s safer RB1s.
9. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks — This seems low for Lynch. The best explanation? Someone is always going to seem too low when you’re ranking the league’s best players. Not that there aren’t concerns with Lynch. He’s taken a massive beating the past two seasons, racking up a ton of miles while missing his fair share of practice time. He’s really only been good for one and a half seasons. His backups? They’re among the most talented in the league. His quarterback? Ascendant. But all of that is nit picking. Lynch is an angry, touchdown-scoring force for an offense that defines smash mouth. The odds Lynch disappoints are low.
10. Trent Richardson, Browns — This one I struggled with. Richardson’s role — every-down back for an offensive coordinator who loves every-down backs — is such that he can’t possibly be ranked any lower. But his durability is a legitimate question mark. Richardson has lived nary a healthy day as an NFL running back. Since hearing his name called in April 2012, Richardson has undergone knee surgery, broken his ribs and suffered a high-ankle sprain. He missed the entire offseason program with a mysterious shin injury, one he aggravated early in camp. He’s never played a down of preseason football. Richardson has proven he can play through injury, but has yet to prove he can be better than replacement-level while doing so. Richardson’s upside is immense, but until we see him get healthy and stay healthy, it’s hard to classify drafting him as anything other than a leap of faith.
Just Missed: Chris Johnson, Stevan Ridley, Frank Gore, Matt Forte and Reggie Bush.