Tennessee @ Jacksonville
Some Chris Johnson owners are concerned about his Week 1 workload. I'm not. Javon Ringer's preseason hip injury has led to back "tightness," and he's questionable to be active against the Jags. The Titans have discussed adding Herb Donaldson from the practice squad to compensate, indicating legitimate concern with Ringer's health. Next on the depth chart is Jamie Harper, who performed admirably in August but is a fourth-round rookie and unlikely to receive more than 8-10 touches in his NFL debut. Once Johnson gets rolling on the first drive, the Titans' staff will have to leave him in. 24-25 carries and 5-6 catches wouldn't be surprising. The Jags finished 22nd in run defense last season and allowed the second most yards per carry. ... Jared Cook isn't a full-time player just yet, but his usage with the first-team offense increased on a weekly basis in exhibition games, and he led Tennessee in preseason targets and receptions. Cook plays in the slot and out wide, ala Jermichael Finley with similar athleticism. Fantasy owners are understandably hesitant to use Cook out of the chute, but he'll be a top-ten tight end scorer when all is said and done.
Let me know when the Jaguars are going to take their pass rush seriously. They have finished the regular season 32nd and 30th in sacks over the past two seasons, and again brought up the NFL rear with two sacks in the 2011 preseason. Matt Hasselbeck will have a clean pocket on Sunday, which should translate to plenty of deep-ball fun for Kenny Britt. Britt certainly won't face a worse secondary all year. ... Nate Washington has more of a "rapport" with Hasselbeck because of his healthy August (Britt was nagged by a hamstring pull), but it's hard to imagine using him as a WR3 in Week 1. He's the No. 4 option behind Johnson, Britt, and Cook in a balanced offense.
New starting quarterback Luke McCown has attempted 20 regular season passes as a Jaguar, so it's a pretty small sample size. Here's McCown's target distribution anyway: Marcedes Lewis (5), Mike Sims-Walker (5), Rashad Jennings (3), Mike Thomas (2), Kassim Osgood (2), Others (the remaining 3). Lewis is easily the safest bet for catches and pass targets in the Jacksonville pass-catching corps. ... The scouting report on McCown is that he's a shaky if aggressive passer, and that shows up in his 7.85 YPA over the last two preseasons. It's good news on paper for Mike Thomas, who will play outside more after focusing on the slot in his first two years. He'll run more deep routes, though I’m a bit skeptical that the new role suits Thomas’ skills. We saw Percy Harvin flunk the test when the Vikings tried something similar with him early last year. ... Jason Hill is Jacksonville's split end, but McCown hasn't completed a pass to him in his life outside of the practice field. Lock in Lewis, consider Thomas as a WR3, and pass on Hill.
It's no secret by now that Maurice Jones-Drew underwent offseason surgery in an attempt to fix a "bone-on-bone" condition in his right knee. MJD's lone preseason appearance (one 14-yard run with a huge hole, 0-yard net on his other four carries) wasn’t enough for a viable evaluation, so I'll withhold judgment until seeing Jones-Drew in a real game. You're not going to sit him in the opener, but should be concerned about what's left of his explosiveness, the offense, and possibility of re-injury. The good news is Jones-Drew will receive a huge workload with Rashad Jennings out for the year. He's also facing a banged-up Titans front four with heavy transition in terms of both system and personnel. ... With Jennings on I.R., Deji Karim is MJD's backup. He's an extremely raw talent, but 4.6 YPC on his last 53 rushing attempts in regular and preseason suggests Karim can be an explosive playmaker. He's worth stashing in all leagues behind an injury-risk starter.
Score Prediction: Titans 21, Jaguars 14
Buffalo @ Kansas City
There is one elite fantasy start in this game, and he was my No. 1-ranked player for 2011 drafts. Jamaal Charles finished the 2010 season as the No. 4 overall fantasy back despite 230 rushing attempts (14th in the league) and five rushing scores (25th in the league), and he didn't even lead his own team in carries. My bets are on Charles' talent, the Chiefs' mauling offensive line (I love new RG Jon Asamoah), AFC West run defenses, and an offense that will have to lean heavily on the ground game to move the sticks. My bet is squarely against a totally ineffective and 33-year-old Jones. The carries will be there for Charles because they will have to be. Charles has faced the Bills three times in his career, and ripped off 162 total yards per game, two touchdowns, and a 7.77 yards per carry average. And he only received two carries in one of those games.
