Now we do it for real. Teams are teeing it up tonight and everyone else is on track for Sunday (or Monday.) We get the first official Injury Report, real practice reports and the time for skating through the preseason is over. Guys are getting taped up, patched up, drugged up, and strapped up for Week 1 and it's no different here, minus the tape, painkillers, and padding. All season long, we'll take a look beyond what teams are required to provide in the Official Injury Report (OIR) and use my network of sources to help you get your team ready. We'll try to avoid the pitfalls, as with last year's Marvin Harrison fiasco, and make sure that you have the best information available when you need it. I'll also be back on Sunday mornings with the "Last Minute Med Check" when I tell you who's in, who's out, and who's limping on or off the field. Enough talk. Let's get to it:
The rumors of a broken foot went from whispers to at least a low speaking tone this week. While the Patriots refuse to be explicit about what the injury is, there's enough discussion to say that there likely was some small fracture in some bone, but that it's not there now. The timing is unclear, but important. If, as some rumors have it, the bone was broken in August, that's worrisome given the risk of re-injury. If it was February and there's just some residual soreness, that's worrisome as it should have cleared up by now. As with most of these, the truth is probably somewhere in between and absent that, we have to go with function. Brady is not a mobile QB and given his practice work this week, he doesn't look as if the foot is changing any of his throwing mechanics. What is something that should be noted is that he seems a bit hesitant to throw long passes. That could mean good things for Wes Welker.
The Browns are a trendy pick for a playoff berth, but they'll have to stay healthy to do it. We've found that coming into Week 1 healthy is a positive indicator for staying healthy all season and that's bad news for the Browns. Three of their four key offensive cogs are hurting and it's interesting that Kellen Winslow is the healthy one! Anderson looks to be a safe play, though the effects of concussions can be subtle. A second concussion would be even worse, so there's some risk here in the opening weeks when the Browns have some tough defensive matchups. Edwards also looks good. He's practiced without showing significant effects from the big cut on his foot. He's still showing some hesitation, so it's in his head, but mental issues tend to go away once the whistle blows and the adrenaline flows. The biggest concern is Lewis, who is not fully recovered from a hamstring strain in the preseason. He's not showing the burst and appears to be having trouble decelerating. He's a straight ahead runner, so this isn't as significant as it would be for some running backs or some schemes, but expect Lewis' touches to be down and for him to have less burst. Jerome Harrison is the primary backup and he's not going to make many fantasy rosters.
How many of you drafted Ray Rice expecting him to play Week 1? I know you're out there and yes, Rice will play, but he's not taking the majority of touches just yet. McGahee made it back from knee surgery quickly, something he's done before, and looks ready to play Sunday. The questions go beyond "will he play" to "how will he play" and that's a bit more ephemeral. Sources that have watched McGahee over the last week have mixed opinions on how he'll be affected. Most agree that he's not running well, but one source thinks his stamina is the bigger question. "He's not going to be able to be out there for every play and I wonder how he'll look in the fourth [quarter]," he told me. A lot depends on whether Joe Flacco opens up the defense, because McGahee or Rice won't be able to run against eight or nine in the box. A Jags like split seems to be everyone's best guess.
If there's one big fantasy injury that I think people are misreading, it's Antonio Gates. So much of his value is based on two things that will be affected by the continuing toe injury - his mismatch creating speed and his ability to 'post up' and go up for red zone catches. If Gates is a step slow, he'll be good, but he won't be able to get the separation whether he's covered by a linebacker or a safety, limiting his YAC. As for the red zone, try to jump without using your toes. Yeah, see, it doesn't work that well. Given other big targets - especially Vincent Jackson - the Chargers have options. I'm not saying that Gates isn't good, but there's a clear path to the kind of season that Todd Heap had last year, dogged by injuries and crashing his production.
With Steve Smith out, Hackett has a chance to establish himself. He's always had the secondary numbers, but has never stayed healthy enough to put up the real numbers that teams and fantasy owners crave. Naturally, Hackett injured his foot in the preseason and hasn't been able to get much work in. He's recovered enough that he'll play and start on Sunday, but no one knows how much or in what role. The Panthers have as many offensive question marks as they have offensive options in the passing game and the running game, making it very tough to get a read on Hackett's fantasy viability. The injury, however, doesn't seem to be holding him back in practice this week. There's lots of positive indicators here, but Hackett's history works against him. Add in the uncertainty about Jake Delhomme's arm and Hackett's not a sure start this week.
