1. The fantasy season is over for most owners, and this final column of the year will focus largely on the 2012 season. But first, congratulations to those of you who won championships last week. It's a great feeling, isn't it? There's an extra spring in your step this week. The sun seems brighter, food tastes better, and your ill-gotten winnings are burning a hole in your pocket.
To those of you who lost championship games, my condolences. Fantasy football rivals poker in terms of sheer volume of bad-beat stories, and, oh man, Week 16 produced some terrible bad-beat stories. How unfortunate to have started Tony Romo in a Week 16 title game. The Cowboys' quarterback left with a hand injury before completing a single pass. So many of the other top quarterbacks (guys who started in a lot of fantasy championship games) put up terrific numbers last weekend: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford. If you started Romo and were going up against one of those guys, it was almost impossible for you to make up the huge gap in QB points at the other positions.
The Romo injury was just a terrible bit of luck. And how about LeSean McCoy turning in a rare bad game before leaving with an ankle injury? Or Steve Smith catching one pass for nine yards in a game where the Panthers produced 48 points? Or Adrian Peterson shredding his knee early in what was shaping up as a huge day for him? Or LeGarrette Blount getting only two carries? Or Roy Helu being a late scratch? These wounds are still fresh and raw if you were counting on any of these guys to bring you a fantasy title and instead find yourself wondering, "What if ...?"
2. The aforementioned Adrian Peterson goes from being one of the safest year-to-year bets in fantasy football to being perhaps the biggest wild card of the 2012 fantasy season. At least Jamaal Charles wrecked his knee early in the season, giving him a head start on the healing process. No such luck for Peterson, who's vowing to be ready for the opening week of 2012 but may be unable to follow such an optimistic timetable.
As fantasy drafts draw closer, we'll no doubt see plenty of stories about how the recovery is going well and how Peterson is optimistic about being in top form upon his return. But realistically, we're probably going to be very much in the dark with regard to Peterson's status when our drafts and auctions take place. There's almost no chance he gets a single preseason carry, and it seems inevitable that he'll appear on the Week One injury report, with his status listed as "questionable" or worse.
Obviously, Peterson isn't going to be a top-of-the-first-round pick. Even if he's deemed ready for Week One, it would be an enormous gamble to take him anywhere in the first round, or maybe even in the second. But once Purple Jesus starts to slide beyond the second round, the temptation to gamble on him will be strong. Even if he's a shadow of his usual self early in the season, what if he's able to return to vintage form by midseason? Let's say Peterson misses the first two weeks of the regular season, and then you got four weeks of Peterson as a part-timer, four weeks of him in a slightly larger role at 80 percent of normal capacity, then four-plus weeks of him in a workhorse role at something close to 100 percent capacity. Is that worth, say, an early third-round pick? It might be. But is it realistic to think that Peterson will return to vintage form at any point in the 2012 season? It's a question we'll be asking ourselves all summer.
3. Another superstar who's going to pose an interesting dilemma for fantasy owners next season is Andre Johnson. He'll likely enter the 2012 season (or at least the fantasy draft season) completely healthy, but what if the hamstring problems that wrecked his 2011 fantasy value turn out to be chronic? Next season will be his 10th in the NFL; he'll be 31 when the season begins. That's certainly not old, at least not for a receiver, but it makes you wonder if Johnson is destined to struggle with injuries again. His upside is as high as any receiver other than Calvin Johnson, and yet it's hard to imagine Andre Johnson being the second receiver to come off the board in fantasy drafts after what happened this year.
4. If Andre Johnson isn't the No. 2 receiver in fantasy drafts next season, who is? Roddy White is an obvious candidate, although he went through an uncharacteristic dry spell this season before finishing with a late surge. Wes Welker is another possibility, though he doesn't score a ton of TDs, and he tends to take an inordinate share of physical punishment. (He also tends to become less attractive to fantasy owners every year between February and August for some reason.) Larry Fitzgerald? Not as long as he's forced to play with below-average quarterbacks.
Is it crazy to think that Victor Cruz deserves consideration as the No. 2 wide receiver? Over his last 13 games, he's averaged better than 100 yards per game and has scored eight TDs. Cruz is a big-play machine, and he plays with a top quarterback in a prolific passing offense. Yes, he plays alongside another elite receiver, Hakeem Nicks, but the positive spin on that is that opposing defenses aren't able to double-team Cruz very often, and there be will tons of plays where he isn't being covered by an opposing team's top cornerback.
I'm not saying Cruz is going to be the No. 2 receiver on my draft board for next season, but I'm not ruling out the possibility.
5. It's a little early for a true "sleeper" list, but I suspect that the following players are going to be undervalued in most leagues:
Sam Bradford — I refuse to believe that the talent he showed as a rookie in 2010 is gone forever.
Matt Flynn — It depends on where he lands, of course, but I think he's legit.
Stevan Ridley — No one has been able to crack the Bill Belichick RB code, but the world's foremost cryptographers believe Ridley is part of it.
