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Start Kolb, Orton in Week 1

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Michael Harmon

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Crank up the metal music. Bust out those undersized NFL jerseys of players long retired, traded or released. Ponder the glory that is “The Autumn Wind.” (Go YouTube it.)

Football season has returned. I hope that your alma maters or adopted college teams (I don’t like that, but it’s reality) earned a victory in their respective openers. If not, perhaps the thought of the FOX NFL Sunday theme music or the bellowing of Hank Williams, Jr. will allow you to leave it in the past.

It’s time to start rolling into the NFL regular season. As always, I’m rolling through the Lineup Calls for each week to examine Heroes, Ninjas (I’ve killed the term “Sleeper”) and Flops.

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(Exclude Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers)

Week 1 Heroes:

Kevin Kolb vs. Carolina: The face of the Carolina defense, Jon Beason, has been beset by a foot injury (surgery) and is unlikely to take the field in Week 1. That’s a huge blow to absorb for Ron Rivera’s defense, though Dan Connor is capable of standing in as part of a strong linebacker corps. Still, I’m anticipating a big debut for Kolb in front of the home crowd.

Larry Fitzgerald will match up against veteran Chris Gamble, who has struggled in coverage this preseason. All-Name Team candidate Captain Munnerlyn will be tested on the other side by speed threats Andre Roberts and Early Doucet. I’m most intrigued to see how well Beanie Wells starts the game. With early success, Todd Heap will find a sea of green over the middle.

Matthew Stafford at Tampa Bay: Strike up the band and watch Matthew throw downfield. He’ll face pressure from the rising, youthful Tampa Bay defensive front, but there will be opportunities to make plays downfield. Say it with me. “You can’t stop Calvin Johnson, you …”

The league decided to hold off on any suspension of Aquib Talib, so the Tampa Bay secondary enters at full strength. Still, I’m looking for Stafford fanboys to get their fair share of drool on their fan club t-shirts as Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew make the Buccaneers pay for any efforts to hold down Johnson.

Kyle Orton vs. Oakland: Neckbeards unite! Now that the distraction of Tebow has been put aside for a while, Orton can get back to work. The Raiders lost their best defender (and best receiver, but that’s a tale for elsewhere), thereby opening opportunities for Brandon Lloyd to pick up where his 2010 breakthrough left off and for Eddie Royal and Eric Decker to do some damage.

Remember, those three-yard dumps to Knowshon Moreno have a huge payoff for Orton as well. He’s one of my favorite starts for the week.

Josh Freeman vs. Detroit: I don’t see the ceiling for Freeman being as high as most, but I do love this first matchup against the Detroit secondary (provided that he can don some type of invisibility garment to avoid Ndamukong Suh). The Detroit front will be challenged by LeGarrette Blount in the running game, and Freeman has ample options as his disposal downfield. Mike Williams draws most attention, but Dezmon Briscoe has made a name for himself in camp.

Matt Schaub vs. Indianapolis: I’m not buying that the insertion of Kerry Collins under center decimates the Indianapolis offense. While it won’t be as “pretty,” there’s still talent on the offense. As such, I’m still anticipating that Schaub and this Houston offense won’t be able to rest on its laurels.

Sure, he’s likely to watch Arian Foster and Ben Tate scamper into the end zone, but Schaub will test Wade Phillips’ revamped secondary. A healthy Owen Daniels changes the complexion of the attack.

Interestingly, Schaub has averaged only 227.8 yards with six touchdowns and 10 turnovers in five career games against Indianapolis. Boost those totals after Sunday’s tilt.

Lineup Calls

Need help with your fantasy lineup? Mike Harmon gives his advice for every position.

Matt Ryan at Chicago: The front-seven for Chicago is strong, and there’s potential for Julius Peppers to make Ryan’s visit to Chicago a difficult one. However, the secondary is still a work in progress, as evidenced by Chicago’s quick signing of Brandon Meriwether following his release by New England. Charles Tillman will do his best to slow Roddy White, but he’ll need safety support. Julio Jones will get tongues wagging in Week 1, and deep, deep ninja Harry Douglas has home run potential here.

