With the regular season in the rearview mirror, let's take a look back at the five things I'll remember most about fantasy football 2011.
5. The Manning effect: When it was announced the day of the season opener that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had undergone spinal fusion surgery and would miss at least three months, a drop-off in production was expected across the board. But no one expected the franchise to completely collapse. Initially, that was bad news for anyone who drafted an Indianapolis skill player. But once it became clear that Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai and the rest of the players Manning had helped make household names were dead weight, owners moved on and a strange thing happened. The Colts became fantasy football's Washington Generals — a team that could be counted on to do their worst. As such, owners adjusted to take advantage of any matchups against the Colts, regularly moving bench players into the starting lineup, with some even going as far as picking up whatever defense happened to be facing Indy on a given week. Not even the 0-16 Lions of 2008 were so dependably inept.
4. The Philadelphia experiment: While two of the Eagles' fantasy stars flamed out in 2011, another shined brighter than ever. Michael Vick, who many thought would be fantasy's No. 1 quarterback, was beset by injury and expectation, while wide receiver DeSean Jackson never got past his contract squabbles to produce more than the occasional big play. Both came crashing to Earth as the "Dream Team" fizzled. But unlike the aforementioned Colts, the offensive struggles were not all-consuming. Running back LeSean McCoy had a breakout season. Entering this weekend, he led the NFL with 17 touchdowns and had scored in every game but one. Given the struggles surrounding him, a strong case can be made that McCoy is fantasy football's MVP.
3. Where have all the QBs gone?: I mentioned this phenomenon earlier, and it still baffles me. The NFL is a pass-happy, quarterback-driven league, yet from a fantasy standpoint, the truly good ones are dwindling. The top tier of dependable QBs is down to three: Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New England's Tom Brady and New Orleans' Drew Brees. San Diego's Philip Rivers took a step back this year, Dallas' Tony Romo remained too inconsistent to crack the upper echelon and younger, promising signal-callers including Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford will need to cut down on their mistakes if they want to continue their ascendancy. The top three quarterbacks are the top three players in next year's draft. If you pick in the top three and bypass any one of them, you deserve to lose.
2. Tight ends, the next generation: When I started playing fantasy football, tight ends were lineup albatrosses. They took up space and dragged down your team. (There was a time you were "happy" to have someone like Jackie Harris or Rod Bernstine to plug into your lineup. The likes of Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten have made the position much more palatable since those days. But now we're seeing further evolution of the position. New England's Rob Gronkowski, who is 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, already has 15 TD receptions, which is two more than any TE had ever caught before. Then there's New Orleans' Jimmy Graham (6-6, 260), who has given the Saints' offense a new dimension. A former basketball player like Gates, Graham is an even better athlete than Gronkowski. Every year, I inevitably start putting together a list of receivers and about halfway through realize I forgot to include the top tight ends. That won't happen next year. In fact, I'd be wise to start making a separate list.
1. Rise of the rookie: Conservative at heart, I won't be drafting Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the first round next year. But a fellow owner will, and there's a good chance that person will beat me at least twice. I still expect defenses to figure him out at some point — he has thrown more interceptions than TDs — although it's almost impossible to game plan against an athletic, 250-pound man scoring goal-line touchdowns. Newton has scored an astounding 13 rushing TDs, most from inside the 5. There's really no stopping that. Those scores come with bonus points in many leagues, and it will shock me if he makes it to the second round in more than a handful of drafts next year as he's also thrown a respectable 15 TDs. The hype surrounding Newton has faded amid the crush of Tim Tebow coverage, but as a fantasy football story line, the wow factor is right up there with Randy Moss' rookie year and the debut of Kurt Warner. You never know, though. Maybe by the time next preseason rolls around, I'll be a little more liberal in thought. Nah, that ain't happening. Let's just hope Cam goes easy on me.
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