The mere contemplation of surprises includes innumerable "If" statements within the analysis.
Be cognizant of injury histories, potential free-agent losses, coaching changes and countless other factors. Assume some risk in making these determinations.
The lockout leaves a few more variables than usual.
Sam Bradford, St. Louis
The hiring of former Denver head coach and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to run the St. Louis offense piqued my interest. Granted, the beautiful fantasy numbers produced by Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd were largely predicated on the notion of winning shootouts and overcoming defensive liabilities. But, somebody still had to orchestrate the offense.
McDaniels now sets his sights on molding Bradford, who produced fantastic numbers overall despite the heavy rotation of wide receivers in his rookie season. He averaged 219.5 passing yards per game and produced 19 total touchdowns (18 passing) against 17 turnovers.
Aside from reception machine Danny Amendola, the receiver corps is replete with question marks. Deep threat Donnie Avery missed the entire season because of a torn ACL. Mark Clayton played tremendously and found a home prior to his own injury woes. Laurent Robinson and Danario Alexander both played well for stretches and, cue the record, also missed time because of injury.
The team added two new receivers during the draft in Austin Pettis and Greg Salas. Both rookies could step in and compete for big roles in the rotation immediately.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnnati
Dalton will need to beat out a Palmer to start right away, but I suspect that it’s Jordan and not brother Carson who he’ll be battling in camp. Carson Palmer’s tenure with the team appears to be over, but stranger things have happened (he’s a quasi-sleeper who will be selected as a late-round flier right now).
Dalton becomes the face of a rebuilt Cincinnati attack. Jermaine Gresham dominated during portions of his rookie season. Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell both excelled downfield when afforded an opportunity in place of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
He’ll face the daunting task of trying to figure out the Baltimore and Pittsburgh defenses with first-round rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, but I suspect that those units will help to accelerate the learning curve.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit
I know. He’s making a repeat appearance on the list. I just couldn’t leave him off of the short list based on the myriad weapons at his disposal. Now, it becomes a matter of shaking the “fragile” tag that has been applied to him.
Stafford passed for 535 yards with six passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and two turnovers in three games prior to sustaining his shoulder injury.
The cast is top-notch, with Calvin Johnson leading the charge. Nate Burleson played quite well opposite Johnson, and Brandon Pettigrew has the look of a top-tier fantasy tight end. Add speedster Titus Young to the mix, and you have the ability to spread the field and defeat man-coverage downfield.
The Lions are in a position to establish a strong ground game using the combination of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure. That balance will keep opposing rushers like Julius Peppers at bay, to some degree.
Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia
Kolb never had the chance to assume the “next big thing” mantle that had been prepared for him as Donovan McNabb exited Philadelphia. The draft-day darling was injured early in 2010 and spent most of the season on the sidelines following Michael Vick’s ascent to the top spot. Kolb appeared in only seven games last season, producing 1,197 yards with seven touchdowns, seven interceptions and three lost fumbles.
His profile is one of the most-visited pages on football websites, with fans and prospective owners trying to gain an idea of his potential destinations. Kolb will be moved once the lockout is lifted, but there are several possible suitors still on the board. Three teams in the NFC West are potentially in the market for a quarterback. Arizona and Seattle are the front-runners, and San Francisco has to decide if Alex Smith (see below) remains the bridge to the Colin Kaepernick era under Jim Harbaugh.
Larry Fitzgerald anxiously awaits the opening bell of the free-agent period.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Roethlisberger averaged 266.7 passing yards per game with 17 passing touchdowns (two rushing) in 12 games following his four-game suspension to start the season. His decision-making was impeccable, as Roethlisberger committed only eight turnovers.
Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the “sack factor” on Roethlisberger. His willingness to scramble, absorb hits and buy his receivers time to gain separation results in a mountain of sacks annually. He has been sacked at least 46 times in four of the past five seasons (he was sacked 32 times in his suspension-shortened 2010 season).
I can’t help but like the setup of the offense for 2011. Mike Pouncey returns from injury to anchor the offensive line and get things moving on the ground with Rashard Mendenhall. Mike Wallace developed into one of the league’s premiere deep threats last season. “Dancing” star Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller continue to churn out first downs, and sure-handed and fleet-footed Emmanuel Sanders is expected to take on a bigger role as a sophomore.
He’s a fantasy late QB-1 or early-QB2 option.
Tim Tebow, Denver
The Broncos will eventually come to camp with a quarterback quandary. In the end, I suspect that the team deals Kyle Orton and installs Tebow as the No. 1 option. Tebow has certainly taken the lead in building rapport and developing camaraderie with his teammates during the lockout.
Tebow passed for 513 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in the final two games of the season. He finished the season with five passing touchdowns and six rushing touchdowns.
The defense will be better following the arrival of Von Miller, but his presence won’t fix all of the defensive woes immediately. John Fox will get the team headed in the right direction, but I still anticipate many games in which Tebow is forced into shootout mode. His fullback mentality and toughness in short-yardage and goal-line situations cannot be discounted.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo
As in Denver, I love the addition to the defensive front-seven made by Buffalo. I just don’t know that the presence of Marcell Dareus is enough to change this defensive unit immediately. As such, I foresee plenty of opportunities for the Fitzpatrick-Steve Johnson duo to continue its downfield magic in 2011.
Buffalo fans and fantasy owners have to appreciate Fitzpatrick’s cornerback mentality. An errant throw, missed read or turnover does not deter him. Fitzpatrick keeps throwing.
Alex Smith, San Francisco
We’ve seen Smith’s game for years, so I certainly don’t need to belabor the breakdown of the good, bad and ugly of his past. The 49ers drafted their quarterback of the future when Jim Harbaugh snagged Colin Kaepernick, so Smith’s window is certainly closing.
The effect of the lockout on Kaepernick’s ability to translate his game to the next level immediately is what prompts the quizzical inclusion of Smith here. With a shortened offseason schedule, missed mini-camps and such, Harbaugh may have to turn to Smith to start the season. That, of course, assumes that the 49ers don’t turn to one of the more accomplished veterans who are likely to be available.
Smith returns three strong receiving options in Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan. Frank Gore will also return from injury as a capable receiver out of the backfield.
I am not suggesting that you look to draft Smith, by any means. However, there may come a time, if Harbaugh is able to inspire the former No. 1 overall pick, when Smith may become a viable plug-in starter in a league devoid of other waiver options or a serviceable QB2.