1:00PM ET Games
New Orleans @ Atlanta
Saints-Falcons has the third highest over-under of Week 1, at 51.5 points. Held indoors with aggressive offenses on both sides, this is a game to target in fantasy lineup decisions. ... With Tony Gonzalez gone, run-game question marks and a talent-deficient defense to compensate for, Julio Jones and Roddy White will be 2014 target monsters. I think White is a sneaky bet to pace the NFL in receptions, while Jones should flirt with the league lead in TD catches if his twice-fractured foot cooperates. Julio is an every-week WR1, and White offers WR1 possibilities as well. Roddy may get the easier Opening Day draw. I asked ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett about New Orleans' cornerback usage this week, and Triplett called it a "fair guess" that borderline-shutdown cover man Keenan Lewis will shadow Julio, leaving Roddy to take on perennial whipping-boy Patrick Robinson. If it plays out like that, I'd set White's targets over-under at about 13. Julio is an obvious must-start, but it wouldn't surprise me if Roddy outscored him in this particular game. ... Harry Douglas is a lock for regression off last year's career-best 85-1,067-2 line, which was wholly opportunity induced. Jones and White combined to miss 14 games while Roddy playing hobbled in several others. I'm sure Douglas will have some five-catch weeks -- and this may be one -- but ultimately he will be a low-ceiling WR3 option on a weekly basis.
This game's shootout probability gives Matt Ryan theoretical upside, but don't underestimate the Saints' defense. New Orleans added three-time Pro Bowl FS Jairus Byrd to a unit that ranked second versus the pass in 2013, and otherwise returns every starter. I like Ryan as a lower-end QB1, but would avoid him on FanDuel. ... The Falcons eliminated the "F" tight end from their offense with Gonzalez's retirement, leaving "Y" tight end Levine Toilolo to start. The Y primarily blocks, something Atlanta needs with turnstile Lamar Holmes at right tackle. Toilolo is 6-foot-8, 260, so I'm sure there will be weeks where he contributes in the red zone. But don't expect Toilolo to be a significant piece of Atlanta's passing game. Toilolo is a sub-par athlete with 4.86 wheels and a 9-foot-5 broad jump. I'd be surprised if he caught 50 balls this year. ... 31-year-old Steven Jackson strained his right hamstring on July 28, just over 10 months after tearing his left hamstring in Week 2 of 2013. The good news is S-Jax returned to practice on August 25 and should be ready for a full workload against the Saints. In two matchups with a similar-looking New Orleans defense last year, S-Jax rushed 27 times for 140 yards (5.19 YPC) and a touchdown, adding eight receptions for 61 yards. With Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith entrenched as change-of-pace backs, and rookie Devonta Freeman not yet threatening for first-team work, Jackson is probably an underrated RB2/flex in this matchup.
Drew Brees touched up Mike Nolan's defense for a 317.5-yard average and four TDs in these teams' two 2013 meetings, and Atlanta's defensive personnel is worse this season. The Falcons lost ILB Sean Weatherspoon to a year-ending Achilles' tear, while Jonathan Massaquoi and 33-year-old (in November) Osi Umenyiora are Atlanta's top pass rushers. Virtually unstoppable with a clean pocket, Brees is my No. 1 fantasy quarterback for Week 1, ahead of Peyton Manning. ... Brees only played in one preseason game, shredding the Colts for 128 yards and two touchdowns on 9-of-15 passing in one quarter of work. He targeted Marques Colston four times in that frame; the duo hooked up twice for 25 yards and a touchdown. A premier value pick in 2014 fantasy drafts -- he regularly lasted until round seven -- Colston's 16-game pace over New Orleans' final ten games last season was 98-1,213-8. Colston has a WR3 floor with weekly WR1/2 upside. ... Jimmy Graham has seven touchdowns in his last seven games against Atlanta, which is now without top cover 'backer Weatherspoon. Bar none, Graham is Week 1's top tight end play. ... Vertical streaker Kenny Stills battled a quad injury all camp, before aggravating it in New Orleans' regular season dress rehearsal. Considering Stills' low-volume role and injury, he's no more than a WR5.
If Stills doesn't play, look for 4.40 speedster Joe Morgan to lift the lid for Graham, Colston, Brandin Cooks, and Pierre Thomas to work underneath. ... Almost as soon as the preseason began, Cooks' Average Draft Position skyrocketed from the ninth round into the sixth. I didn't like him there as a rookie receiver battling Stills, Thomas, and perhaps Morgan and Nick Toon for looks behind target monsters Graham and Colston. But we're past the stage of sweating ADPs, and Cooks is an exciting-if-risky WR3 against an Atlanta defense that will be severely outmatched versus Sean Payton. I'd expect 5-7 targets for Cooks, and wouldn't be surprised to see him with a rushing attempt or two. ... All signs in August pointed to New Orleans maintaining a three-headed backfield, with Mark Ingram in the primary early-down and goal-line role and Thomas as the passing-down specialist. Khiry Robinson will get most of his carries between the ten-yard lines, and won't contribute heavily as a receiver. Thomas is an undervalued PPR RB2/flex. Robinson is an RB4/5. Ingram will be the best weekly bet for touchdowns. Including playoffs last year, over the Saints' final ten games Ingram rushed 85 times for 482 yards (5.67 YPC) and two TDs, even adding ten catches with an additional score. He followed up with a 7.1 YPC average this preseason. I like Ingram as a sneaky FanDuel tournament play and RB2/flex in TD-heavy leagues. The Saints should control this game, allowing Payton to lean on the run in the second half.
Score Prediction: Saints 34, Falcons 20
Minnesota @ St. Louis
The increasingly common characterization of Zac Stacy as "not that talented," presumably based on his rookie-year 3.89 YPC, isn't exactly fair. His per-carry average was bogged down by a Kellen Clemens-quarterbacked "attack", yet Stacy still demonstrated true foundation-back traits while putting St. Louis' offense and fantasy owners on his back. Stacy is also more than functional in the passing game. Although there has been some fear of Benny Cunningham eating into Stacy's workload based on a preseason-game start, that notion was subsequently shot down by head coach Jeff Fisher. Expect Stacy to open the season handling 20-plus touches per game, while Cunningham works in when Stacy needs breathers. From Eddie George to Chris Brown, and Travis Henry to Chris Johnson, Fisher has long been a loyal "one-back" coach, an approach that allows that runner to maintain an in-game rhythm. The Vikings will likely play better run defense under Mike Zimmer this season, but this isn't a daunting matchup for St. Louis' run game. Fire up Stacy as a borderline RB1. Cunningham is a solid handcuff.
Friday Update: Rams GM Les Snead apparently mentioned on the radio this week that he views St. Louis' backfield as a "hot-hand" situation, which can be a figure of speech, or could spell trouble for Stacy's workload. Cunningham should be owned in all 12-team leagues, and particularly by Stacy owners. I still view Stacy as an RB1/2 in this matchup. I'm in see-it-I'll-believe-it mode with Cunningham, who is a really good NFL backup behind a starter who's shown an ability to handle heavy workloads in a productive and effective manner for a long, sustained stretch. Stacy has demonstrated an ability to be a true bellcow NFL back.
The Rams' passing attack is more difficult to evaluate with certainty. OC Brian Schottenheimer's formula figures to mirror the 2013 Clemens design, where Stacy averaged 22.2 carries over the final nine weeks. Clemens attempted just 26.4 passes per game during that stretch. In the Clemens role now is 34-year-old journeyman Shaun Hill, historically a more accurate passer than Sam Bradford, albeit one with talent limitations. Expect Hill to be a low-volume distributor, managing games as opposed to trying to win them with his arm. The Rams will lean on Stacy and an above-average defense. Hill will be a low-end QB2, even in the finest matchups. ... We'll get a better idea of Hill's pass-game leanings as the weeks move forward. Hill did not spend time with the first-team offense this preseason. Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, Jared Cook, and Tavon Austin could see an unreliable week-to-week target distribution. I listed them there in the order I would consider starting them, but wouldn't feel comfortable with any member of the foursome in my Week 1 lineup. Britt and Quick will play outside, with Cook and Austin working in the middle of the field.
Vegas prognosticators are smarter than me, but I found their 44-point over-under on Vikings-Rams to be overly aggressive. (It dropped to 43 late Thursday.) I'd still bet the under in a matchup of teams quarterbacked by journeyman game managers with ascending defenses and heavy run-game reliance. Both teams will work to slow down this game's pace. ... The Rams finished 2013 as a top-nine run defense, but allowed the fifth-most rushing touchdowns in football, and the 12th-most runs of 20-plus yards. St. Louis' offense isn't good enough to run away with games, meaning game flow will almost always work in favor of opposing rushing attacks. Expect an easy 20-plus carries for Adrian Peterson, who's a shoo-in top-five RB1 in Week 1. ... Over the course of his career, 32-year-old Matt Cassel has routinely struggled in muddy pockets, environments St. Louis' deep and talented defensive line can create. Ideally, the Vikings will keep the football out of Cassel's hands and in Peterson's. Cassel is a back-end two-quarterback-league option at the Edward Jones Dome. ... I charted all 39 of Cassel's exhibition-game throws, and his target distribution was as follows: Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph 9; Matt Asiata 8; Greg Jennings 7; Jerome Simpson and Jerick McKinnon 3.
