It's not hard to rank Adrian Peterson.
If AP stays healthy in 2014, he's almost certainly going to give you first-round value. After all, the guy has never failed to score double-digit TDs in his seven professional seasons and has landed you fewer than 1,400 total yards exactly once. That relative safety (injuries notwithstanding) is what makes him the No. 1 player in standard-scoring fantasy leagues.
But safety runs on a spectrum, and risk is the fantasy owner's milieu. It would be great if each one of your draft picks this summer could feel as safe as Peterson does, but history tells us that drafting the safest team doesn't always give you the best team. When you're on the hunt for value, you usually have to take chances. That's where this column comes in.
Fortunes will rise and fall in '14 based on how the risky guys perform. If you wind up taking a chance on NFL players about whom opinions are mixed, and you wind up being correct, you're in great shape. If you gamble on risky guys and lose, you're toast.
Here, then, are 10 pivot-point players who could cause fantasy squads to soar or crater. My ranks for the upcoming season will sink or swim in great measure based on how accurately I've got these 10 guys pegged:
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: Brady is actually outside some folks' top-10 QBs this year, and they're not necessarily crazy. After all, he finished an excruciating 13th in QB fantasy points last year, and his weapons are basically the same. I know there's chatter about how Brady lost something off his deep ball at 36 years old (he's 37 in August), but I don't see much difference in his game tape. He's still got above-average arm strength and preternatural pocket awareness, and he's still best when he fires quickly. His problem last year was finding players who got open quickly, and unfortunately unless you think Aaron Dobson or Kenbrell Thompkins is ready to make a leap or Danny Amendola is ready to stay healthy, this is basically the same WR group. That said, I still find myself in the "believer" camp. I have Brady only 10th in my QB ranks, but it feels weird, and I can see him bouncing back (especially if his tight end is healthy; more on that in a bit). If you take Brady late, you might wind up reaping big rewards.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins: Which RG III are you getting in '14? Are you getting the rookie who submitted an all-time top-10 season for QB rushing yards in '12? Or are you getting the guy who was exposed as a merely so-so pocket player when his running game was minimized in '13? Yes, Griffin will be 18 months removed from his torn right ACL when the season begins, so maybe there's a temptation to forget last season. But recall also that Jay Gruden is RG III's new playcaller, and Gruden likes to throw the ball. Will there be enough option looks for Griffin to rack up rushing yards? Will RG III be gun-shy about taking off? The rose-colored view of this situation says that this guy is healthy again, was fantasy's No. 6 QB as a rookie and now has DeSean Jackson around as a deep threat. The pessimist's view is that when he had to throw more and run less in '13, he posted an underwhelming 16 TDs and 12 INTs.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: Everyone who thinks Ball is a slam-dunk first-round pick, I ask you this: Can you name a player who had a worse rookie year and then was a no-doubt first-rounder as a soph? Ball is more talented than Knowshon Moreno, and he should've blown Moreno out of the water last summer. He was supposed to be so pro-ready, and yet he fumbled and whiffed on blocks and looked meh running the ball. So now Moreno has moved on, and Ball has the inside track to a job that made Moreno the No. 5 RB in fantasy last year. He could absolutely repeat this performance, but how sure are you? Does it usually work out well when we draft not the players themselves, but rather their roles? I've bumped Ball up to the No. 10 spot in my RB ranks, so I guess I'm all aboard the hype train. But I acknowledge it could derail.
