In a perfect world, we’d wait until after the third preseason game to draft. Depth charts are finalized, and the injury risk for fantasy-relevant players plunges as they sit out the exhibition finale. Since we do not live in a perfect world, we’ve probably all been drafting for longer than we’d like to admit. (April? May?) So there’s never been a better time to release even more rankings into the world. The question I tried to ask myself was, “would I really take so-and-so over so-and-so?” These ranks are how I’m going to approach my drafts. Without further ado, here are my top 25 players for each main position.
Editor’s Note: Our 2014 online DRAFT GUIDE is now live! Inside you’ll find exclusive columns, rankings, projections, eight different mock drafts and tons more.
1. Peyton Manning
Unless Manning invents a heretofore unseen level of football, the regression is coming. You don’t follow up a 5,477-yard, fifty freaking five touchdown season with an even better campaign … I think. The money people insist it’s not possible. Either way, I’m through doubting Peyton. Whether it’s his neck surgeries or Duck Hunt 2013 Divisional performance, all previous red flags have been red herrings. And besides Manning’s age, 38, there are no red flags heading into 2014. Manning is king of the castle, and he’ll abdicate when he damn well pleases.
2. Drew Brees
My heart says Aaron Rodgers at No. 2. Everything else says Brees. Somehow, someway, Brees has become underrated. I repeat the new iteration of this stat every year, but that’s because it’s never not amazing. There have been eight 5,000-yard campaigns in NFL history. 50 percent of them belong to Brees. Brees has averaged 4,842 yards across his eight years as a New Orleans Saint. That number would rank 12th most all time for a single season. Brees’ floor is literally historic. He’s the safest bet in fantasy football.
3. Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers is the most naturally-gifted quarterback in football. Whereas Manning and Brees bring clinical precision to sports’ most glamorous position, Rodgers brings feel. He makes big plays appear obvious and effortless, and he makes big plays quite often. Last year, his feel got him into trouble. Stepping up in the pocket and rolling out as he tried to extend a play in the red zone, Rodgers got mowed down from behind and crunched from the side, breaking his collarbone. Three years after Rodgers’ freelancing earned him a concussion, the injury had some wondering if he was “injury prone.” He’s not. Rodgers has missed starts with injury only two times in six seasons, and just eight total games. Now 30, maybe he should be more careful when he leaves the pocket, but Rodgers is a durable quarterback. End of story. Sporting a typically strong supporting cast, he’s going to continue to make it rain on opposing defenses.
4. Andrew Luck
Luck has had a career of narratives. First, he was the Chosen One. Next, he was the Overrated One. He’s simply forged ahead not caring, turning in back-to-back 11 win campaigns while taking a big step forward last season despite a questionable supporting cast and even more questionable coaching. Both should be improved in 2014. Reggie Wayne is healthy, T.Y. Hilton is coming off a breakout year and Hakeem Nicks … well, he’s not Darrius Heyward-Bey. Dwayne Allen is back, and third-rounder Donte Moncrief is waiting in the wings. Luck is ready to be unleashed, and the smoke signals out of Indy suggest the coaching staff is begrudgingly ready to oblige. Aggressive “special assistant” Rob Chudzinski will be there to hold OC Pep Hamilton’s hand as he opens up his staid and nonsensical playbook. An improviser in the mold of Rodgers, and a thinker in the mold of Manning, Luck isn’t going to be denied.
5. Matthew Stafford
This isn’t a rank I make with overwhelming confidence. Like many, I’ve been smitten with Stafford’s raw throwing ability since he first set foot on an NFL field. Also like many, I’ve watched helplessly as Stafford’s shoddy mechanics torpedoed not only the Lions’ season, but mine. But it’s not time to throw in the towel on a player who, despite everything, was fantasy’s No. 4 overall quarterback last season. Gone is stale OC Scott Linehan, and in is a trio of new mentors, coach Jim Caldwell, OC Joe Lombardi and QBs coach Jim Bob Cooter. Together, they have set about cleaning up Stafford’s fundamentals. The early results have been promising. A top-flight fantasy quarterback simply by virtue of having Calvin Johnson to throw to, Stafford finally has some other weapons at his disposal, including Golden Tate and rookie TE Eric Ebron. Stafford is never going to be a Sunday afternoon leisure ride, but the bumps and lumps are usually worth it as he stuffs the stat sheet with the best of them.