Keep in mind Peterson did not play this preseason. In real games, those checkdown targets to Asiata and McKinnon will go to “All Day,” whom I expect to set a career high in receptions under new OC Norv Turner. ... After the Vikings were forced to manufacture Patterson's rookie-year offensive touches, his August route tree and usage were encouraging. He'll vie with Rudolph to be Minnesota's No. 1 passing-game option this year. Benefiting Patterson's matchup is the absence of Rams CB Trumaine Johnson (MCL sprain), whose replacement is not yet clear. Patterson is a WR2 with a weekly WR1 ceiling. ... St. Louis fielded the NFL's stingiest defense versus tight ends in 2013, but Turner's tight end-friendly scheme will funnel offense through a leaner Rudolph, who shed nearly 20 pounds this offseason and looked much lighter on his feet in August. Rudolph is a rock-solid TE1 and good bet for a red-zone score against the Rams. I think he'll see 8-9 targets. ... Suspended until Week 4, Simpson will be replaced by Jarius Wright in Minnesota's situational deep threat role. ... Jennings will play Z receiver and in the slot, while Patterson roams at X. Turning 31 later this month, Jennings is a fantasy WR4. He should be a usable WR3 in PPR leagues when the bye weeks begin.
Score Prediction: Vikings 20, Rams 17
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Cleveland @ Pittsburgh
I wrote some bold predictions on Twitter last week. Drawing the harshest criticism was my claim that Heath Miller will finish as a top-five fantasy tight end. It shouldn't be forgotten that Jerricho Cotchery's 10 scores are gone, while Pittsburgh's miniature three-wideout set of Antonio Brown (5'10/186), Markus Wheaton (5'11/189), and Lance Moore (5'9/182) locks in Miller as Ben Roethlisberger's No. 1 red-zone option. People also forget Miller was a top-four fantasy tight end in this same Todd Haley offense in 2012, before battling back from a knee injury last season. I loved what I saw from Miller this August, where he posted an 8-62-1 stat line on ten targets across 76 snaps -- just over one full game. In Week 1, I'd start Miller over popular breakout candidates Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and Ladarius Green, as well as low-ceiling vets Charles Clay, Martellus Bennett, and Delanie Walker. Miller could be a particularly studly start if Joe Haden keeps Brown under wraps. ... Although Haden poses a difficult matchup, history suggests Brown remains a WR2 at worst in this game. Dating back to 2011, Brown's last four stat lines against Cleveland with Haden in the lineup are 5-151-1, 6-90, 2-22-1, and 6-92-1. Haden specifically shadowed Brown in the final meeting, and Roethlisberger still threw the ball in his No. 1 wideout's direction a team-high ten times. ... This game's 41.5-point over-under makes Big Ben an unattractive QB1 spot start. Only Carolina-Tampa and Oakland-Jets are projected to combine for fewer points than Cleveland-Pittsburgh.
Playing the old Emmanuel Sanders role, Wheaton gets the most favorable Week 1 draw in Pittsburgh's wideout corps. Rookie LCB Justin Gilbert got flamed in August, allowing nine of the 15 passes thrown his way to be completed for 211 yards and three TDs. He ranked 177th among 186 qualifying corners in PFF's coverage grades. Don't start Wheaton over early-round studs, but don't be surprised if he rips off a big play or two. He's a somewhat appealing FanDuel tournament punt. ... Lance Moore is Pittsburgh's tentative third receiver, ahead of Justin Brown, but missed practice this week with a groin injury. Raw rookie Martavis Bryant struggled in August before suffering a sprained shoulder. Steelers pass catchers behind Brown, Miller, and Wheaton are not on the fantasy radar. ... Preseason RBBC concerns made Le'Veon Bell a draft-day steal. Although LeGarrette Blount is capable of handling a drive here or there, he is an extremely limited running back due to pass-catching and pass-protection flaws, and will slow down Pittsburgh's offense whenever he's in the game. An excellent blocker and receiver, Bell is simply a better fit for Haley's increasingly up-tempo attack. On Tuesday, coach Mike Tomlin suggested Le'Veon could see as many as 25 carries against the Browns. Despite more up-front talent than Cleveland has now, new Browns coach Mike Pettine's 2013 Bills defense ranked 28th against the run. Bell is a borderline RB1. Blount is a weak flex.
With mighty mouse Andrew Hawkins (5'7/182) and dead-legged Miles Austin at wideout, expect first-year Browns OC Kyle Shanahan to funnel a generously high percentage of his passing game through Jordan Cameron. Shanahan's track record of tight end usage is extremely promising, as Mike's son helped coax a career year out of Fred Davis in 2011 (79-1,062-4 16-game pace), and was Houston's offensive coordinator when Owen Daniels set career highs in catches (70) and yards (862) in 2008. Under Shanahan in D.C. last year, Jordan Reed's 16-game pace was 80-888-6 at a position where rookies rarely produce. It doesn't hurt that Brian Hoyer already knows where to go with the ball. In the two 2013 games Hoyer played start to finish, he targeted Cameron a whopping 23 times, producing stat lines of 6-66-3 and 10-91-1. Although Steelers DC Dick LeBeau's defenses are notoriously stingy against tight ends, the rate at which Cameron will be targeted should make him matchup proof. Cameron is also a rare athlete with 4.59 jets and a 37.5-inch vertical at 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds. Jimmy Graham runs 4.56 with a 38.5-inch vert at 6'6/260. ... Hawkins and Austin are fantasy WR5s until proven otherwise. If forced to choose between the two, I'd take my chances with Hawkins. He'll run high-percentage routes close to the line of scrimmage and offers jitterbug quickness with explosive lateral agility in space. He can make guys miss.
We'll see a different Hoyer than we saw last year, and not just because he's coming off a torn ACL. While ex-OC Norv Turner encouraged his quarterback to play like a gunslinger, Shanahan will shoehorn Hoyer into a game-manager role with frequent handoffs and designed play-action throws to Cameron. Hoyer played poorly this preseason, completing 54.5% of his 44 attempts for 261 yards (5.9 YPA), one touchdown, and two turnovers. He took three sacks. Hoyer will keep Cleveland's starting job as long as he doesn't give the ball to the other team. I still think Johnny Manziel is a good bet to make starts before midseason. ... Rookie Terrance West was one of August's biggest disappointments, averaging 2.7 YPC, losing a fumble, and generally not looking like an NFL-caliber runner. Ballyhooed UDFA Isaiah Crowell barely played until the preseason finale. Pettine indicated repeatedly this week that Ben Tate will open the season as an every-down back. In Shanahan's zone-run game with plus line play, Tate should be viewed as an every-week RB1/2 as long as he stays healthy. Usually selected in the fifth and sixth rounds of drafts, Tate could prove one of this year's best bargains. After finishing 21st against the run in 2013, LeBeau's defense got lit up by LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles for 57 yards and a touchdown on ten combined carries in the regular season dress rehearsal.
Score Prediction: Steelers 20, Browns 17
Jacksonville @ Philadelphia
Jags-Eagles has Week 1's second-highest over-under at 52.5 points. The Jaguars are 10-point dogs, meaning the Eagles are projected to score just over 31. I think Jacksonville's defense will be surprisingly stout over the course of the year, but it's in a tough Opening Day spot. ... The preseason was generally vague regarding Chip Kelly's utilization of Darren Sproles. In Philadelphia's third exhibition game, LeSean McCoy dominated first-team snaps before departing with a minor thumb injury. Sproles then took over as the primary back. I asked Philly.com beat writer Jimmy Kempski to project Sproles' Week 1 usage, and he guessed Sproles will play 35% of the snaps. McCoy is my No. 2 fantasy running back play in Week 1, behind only Jamaal Charles (vs. TEN). Until we get clarity on Sproles' role, I'd view him as a dicey flex option. It's entirely possible he focuses on special teams and is a lightly-used, package-specific player on offense. ... Nick Foles needed only six drives in Philly's third preseason game to generate three scores and rack up 179 yards with a touchdown and one pick against Pittsburgh's starting defense. With Kelly emphasizing a faster pace after his 2013 offense ranked a middling 13th in plays from scrimmage, the Eagles squeezed a whopping 49 plays into two quarters. Although the run game will continue to be the foundation of Kelly's offense, Foles is going to rake in fantasy points surrounded by playmakers in Kelly's aggressive, attacking scheme. He's a high- upside QB1.
I think the Jaguars will be solid versus both the run and pass this season. Although one should materialize within a few weeks, I don't necessarily see a gaping hole to exploit at any level of Gus Bradley's unit. The corners are big and steady, the safeties are physical, Sen'Derrick Marks is a beastly interior rusher, and Bradley's edge-rush rotation should be average or better. ... Algorithm-based Number Fire projects Jeremy Maclin to lead the Eagles in Week 1 receiving with a stat line of roughly six catches for 71 yards. I don't think Maclin will approach DeSean Jackson's 2013 production, but as long as he stays healthy there's every reason to view Maclin as a high-floor WR3. ... Look for "X" receiver Riley Cooper to run most of his routes against Jaguars RCB Alan Ball. Among 110 qualifiers, Ball graded out as a top-20 cover corner in PFF's 2013 grades. A perimeter role player whose weekly consistency may frustrate all season, Cooper is a boom-or-bust WR3 in a fairly unattractive matchup. Leave out two November affairs against the punching-bag Raiders and depleted Packers last year, and Cooper managed 39 catches for 594 yards and three TDs in his other 14 games. ... Rookie slot man Jordan Matthews is an interesting fantasy WR4, but probably won't play in two-wide, two-tight end, or two-back sets initially. He's someone to roster, not start on Opening Day. ... Beyond McCoy, Zach Ertz is the best bet for a Week 1 touchdown on Philly's roster. I'm still viewing him as a coin-flip TE1 until his role clarifies. Superior blocker Brent Celek isn't going away. The scoring potential is definitely there, but I'll treat it as a win if Ertz reaches six targets against Jacksonville.
