Arizona @ St. Louis
The Cardinals have been written off by many football observers, and I don't expect them to have a great record. But they'll be a team that competes week in and week out with an explosive pass attack and defense long on talent. New coach Bruce Arians was excommunicated from Pittsburgh for pass-first leanings, and in Indy last year oversaw an offense that ranked sixth in pass attempts and third in 20-plus-yard completions. The Cards also brought in ex-Colts mastermind Tom Moore as assistant head coach/offense to scheme pass protection, an inevitable issue for one of the league's weakest offensive lines. Nevertheless, this will be a team that slings the ball around the yard and tests deep. Arians' usage of Larry Fitzgerald in the "movement" receiver role a la Hines Ward/Reggie Wayne will make Fitz awfully difficult to double team, and he will rack up receptions. He's a locked-in top-seven WR1 play in Week 1. ... Fantasy owners will likely have a harder time prognosticating Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd from game to game, similar to Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton in Arians' 2012 Colts offense. Avery (60/781/3) finished as the No. 46 overall fantasy receiver. Hilton (50/861/7) came in 24th. Floyd owners can probably expect production closer to Hilton's, but he and Roberts will both be WR3 rolls of the dice regardless of opponent.
Arizona returns two starters from an O-Line that ranked dead last in the NFL per the 2012 grades of both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. One of the other spots was to be filled by top-ten pick Jonathan Cooper, who fractured his left fibula in the preseason and is out for the year. He'll be replaced by OG Paul Fanaika, a 27-year-old with zero career starts. The fourth and fifth starters are RT Eric Winston, who's been cut by two teams in as many years, and LT Levi Brown, who didn't play in 2012 after grading out 57th-of-76 tackles in PFF's 2011 ratings. Throw in Arians' passing tendencies and I don't think Rashard Mendenhall has any chance at an efficient or voluminous rushing year. In danger of losing goal-line work to rookie Stepfan Taylor, Mendenhall is a weak flex play against a loaded young Rams defensive line that will regularly win Sunday's trench wars. ... Arians has a long history of underutilizing tight ends in the passing game, and Cards TE Rob Housler caught one preseason pass for eight yards before suffering a high ankle sprain. Expect Arians to spread the field with three-receiver sets throughout Sunday's opener against the Rams, with Floyd and Roberts each playing at least 70 percent of the offensive snaps. I like Carson Palmer's odds of racking up attempts and would start him in a two-QB league.
Rams GM Les Snead confirmed this week St. Louis purposely played vanilla preseason offense and kept Tavon Austin's role under wraps. I watched all four games, and there were still signs of spread offense, hurry-up and tempo change, and formation diversity. The Rams have a chance to be fun to watch again, and Sam Bradford will be surrounded by (easily) the most talented supporting cast of his four-year career. Quietly a top-16 fantasy quarterback in 2012 despite rag-tag line play and Brandon Gibson as his No. 2 receiver, Bradford appears set to elevate to rock-solid QB2 production with room for more. ... Chris Givens was one of the most impressive players I watched in August and had 2012 success against Arizona with 166 yards and two touchdowns in these teams' two meetings. Givens has shown considerable improvement as a route runner and is squarely in the Week 1 WR3 mix. ... The Rams' other starting wideout, for now, is possession type Austin Pettis, who has some red-zone chops but averages 9.1 yards per career catch and will lose snaps to Brian Quick sooner rather than later. Austin isn't roster worthy in 12-team leagues.
Starting Austin in fantasy leagues after his ho-hum camp requires a leap of faith, but I don't doubt he can make an impact. I'd feel comfortable using him in return-yardage formats, for sure. On offense, look for Austin to match up regularly with fellow rookie Tyrann Mathieu in the slot. ... In preseason spread looks, the Rams made frequent use of Jared Cook in trips formations to one side of the field, with Givens the lone wideout on the other. Cook lined up as the inside slot man, forcing defenses to cover him with a linebacker or safety. Cook's skill set is not one that lends itself to volume, but he is a mismatch creator and stretches the vertical seam as dynamically as any NFL tight end. He's a good bet for a big play or two. ... Keep an eye on undrafted rookie Benny Cunningham's Week 1 role, but Daryl Richardson will open the season as St. Louis' feature back. What Richardson lacks in size (5'10/195) he can compensate for with between-the-tackles toughness and explosive burst. He can be a home-run hitter with an alley. I like Richardson's chances of seeing 17-22 touches on Opening Day and wouldn't hesitate to start him as an RB2/flex. The Cards have pass rushers, but are not necessarily imposing versus the run. Arizona ranked 28th in 2012 run defense, and its defensive line has not changed. Additionally, Cardinals top DE Calais Campbell is listed as questionable with a quad injury.
