As we look in the proverbial rearview mirror of 2013, we have much to look back on, be thankful for and . Remember the young leukemia patient who got his wish of becoming Batman for a day? Incredibly heartwarming. And the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, just months after the tragic marathon bombing. Inspiring, certainly. Oh course, there’s Dennis Rodman essentially becoming this century’s most important diplomat? Wait … what the ... ? And then, did you see the story of the Man who bought a house next door to his ex-wife, and proceeded to erects a middle finger statue. True story, bro. [**]
OK, perhaps I should have quit with the feel-good stories. But, this column is about the hard truth, people. I spout truth, even when it hurts. If you want the truth; if you think you can handle the truth, here it is. Not all of us had feel-good, successful fantasy football seasons in 2013. sleepless nights filled with agonizing decisions may have filled your fall. Do I start Giovani Bernard or Darren Sproles in my 16 team, 0.25 PPR, salary cap, keeper league? Oh, the agony.
Of course, others did experience some triumphs, depending on how you define success. You might have won some cash prizes or the coveted league trophy, complete with a picture of Miley Cyrus swinging in on that God-awful wrecking ball. Or success for you may mean the avoidance of getting an ill-fated tat, for finishing last in your league.
Whatever the case, let’s now look forward, to fantasy players you should target as we head in to the 2014 offseason. Barring injuries and factoring in current teams and coaching schemes, I present the top five at each position (for standard scoring, redraft league purposes).
5. Nick Foles, Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
Yes, let’s start this list off with a big bang. I’m officially driving the Foles bandwagon for next year. Listen, I get it. He’s young. He doesn’t yet have the elite skill set of Rodgers or the brains of P. Manning or the killer instinct of Brady. And yet, the guy threw two, yes two, interceptions this year, to go with his 27 touchdown passes. Given the position players surrounding him and the freedom in Chip Kelly’s offense, I think he can hang with the elite next year.
4. Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay’s season was one big trip to the emergency room. Player after player after player went down to injury, including Rodgers himself. But he has proven to not only be a winner on the real field of play, but a top five guy in fantasy for the previous half decade. Assuming Rodgers fully comes back from his broken collarbone and a healthy Randall Cobb return, 2014 should be nothing less than the 28 touchdown passes and just under 4,000 yards passing he had three seasons ago. And given the running game discovery in Green Bay, it should be lights out on the frozen tundra next season.
3. Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England Patriots
There are athletes that have skill, God-given ability, if you will. Then there are those who essentially say, “Screw it, boys. We’re gonna win because we know how to beat those bleepity bleeps.” This year, 2013, Brady’s supporting cast was decimated, from the get-go. No Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker left, Rob Gronkowski got hurt, as did Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola for parts of the season. With a ‘back to the drawing board’ approach, a full off-season for his mates to get well, and a bird’s eye view of watching his nemesis break his records, Giselle’s boy-toy will be back. Mark my word; no one will be dissing his high-fives next year.
2. Drew Brees, Quarterback, New Orleans Saints
Brees, the shortest amongst the elite NFL quarterbacks, seems to have always overcome something to make it to the top of the heap. He’s too short. He didn’t play at a big college. Heck, he couldn’t beat out Philip Rivers in San Diego. This year, Brees finished as the No. 2 scoring quarterback in fantasy; and that was with a couple weapons having less than consistent productive years. Marques Colston and Darren Sproles were maddeningly inconsistent. But know this; when Coach Sean Peyton and Brees put their brains together, it’s like those Wonder Twins of old activating into form of … a champion. Or at least really gaudy fantasy numbers.
1. Peyton Manning, Quarterback, Denver Broncos
In the spirit of Jack Nicholson, do you really want the truth and think you can handle it? Truth is, until Peyton breaks his legs or gets buried by an avalanche in Colorado or John Elway decides HE wants to come back and play quarterback, I’ll keep him at the top of this list. The wide receiving core—and tight ends and running backs—should all return. Peyton’s skills may erode a bit simply because he’ll be another year older, and defenses may think they’ve got his antics solved, but his football brain simply will not stop churning. I won’t recant the records he broke this year, but believe me, he’s pretty good. And I’m not betting against his production numbers. For fantasy. At least in the regular season. Zing.
5. Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Green Bay Packers
You may notice I’m putting one surprise on each list. And yes, this might be the biggest, picking Lacy over the likes of Marshawn Lynch. Here’s my thinking behind this pick. Mike McCarthy wants to run the ball. As many games as the Pack play on the frozen tundra—said in my best NFL Films voice, a sound running game would certainly be nice. Over the course of the long season, the coaching staff began to trust the Alabama back. He was second in the league in rushing scores with 11, and finished in the top eight in carries, yards and fantasy points. The opportunity is there; the coaches want to establish the run; and Lacy is the guy to do it. No more fat jokes for this young fella.
4. Matt Forte, Running Back, Chicago Bears
The hiring of Marc Trestman signaled a shift for the Bears, going from a defensive to an offensive mind. While it’s obvious that Trestman has been good for the passing game—both of their elite receivers should be Pro Bowlers—2013 showed significant opportunity for Forte’s unique talents to be showcased. He finished as the third best fantasy running back, and scored 12 total touchdowns. The screen game has always been a positive of Forte’s game, and it appears Trestman readily and consistently has gone back to it in his arsenal. If the defense could cease being the sieve it was in 2013, there may be even more opportunity to run the ball in 2014 for Forte and the Bears.
3. LeSean McCoy, Running Back, Philadelphia Eagles
I targeted McCoy in every single one of my redraft leagues this past draft season. And he rewarded me, big time, finishing as the No. 2 running back in fantasy. Only 26 years old, and acting as the cog in a Philadelphia offensive wheel that should only be even more consistent next year, Shady only gets beat out by two other backs in 2014—in both fantasy rankings and in coolness of nicknames. I’m a tiny bit concerned about his wear—he led the league in carries with 314 and had 52 catches. Given the frenetic pace at which Kelly likes to run his offense, you wonder if Bryce Brown won’t figure more into the running attack in 2014.
2. Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings
What more can be said of this warrior? He plays through and overcomes pain that often cripples mere mortals. He runs over big guys and outruns less big guys. Literally. He was dinged up again this year, and still put up the fifth most rushing yards in the league. And you know what that means to me? AP (or AD, which is it?) will come back with a vengeance. With a new coaching staff that SURELY will utilize more fully the monster / best player on the team and unleash Cordarrelle Patterson’s talent, I fully expect Peterson to lead the league in rushing again.
1. Jamaal Charles, Running Back, Kansas City Chiefs
Some questioned the durability of Charles, heading into the 2013 season. He finished in the top 10 in carries. He also finished tops in fantasy in rushing and receiving touchdowns, as well as receiving yards for running backs. Dude is still young, and the lone home run threat in a serviceable Kansas City offense. Oh, and he finished at No. 1 of all running backs in points this year. Plus, come on, his nickname is JC Superstar. Bada bing.
5. Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
This spot is easily the toughest for me to decide for this column. I’m afraid Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery will simply offset one another every other Sunday. And I’m not sold that Demaryius Thomas’s production doesn’t dip a bit, given the other talent in the Denver receiving core. So, I’m gonna get crazy on you with this pick. Do you know who was second in the entire league in catches and receiving yards this year? None other than Pittsburgh’s Brown. And this was with an uncharacteristically slow start by the Steelers. With only eight touchdowns, he still finished as the seventh best receiver for fake football in 2013. A couple of monster games notwithstanding, he was a model of consistent production, with no less than five catches in a single game. Who knows, he might make me look like a genius. And that’s really all that matters.
4. Dez Bryant, Wide Receiver, Dallas Cowboys
Known in too many circles as a sideline whiner for America’s Team, Bryant’s skills and playmaking abilities are far too often overshadowed. Despite all the backpage (and frontpage) drama created by Jerry Jones, Tony Romo and company, Dez still ended up catching 93 balls and 13 touchdowns. The play-calling seemed so inconsistent that, on any given Sunday, the run game would disappear or Romo would literally quit looking Bryant’s way for three-quarters or a game. Hopefully, an off-season will right this wrong, and the Dallas brass realizes that Bryant is the only elite talent on the outside. Who else will Romo throw to? Jerry Jones?
3. Josh Gordon, Wide Receiver, Cleveland Browns
I could go on record as saying the biggest surprise for fantasy players in 2013 was none other than Josh Gordon. He essentially played two full games less than a full season, and received targets from less than NFL-ready quarterbacks the entire time. Outside of Gordon, his team, the Browns, have arguably less offensive weapons (depends on how you say and define “offensive”) than any other team in the league. So every defense is, or should be, keying on stopping him. And yet. And yet … he was the No. 1 receiver in fantasy. He had 87 catches and his 1,646 receiving yards led the league. Astounding. I do think he could experience a bit of a drop, as teams have a full off-season to watch film, but if he keeps his nose clean—literally—the sky’s the limit.