The Jaguars don't have much of a shot. The lone means they have of staying competitive is to ride Toby Gerhart as a chain-moving sustainer with extreme volume, and get stops and/or turnovers on defense. Denard Robinson's post-preseason promotion over Jordan Todman at No. 2 tailback suggests Gerhart will indeed stay in both on early and passing downs. He should be one of the NFL's few true every-down backs this season, with Robinson in the change-up role and Todman on kickoff returns. A former starting outfielder on Stanford's baseball team and Heisman Trophy runner-up in football, Gerhart is a lot more athletic than he's widely given credit for. And at 6-foot, 231 pounds, he is built to endure heavy workloads. It would be a disappointment if Gerhart saw fewer than 17 touches against the Eagles. Philly returns almost every starter from last year's top-ten run defense, but usage alone makes Gerhart a viable RB2. ... Chad Henne narrowly escaped a preseason Pipping by rookie Blake Bortles. At age 29 with 50 career starts, we know what Henne is, and he isn't good. Even against a vulnerable Philly pass defense, Henne is a destitute man's QB2. Perhaps Henne will put up some yardage if the Jags fall far behind and are forced into pass-desperate comeback mode, but that isn't something I'd hang my hat on in Week 1.
The Jaguars' pass-catching unit is the deepest and most talented it's been since the Keenan McCardell-Jimmy Smith era. This won't be the Cecil Shorts-only show anymore. Impressive rookie Marqise Lee has a Reggie Wayne-ish skill set and will run the team's highest-percentage routes, aligning at Z and slot receiver. UDFA Allen Hurns knows playcaller Jedd Fisch's offense after playing for Fisch at Miami (FL), and has locked up third receiver duties. Preseason signs pointed to an expanded pass-game role for Marcedes Lewis, while current No. 4 wideout Allen Robinson has the highest long-term ceiling in the entire group. I really like what GM Dave Caldwell has done with Jacksonville's skill-position corps, but wouldn't trust any of the receivers or Lewis as a fantasy starter until a pecking order is established. I do like Shorts and Lee as WR4s, and Robinson as a Dynasty hold. If forced to project the Jaguars' Week 1 leading receiver, my money would go on Lee, particularly with Shorts experiencing additional hamstring woes in this week’s practices.
Score Prediction: Eagles 24, Jaguars 17
Oakland @ NY Jets
One of just two openers with an over-under of 40 points or below, Raiders-Jets is a relatively unattractive fantasy matchup across the board. I do believe the Jets' defense is a prime streamer play. Rookie Derek Carr turned in a promising August, but traveling cross country to take on a Rex Ryan defense in a 1ET road game is much different than facing vanilla coverages and blitz schemes in exhibition affairs. Per PFF, Carr faced pressure on just 8-of-47 preseason dropbacks. He was sacked twice in those instances and had a 59.7 passer rating. Rex is going to send the house. ... Based on preseason usage, Oakland's likeliest three-wide set has Denarius Moore and James Jones on the perimeter, with Rod Streater in the slot. Size-speed specimen Andre Holmes has slipped to No. 4. Technically, Jones and Streater are the projected two-wide starters. Until we see Carr demonstrate some semblance of chemistry with a particular member of Oakland's muddled pass-catching corps, I'm considering them all undesirable fantasy options. The Jets have question marks at cornerback, but as the Panthers and Giants have shown in recent years, those can be masked by front-seven disruption. I expect Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, Quinton Coples, Calvin Pace, and Jason Babin to disrupt Carr in Sunday's game.
The Raiders will use converted wideout David Ausberry and sophomore Mychal Rivera at tight end. Incredibly injury prone, Ausberry missed all of August after a knee scope. Rivera should be Oakland's primary pass-catching tight end. Small (6'3/242) and slow (4.81 forty), Rivera unfortunately offers scant upside. He averaged 10.7 yards per catch as a rookie and only scored six TDs in a three-year college career. ... The Raiders not only lack continuity on the offensive line after playing preseason musical chairs, their personnel have glaring deficiencies. They've benched 2013 second-round pick Menelik Watson for perennial turnstile Khalif Barnes at right tackle, and will start rookie Gabe Jackson at left guard. RG Austin Howard and RT Barnes both earned decidedly negative 2013 run-block grades from Pro Football Focus. Returning every front-seven starter from a defense that ranked No. 3 against the run last season, the Jets are a forbidding matchup for Oakland's Maurice Jones-Drew-Darren McFadden RBBC. And I wouldn't rule out sophomore Latavius Murray working into the mix. An insane athlete, Murray shredded Seattle for 8-41-1 in the preseason finale. Especially against the Jets, the Raiders' backfield should be avoided until we get more clarity.
The Jets' fantasy offense is a lot more interesting than Oakland's. Geno Smith has quietly played above-average football since early last December, accounting for seven TDs over his last four regular season games with a per-week average of 244 all-purpose yards. Smith has seemingly become a more comfortable and confident player since the Jets added designed quarterback runs to their playbook. Geno completed 69.7% of his preseason throws, adding 47 rushing yards and a touchdown. I like Geno as a two-QB-league play versus Oakland, and wouldn't discourage FanDuelers from stacking him with Eric Decker. The Raiders' defense got better up front this offseason, but is vulnerable at the second and third levels. The average age of Oakland's four starters in the secondary is 32 years old. ... Look for Decker to flirt with ten targets as the clear 1A option in New York's pass-catching corps. He's an underrated WR2 and a good bet for a Week 1 touchdown. ... The Jets' depth chart lists Jeremy Kerley as the starter opposite Decker, with David Nelson as the third wideout. 5-foot-9, 184-pound Kerley will probably have some four- and five-catch games this year, but has hit pay dirt on just six of his 128 career receptions. His ceiling is about as low as it gets.
I don't expect the Jets' tight ends to be major pass-game factors early on. Jeff Cumberland missed virtually all of camp with an Achilles' injury, while rookie Jace Amaro has developed slowly and may open the season sharing time with Zach Sudfeld. Until one of the threesome emerges, this is a fantasy situation to avoid. ... The 2013 Raiders finished a respectable 13th in run defense. They added talent this offseason, signing plus run defender LE Justin Tuck, RE LaMarr Woodley, and DT Antonio Smith. NT Pat Sims returns after grading out as a top-15 run-stopping interior lineman at PFF. This isn't quite the cake matchup it may seem for Chris Johnson, who will lose carries to Chris Ivory, and perhaps snaps to pass-protection specialist Bilal Powell. Johnson looked sharp in August (4.7 YPC), but averaged 7.8 YPC in preseason last year. A boom-or-bust runner whose booms become less and less as the years and miles pile up, Johnson is a maddening fantasy player to own. Will Johnson turn it on and run hard consistently this year? Your guess is as good as mine. If he starts fast against the Raiders, I'd try selling him high. ... Ivory was even more stellar this preseason (5.2 YPC), most notably ripping off numerous beastly runs in New York's regular season dress rehearsal against the Giants. Ivory's weekly usage remains to be seen, but I like him as an RB4 stash. While Johnson managed one run of 25-plus yards in 2013, Ivory ripped off five on 97 fewer carries.
Score Prediction: Jets 23, Raiders 14
Cincinnati @ Baltimore
I've watched Giovani Bernard play intensely since college. While he can be an explosive playmaker in space, Gio struggles to run inside the tackles on a consistent basis and projects as something of a misfit for new OC Hue Jackson's offense, which prioritizes a chain-moving foundation power-run game. Including the 2014 preseason and last year's playoffs, Bernard has managed 169 yards on his last 71 NFL carries (2.38 YPC) with just one run of longer than ten yards (12). Perhaps it won't happen immediately, but I fully expect power back Jeremy Hill to play a significant role in Jackson's system. Gio's big-play ability remains -- and he's a high-end RB2 in Week 1 at Baltimore -- but I think fantasy owners who drafted Bernard in the second round are going to be disappointed. PPR drafters should cross their fingers that Gio is heavily targeted. Ultimately, I think Bernard is a prime sell-high candidate with his perceived fantasy stock still at or near its peak. If he has a big game on Sunday, I'd deal him for a WR1. ... Following Cincinnati's third preseason game, the Bengals' website predicted Hill and Bernard will both finish in the 200-carry range. Hill didn't spend much time with the ones in August, however, and his role is still unclear. He's a shaky RB2/flex against the Ravens, who finished top 11 versus the run in 2013 and added first-round ILB C.J. Mosley in May's draft.
Dean Pees took over as Baltimore's defensive coordinator before the 2012 season. Andy Dalton has faced Pees' unit four times during that stretch, completing 77-of-139 passes (55.4%) for 854 yards (6.14 YPA), five TDs, and eight INTs. With Jackson reportedly looking to decrease the volume of Cincinnati's passing game, Dalton can only be trusted in two-quarterback leagues in this road opener. ... Particularly without Marvin Jones (foot), look for Jackson to scheme the football to A.J. Green in voluminous fashion, treating him as a true target monster. In just 63 preseason snaps (roughly one full game), Green secured 10-of-13 targets for 184 yards. Jackson is a proven talent maximizer, and I think Green will be the primary 2014 beneficiary. ... Expect Jackson to utilize the rest of Cincinnati's pass catchers as role players. Jermaine Gresham, Mohamed Sanu, Tyler Eifert, and Dane Sanzenbacher figure to lack week-to-week predictability. I'd go with Sanu if forced to choose a Week 1 fantasy sleeper from that foursome, but only see him as a WR5. The tight ends will eat into each other's production, with slot man Sanzenbacher in the old Andrew Hawkins role.
