Twelve players to watch in 2012
Jamaal Charles and Jay Cutler are healthy and ready for a productive season
Josh Freeman and Jermichael Finley will return to form after disappointing years
Conversely, Roddy White and Philip Rivers will see a drop in production this year
While no one is going to have the same set of projections as the next guy, there are plenty of players who don't inspire a wide range of opinion. The only consensus picks might be Arian Foster and Calvin Johnson as the top running back and wide receiver, respectively, but a player doesn't have to top his position to be a relatively non-controversial player during draft prep season. You don't need me to tell you that Tom Brady is a good option this year, that running backs aren't nearly as important as they used to be, or that A.J. Green is the next big thing at the wide receiver position.
However, there are just as many, if not more, guys who are intriguing this preseason for one reason or another. Some are coming back off an injury and others look poised to bounce back after a disappointing 2011 season. Additionally, there are always the standard busts, sleepers and rookies to consider. With training camps opening in about two weeks, let's take a look at 12 such intriguing players.
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs -- Charles was a consensus top-five pick a year ago, and also found his name among those in my bust column around this same time in 2011. Of course, I didn't think he'd be a bust thanks to an unfortunately placed first-down marker.
Charles has had plenty of time to rehab his torn ACL and should enter 2012 with a clean bill of health. Gone is the pass-happy Todd Haley and in is the more traditional Romeo Crennel. While Charles is always going to carry durability concerns, and could cede carries at the goal-line, there's plenty of reason for optimism going into the season.
The fact remains that Charles is Kansas City's best offensive weapon, and the Chiefs will be at their strongest when he's the focal point. He's one of the league's most adept pass-catching backs, which should keep him on the field for his fair share of third downs. And, as I said earlier, you're getting a guy who was a lock for the top-five a year ago at the price of a second rounder. I'd take him over Trent Richardson or Marshawn Lynch, two guys routinely ranked ahead of him this year.
Jay Cutler, Bears -- When Cutler fractured his thumb in a Week 11 win over the Chargers last year, ending his and, effectively, the Bears' season, he looked like he was finally coming into his own in Chicago. The win over the Chargers was Chicago's fifth straight, and Cutler was a big reason why, with a 7.7 YPA, 7/3 TD/INT ratio and a rushing touchdown. And remember, he did all of this with Johnny Knox and Devin Hester as his starting wide receivers.
The Bears have surrounded Cutler with weapons, finally handing him the keys to the offense by bringing in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Jeremy Bates, his quarterbacks coach in Denver. Gone is the Mike Martz offense that ignored one of Cutler's greatest strengths -- throwing on designed rollouts -- and in is a more standard offense under Mike Tice.
Assuming the Matt Forte situation is rectified, the Bears could have one of the league's scariest red-zone offense, with Michael Bush and tight end Kellen Davis adding to Cutler's various options. He's easily a top-10 option this year.
Mikel Leshoure, Lions -- Leshoure was everyone's darling sleeper last year before a torn Achilles in the preseason ended his rookie year before it even got started. All that did was delay the optimism a year, as Jahvid Best clearly is not the answer in Detroit's backfield. In fact, there's a chance Leshoure's greatest competition will come from Kevin Smith this year.
The Lions have a chance to become one of the league's most potent offenses, but they'll need some production out of the backfield after getting absolutely nothing a year ago. Leshoure remains a bruising back who should get the bulk of the goal-line carries, which should be a boon in an offense as talented as Detroit's. And while I don't like to buy into strength of schedule before the season thanks to the NFL's high rate of volatility from year to year, the NFC North plays the NFC West and AFC South this season, two divisions not exactly known for stout defenses.
Josh Freeman, Buccaneers -- This is odd for me because, like with Charles, I find myself supporting a guy this year I did not like a year ago. With Freeman, it's a matter of managed expectations and new weapons, most notably Vincent Jackson. We've long become accustomed to Jackson teaming up with Philip Rivers on the deep ball, and there's no doubt that Freeman throws a pretty nine route. The Buccaneers are no doubt hoping Jackson's presence can ease the pressure on Mike Williams, who also had a disappointing 2011. New running back Doug Martin should give the offense a jolt as well after it suffered through the depressing act known as LeGarrette Blount a year ago.
Finally, here's a secret for you. Other than YPA and TD/INT ratio, Freeman's numbers were up across the board last year. He completed a higher percentage of his passes, threw for more yards, and ran for four touchdowns. Just like his 25/6 TD/INT in 2010 was a bit fluky, so was last year's 16/22. He'll establish himself as a starter in 12-team leagues this year.
Jermichael Finley, Packers -- Despite all the good feelings in Green Bay last year, Finley was solidly a bust. The numbers -- 767 yards and eight touchdowns -- might not suggest it, but three of those touchdowns came in one game. He missed one game due to injury, and scored fewer than seven fantasy points, using standard scoring, in nine of the 15 games he played. He also had a recurring case of the dropsies, losing the confidence of Aaron Rodgers along the way.
Yet this remains a prototype for the new breed of tight end: monstrous size, superhuman strength and great speed for his size. The NFL may be a pass-first league, but the Packers take that to another level. Finley is a matchup nightmare for safeties and linebackers, and with Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings occupying attention out wide, he'll have plenty of room to operate in the middle of the field. He'd be my first choice after the elite at the position (Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham) are off the board.
