Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season is fast approaching, with two marquee NFC teams, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the visiting Green Bay Packers, kicking off Thursday.
There are plenty of fantasy implications from the get-go with those two prospective Lombardi Trophy contenders, who both have balanced, explosive offenses. But 30 other teams are to be accounted for, along with countless fantasy owners agonizing over decisions.
The first week of the regular season is always a particularly hard time to gauge and make fantasy decisions, because no immediate data exists to draw on other than the preseason exhibition games. Thus, it's wise to stick with the game's top performers who have the most favorable matchups above all else, especially at this juncture.
Let's take a look at some rankings for all the positions, with a focus on the fantasy stars who figure to shine brightest at the dawn of the new pro football campaign.
Note: All rankings are writer's opinion.
Highlighting Top Performers By Position
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
|1||Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos||vs. Indianapolis Colts|
|2||Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints||at Atlanta Falcons|
|3||Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions||vs. New York Giants|
|4||Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys||vs. San Francisco 49ers|
|5||Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers||at Arizona Cardinals|
|6||Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars|
|7||Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers||at Seattle Seahawks|
|8||Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears||vs. Buffalo Bills|
|9||Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers||at Dallas Cowboys|
|10||Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks||vs. Green Bay Packers|
The focus will be on Manning facing his old Indianapolis Colts, led by succeeding quarterback Andrew Luck.
Count yours truly as a non-drinker of the Colts Kool-Aid. They have had an inspiring, swift turnaround in winning 11 games in each of the past five seasons, but Luck is not an elite QB yet. He makes far too many careless throws and bad reads, something Indianapolis' defense isn't good enough to overcome.
Combine that with Manning's excellence and the absence of Colts pass-rusher Robert Mathis, and it's going to be a long night for Indianapolis on the road.
One factor that could count against Manning is the four-game suspension for slot receiver Wes Welker, as reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter. That won't matter when Demaryius Thomas is running circles around the Colts' secondary and when Manning is finding newcomer Emmanuel Sanders to keep the scoreboard well-lit.
Former NFL QB Warren Moon is confident in both Manning and Sanders, per The Washington Post's Mark Maske:
Emmanuel Sanders gives them the speed element that they really didn’t have so much last year. I think that helps them and it helps Peyton. They didn’t really have that dimension last year. If Peyton doesn’t have another major injury and they can take some of that wear and tear off of him, there’s no telling how long he can go. He’s not slowing down yet.
No matter who he threw to in the preseason, Manning appeared comfortable, per the NFL on ESPN:
Peyton Manning's 2014 preseason: -79.6 comp % -423 pass yards -3 TD -1 Int He's READY! pic.twitter.com/cKMlUr0YH2— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) August 30, 2014
There aren't enough pass-rushing threats or overall speed on Indianapolis' front seven to keep up with the up-tempo, no-huddle style the Broncos deploy. The defensive backfield for the Colts is also suspect. Vontae Davis and Greg Toler are a solid but not spectacular cornerback duo, certainly not good enough to shut Manning and Co. down.
Broncos tight end Julius Thomas is a year more experienced in the offense. Thomas will gash the Colts for big gains all evening as Denver cruises to a win at home, with Manning putting on another epic performance.
Peyton Manning Week 1 Projections: 30-of-40 passing for 420 yards, 4 TD
LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
|1||LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars|
|2||Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings||at St. Louis Rams|
|3||Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs||vs. Tennessee Titans|
|4||Matt Forte, Chicago Bears||vs. Buffalo Bills|
|5||Zac Stacy, St. Louis Rams||vs. Minnesota Vikings|
|6||Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks||vs. Green Bay Packers|
|7||Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers||vs. Cleveland Browns|
|8||DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys||vs. San Francisco 49ers|
|9||Montee Ball, Denver Broncos||vs. Indianapolis Colts|
|10||Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers||at Seattle Seahawks|
Playing host to the Jacksonville Jaguars may not be the cakewalk most fans would expect. The Jags look to be heading in the right direction under enthusiastic, defensive-minded head coach Gus Bradley.
Fortunately for Philly fans, Jacksonville is still rebuilding and doesn't quite have the personnel to match the Eagles just yet. That's good news for the fantasy owners who were lucky to snag McCoy near the top of their drafts.
Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk made quite the call for McCoy in 2014, per NFL Network:
With the open-field agility and breakaway speed McCoy possesses, he ought to be even more explosive in his second season playing within coach Chip Kelly's innovative, fast-paced, run-heavy attack.
Jacksonville added former Seahawks Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to the defensive line, yet it won't be enough to stymie the real Shady McCoy. QB Nick Foles can keep the Jags honest enough with his sharp decision-making, opening up enough space for McCoy to get to the second level and exploit the weaker parts of the opposing defense.
If the Jags had started rookie Blake Bortles, perhaps their offense would hold the ball for longer and prevent Philadelphia from gaining momentum. Chad Henne is the starter, though, so the offense will sputter, allowing the Eagles to dominate time of possession and give McCoy a ton of productive touches.
LeSean McCoy Week 1 Projections: 23 carries, 175 yards, 2 TD; 5 receptions, 45 yards
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
|1||Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys||vs. San Francisco 49ers|
|2||Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos||vs. Indianapolis Colts|
|3||Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions||vs. New York Giants|
|4||Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers||vs. Cleveland Browns|
|5||Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears||vs. Buffalo Bills|
|6||Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons||at New Orleans Saints|
|7||A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals||at Baltimore Ravens|
|8||Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers||at Seattle Seahawks|
|9||Victor Cruz, New York Giants||at Detroit Lions|
|10||Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks||vs. Green Bay Packers|
This seems like blasphemy since Bryant is facing a San Francisco 49ers defense that has been among the league's elite in the past few years. Just hear me out.
Bear in mind that NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith are missing from the Niners' linebacker corps. And that's not even mentioning that two of their best corners, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, now play for the Oakland Raiders.
All of this bodes well for Bryant and his quarterback, Tony Romo, whose meager Cowboys defense is bound to have struggles of its own facing San Francisco's power running game.
Pro Football Focus noted how productive Bryant was in preparing for the season:
Preseason WR leaders in Yards Per Route Run 1.AJ Green-5.11 2.Dez Bryant-5.06 3.Antonio Brown-4.02 4.Percy Harvin-3.68 5.Julian Edelman-3.47— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 2, 2014
The number of offensive plays Dallas is bound to get, thanks to this game morphing into a shootout, will lead to double-digit targets for Bryant. He can manhandle any cornerback the Niners try on him, and Romo will look his way early and often.
With the prospect of a new contract on the horizon, Bryant will want to make a strong impression against a reputable defense right out of the Week 1 gates. Based on what San Francisco's unit looks like now, the chances are great that Bryant will thrive.
Dez Bryant Week 1 Projections: 9 receptions, 160 yards, 2 TD
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
|1||Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints||at Atlanta Falcons|
|2||Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos||vs. Indianapolis Colts|
|3||Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers||at Arizona Cardinals|
|4||Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers||at Dallas Cowboys|
|5||Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys||vs. San Francisco 49ers|
|6||Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots||at Miami Dolphins|
|7||Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|8||Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens||vs. Cincinnati Bengals|
|9||Jordan Reed, Washington||at Houston Texans|
|10||Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns||at Pittsburgh Steelers|
Look for the Falcons to deploy three cornerbacks for most of the game in an effort to stop Graham. Just don't expect it to work out as planned.
Graham is a nightmare matchup for anyone, and Atlanta hasn't improved enough on defense to account for him. The Saints have a superstar QB in Drew Brees, a new weapon in rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and more playmakers where those come from.
New Orleans also wisely got Graham's contract extension out of the way this offseason, so both sides don't have to worry about a potential divorce now that the future is secured.
To get some perspective on what's expected from Graham this year, check out NFL.com expert Michael Fabiano's tweet regarding the Fantasy Sports Writers Association's draft:
Jimmy Graham went No. 2 overall in the @FSWA HOF draft.— Michael Fabiano (@Michael_Fabiano) August 26, 2014
The Falcons were 29th in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) last season, according to Football Outsiders. They are facing perhaps the most high-octane passing attack in the entire NFL without a drastic change or upgrade in personnel.
Graham's last start in Atlanta resulted in five catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. That was also his only 100-yard game in the second half of the 2013 regular season. Now that he's healthier and paid, Graham is going to have even bigger numbers in Sunday's trip to the Georgia Dome.
