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Fantasy Football 2016: Early Bird Rankings

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The early bird gets the worm. I provide some way-too-early positional rankings and insight for next fantasy football season, in addition to discussing some of last year's standout performers.

Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, winner of the 2015 NFL.com Fantasy Player of the Year Award, emerges from the tunnel at Heinz field
Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, winner of the 2015 NFL.com Fantasy Player of the Year Award, emerges from the tunnel at Heinz field
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

After the Denver Broncos and their top notch defense extinguished Cam Newton's red hot Carolina Panthers by a score of 24-10 this past Sunday night, I think it's safe to say the 2015 NFL season has officially come to an end.  The conclusion of Super Bowl 50 puts a bow on what was undoubtedly another wild and unpredictable year of fantasy football.  Injuries, suspensions, and breakout players were, like always, among the most common reasons that 2015 played out like it did.

Although we can't predict who will be traded, signed, released, or arrested, this off-season is sure to be filled with breaking news and drama in the upcoming months.  Not to mention the 2016 NFL Draft kicks off on April 28, which will deliver loads of talented young players into the NFL and the fantasy football world alike.  Keeping in mind how fluid the NFL picture will remain until the 2016 season begins, let's take an early look at my top 10 positional rankings for QB, RB, WR, and TE .  These rankings were constructed based on ESPN standard league scoring systems.

Quarterback

1)  Cam Newton (CAR)

2)  Andrew Luck (IND)

3)  Russell Wilson (SEA)

4)  Aaron Rodgers (GB)

5)  Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)

6)  Tom Brady (NE)

7)  Carson Palmer (ARI)

8)  Blake Bortles (JAC)

9)  Drew Brees (NO)

10)  Derek Carr (OAK)

Just outside my top 10:  Tony Tomo (DAL), Tyrod Taylor (BUF), Jameis Winston (TB)

Coming off his NFL MVP season that fell just short of a ring, Cam Newton will be the frontrunner for the top QB ranking next season.  His dominant rushing skills paired with drastically improved throwing mechanics make for another elite year of production.  One of the biggest disappointments of 2015 was Andrew Luck, who struggled early on before injuring his ribs/kidney midseason.  I think he's a prime bounce-back candidate next year with a young and speedy WR corps (once Andre Johnson moves on).  Unlike Luck, Russell Wilson was a delightful surprise, finishing as a top 3 fantasy QB in standard leagues.  His ability to scramble and extend plays was evident in 2015, as Wilson went on an absolute tear in the second half of the year.  He should continue to be a safe option next year and it wouldn't hurt to give him another weapon during the offseason.  Aaron Rodgers had an uncharacteristically mediocre season to his own standards.  Getting Jordy Nelson back for next year will almost certainly slide A-Rod back into the top 5 at his position.  Ben Roethlisberger had a rollercoaster season, dealing with a myriad of injuries and suspensions both to himself and his playmakers.  However, it's hard to imagine Big Ben putting up less-than-stellar numbers in 2016 if offensive weapons like Bell, Brown, and Bryant are all on the field.

Tom Brady came out of the gates on fire, and the only thing that really cooled him down was injuries on the offensive side of the ball.  Going into his 16th season, Brady will likely continue to offer QB1 value as long as Gronk and Edelman are healthy.  After turning in a great season for the Cards in 2015, Carson Palmer stalled out in the postseason.  With an arsenal of playmakers on a vertical offense, Palmer should remain a solid QB1 next year.  Blake Bortles finished his sophomore season as a top 4 fantasy QB in ESPN standard leagues.  With Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns shaping up to be a nightmare duo for opposing defenses, Bortles should be drafted as a starter in 2016 leagues.  Drew Brees had his ups (505 yards + 7 TD) and his downs (228 yards + 0 TD) this past year, but still finished as the 6th best QB on ESPN.  With a defense that gives up so many points, I see Brees as a safe, back-end fantasy option in 2016.  Another sophomore who outperformed expectations was Derek Carr of the Raiders.  He already looks comfortable in the pocket, and having Cooper and Crabtree on the perimeter doesn't hurt his outlook.

