The NFL season is finally here! Exciting stuff. Let’s get to it. It’s Week 1. No teams are on byes. You shouldn’t have too many tough calls for your fantasy lineups this week, unless you’re in one of those leagues that drafted way early in the summer or your league is extremely deep. This is a column for you owners. For those owners that aren’t in a league like I described two sentences prior, by no means am I suggesting starting any of these players over your top-flight studs like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin, Brandon Marshall, etc. The following players are guys I feel could put up solid numbers and be nice roster fillers this week. I’ll pin-point three sleepers from each of the main four offensive positions. Enough drivel. Here we go.
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Eagles QB Michael Vick vs. Redskins: The Redskins trotted out the third-worst pass defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed last season. They also ended up surrendering the seventh-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks in 2012. Washington returns both starting corners – DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson. Hall is a regular burn victim, while Wilson is coming off offseason shoulder surgery. I do like the addition of Bacarri Rambo at free safety, but he’s still a rookie. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather’s (knee) status is up in the air. Vick didn’t play in either game against the Redskins last season. The last time he played Washington was Week 17 of the 2011 season. He lit them up for 335 yards passing and three scores. Vick’s offensive line is much-improved, and he’ll always give you some rush yards. It’s hard not to like Vick as a back-end QB1 with a ton of upside in a potential shootout Monday night.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Titans: The Steelers have no running game, and they know it with Le’Veon Bell on the shelf. Isaac Redman is a plodder behind a weak offensive line. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is going to dial up pass plays often. Tennessee did little to improve what was a really bad secondary. The only new starter is Bernard Pollard at strong safety. He struggles mightily in coverage. In Week 6 last season, Big Ben threw for 363 yards on 40 attempts (9.1 YPA) against the Titans. The 363-yard mark was his second-highest single-game total of 2012. The Titans are returning much of the same defense. Roethlisberger is a top QB2 this week with potential to post back-end QB1 numbers.
Texans QB Matt Schaub vs. Chargers: San Diego is going to struggle to stop opposing offenses. They possess very little in terms of pass-rushers, while the only proven cornerback on the roster is Derek Cox. You’d think Cox and Andre Johnson would be pretty familiar with each other from Cox’s time in the AFC South with Jacksonville. But either Cox or Johnson was hurt in three of the last four matchups between the two teams. The only time the two squared off was Week 11 last season. Johnson beat Cox for nine catches and 124 yards. The Chargers were a bottom-16 fantasy defense against opposing quarterbacks last season. Arian Foster likely isn’t 100 percent healthy. Schaub could end up having one of his better games of the season in Week 1. The only reason you should start Schaub is if you waited until the extremely late rounds to take a quarterback in your fantasy draft and ended up with the Texan.
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Colts RB Vick Ballard vs. Raiders: Ballard has been running with the first-team offense in practice this week while Ahmad Bradshaw work his way back into game shape. The Raiders have the worst roster in the league. It’s not even close. They allowed the tenth-most fantasy points to opposing running backs last season. GM Reggie McKenzie has done very little to improve the overall quality of the team, let alone the defense. This might be one of the only weeks of the season where Ballard could be worth playing in the flex spot. The Colts are going to be ahead on the scoreboard early which could lead to plenty of run calls.
Rams RB Daryl Richardson vs. Cardinals: Richardson is the clear-cut starter in St. Louis. Isaiah Pead is suspended for Week 1. The Cardinals were a bottom-five run defense last season. Safety Kerry Rhodes, who was a solid player against the run in 2012, is gone. They’re also without stud inside linebacker Daryl Washington for the first four games of the season. Washington’s replacement, Jasper Brinkley, is a decent run defender, but he’s a slow mover. The Rams offensive line is improved. Richardson might not see much more than 15 touches this week. It’s still easy to like him as a quality RB2 play.
