This is the first portion of my two-part Fantasy Football Rankings series for the month of July. During training camp, I'll put out regular Top 150s that react to injury information and significant depth chart movement. For now, the rankings are most influenced by talent and positional value. If you've read my rankings before, you know I bump down quarterbacks because they play the most replaceable position in fantasy. I place special value on non-quarterbacks I believe will be week-to-week difference makers in head-to-head fantasy matchups.
I designate "rounds" in groups of twelve to provide a general idea of where I believe players should begin to be considered for selection in a standard 12-team draft. Although these rankings are primarily geared toward non-PPR drafting, you will find frequent references in the writeups to players who should be bumped up or down in PPR drafts.
I'll release players ranked 101-200 early next week.
1. LeSean McCoy -- Chip Kelly's 2013 Eagles ranked fourth in the league in rushing attempts on a team that finished 13th in offensive plays per game. Kelly's offseason focus has been on increasing tempo, firing off more plays, and in turn more rushing volume. I essentially consider McCoy, Adrian Peterson, and Jamaal Charles interchangeable atop fantasy drafts, but lean in Shady's direction based on a combination of youth (26 years old), versatility, and overall offensive effectiveness. Among those three backs, I see McCoy as the best bet to avoid significant drop off.
2. Jamaal Charles -- Charles is 27, statistically speaking the peak age for NFL running backs. Charles has fewer career carries (1,043) than both Peterson (2,033) and McCoy (1,149), and plays on a running back-centric team where alternative weapons aren't a concern. Andy Reid's 2013 offense was the only in football whose tailback led the team in every receiving category. Kansas City did lose three key offensive linemen in free agency, and some regression can be expected off of Charles' career-best year. Charles drafters should handcuff him with Knile Davis.
3. Adrian Peterson -- Peterson presents the most risk among fantasy's top backs at age 29 on a team already considering life post-A.D., using a third-round pick on measurables freak Jerick McKinnon. But Peterson remains the best pure runner in football on a Norv Turner team that will stay committed to its run game, either to mask Matt Cassel's flaws or break in rookie Teddy Bridgewater. Even if his skills have begun to erode, Peterson can compensate with volume. In fantasy points per game, Peterson has never ranked worse than sixth among running backs.
4. Matt Forte -- Forte shouldn't be entirely left out of the top-three discussion, although he turns 29 late in the season and isn't quite on McCoy, Peterson, or Charles' level in terms of sheer running ability. He certainly could wind up a top-three PPR scorer as a versatile, slashing bellcow whom coach Marc Trestman fed the third most carries and second most targets among running backs last year. Forte is a "safe" top-five pick who's lasted 16 games in four of his six NFL seasons.
5. Eddie Lacy -- With Aaron Rodgers healthy, the Packers theoretically won't have to lean on Lacy as heavily as they did in his rookie year. "FatEd" put Green Bay's offense on his back during Rodgers' seven missed games. The Packers didn't forget about him with Rodgers in the lineup, however, letting Lacy touch the rock an average of 25.6 times over Rodgers' final full six games. Even if Lacy's 284 regular season carries suffer regression, he has room to grow in YPC average (4.15) and receptions (35). In such a high-powered offense, Lacy should also improve on his 11 touchdowns. He's a 24-year-old three-down back on a team that will often be in scoring position.
6. Jimmy Graham -- Fantasy football's premier difference maker regardless of position, 27-year-old Graham leads the NFL in touchdown catches (36) over the past three seasons despite playing about half of those games at less than 100 percent. Graham is healthy now and should be well rested after "holding out" of OTAs and minicamp. Let's say you were facing a fantasy leaguer starting Martellus Bennett last year, while you trotted out Graham. On a per-game average, you would've been starting your head-to-head fantasy matchup with a seven-point edge. A top-ten fantasy tight end, Bennett averaged 6.6 fantasy points per game. Jimmy averaged 13.6.
7. Calvin Johnson -- Although we can't expect new OC Joe Lombardi to mimic outgoing playcaller Scott Linehan's pass-obsessed ways, Lombardi does hail from pass-heavy New Orleans, and isn't taking the air out of the ball. Look for Lombardi to continue to funnel offense through the league's top receiver, and increase Megatron's usage in the slot, creating matchup problems. Golden Tate and Eric Ebron's presences should help increase Calvin's efficiency, and Lombardi's quarterback coaching history should make Matthew Stafford better. I'm not shying from Megatron as the WR1.