Score Prediction: Rams 24, Cardinals 20
Sunday Night Football
NY Giants @ Dallas
The winds are blowing toward David Wilson's breakout game. New Cowboys DC Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense is inherently vulnerable to the run because its philosophy focuses on generating takeaways and sacks as opposed to up-front stoutness. Here were Kiffin's run-defense rankings for his last ten years as the Bucs' coordinator: 2008: 19th, 2007: 16th, 2006: 16th, 2005: 27th, 2004: 14th, 2003: 20th, 2002: 27th, 2001: 20th, 2000: 23rd, 1999: 27th. Add in the loss of NT Jay Ratliff (hamstring) to PUP and LE Anthony Spencer's inactivity due to slow knee-surgery recovery, and Kiffin's unit is depleted in the front four. Ratliff will be replaced by Nick Hayden, who was out of the NFL last year, and Spencer by George Selvie, a fourth-year journeyman on his fifth NFL team. The Cowboys have two good linebackers in WLB Bruce Carter and MLB Sean Lee, but they'll get gashed if Wilson consistently reaches the second level, and the odds are in favor of that. With Andre Brown (fractured leg) out of the mix, Wilson is set up for an easy 20-plus touches in addition to all goal-line work. I'd rank him as a top-five fantasy running back play in Week 1.
Eli Manning wasn't a hot 2013 fantasy pick, but I think he could score better than people expect. With the emergence of No. 3 receiver Rueben Randle and addition of efficient possession TE Brandon Myers, Manning has a chance to be surrounded by the best weaponry of his ten-year career. Facilitating Eli's box-score proficiency will be a Giants defense in clear decline, creating shootout situations. I like Manning as a low-end QB1 with some upside against a Dallas defense weak at safety, and minus both Ratliff and Spencer. ... Kiffin's two-deep scheme will attempt to limit perimeter receivers Randle and Hakeem Nicks, but projects as exploitable by Myers and slot man Victor Cruz down the middle. Beyond Dez Bryant, Cruz is the best fantasy receiver play in Sunday night's game. Myers lacks big-play ability, but you could do worse as a streamer TE1. ... Before writing this column, I went back and looked at Nicks' 14 preseason targets and was discouraged. He only secured four for 77 yards and seemed a few steps slow, even limping at one point. Injuries have taken their toll on the contract-year wideout, who managed stat lines of 4-38-0 and 4-46-0 in last year's two Dallas meetings. Nicks looks like a dicey WR3. ... Randle is a WR4 with big-play ability who could become a WR2 if Nicks missed time, as he often has in recent years. Randle is not a starter, but will play in all three-receiver packages for the time being.
Giants-Cowboys could be Week 1's sneaky shootout. Both defenses enter the season banged up with Spencer and Ratliff out, and RCB Morris Claiborne coming off a lost preseason due to a knee injury. Giants FS Stevie Brown (ACL) is out for the year. RE Jason Pierre-Paul may only play a handful of snaps following back surgery, while LCB Corey Webster (groin/knee), slot CB Jayron Hosley (ankle), and SS Antrel Rolle (ankle) all missed most of August. There was not a more physically impressive player I witnessed this preseason than Dez Bryant, who has the look of a man on a mission. I expect Dez to shred the Giants' defense. ... Tony Romo has had a lot of historical success against the G-Men. Look for that to continue Sunday night. In his last ten regular season meetings with New York, Romo has completed 222-of-332 passes (66.9%) for 2,748 yards (8.28 YPA), 25 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions with three more rushing scores. ... Miles Austin is coming off a sharp preseason where he secured 8-of-11 targets for 106 yards and a touchdown. Summer reports out of Dallas claim Austin's lower-body explosion has returned and his oft-balky hamstrings were healthy all camp. We've heard that before, of course. Regardless, Austin is a strong WR3 option against the G-Men. Look for him to tangle with Webster for most of the night, while Bryant takes on Giants RCB Prince Amukamara.
The 2012 Giants were among the NFL's most generous teams to fantasy tight ends, largely due to second-level deficiencies. The linebacker corps has been revamped from within, promoting Mark Herzlich to Mike 'backer with 2011 UDFA Spencer Paysinger on the weak side and top-ten draft disappointment Keith Rivers at Sam. Among them, only Herzlich earned a positive preseason coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. It's an inviting matchup for Jason Witten. ... Jerry Jones stripped coach Jason Garrett's playcalling duties in the offseason, turning them over to line coach-turned-coordinator Bill Callahan. Callahan's mantra has been a renewed commitment to the run game, where Dallas finished 31st last year in both yardage and attempts, and 30th in yards per carry (3.56). Perhaps it'll work in the short term, but coming out of Oklahoma NFL scouts were concerned DeMarco Murray's combination of upright style, stiffness as a runner, and almost wide receiver-like build (6'0/213) would lead to constant punishment and a career spent mostly in the trainers room. To this point, Murray has been forecasted accurately. He's a fine RB2 play against the Giants, but I would not want to count on Murray as a season-long fantasy starter.
