Soppe's Top 10 for Redraft Leagues
Fantasy football rankings are fickle and constantly changing. Signing a proven lineman or a change in play-caller can shift a skill position player a handful of spots, even before we have any visual proof that they will change anything. The top 10, however, is littered with studs: the type of players that you can take elite production to the bank and thus build a successful fantasy team around. But exactly how will the first round look in your draft in five months? Here’s a taste of my early rankings for the 2014 NFL season.
1. LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Shady recorded a career-high 366 touches — 45 more than any other season — and rushing yards (1,607) in his first season under the tutelage of Chip Kelly, a trend that should only continue moving forward. He didn’t show us anything new (averaged more yards per touch in 2010), he simply showed us more. I expect the Eagles offense to be even more potent in 2014 as they figure to enter the season with their quarterback situation settled and a healthy Jeremy Maclin, making it very reasonable to project more than 10 wins for them. (They lost three straight games in September last season.)
Why do I mention win total? McCoy scored 10 of his 11 touchdowns in victories last season and it’s not a coincidence that when he played well, the team won.
Projection: 350 touches, 2,000 yards, 10 touchdowns
Upside: 2,500 yards, 15 touchdowns
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
I’d be very interested to hear the case against this guy. He tore his ACL … but then nearly broke the rushing record. He plays for one of the worst teams in the NFL and faces eight-man fronts more often than the name Johnny Manziel is uttered on national television … but averages 5.0 yards per carry for his career. He’s getting older and will turn 29 later this month … but he has scored at least 11 touchdowns every single season in the league and has touched the ball at least 298 times in five of his last six seasons (even he had to miss some time after shredding his knee in 2011). Simply put, he has earned the right for us to assume he is going to be Superman until he isn’t.
Many fantasy owners live by the adage that you’d rather jump off the wagon a year early than a year late: no thanks. I’m not letting a sure thing off the hook until there is a solid indicator that he has lost a step. Word from the Vikings coaching staff is that Peterson is expected to be more involved in the passing game this year (his career high is 43 receptions): forget regression, he might be gaining value as time passes. Maybe Minnesota finds/drafts/builds an NFL-level quarterback. Maybe they don’t. But AP is getting the ball All Day, and with a career average of 5.3 yards per touch, you’d be insane to consider him anything but a top-three player this season.
Projection: 320 touches, 1,800 yards, 11 touchdowns
Upside: 2,300 yards and 13 touchdowns
3. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Listen, I get it. Charles set the fantasy world ablaze last season by totaling 1,980 yards and 19 touchdowns. He leads all running backs (minimum 1,000 carries), not all active running backs, all running backs, in career yards per carry (5.6) and will be playing the majority of this season at the age of 27. By no means am I down on Charles, I just don’t think he is as safe as the two aforementioned runners. Charles has been in the league six seasons, yet 32.6% of his targets and 50% of his receiving touchdowns came last season. In fact, 28.9% of his career receiving scores and 9.9% of his career receiving yardage came in that magical game in Oakland.
To be fair, he was very consistent last season (12 games with at least 100 total yards and a touchdown, including seven straight to open the season) and has notched three straight seasons (minimum three games played) with at least 1,700 yards. His upside is right on par with the other two elite backs (there is a definite tier formed after Charles), but the Chiefs star would need to repeat his 70-catch (on 104 targets) season to defend his title as No. 1 fantasy running back, and I think he regresses to about 50 catches (he averaged 37.4 catches per 16 games prior to last season).
Projection: 300 touches, 1,900 yards, 8 touchdowns
Upside: 2,400 yards, 12 touchdowns
4. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
Remember all of that talk about Forte’s limited fantasy ceiling because he wouldn’t get the short-yardage work? He recorded 28 carries inside the 10-yard line (that’s 40% more rush attempts than Peterson or McCoy had in 2013) on his way to a career-high nine rushing scores in his first season under Marc Trestman. The increased ground production did not come at the cost of Forte’s receiving numbers, as he hauled in 74 passes on 94 targets (his fifth season with more than 50 catches). I very much trust Forte’s production, I’m just doubtful that he touches the ball 355 times like he did last season (averaged less than 20 touches per game from 2009-2012).