Eli Manning at Washington: Manning’s preseason efforts certainly left a lot to be desired. The quasi-jump pass doesn’t look pretty going up and doesn’t hold much appeal when it’s hauled in by opponents. Still, Manning has two of the game’s top downfield options at his disposal in Nicks and Manningham and a potent two-headed running game.

He’s averaged 232 passing yards with five touchdowns and four turnovers in the past three years against Washington.

Mark Sanchez vs. Dallas: Rob Ryan figures to dial up some blitzes to get Sanchez’s head spinning, take some pressure off of the secondary and to slow down the vaunted New York run game. That’s the key. Ryan’s blitzes need to find their marks, or we’re looking at a long, long day in the secondary.

The arrival of Plaxico Burress changes the complexion of the red zone offense, as Sanchez now has three options capable of going up and over defenders. He’ll be inconsistent as a fantasy option overall, but Sanchez will rise up on occasion.

Sam Bradford vs. Philadelphia: I still wanted a No. 1 for Bradford, but I like the sum of the parts. Bradford relies on bulldozer Steven Jackson to get things moving and then works the heart of the Philadelphia defense while taking advantage of spaces created by their aggressive scheme. Lance Kendricks leaps onto the national radar in the opener.

Jay Cutler vs. Atlanta: Cutler looked fantastic in stretches this preseason despite the lack of production from Roy Williams, the presumed No. 1 receiver option. The biggest question facing Chicago is the same question that plagued them all of last season, right down to the NFC Championship Game. Can Mike Tice’s offensive line keep Cutler upright and stave off the pass rush from Ray Edwards and John Abraham?

This offensive line looks to have gelled earlier than last season’s iteration despite the loss of center Olin Kreutz. Oddsmakers have projected a 20-sack decrease from 2010, which certainly bodes well for the campaign.

Ninja Alerts

Ryan Fitzpatrick at Kansas City: Fitzpatrick leads the re-tooled Buffalo attack into Kansas City for the opener. Gone is longtime (and often forgotten) deep threat Lee Evans, thereby creating a slot for a second receiver to rise alongside 2010 breakthrough hero Stevie Johnson. I’m intrigued to watch the second year of Chan Gailey’s tenure with C.J. Spiller taking on an expanded role alongside Fred Jackson.

I like the Kansas City defense, so I’m not calling for a huge fireworks display and high-scoring contest. However, Fitzpatrick offers 225-yard, two-touchdown potential.

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Matt Hasselbeck at Jacksonville: It’s not a pretty offense on paper, but the return of Chris Johnson to the field has me optimistic that Hasselbeck will find one-on-one opportunities to exploit against the questionable Jacksonville secondary. We know of Kenny Britt’s long-ball heroics, but tight end Jared Cook is ready to take a huge step forward. The attention afforded Johnson will create space down the middle. He’s going to get the ball, and he’s going to score.

Rex Grossman vs. New York Giants: Grossman was named the starter for the opener and I immediately planted him into the “Ninja” section. The New York defense has been decimated by injuries during the preseason slate, and Grossman has enough of what I’m calling “the Ryan Fitzpatrick” factor to pop onto the radar as a QB2 play. Grossman will take his shots downfield with Santana Moss and Anthony Armstrong, and the addition of Jabar Gaffney gives the squad a solid possession option.

The “Good Rex, Bad Rex” history is well-documented, but here’s a shot for Grossman to come out gunning in the opener. Hang a star on Fantasy Man-Crush candidate Fred Davis with Chris Cooley ailing.

Chad Henne vs. New England: I’m not going to be so bold as to call for the upset in Week 1. I will project that Henne is forced to throw the ball with regularity as the Dolphins attempt to keep pace with Tom Brady’s offense. Henne passed for 305 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions in Week 4 of the 2010 season against New England. He’d actually played well early before the New England special teams took over.

Colt McCoy vs. Cincinnati: Those who haven’t hitched themselves to the Matthew Stafford bandwagon have busied themselves by designing Colt McCoy tattoos. You have to pick some up and coming quarterback to fawn over, don’t you?

