The mantra in fantasy for years has been to play it safe with your first couple of picks and get it right. Save your riskier selections for the later rounds. The only problem is that in 2015 there isn't a player that doesn't come with at least some nominal risk.
Indeed, this is a very odd year when it comes to ranking fantasy players. In fact, this may be the most difficult time I have had in my past 20+ years of participating in fantasy football -- at least in terms of ranking the players at the top. You can probably poll a dozen "experts" to rank their top 12 fantasy players -- and get 12 completely different lists. The majority of players on the 12-name list would probably be the same, but the sequence would likely be different for all 12 lists. There isn't even a consensus #1 overall pick.
What follows isn't necessarily my personal order in which I would rank these players with a first-round fantasy grade. Rather, it is our consensus ranking, which you can find here. In the analysis that follows you will see where I may disagree a bit with our contributors' consensus opinion. For each player, I will provide an explanation of why they may warrant first-round consideration as well as a break-down of the risk in selecting them that high.
1. Jamaal Charles
Why rate him so high? You could make the argument that no non-QB player in the league means more to his team than Jamaal Charles. He not only leads the Chiefs in carries, rushing yards, receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, but the entire scheme of the offense runs through him. Charles' ability to make catches out of the backfield has helped to mask the team's often putrid offensive line play. His excellent field vision and tough running late in games has enabled the Chiefs to rest their defense, run out the clock and milk-out victories. Charles also has history on his side. In 2012 he was the 5th ranked fantasy RB. He improved to no worse than 2nd (some would argue #1 overall) in 2013, and, despite missing time to injury last year, still finished the year as the #5 fantasy RB. Marshawn Lynch is the only other player who has cracked the top 5 fantasy RB list for the last three years.
Yes, 2014 was a bit of a down year for him (see below), but Charles didn't get much help either. Think about this for a moment: not a single wide receiver for the Chiefs scored a touchdown all year long! That is an almost impossible (albeit dubious) feat. Of course, that led opposing defenses to stack the box -- especially in goal line situations -- and hone in on Charles. I expect the new and improved receiving corps to improve dramatically this year, which should keep defenses from keying in on Charles so much.
And the Risks? Arguably fantasy's MVP in 2013, Charles saw his workload curtailed last year. A season after he registered 15 or fewer carries in a game only three times, it happened 10 times in 2014. He also lost 30 catches and 402 receiving yards off his 2013 pace. None of this happened because Charles has lost his trademark burst. The Chiefs have simply decided to include Knile Davis (rushing) and De'Anthony Thomas (receiving) in their backfield plans. Expect more of the same.
The Bottom Line: Charles should threaten double-digit TDs and boast one of the NFL's best per-carry averages, but he could lag behind the NFL leaders in carries and touches. Provided he can stay healthy, though, he is a fairly safe option who you can pencil into your lineup every week. While it is hard to predict that he will be the #1 overall fantasy RB in 2015, it is a VERY good bet that he will finish among the top five. It is hard for me to feel comfortable saying that about any one else right now. 1800 total yards and 16 total TDs (rushing and receiving) seem like reasonable expectations for the year.
2. Eddie Lacy
Why rate him so high?
In a league where RBBC (Running Back By Committee) has become the norm, Eddie Lacy is a throwback: he is one of the few all-purpose, every-down backs left in the game. In the tradition of the great power backs of the past, Lacy is a true workhorse back that can pack a load. At 230 pounds, he possesses surprisingly nimble feet and the ability to break tackles. Lacy runs behind a pretty good offensive line and faces defenses whose primary goal is to stop (or at least minimize the damage done by) Aaron Rodgers. That, of course, opens plenty of holes for Lacy to plow through. Lacy may not have top-flight burst, but he personifies the classic 3-4 yards in a cloud of dust mentality. Rarely will you see him lose yardage, as he pushes a pile as forcefully as any RB in the NFL. Lacy also has terrific hands -- he finished sixth in RB receiving yards in 2014. That is great news on a couple of fronts: first he obviously boosts his yardage and TD totals and provides better-than-expected value in PPR (Point Per Reception) formats. Second, there is no need to spell him for a third down back, as Lacy fills that role himself.
