Each week of the NFL season, a committee of SI.com fantasy experts will huddle together and offer their insights into the most intriguing questions facing fantasy players. This week, they look ahead for what the fantasy football world has in store next fall.
Who has played themselves into the first round for next season's draft who weren't in consideration before?
Mike Beacom: The obvious answer is Cam Newton, who went from waiver wire pickup to fantasy MVP contender. I'd also throw Ryan Mathews into the conversation. Mathews has averaged 5.1 yards per carry (best among the league's top 10 rushers) and is tied for fourth among backs in receptions (45).
Will Carroll: I'm not sure if Fred Jackson will get the consideration he deserves due to ending the season injured, but he definitely deserves consideration after the top three of Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, and Ray Rice. Jackson ended the season with more points than Matt Forte and is higher now than Marshawn Lynch and Chris Wells, guys who get a lot more hype. I also think that Newton is going to get drafted in the first round. Next year, there will be so few great QBs and such a solid second tier of RBs that I think Rodgers, Brees, Brady, and Newton could all be first rounders.
Gary Gramling: There's Newton, for obvious reasons. I think he's a knee injury away from going the way of Daunte Culpepper, but until then ... And Rob Gronkowski is a first-round lock, especially with Antonio Gates' deteriorating health leaving a serious lack of top-flight tight end options. I also think Lynch has moved into the conversation, especially with the Seattle schedule a little friendlier next fall. DeMarco Murray could be there, too, depending on what the Cowboys do in the offseason (Peyton Hillis vulturing TDs?).
Eric Mack: When you're talking about first round, it is a couple of quarterbacks, maybe a receiver or two and a large group of running backs. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Calvin Johnson are the non-RBs worthy of Round 1 consideration, but they have been there before. The leading backs LeSean McCoy, Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Foster and Peterson have been there before, too. That doesn't leave a whole lot of spots available for newcomers. The back end of the first round could get the likes of Jackson, Lynch and Mathews picked, though. Those would be the ones who played themselves into Round 1 consideration this year.
David Sabino: In a quarterback-driven league, Newton is one of at least five quarterbacks (along with Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford, with Eli Manning right on the doorstep) who have earned first-round consideration. Pre-injury Forte, Jackson and Murray were all worthy and will be on the cusp next season depending on their respective recoveries. And one who has made his way back is Lynch, who should be taken in the second half of the first round next season.
What fantasy sure-things have played themselves into troubled assets after this season?
Beacom: Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson and Mike Vick were all coveted fantasy picks this summer (excuse Johnson's holdout), yet all will be pushed further down the draft board in 2012. Charles' Week 2 injury supported concerns fantasy owners have had all along about his durability; no one will forgive Johnson for laying an egg after collecting a fat new contract; and for most of the year Vick has looked merely human. Vick fell out of the Top 5 at his position, while Charles and Johnson are both now second-tier backs.
Carroll: People will perceive Vick a lot differently next year than they did this year. He's really the same guy on the upside and downside. I'm curious to see where the Titans' Johnson goes in early mocks. My assumption is he's going to be at the tail end of the first round and will be solid value there. Injury comebacks like Charles are always underdrafts, but we could have the ultimate one when it comes to Peyton Manning next season. More important, does it make returning Colts players "that much better" if Manning is back, or would Andrew Luck increase the value of players like Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and .... well, that's about it?
Gramling: I can't imagine Frank Gore going in the top 15 next year. He can't stay healthy, and Kendall Hunter's role will surely grow. And even with the big finish, Philip Rivers is going to be an awfully shaky QB1 if Vincent Jackson leaves town.
Mack: Charles looked like he could be a perennial first-rounder, but now he is dealing with a comeback from ACL surgery. Whoever picks him will assume plenty of risk relative to draft position next year. Vick was ill-advisedly picked early in Round 1 and fell flat, leaving him outside the top five of the position for 2012. Andre Johnson's year-to-year injury woes should make him more of a perennial risk than a first-rounder now. Chris Johnson and Darren McFadden should have been candidates to be No. 1 overall picks next year; instead, it will be a question of whether they will even go in Round 1. At tight end, Jason Witten and Dallas Clark were lapped by Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. And finally, Philip Rivers may well have played himself out of the elite considerations at QB.
