I said it at the start of last year and I’ll say it again: fantasy seasons are not won or lost in the first week. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and just as in real football one or two bounces of the ball can be the difference between glory and heartbreak. Just ask the Green Bay Packers.
So while I advocate sitting back, cracking open a beer (or two or three) and blissfully soaking in the start of a new season, we still can’t ignore the fact that Week 1 does matter and can change our entire fantasy year. With the goal of squeezing every single fraction of a point out of our rosters, I’ll focus each week on a handful of players at each major offensive position to try and provide some perspective on who is at an advantage or disadvantage based on the matchups, accounting for all factors – whether it’s defensive challenges, shootout probabilities, key injuries, location, weather, etc. – basically anything that might impact a guy’s value.
With coaching, scheme, and personnel changes all over the league, Week 1 presents a greater challenge to perceive advantages and disadvantages. It’s with that in mind that I strongly recommend that one doesn’t get too cute. Leaning on proven talent and/or players with the clearest path to opportunity offers a better probability for a good return and competitive week. This column is not intended to be a traditional “Start ‘em, Sit ‘em” piece, but rather my goal, as it was last year, is to provide some perspective you may not have considered to help make those tough decisions less tough and more effectively remove your brain from those “no-brainer” choices. Sometimes the biggest error in fantasy is that we simply get in our own way by overthinking and overanalyzing.
At the end of the day though you still have to feel good about your decisions, and while I’m merely aiming to assist that process by “upgrading” and “downgrading” players based on the information at hand in any given week, it’s still critical that one trust his/her gut and take some chances along the way. In Week 1 though, let’s keep those chances to a minimum where we can. So if you’re definitely starting one of the downgraded folks, perhaps that’s where you swing a bit for the fences with an upgraded guy you may otherwise not want to play. If your star underperforms due to his poor matchup you’ll need one or two guys to offset and take advantage of a promising situation.
So with that tidbit of basic philosophy out of the way, let’s finally get on with it after a painstaking 9-month wait for game day. The upgrades are guys that aren’t necessarily every-week starters who are set up to go off and the downgrades are players you’re usually not benching but for whom you may want to consider replacements for (or in the case of truly elite talents, “offsets”).
Carson Palmer, AZ vs. NO: Though he may be without the services of Michael Floyd, the duo of John Brown and Larry Fitzgerald will suffice against a Saints defense that lacks punch up front, has no frightening speed rushers, and is a bumbling mess in the secondary.
Teddy Bridgewater, MIN at SF: The 49ers were already weak in the pass rush department last year (tied for 21st) before losing a group of players, including Aldon Smith, who accounted for nearly 50 percent of 2014’s sack production. Losing their top cover corner doesn’t help either with a laser-sharp Bridgewater coming to town leading a suddenly-loaded Vikings O.
Tyrod Taylor, BUF vs. IND: Legs, legs and more legs. While Rex Ryan would absolutely love to ground and pound an Indy defense more susceptible to the run, he’ll have little choice but to drop Taylor back most of the second half while trying to keep pace with Andrew Luck. A dynamic athlete, Taylor will boost any damage he does with his arm by adding chunk yardage on the ground.
Andre Ellington, AZ vs. NO: No defense allowed more receiving yards to running backs in 2014 than a Saints unit that will now start a rookie middle linebacker. Ellington was 12th among running backs in yards after the catch despite playing just 12 games last year. Ellington AND Palmer are healthy right now. Picking up what I’m putting down?
Isaiah Crowell, CLE at NYJ: Star center Alex Mack is healthy, Duke Johnson is coming back from a concussion, Terrance West was shipped south, and the Browns sure as hell aren’t going to throw it often against a Darrelle Revis secondary with Josh McCown’s arm and the cast of the movie “Wildcats” at receiver. Chalk up a huge workload for Crowell against a front seven that will be sans the suspended Sheldon Richardson.
Tevin Coleman, ATL vs. PHI: The Falcons will try to run the ball early to control clock and keep the Eagles offense sidelined. With Devonta Freeman still nursing a hammy injury, Coleman will be the beneficiary. In a game that could light up the scoreboard, the slashing rookie back could ensure a strong fantasy day with a trip to the end zone.
Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden, DAL vs. NYG: The Giants allowed a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry in 2014, and didn’t exactly go out and fix an embarrassingly leaky defense in the offseason. That elite Dallas offensive line simply compounds their problem. Though Randle and McFadden could see a limiting time share, they’ll both be efficient enough to earn flex status.
Steve Smith, BAL at DEN: Explain to me how Smith doesn’t see at least 8-10 targets this week and then maybe I’d consider him less than a flex. It’s a Marc Trestman offense, Joe Flacco has no other established targets, their first-round draft pick is hurt, and Smith, in his swan-song season, will be feistier than ever.