And the Risks?Whereas the Chiefs offense runs through Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy is more a by-product of the offensive machine engineered by Aaron Rodgers. As long as Rodgers is under center the offense is going to be a high-flying pass-happy one. Frankly, that is the way it should be, as when the Packers have tried to limit Rodgers' drop-backs and rely more heavily on the running game, it has become evident that their heart just isn't in it. In his short career, Lacy has also started each season slowly. In 2013, his rookie year, he racked up a grand total of only 158 yards and 1 TD on 50 carries after his first three starts. Cursed with difficult match-ups last September, Lacy earned ire from fantasy owners by ranking 43rd in RB points after four games. That trend could continue in 2015 with early-season match-ups against the Chiefs, Seahawks and 49ers.
The Bottom Line: If you can survive the early season woes -- as fantasy owners have had to do in each of the last two seasons -- Lacy will likely improve as the season goes on similar to how he wears down opposing defenses and gets stronger in the 4th quarter in most games. The Packers will never be a run-first team while Mike McCarthy is calling the plays and Aaron Rodgers is under center, but Lacy is also sure to benefit from defenses who are less worried about stopping him than they are allowing a big passing play. In a way, Lacy serves as a fantasy compliment to Jamaal Charles, who is the centerpiece of his offense and possesses big-play ability but must contend with defenses geared to stop him. Charles, thus, has more upside as he can score from anywhere on the field; whereas, Lacy is a safer option. In fact, Lacy may just be the safest option in fantasy, which is why we have him ranked this high. 1700 total yards and 14 scores look to be a solid bet.
3. Adrian Peterson
Why rate him so high? This is Adrian friggin' Peterson we are talking about, folks. Before all the off-field drama kicked in last year, I remind you that Peterson was the #1 overall selection in many fantasy drafts. Coming off the 2014, he should be rested and ready to go this year. He also has an enormous chip on his shoulder, as he will want to dispelled that bad taste that may have carried over from last season's allegations of child abuse. While he saw only one game last season before the NFL introduced to the Vikings the concept of suspension-with-pay, Peterson still managed to procure 23 touches in that game, despite the whirlwind of controversy surrounding him.
It may seem like ancient news now, but prior to last year's fiasco, AP had been a fantasy stud each and every year since entering the league back in 2007. He had never failed to score at least 10 TDs or accumulate at least 1200 all-purpose in any of those seasons. Who can forget that magical 2012 season when he came close to breaking Eric Dickerson's record -- and finished with 2097 rushing yards? You can count one one hand the number of RBs who have averaged in their career 5 yards per carry as Peterson has. That places Peterson in the select company of Barry Sanders and Jim Brown. Yes, that is the level of talent we are talking about.
And the Risks? This one is pretty easy. In fact, AP comes with more risk than any player on this list. Where do I start? Let's start with the actions that led to Peterson's "suspension" last season. Given that we haven't seen hide or tail of him on the football field since, it is hard to know exactly where his head is. His current holdout and threats of retirement, certainly raise more red flags in these regards. Then there is the football part of the equation. Missing almost all of 2014 could indeed provide him with fresh legs -- but it could very well have introduced rust as well. What kind of football shape will Peterson be in when the season starts -- even if he decides to show up? The career production is admirable, but it also highlights the fact that Peterson is 30 years old and has chalked up a massive line of carries in 2,054. Father Time remains undefeated, and we just don't know he will reign over Peterson.
The Bottom Line: Peterson is the poster-child for the proverbial boom-or-bust fantasy option. Assuming he shows up and is ready to play, of course, expect stud-like numbers from him. Peterson's stock is going to be all over the map this summer. I have seen a number of early mock drafts where he has gone #1 overall. At least one of our contributors saw fit to rank him as the top fantasy option. Not me. At least not right now. Honestly, until his situation becomes more clear, I wouldn't even be comfortable taking him with the #3 pick as we have him ranked here. Will he report in time for training camp? Will another team offer the Vikings enough in the way of compensation to force a trade? If/when he shows up, will he be ready to play? So many questions -- just hope these questions are answered in time for your fantasy draft(s). If they aren't, my best advise is to let some other owner in your league be the ballsy one -- unless Peterson slips to the point where the risk is no longer prohibitive.