Donald Brown — It was hard to figure out what Jim Caldwell was doing with his running backs all season (I'm not sure if he himself knew), but it was easy to see that Brown was the best of the bunch.
Evan Royster — One good game does not a sleeper make, but there's a good chance a lot of owners will have forgotten about what Royster did in Week 16 by the time August rolls around.
Andre Roberts — He's been starting to come on in a sneaky sort of way.
Jonathan Baldwin — The rookie never quite got settled during a tumultuous year in Kansas City (it's hard to do so when you're dodging punches from Thomas Jones), but there were fleeting moments of something good here.
Vincent Brown — Vincent Jackson is most likely on his way out of San Diego, and that might open the door for Vincent II.
Randall Cobb — This year's meager receiving numbers mask the vast upside.
6. And now, a few players who'll probably be overvalued in most leagues:
Chris Johnson — This even accounts for what's sure to be a significant falloff in his average draft position from this year to next year. But in every league, someone is going to remember the past glory of CJ2K and take the plunge too early. Why should we believe that he's going to ratchet up the effort again after coasting through 2011? When Johnson mails it in again next season, make sure he isn't addressing the envelope to you.
Beanie Wells — He did enough this year to ensure that he'll be overdrafted next year. Disappointment to ensue.
Dez Bryant — Why hasn't all the talent translated into big numbers yet? It could still come together for him, but let others make that wager.
Kenny Britt — Think he's aggressively attacking the rehab process? Me neither.
Jermichael Finley — I wonder what registers as being harder on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness - Finley's hands or his head?
7. If you're an old-school "I'm taking a running back in the first round no matter what" type of owner, what would you do in next year's draft if you held the No. 5 pick and Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch were off the board? Would you still pass on Aaron Rodgers or Calvin Johnson?
8. Yes, most fantasy leagues held their championship games last weekend, but there are still leagues that play all the way through Week 17. In fact, I'm playing in the championship game of a 16-team league this week. And as it turns out, neither my team nor my opponent's team is likely to be affected by the possibility of some NFL teams resting their starters early.
Mine is basically a lone voice in the wilderness on this issue, but I'm a longtime advocate of a 17-week regular season. Yes, some NFL teams will rest their starters this week, and it could potentially taint the results of a Week 17 championship game. An Aaron Rodgers owner playing a Week 17 championship game will be understandably upset about the likelihood that Rodgers will only play a series or two on Sunday before knocking off early. But here's the thing: While it's a possibility that the early-rest factor might taint a Week 17 fantasy championship game, it's not automatic. And even if it happens, hey, what's wrong with having the depth of your roster put to the test?
If you play all the way through Week 17, every owner in your league gets an extra week of fantasy football. To me, that outweighs the possibility that a championship result might be tainted by a player being rested early.
9. Rookies always add spice to every new fantasy season, and in terms of spice, next year's rookie class could provide the equivalent of a cup full of cayenne. I'm getting giddy just thinking about how fun rookie speculation is going to be in 2012.
Andrew Luck is so highly regarded (and with good reason) that he could be one of the first 10 quarterbacks selected in redraft leagues next year. It will be interesting to see where fantasy owners rank Luck in relation to quarterbacks like, say, Matt Ryan, Tim Tebow, Jay Cutler and Matt Schaub. And in light of what a dynamic fantasy force Cam Newton turned out to be this year, few fantasy owners will turn up their noses at a dual run-pass threat like Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, who might be one of the first 15 quarterbacks taken in redraft leagues next year, assuming he makes himself eligible for the draft (a fairly safe assumption). Landry Jones will be another intriguing fantasy possibility if he bypasses his final year of college eligibility.
Trent Richardson of Alabama is the best RB prospect since Adrian Peterson, and it's not inconceivable that he could be a first-round pick in some redraft leagues if he lights it up in the preseason. Montee Ball (assuming he leaves early) and Lamar Miller are among the other runners who could make a splash as rookies.
WR Justin Blackmon could be the 2012 version of A.J. Green, and WRs Alshon Jeffery and Michael Floyd have the potential to be NFL playmakers right from the start.
Bring on the rookies!
10. I'll tell you this much: I'd rather have Robert Griffin III on my fantasy team than either Joe Flacco or Mark Sanchez. (Not that I'm going too far out on a limb here.) I don't think it gets any better for Flacco or Sanchez. This is pretty much as good as it gets, and I'm using the word "good" very loosely.
11. And by the way, I could fairly be accused of having a Montee Ball bias since I'm a University of Wisconsin grad, but I really do think he's going to be a better NFL running back than Ron Dayne, Michael Bennett, Brian Calhoun or any of the other former Badger running backs who failed to do anything significant at the pro level. Yes, Wisconsin running backs usually get to run behind great offensive lines, and Ball is no exception. But Ball hasn't merely been running through gaping holes. He excels at picking up yardage in heavy traffic, he's fantastic at reading his blocks and picking the right gaps, and I think he makes better cuts than the other highly touted Wisconsin running backs did. He's also a good pass catcher, which is somewhat rare for a Wisconsin running back. If Ball enters the draft early — and I think he will — I'm going to be targeting him in fantasy drafts.
