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 27, 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 increase 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 15-18 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
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