by Russ Bliss (2/9/12)

Like always, I see top 10 lists of fantasy football positional rankings in terms of tiers. While it's way early still, heading into 2012, it appears that there is a clear top 2 fantasy QB's. Aaron Rogers and Drew Brees should be the first 2 QB's off the board in any fantasy football drafts and however you want to rank them is fine with me. I think Tom Brady stands alone just a notch below those 2, with Matt Stafford also standing alone just a notch below Brady. They should easily be the top 4 QB's for fantasy purposes. After that, it becomes a real guessing game of how the rest will together. Many are going to really like Cam Newton higher than my ranking of 7th overall. Some may even give Newton a spot in top 4. But it's another season where the increased emphasis on the passing game in the NFL is going to pay dividends for fantasy football owners who lose out on the top 4.

One noticeable absence from this list is Peyton Manning. As of this writing, Manning is still on the Colts, and has just been cleared to return to football activities. The fusion of his vertebrae has been completed but the nerve regeneration hasn't and it remains to be seen whether it will fully regenerate. It also remains to be seen where he ends up playing in 2012 if it does. Popular wisdom says Manning is going to be released by the Colts. If he is, what team he signs with will go a long way to determining where he should rank in the top 10. If I were to assume a fully healthy Peyton Manning back in 2012, and playing for a team in the right circumstances, he would likely find himself in the top 5. But there are too many questions surrounding him right now for him to be included on the list.   

1) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: An elite fantasy QB coming off an unbelievable season. Including his rushing TD's, he didn't have a single game with less than 2 touchdowns in 2011. He had 3 or more TD's in 10 games of 15 games played; 300+ passing yards in 8 games. Only 6 interceptions the entire season. In 4 seasons since taking over for Brett Favre, Rodgers averages 4,259 passing yards, 33 passing TD's, 9 interceptions, 281 rushing yards, and 4 rushing TD's. He's in the prime of his career and tops the list.

2) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: While techincally, Brees is a free agent, it is widely assumed that the Saints will re-sign him. The most prolific passer over the last 6 seasons tacked on a new NFL record 5,476 passing yards in 2011. In those 6 seasons, Brees has never had fewer than 4,388 passing yards in any season and twice has eclipsed 5,000 yards passing. His 46 passing TD's in 2011 were the most by any QB. A case could be easily made that Brees is a better fantasy QB than Rodgers. He had 9 games with 3 or more TD's, only 3 games with less than 300 passing yards, and in the last 6 games of 2011, he had a mind-boggling total of 2,150 passing yards and 23 TD's. In the last 4 seasons, Brees has averaged 4,888 passing yards, 37 TD's, and 16 interceptions. His 86 rushing yards in 2011 were more than the prior 4 seasons combined so he isn't much of an additional point getter running the ball but he makes up for that passing the ball.  

3) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: Lost in Drew Brees' record setting season is that Brady now owns the second highest passing yards total for a single season in the NFL with a stellar 2011 campaign in which he threw for 5,235 yards, 39 TD's, and 12 interceptions. Including his rushing TD's, Brady had only one game with fewer than 2 TD's. He had 9 games with 3 or more TD's. He threw for 300+ passing yards in 11 games. In the last 3 seasons, Brady is averaging 4,512 passing yards, 34 passing TD's, 10 interceptions, 61 rush yards and 2 rush TD's. In 2012, Brady will have Josh McDaniels back as offensive coordinator. McDaniels was Brady's offensive coordinator back in 2007 when Brady threw for 4,806 yards and set an NFL record with 50 passing TD's. If the Patriots upgrade their WR corps, Brady will contend to be the top fantasy QB in 2012 fantasy football rankings by seasons' end.  

4) Matt Stafford, Detroit Lions: We wondered what Stafford would do if he stayed healthy for a full 16 games and he delivered big time returns. widely regarded as a high risk top 10 fantasy QB for fantasy football projections in 2011, Stafford finished as the 5th ranked fantasy QB in 2011. He joined Brees and Brady in the 5,000 passing yards club tossing a total of 5,038. He also had 41 passing TD's while tossing 16 interceptions. He threw for 2 or more TD's in 12 games (7 with 3 or more) and 8 games with 300+ passing yards. Having the best WR in the game (Calvin Johnson) to throw the football to helps out and ensures that Stafford should again be a top 5 fantasy QB in 2012.

