print 2011 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2012 Preview: AFC East

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Published, 1/26/12  

In this report, we’ll go division-by-division and offer up a quick wrap of the 2011 season, with a brief preview of what to expect in 2012 and beyond.
Buffalo Bills
QB: It’s hard to believe that, prior to the season, Tyler Thigpen was thought of as a possible threat to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Of course, Fitzpatrick didn’t suddenly morph into an elite QB, but he had a pretty solid season with some impressive games. In fact, his hot start earned him a 6-year, $59 million extension ($24 million guaranteed) in late October, entrenching him as the Bills’ starting QB for the immediate future, at least. Fitzpatrick started off with a really impressive run, averaging 26.7 FPG in his first three games, but by the end of the year, he had slipped to the middle of the pack, ranking 16th at QB with an average of 19.3 FPG. He’s a solid player, but he’s still an erratic passer who threw 24 TDs and a league-worst 23 INTs. Plus, after jumping out to a 4-1 record, the Bills fizzled to a 6-10 finish, and Fitzpatrick ended the season with multiple INTs in eight games. The offense was certainly hurt by the loss of RB Fred Jackson during the season, as he was an early MVP candidate, and the receiving corps was also decimated by injuries, leaving Fitzpatrick with a raw, inconsistent, and unexciting supporting cast. WR Steve Johnson made plays but also made too many mistakes for a #1 WR. RB C.J. Spiller didn’t emerge until late, and while guys like David Nelson and Scott Chandler made plays here and there, there weren’t true difference-makers in an offense with an unspectacular and erratic Fitzpatrick at QB. That’s not to say Fitzpatrick can’t have success. He does a nice job getting the ball out quickly, and he’s not afraid to take chances with a lot of confidence in the pocket. It helps that his no-name offensive line performed very well, for the most part, as the Bills actually allowed the fewest sacks in the league in their spread offense. Is Fitzpatrick ever going to become a top-10 quarterback? No, probably not. But he at least gives the Bills a chance because, despite his erratic accuracy and poor decision-making, he’s a tough competitor who’s willing to stand in there and make stick throws. He had some really rough stretches in which he deserves much of the blame, but his 3,832 passing yards ranked 11th in the league, and his accuracy improved with a career-high 62% completion rate. He put up some dud performances over the course of the season, but if his supporting cast is healthier next year, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a pretty solid backup for fantasy again.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: After his midseason contract extension, Fitzpatrick appears safe as the Bills’ starting QB for now, so the question is at receiver, where the Bills could use an upgrade at one spot and where Steve Johnson is a free agent. As for Fitzpatrick, can he become a better decision-maker and limit the mistakes?
RBs: The Bills do not operate a traditional ground attack, but that didn’t stop them from having success running the ball most of the season. They ranked a solid 13th in the league in rushing, and, in fact, Fred Jackson was in the thick of the MVP hunt in the first half of the season before a broken leg in Week Eleven landed him on IR. Prior to that, in his first nine games, Jackson put up double-digit points every week in standard leagues, and for the season, he ended up ranking 4th among RBs with an average of 17.4 FPG. Through Week Ten, Jackson was 3rd in the league with 934 rushing yards, and he averaged 5.5 YPC, scored 6 TDs, and totaled 39/442 as a receiver. He was terrific for PPR leagues, and he was one of the most complete backs in the league. Jackson rarely left the field – C.J. Spiller was irrelevant in the first part of the season – because he did everything well, whether it was blocking, receiving, or carrying the ball out of the Bills’ spread scheme. He runs with patience and vision, and his numbers were particularly impressive for a 30-year-old RB. But, now the team has a dilemma. Jackson is expected to return in 2012, but, at 31 years old, will the team continue to give him the bulk of the carries over Spiller – a 2010 top-10 overall pick? Spiller had been ineffective his first 1½ seasons, but things started clicking at the end of 2011. In his last five games, Spiller ranked 7th among RBs, with an average of 17.3 FPG, rushing for 391/3 and putting up 21/172/2 as a receiver over that span. Previously, he struggled to take advantage of his elite speed and explosiveness, but he started to get comfortable and those skills came to the forefront in December, and he ended up averaging 5.2 YPC for the season. This was certainly a great sign for Spiller because the team struggled to find a role for him with Jackson healthy and even tried to used him – with little success – as a wide receiver at times. Clearly, he belongs at RB, and if he blocks well, he’s a great fit for the Bills’ spread offense because he catches the ball and is really dangerous in space, which the spread looks give him. His instincts need work, but if he continues to settle down and see the field, he can be very dangerous and get to the second level with regularity. Aside from those two, the Bills get insignificant contributions from rookie Johnny White (12/38 rushing), who suffered a concussion in December, and ex-Cowboy/Redskin Tashard Choice (57/152/1), although Choice did frustrate Spiller’s owners by getting short-yardage looks late in the year. White has a chance to settle in as the long-term #2 back once Jackson’s tenure with the team ends.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Given Spiller’s emergence and Jackson’s age, who will get the majority of the touches? HC Chan Gailey has expressed reservations about Spiller getting a full load of carries, so we could see a committee that limits the fantasy value of both.
