Some guys are easy to rank. As long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, he should be great in 2015, and Blake Bortles would have to take a massive step forward just to be mediocre. Jamaal Charles is awesome; Darren Sproles is limited. Dez Bryant is a touchdown machine; Dwayne Bowe is probably doomed to bottom-tier status. Provided they avoid injury, these guys likely won't be the reason you win or lose your fantasy football league in 2015. Within relatively narrow parameters, they'll deliver the draft value you expect.
Most fantasy leagues will pivot on guys in the middle: players with big upsides and scary downsides. Guess right on them and you're looking at spectacular draft-day value. Guess wrong and you'll probably spend all year playing catch-up.
Let's dive into the 10 pivot-point players who are hardest to rank this summer and whose performance will make or break your fantasy team:
Joique Bell, RB, Detroit Lions: There's blood in the water for Bell, a top-15 fantasy running back last season who was No. 6 from Week 12 forward. He's coming off knee and Achilles surgeries, is entering the season as a 29-year-old and will have to fight off rookie Ameer Abdullah and incumbent Theo Riddick. A lazy glance of Bell's 3.9-yards-per-carry mark in each of the past two seasons might lead you to the conclusion that he's a sluggish runner, but he's not. On tape, I see an Eddie Lacy clone: a plow horse who can make a single elusive cut at the line and get upfield and who catches extremely well. The notion that Abdullah -- an electric runner but undersized and a college fumbler -- is fated to usurp Bell right away is, I think, an overstatement, especially given that Abdullah is expected to be the Lions' primary kick returner. Yes, Bell's understudies will receive 200 touches, but that still leaves him a fine candidate to eclipse 250 touches himself and be his team's primary goal-line back. In my personal ranks, Bell is No. 18 among RBs, but I admit he brings risk.
Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders: Five rookie wideouts finished in the positional top 30 last year, and two -- Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans -- finished in the top 11. No doubt that will put pressure on Cooper and his fellow rookie WRs (including Kevin White, Breshad Perriman and Nelson Agholor) to produce right away. But historically speaking, it's been uncommon for first-year receivers to dominate immediately. In 2013, Keenan Allen finished 17th, the only rookie inside the top 30. In 2012, no rookies finished inside the top 20. A.J. Green and Julio Jones were good in 2011, but they finished "only" 16th and 18th, respectively. In other words, this is a difficult transition. Yes, Cooper already finds himself atop an NFL depth chart and I love his polish. But my tape study tells me Derek Carr deserved perhaps double his 12 interceptions last year, and there are other names (Michael Crabtree, Rod Streater and Andre Holmes) in Oakland. Overexcited fantasy owners will be tempted to take Cooper and his fellow rookies in Round 5. That could pay off because they're talented. But it could also look pretty bad by December.
Justin Forsett, RB, Baltimore Ravens: Forsett was awesome last season. He finished as fantasy's No. 8 back and produced 80-plus scrimmage yards in 11 games, including a stretch of nine straight from Weeks 4 to 13. And he might have actually been underutilized as a receiver with "only" 44 catches. New offensive coordinator Marc Trestman allowed Matt Forte to catch a running back record 102 balls last season and figures to give Forsett a chance to go reception crazy in 2015. So why is Forsett a pivot player? He turns 30 in October and is thus far a one-hit wonder. He'd never eclipsed even 1,000 total yards in any of his six prior seasons, during which he'd mostly been a change-of-pace guy, and at 5 feet 8 and 190 pounds, I wonder if he can handle the pounding that comes with another full season of touches. Buck Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro are bigger and loom as potential time-share options, but if you guess right on Forsett maintaining his production in 2015, you'll get yourself a draft-day bargain.
Josh Hill, TE, New Orleans Saints: If Hill steps in and assumes Jimmy Graham's entire role in 2015, he'll give you awesome value. After all, Graham saw at least 120 targets in four straight seasons before the Saints traded him this winter. But how can we be sure that will happen for a guy with 20 career receptions? On tape, it's obvious Hill has wheels. But he's a virtual unknown as a route runner. The idea that he can instantly become the kind of focal point Graham was -- even when a defense is scheming to stop him -- seems overly optimistic. Still, after Rob Gronkowski and Graham, the tight end position is filled with high-upside players with glaring warts who are likely to be feast or famine in 2015. If you select Hill early and take the chance that he rises above that TE middle class, you could be rewarded.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers. The presence of Reggie Bush in San Francisco isn't the reason I'm worried about Hyde. Nor am I concerned about talent: I thought Hyde looked strong during his rookie campaign. A huge workload awaits him, and that might tempt some fantasy owners to take him among the top 10 RBs. But I'm too chicken. I'm worried the 49ers might be bad. The team's run blocking fell from elite to merely good in 2014; the line was also a disaster in pass protection and lost Mike Iupati to free agency and Anthony Davis to retirement this offseason. Frank Gore finished 10th, 13th and 17th in RB fantasy points the past three years behind better blocking. Hyde has the crunching rushing chops to exceed those performances, and investing in talented players is rarely a bad strategy. But Hyde could get dragged down if the 49ers fall off a cliff without Jim Harbaugh.