4. Le'Veon Bell
Why rate him so high? Bell may have been one of the better fantasy bargains of the 2014 season. Fantasy owners went into the year with two key concerns: he had a potential suspension hanging over his head due to a marijuana possession charge -- and Bell himself admitted that he believed that LaGarrett Blount would cut into his redzone carries in significant fashion. As it turns out, no suspension was ever handed out last season and Blount proved to be a non-factor. In fact, the Steelers wound up releasing Blount early on. Instead Bell was not only a workhorse in starting all 16 games, he was also a reliable fantasy performer in rewarding the fantasy owners who gambled a late 2nd or early 3rd round pick on him. Bell racked up 10 or more (non-PPR) fantasy points in 14 of his 16 games. In the two games where he fell short, he accounted for 8 fantasy points and ranked 20th and 25th at the RB position in each of those weeks, so he was still a borderline starting fantasy RB in 12-team 2 RB leagues -- even on his worst days in 2014. He was fantasy's top RB from Week 5 on and failed to eclipse 100 yards from scrimmage in only three games all year.
And the Risks? After nearly a year, the league finally came down with a suspension in April when they announced 3 games for Bell in 2015. While the suspension is under appeal, we must assume at this time that he will be missing the first 3 games of the year. Missing 18.75% of the games this season isn't the only reason to that he ranks behind the top 3. Despite the impressive workload last season, he had trouble punching it into the endzone -- scoring only 8 TDs on the ground in 2014. So, in a way, concerns of his red zone utilization usage were apt. In fact, I just had to double-check a stat to verify its accuracy: he scored only 1 rushing TD in his first 10 games of 2014. Bell hyper-extended his knee at the end of the season and admits that it is still not 100%.
The Bottom Line: The early lack of rushing TDs should not diminish the fact that Le'Veon was not only the #1 fantasy running back in many formats, he was also the top fantasy scorer, even eclipsing elite fantasy QBs like Aaron Rodgers. If it were not for the suspension, I would have no hesitation taking him #1 overall, given his consistency and productivity. The question is: how much should we downgrade him due to the suspension? Well, think of it this way: if he has as much success as he did last year, you would have to expect strong starting RB productivity out of him in the 13 games in which he is active. Given the increasing shortage of bell cow RBs, there just aren't many other fantasy RBs that can do that for you -- even with a full 16-game schedule. So I still see him as a bona fide RB1, worthy of a first-round selection. I'm just not sure I would by-pass Murray, Forte, Beast Mode, and Shady McCoy for a back that will have you scrambling for a replacement in the first 3 games of the season. If you do spend a first-rounder on him, be sure to also grab his backup, DeAngelo Williams to help you through those first three weeks.
5. Marshawn Lynch
Why rate him so high? There were two great winnders in the Super Bowl. On was, of course, the New England Patriots. The other was Marshawn Lynch. How so? Well, ever since Russell Wilson's ill-fated pass at the goal line that was intercepted by the Patriots to ice the game, all anyone can talk about is the foolishness on the part of the Seahawks not to give the ball to Lynch in that situation. The episode helped turn Lynch into something of an anti-hero. The same guy who had been heavily criticized just a week before for refusing to do interviews on media day and making a mockery of the process when compelled to do so ("I'm thankful"), was now getting mad props for bucking the system. A month or so later Lynch and the Seahawks agreed to a contract extension that added two more years onto what would have been the final year of Lynch's contract in 2015.
But I digress.
Marshawn Lynch is the only RB in the league who has carried the ball 280 or more times in each of the last 4 seasons. He has also scored double-digit TDs in each of those seasons. Workhorse may be an understatement for Lynch -- as his self proclaimed "Beast Mode" moniker may be a better fit. Last season he accounted for over one third of the Seahawks' offensive production, and was the #3 fantasy running back in many non-PPR formats.
And the Risks? History has shown that running backs who have been as (over) worked as Lynch has these last few seasons have a tendency to wear down -- without warning. Studies have shown that the magic number -- that is the number of career carries at which point the player suddenly experiences a precipitous decline -- is 1,800. Lynch eclipsed that number nearly two years ago and sits at roughly 2,200 as we speak. For Lynch the problem isn't just the number of carries, it is compounded by his violent running style. As a guy who butters his bread running between the tackles, it is also worth noting that Lynch will be running behind a new guard and center this year as James Carpenter and Max Unger (who was shipped to New Orleans as part of the Jimmy Graham trade) are gone. Although Lynch hasn't missed a game in any of the last three seasons, he has had lingering issues with his back, and history has also shown us that back issues often worsen as the years go by. Then there is the off-field stuff. First there were miss-steps in Buffalo that eventually led to his departure. Last year he had to deal with assault allegations (of which he was eventually cleared), and the year before that there was a DUI charge that was eventually knocked down to a reckless driving charge. Lynch certainly remains a guy that likes to march to the beat of his own drum.