And by the way, Ball is a big reason why I think Wisconsin is capable of knocking off Oregon in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers' defense will have trouble slowing down the Ducks' fast-paced offense, but I actually think that crazy pace could work against Oregon in this one. As quickly as the Ducks run plays on offense, their defense doesn't always get a lot of rest between series. I think Wisconsin will have an even more run-heavy game plan than usual, pounding away with Ball, trying to wear down the Oregon defense. If the Badgers are able to sustain some long drives early on, the faster pace at which Oregon prefers to play might actually backfire, since Ball is capable of destroying a tired defense.
Prediction: Wisconsin 45, Oregon 41. (I eagerly await your love letters, Oregon fans.)
12. Assuming that Peyton Manning's neck problems don't end his career, where does he go in fantasy drafts next year? The guess here is that he'll probably be about the 10th quarterback selected in most redraft leagues, though I could see him going anywhere from seventh to 13th. He almost certainly gets drafted behind Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford in just about every league. Probably behind Michael Vick, too, though I'd rather gamble on Manning than on Vick. Then come some interesting decisions: Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger? Peyton Manning or Eli Manning? Philip Rivers, Tim Tebow and Matt Ryan are other quarterbacks who might end up in a similar neighborhood on draft boards.
13. Peyton Manning obviously isn't the only player who had his 2011 season entirely or almost entirely wiped out. It will be fascinating to see where Jamaal Charles, Kenny Britt and Matt Schaub are slotted on draft boards. And to a lesser degree, I'll be curious to see where players like Matt Cassel, Knowshon Moreno and Tim Hightower fall in next year's drafts.
14. Since I've already bored you in recent weeks with updates on my progress in the FantasyPros Invitational experts league, I might as well mention that I won the championship game last week, defeating Andy Behrens of Yahoo in a high-scoring shootout. Behrens had a fantastic team and was loaded at the RB and WR positions. He might have clipped me had he gotten a full game out of Adrian Peterson. But I got big numbers out of Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Victor Cruz and Brandon Pettigrew and was able to hold off Behrens' Monday-night surge from Julio Jones and Darren Sproles.
15. I wonder if the Saints are going to get rid of a running back in the offseason. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory are all under contract for next season, making for an awfully crowded stable. Sproles isn't going anywhere. He has the most unique role of the four backs, and he's so well-suited for that offense. Ingram probably isn't going anywhere — not until the Saints figure out whether he's going to be a good NFL running back. Thomas signed a multiyear contract extension before the 2011 season began, and Ivory will also be under contract for next year, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Saints unloaded one of those two for a draft pick.
16. My wife generally doesn't give a fig about football. But on Christmas Eve day, the television just happened to be tuned to the Bengals-Cardinals game at the moment when Jerome Simpson executed his improbable TD flip, and my wife just happened to be looking at the screen when it happened (equally improbable), and she actually let out a loud gasp when she saw it. Then she made me play it back four times. So, congratulations, Jerome Simpson, not only on a play for the ages, but on managing to interest my wife in football, if only for a minute or two.
17. Now that C.J. Spiller is proving himself to be a legitimate NFL talent, it'll be interesting to see what sort of division of labor he and Fred Jackson have for the Bills next season.
And by the way, how absurd does it now seem that the Bills had Jackson, Spiller and Marshawn Lynch on their roster at one time early in the 2010 season? When a talent-thin team is that overloaded at the RB position for more than about two seconds, it's a good indication that the front office doesn't know what the hell it's doing.
18. Although I'm not looking forward to being without football games, I'm very much looking forward to having a "normal" NFL offseason after the lockout deprived us of one last season. It's going to be fun to follow free agency again. It's going to be fun to follow the chatter coming out of minicamps. Unlike the last offseason, this offseason will not suck.
19. Oh, and another thing I'm looking forward to during the offseason (albeit late in the offseason): the normally scheduled release of the annual Football Outsiders almanac. Football Outsiders does such through and excellent work with this mammoth yearly treasure trove of statistical analysis, but it understandably delayed its release in 2011 because there was so much uncertainty with regard to player movement. Aaron Schatz and the FO gang still published an almanac, and I still bought it, of course, but the late release date didn't give me time to read it cover to cover the way I normally would. It will be nice to have several extra weeks to digest it in 2012.
20. I used to swear that I'd never get cranky about New Year's Eve when I got older, but, well ... I find myself getting crankier about New Year's Eve in my old age. For the last couple of years we've been spending New Year's Eve at the nearby home of some friends. It's about four couples plus kids, and it's usually over by about 10 p.m. The idea of ripping it up until 4 a.m. just doesn't appeal to me anymore. But by all means, have at it, my young, thirsty friends.
21. Well, this is the point at which we part ways for a few months, dear readers. Thanks for dropping by. Let's do it again in 2012, shall we?
Here's wishing you a happy and prosperous new year!