Like I always say: the 2012 Fantasy Football season never ends. Even though we are a few days away from the Conference Championship Games, I have already started investigating the status of most of the BIG NAME fantasy players for the 2012 season. This year, like many other years, there will be a plethora of big name free agents who will either be looking for new homes, or will be brought back via a new contract, the Franchise Tag, or a Restricted Free Agent Tender. Rather than bore people to death with the details on what a Franchise Tag and RFA Tag is, I linked both to Wikipedia's explanation of both. Going over both in such detail would likely cause the site to explode. Now lets take a look at some of the bigger-name players who are at the end of their current contracts and how their fantasy situation is affected:
Drew Brees - New Orleans: The biggest free agent name on the list, Brees isn't expected to go anywhere this offseason. If either side can't come up with a new contract agreement, Brees is expected to get the franchise tag. As of this writing, there is said to be no way Brees plays elsewhere in 2012.
Fantasy Impact: With Brees expected to stay a Saint, he will be listed as a top-5 fantasy option, despite getting kicked out of the playoffs prematurely by the 49ers.
Alex Smith - San Francisco: If you had asked me at the beginning of the season whether or not Smith would be a 49er next year, I would have said no. But a first-round bye and a playoff victory all but secures Smith's status as the starter in San Francisco. There had been "early speculation" around the NFL that the 49ers will re-sign (Alex) Smith to a two- or three-year extension worth $8-11 million annually. Since this report came out in early December, Smith had done nothing but make that speculation a reality.
Fantasy Impact: With it looking likely that Smith will stay in the Bay Area, I would still only classify him as a QB2 at best. The team needs to add another weapon to the passing offense since Michael Crabtree is their only legit weapon aside from Vernon Davis.
Matt Flynn - Green Bay: Flynn may not be a big name right now, but expect him to cash in once free agency begins. Flynn hasn't seen much time on the field, aside from scrub work behind Aaron Rodgers, but he does have a decent 62.1% completion rating and 9 touchdowns to 5 interceptions. His 480 yard-6 touchdown game against the Lions in Week 17 furthered his free agent stock. It will be interesting to see if he is good because of talent or because of the Packers' system.
Fantasy Impact: There are several teams in need of a starter like the Redskins and the Seahawks, so Flynn is gold in Dynasty Leagues because he WILL start somewhere in 2012. But for now, I will rank him as nothing more than a QB2. He still has a few fundamentals he needs to work on. And he has to prove that he is better than a full-time backup in the NFL.
Kyle Orton - Kansas City: Orton was good, but not great during his starting tenure in the last 3 games of the season as a Chief. He did manage to pull of the upset of the regular season by beating the Packers in Week 15 and he managed a 2-1 record after being named the starter. Now head coach Romeo Crennel backed Orton, saying he should be the starter in 2012, but the front office still has a love affair with Matt Cassel. Orton has even hinted that he doesn't expect to be back with the Chiefs next year.
Fantasy Impact: Orton is a bit inconsistent, but he has shown he can win. He's had success with the Bears, Broncos and a little amount with the Chiefs. Orton shouldn't have to compete with Cassel for the starting job in training camp, so I wouldn't be surprised if he shopped himself around for a chance to start for his 4th team in 5 years. Even though he is still a QB2 at best, he could be a decent bye week fill-in and an option in the right matchups. But this really depends on what weapons he has to play with.
Arian Foster - Houston: Foster did what he said he would do: Keep quiet about his contract and let his play dictate his new deal. Even though he missed some time early in the season, he still racked up 1841 total yards and 12 total touchdowns. If the team can't re-sign Foster, he will get the highest tender possible, ensuring him he will be a Texan in 2012.
Fantasy Impact: Since he isn't going anywhere, Foster is at the top as far as who I would draft No. 1 overall if I had that pick. He proved 2010 was no fluke and the Texans will continue to use him as a focal point in 2012. Like always, make sure you nab Ben Tate, who could wind up being the No. 1 handcuff next season.
Matt Forte - Chicago: I've said it a bunch of times: Forte WAS the Bears offense. With 1487 total yards and 52 receptions in just 12 games in 2012, the Bears will be looking to lock up Forte sometime this offseason. The two sides were said to be nowhere close to an agreement at the beginning of January. But now that GM Jerry Angelo has been fired, talks could heat up again soon.
Fantasy Impact: As much as people hate his offense, Mike Martz's system benefited Forte greatly as not only a runner, but as a big pass-catching option in the backfield. With Martz gone, former offensive line coach Mike Tice will take over as the new offensive coordinator and make the offensive line and running game his main priority. This is nothing but a positive sign that the team wants to be more run oriented moving further. If both sides can agree to a new deal, Forte could possibly be a borderline RB1 if the right pieces fall into place. I have him ranked No. 10 in my first fantasy mock draft.
Ray Rice - Baltimore: If the Ravens offense actually used Rice to his abilities, he could easily be the No. 1 overall running back in the league. And with 70+ receptions in 2 out of the last 3 years, I rank him at the top as the best pass-catching running back in the NFL. Given the fact that the Ravens are still in the hunt for a Super Bowl, Rice's contract hasn't been talked about much. But regardless, he isn't going anywhere anyway. He'll either get the franchise tag or have a new deal worked out during the offseason. He's only getting paid $600,000 in base salary for the 2012 season.
