Week 1 Start 'Em, Sit 'Em: Smart Matchup Plays, Sleepers and More
Week 1 of the fantasy season is finally upon us.
Oh, the NFL has some games going on as well.
While the guys you took in the first round or two are almost always ones you'll start immediately, there are other players who aren't week-to-week locks, have questionable matchups or are in new situations that didn't totally play out in preseason.
Over the next 20 slides we'll take a look at players who should be in your lineup this week and others who should be avoided at all costs.
Start: Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez vs. the New Orleans Saints
This whole game has "shootout" written all over it.
New Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has converted the defense to a 3-4 in order to help stop the run, and it's worked so far, but the pass defense remains middle-of-the-road. Ryan's defense is still getting used to the alignment change, and this is a tough matchup to do that against.
Win or lose, this looks to be a very good fantasy day for the Falcons' passing offense.
Sit: Steve Smith vs. Seattle Seahawks
That said, it won't matter this week, because the entire Carolina Panthers passing offense will have its work cut out for it when they face the Seattle Seahawks' fierce defense.
Newton is a high enough pick that you can't easily bench him, but Seattle's pass rush will be tough on him and impact his ability to make throws.
That isn't good news for Smith.
More bad news? He'll be battling Seahawks cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. More often than not, Smith will face Browner, but honestly, it's "pick your poison" for the receiver.
For fantasy GMs, the poison should be replacing Smith with a better matchup this week.
Seattle's defense was rough on the passing game last year (sixth in the league, according to NFL.com) and slapped offenses around again this preseason, ranking fourth in the league (via NFL.com) while allowing just 606 yards in four games. The secondary also allowed just three touchdowns while picking up four interceptions.
This is not a good day to be Smith or his owners.
Start: Pierre Garcon vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Two things bode well for Pierre Garcon's fantasy output in Week 1.
First, the Philadelphia Eagles aim to have a high-speed offense, which can lend itself to a lot of scoring. That will lead Washington to respond in kind.
Robert Griffin III doesn't have a lot of receiving options, and Garcon is far and away the best of them.
Second, the Eagles defense is still suspect. Sure, they ranked as the ninth overall passing defense according to NFL.com this preseason, but that stat is a bit misleading.
Consider that aside from the New England Patriots, the Eagles faced the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. While the Panthers can throw the ball, none of those three teams are passing powerhouses. The Jaguars scored 24 points in three quarters (with much of the starting unit in) with Chad Henne throwing the ball.
Preseason is good at lying to us, and it's hard to feel comfortable with the Eagles' pass defense. Garcon has the skill, the quarterback and a nice matchup—he's a solid start this week.
Sit: Philip Rivers vs. Houston Texans
Philip Rivers got a new head coach (Mike McCoy), a Darren Sproles replacement (Danny Woodhead) and not much else for his offense.
His offensive line still has question marks, and his wide receiver corps is decimated by injury. In the past month Danario Alexander has torn his ACL, while rookie Keenan Allen has had knee issues, according to Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego.
While Malcom Floyd might be ready for the season, according to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, his knee knocked him out of preseason action and could be a problem during the season.
As much as McCoy was a sharp hiring by the Chargers, there's only so much he can do with the tools he has. It still looks like Rivers' technique is off, and he's not getting enough time in the pocket to run his progressions and get to his receivers.
Now he'll meet the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt and newly healed Brian Cushing, as well as Jared Crick, Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed. Last season saw the Houston Texans rank fifth overall in sacks with 44—and that was without any from Cushing, who missed most of the season with a torn ACL.
The Texans accumulated 18 sacks this preseason, tied for first in the league.
That's a bad combination, so this would be a good week to pass on Rivers in your quarterback committee.
It's probably a good week for Rivers to fake an injury ahead of time as well.
Start: T.Y. Hilton vs. Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders will be fantasy whipping boys this season until they prove otherwise.
This week, they're set to be exploited by the Indianapolis Colts, especially second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton.
Hilton caught 50 balls for 861 yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie campaign. The preseason has seen him battle former Raiders first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey for the No. 2 spot across from veteran Reggie Wayne.
