Week 1 watch list: Colts supporting cast faces test without Manning
Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark are the only safe starts for the Colts in Week 1
Chris Johnson may be used sparingly in opener after recent return from holdout
LaDainian Tomlinson could again steal goal-line carries from Shonn Greene
Game 1 of the 2011 season confirmed just how good Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are. Now we must assess how much damage can Peyton Manning's replacement do?
Elite quarterbacks create great sleepers for fantasy owners. Devery Henderson, Jordy Nelson, Robert Meachem and Jimmy Graham were productive enough in the opening night's aerial display -- exceeding expectations -- to consider them viable regular starters for fantasy owners and replacements if you lost value in a Colts receiver after the latest Manning news.
Rodgers made a mess of a secondary that allowed an NFL-low 13 TD passes last season. Heck, he was on pace for that many before the end of the first quarter. The Saints allowed the fewest fantasy points to QBs and WRs last season, but Rodgers changed that in a hurry.
Now we should all be watching what Manning replacement Kerry Collins can do against the completely opposite kind of secondary. The Colts face the Texans as Manning recovers. The Texans secondary gave up the most fantasy points to QBs and second-most points to WRs last season.
This doesn't mean you should go out and start Collins this week. But giving the rusty and out-of-date Collins easily the best matchup possible will certainly help us make sense of what we might expect from Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon and Delone Carter.
With a healthy Manning under center, all of them would be active against the sieve-like Texans. With Collins coming out of retirement with just a few short weeks to get ready, only Wayne and Clark look like decent starts among receivers. You probably should figure it will be a busy week for Addai and Carter, though. The game tops this weekend's fantasy watch list.
Arian Foster (hamstring) was one of the most critical decisions early-round drafters had to make. Was he a flash in the pan, or is he a legit year-to-year fantasy star? The reality is he is probably somewhere in the middle. Now he will be a Week 1 game-time decision. You have to start him if he plays, but he could play a series or two and give way to Derrick Ward and Ben Tate. Ward might start if Foster doesn't go, but Tate figures to be the more productive of the backs.
Buried under all the passing yards and defensive back jock straps strewed across Lambeau Field on Thursday night was the fact that some starting backs were less intriguing in fantasy than their backups. James Starks outperformed Ryan Grant, and Mark Ingram was featured more than than Pierre Thomas. Heck, both backups received more touches than the starters.
Here are the other running back tandems we need to re-evaluate closely in Week 1, starting with the top of the rankings down:
1. Chris Johnson vs. Javon Ringer
Johnson should be active in all leagues, especially against the Jags' suspect defense (fourth-worst against fantasy RBs last season), but his holdout makes his playing time out of the gate a bit precarious. Ringer could get more early looks this week than he usually does, and if the Titans hit stride under new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, Ringer and rookie Jamie Harper could mop up late.
2. Jamaal Charles vs. Thomas Jones
Speaking of a backup RB outperforming the actual starter, Charles is the poster boy for this. It is easy to forget Jones is the starter -- unless you're a Charles owner and continually pull your hair out every time head coach Todd Haley gives Jones more touches. Both of these backs should be plenty productive against the Bills run defense. The Bills were even worse than the Jags against fantasy RBs last season (third-worst).
3. Peyton Hillis vs. Montario Hardesty
Hillis won't be touched by Hardesty in terms of touches or fantasy production, but like the Texans' Tate, it will be interesting to see exactly what Hardesty has for fantasy owners coming off his season-ending injury in his rookie year. The Bengals are going to be a bad team, and the Browns should have plenty of clock-killing drives to give us looks at Hardesty in regular-season play. Hillis' punishing running style makes him susceptible to injury. We have seen other Tennessee Vols products (uh, Foster, hello!) emerge as a significant fantasy star in Week 1 (a year ago). Hardesty is just a year younger than Foster; might he follow in the same footsteps?
4. Shonn Greene vs. LaDainian Tomlinson
The Jets vow to allow the starter Greene to tote the load over the future Hall of Famer this year. We thought it would happen last year, too. It didn't until the postseason. Greene should put the aged Tomlinson in his rear-view mirror in terms of touches and yards, but questions remain about who is going to get the majority of the touchdowns. The Jets figure to have a methodical, ball-control offense that will render a lot of short scores. L.T. famously has a Marcus Allen-like nose for the end zone. Greene losing the potential for 10-plus scores is going to really tick off fantasy owners again. We should get a sense of how this will play out against the Cowboys.
5. Ryan Mathews vs. Mike Tolbert
Mathews is the game-breaker. Tolbert is the bowling ball. The question is will Tolbert roll out of the way to allow Mathews to star for fantasy owners? The Vikings used to have an elite run defense, but defections and suspensions will hamper it some. Mathews could be busy this week, but it will be his use in the passing game that will dictate his fantasy potential. We already know Tolbert is going to be the short-yardage, touchdown vulture. Mathews is one of the breakouts to watch.