Trent Richardson, RB, Indianapolis Colts: Speaking of derailing ... T-Rich finished 11th among fantasy RBs as a rookie and was traded to an offense where Andrew Luck throws darts, and he flamed out. Those of us who believed in Richardson (my hand is raised) could only make excuses. "The blocking was bad!" "He didn't know the playbook!" "The sun was in his eyes!" But the Colts have doubled down on Richardson, failing to add meaningful backfield competition, and hoping that Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw can return from season-ending injuries to fill out their RB depth chart. I look back on T-Rich's rookie tape and see a player with acceleration that belies his 225 pounds. I also see an Indy offense that should generate a bunch of TDs. Plus, this is a kid who caught 51 passes in '12. There's a realistic chance he produces a top-10 season. But taking the chance of drafting him to start for your fantasy team -- especially if you had him last year -- is terrifying.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens: Maybe Rice's dilemma is more explicable than Richardson's. Rice has played six NFL seasons, and since '09 has the league's second-most touches from scrimmage (behind only Chris Johnson). Last year, after being a consensus top-five selection in all fantasy drafts, Rice averaged 3.1 yards per carry and found the end zone just four times. Perhaps he is simply worn down by age 27, which wouldn't be unprecedented; Willie Parker, Marion Barber, Joseph Addai and Larry Johnson are just a handful of guys who saw their candles burn out similarly early. But what an allure Rice still has, even if he'll probably be suspended for off-field transgressions to start the season. He could still bounce back to double-digit TD production, and he's been a great bet for 50-plus catches. We're either looking at the beginning of the end or the Comeback Player of the Year.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Discussing Montee Ball above, I wondered whether it's wise to draft a presumed role, rather than a player's actual skills. That's relevant when it comes to Gerhart too. Any defense of drafting him in '14 begins with the statement, "Well, the Jags gave him a lot of money and don't have anybody else!" What a ringing endorsement! On tape, Gerhart has never struck me as a "special" player. He's slippery for his size, but he takes too much time to get underway. So trusting him comes down to hoping for extreme volume and lots of goal-line work, putting him in the Michael Turner or Peyton Hillis category. (You'll also hear Gerhart's defenders say he's adept at catching it, but if Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson are the other veteran alternatives, aren't they more likely to be the pass catchers? Otherwise, when will they ever play?) Could lightning strike Gerhart the way it once did Hillis? I suppose. But the Jags generated only 12 RB carries inside an opponent's 5 last year. I have a tough time imagining a bunch of bunny TDs for Gerhart.
Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks: My Twitter follower @XFu84 asks this question: "At what point are you guys going to stop loving a WR who hasn't gone over 1,000 yards in a season in five tries?" And I'll add to the mix: Harvin also hasn't ever scored more than eight TDs and he toils for the run-heaviest offense in the NFL. But then I watch Harvin's tape, and I think I've exercised restraint in ranking him "only" 19th in my WR ranks. I honestly don't believe Harvin's talent has an analog in today's pro football. It's not just that he's insanely quick with blinding straight-ahead speed; it's that he has these moves in a (smallish) running back's body. Harvin is a 200-pound player who, when he runs, looks like Antonio Brown (who tips the scales at 180). I recently went back to look at Harvin's tape for a recent edition of the Fantasy Underground podcast, and was amazed at how many times he just barrels over defenders. And yet, as much of a Harvin apologist as I am, even I have to admit he's been injury-prone and doesn't find himself in a top-notch fantasy situation. If he's finally able to put together a great year, it will come at a discount for his owners.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings. Patterson, on the other hand, will not come at a discount. Everyone seems to expect the world from him. At a loaded position, he's currently a top-25 WR draftee, making him a seventh-round draft pick, ahead of more proven commodities like Torrey Smith, Julian Edelman, Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston and Emmanuel Sanders. That's surprising. But Patterson did produce some wonderful highlights in his rookie season, scoring seven TDs from scrimmage and nine all together (with six of those coming from Week 13 forward). The cautionary tale about Patterson is that he hasn't proved he can run routes yet. His 4.0 yards-at-the-catch average in '13 was 83rd among 84 qualified WRs, meaning he basically caught screens. The pessimist would say a player of this type will regress to the mean if he can't get open down the field. The optimist would say he's entering only his second year and Norv Turner (his new coordinator in Minny) has a good history of helping physical freaks reach their potential (see also: Josh Gordon).
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: If everybody's so excited about Chip Kelly and Nick Foles and a high-volume offense that will create a greater-than-average number of opportunities for Philly's weapons, perhaps they should be more excited about Maclin too. With DeSean Jackson in D.C., Maclin has a chance to become a clear No. 1 receiving weapon in a high-octane situation. Unfortunately he, like Harvin, has never eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving and has struggled with injuries, including the torn left ACL that cost him all of '13. I'm not a believer in Riley Cooper, and while Jordan Matthews has lots of potential, it's tough for a rookie wideout to instantly morph into a No. 1. So the Iggles need Maclin pretty badly. That means he has as much upside as just about any WR in fantasy. But he could also get injured at any moment.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots: Gronk might literally be the single most important non-QB in the NFL. I'm not trying to tell you that he has appreciably better receiving skills than Jimmy Graham, but he's certainly a better blocker, and he's on a team that probably needs his services more. In the six-game stretch when Gronk was finally healthy in '13, he was great and perhaps more important, Tom Brady showed signs of life. Alas, Gronkowski tore his right ACL in Week 14, and for the second straight season, he will race against the clock to be ready for Week 1. Last year, he didn't play until Oct. 20, making his fifth-round average draft position look bad. And yet here we are again, and Gronk is currently going early in the fourth. That means he won't come at a discount, but if you strike it rich with him for a full 16 games, he could make your year.