The K.C. pass game is headed for regression this year, especially with the departure of offensive mastermind Charlie Weis, who coaxed career years out of Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn at Notre Dame before doing the same with Matt Cassel last season. Dwayne Bowe has found the end zone in both of his two career matchups with Buffalo, but the rest of the Chiefs' pass catchers can safely be avoided. Typically, teams game plan to attack the Bills with the run, which is in large part why Buffalo annually finishes high in the league's pass defense rankings. Expect a ton of Charles, some Jones, and 7-10 targets for Bowe. Steve Breaston is a waste of a roster spot this week and going forward. Drop him for a wide receiver or running back with more potential.
I believe in the Chan Gailey system, but points will be hard to come by in Buffalo this season. There isn't a less talented O-Line in football, the starting tailback is 30 1/2 years old, and there's no No. 2 receiver to speak of. At least Lee Evans commanded defensive attention on clearing routes. In the backfield, the Bills are toying with the idea of using an even timeshare in terms of overall touches. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are both poor bets to get the ball more than 12-15 times, and they won't have running lanes. The Chiefs already weren't slouches against the run, and have an upgrade at nose tackle in the form of ex-Baltimore space eater Kelly Gregg. You should feel confident avoiding Jackson and Spiller as more than desperation flex plays for most of the year.
Steve Johnson has a tough matchup with shutdown LCB Brandon Flowers, but Gailey will move Johnson around enough to see snaps against the Chiefs' sub-package corners. There simply isn't another Bills receiver to command targets. In my estimation, Johnson was a bit undervalued in 2011 drafts. He'll see double teams, sure, but Gailey is smart enough to get Johnson in motion when possible. An excellent short-to-intermediate route runner, Johnson remains the ideal fit for Ryan Fitzpatrick's weak arm. Johnson is a WR2 against the Chiefs. ... Donald Jones and Roscoe Parrish are expected to open the year as Buffalo's No. 2 and 3 receivers. My money is still on David Nelson emerging as the second most targeted Bill by season's end. Nelson acquitted himself well with 31 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns as an undrafted rookie last season, and no other Bills wideout can match his size-speed combo at 6'5/220 with a 4.45 forty.
Score Prediction: Chiefs 17, Bills 13
Philadelphia @ St. Louis
Always a fast starter, Michael Vick has a career 18:5 TD-to-INT ratio in the month of September with five more rushing scores and a 7.54 yards-per-carry average. The Rams' defense is better than given credit, but Vick is the best quarterback play in the league this week. He's exceptionally dangerous on turf. ... The sample size is admittedly small (two games), but LeSean McCoy also rips it up in a dome. He racked up 249 rushing yards and three scores on 32 indoor carries (7.78 YPC) last season, with seven receptions. The Rams are too slow to contain McCoy on the edges with 32-year-olds Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga starting at outside linebacker. ... Jeremy Maclin should eventually regain every-week starter status, but he's a wait-and-see WR3 against St. Louis after battling a mysterious illness all winter and spring, and failing to record a preseason catch.
I hope you like dome stats. In four career indoor games, DeSean Jackson averages five catches for 126 yards, with two touchdowns. Jackson will match up with Ronald Bartell for most of this one, and he's much quicker than the Rams' left corner. You'll want to start D-Jax. ... Vick spoke of throwing to Brent Celek more in the offseason, but St. Louis' tight end coverage is stout under Steve Spagnuolo. Opposing top tight ends managed just 41 catches for 490 yards in 16 games against the Rams last season, "good" for an average of under three receptions and 31 yards. They held Antonio Gates to 12 yards and Vernon Davis out of the end zone twice. The only tight ends to score on the Rams all year were Leonard Pope, Justin Peelle, and Brandon Pettigrew.
During the 2010 season, Raiders opponents attempted 470 passes. 249 were complete, but just 13 against now-Eagles RCB Nnamdi Asomugha. Brandon Gibson worked as the Rams' starting LWR all preseason, so you'll want to look elsewhere for a Week 1 sleeper. ... Slot man Danny Amendola remains the best bet for targets and catches in St. Louis' receiver corps. On Sunday, he'll square off with Eagles nickel back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. DRC was exclusively an outside corner in Arizona and is just now learning to cover the slot. ... Mike Sims-Walker hasn't cracked the starting lineup, but plays in all three-receiver sets, which will be used plenty by new coordinator Josh McDaniels. MSW will be in Asante Samuel's coverage for most of Sunday's game.