6. DeAngelo Williams vs. Jonathan Stewart
Stewart enters the season a bit more banged up among the pair of always-banged-up Panthers backs. It will be interesting to watch these two work against the Cardinals, who were second-worst to the Broncos in fantasy points allowed to RBs last year. The fact No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton will be making his NFL debut certainly makes it likely the Panthers are going to lean heavily on the running game. Is there enough talent around Williams and Stewart to make both viable fantasy starters? This week, yes. But will Newton have enough juice to make them viable in even a slightly tougher matchup going forward?
7. Knowshon Moreno vs. Willis McGahee
The Broncos wanted the Panthers' Williams in free agency, which should be construed as a vote of no-confidence for Moreno. Denver settled on McGahee to be the short-yardage and goal-line guy. The Raiders were ninth-worst in fantasy against RBs last season, so we should get a good gauge of whether it will be a make or break year for Moreno. Even on a mediocre Broncos team, we have to figure Moreno is going to be more make than break.
8. Joseph Addai vs. Delone Carter
Carter, a rookie out of Syracuse, beat out Donald Brown as Addai's backup. That is significant not only because Manning is no longer there to point the play-calling to frequent passes, but Addai is like the Packers' Grant in that he is aged and coming off a significant season-ending injury. Addai could be a sleeper, or he could be a bust. The latter will make Carter a rookie of the year candidate. The Colts need to play the game a little more traditionally by running the ball and maintaining possession. It won't be a Manning track meet anymore.
9. Reggie Bush vs. Daniel Thomas, err, Larry Johnson
Thomas was supposed to push the Saints' Ingram as the best rookie to have in fantasy. Instead, he is banged up and helped L.J. get a job again. Bush won't do the grunt work in the Dolphins attack, but he could be a significant piece otherwise, especially in the passing game. A full healthy season from Bush -- good luck with that -- could make him a fantasy factor finally. That's a lot of Fs, which is the consonant that used to be on the tip of the tongue of Bush's past fantasy owners.
10. Fred Jackson vs. C.J. Spiller
Spiller was given an opportunity to take the reins from Jackson this preseason, but to no avail. No one should be excited by either player because of the Bills' suspect offensive line, but at least Spiller could have some breakaway potential. He hasn't shown any of that to date. Maybe this first week will help us just completely forget about him in fantasy.
If the Browns spank the Bengals and Andy Dalton looks unfit to be a starter would the Bengals try to lure back Carson Palmer? Palmer is better than almost half of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL right now. It might be time to stash him in real deep leagues -- just in case a Dalton disaster happens in Week 1.
The Eagles-Rams game will be intriguing. Josh McDaniels could make Sam Bradford a star, but can that happen in Week 1 against a secondary that features Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie? Conversely, is Michael Vick going to be productive with little preseason work with his receivers? DeSean Jackson was a holdout, Jeremy Maclin had an illness and Steve Smith (surprisingly ready to go) is coming off microfracture surgery. This will be an interesting one to evaluate.
Can the Bears protect Jay Cutler enough to make Roy Williams, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester or Earl Bennett viable in fantasy? Cutler is a gunslinger who is going to make someone productive, especially if he turns the ball over and the Bears fall behind.
Who is going to be the better QB in the Lions-Bucs game? Josh Freeman was a fantasy star a year ago. Matthew Stafford has yet to become one. We figure we are going to see Stafford step forward and Freeman step back here.
Is Eli Manning going to kick his bad mojo from the preseason and be the 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown passer he was a season ago? If he cannot beat the Redskins, it could be a long year for Eli and the Giants.
Are the Cowboys going to make a revival? It will be next to impossible against the Jets, but a victory here will take a great performance by the fantasy stars on offense. Look out for Cowboys in fantasy if they can win this one.
Can Tom Brady finally excel in Miami, where he notoriously struggles, and be the No. 1 QB for fantasy this writer called him this season? It sure will look bad if Brady has another South Florida stinker days after Rodgers and Brees put on a show.
If that was the best secondary in the NFL/fantasy, Rodgers is in for some sort of year. It is not just Rodgers' talent, but also his supporting cast's. Finley proved healthy and Nelson looks like he could be a burgeoning star. He really distanced himself over the aging Donald Driver and almost-invisible James Jones.
Devery Henderson always tends to be overlooked, and we're guilty of it here, too. Marques Colston is the primary target and Meachem has the talent, but Henderson outperformed both Thursday night. Brees is so good, all three could be productive fantasy options on a regular basis.
Starks didn't start and didn't play in the first two series, but he had the most important carries and the best looks in the red zone. The Packers rotate series, for the most part, and not play-to-play with Grant.
Ingram is like Starks in that he is the backup, but he got the bulk of the duty over starter Pierre Thomas. This should be more expected. Ingram is going to be much better against a non-elite run defense like Packers have (Thomas, too).
Graham's breakthrough season got off to a great start. He looks like he is going to be a very significant part of Brees' attack. He is an every week starting TE candidate now.
What we got right: RB Starks, WR Jones, WR Driver, RB Ingram, RB Thomas.
What we missed: RB Grant, WR Henderson, WR Nelson, WR Meachem.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com, including the Start 'em, Sit 'em, the Watch List and his Sunday night staple Fantasy Football Fast Forward. If you need a further clarification on lineups this week hit him up on Twitter. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy.
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