The dawn of a new fantasy football season always brings its share of questions. Who's going to have a monster year? Which players will have me pulling my out hair on Sundays? Is there someone I should target on draft day that will make me look like a genius to the rest of my league? With that said, NFL.com's Dave Dameshek, NFL.com senior editor Craig Ellenport, fantasy editor Michael Fabiano and associate editor Adam Rank offered up their own takes on 10 of the most pressing fantasy conundrums you'll be facing on draft day before what will be an exciting NFL campaign.
1. Which player will have the biggest breakout season?
Dameshek: I think Ryan Mathews is set up to have a great year. This one feels like cheating, but it still counts as I spent the better part of last season trying to talk Michael Fabiano off the ledge after he predicted Mathews would be a rookie star. But this season, I'm convinced he'll break out after his season-ending 120-yard, three-touchdown explosion at Denver. I also don't think he'll lose a lot of work to Mike Tolbert, as long as he stays healthy. So I'll say that Fabiano was one year off on Mathews -- I'd draft him with confidence in 2011.
Ellenport: I'm going to go with LeSean McCoy. Eagles coach Andy Reid knows he needs to make some adjustments if he wants to keep superstar Michael Vick healthy, and that means more of McCoy as a prominent option in the offense. He'll never truly abandon his pass-first ways, but Reid will go to his running game enough to make McCoy a fantasy stud. I don't think there's any question that he's worth a first-round pick in all leagues. In PPR leagues, McCoy could be taken as high as the top five based on his overall skill set.
Fabiano: I love Matthew Stafford this season. I realize his shoulder issues are a cause for concern, but the surgical procedure he endured is expected to keep it from "popping out" again. In an offense loaded with weapons, including Calvin Johnson, there's nothing in the way of Stafford throwing for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. If he can avoid injuries, which again is a big if, he could turn into one of the best draft bargains in fantasy football. Another player I like to break out is Kenny Britt, who could turn into a No. 1 fantasy wideout.
Rank: I really believe Shonn Greene could be headed for a big season for the Jets and fantasy owners in 2011. LaDainian Tomlinson started to slow down at the end of last season, and it was clear that Greene was the better runner down the stretch. The Jets will likely try to milk as much as they can out of Tomlinson, but Greene has to be the top runner. In fact, he's already projected to be the starter for coach Rex Ryan. The Jets are going to run the football a ton, especially if they lose one of their top wideouts, so Greene will thrive.
2. Who will be the most valuable sleeper in 2011?
Dameshek: Remember the name Jimmy Graham on fantasy draft day. Hear me now, thank me later. And you will be thanking me for this one. Drew Brees and Saints coach Sean Payton will see to it that the second-year player out of Miami (Fla.) will be in the top half-dozen point scorers among tight ends in 2011. Graham showed flashes of potential at the end of last season, and the offseason release of Jeremy Shockey makes him the clear-cut starter in an offense that will put up major points. I can see Graham being one of the season's best fantasy draft bargains.
Ellenport: Some might think I'm out of my mind with this one, but how about Darrius Heyward-Bey. Really, is there a more ultimate sleeper in fantasy football? He's not on anyone's radar based on his lack of production in his first two seasons with the Raiders. Last year, Oakland jettisoned one first-round bust (JaMarcus Russell) and got some flashes of brilliance from another (Darren McFadden). While McFadden could be primed for a big season, Heyward-Bey might be ready to at least make a contribution. I'd roll the dice on him in the late rounds.
Fabiano: Sam Bradford might have finished just 20th in fantasy points last season, but he also showed flashes of brilliance and is set up for even greater statistical success in 2011. He'll no doubt throw the football a ton in the offense of new coordinator Josh McDaniels, who's system helped Kyle Orton produce huge numbers for several weeks last season. The addition of several new weapons via the draft will allow Bradford even more players in the pass attack, so I can see him quickly developing into a legitimate low-end No. 1 fantasy option.
Rank: Can we really count on Ryan Torain to be a sleeper? He has long been a favorite of coach Mike Shanahan, dating all the way back to their days with the Broncos, and it makes sense for Torain to become the guy for the Redskins this season. Remember, the Arizona product put up some huge numbers at times last season and was considered a pretty solid fantasy option in most leagues. The one downside with Torain is the fact that he's not durable, but I still think he can avoid the trainer's room and make some noise for Shanahan and the Skins.
3. Who will be the biggest fantasy disappointment?
Dameshek: If the Eagles are to be believed, they've got several teams willing to part with a first-round pick (at least) for Kevin Kolb. I'm not convinced, though, that the flashes of greatness we've seen from him are due to his talent or to coach Andy Reid's system, which has led to big stats for every Eagles quarterback over the last dozen years. How'd Donovan McNabb work out in D.C.? More to the point, how'd things go for A.J. Feeley in Miami? Those questions were rhetorical -- point is, avoid Kolb 'til he proves me wrong (which he won't).
