Washington @ New Orleans
Vegas has tabbed Redskins-Saints with the highest over-under of any Week 1 game (50). I love starting fantasy players in projected shootouts because they tend to lead to more up-tempo, aggressive offense and increased box-score production. That's precisely what we're looking for in fantasy football. ... Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, and Darren Sproles should be locked into lineups. I think Graham will pace all tight ends in fantasy scoring this season. Colston finished as the No. 11 fantasy receiver in 2011 despite missing two games. Secondary play is Washington's defensive weakness, particularly nickel back Cedric Griffin, who is being employed at left cornerback in all sub-packages while DeAngelo Hall drops deep to play free safety. Brees should have all kinds of success throwing Griffin's way. Sproles won't hit double-digit carries every week, but he compensates with heavy usage in the pass game, where per-touch yardage averages are higher anyway. He's an every-week RB2 in all fantasy settings.
Mark Ingram was a 2011 fantasy disappointment, but he operated as the primary red-zone back when New Orleans-first team offense was on the field this preseason. Ingram also returns as the backfield's favorite for rushing attempts. There won't be many weeks when Ingram isn't a worthwhile flex play. He has double-digit touchdown potential. ... Pierre Thomas is a rock-solid NFL player and key cog in New Orleans' three-man backfield, but he's third on the totem pole from a fantasy perspective because Ingram hogs scoring opportunities and Sproles gets most of the catches. Thomas would need an Ingram or Sproles injury to be a fantasy starter. He's more of an RB4 right now. ... Devery Henderson, Chris Ivory, Travaris Cadet, and Joseph Morgan are not worth roster spots in 12-team leagues. ... Lance Moore is an intriguing WR4/5 because his field time may rise this season with Robert Meachem gone. He's still the fourth option in the passing game behind Graham, Colston, and Sproles, meaning Moore is likely destined for inconsistency.
Saints DC Steve Spagnuolo's defensive scheme depends heavily on front-four pressure, which worked great with the Eagles and Giants, and not so well with the Rams. I think it plays right into the Redskins' hands. With RE Will Smith on suspension and the rest of Spags' unit displaying limited pass-rush ability, an otherwise suspect Washington offensive line should be able to keep Robert Griffin III's pocket clean for reasonable stretches in Sunday's opener. In the back end, top Saints CB Jabari Greer missed virtually all of camp after August 2 sports hernia surgery and is just now getting back into the swing of things. I wouldn't go nuts starting RG3 in his NFL debut at an amped-up Superdome, but I'd feel good about Griffin in two-quarterback leagues and Pierre Garcon as a borderline WR2. This game's shootout potential enhances Garcon's fantasy appeal.
Friday Evening Update: In a stunning development, the NFL lost the right to impose suspensions for the Saints' 2009-2011 Bounty Scandal, and Smith will be active against Washington. Keep in mind Smith didn't get in a single practice this week and may start slow, but he's going to play. I might downgrade Griffin's fantasy outlook slightly with this news.
I think there is legitimate reason to worry about Fred Davis' quiet preseason (three games, two targets) because the Redskins have wide receivers this year. They didn't during Davis' breakout 2011 season. The revised offense looks more perimeter and rushing-attack oriented, featuring Garcon outside the numbers while the zone-boot game keeps defenses off balance by way of a dual-threat quarterback. Davis is a back-end TE1 against the Saints, but I think you'll be disappointed if he's your starter all year. I could be wrong. ... Redskins receivers beyond Garcon are fantasy bench material until proven otherwise. Santana Moss has been reduced to part-timer, while Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan figure to open the season rotating at the "Z" position. I'm not sure any of them are worth 12-team league roster spots. ... Roy Helu is the best running back the Redskins have, but he's currently listed as a second-stringer between hard-charging plodders Evan Royster (No. 1) and Alfred Morris (3). Royster is the best Week 1 fantasy bet of the bunch. He also presents significant risk with usage governed by the whims of Shanahan & Son.
