The first thing you have to recognize about this piece is that it's taken out of context. As much as I like Jordy Nelson this year, I wouldn't take him over Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald or A.J. Green if the price were even in all instances. Nelson's spot on this team came because I like the player and the relative price I kept getting on him.
Maybe you can get a similar price, maybe you can get a better price, maybe your price is worse. Every room is different.
Anyway, here are the common-thread players I have thus far, listed in my order of confidence. Take this for what it's worth. There are plenty of excellent players who I haven't been able to buy on multiple teams (if any teams); that's how it works sometimes. And as the great Gene McCaffrey likes to say, any strategy can work if you pick the right players.
If you tapped my shoulder and said "hey, what do you think about this player?" here's what I'd say:
-- Jordy Nelson: The Regression Police is having a field day with his touchdown count from last year, but I don't need Nelson to score 15 times to justify the fourth-round tag I keep landing him at. I love that he can beat defensive backs with anything in the playbook — short, intermediate or deep routes — and he's dynamite after the catch. And obviously you want to be tied to the carnivals, the high-scoring teams. So long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, the Packers are a lock for 400-plus points. Sometimes the room gets too cute with last year's breakout, not wanting to chase the spike. As a result, the follow-up price is often surprisingly affordable.
-- Antonio Brown: Last year's touchdown count was obviously a fluke, the receiver's version of a low hit rate. It's very difficult to go over 1,100 yards — along with a 16.1 YPC — and score just twice. Brown collected three spikes this preseason and his logical over/under is probably in the 7-9 range for 2012. Here's one rare case where I might have paid a target upgrade, something I hate to do. But if you're going to overpay for anything, make it for something you need or (in this case) something you like.
-- Russell Wilson: No one knows how long the leash really is with Wilson. Maybe a poor start or two could lead to Matt Flynn (who was terrific in the final preseason game) getting another chance. But other than Wilson's much-discussed height, I love everything about the player: the intelligence, the leadership, the arm, the ability to throw to precise spots, the pocket awareness, the rushing ability. If Wilson keeps the job all year, he's a Top 15 fantasy quarterback easily — and maybe a Top 10 guy. It's all about plausible upside.
-- Eric Decker: More than any other quarterback, Peyton Manning demands precision. He wants exact cuts, exact routes, full trust on every snap. That's good news for Decker, not so much for Demaryius Thomas (who admitted he basically didn't run routes last year, at least during the Tebow Streetball Experience).
-- Matt Forte: Obviously he's going to hand away a lot of goal-line chances, and no one likes the Chicago offensive line. But Forte's floor is in a terrific place, and he's one of the best pass-catching backs in the game. He might have the best vision at the position, too; if there's a crease, he'll see it ahead of time and glide through it. Add it all up and Forte is a very safe Top 12-15 selection, and I'm all about floor in that area.
-- Fred Jackson: The presence and presumed upside of C.J. Spiller made Jackson a solid discount for about 2-3 weeks. The ADP seems to be creeping back. This isn't a full timeshare here; there's a 1 and a 2 in the Buffalo backfield.
-- Toby Gerhart: No one knows with Adrian Peterson. The Vikings don't know, Leslie Frazier doesn't know, Peterson doesn't know. I don't need Gerhart on any of my rosters — he's a lottery ticket all the way, a projected bench player — and let's not overlook what his skills are. He averaged 4.9 yards a carry last year, and he's a better receiver than Peterson. Grab a coin, maybe we can find three horseshoes.
-- Eli Manning: If you're not going to take one of the Top 5 quarterbacks, here's the safest play you can make. When's the last time someone lost money, value speaking, on Eli Manning?
-- Brandon Lloyd: Everyone knows the setup, it's been beaten to death — Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels, chance at playing for a winner, etc. And the "mouths to feed" angle with New England is significantly overblown; the Patriots only completed 37 passes to their backs last season, second-fewest in the league (conversely, the Saints backfield caught 158 passes).
-- Seattle Defense: Their secondary is elite and the home field advantage probably is the best in the NFL (that definitely matters — opposing quarterbacks hate to play in the Pacific Northwest). And when you're looking for a good defense pick, you want to find a potential blowout. The Seahawks should be on the good side of a bunch of them this year, especially given the modest schedule they're set to face.
