It's a poorly kept secret that Aaron Rodgers is going to win the 2011 NFL MVP award. His team won its first 13 games while he played nearly flawless football, and the pundits (including many here at the Worldwide Leader) added a million hours of flowery praise, questioning not merely whether Rodgers is the best quarterback in football today, but whether he's already a Hall of Famer. Drew Brees' late-season statistical garbage-time rack-up rendered that discussion momentarily moot, but Rodgers will still receive the most AP votes and win his first MVP. After all, those votes took place before both the Packers and Saints bowed out of the NFL playoffs.
The discussion for fantasy MVP is more fun. Sure, Rodgers racked up the season's most fantasy points, and he did it in 15 games (having rested in Week 17). Does that automatically give him the fantasy crown, too? I would argue not. Based on the principles of Value-Based Drafting (VBD), which seeks to find a level playing field on which to compare players from different positions, I would argue that Ray Rice was actually the fantasy MVP of 2011, because of the extent to which he outpaced the "baseline" performer at his position. (For a more detailed explanation of baseline performers and the rest of VBD, click the above link.)
Even more enjoyable and debate-worthy is the question of individual NFL team fantasy MVPs. Were you better off having Wes Welker or Rob Gronkowski on your fantasy squad this season? How about Darren Sproles or Jimmy Graham? Beanie Wells or Larry Fitzgerald? (For the purpose of this column, I'm not considering where a player was drafted to assess value, but rather only his statistical contributions to his team.) So as we wait for the playoffs to unfold toward the Super Bowl, let's look at every NFL squad, and see if VBD helps us determine each team's fantasy MVP.
(Note: Players in bold are their team's MVP.)
It's a bit sacrilegious-sounding, but despite the fact that Fitzgerald outpaced Wells by 22 absolute fantasy points (181 to 159), overall Beanie Wells barely had a relatively better fantasy season than Fitz. The reason? Fitz may have been the No. 5 WR and Beanie only the No. 15 RB, but there were more wideouts bunched closer to Fitz than there were rushers bunched closer to Wells. The "baseline" wide receiver this season was Santonio Holmes (a painful fact in itself) with 108 fantasy points, while the "baseline" running back was Toby Gerhart with 84. So it was relatively more valuable to grab a top RB than a top WR, which explains why Wells earns a very slightly better VBD score. Of course, a raw VBD number doesn't capture consistency: Fitzgerald had nine double-digit fantasy days and never scored fewer than five fantasy points; Wells had eight double-digit days but had four sub-five-point games and sat out two contests because of injury. Plus, Fitz was more valuable once you got deep in your fantasy playoffs. But in actuality, Beanie was the man likelier to get you deep.
Michael Turner gets the nod and it's not close, since Julio Jones sapped a good deal of Roddy White's production. But it's very much worth noting that the Burner faded badly down the stretch because of a groin injury for which he had surgery last winter; after averaging 4.4 yards per carry through the Falcons' first 10 games, Turner averaged 3.6 in his next five, before torching a mailing-it-in Buccaneers defense in Week 17. Heck, Atlanta knew Turner was cooked come playoff time, as the Falcons allowed Matt Ryan to try two unsuccessful QB sneaks on fourth downs. Beware the Burner, who'll be 30 in February.
Ray Rice's margin of supremacy over Rodgers was small: In VBD terms, the score was 199 to 190. That's a good number for Rice, though Arian Foster scored 228 for the '10 season. This isn't to say Rice wasn't a fantastic performer; he simply didn't outdistance the baseline RB by as much as Foster did last season. What's good to know, however, is that after back-to-back fantasy seasons that were marked by low TDs, Rice jumped from eight in '09 and six in '10 to 15 this season. He's in the mix to be fantasy's top pick for 2012, though it should be noted that this was a contract year.
How bad was the Bills' offense in the season's second half? Fred Jackson didn't play after Week 11, and he was still easily the team's fantasy MVP. He turns 31 in February and is entering the final year of his deal, after watching C.J. Spiller blow up in December.
Hey, there are some big names in this Carolina offense, yet Cam Newton was so devastating in his rookie year that he put DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Steve Smith to shame. Compare his 157 VBD points to last season's top rookie, Tampa's Mike Williams, who had 48. Yikes. In fact, my back-of-the-envelope calculations for the past eight seasons say Newton easily had the best rookie VBD number, outpacing Matt Forte's 121 back in '08. Sure, if you mushed together D-Willy and Stew Beef into one player, he'd have had a better VBD than Newton. I'm pretty sure most fantasy leagues don't allow mushing, though.
Here's another case where a running back who suffered a season-ending injury (in this case, in Week 13) nevertheless was his team's best fantasy player. Like Ray Rice, Matt Forte excelled in his contract season, and like Rice, Forte was really the only fantasy entity on his team worth owning in a 10-team league. I wouldn't expect that Kahlil Bell's strong final couple games will threaten Forte at all in '12, provided he re-signs in Chicago.