New OC Gary Kubiak has brought a run-game emphasis to Baltimore, featuring Shanahanian zone-blocking concepts with a revamped offensive line. While Ray Rice serves his two-game suspension, Bernard Pierce will open the year as Kubiak's feature back after finishing preseason with 89 yards and a touchdown on 21 runs. Pierce is a workmanlike runner and will lose passing-down snaps to Justin Forsett, but is worth firing up as an RB2/flex because of his heavy projected workload. As long as this game stays competitive -- and I fully expect it will, with a 1.5-point spread -- Pierce should push for 20 carries and handle any goal-line work. ... The over-under on Bengals-Ravens is 42.5 points, the fourth-lowest total of all Week 1 games. While I anticipate Joe Flacco becoming a more efficient passer in Kubiak's historically quarterback-friendly system, he's going to lose volume, and aside from Torrey Smith is supported by an underwhelming cast. Flacco is a lower-end two-QB-league play versus a Bengals defense that remains long on talent after finishing last year top five against the pass. ... Dennis Pitta will play the old Owen Daniels role in Kubiak's offense, which offers a mid-range TE1 ceiling on consistent week-to-week usage. I'd expect Pitta to see in the range of 6-9 targets versus Cincinnati.
Torrey turned his six preseason targets into five catches, 60 yards, and a touchdown. At age 25, I think this is the year Smith makes the leap from somewhat up-and-down WR2/3 to borderline WR1. He showed flashes of doing just that early last season, before falling victim to Baltimore's offensive dysfunction. Kubiak's scheme funnels footballs to the "X" receiver -- Smith's position -- as Texans "X" Andre Johnson finished second, sixth, first, and second among NFL receivers in targets over his last four healthy seasons under Kubiak. Smith is not as good as Johnson, but has a chance to be targeted similarly. Smith's Week 1 matchup is as favorable as his season-long outlook. As first-round pick Darqueze Dennard failed to nail down a starting job, Cincinnati will open with a starting tandem of 36-year-old LCB Terence Newman and 29-year-old RCB Leon Hall, who's suffered two Achilles' tears over the past three seasons. In nickel packages, Hall will kick to slot corner with 31-year-old Pacman Jones aligning outside. ... Steve Smith will be the "Z" under Kubiak, a role player who frequently blocks and runs possession routes. “I don’t see myself in coach Kubiak’s system like Andre Johnson,” Smitty acknowledged shortly after the Ravens signed him. “I see the complementary dude of Kevin Walter." Smith is a capped-ceiling WR5/6. I wouldn't bother rostering him in 10- or 12-team leagues.
Score Prediction: Ravens 23, Bengals 21
Buffalo @ Chicago
Matt Forte is my No. 3 fantasy running back play of Week 1, behind only Jamaal Charles (vs. TEN) and LeSean McCoy (vs. JAX). The Bills will struggle to score points with E.J. Manuel at quarterback, and I expect Chicago to grab and maintain a sizable first-half lead. Since the Bears are so weak at No. 2 tailback -- Ka'Deem Carey struggled mightily in preseason and competitor Shaun Draughn is a fourth-year journeyman on his fifth NFL team -- coach Marc Trestman isn't going to give work to anyone else. I could see Forte pushing for 30 touches against the Bills. Buffalo fielded a bottom-five run defense in 2013, and has since lost difference-making LB Kiko Alonso to an ACL tear. ... The Bills also lost FS Jairus Byrd in the offseason, and at this stage I don't see CBs Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore as imposing threats to Chicago's Goliath passing attack. RCB Gilmore has seemingly regressed since a promising rookie year. He was ineffective for most of 2013, before allowing all five passes thrown at him to be caught this preseason, including two touchdowns. LCB McKelvin has been better, but isn't a shutdown corner by any means, and dealt with hip problems in August. Brandon Marshall (6'4/229) lines up in the slot in three-receiver sets, which spells trouble for diminutive sub-package inside corner Nickell Robey (5'7/169). Expect big games from Marshall and Jay Cutler.
Even if Alshon Jeffery fails to match last year's 1,421 yards, he has lots of room for growth in the TD column (7). At 6-foot-3, 216 with long arms (33") and huge hands (10 1/4"), Jeffery is going to be a double-digit touchdown scorer. Marshall has the most favorable Opening Day matchup, but at worst Jeffery is a high-ceiling WR2. Whereas Marshall frequently plays inside, Jeffery mostly works outside and will spend this game moving back and forth between Gilmore and McKelvin. ... Santonio Holmes picked up coach Marc Trestman's offense quickly following his August 16 signing and caught a 32-yard TD in Chicago's preseason finale. As the likely No. 3 wideout in a high-scoring offense, Holmes is in the WR5 conversation. ... Under ex-DC Mike Pettine, the Bills allowed the seventh fewest fantasy points to tight ends in 2013. New Buffalo DC Jim Schwartz was the Lions head coach last season. Detroit was even stingier, holding enemy tight ends to the second fewest fantasy points in football. Although 6-foot-6, 259-pound Martellus Bennett is never a terrible bet for red-zone scores, this week's matchup suggests fantasy owners should explore TE1 alternatives.
The Bills' actions show they are worried about E.J. Manuel. Manuel played more 2014 preseason snaps than any NFL starter -- by a 41-play margin -- and attempted a league-high 82 throws. After an abysmal performance in a sample size Buffalo purposely magnified for a better read on E.J., the Bills lured Kyle Orton out of retirement on a two-year, $11 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus. That's much pricier than backup money, and actually more than the Buccaneers are paying Josh McCown to start. The Bills are afraid their 2013 first-round pick is a bust. (They should be.) Manuel's erratic ball placement and glaring lack of in-pocket comfort are major red flags. Manuel is just barely in the two-quarterback-league discussion. … I'd avoid investing fantasy starts in any of his pass catchers, as well. Mike Williams and rookie Sammy Watkins are no more than WR4s until either E.J. shows signs of progress, or the keys are handed to Orton. It certainly can't help that Buffalo is philosophically the NFL's run-heaviest team, cutting down on Williams and Watkins' target potential. Scott Chandler, Robert Woods, Chris Hogan, and Marquise Goodwin are fantasy trash for the foreseeable future.
The Buffalo run game is much more attractive than its passing "attack" in fantasy. Under coach Doug Marrone and OC Nathaniel Hackett, the Bills play at a crisp tempo and rip off rushing attempts, finishing 2013 third in the NFL in plays from scrimmage and first in team carries. Robbery at his final ADP of the eighth round, Fred Jackson has the requisite role to produce like a top-three-round fantasy pick. He's Buffalo's clear-cut red-zone and third-down back, which will lead to reception and touchdown opportunities. He's also an equally good bet for sheer rushing attempts as C.J. Spiller. The Bears' run-defense personnel has improved from last year's league-worst unit, but not to the extent that it should suddenly be viewed as a shutdown force. F-Jax theoretically lacks upside at age 33, but he's a rock-solid RB2 in this matchup. ... Although Spiller's role in Marrone and Hackett's offense is substantially less fantasy friendly, home-run-hitting run talent will make Spiller a worthwhile weekly RB2 roll of the dice. In terms of natural running ability, I don't think there are five more gifted backs in the league. Spiller is a monster run waiting to happen when he gets a lane. I'd bet on him getting one or two at Soldier Field.
Score Prediction: Bears 27, Bills 17
Washington @ Houston
So far floundering in his attempted conversion to a pocket quarterback under rookie coach Jay Gruden, Robert Griffin III played wild, undisciplined, and out-of-control football this August. He accounted for zero touchdowns while committing three turnovers, fumbling twice, and absorbing four sacks among 24 dropbacks. Griffin's preseason PFF grade was the third worst among starting NFL QBs, and his passer rating was dead last. After grinding the All-22 tape, ESPN's Ron Jaworski observed that RG3 has "regressed" mechanically. Griffin's upside remains intact -- there's more juice in his legs this year and he still possesses explosive arm talent -- but his to-date performance in Gruden's system has been a trainwreck. He's an entirely boom-or-bust QB1 against a talented Texans defense that boasts several dangerous pass rushers and above-average secondary play. ... Expect DeSean Jackson to primarily match up with LCB Kareem Jackson, while Pierre Garcon takes on RCB Johnathan Joseph. D-Jax's quick-twitch athleticism will likely give methodical-moving Jackson fits, while Joseph is historically the more imposing cover man. I like D-Jax as an upside WR2/3 at Reliant Stadium. I thought Garcon was severely overrated this summer as drafters reached for last year's stats. I view him as an unexciting WR3.
The fantasy reliability of Washington's skill-position players is inherently tied to RG3, a worrisome reality after his preseason. Perhaps it'll come back to bite me, but I wound up avoiding Jordan Reed in almost all of my drafts. Gruden never coached a tight end above 750 receiving yards in Cincinnati, and Reed may end up as the No. 3 option in the Redskins' passing game, and No. 4 in the overall offense when Alfred Morris is considered. Reed is an excellent talent, but I see him as a shaky TE1 entering the season. It would only take a heavily-targeted game or two, or noticeable progress from RG3 to change my mind. Like Griffin, I'd view Reed as something of a boom-or-bust Week 1 start. ... Because Morris leaves the field in passing situations, his weekly outlooks are game-flow dependent. Sunday's game flow should work in Morris' favor, as the Texans' offense is unlikely to blow Washington's defense away, and this game projects as competitive from start to finish. Morris should rack up rushing attempts and is a good bet to score against a Texans 3-4 anchored by replacement-level NT Jerrell Powe, a fourth-year veteran with one career start.
