Top 16 Skill-Player Groups

Evan Silva
See where Patriots RB Shane Vereen lands as Evan Silva unveils his July Top 150 fantasy football rankings

Silva's July Top 150

See where Patriots RB Shane Vereen lands as Evan Silva unveils his July Top 150 fantasy football rankings

1. New England Patriots

QB: Tom Brady > Ryan Mallett > Mike Kafka
RB: Stevan Ridley > Shane Vereen > Brandon Bolden > Leon Washington
WR: Danny Amendola > Donald Jones > Julian Edelman > Michael Jenkins
TE: Rob Gronkowski > Aaron Hernandez > Michael Hoomanawanui > Jake Ballard

Skill Player Overview: The Patriots have morphed from one of the league's pass-heaviest clubs into the most play heavy. Running the NFL's fastest-tempo offense on borrowed concepts from Chip Kelly's speed-spread Oregon attacks, New England paced the league in 2012 snaps from scrimmage. The Pats were second in rush attempts and fourth in pass attempts. And they accomplished the feats with great skill-position talent.

At age 35, only Brady's deep-ball accuracy has noticeably faded. He's more of a dink-and-dunker now, but remains the premier field general in the game. No quarterback is more composed in a collapsing pocket. The Patriots play pick-your-poison offense, shredding defenses with quick-footed power back Ridley when opponents drop eight into coverage. Gronkowski beats double teams in the passing game and has developed into the league's best blocking tight end. New Z receiver Amendola may prove an upgrade on outgoing Wes Welker with similar tools in the slot and better diversity as an intermediate threat. There isn't a more elusive NFL tight end than Hernandez with the ball in his hands. The Patriots will add a vertical stretcher in the draft (Oregon State's Markus Wheaton?) but are capable of playing league-best offense even if they don't.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Vereen. The 2011 second-round pick will replace Danny Woodhead as the Pats' passing-down back, adding a new dimension to an already unstoppable offense. Though used sparingly, Vereen averaged 6.4 yards per touch in 2012 and scored seven touchdowns, including the playoffs. We're going to see an awful lot of Vereen because passing-down back in the New England offense is no small role. Vereen has a chance to approach 50 percent of the offensive snaps in 2013. Two-down back Ridley only played 44 percent last year.

2. Atlanta Falcons

QB: Matt Ryan > Dominique Davis
RB: Steven Jackson > Jacquizz Rodgers > Jason Snelling > Antone Smith
WR: Julio Jones > Roddy White > Harry Douglas > Kerry Meier
TE: Tony Gonzalez > Michael Palmer > Tommy Gallarda > Chase Coffman

Skill Player Overview: The rich got richer when GM Thomas Dimitroff signed Jackson, then convinced Gonzalez to return for a 17th NFL season. This is a Super Bowl-caliber skill-player group. Ryan's game reached new heights in Dirk Koetter's 2012 offense, and the duo now enters its second year together. Still running with outstanding power and short-area explosion at age 29, Jackson gives the Falcons an ability to sustain offense with the run as well as put opponents away in fourth quarters. They didn't have that last year. Quizz is a change-of-pace back only, but one of the better ones in the NFL. He is elusive in space with deceptive pop on contact.

Jones is a complete receiver, able to burn defensive backs vertically and break off chunk yards after the catch. At age 24, he flashes physically dominant talent and still hasn't reached his ceiling. White is an ideal complement as one of the NFL's crispest route runners with some of the surest hands. An early-career deep threat, White has successfully transitioned into a later-career short to intermediate dynamo. Gonzo doesn't run down the seam like he used to, but boxes out defenders and has learned to rely more on his timing and power. He is very difficult to defend on third down.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Jackson. Running backs entering their age-30 seasons aren't typically considered breakout candidates, but Jackson should be. His yards-per-carry average and touchdown totals were held hostage in St. Louis by league-worst line play and easy-to-defend offenses. For many years, Jackson was the Rams' only threatening skill-position player. Now, he'll be all but an afterthought as opponents spend weeks game planning to stop Jones, White, and Gonzalez. No longer facing eight in the box, Jackson could be headed for a career-best season.

