Fantasy Football 2012: Jay Cutler Leads NFC-Focused Revelations for Week 1
To launch another season of Sunday fantasy revelations, here are 10 NFC-centric observations from a crazy Week 1.
1. The Bears may have the NFC's scariest five-man fantasy band.
Just to be clear here, no one should expect Chicago to rack up 428 total yards and 26 first downs every week. That's a tad ambitious for a club that no longer has Indianapolis for its remaining slate of games.
But from a star-power standpoint, no NFL team got more production from its five best players in Week 1—from QB Jay Cutler (333 yards passing, two TD), WR Brandon Marshall (nine catches, 15 targets, 119 yards, one TD) and WR Alshon Jeffery (three catches, 80 yards, one TD) to running backs Matt Forte (120 total yards, one TD) and Michael Bush (42 rushing yards, two TD).
There's a reason why the Bears jumped from "playoff hopeful" to "Super Bowl contender" in the eyes of many pundits during the offseason. The acquisitions of Marshall (trade), Jeffery (draft) and offensive guru Jeremy Bates (reuniting with Cutler/Marshall) may have been enough to rank the Bears offense ahead of their famed defense—the same Chicago defense that registered three sacks and forced five turnovers on Sunday.
For the foreseeable future, Marshall and Forte are automatic starts in 12-team leagues, with Bush and Cutler serving as no-brainer options with 14-team and passing-friendly leagues. As for Jeffery, keep him in mind for the Bears' Week 3 home tilt with the Rams.
2. So much for Robert Griffin III easing into the high-pressure role of franchise savior.
In one respect, I'm not surprised that Griffin (362 total yards, two TDs vs. New Orleans) posted sterling numbers in his NFL debut. From a playmaking standpoint, the Redskins (with Roy Helu, Evan Royster, Pierre Garcon, Fred Davis) boast an excellent core of young, dynamic talent.
But here's the rub: On Sunday, Garcon (four catches, 109 yards, one long TD) was the only one of that foursome to yield major dividends against the Saints, opening the door for springtime no-names like RB Alfred Morris (96 rushing yards, two TD) and WR Aldrick Robinson (four catches, 52 yards, one TD) to dominate the Superdome scene.
And now, we're left with the quandary of wondering if Morris and/or Robinson have staying power in the fantasy realm, or if Helu (27 total yards), Royster (10 yards) and Davis (two catches, 38 yards) will be the primary contributors with Griffin over the next six or seven weeks.
Bottom line: I still believe in Helu evolving into Washington's No. 1 tailback by midseason—but I'm not too stubborn here. If Morris is primed for another bump of red-zone opportunities, then he's certainly worth a waiver-wire pickup in 12-team leagues.
Just be prepared for that situation to change without much warning.
3. The NFL has its own Jacob or Edward? debate in Atlanta, in the form of Roddy or Julio?
The Sunday highlights shows understandably focused on Julio Jones racking up six catches, 108 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs, and tight end Tony Gonzalez (five catches, 53 yards, one TD) hitting paydirt in his Kansas City homecoming.
But when taking a big-picture snapshot of Sunday's contest, let's also remember Roddy White's six catches, eight targets and 87 yards. There's a reason why White has been a mortal lock for 100 catches, 179 targets, 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns this decade, and there's a reason why he's no worse than the No. 5 receiver in fantasy circles—regardless of scoring.
Of course, Jones may already be in that elite strata of fantasy receivers. In just 14 professional games, he has 60 catches, 1,097 yards and 10 touchdowns. And from a matchup standpoint, no active NFL cornerback (aside from maybe Darrelle Revis or Champ Bailey) has the physical goods to stifle Jones for 60 full minutes.
Of course, Jones' rapid fantasy ascension hasn't occurred in a vacuum. Atlanta's Matt Ryan (324 total yards, four TDs) has cemented his standing as a high-end quarterback, worthy of carrying teams to victory on a weekly basis. And running back Michael Turner (11 carries for 32 yards vs. Kansas City) still commands a lot of defensive attention in standard down-and-distance situations.
Speaking of which, immediately after Turner struggles next week against Denver, savvy fantasy owners should make a point to pursue the rolling-pin back in trade talks. Until proven otherwise, Turner shall remain a lock for 1,000 yards rushing and double-digit touchdowns.