2. A.J. Green, Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals
I’m going out on a limb a bit here, I know. Green has as much talent as anyone in the league. The Bengals have begun to surround him with other receiver and running back and tight end talent. With a new offensive coordinator incoming, we shall see what forward steps one Andy Dalton can take. I, for one, believe it can be even better than this year, when he caught 98 balls and 11 touchdowns. When the running game gets going, and defenses can’t double-team him every time, his production will increase. I could be wrong, so be sure to check back here this time next year to see just how strong that limb was.
1. Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver, Detroit Lions
I feel a bit pedestrian going with Megatron here. But, really, how could I not? I’ve heard him compared with Jerry Rice as the best wide receiver of all time. Yes, of all time. So I think he’d top this list then. Yes, there’s the issue of Matthew Stafford’s confidence, as well as questions about a new offensive philosophy. But they won’t stop throwing Johnson the ball. And he won’t stop catching those balls. He’ll just out-jump-ball opponents or snatch line drives out of the air or run around guys. Every year, he seems to have another couple touchdowns stopped at the goal-line; he had 12 this year. So, add another 10 or so points to his totals, and he’s your top fantasy wide receiver. I simply don’t seem him slowing down. There’s a reason he’s called the Megatron.
5. Greg Olsen, Tight End, Carolina Panthers
Given the talent gap between the haves and the have-nots amongst tight ends, the first couple of this list might surprise. Carolina’s Olsen has long been solid target for his quarterback. And this past year, he was fifth in the league in catches and seventh in yards. With the likely retirement of Tony Gonzalez and likely decline in production from Jason Witten from the tight end ranks, as well as the downturn from Steve Smith, I’m predicting Olsen to leap into the top five for 2014.
4. Julius Thomas, Tight End, Denver Broncos
Thomas, the tight end in Denver, scored12 touchdowns this year. Nice coming out party, for a player not even drafted in the top 20 tight ends, or in the top 200 of all players taken in fantasy drafts. He finished as the third leading fantasy tight end. Given the lack of clear-cut high-end talent at the position and he’s targeted so heavily in the red zone—even if his production drops a bit—he’ll still land in the upper echelon when a guy named Peyton Manning is chunking him balls in the Denver sky.
3. Vernon Davis, Tight End, San Francisco 49ers
It’s pretty astounding to me—someone who ran some track in high school and played a little receiver—that the fastest guy on an NFL team could be the tight end. That is generally reserved for receivers and back, or the occasional defensive back. I recall seeing pictures of Davis when he entered the league. Dude was ripped! And he still is a beast of an athlete. It seems he’s become Colin Kaepernick’s security. Davis finished as the second fantasy scoring tight end this year, with a whopping 13 touchdowns, despite only 52 catches (which ranks him 14th in the league in that department). His catches should increase as his chemistry with Kaepernick continues to develop. And this should keep him in the upper tier for next season.
2. Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England Patriots
The injuries to Gronkowski are well documented. Torn ACL, torn MCL, broken forearm. It’s a long list in a short time. The 25 year old played in only seven games this year, and wasn’t able to finish even all of them. We all know he was on a pace of nearly one touchdown per game played. It’s a given that Brady feels comfortable throwing his way when healthy. Coach Belichick loves the mismatches he provides. So what’s keeping him from being No. 1 on this list? Well, besides the next name on this list … his coming back to the Gronk we know and love. Or know and love to hate.
1. Jimmy Graham, Tight End, New Orleans Saints
Hey, did you know Jimmy Graham used to be a basketball player? Yeah, the college hoops player converting to NFL tight end story has been told … a couple hundred thousand times. But there’s some validity here. Graham can box out defenders, outleap them, and outdunk them. Oh wait, that’s after the touchdown catch, of which he had 16 this year! Drew Brees seems to look for Graham as first, second and third options at times. For good reason. He delivers, like Karl Malone, The Mailman, did for so many years for the Utah Jazz. Graham is 28 years old, but finished only his fourth real football season, so there should be more life in that basketball-turned-football body.
Can you handle the truth? Better question might be … can I handle it? We shall see.