Jimmy Graham Week 1 Projections: 12 receptions, 150 yards, 2 TD
Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore Ravens
|1||Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens||vs. Cincinnati Bengals|
|2||Steven Hauschka, Seattle Seahawks||vs. Green Bay Packers|
|3||Shayne Graham, New Orleans Saints||at Atlanta Falcons|
|4||Dan Bailey, Dallas Cowboys||vs. San Francisco 49ers|
|5||Nick Novak, San Diego Chargers||at Arizona Cardinals|
|6||Phil Dawson, San Francisco 49ers||at Dallas Cowboys|
|7||Greg Zuerlein, St. Louis Rams||vs. Minnesota Vikings|
|8||Mason Crosby, Green Bay Packers||at Seattle Seahawks|
|9||Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots||at Miami Dolphins|
|10||Brandon McManus, Denver Broncos||vs. Indianapolis Colts|
Until the Ravens prove they can run the ball with Bernard Pierce as the clear feature back, the offense will rely solely on Joe Flacco.
The past Super Bowl MVP is coming off a down 2013 campaign and is new to play-caller Gary Kubiak's offense. Veteran Steve Smith and explosive speedster Torrey Smith, along with tight end Dennis Pitta, supply Flacco with the necessary weapons to bounce back.
But Baltimore is facing a stout Cincinnati defense that won't give ground easily and ranked in the top five last season against the run and the pass. Flacco will move the ball down the field. He just won't be able to get them into the end zone often, which is where Tucker comes in to clean up.
In the preseason finale, Tucker was in regular-season form, per ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley:
Busy night for #Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who has hit field goals from 36, 27, 45 and 32 yards.— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) August 29, 2014
This AFC North showdown at M&T Bank Stadium will be a hard-fought, physical battle, as one would expect from these divisional adversaries.
Whether Baltimore wins or not comes down to who has the ball last. Count on Tucker to have a big game regardless. Tucker nailed 38 of 41 attempts last season and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Justin Tucker Week 1 Projections: 2 extra points, 4/4 field goals
New England Patriots, D/ST
|1||New England Patriots||at Miami Dolphins|
|2||Seattle Seahawks||vs. Green Bay Packers|
|3||Denver Broncos||vs. Indianapolis Colts|
|4||Pittsburgh Steelers||vs. Cleveland Browns|
|5||Philadelphia Eagles||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars|
|6||St. Louis Rams||vs. Minnesota Vikings|
|7||Kansas City Chiefs||vs. Tennessee Titans|
|8||Cincinnati Bengals||at Baltimore Ravens|
|9||Arizona Cardinals||vs. San Diego Chargers|
|10||Carolina Panthers||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
For the first time since he began playing the quarterback position at Texas A&M, Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill is in a new offense.
Tannehill started as a receiver with the Aggies under coach Mike Sherman, who was his Miami offensive coordinator until his dismissal this offseason. Now the third-year NFL signal-caller is entering a crossroads year where the Dolphins will likely make a decision on whether Tannehill is the long-term answer.
Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey has a strong opinion on the burden Tannehill faces in 2014:
Week 1 is a nice test to prove Tannehill can live up to the hype. Facing off against a legendary counterpart in Tom Brady, Tannehill will have to bring it. Chances are he won't, though.
The preseason is tough to read, but the following anecdote from ESPNDallas.com's Tim McMahon appeared telling:
Miami might wanna locate panic button on that offense. Ryan Tannehill can't lead scoring drive vs. Dallas backups.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) August 24, 2014
This is the best New England's defense has looked in quite some time. Cornerback Darrelle Revis will lock up Dolphins wideout Mike Wallace, and Tannehill will be confused by the Pats' complex schemes.
Absent a proven running back to support him, Tannehill is destined for a tough season opener at home. Expect the boo birds to be out in bunches when all the Dolphins manage is a couple field goals and a garbage-time touchdown.
Now that defensive line anchor Vince Wilfork is back, along with tackling machine Jerod Mayo, that combination with the Revis addition will make New England a strong defense all year. Brady has deserved better on that side of the ball. Head coach Bill Belichick has finally delivered and is seemingly serious about a fourth Super Bowl for the formidable QB-coach combo.
New England Patriots D/ST Week 1 Projections: 13 points allowed, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 INT, 1 TD