Sabino: Clearly, Vick is no longer worthy of a top pick. His comeback season in 2010 seems merely a mirage as he's reverted right back to his pre-prison fantasy-frustrating self. And even with a stronger finish to the season, Johnson has raised enough red flags to drop down to rounds two or three, as has Rashard Mendenhall, McFadden and Charles, who could fall even further.
Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham have produced the stats of top-line wide receivers. Where will you be selecting them next year?
Beacom: Chances are, neither player will be on my roster in 2012. My gut tells me fantasy owners will need to use a second or early third-round pick in traditional leagues to snag Gronkowski or Graham based on their 2011 production. I've never been one to use a pick that early on a tight end, and it concerns me that the Patriots and Saints both have so many mouths to feed in the passing game.
Carroll: We've seen this for years, it's just new names. Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Clark all did the same thing, though I think offenses have shifted enough now that they're trying to build their own version of Gates and Clark. The more interesting trend to me is the second TE. New England has two special guys in Gronkowski and Hernandez -- will other teams do this to exploit the kind of matchup advantages that they're getting? Imagine Graham paired up with another big mobile guy. Defensive coordinators have nightmares about that.
Gramling: Gronkowski is a no doubt first-rounder. He is the best red zone weapon in football right now. And I wouldn't argue with Graham as a late first-rounder. After those two tight ends, you're looking at an aging, injury-prone Gates, and then there's a major drop-off to the Witten/Clark/Gonzalez class.
Mack: Gronk rates higher than Graham, but the question is whether the greatest season in fantasy TE history warrants picking him the highest ever in standard drafts. The heyday of Gates saw him go as high as Round 2, and more toward the middle and back end of it. Gronk probably shouldn't go off the board much earlier than that. Still, you can make a case he is more valuable than all of the wide receivers, many of whom will be picked in Round 1 (particularly in PPR formats).
Sabino: Indeed, these two are producing as top-line wide receivers, and since there are fewer of them to go around, they are, in fact, more valuable. Still, I'm always one to wait on wideouts, so I'll begin thinking about taking Gronkowski or Graham (if his back is not a major concern) around the same as Calvin Johnson in the second round in 12-team leagues and before the likes of Wes Welker, Roddy White and Greg Jennings.
What players do you feel have the best breakout potential next season?
Beacom: Two come to mind -- Roy Helu and Greg Little. In roughly half a season Helu has caught 44 passes, and he averages almost a full yard more per carry than the other backs Washington has fed the ball to. Little ranks among the top 20 wide receivers in targets (100) and has caught five or more balls in six games. If the Browns pull the offense together he could explode.
Carroll: I'm curious about Tim Tebow. I don't think he's an NFL QB, but he might be something completely different. An offense built to exploit what he can do well could be intriguing. The same is true-ish for Cam Newton. I think the Panthers altered this scheme to some extent in Carolina, but I don't think they realized just how special he could be in the NFL. None of us did, despite him being the No. 1 overall pick. My way out there pick is Patrick Peterson. He's just so disruptive that I think the Cardinals might start using him a bit on offense, Deion Sanders style.
Gramling: Tough to say before the offseason plays out, but Vincent Brown seemed to have Philip Rivers' trust and could have a starting spot next summer. I also wonder if the Jets are finally getting serious about utilizing Shonn Greene. He already has 26 catches this year -- very encouraging -- and is showing nicely in the red zone. I'd be excited to see what Donald Brown could do with Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck under center in Indy next fall. He's finally emerged as Indy's clear-cut best RB, something that would have actually carried value any other year. And Roy Helu should enter 2012 as Washington's feature back, and it seems like no one in the NFC East likes to tackle anymore.
Mack: Julio Jones, Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas didn't have great rookie years, but they certainly showed enough to expect much more the next go-round. A.J. Green is already performing at the top 10 at his position -- Cam Newton in the top five -- and should only continue to rise. As for someone that can go from good to great, Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray could be next year's Shady McCoy stories -- i.e., moving into the elite class of fantasy performer and being a candidate for the top overall pick in 2013.