WRs/TEs: The Bills had a fairly decent group of receivers to work with entering 2011 but, unfortunately, the unit fell apart because of injuries. That’s not to say there wasn’t success. Steve Johnson was solid, once again, as the #1, David Nelson made some plays as a tall option out of the slot, and the little-known Scott Chandler emerged as a threat to score TDs from the TE position, at least early in the season. But the unit just didn’t have much juice, even with the addition of the versatile Brad Smith. Johnson is a nice player with good size and deceptive speed, but he’s also inconsistent and isn’t a top-notch receiver. He’d make for a great #2 WR in a good passing offense. Overall, this unit just didn’t have a lot of speed after trading Lee Evans (who, to be fair, did nothing in Baltimore, so it’s not like the Bills were missing much). #2 WR Donald Jones (ankle) played only eight games, putting up 23/231/1 on 45 targets (51.1% catch rate) and didn’t really show that he’s anything more than a backup. Shifty slot receiver Roscoe Parrish (ankle) has played in only two games since Week Nine of 2010 and is likely gone. Promising young WR Marcus Easley missed the entire season again because of a heart condition, although he’s expected to be ready to play in 2012. Easley may be the most talented receiver on the roster in 2011, so he’s someone to watch this coming season. But this past year, this unit was about Johnson, who cracked 1000 yards again with 76/1004/7 on 134 targets (56.7%). Unfortunately, he drew more attention for the trouble he got into because of celebration penalties and for lapses in concentration. Johnson is a free agent, but the Bills want to bring him back, assuming he matures and gets over the dropped passes and mental mistakes that can cripple the offense. When focused, he’s almost like a lowercase Marques Colston with deceptive quickness. As for Nelson, he has the ability to be a nice red-zone threat because of his size, but he was a mediocre option, with 61/658/5 on 97 targets (62.9%) and is best suited for a complementary role out of the slot. And, after a hot start, the limited Chandler finished with 38/389/6 on just 46 targets. He caught an impressive 82.6% of his targets, but he was mainly a short-area receiver. Meanwhile, Smith was originally signed as a versatile player who could take snaps out of the Wildcat, but he was rarely a factor. He received only 21 carries for 81 yards and a TD, and as a receiver he totaled 23/240/1 on 42 targets (54.8%). He had one stretch of success in which he started on the outside and had 4/77/1 against the Jets and 7/72 against the Titans in Weeks Twelve and Thirteen, but that was the only time span in which he had fantasy relevance. He’s a good athlete, but he’s not a consistent playmaker. Aside from the lack of speed and consistency, the biggest problem here is the lack of consistency at QB. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a confident and capable thrower, but he makes a lot of mistakes and can have lapses in his accuracy, making it tougher for these guys to perform. To his credit, Johnson did hit 1000 yards, but his upside probably isn’t much greater than that. This team needs some help, and getting healthier would be a nice start.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: The immediate question is the status of the free agent Johnson. If he’s back, as expected, will the Bills be able to add a viable deep threat to the offense? If they can do that, they look pretty good at the position if guys like Jones and Easley return healthy.
