If there's one thing you can count on from NFL analysts, it's this: Every year, we declare that there's never been a season like the current one. So loaded with surprises. So full of unimaginable events. Who could have predicted any of this? No one.
Of course this is the stance most of us have to take, because it's our job to predict things, and the NFL remains stubbornly unpredictable. The only thing truly consistent about the modern league, year to year, is its tendency to shock us. (Well, that and the Patriots. But they were clearly sent by Skynet).
Today, our mission is to discuss the biggest breakout stars and surprises of 2012 (five of each), with a few thoughts on their fantasy value next season — although you can obviously disregard anything we say about 2013, which will no doubt be the most ridiculously surprising year in league history. Just like every other year.
We begin with a player who didn't enter the season on anyone's sleeper list, because he wasn't even on an NFL roster...
Danario Alexander, WR, San Diego — Alexander was released by the Rams in August, signed by the Chargers in mid-October, and he's been a top-three fantasy receiver since mid-November.
Yup, top-three. Alexander ranks behind only Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant among all fantasy scorers at his position over the past five weeks. During that stretch, he's delivered 30 catches, 494 yards and five scores, carrying thousands of his owners into the playoffs. DX just torched Pittsburgh, the league's top-ranked pass defense, for 88 yards and two TDs, so we essentially have to regard him as matchup-proof. At 6-foot-5 and 217 pounds, Alexander is a nightmare assignment in single coverage. (Just look at that image above. Good luck, 5-foot-9 defensive backs. Smile for the camera).
So why was he kicked to the curb by St. Louis, just three-and-a-half months ago? Well, Alexander has a deep, complicated medical history, full of knee trouble. He also missed much of camp this year with hamstring issues. No one should be stunned if another injury red flag pops up. Until that time, however, we need to regard Alexander as nothing less than a WR1 for fantasy purposes. He's emerged as the player that Robert Meachem was supposed to be. DX likely won't slip beyond Round 6 (maybe 5? 4?) in drafts next August, as long as he remains a healthy member of the Chargers.
Alfred Morris, RB, Washington — Mike Shanahan has flummoxed the fantasy community in recent years, with an apparent spin-the-wheel approach to the Washington backfield. Last season, Tim Hightower was the must-own Shanahan back ... until it was Ryan Torain ... and then Roy Helu ... and then Evan Royster.
But in 2012, it's been all Alfred Morris, every week. If you selected him as a late-round flier on draft day, you've been rewarded with a top-10 fantasy asset at arguably our game's trickiest position. Morris has gained over 1,200 yards on the ground through 13 games, dominating the backfield touches, easily outpacing my preseason favorite to lead the 'Skins in rushing (RG3). Morris has carried the ball 253 times thus far; the next highest total on the team, excluding Griffin's 112, is Royster's 17.
Morris was a sixth-round pick out of a Sun Belt school (Florida Atlantic), projected by no draft expert to be a star in his first season, if ever. Most scouting reports sold him as a good-not-great prospect, a guy with a fumbling history, lacking speed. And yet here we are. If we were to draft a 2013 league today (terrible idea), Morris would be off the board in the late-first or early-second round.
Brandon Myers, TE, Oakland — I'm willing to bet that I watched more Iowa football than 99 percent of you between the years 2005 and 2008, when Myers was a Hawkeye, and at no point did I imagine that Brandon would eventually emerge as a must-start fantasy tight end. I'm still not sure how this happened. Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer loves Myers like a pet — his 90 targets ranks fifth among all tight ends, ahead of Owen Daniels, Antonio Gates and other luminaries. Myers has caught a silly percentage of the passes thrown his way (77.8!), hauling in 70 balls for 728 yards and four TDs. At the moment, he ranks seventh at his position in year-to-date fantasy scoring, above Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Jermaine Gresham, and 25 other guys who received more preseason buzz. (Paging Jordan Cameron). We'll be drafting Myers as a starter in 2013, in the mid-to-later rounds.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis — OK, clearly much was expected of Luck, the top overall selection on draft day. It's not really much of a surprise to see him enjoy success at the pro level in year one. Our expectations for rookie QBs are greater now than they've ever been.
But c'mon, did anyone honestly think Andrew Luck would be a top-10 fantasy quarterback in his debut season? That's where he is right now as we enter the fantasy playoffs. Through 13 weeks, he's outscored Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, and several other QBs who were selected well ahead of him in drafts. Forget all the victories he's piling up in Indy — we don't get bonus points for winning percentage in fantasy — and just take a look at Luck's year-to-date numbers: 3,792 yards (eighth in the NFL), 537 attempts (second), 18 passing touchdowns, five rushing scores. He's on pace to finish with 4,667 passing yards, which would demolish Cam Newton's rookie record. Luck's efficiency numbers haven't quite matched Griffin's or Russell Wilson's, but, thanks to a high-volume passing game, he's having an absurd year in fantasy. And it's not like the kid's career is peaking now.
When all the stats are in, Luck will have played his way into a top-8 rank at QB heading into 2013.
Cecil Shorts, WR, Jacksonville — Shorts was sidelined by concussion symptoms in Week 14 and, as of this writing, he's no lock to go on Sunday. But we can't very well have a conversation about 2012 breakout stars without this guy. He entered the year as just another name on the depth chart for Jacksonville, a secondary receiver tied to a lousy quarterback situation. If any Jags receiver was going to have a respectable year, it figured to be well-hyped rookie Justin Blackmon, or $32.5 million free agent Laurent Robinson.
