The NFL can be unpredictable, to say the very least. As much as we prepare for our drafts and the upcoming season, there is no doubt that a few odd and seemingly improbable scenarios will alter the fantasy football landscape. NFL.com's Dave Dameshek, NFL.com senior editor Craig Ellenport, associate editor Adam Rank and I broke out our thinking caps in an attempt to predict the unpredictable with five bold, maybe outlandish (and in some cases even a little crazy) prognostications as we inch closer and closer to the 2011 campaign.
1. The Packers will score every time their offense gets the ball. Last season went pretty well for Aaron Rodgers and his pals, and that was without Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant. Grant will combine with James Starks to create the "thunder and lightning" dynamic, but look for Starks to be the more valuable fantasy choice. Finley, meanwhile, will be a top-three tight end. Greg Jennings will continue to thrive as well. Oh, yeah, and then there's Rodgers (aka the NFL's best quarterback in both fantasy and reality). Like I said ... Every. Single. Time.
3. Ben Roethlisberger will put up big numbers moving forward. Prior to the 2010 season, Art Rooney II decreed that the Steelers should return to their pound-it-on-the-ground roots. There are two reasons why that won't happen, though: One, the secondary is going to be lousy at best. That'll put Big Ben in position to play catch-up quite a bit; Two, Rashard Mendenhall still drops the football too often to be a reliable workhorse. So while the Steelers may not be a great team on the field, your fantasy team will be if you've got Roethlisberger under center.
4. Matt Cassel will emerge into a top-10 fantasy quarterback. No need to worry that Cassel will be working with his fourth coordinator in four seasons -- this is his third season with the true architect of the Chiefs offense, Todd Haley. Cassel will also have an improved supporting cast. Dwayne Bowe is a top-tier wideout, Tony Moeaki had a nice rookie season, Dexter McCluster could see a bigger role and Jonathan Baldwin will be a poor man's version of Randy Moss. Plus, it always helps when a quarterback can lean on his running game. Speaking of which ...
5. Jamaal Charles will be the top fantasy running back. Please note: I didn't merely say he'll be a top fantasy running back, I said he'll be the top fantasy running back. That being said, I can understand why you'd have a tough time picking him ahead of Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson. Fair enough, but don't leave him on the board in favor of Arian Foster or Maurice Jones-Drew. Unless, of course, you're playing in my league. Then I'd prefer that you do leave him on the board so I can snatch him up and reap the statistical rewards.
1. Kevin Kolb will be a non-factor in fantasy land. Poor Kolb. There has been so much speculation on where he'll go when the lockout finally ends, as if he will be somebody's savior. Well, he wasn't the savior for the Eagles, was he? And they had plenty of weapons and a coach in Andy Reid who likes to toss the rock. So even if he gets traded to the Arizona Cardinals, there is no reason to think he's going to light it up. With limited time to get comfortable with Larry Fitzgerald, don't expect numbers worthy enough to make Kolb a viable No. 1 quarterback.
2. LeSean McCoy will be the top running back. McCoy is the real deal. He was fourth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage last season, and he slashed his way to several 50-plus yard runs down the stretch. That's when defenses finally started paying more attention to Michael Vick, thus opening things up for McCoy. Reid is not too old to learn new tricks, and he must realize that he has a bona fide star at running back -- a guy who should force him to stop throwing as much and let the running game carry the load. If that happens, McCoy will break out.
3. Tony Romo will become a fantasy stud. He's baaack! Romo passed for 4,483 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2009, so there's no reason to think he can't bounce back from last year's injury and have another big year. Oh, and consider this -- those 2009 numbers were produced pre-Dez Bryant. Romo will have a ton of weapons, a head coach in Jason Garrett who loves to pass first, and a schedule that includes likely high-scoring games against division-rivals like the Eagles and Giants. All the ingredients are in place for Romo to finish with a monster stat line.
4. Shonn Greene will explode for the J-E-T-S. Don't take my word for it -- that's precisely what Schottenheimer said about his third-year running back. I know fantasy owners were extremely disappointed when experts (including me) predicted big things for Greene last season. But I will give him one more shot. And here's an important fact -- Schottenheimer also praised Greene's improved pass protection, the skill that keeps running backs on the field more often. I say he rushes for 1,600 yards and at least 10 touchdowns.
5. The Detroit Lions will be a top five defense. Don't get me wrong -- you still can't draft any defense too early. But the Lions will be a steal late. Coach Jim Schwartz already is looking for fan input to give his front four a nickname. While there is improvement needed in the back seven, that front line -- Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on the inside, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril outside -- will do plenty of damage. Expect lots of sacks, and, since they play Jay Cutler twice, a good share of picks and turnovers as well.
