The kickoff of the 2013 NFL season, with the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens taking on the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, looms ever closer and, with it, the start of another fantasy football season will be here. In honor of the year 2013, here are a baker's dozen of predictions -- both fantasy and reality -- as we get ready for some football.
1. Trent Richardson will finish as the top scoring running back in fantasy football, like Norv Turner products Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson before him as the Cleveland Browns go from fantasy wasteland to powerhouse and doormats to playoff contenders in a very competitive (ie: not very good) AFC North. In addition to T-Rich, who should flirt with 1,800 all purpose yards running and receiving and about 12 to 15 total touchdowns, the Browns will see a top 20 wide receiver emerge in Josh Gordon (he'd crack top 15 if not for his two game suspension), a top 10 tight end in Jordan Cameron, and even much-maligned quarterback Brandon Weeden will be worth owning in certain leagues.
2. EJ Manuel becomes the lastest strong-armed, fleet-footed quarterback to turn around his franchise, winning Rookie of the Year honors and proving the Buffalo Bills brass right for making him the first quarterback taken in the 2013 Draft at No. 11 overall. The dynamic duo of EJ and CJ (Spiller, the Bills' electric third-year running back), Buffalo finishes second behind the Patriots in the AFC East and contends for a wild card playoff spot in a wide open AFC. Right on Manuel's tail for top rookie are running back Eddie Lacy, who gives Green Bay some-much needed balance on offense; wide receiver De'Andre Hopkins, who emerges as the legit No. 2 the Texans have been seeking opposite Andre Johnson; and quarterback Mike Glennon who replaces a struggling Josh Freeman before midseason and rights the pirate ship in Tampa Bay.
3. This is the year 4,000 becomes the new 3,000, as the 2012 record of 11 quarterbacks throwing for more than 4,000 yards isn't just broken, it's shattered. No fewer than 14 quarterbacks -- nearly half of the starters in the league -- will reach the 4,000 yard mark this year. Meanwhile, Drew Brees will pass for his fourth 5,000-yard season and it's very likely that Peyton Manning -- the NFL record-holder with a remarkable 12 4,000-yard seasons -- reaches the 5,000-yard plateau for the first time in his career with an elite trio of pass-catchers in Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. Despite this aerial assault on the NFL, the two quarterbacks who played in last year's Super Bowl -- Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick -- will both fail to reach the 4,000-yard mark.
4. The read-option offense goes the way of the Wildcat, as opposing defensive coordinators, with a whole offseason to create schemes to counter the growing number of running quarterbacks, don't allow their teams to be gashed by the likes of Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. Don't get me wrong, these guys will still run for their fair share of yards, but the designed plays won't work the way they did in 2012. Of the three, it's RG3 who proves to be the best pocket passer of the group. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, unfairly lumped into this group because of his ability to run, continues to put up eye-popping passing numbers, however.
5. Houston Texans running back Arian Foster becomes fantasy football's 2013 version of Michael Turner. Battling through nagging injuries the entire season, Foster only misses a couple starts, but struggles to reach 1,000 yards rushing and double-digit touchdowns to justify his high-price tag in fantasy football. His handcuff, Ben Tate, who can be had 7-8 rounds later, puts up better numbers in a contract year and becomes Michael Turner circa 2008 next season, signing a fat deal to be the featured back with a new team. The Texans once again are the class of the AFC South as the Colts take a few steps back even though Andrew Luck gets better, but the Super Bowl window officially closes on this team when they are bounced in the divisional round of the playoffs.
6. Despite being written off as an elite quarterback with the losses of Welker and Aaron Hernandez, and the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski a question mark all season, Tom Brady once again silences his naysayers by throwing for 4,200 yards and 35 touchdowns, leading the Patriots to yet another AFC East crown all the while making household names out of undrafted free agents Kenbrell Thompkins and Zack Sudfeld, and a Pro Bowler out of Danny Amendola, who seamlessly replaces Wes Welker.
7. Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense translates into NFL success and Philadelphia runs for more yards than any team in the NFL behind LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown and quarterback Michael Vick. But while the team is a lot more exciting to watch, a porous defense that hasn't been the same since the passing of coordinator Jim Johnson is one of the worst in the league combined with Vick's inability to come through in the clutch lead to a 5-11 record and fourth-place NFC East finish for the Eagles.
8. Defeating his December demons, Tony Romo lights it up as Dez Bryant emerges as an elite player and Miles Austin stays healthy enough to put up 1,000 yards beside him, leading Dallas to an NFC East Championship by rattling off six-straight victories after the Cowboys' Week 11 bye, which they enter 5-5. The Cowboys earn a first-round home game, but are upset -- if you can call it that -- by whichever teams comes out of Week 17 slugfest between Robert Griffin's Washington Redskins and Eli Manning's New York Giants to earn the final spot in the NFC playoffs.
9. Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles has a career-year, amassing more than 2,000 total yards rushing and receiving, but still finishing out of the top 5 in fantasy football running backs because he gets just 7 total touchdowns rushing and receiving. Elsewhere in the AFC West, Darren McFadden of the Oakland Raiders and Ryan Mathews of the San Diego Chargers both stay relatively healthy (for them, meaning 12 games each) and are the best fantasy players on their respective teams, which isn't saying much, as both finish with a pedestrian 850-ish yards rushing and half-a-dozen touchdowns, yet people still won't let go that they are worth drafting as upside RB2s in 2014.
10. Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears, in what is supposed to be a high-octane offense with new head coach Marc Trestman, is who we thought he was -- an awful NFL quarterback. Despite being blessed with one of the strongest arms in the league, Cutler does what he always does, locking onto Brandon Marshall in clutch situations and throwing boneheaded interceptions. While Marshall's fantasy value remains high because of this, RB Matt Forte and WR Alshon Jeffery fail to realize their potential because Cutler just won't give them enough targets.
11. With a high-flying spread passing attack led by Sam Bradford and a young ferocious defense that finishes in the Top 8 in fantasy scoring and near the top of the NFL in sacks, the St. Louis Rams take the NFC West by storm and win the division ahead of what many pundits, at one point this offseason, said were the two best teams in football, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Second-year man Chris Givens, not rookie Tavon Austin, becomes Bradford's No. 1 guy and Daryl Richardson proves more than capable of being an solid RB2 in nearly all formats, finishing with 1,600 total yards and 6-8 touchdowns. The Seahawks still make the playoffs, but the Niners regress and miss out.
12. Even though they lost emotional leader Ray Lewis and ballhawk Ed Reed, the Baltimore Ravens defense manages to be better in 2013, thanks to the addition of Elvis Dumervil opposite sackmaster Terrell Suggs, and the two ring up the most quarterback sacks of any duo in the league. On offense, Torrey Smith comes into his own as a No. 1 receiver for the team, and a borderline top 12 fantasy player at his position. However, the team regresses in its overall record, mainly due to the lack of weapons around Flacco who struggles to complete 60 percent of his passes without Anquan Boldin and safety valve Dennis Pitta. The team still edges Cincinnati to make the playoffs as a wildcard, but lose to an overachieving Pittsburgh Steeelers squad that is bolstered by an injection of youth to a defense that creates more splash plays in 2013.
13. Making the leap from very good to elite, MVP candidate Matt Ryan and Julio Jones lead the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl, where they defeat Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos in a shootout for the ages. Ryan and Jones start being discussed in fantasy circles in the same rare air as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans' Drew Brees and Detroit's Calvin Johnson respectively. Meanwhile, tight end Tony Gonzales and running back Steven Jackson retire on top with Super Bowl rings in tow to cap their Hall of Fame careers, leaving holes in the ATL starting lineup and the fantasy football rankings and their respective positions.