I'd bet the under on Vegas' 45-point projection for Skins-Texans. That bet could look stupid if RG3 wakes up, but I like it going in. The Texans will surely cooperate, playing ball-control football and lining up in power formations. Quietly, Houston has one of the top young offensive lines in the league. I wrote in this space why I have a hard time trusting Arian Foster to stay healthy this year, and I'm rostering Jonathan Grimes wherever possible. At the same time, Foster is going to be a workhorse every-down back for as long as he's upright. Like Morris, game flow should work in Foster's favor. I like his odds of topping 20 all-purpose touches against an average-at-best Skins run defense. ... Washington coaches stated this week that they won't be using LCB DeAngelo Hall in shadow coverage of enemy top receivers anymore. They like how sophomore RCB David Amerson has developed. Until we see verifiable on-field evidence that Amerson is as good as the Redskins seem to think, I'm viewing him as a cornerback to attack. 93rd among 110 qualifiers in PFF's 2013 coverage grades, Amerson has been a regular burn victim dating back to his college days at N.C. State. Expect him to match up early and often with Andre Johnson in this game. Johnson is a high-ceiling WR2.
Fantasy leaguers head-scratchingly let Johnson slip to the late fourth round in drafts. Were they holding quarterback play against him? Johnson finished 2013 as the overall WR12 and ranked third in the NFL in receptions (109) with washed-up Matt Schaub and current Rams third-stringer Case Keenum under center. Ryan Fitzpatrick obviously isn't a franchise QB, but he's an upgrade. Popgun-armed but an aggressive gunslinger, I expect Fitzpatrick to force-feed Johnson targets just as he did Stevie Johnson in Buffalo and Kendall Wright in Tennessee. ... Another player I think Fitzpatrick will lock onto is Garrett Graham, a mediocre athlete but one playing in Bill O'Brien's tight end-friendly system. FitzMagic similarly loves tight ends, even making Scott Chandler fantasy viable at times in Buffalo, and peppering Delanie Walker with enough passes last year for Walker to set career highs across the board (60-571-6). Washington has arguably the worst safety play in the league with 35-year-old Ryan Clark and burnable second-year FS Bacarri Rambo starting while Brandon Meriweather serves a two-game suspension. Unfortunately, Graham is a game-time decision after missing Wednesday and Thursday's practices with a back injury. I still like Graham as a sleeper for 60-plus catches over the course of the year. ... Hopkins will take on MeAngelo for the majority of Sunday's contest. Hopkins had a promising rookie year, statistically speaking, but got benched late in the season and just turned 22. I think he's a year away from becoming a reliable WR2/3. If Graham does not play against Washington, Hopkins could see an extra target or two. The tight ends would presumably be C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin.
Score Prediction: Texans 20, Redskins 17
Tennessee @ Kansas City
Jamaal Charles is a tough fade in Week 1 daily fantasy. Without top wideout Dwayne Bowe (suspension), Kansas City will lean on Charles to carry both its run and pass games. Charles was the only running back in football last season to lead his team in every rushing and receiving category. It wouldn't surprise me if Charles reached or exceeded 30 touches against a Titans defense transitioning from outgoing DC Jerry Gray's 4-3 to Ray Horton's 3-4. Tennessee lacks an established nose tackle -- long a fixture of Horton defenses -- while ILBs Zach Brown (6'1/244) and Wesley Woodyard (6'0/227) are undersized run-and-hit types rather than point-of-attack bulldozers. If NT Sammie Lee Hill can't tie up the Chiefs' interior offensive line, Brown and Woodyard will get washed out of plays at the second level. Hill earned negative run-defense grades from Pro Football Focus in 2013. Additionally, LE Ropati Pitoitua will be playing with a cast on his broken hand. Hand use is critical for defensive linemen. I expect a huge game from Charles. ... At Arrowhead, look for Kansas City to control this game with Charles in a relatively low-scoring affair. Don't expect Andy Reid to ask much of game manager Alex Smith, limiting his fantasy appeal to two-quarterback leagues. He'll be a more interesting streamer when the Chiefs face teams that force Reid to put more on Smith's plate.
Travis Kelce may have been the most impressive young player I watched this preseason. Both his measurables and playing style are genuinely Gronkian, with physicality to manhandle would-be tacklers and speed to stretch the vertical seam. I watched Kelce play at the University of Cincinnati and would contend he looks faster now than he did in college. I love Kelce's upside, but worry he's a fantasy trap after playing the vast majority of his snaps with the second- and third-team offenses this preseason. Kelce did mix in with the ones in two-tight end sets. Perhaps his role will grow when the real games start. Perhaps the Chiefs will increase Kelce's usage to help mitigate the absence of Bowe. Or perhaps Kelce will play 25-30 snaps and see four targets against the Titans. It's really hard to tell. I love Kelce's raw talent, but he's never caught a pass in an NFL game and I wouldn't feel comfortable starting him in his debut. ... Beyond Charles and Smith, in-line tight end Anthony Fasano, Donnie Avery, and second-year UDFA Frankie Hammond are expected to play the most snaps in Kansas City's skill-position corps. We know what ninth-year veteran Fasano and journeyman burner Avery bring to the table. Bowe fill-in Hammond goes 6-foot, 190 with 4.44 speed and never topped 22 catches in any of his four college seasons. Any of these three players could go off for 90-plus yards in Week 1 against the Titans, and I'd still hesitate to pick them up.
The Titans have an intriguing mix of offensive personnel with a deep and talented offensive line, a mobile-if-erratic quarterback, a potentially explosive three-receiver set, and a do-it-all tight end in Delanie Walker. With rushing ability and easily the best supporting cast of his to-date career, I think Jake Locker is an underrated fantasy QB2. With that said, I think he's likely to struggle in the opener at raucous Arrowhead versus one of the league's better defensive front sevens. Kansas City is exploitable in the back end, but can mask those deficiencies against weaker passers by disrupting them at the line of scrimmage. Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, and Dee Ford scream off the edge, while NT Dontari Poe can collapse the pocket from the interior. I'm staying away from Locker this week, even in two-QB leagues. I'll fire him up next week against the defense-less Cowboys. ... Justin Hunter turned four of his 18 rookie-year receptions into touchdowns, and scored twice on ten preseason catches. I'm treating this as a wait-and-see week with Hunter, however, because he's still behind Nate Washington on the depth chart. If we see him play about 70% of Tennessee's offensive snaps and command five-plus targets, I'm going to view Hunter as a must-start WR3 against Dallas.
Kendall Wright had an 89-999-2 16-game pace in Locker's seven 2013 starts, although he would've lost 24 targets off last year's total (139). Now under a new coaching staff where he may lose volume, volume-dependent Wright is just a WR3 in PPR leagues, and is on the WR3/4 fringe in standard settings. I do expect Wright to lead the Titans in Week 1 targets, but he'll always be a poor bet to score. ... Delanie Walker was another Titan who benefited immensely last season from Ryan Fitzpatrick's aggressive spread-offense gunslinging. Walker's stats are likely to drop in 2014. I'd rather own Heath Miller, Charles Clay, Tim Wright, Dwayne Allen, and Garrett Graham. As for Wright, Walker, Washington, and Hunter's Opening Day matchups, nothing stands out for any of them. We should establish some weaknesses in Kansas City's defense as the season moves along, but for now the front seven is fearsome enough to not expect fireworks from enemy passing attacks. ... The Titans’ backfield will begin the season as a quagmire. Bishop Sankey passed Dexter McCluster on the depth chart after the preseason, but failed to unseat 29-year-old career plodder Shonn Greene. I do expect Sankey to emerge as Tennessee's team leader in touches, but he'll initially be a poor bet for touchdowns and lose pass-game work to McCluster. Greene and Sankey can only be treated as unattractive flex options at Kansas City. Until we see differently, McCluster is an RB5 in PPR leagues.
Score Prediction: Chiefs 24, Titans 17
New England @ Miami
The Patriots view H-back Charles Clay as a critical weapon in Miami's offense, evidenced by Bill Belichick's assignment of top cover man Aqib Talib on Clay last Week 15. (Talib held Clay to one catch for six yards.) Talib is gone and Darrelle Revis figures to spend most of Sunday's game on Mike Wallace, but the Pats could use brackets or cloud coverage to eliminate Clay this time around. Coming off a knee scope, Clay barely played this preseason, so we have very little exposure to his usage in new OC Bill Lazor's attack. He's best avoided in Week 1 lineup decisions. ... Wallace remains a good bet for six or so targets versus New England, but figures to be stranded on Revis Island barring masterful scheming by Lazor. I really like Wallace as a bounce-back candidate this year, and drafted him in several spots. But I'm shying away from him on Opening Day. ... If the Patriots do take away Clay and Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson could have openings at other parts of the field. You'd still have to be in quite an unexpected bind to start either. Hartline is a low-ceiling WR3 at best, while Gibson is a limited-snap slot receiver who lacks big-play ability. If you couldn't already tell, I'm not feeling great about the Dolphins' passing game in Week 1.