Score Prediction: Giants 28, Cowboys 27
Monday Night Football
Philadelphia @ Washington
Coach Chip Kelly conceded after the third preseason game he was "concerned" with the Eagles' secondary, and he ought to be. Philly's safety play was the worst in the league this August, and the Cary Williams-Bradley Fletcher cornerback duo is going to get torched in the same division as Dez Bryant, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Pierre Garcon. On Monday night, look for Garcon to regularly burn LCB Williams. With Baltimore last year, Williams graded 69th in Pro Football Focus' cornerback ratings while surrendering the second highest "burn rate" of all 2013 free agents, according to STATS ICE. Garcon is headed for a big year, and he is set up to start hot. ... Washington pass catchers beyond Garcon are essentially role players in a constant weekly struggle for targets. It would've been easier to get behind Fred Davis as a TE1 sleeper had he done anything before his 2012 Achilles' tear. Pre-injury, Davis was on pace for 55 receptions, 743 yards, and no scores. While there's reason to believe Davis can improve slightly on those numbers if the Redskins simply throw the football more this year, odds are against him providing reliable week-to-week production. Davis does have a favorable matchup in this game.
Philly's "defense" was carved up by opposing first-team quarterbacks to the tune of 60.5 percent completions and a 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio during the preseason despite seeing its most extensive exhibition action against Chad Henne. On the ground, opposing first-team tailbacks tagged the Eagles for 159 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries (5.89 YPC). Washington's offense should slice Philadelphia like a hot knife through butter. Look for 20-plus carries from foundation back Alfred Morris and RB1 results. ... Despite his knee reconstruction and zero preseason snaps, coach Mike Shanahan indicated the Redskins will not adjust their offense for Robert Griffin III. It's going to be the same read-option, shot-play Pistol attack that paralyzed defenders and ripped off chunk-yardage plays all last year. "If we didn't feel Robert was full-go and ready to play and do all the things you ask a guy to do, he would not be playing," Shanahan said this week. "If that's sprinting out, if it's running the option, if it's dropback, he can do all those things." RG3 couldn't ask for a better Week 1 matchup. ... Coming off an outstanding preseason (5.8 YPC), Roy Helu will serve as Washington's third-down and change-of-pace back behind Morris. Helu should be owned in all fantasy leagues. If Morris went down, you could argue Helu would offer even more fantasy upside because he'd be a legit every-down back. He's an ideal lottery-ticket bench stash.
Offseason chatter might've led you to believe defenses would "figure" out the Pistol running game after it took off during the 2012 NFL season. Based on its continued preseason success, it is alive and well. Particularly so for the Eagles, whose tailback trio of LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, and Chris Polk combined for 280 yards on 60 runs (4.7 YPC) and four TDs in exhibition action. Behind arguably the NFL's most talented offensive line, I don't remotely doubt McCoy will find room to run Monday night at Washington. Throughout the season, the trick for Philadelphia will be keeping pace on the scoreboard to avoid pass-happy comeback mode. Chip Kelly's offense is decidedly run based and flees its comfort zone when trailing. A porous defense -- not opponents catching on -- is the biggest threat to Kelly's success. ... Although Brown is twice the running talent of Polk, the Eagles' No. 2 running back job appears to be open to an ongoing competition. Polk's superiority as a pass protector, combined with Brown's continued fumbling woes, prevented the more talented runner from distancing himself in August. Brown holds significantly more fantasy value than Polk, but neither is a worthwhile Week 1 flex play. Because Kelly's philosophy is so decidedly run oriented, Brown could get to that point even if McCoy stays healthy. He's just not there yet.
While run-heavy offenses don't typically support multi-receiver fantasy production, they certainly can do so for one. We've seen that in Houston with Andre Johnson, and flashes of it with Michael Crabtree in San Francisco and Garcon in D.C. I think DeSean Jackson has a chance to post career highs in every category under Kelly as the clear-cut, go-to focal point of the passing game. Riley Cooper is a blocking receiver, while Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, and James Casey are rotating role-player tight ends. Not only could Jackson benefit statistically from Philly's generous defense, Kelly's run-minded, run-formationed offense will give him more one-on-one opportunities than D-Jax has seen in his career. I like him as a WR2 on Monday Night Football and going forward. ... I'm extremely intrigued by how Kelly's scheme will lend itself to Michael Vick in the box score. I don't pretend to have great feel for it, however, after a relatively vanilla smattering of preseason offense. My guess is Vick's usage will mirror his in Atlanta during the run-heavy Falcons seasons of 2004-2006. Whereas those teams had Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett, and Roddy White, the 2013 Eagles have McCoy, Brown, and Jackson. Vick was the No. 12 fantasy quarterback in 2004, 11th in 2005, and finished third in 2006. If Vick buys into Kelly's scheme, avoiding the durability and ball-security woes of his past, I think he will score like a top-12 fantasy quarterback without issue. This is still a learning process, though. And we're going to find out a lot more on Monday night.