Fantasy Impact: Not much to say considering Rice's on-field play speaks for itself. With Adrian Peterson's (knee) status for training camp up in the air, Rice moves up that much more in the fantasy running back rankings. I have him ranked as the No. 2 overall fantasy back behind Arian Foster and the No. 3 fantasy option behind Foster and Aaron Rodgers in my fantasy mock draft of the first round.
Peyton Hillis - Cleveland: Unlike Rice and Forte, Hillis' stock plummeted in 2012 with his inability to stay healthy and his mind on money more than helping the team. GM Tom Heckert plans on meeting with Hillis' representatives in the next week, but word is that the Browns want to move on and go a different direction in the backfield.
Fantasy Impact: I think Hillis' days as a possible RB1 are long gone, but he still might have some RB2 value left in him, depending on how big your league is. There are a few teams who could use more talent in the backfield, but Hillis' lack of focus may have cost him millions. I'll rank him as a low-end RB2 for now, but I wouldn't be surprised if he fell all the way down to a weekly flex option.
Mike Tolbert - San Diego: If you haven't gotten a chance, make sure you read my complete write up on Tolbert, who is my first fantasy sleeper for 2012.
DeSean Jackson - Philadelphia: The jury is still out on whether Jackson will be back with the Eagles in 2012. There has been talk that the Eagles will place the franchise tag on him, but his attitude has rubbed the coaches and many of his teammates the wrong way. He still believes he is worth Larry Fitzgerald money, which is hardly the case. The two sides will try to come to an agreement, but Jackson may very well find himself looking for a new team.
Fantasy Impact: If Jackson stays in Philly, he is nowhere near a WR1. Teams do game plan for him, which usually means he gets taken out of games quickly. He only averaged a mere 64 yards a game and put up 100+ receiving yards twice in 2012. I still consider him a WR2 on talent alone. But if I had to choose between him and someone else, I may opt for the other guy, especially if he is no longer wearing Eagle green.
Vincent Jackson - San Diego: Unlike DeSean, Vincent has shown a great work ethic and has come up big for the Chargers when they need him. GM AJ Smith has been reluctant to sign Jackson long term, opting for the franchise tag. But this could finally be the offseason where Jackson gets the deal he has been looking for.
Fantasy Impact: Antonio Gates is starting to wear down a bit, so bringing back Jackson to take more of the workload should be a prerogative. Coming off another 1000-yard season, V-Jax will be an upper-tier WR2 in 2012. In larger leagues, there is a good chance that he goes as a WR1 with the hopes that Philip Rivers can bounce back from his so-so 2011 season.
Wes Welker - New England: Welker means as much to the offense as Tom Brady does. With career highs in receiving yards (1569) and receiving touchdowns (9), there is news that Welker could be a candidate for the franchise tag this offseason. Both sides will try one last time to work out a deal. But either way, I don't see a scenario where Welker isn't a Patriot in 2012. Even at 31, he is showing no signs of decline.
Fantasy Impact: Even with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in the mix, Welker could still be considered a fantasy first rounder in PPR leagues after catching 122 passes in 2011. But for me, I would still feel more comfortable taking him as one of the top WR2s on the board.
Marques Colston - New Orleans: There are several other big-name receivers who could hit the open market like Stevie Johnson and Dwayne Bowe, but Colston has the best chance to actually GET OUT of New Orleans. With Drew Brees' expected to get slapped with the franchise tag and offensive guard Carl Nicks also due a new contract, the Saints may have to pass and let Colston go. Colston has made it known he wants to get paid, stating he won't take a home-town discount to stay with the Saints.
Fantasy Impact: I will see several people disagree, but I truly believe Colston could be one of those receivers who puts up big stats because he is more of a product of the offensive system than anything else. If he stays a Saint, I regard him as a WR2. But if he somehow lands a huge deal somewhere else, I may steer clear of him altogether. There have been too many times where we have seen a receiver go somewhere else and flop.
I really won't go too much into detail regarding tight ends as there are only a couple BIG NAME players out there who will be on the open market. Tony Gonzalez signed a one-year extension to stay in Atlanta for one more season. Other notables are:
Jermichael Finley - Green Bay: Expected to get the franchise tag. Had a disappointing 2011, but could bounce back and be a TE1 again in 2012.
Fred Davis - Washington: A four-game suspension killed a lot of his future value, but Davis figures to get re-signed after taking the starting tight end job from Chris Cooley. If Davis stays in Washington, I'd take a flyer on him if he is still on the board in the middle rounds.
John Carlson - Seattle: Remember him? I always liked Carlson, but his value got destroyed once Pete Carroll took over. He may have to sign a small "prove it" deal while he is coming off a shoulder injury. The Seahawks would like to bring him back, but Carlson should look elsewhere if he wants to prove he can be a viable pass-catching tight end. He could be a sleeper option in dynasty leagues.