Fantasy Football

2012 fantasy football predictions

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
The man is a menace, but the forecast for MJD is murky.
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Joel Beall

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall.

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History has not been kind to those who try to prognosticate its fate. Economist Irving Fisher gained notoriety for his forecast, prior to the collapse of Wall Street, that the stock market grasped “a permanently high plateau.” Ken Olsen was a renowned engineer, but is not looked upon with favor thanks to his assessment that, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Matthew McConaughey’s character in Two for the Money, who makes a living estimating the outcome of sporting contests, ends up…actually, I’m not sure what happened to McConaughey’s protagonist, because that film was terrible. Still, be it Doomsday seers, hotline clairvoyants or Rolling Stones’ manager Eric Easton, who once remarked, “The singer will have to go,” venturing into the prediction business is not the easiest of endeavors.

Will this impede us from gazing into the crystal ball for the fantasy football season? Of course not! Though Casey Stengel warned, “Never make predictions, especially about the future,” here are 10 pigskin prophecies for the upcoming NFL campaign:

1. Jamaal Charles: Top Fantasy Back


Unless you’re Vontae Davis, it’s hard not to look good during training camp, so I’m always skeptical when digesting August accounts from across the league. However, given the uncertainty surrounding his status after last season’s ACL tear, the initial reports affirming Charles’s clean bill of health are encouraging.

These avowals seem to be lost on the fantasy community, though, as Charles is falling into the fourth round of early FOXSports.com drafts, an astonishing drop given his first-round fantasy ranking a year ago. Kansas City’s signing of Peyton Hillis has added to this trepidation, as managers envision the former Browns back syphoning touches away from Charles.

Charles alleviated some of the injury apprehension in the Chiefs’ first preseason game, looking spry and strapping in limited action. As for the latter concern, fantasy owners may remember in 2010, when Charles racked up over 1,400 rushing yards, that Thomas Jones collected more attempts than the All-Pro rusher, thus sharing backfield duties is not an unfamiliar enterprise. Besides, are we really worried that Hillis, who accumulated just 587 yards in 2011, is going to be stealing the spotlight?

Duo duties aside, most of Charles’ fantasy worth derives from his prowess in the passing game. With primary target Dwayne Bowe entrenched in a holdout, tight end Tony Moeaki returning from knee surgery and second-year receiver Jonathan Baldwin an unproven entity, it’s easy to imagine Charles serving as a safety net for Matt Cassel. Expect 50-55 receptions from the Texas product, a proposition that will equate to a preeminent standing at season’s end.

2. Torrey Smith: the new Greg Jennings


The comparison may seem like a stretch, but the two parallel in several fashions, including body type, dexterity in the deep game and separation after the catch. Additionally, their quarterbacks have been prone to brandish killer flavor savors. But I digress…

Despite working in an abbreviated learning environment due to the lockout, Smith accelerated through the assimilation process in his rookie campaign, evidenced by the receiver’s 50 receptions, 841 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. With an entire offseason under his belt, one which Ravens coach John Harbaugh christened the wideout as the team’s “most efficient improver,” the enhanced rapport between Smith and Joe Flacco will correlate to dividends on Sundays. Considering Smith possesses an average draft position of 101.3, deem it a gridiron grift that such an explosive weapon can be had at this juncture.

3. No running back surpasses 300 carries


In the 2006 season, 10 running backs amassed this amount of rushing attempts. Four years later, the number of rushers crossing this plateau shrunk to seven, and last fall, only two players reached this figure. As an upshot from the offensive shift from the soil to the sky, as well as the expansion of committee backfields, the reliable fantasy running back is becoming an endangered species.

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Cognizant of this trend, it would behoove the intuitive owner to obtain the few remaining heavy-duty carriers as quickly as possible. Concededly, there’s a higher degree of hazard associated with this position, which illuminates why more signal callers and receivers are going in the first round in 2012 versus years past. Yet as illustrated in our Dos and Don’ts column, cannons and catchers can be acquired in the later stages of a draft, but viable components in the ground game are difficult to uncover. As a general tenet, try to secure two backs within your first three selections to adhere to this conviction. (There is a formidable foe to this conjecture: BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In the past three seasons, Cedric Benson averaged 298 attempts in 15 contests for Cincinnati; hence it’s not the biggest of leaps to visualize the Law Firm, who’s more durable and dependable than Benson, to exceed this workload for the Bengals.)

