Gronkowski's a beast, but he's not worth a first-round pick

Who are the best options in the conference championship games for the NFL Playoff Challenge? -- @addy_sings (via Twitter)

Michael Fabiano: If we're not accounting for players you have already started who receive double and triple points, the best starting lineup is Tom Brady at quarterback, Ray Rice and Frank Gore at running back, Wes Welker and Hakeem Nicks at wide receiver, Rob Gronkowski at tight end, David Akers at kicker and the Niners defense. That's based on a combination of individual fantasy value and match-ups. Brady and Gronkowski are obvious, as is Rice. Clearly, you don't want to start a Giants back given that San Francisco allowed the fewest fantasy points to opposing runners, so Gore gets the nod. No wideout has been hotter than Nicks during the postseason, and the Niners can be beaten through the air. Akers and the Niners defense were the top options at their respective positions, so I'm rolling with them as well.

Other than Trent Richardson, what other rookie running back will emerge into a fantasy starter? -- T. Payne (via Facebook)

M.F.: Richardson is without question the best runner in the class, but even he needs to land in the right spot to have a chance at making an instant impact. In my fantasy-style mock draft for 2012, I have him going to the Bengals. If that scenario happens and the team lets Cedric Benson leave as a free agent, Richardson's fantasy stock will soar. If he lands with a team where a backfield committee is possible, Richardson's value could have a ceiling. The best of the rest at the position include Miami's Lamar Miller, Virginia Tech's David Wilson, Oregon's LaMichael James and Washington's Chris Polk, to name a few.

I need to keep four players, and I lose the round I drafted them: Matt Forte (Round 1), Calvin Johnson (Round 2), Jamaal Charles (Round 3), Kenny Britt (Round 4). A.J. Green (Round 6) and Demarco Murray (Round 15). -- @Nierenversagen (via Twitter)

M.F.: "Megatron" is a no-brainer, and I'd also retain Forte barring a setback with his knee or a possible contract holdout. That leaves the final two choices to Charles, Britt and Murray. Based on the rounds you would lose, I'd hold onto Green and Murray. I said it before his rookie season that Green would have fantasy superstar potential, and I think his rookie numbers prove it. The fact that you would lose a sixth-round pick makes Green that much more attractive. The same holds true of Murray, who is an absolute steal for a 15th-round selection. In a best-case scenario, he could be a second rounder in re-draft formats.

Would you draft Rob Gronkowski in the first round next season? The dude is an absolute beast! -- G. Marcus (via Facebook)

M.F.: I've had this question asked hundreds of times on Twitter and Facebook, and it's legitimate. After all, touchdowns are like gold in fantasy football -- and Gronkowski is an absolute touchdown machine. Did you know that he outscored every wide receiver (outside of Calvin Johnson) and every tight end in fantasy points last season? But I have reservations about whether he can post 90 receptions, 1,327 yards and 18 total touchdowns in back-to-back years, and he would have to come close to that to be worth a first-round pick. So will he be drafted in Round 1 of countless fantasy leagues in 2012? Yes. Would I draft him there? Probably not. I'd rather secure at least one quarterback, one running back and a wide receiver before I go with a tight end. If Gronkowski fell to me late in Round 2, however, I'd have to pounce on him.

Who are your top five running backs for 2012? -- @tuff_g (via Twitter)

M.F.: The top four runners will be a consensus in most leagues, in some order: Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. Who should be the fifth running back? That is going to be tough, as there are so many players at the position with huge question marks entering the offseason. If you put my feet to the fire, I'd select Ryan Mathews fifth. He has a ton of upside and a favorable schedule in 2012. But even Mathews has been prone to injuries, which makes me hesitant to make him a first-round selection. The other backs I would consider to be ranked fifth are Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch.

What are your thoughts on Michael Bush heading into 2012? I envision him signing with another team and becoming an every-down running back. -- J. Law (via Facebook)

M.F.: Bush's value is 100 percent dependant on the uniform he's wearing in 2012. While he is scheduled to become a free agent, the Raiders could use the franchise tag to retain him. It's possible, since Darren McFadden is about as durable as a house of cards. McFadden has never played in more than 13 games in a season and missed nine contests in 2011 with a mid-foot sprain. That makes Bush a potential "handcuff" for the Raiders, who will need insurance for McFadden. In that scenario, Bush's statistical ceiling will clearly take a major hit. If he's somehow allowed to leave as a free agent and lands a featured role, the veteran could be worth as much as a first- or second-round pick. I just don't see that happening.

Should I be looking more closely as Isaac Redman in 2012? What round do you think he'll be drafted in? -- @Lolasdada (via Twitter)

M.F.: Redman's stock is on the rise due to the uncertain status of Rashard Mendenhall, but it's far too soon to say he'll be worth more than a middle-round selection. If Mendenhall's recovery from major knee surgery allows him to come back in time for Week 1, then Redman is looking at a committee situation. However, Mendenhall's absence for the start of the season would make Redman a borderline No. 2 fantasy back or flex starter. Redman is someone to watch, but I wouldn't anticipate investing a ton in him just yet.

I picked up Peyton Manning off the waiver wire in our 12-team PPR keeper league. I'm going to retain LeSean McCoy and Andre Johnson, but I have to decide on a third keeper from Manning, Lynch and Aaron Hernandez. Thoughts? -- J. Thomas (via Facebook)

M.F.: Wait, you didn't hear that Manning is planning to retire? That's what actor Rob Lowe said on Wednesday, at least. In all seriousness, I have no idea how to rank Manning because there is no real indication on what his future holds. Will he be the starting quarterback for the Colts in 2012, or will he be traded or released during the offseason? What if he does in fact decide to retire? It's all possible at this point. With that said, the best player to retain from that trio is Lynch. I'm not in love with him -- it's going to be tough to duplicate his beastly 2011 touchdown totals again -- but Lynch is one of the league's true featured backs if he remains in Seattle.

Are you against drafting elite wide receivers in the first round? -- @jacobpackrulzz (via Twitter)

M.F.: There is just one wideout I'd take in the first round of standard leagues, and that's Calvin Johnson. He's coming off his best season as a pro. What makes his totals even more impressive is that he had a three-week stretch where he averaged 55.6 yards and scored just one touchdown. Here's another interesting stat -- Megatron was the most-owned player on NFL.com fantasy teams (22.99 percent) that won their league's championship in 2011. As long as Matthew Stafford is out there slinging the football, Johnson will be worth a first rounder. Wes Welker might also be worth a first-round pick in PPR formats, but Megatron is the lone receiver I'd target.

I know it's ridiculously early, but give me one sleeper running back for 2012. -- G. Soto (via Facebook)

M.F.: I'll give you three, but a lot can and will change between now and training camps. The first is Mikel Leshoure, who should be back at 100 percent from last year's Achilles' injury. Based on Jahvid Best's recent injuries, Leshoure should get a chance to show his stuff in 2012. Ryan Williams, who was also injured last year, could turn into a sleeper behind Beanie Wells. While he did make it through 14 games last season, Wells is still not what I consider a durable runner. Stevan Ridley could also have some sleeper appeal, depending on what the Patriots do with their backfield.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!

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