Making the Call on Week 1's Toughest Fantasy Lineup Decisions

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2014

Making the Call on Week 1's Toughest Fantasy Lineup Decisions

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    Marshawn Lynch got the fantasy football fireworks started on Thursday night with his big two-touchdown performance as the Seattle Seahawks throttled the Green Bay Packers. 

    That was just enough to whet the appetites of fantasy football owners everywhere. The real fun begins on Sunday, and there is already plenty of consternation about fantasy lineups across the land.

    Here is advice on some of this week's tougher lineup decisions based on any combination of injury concerns, matchups or simply talent.

Start: Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Player: Jay Cutler

    Opponent: vs. Buffalo Bills

    The Chicago Bears are getting a tasty matchup in Week 1 when the Buffalo Bills come to town, particularly for fantasy purposes.

    Buffalo does possess a strong pass rush, but the secondary has taken a hit with the departure of safety Jairus Byrd. 

    More importantly, Cutler has a vast arsenal at his disposal to proclaim aerial superiority over the intruders. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery may just be the baddest pair of receivers in the land, and Martellus Bennett is a fine pass-catching tight end. In addition, Matt Forte is a dynamic option out of the backfield.

    Fantasy Prediction: 21-of-32, 265 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT; 10 rushing yards, 0 rushing TD

    Final Verdict: Cutler's arsenal is unrivaled in the NFL. He almost can't fail. Unless Bad Jay Cutler shows up.

Sit: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    MIKE MCCARN/Associated Press

    Player: Cam Newton

    Opponent: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

    Ankle surgery kept quarterback Cam Newton out for most of the offseason. He was obviously rusty when he finally got into preseason work—particularly noticeable because his practice time with an entirely new wide receiver corps was stunted—only to be knocked out early with fractured ribs.

    His sore ribs are threatening to keep Newton out of his Week 1 tilt with the division foe Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He only practiced for the first time on Thursday, in limited fashion, and it may be too little, too late to trust him.

    Head coach Ron Rivera was cautiously optimistic Newton would start on Sunday, but the quarterback is heading into the weekend as a game-time decision. Given he plays in a late afternoon game, that status should almost automatically disqualify him from your starting lineup.

    Why risk a big fat zero at quarterback if you have a viable alternative?

    Even if you are convinced he will start, his outlook is bleak for Week 1. The Buccaneers have a good defense—at least on paper after a strong offseason—and they are at home. To throw more dirt on his Week 1 grave, the over-under for the game is 39, an ugly number for fantasy scoring hopes.

    Not to mention he is coming back from cracked ribs, which could mean far less running than we are used to seeing from Newton.

    Unless you are stuck with EJ Manuel or Derek Carr as a backup—bottom-of-the-barrel guys—it's much safer to start someone else.

    Fantasy Prediction: 20-of-33, 230 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 25 rushing yards, 0 rushing TD 

    Final Verdict: Newton looked shaky throughout the preseason, and he may not even play this week because of injury. Steer clear from him if you can.

Start: Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Player: Frank Gore

    Opponent: at Dallas Cowboys

    All this talk about this possibly being Frank Gore's final season (subscription required)—at least in San Francisco, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch—is sad. But he's not dead in the fantasy realm yet, not by a long shot.

    Last we checked, Gore is the starting running back for the San Francisco 49ers. This is a team that should still pound the rock under head coach Jim Harbaugh, and Gore will have the majority of the workload when he is healthy.

    Yes, even with rookie Carlos Hyde impressing, there is no reason to think Gore won't own a majority share of the touches out of that backfield. That makes him a valuable fantasy commodity yet, even at his advanced running back age of 31 years.

    Of course, the biggest reason for Gore's likely success this weekend is his matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. They looked awful on defense throughout the preseason and wound up being the worst run defense in the league.

    It was just preseason, but there is little reason to believe the Cowboys aren't who we think they are. Gore is in for a nice day. The 49ers are favored on the road, which means plenty of rushing attempts to go around should they leap to a lead.