Key Free Agents: RB Tashard Choice, WR Steve Johnson, WR Roscoe Parrish, WR Ruvell Martin, WR Derek Hagan, TE Scott Chandler, PK Rian Lindell, PK Dave Rayner, OT Demetrius Bell, SS Bryan Scott, ILB Kirk Morrison
Miami Dolphins
QB: The 2011 season was expected to be critical for QB Chad Henne’s future. However, that expectation didn’t last long, leaving further questions about what’s next. Henne started just four games before suffering a season-ending separated shoulder, which gave the job to former Panther Matt Moore. Prior to the injury, Henne was his usual erratic self, throwing for 416/2 against the terrible Patriot defense in Week One before struggling in his next two full games and getting hurt early in Week Four. As for Moore, he’s clearly a limited passer without a lot of upside, and he can be very erratic, but he really settled down later in the season as the Dolphins started to figure out what they were doing, thanks in large part to the sudden success of RB Reggie Bush. Moore doesn’t have a strong arm and he can be hesitant to pull the trigger on deeper throws, but the Dolphins did a nice job managing his limitations by rolling him out and allowing him to use his natural mobility inside and outside the pocket. Early in the season, he played too fast and looked uncomfortable but, in general, he emerged to play with some poise and confidence for most of the second half of the season. He completed 60.6% of his passes for 2510 yards, 16 TDs, and 9 INTs, and he averaged 16.1 FPG. Obviously, that’s not a great number, and his fantasy performances were up and down, but he wasn’t the worst backup to have. Of course, it also would have helped if WR Brandon Marshall didn’t miss so many touchdown opportunities. With almost nothing from rookie WR Clyde Gates, the Dolphins really didn’t have much speed out wide. Plus, the Dolphin offensive line still occasionally had problems, as Moore was sacked 9 times by the Eagles in Week Fourteen, and the Dolphins allowed the 3rd-most sacks in the league for the season. It appears that Henne’s days in Miami are over, especially with a new coaching staff coming in, as he’s never been able to put together consistent performances and makes too many poor decisions. Throw in the injury history, and it’s time for the Dolphins to move on from him. For now, that would leave Moore, who is capable of winning games with the right supporting cast but has obvious limitations, as the likely backup in 2012.  
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: How will the new coaching staff address the QB position in the off-season? Will Moore get another chance?
RBs: While the Dolphins signed high-profile free agent Reggie Bush, the expectation was that Bush would probably be more of a complementary player, while rookie 2nd-round pick Daniel Thomas would handle the load as the lead runner because he appeared more capable of being a featured back, due to his size and versatility. But Thomas dealt with nagging hamstring issues early in the season, and while his first two games were both successful – 18/107 in Week Two and 23/95 and a receiving TD in Week Three – he faded for the rest of the season and never scored a rushing TD. Meanwhile, after a lackluster start in which Bush looked like the Bush of old, he suddenly found a groove in the second half of the season and looked as comfortable as ever in the Dolphin offense. He’s typically struggled to run consistently between the tackles, but he ran hard and with an edge and was utilized well with sweeps and misdirection plays, which helped him become more comfortable and enabled him to get into a rhythm. Previously, he had never rushed for more than 581 yards in a season in New Orleans, and he shattered that mark with 1097 rushing yards, 6 TDs, and an average of 5.1 YPC, along with 43/296/1 as a receiver. The receiving numbers weren’t great, but it was very encouraging to see him look so good on the ground. He finished 17th among RBs with an average of 12.1 FPG in standard leagues, and he ran for 100 yards in each of his last four games, with 25/203/1 against Buffalo in Week Fifteen. While Bush was doing this, Thomas still did get a fair amount of work. He ranked 25th in the league with 165 carries, despite missing three games, and he ran for 585 yards, but he averaged only 5.5 FPG. While he received double-digit carries in all but four games, he had no success in the red zone and around the goal line, which was surprising, given his size and natural power. Aside from those two, no one was really in the mix. Steve Slaton put up only 17/64/1, and Lex Hilliard chipped in 16/41/1, so this backfield was all about Bush with Thomas mixed in.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Is Bush’s 2011 success sustainable? He looked fantastic late in the season, but can he continue his success as a featured runner with a new coaching staff coming in? And after missing the season in finale with a knee injury, Bush’s durability remains a question mark. In addition to Bush, what is the plan for Thomas?