McCoy is afforded the luxury of opening the season against a Cincinnati team that is already experiencing an identity crisis. He’s got a rock-solid, pass-catching running back in Peyton Hillis and two strong tight end contributors in Ben Watson and red zone “Ninja” Evan Moore.

Flop Alerts

Michael Vick at St. Louis: Why not start the 2011 season with a bang and get the vitriolic emails flowing? I can already hear the Philly accents as proud Eagles fans type out the adoration of their electrifying quarterback.

I don’t doubt that the Eagles make a few big plays offensively and that the quick-strike attack doesn’t pay off altogether. I’m merely noting that I believe the St. Louis defense is an underrated unit that will be up to the task and will generate plays of its own. The Rams produced 43 sacks and 34 turnovers last season while ranking 12th in total defense (20.5 points per game).

I can see James Laurinaitis channeling his father’s history for a patented flying shoulder tackle in the open field now.

Tony Romo at New York Jets: Romo returns to a loaded offense, with sophomore receiver Dez Bryant is slated to take his place in his high-flying offense alongside Miles Austin and Jason Witten. Does it translate into big-time Week 1 production? It won’t necessarily, but I don’t think many owners will opt out of a Romo start in the opener. This is merely a cautionary tale for Romo owners in the battle of brothers Ryan. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will be up to the task in the secondary. Revis (hip) and Austin (hamstring) are ailing a bit coming into the opener, thereby making the pending matchup between Cromartie and Bryant a marquee event.

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New York generated 40 sacks in 2010 and ranked sixth in total defense at 19 points allowed per game. It should be noted that the vaunted defense allowed 1.5 passing touchdowns per contest.

Joe Flacco vs. Pittsburgh: Flacco has had a strong start to his career in Baltimore, but the “Will he ever beat Pittsburgh?” tag remains. I loved the addition of Lee Evans to the offense (long-term ninja), but the opener is not a place to jump onboard the Flacco bandwagon. He’s averaged 201 passing yards and one touchdown in his seven-game career against Pittsburgh with 13 turnovers.

Ben Roethlisberger at Baltimore: The epic divisional battle resumes in Week 1. Roethlisberger defeated the Ravens in the AFC Playoffs with a 226-yard, two-touchdown (one lost fumble) effort in 2010.

As much as I love the myriad speed options working downfield for Roethlisberger in 2011, this is not a huge spot for him. He’s averaged 210 passing yards with 16 touchdowns and 13 turnovers in 10 career regular season games against Baltimore. Five of those touchdown passes came in a single game. I’m high on the Pittsburgh offense overall, but I need some prodding for Week 1.

Matt Cassel vs. Buffalo: For those that missed it, early inefficiency in the preseason forced Cassel and his offense onto the field for the fourth exhibition game. It was costly. Tight end Tony Moeaki was lost for the year with an ACL tear and Cassel left because of a shoulder injury and bruised ribs.

Cassel will likely give us our first “flak jacket” appearance of the 2011 season against the Bills. I’m intrigued by the squad long-term given the upgrades at receiver, though the Moeaki loss is crushing, and you know of my Man-Crush on Charles. I can’t dismiss the team’s preseason woes, injuries across the receiver position (Breaston and Baldwin) and the apparent disconnect at work with new coordinator Bill Muir.

He passed for 152 yards (14-of-26) with a touchdown and three sacks against Buffalo in 2010.

Wild Card

Cam Newton at Arizona: We saw flashes of potential out of Newton in the preseason. However, this is a team clearly in rebuilding mode, and Ron Rivera was left with no choice but to throw Newton into the fire. I’ll let you ponder the merits of Jimmy Clausen or Derek Anderson on your own time.

We love the running game with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and Steve Smith is healthy enough to get onto the field. The key to the offense lies in Newton’s ability to track and connect with his tight ends, particularly Greg Olsen, who must feel a freedom in Rob Chudzinski’s offense that he’s never known.

And, if all else fails, he can run. Oh, how he can run. There’s the wild card in the equation. I don’t anticipate a huge passing day from Newton (175-200), but the potential of 50-60 rushing yards is certainly appealing.

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