It takes one slip from a defensive back on a terrible field (pick one – say, Soldier Field, for instance) to turn a rough day for a receiver into a highlight package. We pick apart matchups and try to find those sweet spots. We agonize over whether to start a longtime hero despite a difficult matchup or to move to the sexy, emerging secondary option on a lesser team.
Ultimately, wide receiver evaluations come down to target counts and red zone opportunities as we work through the season. Each week, I’ll be analyzing trends in target distribution to provide you with support in making your Lineup Calls.
Let’s get started with one of the marquee matchups of Week 1.
Exclude: Roddy White, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace, Reggie Wayne, Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams (TB), Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings
Heroes Week 1
Santonio Holmes vs. Dallas: Holmes returned from his four-game suspension in 2010 and immediately became Mark Sanchez’s top target. He averaged nearly eight targets per game and will undoubtedly test the Dallas secondary early on Sunday night. The Cowboys were beaten downfield regularly in 2010. If Rob Ryan sells out to get after Sanchez, he’ll pay for it in one-on-one coverage against Holmes.
Mario Manningham at Washington: Welcome aboard the bandwagon I built in 2010. Manningham emerged as a premiere deep threat working opposite Hakeem Nicks and will take on a larger role in Steve Smith’s absence. The Redskins will need to contend with the two-headed monster in the backfield, thereby affording Eli Manning shots downfield. Manningham will draw former Seahawks and Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson.
Santana Moss vs. New York Giants: Moss quietly posted a fantastic season for the terrible 2010 iteration of the Redskins. He’s back for another run against a banged-up New York secondary and will have his opportunities downfield, provided that Rex Grossman can avoid a heavy pass rush. In 13 games against New York in his career, he’s averaged 67 receiving yards with eight touchdowns.
Stevie Johnson at Kansas City: Johnson broke through in a big way during the 2010 season and made a name for himself with the famous “Why So Serious?” game against the Bengals. Sure, his production fell off markedly following that game, but I like the bravado.
Johnson heads a revamped receiving corps, and I believe that the arrival of Brad Smith and the continued growth of Roscoe Parrish and Donald Jones in the offense will aid Ryan Fitzpatrick and create space for Johnson. Fitzpatrick has no fear of pushing the ball downfield, and Johnson will fight for the ball against Brandon Flowers.
Brandon Lloyd vs. Oakland: Lloyd has been dealing with a knee issue during camp, but he won’t have to contend with Nnamdi Asomugha on Monday night. Fans and fantasy owners (myself included) recognize that a repeat of Lloyd’s 2010 season is probably not in the offing, but this is a tremendous spot out of the gate against a suspect secondary. If Kyle Orton gets time to throw, the John Fox era will open with a big performance.
Lloyd was limited to a single catch (46 yards) in the first meeting with Oakland last season. He caught four passes for 79 yards and a touchdown in the second game.
Brandon Marshall vs. New England: So, you don’t like Chad Henne under center. It doesn’t matter. The Patriots will score points (the favorite to lead the league according to the experts), thereby forcing Henne to go to work downfield. Marshall averaged 10.4 targets per game in 2010, and we can reasonably expect Henne to force the ball in his direction. McCourty will get one going the other way, but Marshall has an eight-catch day on tap.
Wes Welker at Miami: As you’d expect, we have no information about Welker’s neck injury coming into Week 1. But, unless we hear differently, we’ll just assume that Welker takes his customary slot for Brady and the New England offense.
Brady will obviously spread the ball around, but Welker remains a PPR hero of this offense (12 games with at least four receptions in 2010). You love the Miami corners, but Welker gets lost in space over the middle and will make his grabs. He caught eight passes in the first meeting between these teams in 2010, a game that was played tight until the Patriots’ special teams stole the day.
DeSean Jackson at St. Louis: Jackson is a premiere speed option downfield, but he’s a player who can tear your heart out with near-misses on deep balls. Remember, Jackson amassed 75% of his yardage total in six games last year. He’s not a huge PPR option (63 is his career high), but look for Vick to try and make good on his “you can’t stop me” comments immediately.
Steve Smith (CAR) at Arizona: Play him while he’s healthy. Seriously, Smith remains a tremendous playmaker when healthy, and I suspect that the Panthers try to establish a connection with Cam Newton quickly. Rob Chudzinski will work to establish the run quickly. If Stewart and Williams find success and the Cardinals play the “let Cam beat us” card, he just might surprise them.
I can’t wait to see Smith battle against Patrick Peterson this weekend.
Austin Collie at Houston: Kerry Collins appears likely to stand under center for the opener with Peyton Manning sporting an early-week “D” tag on the injury report. Collie was a hero for Manning before sustaining those devastating concussions. His precise route-running and sure hands will make him a favorite of Collins’ immediately.
Marques Colston at Green Bay: Colston caught 84 passes in 2010 despite being hobbled by myriad injuries. He remains the lead option (along with Jimmy Graham, of course) for Drew Brees, and will be featured in what promises to be a shootout in the opener. He stands as a strong WR2 option this weekend. Slot Lance Moore in as a WR3.
A.J. Green at Cleveland: The Cincinnati offense has been less than inspiring this preseason, but we did see glimpses of that dreaded “P” word from Andy Dalton and Green. He’ll see a ton of targets out of the gate in this divisional battle, and I believe that his athleticism wins out. It takes some trust to trot a rookie out onto the fantasy gridiron in Week 1. Green has the goods to deliver results.