WRs/TEs: For the second year in a row, talented WR Brandon Marshall had an underwhelming season, but at least in 2011 he still put up pretty solid numbers. Marshall received very little attention during the season, yet he still ranked 10th in the league in receptions (81), 10th in yards (1214), and 7th in targets (145), although his catch rate was only 55.9%. He also averaged 15 YPC, so, overall, he had a pretty successful season, despite playing in the league’s #25 passing offense with a decent but limited QB in Matt Moore. The problem for Marshall in terms of fantasy was TDs. He caught 6 TDs, but that number easily could have been twice that. He had lapses in concentration, as usual, and scoring a TD seemed like a remarkably impossible task for one of the league’s most physically talented WRs at 6’4”, 230 pounds. However, he did turn things around later in the season, catching 4 TDs in his final six games, and for the season, he ranked 19th at WR, with an average of 9.9 FPG in standard leagues. So, no, Marshall isn’t quite living up to his potential, and he doesn’t have huge games frequently enough for his talent, but he hasn’t been a bust, either, and all things considered, he had a pretty solid season. After Marshall, well, no one consistently did anything. Dependable slot man Davone Bess was fairly unproductive and unusable for fantasy, as he fell from 80 catches to just 51/537/3 on 84 targets (60.7%) in 2011, averaging 4.5 FPG. Previously a PPR machine, Bess had 4+ catches only six times after hitting that mark 12 times last season. Of course, Bess is essentially a volume receiver, and his decline isn’t too surprising, considering the Dolphins dropped from 13th to 28th in pass attempts as they ran more successfully with better blocking up front and limited Moore’s attempts and the use of 3-WR sets. The only other Dolphin WR to really do anything was Brian Hartline, who averaged a solid 15.7 YPC but made individual plays without putting together many consistent performances. He finished the year with 35/549/1 on 65 targets (53.8%) to average just 3.9 FPG, and in Weeks Eight through Fourteen, he had more than 1 catch only once. The WR corps clearly needs an injection of speed and, unfortunately, raw rookie Clyde Gates was unable to provide that in 2011. He was the only other WR to catch a pass for the Dolphins, but he had just 2 receptions all season on 12 targets for 19 yards. As for the TEs, Anthony Fasano continued to be a decent all-around player who rarely does much for fantasy. He had 32/451/5 on 52 targets (61.5%) and ranked 22nd at TE, with an average of 5.0 FPG, which isn’t too surprising. He’s not a bad player, but he lacks athleticism and rarely poses matchup problems for defenses. Also was in the mix was promising H-back Charles Clay, who can be utilized as a movable chess piece but was fairly quiet as a rookie, with only 16/233/3 on 24 targets.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: We don’t even know who the Dolphins will start at QB in 2012, but whoever it is will need another weapon in the receiving corps. Hartline isn’t good enough to start on the outside, and the Dolphins need someone with speed to complement Marshall and Bess. Perhaps Gates will take a big step forward, but it’s hard to count on that, given what he’s done so far.
Key Free Agents: QB Chad Henne, QB J.P. Losman, RB Steve Slaton, OT Marc Colombo, G Vernon Carey, DE Kendal Langford, DT Paul Soliai, CB Will Allen
New England Patriots
QB: Tom Brady had a few more erratic moments than usual in 2011, but that didn’t matter much because he was still one of the best QBs in the league, and he ended up joining Drew Brees in breaking Dan Marino’s single-season passing record. Plus, despite playing with what was frequently a dreadful defense, Brady still led his team to another Super Bowl. For the third straight season, Brady completed 65% of his passes, throwing for 5235 yards, 39 TDs, and 12 INTs with 3 rushing TDs. His 27.9 FPG was his second-highest career average after 2007’s 50-TD season, and he ranked 3rd among QBs in the regular season. Brady’s 611 attempts were a career high and 119 more than he had in 2010, and the offense clearly took a step forward with the emergence of TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as stars, alongside the always reliable and productive WR Wes Welker. Brady got off to a ridiculously good start to the season, throwing for 517/4 against the Dolphins and 423/3 against the Chargers, and while he obviously didn’t keep those numbers going, he was still fairly consistent for fantasy with at least 300 passing yards in 11 of 16 games and at least 20 FP in all but two games. Brady had some issues, especially with a few games in which he missed throws and made an uncharacteristic bad decision or two. He also struggled at times with the reshuffling of a banged-up offensive line. But it’s hard to say someone who threw for 5000 yards struggled at all. For the most part, Brady was as good as usual, spreading the ball around as the Patriots attacked defenses with a lot of two-TE formations in which they capitalized on the versatility of Gronkowski and Hernandez, who both give defenses nightmares. And when the ball wasn’t going to them, it went to Welker, who had the best season of his career and caught 122 passes. Few teams game plan as well as the Patriots, and Brady can be unstoppable when he gets into a rhythm. He’s fantastic at the line of scrimmage, controlling the tempo of the game and making pre-snap reads that can throw a defense off-balance. The Patriots operated out of a lot of two-TE sets – which helped render WR Chad Ochocincouseless– but within those sets, they had a lot of versatility, mixing up the RBs and moving Welker and the TEs around. Whether they need to go to empty backfields, the no-huddle, or alignments with six offensive linemen, Brady is comfortable, and while he was off a few games, more often than not, he was going to shred a defense.

