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1:00PM ET Games
New England @ Buffalo
Moving past the Wes Welker-Aaron Hernandez era with Rob Gronkowski on the shelf, the Pats are breaking in a brand-new pass-catching corps with two undrafted rookies in lead roles. There were noticeable hiccups this August, particularly in New England's third exhibition game versus Detroit. The Patriots' offense is highly complex in terms of option routes and personnel packages, creating an unavoidable learning curve for Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sudfeld, Aaron Dobson, and Josh Boyce. Early on at least, New England can compensate by leaning on a base-run game that (quietly, almost) ranked in last year's NFL top seven in rushing attempts (2nd), yards (7th), and touchdowns (1st). Particularly in an opener where the Pats figure to lead for the better half of 60 minutes, quick-footed power runner Stevan Ridley is set up for a high volume of carries and multiple scoring chances. The 2013 Bills defense hopes to play better under new coordinator Mike Pettine, but it's impossible to forget that they ranked 31st versus the run last year. Buffalo's lone notable offseason additions up front were former Cardinals second-round bust Alan Branch, ex-Colts first-round flop Jerry Hughes, and rookie Mike ‘backer Kiko Alonso. The Patriots, meanwhile, return all five starters from an offensive line that graded No. 2 in the NFL in 2012 run blocking per Pro Football Focus, and No. 4 according to Football Outsiders.
The Bills plan to play man coverage in the secondary under Pettine, which will be daunting for a defense minus top corner Stephon Gilmore (wrist fracture) for 6-8 weeks. Danny Amendola is a classic man-beating slot receiver and handful for any press-man team, evidenced by 26 combined receptions over his last three games versus man-heavy San Francisco. Look for Amendola to rack up double-digit targets and lead New England in receptions, quite possibly by a large margin. ... If Amendola has been Tom Brady's quickest new-receiver study, Thompkins isn't far off. While I believe it's overly optimistic to project Thompkins to exceed Brandon Lloyd's 2012 stats (74/911/4, fantasy WR34) at the same "X" receiver spot in Josh McDaniels' offense, I'd feel comfortable with Thompkins as a WR3 against a Buffalo defense starting Justin Rogers (two career starts) and return specialist Leodis McKelvin at cornerback. In addition to top corner Gilmore, the Bills will be without top safety Jairus Byrd (plantar fasciitis). ... Shane Vereen and Sudfeld's Week 1 roles are less defined. Both were benched for lost fumbles in the Patriots' third preseason game, and Vereen didn't play in the finale. Sudfeld did, catching two passes for 11 yards. I want to see something from Vereen before considering him more than a dice-roll flex option. Sudfeld is a low-end TE1 play who may hurt fantasy owners if he doesn't score a touchdown against the Bills.
As I studied Doug Marrone's background this offseason, it struck me how dramatically different Marrone and rookie OC Nathaniel Hackett approach offense compared to ex-Bills coach Chan Gailey. Whereas Gailey ran an almost Mike Leachian five-wide spread designed to be pass heavy in nature, Marrone and Hackett are ardent believers in the run and will make C.J. Spiller their foundation. In each of his four years at Syracuse, Marrone's offenses reeled off more rushing attempts than passes, which is all but unheard of in today's NFL. Gailey failed for obvious reasons: He anointed scattershot, noodle-armed Ryan Fitzpatrick his team centerpiece. The new strategy will play to Buffalo's real strengths: Spiller, a fairly underrated line, and trusty backup Fred Jackson. ... Marrone's offense operates in constant hurry-up mode and rips off rushing attempts, setting up Spiller for a mammoth workload. The Bills will encourage New England's defense to "stack the box" and still keep the pedal to the medal in hopes of causing late-game weardown. Whether this formula works in the NFL remains to be seen, but the fantasy bottom line is Spiller has a ton of talent and big-play ability, and he will get the ball a ton. That's a recipe for statistical success.
Due to Marrone and Hackett's philosophy, Bills pass-game members will have a tough time being consistent weekly producers. This will especially be the case in Week 1. Starting E.J. Manuel just 21 days removed from left knee surgery, Marrone is smart enough to know entrusting the reins to a not-ideally-prepared debuting rookie quarterback is no way to play NFL offense. Manuel is the Bills' handpicked future of the franchise, and he has a suspect knee. Even if the Bills fall behind on the scoreboard, look for continued handoffs to Spiller. Marrone would be nuts to let Manuel make 30 dropbacks. ... Stevie Johnson should continue to be Buffalo's most oft-targeted weapon, but QB unreliability and the run-heavy mentality crush his season-long statistical ceiling. On the off chance Johnson starts hot, I'd look to unload him quickly in fantasy leagues. Ultimately, Marrone and Hackett want the passing portion of their offense to spread the wealth and capitalize on the speed of Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham, and quickness of new Z receiver Robert Woods. Johnson is the best fantasy bet, but I'm not sure any Bills pass catcher will provide stable week-to-week numbers.
Score Prediction: Patriots 27, Bills 17
Atlanta @ New Orleans
At 54 points, Falcons-Saints has the largest over-under of any Week 1 game and by a significant margin. And I think they'll beat that combined scoring. Since June OTAs, the Saints have lost top pass rusher Victor Butler (ACL), his top backup Will Smith (ACL), and top run-stopper DE Kenyon Coleman (pectoral) to season-ending injuries. ILB Jonathan Vilma (knee) is on short-term I.R. and unavailable until Week 9. This is shaping up as a cake matchup for Matt Ryan, who'll have a clean pocket and is as effective as any NFL passer with functional space. Weighted for opponents, I'd view Ryan as a top-five quarterback play for Sunday and Monday's games, behind only Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Colin Kaepernick. ... A career thorn in New Orleans' side, Roddy White has at least 100 yards and/or a touchdown in nine of his last 12 games against the Saints. Start 'em. ... Julio Jones is Atlanta's top vertical weapon, capable of preying on secondaries when they get no pass-rush help up front. That will be an issue for New Orleans, likely all year long. Saints DC Rob Ryan will be forced to rely on scheme rather than players to manufacture pressure, meaning he'll have to blitz and sacrifice bodies from the back end. Jones can dominate one-on-one coverage, and he's going to get it. I'd be quite excited to start Julio at the Superdome.
In his last six Saints meetings, Tony Gonzalez has scored five touchdowns and averaged six catches for nearly 70 yards. Only Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, and perhaps Jason Witten are superior Week 1 tight end options. ... Based on preseason viewing of 30-year-old Steven Jackson -- the NFL's active leader in carries by 484 -- it is my opinion that S-Jax has lost most of his lateral elusiveness and begun running with increased high-cut stiffness. He's not the player he was. Jackson can remain an effective real-life and fantasy back because he won't come off the field on passing downs and will pile up goal-line work. Whereas Jackson got 27 red-zone touches last year in St. Louis, cement-feet Michael Turner received a whopping 51 with the 2012 Falcons. Jackson's yardage totals may disappoint, but he's not a bad bet to lead the NFL in rushing scores. He's got a lot more downhill juice left than Turner. ... I like Jacquizz Rodgers as a handcuff for S-Jax, but he lacks standalone flex value. Despite these teams' high-scoring history, Quizz has never scored a touchdown in four career games against the Saints, or totaled over 62 yards. With Turner gone, it's conceivable Rodgers' role will lessen because Jackson handles third-down work.
With the re-signing of Robert Meachem and emergence of Kenny Stills, the Saints again boast two vertical clear-out burners who'll keep Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, and Marques Colston clean over the middle and underneath. This formula was a staple of Sean Payton's 2009-2011 teams, with Devery Henderson and Meachem filling the deep-decoy roles. The Saints ranked fourth, third, and first in the NFL in passing those years. Meachem and Stills' production will underwhelm, but their on-field impact will make life easier on New Orleans' primary weapons. Again having to compensate for one of the league's poorest defenses -- the Saints are painfully short on pass rush -- Brees is the favorite to lead all QBs in fantasy points. ... Graham's last four stat lines against the Falcons: 7-82-1, 4-42-1, 7-146-2, 4-59. Start 'em. ... The Falcons are breaking in rookie Desmond Trufant at right corner, where he'll square off frequently with Marques Colston. Colston plays most of his snaps on that side of the formation and in the slot. His size and physicality will challenge Trufant, who drew Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie comparisons coming out of Washington for his inconsistent toughness. It's definitely a favorable matchup for Colston.