Score Prediction: Saints 31, Redskins 23
St. Louis @ Detroit
If you want a safe Week 1 winner in your Eliminator League, the Lions are an awfully good choice. At home against a Rams team already short on talent and transitioning systems both offensively and defensively, the Lions ought to grab an early lead and run away with this game. That kind of scenario would bode particularly well for tailback Kevin Smith, who has recovered from his August ankle tweak and is practicing without restrictions. He wasn't even listed on this week's injury report. As long as Smith stays healthy, he should be a comfortable bet for 18-24 weekly touches. ... In 15 career games at Ford Field, Matthew Stafford has accounted for 36 touchdowns. He was especially sharp at home last year, completing over 66 percent of his passes with a 20:7 TD-to-INT ratio. I think Stafford is the premier quarterback play in fantasy football this week. ... Despite playing a "deep" position, Calvin Johnson was the only wide receiver worth a first-round pick in fantasy drafts because he's head-and-shoulders above the field. He gives you a huge week-by-week advantage. Johnson's last 17 games inside a dome: 93 catches, 1,505 yards (1,544 all-purpose), and 16 touchdowns. Yeah, Megatron is pretty good.
Also working in Smith's favor is the absence of Rams 325-pound run plugger Michael Brockers due to a high ankle sprain. St. Louis' thin defense had hoped to turn to a rotation of undrafted rookie Matt Conrath and waiver pickup Kellen Heard next to Kendall Langford. Conrath (knee), however, will miss this game as well. Smith is primed for success. ... Titus Young has a fine Week 1 matchup and offers breakout potential over the course of the season, but I'd like to see him locked into a full-time receiver role before counting on Young as more than a dicey WR3. He played under 65 percent of Detroit's 2011 offensive snaps and was held under 60 yards in 12-of-17 games. ... I do like Young better than pedestrian slot man Nate Burleson and slow-footed tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Pettigrew is a worthwhile back-end TE1 in PPR leagues because he plays in an offense that throws so often, but he's never ranked higher than 11th among standard league tight ends. Burleson's role will diminish in favor of Young and rookie Ryan Broyles, beginning perhaps as soon as this week. We'll know more about the usages behind Megatron after Week 1.
We'll keep the Rams breakdown to one paragraph because there is so little fantasy talent on St. Louis' roster. The guys to take seriously are Steven Jackson, who looked terrific all August, and slot-turned-full-time receiver Danny Amendola. Falling behind early could cost S-Jax some open-field attempts, but he's still a good bet for 20-plus touches and will rarely come off the field. Isaiah Pead's preseason struggles (3.08 YPC average) were quietly a plus for Jackson's fantasy value. He really has no competition for carries. ... In the past, Amendola has been strictly a slot guy who enters the game on passing downs. The new coaching staff is using him as an every-down player. In the third preseason game, Amendola played all but one snap with St. Louis' first-team offense, lining up at X and slot receiver while Steve Smith, Brandon Gibson, and tight end Lance Kendricks rotated as the other pass catchers. Amendola is just a WR5 in standard leagues, but offers WR3 appeal in PPR as the heavy favorite to pace his team in receptions. He could easily catch seven or eight balls at Detroit, particularly if the Rams get down big. ... I'm holding out little hope for Sam Bradford as a QB2 this season in a run-heavy offense without a supporting cast. Individually, Bradford's play has been discouraging as well.
