Fantasy football 2013 draft preview: Bold predictions
The first regular season game of the 2013 NFL season is just eight days away. We've spent the summer ranking and re-ranking. We've uncovered sleepers and busts. We've previewed all 32 teams in the league. We've taken a look at every rookie who could make a fantasy impact. We've done a little bit more re-ranking. We've identified players who are undervalued, and those who will cost you more than they're worth on draft day. And then, just for the fun of it, we re-ranked one last time.
There's nothing left to do but get some bold predictions on the record. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, let's start the insanity.
• Tony Romo ends the season as a top-five quarterback: Lampoon Romo all you want, but those who put their faith in him this year will get the last laugh. A quarterback doesn't rack up 7.9 yards per attempt over his career by accident. He has the weapons at his disposal to have his best year to date.
• Peyton Manning leads the league in touchdown passes: He's viewed as the third quarterback at best, trailing Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, but it's reliable ol' Peyton who will throw for the most scores this year. In Year 1 with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Manning tossed 37 touchdowns. Thomas is 6-foot-3, 229 pounds. Decker also checks in at 6-foot-3 and tips the scales at 214 pounds. These are big, fast, physical receivers who can take the top off a defense and bully defensive backs in the red zone. Add slot maven Wes Welker to the mix, a pass-catching back in Montee Ball, and one of the best lines in the league, and it's almost unfair. Manning will throw 45 touchdowns this season.
• Andrew Luck, glorified backup: For all the buzz surrounding Luck after last season, you'd think he would have picked up more than 7.0 YPA or completed more than 54.1 percent of his passes, but those are his numbers from his rookie year. His counting stats were built on the back of 627 pass attempts. Yes, talent evaluators see Luck as a seminal talent who should make a huge leap in his second year, similar to how Peyton Manning did in his second year in the league. With all the options at quarterback, though, I can't see Luck cracking the top 12 at the position. Anticipated growth is the only reason for ranking him ahead of Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin or Tony Romo. Give me all those guys over Luck, and throw in Eli Manning while you're at it, too.
• Terrelle Pryor gets back in our lives: With the Raiders already out of playoff contention in August, they'll come around to the idea that Pryor should be their starter, not Matt Flynn. Given a chance to start all 16 games, Pryor will run for 600 yards and six scores, turning himself into a weekly mainstay in two-QB leagues.
• Jamaal Charles has a season for the ages: My love for Charles has been well documented this summer. It's time to put my exact projection on the page for all posterity to admire. With the perfect coach and system for his talents, not to mention the best quarterback he has played with in his career, everything has lined up for Charles to dominate this season. He's getting goal-line carries and could push north of 100 targets. What does it all equal? 2,214 total yards, 67 catches, 13 touchdowns. Get Jamaal.
• Jonathan Dwyer becomes a weekly flex play: Given a chance to start with Le'Veon Bell injured, Dwyer won't relinquish the job all season. He played well in limited duty last year, running for 623 yards and two scores on 156 carries. He's just 5-foot-11, but at 229 pounds, he has the build to withstand the beating inherent in touching the ball 20 times per game. When Bell returns, he'll have a role in the offense, but Dwyer is the Pittsburgh back you'll want. He'll creep past 1,000 yards this year to go along with seven touchdowns.
• Alfred Morris goes down as one of the biggest busts: Morris emerged late in training camp last season to win the starting job in Washington and never looked back, running for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. While he had a phenomenal season in his own right, a lot of his success was thanks to the threat of Robert Griffin as a runner. I'm in wait-and-see mode when it comes to him being that same runner this year. If ends and outside linebackers don't need to respect Griffin's running ability the same way they did last season, the rushing lanes that were routinely open for Morris last year won't be there. Typically drafted late in the first round, Morris' production will be more on par with a third- or fourth-round back.
• Frank Gore finishes outside the top-20 running backs: Gore turned 30 this spring and has 2,333 career touches. He had a very productive season in 2012, but there was a sign his role was being slightly diminished. He had 258 carries in 16 games, or slightly more than 16 per game. That was his lowest per game average since his rookie year. The 49ers have Super Bowl aspirations this year, and they'll need a healthy Gore playing deep into the winter if that is going to happen. With capable backups in Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, both of whom would form an electric duo in the backfield with Colin Kaepernick, it's not hard to envision Gore's role decreasing again this year. Given that Kaepernick is a talented runner himself, he could vulture a handful of goal-line scores, too. Gore will finish the year just barely inside the top 25 at the position.