The Bears boast a very good, if not great, passing attack with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery being the game’s best wide receiving duo, and in a division where defense is optional, I see Forte as more of a 240-250 carry back as opposed to 280-290. That may not sound like a huge drop off, but that could easily result in a 10-15% drop in fantasy points, a regression that would make catching the top three an impossibility.
Projection: 300 touches, 1,800 yards, 7 touchdowns
Upside: 2,100 yards, 11 touchdowns
5. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
What is there not to like about Lacy? Despite three games with fewer than 30 yards on the ground — and eight without Aaron Rodgers at full strength — the 61st pick in the 2013 NFL draft ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing and was one of five backs to rush for at least 1,150 yards in addition to catching at least 35 passes. Not too bad for a rookie in a pass-first offense, right? Instead of hitting a rookie wall, Lacy ran right through it, recording a season-best 4.6 yards per carry in December and upping his touchdown tally with each passing month.
What encouraged me most out of Lacy, however, was his ability to thrive when the Packers operated out of the gun, something they will unquestionably do a lot of in 2014 with a healthy Rodgers and Randall Cobb. Lacy averaged 4.7 yards and scored half of his touchdowns without the quarterback under center. When healthy, Green Bay can spread the field as well as anyone, and the fact that they trusted a rookie to carry the rock 49 times in the red zone tells you all you need know. Imagine Marshawn Lynch, but four years younger (1,636 fewer NFL touches) and in an offense that will almost never see an eight-man front.
Projection: 320 touches, 1,600 yards, 9 touchdowns
Upside: 1,800 yards and 10 touchdowns
6. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks
While most of the aforementioned running backs experienced a bit of a breakout, Marshawn Lynch continued to do what Marshawn Lynch does: produce. Three years ago, Beast Mode totaled 1,416 yards and 13 scores. Two years ago, 1,786 and 12 touchdowns. And in 2013, 1,573 yards and 14 trips to paydirt. That would put his “average” campaign at 1,592 yards and 13 touchdowns, numbers that are going to rank among the top RBs every single time. He lacks the historic upside that the “elite” backs offer, but his high floor is what keeps him in this second tier of RB.
He scored three touchdowns in each month last season and carried the mail 37 times inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, making him the most dependable running back in fantasy football. Russell Wilson is progressing into a nice NFL quarterback, but this team will continue to rely on Lynch’s ability to churn out yardage on his 20-plus touches. His versatility doesn’t project favorably to the top-five backs (although he did haul in 36 passes, his most since 2008) and that’s enough of a flaw to move him to the middle of the first round (the defenses within his division don’t help either), but make no mistake about it, Lynch is a stud that you should feel safe building a winner around.
Projection: 310 touches, 1,400 yards, 11 touchdowns
Upside: 1,700 yards, 14 touchdowns
7. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Assuming he stays in NOLA, the difference between Graham and the next best option at tight end is just as responsible for his spot in the first round as his top-notch skill set. Despite getting shut out in a game against the Patriots and totaling 45 or fewer receiving yards in five other games, Graham still managed to catch 34 more passes (on 60 more targets) for 365 more yards and three more touchdowns than Vernon Davis, the second highest fantasy scoring tight end. He recorded a catch of at least 20 yards in 12 games last season (including all six divisional games) and his 144 targets ranked him as the 12th-most targeted pass catcher in all of football, ahead of Demaryius Thomas. It was his third straight season with at least 85 catches and nine touchdowns, and as long as he is healthy, there is no real reason to expect any other tight end to even approach that sort of production.
He will probably score fewer fantasy points than a handful of receivers, but the gap between him and the field gives his owners an advantage they can count on. All of that being said, if a team decides to give up two future first-round picks for him, Graham would move out of my first round and rank closer to 20th overall.
