Each week of the NFL season, a committee of SI.com fantasy experts huddled together and offer their insights into the most intriguing questions facing fantasy players. This week, in our final installment, our experts look at the best and worst of the 2011 fantasy season.
Mike Beacom: Ask me next week, and my answer could be Drew Brees. For now, I still like Aaron Rodgers. Not only does the Packers quarterback lead all fantasy players in scoring, but he has been a slightly more consistent performer than Brees. Cases could be made for Cam Newton and Rob Gronkowski as well, but in the Year of the Fantasy Quarterback, I'll take the highest-scoring passer through Week 15.
Will Carroll: You win by scoring points, but you win more by getting points at the right values. I could say that touting Newton for a late-round "maybe something good happens" pick was my smartest move of the year, but no one expected him to be No. 2 in points. But the MVP is Rodgers. He doubled the No. 12 QB (Alex Smith) in points, which is normally the gap you see between the No. 1 and No. 20 RB (holds true this season as well.) It makes drafting a QB a valid strategy right up to the 1-1 slot.
Gary Gramling: It has to be Newton. Anyone claiming they took him among the top 10 quarterbacks is a filthy liar. He was the steal of every draft, and just like with Michael Vick a year ago, if you did get him you almost certainly made the playoffs in your league. Victor Cruz and Steve Smith are the runners-up.
Eric Mack: Rodgers, Brees and Rob Gronkowski are all noteworthy, but the pick should be LeSean McCoy because he does it at the crucial running back position. He was very consistent start to finish and has been at his best of late, with six touchdowns in the past three weeks. The MVP has to lead his team to a championship,and McCoy is peaking at the perfect time.
David Sabino: His team may not no longer be undefeated, but there's no denying that Rodgers has been the best fantasy player this season with more than 4,300 yards and a league-high 43 touchdowns (40 passing, 3 rushing). The best value, though, and therefore the most valuable based on where his owners acquired him, was Gronkowski. Not ranked as a Top 5 tight end before the season, Gronk produced 30 more PPR points (equivalent to a full outstanding game) better than anyone else at his position and better than every wideout besides Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson.
Beacom: This summer, SI (and most fantasy publications) ranked Rashard Mendenhall among its Top 10 fantasy prospects. The Steelers starting back has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and probably will not reach 1,000 yards for the season. He has gained 100-plus yards rushing just once (against Jacksonville in Week 6) and is on pace to catch fewer balls than he did in either of the past two seasons.
Carroll: Chad Ochocinco. Drafted as a low WR1 in most leagues, Ochocinco didn't just not score points, he barely caught passes. He was the lost man in a spread-it-around offense. I'm not blaming Ocho here; we really misread things. The emergence of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as the 1 and 2 targets for Brady, even over Wes Welker at times, is going to have to make many reconfigure where they draft TEs next year.
Gramling: Chris Johnson. He kept on flashing just enough to keep his starting spot, but in the end he had three very good games, two serviceable games and nine horrendous games. He absolutely murdered anyone who ended up having him.
Mack: This was going to be Chris Johnson in a runaway, but he got hot in November. So let's go with Mendenhall. He has eight TDs and has stayed healthy all season, but he hasn't been the 1,000-yard, 15-TD back he could have been. Ben Roethlisberger has chewed up the Steelers yardage more through the air this season, leaving less for Mendenhall to do on the ground until now. A mid-Round 1 back shouldn't have just one 100-yard game on his ledger. If you want choices at the other positions: QB Philip Rivers (Michael Vick was disappointing when he wasn't injured, too), WR DeSean Jackson and TE Marcedes Lewis.
Sabino: Although his preseason expectations weren't as high as for Johnson, Philip Rivers or Mike Williams, Ochocinco suffered from a spate of missteps, dropped passes and an admitted lack of knowledge of the playbook to become an invisible man. The former Bengal Pro Bowl performer has managed a mere 14 catches, 261 yards and a touchdown -- much of which came after fantasy owners rightfully jettisoned him -- to rank below the likes of Matt Willis, Jarrett Dillard and Dane Sanzenbacher. And this was all while playing with the league's leading possession receiver and tight end commanding double coverage and playing with a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Beacom: At 32, most figured Steve Smith's career was winding down. Last season, the Carolina wide receiver found the end zone just twice and didn't reach the 50-catch mark. This season, Smith has collected 100 or more receiving yards in six games, has six scores, and it's possible he could finish the year with a new single-season high for receiving yardage.
Carroll: Cam Newton. At the start of the season, I thought you could squint a bit and end up with a Michael Vick '10 season. He could run a bit, pass a bit, and the team was bad enough that he could end up with some high count games and garbage TDs. Instead, Newton looked like a franchise QB from Week 1 with the addition of a running game. He's the evolution of Randall Cunningham and Vick. Tim Tebow might be getting more press, but the Panthers get the best of both worlds with Newton.
Gramling: Newton, but we already touched on him. I'd give it to Darren Sproles. His best-case seemed to be bye week fill-in, but he ended up having solid RB2 value all season despite being a part-time player. Just goes to show what Drew Brees can do for you.
Mack: No one could have expected Newton to be elite this fast. Rookie quarterbacks just don't do that. It will be interesting to see how he progresses, but his rookie season has put him squarely in the top five at his position. You might only be able to make a case for Rodgers, Brees, Tom Brady and (maybe) Matthew Stafford over Newton next year. Speaking of which, Stafford has enjoyed a nice breakthrough also.
