Stay the course. An awful lot of promising talent didn’t deliver in Week 1, while some less likely names put up numbers. It’s football and that happens. So unless your team was devastated by injury – as in you own all of Dez Bryant (foot), T.Y. Hilton (knee), C.J. Anderson (toe/ankle) and Andre Ellington (knee) – take a note from the Gospel of Aaron Rodgers and R.E.L.A.X.
The league MVP for 2014 saw his team bumble its way to a 1-2 start last season only to land a bye in the NFC playoff race and come a five minute implosion away from a Super Bowl. As the old adage says, “the cream always rises to the top.” So don’t cast off (or trade) those potential “breakouts” you drafted to take your team to the next level because a Week 1 hero has you second-guessing. There’s a reason you drafted the likes of a Sammy Watkins, Doug Martin or Allen Robinson. They’re very gifted. They’re starters and leaders in their offenses. Maybe you were wrong and their slow starts are simply forecasting eventual disappointment. But that’s far from clear based on one game. I can’t fault adding a Marcus Mariota, a Darren Sproles, a Donte Moncrief – guys whose systems or opportunities enhance their talents – but be cautious with whom you give up now. It’s early.
Trust. In. Talent.
Just like you, I was in far too many leagues last year where Odell Beckham or Justin Forsett was added and dropped multiple times within the first 4-6 weeks. Let the highlight tape tell you who to hang on to, who to roll the dice on. Like Rodgers, have faith. Opportunities will open for the best. The cream will rise.
Stepping off the soapbox, I’d like to remind you of this column’s intention: to provide some strategic perspective into those tougher lineup decisions. It’s not a traditional start/sit piece, however. Upgrades are guys you wouldn’t roll out every week while downgrades are generally lineup mainstays but for whom you may want to consider an alternative based on elements of their opponent/situation. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.
Marcus Mariota, TEN at CLE: Seems obvious after watching Mariota carve up Tampa Bay for over 200 yards and four scores in basically one half, but in case anyone missed it, this Cleveland defense is also bad. Taking a wait-and-see approach with Mariota is not necessary. He’s about to go on a rookie rampage akin to Robert Griffin’s first season.
Alex Smith, KC vs DEN: The short turnaround is the only concern here. As good as Denver’s defense was in Week 1, much of that can be attributed to the lack of weapons surrounding Joe Flacco. Conversely, Smith boasts a trio of athletic targets in Travis Kelce, Jeremy Maclin and Jamaal Charles with which he can toy with defenses and generate chunk yardage and scores.
Teddy Bridgewater, MIN vs DET: A relentless Niners defense shut Bridgewater and Co. out of the end zone in a surprise Week 1 beatdown, but despite all the negatives in the contest, Bridgewater maintained an impressive calm while completing 71.9 percent of his throws and netting 7.2 yards per attempt. Facing a Lions group that allowed a league worst 83.3 percent completion rate for 9.6 per toss, the numbers will pile up more easily.
Jameis Winston, TB at NO: Winston struggled with a wave of confusing Dick LeBeau-schemed blitzes versus Tennessee. The Saints have neither a pass rush nor a secondary, conveniently. And with Drew Brees at home chances look promising that Winston will again be chucking it from behind – which resulted in a good final line of 210 yards and two scores without Mike Evans, who may be back. And since you asked, yes, Brett Favre also threw a pick six on his first ever regular season attempt. So there's that.
Bishop Sankey, TEN at CLE
Sankey's touches were limited in Week 1 due to the blowout nature of Tennessee's statement win, but he was highly efficient, averaging a single game career best 6.2 yards per carry while finding the end zone twice. Now he gets a Browns D that the Jets pummeled on the ground.
Darren Sproles, PHI at DAL
Sure, this will be the DeMarco Murray revenge game, and he's going to get his. But Sproles was electric out of the backfield in Week 1 – as he always is – and his quickness will demand the ball 8-10 times against a mediocre Dallas defense in a “prove it” game for the Philly O.
Chris Johnson, AZ at CHI
With Andre Ellington (knee) likely sidelined Johnson is primed to handle the bulk of rushing attempts against a fairly soft Bears front seven. A rhythm runner throughout his career who can provide a big fantasy day on any given play, Johnson is a major upside flex for a Cardinals offense that will move the ball.
Karlos Williams, BUF vs. NE
When old man DeAngelo Williams gashes you for 6.0 YPC, it's a huge sign something's missing from your defense – say about a 350-500 pound sign that now resides in Houston. Buffalo's Williams is a load to bring down and proved it with an eye-opening 6-for-55 and a score in Week 1. Expect those touches to double. The “ground and pound” Rex Ryan philosophy will be in full effect as the Bills backs do cartwheels through the middle of Tom Brady's Vince Wilfork-less defense.
Eric Decker, NYJ at IND
Ryan Fitzpatrick heavily favored Brandon Marshall in a 60-40 run-pass split in Week 1, and Decker still managed to find the end zone on limited opportunities. With an angry Colts O possessing the firepower to force more throwing from the Jets, and lockdown corner Vontae Davis likely shadowing Marshall more, Decker's targets should spike.