Sproles finished 2011 as a top-10 fantasy back in both standard and PPR. In 2012, he was on pace for more receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns than the prior year before suffering a fluke hand fracture in a November practice. Sproles is an RB2 regardless of format against a Falcons defense that struggles in second-level coverage. SLB Stephen Nicholas graded 42nd among 43 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' 2012 4-3 outside linebacker coverage ratings. Sproles can win that matchup. ... Behind Graham, Sproles, and Colston in the pecking order for targets, Lance Moore can be an inconsistent fantasy scorer. With that said, Moore gave Mike Nolan's Atlanta defense fits in 2012, recording stat lines of 7-91 and 7-123. Moore is a shaky WR3 with more appeal in projected shootouts like this. ... Although Payton has talked openly of recommitting to the run, the Saints aren't built to be a running team. And a two-down banger back like Mark Ingram is a misfit in a pass-oriented offense that will often be forced into passing mode due to a talent-deficient defense. Even in a flex spot, Ingram will hurt you if he doesn't score a touchdown. Week to week, he's a TD-dependent player. ... Master of the screen pass, Pierre Thomas is a better real-life than fantasy asset who hasn't finished among the top-25 fantasy backs in any of the past three years. To me, Thomas is barely worth a roster spot in 10- and 12-team leagues.
Score Prediction: Saints 30, Falcons 28
Tennessee @ Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh's loss of Le'Veon Bell (foot) for an unspecified amount of time will likely force playcaller Todd Haley to compensate with an emphasized passing attack. Fill-in Isaac Redman excels in blitz pickup and gets what's blocked, but is a classic plodder who'll be spelled often by scatback La'Rod Stephens-Howling and two-time NFC East castoff Felix Jones. It's easy to forget that in Haley's completion-friendly 2012 offense, Ben Roethlisberger's sack rate was the lowest of his career before rib and shoulder injuries crippled his season. At last year's halfway point, he was on pace for a career-best 4,406 yards and 32:8 TD-to-INT ratio. Nothing about the 2013 Tennessee defense suggests it'll be an imposing passing-game foe. Big Ben isn't quite a top-12 fantasy quarterback option entering Week 1, but no one should be surprised if he produces like one. Roethlisberger is capable of picking apart the Titans. ... Redman is the favorite for carries and scoring-position work until Bell's return, giving him flex appeal as a decent bet for a goal-line plunge. Just realize Redman lacks upside. He's in a rotation and possesses zero big-play ability.
While popular opinion fancies the Steelers short on pass-game "weapons," that's not necessarily the case. Mike Wallace is gone and they will miss Heath Miller (ACL/MCL/PCL tears), but Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery are a formidable three-wide set, and Markus Wheaton is an explosive rookie whose role will grow by the week. In particular, I like Brown's chances at a big Week 1. The Titans tried desperately to bench RCB Alterraun Verner in OTAs and camp, but were forced to resort to Verner when no one else stepped up. Now playing "X" receiver -- Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Larry Fitzgerald, and Terrell Owens' position in Haley's past offenses -- Brown is the go-to guy in Pittsburgh's passing attack and will face off primarily with Verner this Sunday. ... Emmanuel Sanders, Cotchery, Wheaton, and to a lesser extent TEs David Paulson and David Johnson will vie for scraps behind Brown. I never got behind Sanders as a 2013 breakout candidate because I just don't think he's that talented. Wheaton has a lot more ability and will probably pass him eventually. I wouldn't feel good starting any of them in Week 1.
The Titans have theoretical talent on offense. Jake Locker is a big-armed athlete. Chris Johnson is a home-run hitter. Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright are former first-round picks, and the line looks stacked on paper. Whether Tennessee will sustain offense with a low-percentage passer and boom-or-bust back remains to be seen, particularly in difficult matchups like this. After ranking No. 2 in the league in run defense, No. 1 versus the pass, and No. 1 in total defense last year, Dick LeBeau's Steelers return eight starters and added No. 17 pick Jarvis Jones. In Week 1, I think Tennessee may be in for a rude awakening. ... A maddening fantasy player to own the past two years, Johnson's week-to-week production has been wholly dependent on long runs, which don't happen every week. Johnson deserves credit for running harder on 20 preseason carries, however, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt and breaking five tackles per Pro Football Focus' exhibition-game charts -- the most in the league among starting NFL tailbacks. Glass-half-full Johnson owners can look to that, Tennessee's O-Line upgrades, and his solid 19-91/4-23 stat line from last year's Week 6 game against Pittsburgh as positive signs for Johnson's Week 1 outlook. One negative is Johnson's likely loss of short-yardage and goal-line carries to Shonn Greene.
New Titans OC Dowell Loggains' approach has been to simplify Locker's job by installing a run-heavy offense that creates more definition in the pass game. Keep in mind the same was said for Blaine Gabbert at this time last year, but Locker appeared very much improved in the dumbed-down system this preseason, completing 67.3 percent of 49 throws. This isn't the week to start him, but Locker has some two-QB league appeal with multi-dimensional talents. ... Still dealing with an inherently inaccurate passer in a run-first scheme, Britt, Wright, and Nate Washington are long shots for fantasy reliability. Wright isn't even a starter, playing only in three-wide packages. Ninth-year veteran Washington has once in his career finished as a top-40 fantasy wideout. Britt experienced recurring swelling in his surgically repaired knee throughout camp and will have his hands full with Steelers RCB Ike Taylor in Sunday's opener. Britt still has the highest fantasy ceiling and is worth WR3 consideration, but Wright and Washington are bench/waiver-wire material.
Score Prediction: Steelers 27, Titans 17
Seattle @ Carolina
Many fantasy leaguers are balking at Cam Newton in Week 1 despite making him an early-round draft pick, and I don't discourage it. Glass-half-full owners without reasonable alternatives can point to the fact Seattle's defense and team played considerably better at home than on the road last year, but most signs still point to an Opening Day struggle for Cam. The Seahawks' stacked D-Line will regularly overwhelm Carolina's suspect O-Line, and Seattle CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner erase offensive perimeters with physical press-man coverage, preventing wideouts from getting off the line and disrupting their routes. Because the Seahawks play "sides" at cornerback rather than assigning, say, Sherman to mirror Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell is likely in for a long day. Already a pedestrian talent, Z receiver LaFell will run most of his patterns onto Shutdown Sherman's LCB island and warrants no Week 1 fantasy consideration. ... Smith will have a tough time versus RCB Browner, but remains squarely in the WR3 mix. Leggy, somewhat heavy footed, and vulnerable deep when receivers beat his jam, Browner is the lesser of Seattle's cover men. If preseason was any indication, Smith still has plenty of spring in his 34-year-old legs. It can't hurt Smith's outlook that Browner is listed as questionable with a shaky hamstring. He'll be a game-time decision.
While Sherman and Browner lock down the perimeter, Seattle's defense can be exploited over the middle and down the seams. Some 2012 tight end stat lines versus the Seahawks: Brandon Pettigrew 7-74, Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez 12-91-1, Tony Gonzalez 6-51-1, Charles Clay 6-84-1. Seattle is still tough enough that this isn't a favorable matchup for Greg Olsen, but I do like his chances of delivering low-end TE1 production. ... DeAngelo Williams will be Carolina's lead back for at least the first six weeks, but fantasy expectations need to be kept in check. He's an RB3 and possible low-upside RB2 against weak run defenses, unlike this. Leave out last year's obvious fluke 21-210-2 Week 17 game against a historically inept Saints defense, and Williams managed 527 yards with three touchdowns on 152 carries (3.47 YPC). He followed that with 51 yards on 21 preseason runs (2.43 YPC). The life is gone from Williams' 30-year-old legs, his offensive line is below average to poor, his pass-game role has declined annually, and Williams is sure to be vultured at the goal line by Cam and Mike Tolbert. He's bench fodder on Opening Day.
The Seahawks put training wheels on Russell Wilson for the first five weeks of his rookie year, and then unleashed him. Across the final 13 contests -- including playoffs -- Wilson went 212-of-330 (64.2%) passing for 2,875 yards (8.71 YPA), 24 touchdowns, only five picks, and five more rushing TDs. Wilson was the No. 1 overall fantasy quarterback over the last five games. Seattle returns all five offensive line starters from its playoff run, and the supporting cast is fully intact. The Panthers' much-improved front seven will give Seattle some fits in the trenches, but Carolina arguably has the worst secondary in the league. Wilson is a top-eight QB1 in Week 1. ... Golden Tate was by all accounts the star of Seahawks camp, but the coaching staff seemed to keep him under preseason wraps. He managed four catches for 49 yards in exhibition action. With Percy Harvin (hip surgery) gone until at least midseason and Sidney Rice bothered by knee woes, Tate is the odds-on favorite to pace Seattle in 2013 receiving. On Sunday, Tate should have back-end openings versus burnable Panthers CBs Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Thomas, and Josh Norman. Carolina will start Quintin Mikell at strong safety just six days after signing him off the street.
