Fantasy Football: Era of passing

Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions warms up prior to the start of the game against the Cleveland...

Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions warms up prior to the start of the game against the Cleveland Browns at Ford Field on August 10, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Leon Halip/Getty Images/AFP)

DAN BILICKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:53 AM ET

If you played fantasy football last year, or just watched the NFL in general, something really stood out about what teams were doing on offence. Heck, you could easily have mistaken what you were watching on TV for a teen playing Madden 12 if it weren't for the assortment of camera angles.

We've entered an era of passing that has never been seen before. Rule changes to make the game higher scoring and allow receivers to cross over the middle or go up for lobbed balls without any fear of being levelled by jacked-up defenders.

While many say that this has taken away from the purity of the game -- that the NFL was founded on those big hits -- we now live in an era that is actually looking out for player's safety.

What does this all mean for fantasy football, you ask? Well, more than ever.

In 2011, Matthew Stafford had the fifth highest passing yards total in NFL history, but was only third in the league in the category for the season. Three quarterbacks -- Stafford, Drew Brees and Tom Brady -- all eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark last season. That was a milestone that had been previously touched only twice.

Now consider that none of those three are the top-ranked QB this year. That would be Aaron Rodgers, who would have also hit 5,000 yards, had the Packers not rested him for the final game of the schedule. In the finale against Detroit, backup Matt Flynn famously threw for 480 yards and six TDs.

Then there is the case of Cam Newton. The Carolina rookie shattered all kinds of records, most notably by scoring 14 rushing TDs, the second highest total in the league.

All five of those guys are among the top tier of quarterbacks this year and at least three of them -- Rodgers, Brady and Brees -- should be taken in the first round of your draft. Stafford and Newton should be gone before the end of the second.

After those in the elite status, there is a dropoff to the next level, with most guys having a question mark or two. That makes it more important than usual to try to grab one of the top guys. After all, that quintet represented the five highest scorers in fantasy football last year while the next highest QB, Eli Manning, was behind a bevy of backs and a couple of pass catchers.

One of those pass catchers, the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, brings us to another position to look at in the first two rounds of your draft: Tight end.

The top two guys at that position are so head and shoulders above the rest of their field that it's a little ridiculous. Gronkowski and the Saints' Jimmy Graham were both top-20 scorers last year, something nearly unheard of from tight ends.

While Gronk set records for both receiving yards and TDs scored by a tight end, Graham was hardly a slouch, scoring 11 TDs and finishing a mere 17 yards behind.

If you can get one of these two early in the draft - they will be drafted in early -- then you'll be set at a traditionally low-scoring position that rarely produces decent waiver wire pickups. It's a lot easier to find a gem at running back or wide receiver later on in the draft or even through a mid-season pickup.

Speaking of wide receivers, the field has never been deeper thanks to the souped-up passing games. Every team seems to have at least one, or sometimes two, great receiving options. When you consider that Buffalo's Stevie Johnson, who has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, is ranked 26th at WR by Yahoo!, it gives you an idea of what you're looking at for depth when you're drafting your team.

If you didn't think the years of having to go RB-RB at the top of your draft weren't over last year, they most certainly are now. Whoever would have thought a QB-TE strategy would be a key to victory?

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With passing games around the league getting better and better, the field of good tight ends is following that trend. The two big guys at this position are elite fantasy players and will probably be gone by the end of the second round, something rarely - if ever - seen from this position.

Jimmy Graham, NO

1,310 yards, 11 TDs, 195 points.

Ranked third in receptions and sixth in the league in targets last season - among all receivers.

Rob Gronkowski, NE

1,327 yards, 17 TDs, 240.9

Broke the records for receiving yards and TDs by a TE in 2011.

Antonio Gates, SD

778 yards, 7 TDs, 119.8

He'll be getting a lot more red zone targets with Vincent Jackson gone.

Vernon Davis, SF

792 yards, 6 TDs, 112.7

Niners' playoff hero actually saw his numbers decline in 2011.

Aaron Hernandez, NE

910 yards, 7 TDs, 135.5

May have been the No. 2 TE on his team, but he was third-best in the league.

Brandon Pettigrew, DET

777 yards, 5 TDs, 107.7

He was the second-leading target for a QB that threw for more than 5,000 yards.

Jermichael Finley, GB

767 yards, 8 TDs, 124.7

Will frustrate you with inconsistent weekly totals, but the potential is there.

Jason Witten, DAL

942 yards, 5 TDs, 124.2

Hopes to play in regular-season opener after suffering lacerated spleen in pre-season.

Fred Davis, WAS

796 yards, 3 TDs, 95.6

Has made former household-name Chris Cooley an afterthought in Washington.

Tony Gonzalez, ATL

875 yards, 7 TDs, 129.5

Age is yet to catch up to this 36-year-old future hall of famer.

Owen Daniels, HOU

677 yards, 3 TDs, 85.7

Hasn't played a full slate in the past three seasons.

Jared Cook, TEN

759 yards, 3 TDs, 89.9

Had the second highest yards per reception among TEs in 2011.

Jermaine Gresham, CIN

596 yards, 6 TDs, 93.6

Another year of working with quarterback Andy Dalton will only bring improvement.

Dustin Keller, NYJ

815 yards, 5 TDs, 109.5

Unsung fantasy performer was a top-10 tight end last season.

Brent Celek, PHI

811 yards, 5 TDs, 111.1

Came on strongly in the second half of last season after mustering an early three-week total of 17 yards.

Jacob Tamme, DEN

177 yards, 1 TD, 23.7.

A good sleeper bet if you think that Manning won't miss much time this year.

Greg Olsen, CAR

540 yards, 5 TDs, 84

If the Cats want to come through with their Super Bowl promise, he'll have to step up.

Tony Moeaki, KC

Missed 2011 with a knee injury.

Was set for a breakout 2011 season before tearing up his knee in the pre-season.

Coby Fleener, IND

2012 rookie.

Playing with Luck at Stanford means the two will have instant chemistry.

Dallas Clark, TB

352 yards, 2 TDs, 45.2

Moves to the Bucs after playing only 17 games over last two seasons in Indy.

Martellus Bennett, NYG

144 yards, 0 TDs, 14.4

Motivated to show the Cowboys that they were wrong to let him get away.

Kellen Winslow, SEA

763 yards, 2 TDs, 90.3

An unrealized talent who was traded for the second time in his career this past off-season because of locker room issues.

Kyle Rudolph, MIN

249 yards, 3 TDs, 42.9

With Visanthe Shiancoe out of the picture, he's the new No. 1 TE in Minnesota after a forgettable rookie season.

Heath Miller, PIT

631 yards, 2 TDs, 73.7

Steady starter with Steelers is never going to be a top threat.

Marcedes Lewis, JAC

460 yards, 0 TDs, 46

Went from double-digit TDs in 2010 to being blanked in 2011.

Ed Dickson, BAL

528 yards, 5 TDs, 82.8

Will look to build off solid sophomore season as No. 1 guy in Ravens' TE tandem.

Scott Chandler, BUF

389 yards, 6 TDs, 72.9

Is capable of having big games, but needs to be more consistent.

Todd Heap, ARIZ

283 yards, 1 TD, 34.3

Fantasy relevance seems to be a thing of the past for Heap.

Anthony Fasano, MIA

451 yards, 5 TDs, 75.1

He's a starter, but he's not going to produce any big numbers.

Kevin Boss, KC

368 yards, 3 TDs, 54.8

Moeaki is taking the first-team snaps in camp, so Boss likely won't starter.


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