Currently Ourlads.com has Hilton as the No. 3, but that's nothing to worry about. The Colts know Hilton needs to be on the field, and quarterback Andrew Luck learned very quickly last season that he could trust Hilton and will throw him the ball often.
He will see either Mike Jenkins or Tracy Porter at cornerback, both of whom will have trouble matching up with Hilton's speed.
The Colts offensive line will give Luck time to make his reads and find Hilton, who will be able to get to the open spaces between the defenders and make plenty of receptions.
Sit: Stevie Johnson vs. New England Patriots
This isn't so much about Stevie Johnson. It's about his quarterback, whoever that is.
The Bills' starter could still be Jeff Tuel, the undrafted free agent rookie from Washington State.
Either way isn't good for Johnson, at least not this week.
Manuel will develop into a solid quarterback, but it's a lot to ask of him, after missing several weeks of preseason, to walk in and face down the New England defense.
This preseason the Patriots generated 13 sacks, tied for the sixth-most. They'll be able to bring pressure, and they are very good at grinding an offense down even when they don't get sacks.
Expect plenty of pressure and different looks as the Patriots keep whichever rookie is playing off balance and unable to make quick reads.
It's going to be very hard for the Bills to get the ball to Johnson this coming week. As time goes on and Manuel gets more comfortable, it shouldn't be as big of a problem.
This week, it's a reason for Johnson to see your bench.
Start: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense vs. New York Jets Offense
The New York Jets offense is a mess, as we discussed in "Who's Hot, Who's Not" this past weekend.
This is especially evident in the chaos at quarterback.
A defense filled with Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers, Darrelle Revis, Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron will see either a rookie in Geno Smith or a former undrafted free agent in Matt Simms (the Jets do have Brady Quinn, but he won't be ready in time).
It doesn't much matter, as Smith looked ill-prepared for NFL action in preseason Week 3, while Simms has only proved himself against third-stringers.
The Jets also allowed 14 sacks to opposing defenses, and both Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith turned the ball over multiple times under pressure—Smith three times in one game against the New York Giants. Many of the sacks were with the bench depth in, but both Sanchez and Smith took their lumps, and both were knocked out of games when hit.
The pressure up front will result in sacks as well as the chance at interceptions, which will produce points for your fantasy team.
This is an absolute must-start matchup.
Sit: Josh Freeman vs. New York Jets
On the flip side, the Jets defense could be the one bright spot on the team this season.
Unless you had a mind to start Josh Freeman.
The Jets defense is going to benefit from head coach Rex Ryan focusing on it. Like or hate him, Ryan is a great defensive coordinator. The Jets defense allowed a QB rating of just 63.3 this preseason, third-best in the NFL, and only gave up two touchdown passes.
Freeman has shown some real talent but seems unable to use it on a consistent basis. He has tremendous weapons at his disposal—Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Doug Martin—a solid offensive line and a defense that does more than enough to keep the game from getting out of control.
That didn't help him last year when he had two games in a row with four interceptions (Week 15 against New Orleans and Week 16 against St. Louis) and threw picks four straight games from Week 2 to Week 6.
This is a big season for him, but it's going to be a rough start.
While the Bucs will win this game, the Jets defense will make it a lot closer than it really should be.
Freeman will struggle, so put the other half of your quarterback committee in your lineup.
Start: Robert Griffin III vs. Philadelphia Eagles
That sigh of relief you heard was the Washington Redskins (and millions of fantasy GMs) reacting to the news that Robert Griffin III is not just healthy but starting in Week 1, per John Keim of ESPN.com.
As mentioned in Pierre Garcon's slide, the Philadelphia Eagles defense is still a bit shaky, and Griffin should have as much success as Garcon, if not more.
The interesting thing here will be how Washington uses Griffin and how the quarterback changes the way he runs.
Head coach Mike Shanahan won't stop RG3 from scrambling and extending the play but might work harder to get Griffin in safer situations and perhaps use the read-option less.
Meanwhile, Griffin needs to realize that he has to slide or get out of bounds. Back at Baylor, Griffin didn't worry about getting hit because he was simply much faster than anyone on the field.
