The NFL can be unpredictable, to say the 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 occur that alter the landscape of fantasy football. With that said, Craig Ellenport, Michael Fabiano and Adam Rank broke out their thinking caps in an attempt to predict the unpredictable with five personal prognostications as we inch closer to the 2010 campaign.
1. Eli Manning will post better fantasy numbers than Peyton. Even if you're not one of the many Eli haters out there, nobody puts him on the same level as his brother Peyton. And while he didn't carry his team on his shoulders the way Peyton did last season, Eli's fantasy numbers weren't too far behind. His total of 4,021 yards and 27 touchdown passes were 479 yards and six scores short of Peyton's totals. Don't be surprised to see those numbers reversed in 2010. Eli relied heavily on possession receiver Steve Smith last season, while Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham only showed flashes of what they can do. In a division where the Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins should all be throwing the ball more, expect the Giants to get into plenty of shootouts this season -- and for Eli to take full advantage of the many weapons now at his disposal.
2. Frank Gore will become the top fantasy running back. Look out Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew! I guess the bold prediction here is that Gore will remain healthy and play all 16 games. The only time he's done that before was in 2006, and he ended up with 2,180 yards from scrimmage. Even missing two games last season and not being 100 percent for all 14 he started, Gore scored 13 total touchdowns. Coach Mike Singletary will look to guide his team to an NFC West crown with defense and a solid ground attack, and having Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis in the fold all season will keep defenses from stuffing the box against Gore. As a result, the veteran out of Miami (Fla.) should easily cruise past the 2,000-yard barrier in yards from scrimmage and perhaps threaten 20 total touchdowns. He's going to be a fantasy star once again.
3. Matthew Stafford will be a No. 1 fantasy quarterback. Stafford won me over with that awesome and heroic performance last season against Cleveland, putting up monster numbers even before throwing the game-winning score with a separated shoulder. Now he'll enter his second pro season with even more weapons. Calvin "Megatron" Johnson is set for a major bounce-back season. Nate Burleson is mediocrity defined, but he'll at least take some attention from both Johnson and second-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew. And rookie runner Jahvid Best looks to catch plenty of passes out of the backfield as well. And, of course, the Lions are still a last-place team despite their many improvements. That means lots of passing the football late in games and a ton of extra stats for the Georgia product. I'll take Stafford over Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan in fantasy drafts.
4. Early Doucet will be the best late-round draft value. You know how everybody was talking about that thrilling Packers-Cardinals playoff game from last season? You know, the one that was labeled the fantasy coming-out party for Jermichael Finley? Well it was. But don't forget about the level of production Doucet recorded in that thrilling contest. The former Louisiana State star had a grand total of one touchdown reception in two NFL seasons -- and then he proceeded to score twice in the overtime playoff win over the Packers. In fact, after catching all of 17 passes in the regular season last year, Doucet added 14 grabs in two playoff games alone. For now, Steve Breaston inherits the starting job vacated by Anquan Boldin, but don't be surprised if Doucet passes him on the depth chart before long. Be sure to grab him in the late rounds on draft day.
5. Jordan Shipley will be the top fantasy rookie wideout. Some people think the Bengals helped themselves drastically with the free-agent signing of Antonio Bryant, but the injury-prone veteran doesn't really impress me. However, I do like the idea of an eager rookie who can step in quickly to fill the possession receiver role vacated in 2009 by T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Enter Shipley, who has all the tools to be a great option in the pass attack for coach Marvin Lewis. The Bengals will continue to push the ground game with Cedric Benson, but Carson Palmer will certainly pass the ball more than he did last year. I know Chad Ochocinco is still in the mix, and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham will also compete for targets, but in my mind, Shipley will become Palmer's favorite option. Don't be shy about taking a chance on him late in drafts.
1. Aaron Rodgers will be the MVP of the 2010 fantasy season. I know, I know. Rodgers doesn't have the same name value as Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson or Drew Brees. But he's going to outscore them all this season. He's produced more fantasy points than any quarterback over the last two years -- more than Brees and more than Peyton Manning. Rodgers also has one of the most favorable schedules among signal-callers, as he'll face the Bears (2), Lions (2), Vikings (2), Giants, Eagles, Dolphins and Falcons. All of those teams ranked 13th or worse in terms of allowing the most fantasy points to quarterbacks last season. With weapons like Ryan Grant, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jermichael Finley at his disposal, Rodgers is set to put up huge numbers. He's well worth a first-round pick -- even a top-five selection -- in all fantasy formats.
2. Kevin Kolb will become a solid No. 1 fantasy quarterback.Eagles coach Andy Reid loves to throw the football. No, he really loves to throw it. He would gun it 50 times a game if he could. That's great news for Kolb, who takes over as the team's No. 1 quarterback after the offseason trade of Donovan McNabb. In two starts last season, the Houston product threw for a combined 718 yards and four touchdowns. Aside from his own upside and a glut of talent that includes DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek at his beck and call, Kolb also has a very favorable schedule. Games against the Giants (2), Bears, Lions, Vikings, Jaguars, Titans and Falcons should help him produce some very attractive stat lines. He could turn into one of the best draft values in 2010 -- look for Kolb to come off the board somewhere between Round 6 and 7.
