Week 1 wild cards

We – that’s you and I – have spent the preseason trying to impress anyone who would listen with what we know about fantasy football, from sure-fire busts to guaranteed sleepers. When it comes to preseason fantasy football analysis, there is no shortage of opinion. But in one fell swoop, Week 1 will assuredly shake many of those confidences to the core. The first week of the regular season tells us what we didn’t realize we didn’t know. With that in mind, here’s a player in each of the first week’s games that could emerge as an unexpected breakout surprise. I want to emphasize that these are Hail Mary picks, and most fantasy owners have much better options to choose from. But if you are in a deep enough league, or have depth issues that have you throwing darts in Week 1, here are some players to think about.

Note: Upside projections are the numbers that the players could reasonably post if things break in their favor.

Week 1 wild cards
A snapshot of each Week 1 matchup

Option play: Kenny Britt(notes), Tennessee, WR (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 11%/1%)

Deep thoughts: With WR Nate Washington(notes) likely to be very limited (knee), if he plays at all, expect rookie and preseason standout (8/115/1) Britt to get plenty of reps on Sunday. And he’s likely to be pitted against Steelers corner William Gay(notes) often. That’ll be a five-inch height advantage for Britt every time that matchup occurs. Don’t be surprised if the Titans use play-action a couple times to try to isolate Britt deep on Gay. His size may also lead to a red zone look or two. It would take some cajones to insert a rookie wideout in your lineup for Week 1, but some deep leaguers may be in a situation where they have to consider such things.

Upside projection: 4 receptions, 60 yards, TD

Option play: Anthony Fasano(notes), Miami, TE (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 57%/19%)

Deep thoughts: Atlanta struggled mightily against tight ends last season, allowing the fourth-most fantasy points to the position. Fasano proved to be a significant target for QB Chad Pennington(notes) last season, hauling in seven TD passes on just 34 receptions. His role should expand more than ever now that David Martin(notes) has been waived, meaning there’s not much in the way of experience backing up Fasano.

Upside projection: 5 receptions, 45 yards, TD

Option play: Jamaal Charles(notes), Kansas City, RB (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 33%/1%)

Deep thoughts: One of the fastest running backs in the league, Charles is also blessed with the requisite skills to be a valuable receiving option out of the backfield. For that reason, expect Larry Johnson(notes) to be on the sidelines on passing downs. Visiting a traditionally staunch Baltimore defense, I envision plenty of passing downs for Kansas City. New head coach Todd Haley is going to have to be creative, and Charles is the perfect canvas for the situation at hand. In PPR leagues, Charles could very easily deliver 5-6 receptions.

Upside projection: 8 carries, 40 rushing yards, 6 receptions, 40 yards

Option play: Brent Celek(notes), Philadelphia, TE (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 41%/12%)

Deep thoughts: Andy Reid is going with just two tight ends on his roster for the first time in his Philadelphia head coaching tenure. And Celek’s backup, Alex Smith, was just signed Tuesday – this points to a lot of reps for Celek, who was a postseason star for the Eagles last season. That Carolina historically struggles against tight ends is another feather in Celek’s cap.

Upside projection: 6 receptions, 60 yards, TD

Option play: Peyton Hillis(notes), Denver, RB (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 17%/1%)

Deep thoughts: It appears likely that Hillis will handle goal-line carries for the Broncos. In addition, he’s an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Don’t be surprised if new head coach Josh McDaniel finds a way to get him 8-10 touches a week, even if Knowshon Moreno(notes) and Correll Buckhalter(notes) are healthy. With Moreno expected to be limited in Week 1 as he comes back from a preseason knee injury, there’s an even higher probability that Hillis gets 10-12 touches.

Upside projection: 8 carries, 25 yards, 4 receptions 35 yards, TD

Option play: Chester Taylor(notes), Minnesota, RB (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 70%/6%)

Deep thoughts: Given the strength of Minnesota’s offensive line and backfield, count on the Vikings leaning on the run in an effort to preserve QB Brett Favre(notes) when at all possible. Cleveland was among the league’s worst at stopping the run last season, so expect Adrian Peterson to earn his “All Day” nickname on Sunday. And Chester Taylor should be very active, as well, giving Peterson a breather, working in third-down situations and, potentially, playing the clock milker if/when Minnesota builds a sizeable lead. It should also be noted that Favre and Taylor showed a nice rapport in the limited time they played together this preseason.