1. Arian Foster will score close to 100 fewer fantasy points. Foster led all players in fantasy points last season, scoring an incredible 325.80 points on NFL.com on the strength of his 2,218 yards from scrimmage and 18 total touchdowns. Unfortunately, I don't see any chance that he'll come close to repeating those numbers again. Let's put it this way -- Peterson put up nearly 100 fewer fantasy points than Foster last season, and he still had a nice statistical campaign. I'm not saying Foster will be a bust, but he's going to come back to earth.
2. Hakeem Nicks will lead all wide receivers in fantasy points. I admit to having a fantasy man crush on Nicks. The Giants wideout has all the tools to become a star, and there's no doubt in my mind that he'll take that next step to greatness in his third pro season. Nicks has a great rapport with Eli Manning, one of the easiest schedules in the league among wideouts and great statistical potential. If he can avoid the injury bug, which has been an issue, Nicks is going to be a serious fantasy monster.
3. Matthew Stafford will become a top 10 fantasy quarterback. OK, so I have two fantasy man crushes. The other is Stafford, who has shown flashes of potential at the pro level only to have multiple shoulder injuries stunt his rise to stardom. While his proneness to major injuries is a cause for real concern, Stafford has the tools and weapons around him to put up major numbers. In fact, I can see him throwing for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Stafford is that good.
4. Peyton Hillis will keep the "Madden curse" alive and well. As much as I loved Hillis as a fantasy sleeper last year, I'm more than a little worried about him this season. First off, he's not going to see the same brutal workload that caused him to break down during the second half of last season. That means fewer opportunities to produce. Secondly, the return of Montario Hardesty means a backfield tandem appears to be imminent. Thirdly, the fact that Hillis is on the cover of "Madden NFL '12" makes him even less attractive for me.
5. Sam Bradford will become one of the top sleepers. Bradford had a very solid rookie season, but he finished a mediocre 20th in fantasy points among quarterbacks. With new coordinator Josh McDaniels as the helm of the offense, however, Bradford's level of statistical success is destined to rise. In 28 starts under McDaniels, Kyle Orton averaged 266.2 passing yards per game and threw 42 touchdowns. Before that, Tom Brady broke the NFL record for touchdowns passes (50 in 2007) under McDaniels. I think Bradford could become a star in 2011.
1. Ryan Mathews is going to be a steal for some owners. This doesn't include me, unfortunately, because there are too many Chargers fans in my fantasy league. But he will for some lucky owners out there. Mathews' rookie season did not turn out the way that many -- alright, me -- had hoped, as injuries ruined his chances of making an immediate impact. But his three-touchdown crushing of the Broncos in Week 17 should be enough to show doubters that he will be awesome when healthy. Look for Mathews to have a breakout year in 2011.
2. Michael Vick is poised for another big fantasy season. Everybody continues to predict doom and gloom for Vick, arguing that he can't put together another big season. Let them think that way, while you and I ride him to more fantasy titles. The internet generation is quick to criticize (and if you don't believe me, take a gander at any of my Pick Six columns). But realize that Vick entered last season battling for the starting job, one that is now his. He has another year to grow as a quarterback and his supporting cast is another year wiser, too.
3. Kevin Kolb just doesn't have it to be a star. Here is the sad truth -- if the pass-happy Reid can't coax it out of you to have a great statistical season, then you really have no hope with another team. Kolb will get traded to the Cardinals, and believe me when I tell you that people in the desert will be longing for the Max Hall era to re-convene. No matter where he ends up -- Arizona or otherwise -- Kolb was already in a position to succeed under Reid. He didn't, and instead lost his job to Vick. Just avoid this guy at all costs.
4. The Vikings will be fine without Donovan McNabb. I know a lot of fantasy enthusiasts are gnashing their teeth at the Vikings starting rookie Christian Ponder, thus crushing the value of Peterson and Percy Harvin, among others. Nonsense. Just look at what the Joe Webb-led Vikes did at the end of last season. Peterson and Harvin had good games against the Eagles, who needed to win. Besides, has McNabb done anything recently to prove that he's much better than a rookie? The Redskins would rather start John Beck and Rex Grossman. Enough said.
5. Rookie running backs with make major impacts. Mark Ingram will become the man for the Saints. Ryan Williams will end up being the top guy for the Cardinals. And neither of them will have the success that Daniel Thomas will have running the ball for the Dolphins. Thomas has a punishing running style, but what will help him stand out is his ability to catch the ball. Thomas had 52 receptions for Kansas State last season, and will also figure heavily into the mix for the Dolphins. He'll lead a nice crop of rookie fantasy backs in 2011.