4. Rob Gronkowski gets “Gronked”


There’s no bigger proponent of the Neanderthal-like tight end than me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the “Summer of Gronk,” although it did fall just short of the “Summer of George.” However, in regard to the fantasy forum, I’m fretful that the peripheral ventures and rising celebrity will have a negative effect on Gronkowski’s play. By no means am I insinuating the man should be disallowed to partake in projects outside of football, just that his priorities seem somewhat out of order.

Outlying precedence aside, there’s a plethora of on-the-field circumstances that threaten an ominous outlook for Gronkowski. The additions of Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth should link to diminished targets for Gronkowski, and it’s worth noting that fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, who missed two games early in the season and was somewhat limited with a sprained MCL, hauled in the same amount of balls in the second half of the season as his heralded counterpart. Undoubtedly, Gronk will endure as a touchdown juggernaut, as his 6’6” stature makes him an ideal bull’s eye inside the 20, yet it will be hard to replicate 2011’s harvest of 90 receptions, 1,327 yards and 17 scores. Currently going in the second round of fantasy drafts, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze for Gronk. Speaking of the Pats…

5. Brandon Lloyd, unleashed


Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens. That would be the catalog of quarterback mediocrity that Lloyd has dealt with the past two seasons, and “mediocrity” is being generous. Nevertheless, Lloyd has been immune to this unevenness under center, snagging 147 receptions for over 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns in this span. That’s what we in the business call “gettin’ it done.” Now working with his first competent QB since, well, ever, Lloyd must be salivating at the carnage he can accomplish in 2012. As mentioned above, there are only so many balls to go around the New England receiving corps, but Deion Branch’s declining play opens up a starting spot for the 31-year-old, and given Wes Welker’s injury-conducive recklessness over the middle, Lloyd could end up as Tom Brady’s No. 1 wide receiver. It’s at this point we should mention Lloyd is going in the seventh and eight rounds. Not sayin’, just sayin’.

6. The Holdout, Part II: Maurice Jones-Drew


Sorry, but Chris Johnson’s nightmarish 2011 contract sabbatical is too fresh in our minds not to be jaded by Jones-Drew’s August absence. To rehash for the uniformed: following a holdout that ended just 10 days before the Titans’ season opener, the Tennessee back stumbled out of the gate, notching a measly 302 yards and a single score in his first seven games. Bearing in mind that Johnson was projected as a first-round performer, his proprietors handled this recession as well as Twilight fans have taken the Kristen Stewart-Robert Pattinson breakup, which is to say with unbridled hysteria and irrationality.

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Though these holdouts are usually resolved by the middle of the preseason, this dispute seems especially callous. New Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan, hoping to put his mark on the organization, seems resolute in avoiding a scenario in which he yields to a player’s demands as one of his first actions as head of the team. Meanwhile, last season’s leading rusher, attentive that others at his position were newly compensated over the offseason, has no intention of suiting up for less than market value. As the Jags were just 5-11 even with Jones-Drew’s dominance, the only victim in this impasse is the fantasy domain.

Since MJD’s non-paid holiday has no end in sight, it’s astonishing the back continues to be selected in the first round of fantasy drafts. Worse, the Jaguars are implementing a new offensive scheme under coordinator Bob Bratkowski, and the rawness of Blaine Gabbert hardly provokes a stable setting for Jones-Drew to easily embrace. He’s averaged 1,440 rushing yards, 43 receptions and 11 touchdowns the last three seasons, but Jones-Drew should be nowhere on your draft itinerary until the third or fourth rounds.

7. Eric Decker, Reception Machine


This little tidbit probably eluded your radar, but the Broncos have a new arm under center for 2012. Although this cat’s precision in the passing game is flawless, questions remain on the strength of his deep ball, signifying an abundance of quick hits and sideline flings. If this context holds true in the Mile-High City, the 25-year-old Decker will be the main beneficiary of an abridged air raid. Working with less-than-accurate artillery in 2011, Decker led Denver in receptions, yards and touchdowns, with many of the catches stemming from slants over the middle. As the Broncos transform into a passing offense, it’s feasible that Decker is the target on 80-plus balls this season, a sentiment that should serve him well in point-per-reception formats.

