VERY Early 2012 Fantasy Football Rankings

Many 2012 draft debates will center around where to draft Cam Newton. Seventh round, right?

Fantasy football just ended yesterday, and it took part of my soul with it. Since fantasy hoops just can’t fill the void of its gridiron counterpart, no matter how valiantly it tries, I am immediately looking towards next year.

I was also inspired thinking about the misfortune of Adrian Peterson (the guy with the destroyed ACL) and the brilliance of Cam Newton (the guy with the 14… that’s right, 14!!!… rushing touchdowns as a rookie quarterback) and ultimately where I would draft them. Naturally, I had to answer my own question. Below are my thoughts on the Top 25 for next year:

1. Arian Foster, HOU RB – The best running back in the league could have finished No. 1 this year if he had not missed two games and been hampered by injuries to Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. He’s still the best combo of speed, power, pass-catching ability you’ll find along with an offense tailor-made to his skills and an elite line.

2. LeSean McCoy, PHI RB – Most of us came into this year assuming Michael Vick was the most valuable piece of the Eagle offense. Turns out it is McCoy, who finished with more than 1,300 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns. Always will be an injury risk, but his talent makes him hard to ignore.

3. Ray Rice, BAL RB – I don’t know if I can name another RB that is more under-the-radar than Rice, yet he is one of the safest picks around – he gets a ton of carries, there is no goal line vulture, he puts up huge PPR numbers and is durable. His only blemish is that his division is filled with top-tier defenses. Draft with confidence.

4. Matt Forte, CHI RB – His health and contract situations in Chicago bear (get it?) watching, as Kahlil Bell might be playing him out of a job. But he was a one-man wrecking crew to start the season, and Chicago’s offense desperately needs his explosiveness back.

5. Maurice Jones-Drew, JAX RB – In one of the great feats of the NFL season, MJD is going to lead the league in rushing despite playing in a truly craptastic offense. Seriously, can you name a wide receiver that plays for the Jags? No, Jimmy Smith doesn’t count. There are a lot of variables with MJD, including the new coach’s offense and the development of Blaine Gabbert, but he is a top-notch talent worth hitching your wagon to.

6. Calvin Johnson, DET WR -This season we saw what Johnson can do when Matt Stafford is healthy. It was nothing short of incredible.

7. Aaron Rodgers, GB QB – Rodgers is too boring to write about. 350 yards, 4 TDs every week, ho hum.

8. Ryan Mathews, SD RB – Too high? I don’t think so. This guy has a chance to be a fantasy god next year with Norv Turner out of the picture, the possibility of a run-oriented coach like Bill Cowher running the show and a healthy Charger offensive line. His 1,000 yards rushing, 500 receiving and a half-dozen touchdowns this year are only scratching the surface.

9. Chris Johnson, TEN RB – Who is he exactly? He’s still the guy that rushed for more than 2,000 yards just a few years ago, so he’s worthy of a Top-10 selection again. A full training camp and an improving Jake Locker will help.

10. Larry Fitzgerald, ARI WR – Kurt Warner, where art thou?

11. Drew Brees, NO QB – See Rodgers, Aaron.

12. Jamaal Charles, KC RB – If anything, Charles solidified his value by getting hurt as backfield mates Jackie Battle, Dexter McCluster and the corpse of Thomas Jones have had depressing seasons. Add Charles to the mix of Matt Cassel, Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin next year and you’ve got yourself a decent offense.

13. Darren McFadden, OAK RB – It’s hard to trust McFadden to stay healthy, but when he is, he competes with Foster and Adrian Peterson for the title of the NFL’s best running back. My bet is that he returns to health and posts a season a la 2010, reaping major bounty upon owners with the cajones to draft him at the end of the first round. He won’t have to compete with Michael Bush, either, who is likely gone as a free agent in search of a big paycheck.

Lost in all the hooplah of that epic run was the nut grab.

14. Marshawn Lynch, SEA RB – BEAST MODE LIVES. I was seriously concerned that Lynch was all but done for after those abysmal first few weeks of this season. It turned out that it was just a matter of the schedule lightening up a bit and the Seattle offense working out a few kinks. He will continue to be the workhouse back fantasy owners crave next year.

15. Tom Brady, NE QB – See Rodgers, Aaron and Brees, Drew.

16. Michael Turner, ATL RB – Turner will dip in value a bit next year because the Falcons are now clearly Matt Ryan’s team. The Atlanta bruiser will still post more than 1,000 yards and close to 10 touchdowns, but he’s no longer the dominant force he was a few years ago. Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones have to let it fly to keep pace with Drew Brees and his fleet of consistently open receivers, and Turner offers little assistance in the passing game.

17. Cam Newton, CAR QB – The season that Newton had was insane. I want to see him do it again before I draft him any higher. If he continues to develop as a passer and shakes the second half meltdowns, he could be an undisputed first rounder as soon as 2013.

18. Frank Gore, SF RB -Still a rock even at his age. The fact that he plays the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams a combined six times a year always helps.

19. Matthew Stafford, DET QB -Stafford is getting to the point where watching him is similar to watching a video game, just as it is with Rodgers, Brees and Brady. Now he just needs a cool nickname like Megatron.

20. Jimmy Graham, NO TE – A true difference maker. When was the last time you could expect 20 points a game from a tight end? The answer is never. He’ll only get better as Brees’ go-to target.

21. Andre Johnson, HOU WR -In the same ballpark as Calvin Johnson in terms of talent, but will the injuries continue to linger?

22. Rob Gronkowski, NE TE -The crazy part of the tight end revolution is that Graham isn’t the only one you count on to get you 20 points each week. Gronk is a threat in the red zone with his awesome size, brutish strength and excellent hands, but he’s also a force in the open field with his deceptive wheels.

23. DeMarco Murray, DAL RB -This is based on the assumption that the Cowboys do the smart thing and pass the torch from Felix Jones to their talented young superstar in the making. Murray was a breath of fresh air for the Dallas offense when he stepped in for Jones, and my hope is he gets another chance to carry the load when he returns. It’s eerie how much he looks like Adrian Peterson.

Victor, please salsa us to a 2012 title.

24. Victor Cruz, NYG WR -Eli’s top target is not Hakeem Nicks anymore. It’s Cruz, not only because he has better touchdowns dances, but because he has mind-blowing speed and surer hands. His ascent up the Giants depth chart won’t be limited to this season only.

25. Adrian Peterson, MIN RB – We all know he is an uber-talent, but his injury is kind of scary. Will he be back in time? Back at all? Depending on the answer, a savvy owner might get great value drafting him a few rounds in and stashing him for a late season playoff push.

Missed the cut: Mike Wallace, PIT WR; Michael Vick, PHI QB; Roddy White, ATL WR; Wes Welker, NE WR; Matt Ryan, ATL QB; Eli Manning, NYG QB; Jordy Nelson, GB WR; Greg Jennings, GB WR; Steve Smith, CAR WR.