For some fantasy football owners, the season never ends. Those of you in keeper and dynasty leagues are probably already thinking about whom you should protect in 2014. Some decisions are easy across the board, while your specific league parameters may force your hand in other instances. You may not have to make the final call for some time, but allow me to lodge the first arguments on behalf of these players, who may get overlooked by their owners, listed in order of most likely to be thrown back into the draft pool to least likely.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Vikings: Patterson really didn't do anything of note through the first two months of the season. He didn't score his first touchdown until Nov. 7, and didn't surpass 100 receiving yards in a game until Dec. 8. By time he was making plays, the Vikings had long since fallen out of the playoff picture. As such, Patterson's late-season surge may have gone unnoticed by a large portion of the country. If that group includes you, let this be your wake-up call.
Patterson was explosive over the final four weeks of the season in an offense that had no stability at quarterback and was largely without Adrian Peterson. In those four games, Patterson had 15 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran the ball eight times, gaining 129 yards and finding the end zone twice.
The Vikings no doubt have their fingers crossed for one of Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles with the No. 8 pick in this year's draft, but no matter who is under center next season, they can't play much worse than did the trio of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman. Furthermore, Patterson will have a full season under his belt, and will be a key player in the offense from the start of the year. Dynasty leaguers definitely won't want to let Patterson get away. If you're in a keeper league where a guy's value is based on the previous year's price tag, Patterson is someone you will almost certainly want to keep, as well.
Kendall Wright, WR, Titans: Here's a fun fact about Wright. He ranked seventh among receivers with 94 receptions and 18th with 1,079 yards this year. The only other receivers to be in the top 10 in receptions and top 20 in yards were Pierre Garcon, Antonio Brown, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Alshon Jeffery and Julian Edelman.
Most people would say all of those but Edelman are slam-dunk keepers, yet Wright would likely be left with Edelman on the outside. My question to that is simply, why? Wright produced consistently in an offense that was 19th in the league in points and 22nd in yards. He put up numbers regardless of whether Jake Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick was under center. In a 10-week stretch in the middle of the season, he had at least six catches for at least 70 yards seven times. Yes, those are arbitrary endpoints, but it still speaks to his consistency, a prized commodity for fantasy owners, this season.
The Titans brought in offensive guru Ken Whisenhunt to replace the fired Mike Munchak. Wide receivers who have flourished in fantasy leagues with Whisenhunt as an offensive coordinator or head coach include Hines Ward, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Keenan Allen.
It's not yet official, but it sounds as though Whisenhunt will bring in John McNulty, who had been the quarterbacks coach in Tampa, to be his offensive coordinator. For all the problems the Buccaneers had this year, Vincent Jackson had another great season. The Titans also announced they would retain wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, giving Wright some continuity at his position.
Don't worry that he scored just two touchdowns. Receiving scores are among the most volatile stats in football. The Baylor product looks primed for a breakout season in his third year in the league.
Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals: This is where we start to get to the players whom fantasy owners are likely considering as keepers. Bernard had a great rookie season, running for 695 yards and five touchdowns while catching 56 passes for 514 yards and three scores. For a lot of players entering their second year, losing their offensive coordinator would be an unwelcome sign of tumult. For Bernard, it's a boon.
Jay Gruden had an attachment to BenJarvus Green-Ellis that bordered on sabotage. Of course he wasn't going to feed Bernard 20-plus times per game, but Green-Ellis had an outsized role in the offense, and it's hard to imagine that the rookie couldn't have handled a few more touches in each contest. Green-Ellis got 220 carries to Bernard's 170, and had more totes in all but five games.
New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Bernard's former position coach, is absolutely in love with the North Carolina product, and it's easy to see him progressing into a bigger role in his second year. It's early, but Bernard should be, at worst, a strong RB2 next season.
Keenan Allen, WR, Chargers: Allen appears farther down this list than Wright thanks to his eight touchdowns and major presence on a playoff team, but it's worth noting that Wright outpaced him in both receptions and yards.
That's no knock on Allen, who was rightfully named the Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association. Allen finished the season with 71 catches and 1,046 yards in addition to his eight end zone trips. He had at least eight fantasy points in 10 games in standard-scoring leagues, averaging nearly 10 points per game.
The Chargers lost their offensive coordinator, the aforementioned Whisenhunt, but all the other important pieces remain in place. Allen immediately developed a great relationship with Philip Rivers, and the former's role in the latter's resurgence cannot be overstated.
Allen will not come cheap next year. Rookie receivers don't typically post 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown seasons. If your league bases keeper values off of the previous season, such as leagues where you get to keep a guy in the same or similar round as you drafted him the previous year, or at the same or similar price for which you purchased him in an auction, Allen is a no-brainer of a keeper.
Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers: Let me be as clear on this as possible. Nelson is a WR1, hands down, no doubt about it. In the seven games before Aaron Rodgers' collarbone injury, Nelson had 39 catches for 649 yards and seven touchdowns. That's good for an average of 15.3 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. I'm not going to waste any more time here. Don't let Nelson get away from you if you owned him in 2013.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Steelers: Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte were the top-scoring running backs in fantasy leagues this year. While they each have their own styles, one thing they all do is catch passes. Charles and Forte are especially deadly as receivers out of the backfield, with the Chief catching 70 passes this year and the Bear hauling in 75. Both played full seasons (OK, Charles sat Week 17).
The rookie Bell missed the first three games of the year because of a foot injury suffered during the preseason. Despite playing just 13 games, Bell caught 45 passes for 399 yards. On a per-game basis, he ranked 12th among running backs in receptions. And that, of course, leaves aside everything he did as a pure runner, which was equally as impressive.
Bell racked up 860 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground this season. He'll continue to be a focal point in the offense, and with a full 16-game season, he could push 1,500 total yards with double-digit touchdowns. If I had to bet on one running back breaking out and vaulting up a tier or two next season, my money would be on Bell.