Seattle @ Carolina
Many fantasy leaguers are balking at Cam Newton in Week 1 despite making him an early-round draft pick, and I don't discourage it. Glass-half-full owners without reasonable alternatives can point to the fact Seattle's defense and team played considerably better at home than on the road last year, but most signs still point to an Opening Day struggle for Cam. The Seahawks' stacked D-Line will regularly overwhelm Carolina's suspect O-Line, and Seattle CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner erase offensive perimeters with physical press-man coverage, preventing wideouts from getting off the line and disrupting their routes. Because the Seahawks play "sides" at cornerback rather than assigning, say, Sherman to mirror Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell is likely in for a long day. Already a pedestrian talent, Z receiver LaFell will run most of his patterns onto Shutdown Sherman's LCB island and warrants no Week 1 fantasy consideration. ... Smith will have a tough time versus RCB Browner, but remains squarely in the WR3 mix. Leggy, somewhat heavy footed, and vulnerable deep when receivers beat his jam, Browner is the lesser of Seattle's cover men. If preseason was any indication, Smith still has plenty of spring in his 34-year-old legs. It can't hurt Smith's outlook that Browner is listed as questionable with a shaky hamstring. He'll be a game-time decision.
While Sherman and Browner lock down the perimeter, Seattle's defense can be exploited over the middle and down the seams. Some 2012 tight end stat lines versus the Seahawks: Brandon Pettigrew 7-74, Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez 12-91-1, Tony Gonzalez 6-51-1, Charles Clay 6-84-1. Seattle is still tough enough that this isn't a favorable matchup for Greg Olsen, but I do like his chances of delivering low-end TE1 production. ... DeAngelo Williams will be Carolina's lead back for at least the first six weeks, but fantasy expectations need to be kept in check. He's an RB3 and possible low-upside RB2 against weak run defenses, unlike this. Leave out last year's obvious fluke 21-210-2 Week 17 game against a historically inept Saints defense, and Williams managed 527 yards with three touchdowns on 152 carries (3.47 YPC). He followed that with 51 yards on 21 preseason runs (2.43 YPC). The life is gone from Williams' 30-year-old legs, his offensive line is below average to poor, his pass-game role has declined annually, and Williams is sure to be vultured at the goal line by Cam and Mike Tolbert. He's bench fodder on Opening Day.
The Seahawks put training wheels on Russell Wilson for the first five weeks of his rookie year, and then unleashed him. Across the final 13 contests -- including playoffs -- Wilson went 212-of-330 (64.2%) passing for 2,875 yards (8.71 YPA), 24 touchdowns, only five picks, and five more rushing TDs. Wilson was the No. 1 overall fantasy quarterback over the last five games. Seattle returns all five offensive line starters from its playoff run, and the supporting cast is fully intact. The Panthers' much-improved front seven will give Seattle some fits in the trenches, but Carolina arguably has the worst secondary in the league. Wilson is a top-eight QB1 in Week 1. ... Golden Tate was by all accounts the star of Seahawks camp, but the coaching staff seemed to keep him under preseason wraps. He managed four catches for 49 yards in exhibition action. With Percy Harvin (hip surgery) gone until at least midseason and Sidney Rice bothered by knee woes, Tate is the odds-on favorite to pace Seattle in 2013 receiving. On Sunday, Tate should have back-end openings versus burnable Panthers CBs Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Thomas, and Josh Norman. Carolina will start Quintin Mikell at strong safety just six days after signing him off the street.