Ellenport: I'm going to say that Tom Brady will be the biggest disappointment. Don't get me wrong, the Patriots have enough offensive firepower to be dangerous, which puts Brady in a position to post nice totals. But aside from a little offensive line help, they didn't really make any major additions to Brady's arsenal during the offseason. In fact, I think you'll see the transition of New England's offense from explosive to efficient during the 2011 season. Problem is, efficient offense doesn't win your fantasy league -- scoring points does.
Fabiano: I'd have to go with Brandon Lloyd. Did you know that he recorded 32 percent of his career catches, 38 percent of his career yards and 42 percent of his career touchdowns in 2010? Also, a huge part of his production came from two factors. First, the Broncos threw the football more than most teams under former coach Josh McDaniels. Second, Lloyd was the fourth-most targeted wideout in the entire league. With John Fox now at the helm, the team's reliance on the run will rise -- the opposite is likely for Lloyd's numbers and value.
Rank: I really fear Jonathan Stewart seeing a featured role for the Panthers. I know that he has played well when given a chance, but now he has to be the main guy in a terrible offense. Carolina's quarterback situation isn't great even with the addition of Cam Newton, and he's no lock to start as a rookie. That could mean another year, or at least part of another year, with Jimmy Clausen under center. No thanks! Somebody in your draft is going to go all-in on Stewart in the earlier rounds, but they'll likely be disappointed.
4. Which rookie will make the greatest fantasy impact?
Dameshek: The Saints didn't move up in the first round to add Mark Ingram for depth. No sir, he's going be the primary ball carrier for Payton. That means big numbers on a team that I predict comes back from an embarrassing (remember them losing to 7-9 Seattle) end to 2010. Sure, there are a bunch of other running backs in the team's backfield, but Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Chris Ivory are all either injury-prone or coming off injuries. Ingram is a star in the making, and he's going to get every chance to play a prominent role out of the gate.
Ellenport: I think this one is very easy -- Julio Jones. Though his value as a blocking receiver might hinder his chances, Jones will be part of a dangerous Atlanta offense and will likely have more red-zone opportunities than any other rookie in the league. With Matt Ryan under center and Roddy White drawing defensive attention, White has a major advantage that a lot of other first-year players can only dream about. What's more, Jones might also get a lot of passes that used to be directed toward aging tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Fabiano: In fantasy football, opportunity sometimes outweighs talent. So while Mark Ingram might be more talented, Thomas will have more chances to score points for fantasy owners. With Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams questionable at best to be back in South Florida this season, I think the Kansas State product will have an opportunity to be a featured back for coach Tony Sparano. A bruising runner with a nose for the end zone, Thomas has played in the Wildcat formation in college and looks like a great fit for the Dolphins offensive attack.
Rank: Well, we've been burned by rookie running backs before (looking squarely at you, Ryan Mathews), but Daniel Thomas figures to have a huge role with the Dolphins this season. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams look to be heading out the door, leaving Thomas to see the lion's share of the carries in Miami. He's a talented runner with a nose for the end zone, but his biggest asset is opportunity -- Thomas is likely to be on the field quite a bit as a rookie. With that said, it is going to be tough for any rookie to have a huge impact this year.
5. Pick one quarterback: Aaron Rodgers or Michael Vick?
Dameshek: Before October arrived last year, I declared that Rodgers would be considered the NFL's best quarterback by the end of the season. Whether or not the players agree is yet to be determined by their exceptionally foolish Top 100 list, but I think the way the rest of the 2010 season went validated my assertion. Going into 2011, the sky's the limit as Jermichael Finley figures to make the offense even more unstoppable. With so much talent around him, it's hard to envision a scenario where Rodgers' recent statistical success won't continue.
Ellenport: How can you pick against Rodgers? The Super Bowl MVP proved last year that he can be consistently prolific, and he's been a fantasy superstar ever since taking over for that other quarterback in Green Bay. You know, that Brett Favre guy. In fact, Rodgers' impact from a fantasy perspective has been even better than Favre's -- and remember, he was one of the top players in fantasy football during his prime in Green Bay. What's more, I still think Vick has to prove that he can be consistent and productive for more than just one season.
Fabiano: Vick would have been fantasy's top scorer last season had he not missed time due to injuries. So why would he not be the top quarterback in 2011? Well, Vick's playing style makes him vulnerable to getting hurt. I also doubt he'll produce at such a high level again. On the flip side, Rodgers is the lone signal-caller to finish in the top two in fantasy points at his position in each of the last three years. He's also missed just one start since 2008 and is a virtual guarantee to produce big numbers. It's close, but I'd side with Rodgers.