The Bottom Line: I really do have a feeling that Lynch is a prime candidate for decline in production at least partially due to his age (29) and wear-and-tear. Still, there was no evidence of that decline last year as he set a career high in rushing TDs. He also had his best year ever as a receiver out of the backfield, setting career highs in receptions, yards and TDs receiving. I expect the Seahawks to continueto make him the focal point of their offense for as long as he's healthy. But that's the question: Can Beast Mode continue to buck conventional wisdom and rack up a fifth consecutive season of double-digit TDs? When it is all said and done, I'm not sure I would be comfortable investing a first round pick on a running back that has as many miles on him as Lynch. If Lych were my best RB option on the board in the first, I think I would consider drafting a stud WR instead -- and maybe giving him another look in the 2nd round.
6. Arian Foster
Why rate him so high? When Arian Foster was healthy enough to suit up last season, he was an elite fantasy running back. He managed 13 appearances in 2014, and in those 13 games, he averaged the third-most fantasy points per game (behind Murray and Bell) in many formats. Foster remains one of the most complete RBs in the NFL: he has that rare combination of power and speed to burn any defense. He is fantastic at identifying his hold and hitting it with instantaneous acceleration. That makes him great in a zone-blocking scheme, like the Texans employ.
And the Risks? As I hinted above, Foster has had trouble staying healthy. Over the last two seasons, Foster has missed a total of 11 games -- and he has been limited in several others. The Texans have spoken freely about trying to cut back on Foster's carries, as twice in the last five years, he has carried the ball over 300 times in a season. This may be the year that the team is serious about spreading Foster's carries as the Texans added Chris Polk to go along with Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes.
The Bottom Line: I would view Foster in pretty much the same vein that fantasy owners have looked at him since his 351-carry season back in 2012. That is: he is capable of putting up huge numbers, but the injury risk is always going to follow him. For all the lip service the Texans give about limiting his touches, Foster had 20-plus carries nine times in 2014, second most in the league behind DeMarco Murray. Foster deserves to be an RB1 this year. Just make sure you handcuff Alfred Blue.
7. Matt Forte
Why rate him so high? For my money, Matt Forte is the most under-appreciated fantasy option on this list. He is an absolute PPR monster, racking up an insane 102 receptions (on 130 targets) last season. Of course, he did plenty of damage on the ground as well, carrying the ball 266 times for 1038 yards. In most formats Forte was a top 5 fantasy RB in 2014 -- and was even better in PPR formats.
And the Risks? There really aren't many. For one thing, Forte has never been a big TD machine. After scoring 12 TDs (combined rushing and receiving) as a rookie way back in 2008, it wasn't until offensive-minded Marc Trestman took over as head coach that Forte managed to crack double digits in TDs, which he has done in each of the last two seasons. Trestman is gone now, which also likely means fewer opportunities in the passing game. That is, don't expect another 100+ catch season in 2015. Like AP and Beast Mode, Forte is getting up there in years (29). He has had at least 250 touches in all seven of his pro seasons. Again, the affects of age and wear-and-tear often hit without warning.
The Bottom Line: Although Trestman's departure will likely mean fewer receptions, new defensive-minded head coach John Fox will likely want to minimize QB Jay Cutler's mistakes by putting the ball in Forte's hands as often as he can. So I still see FOrte being among the league leaders at the RB position in terms of receptions. Even if that number drops from 102 to, say, 70, I still expect Forte to have another 1,800-yard and double-digit TD season in terms of total production. I personally have him ranked in the top three on my board, as I believe that he is one of the safest fantasy options at the RB position. Honestly, in PPR formats, I would not laugh at anyone for taking him #1 overall.
8. Antonio Brown
Why rate him so high? Heading into last season, we were high on Brown as a legitimate WR1 in fantasy, but we stopped short of declaring him elite. 2013 had been a breakout season, but would he be able to duplicate that success in 2014 now that he was Pittsburgh's undisputed #1 WR?
Boy, did he ever!
In fact, he exceeded all expectations in not only again serving as Ben Roethlisberger's top target, he also became fantasy's #1 WR overall. Brown led all receivers in receptions (129) and yards (1,698), while ranking second (behind Demaryius Thomas) in targets (180). His 13 TDs ranked second to only Dez Bryant. When the Steelers were in the redzone, Big Ben looked Brown's way often, as his 22 end zone targets ranked third overall.