Ryan Tannehill's outlook is additionally complicated by suspect line play and DPOY candidate Chandler Jones, who will play all over the defensive front and wreak havoc. Jones can rush in both two- and three-point stances, and bring heat from the interior in certain packages. Coming off an 11.5-sack season at age 23, start Jones in your IDP league. Tannehill will be better over the course of the year, but he's a dicey QB2 this week. ... The Dolphins' run-game pecking order is muddled, as usual, after Lazor expressed disappointment in Lamar Miller early this week, and hinted Knowshon Moreno may open the season as Miami's lead back. In all likelihood, the Fins' backfield will start out as a hot-hand situation, with whoever capitalizes on early-game opportunities getting more and more as the contest moves along. New England struggled versus the run last season, but has revamped all areas of its defense. In what I expect to be a tough matchup with no real role clarity between Miller and Moreno, these are running backs to avoid in Week 1 lineup calls.
I asked ESPN reporter Field Yates to give his assessment of Stevan Ridley entering the season. A wearer of many hats, Yates is a former Patriots employee and covers the team for ESPN Boston, and also (more than) dabbles in fantasy. "I think the only sure bet for a consistent role from the Pats' running backs is Shane Vereen right now," Yates said. "Ridley still has value as a 10-12 touch between the tackles runner who should see goal-line action as well. He's their best short-yardage finisher and still, to start the season, a usable flex." ... Vereen is a candidate for 14-17 touches against the Fins, where he'll be an RB1 candidate in PPR and solid RB2/flex in standard leagues. Vereen's 16-game pace over his ten 2013 appearances, including playoffs, was 1,218 total yards and 11.2 touchdowns. He's more than a Sproles type. ... Rookie James White's role remains to be seen after a sluggish August. The fourth-round pick managed 80 yards on 29 preseason carries (2.76 YPC). He looked ordinary, and not like an NFL-ready back. My guess is White won't play much against the Dolphins.
Miami boasts a disruptive edge-rushing tandem in Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, and can also bring inside pressure via DTs Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. The Fins are vulnerable in the back end if Tom Brady gets protection, however, with SS Reshad Jones on suspension and RCB Cortland Finnegan in an every-down role. This is a good-not-great matchup for Tom Terrific, whose outlook is greatly enhanced by Rob Gronkowski's availability. Brady's 16-game pace in weeks where Gronk played last year included a 35:9 TD-to-INT ratio. His pace without Gronk was 27:13. As long as Gronkowski is active Sunday -- and he's fully expected to be -- Brady is an upside QB1. ... Gronkowski is expected to be on a snap count Sunday. Keep in mind he only needed 59.4% of the snaps in his first three games following a forearm injury last year to deliver 19 catches, 284 yards, and a touchdown, before his playing time rose. Gronkowski will surely be involved in red-zone packages, which is all fantasy owners need. He's scored 43 all-purpose TDs in 50 career games. When Gronk dresses, he's always a good bet to Gronk Spike. ... Julian Edelman is the tentative favorite to lead New England in Week 1 targets, but behind him Patriots pass catchers are rotating role players. Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Brandon LaFell, Tim Wright, and Danny Amendola will vie for snaps and looks from Brady. Until one member of that corps emerges, I'd consider all of them bench fodder in re-draft leagues.
Score Prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 13
4:25PM ET Games
Carolina @ Tampa Bay
The only Week 1 game with an over-under below 40 is Panthers-Bucs, at 39 points. The Vegas projection sends up a major red flag on skill-position players involved. Both clubs field stout defenses and play slow-paced, run-oriented offense. If you're looking for tiebreakers on lineup decisions, lean away from this matchup. ... Coming off ankle surgery and now battling fractured ribs, Cam Newton will be a game-time decision. If Cam does play, his designed runs will surely be scaled back by OC Mike Shula, a conservative playcaller to begin with. The revamped Tampa defense is now coached up by Lovie Smith, whose teams play fast and physical and are historically highly adept at forcing takeaways. I'm avoiding Newton entirely in this game, and strongly considering starting the Bucs' fantasy defense. ... Let's assume for a moment that Cam does play. The only two Carolina pass catchers I view as reasonable Opening Day starts are Greg Olsen and rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin. Lovie's Tampa 2 allows creases in the middle of the field, which Olsen can exploit. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin will pose an obvious mismatch for Bucs CBs Alterraun Verner (5'10/189), Leonard Johnson (5'10/196), and Mike Jenkins (5'10/197). Tampa's biggest corner, 6-foot-2 Johnthan Banks, is currently listed as a backup. If Cam throws a touchdown pass Sunday, it's most likely going to Benjamin. If Derek Anderson gets the start, I want no part of Olsen. Benjamin would remain in consideration as a contrarian play, particularly in FanDuel tournaments.
Jerricho Cotchery, 32, and Jason Avant, 31, round out Carolina's three-receiver set. Cotchery should have some five-catch weeks this season, and could be useful during bye-week crunches. With a beat-up quarterback, however, Cotchery is no better than a low-upside WR5. ... Avant is a possession receiver who figures to max out at roughly 65% of Carolina's offensive snaps. The Panthers will make frequent use of two-back and two-tight end formations, limiting Avant's role. ... Few running backs in the league looked as spry as 27-year-old Jonathan Stewart this preseason. Albeit on a tiny sample size, he turned nine touches into 57 yards and two touchdowns. DeAngelo Williams remains the Panthers' lead back, however, and Mike Tolbert probably won't be removed from Carolina's red-zone offense anytime soon. I'd feel good about rostering Stewart and hoping his usage expands, but for now he's stuck in a three-headed committee. In Week 1, the threesome takes on a talent-laden Bucs front seven comprised of Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Michael Johnson, Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Clinton McDonald, and Jonathan Casillas. I'd feel better starting the Buccaneers' fantasy defense than any Panthers back this week.
If Doug Martin starts slow, he'll be a guy to target in buy-low trades. One of the NFL's true every-down backs with pass-game specialist Charles Sims on I.R./return, Martin will be a workhorse on the ground and collect 3-6 pass targets per game. After facing the Panthers in Week 1 and Rams in Week 2, the Buccaneers' run-defense schedule softens up considerably. If he stays healthy, I fully expect Martin to finish as a top-ten fantasy back. Even if his YPC is low against Carolina, Martin should get enough volume to be worth an RB2 play. ... Josh McCown is a sneaky 25-touchdown candidate surrounded by natural-born scorers Vincent Jackson (6'5/230), Mike Evans (6'5/231), and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6'5/262). No. 2 tight end Brandon Myers is 6’4/250. McCown isn't a good two-QB-league bet against Carolina, however. Armed with arguably the NFL's most dominant front seven, the Panthers' defensive line and linebackers will give a shaky Tampa offensive line fits, ensuring McCown plays in muddied pockets all game. I'd rather start Geno Smith (vs. OAK) than McCown this week, and would probably take my chances with dual threats Ryan Tannehill (vs. NE) and Jake Locker (@ KC) over him as well, despite similarly difficult matchups.
V-Jax went 5-79 and 3-75 in his two 2013 meetings with Carolina. The matchup remains tough, but his quarterback has been upgraded and opponents will no longer be able to load up to stop Jackson with Evans across from him, and a viable run game restored. The Panthers' cornerback duo of LCB Antoine Cason and RCB Melvin White is unimposing after both finished in the red in PFF's 2013 coverage grades. I don't think Jackson will blow the roof off against the Panthers, but he's an every-week WR2. ... Evans looked smooth and light footed this August, almost as if he'd shed weight since Texas A&M. He secured 5-of-7 preseason targets for 96 yards and a score. My guess is Evans will be a TD-dependent WR4 this season, in the old Mike Williams vein. But he's certainly talented enough to exceed that projection. He was an easy pick for me at 1.01 in Dynasty rookie drafts. .... Seferian-Jenkins and Myers will be on the field together a lot as the Bucs intend to run "12 personnel" as their base offense. I don't think either will emerge as a reliable fantasy option, although ASJ certainly has the ability to. An absolute freak athlete, Seferian-Jenkins reportedly blazed a 4.56 forty with a 37 1/2-inch vertical during a pre-draft workout. He's worth rostering in all tight end-premium leagues as a TE2 and could be an enticing TE1 streamer against weaker defenses than Carolina.
Score Prediction: Buccaneers 17, Panthers 13
San Francisco @ Dallas
I looked at the 49ers-Cowboys over-under in early August and recommended banging the over on my Twitter feed. The point-total projection was 48.5 then. It's up to 51.5, and I think that may still be conservative. The Cowboys' defense is a virtual lock to remain among the league's worst. The 49ers' defense is without All-Pro ILB Navorro Bowman (ACL/MCL), run-clogging NT Glenn Dorsey (torn biceps), and top edge rusher Aldon Smith (suspension). Let's name the good players left on San Francisco's defense. ILB Patrick Willis. 35-year-old RE Justin Smith. Perhaps second-year FS Eric Reid. Maybe LCB Tramaine Brock. Protected by one of the NFL's top offensive lines, look for Tony Romo to have a clean pocket Sunday and clean up in the box score of a likely shootout. He's a shoo-in QB1. ... I think Dez Bryant is worth his lofty price tag on FanDuel in this game. New playcaller Scott Linehan's background with Calvin Johnson, Torry Holt, Randy Moss, and even Chris Chambers (overall fantasy WR8 under Linehan in '05) suggests Dez will be schemed open and maximized in Dallas' revised offense. No member of the 49ers' secondary is fearsome from a matchup standpoint.
