One of the hardest things to decide after a player has a special fantasy season is whether he can do it the following year, especially when that player is still young. When you see someone dominate NFL competition, it is hard to imagine that player doing anything other than having the same success the following year.
History tells us that Hall of Fame players are going to consistently put up big numbers; that is why they are inducted into the Hall of Fame. However, even the most special players have one or two big seasons that stand above their other impressive seasons. To expect a Hall of Fame quarterback to throw for 50 touchdowns every season or for a Hall of Fame running back to rush for 25 touchdowns every season is unrealistic; those seasons are extremely rare.
To prove my point on this I selected five seasons by Hall of Fame or future Hall of Fame players that were extraordinary. My definition of extraordinary was leading all players at his position in fantasy points scored by a significant margin and ranking among the best seasons ever produced at that position. I tried to pick five individual seasons where the player was either at the beginning or the middle of his career, because I did not want age to be the primary factor why the player was not able to duplicate that season the following year.
1) Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning (2004) (28-years old) – Manning had a very historic season in 2004, passing for 4,557 yards passing, 49 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a QB rating of 121.1. Manning tallied 460 fantasy points, which was first among all quarterbacks and all fantasy positions. Only two quarterbacks finished within 100 points of Manning that season, making him a slam dunk overall top pick in 2005.
After 2004: Manning had a lot of good season since 2005, but nothing that resembled his 2004 season. The following season he had 3,747 yards passing, 28 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a QB rating of 104.1. That is an All-Pro campaign, but nothing in the ballpark of where he finished in 2004. Manning would only finish first among quarterbacks in one other season after 2004 (2006) and since 2006 has not finished in the Top 10 among all fantasy positions. Manning would never be better than he was in 2004.
2) San Diego Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) (27-years old) – Tomlinson rewrote the record books in 2006, rushing a NFL-record 28 rushing touchdowns and scoring 31 touchdowns overall. He also added a league leading 1,815 yards rushing. He scored 431 fantasy points; only two other running backs finished within 100 points of Tomlinson’s ridiculous total.
After 2006: Tomlinson was actually one of the few players that turned in another dominant season the following year. He led all running backs in fantasy points scored the following season and was eighth among all positions. However, his 1,474 yards rushing, 15 rushing touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns were typical of his 2001-2005 seasons, not the record breaking 2006 campaign. Tomlinson would never be the same after 2007. He finished seventh among running backs in 2008, 19th in 2009, 17th in 2010 and 39th in his final season of 2011. Tomlinson had his record-breaking season toward the end of his prime and would never be able to recapture his 2006 form.
3) Miami Dolphins QB Dan Marino (1984) (23-years old) – This is one of my favorite examples, because Marino was just in his second year and would play until 1999. Therefore, there were 15 other seasons for him to duplicate or surpass his then record 5,084 yards passing, 48 passing touchdowns and 457 fantasy points. Marino was so dominant that season that the next best quarterback (Arizona Cardinals QB Neil Lomax) scored only 357 fantasy points.
After 1984: The stats did not lie; Marino went on to become a Hall of Fame quarterback. He would have four more seasons where he led the league in passing yards, two more seasons where he led the league in touchdown passes and seven more seasons where he would finish in the Top-5 among fantasy quarterbacks. However, he never really approached that 1984 season. His second best fantasy season was 1986, when he had 408 fantasy points. He threw for 4,746 yards passing and 44 passing touchdowns. After that season, he never threw for more than 30 touchdown passes and had only two seasons where he topped 4,400 yards passing. These excellent seasons resulted in seven more Pro Bowls, two more All-Pro First Team selections and a Hall of Fame career. It just was not possible to duplicate or surpass 1984.