Rank: I really don't think you can lose with either quarterback here -- Rodgers is a star, and Vick put up ridiculous numbers in 2010. I still believe that Vick will have build on what he did last year, as he becomes more comfortable as a quarterback and a leader for the Eagles. However, at some point his running totals should go down as he looks to be more of a passer than a runner. We started to see shades of that last season. But Rodgers is becoming the best quarterback in the league and in fantasy football, so he gets the nod here.
6. Pick one running back: Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson?
Dameshek: I'm going with Peterson over CJ2K. He had a far superior 2010 season, when both runners saw defenses stack the line in order to force their respective teams' over-the-hill quarterbacks to beat them. In 2011, both runners will see defenses stack the line in order to force their respective teams' rookie quarterbacks (Christian Ponder, Jake Locker) to beat them. While these two players are very similar in value overall, I'll stick with A.D. He's done it longer, done it better and done it more consistently than most players in recent seasons.
Ellenport: It's hard not to like Peterson, but it's close. The Vikings and Titans could both struggle on offense this year, especially if they're playing rookie quarterbacks, but I think Peterson has better ability to carry his team. Remember, he hasn't really had great quarterbacks in Minnesota outside of Favre, and you could argue that Favre was more of a hindrance than an asset last year. Johnson is going to be one of the top picks on draft day, and he deserves to be that highly touted. But Peterson has the track record and more value to me.
Fabiano: This season is very odd, in that there is no clear-cut No. 1 overall pick. If I had to draft right now, though, I'd draft Peterson with the top overall selection on draft day. He's been the most consistent and productive runner over the last four years, and A.D. is also in a contract year. That should serve as added motivation for the stud runner. I also like the fact that Donovan McNabb, not Christian Ponder, will be under center for the Vikings -- that will keep defenses honest and help Peterson roll.
Rank: I think there are some question marks for both players, including their respective team's quarterback situations. Even if it isn't likely, there's a chance that both Peterson and Johnson will be playing with a rookie quarterback -- Christian Ponder in Minnesota and Jake Locker in Tennessee. I still think both backs will be stars, but that's something to keep in mind. But if I had to pick one runner from this duo, I think Johnson just seems like a guy who is going to have another great season. He's younger, more versatile in a ready to produce.
7. Pick one wide receiver: Roddy White or Calvin Johnson?
Dameshek: If you want to roll the dice on Megatron staying healthy, and Matthew Stafford's surgically repaired shoulder, and the continued rise of the Lions in a division that includes last season's NFC title game entrants, then go with Johnson. Otherwise, White is the choice. How can you go wrong? He's finished among he best wide receivers in fantasy football in each of the last three seasons. And Matt Ryan is a heck of a lot more durable and reliable than Stafford, which just makes White even more attractive than Johnson.
Ellenport: Tough call, but I'd have to side with Johnson. We've already seen what White can do with a full season catching passes from his young quarterback, but we haven't seen that yet from Megatron. In other words, this pick is all about Matt Stafford staying healthy. If the Georgia product can stay on the field and out of the trainer's room, his statistical upside could be huge. On the flip side, White might have already reached his statistical upside. With Johnson, fantasy owners could get even more bang for their buck in 2011.
Fabiano: As much as I love Megatron, I'd take White ahead of him on draft day. The Falcons wideout has finished in the top seven in fantasy points at his position in each the last three seasons, which is a feat no other receiver has accomplished in that time. There's also something to be said about the great rapport he has with Matt Ryan, who is one of the leagues's elite young quarterback. White should also benefit from the presence of rookie Julio Jones, who should alleviate at least some of the defensive attention he sees each week.
Rank: Johnson is the obvious pick here because the Lions are going to be so much better in 2011. If Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, this offense is going to score a lot of points. Adding rookie Titus Young to the mix will help stretch the defense, too, so Johnson will be met with fewer multi-coverage looks. He's still going to be double covered at times, but Johnson is good enough to work through it, get open and make plays in the offensive attack. With the Lions getting better, that will equate to huge fantasy numbers for Johnson.
8. Which player(s) will you avoid drafting at all costs?
Dameshek: The one player I definitely don't want on my fantasy team is Cedric Benson. He was up-and-down (but mostly down) last season, has had an up-and-down (but mostly down) career, and is on an up-and-down (but mostly down) team. Plus, said team has to face the Ravens and Steelers defenses a total of four times. That's enough to make any running back less of an option in fantasy leagues. But wait, there's even more -- Benson could also find himself playing in an offense with a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton under center. No thanks.
Ellenport: I don't want anything to do with Jay Cutler in fantasy leagues. Sure, he could light it up in Year 2 under coordinator Mike Martz, but if he stinks up the joint, is there any other player you want killing your team? That sourpuss face not only puts his Bears teammates in a bad mood, it also kills the spirit of his fantasy mates as well. I just can't get that image of him on the sidelines during the NFC Championship Game out of my mind! I also don't think he'll be very consistent without a true No. 1 wideout in the passing game.