Historically, the Niners have fielded a tight end-stingy defense due to Bowman and Willis' cover skills. That may change with Bowman on PUP. The last time Jason Witten faced 49ers DC Vic Fangio's defense (September of 2011), he went 7-102 on 14 targets. I expect Witten to be Romo's No. 2 pass option -- behind only Dez -- and to be freed up to run more routes with sack master Smith out of the mix. ... I fear season-long inconsistency for Terrance Williams, a James Jonesian talent who will fight for scraps behind Dez, Witten, and DeMarco Murray, with slot man Cole Beasley also in the target hunt. Williams is someone to consider selling high if he starts fast. I do think there's a good chance starting fast is in the cards for Williams in what's likely to be a high-volume, high-scoring affair at home versus a depleted defense. He's a high-ceiling WR3 play. ... Smith, Bowman, and Dorsey were all big-time run defenders. I still think San Francisco will be a generally stout defense up front, but not a shutdown unit. DeMarco Murray is an RB1 in this game, both in PPR and non-PPR settings. ... Keep an eye on change-up back Lance Dunbar's role. Linehan has a history of making multiple backs fantasy viable, and there have been some indications the Cowboys will use Dunbar in Vereenian ways. He's a stash-worthy RB4 in PPR leagues.
The 49ers' offense slumped in August, so it's convenient that they'll start the season facing the NFL's premier slump-busting defense. The Cowboys busted many a slump in 2013 and are even worse from a personnel standpoint this year after losing DeMarcus Ware (Broncos), Sean Lee (ACL), and Jason Hatcher (Redskins). Colin Kaepernick is a high-ceiling, quietly high-floor QB1 in this game. He's going to rack up pass and rush attempts because of his own defense's shortcomings, while preying on those of Dallas. ... The matchup is equally appealing for Frank Gore, who only figures to cede change-up/"breather" work to rookie Carlos Hyde. The NFL's top pass-protecting tailback, Gore's versatile game will be invaluable to a San Francisco offense certain to pass more this year. Now taking on the Cowboys in a cake matchup, Gore is on the RB1 borderline. The 49ers return all five offensive line starters after RG Alex Boone ended his holdout, and will pose physical mismatches for Dallas' pushover "defensive" front. ... If you're in to FanDuel punts, give Hyde some consideration. Whereas Gore costs $7200, Hyde's price tag is $1000 cheaper, and there is some chance Hyde could be utilized as a fourth-quarter clock killer. My tentative expectation for Hyde is 6-8 carries, but that could change based on game flow. Hyde might end up with 12-14 if the 49ers blow the Cowboys away.
Michael Crabtree played heavy footed after returning from his 2013 Achilles' tear, but has cut weight and reportedly displayed improved burst throughout camp. He's in the WR1/2 discussion against a lousy Dallas pass defense, which lacks pass rushers as well as competent cover men. Cowboys RCB Morris Claiborne (shoulder) still can't kick the injury bug, and will take a painkilling injection to play in Sunday's game. Orlando Scandrick is on a four-game suspension. Across Kaepernick's ten starts in 2012, including playoffs, Crabtree's 16-game pace was 98-1,408-13. He should start his contract year hot. ... I hated Vernon Davis' fifth-round ADP, but he'll be a good bet to score against Dallas. (Pretty much everyone is.) If Davis comes out smoking, I'd recommend selling him high before Week 2. I discussed why I'm down on him here. ... Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson round out San Francisco's three-wide set. Although I'm concerned Johnson's addition will cut into Boldin's season-long usage -- they are similar-style players who work in the same areas of the field -- "Q" is worth firing up as a WR3 against Claiborne, Brandon Carr, and presumptive Dallas nickel back Sterling Moore. Boldin won't get a better matchup all season. ... Johnson should help the 49ers' 2014 cause, but he's a long shot to help fantasy owners as a limited-snap No. 3 wideout and Kaepernick's fourth pass option at best.
Score Prediction: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27
Sunday Night Football
Indianapolis @ Denver
Colts at Broncos is the highest over-under game of Week 1, with a total score projection of 55.5 points. You'll want to start players in this one. ... As Indy is a seven-point dog, Vegas essentially expects Denver to score 31.5 points. That may be conservative against an undermanned Colts defense, which lost 2014 DPOY runner-up Robert Mathis to a four-game suspension, as well as FS Delano Howell to a year-ending neck injury. Peyton Manning torched Chuck Pagano's unit for 386 yards and three touchdowns last October. Without Mathis, Peyton's pocket will be even cleaner this time around. ... That Week 7 game gives us something of a framework to work from in forecasting Sunday night's affair. Julius and Demaryius Thomas both found pay dirt, as did running back Knowshon Moreno. Both Thomases and Montee Ball are obvious must-starts on Opening Day. If Denver whips Indianapolis -- and I think there's a good chance that will happen -- Ball could pile up 20-plus carries. He's my No. 5 fantasy back among Sunday and Monday's games, behind only Jamaal Charles (vs. TEN), LeSean McCoy (vs. JAX), Matt Forte (vs. BUF), and Adrian Peterson (@ STL). And it wouldn't surprise me if Ball outscored them all. He's squarely on the Week 1 FanDuel radar, especially in tournaments.
Wes Welker's suspension could add to Emmanuel Sanders' plate on slot routes, which see high-percentage targets. Sanders is on the WR2 fringe as a PPR play, and should be locked into WR3 slots in standard settings. The Broncos are set up to pour points on the Colts. Just as he did with Brandon Stokley in Indy and Wes Welker last year, Peyton will make sure Sanders gets fed. ... Rookie Cody Latimer has been a red-hot topic this week. I'm not sure of his usage, and am treating him as a WR5 stash until it's established. Coach John Fox has long been averse to installing rookies into premium roles, while Jacob Tamme and Andre Caldwell are candidates for more playing time as well. I'm sitting Latimer in Week 1 and considering it a plus if he goes off, because then I'll know to start him until Welker returns. ... Ball's handcuff situation is another question mark. Although Ronnie Hillman is currently No. 2 on the depth chart, GM John Elway has repeatedly called him a "change-of-pace" back since drafting Hillman in 2012. Were Ball to go down, my expectation would be a timeshare between Hillman and more power-oriented runner C.J. Anderson. I personally would rather roster Anderson because I'd expect him to get goal-line work and perhaps most of the carries if something happened to Denver's starter.
Trent Richardson followed up his abysmal 2013 by rushing 20 times for 51 yards (2.6 YPC) this preseason. In these clubs' 2013 meeting, T-Rich was held to a pathetic 14-37 stat line. Since that date, Denver's defense has gotten better, while Indianapolis' blocking has gotten worse. The Colts are so desperate at center that they claimed A.Q. Shipley off waivers from the Ravens this past Sunday, and will start him against the Broncos. Denver NT Terrance Knighton is going to eat Shipley for lunch. Even in the unlikely event Richardson has a good game, the right decision is to bench him. ... At the opposite end of the spectrum is Andrew Luck, who excelled in the aforementioned Week 7 matchup, accounting for 257 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns. Although Denver's defense is loaded with front-seven pass rushers and added Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and first-round pick Bradley Roby in the back end, Luck's playmaking ability will come in handy in this probable shootout. He's an upside QB1. ... Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton will serve as Indy's starting receivers, with Hakeem Nicks entering in three-wide packages and Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener playing in "12" looks. It's fair to wonder which Colts pass catcher Talib will cover. Wayne does most of his damage in the slot these days, while Talib is primarily an outside corner. My guess is we'll see Talib on Hilton and Nicks for most of this game. I like Wayne's odds of leading Indy in targets and receptions.
Hilton was a maddeningly inconsistent box-score performer while being force fed targets following Wayne's 2013 injury. With Wayne and Allen back healthy, and Nicks now in the mix, Hilton's usage will drop. Even in the highest projected scoring game of the week, Hilton is a boom-or-bust WR3. ... Nicks is a WR4/5 until we see him establish a consistent role. He won't play every down, and will run lower-percentage pass patterns than both Wayne and Hilton. ... Keep an eye on Ahmad Bradshaw's Week 1 usage. He's a better pass blocker than Richardson, and OC Pep Hamilton has spoken this summer as if the Colts may embrace a pass-first approach due to their obvious run-game deficiencies. I also think Bradshaw is a better fit than Richardson behind poor line play because he has superior lateral agility and can essentially create his own running room. Bradshaw could be this year's Donald Brown. ... Fleener is a physical football player whose usage will drop, similar to Hilton, with better players returning. If I'm deciding between the Colts' tight ends, my money is going on Allen. Allen is a much better blocker than Fleener, meaning he'll see more field time, and his 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame will be very useful on red-zone passes. I'm running out a bunch of FanDuel lineups this week, and Allen is in one of them.
Score Prediction: Broncos 37, Colts 24
Monday Night Football
NY Giants @ Detroit
Much has been made of the Giants' offensive dysfunction, which was evident all August. Less has been made of the Lions' lack of confidence in their own secondary, made clear by a recent workout of 36-year-old street free agent Champ Bailey. Although Eli Manning is a poor fantasy bet, there should be enough openings in Detroit's defense for Victor Cruz to turn in a serviceable WR2/3 stat line. As the Giants lack a viable tight end and first-round pick Odell Beckham (hamstring) remains on the shelf, Cruz should be heavily targeted on Monday night running high-percentage routes under new OC Ben McAdoo. McAdoo is an ex-Packers assistant who will utilize Cruz a la Randall Cobb. ... Only three members of New York's offense are worth Week 1 fantasy consideration. The first is Cruz, and the second is Rueben Randle. 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds with nine touchdowns among 60 career catches, Randle is a proven TD scorer in the NFL who just turned 23, and will be Eli's No. 2 pass option versus a vulnerable cornerback corps of shaky sophomore Darius Slay and 34-year-old Rashean Mathis. Promisingly, the Giants threw bubble screens to Randle in camp practices and exhibition games. Those are extremely fantasy-friendly plays. Like Cruz, Randle benefits from New York's tight end shortage and should ascend to the No. 1 option on red-zone plays because of his size. He's a cheap, high-ceiling FanDuel option and a boom-or-bust re-draft WR3.