3. Ryan Mathews will make a massive fantasy impact as a rookie. Clinton Portis. Edgerrin James. Matt Forte. Those are just a few of the running backs to have huge fantasy impacts in their first NFL seasons. Mathews is going to join that list. It's just a matter of time. I'm not saying that he'll turn into LaDainian Tomlinson circa 2006, but I do think Mathews can duplicate L.T.'s rookie totals of 1,236 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Coach Norv Turner does like to throw the football, but he's also run the offenses that led Ricky Williams, Frank Gore and LaMont Jordan to their best fantasy seasons. Ever. He also coached some running back named Emmitt Smith (he wasn't too bad, either). With an incredible pass attack to keep defenses from stacking the line of scrimmage and a favorable schedule, Mathews will find a lot of immediate fantasy success.
4. Running backs in west divisions will become fantasy beasts. OK fantasy fans, a little trivia. Which divisions were among the weakest against the run last season? You guessed it -- the AFC and NFC West. And as luck would have it, these divisions are playing against each other in 2010. As a result, Jamaal Charles, Gore, Justin Forsett, Beanie Wells, Steven Jackson, Mathews, Knowshon Moreno and Darren McFadden are all in the top 10 in terms of the easiest schedules based on fantasy points allowed at the running back position. Looking for a breakout player? Charles and Moreno fit the bill. Want a sleeper? How about Forsett, Wells, Mathews, McFadden or Michael Bush? While injuries are a cause for some concern, owners should also have faith in Gore and Jackson because of the schedule. Draft these guys and in most cases, watch the fantasy points pile up.
5. Calvin Johnson will rebound and contribute monster numbers. Johnson was a victim of his own success -- not to mention a nagging knee ailment -- in 2009. A top-three fantasy wideout on draft day, the Georgia Tech product experienced major statistical decreases across the board as opposing defenses double and tripled teamed him on a weekly basis. That's not going to happen this season, though, as the Lions added Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson and Tony Scheffler to help keep opponents honest. That should mean that Johnson will face less double coverage and have more opportunities to produce monster numbers. With Matthew Stafford under center and a schedule that includes games against the Bears (2), Giants, Rams, Dolphins and Buccaneers, I'm fully expecting Megatron to transform back into one of the elite wide receivers in fantasy football.
1. Peyton Manning will be a fantasy disappointment in 2010. History has not been kind to Super Bowl losers since 2000, the most notable example being Tom Brady. He saw his touchdown total decrease by 50 after losing the Super Bowl. Of course, Brady had a knee injury and was out for the season, but still. The list is long and distinguished. What does that mean for Manning? My best guess is that it will be similar to Kurt Warner last season. Warner didn't outright struggle in 2009, but his numbers fell short of his MVP-like totals in 2008. Give Manning credit, he has a long history of horrific losses in big games and rallying back the next year. But 4,500 yards and more than 30 total touchdowns? That's simply not going to happen. Manning will be outside of the top five at the position. You heard it here first. Again.
2. The Jets will be a disappointment, on the field and in fantasy. Have you ever seen Major League 2? Ricky Vaughn sheds his "Wild Thing Image," and Willie Mays Hayes wants to become a power hitter. The team went Hollywood. Now think about this year's New York Jets. Coach Rex Ryan is trying to lose weight. Personal Seat Licensing (PSLs) have been a hot button issue. The Jets will be on HBO's Hard Knocks. And Mark Sanchez, well, he has always been Hollywood. The Jets were close to missing the playoffs last year, so this celebration of a fluke run seems a little disingenuous. As the team fails on the field, I expect their player to fail in fantasy football. Don't bank on Sanchez, Santonio Holmes or any of their wide receivers. And I also think Shonn Greene will be the 2010 version of Matt Forte.
3. Jay Cutler will not be a solid No. 1 fantasy quarterback. Some fantasy enthusiasts are giddy with Mike Martz taking over the Bears offense due to his impressive resume with other high-powered offenses in St. Louis and Detroit. But those are two indoor teams. Nobody seems to remember how badly his offense struggled outdoors in San Francisco in 2008. Imagine Cutler trying to run that precision spot-throwing offense with the wind howling off Lake Michigan in November! With Martz at the helm, the Lions averaged just over 11 points per game in four games at Chicago and Green Bay. Not a large sample size, but enough to keep me from reaching for Cutler too early in drafts.
4. Matt Cassel will emerge into a very solid fantasy option. Cassel's 2009 numbers aren't that impressive (2,914 yards, 16 touchdowns) without a proper context. The Chiefs replaced coordinator Chan Gailey just prior to the start of the season. Dwayne Bowe was fat, unproductive and suspended a lot of the time. And the team's offensive line was about as protective as a bulletproof vest made of Saran Wrap. Coach Todd Haley even joked that he was surprised that Cassel survived. But this season will be different. The biggest reason being new coordinator Charlie Weis. Jokes about his Notre Dame tenure aside, Weis is an offensive genius. Look what he did with Tom Brady while in New England. Cassel will have at least 25 touchdowns this season. Bank on it. And heck, I will say it. Cassel will have more fantasy points than Cutler this season.
5. Matt Moore will become an attractive fantasy quarterback. Sometimes I feel like I was the only one who watched Moore at the end of last season. He tossed eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his final four games. Yet, Moore is still not highly touted. There are a lot of reasons to like him, though. He has a strong running game with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart that defenses will have to respect, and I think Steve Smith will likely have a bounce-back year. And let's be honest, the NFC South is an up one year, down one year division. That means the Panthers should be much better this year, both in the standings and in the stat sheets. The strong running game will hinder his touchdown totals a touch, but Moore will have a lot of value as a matchup-based starter and bye-week replacement this season.