Training camp is in full swing, but that doesn’t mean draft season should be. Jeremy Maclin and Dennis Pitta have already served as hard-luck reminders of how unpredictable this time of year can be. But while injury and preseason performances are shaking up the bottom of Rotoworld’s rankings, the top should remain largely unchanged between now and Week 1. Without further ado, here’s my stab at my 10 favorite players at the four main fantasy positions. Come for the Doug Martin at No. 2 running back, stay for the Jordan Cameron at No. 10 tight end.
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1. Drew Brees, Saints — He’s the Atomic Clock of quarterbacks. Brees’ worst season the past five years? He threw for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns. His five-year averages (4,946 yards, 38 touchdowns) are mindblowing. 50 percent of the 5,000-yard campaigns in NFL history belong to Brees. At a position that’s been redefined the past 10 years, Brees has set the standard — a standard you can set your watch to.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers — Look around, and you’ll generally find Rodgers atop fantasy quarterback rankings. It’s understandable. He’s a prolific, Super Bowl winning, MVP quarterback. But for fantasy purposes? He’s been consistently outplayed by Brees, finishing second to Brees’ first each of the past two years, and three of the past five. On the honest to goodness gridiron, Rodgers is the (slightly) better quarterback. He averages more yards per attempt, and turns the ball over far less. But for bulk fantasy goodness? He’s a cut below Brees. That’s not a slight, just the truth.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots — It’s hard to predict what form the Patriots offense might take this season. One thing we do know? Brady will be good. Like Hall-of-Fame good. Like he always is. The cast of characters may be different, but the trains will still run on time. Brady’s not just a surgeon, he’s the surgeon general. Is it possible he won’t approach the 5,031 yards he’s averaged the past two seasons? Quite. Is he still a safer bet than the series of question marks that follow behind him in these rankings? Absolutely.
4. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers — You already know the questions. How will Kaepernick fare without Michael Crabtree? How will he adjust to a league that’s had a whole offseason to adjust to him? Here’s an answer: Kaepernick’s freakish, almost supernatural ability on the football field. This is a player with once-in-a-generation type talent. He’s an ostrich with a howitzer. A wrecking ball with the touch of a feather. Don’t overthink it. Instead, think back to what you saw Kaepernick do on the football field last season. Odds are, they were things you had never seen before.
5. Cam Newton, Panthers — If Newton is nearly Kaepernick’s equal in talent, he’s a notch below in the things he can’t control. Kaepernick is playing for perhaps the league’s best coaching staff, while Newton is playing for the fourth best in his division. And even without Crabtree, CK has a superior supporting cast. These are two very similar players with very different circumstances. Let that be your tie breaker when deciding between these gifted dual-threat quarterbacks.
6. Matt Ryan, Falcons — Ryan is a boring guy. He’d probably tell you that himself. But even boring guys can beat you over the head sometimes. Take, for instance, this stat (courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info): Of Ryan’s 615 pass attempts last season, 40.2 percent resulted in a first down or touchdown. Only Tom Brady was as proficient at moving the chains and finding the end zone. Ryan doesn’t light up the sky with deep ball after deep ball, or slash and burn the middle of the field until all that’s left are the smoking embers of opposing linebackers. He just gets the job done, racking up 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns in the process. He’s as safe a pick as there is in fantasy football.
7. Peyton Manning, Broncos — Manning has three elite receivers — almost one for every neck surgery. Therein lies the yin and the yang of Manning’s 2013. One of the best players in league history has never had a better supporting cast. He’s also 37, playing behind a beat up offensive line and was throwing ducks when last we saw him. No player is risk free in a league where 320-pound linemen with 4.50 speed can cannonball into you at any given moment. But at such a deep position, Manning’s neck is at least something to think about. Odds are you will, decide it’s worth the risk and reap the benefits.
8. Matthew Stafford, Lions — As you may have heard, things didn’t go as planned for Stafford last season. Whether you want to blame his sloppy mechanics, his sidearm obsession or plain bad luck, he took a step back from his revelatory 2011. But that’s focusing on the negative. How about the positive? Take, for instance, his connection with Calvin Johnson. It was only the most prolific WR/QB combination of all time. Or the fact that he, you know, came within 33 yards of 5,000 even though his would-be No. 2 receiver violated the Espionage Act. For all the hand wringing, Stafford still finished No. 10 overall in fantasy quarterback points. Stafford is only nine months older than Russell Wilson. He’s made just three more career starts than Sam Bradford. Instead of focusing on what went wrong last season, step back and consider everything that almost went right. No. 8 is a conservative estimate for a quarterback with perhaps the most arm talent in the league, and its No. 1 overall receiver.