Oh, and Brown didn't just have a couple of stud-like performances to catapult his overall totals, either. In PPR formats, Antonio Brown scored at least 10 fantasy points in EVERY game. He had 9 or more targets in every game but one -- the one game where he had fewer (6), he made the most of those targets with 5 receptions and 116 yards. In fact, Brown has registered six or more targets in 33 consecutive games (including playoffs), with 10+ in 23 of those and 12+ in 15. Brown's conversion of receptions per targets was outstanding last season with a 71% conversion rate. For comparison's sake, the great Calvin Johnson had a 55.47% rate. Even in non-PPR formats, Brown was studly, averaging a whopping 1.39 non-PPR fantasy points per target. Again, to illustrate how good that was, Megatron's non-PPR fantasy points per target average was 1.22.
And the Risks? It really would be nit-picking for me to find any negatives when it comes to Antonio Brown. The position itself would be a factor, I suppose, as anyone who has read my columns over the years knows that I am leery of overrating wide receivers, as you can always find excellent ones late in the draft and even in free agency. Last year Odell Beckham Jr, TY Hilton and Mike Evans were just three stud receivers who went in the later rounds. The fantasy wide receiver pool is just so deep. Unlike other stud fantasy receivers like Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, Brown isn't a huge man. He stands just 5-foot-10 and weighs 186-pounder, so he isn't always "open-even-when-he's-not-open" as many current scouts have coined the term to describe receivers capable of out-muscling defenders in jump-ball situations.
The Bottom Line: Again, I have never been a big proponent of recommending that you draft a receiver in the first round, but I certainly agree with our consensus view that Brown is worthy of first-round consideration in all formats. Given the underlying risks with virtually every running back, he presents a nice, safe alternative. Barring any sort of injury -- and despite his size he has remained durable -- another year of 100 receptions seems to be on the horizon for him.
9. DeMarco Murray
Why rate him so high? Tagged with a reputation for being injury prone, DeMarco Murray was not at the first name to come to mind for anyone predicting who would lead the league in carries last season. But that is exactly what happened. In fact, his 393 carries last season were the most by any running back in a season since Larry Johnson tabbed 406 back in 2006. Murray remained incredibly durable and made every start for the Cowboys last year. He also proved he could be a complete power RB.
His production wasn't isolated to a couple of blowout games where Dallas was trying to grind the clock, either. The production was consistent across the board, as he toted the rock at least 20 times in 13 of 16 games. And in the other three games he carried the ball exactly 19 times. Murray eclipsed the century mark in each of his first 8 games. For the season, he had twelve 100-yard games. Not surprisingly, he led the league in rushing with 1845 yards. He was also a factor in the passing game with 57 receptions for 416 yards.
And the Risks? How can we possibly be so low on a guy who led the league in rushing last season and was the #1 overall fantasy performer in various formats? Well, aside from Adrian Peterson, Murray may be the season's biggest wild card. His migration from Dallas to division rival Philly has us all wondering how things will shake out. LeSean McCoy showed us back in 2013 that Chip Kelly's offense is very RB-friendly. With that said, there certainly are many unknowns. Here is what we know: Philly's offensive line isn't bad, but it represents a downgrade from the one Murray ran behind last season in Dallas. Although last season should help to dis-spell the myth that Murray is injury-prone, history has not been kind to backs the following season after getting as many carries as Murray had last year.
Let's look a little closer at what has happened to running backs the season AFTER rushing the ball so many times. Aside from Murray, since 2002, the top four most productive seasons for a running back in terms of carries were as follows: Larry Johnson (as I already mentioned) with 406 carries in 2006, Ricky Williams with 392 carries in 2003, Jamaal Lewis with 388 carries also in 2003, and Michael Turner with 377 carries in 2007. How did they do their next season. Not very well. In fact, none of them were even half as good as they were the season before. Larry Johnson was NEVER the same after being borderline abused in 2006; in 2007 he managed just 158 carries for 559 yards and never carried the ball as many times as 200 in a season ever again. Ricky Williams, too, was never the same after being so over-worked in 2003; remember that he voluntarily sat out the entire next season and even contemplated retiring. After flirting with Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record in the big 388-carry season back in 2003, Lewis barely eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark the following year. And Michael Turner dropped ALL the way down TO 178 carries the year after he set his career high with 377.
Again, history is not on DeMarco Murray's side.
Chip Kelly is well aware of this too, and he knows fully well that he cannot expect Murray to carry the load as much as he did last year in Dallas. How do we know this? Well, the Eagles also brought in Ryan Mathews from San Diego, and Darren Sproles remains on hand to get plenty of looks in 3rd down situations.
