With the NFL lockout finally behind us, football fans can finally turn our attention from the courtrooms and onto the field, where it belongs. In the coming weeks, I will rank the fantasy studs, duds and sleepers for each division. Today, the spotlight is shining on the AFC East.
Quarterback: Tom Brady, NE (2010: 3900 yards, 36 TD, 4 INT)
What can you say about TB12? Brady has been a top-flight fantasy quarterback (when healthy). The receivers keep changing, but Brady’s numbers continue to be impressive. He has an innate gift at making the most of any situation. Last season, Brady was the third-best fantasy quarterback, and made guys like Rob Gronkowski, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez household names. There’s no reason to think he’ll be lower than a top-5 fantasy QB this year, and should be drafted as such.
Running Back: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, NE (2010: 1008 yards, 13 TD, 12 receptions, 85 yards)
Despite an immense amount of talent in the division, the AFC East is lacking in top end fantasy running back talent. The “Walking Law Firm” is the closest the East has to offer. BJGE will be the starter in an explosive offense. He’ll have to split carries and might not put up a ton of yards, but that won’t likely affect his TD total. Shonn Greene might be in this spot next year, but for now it belongs to Green-Ellis.
Wide Receiver: Santonio Holmes, NYJ (2010: 52 receptions, 746 yards, 6 TD)
Despite joining a new team and sitting out the first four games with a drug suspension, Holmes put together a very solid fantasy season. It didn’t take him long to establish a connection with Mark Sanchez and become the team’s top receiving threat. Despite the additions of Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress, Holmes is the guy in NYC. Expect him to be a top-20 fantasy wide receiver at the end of the season.
Wide Receiver: Stevie Johnson, BUF (2010: 82 receptions, 1073 yards, 10 TD)
Easily the biggest surprise on the list of last year’s top-10 fantasy receivers. Johnson was a sleeper pick who clearly woke up last year. Johnson has some huge yardage games (158 against Baltimore, 145 against Chicago, 137 against Cincy), and established himself as a big play threat. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to being the top guy following the departure of Lee Evans. But with only six players seeing more targets in 2010, the Bills will give him every opportunity to succeed.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, NE (2010: 42 receptions, 546 yards, 10 TD)
Name the top-5 fantasy TE’s from last year. Yeah, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis are givens. But that name that really sticks out: Rob Gronkowski. The Gronk will split time with Aaron Hernandez again this year, but given his exceptional blocking, Gronkowski will likely get plenty of time on the field. He put up some huge numbers during the final seven weeks of the season, scoring seven touchdowns and becoming one of Brady’s favorite weapons near the end zone. The split with Hernandez hurts his value, but he has a good chance to finish around the top-10 again this year.
Defense/ST: New York (2010: 158)
The Patriots actually tied New York with 158 points last year, but the Jets have a higher upside in 2011. The return of Jim Leonhard gives New York a big boost in the secondary, and the team does a great job of creating turnovers. Expect the Jets to once again be a top fantasy defense.
Quarterback: Mark Sanchez, NYJ (2010: 3291 yards, 17 TD, 13 INT)
Chad Henne is the biggest dud of the division, but you weren’t going to draft him anyways. So indulge me for a moment while I step up on my soapbox. Mark Sanchez is likable, fiery, a good leader on a good team. All of those things might make him a good guy to have on the team, but those qualities don’t mean squat in fantasy football. The numbers are just not there. Sanchez was wholly inconsistent last season, with seven single-digit performances. He also added seven games with less than 200 yards passing. Feel free to pick him up as a spot starter, but he should not be seeing anything but the bench on your fantasy team.
