July is about to become August as I type this up and that means
most of you are busy poring over cheatsheets and firming up strategies
for upcoming drafts. If said strategies include targeting 2013’s
best and brightest, I’d urge you to consider the following
fact: Since 2010, 55 percent of the top 10 quarterbacks, running
backs, and wide receivers have failed to maintain that status the
following season. Thus, while last year’s heroes may seem
like the safest bets come draft day, recent data suggests at least
half those folks will regress in 2014, significantly so in some
cases. Who fits the bill for most likely to recede?
Let’s take a look at last year’s leaders, along with
those 2012 stars who fell by the wayside, and see if we can’t
identify some potential underachievers for this upcoming season.
Note: All rankings are based on FFToday’s default standard
Who Missed the Cut in 2013? (4 of 10):
Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Robert Griffin III
Packer backers were obviously chagrined to see Mr. Rodgers headlining
the 2013 class of quarterback dropouts, but at least Green Bay’s
headcheese had a pretty convenient excuse for slipping. Slammed
to the Lambeau turf by Chicago’s Shea McClellin early in Week 9,
Rodgers missed almost two months of action, returning just in time
to dramatically salvage the Pack’s playoff lives against those same
Bears in Week 17. If we factor out that abbreviated November performance,
he would have averaged 25.6 fantasy points per game in 2013. Only
Peyton Manning and Drew Brees averaged more.
Eighteen men were better on a per-game basis than Tom Terrific last
season, a surprisingly precipitous fall to mediocrity for one of
the game’s best. Surprising, I should clarify, if you didn’t watch
the Pats play or read last year’s version of this column. Simply
put, Brady didn’t have a consistent group of pass-grabbers to work
with and it really showed. He’d averaged almost 0.7 fantasy points
per pass attempt in his previous five full seasons (not including
an injury-shortened 2008), but averaged just 0.5 per attempt last
year. Welcome back, Rob Gronkowski. You’ve been sorely missed.
I’m not a doctor, of course, but I occasionally play one on
this site. I managed to correctly predict RGIII’s sophomore
step-back, for instance, because I didn’t fully trust his
surgically repaired right knee. It turns out the ‘Skins shouldn’t
have either. Just this past Tuesday, GM Bruce Allen admitted as
much, saying the team rushed Griffin back into service before he
was ready. A year and change removed from surgery and sans the bulky
knee brace he dragged around last season, Washington’s franchise
flinger should be primed for a return to the top 10.
So should the guy who commands archrival Dallas’ attack, Tony
Romo. The Cowboys’ main man was pretty much right at his career
average of 21 fantasy points/game in 2013, but missed one contest
and it essentially cost him a spot in the top 10 (he finished 13th).
With Scott Linehan and his volume passing game on hand this year
(see Stafford, Matt), Romo should easily crack the elite ranks once
Most Likely Candidates to Fall from the Top
Ten This Year:
Rivers, SD: Rivers’ resurgence was one of the more surprising
fantasy storylines in 2013, especially when you consider that, like
Tom Brady, he didn’t have an overabundance of WR talent with which
to work. Until rookie Keenan Allen exploded onto the scene around
Week 5, Rivers’ main wide receiver target was Denver castoff Eddie
Royal, a glorified punt returner. Undaunted, Rivers somehow managed
to connect with the former Bronco on FIVE scoring plays in the season’s
first two weeks, coax another solid season out of the aging Antonio
Gates, and form fast connections with newly acquired RB/WR hybrid
Danny Woodhead and then with Allen, his rookie sensation. When all
was said and done, Rivers narrowly missed posting the best statistical
season of his entire career.
No Whisenhunt could bring Rivers back down
So what does he do for an encore? I love a surprise success story
as much as the next guy, but it’s my job to keep things real and
Rivers’ 2014 reality is probably going to look more like 2012 than
2013. For starters, San Diego barely attempted to upgrade that still
wafer-thin receiving corps, unless you consider drafting Tevin Reese
in the 7th round an upgrade (you shouldn’t). Additionally, the Bolts
became victims of their own success, losing offensive coordinator
Ken Whisenhunt – who’d transformed the league’s 31st-ranked offense
in 2012 into its 5th best last year – to the Tennessee Titans.