9. Russell Wilson, Seahawks — A stick of human dynamite disguised as a quarterback, Wilson is as exciting of a player as there is in football. But where Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick both have superhuman size and strength to fall back on, Wilson is a pinball in a league full of bowling balls. His margin for error is smaller than his read-option compatriots’, while his offense is perhaps the most run heavy. There’s so much to like here, but be careful not to overpay for last year’s hot finish.
10. Tony Romo, Cowboys — Romo’s 2012 ended like all of Romo’s seasons do: In utter despair, with the Cowboys headed for the golf course instead of the playoffs. But just as Romo’s devastating, comical season-ending interceptions have become ritual, so have his elite fantasy campaigns. Save for his collarbone-marred 2010, Romo has been a Top 10 fantasy gunslinger every year since 2007. Still only 33, Romo’s 4,903 yards last season were a new career high by 420 (Full disclosure: So were his 19 picks). Yes, Romo will get into some Scooby Doo-style misadventures along the way, but few quarterbacks are more proven when it comes to bringing home the fantasy bacon on a yearly basis.
Just Missed: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Jay Cutler.
1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings — This doesn’t require any explanation, but here it is anyway. In a league of commuter trains, Peterson has always been a speeding bullet. But in 2012? He went full hyperloop. Peterson ripped off 27 runs of 20 yards or longer. That was 15 more than anyone else. After being eased into action — remember, this was a man who blew out his knee in December 2011 — he averaged 23 carries for 152 yards over his final 11 contests. Now he’s gunning for 2,500 yards. Will he get there? He probably won’t even come close. But if football is the world’s most dangerous game, there’s no longer any question that Peterson is its most indestructible force.
2. Doug Martin, Bucs — More heralded rookie Trent Richardson entered the year as the No. 3 pick. Martin ended it No. 3 in yards from scrimmage, with 1,926. That total was third all time for a rookie. Along the way he finished second in yards after contact, third in fantasy points and first in awesome nicknames. Again, Martin did this as a 23-year-old rookie in an offense that finished 14th in pass attempts. Big things are coming.
3. C.J. Spiller, Bills — Former Bills coach Chan Gailey was afraid Spiller would get winded if he gave him the ball too many times. New OC Nathaniel Hackett? He plans to feed Spiller until he “throws up.” Advantage: Fantasy owners. Yes, there are questions about Spiller’s durability. No, it’s not something that should really concern you when you’re getting a player who averaged 6.0 yards per carry and 6.8 yards per touch. Leave with this nugget, ripped from the Rotoworld Draft Guide: Spiller’s 1,703 yards from scrimmage was fifth amongst running backs. That’s despite the fact he touched the ball just 250 times — 103.5 fewer times than the four players ahead of him averaged.
4. Arian Foster, Texans — The questions about Foster’s mileage and offensive line are legitimate — but so are the stats. Foster’s 15 rushing touchdowns led the league in 2012. He’s averaged 1,901 yards from the scrimmage the past three seasons, and 15.6 total scores. Is that really something you want to bet against? The injury risk is high with every running back. It’s worth gambling that Foster has one more elite campaign left in his 27-year-old legs.
5. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs — There are some weird predictions coming out of Kansas City. Namely, Charles may rush less so Alex Smith can throw more. That’s a terrible idea, even if Smith is throwing to Charles. Nevertheless, even if Andy Reid has designs on cooking up his typically frustrating running back stew, Charles’ talent is simply too special to let slide any further. He’s going to average more than five yards per carry. He’s going to catch 50 passes. He’s probably going to score a lot more than six total touchdowns. Will there be some invisible weeks? Yes. Will there be many more elite ones? You know it.
6. Ray Rice, Ravens — Has Rice peaked? It’s possible. His yards per carry slumped to 4.4 last season, while his 61 catches were his fewest since his rookie year, as was his 1,621 yards from scrimmage. He couldn’t stop fumbling in the playoffs, while Bernard Pierce couldn’t stop shining. But in a post Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin world in Baltimore, it’s not going to matter. The Ravens need Rice, even if they’re ready to pump up Pierce. One of the most durable backs in the league, he’s going to deliver.
