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NFL fantasy football: Matt Forte among season-to-end surprises

I'd like to begin this column by addressing a scourge overtaking America's Chinese food joints. Not long ago, I ordered takeout from a local eatery (all the better to watch Breaking Bad with, my dear). After plowing through house fried rice and an order of fried prawns, I cracked open my fortune cookie only to read.

"You find the beauty in everyday things. Never lose this ability."

While I'm grateful for the kind words, I've long been confident in my capacity to appreciate a sunrise. Tell me the future, cookie! Will an unknown rich uncle leave me money? Am I finally going to marry Gabrielle Union? I want a fortune cookie, not a compliment cookie.

In a one-man effort to stem the tide of mealy-mouthed, post-dinner treats I'll do my best to predict your fantasy future every week. You're probably saying to your computer screen: "But Marcas, isn't that what the weekly rankings and projections are for?" Yes and no. Rankings and projections are great for a weekly look at potential studs and duds. But we're thinking long-range here. You don't draft on a week-to-week basis -- otherwise Rashad Jennings might have been a second-round pick in some leagues -- you draft with an eye on what could happen in November and December. You need a ranking that accomodates that.

Maybe you drafted Reggie Bush this year, but you don't like the look of a late season stretch that includes the Seahawks, Patriots and 49ers -- all of whom where in the top half of the league in stopping the run last season. Meanwhile Michael Turner has a slightly easier stretch with the Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers on the slate. It might be worth trying to swing a trade for the Burner to make that late push to the playoffs.

That's essentially what we'll do here. It will be a weekly ranking of the best players out there based on their schedule from the upcoming week through the end of the season. A word of warning: these are simply a guideline to help you evaluate players as the season goes along. It's far from a guarantee of success. Don't be afraid to use the eyeball test -- if a guy is hot, stay with him regardless of what the schedule looks like. If a player is losing touches, it won't matter how weak the opposing defenses he faces are. But if you're stuck deciding between a couple of evenly-matched players, let this be a tool to help aid your decision-making.

One last caution ... since we've only played one game so far this season, this week's rankings are based on Week 1 projections. While we don't shy away from predicting the future (unlike the cop-out cookies I mentioned earlier), projections aren't like having actual, raw data in hand to evaluate. Don't be surprised if what we see in the weeks ahead looks quite different from what's out there this week. But as we get deeper into the season, things will settle down and the cream will rise to the top.

Quarterbacks

Sometimes there's a reason that projections are what they are. Just about any way you slice it, Aaron Rodgers is the top fantasy football quarterback. The reigning MVP leads one of the league's most potent offenses and is deadly with his legs as well as his arm. If you could get points for celebrations, his championship belt isn't bad, either...

Recently, I wrote that Tony Romo is an elite fantasy QB, which drew a few gasps from the Twitter audience. I'd like to thank Romo for helping me keep my foot out of my mouth (for at least one week) with his performance Wednesday night. Last season, the Bucs, Bears, Panthers and Falcons struggled against the pass. This year, they're on the Cowboys schedule. Romo could be on the rise before too long...

Yep, Blaine Gabbert is sitting at number six. A schedule featuring the Vikings, Colts, Raiders, Packers and Titans is a pretty attractive one. And Gabbert looked during the preseason like he had taken a step forward. But this is where real-life should intervene. Few outside of Jacksonville have high expectations for Gabbert this season. If he's still hanging around the top 10 a month from now, we can re-visit this discussion. For now, consider it a statistical anomaly...

Conversely, it's hard to imagine Drew Brees spending the entire season outside of the top five. There are some mildly unfavorable matchups against the Redskins, Eagles and Chargers. I say "mildly" because secondaries often crumble when faced with the power of No. 9...

The times, they are a-changing. Did anyone ever imagine a time when Eli Manning would top his brother on a rankings list? Part of it is wondering how quickly Peyton Manning can jell with a new group of receivers. Part of it is two matchups against the Chargers as well as games with the Steelers, Texans and Bengals...

