Aaron Rodgers and quarterbacks could be king again in 2012. (Jeffrey Phelps/AP)

Three quarterbacks eclipsed 5,000 yards in 2011, including Drew Brees’ NFL record-setting 5,476-yard campaign. Compare that to five years prior when Brees topped the charts with more than 1,000 fewer yards (4,418).

For fantasy football players, this shift means that strong play from the quarterback position is more important than ever before. Because while there are a number of elite quarterbacks who can help you win your league, the drop-off after the top tier is substantial.

So grab Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Matthew Stafford early — as in first or second-round early — if you get the chance, because in most formats, they will be far more valuable than a top running back or receiver. But if you can’t grab one of the top four, don’t panic.

Here’s your 2012 quarterback preview.

Among the major fantasy football sites, there’s minimal difference at the top of the QB rankings. But after the top 5, things get more interesting. Here’s a quick look at the top 15 QB rankings over at NFL.com, ESPN and Yahoo!

NFL.com -------------------- ESPN --------------------- Yahoo!

1. Aaron Rodgers-----------1. Rodgers---------------1. Rodgers

2. Tom Brady----------------2. Brady-------------------2. Brady

3. Matthew Stafford---------3. Brees------------------3. Brees

4. Cam Newton--------------4. Stafford-----------------4. Newton

5. Drew Brees---------------5. Newton------------------5. Stafford

6. Tony Romo---------------6. E. Manning-------------6. Vick

7. Philip Rivers--------------7. Vick----------------------7. Ryan

8. Peyton Manning----------8. Romo-------------------8. E. Manning

9. Eli Manning---------------9. P. Manning-------------9. Romo

10. Michael Vick------------10. Rivers------------------10. P. Manning

11. Matt Ryan---------------11. Ryan-------------------11. Rivers

12. Ben Roethlisberger----12. Roethlisberger--------12. Griffin III

13. Jay Cutler----------------13. Schaub----------------13. Cutler

14. Matt Schaub-------------14. Cutler------------------14. Roethlisberger

15. Josh Freeman-----------15. Robert Griffin III------15. Andrew Luck

The Second Tier

Can Cam do it again this season? (Streeter Lecka/GETTY IMAGES)

Despite a “down year” last season, Rivers still threw for 4,624 yards and 27 touchdowns. It was the slow start and the 20 interceptions that killed his owners. The loss of Vincent Brown to a broken ankle will put added pressure on Robert Meachem and Malcom Floyd to fill the void left by Vincent Jackson, but a healthy Antonio Gates will provide a big boost. Expect a bounce-back year for Rivers. Injuries to Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin along with the lack of a proven No. 3 receiver have Romo slipping down draft boards, and for good reason. He still has top-5 potential, but if his receivers can’t stay on the field, he likely won’t crack the top 8.

Newton was a monster in his first season, largely due to his 14 rushing touchdowns and 706 yards on the ground. Expect a bit of a drop-off in Year 2, but you should feel confident starting him every week.

Eli Manning is the steady hand in this group. And while he may never throw 40 touchdown passes, he’s going to be on the field every week. Manning has started all 16 games in seven straight seasons and last year threw for a career-high 4,933 yards. In Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, he has two explosive weapons and the chemistry that many of the other quarterbacks being drafted in this range lack.

Andrew Luck could be better than you think in Year 1. (Michael Conroy/AP)

With Monday’s news that the Dolphins will start Ryan Tannehill in their season opener, all three QBs selected in the first round of this year’s draft have the opportunity to show they were worth the investment right from the jump. The general consensus in the fantasy community is that Robert Griffin III is the better pick for this season, largely due to his mobility, while Andrew Luck could provide the bigger pay-off in keeper or dynasty leagues. Both are high-upside No. 2 quarterbacks who you could comfortably stash on your bench for a bye week and wait to see if they make an immediate impact. Griffin has the talent to produce a Cam Newton-like season if he can stay healthy, and if Mike Shanahan uses him as the Redskins’ goal-line back. Don’t count on that, but if you miss out on the top five or six QBs, grabbing Rivers or Matt Ryan and coming back to take RGIII a round or two later would give you a great combo with loads of upside.

As for Luck, don’t discount the Colts too much after their dismal 2011. Luck is a far better quarterback than Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie (if healthy) and Luck’s former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener become reliable producers. Luck will have a few 350-yard, three touchdown games, which could land him in the top 12 by season’s end.

If Russell Wilson wins the job in Seattle, he could be a nice late-round flier in dynasty leagues.

Don’t You Forget About Me

These may not be the sexiest names in your draft, but they are guys who have the potential to creep back up into the top 10 this year.

Matt Ryan actually finished inside the top 10 in most scoring formats last season, largely due to injuries to Vick and Manning. With two of the top wide receivers in the NFL at his disposal in Roddy White and Julio Jones, this could be the year Ryan finally cracks the 30-TD mark and establishes himself as a top-8 QB.

Don’t sleep on Carson Palmer as your backup. (Christian Petersen/GETTY IMAGES)

With 25 touchdowns and only six picks in 2010, Josh Freeman looked like a quarterback on the rise. But last season he and the rest of the Bucs floundered. But with new head coach Greg Schiano running the ship and the arrival of big-play wideout Vincent Jackson to take the pressure off Mike Williams, Freeman is an interesting QB2 sleeper.

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