It's not unusual for the Raiders to be playing some games with the media but the issues with Javon Walker go beyond the reported hamstring strain. The bigger question is would this injury, assuming it's more than just the "tweak" noted, be related to his ongoing and now-chronic knee problems. Walker is practicing, but he's going to carry this risk through this season and through the rest of his NFL career. Sources tell me that Walker is expected to play and that he's able to run and cut, but that he's getting an occasional "cramp", a grabbing that's often indicative of an impending strain. I'd back off Walker; his worst case scenario is an adrenaline-fueled pushoff on the first play that causes that strain to go bigger and push him out early.
There's a lot of discussion about Deion Branch being "rushed back" from knee surgery due to the lack of options and injuries the Seahawks have had during the preseason. Branch is seven months post from ACL reconstruction and while that seems fast, it's not. The timeline for recovery has changed due to new techniques, new rehab protocols, and new bracing options. That doesn't mean that Branch is ready to play; he'll have to prove that in practice and most observers think that if Mike Holmgren wasn't desperate for receivers, he wouldn't even be considering Branch as an option. Seattle sources think that Branch will be active, but that the play of Jordan Kent and Courtney Taylor will determine how much Branch is used, if at all. Remember that, as with RBs, the cuts are the last thing to return and that's a big issue for how Branch generates space.
There are three big line injuries that could affect fantasy production this week. The guys in front of or off to the blind side of some fantasy studs are going to cost them some production. With Jeff Saturday (and Mike Pollak, also out with a knee injury), the Colts are forced to go to their third or fourth string center, the key cog in their always-changing offense. Expect Manning to use a simplified offensive package, which could mean a bit more quick passes, which would be good for Anthony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark. McNeill is a huge issue for the Chargers. He's missed the preseason and is seeing a specialist about his neck with whispers that his absence could be extended. While L.J. Shelton is a big replacement, he's not the player McNeill is in the running or passing game. News that Sean Locklear hadn't healed up from his sprained knee in time to answer the Week 1 bell has to downgrade the whole of the Seahawks offense. Their line play will be the key to their season, especially with the problems they had last year and the changes made. Not having a starter really slows the development of cohesiveness.
BUMPS AND BRUISES
Remember the tape that Kerri Walsh wore on her shoulder? It's Kinesio Tape and I'll bet Walsh's use of it will lead to a lot of use by players, even if just for the look. Of course, it's not quite as apparent on an NFL player, who is thankfully more covered. I mean, you do NOT want to see Tank Johnson or Kyle Orton in Walsh's uni ... The Cowboys are going to have to have some creative offensive sets due to all their WR injuries. Look for Jason Witten to slot some and for Martellus Bennett to see a lot of action and some targets ... Trent Edwards is ready to go in Week 1, but J.P. Losman helped himself with a nice preseason ... Ahman Green stands to lose a lot of touches, giving Chris Taylor and Steve Slaton most of the work in Week 1, as Green's groin is nowhere near 100%. Taylor is the 'safer' play, since Slaton is dealing with turf toe ... It's still a bit unclear how much playing time Joey Galloway will get this weekend, but the Bucs really don't have better options, even if Galloway is less than full-go ... Drew Bennett will start on Week 1, but the groin should slow him down. I don't think he'll be on the field as much as normal ... Josh Cribbs is iffy for Week 1, so downgrade the Browns DST ... Joey Porter is back in practice for the first time all summer, but there's no telling what role he'll play in Week 1, though it looks like he will play, perhaps even start ... Antwaan Randle El has been playing through a broken hand and will continue to do so ... Bernard Berrian's toe problem is better, but it's still a speed guy with a toe problem ... I wish there was a way to track whether guys with a solid backup "heal quicker" (ie rush back.) Desmond Clark is expected to play, but to share time with Greg Olsen.