It seems that a new buzzword crops up every year around fantasy football time. Five years ago it was "X-Factor." Then it became "explosive," followed by "dual threat" and "football IQ." So now, to effectively rank the top 10 quarterbacks for the upcoming fantasy season, I've decided on my own word: "upside."
So much of fantasy is about accurately predicting the future and, as such, we've come to rely on a fairly limited number of factors. "Upside" is a catch-all phrase that takes into account more than just a player's statistical performance from the previous season. It considers many other factors including the quality of the supporting cast (coaches, skill position players), individual durability and the quality of the offensive line.
Keeping all of these things in mind, here are the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks for the upcoming 2012-13 NFL season.
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Brady is the unquestioned #1 overall QB based on both statistical and intangible qualities. He hasn't missed a start in the last three years and threw for over 5,000 yards and 39 TDs and had 11 300-yard games last season. Furthermore, his supporting cast is both proven and top notch, from his coach (Belichick), to the skill positions (Hernandez, Grownkowski, Lloyd, Welker), to his offensive line (best in the NFL). Brady also looks the part. He stands at 6' 5", is the unquestioned leader of the Patriots on and off the field and breaks down defenses as well as anyone not named Peyton Manning. Bottom line: if Brady is available to you, no matter what pick you have in the first round... take him.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Although he's far more athletic than Brady, he falls to #2 in part because of where he plays. All other things being fairly equal here (supporting cast, coaches and physical intangibles), Rodgers will play every home game from late October to the end of the season in the freezing cold and snow while Brady will not. And that really does matter. I know that Boston gets cold, but let's be real, it doesn't even come close to Green Bay, Wisconsin cold.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Despite leading the league in passing last year throwing for almost 5,500 yards and 46 TDs, the off-season turmoil surrounding the team diminishes his value slightly. His one drive in the first preseason game showed that he's comfortable running the offense sans Sean Payton. But it's unrealistic to expect that he (or any other quarterback for that matter), could possibly duplicate the historically ridiculous numbers from last season. A "regression" to around 5,100 yards and 35-40 TDs, combined with the "us against the world" mentality adopted by the team, means Drew Brees should be an elite first-round option this year and for several years to come (since he's now a $100 million man.)
4. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
He's the ultimate "upside" guy on this list: a young gunslinger who plays with the best receiver in the game (Calvin Johnson) and seemingly doesn't know any better than to throw it up and let him come down with it. In actuality that's a really, really great plan considering Brandon Pettigrew, Titus Young and rookie Ryan Broyles are his other targets, The lack of an identifiable running game means that pretty much the only way that the Lions are going to score points this season is through the air. This bodes well for Stafford's statistics and, by extension, his fantasy owners as well.
5. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
When I first started this list, I had him listed at #9, only to find myself moving him up slowly and steadily. I've been monitoring his progress carefully since he chose the Broncos and have seen only glowing reviews of his work both on and off the field. Yes, I know that he's only played a little bit of football, and that anything can happen during the season. But most injury experts agree that his condition isn't degenerative. And considering the strength of both his defense and his receivers (Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen), it's hard for me to justify dropping him any further then here (just above his brother). He has such a long history of both durability and sustained success. While Peyton isn't without risk, I just don't think his risk is as severe as some of the others.
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6. Eli Manning, New York Giants
After what was possibly the quietest 4,900 yard season in NFL history, Eli Manning is once again poised to put up numbers. He has his top two receivers back (Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz), and the team added David Wilson (running back) and Rueben Randle (receiver) by way of the NFL draft, both of whom are expected to immediately compete for playing time and make an impact on the field. Eli will once again reach for the 5,000 mark while throwing both a lot of touchdowns and a lot of interceptions. If you're in a league that doesn't dock too many points for picks then he might be worth a higher pick than this. However, in most standard scoring leagues, it's hard for me to even THINK about taking him earlier then the 4th round or so given his propensity for boneheaded turnovers.
7. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
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Romo has been sort of a forgotten man in fantasy circles, despite throwing for over 4,000 yards and 30 TDs last season. Furthermore, aside from a freak accident in 2010, he's been durable, has a solid supporting cast (Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray) and plays in an offense designed to throw the ball. So...Why no love from fantasy pundits? Honestly, I think it's because he's boring. Although he has great stat potential, he's in a sort of QB purgatory. He lacks the explosiveness of a Vick or a Newton and has not reached the 5,000 yard club like some of the guys listed above. Still though, there's something to be said for knowing exactly what you're going to get and not having to worry about the position from week to week (which is why he's ranked above the two guys directly below him.)
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8. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
Vick began last season at or near the top of just about every "expert" fantasy wishlist and ended it with them cursing him and writing him off. That, however, is not his biggest problem. If he's healthy, Vick is absolutely a top 5 talent (both in fantasy as well as on the field), and all indications are that he's worked on the technical aspects of the game more than ever this off-season. Unfortunately for him, that "IF" in front of "healthy" is a HUGE concern. Vick has missed more games than all the quarterbacks ranked in the top 10 except Matt Stafford and has never played in all 16 games since returning to the league. That being said, his ability to run with the ball, combined with a new-found emphasis on protecting his body and reading defenses properly, makes his upside high. Just be careful to temper your expectations and draft a backup fairly early on (RGIII maybe?). Otherwise, you might be in for a long season.
9. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
You might be shocked to see how low I am on Cam here, but I just can't see any way that he manages to duplicate his ridiculous numbers from his rookie campaign. Newton's torrid start (averaging 346 yards passing over his first four games) was tempered severely by season's end (when he averaged 188 yards passing over his last four games). Passing yardage doesn't tell the whole story; it seems to me that Newton's hot start was at least in part due to the extended off-season. Once teams had film and time to break down Cam, they were better able to contain him and limit his effectiveness. Could I be dead wrong here? Sure, it's possible. Cam is a physical freak, unlike anything the NFL has seen at the position. Still, quarterback, more so then any other position in the NFL, requires far more than just athletic talent to succeed. And, while I'm not predicting Cam will crash and burn this season, the risk in selecting him any higher is too great for me.
10. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
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Cutler rounds out the top 10, narrowly edging several other qualified candidates, including Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub. Why? For me, it came down to... wait for it... upside. Rivers and Schaub have plateaued over the last few seasons, proving that they can be counted on for around 4,200 yards and 25-30 TDs a season when healthy, but not much more. And while Cutler's stats over this same period aren't nearly as impressive (3,500 yards and 25-28 TDs), the acquisition of Brandon Marshall in the off-season, combined with a healthy and happily signed Matt Forte, signal to me, a far greater potential for growth. Rivers and Schaub's respective supporting casts only got worse. Realistically though, you can't go wrong with any of them at this spot.