Well, that was an eventful Week 1 in the NFL, wasn't it? If we wanted to summarize the results from the first set of games, we could borrow the plot from the new movie Riddick, in which intergalactic outlaw Vin Diesel is hunted by mercenaries – only for the bounty hunters to discover that they're the ones being hunted. From the offensive fusillade by the Denver Broncos that downed the defending champion Ravens to the fast-paced Eagles offense sinking the Redskins, last year's NFC East winners, it's clearer than ever that it's a dog-eat-dog world, and what you did last year or last week isn't going to matter a whole lot moving forward.
Ah, but isn't predicting the future what we're all about here at Military.com Fantasy Football Forecast (MFFF)? It's time to get cracking and figure out who's hot, who's not, and most importantly, who will stay hot as the season progresses. This week, we'll break down some notable players based on how we see the division races shaping up -- if you can get an early handle on which teams are poised for success this year, chances are good you'll also land some underrated players who will benefit from that success.
AFC East: The Times Are A-changin'
Up to last Sunday everyone could logically break down the East as a collection of little sisters of the poor (Buffalo, Miami New York) and one undeniable bully (New England). Funny how one week can change perceptions: The Bills, Dolphins and Jets all put together gutty performances, and while the Patriots are still the team to beat, they may not be the fantasy juggernaut of years past. Coming off a shaky offensive performance against Buffalo, New England's trainer's room is as crowded as the Boston T this week, as RB Shane Vereen, WR Danny Amendola, and TE Rob Gronkowski will miss Game 2. Still, these injuries spell opportunity for WRs Kenbrell Thompkins (42 yards) and Julian Edelman (79 yards, 2 TDs), and against a Jets team that played over their heads against the Bucs last week, we expect them both to get plenty of targets and yards.
As for the Jets, while they're still a ways off from having a powerful offense, QB Geno Smith (over 300 total yards, 1 TD) showed flashes of big-play ability last Sunday, and as long as he continues using his legs and avoids killer INTs, he could develop into a solid QB2. The one keeper is TE Kellen Winslow (79 yards, 1 TD), who is fast becoming Smith's security blanket.
The Bills are tougher to figure out: RB C.J. Spiller (55 total yards) was expected to be a top-5 back, but lost a fumble and was outgained by nearly-forgotten teammate Fred Jackson (108 total yards) against the Patriots. We wouldn't expect Spiller to take a back seat every time out, but if Game 1 is an indication, he may not be the overpowering fantasy stud many envisioned. The Bills' schedule does him no favors, as squads with tough run defenses like Cleveland, Carolina and Miami loom on the horizon. Advice to Spiller owners: if he continues to struggle next week, work a trade while the price is still high.
The Dolphins had a strange time of it last week: RBs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas combined for a whopping 17 yards rushing, and big free-agent signee WR Mike Wallace, who was held to a measly single catch, yet QB Ryan Tannenhill (272 yards) had a creditable day throwing the ball against a tough Cleveland D. Is it too soon to bail on Wallace? Maybe, but he's never been a fantastic route-runner, and if other teams continue taking him out of equation, the Dolphins may find themselves going ball-control, which doesn't spell fantasy greatness. Ironically enough, your best play here moving forward might be WR Brian Hartline (117 yards), who rarely dazzles but is as steady as they come.
AFC North: Zero-ed Out
You could make a case for the AFC North being the biggest loser of Week 1, with all four teams going down in ignominious fashion. MFFF thinks it's too soon to write an obituary for the Ravens, but with all the press about how Baltimore's defense was shredded last week, it's equally clear that Baltimore's offense will need to rejigger things a bit with TE Ed Dickson dropping passes left and right, and WR Jacoby Jones lost for at least a month with a knee injury. This opens things up for WR Marlon Brown (65 yards, 1 TD) and TE Dallas Clark (87 yards) to step in and make some fantasy hay. The question is: Will they? A good litmus test looms against Houston this Sunday -- last year the Texans run roughshod over the Ravens.
Once when he was asked about his team's "offensive execution" after a particularly putrid performance, Tampa Bay coach John McKay offered the immortal quip, "I'm in favor of it." Steeler coach Mike Tomlin must have thought the same after an offensive (that is, "really bad") display against the Titans. Pittsburgh desperately needs QB Ben Roethlisberger to regain his deep passing touch: an 8.1 yard-per catch average by leading WR Emmanuel Sanders ain't gonna cut it. Best to avoid picking up any Steelers for this week, as the opportunistic Bears hit town.
The same can be said for the Browns, who turned in a very Browns-like performance last Sunday after a preseason of promise: 3 INTs for QB Brandon Weeden, and only 47 yards for meal-ticket RB Trent Richardson. One bright spot: TE Jordan Cameron (108 yards, 1 TD), who has proven he can shake loose for yards downfield. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner loves his TEs, and Cameron is a solid play moving forward.