Not so in the NFL.
If Griffin doesn't take a little more interest in keeping his head on his shoulders, players will try very hard to put him back on injured reserve.
For Monday night, though, Griffin will put up impressive points in his first action since last year's playoffs.
Sit: Rashard Mendenhall vs. St. Louis Rams
According to Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, by way of Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, running back Rashard Mendenhall is ready to go Week 1.
He might be in the Cardinals lineup, but that doesn't mean he should be anywhere near yours.
Aside from the fact that you never like to hear a back talk about "looseness" in his knee, Mendenhall faces a really tough Rams run defense.
This preseason saw the Rams rank fifth against the run. While it's tough to get too enthused about preseason statistics, the addition of rookie Alec Ogletree and veteran Will Witherspoon to a defense that already has James Laurinaitis and Michael Brockers makes it tough to see a back getting many yards.
On the whole, the Rams defense is very good this year, and the Cardinals will have issues moving the ball, especially on the ground.
Start: DeSean Jackson vs. Washington Redskins
DeSean Jackson finds himself in a great spot to have a huge day against the Washington Redskins.
Jackson's seasons are often hit or miss because he tends to makes long catches or none at all (career average of 17.5 yards per catch, third-highest among active players, on just 274 receptions over five years). However, this year he is the main man in a passing offense that will want the ball in his hands as often as possible.
Jackson is phenomenal after the catch, and with Jeremy Maclin gone for the season, quarterback Michael Vick will look for Jackson all game long.
DeAngelo Hall is an OK cornerback but long past his prime, while Josh Wilson is coming off a pectoral injury and might take a week or two to get his feet under him.
They're going to have a hard time containing Jackson on Monday Night Football.
Sit: Ryan Mathews vs. Houston Texans
Fantasy GMs lose sleep wondering what week Ryan Mathews will go down with an injury—because he always does.
Owners tend to lose multiple games to a Mathews injury, so you hate to have a bad matchup early in the year when he's relatively healthy.
But here it is—the Houston Texans.
In other words, they are pretty consistently tough on the run.
Mathews showed this preseason that he's very talented, but this week he's not going to have much luck against one of the best run defenses in the league.
Start: Mike Wallace vs. Cleveland Browns
While I definitely don't like Ryan Tannehill in this game, he will do enough to make Mike Wallace a solid option.
Miami will have issues with Cleveland's pass rush, but Wallace is the biggest weapon on the Miami offense and will see enough targets to make him a viable starter. He's got a tall order when he's lined up against Joe Haden but should have plenty of success against Buster Skrine, Chris Owens and rookie Leon McFadden.
That group is less experienced and shorter than Wallace by two inches on average.
Wallace may not be enough to win the game for the Dolphins, but he's going to be more than enough for fantasy GMs.
Sit: Terrelle Pryor/Matt Flynn vs. Indianapolis Colts
At press time we don't know who will be starting quarterback for the Oakland Raiders against the Indianapolis Colts.
What we do know is that either one is in for a world of hurt.
The Raiders allowed 16 sacks this preseason, fifth-most in the league. Seven of those sacks were Matt Flynn, while four others were on Terrelle Pryor. Matt McGloin and Tyler Wilson (since cut) accounted for the last five.
The Colts, on the other hand, generated 13 sacks this preseason, sixth-most in the NFL.
Whoever ends up under center isn't exactly safe.
It's unlikely you were seriously considering starting either one in most redraft leagues, but you might be in a position of having to start one of those two guys in dynasty leagues.
Whatever reason you might have for even thinking about it, find someone else.
The Colts defense isn't a lockdown unit by any stretch, but it's solid enough to take advantage of two quarterbacks who seem to have real problems with accuracy and poise.
Start: Danny Amendola vs. Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills defense underperformed compared to their price tags in 2012 and will come out of the gate to prove they're better than they looked last season. Still, the Patriots have Tom Brady, and no defense is safe against him.
With no Welker and likely no Rob Gronkowski, Brady will look to Amendola a lot against a suspect Bills secondary.
