We’re now officially less than two weeks away from training camp. That means any serious fantasy footballer — and really, these days, is there any other kind? — has already devoured mountains of data, torrents of projections and can after can of Diet Dr. Pepper (ok, maybe that’s just me).
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The point is, though there are important things to be sorted out in camp, we’ve already got a pretty good grip on what we’re expecting from 2013. Emphasis on expecting. So this is a slightly different exercise. We’re not setting out to find what’s most likely to happen. That’s what projections are for. We’re exploring the highest ceilings and lowest floors. What happens if everything goes right? If it all goes wrong?
1. Aaron Rodgers
Best Case: Rodgers rampages his way through another top-two fantasy campaign, once again making 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns look ridiculously easy as he wins his second MVP award in three years.
Worst Case: Greg Jennings is missed more than anyone thought possible, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson can’t stay healthy and Jermichael Finley’s hands are still stone after all. Rodgers enters Week 17 needing over 500 yards to reach 4,000.
2. Drew Brees
Best Case: Like a new edition of “Madden,” not much truly changes. Brees eclipses 5,000 yards for the unfathomable fourth time as the revenge-minded Saints pillage their way deep into the postseason. Brees finishes as the No. 1 fantasy quarterback for the third straight season despite yet again coming off most boards after Rodgers.
Worst Case: Sean Payton decided during his year away that he doesn’t want his quarterback throwing 670 times any more, following through on his pledge to install a more balanced attack. Brees is limited to “just” 4,400 yards and 32 scores.
3. Cam Newton
Best Case: One of the most physically imposing athletes in North American sports finally shoots into the stratosphere, blowing the lid off fantasy football with a 4,200 yard passing, 800-yard rushing, 40-total touchdown campaign.
Worst Case: Thanks to decline from Steve Smith and continued ineffectiveness at running back, the Panthers’ “streamlined” offense is no less of a quagmire than their all-shotgun attack. Newton is an occasional force, but can’t get himself higher than QB8.
4. Tom Brady
Best Case: What turnover? Brady shakes off the loss of seemingly every one of his favorite weapons as he once again makes 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns seem effortless.
Worst Case: It wasn’t all talk. Brady is merely effective, not dominant, as the Patriots move to a more run-based attack. He fails to surpass 4,000 yards passing...just as he did in his three Super Bowl-winning seasons.
5. Peyton Manning
Best Case: After 14 seasons, Manning finally breaches the 5,000-yard barrier, making it look almost too easy as he posts a 45:10 TD:INT ratio en route to his fifth MVP award and second Super Bowl title.
Worst Case: Wes Welker’s addition muddles the receiver corps instead of enhancing it, while Willis McGahee’s absence looms surprisingly large in the backfield. The ducks Manning tossed in last season’s Divisional Round loss prove prophetic as his arm strength appears diminished even on its 2012 levels. The Broncos waltz to another AFC West title, but it’s the beginning of the end for one of the game’s greatest players.
6. Russell Wilson
Best Case: Wilson proves game-plan proof for opposing defensive coordinators. He doesn’t just build on his electrifying 2012 finish, he obliterates it, establishing himself as the new duel-threat king of a changing NFL. He’s the league’s No. 1 fantasy quarterback.
Worst Case: An offseason of film study enables rivals to tame, if not solve, Seattle’s 5-foot-11 (on his tippy toes) Rubik’s cube. Wilson guides Seattle back to the playoffs, but the wheel is not reinvented. Overzealous fantasy owners lament using their third-round pick on this season’s QB10.
7. Matt Ryan
Best Case: Ryan’s slow but steady progress culminates in a Breesian 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown campaign. Fantasy owners feel ridiculous for making him just the sixth quarterback off the board.
Worst Case: 2012 was the peak for a quarterback whose arm-strength limitations slowly grow more apparent. Ryan remains a rock-solid QB1, but neither dazzles nor dominates. He doesn’t steal fantasy owners as many weeks as his stats would suggest.
8. Matthew Stafford
Best Case: A little bit of luck and a lot more diligence about his footwork leads Stafford back into fantasy owners' hearts. The Lions boast the most explosive offense this side of the Big 12 as Stafford makes 5,000 yards look easy, and his $15.3 million annual salary look like a bargain.
Worst Case: The haters were right. A freshly paid Stafford appears uninterested in improving his shoddy mechanics, tossing an NFC-high 20 interceptions even as he gets back above 30 touchdowns. Stafford slings it all over the field, but it doesn’t lead to much of anything.