  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: As long as Brady is healthy, he’s the guy. The only questions are with coaching and his backup. For one, OC Bill O’Brien is leaving to take the Penn State job, but in his place will be a familiar face, as former OC Josh McDaniels is returning after stints in Denver and St. Louis. Two, will RFA Brian Hoyer remain the backup, or will Ryan Mallett be prepared for the job?
RBs: HC Bill Belichick’s backfield is almost always a mess for fantasy, but the writing was certainly on the wall last April when the Patriots spent two fairly early draft picks on Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, who joined a group of RBs that also includes BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, and veteran Kevin Faulk, who was coming off a torn ACL. Green-Ellis had a breakout season in 2010, rushing for 1008/13, and given that he does everything well and is trusted by the coaching staff, it was reasonable to assume he’d get a good number of carries again after he signed a one-year deal in the off-season. But Ridley looked very impressive in the preseason, and while he has some similarities to Green-Ellis, he’s also more versatile and dynamic. Toward the end of the year, Ridley did take carries away from Green-Ellis, but, overall, the Patriots simply didn’t rely on one back as much (even though their rushing attempts dipped by only 16 from 2010). Green-Ellis received 49 fewer carries than in 2010, and he was less effective, averaging only 3.7 YPC – down from 4.4. For the season, he had 180 carries for 665 yards, but he managed to stay relevant for fantasy by scoring 11 TDs to average 9.3 FPG, ranking him 28th among RBs. In other words, he was a viable flex play, only with a lot of downside. If he didn’t score, he was typically worthless for fantasy, as he showed in the last five weeks of the regular season when he failed to top 22 rushing yards in a game. As for Ridley, he finished 2nd on the team, with just 88 carries, but he was more effective than Green-Ellis, rushing for 443 yards (5.0 YPC) and a TD. Of course, that doesn’t mean he was viable for fantasy, and he fell out of favor in the playoffs because of ball security issues. That’s the key issue for Ridley going forward because the Pats don’t put up with backs who put the ball on the ground. He’s clearly a more talented all-around back than Green-Ellis, with more juice as a runner, but the Patriots at least trusted Green-Ellis, even if he wasn’t all that effective late in the year. Ridley received double-digit carries in each of the last three games of the regular season but didn’t score, while Green-Ellis had only 20 carries in those games and still scored 3 TDs. As always, the backfield was unpredictable, and Green-Ellis’ biggest game actually came against the Jets in Week Five, when he had 27/136/2. He had only one other game with 20 carries, and only five other games with more than 50 rushing yards. Elsewhere in the backfield, the versatile Danny Woodhead’s role as a satellite player was reduced. He had 20 fewer rushes and 16 fewer catches than 2010, putting up only 77/351/1 on the ground and 18/157 through the air to average a meager 3.8 FPG. He had 14/69 on the ground in Week One, but after that, he was confined to a minimal role for fantasy as a change-of-pace back. Faulk was suddenly a factor for one game when he had 11 touches for 52 total yards in Week Eight against the Steelers, but that’s pretty much all he did in what was likely his final season with the Patriots. The rookie Vereen occasionally got in the mix, but it was mostly in mop-up duty, as he totaled 15/57/1 rushing with 0 catches. For all the bodies in the mix in this incredibly productive offense, only Green-Ellis was viable as a RB, and even he was a total bust many weeks when he didn’t score.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: It’s hard to imagine the Patriot backfield not being a mess again, but the player to watch is certainly Ridley – and, to a lesser extent, Vereen. If he can get over his ball security issues in the off-season, Ridley could take over as the lead ball carrier (whatever that means in New England), while a full off-season could allow Vereen, who was picked earlier than Ridley, to see a Woodhead-like role. Also, while BenJarvus Green-Ellisis a free agent in 2012, he may still return because he won’t likely command a lot of attention elsewhere.