Instead, Shorts now leads his team with 824 receiving yards and seven scores. He's reached double-digits in fantasy scoring eight different times this season, so it's not like his big year is propped up by one or two unusual weeks. Assuming a strong finish this season, and assuming the QB situation in Jacksonville gets no worse next year (please, no Tebow), Shorts has to be considered a high-end WR3 for 2013, in what will be his third NFL campaign.
Honorable mention breakout performers: WR Randall Cobb (sensational, but we hyped him too hard in the preseason to pretend he shocked us); RB Doug Martin (an early fantasy draft pick in 2012, not exactly an unknown, but he returned a profit); QB Colin Kaepernick (unfinished story, still playing his way into our fantasy plans for 2013); QB Robert Griffin III (broke out in a big way in Week 1, never looked back); WR Josh Gordon (emerging as his team's top target, a big-play threat at all times).
THE SURPRISES (Good and bad)
Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta — Obviously it's no shock that Gonzalez is having a good year, even at age 36. We're talking about an inner-circle Hall of Famer, a guy who holds every meaningful career record at his position, a player who reset our expectations for elite tight end production. Yet few of us thought Gonzo, in what may very well be his final NFL season, would actually led all TEs in fantasy scoring. He's second to the injured Rob Gronkowski at the moment, but we may not see Gronk on the field again before January.
If the Falcons manage to somehow talk Gonzalez into returning for another encore, you'd be nuts to slot him outside the top-six tight ends next season. We've been betting on his decline for multiple years, but it ain't happenin'. If ever a player was decline-proof, this is the guy.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona — Clearly, Fitz is not to blame for the big red mess in the desert. At 29, he remains a top-tier talent, but he's trapped in a sinkhole of an offense, tied to the league's worst quarterback situation. Kurt Warner isn't walking through that door. Heck, Kevin Kolb isn't even walking through the door — he's on injured reserve. Entering the season, we all knew Fitzgerald carried a certain level of risk, but I'm not sure anyone imagined he could be this useless, not in a healthy season. Fitz currently ranks sixth among all wide receivers in total targets (134), but just 40th in yardage (652) and 41st in fantasy scoring (89.2 points). That's a tough trick to pull off, especially for an elite wideout. But with John Skelton and Ryan Lindley at the controls, no level of underachievement is unreachable.
Remember back in March, when Peyton Manning met with the Cards, listened to a recruiting pitch? Yup, that's a thing that actually happened. We very nearly had a Manning-Fitz alliance. Instead, we got this. So painful. Let's speak of it no more. Fitz enters 2013 as a first-round talent who will almost certainly drop to the third or fourth (or further) if the team doesn't substantially upgrade at QB.
Perhaps this guy will relocate to Arizona...
Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia — Just 16 months ago, Vick was being hyped by some as a potential first overall pick in fantasy, and the Eagles were tossing a nine-figure contract his way. These days, he's backing up Nick Foles, recovering from a concussion. Regime change is coming to Philly, and Vick will likely be swept away to ... well, we can't say where. Maybe Arizona. Or New York. Or Buffalo. Or Jacksonville. Wherever he goes, he'll open 2013 as a turnover-prone 33-year-old with an injury history, coming off a pair of disappointing seasons.
There's still a rushing safety net with Vick, so it's not as if he'll be completely off-the-radar for fantasy owners, as long as he's starting somewhere. His per-game scoring average in 2012 still ranks top-16, after all. But when you consider the depth at QB and the dependability of the top-tier players at the position, it becomes tough to build a case for Vick as anything more than a vanity backup for fantasy purposes. Best case, you'll draft him in the neighborhood of guys like Freeman, Dalton, Cutler and Wilson next season. Worst case, you won't draft him at all.
Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego — Without question, the biggest fantasy bust of the season through 13 weeks has been a different Charger, running back Ryan Mathews. But I'm not so sure he qualifies as a total surprise. Mathews' fantasy value has been torpedoed by preexisting issues — ball security, injury risk, committee members, Norv — that we all should have accounted for back in August.
Gates is a different story entirely. He's experiencing a relatively healthy season by his recent standards (as far as we know), yet he's given us only three double-digit fantasy totals all year. Gates has topped 60 receiving yards just once this season, and that was way back in Week 6, when he caught six balls for 81 yards. Lately, Alexander tends to lead all San Diego receivers in targets. Gates is currently third on the team in receptions, behind Malcom Floyd and Ronnie Brown. With 13 weeks in the books, Gates ranks 17th at his position in total fantasy points. Unless an end-of-year surge is coming, he'll likely to go un-drafted in most standard-size fantasy leagues next season. Gates will be 33, a high-mileage player at a roster spot where we don't typically draft backups.
Enough duds. Let's close this thing with a pleasant surprise...
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota — I think we all recognized that Adrian Peterson had the potential to eventually deliver a 2,000-yard season. He's a massive talent, already on the short list of the greatest backs the league has seen. But I'm equally confident that no one expected Peterson to threaten the 2K plateau this year, after suffering a horrific knee injury that required reconstructive surgery.
Less than 12 months after Peterson tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee, he leads the NFL in rushing by a wide margin. The man is at 1,600 yards and climbing. Peterson claims that he's eying the single-season rushing record, and, at this point, only a lunatic would declare that he's not capable of doing something. Let's all just enjoy the finish to his unprecedented year.
If AP isn't the league's MVP, then the award should probably go to his surgeon, Dr. Andrews, or whichever trainer is most responsible for his insane recovery timeline. Next year, when we're calling Peterson "All-Day2K," he'll be the first player selected in nearly every league.