Running Back

1)  Todd Gurley (STL)

2)  Le'Veon Bell (PIT)

3)  DeVonta Freeman (ATL)

4)  David Johnson (ARI)

5)  Doug Martin (TB)

6)  Thomas Rawls (SEA)

7)  Adrian Peterson (MIN)

8)  Jamaal Charles (KC)

9)  Mark Ingram (NO)

10)  Lamar Miller (MIA)

Just outside my top 10:  Carlos Hyde (SF), Latavius Murray (OAK), Eddie Lacy (GB)

The top spot for fantasy RB ranks isn't nearly as definitive as it is for other positions.  As of right now, I'm going with Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley.  His Rams squad goes from STL to LA, but his dynamic skills won't be going anywhere.  The major knee injury to Le'Veon Bell during week 8 of this past season is the only thing keeping me from putting the Steeler RB at #1.  If rehabilitation of the MCL and PCL proceeds without any setbacks whatsoever, he'd almost positively slide past Gurley as my top 2016 fantasy ball carrier.  The biggest steal of your 2015 draft was most likely Falcons speedster DeVonta Freeman, who rumbled his way to the top scoring spot for fantasy RBs.  His yardage may have diminished down the stretch, but his opportunities didn't.  As of now, he's firmly ahead of Tevin Coleman, but we'll have to wait a few months to be sure.  One player that I'm hoping enters 2016 as a clear-cut starter is David Johnson, who carried the Cardinals to multiple big wins late in the year.  I believe his versatile skill set can easily make him a top 5 fantasy option next year.  Doug Martin had a massive year, finishing as the 3rd best fantasy runner and rushing for less yards than only AP.  It looks like he'll be back in Tampa, so for now he's a top-notch RB1 for next year.

With Marshawn Lynch hanging up the cleats (literally) after 9 seasons in the NFL, another "beast mode" looks to be the next man up in Seattle.  I'm speaking, of course, about Thomas Rawls, who looked very explosive in his limited role as a starter this year.  He's locked in as a top 10 RB for 2016.  After sitting out an entire season, Adrian Peterson returned in 2015 with a typically strong performance, rushing for just under 1500 yards.  While age is a concern, AP should still be an RB1 in nearly all formats next season.  Jamaal Charles had his season ended prematurely after suffering another torn ACL in week 5.  Assuming he is fully healthy by training camp this summer, I don't think KC has any reason to demote him from a starting role, although it would make sense to spell him more often.  Mark Ingram was performing like a high-end RB1 before his season came to a halt due to a shoulder injury late in 2015.  A tough runner with a nose for the end zone, he should remain a top 10 option next year.  One RB that is likely to relocate this offseason is Miami Dolphin RB Lamar Miller.  Annually underused in South Beach, a change of scenery might be the best thing for Miller to finally become a team's workhorse.

Wide Receiver

1)  Antonio Brown (PIT)

2)  Julio Jones (ATL)

3)  Odell Beckham (NYG)

4)  DeAndre Hopkins (HOU)

5)  Dez Bryant (DAL)

6)  Allen Robinson (JAC)

7)  Alshon Jeffery (CHI)

8)  Sammy Watkins (BUF)

9)  Keenan Allen (SD)

10)  Brandon Marshall (NYJ)

Just outside my top 10:  Demaryius Thomas (DEN), A.J. Green (CIN), Jordy Nelson (GB)

Had Big Ben stayed healthy, it isn't crazy to think Antonio Brown would have had the most receiving yards in NFL single season history.  AB provides both a ceiling and a floor that other wideouts simply cannot.  The NFL's leading receiver in terms of yardage, Julio Jones will almost surely offer up top 3 WR numbers again in 2016.  Odell Beckham finished in the top 5 of fantasy WR scoring this past year, solidifying that this young star is here to stay.  You won't find many sources that have ODB outside the top 5 for his position.  DeAndre Hopkins was one of many surprisingly dominant wideouts in 2015, consistently posting elite stats with no-name QBs at the helm.  Assuming the Texans find a QB for the future this offseason, "Nuk" should blow up again next season.  Dez Bryant had sort of a lost season in 2015, breaking his foot and returning only to see Romo break his collarbone (again).  As of right now, I think people could underdraft Dez next year by holding this year against him, making him a great selection after the first round.

