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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