Last season Welker saw 188 targets, according to Footballguys.com, which resulted in 118 catches, 1,354 yards and six touchdowns. While we can't assume Amendola automatically gets all those targets, he'll get a fair amount.
Even a smaller portion of the 11.8 targets Welker got a game could be huge for Amendola and make him especially effective in point-per-reception leagues.
Sit: Carson Palmer vs. St. Louis Rams
There will be times when Carson Palmer is almost a must-start.
This is not one of those times.
The St. Louis Rams pass rush is just too good and the Cardinals offensive line just too shaky. There was no depth even before rookie guard Jonathan Cooper was lost for the season with a broken leg.
Palmer is going to have his hands full against the Rams front seven as they pour through the offensive line and lay hits on him every chance they get. That'll make Palmer speed up his release and get careless, which will result in turnovers—which will cost you points.
Overall, I think Palmer will have a decent season (especially from a fantasy standpoint), but Week 1 is not the time to start him in your fantasy league.
Start: Jamaal Charles vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
There aren't going to be many better matchups than Jamaal Charles rolling up on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Charles should do really well in new head coach Andy Reid's offensive scheme, and Kansas City Star writer Sam Mellinger expects Charles to hit close to 300 carries.
They won't all come on Sunday, but he'll still see a ton of success for both the Chiefs and fantasy GMs.
Sit: DeAndre Hopkins vs. San Diego Chargers
Some might be scared off by the fact that DeAndre Hopkins hasn't cleared concussion protocol yet, though head coach Gary Kubiak told HoustonTexans.com writer Drew Dougherty that the rookie is close.
It's very possible Hopkins plays, and if the concussion isn't worrying you, you might wonder if he could see great fantasy points against a San Diego Chargers team that is shaky across the board.
The problem is that the secondary for the Chargers is actually pretty good. Free safety Eric Weddle is one of the best safeties in the NFL, and both Shareece Wright and Derek Cox are solid.
Rookie receivers have tough first years, and while Hopkins will have more success than failure this year, this first game is almost a trap game.
In addition, the Texans could run ahead on the scoreboard and then go to the ground game, leaving Hopkins and the pass game out in the cold.
Start: Michael Vick vs. Washington Redskins
Michael Vick may be the perfect fit for head coach Chip Kelly's uptempo offense, one that requires him to get the ball out quick, limiting the chance he'll get killed behind a transitioning offensive line and then fumble.
On top of that, it could wear down the Washington Redskins defense by not giving it a moment to catch its breath. A defense has its hands full against Vick to begin with; winded, it might not have a chance.
What does Vick add to the Kelly offense that the other quarterbacks don't?
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller broke down Kelly's offense this preseason and noted that Vick's dual-threat ability makes the Eagles offense more dynamic.
Miller pointed out that in the game he broke down, Vick and the offense isolate the defense's best player (in that case Vince Wilfork; in our case, perhaps London Fletcher) and counters him:
By reading Wilfork in the middle of the field, the Eagles are able to zone block on the strong side by asking the offensive linemen to step down and angle block. On the back side, Kelly does something unique by pulling the left guard and attacking the defensive end. He then shoots the left tackle upfield inside the pulling guard to get the crashing linebacker. Not only is this a tough read for the backside defenders, but it sets up nicely to run a counter to this side of the ball off an option fake.
That's just one example of what Kelly's read-option and up-tempo schemes, combined with Vick, can do to a defense.
We don't know how effective the new Eagles offense will be throughout the season, but this week it should allow Vick to put up great numbers and fantasy points.
Sit: Andy Dalton vs. Chicago Bears
Some NFL fans have already started shoveling dirt on the Chicago Bears defense now that Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher are gone, but don't join in.
While the defense might change and perhaps be a little less effective, the pieces are still there for it to be very good, in this case making life hard for quarterback Andy Dalton.
Both Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings will take turns blanketing A.J. Green (with some help from the safeties), and the front seven will put plenty of pressure on Dalton to not allow time for Green to break free.
Overall, it's a tough matchup for Dalton and one to avoid if you can.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at Footballguys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.