All throughout the preseason, I've been high on Matt Ryan's potential for 2012. At least for this first week, the arithmetic doesn't agree with me. But a late season stretch against division foes Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Carolina could have a profound effect on his standing...

Running Backs

Jumping out from the list is a trio of backs working their way back from injury who either may not play or may not play much -- Marshawn Lynch, Trent Richardson and Adrian Peterson. There's also a fourth, Maurice Jones-Drew, that didn't make the list at all (holdouts will do that to you). All four will be interesting names to watch as the season progresses...

DeMarco Murray picked up where he left off last season, rushing for 131 yards against the Giants Wednesday night. Meanwhile, Felix Jones was relegated to kickoff returns. If this keeps up, those two backs will be heading in opposite directions before too long...

My immediate reaction to DeAngelo Williams at the seventh spot is to believe that it's a touch too high. But that has a lot to do with Jonathan Stewart's injury issues, which is also the reason TD vulture extraordinare Mike Tolbert made the list. Once Stewart is back to work and getting his normal number of touches, these rankings will look a little different...

That's the same problem Frank Gore faces in San Francisco. The Niners have a crowded backfield with Gore, Brandon Jacobs, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. Once we have a better idea of how Jim Harbaugh plans to use all four of those players, we'll have a better idea of whose fantasy future looks a little brighter...

I'm concerned about Michael Turner this season. He turned 30 in the offseason, which is the beginning of the end for running backs, and he's been a supreme workhorse for the past three seasons. Turner also has Jacquizz Rodgers threatening to cut into his workload. But the Burner does have a favorable schedule down the stretch, so if he can hold off his backfield competition, he could just prove me wrong...

As the presumed Week 1 starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Isaac Redman could make hay in Week 1 against a mediocre Broncos run defense. But with reports that Rashard Mendenhall could [return to the field](http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000058106/article/rashard-mendenhall-incredible-at

-steelers-practice) early, it could be Mendenhall, not Redman, that resides on this list in the weeks ahead...

Mikel Leshoure won't play in the first two games because of suspension, but with the disarray in the Lions backfield, he could move up the ranks if he's at all as advertised for Detroit. In the the meantime, Kevin Smith is the man in the Motor City. Jahvid Best could eventually show up on this list as well, but that's not likely to happen until well into the season...

Notice that it took all the way until No. 36 before the first Washington Redskin appeared. It's Roy Helu. But it just as easily could have been Alfred Morris. Or Evan Royster. Or John Riggins. Or ... well, you get the picture...

Mark Ingram led the Saints in carries last season and was third in rushing yards. So why is he so far down the list when he's part of such a dynamic offense? The 11 receptions for 46 yards should answer that. With Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas still calling The Big Easy home, it's unlikely that Ingram will be catching too many passes from Brees this season...

Isaiah Pead was mentioned during the preseason as a deep sleeper candidate, especially considering Steven Jackson's career workload and declining production. A pair of games late in the fantasy regular season against the 49ers isn't particularly attractive, but matchups with the Bills, Cardinals and Patriots brighten the outlook...

Wide Receivers

Calvin Johnson at No. 1 isn't a surprise, but Vincent Jackson at No 2? Yeah, that's an eye opener. If the big receiver can be the playmaker the Bucs expected when they signed him, he should spend quite a bit of time on this list. But if he's the same up-and-down Vincent Jackson he's been throughout his career, he'll start sliding...

The Broncos' primary receivers -- Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas -- both debut in the top 12. Peyton Manning certainly has the ability to make fantasy football stars of the duo, but until we figure out which one is his favorite target, their status on this list could fluctuate during the season...

If Blaine Gabbert is at No. 6 on the quarterback list, it shouldn't be a major surprise that his presumed top target is sitting in the top 10 as well. Still, No. 4 seems a little high for guy playing in an unproven offense. I expect him to drop a little in the next few weeks, but judging from his preseason performance, he should be a valuable commodity until late into the season...

There's a lot of skepticism following Victor Cruz into 2012, though his six catches for 58 yards should allay some fear. His big play ability vaults him above the still-recovering Hakeem Nicks. Before the season is finished, I'd expect the two of them to be a little closer to each other in the rankings. Late season games against the Redskins, Steelers and Bengals are reason to worry, however...