Finally, and most importantly, San Diego won’t be able to
feast on the NFL’s most defenseless division this season.
Four of Rivers’ seven best performances (including his best
two) came against the hapless NFC East. Replacing those defensive
doormats on the 2014 slate are Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis,
and Arizona. Only the New York’s Giants were in that defensive
class last year. We should never count the scrappy San Diego signal
caller out, but it’s probably best to think of him as top
15 rather than top 5 material this year.
Roethlisberger, PIT: The Steelers have suffered through
two consecutive un-Pittsburgh-like 8-8 seasons, but you wouldn’t
know it by studying Big Ben’s bottom line. To the contrary, Roethlisberger
is coming off his most productive fantasy campaign ever, a 341-point
effort that landed him safely in the quarterbacking top 10. It took
him a career-high 584 passing attempts to get there, sure, but no-huddle
offenses have taken the league by storm and the seemingly stodgy
Steelers are no exception. In fact, OC Todd Haley has promised even
more up-tempo action in 2014. Good for Big Ben’s owners, right?
Two things make me hesitate. First, Pittsburgh ranked just 27th
in rushing offense last season, failing to notch a single 100-yard
rushing effort until rookie Le’Veon Bell turned the trick
in Week 16 at Lambeau. That’s something else Haley promised
to change this coming year. If Bell is able to start the season
healthy (unlike last year) and stay healthy, there’s no reason
to think his coach shouldn’t be able to make good on that
promise, cutting into Roethlisberger’s passing totals.
Second, the Steelers seem content to go with a youth movement at
the wide receiver position, letting 113 receptions – in the form
of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery – walk right out the door
this past spring. That means Antonio Brown accounts for 110 of the
remaining 118 balls Pittsburgh receivers hauled in last season.
I like Markus Wheaton a lot but that’s quite a vote of confidence.
If free agent acquisitions Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey don’t
pan out, opposing defenses won’t have to get much trickier than
blanketing the dangerous Brown all season. Be careful with Big Ben
because he may not have the right pieces in place to duplicate his
hugely successful 2013.
Wilson, SEA: A healthy Aaron Rodgers is a lock to reclaim
top 10 status and Messrs. Brady, Griffin, and Romo look like pretty
good bets to do so, as well. That means fringe guys like Wilson
are definitely on watch as we head toward the 2014 season. This
kid embodies everything good about the NFL right now (successful
leader, multi-talented athlete, great human being) and it almost
pains me to suggest he’ll take a step back this fall. Heck,
he was even tapped as the first ever CFO (“Chief Football
Officer”) of the very company that employs me. Nevertheless,
there are reasons to pump the brakes.
First, thanks to insanely efficient play and some of the best get-out-of-jail
feet in the league, Wilson managed to convert 407 pass attempts
into almost 332 fantasy points (0.82 points per attempt, well north
of anything guys like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady have ever accomplished).
However, those 407 passes were also the fewest attempted by any
QB who started 16 games last year. That means Wilson will need to
continue being his insanely efficient self just to stay in the top
10 picture. Moreover, he’ll need to do that against teams
gunning for him every week. If he has any questions about how that
might turn out, he can ask Joe Flacco, the 2012 Super Bowl MVP who
tossed an un-MVP-like 22 picks last season.
Oh, and he’ll also have to do it all minus his most productive
receiver from last season as Golden Tate has since partnered up
with Calvin Johnson in the Motor City. The Hawks get Percy Harvin
back this fall, yes, but the former Viking hasn’t played meaningful
minutes since November of 2012. And If Marshawn Lynch continues
to sulk (more on him in a bit), it’s very possible the Hawks’
young field general could suffer through a forgettable third season
attempting to defend Seattle’s first title.
Next: Running Backs