-- Jermaine Gresham: The Bengals don't have a proven No. 2 wideout and their backs don't catch the ball that well, so Gresham is just about a lock to finish second on the team in targets. I'm not sure how high his upside really is, but opportunity is a beautiful thing.
-- Greg Olsen: Jeremy Shockey is obviously gone, and if Cam Newton cedes a handful of those goal-line carries, perhaps Olsen picks up a few touchdown flips. The Panthers coaching staff has always leaned on tight-end production, going back to pre-Carolina stops.
-- Kyle Rudolph: You love tight ends who aren't asked to do most of the dirty work — in-line play, blocking, etc. In short, you want a tight end who is used like a wide receiver more often than not (see Aaron Hernandez in New England). Rudolph and Christian Ponder showed improving chemistry all summer, and don't forget Rudolph scored three times (on limited reps) after Week 10 last year.
-- Pierre Thomas: I'm not dreaming of any kind of a notable workload spike — at this point the team appears dug in on what Thomas can and can't handle — but the efficiency stats are off the charts. Thomas is a PPR grab for me in a few leagues, where I'd love to see another 50 receptions. And again, we'll go where the fun is, where the points are. I also have some Darren Sproles shares, but I didn't touch Mark Ingram (see the Elimination Eight for more on that).
-- Stevie Johnson: He's a little over-exuberant at times, but any wideout who handles Darrelle Revis well (small sample and all) is someone I want on my team. And let's not forget how much fun this offense was in 2011 before Ryan Fitzpatrick got hurt and the offensive line collapsed.
-- DeAngelo Williams: The price was right, and I've always liked him more than Jonathan Stewart. That's all I got. The rooms seemed to be uninterested in Williams. I'm happy to flex him regularly in standard formats.
-- Michael Crabtree: The funny thing is, I'm not really a Crabtree fan. But I expect him to be the primary wideout in San Francisco while everyone else deals with a shuffle in and out, and I just want numbers similar to last year. A depth play. I don't think Crabtree will ever come close to justifying his original NFL Draft tag, though I do think Alex Smith might be a shade underrated (and could be ready for an increase in workload).
-- Stephen Hill: Yes, the Jets offense is a dumpster fire, but they have to throw the ball to someone — and I don't trust Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller for different reasons. A lot was made of Hill's Week 3 drop against Carolina (even some of the drive-by national media jumped on it), but did everyone notice how well he played in the rest of that game? I'll be stunned if Hill isn't New York's second best wideout this year, and a contributor right away. He's an imposing target at 6-foot-5, moving very well for his size.
-- Shayne Graham: It's all about setup with kickers — you want someone tied to a good (but maybe not elite) offense, a strong defense, a winning situation (the biggest sucker play going is to take a kicker from a losing team). Houston's stadium and schedule also play into the mix. In the last round (or on the waiver wire), Graham is waiting for you.
-- Alfred Morris: The funny thing about the Washington backfield is that I really like all three primary backs; if any of them can get full run with this offense, they'll be reliable RB2s. Alas, we know how Mike Shanahan is with these things. Sometimes it's a mistake to scout a player and let your eyes carry too much of the argument, but I dare anyone to watch Morris's summer tape and not come away impressed. Still, let's not kid ourselves — no one knows what Shanahan is going to do.
-- Anquan Boldin: Just a boring depth play for the late rounds, an Ibanez All-Star, so to speak. There's no upside at all here. I love Torrey Smith like everyone else, but the price was undesirable in most of my leagues. I just want a 60-780-5 sort of year from Boldin.
-- Some appealing players I wasn't able to land, for one reason or another: Tom Brady, Torrey Smith, Reggie Wayne, Jimmy Graham, A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Michael Turner (so overrated he's underrated), Vernon Davis, Andrew Luck, Cedric Benson, Victor Cruz.
-- Players I purposely avoided, in addition to the Elimination Eight: Greg Jennings (hope his head is clear), Jay Cutler, Matt Schaub, C.J. Spiller (I'm a Jackson guy), Peyton Manning, every primary Dallas receiver, Frank Gore, Kenny Britt, Isaac Redman, Baltimore defense.
Your turn at the podium. Who are the common-thread players that will largely define your 2012 season?