3. New Orleans Saints

QB: Drew Brees > Seneca Wallace > Luke McCown
RB: Darren Sproles > Mark Ingram > Pierre Thomas > Chris Ivory
WR: Marques Colston > Lance Moore > Joe Morgan > Nick Toon
TE: Jimmy Graham > Ben Watson > Michael Higgins

Skill Player Overview: The Saints had a bad record in 2012, but their skill group returns fully intact and remains elite. This is an explosive, at-times unstoppable unit. Brees threw too many interceptions last year while attempting to compensate for the NFL's worst defense, but shows no signs of decline at age 34. Colston is a slot machine and offensive mismatch as an inside receiver with a massive catch radius. Moore is one of the league's most versatile, reliable, underrated underneath wideouts. Rising burner Morgan averaged 37.9 yards per reception in 2012 and didn't drop a pass from Week 6 on. He's ascending in the old Robert Meachem role.

Graham is healthy after ankle and wrist injuries hurt his efficiency last season. He is the most dynamic pass-catching tight end in football. Back from his Bounty Scandal suspension, coach Sean Payton has publicly vowed to make a renewed commitment to the run. Expect to see Ingram take on more of the rushing load after a quietly productive 2012 campaign. Sproles is used sparingly as a ball carrier, but remains an invaluable part of New Orleans' passing offense as a chess-piece weapon with big-play ability. Thomas is probably the best No. 3 back in the NFL. The Saints are trying to trade Ivory. There is not a single legitimate weakness in this skill-player corps.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Ingram. Payton insists New Orleans' ineffective 2012 run game played a major role in Brees' 19 picks. “When you tell me a team is last in the league in defense and last in the running game, I’m telling you the quarterback’s job description is entirely different,” said Payton after the season. "You get one-dimensional, you find yourself in these games where you’re not controlling the game.” Ingram quietly racked up 468 yards and four touchdowns on 109 carries (4.29 YPC) over the season's final nine games and is headed for an expanded role.

4. Seattle Seahawks

QB: Russell Wilson > Brady Quinn > Josh Portis
RB: Marshawn Lynch > Robert Turbin > Derrick Coleman
WR: Percy Harvin > Sidney Rice > Golden Tate > Doug Baldwin
TE: Zach Miller > Anthony McCoy > Sean McGrath > Cooper Helfet

Skill Player Overview: Dual-threat Wilson got better with each passing week during his rookie year. He is an aggressive, accurate downfield thrower who gashes defenses for long runs when his receivers are covered. If Adrian Peterson is the NFL's premier power back, Lynch is No. 2. No one runs angrier. Turbin's rookie year provided every indication that he'd be a strong spot starter if Lynch went down. Turbin averaged 4.43 yards a carry and can play in the passing game.

Harvin was Seattle's big offseason addition. He'll have no trouble absorbing the offense because he played for Darrell Bevell in Minnesota. Harvin is the best slot receiver in the NFL. No wideout breaks more tackles on a per-touch basis. It seems like Rice has been in the league forever, but he started young and is only 26. Tate will play in all three-receiver sets, and speedy Baldwin gives the Seahawks quality depth. Miller was great in January's playoffs, but is more of a blocking than receiving tight end. Seattle could use competition for McCoy in the pass-catching No. 2 TE role.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Wilson. The Seahawks put training wheels on their rookie quarterback out of the 2012 gates, but Wilson's statistical performance took off when he was unleashed. Over the first five games, Wilson completed 79-of-125 throws (63.2 percent) for 815 yards (6.52 YPA), a 5:6 TD-to-INT ratio, and no rushing scores. Across the Seahawks' final 13 contests -- including the playoffs -- Wilson went 212-of-330 (64.2 percent) for 2,875 yards (8.71 YPA), 24 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. He added five rushing TDs, all in the final five weeks. It's safe to say the training wheels are off for good now. And that Harvin guy can't hurt.