Eddie Royal, CHI vs. GB: See Smith, Steve. While Royal’s situation differs some, the end result should be the same – major target volume. Alshon Jeffery’s calf injury will limit him, and with an Aaron Rodgers attack forcing Chicago to air it out, Royal will be the prime beneficiary. Though he lacks Smith’s tenacity, he easily bests the old man in quickness and acceleration. Think Week 1 YAC king.
Leonard Hankerson, ATL vs. PHI: If you happened to draft an injured wideout or two – say Jeffery, Mike Evans, or perhaps Hankerson's teammate Roddy White – and are hurting (no pun intended) for depth, you could do worse. Reportedly one of the biggest offseason standouts for Atlanta, the former third-round pick could be featured heavily as Julio Jones draws constant doubles and the Falcons try to keep pace with the electric Philly O.
Markus Wheaton, PIT at NE: With both starting tailbacks suspended, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady will be slinging it plenty against as uninspiring a collective group of corners as there will be taking the same field in Week 1. Fresh off a strong offseason, Wheaton is primed to gobble up targets against that soft coverage with Martavis Bryant also suspended.
Josh Hill, NO at AZ: Hill is a special athlete in a Drew Brees pass attack searching for playmakers beyond Brandin Cooks. With C.J. Spiller coming back from injury, Jimmy Graham’s successor is poised to take advantage of a Cardinals defense that gave up the most yards to tight ends in 2014 and didn’t do much to upgrade their back seven.
Richard Rodgers, GB at CHI: The Chicago D gave up 13 TD’s to tight ends in 2014, second-most in the league. Now the defense formerly known as the “Monsters of the Midway” looks even rougher, particularly at linebacker. With no Jordy Nelson in the red zone, Rodgers could become a go-to in this juicy matchup.
Drew Brees, NO at AZ: Bench Brees? Never. Well, not yet anyway. But definitely temper enthusiasm this week. The future Hall of Famer has historically struggled more away from his dome and will have to feel out his new weapons against a highly scrappy Cardinals defense that won’t let much come easy.
Russell Wilson, SEA at STL: Against an outrageously-gifted Rams front four that is set to wreak havoc on the league, Wilson will be running for his life behind a shaky offensive line. That worked out amazingly well in St. Louis last year – to the tune of a historic 300-plus passing, 100-plus rushing day. Of course, there were other days like his 179/31/zero score line just two weeks later.
Alfred Morris, WAS vs. MIA: Ndamukong Suh was the anchor of a Detroit defense that allowed a league-low 3.2 yards per carry last year. So now Morris not only has to suffer for the sins of his own defense, which figures to quickly put Washington behind on the scoreboard, but he also has to make the most of his limited opportunities against a potentially elite Miami front seven.
Frank Gore, IND at BUF: In what looks like the year’s top offense on paper, Gore should be a much more consistent fantasy weapon in 2015. Having to face a Rex Ryan defense with one of football’s most fearsome d-lines may result in one of his worst outings however, particularly if the “pitch count” talk is for real.
Jamaal Charles, KC at HOU: One of the most dynamic runners of the last decade, Charles is poised for a top-10 fantasy season… which should get rolling in Week 2. A Texans team that finished 10th and 2nd respectively in rushing yards and touchdowns allowed in 2014 added Vince Wilfork and gets Brian Cushing at the healthiest he’s been entering a year since he was a rookie.
LeSean McCoy, BUF vs. IND: Not much is working in McCoy’s favor this week. The hamstring injury may slow him, and will almost certainly limit his touches, and that’s in a best-case scenario in which Buffalo can slow down Andrew Luck and Co. If Indy puts the Bills in an early hole expect McCoy to get heavy rest.
Amari Cooper, OAK vs. CIN: By volume, the first rookie wideout taken in May’s draft could produce quality numbers in his regular season debut, but facing a Bengals team that gave up the third-fewest passing scores in 2014 and boasts a deep corner rotation that features four former first rounders, his stardom might have to wait a week.
Sammy Watkins, BUF vs. IND: From Demaryius Thomas to DeAndre Hopkins, Vontae Davis shut down his share of big time receivers last year. If that weren’t enough motivation to bench the second-year stud, consider that Watkins caught precisely zero passes from Taylor in the preseason, who incidentally will be making his first career start.
Randall Cobb, GB at CHI: It’s simple. Cobb could very well have a big game, but Green Bay doesn’t need that out of him to win and win comfortably. With a sprained AC joint in his shoulder not about to suddenly be 100 percent, the chance of him leaving the game due to aggravation or a Packers blowout makes him a risky starter.
Jimmy Graham, SEA at STL: Forget that Graham is without Brees for the first time in his career. He’ll click easily with Wilson and figures to be featured early and often in an offense lacking wideout talent. Unfortunately though, this won’t be his best week. The Rams ultra-athletic front seven is a plague to tight ends (as evidenced by the two TD’s they limited the position to in 2014). Their pass rush may keep Graham blocking more than catching, and the speedy Alec Ogletree at linebacker can stay with him stride for stride in coverage.