Upside projection: 8 carries, 40 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 35 yards, TD

Option play: Andre’ Davis(notes), Houston, WR (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 3%/2%)

Deep thoughts: A hamstring injury kept WR Kevin Walter(notes) out of practice Thursday, and he now looks very questionable to play against the Jets on Sunday. Walter’s absence would be Davis’ gain. As Andy Behrens points out in the Houston Juggernaut Index post, Davis hauled in 23 passes for 441 yards and three TDs during Andre Johnson’s(notes) seven-game injury hiatus in ’07. If Davis starts, he should draw Jets CB Lito Sheppard(notes). Davis’ height advantage there could lead to some red zone attention. And, let’s not forget, Davis is one of the more dangerous kick returners in the league, taking three kicks the distance in ’07.

Upside projection: 5 catches, 75 yards, TD

Option play: Donald Brown(notes), Indianapolis, RB (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 83%/7%)

I doubt we’ll see much of a surprise breakout performance in this contest, so I’ll go with the rookie Brown, who is only getting a starting nod in 7 percent of Yahoo! Plus leagues. After a strong preseason, it’s fathomable that he’ll see 12-15 touches in a platoon with Joseph Addai(notes). The Jaguars allowed the 13th-most fantasy points to RBs last season, so his touches could prove productive.

Upside projection: 13 carries, 55 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 20 yards

Option play: Robert Meachem(notes), New Orleans, WR (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 15%/2%)

Deep thoughts: I know you can’t count on recent history to repeat itself in the NFL, but it’s really hard to believe the Saints won’t march all over Detroit in Week 1. There’s been nothing to suggest that New Orleans won’t once again be among the most prolific offenses in the league. And, as much as you can try to convince me the Lions will be improved after an 0-16 campaign in ’08, I’m not going to believe that Rome will be built in a day. The Saints went to Detroit in Week 16 of last season and routed the Lions 42-7. If something similar takes place in the Superdome on Sunday, it’ll mean a lot of action for Meachem, who averaged just shy of 30 yards (29.5) a catch this preseason. In his third season, it seems like a ripe time for the Saints to see what the former first rounder can do with extended looks.

Upside projection: 4 catches, 85 yards

Option play: Martellus Bennett(notes), Dallas, TE (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 7%/1%)

Deep thoughts: Two tight end sets are expected to be a major feature in the Cowboys’ offense this season. The fact that Bennett was third among tight ends in receptions (12) and yards (155) lends further confidence to this formation emphasis. Bennett conjures thoughts of Antonio Gates(notes) because of his 6-foot-7, 260-pound frame and the two years of hoops he played at Texas A&M. Make no mistake, Bennett is on the field for his ability to create mismatches in the passing game, not because he’s a great blocker. The Cowboys are running thin at receiver, and Tony Romo(notes) has already proven with Jason Witten(notes) that he has no problem finding his tight ends. Bennett’s size should stand out especially for Romo near the goal line.

Upside projection: 5 catches, 55 yards, TD

Option play: Shaun Hill(notes), San Francisco, QB (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 24%/3%)

Deep thoughts: San Francisco intends to turn to a smash-mouth running approach in ’09. But don’t count on it in Week 1. Arizona is not an easy team to keep entwined in a conservative affair. In fact, the Cardinals scored 29 points or more in seven of eight home games last season. Odds are high that Hill hoists it 35-40 times, like he did in his last visit to Arizona in Week 10 of ’08. His numbers in that contest – 217 passing yards, two touchdown passes – seem like a reasonable projection for Sunday.