Running Back: LaDainian Tomlinson (2010: 914 yards, 6 TD, 52 receptions, 368 yards)
LT’s final nine weeks give a strong indication of what can be expected in 2011. Here are the rush totals: 54, 55, 57, 36, 49, 47, 49, 48, 28, 0. He’ll easily make the ‘Fantasy Hall of Fame’ on the first ballot. There’s plenty of nostalgia after he carried plenty of fantasy teams to titles. But his best years are behind him. The Jets say they will use LT as a third-down back. He’s a worthwhile pickup in a deep PPR league because he’s still a good receiver out of the backfield, but he should not be owned in a standard league.
Wide Receiver: Brandon Marshall, MIA (2010: 86 receptions, 1014 yards, 3 TD)
Marshall is a talented receiver who struggled in South Beach thanks to the inefficiency at QB. When Marshall is on, he’s extremely good (10 catches, 166 yards, TD against the Jets in week 3). But more times than not, Marshall was an afterthought in the Dolphins offense, recording just four games with more than five catches. He’ll be the top pass catcher for Miami this year, but you should not overreach for numbers you can get from an 8th rounder.
Wide Receiver: Deion Branch, NE (2010: 61 receptions, 818 yards, 6 TD)
Branch did a nice job of returning to his pre-Seattle form once he was shipped back to the Patriots. He had a pair of 100+ games and found the end zone five times. But with the additions in New England, Branch will be the fifth or sixth option in the Patriots’ offense. You can expect a fairly sizable drop in his numbers in 2011.
Tight End: Buffalo/Miami tight ends (2010: NA)
Neither the Bills nor Dolphins have had a consistent receiving threat from the tight end position in the last few years. That will not change this year, with Shawn Nelson and Anthony Fasano manning the spot for their respective teams.
Defense/ST: Buffalo (2010: 75 points)
The fourth worst fantasy defense last year did very little to improve the unit this offseason. There is no reason to expect them to jump into the top-15 this year.
Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick, BUF (2010: 3000 yards, 23 TD, 15 INT)
There are many things that a Harvard degree will get you, but a starting job in the NFL is not one of them. Fitzpatrick bounced around the league before getting his chance with the Bills last season. Fitzpatrick meshed well with Chan Gailey’s up-tempo offense, and had six games with multiple scores. He’s not a fantasy starter, but is a nice bet as a bye week starter.
Running Back: Daniel Thomas, MIA (2010: NA)
History tells us Reggie Bush cannot be counted on to play a full 16-game season (he has not done so since his rookie season). Thomas is a big back (230 lbs.) with great feet and balance. The Dolphins will run the ball, and it’s a good bet Thomas will finish with the bulk of the carries at seasons end.
Wide Receiver: Davone Bess, MIA (2010: 7 receptions, 820 yards, 5 TD)
There’s nothing flashy about Bess’ game. He catches the underneath ball, gets his team a first down, and does a nice job of running after the catch. But all of that lead to the 37th best fantasy WR season in 2010. He’s a good guy to have on your bench in a standard league, and should be a good flex guy depending on the matchup.
Wide Receiver: Roscoe Parrish, BUF (2010: 33 receptions, 400 yards, 2 TD)
The newest starter in Buffalo, Parrish was having an impressive season last year before breaking his wrist in week 9. He’ll catch a ton of balls underneath and will break a long one every once in a while.
Tight End: Aaron Hernandez, NE (2010: 45 receptions, 563 yards, 6 TD)
Hernandez was the more impressive of the two rookie tight ends last year before things started to click for Gronkowski. Hernandez struggled with a hip injury during the second half of the season, which could be the reason for the dip in his production. Tom Brady will spread the ball around, and Hernandez has the unique makeup to become one of his favorite targets. Call it a hunch, but expect big things.
Defense/ ST: Miami (2010: 104 points)
The Dolphins have a pair of good young corners, a disruptive force in Cameron Wake, and a bevy of young defensive lineman. Miami is not ready to be a consistent starting D/ST, but their trending in the right direction. You might want to keep an eye on the Dolphins if you need a bye week fill-in.
Stephen Kelley is a contributor at The Sports Bank where he covers Fantasy Sports and Pro Drafts. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_tsb.
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