5) Eli Manning, New York Giants: Manning posted his 3rd consecutive season with over 4,000 passing yards in 2011 and came up 67 yards short of getting to 5,000. He cut down on his interceptions in 2011 bringing the total down to 16. Eli wasn't as consistent as the top 4 QB's on this list as he had 3 games without a TD pass, but he had 2 or more in 11 games and threw for 300 yards or more in 8 games. In the last 3 seasons Eli's averaged 4,319 passing yards, 29 TD's, and 18 interceptions. With a second Super Bowl victory to his credit, Eli should go into 2012 with supreme confidence and be a rock solid fantasy QB1.

6) Phillip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: 2011 wasn't a bad season for Rivers, but it was a step back from his 2010 season. Rivers had troubles with consistency as he had 1 or no touchdown passes in 7 games, and also threw for under 200 yards twice. But he did have 6 games with 300 passing yards and 4 games with 3 or more TD passes. He finished the season with 4,624 passing yards, 27 TD's, and an uncharacteristically high 20 interceptions (Rivers had averaged only 11 interceptions the 3 prior seasons). The Chargers need to reload the weapons for Rivers to throw to, especially if they lose WR Vincent Jackson (a 2012 NFL free agents candidate if a new contract isn't worked out by March 13th). There are also concerns about TE Antonio Gates starting to decline with lingering foot issues. But Rivers has thrown for over 4,000 yards each of the last 4 seasons and his average over that time (4,398 passing yards, 30 TD's) ranks him as still one of the best bets for solid fantasy QB1 numbers again in 2012.

7) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers: There was no bigger surprise in 2011 than Newton. Starting all 16 games, he set a new rookie record with 4,051 passing yards. While he only threw 21 TD's (to go along with only 17 interceptions), his ability to run the ball makes him a dual threat for big fantasy points. Add 706 rushing yards and another 14 rushing TD's to his passing totals and Newton finished 2011 as the 4th highest scoring fantasy QB in most standard scoring formats. He surprised everyone with back to back 400+ passing yards games the first 2 weeks of the season, but in the remaining 14 games, he eclipsed 300 yards only once and had 4 games with less than 200. Still, as a QB entering his second season and getting the benefit of a full off-season, he should get even better as a passer. His added bonus as a rushing threat makes him a candidate to deserve a higher ranking than this. My only concerns are a potential sophomore slump (we've seen it too many times for it to not be a concern) and the chance that opposing teams may have started figuring him out some over the last 6 games. In that stretch he had more than 208 passing yards just once and 3 games where he failed to score a rushing TD.

8) Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles: While Vick is considered one of the bigger fantasy busts of 2011, it needs to be noted that he missed 3 games because of injury and struggled thru various injuries in several others. He did manage to finish the season on a high note averaging 278 passing yards and 2 TD's over the last 4 games of the season. Injuries also took a toll on his rushing stats as he accumulated 535 rush yards in the first 9 games, but only had a combined 54 in the last 4. He also didn't get into the end zone rushing the ball like he did in 2010 as he only had 1 rushing TD total in 2011. Vick's career has always been inconsistent throwing the ball and in 2011 he again had problems early on throwing for less than 200 yards in 3 of the first 9 games, and over 300 only twice. He did have 8 games with 2 or more TD's though and it's hoped a return to heath, plus a full off-season of team activities will help put Vick back in the mix of quality starting fantasy QB's.

9) Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: Few QB's get as little recognition in fantasy football as Romo. Romo managed to have his 3rd season with over 4,000 passing yards despite playing most of the season with broken ribs, and missing almost all of one game. Even more amazing is that he started every game despite the ribs (and a punctured lung that came with the ribs injury). So, if you figure in 15 games, Romo had 4,184 passing yards, 31 TD's, and only 10 interceptions, you see the potential Romo has to be amongst the top fantasy QB's. He had 5 games with 300 or more passing yards; only 2 with 225 or fewer; 11 with 2 or more TD's. A healthy Romo with a great WR corps in 2012 should be a solid fantasy starting QB most weeks again.

10) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: Ryan posted his first season with over 4,000 passing yards in 2011, finishing with 4,177 yards, 29 TD's, and 12 interceptions. Consistency was a problem early on in the year as he threw for under 200 yards in 3 of the first 6 games, while throwing for over 300 in 2 others in that span. For the season he had 6 games with over 300 yards, 4 with fewer than 200, and only 7 games with 2 or more TD's. Ryan is still developing into quality fantasy QB as the Falcons slowly morph from being a balanced offense to becoming another of the more pass happy teams. He has the weapons to throw to and a full off-season for second year big play WR Julio Jones should prove enough for Ryan to take a step up and become a great starting fantasy QB.