Top Ten Fantasy Football Surprises of 2011 – January 5, 2012

The 2011 NFL regular season is now in our rearview mirror.  Your fantasy football season is also over unless you play in a postseason league.  Each year there are always players who come out of nowhere to provide tremendous fantasy production where it was not expected.  Whether it is a veteran player who finally puts it all together or an unknown commodity that no one ever heard of, there are always players that perform without any expectations.  So, without further adieu, here are the top ten fantasy surprises of 2011.

10.  Marshawn Lynch (RB-SEA) – After being discarded by the Buffalo Bills, Marshawn Lynch was given an opportunity to shine in Pete Carroll’s offense in Seattle.  The Beast took full advantage of the opportunities as he racked up several 100-yard games in row and finished the year with 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns.  During the course of the season, he became a legitimate RB1 option as he stayed healthy and productive during the Seahawks’ impressive second half. 

9.  Antonio Brown (WR-PIT) – In Pittsburgh, Mike Wallace got all of the attention as being the main target with Hines Ward in the twilight of his career.  Wallace’s productivity opened the door for Antonio Brown to emerge as a weapon for Ben Roethlisberger to rely upon.  In just his second season, Brown caught 68 passes for 1,108 yards and two touchdowns.  Going forward, the Steelers look to be a pass-first team which will bode well for Brown as he gains more experience and sees more targets in the red zone.

8.  DeMarco Murray (RB-DAL) – Chances are that DeMarco Murray remained a free agent after your fantasy football draft.  However, after an injury to Felix Jones and Tashard Choice was released, Murray was given an opportunity to start for the Cowboys.  He did not disappoint fantasy owners as he amassed 895 yards and scored two touchdowns in only a handful of games before he sustained a season-ending injury during Week 14 against the Giants.  He will likely share carries with Jones in 2012, but he emerged from out of nowhere this year to be a short-lived RB2 option.

7.  Eli Manning (QB-NYG) – It may be somewhat astounding to see a former Super Bowl MVP on a list of biggest fantasy surprises, but Eli Manning certainly deserves to be on this list.  He has always been a middle of the road fantasy quarterback because his numbers were solid but not spectacular.  That all changes this year as he fell just short of 5,000 yards by finishing with 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns.  While he is not in the same class as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees, Eli certainly has moved near the top of the second tier of fantasy quarterbacks.  He also set an NFL record with 15 touchdown passes thrown in the 4th quarter which is quite impressive as well.

6.  Laurent Robinson (WR-DAL) – Not only did the Cowboys suffer injuries at running back, but they also were banged up at wide receiver.  Miles Austin missed several weeks with a hamstring injury and Dez Bryant was never fully healthy all year.  Former Ram castaway Laurent Robinson stepped in and had a very productive year as he developed a nice rapport with Tony Romo.  Robinson had 54 catches for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns.  These numbers were impressive for a player who was likely not drafted and not even added until midway through the season.

5.  Matthew Stafford (QB-DET) – The question was never about his talent.  The question was whether Matthew Stafford could stay healthy for an entire season and mature into the great quarterback he was projected to be.  Stafford answered all of those questions emphatically this year as he threw for an incredible 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns.  Stafford helped lead the Lions back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and formed one of the league’s most dynamic duos with Calvin Johnson.  He is on the cusp of becoming one of the real elite quarterbacks in both real and fantasy football.

4.  Fred Jackson (RB-BUF) – Professional backup running back Fred Jackson finally got a chance to be the number one back on the Bills this year and he did not disappoint.  In fact, he exceeded all expectations by helping Buffalo get off to a fast start this year.  After other top running backs went down with injuries or were not performing well, Jackson was arguably the best fantasy running back during the first six weeks of the season.  He unfortunately missed the final few games of the year with an injury, but he did finish with 934 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. 

3.  Jordy Nelson (WR-GB) – Before the Green Bay Packers magical Super Bowl run last year, few people would have known who Jordy Nelson was.  Coming into 2011, Nelson was just one of the many great wide receivers at Aaron Rodgers’ disposal.  However, he emerged as one of the league’s biggest scoring threats as he finished the year with 68 catches for 1,263 yards and an astounding 15 touchdowns. 

2.  Cam Newton (QB-CAR) – The #1 pick of the 2011 NFL draft stepped right in and proved why he was taken first overall by the Panthers.  Cam Newton exploded onto the fantasy scene right away with some incredible performances that had him right near the top in terms of points and statistics.  He finished the season with 4,051 yards which broke Peyton Manning’s record for passing yards by a rookie.  He also threw 21 touchdowns and added 706 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns to his resume.  Many fantasy owners who drafted Newton as a late round backup were able to trade him for top value early in the season which likely proved to make a difference in the league.

1.  Victor Cruz (WR-NYG) – The biggest surprise of the 2011 fantasy football season is Victor Cruz of the New York Giants.  Best known for his three touchdown catches in the first preseason game in 2010, Cruz almost played his way out of town before blossoming into one of the best receivers in the league.  In 2011, Cruz had 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns.  After the Giants controversially let Steve Smith leave via free agency, one of the biggest questions was who would take his place.  The Giants were so disheartened with Cruz that they signed Brandon Stokely to be their third receiver.  But when Cruz was given another chance, he took full advantage and quickly supplanted Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham as the receiver who defenses game-plan against.  If you had the fortune of adding Cruz during the season, then you undoubtedly reaped the benefits.

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