Fantasy football 2012 QB preview

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Even if that massive collection of elite backs stayed healthy, the QB still would be the most important player on all fantasy teams. It is the highest-scoring position, even if it might not be the first one you fill on draft day.

Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's long-standing yardage mark; Aaron Rodgers flirted with Tom Brady's record 50 passing touchdowns; Cam Newton posted the greatest rookie season by a QB in history, including rushing for a QB-record 14 TDs on the ground.

All that, and the quarterback play figures to only get better. Seriously.

No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck looks like a future NFL MVP; Robert Griffin III looks like the second coming of Newton; and there are fewer teams than ever without a QB they view as a franchise guy.

As all these young and prime-aged QBs continue to improve, there just aren't that many veteran QBs looking like they are on the way out -- unless you count Peyton Manning in that discussion. Most people would assume Manning is more on the way back than the way out.

Those are all scary thoughts.

It shouldn't divert you from putting your pre-draft energy into scouting the elite running back and receiver options, though. With the NFL as pass-happy as it is -- and the QB play improving by the day -- there are an abundance of good options. It can allow you to wait into the middle rounds after you have your starters at running, wide receiver and maybe even tight end.

We break down the QB position in depth here, including the top 40 by tiers below:

Matt Ryan, Falcons -- He was expected to step forward to the elite a year ago, but he remained relatively steady. A number of factors suggest he will become an elite fantasy passer this year: 1. Julio Jones is going to emerge as a monster opposite the already-elite Roddy White; 2. Michael Turner is aging, so the Falcons are going to turn away from a run-heavy scheme to whip the ball around the field like the rest of the NFL is these days. Ryan cracked 4,000 yards a year ago and almost 30 TDs, but he could approach 5,000 yards and 40 TDs this time. That is potential first- or second-round production for a QB who will go after Round 5 and perhaps not even in the top-10 at his position.

Tony Romo, Cowboys -- Much like Ryan, Romo just hasn't put that holy grail season together. With the maturation of Dez Bryant, a solid running game behind DeMarco Murray and a full season of health from Miles Austin, Romo has the potential to return to the statistical monster he was in 2007. Elite numbers of 4,500 yards and 35-plus TDs are possible and, like Ryan, at least five rounds will go by before Romo's name does in drafts.

Cam Newton, Panthers -- This is not to say Newton is a flash in the pan. No, he's the real deal, but posting a legendary fantasy season like Newton did as a rookie is just tough to do. Newton isn't going to surprise anyone this year and he will be going in Round 2 or 3 in most leagues. Those are some lofty expectations for a player who should find things get tougher as he goes through growing pains.

Like Michael Vick and Josh Freeman a year ago, there likely will be some regression from Newton as a passer for a team with an aging injury risk in Steve Smith and some questionable supporting receivers. Yes, the rushing TDs should be there, but that is why you have fantasy running backs. You want any QB you are picking as high as you have to on Newton to be a threat for 40 TDs and fewer interceptions. Newton could be this year's Vick. Let someone else take the risk on Newton.

Drew Brees, Saints -- No one has been more consistently great than Brees the past six Hall of Fame-caliber seasons under Sean Payton in New Orleans. Well, Brees is now 33 and he will be without his offensive guru Payton on the sideline due to Bounty Gate. Yes, Brees can regress a long way from the record-setting 5,476 yards and still be a fantasy stud, but look at the year-after seasons for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (injured). Brady was lost for the season and Manning fell well short of numbers expected from a QB selected in Round 1 or early Round 2. "It will be hard to match last year's statistics," Brees said upon reporting to camp. "I'll be honest about that." Be wary of selecting Brees. (It is hard to believe that statement was uttered, but it is a fantasy reality).

Robert Griffin III, Redskins -- This one shouldn't have to be stated, but those expecting RGIII to have a Newton-like rookie season are likely to be disappointed. Those types of seasons just don't happen often, and RGIII is being picked as a starter in many early drafts. He shouldn't be picked before the top 15 veterans are off the board. Unfortunately, there will be someone in your league selecting him well before that. Actually, if that is not you, you should feel fortunate. RGIII's bust potential is as great as his long-term potential itself.

Joe Flacco, Ravens -- It is very, very strange the amount of questions Flacco has had to answer about his long-term position with the Ravens. This is one of the position's burgeoning stars and there are talking heads asking whether he is worthy of sticking around? Those are "clown questions, bro."

He just hasn't had a deck of receivers to work with. Torrey Smith can take a significant step forward in Year 2 and field-stretcher Jacoby Jones was brought in as a free agent to play in three wide receiver sets, which would allow older possession receiver Anquan Boldin to move into the slot, where he belongs. Also, the Ravens had veteran back Ricky Williams retire, so the load on Ray Rice will have to be monitored early in the season.

The Ravens expect to be playing deep into January, so to conserve Rice's legs, they are going to need to adapt to the modern pass-happy NFL. Flacco is almost certainly going to be picked as a fantasy backup, but his projections should be around 3,800 yards and 25-plus TDs. That is some backup. Heck, that's some starter.

Jay Cutler, Bears -- This might generate some laughs. There are few QBs in the NFL with more critics than Cutler. Well, there are as few QBs that had as little to work with. The Bears project to do a better job of protecting him -- he has been one of the most beat-on QBs in the NFL since he came to Chicago -- and he gets an elite weapon in offseason acquisition Brandon Marshall. The last time Cutler performed like a fantasy starter (2008) -- 4,526 yards and 25 TDs -- he played in Denver with Marshall. Cutler is going to get picked as a backup, like Flacco, and perform like a fantasy starter with 4,000 yards and 25-plus TDs.

Here is how we should tier the quarterback position heading into the preseason:

1. Fantasy MVPs -- While Rodgers is the only QB really worth a first-round pick in a standard one-QB league, there are four elite options that can challenge him for the highest scoring fantasy passer.

2. Every-week starters -- This is a rather large group of quality, consistent scorers. It makes waiting on a QB into the middle rounds a solid strategy. There are 10 reliable options, so most of your league is going to be extremely happy with their starters at the position.

3. Part-time starters -- It is a bit surprising to drop Phillip Rivers and Peyton Manning into this group of marginal fantasy starters, but this pass-happy NFL will allow guys in this group to look like members of the elite from time to time.

4. Fantasy backups -- This group has potential but no one should consider these guys QB1 options to start the season. Andrew Luck will get picked well ahead of this group, perhaps justifiably so, but everyone should view him as no better than a secondary option at the position.

5. Unknowns -- There is some potential here, but uncertainty should keep them as no better than late-round picks at this point. If Locker starts, he is worthy of being picked in all leagues. Bradford would be more intriguing if his receiving corps wasn't so awful.

6. Projects -- If Tebow were a starting QB for the Jets, he would be a fantasy starter. As it is, he's merely a late-round flier. The remaining trio of this group has long-term potential but their 2012 prospects are clouded by questionable supporting casts.

7. What ifs -- Too many things need to go right for these guys to be considered draftable in fantasy this August. Kyle Orton is an intriguing handcuff because of the weapons in that Dallas offense and Romo's injury history.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for You find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).