Upside projection: 22-for-36, 225 passing yards, 2 TD passes

Option play: Ahmad Bradshaw(notes), New York Giants, RB (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 76%/10%)

In the event of a Brandon Jacobs(notes) injury, Bradshaw is unlikely to take over as the lead dog in the Giants’ backfield. But he is slated to take over the sidekick role that Derrick Ward(notes) excelled in last season. Bradshaw was a preseason standout, rushing for 167 yards on 28 attempts. We saw last season what kind of benefit comes from Jacobs beating a defense down over the course of a game – Bradshaw accounted for 290 of his 355 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. But he’ll get more than mop up duty this time around. Expect a steady diet of 12-15 touches, starting on Sunday.

Upside projection: 12 carries, 60 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 30 receiving yards

Option play: Laurent Robinson(notes), St. Louis, WR (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 10%/1%)

Deep thoughts: Robinson’s strong preseason showing nailed down a starting spot opposite Donnie Avery(notes). In addition to good size (6-foot-2), he has shown a knack for getting open and has solid hands to take advantage. Should the Rams have to chuck it often on Sunday, which seems like a reasonable scenario, Robinson could factor heavily into the mix against a Seattle defense that will be without former Pro Bowl CB Marcus Trufant(notes). Robinson should have opportunities to take advantage of his size when he’s presented with a matchup with Seahawks diminutive CB Josh Wilson(notes).

Upside projection: 7 receptions, 85 yards

Option play: Jermichael Finley(notes), Green Bay, TE (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 17%/4%)

Deep thoughts: If you haven’t noticed, there’s a ton of talent at tight end this season, and Finley could be a big contributor to making this an epic fantasy season for the position. An immature rookie last season who put his foot in his mouth by insulting his quarterback and complaining about playing time, Finley seems to have gotten with the program this preseason. Said WR Greg Jennings(notes), “We were watching film of (last year’s) game the other day. And from that film last year to this year, he (Finley) looks like a totally different player. You can tell he’s much more mature out there, he’s much more comfortable in the scheme, he just looks like he’s ready to become the ‘J-Mike’ that we’ve been seeing in practice, on the game field. It’s exciting to see that development.” After leading the team in catches (9) and receiving TDs (2) this preseason, Finley could start off the ’09 regular season with a bang against a Chicago team that has had its issues with tight ends in recent years.

Upside projection: 4 catches, 45 yards, TD

Option play: Sammy Morris(notes), New England, RB (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 51%/3%)

Deep thoughts: If I had to gamble on just one of the Patriots four expected members of their backfield committee, give me the guy who is going to handle the money carries. When the Patriots move the ball inside the 5-yard line, I expect Morris to be the back the team turns to. He’s scored 10 touchdowns and has 1,111 rushing yards (4.6 ypc) covering his 241 carries with New England the past two seasons. And every bit important to head coach Bill Belichick is that he has fumbled the ball just once in that span. His role as the short-yardage guy seems assured, and it’s possible it’s more substantial than that.

Upside projection: 10 carries, 40 yards, 2 receptions, 15 yards, TD

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS @ OAKLAND RAIDERS Option play: JaMarcus Russell(notes), Oakland, QB (Yahoo! Plus ownership/start percentage: 12%/1%)

Deep thoughts: Yeesh, I can see the comments below already. I’ll admit, this is a long shot, but that’s kind of the point of the column. The Chargers were very strong against the run last season, and they look even better in that department heading into this season. So it seems likely that the Raiders will have to throw the ball a fair amount on Sunday. And for as much flak as Russell receives for being a bust as the former No. 1 overall pick in the ’07 draft, he has shown some signs of improvement. Last season, he ended the year with six TD passes (and just two INTs) in his final three games, sixth-best among QBs for that span. This preseason, he’s completed a very respectable 66.7 percent of his passes. Yes, his receiving corps is very inexperienced. But he has a proven safety net in Zach Miller and a game-breaking option out of the backfield in Darren McFadden(notes), both players that should be leaned on in the likely event that the Chargers blitz heavily. Colleague Scott Pianowski has Russell among his top 25 QBs for Week 1. I wasn’t that bold, but I can certainly imagine a scenario where he finishes among the top 20.

Upside projection: 20-for-35, 230 passing yards, TD pass, 15 rushing yards