The Bottom Line: There is a reason why Dallas chose not open the bank vault to retain DeMarco Murray -- and I am not basing this on Joseph Randle's idiotic comment about Murray leaving some "meat on the bone". Ironically, I feel the same way about Murray that I did last year, when I was afraid to draft him in the first round because of the various risk factors (mostly injury-related) surrounding him. Like last season, I still believe he has the talent -- and I do not believe that Philly represents the downgrade from Dallas that many others fear it does. Rather, my concerns this year are more about the residual affect of last season's workload and the steps that the Eagles have already taken to ensure that Murray stays fresh this year. Obviously, I was wrong last year for passing on him.
10. LeSean McCoy
Why rate him so high? Shady McCoy is the NFL's quickest running back and is just a year removed from having won the rushing title. That explains why he was drafted #1 overall in plenty of fantasy leagues last season. The Eagles were a mess at times with a depleted offensive line and Mark Sanchez forced to play QB. Still, McCoy managed to rush for 1319 yards, good for third in the league behind Murray and Bell. So 2014 was not all that disappointing. McCoy is just 26 years old, so he still has plenty of fuel in the tank, despite an already impressive NFL resume.
And the Risks? Any way we may try to spin it, 2014 was disappointing for McCoy fantasy owners. His rushing yardage numbers dropped by nearly 300 yards from 2013 to 2014 -- and that was with virtually the same number of carries (314 in 2013 and 313 in 2014). Worse, his receiving numbers also dropped dramatically going from 52 receptions and 539 yards in 2013 to 29 receptions for 155 yards in 2014. Worst of all, in 2014 he scored a total of 11 TDs, and that number dropped to 5 last season. All told, we are looking at a difference in nearly 700 total yards and 6 TDs on just 24 fewer carries. So, the opportunities were there, but clearly the production wasn't. Perhaps that explains why Chip Kelly considered McCoy expendable and traded him to the Bills.
It is true that the Eagles experienced some offensive line woes, especially early in the season -- and the QB situation was less than ideal with Mark Sanchez forced to appear in 9 games. But his situation in Buffalo this season may not be any better. The Bills, too, have plenty of issues with their offensive line, and they haven't even identified who the starting QB will be for the 2015 season. The Bills also have plenty of other running backs in house, including Fred Jackson, Boobie Dixon and former McCoy under-study Bryce Brown. Jackson, in particular has cut into the production of other feature backs including Marshawn Lynch and CJ. Spiller.
The Bottom Line: I agree with the consensus opinion that LeSean McCoy figures to be a borderline first round fantasy prospect. In other words, he belongs in the 2nd tier of RB1 options. He may not be in the most ideal situation, but in the end I believe his talent will prevail. Remember also that Rex Ryan loves to pound the football, and he brought in an offensive coordinator in Greg Roman who is like-minded. Barring injury, McCoy should see another 300 carries again this year with similar yardage totals to what we saw last year. I like for him to be much more of a factor in the passing game than he was last year, and with a much more aggressive defense in Buffalo, I think the offense will be better positioned for McCoy to score more TDs than he did last season. So look for his production to lie somewhere between the numbers he posted in 2013 and 2014.
11. Demaryius Thomas
Why rate him so high? With Peyton Manning back for at least another season, Thomas is in the discussion as the #1 fantasy WR, which is what may folks expected him to be in 2014. Thomas wasn't off the mark by much, finishing 2nd behind Antonio Brown in PPR formats and third behind Brown and Jordy Nelson in non-PPR formats. With Manning under center, the Georgia Tech product has finished 4th or better in receiving yards, at least 7th in receiving TDs and no worse than 5th in fantasy points among WRs. Thomas started the 2014 season slowly. After the first three games, he had only 13 receptions for 141 yards and only 1 TD. Then the bye week happened -- and he immediately righted his ship, exploding onto the scene with 8 catches for 226 yards and 2 TDs against the Cardinals. That set the stage for 12 of his next 13 games where he scored a TD and/or accumulated over 100 yards receiving.
And the Risks? The return of Peyton Manning for 2015 is key, of course. Bear in mind, though, that in the second half of the season that Manning was a shell of his usual self, as he played the last month or so of the season with a torn right quad. Early reports indicate that he has looked sharp in OTAs, but smart fantasy owners will want to keep a watchful eye on the 39-year old QB. New coach Gary Kubiak will be instituting his own offense, and it will be interesting to see if he is comfortable giving Manning the sort of latitude that other coaches have. Kubiak has traditionally favored a more balanced running game, and the word is that he wants Peyton to play under center almost exclusively. How will this impact Demaryius Thomas and the other receivers?