• Jordy Nelson leads all Packers receivers in fantasy points: Randall Cobb is widely considered a top-10 receiver and James Jones' stock continues to rise, but Nelson is the best real-life, and fantasy, receiver on this Green Bay team. He missed four games last year, but still had 12 targets in the red zone, including five inside the 10-yard-line and three inside the 5. Cobb had eight red zone targets in 15 games. Nelson also had four catches of at least 40 yards. No one else who played fewer than 14 games even had three. Cobb and Jones combined for one (it was Jones who had it). Nelson is that rare breed of receiver who can score from distance and is also a deadly red-zone threat. Assuming full health, it's him, and not Cobb, who will be a top-10 receiver.
• Antonio Brown racks up a WR1 season: Last year, Pittsburgh quarterbacks threw the ball to Mike Wallace 119 times, including 17 times in the red zone. The receivers behind Brown on the depth chart are Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Markus Wheaton. Heath Miller will likely miss the first month of the season. Translation: Brown should have somewhere around 150 targets this year. He hasn't been terribly efficient in his career, catching 59.2 percent of his targets the last two seasons, but he won't have to be with all that volume. Even as the No. 2 receiver, he managed nine red-zone targets in 13 games. That is sure to increase this season, as well. I'm projecting him for 87 catches, 1,302 yards and nine touchdowns.
• Danny Amendola ends the season outside the top-24 receivers: On a per-game average, I'd bet that Amendola is one of the 15 or 18 best fantasy receivers this year. Unfortunately, I don't see any reason why fantasy owners should have confidence he'll stay healthy. He played 11 games last year and all of one the year before that. He's already dealing with an undisclosed injury, though he did return to practice earlier this week. If he ends up playing 16, or even 14, games, he'll make me eat my words. I just don't think he will. When he presents that sort of known risk and is coming off the board at the same time as guys like Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson and Dwayne Bowe, I just don't see him ending up on any of my teams.
• Marques Colston makes everyone who worried about his foot regret it: I understand the qualms about Colston's foot and that he could turn into Antonio Gates 2.0. I simply think they're overblown. Remember, this issue initially cropped up early in the 2012 season, and Colston still managed to catch 83 passes for 1,154 yards and 10 touchdowns. No team likes to throw the ball in the red zone more than the Saints, and while Jimmy Graham may be one of the deadliest red-zone pass catchers in the game, it was Colston who led the team with 23 red-zone targets last year. He has as high and safe a floor for a second- or third-tier receiver as you're going to find. When we check out his line at the end of the year, we'll see 80 catches, 1,056 yards and 12 scores.
• Only Jimmy Graham outscores Greg Olsen among tight ends: Just four tight ends saw a greater percentage of their team's targets than Olsen last year. He was also fifth in total targets with 104 and eighth with 14 targets in the red zone, which also tied him with Steve Smith for the team lead. Five of those were inside the 5-yard-line, good for fourth at the position. Olsen is one of three tight ends -- Graham and Jason Witten are the others -- who will get more than 100 targets this year and is one of the two best receivers on his team. I'm penciling him in for 900 yards and nine touchdowns.
• Tony Gonzalez falls out of the top five: This is nothing against Gonzalez personally. The guy is an institution, and he's just as meritorious a fantasy player as he was last year, when he had 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight scores. Now that the Falcons have a legitimate pass-catching running back in Steven Jackson, though, I think his targets will come down significantly. I don't think his per-target numbers will fall off that much, if at all, but the opportunities will not be there to justify his draft-day price.
• The Bengals will win the AFC North and have the second-best record in the conference. Miami and Kansas City will surprise, earning the AFC's two wild-card berths. They'll be joined on the AFC side of the bracket by the Broncos, Patriots and Texans. It'll be Broncos over Bengals in a supremely orange AFC Championship Game.
• In the NFC, the 49ers will have the best record, while the Cowboys will emerge from the NFC East as champions. The Falcons and Bears will round out the division winners, with Green Bay and Seattle taking the wild cards. Two much-maligned quarterbacks, though for different reasons, Matt Ryan and Jay Cutler will lead their teams to the NFC Championship Game. Unlike last year, Ryan and the Falcons won't fall short.
• On a snowy night in New Jersey in February, the Broncos will defeat the Falcons in Super Bowl XLVIII, with Manning taking home MVP honors. A little boldness goes a long way, but sometimes the boldest thing you can do is resist the temptation to look like a genius, and go with the obvious.