Lex Luthor can't win. The Joker will lose. Darth Vader goes down.
In 2008, Luthor won. The Joker knocked off Batman. And Darth Vader kicked Luke Skywalker up and down the galaxy.
In an almost unprecedented turnover at the top of the fantasy charts, the predictions for 2008 all fell flatter than one of Bill Belichick's jokes. At every key fantasy position, the expected stars did not come through, and new young heroes emerged. The unexpected became the normal. Only the truly nimble fantasy player survived the carnage.
And then came the Kryptonite of a blow to his knee.
If Brady was the Man of Steel, then the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson was fantasy's Dark Knight. One of the NFL's greatest running backs, Tomlinson averaged 56 receptions, 2,035 yards from scrimmage, and 23 total touchdowns from 2005 to 2007. That included one season with a league-record 31 TDs. Like Brady, LT was supposed to guarantee a postseason berth in your league. While he didn't crash like Brady, he didn't perform anywhere near like LT, either.
As for wide receiver, there was also little question about the best in the galaxy. After a 2007 season with 98 receptions, 1,493 yards, and an NFL-record 23 touchdown catches, New England's Randy Moss re-claimed his top spot at the position after two very forgettable years in Oakland. Moss was even worthy of a first-round selection in all drafts. His final numbers for 2008? Not bad, but not first-round material.
Aside from that talented trio, fantasy leaguers didn't have to think hard to construct a list of the big names at the top positions. Quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Drew Brees, and Carson Palmer. Running backs Adrian Peterson, Brian Westbrook, Steven Jackson, and Joseph Addai. Wide receivers Terrell Owens, Reggie Wayne, Chad Ochocinco, Marvin Harrison, and Torry Holt. Heroes all. Pick them and you couldn't go wrong. Luthor and Darth didn't have a shot.
Then came the start of the regular season, and the fantasy football skies fell. So did many of our heroes.
Bad news all around
In Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady took a hit below his left knee that resulted in a torn ACL and MCL and the end of his season. With his quarterback out of action, Moss' level of production plummeted from 282 fantasy points in 2007 to 155 points last season. Tomlinson, who was one of the most reliable fantasy backs, suffered an injured toe that was part of the reason he recorded a career-low 1,110 rushing yards and his lowest touchdown total (12) since 2001.
The fall of this trio of stars seemed to have a domino effect, as a number of players we've all leaned on in recent seasons experienced a decrease in statistical success as well. Manning, Romo, and Palmer dealt with injuries and were all less productive. Westbrook, Jackson, and Addai went from first-round locks to inconsistent starters. T.O., Wayne, Holt, and Ochocinco weren't immune to statistical Kryptonite, either, as their numbers tumbled across the board.
But as in fiction, from the fall of heroes come new heroes to take their place. From every corner of the NFL land, young stars arose to carry forth and wear the capes and utility belts of ... okay, enough of that. In 2008, fantasy fans saw a massive changing of the guard. Will that happen again in 2009? We're not sure yet, but this time, we'll be ready.
The new guard
The Saints' Brees took hold of the top spot at the quarterback position by passing for 5,069 yards and 34 touchdowns. San Diego's Philip Rivers went from low-end fantasy starter to superstar, finishing with career bests across the board. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers emerged from Brett Favre's shadow and posted the third-most fantasy points on NFL.com. Denver's Jay Cutler also flexed his fantasy muscles in what was a breakout season to become a part of this new breed of fantasy hero.
The most drastic change in value might have come at running back, as Tomlinson and Westbrook lost their luster to the likes of DeAngelo Williams, Michael Turner, Matt Forté, and Chris Johnson. The Panthers' Williams, who wasn't considered the top back on his own team in fantasy drafts (Jonathan Stewart held that status), came out of the Carolina blue to rush for 1,515 yards and score 20 total touchdowns.
Turner outshined Tomlinson, the man he backed up while in San Diego from 2004 to 2007, by rushing for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns in Atlanta. Chicago's Forté and Tennessee's Johnson were just two of the rookie backs to make an impact. In fact, Forté, Johnson, and Houston's Steve Slaton all finished the 2008 season with more rushing yards than Tomlinson.
Wide receivers also have a new look after a season that saw numerous stars fall from elite status. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, our top wideout for 2009, caught 96 passes for 1,431 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season. He went on to have the biggest postseason numbers ever for a receiver during the Cardinals' improbable run to the Super Bowl.
Houston's Andre Johnson had career bests in receptions and yards and tied a career high with 8 scores, while Calvin Johnson thrived on a winless Lions' team that lacked a reliable quarterback. Fantasy leaguers also saw significant contributions from Green Bay's Greg Jennings and Atlanta's Roddy White, both of whom finished among the top five wide receivers in fantasy points.
With such an immense turnaround in the value of our heroes, fantasy football has a much different look in 2009. No longer can you just show up to your draft unprepared and simply call on the big names from the past and expect to land a superstar. Brady is coming off reconstructive knee surgery and multiple procedures to clear up infections after the initial operation. Cincinnati's Palmer will be a risk after missing most of 2008 with elbow problems. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, and St. Louis' Marc Bulger also have fallen from the top of the quarterback ranks and come with more questions than answers.
Tomlinson and Westbrook will both be 30 years old at the start of this season, and years of physical punishment have them on the downsides of their careers. Addai, Willis McGahee, Larry Johnson, and Edgerrin James, runners we have become accustomed to at the top of their position, also have seen their values tumble. While past heroes such as Moss and Owens are still physically talented, it's now difficult to expect monster numbers from them. Braylon Edwards, Chad Ochocinco, Holt, and Roy Williams were enormous disappointments last season, going from surefire No. 1 fantasy wide receivers in all leagues to borderline and potentially risky No. 2 or 3 receivers in upcoming drafts.
So now what?
In 2009, you'll need to be more informed and knowledgeable in your draft preparations. It's important to know that Brees is now the top quarterback in fantasy football. Rivers, Rodgers, and Cutler are all certain starters, and other quarterbacks such as Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Houston's Matt Schaub are on the rise. If you're not familiar with these names, you'll need to be very soon.
The top running backs in this new-look fantasy football era are led by Minnesota's Peterson, who led the league in rushing yards last season and will be the consensus top selection in drafts. Turner, Williams, Forté, Chris Johnson, Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, and Slaton have taken the reins from our previous heroes and are now locks to be selected in the first round. The Giants' Brandon Jacobs, Detroit's Kevin Smith, and New Orleans' Pierre Thomas are just a few of the other runners that will also have increased value this season.
Fantasy leaguers also need to understand and embrace the changes at wide receiver. Sure, Moss, Buffalo's Owens, Indianapolis' Wayne, and Carolina's Steve Smith still have value as fantasy starters. But the position has new leadership from Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, and Anquan Boldin. Other heroes such as Jennings, White, Denver's Brandon Marshall, and Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe have also emerged and now warrant early round consideration in all formats.
So before you enter your draft with your chest puffed and confident that you'll build a championship-caliber team, remember that we've entered a new era in fantasy football. It's an era that still includes our past heroes, but a new and younger breed of fantasy players have taken hold of the league and will be a significant factor in who takes home your league's title.
The times, they are a-changing.