The 2009 NFL season provided more than a few chills, spills and thrills along the way.
We entered the year with grand expectations at tailback, and conventional wisdom kept the draft board running back-heavy in the opening rounds.
That age-old strategy just might fall to the wayside in 2010 given the number of pass-happy attacks and the proliferation of two and three-back-systems throughout the NFL.
I’ll give you two statistical nuggets to start your valuation process for 2010.
• 10 quarterbacks passed for at least 4,000 yards.
• Only 15 running backs reached 1,000 yards.
In this installment of my 2009 review, I’m raising a toast to the top-notch performers of 2009. It was certainly a topsy-turvy campaign, but some players gave owners consistent efforts throughout the year and others emerged to vault them into title contention.
I’ll forgo the analysis of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, as they gave owners the strong performances we anticipated (we’ll save the Week 16 and 17 sit-downs for the blogosphere).
Let’s start in Minnesota, where Brett Favre produced a masterful season.
Quarterback: Brett Favre, Minnesota
I can’t write about the top players of the year and not doff my cap to the incomparable, ageless wonder. Depending on when leagues were drafted, Favre was a late-round flier on the whispers of his comeback or a top-15 quarterback selection.
He certainly paid off for those owners who gambled on draft day that the Vikings would rely more on Favre’s arm than the legs of Adrian Peterson. Favre finished second in the NFL with 33 touchdowns (his most since 1997) and 4,202 passing yards (his most since 1998). He also threw only seven interceptions in 531 attempts, six fewer than any of his previous full seasons in the NFL. Favre also posted the best passer rating of his career.
I know. Some of you are less than enamored with him for his Week 15 effort against the Panthers. I have to look at the full body of work and just marvel at what he was able to accomplish following the summer waffling.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
Not to be outdone by his Minnesota counterpart, Rodgers effectively utilized his deep receiver corps to great heights. Rodgers averaged 277.1 passing yards and rolled up 11 multi-touchdown efforts (30 overall with 11 turnovers). While Rodgers wasn’t able to replicate his long-distance connections with Greg Jennings from 2008, his decision-making improved (six fewer interceptions) and he spread the ball around brilliantly. He was a top-five quarterback for me in 2009 and will be right on the heels of the leaders for 2010.
Quarterback: Matt Schaub, Houston
Fantasy owners were undecided about Schaub coming into 2009. They were obviously enamored with his connection with Andre Johnson and his big arm, but Schaub’s inability to finish a season was definitely scrutinized. Schaub had played in only 11 games in back-to-back seasons coming into 2009.
Despite myriad issues in the running game and injuries to Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels, Schaub took his game to another level in 2009. Schaub led the NFL with 4,770 passing yards and nearly doubled his touchdown total over his 2008 total. He still committed some egregious errors in judgment – something Houston fans take issue with – and tossed 15 interceptions. Schaub averaged 298.1 yards per game and played in all 16 contests.
Running back: Chris Johnson, Tennessee
Johnson was drafted toward the end of the first round in most leagues, as owners contemplated the role to be played by the slimmed-down version of 2008 vulture back LenDale White. He gave owners weekly brilliance and topped 100 yards in 11 straight games to close the year (12 100-yard efforts overall with a 97-yard game for good measure).
When you review the game logs, Johnson actually started the season slowly. He’d only scored two of his 14 touchdowns before Week 8 while averaging just shy of 100 rushing yards. Once the Titans turned to Vince Young in Week 8, things clicked and his race to 2,000 yards began. Johnson lost a 62-yard touchdown sprint to a holding penalty in Week 17.
Running back: Thomas Jones, New York Jets
Cedric Benson gets an honorable mention here for his huge year in Cincinnati. However, Jones’ huge touchdown total and the Jets’ reliance on the veteran back put him in this slot. Fantasy owners dismissed Jones on draft day because of fears about his yearly workload, Shonn Greene’s arrival and problems to be faced with Mark Sanchez under center.
Jones responded by carrying the ball 331 times, his fifth year with at least 290 carries. He amassed 1,402 rushing yards to finish third in the league and established a new career mark with 14 rushing touchdowns. Jones scored or rushed for 100 yards in 12 of his final 14 games of the year.
Running back: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Peterson racked up 180 yards and three touchdowns against the Browns. The chatter in the blogosphere gravitated to Peterson’s pursuit of a 2,000-yard season. While AD didn’t reach that stratosphere, he still produced a phenomenal season for fantasy owners. He scored in 12 of 16 games (18 overall), including six in the final four games of the year.