Early in August, Rice trekked to Switzerland for a knee operation said to be "similar to platelet-rich plasma therapy" for patellar tendinitis. He did not play this preseason. Rice already lacked ideal separation skills, and what's left in his legs we just don't know. He's bench material. ... In-line TE Zach Miller and slot man Doug Baldwin are role players who posted stat lines of 3-59 and 3-37, respectively, when Carolina and Seattle squared off early last October. Neither is worth a fantasy roster spot. ... Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Star Lotulelei, Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Dwan Edwards, Kawann Short. This Panthers front seven is not to be taken lightly, and flashed dominance in August against Ravens and Eagles starters. Marshawn Lynch remains a top-15 Week 1 running back start and virtual lock for 18-plus carries, but he'll have to work for his yards. ... Christine Michael was the most impressive rookie I witnessed this summer. There is a chance Michael will be a game-day scratch at Carolina due to a lack of special teams value, but if he is don't be deterred. He's an ideal bench stash. Particularly on a team whose philosophy is the best players will play, I'm confident Michael would be Seattle's lead back ahead of Robert Turbin were Lynch to miss time. Turbin is a third-down back only. Lynch has taken (and dealt) an awful lot of hits among nearly 1,500 career rushing attempts. Backs with playing styles like his -- think Marion Barber -- can fall off the cliff without forewarning. Michael should be owned in all leagues.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 23, Panthers 20
Cincinnati @ Chicago
New Bears coach Marc Trestman is a believer in a precision passing game with timing, rhythm, anticipation, and a trigger man who releases the football as soon as he hits his back foot. Since Jay Cutler's Denver days, he's been a streetballer with tendencies to hold onto the ball too long, lock onto targets, and wait for receivers to come open before pulling the trigger. Cutler showed tangible signs of preseason improvement, finishing August 22-of-34 (64.7%) for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Cutler was intercepted twice. One pick was bad, forcing it to Brandon Marshall in double coverage. The other occurred when Alshon Jeffery either quit on his slant route or simply ran the wrong pattern. This new Chicago offense -- with a line that starts two rookies on the right side in RG Kyle Long and RT Jordan Mills -- is in for a major test against Cincinnati's arguably league-best defensive front. I'd treat Cutler as a pretty clear-cut QB2 in the opener, and if he plays well in the difficult matchup, consider elevating him to low-end QB1 status for Week 2 against the Vikings. ... If Dez Bryant was the single most impressive player of the 2013 preseason, Matt Forte wasn't far off. The centerpiece of Trestman's attack, Forte is going to be in space this season more often than ever before. He finished exhibition action with two touchdowns and a 9.9(!) yards-per-carry clip. You may have drafted Forte as an RB2, but he has a chance to score like an RB1.
There's no reason to think the new offense will negatively impact Marshall's production, primarily because Trestman is an ardent believer in the passing game and will call pass plays in bunches. Expect Marshall to get the better of Sunday's matchup with Bengals RCB Leon Hall. ... Jeffery is a different player entering his second NFL year. He is toned up physically and an outstanding fit for Trestman's scheme as a 6-foot-3, 215-pound West Coast wideout. Jeffery was a bigger part of Chicago's preseason passing offense than Martellus Bennett, and may emerge as the No. 3 option behind Marshall and Forte, which could vault Jeffery into WR2 fantasy territory. I like his Week 1 coverage draw against 35-year-old Bengals LCB Terence Newman. ... Bennett's value is touch and go. He was targeted only three times among 62 preseason snaps, dropping two and securing the third for a 16-yard gain. Bennett is an outstanding blocker, and may get stuck on the line helping Mills block Bengals edge-bending LE Carlos Dunlap for long stretches in Week 1. Bennett can still be a 2013 fantasy factor, but I wouldn't want to lean on him in Sunday's opener.
The Bengals are one of many NFL teams planning to play fast-tempo 2013 offense, upping its use of huddle-less formations and increasing plays from scrimmage. This is good news for fantasy players because more snaps equal more touches, and more touches can equal more yards and touchdowns. Versatile, quick-footed "space" back Giovani Bernard is also a much better fit for Cincy's revised approach than plodding two-down banger BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I think Bernard will usurp Law Firm as the Bengals' leader in touches as soon as Week 1. The Bears are loaded defensively and this is not an ideal matchup, of course, but Bernard should open the season as an every-week RB2/flex. It's worth noting the rookie scored three one-yard touchdowns in preseason, whereas Green-Ellis did not find pay dirt. The Bengals won't hesitate to leave Gio in the game in scoring position when they're playing no-huddle offense without substitutes. ... Tyler Eifert has a chance to develop into a top-five tight end when Jermaine Gresham's rookie deal expires (2015), but until then the logical guess is Cincinnati's tight end duo will offset each other's production, rendering both Eifert and Gresham week-to-week rolls of the low-end TE1 dice. I do expect Eifert to out-produce Gresham by season's end, but the situation is not a sound fantasy investment.
The Bears return 3-of-4 up-front starters and all four secondary first-teamers from a defense that ranked top-eight in passing touchdowns allowed, yards-per-pass-attempt permitted, and sacks in 2012. At Soldier Field, Chicago's pass defense is a highly imposing foe for talent-deficient Andy Dalton and a Bengals offense minus stalwart LT Andrew Whitworth (knee). Julius Peppers plays on Whitworth's side. Dalton had better get the ball out quick. The Bears are a recommended fantasy-defense play, and Dalton is a low-end QB2. ... Bengals OC Jay Gruden is a schemer and game planner, and smart enough to know his offense is entering a disadvantageous scenario. It's why I wouldn't be surprised if quick-hitting dump-off valve Bernard led Cincy in Week 1 receptions. Start A.J. Green, but temper expectations in his likely shadow matchup with Bears CB Charles Tillman. "Peanut" limited Calvin Johnson to lines of 3-34-0 and 5-72-0 in their two 2012 matchups. ... The Bengals used Brandon Tate and Armon Binns in a No. 2 receiver rotation opposite Green to open last season. It's not insane to think they'll do the same with Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones against the Bears. Sanu will play the most snaps, but is competing for targets with Eifert, Gresham, and perhaps Jones behind Green and Gio. This isn't a recipe for reliable fantasy stats.
Score Prediction: Bears 21, Bengals 17
Tampa Bay @ NY Jets
Geno Smith played 69 preseason snaps, completing 59.5% of 37 throws for 246 yards (6.6 YPA), one touchdown, and three interceptions. The second-round pick may have a bright future, but he didn't look NFL ready in August. Nevertheless, Smith will begin his pro career facing a Tampa Bay secondary capable of eliminating No. 1 receivers with Darrelle Revis, and flummoxing a rookie passer with versatile safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron. The Bucs' fantasy defense is a recommended streamer play. Smith and his pass catchers appear set up for failure. ... Washed-up Braylon Edwards was among the Jets' first cuts, leaving Stephen Hill, Santonio Holmes, and Jeremy Kerley as New York's first-team three-receiver set. Holmes (foot) has barely practiced in new playcaller Marty Mornhinweg's offense and won't be a full-time player in Week 1. When Holmes is in the game, Revis will likely cover him. And Revis also figures to be on Hill plenty. ... For fantasy owners desperate to use a Jets receiver, Kerley is the best bet. He'll play in the slot -- safely off Revis Island -- and face off either with second-year UDFA Leonard Johnson or rookie Johnthan Banks. Pass-happy catch-up mode could vault Kerley to six or seven catches.
With the NFL's worst passing-game personnel, the 2013 Jets will play competitive football if and only if they field a shutdown defense and borderline dominant rushing attack to which historically pass-happy Mornhinweg stays committed. Week 1 opponent Tampa has the NFL's returning No. 1 run defense in both yards and yards-per-carry average allowed. Making matters worse, the Jets' carry distribution is muddy after Bilal Powell (3.6 YPC) outplayed Chris Ivory (2.0 YPC) in the preseason. Powell is currently listed ahead of Ivory on the Jets' depth chart. Until more-talented Ivory shakes off the rust and forces Mornhinweg's coaching staff to increase his role, this has the look of a value-draining rotation with little chance of overall Week 1 success. Powell is barely worth rostering in 12-team fantasy leagues. Ivory would be a poor flex option against the Bucs.
