Peyton Manning: What a difference a year makes. Despite the fluidity amongst the top 5 quarterbacks in the past decade (Culpepper, Favre, Brees, Brady, Rodgers, Schaub, Vick, Roethlisberger, Warner, etc), Manning has always been a staple. However, 4 neck surgeries between the end of the 2010 season and beginning of the 2011 season shelved Manning and a shroud of mystery has surrounded the quarterback since. Manning appears well on his way back to the field, but for what team, no one is quite able to ascertain. Regardless of where Manning ends up (and assuming he is able to get back on the field), he should find himself back amongst the elite in 2012. Never surrounded by the abundance of talented teammates, Manning made everyone around him staggeringly better. Everyone witnessed that, as the Colts went from playoff team with Manning to 1st overall pick without. Manning was under 4000 yards passing only twice (once being his rookie season), never below 26 touchdowns (averaging 30+ for his career) and only once with a sub 84 passer rating (again, his rookie season). The only question remaining for Manning is his ability to get back on the field. Assuming he returns to his role behind center, Manning will again be a top option at quarterback for owners.
Fred Jackson : Spearheading the surprising 5-1 start to the Bills' 2011 season was do-all running back Fred Jackson. With injuries rampant at wide receiver and a shortage of talent elsewhere, Fred Jackson found himself at the forefront of the Bills offense and he pleasantly surprised everyone who took a shot at him in the middle rounds. Through week 12, Jackson had rushed for 943 yards, 6 touchdowns and another 442 yards receiving. However, week 12 would be Jackson's last appearance of the season, as he suffered a fractured fibula against the Dolphins. While the Bills, as a team, continued to flounder in his absence, CJ Spiller finally began to show the talent in the NFL he had shown in bunches in college. Jackson is entering the final year of his contract and while both sides have shown interest in hammering out a long-term deal, Jackson will turn 31 on Tuesday. Also, what is to be made of CJ Spiller's role in the offense? Despite the questions surrounding Jackson's long-term future in Buffalo and CJ Spiller's rise, Jackson should be the Bills' lead back in 2012. Given his proven abilities to stay on the field for all 3 downs, Jackson will again pleasantly surprise and award those owners who find a spot on their team for him.
DeMarco Murray : At the beginning of the 2011 season, the Dallas Cowboys appeared finally ready to hand the reigns of the backfield over to Felix Jones. However, by week 7, rookie DeMarco Murray was forced into that role as Jones' injuries forced him to miss multiple games and Tashard Choice was waived. And Murray did not disappoint. His first start was memorable (to say the least), as he broke numerous Cowboy records as he ran all over the St. Louis Rams to the tune of 253 yards, including a 91 yard touchdown run in the 1st quarter. Over the next 6 games Murray averaged well over 100 yards a game and in doing so supplanted Jones as the starter, relegating him to the reserve role many thought Jones had finally escaped at the beginning of the season. However, for Murray and the Dallas Cowboys, the torrid pace both were on would come to a screeching halt as Murray's fractured ankle would send him (and the Cowboys' playoff hopes) to the IR. Fret not Cowboy fans and fantasy owners, as Murray will return fully healthy for the 2012 season, with Jones merely a change of pace back (assuming Jones is on the roster come week 1). And as he proved while healthy last year, Murray should be considered a top back for owners as they compile their teams in August.
Jahvid Best : Coming out of college in 2008, there seemed to be 2 pertinent and intertwined questions surrounding Jahvid Best. Would the injuries that stained Best's college career follow him to the NFL and would the incredible playmaking ability he showed at Cal translate to the pro game? 2 years into his career and owners are still torn by those same queries. Marred by a turf toe injury much of his first season, Best still had those flashy bursts, wowing owners along the way and leaving them wondering as they built their teams in August of 2011. Best again impressed owners at times in his 2nd season, both running the ball (163 yards against the Bears on Monday night) and receiving (over 60 yards in 3 of 6 games). However, Best could not escape the injuries, as a concussion in week 6 ended his season, just as it had in his senior year at Cal. Retirement rumors and question marks about Best's future surround him as he approaches his 3rd season, leaving owners in a familiar quagmire. Assuming Best returns, what kind of impact will Mikel Leshoure have on his output and can Best stay healthy for an entire season? The potential has always been there for Best, but he needs to be on the field for 16 games to reach it.
It is hard to remember a year so riddled with serious injuries, especially to so many top flight stars. The violence of the game makes them inevitable and despite elevated precautions and new rules, the injuries will continue to mount. For the first time since his rookie year, questions will surround Peyton Manning and how much (and if) he can contribute. Certainly a season ending injury is never a positive, but if there was anything "lucky" about it, early injuries will make for earlier returns. While injuries to Jamaal Charles and Kenny Britt damaged the playoff hopes of many early, dynasty and keeper owners of Adrian Peterson are faced with a much more daunting scenario as they prepare their teams for 2012. Was 2011 an anomaly, a misaligning of the fantasy stars with injuries abound or can owners expect a return to the normalcy of years past? Owners will again look to the stars in hopes of obtaining the ever elusive fantasy championship.