Sabino: Victor Cruz. He went into the season buried on the depth chart in New York and emerged not only as a viable fantasy option, but one of the league's Top 5 wide receivers, and that was despite barely playing in the Giants' first two games. An honorable mention goes to Reggie Bush, who became a force as an every-down back in Miami, resurrecting a career that looked to be fading away.
Beacom: If not for Cam Newton, A.J. Green would walk away with rookie of the year honors. He is one of 13 players with 1,000 or more receiving yards, and only four receivers have caught more passes for 20-plus yards this season. Plus, the future in Cincinnati is not as grim as it was a season ago. Fellow rookie Andy Dalton looks to be the real deal under center, and the team has a potential franchise tight end in Jermaine Gresham. Green could be a fantasy star for a long time.
Carroll: This is a long list -- Newton's an obvious choice, but so is Andy Dalton, who progressed so much this season. Green helped and is already a top tier WR. Julio Jones showed flashes of brilliance. Add in DeMarco Murray, Denarius Moore and Aldon Smith and this will end up a very nice rookie class.
Gramling: Again, it's Newton. But aside from him, I'd go Green. That guy made some insane plays on some absurdly poor Dalton throws. I'm not buying on Dalton at this point, but if he simply grows into a league-average starter, Green has the natural ability to be a top five fantasy receiver.
Mack: Well, this one scooped No. 3 above. Newton clearly is a star already. So, for the sake of not repeating that discussion, let's throw Green and Julio Jones into this. They both have the look of potential future No. 1-ranked fantasy wideouts. Like QBs, wide receivers tend to take time. Green and Jones have been great producers already and don't look like they will go bust like the Bucs' Mike Williams did as a sophomore this year.
Sabino: When all is said and done, the 2011 rookie class will be one of the most fruitful in terms of players in the passing game. The top player is and will continue to be Newton, but I wouldn't sleep on Jones, who has shown flashes of talent to become Matt Ryan's favorite target the prime of his career.
Beacom: Fantasy owners did not become aware of the severity of Peyton Manning's neck injury until early September. By then, it was too late. Manning had passed for more than 4,000 yards in 11 of the previous 12 seasons, and had never thrown fewer than 26 touchdowns in any season of his career. He was as close to being a sure thing as it gets in fantasy football.
Carroll: Manning killed the value of the Colts entire WR corps and certainly didn't help the RBs.
Gramling: The Fred Jackson and Matt Forte injuries came out of nowhere and at the worst possible times. That was horrifically bad luck for anyone who owned them. I have far less pity for anyone who leaned on Darren McFadden, who's proved time and time again to be a slow healer who doesn't perform well when dinged up.
Mack: Jamaal Charles was the first player picked in your draft that went down for the year, ruining his fantasy teams, but Manning easily had the greatest impact. Not only was he worthless, but he was tied to the fate of Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Adam Vinatieri and arguably Joseph Addai. Manning's injury ruined a lot more players and a lot more fantasy teams.
Sabino: Hands down, it was Manning's neck. Not only did he sink those who drafted him early as their stud quarterback, but of those who played around him.
Beacom: I encouraged fantasy owners to unload Cam Newton after his 422-yard performance in Week 1. He had beaten up on Arizona's suspect secondary and I sensed fantasy owners would overpay for a rookie quarterback who would struggle to find consistency. "Newton could very well live up to those lofty expectations," I wrote. "It's just not going to be this year." Oops.
Carroll: I really believed in the preseason that Manning would be back. The Colts were blindsided by the news, so I don't feel too bad that I missed the signs, but I'd rather not have been so vociferous about it. I was also too hard on Arian Foster. While I was right that he's injury prone and that Ben Tate's as good, I thought those two things would sap his value and they didn't. He produced despite them.
Gramling: Three of 'em, actually. I wasn't buying on Matthew Stafford. I didn't think he'd stay upright (and healthy) behind that line, and before Mikel LeShoure got hurt, I thought Detroit would do more running in the red zone (which they might have). But, obviously, he's a stud. I also didn't jump on Newton (didn't think he's hold up as a passer) and Victor Cruz (thought his drops and mental mistakes would keep him behind Mario Manningham on the depth chart). Those guys were difference-makers, to say the least.
Mack: Suggesting Tom Brady was going to outscore Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees was bad, even if it looked possible out of the gate. Calling Foster a bust wasn't smart. He makes a case to be the No. 1 back in fantasy for 2012 (McCoy should be that, though). But the most painful prognostication here was saying Rob Gronkowski was going to regress in Year 2. This writer tried to claim you cannot count on one-yard TDs coming at a double-digit clip every year. No, Gronk just set the standard for tight ends in fantasy with the greatest fantasy season by a tight end in history. Instead of being No. 2 on his own team to Aaron Hernandez (as this guy predicted), Gronk is No. 1 among tight ends now, No. 1 for 2012 and No. 1 for what could be a long, long time.
Sabino: While subbing for Miles Austin, Laurent Robinson went for seven catches and 116 yards in a game against the Lions before the Cowboys' bye week. In my magazine fantasy column, I suggestedRobinson's performance was a fluke and Austin's return the following week would render Robinson useless. Instead, Austin yo-yoed in and out of the lineup while Robinson became on the the best receivers in the game. In a seven-game span through Weeks 8-14, Robinson scored eight touchdowns.