6. Matt Ryan
With six seasons and 3,288 career passes under his belt, we know who Ryan is. He’s not an elevator, but a conductor. Take away his weapons — like injury did in 2013 — and he’s a glorified game manager. Give him a healthy Julio Jones and Roddy White, however, and he’s a quarterback more than capable of winning games in style. Even were injury to again befall Ryan’s supporting cast, he’s piloting a team with a shaky run game and no defense. In other words, he’s still going to be throwing all day long. In a worst-case scenario, you may have to bench Ryan for 2-3 bad matchups, but he’s someone you should be able to snatch in the middle rounds and leave alone at quarterback without a second thought.
7. Cam Newton
Here’s the deal: Newton has never had a great supporting cast. Yes, on paper, it’s shakier than ever this season, but this has always been a player who’s more or less gone about establishing his dual-threat will all by his lonesome. And when you delve a little deeper, things aren’t as dire as they seem. Kelvin Benjamin appears poised to compete for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, while Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant will at least offer strong hands over the middle. Perennially underrated, TE Greg Olsen is still in his prime. Newton is a threat to get off to a slow start, but as they’ve been every year since Newton broke into the league, the numbers are going to be there at the end.
8. Tony Romo
No one could blame you if you were a bit squeamish about taking a 34-year-old quarterback who’s undergone two back surgeries over the past 15 months. But throw out his collarbone-marred 2010, and Romo has missed only four games with injury since taking over as the Cowboys’ starter in 2006. With his usual bevy of weapons, a pass-happy play caller and a defense that would struggle to stop Baylor, Romo is going to do what he always does: Throw a lot and put up points. His bargain ADP (typically around QB12) is just the icing on the cake.
9. Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick was a false start in 2013. Primed to explode in his first full season as starter, he instead failed to detonate, struggling with his lack of targets while falling behind arch-rival Russell Wilson. It should be a different story in 2014. For all his issues last season, Kaep still had healthy averages across the board, managing 7.69 yards per pass and 5.7 yards per rush. He scored 25 touchdowns while committing only nine turnovers. With Michael Crabtree now healthy and Stevie Johnson in the picture with Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, Kaep has easily his most-talented supporting cast. Chastened by last year’s struggles, and leading a team that’s going to have to open up the offense thanks to absences on defense, Kaep is going to improve on last year’s QB12 finish, and likely in a big way.
10. Tom Brady
For the first time in forever, Brady’s fantasy prospects are a bit of a toss-up. Now 37, his passes have lost some of their zip and accuracy, while the Patriots have been stockpiling run-game weapons. Throwing out Brady’s ACL-ruined 2008, his 2013 YPA slipped below 7.0 for the first time since 2006, while his passing scores (25) were also a seven-year low. But it wasn’t just an excuse: Brady lacked weapons, while many of the ones he did have were raw and inexperienced. There are still question marks with Brady’s supporting cast, but it should be much stabler than it was a season ago. Danny Amendola is healthy. Rob Gronkowski will be soon. Aaron Dobson (foot) has resumed practicing and is ready to build on his strong rookie campaign. Even Brandon LaFell will be an asset one year after the Pats constantly found themselves short at wideout. Brady’s days of weekly air raids are over, but this is still a durable future Hall-of-Famer who passed for 4,343 yards last season, finishing as the QB14 in fantasy. Brady is a veritable lock to rebound to 30 scores, and rejoin roto’s top 10 passers.
11. Jay Cutler — Injury the only concern for a player who’s finally poised to live up to his hype six years after throwing for 4,500 yards with the Broncos.
12. Ben Roethlisberger — Experiencing a nice mid-career renaissance as the Steelers embrace the no-huddle, Big Ben could match last year’s QB8 finish.
13. Russell Wilson — An extremely valuable “real-life” quarterback, Wilson doesn’t appear ready to hit his fantasy stride in the Seahawks’ run-heavy attack.