8. Dez Bryant -- Scott Linehan coached Randy Moss in Minnesota, Torry Holt in St. Louis, Calvin Johnson in Detroit, and now gets Dez Bryant. In a contract year at the prime age of 25, no less. Whereas Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan's Cowboys offense frequently struggled to prevent defensive coverage from making Bryant disappear in 2013 games, Linehan knows how to free up and feed No. 1 wideouts. Over the last half-decade, Linehan's Lions offenses finished sixth, third, first, first, and fifth in the NFL in pass attempts. Combine a pass-heavy offensive scheme with arguably the NFL's least-talented defense, and the pass catchers on that team should eat.
9. Demaryius Thomas -- I would have no problem with a fantasy prognosticator slotting Dez or Demaryius as this year's top wideout, ahead of Megatron. I believe it's a three-horse race. Still ascending at age 26, Thomas is the most talented wide receiver with whom Peyton Manning has ever played, and could see his touchdown total rise for a fifth consecutive season post-Eric Decker. Thomas is a dominant run-after-catch wideout with deep speed and red-zone chops. His quarterback is the best in the game. I'm not betting against Thomas leading the NFL in receiving.
10. Julio Jones -- You probably know the stat by now: Jones shredded the NFL before last year's Week 5 foot fracture with a statistical pace of 131 catches and 1,856 yards through five games. Now officially recurring -- he broke the same foot before the 2011 Combine -- the injury is Julio's lone cause for 2014 concern. He's a complete receiver at age 25, in a pass-first offense with a franchise quarterback on a team that plays in a dome with a suspect defense. Tony Gonzalez's retirement frees up 120 targets. Jones' ceiling is similar to Calvin, Dez, and Demaryius. His floor isn't as high.
11. A.J. Green -- Green finished fourth and fourth in wideout scoring during his final two seasons with ex-OC Jay Gruden. The 2014 Bengals' offense will offer less aerial volume after ranking 12th in pass attempts last year, but new OC Hue Jackson is a reliable talent identifier and maximizer, and will continue to pepper Green with targets as the focal point of his passing attack. Expect decreased roles for Jermaine Gresham and Mohamed Sanu, while Green's stays steady. Green is a durable, reliably elite WR1, even if he lacks the upside of Calvin, Demaryius, Dez, and Julio.
12. DeMarco Murray -- Moe Williams caught 65 passes as Scott Linehan's lead back on the 2003 Vikings. Steven Jackson caught 90 for Linehan's 2006 Rams. On Linehan's watch, Jahvid Best hauled in 58 passes for the 2010 Lions. Joique Bell caught 105 balls under Linehan over the past two seasons. Reggie Bush had 54 in 14 games last year. I'm cherrypicking, admittedly, but the point is Linehan likes to involve running backs in his passing offense. The pass game is arguably Murray's greatest strength. If Murray stays healthy -- a feat he accomplished for the most part last year -- I think he's a lock to finish as a top-eight standard-scoring back, and will have a chance to be the PPR RB1.
13. Rob Gronkowski -- In Gronk's six full games played last season, his 16-week pace was 99-1,494-11. He's rehabbing a double-knee-ligament tear, but is healthier than he was last offseason, when infections in his surgically repaired forearm continually set back his recovery. At age 25, Gronk is arguably the most dominant skill-position player in football whenever on the field. Perhaps we should project him to miss time, but he'll be a fantasy week winner when he plays. Gronkowski could miss 3-4 games and I still think he'd be worth selecting with a top-15 pick.
14. Jordy Nelson -- Nelson's 2013 nine-game splits with Aaron Rodgers put him on pace for 140 targets, 94 catches, 1,559 yards, and 12 touchdowns, which would've ranked 14th, seventh, second, and third among NFL wide receivers. Keep in mind some of those games were played without Randall Cobb, but this year Green Bay is losing the "move" tight end wrinkle from its offense, creating more opportunity for wideouts. Nelson is 29 and in a contract year, and should gobble up most of the red-zone looks James Jones and Jermichael Finley left behind.
15. Marshawn Lynch -- The Seahawks have downplayed the RBBC hinted at by OC Darrell Bevell during OTAs, but red flags remain on Lynch's 2014 outlook. Christine Michael is too talented to stay plastered to the bench, and Lynch is a volume-dependent fantasy commodity who isn't fed generously in the passing game, and has reached 4.3 YPC in just one of his seven NFL seasons. Playoffs included, 28-year-old Lynch has a league-high 1,002 rushing attempts on his tires over the past three years. His production will take a sizable hit should Michael steal 50 or so carries.