He'll just incur a slow start before ultimately meeting that goal.
4. Thank goodness this is a fantasy column, and not a real-world evaluation of Michael Vick's decision-making prowess.
As NFL history goes, Michael Vick might not be among the leaders in the category of most pass attempts in a single game. But he's certainly on the short list of quarterbacks to hurl 50-plus passes—and fall short of 20 points on that particular Sunday.
How does one characterize Vick's afternoon of 349 total yards (317 passing), two touchdowns and four interceptions? From a fantasy perspective, we'll eventually remember it fondly. That's the positive fallout that comes from interceptions-turned-defensive touchdowns (or pick-sixes). You get the ball right back!
From a real-world standpoint, though, it's fair to wonder if Vick, at age 32, has lost a fraction of his top-end speed (particularly along the edge) and throwing accuracy from recent years.
Or was it just one really bad day at the office that ended on a high note?
You know who didn't have a bad outing against Cleveland? LeSean McCoy. Despite a slow start, McCoy still rummaged through the Browns defense for 136 total yards (110 rushing), while subtly throwing water on Philly coach Andy Reid's summertime proclamation of reduced touches for his star back (1,641 total yards, 20 touchdowns last year).
Receiver Jeremy Maclin was similarly stellar on Sunday, catching seven balls for 96 yards and one touchdown. For good measure, he racked up 14 targets.
It goes without saying, but Maclin and McCoy are automatic starts every week, regardless of scoring rules. The same holds true for Vick—as long he doesn't revisit this dark outing from the brightest of Cleveland weather days.
But hey, at least Vick targeted Maclin, McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek for 42 of the 56 pass attempts.
5. Adrian Peterson's big day comes with a hearty congratulations—and one mild caveat.
On Sunday afternoon, I took some Twitter heat from Peterson owners (and Vikings fans) who thought I had somehow dismissed the star's comeback nature—or (ridiculously) questioned his tolerance for pain after major knee surgery—during the spring and summer months.
But per usual, the actual message got lost in the hysteria of Peterson racking up 87 total yards (84 rushing) and two touchdowns against the Jaguars:
I never said AP was incapable of posting strong numbers or scoring touchdowns just nine months removed from a torn ACL. I simply minimized his chances for elite stats from only 20 touches per game (or 18 in Week 1).
If the Vikings are serious about keeping Peterson on a restricted-carries diet for a good portion of the year, then consider Peterson's Sunday output to be the high end of the weekly production bubble. Yes, he bears the oh-so-cool nickname of Purple Jesus, but Peterson is still just a man trying to work his way back from a gruesome knee injury.
In other words, he's still just a RB2 or weekly flex consideration in 12-team leagues. For now.
On the flip side, Vikings QB Christian Ponder (270 yards passing vs. Jacksonville) may not be a starting consideration at this point, but he's still a viable threat for respectable numbers over the next four games (Colts, 49ers, Lions, Titans). The sooner the acquisition, the happier you'll be in October.
6. Don't expect a running back time share with the 49ers anytime soon.
The day will come when Frank Gore is put out to proverbial pasture in San Francisco, no longer stealthy enough to usher the 49ers into a new era that involves a sparkling new stadium.
But for the time being, he's still the club's top playmaker and undisputed anchor during moments of adversity.
Were there any doubts of the Niners squandering a double-digit lead in the second half Sunday at Lambeau? Not from my vantage point. Gore was an absolute stud in crunch time, tallying 113 total yards (on only 17 touches) and registering a back-breaking, backwards-finishing touchdown with eight minutes left in the game, increasing San Francisco's lead to 30-15.
As a result, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better weekly flex starter than Gore in 12-team leagues. He's a top-13 back with a strong capacity for 1,300 total yards and eight touchdowns.
7. If James Jones played for any other team but Green Bay, he'd be a fantasy star.
The previous statement is hardly a knock on Jones' obvious talents. It's more of a reluctant acceptance of his place within the Packers offense, squarely behind receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and tight end Jermichael Finley (seven catches, 11 targets, 47 yards, one TD vs. San Fran).