Projection: 90 catches, 1,200 yards, 12 touchdowns
Upside: 1,300 yards, 14 touchdowns
8. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
With another tier taking place at the running back position, this is where I see “The Big Three” quarterbacks ranking this season. Brees isn’t perfect (he’s thrown 28.8% more interceptions over the last four seasons than Aaron Rodgers has thrown in his career), but the sheer volume of attempts (2,635 passes thrown since winning the 2009 Super Bowl) gives Brees the edge over Manning and Rodgers. The Saints have yet to add a grinding running back, and why would they? Pierre Thomas (led all running backs with 77 catches) and Darren Sproles (71 receptions) fit their offensive scheme perfectly, allowing the Saints to put the ball in Brees’ hands on seemingly every play.
With the emergence of the Panthers as a true contender, the worry of late-season games not meaning anything does not exist here, something that could prove crucial as you navigate your way through the fantasy playoffs. The receiving core doesn’t come close to rivaling that of the Broncos or Packers, but with Marques Colston serving as a proven target for Brees, and three receivers in Kenny Stills, Chris Givens, and Joe Morgan that are all 25 years of age or younger, there is upside worth buying into. Oh yeah … that Jimmy Graham guy is there too. He’s good at football.
Projection: 5,100 yards, 41 touchdowns, 16 interceptions
Upside: 5,400 yards, 46 touchdowns
9. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
His career of reverse aging continued in historic fashion last season — since turning 34, his average touchdown total and completion percentage have surpassed his career rates — but decline has to set in at some point, doesn’t it? He recently received a clean bill of health from the team doctor, meaning he will give it a go in 2014, attempting to somehow live up to expectations. The crew of pass-catchers is elite — four players had at least 778 yards while scoring 10-plus touchdowns — and more than capable of replicating that success in 2014. Where I see a bit of decline in Manning’s overall production stems from the running game. Knowshon Moreno caught 60 passes last season after catching just 61 in his previous 24 games, and I love me some Montee Ball when it comes to running the rock.
Manning has never been shy about running the ball when the opportunity presents itself, something that ultimately helps the Broncos succeed, but can frustrate his fantasy owners. In other words, I think Manning will maintain his high level of efficiency, but with his total number pass attempts that more closely resembles the 547 he averaged in 13 seasons as opposed to the 669 he averaged in two outlier seasons (2010 and 2013).
Projection: 4,600 yards, 43 touchdowns, 12 interceptions
Upside: 5,100 yards, 50 touchdowns
10. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
If you subtract the Packers’ first meeting against the Bears — a game in which Rodgers left after throwing just two passes — Rodgers was on pace for his first 5,000-yard season despite starting a rookie running back — even though Lacy was fantastic, defenses were preparing for the proven potency of the aerial attack — the offseason departure of Greg Jennings, and injuries to Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley. In addition to Rodgers being 100% healthy, those road blocks are unlikely to be an issue in 2014, giving Rodgers the potential to reach the lofty numbers he seemed destined for last year. The strong running game might take away a bit from Rodgers’ final numbers, but the threat of a bulldozer in the backfield should keep defenses honest, allowing the best receiver 6’0” or shorter (Cobb) to fully establish himself as a stud.
Jordy Nelson is a constant threat and Jarrett Boykin proved he can play at this level, but can Rodgers’ receivers make plays like Manning’s? He’s just as capable as Manning or Brees when it comes to setting the pace for fantasy quarterbacks, but the lesser surrender talent and less projected volume of attempts slide him in slightly behind. There is a considerable drop off from “The Big Three” to the next best option (Cam Newton is the next quarterback in my rankings, and I’ve got him just outside the top 30), making Rodgers the nicest consolation prize out there.
Projection: 4,300 yards, 40 touchdowns, 9 interceptions
Upside: 5,000 yards and 46 touchdowns