Score Prediction: Redskins 28, Eagles 20
Houston @ San Diego
Appearing on ESPN's NFL Insiders Wednesday, GM Rick Smith stressed that the Texans' 2013 run-game goal is to enhance Ben Tate's role in hopes of increased "balance" between Tate and Arian Foster. Foster leads the NFL in offensive touches over the past three seasons, and his per-carry and per-reception averages are in decline. "We've got to have some balance," Smith said. "Ben has had a good offseason. ... I think as long as we have that balance between the two, I think we'll be pretty good." A "balanced" two-back committee could help Foster avoid physical breakdown while maintaining Houston's run-based philosophy. In Week 1, look for both runners to hover around 15-17 touches as formidable RB2 plays. Perhaps Foster will regain RB1 workloads in time, but fantasy owners can't expect that immediately because the Texans don't plan to utilize him that way. ... Houston has been and will continue to be a run-heavy vertical shot-play team that exploits cheating defenses downfield off play-action fakes. San Diego has three new secondary starters including RCB Shareece Wright (0 career starts), who at least in preseason played on the side where Andre Johnson runs the majority of his routes. For A.J., this is an appetizing matchup.
Although Matt Schaub is capable of random big box-score games and San Diego's defense isn't an imposing foe, Schaub is no more than a two-QB option Monday night. He hasn't finished inside the top-17 fantasy quarterbacks since 2010. ... Rookie DeAndre Hopkins played Z receiver and some slot this preseason and will likely run most of his Week 1 pass patterns into Chargers LCB Derek Cox's coverage. When healthy, Cox has flashed No. 1 corner ability in the past. Hopkins is a virtual lock to be an effective real-life NFL player, but I think he'll be stretched for stable week-to-week fantasy value competing for targets with Foster, Owen Daniels, and Garrett Graham behind Johnson in a run-first offense. Consider Hopkins a low-end WR3 for now. Coach Gary Kubiak admitted Friday Hopkins is still "in a catch-up period" with the playbook after missing over two weeks of camp following a concussion. ... Correspondingly, the Texans' addition of a legitimate No. 2 receiver and rise of Graham as a passing-game factor threaten to crush Daniels' production. Daniels has a plus matchup due to San Diego's suspect second- and third-level coverage, but there definitely are a dozen better Week 1 tight end plays.
Short of borderline-genius scheming by Mike McCoy, the Chargers' offense is going to struggle to move the ball Monday night as LE J.J. Watt eats up San Diego's interior line and OLB Whitney Mercilus tees off on LT King Dunlap. Prior to ILB Brian Cushing's October 8 ACL tear, the 2012 Texans were allowing the fewest points per game (14.0) in football. They ranked second versus the pass and 11th against the run. Cushing is back now, restoring physicality and versatility to Houston's linebacker corps. Philip Rivers' withered arm and seemingly shell-shocked on-field play have been ongoing themes the past two seasons. Expect them to continue in Week 1. ... McCoy and OC Ken Whisenhunt have installed a quick-hitting, three-step-drop offense in San Diego, in hopes of compensating for arguably the NFL's worst offensive line and rejuvenating Rivers. While Rivers is a long shot for individual fantasy success in this daunting matchup, the revised offense plays to the strengths of possession "Z" receiver Vincent Brown and perhaps TE Antonio Gates. The concern with Gates is he may wind up helping Dunlap block often in this game, diminishing his box-score impact. The concern with Brown is he will contend with Texans top CB Johnathan Joseph for most of the night, as they primarily line up on the same side. Brown is a shaky WR3.
On the other hand, the new offense is a painfully poor fit for "X" receiver Malcom Floyd. 32 years old now, Floyd is a leggy, long-striding one-trick-pony deep threat on a team that intends to go deep less. Lacking any sliver of season-long upside, Floyd will be viewed as waiver-wire fodder by fantasy-title contenders. ... Ryan Mathews looked awfully good in August, running with purpose, elusiveness, and perimeter speed and averaging 4.65 yards per carry on 26 totes against the first-string defenses of Seattle, Chicago, and Arizona. Unfortunately, Mathews also lost a fumble and didn't catch a single pass, the latter of which is likely a sign of things to come. The Chargers have stripped Mathews of passing-down duties, where they'll use Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. A two-down back only, Mathews is capable of producing like an RB1 as long as he's healthy and San Diego is sitting a lead. Mathews will be sitting on the sideline when the Chargers are losing.
Score Prediction: Texans 27, Chargers 17