5. Green Bay Packers

QB: Aaron Rodgers > Graham Harrell > B.J. Coleman
RB: DuJuan Harris > James Starks > Alex Green > Brandon Saine
WR: Jordy Nelson > Randall Cobb > James Jones > Jarrett Boykin
TE: Jermichael Finley > Andrew Quarless > D.J. Williams > Matthew Mulligan

Skill Player Overview: Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL. Even after losing Greg Jennings, the Packers return the league's top three-receiver package east of Denver. Cobb is the movable-piece playmaker. Although not quite as physical as Harvin, Cobb can do similar things, playing productive snaps at tailback and having his way with slot corners inside the numbers. Cobb is better along the sidelines than Harvin. Nelson and Jones primarily play outside. Drop prone early in his career, Jones has developed into a consistent player and led the league in touchdown catches (14) last season. He regularly beats defensive backs for contested balls. Nelson is the deep threat. The Packers' No. 1 receiver in 2011, Nelson is back healthy after a disappointing 2012 season plagued by hard-luck injuries.

Tight end and running back are the wild-card skill positions in Green Bay. Supremely gifted, Finley is every bit capable of making a Jimmy Graham-like impact, but is seemingly annually working to gain Rodgers' trust. 2013 is Finley's contract year and time for him to make a leap like teammate Jones. The draft may bring a starting-lineup upgrade on Harris, who at 5-foot-7, 214 is smallish for a feature back role. Harris is not particularly talented, but runs hard, fights for yardage, and can play in the passing game. Most likely, Harris will wind up as a change-of-pace back this season.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Harris. Of course, there's also a chance the Packers don't draft a running back high. GM Ted Thompson hasn't selected a back in the top-two rounds since blowing the 63rd overall pick on Brandon Jackson in 2007. And even if Harris' ideal role is as a complementary piece, he's no slouch. The 24-year-old began seeing regular carries in Week 14 last season, and wound up rushing for 257 yards and four touchdowns on 62 attempts (4.14 YPC) including playoff games. Harris was signed off the practice squad on December 1, before bypassing recent Thompson picks Alex Green and James Starks on the depth chart with ease.

6. Denver Broncos

QB: Peyton Manning > Brock Osweiler
RB: Willis McGahee > Ronnie Hillman > Knowshon Moreno > Lance Ball
WR: Demaryius Thomas > Eric Decker > Wes Welker > Andre Caldwell
TE: Joel Dreessen > Jacob Tamme > Virgil Green > Julius Thomas

Skill Player Overview: The Broncos rank a conservative sixth on this list, but you could make a case for them anywhere in the top five. They're loaded. Peyton gets away with diminished arm strength via pinpoint accuracy and pre-snap decision making. While I don't think there is any question Manning's physical tools aren't what they used to be, there also is no doubt he's still a top-ten passer. Thomas is Julio Jones with better hands. Decker is a third-down and red-zone machine. He scored 13 touchdowns last season, ranking second in the NFL among receivers. Welker gives Denver an embarrassment of riches as a dynamic run-after-catch slot presence.

Ultimately, I placed Denver sixth because of question marks at two positions. McGahee is going on age 32 while coming off of a torn knee ligament and broken leg. His base salary is $2.5 million. I don't think he'll be on the Week 1 roster. Struggling to run inside the tackles and pick up the blitz, Hillman gave no indication as a rookie that he'll be more than an NFL change-of-pace back. He clearly has some juice, but averaged only 3.89 yards per carry. Moreno put up decent stretch-run fantasy stats on huge workloads, but remains a replacement-level runner at best. The second question mark is tight end, where Tamme was a 2012 disappointment. Dreessen is a solid blocker, but can Green replace Tamme in the "move" role?

2013 Breakout Candidate: Green. A 2011 seventh-round pick who fell in the draft due to medical concerns, Green possesses an athletic skill set not dissimilar from Vernon Davis'. While Welker's addition will mean fewer two-tight end sets and more three wides in Denver's offense -- putting a bit of a lid on Green's statistical upside -- he should have every opportunity to unseat Tamme as the primary pass-catching tight end. Green is a prospect to monitor this preseason.