At least the Bengals can count on the connection between QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green, and neither disappointed last Sunday. The potential breakout candidate is RB Giovanni Bernard, who carried the ball 10 less times than starter Benjarvus Green-Ellis but only gained 3 fewer yards.
AFC South: Haves and Have-nots
This clearly a two-tier division, with a wide gulf separating the Texans and Colts from the Titans and Jaguars when it comes to fantasy production. Houston and Indy put up some impressive numbers in their season debuts, but we say "wait and see" when it comes to the Colts -- QB Andrew Luck got sacked 4 times by an underwhelming Raider D-line last Sunday, which suggests tough sledding against better teams, and with WRs T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey currently splitting time and catches, it behooves you to wait and see who steps forward. In Houston, the RB show with Arian Foster (57 yards rushing) and Ben Tate (55 yards rushing) will continue to be a split affair, at least until Foster is fully game-ready after spending preseason on the shelf. One promising sign is the emergence of rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins (66 yards), who should help take some of the heat off top WR Andre Johnson (146 yards).
As for the offensively challenged Titans and Jaguars, the less said, the better, although the Titans get more favorable matchups these next two weeks at home against the Chargers and Jets. What can be said about the Jaguars, who put up a goose egg on offense against the Chiefs, except that if your defense is playing them this week it's an automatic good play?
AFC West: Princes or Paupers?
Derided as the worst division in the league before Week 1, the AFC West as a whole put up some fight, and decent fantasy numbers. The Broncos posted Madden-like stats against the Ravens last week, and all signs point to more of the same against a banged-up Giants defense this Sunday. Keep an eye on TE Julius Thomas (110 yards, 2 TDs), who had a monster debut and should continue feasting against a suspect linebacker corps this week. The revitalized Chiefs were solid if unspectacular in fantasy scoring across the board: QB Alex Smith (198 total yards, 2 TDs) is a valuable addition as a QB2 if you need one. The real powerhouse last week for KC was its defense, which notched 6 sacks, 2 INTs and a TD, but two of the league's more prolific offenses (Philly and the NY Giants) loom in the next two weeks, so keep your eye on how the D performs before you commit.
How about Oakland QB Terrelle Pryor (112 yards rushing, 217 passing, 1 TD), who emerged as a dual threat in Week 1? Since he's a rookie he'll no doubt have shaky weeks, but his potential is intriguing, and with the Raiders playing under-par defenses in the next few weeks (Jaguars, Redskins), he has a chance to build on his early-season buzz as long as he stays loose and continues to use his legs when needed. Early returns on the new San Diego offense were good for QB Philip Rivers (195 yards, 4 TDs), but RB Ryan Mathews (33 yards) continues to struggle, and none of the Charger receivers have stepped to the fore yet. With a relatively favorable schedule over the next month, San Diego bears watching to see if a player emerges.
NFC East: A Mad Scramble
It might not be the best division in the league, but the NFC East may well be the most intriguing. Just take your pick of storylines: Will the high-flying no-huddle Philadelphia attack continue giving humongous numbers to RB LeSean McCoy and QB Michael Vick, or will the Eagles run themselves out of breath as the season progresses? Will Giants RB David Wilson get over his fumbling issues to be a viable #1 RB, and will the Giants' ragged offensive line give QB Eli Manning time to find his targets, WRs Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle, all of whom have the potential to go over 1000 yards for the season? Is gimpy QB Robert Griffin III going to struggle the entire year, or will he round into form and once again become the devastating dual threat he was for Washington in 2012? And can Dallas fashion a playoff season while dealing with injuries to their offensive and defensive lines, and now to their best playmaker, WR Dez Bryant?
One player to pay attention to is Washington WR Leonard Hankerson (80 yards, 2 TDs), who stepped out of the shadows against the Eagles. He's a risky play given that WRs Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss remain RG3's go-to targets, but this might be the season Hankerson finally builds on his early promise. Eagle WR DeSean Jackson (104 yards, 1 TD) is thriving in the new Philly offense -- the question, as it always is with him, is whether he can make it through the entire season unscathed. Still, if he's available in your league, snag him and ride with him as long as you can. Ditto for Vick, who took some hard hits on Monday night and has a history of getting nicked up. Giants TE Brandon Myers (66 yards, 1 TD) is a gamble just because he's a subpar run blocker and thus may not get as much time in the offense as he should, but he's an adept pass catcher and established a good rhythm with Manning last week.
NFC North: Boom-Boom
Whether you're talking about RBs (Detroit's Reggie Bush and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson) or QBs (Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Chicago's Jay Cutler) this is a division of big plays. Despite their opening-day loss, the Pack are still the odds-on favorite to finish on top, but all the other teams show plenty of fantasy potential for 2013.