Kenny Britt at Jacksonville: Britt’s been slowed by a hamstring injury and just returned to the practice field, so his play count is still in question for the opener. However, I can’t help but think that Matt Hasselbeck and the Titans test his leg early and try to jumpstart the Mike Munchak era.
Britt is one misstep away from a lengthy chat with Roger Goodell, but he’s set for the opener. Monitor his progress at the end of the week, but if he plays, Britt warrants a WR3 play.
Ninjas Week 1
Jason Avant at St. Louis: Go Blue! Avant is one of my “Super Ninjas” for the 2011 season as a whole. He’s sure to play a huge role out of the gate against St. Louis while Jeremy Maclin works himself back into game shape. Avant quietly caught 51 passes last season and demonstrated the ability to stand in for an injured starter.
Nate Burleson at Tampa Bay: Like Avant, I’ve been busy touting Burleson all preseason, and he responded with huge touchdown catches and celebrations during the exhibition schedule. He’s a proven No. 2 with a knack for finding the end zone (six touchdowns last season and two seasons with nine touchdowns between Seattle and Minnesota).
The extra attention afforded Calvin Johnson will create opportunities for Burleson, provided that the Detroit offensive line can keep Matthew Stafford upright.
Harry Douglas at Chicago: He’s been one of the poster boys on my “ninja” lists for the past two seasons, but it appears that things have finally set up properly for Douglas to break through in 2011. With opposing defenses gearing up to thwart the “Big 4” options, Douglas is going to sprint downfield in man-coverage. I like Chicago’s addition of Brandon Meriwether, but I’m not sure it’s enough to stall this passing attack.
Earl Bennett vs. Atlanta: He’s a strong route-runner with great hands who has a tremendous rapport with his quarterback. Forget about Devin Hester and Roy Williams. Bennett emerges as the No. 2 option to Johnny Knox immediately.
Andre Roberts vs. Carolina: I picked the Cardinals to win the NFC West in a minor upset. I’ll need Roberts to perform as the No. 2 opposite Larry Fitzgerald, who continues to beam about the arrival of his new quarterback. The attention afforded Fitzgerald opens opportunities for Roberts in man-coverage against a suspect Carolina secondary.
Eric Decker vs. Oakland: With Jabar Gaffney off to Washington, Decker has the potential to slide in as a PPR hero for Kyle Orton. The 6-foot-3, second-year man out of Minnesota is one to watch this week.
Cecil Shorts vs. Tennessee: Everyone wants to be able to talk about a “Cecil” in post-game wraps. Ask anybody covering the Jaguars this season and they’ll tell you that they want Cecil to succeed, and not just because the AFC South is up for grabs. The rookie out of Mount Union emerged from a crowded field this preseason and will see targets opposite Mike Thomas.
Anthony Armstrong vs. New York Giants: Chuck it up and let him go get it. I’m not saying that I trust Rex Grossman (remember that I’m from Chicago), but the litany of injuries impacting the New York secondary open opportunities for big strikes. Of course, Grossman will need to avoid the persistent pass rush from a defensive line that always seems to have another playmaker at the ready … like shark teeth (Sorry, I watched a terrible take on “Open Water” as well as “Soul Surfer” last week).
Antonio Brown at Baltimore: Speed kills. The Steelers will be absolutely frightening when they spread the field. I certainly don’t anticipate a high-scoring contest between these teams, although they did surprise us with some fireworks in the AFC Playoffs this past season.
He’s lightning-quick off of the line and may get lost in the shuffle as Ed Reed rotates toward Mike Wallace and Heath Miller clears out space over the middle. It takes some guts to play him in Week 1, but the big play potential is there, as evidenced by his huge preseason.
Flops Week 1
Mike Sims-Walker vs. Philadelphia: Sims-Walker draws the honor of matching up with Nnamdi Asomugha. That usually erases a player from the box score in short order. Sims-Walker has the potential of sitting down and making a few plays underneath, but I’m not anticipating a big debut here.
Sidney Rice at San Francisco: I just don’t trust Tarvaris Jackson. Might he and Rice play some version of “Moss and Toss” and make a big play downfield? Sure, it’s possible, but I’d be reticent to place much stock in the tandem for the opener. Rice may creep into lineups as a WR3, and I do expect him to make his share of plays along the way, but it’s tough to play such an unknown in Week 1.
Percy Harvin at San Diego: The Chargers couldn’t play special teams in 2010, but they locked down well on defense. Harvin has big-play potential as a receiver and returner, but has been hit-or-miss during his two-year tenure in Minnesota while experiencing injury and health concerns.
The Vikings will work to get him the ball underneath and make plays with Donovan McNabb under center. The addition of Bob Sanders to the secondary (while healthy) doesn’t lend itself to big plays for this Minnesota attack.
Miles Austin at New York Jets: Austin has been dealing with a hamstring injury and draws Darrelle Revis for part, if not all, of this opener. He and Tony Romo have their connection, and I don’t doubt that they test Austin’s hammy and Revis’ hip early, but this doesn’t set up well. Start him as a WR2, but temper your expectations.
Week 1 Wild Card
Chad Ochocinco at Miami: Did they play possum in the preseason? Is the timing between Tom Brady and Ochocinco as bad as it looked?
Longtime readers know of my affinity for Ochocinco. You may not like what he has to say or Tweet, but nobody’s questioned his effort between the white lines.
I just wonder if it doesn’t take a couple of weeks for this thing to click altogether. Brady may try to push the ball to Ochocinco in red zone situations and begin the man love for 2011. Start him as a WR3 and wait for the theatrics.