Mission Impossible!
By Anthony Borbely
August 31st, 2011

Well, maybe it is not impossible, but you get the point. Every season there are players who are very tough to rank for a multitude of reasons, such as durability, questionable past performance, injured teammates, or having a hot-shot young player behind them. Sometimes I wish I could just rank the players that fit nicely into a slot and skip the rest, but it just doesn't work that way. I am going to list some of the players who were toughest for me to rank, along with the reasons.

Quarterbacks

  • Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles: When I started writing this article, Vick was the first player I thought of and it's not hard to understand why. Vick is arguably the most unique player in fantasy football. His rushing ability sets him apart from all other QBs. However, with that comes an increased chance of injury. Normally, I do not like to predict injury, but I don't think it is unreasonable to expect Vick to miss 2-3 games in any given year. Vick was the fourth highest scoring fantasy quarterback and was only ten points from being the top scorer. That is amazing since he only played in 12 games. Vick played at a much higher level than he ever did in the past. Although he may not post the ridiculous numbers from last year, I see no reason why Vick cannot continue to be an elite fantasy quarterback. If I knew Vick would play in all 16 games, he would easily be the top-ranked quarterback on my board. I have strongly considered ranking him first anyway and in fact I had him at the top for a couple of weeks. But his style of play leaves him much more susceptible to injuries than any other player and that cannot be ignored. Even if he misses a couple of games, Vick's rushing ability should still leave him near the top of the QB scoring list. In the end, Aaron Rodgers is the correct choice to be the first QB off the board. I think Vick is in the group immediately behind Rodgers. There is obviously a lot of risk associated with drafting Vick high, but he has such a high ceiling that it very could be a risk worth taking. Any owner who drafts Vick should secure a solid backup and/or draft Vince Young late in the draft.

  • Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears: Cutler threw for over 4500 yards in his last year with the Broncos and finished fifth in QB scoring. Cutler then went to the Bears and fell back to the upper-QB2 tier. Then came news that had his owners drooling...the Bears added offensive coordinator Mike Martz to their staff and many thought Cutler would move back into the mid-QB1 range, myself included. Not only did that not happen, Cutler actually dropped a couple more spots in the scoring list. The Martz offense is extremely fantasy friendly, but he began to run the ball much more towards the end of last year, partly because the offensive line was terrible in pass protection and partly because head coach Lovie Smith wanted to run more.. Although that is not what Martz likes to do, the Bears were winning so he went along with it. The Bears may not be as good this year and I have to wonder what Martz will do if the Bears lose more. Cutler was very inconsistent last year and being battered by pass rushers certainly did not help. Cutler is the biggest wild care in the mid-to-upper QB tier. He has a very high ceiling and a low floor and is prone to weekly ups and downs. Because of his inconsistencies and high interception numbers, Cutler is probably best served being a high-level backup.

  • David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars: Over the last four seasons, Garrard has finished 16th, 11th, 14th, and 14th in fantasy scoring. Normally, a QB that posts numbers like that would not be in an article like this. It should be as simple as ranking Garrard in the upper-QB2 tier and be done with it. But the Jaguars traded up in the first round to draft QB Blaine Gabbert and they obviously expect Gabbert to lead the Jaguars into the future. The difficult part is to determine when the future will begin. Garrard has not played well in preseason and Gabbert had every chance to win the job, but Gabbert is clearly not ready to be a starter. The Jaguars are not a good team and I have to believe Gabbert will start at some point this year. Trying to guess when is the tough part. Like I said, if I thought Garrard would start all year, he would be an upper-QB2. But I would be shocked if that happened and because of that, I think Garrard is pretty much limited to a low QB2 at best.
  • Running Backs

  • Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars: Jones-Drew is coming off of a serious knee injury and had microfracture surgery in the offseason. That is a huge red flag to me and it creates a dilemma for fantasy owners. When healthy, Jones-Drew is a top-five fantasy RB. He has yet to play in preseason so right now it is impossible to know how healthy he is. There are very few situations more difficult than having an elite player with such a huge unknown. If you look at the RB rankings, you will see a wide range of opinions on Jones-Drew. I am in the camp that is very concerned about his knee. I currently have him ranked 13th and should he be healthy, that would be a very low ranking. I just can't justify a higher ranking because of the seriousness of his injury.

  • Shonn Greene, New York Jets: The Jets claim they are going to give Greene more touches, basically making him the bellcow. Should he perform at a respectable level or higher, he could make his way towards the end of the RB1 tier. However, there are reasons to be skeptical. first, Greene always seems to be banged up and I have to wonder how he will handle the increased workload. Second, can he perform at a high level with the added touches? In his first year, he averaged 5.0 yards per carry, but that was only with 109 carries. Last year, Greene carried the ball 185 times and saw his yards per carry tumble to 4.1. It remains to be seen how Greene does with another 100 or so carries. Should he at least maintain a 4.0 yards per carry average, Greene could easily move into the top 15 RBs. The answer to that question will determine where he gets drafted. I am just too skeptical to rank him as anything higher than a low RB2 right now. Based on the wide variety of opinions, I know this situation is among the most difficult to forecast this year.

  • Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys: There is no question that Jones possesses a lot of natural talent and he is the clear number one RB for the Cowboys. But Jones is another player that always seems to be nicked up and that makes him extremely difficult to rank. He is not the biggest back around and it is questionable if he can handle a high number of touches. Last year, Jones bulked up in preparation for an increased workload and he was clearly not as explosive as he was in past years. This year, Jones is back to his old playing weight and thus far he has looked sensational in preseason. Based simply on performance, Jones is playing like a RB1. But I am not sure he can handle the increased workload and remain effective and/or remain healthy and for that reason, I am conservatively ranking him as a low RB2. I am admittedly nervous about ranking him this low, but the concerns about his workload is something I can't overcome.

  • Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers: When it comes to talent, Ryan Mathews is in the discussion when it comes to top-ten RBs. But when it comes to ranking fantasy RBs, Mathews has a host of issues that makes him tough to rank. First, Mathews has seemingly been injured since joining the league and it is hard for a coach to count on a player like that, especially if they were to be given a heavy workload. Second, Norv Turner likes the versatility that Mike Tolbert brings to the Chargers' offense. Tolbert is a good receiver, solid in pass protection, and is very good in short yardage situations. The tough thing for me is that I almost always give an edge to the talented player and usually believe that the more talented player will eventually force the coach to give him the ball more. I think Mathews is far more talented than Tolbert and that is why this ranking is so difficult. I will not be surprised to see Mathews get more touches as the season goes on and having that opinion about a player that is in a full-blown RBBC makes ranking him very challenging. For now, I am ranking Mathews as a low RB2 with plenty of upside.
  • Wide Receivers

  • Austin Collie, Indianapolis Colts: Collie is a player that can make or break a fantasy team and that makes him difficult to rank. Everyone knows about the three concussions Collie suffered last year. Everyone also knows that Collie was putting up huge numbers prior to getting hurt. Therein lies the problem. Ranking Collie is a tough proposition because of the serious nature of the concussions he suffered. Normally, I am not one that is overly concerned with injuries, but Collie's concussions were pretty bad and I think it is extremely risky to draft him early. Like I said, this is a situation where the right or wrong choice can make or break your season. Collie's ADP is much lower than his production justifies and higher than it should be based on the concussion issue. I have Collie ranked as a mid-to low-WR3, which means I probably will not be drafting him. You could literally ranked Collie anywhere from WR10 to WR40 and not be wrong. It just depends on how you feel about the risk of injury.

  • Kenny Britt, Tennessee Titans: There is no question that Kenny Britt has elite talent. But talent alone does not make a WR great. To properly utilize that talent, you have to be in good enough condition to play and you have to be focused on being the best player you can be. Britt has struggled in both of those areas. He always seems to be battling muscle injuries and those are largely caused by being in poor condition. That is a minor problem compared to Britt's constant trouble with the law. He is extremely lucky there was a lockout because he certainly would have faced a suspension otherwise. Britt was arrested three times in the offseason. When ranking Britt, you have to keep in mind that he would likely face a rather lengthy suspension should he get in any more trouble. The difficulty is wondering if Britt can get in shape and stay out of trouble. His talent is so immense that I am pretty much ignoring the risk and ranking him as a low WR2. That is very risky because he always seems to find trouble. But he could easily be a top 15 receiver based on his talent and I think it is a risk worth taking.

  • Chad Ochocinco, New England Patriots: Ochocinco joins the Patriots after several stellar seasons with the Bengals. Although his skills are declining, the Patriots obviously believe he can still play. Ochocinco has struggled in preseason and a big reason is that the Patriot's offense is much different than any offense he played in in Cincinnati. Aside from those issues is the fact that Tom Brady spreads the ball around and that alone makes Ochocinco difficult to project. I was hoping to see more out of Ochocinco in the preseason. His lack of production only leaves more questions unanswered, such as how much his skills have declined. I have Ochocinco ranked as a low WR3 because of the uncertainty.

  • Johnny Knox, Chicago Bears: Knox was very productive in his first full year as a starter in 2010, hauling in 51 catches for 960 yards and 5 TDs. Knox is really the only game-breaking receiver on the Bears' roster, as evidenced by his 18.8 yards per catch average. So what did the Bears decide to do? They not only signed the underachieving and out of shape Roy Williams, they also inserted him into the starting lineup ahead of Knox. It is pretty clear that Knox is the better receiver at this point in their careers, but we have to remember that Mike Martz is perhaps the most stubborn coach in the league and he has always been a fan of Williams dating back to their days in Detroit. The stubbornness of Martz is the major reason that Knox (and the other Bears' receivers) are so difficult to rank. For now, I have Knox as a low WR3, because I expect him to eventually find his way back into the starting lineup. Should that happen early in the year, Knox could wind up being a low-end WR2, but if Williams manages to keep the job, Knox will be no more than a WR4/5 type.
  • Tight Ends

  • Dustin Keller, New York Jets: When Keller first came into the league, I was one who believed his talent would eventually translate to top-five numbers year-after-year. That has not been the case and it's really no fault of his own. Keller plays in a very conservative, run-first offense and Mark Sanchez has been very inconsistent. Last season, Keller played his best football early in the year when Santonio Holmes was suspended. During those four games, Keller had 19 receptions for 254 yards and 5 TDs. Over the last 12 games, Keller caught 36 passes for 433 yards. He did not have a touchdown after week four. Since Holmes will be available all year and with the addition of red zone threat Plaxico Burress, Keller's role in the offense is unclear. I currently have Keller ranked 15th, but he could easily wind up being the second option in the passing game if Burress doesn't pan out. However, I can't see ranking Keller that high based on a maybe, especially with the tight end position being very deep this year.

  • Chris Cooley, Washington Redskins: Cooley has been a top-ten caliber tight end for several years, but he is battling a knee injury and it is very questionable how effective he can be. There are also concerns that Cooley may not make it through the whole season. When healthy, Cooley is an elite fantasy tight end, but his injury and the emergence of Fred Davis makes it tough to rank Cooley. If the Redskins had a worse backup, I would probably rank Cooley as a mid TE2 even with the injury. But Davis is a real threat to Cooley and that complicates the matter. I am much lower on Cooley than the consensus and probably will not be drafting him. For those who don't mind taking some chances, Cooley makes an interesting high risk/high reward TE2.
  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to borbely@footballguys.com.

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