9. Colin Kaepernick
Best Case: No Michael Crabtree, no problem. Kaepernick is indestructible his first full year on the job, becoming the full realization of the long-gestating, but never quite achieved NFL dual-threat quarterback. His arm calls to mind Ben Roethlisberger, while his legs stir memories of vintage-era Michael Vick. Kaepernick runs away with No. 1 fantasy quarterback status as the 49ers seal the Super Bowl deal Jim Harbaugh’s third year on the job.
Worst Case: Kaepernick’s cannon arm and Harley-like rushing ability aren’t enough to counter the loss of Crabtree and an offseason of adjustments from enemy defensive coordinators. Kap’s Cam-like slump doesn’t knock the 49ers out of Super Bowl contention, but has fantasy owners wishing they had made the “safe” pick with Matt Ryan instead.
10. Robert Griffin III
Best Case: RGIII’s knee replaces Adrian Peterson’s as the knee of destiny. The chaos is more controlled, but the production isn’t. Griffin racks up 4,500 total yards and 35 touchdowns as the Redskins make their second consecutive division title look easier than it should be in a typically difficult NFC East.
Worst Case: Griffin isn’t so “ahead of schedule” after all, missing the first six games as he sits on the PUP list. When he returns, he’s more rigid and fearful in the pocket than the swashbuckler who lit up the NFL as a rookie. It’s a lost year for a special talent, causing some to wonder if things will ever be the same for the former Heisman Trophy winner.
11. Tony Romo
Best Case: It took 33 years and 3,240 pass attempts, but Romo finally puts it all together, nearing his statistical highs of 2012 while committing a career-low 12 turnovers — zero of which come in the final two games of the season.
Worst Case: New contract, same quarterback. Romo’s arm talent remains among the most prodigious in the league, but his decision-making continues to cost him at the most inopportune times. Nine of Romo’s 18 interceptions come during the Cowboys’ Bears/Packers/Redskins/Eagles December gauntlet. Dallas misses the playoffs for the fifth time in eight Romo years.
12. Andrew Luck
Best Case: Luck ascends quicker than anyone thought possible, leading the AFC in passing yards and touchdowns as he reaches the Super Bowl six years quicker than Peyton Manning.
Worst Case: Luck makes strides on his excellent rookie campaign, but they’re obscured by the Colts’ still inept offensive line. He’s a QB1 for fantasy purposes, but a maddening one, torpedoing as many weeks as he wins.
13. Ben Roethlisberger
Best Case: Big Ben goes on a Big Mend, appearing in all 16 games for the first time since 2008. Along the way, he passes for 4,200 yards and 30 touchdowns for only the second time in his career. He turns the ball over just 12 times as the Steelers position themselves for another deep postseason run.
Worst Case: Years of hits and near misses finally catch up with one of the game’s most contact-prone passers, as he appears in fewer than 12 games for the first time in his NFL career. When Roethlisberger does manage to take the field, he struggles without Mike Wallace taking the lid off opposing secondaries, posting a sub-90.0 QB rating for the first time since 2008.
14. Eli Manning
Best Case: A healthy and happy Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz help Manning shake off his 2012 funk, though he doesn’t approach the outlier 4,933 yards he threw for in 2011. Manning’s 4,200 yards and 30:14 TD:INT ratio are enough to get the Giants back into the playoffs in the loaded NFC.
Worst Case: After looking like he was playing through mono in 2012, Manning just starts looking old, proving once and for all that, though he can have elite games, he’s a Schaub-esque game-manager at heart.
15. Jay Cutler
Best Case: Send out the clowns. With a real offensive mind finally at the controls, Cutler becomes the living embodiment of “better late than never,” flirting with the career-high 4,526 yards he threw for his final year in Denver while surpassing 30 touchdowns for the first time in his career. He tosses “just” 14 interceptions.
Worst Case: Maybe Cutler is who we thought he is, and there’s no offensive mind capable of reeling in his reckless, gun-slinging ways. He suffers his sixth career concussion when he’s crushed by Jared Allen in Week 13 after foolishly holding onto the ball for too long as he waits for Brandon Marshall to get open 20 yards down field. The Bears start thinking about a post-Cutler future.
16. Michael Vick
Best Case: Chip Kelly does what Andy Reid, Jim Mora and Dan Reeves couldn’t: Unlock Vick’s full potential. Even as a 33 year old who’s lost a step or two, Vick is a revelation in Kelly’s spread-option attack, showing Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick how it’s done as he cruises to a top-five fantasy finish.