Speaking of skepticism, the emergence of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez could have a lot to do with Wes Welker landing at No. 25. Welker's history leads you to believe he'll find a way to produce regardless of who's on the field alongside him. But with so many weapons in New England and games against the Jets, Seahawks and Texans, his numbers could be dampened...

There may be no standing more based on potential than Denarius Moore at No. 28. He -- along with fellow WRs Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford -- didn't get a lot of time to work with Carson Palmer in the preseason, but is a big play waiting to happen. However, he might be a guy to avoid late in the fantasy season with the Bengals and Browns in back-to-back weeks...

Few people are talking about Jon Baldwin this season -- understandable considering the hurdles he put in front of himself last year. But if you believe the reports, he returned to Kansas City this year with a new attitude. Baldwin is athletic, can make plays and faces favorable matchups near the end of the fantasy year against the Panthers and Broncos. Remember his name, he could be a commodity before the season is done...

Last year, Greg Little was supposed to be a sleeper. It didn't happen. This year, he appears to be the favorite target of Brandon Weeden. It means Little's success will hinge on Weeden's progression throughout the season. There are some softer spots in the Browns schedule, but it starts unfavorably and ends equally unfavorably, so Little is a risk to drop as we move through the year...

I was quite surprised to find Torrey Smith so low on the list. Especially when Anquan Boldin slots at No. 29. I haven't been shy in stating my expectation that big things are coming from the Ravens passing game this season. Smith has a chance to take over as Joe Flacco's favorite target before the season ends. I expect he'll move up the list quickly...

Tight Ends

Once again, a Jaguar sits near the top of the ranks. But of all the Jags with lofty standings, Lewis could be the one who sticks. Two seasons ago, he was a huge red zone target and snagged 10 touchdown catches. I don't expect double-digit scores this season, but with Blackmon on the outside and Jones-Drew in the backfield, the former UCLA Bruin could be another name to watch out for at the loaded tight end position...

There's no reason Vernon Davis shouldn't be the No. 1 tight end in fantasy football. Wait...there's one reason -- Alex Smith. Even with all of San Francisco's additions at receiver, Davis is still the team's best pass-catcher. There are some early soft spots in the Niners schedule, though it doesn't end particularly well...

Rob Gronkowski (7) and Aaron Hernandez (10) are lower than anyone would have expected. Some of it might have to do with the sheer number of weapons Tom Brady has to throw to. Some of it might be the mystery of which tight end dominates targets to the position. And some of it might have to do with a schedule that pushed Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd further down the list of receivers...

When Jason Witten's spleen gets better and he can go hard for an entire four quarters, he'll move up the list. Tony Romo is poised to cook this season and all of his targets should eat well as a result...

Defense/Special Teams

It's a bit of a surprise that the Texans didn't claim the top spot with games against the Dolphins, Jaguars and Jets. Then again, with matchups against the Bills, Bears, Lions and Patriots, maybe it's not so surprising. Still, this is a good unit and it should remain in the top five for a good portion of the season...

There's an NFC West team in the top five, but not the one you think. Seattle gets the nod with an easier early season schedule. But, like the 49ers, the Seahawks must face the Packers, Lions and Patriots before the year is out. Expect to see San Francisco move up the list and the Seahawks to move down -- even if only a little bit...

The Colts were pretty terrible last year defensively and there's little reason to expect a major turnaround in 2012. But an early season slate that includes suspect offensive clubs like the Vikings, Jaguars, Jets, Browns and Dolphins will help their value. Their late season schedule is a completely different story...

The Baltimore Ravens are old. Their most recognizable defensive players are old. But they find ways to succeed. I don't think this season will be an exception. 14 seems kind of low to start the season, but I have a sneaking suspicion we'll see them move up the list before too long...

Follow Marcas Grant on Twitter @MarcasG

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) makes a deep catch as Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Kyzir White (44) trails on the play during an NFL football game , Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif.

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