Rodgers, Brees find new weapons in season-opening shootout
Darren Sproles' presence has made the Saints defense a must-start fantasy unit
Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham may be fantasy's best TEs in future seasons
James Starks, Mark Ingram slated for more work than respective starting RBs
On Thursday night the NFL crafted the perfect four-hour apology to any fantasy fans still sore over the lockout. Faster than Chris Collinsworth can say "pitch and catch," the season got off to a bang -- lots of them. Kickoff was a fantasy air show for the ages as two top five QBs rang up points with all the ease of playing Madden 12 on rookie. Questions were answered, questions were raised and the one guy in everyone's league who suffered draft day derision for taking the Packers defense/special teams in the late single digit rounds just got the green light for talking trash on message boards everywhere.
"Randall Cobb, how do you do?" Verne Lundquist impressions aside, Green Bay's return game, coupled with an already-dangerous defense, makes for a great combo. Cobb may not move the free agent needle in many traditional leagues, but dynasty keeper leagues that might have left the Kentucky rookie overlooked on draft day should be buzzing for the next transaction night. With the wiggle of Az-Zahir Hakim and the burst of Steve Smith (of Panthers vintage, circa what's known as the good Jake Delhomme years), Cobb will be a big factor down the road despite playing a bit role at receiver right now.
Aaron Rodgers, hero: Over 300 yards and three scores may well be the average production that his fantasy owners can get accustomed to, as the Pack could be the Greatest Show On Dirt. Rodgers has the best supporting cast of pass receivers in the league, with tight end Jermichael Finley healthy and the mix of young emerging receivers (Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Cobb), one crafty old possession guy (Donald Driver) and one genuine star in Greg Jennings. Rodgers owners, get used to this.
Drew Brees, hero: It's a shame he didn't get to finish the rally he started (more on that later), but it's hard to ask for more on a 400-yard opening night. A good bit of his production came from playing catch-up, but despite lacking the human safety blanket known as Lance Moore, he hardly skipped a beat in the face of a ferocious Packers pass rush.
The Darren Sproles/Reggie Bush debate: Bush got more beat up on air than the robots in Hugh Jackman's next movie last night. At every turn it seemed there was another comparison. Sproles' impression of Bush included everything but an ill-timed injury on a routine play, a tainted legacy and another three inches of height. Whatever he may lack in the traditional tailback department, Sproles more than makes up for in pass catching and special teams. The jolt Sproles gives the return game bumps up the value of a middle of the road Saints defense/special teams into a must-start every week.
Jordy Nelson: There are a lot of fantasy mouths to feed in Green Bay, but Nelson looks like he's an every week flex-play in 12-team or larger leagues. In smaller leagues if he's out there, grab him and stash him.
Robert Meachem: Count me in the crowd that expects big things out of him this season. With a few of the other Saints receivers fighting injuries, Meachem has all the tools -- and showed a few of them on his highlight reel touchdown catch -- to take advantage and finally break through.
The tight end show: Finley and the Saints' Jimmy Graham might be the two most athletic tight ends in the league not named Vernon Davis or Antonio Gates. And in a year or two, they may be the top two at their position, fantasy-wise (unless the 49ers have Andrew Luck by then). Finley looked every bit as good as he did last year before his injury and Graham showed why he was everyone's favorite draft day sleeper.
Sean Payton, goat: Consider this one of the few non-fantasy rants you'll see here ... What's the best way to lose a shootout? Take the ball out of the hands of your best player. Not only should Saints fans, be annoyed, but Brees owners who enjoyed a windfall of stats were denied a chance for a fourth touchdown pass, let alone a two-point conversion throw or more stats, period, in overtime. With the way Brees was playing, anything was possible.
Devery Henderson, fantasy mirage: Henderson is a solid role player in real life, but a fantasy underachiever. Henderson has scored more than three touchdowns and had 800 yards or more only once in eight seasons. There's nothing to see here on waiver night, move along.
Despite the high-flying passing games, both ground attacks left us wanting more.
Part 1 Packers: James Starks had more carries than Ryan Grant (12 to 9), had more yards (57 to 40) and scored a touchdown on a 17-yard run. Post injury, Grant looks like just a guy while Starks has a lot more upside. When he likely wins the job full-time, he may only have to deal with the occasional John Kuhn goal-line vulture on his way to moving up to a solid, every-week RB3 or as a low end RB2. He's not there yet, but on his way.
Part 2 Saints: Well it's kind of settled, Mark Ingram looks like the official goal-line back. For now. Although he had a few short runs to move the chains, one wonders how long this might last after the goal-line stuff to end the game. Despite the Saints passing game forced to play catch-up, Ingram led all backs with 13 carries and 40 yards. Pierre Thomas clocked 31 yards on five, but got 21 on one amazing pinball effort, and nothing else. Ingram looks like the featured back with Thomas his only competition (Sproles' value lies only in pass receiving not as a threat to steal carries), but a full-on rotation will likely continue going forward.
Just call it a fantasy-pocalypse, Indianapolis style. Even those waiting until the last day before kickoff for their drafts weren't immune to the deal-breaking Peyton Manning news Thursday. For anyone who took Manning late as a strategy to stash him, the dream might be over. And with Manning out for months if not all of 2011, every other Colts player's value should be downgraded (though Dallas Clark is my pick to emerge with some value intact). Kerry Collins has always used his tight ends in the past whether with the Giants or Titans, which should help Clark. Reggie Wayne drops to a low-end WR3 and is still startable, albeit barely. Both Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon should be buried on the bench until further notice. At running back, Joseph Addai falls from a low-end RB3 flex start to a low RB4 bye fill-in (until his next regularly scheduled injury).
1. Can Michael Vick pick up where he left off despite a massive payday, an offensive line shuffle, Jeremy Maclin's preseason absence and a mountain of hype? My guess: yes.
2. Will a back emerge between middle-round draft day hopefuls Felix Jones and Shonn Greene? It's time for the potential of both to start being realized. I have more faith in Jones, but it's now or never with both.
3. Bradford, Stafford and Freeman --- can everyone's three top sleeper QBs get their start on justifying the preseason buzz? Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman go head to head and Sam Bradford debuts in Josh McDaniels' new offense. I think Bradford is a cut above both, but I love Stafford too.
4. How low can the Colts go? If the Texans batter them like Albert Pujols at a home run derby watch out, it might get uglier in Indianapolis than anyone could have thought. As a wise man once said, "Be afraid, be very afraid."