WRs/TEs: By combining for 87 catches and 16 TDs in 2010, TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez laid a promising foundation, clearly showing the potential to be a pretty special tandem. However, nobody could have envisioned the ridiculous amount of success they actually had in 2011. The Patriot offense wreaked havoc on opposing defenses with Gronkowski and Hernandez – two matchup nightmares – by moving them around and rarely asking them to leave the field. The results were staggering. QB Tom Brady threw for more than 5000 yards, and Gronkowski and Hernandez were two of the three best TEs in the league. Gronkowski had 90/1327/17 on 124 targets (72.6% catch rate) and averaged 15.1 FPG, which made him the second best receiver (WR or TE) in the league, trailing only Calvin Johnson (and excluding Kenny Britt). He led the league in receiving TDs and finished 6th in receiving yards and tied for 3rd with 26 targets in the red zone. Those are historically great TE numbers, but what makes them even more impressive is that Gronkowski shared the field with Hernandez. Hernandez probably didn’t get enough credit for how good a season he had simply because Gronkowski was so ridiculously impressive. Hernandez put up 79/910/7 on 113 targets (69.9%) and finished 3rd among TEs with an average of 9.8 FPG. Heading into the season, we knew both guys were good, but it was hard to imagine both being elite TE options because there are only so many targets to go around, especially with Wes Welker present. Well, all the Patriots did is prove that theory wrong by revolutionizing the way teams use TEs. Gronkowski and Hernandez are impossible for defenses to handle. Defensive backs are too small – particularly for Gronkowski – and linebackers have no chance to match up with their ability as receivers. Plus, they can both block, giving the Patriots incredible versatility. Defenses can’t adapt to them. When the Broncos did a nice job holding Gronkowski to 4/53 in Week Fifteen, Hernandez was left in man coverage, which he torched for 9/129/1. Additionally, the Patriots further threw defenses off by starting to line Hernandez up in the backfield and even giving him rushing attempts. He had 4 carries late in the regular season, and he had 5/61 rushing in the Patriots’ playoff game against Denver. So, what about Welker? For all the words used to describe how unstoppable Gronkowski and Hernandez are – rightfully so, both in this blurb and throughout the media all year – it’s somehow easy to forget that the Patriots also had a WR who led the league in catches and finished 2nd in yards. Yes, Welker, remember him? All he did in 2011 was catch 122 passes for a career-high 1569 yards and 9 TDs on 173 targets (70.5%), giving him an average of 13.4 FPG in standard scoring. Once again, he was a PPR machine, but he was a top option in all formats. He had eight games with at least 100 receiving yards, including an absurd 16/217/2 in Week Three against the Bills. For all the attention given to Gronkowski and Hernandez, Welker was as good as ever, avoiding dropped passes and operating with an incredibly high rapport with Brady as a tough-to-defend slot receiver. How do defenses account for all three of them? It’s almost impossible. And while Deion Branch is far from an elite player, he’s still good enough to make defenses pay when they forget about him, as he put up 51/702/5 on 89 targets (a somewhat disappointing 57.3%) to average 7.2 FPG. The only bust in this receiving corps was former Bengal Chad Ochocinco, who, in addition to losing a step, failed to grasp the offense and saw limited snaps. He had only 15/276/1 in the regular season and was inactive in the AFC Championship game. Three other receivers caught passes, including Julian Edelman, Tiquan Underwood, and Matthew Slater, but Edelman and Slater had such little importance to the offense that they were used to add depth to the defensive backfield. This offense was all about Gronk, Hernandez, and Welker, and for good reason.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Welker is a free agent, but it’s pretty clear that he’ll be back in 2012, joining the elite tandem of TEs. Depth is the issue, as Branch is a free agent, and the Patriots still don’t have a reliable deep threat on the outside. Will the team make an effort to bring veteran Brandon Lloyd, who has stated he loves playing for Josh McDaniels, into the fold?