7. San Francisco 49ers

QB: Colin Kaepernick > Colt McCoy > Scott Tolzien
RB: Frank Gore > Kendall Hunter > LaMichael James > Anthony Dixon
WR: Michael Crabtree > Anquan Boldin > A.J. Jenkins > Kyle Williams
TE: Vernon Davis > Garrett Celek > Cameron Morrah

Skill Player Overview: Kaepernick was lights out after replacing Alex Smith in November, leading San Francisco to a 7-3 record, including the playoffs. Across his ten starts, Kaepernick accounted for 19 touchdowns while completing 169-of-272 throws (62.1 percent) for 2,406 yards (8.84 YPA) and a 14:4 TD-to-INT ratio. Kaepernick's explosive arm talent and precision downfield passing helped spring Crabtree for the best ten-game stretch of his career. Underutilized in the receiving game all regular season, Davis also caught fire with 12 catches, 254 yards, and a touchdown in three postseason contests. Although Boldin is strictly a possession receiver going on age 33, he gives Kaepernick another sure-handed weapon who wins contested throws inside the numbers. Boldin is also a terrific blocker at slot and Z receiver, which will increase San Francisco's running-game efficiency at the second and third levels.

The 49ers are annually deep at running back. They will likely look to scale back Gore's early-season carries this year in an effort to keep his legs fresher for the stretch run. San Francisco is still missing one critical element: Jim Harbaugh's offense lacks a receiver capable of taking the top off of defenses in the deep passing game. In order to maximize Kaepernick's bazooka arm, the 49ers must either develop Jenkins into that vertical stretcher or find a solution in the draft.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Davis. The tight end is San Francisco's best deep threat. If 2012 first-rounder Jenkins continues to flop or GM Trent Baalke fails to upgrade, Davis will be leaned on when Harbaugh dials up downfield shot plays. The light appeared to flip on for Davis and Kaepernick's chemistry in the postseason. Kap now enters his first full year as the starter.

8. Washington Redskins

QB: Robert Griffin III > Kirk Cousins > Rex Grossman > Pat White
RB: Alfred Morris > Evan Royster > Roy Helu > Keiland Williams
WR: Pierre Garcon > Josh Morgan > Santana Moss > Leonard Hankerson
TE: Fred Davis > Logan Paulsen > Niles Paul > Deangelo Peterson

Skill Player Overview: This ranking assumes Griffin's knee recovery will continue on schedule. It isn't too bold to suggest a healthy Griffin can surpass Aaron Rodgers as the most dynamic quarterback in football. He is an accurate, rocket-armed passer with game-breaking feet. Morris is a system back in that he might struggle outside of a zone-run offense, but he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Marshawn Lynch in terms of sheer tackle-breaking ability. He's physical as all get out. Helu's return adds speed to the backfield, and he figures to overtake Royster as the third-down back. The Skins did not have a viable change-of-pace runner last year.

Garcon is a much better receiver than people gave him credit for when he left Indy. He outplayed Reggie Wayne in 2011 and racked up 33 catches for 475 yards and three touchdowns over last year's final six regular season contests. The Redskins went 9-1 in his ten 2012 appearances. Garcon's stretch-run numbers extrapolate to 88/1,267/14.4/8 if expanded to a 16-game season. Garcon is terrific after the catch and can win vertically. Still only 26, he is a complete receiver and should keep getting better. It's easy to forget Washington fielded a top-five offense in 2012 despite 16 combined missed games from Garcon, Davis, and RG3. Davis may lose burst in his first year back from an Achilles' tear, but should offer reliability underneath and has developed into a formidable run blocker. The Redskins could really use a playmaking No. 2 wide receiver. Hankerson disappointed in the role last year, Morgan is just a guy, and Moss is 34 years old.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Garcon. The Redskins' $42.5 million wideout suffered a toe injury in Week 1 last season. He missed six of the ensuing eight games, but eventually learned to play through the pain and turned in a highly productive stretch run. The Shanahan scheme funnels offense to the X receiver, which is Garcon's position. If fully recovered, he will be a target monster.