16. Montee Ball -- Knowshon Moreno faced six or fewer defenders "in the box" on 80% of his 2013 runs, parlaying them into a top-five fantasy back finish despite inferior running ability to Ball. Although Ball isn't as adept in the passing game, he could easily surpass Knowshon's 241 carries. The perceived risk with Ball is the unknown; he isn't "proven" as a 16-game feature back. (Neither was Moreno before last year, of course.) Ball's 2013 YPC of 4.66 bested Eddie Lacy (4.15), Giovani Bernard (4.09), Zac Stacy (3.89), and Le'Veon Bell (3.52). He's ready to take the reins.
17. Le'Veon Bell -- I didn't like Bell on college tape, but I understand his real-life NFL value much better after one year. He's big enough to block edge rushers in pass protection. He's an excellent receiver. Bell's YPC average may never be prolific, but he's a chain-moving offense sustainer and excels in short-yardage situations. For the first time in a long time, Pittsburgh has continuity on the offensive line, and a running back capable of handling heavy workloads. LeGarrette Blount is only expected to see 5-8 carries per game. Still only 22 years old, the arrow is pointing up on Le'Veon.
18. Arian Foster -- Prior to his year-ending back injury, Foster's 16-game pace through six weeks was 1,904 total yards with 59 receptions and a 4.54 YPC average -- his best per-carry clip since 2010. Even if Foster's health has become increasingly shaky going on age 28, there's plenty of juice left in his legs, and new coach Bill O'Brien promises to feature Foster in the passing game. Due to QB woes, Foster will be the centerpiece of O'Brien's offense. Foster's injury risk is the only reason he isn't a projected fantasy first-rounder. I think he's a value pick anywhere in round two.
19. Julius Thomas -- Tight end isn't deep. It's the thinnest, top-heaviest, and ultimately weakest position in fantasy, with Graham, Orange Julius, and Rob Gronkowski clearly atop the mountain, and a potentially significant drop off thereafter. With Eric Decker's 136 targets and 11 TD catches removed from Denver's offense, 26-year-old Julius has room to grow all across the stat sheet. With his opportunity on the rise, I see Thomas as a 15-touchdown candidate in his contract year.
20. Brandon Marshall -- In Marshall's four seasons with Jay Cutler at quarterback, he's finished ninth, 11th, second, and fifth in wideout points. Even if the upside becomes more limited as Alshon Jeffery ascends, Marshall is a durable, high-floor WR1 still squarely in his prime at age 30. Expect Marshall to continue to lead Chicago in targets and catches, but begin ceding touchdowns to athletically gifted Jeffery. I don't think Marshall is a great bet to score 10-plus TDs again.
21. Keenan Allen -- As a 21-year-old rookie, Allen didn't begin playing regularly until Week 3. His season took off in Week 4, and over the ensuing 15 weeks -- including playoffs -- Allen posted a combined 76-1,179-10 receiving line, which would've placed him 12th among fantasy wideouts in per-game scoring. Allen is in obvious ascent, and he's now established as Philip Rivers' clear-cut No. 1 target. He'd offer legitimate first-round scoring upside if the Chargers threw the ball more. As is, I still think Allen will dominate targets and be a sneaky candidate for 100 receptions.
22. Alshon Jeffery -- Despite the narrative that Jay Cutler clearly "prefers" throwing to Marshall, Marshall averaged just over 10 targets per game last year regardless of his starting quarterback. It was Jeffery's targets that dipped, going from nine per game with Cutler to just over ten with Josh McCown. The Bears threw more in McCown's starts, of course, which impacts targets. Jeffery may have a hard time repeating last year's 1,421 receiving yards, but has lots of room for growth in the TD column (7). At 6-foot-3, 216 with long arms (33") and huge hands (10 1/4"), Jeffery is going to be a double-digit touchdown scorer. He turned 24 this offseason.
23. Randall Cobb -- It's just a three-game sample, but notable nonetheless: Cobb's Weeks 1-3 box scores with a healthy Aaron Rodgers put him on pace for 112 catches, 1,547 yards, and 11 touchdowns. This was after Rodgers spent the 2013 offseason predicting 100 receptions for Cobb. A versatile, high-volume weapon in an elite offense entering a contract season at age 24, Cobb should be a PPR owner's dream while flirting with WR1 production in standard leagues.
24. Peyton Manning -- The question isn't whether 38-year-old Manning will statistically regress, it's to what extent. Emmanuel Sanders is a downgrade from Eric Decker, and Denver's strength of schedule goes from the NFL's easiest in 2013 to a slate projected as second toughest, including the NFC West. Peyton remains my overall QB1, but Rodgers and Brees aren't far behind, if we're drafting with projection in mind rather than last year's stats. Now that the Broncos have a true feature-runner type in Montee Ball, after parting with spread-type back Knowshon Moreno, I also think it's conceivable Peyton loses pass attempts while OC Adam Gase dials up more runs.