Last year's stats can be an unreliable indicator of what's to come, but it's difficult to forget the 2012 Jets' 26th-ranked run defense when combined with DE/OLB Quinton Coples' (ankle) Week 1 absence. While the Jets will play better 2013 defense than that ranking suggests, Rex Ryan's unit will wear down as games progress if the rag-tag offense can't control time of possession. After Josh Freeman's abominable preseason, look for the Bucs to feed Doug Martin early and often Sunday, perhaps to the extent he gets 30 touches. Just like last year, the Bucs are going to be a smash-mouth team featuring Muscle Hamster with sporadic downfield shots to big-bodied wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Martin could benefit from the Jets' possible loss of 340-pound NT Kenrick Ellis, whose status ESPN New York considers "up in the air" due to a bad back. ... Perhaps Freeman will play better when the real stuff starts, but his August was one to forget. He finished the exhibition season 12-of-26 passing (46.2 percent) for 101 yards (3.9 YPA) with no touchdowns, a fumble lost, and nine sacks taken. Freeman is an inconsistent, inaccurate thrower who struggles whenever the things around him aren't going exactly right. His confidence appeared genuinely shot in the preseason.
While I wouldn't necessarily discourage fantasy owners from starting Vincent Jackson in Week 1, he certainly does not have a favorable matchup if Antonio Cromartie plays anything like he did last year. "Cro" emerged as a legit shutdown corner after Revis' ACL tear, grading out top five in Pro Football Focus' coverage ratings while limiting the following No. 1 wideouts to the following stat lines: Andre Johnson 1-15; Kenny Britt 1-7; Larry Fitzgerald 1-23; Brandon Lloyd (twice) 1-6, 3-26; Chris Givens 4-19; Michael Crabtree 2-15. Cromartie does have a history of up-and-down year-to-year play, so V-Jax owners can hang their hat on that. The Bucs have also worked Jackson more in the slot, where his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame would present a towering mismatch for Jets slot CB Kyle Wilson (5'10/190). ... If Cromartie follows Jackson inside and shuts him down, Williams could be the box-score beneficiary in his duel with LCB Dee Milliner. Milliner is a solid prospect, but rookie cornerbacks have a tendency to struggle early and my bet is on Williams when they match up one on one. I like Williams' odds of reaching pay dirt, and recommend him as a WR3.
Score Prediction: Bucs 20, Jets 13
Kansas City @ Jacksonville
Chiefs fans are excited about the season on the basis that their team finally has a "real QB" after Matt Cassel's erratic four-year run. What Kansas City really has is another extremely limited, Cassel-like passer new coach Andy Reid plans to shoehorn into his pass-first offense. Defining stats for Alex Smith: When his team allows 24-plus points, Smith's career record is 2-25-1. Smith has attempted 32 or more passes in 24 regular season games. In them, he's completed 514-of-900 (57.1%) for 5,384 yards (5.98 YPA) with 32 TDs and 34 turnovers. They're benchable numbers, and troubling when combined with the fact Reid's offenses averaged at least 34.0 pass attempts per game in each of the last nine years. Smith may have some productive weeks simply because his opportunities will rise in Reid's offense -- and Kansas City has a cakewalk schedule -- but there are reasons to believe the Reid-Smith marriage won't end well. It's Smith's lack of arm talent that has always held him and his teammates back. Just ask Michael Crabtree, who was widely considered a disappointment before Colin Kaepernick took over late last season.
Confidently play Dwayne Bowe against a Jaguars team starting third-round rookie Dwayne Gratz and 28-year-old journeyman Alan Ball at corner, but I'd consider selling high if Bowe starts fast. Smith lacks physical tools to feed him consistently over a 16-game schedule. ... Beyond Bowe and Jamaal Charles -- a shoo-in top-ten fantasy choice and every-week starter -- Chiefs fantasy prospects look grim. A work in progress as a blocker, rookie TE Travis Kelce may open the year playing limited snaps. Starter Anthony Fasano is a lumbering possession target who averaged 8.1 yards per reception last season. No. 2 wideout Donnie Avery is a soft, drop-prone one-trick pony on his fourth NFL team entering his sixth season. Reid allegedly loved gadget back Dexter McCluster coming out of Ole Miss in the 2010 draft, but McCluster had two offensive touches in the preseason. Despite Jacksonville's defensive shortcomings on paper, only Bowe and Charles are confident Opening Day fantasy starts. We'll learn more about the other guys' roles this week.
It was just the preseason, of course, but the Jags had the look of a team with a shot to be more competitive than expected. Blaine Gabbert played comfortably in the pocket in a quick-hitting, somewhat wide-open up-tempo offense, and in this particular matchup should get some functional throwing space. Kansas City's defensive strength is edge rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, whom Jacksonville can counter with rock-solid LT Eugene Monroe and No. 2 overall pick RT Luke Joeckel. With starter Marcedes Lewis (calf) inactive, fill-in TE Allen Reisner will likely stay in to help Monroe and Joeckel block. Cecil Shorts is a detailed route runner with plus after-catch running skills, and during Justin Blackmon's four-game suspension will be featured in a passing attack that plays precisely to his strengths. Shorts is capable of running circles around loafing, oversized Chiefs RCB Sean Smith (6'3/214), who has always struggled with smaller, quicker receivers. Certain to be targeted heavily, Shorts could produce like a borderline WR1 over the season’s initial month. ... Strictly a “sides” corner throughout his career, Chiefs LCB Brandon Flowers has never moved around to shadow opposing top receivers. He didn't do that this preseason, either. Kansas City's top cover man, Flowers seems likely to go to waste against Blackmon fill-in Mike Brown and fourth-round rookie Ace Sanders while Shorts eats up Smith.
The 2013 Jaguars will have zero reservations about riding Maurice Jones-Drew into the ground. He's almost certainly in his final season with the team -- MJD is a free agent in 2014 -- and Jacksonville's new front office and coaching staff are well aware Gabbert will have a far better chance at "developing" if complemented by a foundation run game. Whether Jones-Drew will hold up for 16 games at age 28 1/2 with over 1,500 carries on his tires remains to be seen, but his workload is not a fantasy concern. While Kansas City projects to improve on last year's No. 27 run-defense ranking, fantasy owners shouldn't consider the Chiefs a daunting foe until they prove otherwise. Albeit in a small sample size, I thought Jones-Drew looked sharp on his 11 preseason touches, displaying ample juice and bounce in his step. He's set up for 25-plus touches in the opener.
Score Prediction: Jaguars 20, Chiefs 17
Oakland @ Indianapolis
There is not a team in football with less talent than the Raiders, and I believe the gap between 31 and 32 is large. Oakland lacks pass rushers, a stable quarterback and a pro-caliber O-Line, all required elements for competitive NFL play. Conversely, the Colts have a real chance to play top-five offense. It would be a disappointment if Indy didn't drop at least 27 points on an Oakland first-team "defense" that silver plattered scores on 16-of-18 preseason possessions. There is some "risk" the Colts grab an early lead and take the pedal off the gas, hurting Andrew Luck's box-score stats. I'd be willing to take that risk in such a cake matchup. Luck is a top-ten fantasy QB1. ... Reggie Wayne's numbers tailed off down the 2012 stretch and he turns 34 in November, but he remains locked in as Luck's go-to receiver. Wayne sure handed 11 of a team-high 18 Luck targets in exhibition action for 121 yards and a touchdown. He will dog-walk whomever Oakland assigns to him in coverage. ... Facing his former team, Darrius Heyward-Bey is a sneaky WR3 play. He held off T.Y. Hilton for a starting job in August and will play in all two-receiver sets. The Colts are not using DHB as a deep threat; they're leaving that up to Hilton and TE Coby Fleener. The Colts like Heyward-Bey's run-after-catch skills more, featuring him on receiver screens and slant passes. It wouldn't be crazy to think Heyward-Bey will catch five or six balls this Sunday.
Fleener's snaps will increase significantly under rookie playcaller Pep Hamilton, who coached him at Stanford and is a two-tight end proponent. Old Colts OC Bruce Arians preferred three-receiver sets. Whereas Hamilton's approach is good news for Fleener, it could adversely impact Hilton. The Colts are using Hilton as a situational deep threat and punt returner. He oozes big-play talent, but is a dicey WR3/flex who may struggle for weekly consistency. ... I don't pretend to know exactly how Fleener and Dwayne Allen will be utilized, so this is a Week 1 game I'll be watching closely. A foot injury cost Allen the entire preseason. Fleener played extensively in the first two exhibition games but did not play well, dropping two passes and losing a fumble while suffering a concussion and knee sprain. Use Colts tight ends against Oakland at your own risk. ... Ahmad Bradshaw also failed to play an exhibition snap, but will be active against the Raiders, likely in what'll be a short-lived timeshare with Vick Ballard. I think they will split touches down the middle in Week 1. Bradshaw is a flex play in a choice matchup. Ballard is fantasy bench fodder.