4) Los Angeles Rams RB Eric Dickerson (1983) (23-years old) – This is another classic case of a rookie player that had an epic rookie season and was never able to replicate it, despite going on to have a Hall of Fame career. Dickerson was the second pick in the 1983 draft and he did not disappoint. Dickerson led the NFL in rushing attempts (390), rushing yards (1,808) and yards per game (113.0). He also had 18 rushing touchdowns, 20 total touchdowns, 51 receptions and 404 receiving yards. He led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,212. His 341 fantasy points led all running backs; Atlanta Falcons RB William Andrews was second among running backs with 284 fantasy points.
After 1983: Dickerson did not disappoint in 1984, rushing for a NFL record 2,105 rushing yard and 14 rushing touchdowns. Surprisingly, his 306 fantasy points did not lead the NFL in fantasy points scored by running backs, as that honor went to Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB James Wilder, who scored 308 fantasy points. Dickerson would lead the league in fantasy points in 1986 and again in 1988, but would never again top 300 fantasy points. His closest effort was in 1988 when he scored 294 fantasy points. He was a Top-3 fantasy running back for five of his first six seasons, but never came within 35 fantasy points of his epic rookie season.
5) Minnesota Vikings WR Randy Moss (1998) (21-years old) – Moss has had a couple historic seasons, which does show those seasons can be duplicated. However, there is quite a bit of space in between them, so predicting when they were going to happen is another topic. Moss exploded onto the NFL scene his rookie season when he led all NFL receivers in fantasy points, despite having only 69 receptions. That is what 1,313 yards receiving, 19.0 yards per catch and 17 receiving touchdowns can do for a fantasy season. Moss would tally 234 fantasy points after that historic rookie season.
After 1998: The logical thought would be that Moss would have no problem passing that number as he learned the NFL offenses and refined his skills. Moss would equal his 234 fantasy points in 2000, but would not surpass it until 2003, when he had 267 fantasy points thanks to 111 receptions for 1,632 yards and 17 receiving touchdowns. At just 26 years old, Moss would have seemed poised to equal or surpass that total, which he did two teams and four seasons later with the New England Patriots. At 30-years old, he tallied 98 receptions, 1,493 yards receiving and a NFL record 23 receiving touchdowns; resulting in 287 fantasy points. Moss has not been able to replicate that season, scoring 167 fantasy points in 2008, 204 fantasy points in 2009 and 69 fantasy points in 2010. He sat out the 2011 season before signing with the San Francisco 49ers this off-season.
With this in mind here are three players that have yet to have an extraordinary season that I could see dominating fantasy football in 2012 and three players that had extraordinary seasons in 2011 that will have trouble duplicating that success in 2012.
Three to Watch
1) Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones – I think he could be poised for a fantastic season. He was 17th in fantasy points scored among receivers last year and had only 54 receptions. He also had 959 yards receiving and eight receiving touchdowns. In his final four games, Jones had 20 receptions for 393 yards and six receiving touchdowns. When averaged over a full season, that would be 120 receptions for 1,572 yards and 24 receiving touchdowns.
I am not saying he will tally that this year; that would be an all-time great season. What I am saying is that the sky is the limit and he could absolutely dazzle this season. I would be more surprised if he did not finish in the Top 10 this year than I would be if he led all fantasy receivers in points scored. Jones has been the talk of the Atlanta Falcons off-season and he will push Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson for the top ranked receiver position this year. He will eventually have an all-time great season; it is just a matter of time before the stars align.
2) San Diego Chargers RB Ryan Mathews – Mathews quietly had a four game stretch from Week 11 to Week 14 where he had 71 rushes for 453 yards and three rushing touchdowns. He also added 12 receptions for 60 yards in those four games. Over a 16 game season, that would be 1,812 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns.
The problem with Mathews is that he never plays a full season. He always seems to find his way onto the injury report and misses games. However, this is his third year in the league and if I were looking for a young player to break out and have a historic season, I would go with Mathews. He has the talent and he plays in an explosive offense. He just needs to stay healthy to realize his unlimited potential.
3) Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler – He has never had all the weapons at the same time. In Denver, he had the wide receivers, but he did not have a strong running game or a good defense. In Chicago, he has had the strong defense and the running game, but he has been playing with WR3 and WR4 talent. This year, he has it all. The defense is still elite, RB Matt Forte is re-signed and the Bears added WR Brandon Marshall in a trade. They also drafted WR Alshon Jeffery in the second round.
Cutler has never had more than 27 touchdown passes in a season and other than the 4,526 yards he threw for in 2008, he has not been over the 4,000 yard passing mark. Cutler is only 29 years old and he finally has the skill position talent around him. If I were to pick someone out of the Top 10 fantasy quarterbacks from last year that was going to explode and have a big year, he would be the guy. Cutler has all the physical tools and this year he has the weapons. He could be poised for a fantastic season.
Three for Concern
1) Green Bay Packers WR Jordy Nelson – This should put into perspective how unique his 2011 season was. Since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, there are only three players that had 15 or more touchdown receptions on less than 70 total receptions. In 1987, San Francisco 49ers WR Jerry Rice had 22 touchdown receptions on 65 total receptions. In 1998, Minnesota Vikings WR Randy Moss had 17 touchdown receptions on 69 total receptions. Nelson became the third last year, tallying 15 touchdowns in just 68 receptions.
Either Nelson is the next Rice or Moss, or he had an unbelievable statistical aberration last year. I am going with the second choice. Nelson was tied for fourth in receptions over 40 yards (seven) and had 19 more receptions over 20 yards, which was tied for ninth. His quarterback, Aaron Rodgers set the NFL record for QB rating in a season with 122.5, thanks to 45 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Nelson also benefited from three missed games by WR1 Greg Jennings and had 277 yards receiving and five receiving touchdowns in the last two games of the season played without Jennings. I love Nelson this year; I think he is a legit WR2, which means 70 receptions for 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns. He will never duplicate that season that historic season he had last year.
2) New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski – For the normal tight end, 10 receiving touchdowns is an All-Pro season. The record prior to 2011 was held by San Diego Chargers TE Antonio Gates, who scored 13 touchdowns in 2004. Gronkowski had 17 touchdown receptions, thanks to seven games where he scored two touchdowns. He also had five games where he exceeded 100 yards receiving, which gave him a NFL record 1,327 yards by a tight end. NFL offenses are beginning to feature the tight end more. I have no doubt that Gronkowski will average 90 receptions for 1,200 yards over the next 3-5 seasons, depending on how long QB Tom Brady plays at an elite level and who the Patriots replace him with when he retires.
What I am not buying is 17 receiving touchdowns per season, which is what he needs to score to justify drafting him in the first round. He will realistically average 10-13 touchdowns over the next three seasons, meaning that like Gates in his prime, Gronkowski should be a third round pick. He just is not going to average 15 touchdowns per season; I would be shocked if he even approached that total this year. Defenses adjust to breakout players and expect defensive coordinators to be plotting how to make sure that number is never tallied again.
3) San Francisco 49ers K David Akers – I usually do not address kickers, but for some reason there are people out there that find the need to draft one before the final round and the temptation will be there to take Akers, who set a NFL record for kickers by scoring 166 points last year. He scored 19 points more than the next closest kicker, New Orleans Saints K John Kasay. He also scored 22 more points than he had ever scored with his previous record being 144 points scored in 2008.
Akers is still a candidate to be the top scoring kicker in the NFL. All that means is he should be the first pick in the final round of the draft. Chances are that he will be in the 130 to 145 point range with the other elite kickers. All you will do by taking him earlier than that is weaken your position player depth. K Gary Anderson was the previous record holder with 164 points scored in 1998; he dropped to 103 points the following season. St. Louis Rams K Jeff Wilkens scored 163 points in 2003 and dipped to 89 points scored in 2004. Do yourself a favor and do not go against the grain by drafting a kicker in the 10th round. Even a record-breaking season like 2011 is not worth changing the rules or reason for your draft.