9. Dallas Cowboys

QB: Tony Romo > Kyle Orton > Nick Stephens
RB: DeMarco Murray > Lance Dunbar > Phillip Tanner
WR: Dez Bryant > Miles Austin > Dwayne Harris > Cole Beasley
TE: Jason Witten > James Hanna > Andre Smith > Colin Cochart

Skill Player Overview: The Cowboys are not a top-ten football team -- their offensive line and in-transition defense are major question marks -- but their skill-position talent is on par with the NFL's elite. Romo will probably have to start winning playoff games to earn national respect, but he is a playmaking gunslinger who carried Dallas on his back in 2012 to within one game of an NFC East title. His aggressiveness, lightning-quick release, strong arm, and mobility in tight quarters mask the weaknesses of players around him. Learning to beat double coverage, Bryant ripped the cover off the league from Week 10 on, racking up 50 catches for 879 yards and 10 scores over the final eight games. The numbers work out to 100/1,758/20 if expanded across 16.

Witten, 31, doesn't run downfield as well as he used to, but his 110 receptions last season led all NFL tight ends. Also a plus blocker, Witten is the consummate all-around tight end. Lower-leg injuries have robbed 29-year-old Austin of some explosiveness, but he still works the seams and is among the NFL's premier route runners. Harris and Beasley look like ascending young sub-package receivers. Harris is more of a Z -- like Austin -- while sure-handed Beasley has some Welkerian traits in the slot. So far in his career, Murray has spent nearly as much time on the trainer's table as on the field. While talented and versatile, Murray is stiff and straight-linish as a runner, requiring effective blocking to break productive runs. Dallas badly needs a better No. 2 back.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Harris. The Cowboys need this to be Murray, but I don't think he can stay healthy or perform at a consistent level because of his athletic limitations behind a porous offensive line. In all likelihood, Dallas will have to continue to lean on Romo to carry the offense. With Kevin Ogletree gone to Tampa, Harris is penciled in as the Cowboys' No. 3 wideout.

10. Chicago Bears

QB: Jay Cutler > Josh McCown > Matt Blanchard
RB: Matt Forte > Michael Bush > Armando Allen > Harvey Unga
WR: Brandon Marshall > Alshon Jeffery > Earl Bennett > Devin Hester
TE: Martellus Bennett > Evan Rodriguez > Steve Maneri > Brody Eldridge

Skill Player Overview: Cutler will have an opportunity to rack up the best statistical line of his career. New coach Marc Trestman brings a pass-happy offense from the CFL that is founded on quick-hitting three-step drops and gets the ball out quickly. It's a completion-friendly scheme not dissimilar from what Tom Brady has done the past few years in Foxboro. Cutler is a great talent and can be a fantastic fit, but it's telling that the Bears won't extend his contract before the season as he enters a walk year. This may be his make-or-break season in Chicago. Cutler will have to operate with more anticipation under Trestman. He's long been a see-it, throw-it passer.

I think Bennett was the best signing of free agency. A multi-purpose tight end, Bennett is an outstanding run and pass blocker at only 26 years old. In the receiving game, Bennett has soft hands and athletic movement skills. He can be a big-time short to intermediate weapon out in the open and difference maker in the red zone. An early-career headcase, Marshall appears to have gotten his act together and is coming off career highs in receptions (118), yards (1,508), and touchdowns (11). He is a top-five NFL wideout. If Bennett is Chicago's top breakout candidate in the skill-position group, Jeffery isn't far behind. He has a Boldinian ability to win contested throws and offers buildup speed to challenge vertically. In terms purely of vision, Forte might be the NFL's premier tailback. His plus versatility will also come in awfully handy under pass-first Trestman.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Martellus. I recently spoke to a CFL executive about Trestman's offense, and he described it as aggressive in the passing game with a tendency to go 15-18 straight plays without a rushing attempt. Assuming Trestman stays true to his CFL principles in the NFL -- and all indications are he will -- passing volume is going to be at an all-time high in the Windy City. For the Bears' offense to work at peak efficiency, one fundamental change Trestman must make is in Cutler's propensity for locking onto Marshall. Expect Bennett to be the primary beneficiary as Cutler spreads the ball around more. Bennett is likely to emerge as Chicago's No. 2 pass catcher.