Terrelle Pryor will draw the quarterback start for Oakland, which wouldn't happen if the Raiders had a serviceable alternative. Pryor bombed terrifically in the exhibition finale against backup Bears defenders and wrapped the preseason with a 53.1 completion rate, four sacks absorbed, two picks, a fumble, and two all-purpose touchdowns. Pryor is the rare quarterback who can not only create incredibly attractive fantasy-defense scenarios, but score a respectable amount of fantasy points on his own. His protection is virtually nonexistent. Pryor is an almost Tebow-ish passer, lacking any hint of repetitive accuracy with zero pocket feel. He'll be a turnover machine. But he also has a dual-threat skill set and will play most of his snaps in catch-up mode. Pryor is going to be running and chucking a ton. It might seem crazy, but I like him in two-QB leagues and for risk-taking standard-league streamers. In one league this week, I'm starting both Pryor and Indy's defense. ... Raiders receivers will have a much harder time. Their quarterback doesn't throw the football well, and is a lock to complete a low percentage of his passes. Denarius Moore, Rod Streater, and Jacoby Ford are all WR5s at best. Matchups are irrelevant here.
Things look bleak on the surface for Darren McFadden. Let's ignore his injury history for a minute. The Raiders' O-Line is a rag-tag group that lost its left side (LT Jared Veldheer, LG Tony Bergstrom) to lengthy preseason injuries. Oakland is a bad team, like 1-15 bad. For perspective, 73% of Carson Palmer's 2012 throws came when the Raiders were trailing, and they have less talent this year. So DMC is a running back on the NFL's worst team behind arguably the league's worst line. There is one reason for optimism, and that's Pryor's effect on defensive front sevens. The Raiders will run read option -- they did so in August -- and that style of play can spike rushing production by freezing defenders and forcing them to play reactively rather than proactively in anticipation of QB runs. This can create space at the line of scrimmage, and sometimes massive lanes. I expect inconsistency from McFadden, but don't doubt for a second he will have more explosive plays than last season with a valuable YPC leap. I like McFadden as an RB2/flex against a Colts defense that ranked 29th versus the run in 2012 and will be without ILB Kavell Conner (ankle). Pro Football Focus graded Conner as Indy's best run defender last year. Conner's backup, Pat Angerer, is listed as doubtful with a concussion, so the Colts are down to No. 4 inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard opposite Jerrell Freeman.
Score Prediction: Colts 28, Raiders 10
4:25PM ET Games
Green Bay @ San Francisco
Colin Kaepernick's national coming-out party took place in last January's 45-31 Divisional Round triumph over the Packers. On his first dropback of the game, Michael Crabtree slipped on his pass route and Kaepernick's throw was pick-sixed by CB Sam Shields for a 52-yard touchdown. Kap showed his resilience and mental toughness by rallying back to account for four all-purpose touchdowns, 444 yards from scrimmage, and an NFL single-game QB record 181 rushing yards. While a repeat of that stat line (48 standard-league fantasy points) can't be expected in Sunday's rematch, you can be sure Green Bay's defense will be reactive rather than proactive as it attempts to guard against San Francisco's multi-dimensional quarterback. Kaepernick is a top-four QB1 option in Sunday and Monday's games for me, behind only Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady. ... Kap probably won't contend for the NFL lead in passing TDs because Jim Harbaugh's offense doesn't cater to that, but he can still throw 25 and do enough all-purpose damage to be a fantasy difference maker. The question becomes, who's going to catch his touchdowns? A limited athlete going on age 33, Anquan Boldin has exceeded four TDs in just one of the past four years. My money is on Vernon Davis, who caught a league-high 13 touchdowns in 2009 and is physically capable of being the focal point of a passing attack. I think Davis will get back to double-digit scores.
Boldin deserves a swatting butt-pat for his playoff performance -- he was fantastic for Baltimore -- but he is a limited receiver whose impact is almost entirely dependent on making in-traffic catches. With that said, Boldin has a plus Week 1 matchup in a potentially high-scoring affair against a Green Bay defense that'll be minus top slot corner Casey Hayward and perhaps FS Morgan Burnett due to balky hamstrings. Boldin, who plays often in the slot, is a safe bet for eight-plus targets and worth starting as a WR3. ... The 49ers' No. 2 receiver competition will rage on into the regular season, with impressive draft pick Quinton Patton, usual special teamer Kyle Williams, and possibly trade acquisition Jon Baldwin pushing Marlon Moore for snaps at Michael Crabtree's old spot. None is a fantasy option until clarity is established, but my bet is on Patton making the most noise when all is said and done. ... In last season's two Green Bay games, Frank Gore unloaded on the Pack for 231 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries (5.92 YPC), with 49 additional yards on three catches.
49ers nickel back Nnamdi Asomugha missed practice reps this week with a collarbone injury, and when he did participate donned a red no-contact jersey. It's a reminder San Francisco's largest roster weakness is at cornerback, where last year's nickel Chris Culliver played 90 percent of the snaps in the 49ers' 2012 Week 1 matchup with Green Bay. On passing downs, look for Randall Cobb to run circles around 32-year-old slot corner Carlos Rogers while Jordy Nelson and James Jones deal with RCB Tarell Brown and either Asomugha or Tramaine Brock outside. Protection is undoubtedly a concern for Green Bay against San Francisco's ferocious pass rush, but Rodgers can exploit this secondary on plays he gets time. The 49ers' safety starters are rookie Eric Reid and run-support specialist Donte Whitner. Culliver tore his ACL early in training camp. The Niners strongly considered cutting Rogers in the offseason, but had no viable replacement. I like Rodgers as a top-three QB1 play, Cobb and Nelson as rock-solid WR2s, and Jones as a good bet for a touchdown in WR3/flex slots. In last year's two meetings with San Francisco -- Week 1 and the postseason -- Jones combined for eight grabs, a team-high 168 yards, and two end-zone trips.
The Packers will have to take pass-protection precautions because the opponent requires it. We could see things like Jermichael Finley helping fourth-round rookie LT David Bakhtiari block 49ers OLB Aldon Smith, and blitz-pickup specialist John Kuhn playing more snaps than usual. Green Bay should be able to move the ball into scoring position enough to give Eddie Lacy a goal-line plunge or two, but expecting Lacy to approach 100 rushing yards is asking too much. This would not be a good matchup for any NFL back. View Lacy as a flex option in Week 1. Forward-thinking fantasy owners should already be contemplating buy-low trade offers should Lacy disappoint. ... I was mostly impressed by Finley this preseason. He's bigger and running as well as ever, although he did have roughly a drop and a half in Green Bay's third preseason game. Finley's stat lines in last season's 49ers matchups were 7-47-1 and 4-35-0. While Finley may do frequent chipping on Smith, I think he'll break into enough pass routes to be worth a top-ten fantasy tight end play.
Score Prediction: 49ers 30, Packers 27
Minnesota @ Detroit
The single most disappointing player I watched this preseason was Christian Ponder, who looked like a shell-shocked quarterback wholly uncomfortable in the pocket. Ponder lacks any hint of poise, won't pull the trigger on tight-window throws because he doesn't think he can make them, and seems to have regressed since some promising rookie-year and early-2012 moments. On the flip side, August's most impressive defensive line was Detroit's, which kept Tom Brady off balance in the third exhibition game and is talent rich with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley at the tackles, and Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah on the ends. From a pass-game standpoint, this is a mismatch in the Lions' favor. It's difficult to imagine downfield targets Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, and Cordarrelle Patterson managing Week 1 success. ... On a positive note, another takeaway from Minnesota's preseason was playcaller Bill Musgrave's promising usage of Greg Jennings. Jennings is playing Percy Harvin's old "Z" position, where high-percentage throws are made and touches manufactured. I think Jennings is a sleeper for 90 catches this season. I liked him as a value pick at his eighth-round Average Draft Position, and I like him as a WR3 at Detroit.
The Harvin trade could theoretically increase Kyle Rudolph's passing-game role, but probably won't because Jennings and to a lesser extent Patterson likely have that covered. I expect Rudolph's production to be similar to last year's, where his weekly value was very touchdown dependent. Rudolph scored nine times and finished as the No. 9 fantasy tight end, but he was a maddening player to own because Rudolph was held to three or fewer catches in 10-of-17 games, including the playoffs. In last year's two Lions-Vikings games, Rudolph posted stat lines of 2-8-0 and 7-64-1. You're in good shape if Rudolph scores a touchdown, and there's a big liability in your lineup if he doesn't. ... Adrian Peterson needs no analysis because you play him every week regardless of opponent, but here is a stat anyway: In his six career Week 1 games, Peterson has rushed 115 times for 655 yards (5.70 YPC) and scored seven touchdowns. So, yeah, start 'em.
