Ten key players for 2012 drafts

I've been a busy beaver for the past couple months, writing profiles and creating statistical projections for about 300 NFL players in anticipation of the 2012 fantasy football season. And when you take a necessarily broad view of the NFL landscape, you begin to recognize the linchpin players who could very well make or break fantasy teams this season.

Some are players whose performances were so good in '11 that it's hard to believe they can repeat. Others were terrible last season, and seem difficult to trust. Then there are those who will seek to return from serious injury, and either reward or burn those owners who trust them. I don't claim to know all the answers about these linchpin players; if I did, they probably wouldn't be linchpin players. But continuing to sift through and organize all these profiles and projections, I certainly have begun to form my opinions.

So let's take a look at 10 of the most vexing, interesting potential fantasy draftees in '12, and I'll let you know where I currently stand on them.

Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings: I hope I don't have to prove my Peterson Fan Club membership to you. Two years ago, I told you to draft Peterson ahead of Chris Johnson. Last year, I argued you should take him first overall again. I am an unabashed AP lover. But this year I was absolutely shocked to arrive at ESPN's fantasy football summit and find some colleagues advocating that he should still be a first-round draft pick in 2012. As I say, I'm as dyed-in-the-wool a Peterson fan as you'll ever find, but I think that's crazy.

Let's get a couple of things out of the way. First, let's stop reading the rosy Vikings medical reports on Peterson's torn ACL. They don't exist for us to learn anything. Every athlete who's ever had an injury is "ahead of schedule." Second, I am fully aware that treating every player who ever suffered a particular injury exactly the same is reductive and simplistic. Torn ACLs come in different shapes and sizes. I get it. There's a range of possible results, and a person's superhuman-ness can potentially affect one's recovery time. That AP is already running really fast in a straight line is better than the alternative, but the distance between running in a straight line and being a No. 1 fantasy back in '12 is approximately equivalent to the distance between me writing this column, and me winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Running backs who tear ACLs tend to see their production decrease the following season. Running backs who tear ACLs late in the season (AP tore his on Christmas Eve) have a frightening record the next year. Here are some recent sufferers, and their stats the season after their torn ACLs:

Notable recent ACL injuries, stats in following season

The cases of Lewis, McAllister (the first time) and Brown tell us a return to form isn't impossible for Peterson. But the cases of Jones and Smith are much more alarming, since they're the two guys who tore their ACLs in the season's final month. AP's injury happened later than any of these players'.

It's funny, when the ESPN rankers came to the case of Rashard Mendenhall, nobody hesitated; they ruled him basically worthless in redraft leagues for '12 because of his torn ACL. But Mendy's injury happened just one week after AP's. And yes, I realize Wes Welker tore his ACL in Week 17 of the '09 season and played Week 1 in '10, but I'm not sure that's the case study AP supporters want to use: Welker caught 86 passes that year, easily his worst season in New England.

Bottom line: I have Peterson ranked as my No. 23 RB this year. The group ESPN ranking is No. 11. So much has to go right for AP to be worth a second-round fantasy draft pick, that it's very clear I'll be staying away from him this season.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots: The Gronk will test the limits of how early someone is willing to take a tight end. He set a record for receiving yards and TDs by a TE last season, and looks well-nigh unstoppable. Heck, Jimmy Graham is almost in the exact same category. How early should these guys go?

Against my better instincts, I've ranked Gronk as a mid-second-round pick in 10-team leagues, and as my No. 16 player overall. Graham comes in at No. 21. But honestly, I don't feel good about it. A tenet of my fantasy drafting philosophy is to avoid taking guys the season after absurd, seemingly unrepeatable production. Still, there's so much uncertainty about running backs this year (trust me, that will be a theme in our '12 fantasy coverage) that I'm hard-pressed to find players I'd draft before these stud TEs.

That said, I've read some folks who consider Gronkowski a lock, no-doubt first-round pick. And I think that's going too far. The logic is that Gronk and Graham have the potential to be so much better than other tight ends, they're worth grabbing right away, giving you a stranglehold on dominating the TE position. Since RBs are going to be a crapshoot anyway, why not just wait to take them? Unfortunately, the facts don't bear out this logic. Look at last year's Value-Based Drafting results, and you'll see that even in his monstrous, 18-TD season, Gronkowski wasn't one of the 10 most valuable players in fantasy:

Value-Based Drafting results, 2011 season

Graham finished 22nd in VBD in '11. Given that Gronk is coming off ankle surgery and will get even more attention from opposing defenses, I think it's fair to argue he has seen his peak as a fantasy player.

Bottom line: I feel a bit unclean even considering a tight end in the second round, and the truth is I'm unlikely to own either Gronk or Graham this season. That said, considering them first-rounders is folly.

Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants: What's that I just wrote about avoiding players who've recently done the near miraculous? Cruz fits that mold to a tee. He finished '11 as fantasy's No. 4 wideout despite going undrafted in most leagues; from Week 3 forward, he was the No. 2 WR. Cruz did his touchdown samba nine times, rendering Mario Manningham superfluous. And the Giants hope that rookie Rueben Randle is advanced enough to play a bunch on the outside, allowing Cruz to work from the slot in three-receiver sets.

I don't think Cruz is a bad player, but I rate him No. 20 among WRs this year. Our ESPN group ranks have him at No. 10. What I'm most worried about is big-play repeatability. Cruz isn't a burner, and he's 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. I do consider him a fantasy starter because Eli Manning loves to throw it to slot receivers (remember Steve Smith's glory days?), and because Cruz is a good player. But will he score TDs of 74, 68, 72, 99 and 74 yards again this season? For the record, the passes on those five scores traveled 8, 43, 41, 11 and 6 yards in the air, respectively. (And one of the long ones came on a Monday night game in New Orleans where the Giants were getting blown out in the fourth quarter and Cruz was literally uncovered deep.) Seriously, look up those five long scores on YouTube, and tell me you think they're repeatable in '12. Take away three of them, and Cruz would've finished outside the top 10 fantasy WRs last season. Take away all five, and he would've finished in the 18-to-22 range.

Bottom line: It's fair to claim Cruz's targets and receptions could rise this season, but for a player of his stature to continue to produce No. 1 fantasy wideout numbers, he'll have to either continue his skein of crazy open-field plays, or morph into Carolina's Steve Smith. I don't think he's that guy, and I don't think the Giants will use him exclusively as an outside WR.

Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Vick is one of four players listed here who also made this column last year. Except last year, I warned you about how overvalued he was. This year, I think he could be a bargain. The talk that Vick would ever be worth a first-round pick or even the No. 1 overall selection was always shaky, mainly because his playing style makes him one of the most naturally injury-prone players in the NFL. He can't help himself. The problem isn't just that Vick scrambles so much (though he did have 76 rush attempts in 13 games in '11, third-highest behind Cam Newton and Tim Tebow); it's also that he's too brave. He stands in like Ben Roethlisberger, waiting and waiting, and he takes big shots. Vick's key problem is that unlike Newton, Tebow and Big Ben, he's 6-foot, 215 pounds. He can't weather the shots like those other monsters.

That said, Vick's downside comes with an upside. Last year, I correctly argued that his nine rushing TDs from '10 had almost no chance of repeating. But I didn't expect he'd end up with one (and that one came in Week 15). I mean, he did still average 7.8 yards per carry, and he did break a run of at least 10 yards (and as many as 53) in each of his first nine games last year. That none of them went for TDs is at some point bad luck. This guy might be one of the 10 greatest athletes to ever play in the NFL, and I feel no hesitation proclaiming he's the most elusive QB in history. And now Philly has gotten him to be a 60 percent passer? That's pretty great.

I'm not just being a contrarian here. We find value in fantasy when general perception bends too far one way or another. Vick finished 11th in fantasy points among QBs last year and missed three games, giving him seven missed contests in two years as a starter with the Eagles. There's going to be a public perception out there that you can't rely on Vick to be your fantasy starter, and I think that's nutso.

Bottom line: I rate Vick sixth among signal-callers, and I could probably be swayed to put him ahead of Newton, in fifth. Clearly, if you wind up drafting Vick, you must draft a viable long-term backup, because injuries are coming. But this is still an insane athlete who can win you fantasy games by himself.

Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns: I'll say it again: The running back position figures to be maddening in '12. I've spent months considering and reconsidering where to rank these guys, but there are so many unknowns, and so many time-shares. Richardson jumps to a team that almost certainly will yoke its fortunes to him right away, and make him one of the league's few true No. 1 backs. I'll be generous and proclaim 10 of 32 teams have clear workhorse RBs; if Richardson is one of them, there's a temptation to make him a first-round pick right away.

I wouldn't do it. There are a couple forces at work here. First, there's the rookie factor. Is it impossible for a rookie RB to turn in a top-10 fantasy season? No: In the past 10 years, Matt Forte and Steve Slaton did it in '08, Peterson did it in '07, Maurice Jones-Drew did it in '06 and Clinton Portis did it in '02. But that's it. Five guys in 10 years. A whopping 73 RBs were drafted in the first three rounds from '02 to '11, and only five have turned out to be No. 1 fantasy backs in their rookie seasons. And only one of those five (Peterson) was, himself, a first-rounder in the NFL draft. And before you proclaim that Richardson is already a different case because he was a top-10 pick, here's how the other top-10 RB picks have fared in their rookie years this decade:

RBs taken in top 10 of NFL draft, rookie RB rank since 2002

"Ah, but Richardson will be different," you say, "because in no other of those seven cases (even AP's) did a team hand over the reins completely to the rookie RB." I'm not sure that's entirely true (sometimes injuries were in play), but regardless, that's where the second complication comes in: The Browns aren't very good. Alex Mack turned in a strong season at center, and we've seen left tackle Joe Thomas play well in the past (though I'd argue he didn't play very well in '11), but there are no other even average run-blockers on this O-line. Maybe rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz will turn everything around, but I'll believe it when I see it. And I don't sense that a rookie QB (Brandon Weeden) throwing it to one of the NFL's worst receiving corps will take much pressure off Richardson.