    Fantasy Prediction: 23 attempts, 105 yards, 1 TD; 3 receptions, 25 yards, 0 TD

    Final Verdict: A terrible run defense means a fantastic day is in store for Gore.

Flex Only: Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Player: Toby Gerhart

    Opponent: at Philadelphia Eagles

    The Jacksonville Jaguars moved on from stalwart running back Maurice Jones-Drew this past offseason. Their replacement was career backup Toby Gerhart, who showed flashes of promise behind Adrian Peterson in Minnesota but doesn't exude much upside.

    Gerhart is in for some nice fantasy production this season, but he is barely worth starting this Sunday.

    That's because the Jaguars head up to Philadelphia to face the vaunted Eagles, who are 11-point favorites. Jacksonville is liable to fall behind early if expectations come true. Falling behind means more of quarterback Chad Henne and less Gerhart and that running game, at least if the Jaguars are trying to catch up.

    He should have enough work to be a viable flex in standard leagues, but starting Gerhart may not be worth the trouble if you have comparable options.

    Fantasy Prediction: 18 attempts, 75 yards, 0 TD; 2 receptions, 15 yards, 0 TD

    Final Verdict: Only put him in your lineup if you're desperate for a flex option.

Sit: Mike Wallace, WR, Miami Dolphins

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Player: Mike Wallace

    Opponent: vs. New England Patriots

    Darrelle Revis is coming to town. It might be a good idea to bench Mike Wallace.

    Granted, there is no guarantee Revis will stick with Wallace—he may cover tight end Charles Clay, as posited by the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe—but that doesn't mean a strong-on-paper New England defense won't have its attention on the speedy receiver.

    Wallace and quarterback Ryan Tannehill still haven't quite developed the chemistry that Miami has hoped for, particularly on deep passes. Against a strong pass rush and secondary, Tannehill could struggle all around. That means trouble for Wallace's fantasy value this weekend.

    Chances are Wallace has a tough game in his 2014 debut.

    Fantasy Prediction: 4 receptions, 50 yards, 0 TD

    Final Verdict: Darrelle Revis. 'Nuff said.

Flex Only: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Player: Kelvin Benjamin

    Opponent: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    While Cam Newton may not be 100 percent heading into Week 1, his No. 1 receiver is just fine.

    Kelvin Benjamin did tweak a knee during the preseason, but he has been solid for the most part since the Panthers drafted him. More importantly, he has looked every bit the part of a first-round pick, something that was certainly not a consensus back in May.

    Of course, that doesn't mean he will have a huge game right out of the gate. 

    The rookie will get a real test going up against cornerback Alterraun Verner and that Tampa Bay defense on Sunday afternoon. Even worse, he may not have his starting quarterback, Newton.

    If Newton does wind up sitting, Benjamin's fantasy stock will drop. But even without Newton, who would Derek Anderson throw to? If the Panthers fall behind early or big, Benjamin should see even more targets.

    Fantasy Prediction: 6 receptions, 85 yards, 0 TD

    Final Verdict: Opportunity should lead to a decent debut, and Benjamin could make it a great one if he scores a touchdown.

Start: Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Player: Rob Gronkowski

    Opponent: at Miami Dolphins

    If you drafted tight end Rob Gronkowski, you are expecting big things from the tight end. That's because you likely had to spend a second- or third-round pick on the monstrous pass-catcher.

    It was a bit of a risk, given Gronkowski was still recovering from a torn ACL last season. He hasn't played all preseason, and the beginning of his 2014 campaign was in doubt. 

    It's been a bit of a roller coaster, and we're still not sure where we will end up. Gronkowksi declared he would play in Week 1 only to have head coach Bill Belichick pull back on the reins a bit, saying nothing was certain, per The Washington Post's Cindy Boren. 

    Indeed, if he is declared inactive, fantasy owners everywhere will throw their hands up in despair.

    Fortunately, the Patriots have an early game in Miami against the Dolphins, so you will be able to pull him from your lineup should he be inactive. 

