1. Bears QB Jay Cutler; 2011: 25th among QBs (missed 6 games). Chicago has had an “all in” mentality about this season. By trading for Brandon Marshall and drafting Alshon Jeffrey, they improved their WR corps more than any team not named the 49ers. They now have the best set of receiving backs in the NFL (Matt Forte and Michael Bush). Earl Bennett and Devin Hester will be winning more match-ups and making more plays after the catch with the new 4-WR sets. Jay Cutler wanted a big “go-up-there-and-get-it” target his first three seasons with the Bears. Now, he has two. Alls you can say is “BEAR DOWN!”. 2012 projected ranking: 5th, behind Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Drew Brees.
2. Jets WR Santonio Holmes; 2011: Tied for 33rd among WRs. Santonio’s fantasy stats were worse than three rookie WRs (Smith, Green, Jones) and one guy who got cut after the season (Jabar Gaffney). New WR Stephen Hill is way faster and more explosive than Plaxico Burress was for the first 10 games of last season, which will improve match-ups for Holmes (most teams will put their biggest corner on Hill). The offense will be more diverse as well, which should clear things for some deep shots. 2012 projected ranking: 7th, behind Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Percy Harvin, Jordy Nelson, Andre Johnson and Steve Smith.
3. Buccaneers RB LeGarrette Blount; 2011: 32nd among RBs, in 14 games. LeGarrette Blount was helped by Freeman’s thumb getting better, Arrelious Benn getting another year away from his ACL surgery, and also by the fresh weapon outside (Vincent Jackson). The offense will be in the red zone more frequently, and that should be a goldmine for him. Yet, new RB Doug Martin should knock Blount’s carries, in some game plans by 15%-20%. 2012 projected ranking: 16th.
4. Cowboys D/ST; 2011: 17th among D/STs. In nickel coverage, they could honestly have three new defensive backs on the field: CBs Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, and FS Brodney Pool. They also added LB Dan Connor and DE Tyrone Crawford. This defense already had playmakers in Sean Lee and DeMarcus Ware. 2012 projected ranking: 3rd, behind Texans and Ravens.
5. Panthers QB Cam Newton; 2011: Tied for 3rd among QBs. WR David Gettis will be healthy and advanced in this offense, and Cam Newton will have a full off-season. The only WR’s added in the off-season to replace Legedu Naanee were Wes Kemp and Joe Adams. 2012 projected ranking: 4th.
6. Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald; 2011: 5th among WR’s. Many will take Calvin Johnson first overall, and that’s too bad. The benefit is that Calvin plays a lot of games indoors with a near-elite quarterback. Yet, what I like about Fitzgerald’s situation is that there is only one viable alternative option in Michael Floyd (Detroit has Young, Broyles, Pettigrew, and Scheffler) along with one slot guy in Early Doucet (Detroit has Nate Burleson). So, his targets should be more consistent than Calvin (except in the red zone, where double coverage never scares Stafford). Floyd is also a bit of a burner, and if the offense full of complimentary pieces (RB Ryan Williams and TEs Rob Housler and Todd Heap who were hurt last season) gets them in the red zone more often, Fitzgerald will have the best numbers this season. 2012 projected ranking: 1st.
7. Broncos QB Peyton Manning; 2011: Injured. You could argue that Peyton himself wasn’t all that effected by this off-season, as he turned down the chance to play in a dynamic 49ers offense and chose to play with some intriguing younger, bigger targets with the Broncos. Yet, I am guessing in some fantasy leagues that the year off and the injury will make more than a few fantasy owners overlook Manning. With his injury, I would try to additionally grab a good back-up, but a motivated Manning makes this list partly because so many other QB’s are drawing a lot of attention, so I expect him to be excellent value in the 4th round in many leagues. 2012 projected ranking: 7th.
8. Rams D/ST; 2011: 27th among D/STs. The Rams defense should be a great sleeper and back-up if you have deep benches. Early in the year, there’s games against the still raw offenses of the Seahawks and Cardinals. Look who’s coming back from injury, look who they added (DT Michael Brockers, CB Cortland Finnegan, CB Janoris Jenkins whose special teams TDs you will get points for). This fast defense has 10 games indoors. If the Saints are the defense that took the biggest hit (their continuity could be off, they were trending downward last year, and their NFC South opposing offenses are on the rise) this off-season, Spagnuolo’s old team is the one that leaped the most other than the Cowboys. 2012 projected ranking: 7th.
9. Dolphins RB Reggie Bush; 2011: 12th among RB’s. Headed into the 4th round of the draft, Bush looked to be free from any strong contention for carries (with probably 5-7 per game being gobbled by Daniel Thomas), until the Dolphins selected Lamar Miller. 2012 projected ranking: 12th, since he should get a lot of receiving yardage.
10. Vikings QB Christian Ponder; 2011: 27th among QB’s, but only had 7 complete games (by ESPN scoring, he had 13+ points in 5 of those games). Ponder now has a complete off-season and a full compliment of weapons. Ponder’s a smart enough quarterback that the newly-protected (Matt Kalil was drafted) QB with the new weapons (Greg Childs, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, John Carlson) will give you 250 passing yards, 60+ rushing yards (7.82 ypc last season) and 2 total TDs consistently. I think he’s a solid fantasy back-up, and playing indoors will help with the numbers. 2012 projected ranking: 12th.
I also believe Justin Blackmon and Carson Palmer will be late-round steals, based on surrounding personnel getting added and getting healthier (Rashad Jennings, Laurent Robinson for Jacksonville, Darren McFadden and the WR’s for the Raiders). It’s also worth noting that Blackmon’s quarterback and Carson Palmer will have their first complete off-season workouts with their respective squads.
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