7. LeSean McCoy, Eagles — Something you might not know: McCoy is younger than C.J. Spiller. He’s just six months older than Doug Martin. In other words, he’s got a lot of good football left. Throw out Shady’s injury-marred 2012. Every NFL running back is bound to have a lost season at some point. It’s the nature of the world’s most physical game. McCoy will be the heartbeat of what should likely be the league’s run-heaviest offense. Chip Kelly handed the ball off to his running backs an average of 39.2 times per game last season. Andy Reid? 20.2. McCoy is one of the league’s truly special talents. Expect him to rebound like it.
8. Alfred Morris, Redskins — It was the ancient Greeks who once said, “never trust a Mike Shanahan running back.” For thousands of years, that axiom rang true. Alas, the circle has been unbroken. Morris is Shanahan’s running back, and more importantly for fantasy purposes, he is one of the league’s premier pure runners. It’s a bit of a miracle considering Morris’ lack of speed, but his elite feet and vision are a match made in heaven with Shanahan’s zone-blocking attack. Morris is not a complete back, as he offers nothing as a receiver. But between the tackles, he’s as good as it gets, and one of the league’s safer RB1s.
9. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks — This seems low for Lynch. The best explanation? Someone is always going to seem too low when you’re ranking the league’s best players. Not that there aren’t concerns with Lynch. He’s taken a massive beating the past two seasons, racking up a ton of miles while missing his fair share of practice time. He’s really only been good for one and a half seasons. His backups? They’re among the most talented in the league. His quarterback? Ascendant. But all of that is nit picking. Lynch is an angry, touchdown-scoring force for an offense that defines smash mouth. The odds Lynch disappoints are low.
10. Trent Richardson, Browns — This one I struggled with. Richardson’s role — every-down back for an offensive coordinator who loves every-down backs — is such that he can’t possibly be ranked any lower. But his durability is a legitimate question mark. Richardson has lived nary a healthy day as an NFL running back. Since hearing his name called in April 2012, Richardson has undergone knee surgery, broken his ribs and suffered a high-ankle sprain. He missed the entire offseason program with a mysterious shin injury, one he aggravated early in camp. He’s never played a down of preseason football. Richardson has proven he can play through injury, but has yet to prove he can be better than replacement-level while doing so. Richardson’s upside is immense, but until we see him get healthy and stay healthy, it’s hard to classify drafting him as anything other than a leap of faith.
Just Missed: Chris Johnson, Stevan Ridley, Frank Gore, Matt Forte and Reggie Bush.
1. Calvin Johnson, Lions — Like Peterson’s rank as the No. 1 running back, this requires no explanation...but here it is. Whilst setting the single-season receiving record, Megatron posted 366 more yards than any other wideout. He was second in yards from scrimmage. A receiver. He’s a freak of nature in the prime of his career. If he hadn’t been tackled at the one-yard line an incredible six times, his season would have been even more legendary for fantasy purposes. As it is, Johnson has his own tier atop the receiver pyramid.
2. Dez Bryant, Cowboys — Injury marred Bryant’s rookie season. Inconsistency marked the second. Immaturity colored both. His junior campaign also had a theme — dominance. Powered by a 50/879/10 second half, Bryant put all the questions to rest, surging to a No. 3 overall finish. The talent has always been there, but now so is the focus and indomitable will. Bryant isn’t as imposing as Megatron or as smooth as A.J. Green. He’s more reckless than both. But the only thing that could stop Bryant before was Bryant. He’s solved himself, and in the process become unsolvable for opposing defenses.
3. A.J. Green, Bengals — In a sport as physical and cerebral as football, prodigies rarely show up and dominate from Day 1, no matter how natural their talent. But then there are players like A.J. Green, who was excellent as a rookie and elite as a sophomore. Now all that stands between him and All Pro status is...nothing. Not even Andy Dalton’s weak arm can rain on Green’s parade. A supremely safe pick.