Here's a team for which VBD might be counterintuitive. In terms of absolute points, the hierarchy here turned out to be Andy Dalton followed by A.J. Green followed by Cedric Benson. But in VBD terms, the order is reversed: Benson, Green, Dalton. Starting rushers simply tend to be more valuable than starting players at other positions. Of course, Benson is a pedestrian plodder personified: He doesn't average 4.0 yards per carry (he's done it once in his four Cincinnati seasons), he doesn't bull his way to many TDs (he's averaged fewer than seven per season over the past three years) and he doesn't catch the ball. He's a six-fantasy-point day waiting to happen, and he'll almost assuredly be plying his wares in a platoon somewhere else next season. Meanwhile, Green has one of the brightest futures in the league.
There wasn't a single Browns player who finished above the baseline at his position. Obviously Peyton Hillis is the big disappointment here, going from the fourth-best VBD player of '10 to off the radar in '11. Stupid "Madden."
Tony Romo had a tremendous fantasy season. He threw for 31 scores, tossed only 10 picks, and finished seventh among fantasy QBs, but that put him "only" 31st among players at all positions in terms of VBD. (There's the argument for why it doesn't make sense to reach for the non-super-elite QBs in your fantasy draft.) Thanks to Miles Austin's hamstring injuries, Laurent Robinson's emergence as a red zone vulture and Dez Bryant's mercurial nature, plus injuries to Felix Jones and streaking-comet-across-the-sky DeMarco Murray, Romo's 2011 campaign was easily the best to own for fantasy among all Cowboys.
Because Knowshon Moreno tore an ACL early in November (and, let's face it, wasn't doing much before that), Willis McGahee basically got the Denver backfield to himself and showed unexpected life. McGahee looked like a painful plodder his final season with the Ravens, but averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a Bronco with seven games of 100 yards rushing or more. To be fair, however, if you prorated Tim Tebow's 186 fantasy points in 11-plus games to 16 starts, he'd have eclipsed McGahee in VBD terms.
They were both amazing for their fantasy owners, but Calvin Johnson, fantasy's No. 1 WR, outpaced Matthew Stafford, fantasy's No. 5 QB, in VBD terms. Megatron actually produced the most valuable fantasy season for a receiver since Randy Moss in '07.
Green Bay Packers
It was Aaron Rodgers, with Jordy Nelson a clear second after Greg Jennings suffered a knee injury and missed most of the season's final four games. One note: Remember how we fretted that Nelson might not be able to handle the extra attention as the Pack's No. 1 with Jennings out? In those four games, Jordy had 20 catches for 387 yards and six TDs. Yeah, he was all right.
Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub got hurt, so it was clearly left to the RBs to carry the load for the Texans. Arian Foster overcame his preseason hammy injury to finish eighth overall in VBD, but Ben Tate certainly looms. Tate tied Julio Jones and Dez Bryant for 57th in VBD, which complicates Foster's stock for '12. I'm still buying Arian as a top-four pick no matter what, but only the Chargers, Panthers and Saints put their second RB higher than Tate on the VBD rolls.
Pierre Garcon slowed down terribly after a fast start; he was on pace for a 1,138-yard season after Week 8, and wound up with only 947. And given that 77 of his 122 fantasy points (or 63 percent) came in just three games, you couldn't know when to start him. The Colts' disastrous on-field season was matched by their stars on the stat sheet.
Maurice Jones-Drew is the obvious choice as the only Jags player ownable even in 16-team leagues. MJD will merit top-five consideration next season, though the fact that he was asked to carry the rock 343 times this season makes him an above-average injury risk going forward.
Kansas City Chiefs
You won't find fantasy owners beating the drum for Dwayne Bowe's awesomeness, but after Jamaal Charles tore an ACL in Week 2, Bowe was the only game in town. He still finished only 20th among fantasy WRs, and 60th in VBD.
Reggie Bush finished an improbable 12th in fantasy points among RBs, which is more valuable than Brandon Marshall finishing 13th among WRs. Bush averaged 5.0 yards per carry and made it through 15 games, something that seemed impossible coming off all those injury-marred seasons in New Orleans. Daniel Thomas showed flashes toward season's end, and even in producing his first 1,000-yard campaign, Bush mustered only six rushing TDs. Expect to see a more annoying platoon come '12.