Bottom line: I certainly like Richardson's upside. If his more optimistic backers are right, he could be a top-five RB and submit a Peterson-like first year. But (both NFL and recent Browns) history tells us that's not likely. I rank Richardson as my No. 14 RB, which is plenty high for a rookie. Any higher, and I think you're asking for trouble.

Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans: It's all about buying at the right time. I know CJ1K is a tough guy to trust after he burned so many folks as a top-five pick last year. I know it's difficult to believe in a player's heart when he holds out into training camp and then shows up so woefully out of shape that he averages 2.8 yards per carry in his first seven games. But I guess that's what I'm asking you to do.

I think Johnson will bounce back. He's one of those select few RBs with no competition, and he plays for a team that prizes the ground game. His decline didn't happen as the result of a major injury, and by all accounts he seems to understand that his behavior last year was terrible; he's participating in the Titans' offseason conditioning program for the first time in his career.

However, the most important factor in Sonic the Hedgehog's rebound, I think, will be the acquisition of Steve Hutchinson to play left guard. I know Hutch turns 35 in November, but he was still a monster for the Vikings last season, and to argue that he's not still one of the top five LGs in the business -- and a vast improvement over LeRoy Harris (who moves from LG to RG) -- is goofy. The Titans were decent when they ran it left last year, but nothing compared to the Vikings. Granted, Peterson had a better season than Johnson, but still, this bears mentioning:

Totals when running left, 2011 season comparison

Bottom line: I believe we're going to see the Chris Johnson who averaged 5.0 yards per carry with 25 rushing TDs in '09 and '10 combined, and not the guy who stunk it up last year. Am I sure enough about this to throw a top-five fantasy pick at CJ? I'm not. But if I'm picking in the back half of the first round, that's where I'll grab Sonic. He's my No. 5 RB this year.

Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons: There's a solid line of thinking that says you can't win your fantasy league in the first couple rounds, but you can definitely lose it. Folks who live by that sentiment love White. He's been a top-seven fantasy WR in each of the past four seasons, and led the NFL in targets (and red zone targets among WRs) in '11. My ESPN cohorts believe another studly season is coming for White; they voted him fourth at his position for '12.

I'm not so sure. Certainly, I tend to believe in statistical trends, but I also know sometimes they come to an end, and having gone back and watched tape this spring, I'm concerned that a storm is brewing for Roddy and his name is Julio Jones. Not that White is destined for the ash can; he's too good for that. I've loved his skills for years: He's not huge (6-foot, 211 pounds), he's not a burner (4.47 speed back at the '05 combine), but he's ferocious to the football. Nobody this side of Carolina's Steve Smith goes after the ball harder. But now the Falcons have one of the elite athletes in the league at this position. Jones is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, runs a 4.39 40 and can jump out of the building. He was rarely fully healthy during his rookie year (he battled pulls in both hamstrings), but nevertheless led the league in average yards after the catch. And here's how the two WRs fared during the 10 games in which Jones made it from beginning to end:

Falcons WR comparison, 2011 season

If Jones stays healthy in '12 (and I understand the argument that it's a big if), there's a significant chance that these two stars cancel one another out at least to a small degree. And while I give White a better chance of staying healthy and seeing more balls thrown his way, I give Jones a better chance of exploding in any given week and winning you a fantasy game. I also think the red zone targets (White had 29 last year and Jones had eight) will be much closer. As a result, I think viewing White as a second-round fantasy pick is overly optimistic.

Bottom line: I have White ranked ninth among fantasy WRs and Jones ranked 10th, so maybe you think I'm splitting hairs. But that's a sizable difference in your draft strategy. If you grab White as the fourth receiver off the board, you're taking him in the middle of the second round, and eschewing WRs like Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace and Wes Welker, whom I trust more.

Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City Chiefs: Like Vick, Bowe appeared on this list last year, and like Vick, I'm about to take the opposite stance I did in '11. Last year, Bowe was coming off a 15-TD season, and I declared that unrepeatable. I didn't (and don't) necessarily have issue with Bowe's abilities; in fact, I think he's one of the greatest leapers at his position in the NFL, and in a different offense could threaten the league lead in touchdowns every year. No, my major quibble was with Matt Cassel, and the way he tailed off badly toward the end of '10 as the Chiefs' schedule grew more difficult.

