Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
As we learned last week, life in the NFL isn't all fun and games.
Last Wednesday marked the league's darkest day in recent memory as commissioner Roger Goodell handed out harsh punishments stemming from "Bountygate" and future Hall of Famer Junior Seau died from suicide.
Goodell made it clear that headhunting will not be tolerated in this league going forward. Jonathan Vilma, believed to be the architect behind the New Orleans Saints' vicious attacks on quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre during the 2010 playoffs, will have a whole season to think about his actions. So will Saints head coach Sean Payton.
Seau's death, confirmed later in the day, was the fourth suicide by a former NFL player in less than a year and a half. Former Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson's depression, which led to his suicide in February 2011, was caused by years of brain trauma brought on by the many concussions he suffered during his 11-year NFL career. Seau may have suffered similar brain trauma.
It was a sobering series of events and now it seems like the NFL is headed for some major changes in its not-so-distant future.
I think these changes will have an effect on the fantasy landscape as well.
Now that the Saints' plot to go after certain quarterbacks has been exposed, I believe the league is ready to protect QBs more than ever heading into 2012.
For years, fans have complained that stars like Tom Brady can't even get touched without the referees throwing a yellow flag onto the field. Don't expect those complaints to go away any time soon. Brady, Eli and Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and plenty of others should receive plenty of special treatment from the refs next season.
If this plays out how I expect it to, we could see some pretty staggering passing stats next year. The league is becoming more and more pass-oriented every season and I doubt 2012 will be an exception to that trend. With perennial heavy-hitters Ndamukong Suh and James Harrison likely to be given a shorter leash than ever in the wake of Bountygate, QBs will have a massive advantage next season.
Five-thousand yards used to be uncharted territory for NFL passers. That number might not even put you in the top-five in yards next season.
The passing revolution will affect other areas of fantasy, too. You can't pass for huge yardage without having somebody else on the receiving end. That's why 2012 should be a renaissance year for the league's best receivers as well.
We already know that Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Victor Cruz and Larry Fitzgerald will be huge contributors. In fact, given the league-wide shift toward the passing game, Megatron has a very realistic chance to top Jerry Rice's season receiving yards record of 1,848 this season. But what will make 2012 different is that second and third options like Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh, Julio Jones in Atlanta or Brandon Lloyd in New England could produce like No. 1 receivers have in the past.
Last season witnessed the two greatest receiving seasons ever by NFL tight ends. That trend should continue in 2012 as quarterbacks look for more ways to open up the passing game. Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten and Jermichael Finley could all reach career highs in receiving next season. Running backs with good hands like Matt Forte, Arian Foster and Ray Rice also could see more reps as receivers this year.
The league's passing resurgence will probably come at the expense of star running backs. Of course, football will never abandon the run altogether. That's why I'm predicting established stars like Maurice Jones-Drew and LeSean McCoy to be just fine this year. It's guys like Rashard Mendenhall and DeAngelo Williams whom I'm worried about.
Both players fell short of the 1,000-yard plateau in 2011 because their offenses chose to air the ball out more than they had in previous years. The Cam Newton-to-Steve Smith combo became Carolina's new bread and butter and essentially made Williams a non-factor last season. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Mendenhall saw almost 100 fewer carries than the year before while Roethlisberger attempted 324 passes, 63 higher than his career average of 261 attempts per season.
The expected increase in passing yards, however, doesn't necessarily mean there will be a whole lot more passing touchdowns. Often times quarterback and receiver combos will eat up huge chunks of yards during a drive and still find themselves a few feet short of the end zone. This is why I think touchdown- scoring short-yardage backs, or vultures as the FX sitcom "The League" calls them, should dominate in 2012. That's good news for Mike Tolbert, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Brandon Jacobs owners.
All of these predictions are just speculative, but one thing I'm absolutely certain will happen next season is that the league will take head injuries very seriously. Concussions that used to sideline players for a week or two might end up costing players five or six weeks in 2012, which would be absolutely crippling for fantasy owners. That's why I'd be hesitant to draft stars who have a history of concussions like Detroit's Jahvid Best or Philadelphia's Michael Vick.
The NFL might still have a dark cloud over it when the season begins in September, but winning a fantasy league championship in December is a great way to cheer anyone up. Embrace the changes and you could be the one celebrating in seven months. Trust me, fantasy players, better days are ahead.
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