14. Robert Griffin III — Massive ceiling, terrifying floor.
15. Nick Foles — Far less of a finished product than his absurd 27:2 2013 TD:INT ratio would suggest, Foles has to prove he can counter the league’s offseason adjustments.
16. Philip Rivers — An ideal matchup play who’s embraced “less is more” as a passer.
17. Andy Dalton — Simultaneously overrated and underrated, Dalton should settle into his natural middle ground under sharp OC Hue Jackson.
18. Ryan Tannehill — Needs to fine tune his connection with deep-threat Mike Wallace to ward off Bradford-itis.
19. Carson Palmer — The definition of a matchup play, keep Palmer on your bench against divisional foes.
20. Alex Smith — A flat-out underrated player — by me especially — Smith’s game is not the kind that translates to fantasy on a consistent basis.
21. Eli Manning — It’s hard to tell if Manning’s skill-set or supporting cast is deteriorating at a faster rate, but either way, he’s a tough rebound bet despite the G-Men’s attempts at a Rivers-style reinvention.
22. Johnny Manziel — He’ll be RGIII lite with a hint of Tebow once he inevitably dispatches Brian Hoyer.
23. Joe Flacco — All the excitement of a used, mid-size sedan.
24. Josh McCown — Believe the repeat when you see it.
25. Sam Bradford — Little upside even as a matchup play thanks to brutal division.
1. LeSean McCoy
McCoy and Jamaal Charles are the two most dangerous backs in the NFL right now. There’s not a right or wrong answer at No. 1 overall. But running behind an elite offensive line for perhaps the league’s most run-minded coach, McCoy and his Sanders-lite cuts get the nod over Charles. Still somehow only 26 years old, McCoy has dropped a few pounds off his 2013 weight, and looked even more explosive in camp, where he’s been catching an “absurd” amount of passes. Gunning for 2,000 yards, someone has to be No. 1. McCoy is my pick.
2. Jamaal Charles
Like Manning, Charles is unlikely to repeat last season’s all-purpose bonanza, but he should come damn close to equaling it, particularly if he doesn’t get rested for Week 17. Still in the thick of his prime at age 27, Charles remains the centerpiece of the Chiefs’ offense, and a mega-threat in all phases of the game. The world’s greatest consolation prize if McCoy goes No. 1 in your league.
3. Adrian Peterson
There’s an argument to be made for Matt Forte over Peterson, but what would you rather bet on: Forte repeating his all-world 2013, or Peterson “bouncing back” from his “disappointing” campaign? Forte is going to be good, but Peterson has always been great. Now he’s playing for OC Norval Turner, a play-caller who’s overseen three separate rushing champions in Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson. Despite missing two games in last year’s “down” season, AD was still fifth in rushing yards (1,266), fourth in scores (10) and second in yards per game (90.4). Maybe Forte has the edge in PPR formats, but it’s still not time to bet against this generation’s best runner.
4. Matt Forte
McCoy, Charles and Peterson are the “Big Three” in the minds of most fantasy owners, but if anyone can crash the party, it’s Forte. No running back played more snaps (940) last season, while only two caught more passes (74). Forte’s 1,339 rushing yards were a new career best. He put to rest the durability concerns that began creeping in over 2011-12, and is simply a match made in heaven with coach Marc Trestman. Long a safe and boring fantasy pick, Forte is now just the former.
5. Eddie Lacy
Want a dark horse for No. 1 overall status? Lacy is your man. A three-down back who touched the ball on 319 of his 689 snaps last season, Lacy could easily lead the league in carries and rushing scores, and should ease by last year’s 35 receptions. If you get Lacy anywhere after No. 5 overall, it’s a steal.
6. DeMarco Murray
Murray is where things start to get tricky. Few NFL players are better when they take the field, but Murray’s injury issues are well documented. He’s missed at least two games in each of his three NFL seasons, and averaged 3.6 absences. When he has suited up, Murray has managed 4.9 yards per carry. He averaged 19.2 touches per game in 2013, and 105.1 yards from scrimmage. Elite stuff. He’s a classic risk-reward proposition. Is Murray more likely to make or break your season as an RB1? Only you can decide. Considering the drop off behind him, I’d take the plunge.
