2013 Outlook: You'll rarely get such verifiable truth out of an NFL player. After Week 10 last season, Tony Romo told reporters that Dez Bryant had "come 180 degrees, almost full circle." In other words, Dez's long-dormant light switch had gone on. And in the seven games that followed, Bryant caught 47 passes for 792 yards and nine TDs. He ran exactly where he was supposed to run. He caught the ball. He streaked past defenders. In short, he was unstoppable. We understand if you have anxiety about making Bryant a top-five wideout, because he spent his first two-plus NFL seasons teasing fantasy owners. But the tape doesn't lie. Bryant was so good in the second half last year, we believe he's here to stay.
2013 Outlook: There's no other way to say it: Durability is becoming an issue for Forte. He's missed six games over the past two seasons, and has been questionable for many more, leaving his fantasy owners scrambling to make lineup changes. When he's in there, Forte is a fantastic combination of size and shiftiness; for a 6-foot-2, 218-pound human, he sure can dance and leave lingerie on the deck. He's also an elite pass receiver. Unfortunately, his ankles and knees always seem like they're hurt, and five seasons in Chicago have proven that Forte doesn't have good instincts when it comes to goal-line rushing, which is why Michael Bush is in town. Forte's raw ability should probably see him ranked higher than this, but we're wary.
2013 Outlook: What's the world coming to, when Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan both stick to their lead rushers and make fantasy stars of them? While Alfred Morris was tearing it up in D.C., Ridley became the latest goal-line monster in New England, except unlike his predecessor BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Ridley has legitimate between-the-tackles explosiveness. We hesitate to call Ridley a fantasy first-rounder because he doesn't play on third downs. But New England has 14 more rushing attempts from inside an opponent's 10 than any other NFL franchise over the past three seasons combined. Provided LeGarrette Blount doesn't get involved on the goal line (and we don't think he will), Ridley will post 10-plus TDs again this season, many of the short variety.
2013 Outlook: Peyton's return saw him rack up 4,659 passing yards and 37 TDs, the second-best totals of his career, as Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker became stars. Now the concern: Manning's arm strength diminished late in the year. In his final four games including the playoffs, his completion rate on attempts longer than 20 yards was 27 percent. Before that, it had been 45 percent. The overtime interception that ruined Denver's playoff run wasn't just a bad decision, it was also a quail. We'd still draft Peyton because he carves up defenses, and because the addition of Wes Welker gives him a great triumvirate of wideouts. But at age 37 with all those neck surgeries, Manning is also far from risk-free.
2013 Outlook: A year in the Windy City was very good to Marshall. Reunited with Jay Cutler, he saw a whopping 188 targets, second-most in the NFL. Frankly, Marshall defied standard fantasy logic; on a team without a viable aerial alternative and seeing a ton of double-teams, he just kept producing. He caught at least eight passes eight separate times in 2012, and set career highs in catches, yards and TDs. The only thing that should make you jittery about Marshall is the Bears' offensive line. New coach Marc Trestman will get Cutler in space and emphasize shorter passes, which could cap Marshall's upside a bit. Still, even in '12, when Cutler was sacked 38 times, Marshall dominated. We don't see that changing in '13.
2013 Outlook: In '12, Gore played 16 games for the second straight year, easing concerns that he'll inevitably get hurt. How have the 49ers kept him healthy? It's tempting to say a diminished workload, but Big Frank was still 12th in the NFL in rush attempts last year. More than anything, we think it's the quality of his offensive line. As a road-grading group, this 49ers offensive line is unmatched. Gore averaged more than three yards before contact per carry, a number that put him among the NFL's elite speed RBs last year, and he's no speed merchant. He's just got room to run. Gore won't get near 300 touches in '13, but he doesn't need to. If he stays healthy, even at age 30 another solid season awaits.
2013 Outlook: When he's healthy, Jones is maybe the league's premier deep threat, but he's also lethal in the screen game; in 2012, he ranked seventh among NFL WRs in receptions caught behind the line of scrimmage, and gained 9.3 yards per catch on those throws. His only flaws as a fantasy asset are his fellow offensive weapons in Atlanta, including Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and new acquisition Steven Jackson. Jones played 16 games last year but finished just 19th in WR targets. Plus, he had only four 100-yard games and two games with more than six catches. He's as talented as they come and is a surefire No. 1 fantasy wideout. But his usage probably keeps him out of the top WR spot
2013 Outlook: Three games into the '12 season, CJ1K had produced 108 yards from scrimmage on 42 touches and sent his fantasy owners into anaphylactic shock. Things got better after that, but not good enough to save Johnson from a winter filled with questions about his desire. What's so maddening is that his speed and quickness are obviously still there, as evidenced by TD runs of 80, 83 and 94 yards last season. But too often he's willing to bounce runs outside, looking to crack a big one but failing to move the sticks. Now Shonn Greene is in Nashville to steal short-yardage totes, meaning you can forget an elite TD number from Johnson. He'll have to make his '13 bones with yards from big plays.