Early in August, Rice trekked to Switzerland for a knee operation said to be "similar to platelet-rich plasma therapy" for patellar tendinitis. He did not play this preseason. Rice already lacked ideal separation skills, and what's left in his legs we just don't know. He's bench material. ... In-line TE Zach Miller and slot man Doug Baldwin are role players who posted stat lines of 3-59 and 3-37, respectively, when Carolina and Seattle squared off early last October. Neither is worth a fantasy roster spot. ... Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Star Lotulelei, Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Dwan Edwards, Kawann Short. This Panthers front seven is not to be taken lightly, and flashed dominance in August against Ravens and Eagles starters. Marshawn Lynch remains a top-15 Week 1 running back start and virtual lock for 18-plus carries, but he'll have to work for his yards. ... Christine Michael was the most impressive rookie I witnessed this summer. There is a chance Michael will be a game-day scratch at Carolina due to a lack of special teams value, but if he is don't be deterred. He's an ideal bench stash. Particularly on a team whose philosophy is the best players will play, I'm confident Michael would be Seattle's lead back ahead of Robert Turbin were Lynch to miss time. Turbin is a third-down back only. Lynch has taken (and dealt) an awful lot of hits among nearly 1,500 career rushing attempts. Backs with playing styles like his -- think Marion Barber -- can fall off the cliff without forewarning. Michael should be owned in all leagues.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 23, Panthers 20
Cincinnati @ Chicago
New Bears coach Marc Trestman is a believer in a precision passing game with timing, rhythm, anticipation, and a trigger man who releases the football as soon as he hits his back foot. Since Jay Cutler's Denver days, he's been a streetballer with tendencies to hold onto the ball too long, lock onto targets, and wait for receivers to come open before pulling the trigger. Cutler showed tangible signs of preseason improvement, finishing August 22-of-34 (64.7%) for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Cutler was intercepted twice. One pick was bad, forcing it to Brandon Marshall in double coverage. The other occurred when Alshon Jeffery either quit on his slant route or simply ran the wrong pattern. This new Chicago offense -- with a line that starts two rookies on the right side in RG Kyle Long and RT Jordan Mills -- is in for a major test against Cincinnati's arguably league-best defensive front. I'd treat Cutler as a pretty clear-cut QB2 in the opener, and if he plays well in the difficult matchup, consider elevating him to low-end QB1 status for Week 2 against the Vikings. ... If Dez Bryant was the single most impressive player of the 2013 preseason, Matt Forte wasn't far off. The centerpiece of Trestman's attack, Forte is going to be in space this season more often than ever before. He finished exhibition action with two touchdowns and a 9.9(!) yards-per-carry clip. You may have drafted Forte as an RB2, but he has a chance to score like an RB1.
There's no reason to think the new offense will negatively impact Marshall's production, primarily because Trestman is an ardent believer in the passing game and will call pass plays in bunches. Expect Marshall to get the better of Sunday's matchup with Bengals RCB Leon Hall. ... Jeffery is a different player entering his second NFL year. He is toned up physically and an outstanding fit for Trestman's scheme as a 6-foot-3, 215-pound West Coast wideout. Jeffery was a bigger part of Chicago's preseason passing offense than Martellus Bennett, and may emerge as the No. 3 option behind Marshall and Forte, which could vault Jeffery into WR2 fantasy territory. I like his Week 1 coverage draw against 35-year-old Bengals LCB Terence Newman. ... Bennett's value is touch and go. He was targeted only three times among 62 preseason snaps, dropping two and securing the third for a 16-yard gain. Bennett is an outstanding blocker, and may get stuck on the line helping Mills block Bengals edge-bending LE Carlos Dunlap for long stretches in Week 1. Bennett can still be a 2013 fantasy factor, but I wouldn't want to lean on him in Sunday's opener.
The Bengals are one of many NFL teams planning to play fast-tempo 2013 offense, upping its use of huddle-less formations and increasing plays from scrimmage. This is good news for fantasy players because more snaps equal more touches, and more touches can equal more yards and touchdowns. Versatile, quick-footed "space" back Giovani Bernard is also a much better fit for Cincy's revised approach than plodding two-down banger BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I think Bernard will usurp Law Firm as the Bengals' leader in touches as soon as Week 1. The Bears are loaded defensively and this is not an ideal matchup, of course, but Bernard should open the season as an every-week RB2/flex. It's worth noting the rookie scored three one-yard touchdowns in preseason, whereas Green-Ellis did not find pay dirt. The Bengals won't hesitate to leave Gio in the game in scoring position when they're playing no-huddle offense without substitutes. ... Tyler Eifert has a chance to develop into a top-five tight end when Jermaine Gresham's rookie deal expires (2015), but until then the logical guess is Cincinnati's tight end duo will offset each other's production, rendering both Eifert and Gresham week-to-week rolls of the low-end TE1 dice. I do expect Eifert to out-produce Gresham by season's end, but the situation is not a sound fantasy investment.
The Bears return 3-of-4 up-front starters and all four secondary first-teamers from a defense that ranked top-eight in passing touchdowns allowed, yards-per-pass-attempt permitted, and sacks in 2012. At Soldier Field, Chicago's pass defense is a highly imposing foe for talent-deficient Andy Dalton and a Bengals offense minus stalwart LT Andrew Whitworth (knee). Julius Peppers plays on Whitworth's side. Dalton had better get the ball out quick. The Bears are a recommended fantasy-defense play, and Dalton is a low-end QB2. ... Bengals OC Jay Gruden is a schemer and game planner, and smart enough to know his offense is entering a disadvantageous scenario. It's why I wouldn't be surprised if quick-hitting dump-off valve Bernard led Cincy in Week 1 receptions. Start A.J. Green, but temper expectations in his likely shadow matchup with Bears CB Charles Tillman. "Peanut" limited Calvin Johnson to lines of 3-34-0 and 5-72-0 in their two 2012 matchups. ... The Bengals used Brandon Tate and Armon Binns in a No. 2 receiver rotation opposite Green to open last season. It's not insane to think they'll do the same with Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones against the Bears. Sanu will play the most snaps, but is competing for targets with Eifert, Gresham, and perhaps Jones behind Green and Gio. This isn't a recipe for reliable fantasy stats.