Titus Young, Lions -- While the Lions had one of the league's deadliest passing offenses a year ago, it was largely due to the exploits of just Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Nate Burleson emerged as a solid fantasy option, and Brandon Pettigrew was a fringe starter at tight end, but this was essentially a one-man show out wide. Not so this year.
Young, in his second year out of Boise State, looks primed to take a step forward. He actually had a strong rookie year, catching 48 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns.
The prevailing opinion is that receivers have the most trouble making the transition from college to the NFL, thanks to more sophisticated defenses and more responsibility on them to read those coverages. Young acclimated himself quite well, and there's no reason to expect regression, especially in a potent, pass-first offense. He'll become a regular fantasy starter this year.
James Starks, Packers -- After a phenomenal run in the 2010 playoffs, Starks was a bit of a disappointment a year ago, as he failed to completely wrest the starting job away from the equally disappointing Ryan Grant. Grant is gone now, and while Starks will have competition in the form of Ohio State product Brandon Saine, the time is ripe for him to take over as the primary ballcarrier.
This is as much about environment and opportunity as it is anything. The Packers feature one of the league's most bankable offenses. Even if Aaron Rodgers and the air show hog most of the stats, any running back getting a majority of the carries should have plenty of value simply by osmosis. Rodgers has a penchant for running in plenty of scores himself, but after his repeated concussions, the Green Bay coaching staff might discourage him from taking too many chances, which could only be good news for whoever is in the backfield. The bet here is that man is Starks.
Roddy White, Falcons -- I'm not sure I've ever been as confident in a bust prediction as I am in White. First, let's make one thing clear. White is still a great receiver who I'd gladly take on my team at the right price. I just don't think the price will be right in any draft or auction I'm in this season.
First, Atlanta was a lucky team last year, and luck almost always catches up with a team in the NFL. I'm picking them to miss the playoffs, and that's going to have a negative effect on everyone's numbers. Second, White himself has said that he'll cede targets to Julio Jones this year, and White has almost always been a volume player. He has averaged fewer than 14 yards per catch each of the last three seasons, and has been north of four yards after catch just twice in his seven-year career. White is still plenty useful, but I think he's outside the top-10 receivers this season.
Philip Rivers, Chargers -- He's seemingly a perennial top option at quarterback, but 2012 will be known, among other things, as the year Rivers fell from the fantasy elite. He dropped off in a big way, with his YPA falling below eight and his TD/INT an unseemly, for him, 27/20.
Antonio Gates is in the twilight of his career, and disabuse yourself right now of the notion that Robert Meachem is anything like Vincent Jackson. Jackson is a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Meachem, while a big, talented receiver, benefited from the multitude of options in New Orleans that allowed him to consistently fly under the radar. That will not be the case in San Diego.
Rivers does have a home-run hitting back he can dump the ball off to in Ryan Mathews, but that won't be enough in the new-look NFL. Rivers will fall outside the top 10 this year, and will be a fringe starter, at best, in 12-team leagues.
Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks -- As with White, I'd happily take Lynch on my team at a price I know won't be available at the draft table. Running backs are less important than they've ever been in fantasy leagues, but that also means the elite guys come at a premium. Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice are first-round locks, and I can see the argument for Ryan Mathews, Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson. That's it.
Lynch is being drafted as a late-first rounder or early-second rounder, and I just don't think that's good value. You're essentially buying last year's career year, and that's almost always a flawed drafting strategy. I'll take an elite quarterback or receiver over Lynch 100 times out of 100. To me, the argument for Lynch that early is, "Well, I need a running back." That might have been the case five years ago, but it is no longer true. Resist the archaic urge to take a back at this stage if that back is going to be Lynch.
Trent Richardson, Browns -- Sometimes it's best not to overthink a situation. The Browns did so in April, making Richardson the third overall pick in the draft, and you should do the same come your draft or auction. We've all been burned by rookie running backs before, but don't let that dissuade you from a guy this talented and in the right place to succeed.
Surprisingly enough, the rookie Richardson is one of the few backs in the league who can say that he will get 20-plus carries a game, as well as goal-line totes. Combine those two perks, and you're looking at fantasy gold. Any college football fan will tell you Richardson's talent is immense. He landed in a perfect fantasy situation in Cleveland (maybe the first time anyone has written those words), especially given the Browns' underrated offensive line, anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas. Richardson has late-first, early-second written all over him, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him end up as a top-five back.
Michael Floyd, Cardinals -- Speaking of perfect situations, how would you like to be a rookie wide receiver playing opposite Larry Fitzgerald? I think if you ask Anquan Boldin, he'd love to be playing opposite Fitz again.
Floyd is a 6'2, 220-pound beast who should be a force in the red zone right away. With Fitz always occupying two defensive backs, the opportunities for Floyd should be ample. Yes, the quarterback situation is a bit troubling, as Kevin Kolb or John Skelton will be under center for Arizona, but Floyd's the type of receiver who can go up and win a ball in traffic and make his quarterback look good.
He doesn't have breakaway speed, so don't expect him to rack up the yards after catch. What you can expect out of him is a guy who is going to catch pretty much every ball he gets his hands on and make teams pay for focusing so much attention on Fitz when the Cardinals get close to pay dirt. I wouldn't be surprised to see him catch eight touchdown passes in his rookie year, and end the season as a reliable third wide receiver and flex option.
Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.
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