11. New York Giants

QB: Eli Manning > David Carr > Curtis Painter
RB: David Wilson > Andre Brown > Da'Rel Scott > Ryan Torain
WR: Hakeem Nicks > Victor Cruz > Rueben Randle > Louis Murphy
TE: Brandon Myers > Bear Pascoe > Adrien Robinson > Larry Donnell

Skill Player Overview: The Giants' skill-player corps isn't far off the top seven or eight, but Eli and Nicks are both returning from down years and the group faces turnover at tailback and tight end. Gone are Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett, replaced by explosive 2012 first-rounder Wilson and ex-Raider Myers. In coordinator Kevin Gilbride's vertical passing attack, X receiver Nicks is the straw that stirs the drink. In hindsight, it's not surprising the unit struggled with Nicks playing through a debilitating left knee injury. The offense thrives only when the X wins on isolation routes on the perimeter. Lacking lower-body explosion, Nicks couldn't beat man coverage last season. He had the knee scoped in February, and the hope is he'll regain his burst.

The Giants' contract offer to Cruz -- $7 million annually -- indicates how they value him. The franchise envisions Cruz as a top-end No. 2 receiver, but not a No. 1. Nicks is the No. 1. Randle flashed in limited doses as a second-round rookie and his role will grow. At 6-foot-3, 210, Randle ran forty times of 4.33 and 4.37 at his Pro Day and is a field stretcher with great hands. He has similarities to Nicks. Myers is an efficient possession receiver near the line of scrimmage, but he is a significant downgrade from Bennett as both a blocker and playmaker in the passing game.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Wilson. The 32nd pick in last year's draft, Wilson proved too raw to be counted on for a feature role as a rookie. He wasn't taught how to pass protect in college, and ball-security woes kept Wilson behind Bradshaw on the depth chart. Just 21 years old -- he turns 22 in June -- Wilson instead put his dynamic talent to use on special teams, leading the NFL in both kick return yards and returns of 20-plus yards. As a ball carrier, he averaged 5.04 YPC and scored five touchdowns on only 75 offensive touches. Wilson runs with power and explosion, both vertically and laterally. He has a chance to take the league by storm.

12. Indianapolis Colts

QB: Andrew Luck > Matt Hasselbeck > Chandler Harnish
RB: Vick Ballard > Donald Brown > Delone Carter > Davin Meggett
WR: Reggie Wayne > T.Y. Hilton > Darrius Heyward-Bey > LaVon Brazill
TE: Dwayne Allen > Coby Fleener > Weslye Saunders > Dominique Jones

Skill Player Overview: Wayne is entering his age-35 campaign, but by and large this is a young, up-and-coming skill-position group. Luck, 23, ranked seventh in the NFL in passing yards (4,374) and second to only Drew Brees in 20-plus-yard completions (65) in his rookie season. His efficiency should increase this year in new coordinator Pep Hamilton's more high-percentage offense behind an improved offensive line. Hilton and Allen are 23, while Fleener and Brazill are 24. Free-agent deep threat addition Heyward-Bey is still only 26. The arrows are pointing up.

Ballard is only 22, but he is the weakness of Indy's skill group. A workmanlike talent, Ballard lacks big-play ability and averaged only 3.86 yards per carry as a rookie. The Colts could really use an injection of speed into the backfield. Former first-round bust Brown isn't the answer, and Hamilton will run the ball more than outgoing playcaller Bruce Arians did. Hamilton needs another horse.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Hilton. A 2012 third-round gem out of Florida International, Hilton flashed sensational versatility and playmaking ability in his first NFL season. Despite playing rotational snaps behind Wayne and Donnie Avery, Hilton posted five 100-yard games and averaged 17.2 yards per reception -- the NFL's third highest clip among players with at least 50 catches. (Vincent Jackson was No. 1 and Cecil Shorts was No. 2.) From Week 11 into the playoffs, Hilton racked up 34 catches for 572 yards and five touchdowns over the final eight-game stretch -- numbers that extrapolate to 68/1,144/16.8/10 across 16. Hilton can play in the slot and burn outside corners with 4.37 speed. His snaps will leap with Avery gone to Kansas City.