Fabiano: I will never say never to drafting a player, but I definitely won't be taking Sidney Rice if at all possible. Going to Seattle, which has been the Bermuda Triangle for wide receivers, is enough to make Rice a huge risk. Couple that with the fact that he's injury prone and has had one good fantasy season (with Brett Favre under center), and it's easy to see why Rice is someone to avoid. Unless he falls into the middle to late rounds, which isn't likely, I wouldn't draft him in a prominent role.
Rank: I'm avoiding Peyton Manning in drafts. Why, you might ask? Just because. At some point he's going to wear down and start to his see his numbers fall -- I've been predicting that for the last few years -- and I think 2011 is the season when we'll see Manning lose some of his luster. He'd getting older, as is his top option in the Colts pass attack, Reggie Wayne, and no one can sustain a high level of statistical success forever. But the real reason I'd pass on Manning is like I said, just because. Plus, I don't want him on my fantasy teams.
9. Which projected first-round pick will become a bust?
Dameshek: You can count me among the droves of pessimists who think a quarterback with Usain Bolt's legs and Mary Lou Retton's build can't make it through another full-season schedule without getting beaten up a bit. Yeah, Vick was the top-scoring player at his position last season. But he also missed time with injured ribs and his style of play makes him more vulnerable than most signal-callers to get hurt again. With so many good quarterbacks in the league these days, why gamble on one so early in the draft whose likely to get hurt?
Ellenport: I don't think many people are going to agree with me here, but I'm going with Peyton Manning. He'll have better numbers than Tom Brady or his brother Eli, but he's due for a step down in statistics at some point. The lack of an offseason will hamper the connection with his receivers, including the rehabbing Dallas Clark and Austin Collie. Defenses in the AFC South are getting better, too, so Manning will find the sledding a little tougher moving forward. He's still clearly among the NFL elite, but not necessarily the fantasy elite.
Fabiano: This isn't going to be a popular choice, but I think Vick is going to have a tough time meeting his immense statistical expectations. That's not to say that he's going to be a bust, because I don't believe that at all. But if fantasy leaguers draft him in the top half of the first round expecting him to average 25 points a week, well, I don't see that happening. Also keep in mind that often times a player who comes off a magical season doesn't come close to duplicating those totals the very next year, so Vick is no lock to thrive again.
Rank: I have to go back to Stewart here. Assuming DeAngelo Williams is no longer with the team, I think a lot of fantasy owners are going to be so high on Stewart that his value breaks him into Round 1. But when your choices at quarterback are Clausen and a rookie, teams are going to stack the box to take you out of the equation. That is the exact scenario that Stewart is going to find himself in this season. I am not sure that he is going to be able to carry this team on his own, so Stewart is someone I'd beware of if he's a first-rounder.
10. Who will be this year's version of Arian Foster?
Dameshek: I'm going to go out on a very long limb here and say Donald Brown. He's definitely under whelmed since the Colts drafted him out of Connecticut in the first round a couple years ago, but if Joseph Addai and his bum neck leave via free agency, Brown will be the first line to get a shot at carrying the load in Indianapolis. And with Peyton Manning under center in an offense that will keep defenses honest, there's no reason to think that Brown can't find a higher level of statistical success. Once again, hear me now and thank me later.
Ellenport: This one might seem like it's coming out of left field, but how about Tashard Choice? I remember how good he was during a stretch in 2008, putting up great numbers against formidable defenses like the Steelers, Ravens, Giants and Eagles. The Cowboys look like they're ready to give up on Marion Barber, and I question if Felix Jones is good enough -- or durable enough -- to be a featured back. If they give Choice the chance to be a bell cow, I think he'll rush for right around 1,300 yards. You heard it here first!
Fabiano: Tough call -- it's hard to suggest that a running back will go from being a middle-round sleeper to the top-scoring player in fantasy football. But if you want someone who could equal Foster's 2010 numbers, I will take Jamaal Charles. Did you know that he didn't even lead the Chiefs in carries last season? That will change this season, though, as Charles becomes more of a featured back while Thomas Jones fades into the background. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked to see Charles lead the league in fantasy points in 2011.
Rank: Mathews disappointed legions of fantasy enthusiasts in 2010, but I am really convinced that he will rebound in 2011. Sure, he still will have to contend with Mike Tolbert, who will grab some touchdown attempts. But overall, Mathews will be healthier and ready to make good on the promise many foresaw for him last year. Based on his failures from a year ago, Mathews could be somewhat overlooked in most fantasy drafts. In that scenario, not only could be break out but Mathews could be one of the best draft values in fantasy football.