It's a bit odd to be saying the season kicks off on a Wednesday, but football is football, so we'll take it. With teams drafted and pithily named, with the dog-eared magazines and bookmarked sites now to the side, the beer cold and the nachos hot, we have real, honest, NFL football.
And injuries. Lots of them.
There are two elements a winning team must have in the NFL: it must collect a sufficient amount of complementary talent and then it must strive to keep it on the field. Everything else is secondary. There is no other common element to all the playoff teams from the last 10 years. Injuries happen -- they are "part of the game" -- but the management of them is a step beyond key. Teams have medical staffs full of athletic trainers, doctors and other associated health professionals to help them. I try to do the same for you, so you can make the best decisions possible about your team.
But there's a third element that's required in fantasy football -- information. Knowing more than your opponent is tough in this always-on media economy, but knowing better is still doable. It's up to you to collect the best sources and use that to make the best decisions. And please, make the decisions yourself. I don't understand why some people want others to make those decisions. I mean, why play? Why doesn't ESPN just have a button that sets the lineup according to their projections or Matt Berry's rankings if that's how people want to play? Be better than that, so that you can be proud when you hold up the trophy.
For the first of 17 times this year, let's get to it:
UPGRADE: Miles Austin, Tony Romo
DOWNGRADE: Jason Witten, Hakeem Nicks
A team should be at it's healthiest coming into Week 1. It seldom works that way, as injuries pile up with offseason work and preseason games. Both teams in the kickoff game have seen that firsthand in almost every permutation. The Cowboys should have everyone available, but knowing how healthy Austin, Bryant and Witten are will go a long way in determining Tony Romo's value as well. Both WRs should start and get normal targets, though Bryant is the more "sure thing." Austin's hamstrings are always a risk, but not as much as people are saying this week. Witten is much less sure, officially doubtful. He'll be a gametime decision unless he's not cleared medically. Even if he does play, the Cowboys might look at the long week they'll have and make the smart decision to sit him. If so, it's unclear if John Hanna will continue getting more looks than the other TE options. The targets would likely be shifted to the WRs, making Kevin Ogletree a better replacement than an actual TE.
The Giants feel good about where Nicks is. He'll get normal work, though Victor Cruz and Martellus Bennett should see a slight uptick in targets as Nicks works his way back. The Giants will be without Prince Amukamara, but that was expected and shouldn't affect matchups significantly.
It's always going to be something with Vick. His preseason pretty much was turned around by one play and a decision not to have him in his normal rib protector. That's fixed now and Vick is back at 100 percent, or as close as it comes with him. While the ribs might not be a concern now, everything else still is. Vick is a must-play this week if you have him and every week he's close to healthy. The key is to ride those big weeks, to have a good backup when he's not and to always have your finger on the "sold" button if someone offers real value for him in trade. There are few QBs with as much upside and none with his risk. A friend who drafted Vick in one of my leagues jokingly calls Vick "Tootie." Why? "You take the good, you take the bad ..."
When Leslie Frazier questions whether Peterson will play in Week 1, it's a coach playing games. It could be for an advantage, to keep his options open, or to keep the second guessing about how the split between Peterson and Toby Gerhart will work over the first couple weeks. I remain confident that Peterson will play and put up significant fantasy points. Normal? No, and certainly not what we'd expect out of Peterson in the past or future. I think 15 touches is a good expectation and if Peterson looks good early, the Vikings will have to be careful not to do too much. So is this different than what I've been expecting as I've advocated Peterson as a first-round option this year? Yes, it's a bit less, but I think this is much more about the Vikings' comfort level than it is about Peterson's recovery.
Holdouts scare fantasy owners. You don't have to think back too far to find negative examples. Just whispering "Chris Johnson" near someone who used a first rounder to get Maurice Jones-Drew is enough to incite panic. Jones-Drew will be splitting carries, at best, with Rashad Jennings in Week 1, but no one seems to think that it will hold as a split long, even if Jennings is as good as some think he will be. The same is true for Wallace, who cost himself a contract with the holdout.
Physically, these players are ready. Modern NFL players aren't sitting on a couch playing Madden -- well, they are, but only after a couple hours of practice, a couple more in the gym, and hours more of film study. The concept that a player needs to get to "game speed" and get "used to hits" isn't supported by any science. Focus on the opportunities, not the reasons some will use for those opportunities being reduced. As the opportunities return, these two become must-starts in all formats.