13. Baltimore Ravens

QB: Joe Flacco > Tyrod Taylor > Caleb Hanie
RB: Ray Rice > Bernard Pierce > Anthony Allen > Bobby Rainey
WR: Torrey Smith > Jacoby Jones > Tandon Doss > Tommy Streeter
TE: Dennis Pitta > Ed Dickson > Steve Watson > Alex Silvestro

Skill Player Overview: Operating on the notion that Cam Cameron's low-percentage, vanilla offense was at the root of Flacco's previous inconsistencies, the Ravens are banking on the idea that Flacco's best football is ahead of him. Cameron was fired on December 10, and Flacco went on to complete 138-of-231 throws (59.7 percent) for 1,919 yards (8.31 YPA), 18 touchdowns, and two picks from Week 14 into SB47. If stretched across 16 games, the TD-to-INT ratio is a Brady-esque 36:4. While Baltimore could still afford to upgrade opposite Smith, the loss of Anquan Boldin will have less of a negative effect than popular opinion insists. Boldin deserves kudos for a stellar playoff performance, but has just seven touchdowns over his last 33 regular season games and his playmaking ability is evaporating going on age 33. Boldin spent three years in Baltimore and never reached 1,000 yards. He regularly vanished in games due to an inability to separate.

One of the immediate changes made by new playcaller Jim Caldwell down the stretch was an increased emphasis on using Rice and Pierce as a one-two backfield punch. Pierce delivered, racking up 487 yards on his final 88 runs (5.53 YPC). Rice will remain an all-purpose workhorse, but the Ravens now have the best running back depth of Flacco's career. Pitta will also see more consistent targets with Boldin in San Francisco, serving as Baltimore's go-to guy over the middle and down the seam. Pitta only had three drops among 90 targets during the 2012 regular season.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Streeter. A height-weight-speed freak out of Miami (FL), 2012 sixth-round pick Streeter was clocked in the 4.34-4.40 range at 6-foot-5, 219 during last year's Scouting Combine. Streeter took a redshirt as a rookie, but should have every opportunity to unseat Jones for the No. 2 receiver role across from Smith. At this year's NFL Owners Meetings, both coach John Harbaugh and owner Steve Bisciotti brought up Streeter when asked about Boldin's replacement. "(The coaching staff) liked Tommy Streeter's development by the end of the year," Bisciotti said. "They thought that he finally started to get what it was like to be a pro."

14. Detroit Lions

QB: Matthew Stafford > Shaun Hill > Kellen Moore
RB: Reggie Bush > Mikel Leshoure > Joique Bell > Devin Moore
WR: Calvin Johnson > Nate Burleson > Ryan Broyles > Mike Thomas
TE: Brandon Pettigrew > Tony Scheffler > Nathan Overbay > Dominique Curry

Skill Player Overview: The Lions boast the best wide receiver in football and arguably the NFL's premier arm talent in Stafford. The Bush acquisition was both savvy and logical; one of the league's top passing-game backs joins the game's pass-happiest offense. Stafford's mechanics were an issue last year -- OC Scott Linehan needs to clean them up -- but there would be far fewer complaints had the Lions simply gotten better luck. Megatron was tackled at the goal line six times. Titus Young had a mental meltdown and tried to sabotage his own team. Burleson and Broyles suffered serious injuries. TEs Pettigrew and Scheffler each had career-worst seasons.

In all likelihood, we'll be able to reexamine the Detroit offensive skill-player group a year from now and consider it top ten. Bush adds a new dimension. Stafford is the best bounce-back candidate in football. Johnson, inevitably, is going to score more touchdowns. If Broyles' latest ACL recovery goes smoothly, he can be the reliable possession receiver Detroit sorely needs. Plodding in 2012, Leshoure should regain some burst another full year recovered from his 2011 Achilles' tear. This unit is conservatively ranked only because so many members are coming off bad seasons.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Bush. Coach Jim Schwartz has openly spoken of getting Bush 80 catches, and there probably isn't a better bet to lead running backs in receptions this season than Detroit's new feature back. Playcaller Scott Linehan skews heavily toward the pass. If Bush stays healthy -- something he struggled with in New Orleans but accomplished with Miami -- he could be headed for a career-best season at age 28. You're gonna want him in your PPR league.