Allen Robinson had his breakout season with the Jags this past year, posting a whopping 1400 yards and 14 scores as well.  With a young offense all around him, the arrow is pointing up for A-Rob.  Bears WR Alshon Jeffery had an injury-riddled contract year that allowed him to play in roughly half of his 2015 contests.  Still, Chicago will look to retain him and he looked absolutely dominant in the few games in which he was fully healthy.  Clemson burner Sammy Watkins came on strong at the end of this past season, and I look for him to continue being a borderline WR1 in 2016.  Someone who people may forget about during the offseason is Keenan Allen of the Chargers.  He was off to a fantastic start this year before hitting the IR, so he should be a fine selection in the early-to-mid rounds when draft season arrives.  There were a lot of contenders for the last spot in my top 10, but I went with Brandon Marshall following his elite campaign with the Jets.  His chemistry with Fitzpatrick was evident this year, leading to fourteen weeks with 100+ yards and/or a TD.

Tight End

1)  Rob Gronkowski (NE)

2)  Greg Olsen (CAR)

3)  Jordan Reed (WAS)

4)  Travis Kelce (KC)

5)  Tyler Eifert (CIN)

6)  Delanie Walker (TEN)

7)  Julius Thomas (JAC)

8)  Gary Barnidge (CLE)

9)  Zach Ertz (PHI)

10)  Austin Sefarian-Jenkins (TB)

Just outside my top 10:  Maxx Williams (BAL), Ladarius Green (SD), Charles Clay (BUF)

As expected, Rob Gronkowski ruled the NFL in a year he nearly stayed injury-free.  Hits to the knee are always a scare for Gronk and his owners, but he will continue to provide overwhelming fantasy numbers with Brady at the helm, making him worthy of a 1st or 2nd round pick next fantasy season. Greg Olsen was Cam's top target in the passing game this year, and he delivered steady numbers all year long.  I look for their rapport to remain strong, making Olsen an elite TE option in 2016. Jordan Reed had yet another year slowed down by injury, but he has never had a problem with production when healthy, as seen during his three week rage during weeks 14-16.  He will be a top 5 TE selection in virtually every league. Travis Kelce has all the tools to be a dominant TE in the NFL, and the Chiefs just paid him like one.  It would only make sense for them to increase his role in the passing game in 2016.  Even with only 615 yards this year, Tyler Eifert made up for it in a big way by hauling in 13 TDs.  I expect him to be a solid TE1 next season, but I would imagine his receiving yardage goes up while his TD total goes down.

Delanie Walker quickly became Marcus Mariota's favorite target in his rookie campaign, racking up almost 1100 yards and finishing in the top 5 of ESPN standard leagues.  I only expect their chemistry to improve over the offseason, making him a very intriguing fantasy option in 2016.  After breaking his hand in the preseason, Julius Thomas missed the first month of action with his new Jags team.  Orange Julius should reap the benefits of a full offseason with QB Blake Bortles and settle in as a quality starting option next year.  Not many NFL players wait until their 30th birthday to break out, but that's exactly what Gary Barnidge did in 2015.  He just signed a contract extension after going for 1000+ yards and 9 TD with a revolving door at QB, so as long as Cleveland finds a decent option in the upcoming draft, Barnidge should be a relatively safe TE1 again.  Speaking of contract extensions, Zach Ertz just got one of his own after coming on very strong at the end of this season.  He's young and has a ton of athleticism, making him an ideal fantasy TE that you can grab later on in most drafts.  One big-bodied TE that I think can make a major stride next year is Austin Sefarian-Jenkins of the Bucs.  Although he sat out most of last season, he makes his presence felt when on the field, especially in the red zone.

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I'll continue to post updated rankings with more positional depth as the unforeseeable offseason headlines unfold... and they will.  Stay tuned.