This weekend brings Labor Day, and the final week of the NFL preseason. Which means, for many people, it also brings fantasy football drafts.
In an effort to help those drafting this weekend, for the rest of this week I'll present my rankings for the coming fantasy football season.
First, we'll look at the quarterbacks.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
Last year, Rodgers threw for over 4,600 yards and 45 touchdowns without much of a running game. He'll have a healthy Jermichael Finley at tight end and, in spite of most of Chicago's feelings about him, Cedric Benson is an upgrade from what the Packers had last year. It's reasonable to think Rodgers will match or improve upon his performance from last year.
2. Tom Brady, New England
Both of his money tight ends got paid, Wes Welker signed his franchise tender, and Brandon Lloyd brings another quality option to the Patriots' passing attack. There are some major concerns with their line and running game, so Brady happy-chucking his way to around 5,000 yards again is a solid bet.
3. Matthew Stafford, Detroit
Am I crazy for putting Stafford this high? Perhaps. But Detroit has three good receivers, a legit tight end, and no running game to speak of in a division that will likely force them to throw a lot. As long as Calvin Johnson is healthy, Stafford's a threat to put up 300 yards and 2-3 touchdowns on a weekly basis.
4. Drew Brees, New Orleans
Yes, Brees broke the record for single season passing yards last year. And yes, he has most of his weapons back from that historic campaign. But there are two variables that I don't like for the Saints this year: Sean Payton's gone all year, and everyone knows who Jimmy Graham is already. There might not be a better player in the league to handle the amount of pressure being put on Brees this year, but expecting another season of 5,000 yards might be too much.
5. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
This is my guy for the 2012 season. He threw for almost 4,200 yards last year, but the Falcons were just starting to figure out how good Julio Jones can really be. Roddy White, Jones and Tony Gonzalez could all have big seasons as the end draws near for Michael Turner, and the prospect of Jacquizz Rodgers being used in a Darren Sproles-like role could open up the game in Atlanta. Expect a big-time season from Ryan this year.
6. Eli Manning, NY Giants
He came up just short of 5,000 yards last year, and the potential for rookie David Wilson to be an impact on the passing game as a third-down back could push Eli back into the same territory he finished last season. The Giants will need rookie Rueben Randle to replace Mario Manningham, but they expect big things from tight end Martellus Bennett (a former Cowboy).
7. Cam Newton, Carolina
It's amazing to me how easy the game looks for him after only one season. For everyone that's ever asked "What if Randall Cunningham stayed healthy?" or "What if Michael Vick was 6-4 and 220 pounds?" the potential for Newton is a dream. Could he throw for 3,500 yards and run for another 7-800? And how many total touchdowns can he produce this year? The sky's the limit for Newton, but the injury risk is real for any quarterback that uses his legs.
8. Jay Cutler, BEARS
On paper, the 2012 Chicago Bears have the best group of receivers in the team's history. While that might not be saying much, it's impossible to deny the chemistry we've already seen between Cutler and Brandon Marshall. Add rookie Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett, and the potential for a less-used Devin Hester to be an impact player all over the field, and Cutler could be ready for a huge season. That is, of course, if someone blocks for him...
9. Michael Vick, Philadelphia
In some of the league's I've already draft in, Vick is being viewed as by some as a back-up this year. Really? Well, when you consider his injury history, the risk-reward potential from Vick has burned so many fantasy football owners in the last two years that it's hard to buy-in any more. But all it takes is a 90-yard rushing game with 250 passing yards for the entire world to jump back on the bandwagon.
10. Peyton Manning, Denver
We'll talk about this more when we get to ranking receivers, but write down the name Eric Decker. He was starting to look like an elite receiver last year before Tim Tebow took over in Denver, and will get a chance to put up huge numbers with Peyton this year. I wouldn't expect the 4,500-yard Peyton to show up again this year, but he's still a good mid-round value and potential starter.
11. Tony Romo, Dallas
12. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
13. Philip Rivers, San Diego
14. Joe Flacco, Baltimore
15. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
16. Alex Smith, San Francisco
17. Matt Schaub, Houston
18. Robert Griffin III, Washington
19. Matt Cassell, Kansas City
20. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo
From the 2nd 10, the guy to watch is: Alex Smith.
After taking the Niners to the brink of the Super Bowl, San Francisco added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to a group of receivers that... didn't exist last year. Jim Harbaugh committed to Smith last year and was rewarded. Now the front office committed to him with a legit group of receivers. Smith will need to put up or shut up.
From the 2nd 10, the guy to avoid is: Philip Rivers.
Antonio Gates isn't getting younger, and Vincent Jackson isn't going to magically appear from his hold-out in the middle of the 2012 season. His receivers have question marks and his running backs are banged up. I wouldn't view Rivers as more than a good back-up this year.