Worst Case: Vick looks old, stubborn and turnover prone in training camp, giving Kelly no choice but to go with the lead-footed Nick Foles at quarterback. The Eagles save $4 million by cutting Vick loose before Week 1.
17. Joe Flacco
Best Case: Flacco is a highly-paid, Super Bowl winning quarterback. In 2013, he finally starts producing like one. His 4,100 yards and 28 touchdowns both lead the AFC North, a division the supposedly rebuilding Ravens run away with.
Worst Case: Flacco’s hot finish proves to be a “time and place” mirage, as Joe Cool struggles to find a go-to chain mover in the absence of Anquan Boldin. His 3,700 yards and 23 touchdowns are par for his career course, but feel lacking following the events of the past 12 months.
18. Ryan Tannehill
Best Case: Tannehill makes GM Jeff Ireland’s offseason spending spree seem unnecessary, taking the biggest step forward of any sophomore quarterback as the Dolphins finally vault past the Patriots on the back of Tannehill’s 4,200-yard, 30-touchdown season.
Worst Case: Ireland’s spending spree indeed proves unnecessary...because new LT Jonathan Martin can’t block a soul. Harried from the word go, Tannehill suffers a collarbone/shoulder injury soon after Miami’s Week 7 bye. Ireland’s fate is sealed, and Tannehill backers sigh “wait till next year.”
19. Sam Bradford
Best Case: Bradford’s hot 2012 finish was not an illusion. Buoyed by continuity with the coaching staff and an explosive new supporting cast, Bradford finally sneaks by 7.0 yards per attempt while becoming the newest member of the 4,000-yard club.
Worst Case: After three years of excuses, it finally becomes clear that Bradford is a part of the problem in St. Louis, and not just a victim of circumstance. “Usually competent” is the best that can be said for his game.
20. Carson Palmer
Best Case: Working with a living, breathing supporting cast for the first time since 2010, Palmer doesn’t turn back the clock so much as give it a new pair of batteries. Despite the Cardinals’ shaky line, he keeps his YPA above 7.0 and once again surpasses 4,000 yards in Week 17.
Worst Case: Palmer finds garbage time isn’t quite as forgiving in a division that includes San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis. Constantly banged up, he has a hard time developing a connection with Larry Fitzgerald, and finds Bruce Arians doesn’t appreciate him dumping it off to the tight end or running back every other play. Arians’ affinity for deep, low-percentage throws results in another 20-interception campaign. Palmer is a forgettable QB2.
21. Josh Freeman
Best Case: Freeman puts coach Greg Schiano’s mind games behind him as he rides off into the contract year sunset. He bests last year’s yardage (4,065) and touchdown (27) totals, while tossing the second fewest picks of his career (15). The Bucs apply the franchise tag and make him do it again in 2014.
Worst Case: Freeman can no longer take the heat in Schiano’s kitchen, who responds in kind by revolving his offense around Doug Martin even more than he did last season. Called on to chuck it deep far less often than he did in 2012, Freeman gets his completion percentage back above 60, but is a thoroughly uninspiring QB2.
22. Andy Dalton
Best Case: Dalton puts his nightmarish 2012 finish behind him, surpassing 30 touchdowns while inching closer to 4,000 yards. He game manages the Bengals to their third straight Wild Card bid.
Worst Case: The unraveling that began late last season (198.5 yards per game over his final eight non-Week 17 starts) continues unabated, as defenses stuff the box and bracket A.J. Green knowing Dalton can’t beat them deep. With no viable backup, Dalton gets to tend the garden all 16 weeks, but sends the Bengals searching for a long-term replacement.
23. Matt Schaub
Best Case: Schaub continues to look like a player who’s already peaked, but not one who’s bottomed out. A competent QB2 for fantasy purposes who can be a QB1 depending on the matchup (ahem, Jacksonville).
Worst Case: The shell-of-his-former-self Schaub from the Divisional Round was just a preview, as he emerges as a full-on checkdown machine. The arrival of DeAndre Hopkins is of little help as Andre Johnson loses another step. Schaub and the Texans’ window slams shut before most even realized it was open.
24. Philip Rivers
Best Case: Mike McCoy can’t return Rivers to elite status, but does stop the bleeding by dialing down the low-percentage deep balls. Rivers no longer carries the Chargers on his back, but at least stops costing them games with his inane decisions.