The Bottom Line: Despite seeing his touchdowns dip from 14 in 2013 to 11 last season, Thomas actually led the league in end zone targets with 23. Kubiak is likely to call more runs and limit the number of mult-WR formations, but Thomas is still going to be the primary target. As long as Manning is on the field, it is hard not to imagine Thomas racking up about 100 receptions for somewhere around 1,500 yards and double-digit TDs. Highly productive and mostly consistent, he is the very definition of a first round draft pick in fantasy.
12. Dez Bryant
Why rate him so high? Quite simply, Bryant is a TD machine -- a machine that has improved every year in the league. From 6 TDs as a rookie back in 2010 to 9 to 12 to 13, and finally 16 last season. Those TDs were good enough to lead the league last season -- and no one has caught more TD passes since 2010 than Dez. How ironic is it that he may be best remembered for the controversial TD he didn't catch in the playoff loss to the Packers.
Dez isn't just a TD machine, of course. He ranked #9 among WRs in receiving yards with 1320 and 12th in both targets and receptions. For all receivers with a minimum of 90 targets, Dez led the way with the most fantasy points per target in non-PPR formats. He was the #4 fantasy WR last season in traditional formats. He and Tony Romo have built a wonderful QB-to-WR relationship over the years, and it is clear that Romo trusts his top receiver in any and every situation.
And the Risks? There really are not many things to be concerned about from a football perspective. What about from the business perspective? Remember that Dez and the Cowboys failed to reach an agreement on a long-term contract, and the Cowboys slapped the franchise tag on him. The two sides are still reportedly in talks, but no agreement has been reached. Dez has shown up for OTAs, but the situation is worth watching in case talks get heated -- and the threat of a holdout comes up.
The Bottom Line: I have Dez and Demaryius ranked neck-and-neck with expectations of similar production. Given the contract situation, I would give Thomas the slight nod, but I believe either is a valid late first-round option in fantasy.
OK, let's say that you are picking late in the first round, and you are uncomfortable with any of the RBs who are still on the board. All three WRs that I referenced above are gone. What do yo do? Well, there are a number of directions you could go. You could "reach" for the next available RB, assuming you are more comfortable with him. Maybe you feel safer going with the next-rated WR. Or -- gasp! -- maybe you jump the shark and take the top rated QB or TE.
Assuming you are dead-set on going running back and you don't like any of the available ones I have referenced above, the name that jumps out to me is C.J. Anderson. Although it is true that we have Jeremy Hill ranked ahead of Anderson at this time, Hill is simply too one-dimensional for me to justify building my fantasy roster around. There is also the Gio Bernard factor. Yes, I know: Anderson also will have his own battle in terms of competing for touches with Monte Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Indeed, it took injuries to both Ball and Hillman before Anderson started to see quality touches in Denver last season. But once he received the starting gig -- admittedly by default -- Anderson never looked back. Anderson was the top fantasy RB from Week 12 on last season.
I already mentioned how much Gary Kubiak loves to run the ball, and Anderson clearly out-performed the other two. Anderson should benefit from Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, which has made stars out of such luminaries as Steve Slaton, Clinton Portis, Arian Foster and Justin Forsett. I have to admit that I over-hyped Monte Ball last year because history has shown that running backs in Peyton Manning-led offenses tend to post gaudy TD numbers -- the Broncos in particular have averaged 14 rushing TDs since Manning arrived back in 2012. While he may struggle to be among the top fantasy backs in yardage, Anderson should break the double-digit TD barrier.
If you feel more comfortable taking a stud wide receiver early, there are several to choose from that fall into the next tier after Brown/Thomas/Bryant. First and foremost is Odell Beckham, Jr. Who can forget that three-finger catch he made that will forever be replayed on highlight reels? Beckham was just one of several rookie WRs who burst on the scene last year, and he was hugely responsible for carrying many fantasy owners to a championship lat season. An afterthought when the season began, when the smoke settled Beckham racked up 91 receptions, 1,305 yards and 12 TDs in only 12 games. Simple math, shows that over a full 16-game season at the same rate, Beckham would have posted 121 catches for 1,740 yards and 16 TDs, which would place him in the running for the top fantasy WR overall.