Score Prediction: Bears 21, Bengals 17
Tampa Bay @ NY Jets
Geno Smith played 69 preseason snaps, completing 59.5% of 37 throws for 246 yards (6.6 YPA), one touchdown, and three interceptions. The second-round pick may have a bright future, but he didn't look NFL ready in August. Nevertheless, Smith will begin his pro career facing a Tampa Bay secondary capable of eliminating No. 1 receivers with Darrelle Revis, and flummoxing a rookie passer with versatile safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron. The Bucs' fantasy defense is a recommended streamer play. Smith and his pass catchers appear set up for failure. ... Washed-up Braylon Edwards was among the Jets' first cuts, leaving Stephen Hill, Santonio Holmes, and Jeremy Kerley as New York's first-team three-receiver set. Holmes (foot) has barely practiced in new playcaller Marty Mornhinweg's offense and won't be a full-time player in Week 1. When Holmes is in the game, Revis will likely cover him. And Revis also figures to be on Hill plenty. ... For fantasy owners desperate to use a Jets receiver, Kerley is the best bet. He'll play in the slot -- safely off Revis Island -- and face off either with second-year UDFA Leonard Johnson or rookie Johnthan Banks. Pass-happy catch-up mode could vault Kerley to six or seven catches.
With the NFL's worst passing-game personnel, the 2013 Jets will play competitive football if and only if they field a shutdown defense and borderline dominant rushing attack to which historically pass-happy Mornhinweg stays committed. Week 1 opponent Tampa has the NFL's returning No. 1 run defense in both yards and yards-per-carry average allowed. Making matters worse, the Jets' carry distribution is muddy after Bilal Powell (3.6 YPC) outplayed Chris Ivory (2.0 YPC) in the preseason. Powell is currently listed ahead of Ivory on the Jets' depth chart. Until more-talented Ivory shakes off the rust and forces Mornhinweg's coaching staff to increase his role, this has the look of a value-draining rotation with little chance of overall Week 1 success. Powell is barely worth rostering in 12-team fantasy leagues. Ivory would be a poor flex option against the Bucs.
Last year's stats can be an unreliable indicator of what's to come, but it's difficult to forget the 2012 Jets' 26th-ranked run defense when combined with DE/OLB Quinton Coples' (ankle) Week 1 absence. While the Jets will play better 2013 defense than that ranking suggests, Rex Ryan's unit will wear down as games progress if the rag-tag offense can't control time of possession. After Josh Freeman's abominable preseason, look for the Bucs to feed Doug Martin early and often Sunday, perhaps to the extent he gets 30 touches. Just like last year, the Bucs are going to be a smash-mouth team featuring Muscle Hamster with sporadic downfield shots to big-bodied wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Martin could benefit from the Jets' possible loss of 340-pound NT Kenrick Ellis, whose status ESPN New York considers "up in the air" due to a bad back. ... Perhaps Freeman will play better when the real stuff starts, but his August was one to forget. He finished the exhibition season 12-of-26 passing (46.2 percent) for 101 yards (3.9 YPA) with no touchdowns, a fumble lost, and nine sacks taken. Freeman is an inconsistent, inaccurate thrower who struggles whenever the things around him aren't going exactly right. His confidence appeared genuinely shot in the preseason.
While I wouldn't necessarily discourage fantasy owners from starting Vincent Jackson in Week 1, he certainly does not have a favorable matchup if Antonio Cromartie plays anything like he did last year. "Cro" emerged as a legit shutdown corner after Revis' ACL tear, grading out top five in Pro Football Focus' coverage ratings while limiting the following No. 1 wideouts to the following stat lines: Andre Johnson 1-15; Kenny Britt 1-7; Larry Fitzgerald 1-23; Brandon Lloyd (twice) 1-6, 3-26; Chris Givens 4-19; Michael Crabtree 2-15. Cromartie does have a history of up-and-down year-to-year play, so V-Jax owners can hang their hat on that. The Bucs have also worked Jackson more in the slot, where his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame would present a towering mismatch for Jets slot CB Kyle Wilson (5'10/190). ... If Cromartie follows Jackson inside and shuts him down, Williams could be the box-score beneficiary in his duel with LCB Dee Milliner. Milliner is a solid prospect, but rookie cornerbacks have a tendency to struggle early and my bet is on Williams when they match up one on one. I like Williams' odds of reaching pay dirt, and recommend him as a WR3.