Matthew Stafford's combined stats in his last four games against Minnesota: 110-of-168 (65.4%) for 1,253 yards (7.46 YPA) with a 7:1 TD-to-INT ratio and eighth touchdown on a scramble. The Lions have led the NFL in pass attempts in back-to-back seasons and will again in 2013, as even their new feature back is a pass game-oriented player. Look for Stafford to start hot. ... Speaking of Reggie Bush, he's going to add a new dimension to Detroit's shotgun-based offense and be in space often. Bush will replace Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, and Joique Bell as Stafford's go-to checkdown option, in addition to racking up receptions on screens and swings. Bush may not crack 4.0 yards per carry, but he's a legitimate candidate to lead the NFL in total yards. If he plays 16 games, Bush could flirt with 100 catches. I like his matchup against the Vikings because Bush will be asked to run between the tackles only as a change of pace. He'll get the ball more out in the open, where he can crack ankles. ... Pettigrew has never finished above 11th in fantasy tight end scoring, doesn't score touchdowns, and averages under ten yards per reception in his career. He had nine drops last year, and another one this preseason. His passing-game usage will diminish this season, and for good reason. Pettigrew is not worth owning in 12-team leagues.
The Vikings have built their secondary to defend Calvin Johnson, drafting long-armed 6-foot-1, 210-pound corner Xavier Rhodes to book end Chris Cook (6'2/212). I'm interested to see whether it works. Megatron led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards last year and catches passes from the league's strongest-armed quarterback in the NFL's pass-heaviest offense. I view him as thoroughly matchup proof. ... Detroit's pass-catching corps gets tricky for fantasy purposes behind Johnson and Bush. Ryan Broyles has experienced understandable ups and downs in his attempt to return from a second ACL tear in as many seasons. Nate Burleson is a 32-year-old possession receiver who doesn't separate from defensive backs and hasn't cleared 70 yards in a game since December of 2011. Patrick Edwards may open the season as the Lions' No. 3 receiver, although he could just as easily rotate with Broyles and Scheffler. Broyles is still the best fantasy option for the duration of the season, but none of the above is a trustworthy Week 1 play. ... Joique Bell -- not Mikel Leshoure -- is Detroit's No. 2 tailback and would be an every-week fantasy starter if Bush went down. Bell should be owned in all leagues. The Wayne State alum ran like a man possessed in preseason games, averaging 6.9 yards on 15 carries with seven grabs for 91 yards. Plummeting down the depth chart, Leshoure averaged 4.2 YPC and lost a fumble in the Lions' exhibition finale.
Score Prediction: Lions 24, Vikings 20
Miami @ Cleveland
The Browns will play vertical field-stretching offense under Rob Chudzinski and OC Norv Turner eventually, but their personnel does not match that approach with Josh Gordon on a two-game suspension. Greg Little is a run-after-catch possession receiver. Davone Bess is a slot guy with 4.64 speed and a career 10.7 yards-per-reception average. Jordan Cameron threatens the seam, but he's still a tight end who won't blow the top off of defenses. Look for conservative game plans versus Cleveland's first two opponents (vs. MIA, @ BAL), feeding Trent Richardson. Down more than ten pounds since last season, Richardson showed increased explosion in preseason games, looking lighter on his feet with more bounce in his steps. Richardson is a candidate to lead all NFL running backs in touches entering Week 3. ... I charted Cameron's preseason usage and noticed Norv consistently using him as an inside slot player, where Cameron ran both intermediate routes and served as a safety valve for Brandon Weeden over the middle. Cameron is an ideal short-term stopgap starter for Rob Gronkowski owners, and will be given every opportunity to parlay his two-game window into a major season-long role. Cameron is a locked-in TE1 on Opening Day.
Behind Cameron and Richardson, Weeden's targets will be spread amongst Bess, Little, and rotational deep threat Travis Benjamin, probably in that order. The current supporting cast is limited and limiting for Weeden, although I think he could provide sneaky QB2 value after Gordon returns. Gordon is a genuinely difference-making talent who looks a bit like Andre Johnson on film with fluid movement, ball-snatching skills, an ability to make contested catches, and buildup jets that tilt coverage. ... Reports out of Miami indicate LCB Brent Grimes has made a successful recovery from 2012 Achilles' surgery, and he definitely looked the part in August. Grimes was developing into a legit shutdown corner before the injury in Atlanta. In Week 1, he'll square off with Little on the majority of snaps and is capable of eliminating him from Cleveland's offense. This is further reason to believe Cameron is the favorite to lead the team in Week 1 receiving. If for some reason you're desperate to use a Cleveland wide receiver this week, Bess would be your best bet.
Although handcuffed by talent shortages, Dolphins OC Mike Sherman's 2012 offense was vanilla and lacked creativity. Sherman pounded Reggie Bush between the tackles when his strengths have always showed up more in space, and Miami's offense largely lacked a defined week-to-week identity. I found it promising Sherman moved Mike Wallace around in camp and preseason games, giving the Fins' $60 million investment reps at all three receiver positions. More concerning for Wallace are his historical struggles versus Browns top CB Joe Haden. Wallace's last three stat lines in matchups with Haden: 1-9 on 7 targets, 1-11 on 5 targets, 4-57 on 5 targets. I like Wallace as a WR3 and nothing more in Week 1. ... If Haden takes Wallace away, it stands to reason Z receiver Brian Hartline and slot man Brandon Gibson could benefit. Neither is a fantasy option, unfortunately. Gibson is an error-prone, shaky-handed slot misfit who only plays in three-wideout sets. Hartline's final 2012 stat line looks pretty on paper, but 23.4% of his 1,083 yards and 100% of his touchdowns came in Week 4 at Arizona. Hartline has two TDs over his last 42 games. For fantasy owners trying to win leagues, Gibson and Hartline are not on the radar.
Quietly almost, the Browns have put together one of the NFL's most talented defensive fronts. GM Mike Lombardi added underrated RE Desmond Bryant to cloggers Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin on the line, while Paul Kruger gives Cleveland edge credibility opposite power rusher Jabaal Sheard. Inside 'backer D'Qwell Jackson is a savvy veteran coming off a monster year, while ILB partner Craig Robertson is a versatile swiss army knife. Behind a shaky O-Line in a road opener, look for in-game ups and downs from Ryan Tannehill. He will be under frequent duress. ... I think the Dolphins' best chance at sustaining offense against the Browns would be to commit 20-plus carries to Lamar Miller. Browns DC Ray Horton blitzes as often as any coordinator in football and is willing to sacrifice running alleys. Cleveland may also be without 330-pound Rubin (calf), who missed practice Friday and is questionable. While Miller is clearly Miami's best tailback option and fantasy bet -- he received four first-team preseason touches inside defending five-yard lines, to Daniel Thomas' zero -- there are indications Sherman won't do that, opting instead for a drive-by-drive rotation. “Because they are so different they offer a different dynamic when in the game,” Sherman told the Miami Herald. “I think there will be a challenge defensively to be able to put both running backs on the field separately.” Consider Miller a low-end RB2/flex, likely seeing 15-18 touches at Cleveland. Fumbling plodder Thomas isn't a fantasy factor.
Score Prediction: Browns 20, Dolphins 17
Arizona @ St. Louis
The Cardinals have been written off by many football observers, and I don't expect them to have a great record. But they'll be a team that competes week in and week out with an explosive pass attack and defense long on talent. New coach Bruce Arians was excommunicated from Pittsburgh for pass-first leanings, and in Indy last year oversaw an offense that ranked sixth in pass attempts and third in 20-plus-yard completions. The Cards also brought in ex-Colts mastermind Tom Moore as assistant head coach/offense to scheme pass protection, an inevitable issue for one of the league's weakest offensive lines. Nevertheless, this will be a team that slings the ball around the yard and tests deep. Arians' usage of Larry Fitzgerald in the "movement" receiver role a la Hines Ward/Reggie Wayne will make Fitz awfully difficult to double team, and he will rack up receptions. He's a locked-in top-seven WR1 play in Week 1. ... Fantasy owners will likely have a harder time prognosticating Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd from game to game, similar to Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton in Arians' 2012 Colts offense. Avery (60/781/3) finished as the No. 46 overall fantasy receiver. Hilton (50/861/7) came in 24th. Floyd owners can probably expect production closer to Hilton's, but he and Roberts will both be WR3 rolls of the dice regardless of opponent.