Saints RB Mark Ingram vs. Falcons: Ingram looked good in preseason action. He averaged 4.6 YPC on 25 rushing attempts. The Atlanta defensive line is one of the lighter ones in the league at defensive tackle, while the Saints have a top-five interior offensive line. Ingram does his best work between the tackles. This game is going to be an all-out aerial assault from both offenses, but Ingram is a sneaky flex option in standard leagues. I wouldn’t expect much more than 70 yards on the ground from him, though a couple of goal-line looks could lead to a touchdown. Ingram is a better play than guys like Isaac Redman and BenJarvus Green-Ellis this week.
Cowboys WR Miles Austin vs. Giants: New York couldn’t stop many passing attacks last season. In two games against the Giants last season, Austin caught 13 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown. The G-Men are entering the season with an even weaker secondary than they had last season following the loss of free safety Stevie Brown to a torn ACL. Austin’s hamstrings gave him no trouble over the summer. It’s a good time to take advantage of his health. Austin will move into the slot in three-wide sets. He’ll get to work against Jayron Hosley and Ryan Mundy an awful lot. It’s a juicy matchup. Austin is a solid WR2.
Colts WR Darrius Heyward-Bey vs. Raiders: Start your Colts this week. DHB is locked in as the No. 2 receiver opposite Reggie Wayne, ahead of T.Y. Hilton. Even if you’re a Hilton owner, I’d seriously consider playing him, too. But back to Heyward-Bey. The Colts have raved about DHB ever since he stepped foot in the building. His confidence has got to be sky-high after spending years wasting away in Oakland. The Raiders’ starting corners are Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter. Neither one would be anything more than a nickel back in a competent defense. DHB has serious jets. Andrew Luck has a strong arm. Look for the two to try and hook up multiple times deep down the sideline. Heyward-Bey is a strong WR3/4 or flex consideration.
Saints WR Lance Moore vs. Falcons: Moore shredded the Falcons in the two clashes between these NFC South rivals last season. He caught 14 passes for 214 yards. Moore seems to fly under the radar a bit in the fantasy community. He’s Drew Brees’ No. 3 or 4 option, but that’s still plenty fine in the Saints’ high-powered attack. The Falcons are trying to break in two rookie cornerbacks opposite Asante Samuel. Start all of your Saints and Falcons pass catchers this week. Moore is normally a weekly borderline WR3/4. He’s a strong WR3 play for the opener.
Seahawks TE Zach Miller vs. Panthers: Miller played just six snaps in the preseason as he worked his way back from a foot injury. The Seahawks were just being careful with him. He’s good to go for the opener. In Seattle’s Week 5 matchup against the Panthers last season, Miller reeled in all three of his targets for 59 yards. The yardage total was a regular-season-high for Miller. Carolina’s back end is a serious weak spot, and outside linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason aren’t the same players they once were. Miller is in that Jermaine Gresham, Brandon Pettigrew, and Owen Daniels group this week as a mid-to-low TE2.
Redskins TE Fred Davis vs. Eagles: Davis is over his torn Achilles’ and is entrenched as the No. 2 option in Washington’s passing attack. The Eagles couldn’t stop anyone during the preseason. Pierre Garcon is a near lock to post big numbers Monday night, but I also like Davis. The Eagles’ safety situation is in a state of flux. Patrick Chung is one starter. Nate Allen and rookie Earl Wolff are going to rotate at the other spot. Philadelphia also doesn’t have any decent outside linebacker that can cover. Davis is a borderline TE1 play this week.
Chargers TE Antonio Gates vs. Texans: Someone has to be Philip Rivers’ security blanket Monday night, right? The coaching staff has been hammering it into Rivers’ head to take what the defense gives him. That will lead to plenty of short passes to Gates over the middle. The 33-year-old tight end reportedly looks quicker than he has in recent years. The Texans gave up the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends last season. I wouldn’t rule out a six- or seven-catch night for Gates on Monday. He’s in the same group with Fred Davis this week as a back-end TE1.