    If he does play, however, you must put him in your lineup. Even if he is limited, Gronkowski will be a big-time target for Tom Brady when he is on the field, particularly in the red zone. Even just 20 or 30 snaps will be valuable.

    Fantasy Prediction: 4 receptions, 50 yards, 1 TD

    Final Verdict: Start him if he starts; bench him if he's not cleared.

Sit: Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Player: Travis Kelce

    Opponent: vs. Tennessee Titans

    Travis Kelce is going to do big things for the Kansas City Chiefs—just not early this season.

    The second-year tight end out of Cincinnati was lost to injury in his rookie season and only recently came back from microfracture surgery. He looked rather spry in the preseason, scoring on two long touchdowns and creating some hype in the process.

    The problem? Kelce isn't the starting tight end in Kansas City—that would be Anthony Fasano. 

    Now, that doesn't necessarily preclude Kelce from putting up a big game—we did just talk about Rob Gronkowski having an impact on limited snaps, after all—but to put your eggs in a basket with a still-unproven commodity is a much bigger gamble.

    Also, it almost goes without mentioning that quarterback Alex Smith is no Tom Brady, and the Kansas City Chiefs don't run a balefire offense.

    Kelce is just as likely to give you a big fat goose egg as he is to go off for 15-plus fantasy points. Unless your other options are pathetic, it's better to play things safe with the second-year tight end.

    Fantasy Prediction: 2 receptions, 30 yards, 0 TD

    Final Verdict: The unproven second-year tight end is simply not worth the risk this early.

Flex Only: Bernard Pierce, RB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Player: Bernard Pierce

    Opponent: vs. Cincinnati Bengals

    Running back Ray Rice was suspended for the first two games, which created a nice opportunity for backup Bernard Pierce to score some fantasy points and, perhaps, prove he should be the man in Baltimore in the process.

    Pierce gets a tough matchup in Week 1 when Geno Atkins and the Cincinnati Bengals come to town. The big defensive tackle is back from injury, bolstering a tough defensive front that could make things difficult for Pierce.

    Fortunately, Pierce is going to be able to overcome tough sledding to post up a decent fantasy score by virtue of volume. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro did lead the league in rushing during the preseason. Though it was only preseason, the rookie may have earned a few more early touches, potentially hurting Pierce's fantasy output in the process.

    Then there is the concussion Pierce suffered near the end of the preseason, for which he was cleared this week. Hopefully, there are no lingering effects and Pierce doesn't re-injure himself.

    Despite all that, it's difficult to see Pierce being terribly limited by a rookie. He should get 20-plus touches if all goes well for the Ravens, which is good enough to get him in your lineup as a flex unless you have obviously better options.

    Fantasy Prediction: 19 attempts, 80 yards, 0 TD; 3 receptions, 35 yards, 0 TD

    Final Verdict: Pierce is a worthwhile option, particularly in standard leagues. 

Start: Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts

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    Sam Riche/Associated Press

    Player: Reggie Wayne

    Opponent: at Denver Broncos

    Old man Reggie Wayne may not be in his prime, but he still has plenty of fantasy value left in the tank.

    The 35-year-old will be back this week, returning from a torn ACL he suffered early last season. While it's a bit risky to expect Wayne to have a huge game, he should be starting and a full participant.

    That is no guarantee of production, but he will get plenty of opportunities to score fantasy points this Sunday night. That's because the Indianapolis Colts face the Denver Broncos on the road. It has the makings of a spectacular fireworks show led by quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning.

    The over-under in the game is 55 points, and the Colts are six-point underdogs. A high-scoring game featuring a ton of passing sounds like a delectable fantasy dinner. Wayne will provide one of the main courses.

    Wayne has been Luck's favorite target when healthy, and he should resume that role this weekend.

    Fantasy Prediction: 7 receptions, 95 yards, 1 TD

    Final Verdict: Start Wayne with confidence of a shootout looming at the O.K. Corral in Denver.


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