I still have that issue. Cassel missed last year's final seven games because of a broken throwing hand, but even when he was in there, Bowe scored only four times. (He managed just one TD the rest of the year catching passes from Tyler Palko and Kyle Orton.) In this Kansas City attack, which figures to be exceedingly run-heavy in '12, Bowe needs to make his fantasy money by finding the end zone. In his 75-game NFL career, Bowe has eclipsed 100 yards 13 times; in the 35 games he's started alongside Cassel, he's done it nine times. Provided he stays healthy, Bowe should eclipse 1,000 yards receiving, but not by much.

So why expect Bowe will jump significantly above his five TDs from last year (even if he won't get all the way back to 15)? Well, Cassel is probably a below-average NFL QB, and his 27-TD performance in '10 was probably unrealistic, but 10 TD passes in nine games last season? That's also unlikely to repeat. That's Colt McCoy and Alex Smith territory. It's rational to suggest Cassel will throw at least 15 scores, and considering Bowe has caught 22 of the 53 scoring strikes Cassel has tossed in Kansas City, I believe Bowe will benefit from that increased end zone production.

Bottom line: Bowe was over-drafted as a top-10 receiver last season, but I think ESPN's group ranking of him as the No. 21 wideout is too low. I've got him at No. 15 among fantasy WRs in '12, a no-doubt starter in all leagues. I think he'll be closer to 10 scores than five this year.

Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta Falcons: Turner is the one glaringly obvious guy I messed up in this article last year. I worried about injury, I worried that the cliff was coming, and all Turner did in '11 was finish fifth in fantasy points among RBs, third in rushing yards, second in carries and tied for fifth in rushing TDs. But for the second straight year, the Burner looked spent by the time December came. His late '10 slowdown wasn't an indication that he was cooked, but I'm concerned that his '11 slowdown might be:

Michael Turner, final 7 games of 2011 season, including playoffs

Take away that Week 17 game against a Buccaneers D that had quit (and really, take away one fluky run up the left side in that game, where about three Tampa defenders outran Turner and then just sort of fell down before tackling him), and you're talking about a disastrous seven-game skein.

Is Turner's burst gone on every play? No, and he made enough good runs in the first half last year to produce some fine numbers. But at some point, you have to be skeptical about why this keeps happening. Falcons coach Mike Smith has gone on record saying he expects to lessen the Burner's load this year, though it's fair to ask who on the Atlanta roster is ready to take that burden (Jason Snelling? Jacquizz Rodgers?). I was wrong in 2011, but I don't want to take Turner in the late-first or early-second round this year, and have Father Time finally catch him for good.

Bottom line: Our ESPN rankers have Turner as their No. 16 back, so they're worried, too. Turner is No. 18 on my list. But it's fairly certain that the Burner will go significantly higher in many drafts, simply based on his stellar top-line numbers in '11. He turned 30 in February, though, and you know what that can mean.

Peyton Hillis, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: Last comes Hillis, whom I rightly doubted in this column last year. And now I proclaim that the needle has flipped too far the other way, and Hillis represents value. Coming off a 13-TD, 1,654-total yard season in Cleveland in '10, Hillis seemed a candidate for regression because of his heavy workload and the pedestrian talent around him, but I couldn't have predicted 717 total yards and a contract scenario that got him run out of town. There were few players who were more reviled by their fantasy owners in '11.

But I give Hillis a good chance to reclaim some lost value. My big worry with a 250-pound battering ram of a player is excessive contact; in 2010, that amounted to 331 touches from scrimmage. Kansas City's ideal scenario would see Hillis finish '12 with perhaps half of that. Jamaal Charles will return from his torn ACL, and because he suffered that injury in Week 2 last season, few observers believe Charles is a candidate to miss time at the start of this year. In JC's incredible '10, he averaged 17.2 touches per game, while Thomas Jones averaged 16.2, and that kind of split is likely to recur. Guess which Chiefs RB is likelier to get the car-crash carries near the goal line? It'll be Hillis.

Not only that, but as I indicated at the start of this piece, coming back at full strength from ACL surgery is no sure thing, and if Charles slips early in the season, Hillis will pick up the slack. The Chiefs acquired run-mashing right tackle Eric Winston this winter, who was one of the big reasons for Arian Foster's bust-out in Houston, and center Rodney Hudson is a sizable run-blocking upgrade, too. If I had to choose between the Browns and the Chiefs for an O-line to run behind, I'd take KC all the way.

Bottom line: Like Peterson, Charles is one of my fave players, and because he has a three-month head start on AP, JC is a pretty good bet to be ready Week 1. But being ready and being great are two different things, and even if Charles is in peak condition, I say Hillis has fine fantasy value. I make Peyton my No. 29 back, and thus a definite candidate to play the flex in all leagues.