Andre Johnson, WR, Indianapolis Colts: If Johnson takes the No. 2 job behind T.Y. Hilton and never looks back, he'll be a value pick in the sixth or seventh round. Andrew Luck will have 600-plus attempts; if we grant Hilton and the tight ends 300 targets, that still leaves a huge slice of pie available to the venerable Johnson. So the question surrounding his 2015 fantasy value will come down to how much gas he has left in his tank entering his age-34 season. Toward the end of 2014, I saw too many times when defensive backs had no problem running stride for stride with AJ, something that didn't happen a couple of years ago. Fortunately Hilton is an elite deep threat, so Johnson will rely on singled-up looks and check-downs; if things break right for him (especially in the red zone), he could produce big numbers. But there could be frustrating weeks, even setting aside the fact that young players like Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett could steal looks.
Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins: Landry had a nice rookie season. In a great year for first-year wideouts, he finished second in receptions and reception percentage. With Mike Wallace moving on from Miami, there's a temptation to believe Landry is ready to become a star; after all Wallace produced a top-20 fantasy season in 2014 despite his frustrations with the Dolphins' scheme. But according to his skill set, Landry might be more like a borderline top-30 WR with limited upside. His long speed isn't great and he's 5 foot 11, which makes him a good bet to play mostly out of the slot. Kenny Stills, Greg Jennings and rookie DeVante Parker will share bigger-play duties on the outside (though Parker looks questionable for Week 1 with a foot injury). I'd consider Landry a good bet to lead his team in targets, but you'll have to bet on some red-zone TDs to get elite fantasy value out of him.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: Matthews did solid work as a rookie, scoring eight TDs and filling Philly's need for a big slot man to create matchup problems for nickelbacks or underneath zone defenses. Now that Jeremy Maclin has followed DeSean Jackson out the door, it's worth wondering whether Matthews -- who ran 439 of his 473 routes out of the slot last season -- will assume a more diverse role in 2015. If he doesn't, he's a Marques Colston type in a Sam Bradford offense, which would give him good-not-elite value. But if he plays outside, the sky could potentially be the limit, as Matthews would top an unimpressive outside depth chart that includes rookie Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff, Miles Austin and Riley Cooper. Matthews isn't an explosive athlete, but he's got legit long speed for a guy his size. His fate as a potentially elite fantasy weapon rests in Chip Kelly's hands.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions: At least Stafford won't be pricey this year. His skills haven't gone anywhere: He's still got a big arm, good in-pocket mobility and he gets to throw to Calvin Johnson. But Stafford appears possessed by the ghost of Brett Favre. Ill-advised throws are his staple, evidenced by the fact that he's thrown a league-high eight red-zone interceptions during the past three years. A QB has reached at least 4,200 yards passing with 22 or fewer passing TDs five times in NFL history. Somehow, Stafford has produced two of those seasons in the past three years. His talent is obvious, and if he ever puts together a complete season, he could legitimately challenge for the top spot on the QB fantasy list. But he finished tied for 15th in QB fantasy points last year, so I'm not holding my breath.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Wow, people seem to be going nuts on Yeldon. After we ranked him 23rd in our sitewide group ranks, I got a ton of Twitter questions about why he was so low. I grant you that at 6 foot 1 and 226 pounds, Yeldon looks like a feature back and the Jaguars have talked him up as their No. 1. But going back to Yeldon's college tape reminded me of how frustrating he could be. Yes, the power and one-cut ability were sometimes there, but so was the fumbling (10 as a collegiate player) and the fact that he was often pulled in big games for other running backs. It's also worth wondering how valuable the Jags can make any RB: In 2014, the team produced just 10 carries inside an opponent's 5, 29th best in the league. Finally, lest we forget that summer depth-chart status isn't the final word on fantasy value, let's remember the curious case of Bishop Sankey, who was considered last year's No. 1 rookie. If Yeldon pops as a true No. 1 RB, he could pop big. But he could also be Sankey-esque. Now, that's a pivot.