Bulky workloads should buoy Steven Jackson's value, but he's lost a significant amount of speed off his prime. S-Jax lumbered through August, failing to make defenders miss and outrunning no one. Jackson has the fourth most carries among active backs, and RBs Nos. 1-3 (Ricky Williams, Thomas Jones, LaDainian Tomlinson) are late-career role players. Still a safe bet for 20 touches, Jackson is a low-end RB2 against an Eagles front seven sputtering at linebacker and undersized on both ends. ... Sam Bradford might flirt with 35 pass attempts Sunday, but he's just a QB2 against one of the NFL's most talented pass defenses. ... Lance Kendricks generated hype by leading the Rams in preseason receiving and TDs. Philly is historically burned by tight ends, but we'd like to see the rookie block well enough to earn regular snaps before recommending him.
Score Prediction: Rams 27, Eagles 24
Detroit @ Tampa Bay
Bucs GM Mark Dominik spoke Tuesday of employing "a committee approach" in the backfield to save LeGarrette Blount from "workhorse" carries. That sounds nice in theory, but Tampa is fooling itself if it believes plodding backups Kregg Lumpkin and Earnest Graham pose any danger to defenses. The Bucs need to control this game on the ground, keeping Matthew Stafford and Detroit's high-flying offense off the field. Trouble is, if Tampa falls behind, Blount won't be playing because he's not part of the passing offense. And that's the risk you took when drafting Blount: The Bucs aren't as good as their 10-6 2010 record indicated. Blount is going to really hurt you when he doesn't get 17-20 carries a game, and the Buccaneers will be behind in more of them than they were last season. Start Blount as a non-PPR RB2 and hope this one stays close.
Late in his rookie season, Mike Williams lit up the Lions for six catches, 96 yards, and a score. Detroit's pass defense will improve this year, but not enough to consider Williams less than a WR2. Williams will see Lions RCB Eric Wright in primary coverage, and Wright was one of the least effective corners in football last year. It was a confidence issue. Williams is a good test to see if it's back. ... The Bucs put training wheels on Arrelious Benn in camp after last year's ACL tear. Don't be surprised if Benn and Dezmon Briscoe rotate evenly at the "Z" receiver position to open the season. ... Kellen Winslow has lost steam in recent years, but you could do worse as a conservative TE1. He's Tampa's second safest bet for targets. ... Josh Freeman is an interesting play in a sleeper shootout game, but all season the risk with him is going to be opportunities. The Bucs ranked 23rd in pass attempts last year, helping to result in seven games under 200 passing yards for Freeman. And they've been clear that no change in offensive philosophy is forthcoming.
I spent the last few days trying to contemplate a non-injury scenario in which Stafford wouldn't tear the cover off the league this season. The Lions might have the pass-happiest offense in the NFL, no inside run threat, an absolutely loaded pass-catching corps, and literally the strongest-armed quarterback in the game. You can dismiss preseason stats all you want, but the good players tend to play good in August (Aaron Rodgers) and bad players bad (Tarvaris Jackson). Stafford went 25-of-33 (75.8%) for 395 yards (12.0 YPA), five touchdowns, and zero interceptions. He took one sack in 34 dropbacks. This is going to be a dynamite fantasy quarterback. ... The Lions' backfield pecking order behind Jahvid Best has yet to be established, but for now we can probably expect 16-18 touches for Best (5-7 in the form of catches), with 8-12 carries going to some combination of Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris. We'll know more about the backup situation next week. Best is an every-week starter in PPR leagues. He's much less of a factor in non-PPR formats.
The Bucs use CB Aqib Talib to shadow opposing top wide receivers, and he is usually a matchup nightmare. Talib missed preseason and the majority of camp with a hamstring injury, however, and it's unclear if he'll be 100 percent for the opener. Lock in Calvin Johnson. ... Bucs CB Ronde Barber covers opposing split end and slot receivers, so he'll be on Nate Burleson for most of this one. Despite his age, Pro Football Focus graded Barber as a top-four corner in the league last year. Burleson doesn't have an easy matchup. ... Unlike Shaun Hill, Stafford won't key in on burly tight end Brandon Pettigrew, instead attacking defenses with vertical passes. When Stafford does check down, it will be to Burleson in the slot or Best out of the backfield. Pettigrew will be a fantasy disappointment in an offense far different than what Detroit fielded for much of last season.
Score Prediction: Lions 28, Bucs 23