Key Free Agents: WR Wes Welker, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB Kevin Faulk, WR Deion Branch, WR/DB Matthew Slater, C Dan Connolly, C Dan Koppen, DE Andre Carter, DE Shaun Ellis, DE Mark Anderson, SS James Ihedigbo
New York Jets
QB: Year Three of the Mark Sanchez era has come and passed, and, well, nothing has changed. In his first two seasons, people hung on to the “Sanchez is a winner” narrative, noting that he was good enough to lead the Jets to the AFC title game both years. Well, that narrative is over, as the Jets fizzled to the finish, and Sanchez looked extremely uncomfortable. Sanchez is actually about the game guy, but the difference this year was that his supporting cast weakened – and he wasn’t good enough to offset that. The Jet season went into the toilet, with WR Santonio Holmes drawing backlash from everyone and Sanchez drawing backlash from anonymous Jets players in a New York Daily News article. Of course, lost in all the Sanchez negativity is the fact that he was inexplicably viable for desperate fantasy owners. No, he wasn’t an elite option, but he finished the season ranked 11th among QBs, with an average of 20.2 FPG, making him a low-end starter in 12-team leagues. His completion percentage (56.8%) was lousy, his 18 INTs were the 5th most, and he averaged only 6.4 yards per attempt (27th), yet he still threw 26 TDs and somehow ran for 6 more TDs. So Sanchez was viable, but he was also someone you rarely wanted to watch because he had some horrendously bad games. In fact, what’s most amazing about his #11 ranking might be that he threw for fewer than 200 yards in half his starts. Really, a big reason for his fantasy success is the 6 rushing TDs, which ranked him tied for 2nd among QBs with Tim Tebow. Is that sustainable? No, probably not. Only 13 QBs had more than 1 TD on the ground, and while Sanchez is mobile, he’s not a dangerous running threat. There are myriad problems with Sanchez’s game, and perhaps the biggest was his total lack of confidence late in the season. The Jets didn’t have any confidence in him, either, as they rarely threw the ball downfield, therefore limiting the potential of WR Santonio Holmes and TE Dustin Keller – although, to be fair to Sanchez, Holmes appeared to mail it in anyway. The Jets try to manage Sanchez, but the problem is that there’s no consistency to his game as a passer. He missed easy throws, he missed reads, and he turned the ball over way too much toward the end of the season. Early on, OC Brian Schottenheimer attempted to open things up, but they quickly realized that wasn’t a good option and turned back to the “ground and pound.” Unfortunately, RB Shonn Greene isn’t particularly reliable as a featured back, so this offense was lost. Sanchez had no poise, Greene couldn’t create anything, and there was absolutely no threat of a downfield passing game. Yet, somehow, Sanchez had 32 total TDs and was a serviceable low-end fantasy option. You gotta love sports! Behind Sanchez, veteran Mark Brunell threw only 3 passes so, despite the problems, HC Rex Ryan maintained his public confidence in Sanchez, even if the team was falling apart behind the scenes.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Ryan claims that Sanchez isn’t going anywhere, but will the Jets bring in someone who can put some heat on Sanchez if he fails to improve again?