7. Marshawn Lynch
You could maybe argue for Lynch to be higher. You could definitely argue for him to be lower. As a back who’s still clearly going to be the foundation of Seattle’s offense, I’ll just leave him where he is. Concerns about the uber-talented Christine Michael stealing work are somewhat valid, but would the Seahawks have given Lynch a $1.5 million raise if they weren’t planning on using him in much the same way they have since 2011? Almost certainly not. Lynch has peaked, and is likely heading into the final year of his prime. But he’s still a workhorse in a game that thrives on them, and shouldn’t fall to the land of the RB2s.
8. Giovani Bernard
Nos. 8 and 9 come down to Bernard’s upside and Montee Ball’s role. I’ll gamble on the former. Instead of worrying about Jeremy Hill, maybe focus on your own shadow. You may forget that Bernard sniped BenJarvus Green-Ellis for touchdowns from inside the 10-yard line four times in 2013. He was fantasy’s No. 16 back despite touching the ball only 226 times. The Bengals have hinted that number will grow to at least 260 this season, and perhaps 300. Bernard is no longer a change-of-pace rookie for pass-first Jay Gruden. He’s the No. 1 back for run-minded Hue Jackson. Be not afraid.
9. Montee Ball
All you really need to know about the No. 1 running back in a Peyton Manning-led offense is that Knowshon Moreno was fantasy’s No. 5 runner last season. Knowshon Freakin’ Moreno. Then you need to know that Ball is better. Ball showed better than you may have guessed as a rookie, averaging 4.7 yards on his 120 carries, and catching 20 passes despite playing only 314 snaps. The Broncos saw enough to not only let Moreno walk, but decline to add competition in the draft and free agency. And before you bring up Ball’s emergency appendectomy, you could argue it’s more of a relief than a concern. Now he’ll be spared from an unnecessary August pounding. I’ll roll with Bernard’s upside, but Ball is the safer bet.
10. Zac Stacy
Instead of poking holes in Stacy’s résumé — he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry as a rookie, his 2013 workload isn’t repeatable, the Rams talked up Tre Mason in the offseason, etc. etc. etc. — maybe focus on the obvious instead of fixating on the possible: He’s a foundation back for a run-first offense. Stacy enters the season with miles of rope after almost singlehandedly making the Rams’ offense watchable in the absence of Sam Bradford last season. He’ll be a work-horse, one who monopolizes goal-line touches. Stop overthinking things.
11. Andre Ellington — Owner of almost unfathomable upside, but an injury risk until proven otherwise.
12. Le’Veon Bell — A poor man’s early-career Matt Forte, Bell has to worry about LeGarrette Blount crashing his goal-line party.
13. Doug Martin — Martin has more to prove than almost anybody, but is unlikely to get a chance to do so on third down, cutting into his upside.
14. Alfred Morris — Probably being underrated, but the departure of Mike Shanahan and the ZBS scheme he handpicked Morris for is a legitimate concern.
15. Arian Foster — Despite mouth-watering role, Foster is simply growing too brittle to trust.
16. Frank Gore — Obviously on the decline, but Gore is hard to kill, at least in September and October.
17. Toby Gerhart — Limited track record and propensity for nicks and bruises makes him hard to trust, but Gerhart is being groomed as a true three-down back.
18. Ryan Mathews — Essentially out of the picture on passing downs, Mathews needs to stay healthy for 16 games to repeat last year’s RB12 finish.
19. C.J. Spiller — Highwire act who could still explode for top-five season.
20. Joique Bell — RB2 who will hit and miss.
21. Shane Vereen — Value pick with little downside at current ADP of RB24.
22. Lamar Miller — Post-hype sleeper who was better than numbers indicated last season.
23. Ben Tate — RB2 for as long as he can outrun harrowing injury history.
24. Bishop Sankey — Rookie backs are perennial disappointments, but Sankey’s role makes him a legit RB2.
25. Reggie Bush — Easy to be pessimistic about, but guy you’ll be glad to have most weeks.
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