Putting together rankings for the upcoming season is a balancing act. On one side is the evaluation of what happened on the field last year, and on the other, the projections of what to expect in 2012. One of the trickiest tasks is determining which breakout guys are for real and will hold their ground, and those who are destined to come back to earth. There is no magic formula to figure this out, so all these players carry an element of additional risk in drafts.
If there is one absolute in fantasy football, it's the value of...well...value.
Cam Newton, Darren Sproles, Jordy Nelson, and Victor Cruz were amazing for owners last year and major cogs on many a championship roster. The reason for this however, wasn't solely because of their stellar production, but also their relatively low cost. All those guys who broke out will now be selected among the cream of the crop of proven veterans at their position. Players who have done it year-in and year-out. So the million dollar question is, will they do it again and justify their new, high-profile locales on draft boards?
It's going to get harder, not easier. And not all of them will repeat in 2012. Like rookie pitchers in baseball who blaze out of the gates, teams will see them coming the second time around. There's film to study and they'll game plan to their strengths. It's for these reasons the "sophomore slump" is a well-know term. One of my steadfast rules for drafting in fantasy football is to not end up with last year's team when I step away from the table. I'm not suggesting it's necessary to avoid these guys, but it's smart to monitor how many you draft.
When compiling today's nominees I excluded rookies. There is only one year of production to evaluate and therefore no reason to believe this isn't who they are. Last year is their benchmark. I also left out Cruz because 2011 was essentially his first year (for the record I'm a believer), as he received zero targets in 2010.
Following each entry I have included a percentage number for the players chances to repeat. To account for a normal regression to the mean, which wouldn't really constitute a disappointment, I've set the target at 10 percent below last year's totals.
Without further ado, my "All Last Year's Team".
Matthew Stafford - Detroit Lions
2011 Stats: 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, 14 interceptions
Of all those listed here, Stafford was likely the most highly drafted guy heading into last season. Many thought he would play well, but his injury history (13 games his first two seasons) kept expectations in check. He was typically selected between the 5th and 7th rounds. Now that he's completed a full 16-game slate and put up video-game numbers in the process, he's being snatched off the board as early as the first round this summer.
Stafford enjoyed what I would consider substantial improvements from his career averages (25|PERCENT| or more) in several statistical categories; touchdowns-per-game (75.3|PERCENT|), yards-per-game (46.1|PERCENT|), and yards-per-attempt (28.8), but that can be reasonable for a quarterback who has adjusted to the pro game and is getting more opportunities (13.7|PERCENT| increase in attempts-per-game).
Stafford has a cannon for an arm, the most talented wide receiver in the game, and several other capable weapons. My concern is Detroit's questionable offensive line and unreliable rushing attack. Defenses will be able to tee off and bring the heat. He stayed upright in 2011, but he isn't knocking on the door of Brett Favre's consecutive game streak quite yet. His durability is still a concern for me, not his ability.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 4,534 yards, 37 touchdowns, 15 interceptions
Marshawn Lynch - Seattle Seahawks
2011 Stats: 1,204 yards, 12 touchdowns - 28 receptions, 212 yards, 1 touchdown
Lynch first introduced us to "beast mode" when he steam rolled seemingly all 11 Saints defenders en route to one the best runs of all time in the Seahawks shocking playoff victory two seasons ago. He then parlayed his momentum into his first 1,000-yard season since 2008 and set a career-high in touchdowns.
Your first instinct might be to assume he can't repeat his success, but his final numbers from last year are strikingly similar to those he posted his first two seasons in Buffalo. Lynch's most drastic spikes from his career norms were his 107|PERCENT| increase in touchdowns-per-game (which should mean less in 2012) and his 37|PERCENT| improvement in yards-per-game, but that can be almost entirely explained by his corresponding uptick (26.7|PERCENT|) in carries-per-game. His effectiveness with the ball in his hands was actually spot on.
This came as a shock to me, even though I saw him play in person at the Holiday Bowl his final year at Cal and was immensely impressed. There's nothing like the numbers reaffirming a long-forgotten pass-with-flying-colors of the good ol' eye test. Now, Lynch made headlines in the offseason for all the wrong reasons, but the latest news suggests his legal issues are to be delayed and won't affect this season. He's an amazing value right now for teams who draft soon.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 1,084 yards, 11 touchdowns - 25 receptions, 191 yards, 1 touchdown
Darren Sproles - New Orleans Saints
2011 Stats: 603 yards, 2 touchdowns - 86 receptions, 710 yards, 7 touchdowns
For all those Chargers fans who wondered what Sproles could do if he got more chances to produce certainly found out last year. Unfortunately it was for another team. Defenders couldn't wrap their hands around the "Lightning Bug" in 2011, as Saints head coach Sean Payton did a masterful job engineering plays that utilized Sproles' unique set of skills to their fullest.
And there-in lies the question that will determine whether or not you believe lightning can strike twice. The maestro is no longer in the building. He's banned for promoting violence in a violent sport, spotlighted in a violent world, but that's a topic for another day.
Sproles experienced nearly-exponential growth in several categories (four with increases of at least 146|PERCENT|), but they were all tied to his usage; carries and catches-per-game, yards in both categories per-game, and touchdowns. His yards-per-carry did climbed 50 percent, possibly explainable by the fact he sees nickel defenses almost exclusively which provide plenty of open turf, but that should normalize somewhat and his bread-and-butter is in the passing game anyhow. To that end, his yards-per-reception actually dipped 13.5 percent in 2011.
So, can Payton's place-holders rekindle the firefly and keep him roaming free? Or will a lack of imagination and gutsy, timely play-calling trap him in a jar? There's a reason coaches work 90-hour weeks and watch as much film as Siskel & Ebert did. I'm not betting on the substitute teachers. Instead I'll wait until next year when his cost comes back down, Payton returns, and then pounce.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 543 yards, 2 touchdowns, 77 receptions, 639 yards, 6 touchdowns
Jordy Nelson - Green Bay Packers
2011 Stats: 68 receptions, 1,263 yards, 15 touchdowns
I play in two insanely-competitive leagues. My East Coast league has been in business since I started it up 18 years ago when I was 13. After I transplanted to San Diego, I went bi-coastal. So when Nelson went undrafted on the right coast (I scored him in the waiver auction after Week 1) and my buddy Joe tagged him in the 7th round on the left coast, I had a good chuckle. Well, Mr. Culver certainly had the last laugh, and won the league. He also drafted Sproles and picked up Cruz (must've said his "Hail Mary's"), but all due credit to "Johnny Dakoda's Doobie".
By far the most impressive quality of Nelson's breakout season was his efficiency. He did more with less than anyone has in a long time. His 13.2 yards-per-target was tops among wide receivers with at least 90 targets over the last 10 years. His usage-related numbers went up significantly as more targets led to more receptions which led to more yards. What worries me, is his 46.5 percent increase over his career yards-per-reception average, and his alarming 623 percent rocket launch in touchdowns-per-game. The pundits say touchdowns are unpredictable. I'm not sure what statistics back that up, but I'd say this will be admissible as evidence.
Nelson is a nice player and he did great things for me last season, but you have to take the emotion out of it. There's no crying in fantasy. There are some statistics here that look to be outliers, and with Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, James Jones, the ageless dancing wonder Donald Driver, and the trendy Randall Cobb, I'm not anticipating a healthy return on an investment in Nelson in 2012.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 61 receptions, 1,137 yards, 14 touchdowns
Continued on Part II