Score Prediction: Lions 37, Rams 13
New England @ Tennessee
I chose Stevan Ridley's picture to lead off this column because I think he'll be the breakout star of Week 1. A bruising power back with better speed than you think, Ridley established himself as the lead dog in New England's backfield with a fumble-free preseason, also rushing 34 times for 152 yards (4.47 YPC) and a score. Shane Vereen (foot) will be inactive in Nashville, leaving Ridley to dominate early-down work against a soft Tennessee defense. The Titans ranked 24th against the run last season and remain light in the front seven without a single defensive line starter over 300 pounds. They'll also be missing starting DT Sen'Derrick Marks (knee). I think Ridley can rip this unit for 100 yards and a couple of touchdowns. I'd lock him into my fantasy lineup. ... The Titans' defensive strength is against the pass, but they are breaking in a new nickel back this year, and there may be bumps in the road. Tommie Campbell, who plays right cornerback in all sub-packages, got toasted by Braylon Edwards in the preseason and will contend with Brandon Lloyd for the majority of Sunday's game. Despite a quiet August, Lloyd should start fast in a favorable matchup. I expect Lloyd to have a big season.
The Titans' top cover men are RCB/slot cornerback Alterraun Verner and LCB Jason McCourty. Verner figures to square off with Wes Welker plenty, although he's in his first season covering the slot, replacing Cortland Finnegan. Welker may give Verner a rude welcome inside the numbers. ... Ultra-reliable Boston Globe reporter Greg Bedard went on the record this week to predict Aaron Hernandez will pass Rob Gronkowski as Tom Brady's go-to guy in 2012. Gronk should remain a high-scoring red-zone beast, but Hernandez may catch more balls and gain more yards. The Patriots' passing offense is voluminous and efficient enough that all of these guys can get "theirs." In terms of points scored, New England has been a top-10 NFL team in eight straight seasons. They've finished third and first in the last two, respectively. ... Oh yeah. Start Tom Brady.
The 2012 preseason reminded us of the accuracy issues that caused Jake Locker to be a lightning rod before the 2011 draft. He has an alarming tendency to miss open receivers high, which also happened to be an early-career flaw of Eli Manning's. While ball placement is a red flag on Locker's long-term outlook, it's less concerning in fantasy leagues, where we don't typically get points for completion rate. Locker can drive the ball downfield and rack up valuable rushing yards with his legs. I think he's a definite two-QB league starter in this potential shootout, and someone to consider over back-end QB1s in tougher matchups like Peyton Manning, and perhaps even Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler. Locker has two stud offensive tackles (Michael Roos, David Stewart) to keep his pocket clean, and a playmaking supporting cast even without Kenny Britt for the opener. ... Britt is suspended this week and may be eased into the Week 2 lineup, but I expect him to emerge as an every-week starter no later than Week 5 at Minnesota. The Titans face off with San Diego in Week 2, Detroit in Week 3, and Johnathan Joseph's Texans in Week 4.
Chet Gresham's Target Watch column became a favorite of mine last year, and he led off with a humdinger on Wednesday. Per Chet, Locker's preseason target distribution: Kendall Wright 14, Jared Cook 9, Nate Washington 7, Javon Ringer 4, Craig Stevens 4, Damian Williams 3, Lavelle Hawkins 2, Jamie Harper 1, Chris Johnson 1. ... Johnson's low target count is a reminder that he won't play much in passing situations this season. He's lost the third-down job outright to Ringer due to pathetic pass blocking, which could cost Johnson significant field time when the Titans fall behind. Whereas CJ?K had 28 preseason carries, he didn't have a single catch. Don't be surprised if true matchup guru Bill Belichick attempts to take away Tennessee's running game, daring Locker to beat the Patriots with his erratic arm. ... Wright looks like Locker's go-to receiver and brings to the table more dynamic tools than Washington or slot receiver Williams. The latter two are WR4/5s. Wright is a WR3 option with upside against a New England secondary with much to prove after a miserable 2011 season. ... Cook is a Jermichael Finley-type talent who can really run at 6-foot-5, 248, but I'm in wait-and-see mode on his fantasy value after he let me down last season. Cook needs to raise his snap count by blocking better. He was a part-time tight end last season, playing fewer snaps than blocking specialist Stevens.