2013 Outlook: The man they call "Bebe" makes defensive backs cry. He's 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, runs a 4.38 40-yard dash and outmuscles cornerbacks in the end zone. Combining him with Peyton Manning last year just wasn't fair. Thomas finished as the No. 5 fantasy WR even as teammate Eric Decker finished No. 8, illustrating just what an efficient year the Broncos' passing offense had. But now there's yet another mouth to feed in Denver: Wes Welker. Thomas had 140 targets in 2012, Decker had 120 and slot man Brandon Stokley had 57. There's no way in the world Welker gets only 57 targets this season, which means the other guys will see a drop-off. We still love Bebe. But some of his ultra-high potential is curbed.
2013 Outlook: Brady just keeps breaking the rules. Top fantasy QBs aren't supposed to rank 19th among NFL signal callers in average yards at the catch. They aren't supposed to rank 23rd in completion percentage on throws of more than 20 yards. And they aren't supposed to achieve excellence without an above-average outside receiver. But in '12, Brady kept doing all those things. He might have the fastest release in the NFL, and his production inside the numbers (17 TDs, 5 INTs and 3,017 yards in '12) is almost unmatched. Sure, he'll be 36 in August. But this rule-breaker shows no signs of slowing down; if anyone can overcome the loss of as many offensive weapons as the Patriots could be missing in Week 1, it's him.
2013 Outlook: White isn't slowing down. In 2012, he had more targets, catches and receiving yards than Julio Jones. Plus, he had 19 targets that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, compared with 22 for Jones. But on game film you see what defenses fear most, and the truth is that defenses fear Jones more than White. That's why despite Roddy's incredible five-year run as a top-10 fantasy WR, we ranked Jones higher for '13. As scary as White is in the open field, Jones is scarier. As deadly as White is in the red zone, Jones is deadlier. There's enough aerial work in Atlanta for each of these guys to have great seasons. We just like Jones a little better.
2013 Outlook: It was all going so smoothly for the folks who risked drafting MJD during his contract holdout last summer. Sure enough, there he was: Carrying a full workload for the Jags in Week 1. Alas, by Week 7 he was done for the year with a mid-foot fracture. He should be ready to go for the '13 regular season, entering a contract year at age 27. But Jacksonville is switching to a zone-blocking scheme and signed Justin Forsett this winter; theoretically Forsett is no threat to MJD's job, but he did just spend a year in a zone offense in Houston. All this is to say: While Jones-Drew's upside is unquestioned, his risk factors are high. You could get a steal, or you could get a headache.
2013 Outlook: Wilson fits the breakout mold. Ahmad Bradshaw is gone from Gotham, leaving a void in the Giants' backfield. Andre Brown was impressive last year scoring eight TDs in a short-yardage role, but he fractured a leg in the final preseason game. A ringside seat in a potentially high-powered offense is available, and Wilson has the speed and toughness to take advantage. Poor ball security earned him Tom Coughlin's ire early in his rookie year, but explosive plays on the ground and on special teams whetted New York's appetite. Squint when you're looking at Wilson and you see C.J. Spiller, and a Spiller-esque leap is a real possibility in '13. The Giants don't trust Wilson implicitly in pass protection yet, so they'll likely seek a veteran backup. But Wilson is a fantasy starter in all leagues.
2013 Outlook: Jackson is that rare case of a big-money, unrestricted free-agent signing who works out. The Bucs gave him $26 million guaranteed and he caught a career-high 69 passes for a career-best 1,334 yards. Thanks to Josh Freeman's big (if scattershot) right arm and coordinator Mike Sullivan's penchant for deep shots, Jackson led the NFL in average yards at the catch, a stat he routinely dominated in his best years with the Chargers. And despite the long routes he runs, Jackson had only three drops on 141 targets. Freeman enters a make-or-break year in 2013, where he must clean up his throwing mechanics and decision-making. Jackson will continue to be the key deep threat in Freeman's development project.
2013 Outlook: Graham dropped an NFL-worst 14 passes last year, and dropped 228 yards off his season total from 2011. Both of these issues were related to a wrist injury, and Graham had offseason surgery to correct the problem. However, he also missed a game due to an ankle sprain and was limited in other contests, so it's fair to consider Graham a bit of an injury risk for '13. Nevertheless, he was fantasy's top point-earning TE last season, and with Sean Payton calling plays again for the Saints and Graham entering a contract year, a bounce-back season is ahead. With Rob Gronkowski looking risky because of his broken arm, we see Graham as the top TE to draft in '13.