15. Houston Texans

QB: Matt Schaub > T.J. Yates > Case Keenum > Stephen McGee
RB: Arian Foster > Ben Tate
WR: Andre Johnson > Lestar Jean > Keshawn Martin > DeVier Posey
TE: Owen Daniels > Garrett Graham > Jake Byrne > Phillip Supernaw

Skill Player Overview: This group looks respectable on paper, but it's fair to wonder if the Texans' window is closing. Schaub and Johnson are entering their age-32 seasons, and the former is showing signs of decline. Playing shell-shocked and hesitant ever since Houston's Week 14 smackdown loss to New England, Schaub completed 147-of-220 throws for 1,551 yards (7.05 YPA), and a 3:5 TD-to-INT ratio over the Texans' final six games. He was a checkdown machine, regularly throwing short of the sticks on third down. Schaub is not capable of going toe-to-toe with the NFL's top passers. It doesn't help that the Texans lack a viable No. 2 receiver. Jean flashes in practices and preseason games, but couldn't unseat Kevin Walter last year. Walter was cut this offseason. Posey tore his Achilles' in the playoffs and almost certainly won't contribute in 2013.

Another area of concern is Foster's piling-up workloads as his yards-per-carry averages regress. No player has handled the football more than Foster over the past three seasons, and his YPC has steadily dropped from 4.94 (2010) to 4.40 (2011) and 4.06 (2012). Last year's struggles can be partly blamed on Houston's offensive line downgrades, but Foster led the NFL in rush attempts (351) and it's time to begin wondering just how many big seasons he has left. In 2012, defenses were often content to let Daniels rack up short catches over the middle in favor of double-teaming Johnson and filling the box against Foster because Houston was so painfully short on playmakers.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Tate. The Texans don't have a great breakout candidate on the current roster, so 24-year-old Tate is just as good a bet as any based on Foster's alarming recent usage. While Tate is returning from a disappointing season marred by foot and hamstring injuries, he is capable of running with power, explosion, and some shake when healthy. Tate's career stat line so far is 240 carries for 1,221 yards (5.09 YPC) with six scores and 24 catches.

16. Carolina Panthers

QB: Cam Newton > Derek Anderson > Jimmy Clausen
RB: Jonathan Stewart > DeAngelo Williams > Mike Tolbert > Armond Smith
WR: Steve Smith > Brandon LaFell > Domenik Hixon > Ted Ginn
TE: Greg Olsen > Ben Hartsock > Richie Brockel > Nelson Rosario

Skill Player Overview: Carolina's skill group is long on talent and potential, but putting it all together has been elusive. Consistency is a big issue at quarterback, while durability has proved the backfield's kryptonite. Newton possesses physical tools to be a legitimately dominant football player, but hasn't yet turned in a full season of efficient play. He starred as a passer in the first half of 2011 before tailing off down the stretch. His 2012 first half was a nightmare before a red-hot finish. Stewart is versatile with power, elusiveness, and long speed, but was a shell of his usual self last year while attempting to play through injuries on both feet. Stewart had his left ankle scoped in January. He's only 26, but it's fair to question whether Stewart will ever maximize all of his talent.

The Panthers probably would've released Williams if not for a sizable cap hit. Williams is 30 now, with running skills that have eroded to the point where he can no longer create on his own. It's still possible Williams will be cut after the draft on a post-June 1 designation, although doing so would push dead money into 2014. Carolina already projects to be in more cap hell next winter. Smith is still a premier NFL receiver, but is 34 years old. LaFell was a disappointment at No. 2 wideout last season and may be pushed for his starting job by Hixon or an early-round rookie. Olsen is a rock-solid tight end coming off career highs in catches (69) and yards (843). Along with Newton, Olsen was one of ex-GM Marty Hurney's few positive offensive additions.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Stewart. It all comes down to health. Stewart is immensely gifted, young, and excels in the passing game. He went into 2012 averaging 4.83 career yards per carry and is still at 4.69 despite the worst year of his career. Whereas Rob Chudzinski became obsessed with the read-option to the point that it had a restrictive effect on Carolina's offense, new OC Mike Shula will focus on a simplified, power-based run game where Newton plays consistently from under center. Assuming he is healthy, Stewart will have a chance to be the bellcow back.

Scroll to continue with content

What to Read Next