Percy Harvin had a nice run, but even with his injury-riddled December Adrian Peterson is the obvious choice in Minny. The real question is whether AP's torn ACL heals fast enough for him to avoid next year's PUP list. If it doesn't, his five-season streak of team-MVP-hood would be in serious jeopardy.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady finished seventh in VBD, Rob Gronkowski finished 11th and Wes Welker finished 15th. Nobody should be shocked by Brady or Welker, but Gronk is in another stratosphere. The question of whether his 18 total TDs can come close to recurring will be one of the biggest questions of '12. Of course, even with zero TDs this season, Gronk would've still finished second in fantasy points among TEs, but his VBD would've been only 61st-best among players at all positions. So the question of whether you believe Gronk is, say, a second-round fantasy pick next season depends entirely on believing he can repeat his mammoth TD output. For comparison's sake, 2010's best tight end, Jason Witten, finished 37th in VBD. Perhaps that's a more reasonable range for Gronk.
New Orleans Saints
By setting the single-season record for passing yards and tossing 46 TDs, Drew Brees made this contest easy. Darren Sproles barely eclipsed Jimmy Graham for second-best VBD on this high-octane offense, 92 to 82, which put Sproles 17th and Graham 22nd overall.
New York Giants
Eli Manning had the better raw points total, but Victor Cruz is VBD's darling. By posting a Giants-record 1,536 receiving yards and posting 20-plus fantasy points a whopping five times (including once each during ESPN standard-league finals in Weeks 16 and 17), Cruz put himself in the mix to be a second- or third-round pick for the very bold fantasy owners among us next season. Value-hunters will need to search elsewhere.
New York Jets
Shonn Greene tied Roddy White for 35th overall in VBD, and was thus the only Jets player to finish in the top 50. Greene set a career high with 253 rushing attempts, but posted only two 100-yard games and found the end zone only six times despite LaDainian Tomlinson falling off the map. Yes, the Jets may go run-heavy next season, but I won't be shocked if they bring in competition for Greene.
Darren McFadden was on his way to a heck of a year, but suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 7 and didn't play again, opening the field for Michael Bush to become Oakland's MVP in a contract year. Clearly, the Raiders need a solid back to pair with the oft-injured Run-DMC, but it might not be Bush, who'll be looking for big money entering his age-28 season.
Michael Vick was fantasy's No. 1 QB of '10 despite playing in only 12 games, but he was a crushing disappointment in '11, playing in one more game but scoring 78 fewer fantasy points. That left the field open for LeSean McCoy, who's in the conversation to be fantasy's top pick next season. Of course, the abnormally high rushing TD total that vaulted Vick in many folks' estimation last season could also be a danger here: Shady scored an NFL-best 20 times, including 17 on the ground. Note also that his reception total dropped from 78 in '10 to 48 in '11.
Rashard Mendenhall squeaked past Mike Wallace in VBD terms, though like Adrian Peterson, Mendy is at risk of missing the start of the '12 season because of a torn ACL. Meanwhile, Wallace has Antonio Brown and a healthy Emmanuel Sanders nipping at his heels; Mr. 60 Minutes had four 100-yard receiving days in the season's first seven games, and zero thereafter.
St. Louis Rams
It's Steven Jackson, and it's not close. Jackson finished tied for 20th in VBD, while Brandon Lloyd sputtered catching passes from a series of poor QBs. S-Jax just keeps producing No. 2 RB fantasy seasons (he was No. 15 in VBD last season), but remember he turns 29 in July.
San Diego Chargers
Ryan Mathews lost a whopping 137 fantasy points (and 10 rushing TDs) to Mike Tolbert, but he was a revelation nonetheless. His 1,546 combined yards from scrimmage were fifth-most in the NFL among RBs, and he produced this yardage bounty in only 14 games.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners babied Frank Gore down the stretch, giving him only about 17 carries per game between Weeks 12 and 16, and then resting him for most of the season finale. Still, San Francisco's offense was otherwise so pedestrian, the runner-up MVP candidate here is the squad's defense and special teams.
Since everyone else was a fantasy sinkhole, Marshawn Lynch wins in a walkover. He finished 13th in overall VBD points and scored a TD in 11 consecutive starts. Considering his O-line was decimated and his quarterback isn't great, I don't know how Lynch did this. But he did.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yuck. I guess it's LeGarrette Blount, since he's the only Pirate in Pewter Pants who managed to register a positive VBD score. But he was fantasy's 31st-best back, and tied for 65th in overall VBD. It's difficult to know whether he or Mike Williams was a bigger fantasy bust in '11.
Here's proof positive that looking only at VBD isn't the best way to assess value: Technically, Chris Johnson was the Titans' fantasy MVP of '11. In purely mathematical numbers, it's true. CJ1.047K produced more relative value to his fantasy teams than Nate Washington. Of course, whereas Washington was basically undrafted in all standard-sized leagues, Johnson was some folks' No. 1 overall pick, and was snugged well inside everyone's top five for last season. So while he was the Titans' biggest numerical contributor, you can also make a case that Johnson was the biggest fantasy killer of 'em all in '11.
Roy Helu and Jabar Gaffney were the only even vaguely startable players in D.C., and of course Helu had to scuffle through 11 weeks of backup duty before getting the limelight, and then missed most of the season's final two games with injury.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.