It's also an acknowledgement that Jones (four catches, 81 yards, one TD) isn't a likely candidate for 100-plus yards or a touchdown next week—or three straight Sundays at any point this season.
Speaking of Jennings (five catches, 34 yards) and Nelson (five catches, 64 yards), how did they end up combining for only 10 receptions and 98 yards on a day when Green Bay was behind the proverbial 8-ball for the second, third and fourth quarters?
If I was a betting man, Week 1 will serve as the only period that Jones and Randall Cobb (15 total targets) almost eclipse the targets tally for Jennings and Nelson (16 targets).
8. The Panthers apparently don't have an alternate strategy for monsoon-affected games.
We'll delve into other components from Panthers-Buccaneers later in the week—including Mike Martz's insightful debut as a TV analyst—but right now, only one question can be shouted from the rafters:
What possessed Carolina's coaches to order up 33 Cam Newton passes on a rain-soaked, chewed-up grass field, while facing the NFL's worst run defense (last year)?
Sure, Newton finished with 307 total yards (303 passing) and one touchdown, and Steve Smith pulled down seven catches for 106 yards. But there's no excuse for DeAngelo Williams (four total yards) logging only seven touches on a day when Jonathan Stewart (ankle injury) didn't even dress.
Even Brandon LaFell's three-catch, 65-yard, one-TD outing left me with an empty feeling. If the Panthers had intentionally set out to abandon the running game against the Bucs, shouldn't LaFell have garnered more consideration away from heralded Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib?
The good thing about this day of misery: All will be forgiven if Newton posts stellar Week 2 numbers against New Orleans, while bringing more balance to the Carolina attack.
9. Real-world foibles aside, the Saints offense never gets cheated in the fantasy realm.
Thanks to Drew Brees (and from previous years, Sean Payton), the Saints are just as likely to pass 52 times in home games where they lead by 25 points or trail by double digits. And that's how things played out Sunday in New Orleans, once the Redskins rolled to a big early lead and held on for a 40-32 upset victory.
Of Brees' 52 attempts, Lance Moore (six catches, 120 yards, one TD), Jimmy Graham (six catches, 85 yards, one TD), Marques Colston (four catches, 71 yards) and tailback Darren Sproles (five catches, 35 yards, one TD) accounted for 75 percent of the targets.
And each of the above names would have tallied touchdowns against Washington if Colston hadn't fumbled his best reception into the end zone for an untimely touchback.
From a fantasy standpoint, it was almost an ideal day for stats. Perhaps next week, the Saints will get it right.
10. Matthew Stafford may be the Brett Favre of his generation, a fantasy gift that keeps on giving.
It may sound weird to attach Favrian praise to a quarterback who waited 59 minutes and 50 seconds to tally his first touchdown on Sunday. But for my money, there's no other way to describe Stafford's absurd outing at Ford Field—355 yards passing, one touchdown, three interceptions and one pick-six for the Rams defense.
In other words, Stafford keeps giving and giving until it hurts (or he gets hurt).
Obviously, the kid can't afford three first-half interceptions every week and expect the Lions to reach the NFC playoffs for back-to-back seasons. But I can also appreciate how Stafford isn't daunted by potential failure in tense situations.
In fact, FOX TV analyst Tim Ryan may have said it best when Stafford was coolly leading Detroit on its eventual game-winning drive in the final minutes. Something to the effect of, For a guy who's thrown three interceptions today, he certainly looks calm out there.
And why shouldn't Stafford (my No. 3 fantasy QB during the preseason) be supremely confident?
He's routinely flanked by WR Calvin Johnson (six catches, 111 yards), RB Kevin Smith (91 total yards, two TDs), TE Brandon Pettigrew (five catches, 10 targets, 77 yards) and WR Nate Burleson (75 total yards). And that doesn't even include expected breakthroughs from Mikel Leshoure (two-game suspension), Titus Young (25 yards on two touches vs. St. Louis) and maybe even Jahvid Best (concussion symptoms) sometime in October or November.
Stafford just needs to avoid these tit-for-tat occurrences where each touchdown pass calls for a pick-six in due time.
Jay Clemons can be reached on Twitter, day or night, at @ATL_JayClemons.
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