INDIANAPOLIS --- This exercise is likely folly, given free agency and the draft hasn't even taken place yet, but who cares? It's fun. Plus, it gives you something to get excited about before the NFL Combine.
So here's my initial top-25 for the 2016 season, basically who I think are the early front-runners to be selected in the first 2-3 rounds of drafts come Summer. You will notice three big things:
I am not taking into account injury situations right now. It's way too early to worry about that. These rankings assume the player will be healthy.
You will not find a QB in my top-25 for 2016, and this is the one thing I do not think will change for me all offseason. The #12 quarterback last year for the season (Ryan Fitzpatrick) averaged 16 points per game. That's solid. Even with Cam Newton (21.9 fppg), who scored 38 more points than the #2 QB in 2015 (Tom Brady), I'd rather load up on strong RBs and WRs in the early rounds and build depth. Not even included in a strong top-12 QBs last year were Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, and Colin Kaepernick (Chip Kelly factor in 2016), all of which could improve greatly on their 2015 numbers. Wait, wait, wait on QBs in 2016.
It's the year of the wide receiver. I preached this last year in the first round, and I'll preach it even more heavily this year, including at the top of the draft. With the volatility of running backs at the beginning of the first round in recent years, it's a far better strategy to choose a WR in the first round. In fact, I had great success going WR-WR. Of the 10 running backs drafted in the first two rounds in 2015, only two were able to finish in the top-12, with only five finishing in the top-24. No thank you. RBs taken in rounds 3-5 offered feature roles, just like their early round counterparts, with the added incentive of elite WRs on your roster: Lamar Miller, Todd Gurley, Latavius Murray, Mark Ingram, and Frank Gore finished in the top-15 among RBs. Even later than rounds 3-5: Doug Martin, Jonathan Stewart, T.J. Yeldon, and Chris Ivory provided nice returns.
Way (WAY) Too Early 2016 Top-25 Fantasy Football Rankings
WR Antonio Brown (Steelers)
WR Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants)
WR Julio Jones (Falcons)
RB Todd Gurley (Rams)
RB Le'Veon Bell (Steelers)
WR DeAndre Hopkins (Texans)
RB Devonta Freeman (Falcons)
RB Adrian Peterson (Vikings)
WR Allen Robinson (Jaguars)
WR Brandon Marshall (Jets)
RB Thomas Rawls (Seahawks)
RB David Johnson (Cardinals)
WR A.J. Green (Bengals)
WR Dez Bryant (Cowboys)
WR Alshon Jeffery (Bears, free agent)
WR T.Y. Hilton (Colts)
RB Jamaal Charles (Chiefs)
RB Mark Ingram (Saints)
RB Doug Martin (Buccaneers, free agent)
WR Julian Edelman (Patriots)
WR Jordy Nelson (Packers)
RB LeSean McCoy (Bills)
WR Demaryius Thomas (Broncos)
TE Rob Gronkowski (Patriots)
TE Jordan Reed (Washington)
Considered, but Just Missed the Cut
RB Carlos Hyde (49ers)
RB Lamar Miller (Dolphins, free agent)
RB Dion Lewis (Patriots)
RB Jeremy Langford (Bears)
RB Latavius Murray (Raiders)
WR Doug Baldwin (Seahawks)
RB Eddie Lacy (Packers)
Antonio Brown was my #1 pick in PPR leagues last year, and in 2016, he'll also be my #1 pick in standard leagues. His elite consistency is unmatched in this game. Despite not having Ben Roethlisberger for four games last year (and another where Big Ben left early), Brown still finished as the #1 scoring Flex player (RB/WR/TE) with 243 points in standard leagues, 12 more points than the next best player. Extrapolate the 11-games Brown played when Roethlisberger attempted 25 passes into a 16-game season, and Brown would have finished with 157 receptions, 2,176 yards, and 14-15 touchdowns. As good as Brown has been, his ceiling is even HIGHER!
Todd Gurley is my #1 RB, because of what he did on a points per week basis as a rookie in an offense with subpar quarterback play. Gurley averaged 14.7 points per week in the games in which he received a full workload. The #1 scoring RB of 2015 in standard leagues (Devonta Freeman) averaged 14.4 points per week. There's a new star on his way to Hollywood.
Half of my top-12 are WRs, with the top-3 picks surefire stud wideouts. At the back end of that round, I could have easily made the argument that established wideouts like Green, Bryant, and Jeffery go before small sample size RBs like Rawls and Johnson. I like those two young RBs though. Rawls is one of only five running backs since the merger with at least 800 rushing yards and an average of at least 5.5 yards per carry in their rookie season. The others: Franco Harris, Adrian Peterson, Clinton Portis, and Maurice Jones-Drew. Johnson also finished as the #7 RB in 2015, despite not getting more than 8 carries until week 13. Also, among the top-10 scoring fantasy RBs in 2015, Johnson was 2nd only to Peterson in percentage of rush plays that went for 10 yards.
T.Y. Hilton was a top-10 fantasy wide receiver in 2014 with a healthy Andrew Luck. There's no reason to believe that wouldn't be the case again in 2016. I have him as the 10th WR in these rankings, ahead of even Demaryius Thomas who has some QB questions entering 2016.
Many will have TE Rob Gronkowski in their top-12 overall rankings, as a first round pick. I will not. Why? Because I believe there's another TE that could return a better investment in a lower round in 2016 - Jordan Reed. Gronk averaged 11.7 points per week in 15 games last year. Not too far behind, Reed finished with 10.7 points per week in 14 games. More importantly, Reed came on strong after returning from injury week 7. Taking into account just those games and leaving out a meaningless week 17 game, Reed averaged 12.9 points per week. Over that same span, Gronkowski averaged 11.6 points per week. In weeks 14-16 of the fantasy playoffs? Reed 62 points, Gronk 33 points. I said strongly not to take Gronk in the first round last year, and I'll say it again this year.