Worst Case: Playing behind the league’s most embarrassing line, Rivers hits rock bottom, tossing 20 picks for the second time in three years while missing his first games since 2005. The Chargers void the final two years of his contract in the offseason.
25. Alex Smith
Best Case: Managed and manipulated to an even greater degree than he was in San Francisco, Smith passes for a career-high 3,300 yards while adding an additional 250 on the ground. He keeps the Chiefs in the hunt for a playoff spot until mid-December in the wretchedly weak AFC.
Worst Case: Smith leads the Chiefs to a season sweep of the Raiders, but otherwise leaves fans wondering why in the world the new braintrust surrendered a precious second-round pick for his services. All of his flaws (namely, his noodle arm) are back on parade as he flounders without Jim Harbaugh’s guiding hand.
26. Brandon Weeden
Best Case: Weeden comes out of his shell under the vertically-minded duo of Rob Chudzinski and Norval Turner, becoming the league’s most surprising 4,000-yard passer. Along with Josh Gordon, he becomes one of the few desperate Mike Holmgren gambles to pay off.
Worst Case: The league’s oldest 30 year old plays like he’s 40, continuing to move in slow motion as not even Norval can speed him up. A laughingstock of epic proportions, Weeden begins wondering when he might be able to return to Oklahoma State as an unpaid offensive assistant.
27. Jake Locker
Best Case: Locker is worlds more effective in the Titans’ stripped-down, run-based offense. He’s in the bottom five in pass attempts, but top 12 in yards per attempt. His 20:12 TD:INT ratio is better than OC Chris Palmer thought possible.
Worst Case: With Chris Johnson continuing to hold the run game hostage, too much is put on Locker’s plate and he cracks. His 11-of-21 for 97 yards performance in Week 6 in Seattle calls to mind his most embarrassing games at the University of Washington. Ryan Fitzpatrick is installed under center following the Titans’ Week 8 bye.
28. E.J. Manuel
Best Case: Installed as the Week 1 starter after running circles around Kevin Kolb in camp, Manuel is surprisingly efficient — if not prolific — under run-minded coach Doug Marrone. He’s still only a borderline QB2 for fantasy purposes, but hints at much bigger things ahead.
Worst Case: As raw as any first-round quarterback in recent memory — including Locker — Manuel’s 22 pass attempts all come after Week 14, and in garbage time to boot. He enters 2014 just as he did 2013: As an unknown entity.
29. Christian Ponder
Best Case: Ponder stops shackling the Vikings’ run-based offense with absurdly poor play (5.43 YPA after Week 12 last season), getting his yards per game close to 225 and YPA near 7.0. He still has bad stretches, but they’re 1-2 games long instead of 3-4.
Worst Case: The meltdown continues, as new additions Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson are no match for Ponder’s scattershot play. Backup Matt Cassel makes five starts as GM Rick Spielman begins dreaming of a rich 2014 quarterback class.
30. Matt Flynn
Best Case: Flynn is surprisingly effective as the league’s preeminent checkdown machine. He has the fewest 20-plus yard completions in the NFL, but limits his mistakes as the Raiders go 6-10.
Worst Case: Flynn “wins” the starting job solely because of his Packers connection to GM Reggie McKenzie, though even that isn’t enough to keep his job coming off the Raiders’ Week 7 bye. Tyler Wilson replaces Flynn as the moribund Raiders’ sacrificial lamb, making over $5 million less in the process.
31. Geno Smith
Best Case: Smith wins the Jets’ quarterback competition, limiting his mistakes as he oversees one of the league’s most conservative offenses. His 2,900 yards and 17 touchdowns hint at a serviceable, if not blindingly bright, future.
Worst Case: Smith appears so overmatched in the early days of camp that the Jets decide to not only keep Mark Sanchez, but name him their starter. Smith still ends up making six starts, but does nothing to suggest he’ll be any better of an answer under center than Sanchez.
32. Blaine Gabbert
Best Case: The Jaguars still don’t get a starter’s return on their 2011 draft investment, but don’t have to avert their eyes every time Gabbert attempts a pass. Gabbert emerges as this generation’s Brady Quinn.
Worst Case: Gabbert makes only two starts before the Hindenburg-style humanity of it all overwhelms rookie coach Gus Bradley. Chad Henne is installed for good, and the Jaguars’ front office spends more time breaking down Teddy Bridgewater tape than Louisville’s 12 opponents combined.