Score Prediction: Bucs 20, Jets 13
Kansas City @ Jacksonville
Chiefs fans are excited about the season on the basis that their team finally has a "real QB" after Matt Cassel's erratic four-year run. What Kansas City really has is another extremely limited, Cassel-like passer new coach Andy Reid plans to shoehorn into his pass-first offense. Defining stats for Alex Smith: When his team allows 24-plus points, Smith's career record is 2-25-1. Smith has attempted 32 or more passes in 24 regular season games. In them, he's completed 514-of-900 (57.1%) for 5,384 yards (5.98 YPA) with 32 TDs and 34 turnovers. They're benchable numbers, and troubling when combined with the fact Reid's offenses averaged at least 34.0 pass attempts per game in each of the last nine years. Smith may have some productive weeks simply because his opportunities will rise in Reid's offense -- and Kansas City has a cakewalk schedule -- but there are reasons to believe the Reid-Smith marriage won't end well. It's Smith's lack of arm talent that has always held him and his teammates back. Just ask Michael Crabtree, who was widely considered a disappointment before Colin Kaepernick took over late last season.
Confidently play Dwayne Bowe against a Jaguars team starting third-round rookie Dwayne Gratz and 28-year-old journeyman Alan Ball at corner, but I'd consider selling high if Bowe starts fast. Smith lacks physical tools to feed him consistently over a 16-game schedule. ... Beyond Bowe and Jamaal Charles -- a shoo-in top-ten fantasy choice and every-week starter -- Chiefs fantasy prospects look grim. A work in progress as a blocker, rookie TE Travis Kelce may open the year playing limited snaps. Starter Anthony Fasano is a lumbering possession target who averaged 8.1 yards per reception last season. No. 2 wideout Donnie Avery is a soft, drop-prone one-trick pony on his fourth NFL team entering his sixth season. Reid allegedly loved gadget back Dexter McCluster coming out of Ole Miss in the 2010 draft, but McCluster had two offensive touches in the preseason. Despite Jacksonville's defensive shortcomings on paper, only Bowe and Charles are confident Opening Day fantasy starts. We'll learn more about the other guys' roles this week.
It was just the preseason, of course, but the Jags had the look of a team with a shot to be more competitive than expected. Blaine Gabbert played comfortably in the pocket in a quick-hitting, somewhat wide-open up-tempo offense, and in this particular matchup should get some functional throwing space. Kansas City's defensive strength is edge rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, whom Jacksonville can counter with rock-solid LT Eugene Monroe and No. 2 overall pick RT Luke Joeckel. With starter Marcedes Lewis (calf) inactive, fill-in TE Allen Reisner will likely stay in to help Monroe and Joeckel block. Cecil Shorts is a detailed route runner with plus after-catch running skills, and during Justin Blackmon's four-game suspension will be featured in a passing attack that plays precisely to his strengths. Shorts is capable of running circles around loafing, oversized Chiefs RCB Sean Smith (6'3/214), who has always struggled with smaller, quicker receivers. Certain to be targeted heavily, Shorts could produce like a borderline WR1 over the season’s initial month. ... Strictly a “sides” corner throughout his career, Chiefs LCB Brandon Flowers has never moved around to shadow opposing top receivers. He didn't do that this preseason, either. Kansas City's top cover man, Flowers seems likely to go to waste against Blackmon fill-in Mike Brown and fourth-round rookie Ace Sanders while Shorts eats up Smith.
The 2013 Jaguars will have zero reservations about riding Maurice Jones-Drew into the ground. He's almost certainly in his final season with the team -- MJD is a free agent in 2014 -- and Jacksonville's new front office and coaching staff are well aware Gabbert will have a far better chance at "developing" if complemented by a foundation run game. Whether Jones-Drew will hold up for 16 games at age 28 1/2 with over 1,500 carries on his tires remains to be seen, but his workload is not a fantasy concern. While Kansas City projects to improve on last year's No. 27 run-defense ranking, fantasy owners shouldn't consider the Chiefs a daunting foe until they prove otherwise. Albeit in a small sample size, I thought Jones-Drew looked sharp on his 11 preseason touches, displaying ample juice and bounce in his step. He's set up for 25-plus touches in the opener.
Score Prediction: Jaguars 20, Chiefs 17