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