He did have several games with smallish rushing efforts, much to the chagrin of expectant fantasy owners. In fact, Peterson topped 100 yards only twice after the first week and had four games with fewer than 60 rushing yards. Peterson may not have flirted with history, but he still delivered routine trips to the end zone and gave owners a strong weekly baseline. As such, I’ll go against the grain and not chastise this year’s overwhelming choice at No. 1 overall.
Running back: Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
I felt that I needed to give a nod to Charles’ brilliance in the second half of the season. He produced an amazing run in the final month of the season with four consecutive 100-yard game. He capped the Week 17 scoring with a 56-yard sprint to the end zone. He finished the game with 25 carries for 259 yards and two touchdowns. Charles averaged 111.6 rushing yards per game over his final nine appearances.
Wide receiver: Andre Johnson, Houston
Johnson has been the model of consistency for fantasy receivers in the past four years. He started the season with a pedestrian effort against “MasterLock,” Darrelle Revis. Johnson turned things up in Week 2 with 10 catches and two touchdowns and went on to record his third 100-reception season in the past four years. He finished with 1,569 receiving yards.
Despite myriad issues in the running game, the Texans’ passing game couldn’t be denied. Johnson was particularly brilliant down the stretch, give fantasy owners back-to-back 190-yard days in Weeks 15 and 16 with a touchdown grab in Week 16. He’ll own the top spot in wide receiver rankings for 2010.
Wide receiver: Steve Smith, New York Giants
Smith experienced somewhat of a breakthrough in 2008 as a PPR threat. Plaxico Burress’ incarceration established him as Eli Manning’s No. 1 target for the 2009 campaign. The third-year receiver from USC finished the year with a 10-catch day against the Vikings to give him 107 for the year, second in the NFL to Wes Welker.
He caught four or more passes in 15 of the Giants’ games (three in the 16th), and averaged 76.2 receiving yards per game (60 or more in 13 of them). Smith scored seven touchdowns, including pivotal back-to-back weeks in the fantasy playoffs.
Wide receiver: Miles Austin, Dallas
What else can you say about Austin? For the first quarter of the season, he was a non-factor for the Cowboys. He amassed just five receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown prior to that monster performance against the Chiefs in Week 5.
Austin averaged 6.3 receptions and 103.3 receiving yards over the Cowboys’ final 12 games to help lead Dallas to the No. 3 seed in the NFC Playoffs. He also scored 10 touchdowns during this period. More importantly, he scored in eight of those 12 games and finished with 90 or more receiving yards in two of the remaining four contests.
Wide receiver: Sidney Rice, Minnesota
I put Rice on the radar for a breakthrough season with rumors of Favre’s arrival in Minnesota. Rice became one of the season’s biggest breakout stars as Favre’s go-to downfield receiver. His ability to leap up and over defensive backs was put on display while his willingness to fight through coverage for jump balls was one of the things that endeared him to Minnesota fans. He finished with 60 or more receiving yards in 10 different games and hauled down 83 passes.
Rice finished the season with eight touchdowns, three in the final two weeks of the year. As such, there’s still some room for growth provided that the Vikings can get Favre to commit for a second run. Rice finished the year with the fourth-most receiving yards in the NFL despite the myriad options available to Favre this season.
Tight end: Vernon Davis, San Francisco
The former top-five fantasy tight end experienced the resurgence of the ages. Davis was left on the wire in most leagues this season, as owners didn’t quite know how to evaluate his place in the offense or his relationship with Mike Singletary. Davis started the season quietly, then caught fire in Week 3. He scored in six of his final seven games to carry fantasy owners to the promised land.
Davis finished the season with 13 touchdowns, four more than he’d produced in his first three seasons in San Francisco. He narrowly missed reaching the 1,000-yard mark (965) and caught 78 passes. To put things in perspective, Davis had caught only 103 passes for 1,132 receiving yards. That’s fantasy gold, and a true example of a breakthrough campaign.
Tight end: Dallas Clark, Indianapolis
Clark was already a mainstay at the tight end position, but the injury to Anthony Gonzalez made him the true No. 2 receiver in Indianapolis for Peyton Manning. The seventh-year tight end out of Iowa established new career marks in receptions (100) and receiving yards (1,106 yards), his first career 1,000-yard campaign. Clark topped 60 receiving yards in nine games this season and caught three or more passes in 15 contests.