Sammy Watkins, BUF vs. NE
In case the goose egg Watkins laid in Week 1 is scaring you off, forget it. Immediately. He's too talented. Malcolm Butler, a far cry from Vontae Davis, is the top corner for the Pats, and Watkins and all his speed will be needed to keep pace with the Tom Brady rampage tour.
Larry Fitzgerald, AZ at CHI
The Bears were sliced up by Aaron Rodgers in the red zone, giving up three scores to wideouts from in close. Fitzgerald showed no signs of his age with a strong 6-catch, 87-yard Week 1. A super reliable red zone target throughout his career, don't be surprised if he notches his first score Sunday.
Cole Beasley, DAL at PHI
One word: targets. Without Dez Bryant (foot), Beasley is going to see a bunch of them. Jason Witten and Terrance Williams boast more talent and higher profiles, but when Philly's relentless pass rush forces quicker throws out of Tony Romo, his slippery slot receiver will often be on the other end.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TB at NO
One of the few bright spots in the Bucs' Week 1 debacle, Seferian-Jenkins is set up nicely for an encore. Last week the Saints couldn't contain another big-bodied tight end in Darren Fells, who burned them for 82 and a touchdown, and with Mike Evans still hurting, New Orleans could have déjà vu with ASJ.
Jared Cook, STL at WAS
Washington struggle with Jordan Cameron's athleticism in Week 1 and doesn't figure to enjoy covering Cook up the seam either. A favorite target of Nick Foles' against a much better Seattle secondary, look for Cook to build on that chemistry with his new QB, especially while the ground attack is on the mend.
Peyton Manning, DEN at KC
The show is over. KC features arguably the game's best pass rusher in Justin Houston and has returned Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry and added the dynamic, instinctive Marcus Peters to create even more problems for a quarterback that cannot escape pressure or push the ball downfield effectively.
Ben Roethlisberger, PIT vs. SF
It took Big Ben 59 minutes and 58 seconds to finally sling a touchdown pass against an abominable Patriots secondary. Sure, he piled up the yards and still has All-World wideout Antonio Brown, but without Le'Veon Bell and the always-a-threat-to-score Martavis Bryant, a 49ers defense playing with a colossal chip on their collective shoulders is going to make for an even more frustrating game.
Tony Romo, DAL at PHI
Yes, the Eagles secondary is a glaring weakness. Yes, Romo torched the Giants for 308 yards and three touchdowns that did not go to Dez Bryant. But the fact remains that missing arguably the game's most dangerous wide receiver will hurt Romo in the short and long term – especially with an avalanche of Philly pass rushers coming his way.
Alfred Morris, WAS vs. STL
Ndamukong Suh couldn't stop Morris by himself in Week 1, but with no DeSean Jackson to keep safeties out of the box and the beastly St. Louis defensive line led by future All-Pro Aaron Donald, a team effort by a Rams D that limited Marshawn Lynch will shut Morris down.
C.J. Anderson, DEN at KC
A turf toe injury. An ankle injury. A miserable offensive line. An inefficient pass game. A fast defense. A short week. A talented backup chomping at the bit. Waaaaaaay too many things working against Anderson right now.
DeAngelo Williams, PIT vs. SF
Don't get cute. Williams looked tremendous in Week 1, but buy the Patriots defense being that weak, not the 49ers Monday Night performance being a fluke. Jim Tomsula was a defensive line coach, after all. And while it's likely Adrian Peterson was a bit rusty, he still looked awfully human facing a ferocious SF front seven.
Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, DEN at KC
The noodle-armed Manning and his top targets are in trouble this week. Both Thomas and Sanders were held under 5.5 yards per target by a smothering Ravens defense and with Justin Houston breathing down Manning's neck all night and the corners sitting on short throws, the struggle will continue.
Randall Cobb, GB vs. SEA
Although he found the end zone in both contests versus Seattle in 2014, those came with Jordy Nelson lining up as the team's No. 1 target. Now the leader of the pack (pun intended), Cobb will have to fend off the more attention from Seattle's vaunted secondary, and he'll have to do it with an ailing shoulder.
Brandon Marshall, NYJ at IND
Vontae Davis did not allow a single touchdown catch in 2014 (per Pro Football Focus) and just blanked the electric Sammy Watkins. It's true that Marshall has beaten the best of corners – even Darrelle Revis – but in just his second game playing with Ryan Fitzpatrick, the floor and ceiling are just too low for comfort.
Greg Olsen, CAR vs. HOU
Sure, the Texans looked awfully inept covering the tight end position in Week 1. But Travis Kelce will do that to a lot of defenses. Though Olsen is a premier talent in his own right, he also doesn't have a legitimate No. 1 wideout or a top-notch receiving back drawing attention away from him. And it's not like Cam Newton is exactly the pinpoint passer Alex Smith is.