Arizona returns two starters from an O-Line that ranked dead last in the NFL per the 2012 grades of both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. One of the other spots was to be filled by top-ten pick Jonathan Cooper, who fractured his left fibula in the preseason and is out for the year. He'll be replaced by OG Paul Fanaika, a 27-year-old with zero career starts. The fourth and fifth starters are RT Eric Winston, who's been cut by two teams in as many years, and LT Levi Brown, who didn't play in 2012 after grading out 57th-of-76 tackles in PFF's 2011 ratings. Throw in Arians' passing tendencies and I don't think Rashard Mendenhall has any chance at an efficient or voluminous rushing year. In danger of losing goal-line work to rookie Stepfan Taylor, Mendenhall is a weak flex play against a loaded young Rams defensive line that will regularly win Sunday's trench wars. ... Arians has a long history of underutilizing tight ends in the passing game, and Cards TE Rob Housler caught one preseason pass for eight yards before suffering a high ankle sprain. Expect Arians to spread the field with three-receiver sets throughout Sunday's opener against the Rams, with Floyd and Roberts each playing at least 70 percent of the offensive snaps. I like Carson Palmer's odds of racking up attempts and would start him in a two-QB league.
Rams GM Les Snead confirmed this week St. Louis purposely played vanilla preseason offense and kept Tavon Austin's role under wraps. I watched all four games, and there were still signs of spread offense, hurry-up and tempo change, and formation diversity. The Rams have a chance to be fun to watch again, and Sam Bradford will be surrounded by (easily) the most talented supporting cast of his four-year career. Quietly a top-16 fantasy quarterback in 2012 despite rag-tag line play and Brandon Gibson as his No. 2 receiver, Bradford appears set to elevate to rock-solid QB2 production with room for more. ... Chris Givens was one of the most impressive players I watched in August and had 2012 success against Arizona with 166 yards and two touchdowns in these teams' two meetings. Givens has shown considerable improvement as a route runner and is squarely in the Week 1 WR3 mix. ... The Rams' other starting wideout, for now, is possession type Austin Pettis, who has some red-zone chops but averages 9.1 yards per career catch and will lose snaps to Brian Quick sooner rather than later. Austin isn't roster worthy in 12-team leagues.
Starting Austin in fantasy leagues after his ho-hum camp requires a leap of faith, but I don't doubt he can make an impact. I'd feel comfortable using him in return-yardage formats, for sure. On offense, look for Austin to match up regularly with fellow rookie Tyrann Mathieu in the slot. ... In preseason spread looks, the Rams made frequent use of Jared Cook in trips formations to one side of the field, with Givens the lone wideout on the other. Cook lined up as the inside slot man, forcing defenses to cover him with a linebacker or safety. Cook's skill set is not one that lends itself to volume, but he is a mismatch creator and stretches the vertical seam as dynamically as any NFL tight end. He's a good bet for a big play or two. ... Keep an eye on undrafted rookie Benny Cunningham's Week 1 role, but Daryl Richardson will open the season as St. Louis' feature back. What Richardson lacks in size (5'10/195) he can compensate for with between-the-tackles toughness and explosive burst. He can be a home-run hitter with an alley. I like Richardson's chances of seeing 17-22 touches on Opening Day and wouldn't hesitate to start him as an RB2/flex. The Cards have pass rushers, but are not necessarily imposing versus the run. Arizona ranked 28th in 2012 run defense, and its defensive line has not changed. Additionally, Cardinals top DE Calais Campbell is listed as questionable with a quad injury.
Score Prediction: Rams 24, Cardinals 20
Sunday Night Football
NY Giants @ Dallas
The winds are blowing toward David Wilson's breakout game. New Cowboys DC Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense is inherently vulnerable to the run because its philosophy focuses on generating takeaways and sacks as opposed to up-front stoutness. Here were Kiffin's run-defense rankings for his last ten years as the Bucs' coordinator: 2008: 19th, 2007: 16th, 2006: 16th, 2005: 27th, 2004: 14th, 2003: 20th, 2002: 27th, 2001: 20th, 2000: 23rd, 1999: 27th. Add in the loss of NT Jay Ratliff (hamstring) to PUP and LE Anthony Spencer's inactivity due to slow knee-surgery recovery, and Kiffin's unit is depleted in the front four. Ratliff will be replaced by Nick Hayden, who was out of the NFL last year, and Spencer by George Selvie, a fourth-year journeyman on his fifth NFL team. The Cowboys have two good linebackers in WLB Bruce Carter and MLB Sean Lee, but they'll get gashed if Wilson consistently reaches the second level, and the odds are in favor of that. With Andre Brown (fractured leg) out of the mix, Wilson is set up for an easy 20-plus touches in addition to all goal-line work. I'd rank him as a top-five fantasy running back play in Week 1.
Eli Manning wasn't a hot 2013 fantasy pick, but I think he could score better than people expect. With the emergence of No. 3 receiver Rueben Randle and addition of efficient possession TE Brandon Myers, Manning has a chance to be surrounded by the best weaponry of his ten-year career. Facilitating Eli's box-score proficiency will be a Giants defense in clear decline, creating shootout situations. I like Manning as a low-end QB1 with some upside against a Dallas defense weak at safety, and minus both Ratliff and Spencer. ... Kiffin's two-deep scheme will attempt to limit perimeter receivers Randle and Hakeem Nicks, but projects as exploitable by Myers and slot man Victor Cruz down the middle. Beyond Dez Bryant, Cruz is the best fantasy receiver play in Sunday night's game. Myers lacks big-play ability, but you could do worse as a streamer TE1. ... Before writing this column, I went back and looked at Nicks' 14 preseason targets and was discouraged. He only secured four for 77 yards and seemed a few steps slow, even limping at one point. Injuries have taken their toll on the contract-year wideout, who managed stat lines of 4-38-0 and 4-46-0 in last year's two Dallas meetings. Nicks looks like a dicey WR3. ... Randle is a WR4 with big-play ability who could become a WR2 if Nicks missed time, as he often has in recent years. Randle is not a starter, but will play in all three-receiver packages for the time being.
Giants-Cowboys could be Week 1's sneaky shootout. Both defenses enter the season banged up with Spencer and Ratliff out, and RCB Morris Claiborne coming off a lost preseason due to a knee injury. Giants FS Stevie Brown (ACL) is out for the year. RE Jason Pierre-Paul may only play a handful of snaps following back surgery, while LCB Corey Webster (groin/knee), slot CB Jayron Hosley (ankle), and SS Antrel Rolle (ankle) all missed most of August. There was not a more physically impressive player I witnessed this preseason than Dez Bryant, who has the look of a man on a mission. I expect Dez to shred the Giants' defense. ... Tony Romo has had a lot of historical success against the G-Men. Look for that to continue Sunday night. In his last ten regular season meetings with New York, Romo has completed 222-of-332 passes (66.9%) for 2,748 yards (8.28 YPA), 25 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions with three more rushing scores. ... Miles Austin is coming off a sharp preseason where he secured 8-of-11 targets for 106 yards and a touchdown. Summer reports out of Dallas claim Austin's lower-body explosion has returned and his oft-balky hamstrings were healthy all camp. We've heard that before, of course. Regardless, Austin is a strong WR3 option against the G-Men. Look for him to tangle with Webster for most of the night, while Bryant takes on Giants RCB Prince Amukamara.
The 2012 Giants were among the NFL's most generous teams to fantasy tight ends, largely due to second-level deficiencies. The linebacker corps has been revamped from within, promoting Mark Herzlich to Mike 'backer with 2011 UDFA Spencer Paysinger on the weak side and top-ten draft disappointment Keith Rivers at Sam. Among them, only Herzlich earned a positive preseason coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. It's an inviting matchup for Jason Witten. ... Jerry Jones stripped coach Jason Garrett's playcalling duties in the offseason, turning them over to line coach-turned-coordinator Bill Callahan. Callahan's mantra has been a renewed commitment to the run game, where Dallas finished 31st last year in both yardage and attempts, and 30th in yards per carry (3.56). Perhaps it'll work in the short term, but coming out of Oklahoma NFL scouts were concerned DeMarco Murray's combination of upright style, stiffness as a runner, and almost wide receiver-like build (6'0/213) would lead to constant punishment and a career spent mostly in the trainers room. To this point, Murray has been forecasted accurately. He's a fine RB2 play against the Giants, but I would not want to count on Murray as a season-long fantasy starter.
Score Prediction: Giants 28, Cowboys 27
Monday Night Football
Philadelphia @ Washington
Coach Chip Kelly conceded after the third preseason game he was "concerned" with the Eagles' secondary, and he ought to be. Philly's safety play was the worst in the league this August, and the Cary Williams-Bradley Fletcher cornerback duo is going to get torched in the same division as Dez Bryant, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Pierre Garcon. On Monday night, look for Garcon to regularly burn LCB Williams. With Baltimore last year, Williams graded 69th in Pro Football Focus' cornerback ratings while surrendering the second highest "burn rate" of all 2013 free agents, according to STATS ICE. Garcon is headed for a big year, and he is set up to start hot. ... Washington pass catchers beyond Garcon are essentially role players in a constant weekly struggle for targets. It would've been easier to get behind Fred Davis as a TE1 sleeper had he done anything before his 2012 Achilles' tear. Pre-injury, Davis was on pace for 55 receptions, 743 yards, and no scores. While there's reason to believe Davis can improve slightly on those numbers if the Redskins simply throw the football more this year, odds are against him providing reliable week-to-week production. Davis does have a favorable matchup in this game.