The third fantasy-viable Giant is Rashad Jennings, although he has the most difficult matchup of the trio against a Detroit team that returns every critical front-seven member from last year's top-six run defense. Jennings will likely also lose goal-line work to rookie Andre Williams, a mack-truck power back at 5-foot-11, 230 with deceptive burst. I'd view Jennings as a safe, if low-ceiling RB2 against the Lions, but expect it to be only a matter of time before Williams begins cutting heavily into his early-down carries. Especially with the pass game coming along slowly, Williams' Michael Turner-like running ability is going to be difficult for coach Tom Coughlin to keep on the bench. ... The Giants are expected to use a three-tight end rotation of Daniel Fells, Larry Donnell, and Adrien Robinson to open the season. Fells is a 31-year-old journeyman. Donnell runs like a dad. Robinson isn't good at football. ... Third receiver duties will either go to pint-sized Jerrel Jernigan or impressive UDFA Corey Washington, who scored four touchdowns in the preseason. 22-year-old Washington should be owned in all Dynasty leagues. After a productive finish to 2013, the Giants expressed disappointment in Jernigan's development this summer.
Matthew Stafford finished the exhibition season 21-of-30 passing (70%) for 204 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. He only had Calvin Johnson on 20 of his snaps. Although the Giants' secondary has improved with FS Stevie Brown back healthy and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie now flanking Prince Amukamara, New York's pass rush remains a question mark, and Detroit's 2014 offense is going to be difficult for even the league's top defenses to stop. I'd feel good about Stafford's floor and ceiling entering Monday night's affair. ... Rodgers-Cromartie is coming off an outstanding season in Denver, but the only cornerback in the NFL who can legitimately claim to have shut down or stopped Megatron is Darrelle Revis. ... Although Johnson is an obvious must-start stud, there is a conceivable scenario in which he is slowed or contained by DRC and the Giants' coverage schemes. Golden Tate would become the primary beneficiary. Expected to be utilized both outside and in the slot by new OC Joe Lombardi, Tate is a sneaky candidate for double-digit targets against the G-Men. I've got some exposure to Tate this week and think he has WR2 upside, especially with rookie tight end Eric Ebron coming along predictably slowly.
Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, and Joseph Fauria all figure to be active on Monday Night Football. None of the three is a good bet to see a high volume of targets, at least not to open the season. Only 21 years old, I think Ebron would do well to finish his rookie campaign with 45 catches. Pettigrew will play the Ben Watson role under ex-Saints assistant Lombardi. Fauria is a limited-snap, 6-foot-7 red-zone specialist. ... Joique Bell and Reggie Bush both finished 2013 as top-17 fantasy backs, and I expect each of them to remain 2014 every-week starters. The Lions demonstrated their belief in Bell by signing him to a three-year, $9.3 million extension when they could have otherwise kept him on a $2.187 million restricted free agent tag. Bell is a superior inside runner to Bush and a candidate to lead Detroit in rushing attempts while also handling most goal-line work. A complete back, Bell has 50-plus receptions in back-to-back years. In Lombardi's Saints-style attack, Bell could be a cross between Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. Bush will be utilized in Sprolesian fashion, with fewer carries and more catches. Bush is most effective in space, so the role suits him. He'll be a weekly big-play threat. The Giants' run defense is solid, but not to the extent that it's worrisome for either Lions runner. Fire up Bush and Bell as RB2s.
Score Prediction: Lions 27, Giants 17
San Diego @ Arizona
Carson Palmer is my favorite QB1 streamer and cheap FanDuel option in Week 1. Palmer quietly took off in the second half of last season -- his first in Bruce Arians' offense -- compiling a 16:9 TD-to-INT ratio and 65.7% completion rate over Arizona's final nine games. Long a high-volume pass-game believer, Arians will have to lean on Palmer's gunslinging arm after the Cardinals' defense lost All Pro-caliber ILBs Daryl Washington (suspension) and Karlos Dansby (Browns), as well as LE Darnell Dockett (ACL). Armed with Larry Fitzgerald, ascending 24-year-old WR1 candidate Michael Floyd, and lid-popping rookie John Brown, Palmer is a sleeper for 30-plus touchdown passes. San Diego's pass defense should be better than last year's bottom-four group, but I expect Palmer to have a productive Monday night. ... Every member of the Chargers' cornerback corps looks exploitable on paper. New LCB Brandon Flowers struggled this preseason after ranking 94th among 110 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' 2013 coverage grades. RCB Shareece Wright also had a rough August after placing an even-worse 105th. Nickel back Jason Verrett is a rookie. Both Fitz and Floyd are high-upside plays. 4.34 burner Brown is more of a WR5, but could eventually enter the WR3 mix.
Tight ends primarily block in Arians' offense, leaving Arizona's John Carlson-Troy Niklas-Rob Housler triumvirate without fantasy appeal. The Cardinals' website lists Carlson and rookie Niklas as starters. Housler is on the second team. ... I painted an ominous season-long picture for Andre Ellington in my August Shy-Away 40 column. I think he's a sell-high candidate if he starts out hot. But he'll also be a touch machine as long as he stays healthy, and is particularly appealing in PPR leagues. Arians is a smart enough coach to frequently scheme Ellington into space, where his quickness and acceleration will lead to big plays. The Cardinals' preseason backfield usage suggests he'll lose goal-line work to Jonathan Dwyer or Stepfan Taylor, but Ellington should be a good bet for five-plus catches and 100 total yards on a weekly basis as long as he stays healthy. ... If you're interested in Ellington's "handcuff," Dwyer is the best bet over Stepfan Taylor. Ex-Steeler Dwyer is a more talented runner, and played ahead of Taylor in Arizona's third preseason game. Dwyer seems unlikely to fully take on Rashard Mendenhall's 2013 role (235 touches), but could come surprisingly close. The Cards' top power runner, Dwyer has an outside chance to flirt with standalone flex value during the bye weeks.
Friday Update: Ellington aggravated a preexisting foot injury during practice and reportedly could miss "an extended period of time." This is a major concern after Ellington battled a multitude of foot injuries during his college career. Dwyer ran ahead of Taylor throughout the preseason and is currently listed ahead of Taylor on Arizona's tailback depth chart. Dwyer should be owned in all leagues. Taylor is also worth a flier, although his talent and place in the pecking order are both inferior. Dwyer is a gets-what's-blocked-runner who already had a bead on goal-line work. He is also an adept pass protector. In a solid Cardinals offense, Dwyer is suddenly on the map as an every-week flex consideration. He'll be a reasonable bet for a TD on Monday night.
After playing methodical, ball-control football under outgoing OC Ken Whisenhunt, the Chargers spent the spring and summer upping the tempo under new playcaller Frank Reich. Don't expect San Diego to play as fast as the Eagles or Broncos, but the offense will definitely be more voluminous, which is good news for their skill-position players. They noticeably made more use of no-huddle packages this preseason. ... As mentioned above, the Cards no longer have a defense to fear after so many back-breaking losses. Additionally, top Arizona pass rusher John Abraham is 36 years old, and didn't get out of rehab until mid-August. Difference-making FS/slot CB Tyrann Mathieu is coming off two torn knee ligaments. Philip Rivers is an attractive QB1. ... Keenan Allen theoretically gets the toughest draw in San Diego's pass-catching corps, doing battle with shadow corner Patrick Peterson. It's worth noting, however, that receivers who excel in the short to intermediate range with crisp route running historically give plus-sized Peterson (6'0/220) the most trouble. Michael Crabtree is the best example of this; he's had Peterson's number since the two entered the league. Perhaps downgrade Allen from a borderline WR1 into the WR2/3 vicinity, but he remains a quality start. Only 22 years old, Allen has a 76-1,179-10 line over his last 15 games.
Arizona is still likely to be most vulnerable in the middle of the field, where 34-year-old retread Larry Foote and sophomore Kevin Minter (one career snap) will attempt to "replace" Washington and Dansby, and Mathieu may struggle after his devastating ACL/LCL injury. (This assumes Mathieu plays at all in Week 1.) Even with those three players in the lineup for most of 2013, there wasn't a defense more easily burned by tight ends than the Cardinals. Antonio Gates is an intriguing spot start due to the cake matchup. The preseason indicated Ladarius Green remains a limited-snap player, but this is the kind of game where he could go off. He's a boom-or-bust TE1 this week. ... 33-year-old perimeter role player Malcom Floyd and slot man Eddie Royal round out San Diego's pass-catching corps. If the Bolts lean heavily on Gates and Green in two-tight end sets, Royal's playing time will be adversely affected. ... The 2013 Cardinals finished No. 1 in run defense, but their stoutness is fair to question without Dansby, Washington, and Dockett. Arizona's first-team defense did hold Giovani Bernard to 17 yards on 10 carries in the third preseason game. Ryan Mathews remains a good bet to flirt with 20 touches and will get any goal-line work. In passing situations, Danny Woodhead may lose usage to Donald Brown.
Score Prediction: Chargers 28, Cardinals 24