He wasn't just hugely prolific, he was also amazingly consistent once he got his sea legs under him in week 7 and became a must-start every week in fantasy. In 11 of his 12 games he caught at least one TD pass and/or racked up 90+ yards receiving. Beckham would have qualified as a WR1 (in 12-team leagues) in 7 of those starts and WR2 in 3 of the other 5. He halso has a reliable maker of stud wide receivers in QB Eli Manning, who has turned that trick with the likes of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks in the past. The only thing preventing Beckham from being a bona fide first round pick in fantasy is the small sample size and the fear of a sophomore slump. Personally, I am not overly concerned about either.
This is the first time in several years that Calvin Johnson can't be considered a definite first round selection. It seems like he has been around forever and that he is winding down, but the reality is that he is only 29 years old. Prior to last season, he ranked among the 10 most targeted wide receivers in each of the previous 6 seasons, so it certainly is possible that all that work is catching up with him. Megatron's availability has been a bit of an issue as he has missed at least two games in each of the past two seasons, and all of his his 2014 measurable statistics (targets, receptions, TDs, efficiency, etc.) dipped well below his career averages.
If you believe that he is simply coming off a down year, then 2015 could present a great opportunity buy low on him. In my mind, Calvin is still an elite receiver -- and Matthew Stafford isn't afraid to muscle the ball to him. He is going to go in the 2nd round in many drafts, and if you anticipate another owner taking him before your second pick, you may have to invest a first round pick on him.
In traditional formats taking a QB in the first round used to be a cardinal sin. Why? Well, in those classic formats you could only start one QB, whereas you could start multiple RBs and WRs. Since the QB pool was quite deep for only 12 starters in a 12-team league, it never made much sense to grab one early. I have written extensively the last few years about why I believe that it is no longer foolhardy to take a stab at a stud QB early, so I won't go into as much detail here. Suffice to say that I have come around to liking to play it safe with my early draft picks, and these days there is sometimes more certainty at the top of the QB list than there is with RBs. Still, the very scarcity of quality feature RBs serves to actually further inflate their value, which is why the top RBs are still more valuable than the top QBs in most cases. of course, in leagues where you start multiple QBs, that principle goes at the window altogether, as a pool of 24 starting QBs is not nearly as deep. In those leagues, 5 or more QBs will go in the first round.
But I digress (again).
Assuming we are dealing with a traditional league where you are only starting 1 QB, I would still advise going for a stud WR if there isn't a RB that you are comfortable taking. If you must take a QB, then there are four at the top of the class: Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. If you have been reading what I have written above, you can tell that I have some reservations about Manning this year. Brees was his usual reliable self (4952 passing yards and 33 TDs), but he let fantasy owners down when they needed him the most, dropping 3 clunkers in his final 4 games of the season, which also happens to be fantasy playoff time.
That leaves Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. I still give Rodgers the slight nod. He has consistently done it longer than Luck and remains at the top of his form. Thirteen QBs passed the ball more often than Rodgers did in 2014, yet he was still the top fantasy QB. His 38-5 TD-to-INT ratio was just sick. Rodgers also remains a factor in the running game as he picked up 269 yards on 43 carries and scored 2 rushing TDs. Luck rushed for fewer yards on 21 more carries than Rodgers Bottom line: Rodgers dropped back to pass AND ran the ball fewer times than Luck but was still more effective in fantasy. It's probably splitting hairs, because wherever Rodgers goes in your fantasy draft, Luck will go within a pick or two.
Ever since Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham hit the scene five years ago, both have been fantasy studs and have inflated the value of the TE position in fantasy. Since Graham was traded to the Seahawks this off-season, his stock will take a bit of a hit. Gronk, of course, remains Brady's favorite target in New England. Aside from 2013, when he barely played at all, he has recorded double-digit TDs in every season of his career. To show what he is capable of, look no further than his second year (2011), when he amassed 90 receptions for 1327 yards and 17 TDs. That is elite WR territory, and with the TE pool relatively shallow -- the drop-off from him (and possibly Graham) is huge.
I am not too worried about the pending Brady 4-game suspension. For one thing, that is still under appeal, and there is a good chance it gets reduced. Even if it doesn't, the large frame of Gronk will be a welcome sight to Brady's second-year fill-in Garoppolo. Personally, I am just so key on filling my skill positions that I am a bit uncomfortable taking a TE (even Gronk) in the first round. However, if you are not worried about the possibility of Brady missing 4 games and you are convinced that Gronk will stay healthy all season, then by all means knock yourself out!