The Chargers are happy to see Mathews back at practice, but he's not taking contact of any type yet. That means he's more than likely out for Week 1. Beyond that, we'll see. Mathews is making a good recovery along normal lines -- what I'd call a "TRIP" (typical rehab in progress) -- and shouldn't have trouble once the collarbone is fully healed. The Chargers are still leaving the door open with his designation, but unless he's not only taking contact, but able to show that he can hold up with multiple runs up the middle, he's not going to be a smart fantasy play. That will leave the carries to Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle, though neither is a good fantasy option. Since it's the late Monday game, this is a tough read, but just go with your backup and wait for Mathews to be a much more sure fantasy starter. Patience is a virtue, even in fantasy.
Richardson got back out on the practice field Monday in Cleveland. From the offices, the Browns were trying to reduce expectations for their No. 1 pick. Most rookies get the same sort of "ease in" that Richardson will get, so the physical nature of his missing practice is just ... different. No one that's smart drives their new car hard right off the lot; there's a break-in period. Richardson will get more along the lines of 15-20 touches than the feature role he's expected to take very soon. Peter King had great points about trusting team timelines in MMQB this week, but by reading this column, you're already beyond trusting teams. Richardson will be fine in the short-term with this surgery being another data point against his long term durability. NumberFire is expecting Richardson to put up 12 points this week, which sounds about right to me. I'll be watching Richardson's situation right up to gametime this week.
I'm about to get you a free beer. Someday, you'll need a trivia question and here it is: Who was the first player to return from the Injured Reserve? The first one designated is Vincent Brown of the Chargers. The new rule was just finalized and seems perfectly designed for this kind of situation. Brown's broken ankle is expected to heal by about Week 8 and the new rule acts in many ways like the PUP list. If you find yourself a bit shy of top tier WRs after your draft or you lose one to injury early, Brown's a guy to keep in mind as a stash. Once he returns, he'll almost immediately become the true WR1.
Andy Dalton's shoulder/hand injury from the last pre-season game won't bother him by the weekend ... David Garrard was cut by the Dolphins. He's still not all the way back from having his knee scoped, but will be at the top of the list for any team that needs an emergency QB in coming weeks ... Austin Davis is a player you should put on your watch list. The rookie out of Southern Miss won the QB2 job in STL, where Sam Bradford gets knocked around a lot. Davis' athleticism might be a better fit in the Rams offense ... Marshawn Lynch is a GTD- on Sunday due to a back injury. I'll be watching this one very closely on Sunday morning ... Jonathan Stewart is a GTD+ for the Panthers this week. Expect DeAngelo Williams to get the bulk of the work this week regardless ... Isaac Redman's ankle injury may keep him from starting Sunday. His value will be limited regardless, so don't get to excited even if he is the starter ... Kevin Smith returned to practice on Monday. His sprained ankle is better, but he'll need to show he can handle the RB1 duties. If he's even iffy, this could be a huge week for Matthew Stafford. Without a real RB, Stafford and the Lions could have to go to the air early and often ... Evan Royster is listed as the RB1 over Roy Helu this week, but if you think you know who's going to get the touches, you'd better do some more research on Mike Shanahan ... There's very little chance that Rashard Mendenhall will be active for the Steelers in Week 1. He is doing better than most expected at this stage, but its more a "pick him up and stash him" than a "start him now" kind of doing better ... Steve Smith's charity work is coincidental, but he will be ready to play in Week 1. He's not 100 percent, but enough to get out there and put up points ... Keep your eye on Denarius Moore. While he may play for the Raiders in Week 1, he's still limited. A GTD-, I'd say look at your other options now ... Austin Collie was "full go" at Colts practice Monday. Expect him to start in the WR2 position ... Golden Tate is going to be a GTD- for the Seahawks, but neither Tate nor Braylon Edwards is a confident pick in all but the "I've got nothing else" situations. You know, the ones you shouldn't be in Week 1 ... The Saints put Nick Toon on the IR, but he's definitely a candidate to be the "special player" that returns mid-season ... The Pats stashed Jeff Demps on the IR, where he'll get a chance to get back into football even without practicing. Smart move ... The Dolphins are holding Jake Long out of practice early this week, but the expectation is that he'll play. With Houston's pass rush and any limitation for Long, Ryan Tannehill is going to have a tough first day on the job ... Brian Urlacher insists that he'll play on Sunday against the Colts. He can't guarantee he'll play well, or very long. One source tells me Urlacher's knees are "completely shot. He's playing on guts and ignorance" ... Ryan Clark will not play Week 1. This was anticipated since it's a known that the altitude affects his sickel cell condition ... How long before we see something like this in the NFL? ... In the SI League I play in with some writers with names you'd know, I took three RBs with my first three picks. Picking fourth in a snake, I got LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, and Jamaal Charles. I'll take that every single time.