The following is my annual fictitious letter from the future. It's meant to get everyone thinking about next season since the 2011 regular season is in the history books.
It's more fun than analytical, though some things I refer to here you'll read about before you draft in the summer. Read it, enjoy it, react to it.
Greetings from the future!
Super Bowl XLVII just wrapped up in New Orleans, where for the first time ever the host city's football team played in the game. New Orleans' defense proved to be the difference in their victory over New England (its defense improved after last year, too). Both Drew Brees and league MVP Tom Brady passed for over 350 yards in the game, which wasn't surprising given that they both topped that mark seven times each during the regular season.
As expected, passing was still the vehicle of choice for NFL offenses as defenses remain crippled by the NFL's rules. Only three defenses gave up fewer than 22 passing touchdowns on the year. After 10 quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards in 2011, 15 did it in 2012 including the Bengals' Andy Dalton, the Colts' Andrew Luck and the Jets' Peyton Manning.
Speaking of those New York Mannings, it was a stunner that Eli Manning had the better season with the Giants than Peyton with the Jets (he signed with them after his falling out with the Colts during the offseason but didn't have the receiving help he's had in the past). Both played well enough, but Eli finally bested his brother statistically across the board in a year where they both played every game.
As for that Luck kid, his first year was mostly a success (five 300-yard games, 11 games with two-plus touchdowns, six with two-plus interceptions). But the Colts decision to side with him and let Manning go made the rest of their team talented as they had the cap space to add key free agents to their defense. Finishing 8-8 gives them hope for the future. Robert Griffin III didn't do quite as well with the Redskins, but Mike Shanahan is still optimistic that they can compete soon.
Cam Newton also delivered a strong stat line again, though Fantasy owners were disappointed that he scored only nine touchdowns on the ground. Hopefully the 4,300 passing yards and stunningly low 10 interceptions made up for it. It only helped that Rob Chudzinski stayed with the Panthers, though speculation is already rampant that he's in line to take over the offensively-challenged Bears.
Quarterbacks didn't have all the fun -- but they did have plenty of Fantasy points. While that didn't diminish how well some running backs did, it did make it increasingly clear that owning a stud passer was a key to making the playoffs in most leagues. But it didn't hurt if you had a stud rusher or two, either. LeSean McCoy was awesome in his contract year, finishing as the top back in Fantasy by just a handful of points over another contract-year rusher, Arian Foster. Both topped 1,500 total yards and 10 total touchdowns, the new barometer for an elite running back.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, DeMarco Murray, Chris Johnson, Jonathan Stewart and Fred Jackson got close, and Darren McFadden would have topped the mark if not for his second serious foot injury in as many seasons. And Adrian Peterson would have hit the mark with ease had he played a full season -- his 12 games still produced great stats, but he was the only rusher who had a serious injury in the 2011 regular season to come back and play well in 2012. Jamaal Charles, Rashard Mendenhall, Tim Hightower, Knowshon Moreno and Jahvid Best all struggled to get back to their previous form.
As for concerns that the running back position is getting too top-heavy, the future is indeed bright. The Saints' Mark Ingram, Detroit's Mikel Leshoure, the Patriots' Stevan Ridley, Bilal Powell of the Jets and the Bengals' Trent Richardson are all in a position to be excellent Fantasy options next season.
Calvin Johnson still led all receivers in everything, but few others have as much hype around them as he does. The Bengals' A.J. Green and Atlanta's Julio Jones realized their potential with 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown seasons in their second years, and the Bears bold move to trade up for Justin Blackmon paid off as he got close to those numbers as a rookie. But few other wideouts did enough to make Fantasy owners want to rush out and draft them next year. Darlings from 2011 such as Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson and Percy Harvin all regressed while fringe studs like Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson (all on new teams -- the Buccaneers, Jaguars and Rams, respectively) disappointed.
In fact, there were far more busts at receiver than there were in the past, and a lot of it had to do with more teams utilizing the spread offense and leaning on a slew of receivers instead of just two or three.
That, and tight ends continued to play bigger roles.
Copying the blueprints laid out in New England, New Orleans and San Diego, several tight ends posted over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012. The Titans' Jared Cook, Washington's Fred Davis, Dustin Keller of the Jets and Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez (going out with a bang!) all joined Jimmy Graham with those tallies. Rob Gronkowski had double-digit touchdowns but fell just short of 1,000 yards while Aaron Hernandez had the 1,000 yards but not the double-digit touchdowns. And Antonio Gates was set to get close to 1,000 yards but got hurt, crushing the Chargers' playoff chances and thus ousting Norv Turner out of San Diego.
Additionally, there are several young tight ends on the rise that makes the position very deep heading into 2013. Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph, the Rams' Lance Kendricks, the Browns' Orson Charles and Buffalo's Coby Fleener all made moves that will inspire Fantasy owners into the future. The retirements of Gonzalez and Dallas Clark won't hurt the Fantasy landscape at tight end a bit.
I'll leave you with these three tidbits from 2012:
• Brandon Lloyd's revival continued in a big way. He hooked up with Josh McDaniels again -- this time with the Patriots -- and did a tremendous job in single coverage while Wes Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez also drew tough coverage. Lloyd actually hurt those guys' stats.
• Peyton Hillis replaced LeGarrette Blount in Tampa Bay and formed a pretty good tandem with rookie rusher LaMichael James. Hillis was very much under the radar in drafts for fear of another poor season, but the Bucs did a good job utilizing him (they kept their West Coast offense)
• What would a letter from the future be without a Tim Tebow update? No one worked harder this offseason to improve than Tebow, who hit the practice fields with John Elway and a couple of coaches and ball boys. At first defenses had an answer for the Broncos after spending all offseason working to contain Tebow, but then he began using all sorts of screen passes to his advantage and his weapons did a great job of getting yardage after the catch, especially because defenses were focused on stopping him and not his wide-open receivers just a few yards away. Tebow's completion percentage was much improved and he finished as a Top 12 Fantasy quarterback. Not bad for a guy drafted consistently in the eighth round back in the summer.