RBs: This was finally the season in which Shonn Greene took over as the Jets’ lead running back over veteran LaDainian Tomlinson, and while Greene looked solid at times, he still never established himself as the foundation of the offense. For fantasy, Greene is essentially a volume runner because he is not an active receiver and rarely breaks off big plays as a runner. He struggles to create for himself and instead must rely on good blocking by the offensive line up front. Greene runs pretty hard and can sustain offense, but only if he gets a crease. He’s not going to make defenders miss, and he’s not particularly explosive. He did have his first 1,000-yard season, running 253 times for 1054 yards (4.2 YPC) and 6 TDs, and he also had his most productive year as a receiver with 30/211. But the lack of TDs was disappointing again, especially because half of them came in one game (Week Thirteen against Washington), and he finished tied with QB Mark Sanchez in that category. He had only two 100-yard games and scored a TD in only four games, so he rarely had upside. Overall, the result was an average of 10.2 FPG, placing him 26th among RBs. He’s a solid player, but the Jets, despite their insistence on running the ball, seem reluctant to make him the foundation of the offense. As for Tomlinson, he played perhaps his final season and was rather quiet, putting up just 75/280/1 (3.7 YPC) rushing with 42/449/2 receiving for an average of 6.5 FPG. He had double-digit carries only once all season, and while he had a few successful games as a receiver, especially early in the season, he wasn’t dependable for fantasy. The Jet defense at least kept them in most games, meaning the offense didn’t often have to abandon Greene and constantly use Tomlinson as a hurry-up back in passing situations. There were some expectations that speedy second-year RB Joe McKnight would get more involved on offense, but that wasn’t the case. Most of his impact was felt in the return game, as he had 43/134 rushing and 13/139 receiving, although he could finally be in line for a bigger role next year if Tomlinson moves on. Rookie RB Bilal Powell was also mostly irrelevant with 13 carries for 21 yards, but he might be someone to watch if Greene falters with the conservative Tony Sparano leading the offense in 2012 and assumedly beyond.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: With Tony Sparano taking over control of the offense, the Jets clearly want their offense to revolve around the run game. Can Sparano get Greene and the power run game going more consistently? Will the Jets sign someone to pair with him? Also, will we see a lot more of McKnight with LT possibly retiring?
WRs/TEs: In terms of pure talent, Santonio Holmes is one of the league’s 10 best wide receivers. Unfortunately, you’d never think that by watching his 2011 season. Stuck in a limited passing offense featuring an erratic QB in Mark Sanchez, who was never trusted to throw the ball downfield, Holmes did nothing to help the situation. He made mental mistakes, he wasn’t as explosive as usual, and he struggled to get separation versus man coverage on a consistent basis. Fortunately for fantasy, Holmes was a big-time threat in the red zone with 8 TDs, but for the season he caught only 51 passes for 654 yards on 100 targets (a lackluster 51% catch rate). He averaged a career-low 12.8 FPG and caught only half his targets, and his season ended on a really bad note when he was benched in Week Seventeen. Subsequently, several teammates lashed out about the lack of effort from someone who was inexplicably a co-captain. He finished a disappointing 37th among WRs, with an average of 7.7 FPG, and now the question is if the Jets will even be able to bring him back, even though he signed a five-year deal with $24 million guaranteed in July. At the other starting spot, we got a season from Plaxico Burress that went about as expected. Not surprisingly, Burress was unable to get much separation and consistently make plays after a stint in prison, but he was still an effective target in the red zone, mainly because of his big frame. Separation is key for the Jets because Sanchez struggles with accuracy, even on shorter throws, and Burress ended up with 612 yards, catching only 45 of his 95 targets (47.4%). However, he was targeted 22 times in the red zone – 7th most in the league – and came away with a solid 8 TDs to average 6.8 FPG, which ranked him only 45th among WRs. But, unlike Holmes, at least Burress met expectations. With Sanchez at QB, it was unreasonable to expect Burress to return from a long layoff and be a big-time fantasy threat. He was a viable reach because he was a threat to score TDs, and at least you knew what you had in him. Given the limitations of the passing offense, Holmes and Burress were the only two WRs worth consideration for fantasy, although rookie #3 WR Jeremy Kerley showed some promise. Still, he had only 29/314/1 on 46 targets (63%), while Patrick Turner played almost no role with 8/96/1. The most productive player in the receiving corps for the Jets was TE Dustin Keller, who had a solid season with a team-high 65/815/5 on 113 targets (57.5%) but was still somewhat handcuffed by the offense. He’s an athletic TE who can be used to create mismatches, but the Jets rarely threw downfield, meaning Keller wasn’t able to exploit weaknesses down the seam very often. He was more of an intermediate option, and he ended up placing 10th among TEs, with an average of 7 FPG. He did have a 100-yard game early in the season, but he was limited because of the lack of deeper throws and the fact that he had 20 red-zone targets but only 5 scores.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: What will the Jets do with Holmes? The end of the season was a disaster for the entire offense, but Holmes was at the forefront of the criticism, thanks to his lackluster effort. Burress is a free agent, and the Jets will surely embrace the run with Tony Sporano taking over as OC. 

Key Free Agents: RB LaDainian Tomlinson, WR Plaxico Burress, QB Mark Brunell, NT Sione Pouha, OLB Bryan Thomas, SS Jim Leonhard, FS Brodney Pool


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