The Vikings are a Jekyll-and-Hyde creation: On the good side you have the transcendent Peterson (93 yards, 2 TDs), and on the ugly side you have QB Christian Ponder (236 yards, 3 INTs), who seems destined to never live up to his potential. Somewhere in the middle is WR Jerome Simpson (140 yards), who seems to be the new go-to guy now that Percy Harvin is in Seattle -- he'll make a good WR3 for your roster. Detroit RB Joique Bell (92 total yards, 2 TDs) has flashed before for the Lions -- is this the year he finally sticks, especially given the age and fragility of leading RB Reggie Bush? Stay tuned, and keep Bell on your Watch List.
For Chicago, despite a new coach and offensive system, it was fantasy business as usual, with Cutler, WR Brandon Marshall and RB Matt Forte all scoring TDs. The one wild card (and any man who refers to himself as "The Black Unicorn" is definitely a wild card) is TE Martellus Bennett (49 yards, 1 TD), who brings a new dimension to the Bear attack and is a good pickup moving forward. The good news for the Packers is the emergence of RB Eddie Lacy, who overcame an early fumble to notch 72 total yards and a TD. On the other end of the spectrum, WR James Jones was MIA as fellow wideouts WR Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb got over 100 yards and 1 TD each. Don't look at it as a trend though -- Rodgers will go to whoever's open, and Jones could well bounce back against the Redskins' suspect D this week.
NFC South: All O or All D
Last week's Saints-Falcons game should be a harbinger of things to come in this division, with both teams putting up mammoth fantasy stats, while the offensively challenged Bucs and Panthers struggled to score even as they put the clamps down on their opponents. Will offense or defense end up carrying the day in this division? MFFF is betting on the former.
If you're high on Falcon RB Stephen Jackson, hold your horses -- take away his longest run of the day (50 yards) and he's left with 27 yards on 10 carries. That means that the Falcon offense will continue to rely on QB Matt Ryan (304 yards, 2 TDs) and WR Julio Jones (76 yards, 1 TD) to score. The dark horse here might be WR Harry Douglas (93 yards); with WR Roddy White a year older and hobbled with injuries, this is the time for Douglas to shine. In New Orleans, the triumvirate of RB Darren Sproles, WR Marques Colston and TE Jimmy Graham is hard to beat, but MFFF still likes speedy rookie WR Kenny Stills (86 yards), who is making a decent case for more playing time.
In Week 1 the Panthers rounded up the usual suspects -- QB Cam Newton (163 total yards, 1 TD) and RB DeAngelo Williams (86 yards, 1 fumble), but neither set the house on fire against a stout Seattle D. The next three weeks will be telling as Carolina plays the Bills, Cardinals and Giants; if Newton and company can get on track, you could see some fantasy value in the near future. As for the Bucs, QB Josh Freeman's shaky 2012 season seems to have carried over into this year, but one can't overlook the fact he played a fired-up Jets defense in Week 1. Meanwhile, WR Vincent Jackson remains a top-tier WR and RB Doug Martin remains a solid play despite his lackluster performance last Sunday. The Bucs are playing some high-powered offenses in the next few weeks (New England, Arizona, Philadelphia) so we'll soon find out if they can pull out of their tailspin.
NFC West: Strength to Strength
When the worst team in your division loses on a last-second FG, that bodes well for an exciting, tough divisional race. Seattle has the overpowering defense; the 49ers the smooth-as-silk offense. The Cardinals have a revitalized fantasy stud (WR Larry Fitzgerald) and the Rams feature a stout defensive front and efficient offense behind QB Sam Bradford.
Can anyone stop the 49ers? With Colin Kaepernick (412 yards, 3 TDs), they can score via ground or air, and new acquisition WR Anquan Boldin (208 yards, 1 TD) is already playing like he's been in this offense for a decade. Stay tuned to RB Kendall Hunter (24 yards), who seemed to have more burst than RB Frank Gore during his relief appearances and may be moving up for more playing time. Seattle struggled a bit to score last week, but with young WRs Doug Baldwin (91 yards) and Jermaine Kearse (49 yards, 1 TD) coming on strong, you could see fantasy riches ahead.
If you're looking for sleepers on the Cardinals, WRs Andre Roberts (97 yards) and Michael Floyd (82 yards) are benefitting from Bruce Arians' new offensive system and are good fantasy depth moving forward. QB Carson Palmer still has a habit of folding down the stretch but he still puts up decent fantasy numbers. One caveat: if your league penalizes you for sacks, Palmer will have you pulling your hair out, especially behind the Cards' suspect O-line. As for the Rams, the big news was TE Jared Cook, who had a mammoth game with 141 yards and 2 TDs (which could easily have been 3 if he hadn't fumbled one away),but another encouraging sign is the performance of WR Tavon Austin (6 catches, 41 yards), who could be a good catch for PPR leagues moving forward. Cook might be the sexy choice now, but as always, beware of overreacting to Week 1...