4. Julio Jones, Falcons — Jones finished just 20th in targets last season. His teammate Roddy White caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and 10 touchdowns. So it was rather remarkable that Jones not only posted a 79/1,198/10 line of his own, but finished ninth overall in wide receiver fantasy points. There simply isn’t a weakness in the 6-foot-3, 220-pound, 4.39 40-yard dashing deep threat’s game. There might not be a player at any position with more upside.
5. Brandon Marshall, Bears — Choose your friends wisely. Marshall certainly has. Josh McDaniels’ ego tried to squash Marshall and Jay Cutler’s burgeoning bromance in 2009, but little did we know, the flame never went out. The best friends forever reunited to the tune of 118/1,508/11 last season, with Marshall drawing a preposterous 192 targets along the way. The duo has averaged 108 catches for 1,366 yards and eight touchdowns its past three seasons together. With an actual offensive coordinator now calling the shots in Chicago, there’s every reason to believe Marshall and Cutler will continue to get along as famously as any WR/QB combo in the NFL.
6. Vincent Jackson, Bucs — Oftentimes when players get paid, they fall back. Jackson? He sets career highs across the board. With his long sought five-year, $55.5 million contract finally in tow, V-Jax erupted for a 72/1,384/8 line, averaging a mind-boggling (and league leading) 19.2 yards per catch along the way. With Josh Freeman on notice and Doug Martin now the centerpiece of the Bucs offense, V-Jax could have a hard time equaling those numbers in 2013, but underrated for his durability and consistency, he gets the nod over Demaryius Thomas and Larry Fitzgerald.
7. Demaryius Thomas, Broncos — When a 25-year-old former first-round pick catches 94 passes for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns, it’s hard to rank him this low. But it’s even harder to know how things might shake out in the Broncos’ receiver corps. Every “Three Amigos” has a lead dog, and Thomas will likely be it in Denver. But with an increasingly weak-armed Peyton Manning having gained the league’s premier safety valve in Wes Welker, that means less catch-and-runs for Thomas — his specialty — and likely fewer deep balls, as well. Thomas has as much upside as any player on this list, but his floor isn’t as high as it deserves to be.
8. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals — Larry Fitzgerald, No. 8. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? It is, but in more ways than one. Crazy that one of the most physically dominant players in league history would find himself this low in his prime. But equally crazy that any player who went just 71/798/4 — while healthy — could find himself this high. You already know about Fitz’s extenuating circumstances last season. There’s no reason to rehash them. The question is, can Carson Palmer — master of the garbage-time touchdown, sensei of the tight-end checkdown — make Fitzgerald relevant again? With vertically-obsessed coach Bruce Arians calling the shots, the answer is most likely yes. Maybe Fitz slipped last season and nobody noticed because the quarterback play was so bad. What’s much more likely, however, is that there’s still a top-three campaign bubbling beneath the surface.
9. Andre Johnson, Texans — Johnson’s 2012 summed up in one YouTube video? Click the link. Left for dead by some *** writer acts natural, starts nervously whistling, slinks away slowly *** Johnson earned his vengeance in the form of a 112/1,598/4 season. Was it a last hurrah? It’s possible. Johnson has undergone three surgeries since 2011, and was targeted on a preposterous 58.1 of the Texans’ pass attempts last season. Film study suggests he’s lost a step. But Johnson’s history of production is so overwhelming, his veteran so savvy, that he simply can’t slip any further down this list.
10. Randall Cobb, Packers — I would be lying if I said I felt entirely comfortable with this. Cobb’s slight frame has led to a host of nicks and bruises. Not injuries that have landed him on the shelf for weeks at a time, but minor ailments that seem to stop hot streaks. But his talent is simply too dynamic. His role simply too appetizing. Roddy White and Dwayne Bowe are safer picks, but Cobb has the potential to not just be a WR1, but a WR1 who wins weeks.
Just Missed: Victor Cruz, Dwayne Bowe, Roddy White, Hakeem Nicks and Mike Wallace.
1. Jimmy Graham, Saints — Any questions? Graham was eight yards and one touchdown shy of his second consecutive 1,000/10-campaign last season. That’s despite the fact that he couldn’t bend his wrist. He led all tight ends in fantasy points. Now playing for a new contract, the tough, versatile and unguardable former basketball player is by far the safest bet at a position with very little clarity.
2. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots — With 38 touchdowns in 43 career games, Gronk has a score for nearly every game played. Of course, the same could be said for his surgeries. But we won’t belabor that point. We know Gronk isn’t a picture of good health. The question is, can he still be a picture of dominance. With tight end being as clear as mud this season, can you really afford to gamble “no”? Even if Gronk was to begin the year on the PUP list — and miss six games — there’s still a case to be made that he should be the second tight end off draft boards. That’s because with so few sure bets at the position, drafting two is nearly essential. Why not make one of them one of the very best players in the game?
3. Vernon Davis, 49ers — If there are few players more adept at creating hype, there are also few players more prone to failing to live up to said hype. Davis was a force of nature in 2009, and pretty damn good in 2010. Since, he’s been as consistent as the weather in Missouri. Whether that’s been by Jim Harbaugh’s design has never been entirely clear. What is clear is that the 49ers need Davis this season. Need him like whoa. The offseason hype has been as promising as ever. Spending ample time running with the receivers, Davis has been called the “most consistent deep threat” of 49ers camp. OC Greg Roman believes he’s “really taken it up to a new level.” Davis has gone bust (relatively speaking) when he should have gone boom each of the past two seasons, but 2013 should be the year he makes up for lost time.
4. Jason Witten, Cowboys — One of these years, Witten is going to stop catching 90 passes and clearing 1,000 yards. Until then, he’s simply too steady to doubt. The bass and drum of the Cowboys’ otherwise chaotic offense, Witten is a preeminently safe pick.
5. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons — Can you go back home again? Gonzalez is trying to find out. These kinds of returns rarely go according to plan. Just ask Brett Favre or Roger Clemens. But Gonzalez’s 2012 was simply too good to ignore. It’s quite possible Gonzalez will regret not going out on top. But there’s an even greater possibility he’ll go 80/800/8 and ponder coming back for yet another season.
6. Jared Cook, Rams — Like Davis, Cook has mastered the art of generating hype. Unlike Davis, Cook’s résumé offers very little to fall back on. So why the aggressive ranking? If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Sam Bradford, it’s that he loves the slot, loves finding guys just before they reach the second level. It’s a role Danny Amendola mastered, and one Cook is supposedly taking on. If the camp reports are to be believed, Bradford and Cook are "already connecting endlessly,” with Cook emerging as Bradford's "security blanket.” At a position with more questions than answers, it’s worth gambling that the supremely-talented Cook finally lives up to his TE1 hype.
7. Martellus Bennett, Bears — This is where we stop reaching for upside. Not that Bennett doesn’t have plenty of it, but picking the Unicorn is all about steadying a position where seemingly lots could go wrong. A mountainous 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, Bennett is going to stretch the seam, and he’s going to get targeted in the red zone. He might not come home with the most scintillating of numbers, but is a good bet to match the breakout 55/626/5 line he posted last season.
8. Kyle Rudolph, Vikings — Rudolph proved maddening as a sophomore, but reliable in the red zone, making up for his paltry yardage total (493) by scoring nine touchdowns. That’s not a script fantasy owners want to be relying on, but there’s reason to believe Rudolph will do better this season. At 6-foot-6, 258 pounds, Rudolph will be the Vikings’ go-to receiver near the goal line. And with Percy Harvin now in Seattle, he’ll also be tasked with moving the chains on a more regular basis. Rudolph may not have the superstar upside some thought possible last season, but he’s very much a TE1.
9. Greg Olsen, Panthers — Olsen as a superstar? While it once seemed possible, it’s not going to happen. But Olsen as one of the league’s more competent TE1s? We’re already there. A heartbeat away from being Cam Newton’s No. 1 option — Steve Smith is getting up in years, after all — Olsen is a weekly fantasy contributor at a position with frightfully few of them. That might not be the ceiling some had in mind after Olsen escaped Mike Martz, but it's more than worthy of a mid-round pick.
10. Jordan Cameron, Browns — Now here’s an upside pick. Cameron has fewer career catches than every other player on this list caught last season. But he’s a 6-foot-5, 254-pound former basketball player stuck inside a tight end’s body, and is playing for two of the game’s most noted tight end aficionados in Rob Chudzinski and Norval Turner. Cameron is a leap of faith who must be handcuffed, but the tea leaves suggest he’s a breakout campaign waiting to happen.
Just Missed: Owen Daniels, Jermichael Finley, Antonio Gates, Rob Housler and Dustin Keller.