Philly's "defense" was carved up by opposing first-team quarterbacks to the tune of 60.5 percent completions and a 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio during the preseason despite seeing its most extensive exhibition action against Chad Henne. On the ground, opposing first-team tailbacks tagged the Eagles for 159 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries (5.89 YPC). Washington's offense should slice Philadelphia like a hot knife through butter. Look for 20-plus carries from foundation back Alfred Morris and RB1 results. ... Despite his knee reconstruction and zero preseason snaps, coach Mike Shanahan indicated the Redskins will not adjust their offense for Robert Griffin III. It's going to be the same read-option, shot-play Pistol attack that paralyzed defenders and ripped off chunk-yardage plays all last year. "If we didn't feel Robert was full-go and ready to play and do all the things you ask a guy to do, he would not be playing," Shanahan said this week. "If that's sprinting out, if it's running the option, if it's dropback, he can do all those things." RG3 couldn't ask for a better Week 1 matchup. ... Coming off an outstanding preseason (5.8 YPC), Roy Helu will serve as Washington's third-down and change-of-pace back behind Morris. Helu should be owned in all fantasy leagues. If Morris went down, you could argue Helu would offer even more fantasy upside because he'd be a legit every-down back. He's an ideal lottery-ticket bench stash.
Offseason chatter might've led you to believe defenses would "figure" out the Pistol running game after it took off during the 2012 NFL season. Based on its continued preseason success, it is alive and well. Particularly so for the Eagles, whose tailback trio of LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, and Chris Polk combined for 280 yards on 60 runs (4.7 YPC) and four TDs in exhibition action. Behind arguably the NFL's most talented offensive line, I don't remotely doubt McCoy will find room to run Monday night at Washington. Throughout the season, the trick for Philadelphia will be keeping pace on the scoreboard to avoid pass-happy comeback mode. Chip Kelly's offense is decidedly run based and flees its comfort zone when trailing. A porous defense -- not opponents catching on -- is the biggest threat to Kelly's success. ... Although Brown is twice the running talent of Polk, the Eagles' No. 2 running back job appears to be open to an ongoing competition. Polk's superiority as a pass protector, combined with Brown's continued fumbling woes, prevented the more talented runner from distancing himself in August. Brown holds significantly more fantasy value than Polk, but neither is a worthwhile Week 1 flex play. Because Kelly's philosophy is so decidedly run oriented, Brown could get to that point even if McCoy stays healthy. He's just not there yet.
While run-heavy offenses don't typically support multi-receiver fantasy production, they certainly can do so for one. We've seen that in Houston with Andre Johnson, and flashes of it with Michael Crabtree in San Francisco and Garcon in D.C. I think DeSean Jackson has a chance to post career highs in every category under Kelly as the clear-cut, go-to focal point of the passing game. Riley Cooper is a blocking receiver, while Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, and James Casey are rotating role-player tight ends. Not only could Jackson benefit statistically from Philly's generous defense, Kelly's run-minded, run-formationed offense will give him more one-on-one opportunities than D-Jax has seen in his career. I like him as a WR2 on Monday Night Football and going forward. ... I'm extremely intrigued by how Kelly's scheme will lend itself to Michael Vick in the box score. I don't pretend to have great feel for it, however, after a relatively vanilla smattering of preseason offense. My guess is Vick's usage will mirror his in Atlanta during the run-heavy Falcons seasons of 2004-2006. Whereas those teams had Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett, and Roddy White, the 2013 Eagles have McCoy, Brown, and Jackson. Vick was the No. 12 fantasy quarterback in 2004, 11th in 2005, and finished third in 2006. If Vick buys into Kelly's scheme, avoiding the durability and ball-security woes of his past, I think he will score like a top-12 fantasy quarterback without issue. This is still a learning process, though. And we're going to find out a lot more on Monday night.
Score Prediction: Redskins 28, Eagles 20
Houston @ San Diego
Appearing on ESPN's NFL Insiders Wednesday, GM Rick Smith stressed that the Texans' 2013 run-game goal is to enhance Ben Tate's role in hopes of increased "balance" between Tate and Arian Foster. Foster leads the NFL in offensive touches over the past three seasons, and his per-carry and per-reception averages are in decline. "We've got to have some balance," Smith said. "Ben has had a good offseason. ... I think as long as we have that balance between the two, I think we'll be pretty good." A "balanced" two-back committee could help Foster avoid physical breakdown while maintaining Houston's run-based philosophy. In Week 1, look for both runners to hover around 15-17 touches as formidable RB2 plays. Perhaps Foster will regain RB1 workloads in time, but fantasy owners can't expect that immediately because the Texans don't plan to utilize him that way. ... Houston has been and will continue to be a run-heavy vertical shot-play team that exploits cheating defenses downfield off play-action fakes. San Diego has three new secondary starters including RCB Shareece Wright (0 career starts), who at least in preseason played on the side where Andre Johnson runs the majority of his routes. For A.J., this is an appetizing matchup.
Although Matt Schaub is capable of random big box-score games and San Diego's defense isn't an imposing foe, Schaub is no more than a two-QB option Monday night. He hasn't finished inside the top-17 fantasy quarterbacks since 2010. ... Rookie DeAndre Hopkins played Z receiver and some slot this preseason and will likely run most of his Week 1 pass patterns into Chargers LCB Derek Cox's coverage. When healthy, Cox has flashed No. 1 corner ability in the past. Hopkins is a virtual lock to be an effective real-life NFL player, but I think he'll be stretched for stable week-to-week fantasy value competing for targets with Foster, Owen Daniels, and Garrett Graham behind Johnson in a run-first offense. Consider Hopkins a low-end WR3 for now. Coach Gary Kubiak admitted Friday Hopkins is still "in a catch-up period" with the playbook after missing over two weeks of camp following a concussion. ... Correspondingly, the Texans' addition of a legitimate No. 2 receiver and rise of Graham as a passing-game factor threaten to crush Daniels' production. Daniels has a plus matchup due to San Diego's suspect second- and third-level coverage, but there definitely are a dozen better Week 1 tight end plays.
Short of borderline-genius scheming by Mike McCoy, the Chargers' offense is going to struggle to move the ball Monday night as LE J.J. Watt eats up San Diego's interior line and OLB Whitney Mercilus tees off on LT King Dunlap. Prior to ILB Brian Cushing's October 8 ACL tear, the 2012 Texans were allowing the fewest points per game (14.0) in football. They ranked second versus the pass and 11th against the run. Cushing is back now, restoring physicality and versatility to Houston's linebacker corps. Philip Rivers' withered arm and seemingly shell-shocked on-field play have been ongoing themes the past two seasons. Expect them to continue in Week 1. ... McCoy and OC Ken Whisenhunt have installed a quick-hitting, three-step-drop offense in San Diego, in hopes of compensating for arguably the NFL's worst offensive line and rejuvenating Rivers. While Rivers is a long shot for individual fantasy success in this daunting matchup, the revised offense plays to the strengths of possession "Z" receiver Vincent Brown and perhaps TE Antonio Gates. The concern with Gates is he may wind up helping Dunlap block often in this game, diminishing his box-score impact. The concern with Brown is he will contend with Texans top CB Johnathan Joseph for most of the night, as they primarily line up on the same side. Brown is a shaky WR3.
On the other hand, the new offense is a painfully poor fit for "X" receiver Malcom Floyd. 32 years old now, Floyd is a leggy, long-striding one-trick-pony deep threat on a team that intends to go deep less. Lacking any sliver of season-long upside, Floyd will be viewed as waiver-wire fodder by fantasy-title contenders. ... Ryan Mathews looked awfully good in August, running with purpose, elusiveness, and perimeter speed and averaging 4.65 yards per carry on 26 totes against the first-string defenses of Seattle, Chicago, and Arizona. Unfortunately, Mathews also lost a fumble and didn't catch a single pass, the latter of which is likely a sign of things to come. The Chargers have stripped Mathews of passing-down duties, where they'll use Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. A two-down back only, Mathews is capable of producing like an RB1 as long as he's healthy and San Diego is sitting a lead. Mathews will be sitting on the sideline when the Chargers are losing.
Score Prediction: Texans 27, Chargers 17