Score Prediction: Patriots 34, Titans 24
Jacksonville @ Minnesota
Jags-Vikes has the second lowest over-under of any Week 1 matchup (39.5), which makes it a reasonable game to avoid when seeking tiebreakers for lineup decisions. Percy Harvin is a locked-and-loaded WR1/2, but no other Vikings pass catchers are surefire fantasy starters. It was clear from the Jaguars' preseason that Justin Blackmon will be the featured player in OC Bob Bratkowski's pass game, but even the impressive rookie isn't more than a WR3. ... Jags defensive coordinator Mel Tucker runs a Tampa 2 system that legitimately shut down vertical passing attacks last season. Jacksonville quietly ranked eighth in the league against the pass. The Vikings can formidably counter Tucker's scheme with a horizontal offense, peppering Harvin with targets in the slot and getting the football to "move" tight end Kyle Rudolph. Christian Ponder probably isn't in line for a big passing day, but Harvin should run circles around Jaguars slot cornerback Aaron Ross and Rudolph is a respectable low-end TE1 fantasy option. The rest of the Vikings should be avoided.
Jaguars top CB Derek Cox will be inactive with a hamstring injury. Cox's absence may improve Minnesota's chances of generating ball movement, but doesn't help any particular Vikings pass catcher because Cox plays outside the numbers. The Vikings' only outside-the-numbers threat is Jerome Simpson, and he's suspended. ... Adrian Peterson (knee) might be active for emergency back duty, but coach Leslie Frazier has vowed to give Peterson only "limited exposure," assuming he sees the field at all. It's hard to imagine starting Peterson in a fantasy league until we know for sure he's at least getting double-digit carries. Look for Toby Gerhart to handle the vast majority of the running back load Sunday. The Jaguars' run defense is above average, but Gerhart should approach 20 touches and get any goal-line opportunities. I like Gerhart as a low-end RB2 or flex. Stud Jaguars SLB Daryl Smith's unavailability due to a groin injury can only help Gerhart's cause.
Indications from the Jaguars' preseason were that "Brat" and Mike Mularkey have gotten Blaine Gabbert to make strides. Gabbert played afraid at Mizzou and as an NFL rookie, crumbling in the face of pressure. Implementing a quick-hitting pass offense that doesn't ask Gabbert to hold onto the ball as blitzers approach, the Jaguars have turned to Blackmon as their go-to guy at Z and slot receiver. Draftniks questioned Blackmon's downfield separation skills coming out of Oklahoma State, but he is a sure-handed monster after the catch. Blackmon is essentially an early-career Anquan Boldin with more speed. And the new offensive design in Jacksonville suits Blackmon's strengths. Blackmon has a tough Opening Day matchup against Vikings RCB Chris Cook and slot CB Antoine Winfield, but there shouldn't be many weeks when he doesn't catch six or more balls. If Gabbert can keep it together, Blackmon could be an absolute PPR stud.
Roddy White was Mularkey's Z receiver in Atlanta, with Michael Jenkins at X. Filling the X role, Laurent Robinson would do well just to mirror Jenkins' career-best line from 2008 (50/777/3). You don't want that on your fantasy team. ... Marcedes Lewis is dead to me as a fantasy player until I see some sustained production. He's stunk in five of his six NFL seasons and was good only in a contract year. ... Mularkey is openly projecting Maurice Jones-Drew as a Week 1 "third-down back." While I suspect MJD will get a few more carries than your run-of-the-mill passing-down specialist, it might not be by much. 10-12 touches against a defense that has ranked top-11 against the run in six straight seasons wouldn't make Jones-Drew very enticing. I'd pretty much write him off as a Week 1 fantasy option. ...Rashad Jennings should receive closer to a full workload, but the fact that he will leave the field in passing situations diminishes his appeal significantly. Jennings may end up running into a brick wall 16-18 times. He's a low-upside flex.
Score Prediction: Vikings 20, Jaguars 17