8. Carson Palmer will be the steal of your fantasy draft


Like most Raiders efforts, Palmer’s midseason exodus to Oakland was appraised as a crash and burn, verified by the team’s 4-6 record in his appearances. Yet strictly from a statistics perspective, Palmer was effective in the rotisserie world, as the former Heisman winner averaged 293 yards per game in his nine starts with the Silver and Black, which equates to nearly 4,700 yards in a 16-game slate. Not bad for a dude working with a condensed playbook and zero congruity with his receivers.

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Oakland is expected to employ a more run-heavy offense in 2012, yet given the Raiders defense surrendered the second-most points in the conference last season, Palmer should find himself operating from the troposphere often. Gifted with an ample arsenal of receivers in Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford, as well as a proficient pass-catcher in running back Darren McFadden, Palmer has the potential of a top-10 fantasy player at his position. Keeping in mind that he’s the No. 23 quarterback according to the average draft position tool, thank the fantasy heavens for this late-round gift.

9. Frank Gore goes quietly into the night


Perhaps he’s lost on the West Coast, or that, until last season, he toiled in obscurity on 6-10 teams. Whatever the stimulus, Gore is not a name evoked when conjuring steadfast, upper-echelon contributors in fantasy football. The numbers dictate otherwise, however, as Gore has averaged nearly 1,200 rushing yards, 45 catches, 400 receiving yards and nine overall trips to the Promised Land in the past six seasons.

Alas, this running back reign is nearing termination. In his final eight games of 2011, Gore underwhelmed, topping 80 yards just twice and averaged a pedestrian 3.5 yards per attempt. San Francisco was perceptive of this waning production, as the team drafted Oregon running back LaMichael James in the second round and signed bruiser Brandon Jacobs in free agency. The 49ers also have a promising speedster in Kendall Hunter, who submitted 473 yards in a reserve role last season. The backfield depth will correlate to fewer touches for Gore, especially in the passing game, where James and Hunter will take on an expanded task, and goal-line situations, with Jacobs anticipated to punch it in. Factor in the amount of mileage and punishment Gore has on his odometer, and the future is far from promising.

Goodnight, sweet prince. Some stars shine so bright that they burn out before their time.

10. Tim Tebow leads the league in passing


Kidding. Just making sure you’re still paying attention.

10. Michael Vick comes back with a vengeance


After posting absurd averages of 251.5 passing yards per game, 13 yards per completion and 6.8 yards per rushing attempt in 2010, the Philly field general was eyed as a potential first overall fantasy pick in 2011. Yet, despite eclipsing these outputs last year (254.1 passing yards per game, 13.1 yards per completion and 7.8 yards per rushing attempt), Vick has taken a Kenny Powers-esque fall from grace, at least in respect to roster enrollment, as his average draft position is equivalent to a late-third or early-fourth-round pick.

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So what has been the substance for this free fall? While fragility is a common explanation — one fueled by his preseason rib injury this year — this can’t be the catalyst, as permanence, or lack thereof, has been a condemnation on Vick his entire career. Rather, a decrease in scoring (30 overall touchdowns in 2010 compared to 19 visits to paydirt in 2011) and upsurge in turnovers (nine versus 18) seem to be doing the damage. But though this serves as a simple vehicle to explain his decline in fantasy points, the real narrative for Vick’s disappointment is inherent to the Eagles defense. With the unit’s struggles on the other side of the ball, the Philadelphia offense frequently found itself behind, forcing Vick and company to abandon the run game in order to attack from the air. The adjustment in approach led to 51 more passing attempts, many which came in situations where the opposing defense anticipated an aerial strike. In a related note, this caused 24 fewer rushing opportunities for Vick, with many of these breaks lost in the red zone.

Luckily for Vick, the franchise has restocked and replenished the defense, and the team’s 8-8 finish in 2011 resulted in an easier schedule for the approaching campaign. If the Eagles can surmount a lead into the second half of ballgames, Vick’s legs will be unleashed, vaulting his fantasy merit through the roof. Make no mistake, the jeopardy is very much present, but he also possesses a mind-blowing volume of upside.

And if you’re going to predict the fruition of a fantasy performer, you might as well swing for the fences, right?

Tagged: Bengals, Broncos, Packers, Titans, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Patriots, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, Michael Vick, Thomas Jones, Carson Palmer, Chris Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, Maurice Jones-Drew, Peyton Hillis, Jamaal Charles, Rob Gronkowski, Eric Decker, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Torrey Smith

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