Sunday Superlatives: Tight ends rule, Taylor and Mariota shine in first starts
The first Sunday of the 2015 NFL season is in the books, which means it’s time for our favorite yearly PSA: No matter what happened this week, good or bad, do not overreact. It feels like everything that took place this week was huge because it represents 100% of the season right now. Ultimately, however, it will be 6.25% of a 16-game campaign. Allen Hurns had two touchdowns in Week 1 last year. Jake Locker threw for 266 yards and two scores en route to a top-10 quarterback week. Remember that before you blow your FAAB budget on Nick Foles this week.
But we’re not here only to remind you that, even in a 13-week fantasy regular season, there’s room for patience. Allow me to introduce one of our new weekly staples for this year: the Sunday Superlatives. Every week, this column will highlight five of the standout performances from the day’s games. Most will be good, some will be bad. All will have an eye on how you can apply what happened this Sunday to the Sundays to come for the rest of the season.
Week 1's best position
Maybe we should have seen this coming when Rob Gronkowski torched the Steelers for three touchdowns on Thursday night. Tight ends took over on the first Sunday of the 2015 season, when three more scored at least 20 points in standard-scoring leagues. Travis Kelce found the end zone on his first two catches and finished with six grabs for 106 yards. Tyler Eifert hauled in nine passes from Andy Dalton, going for 104 yards and two touchdowns of his own. Little went right for the Buccaneers, but Austin Seferian-Jenkins had five receptions for 110 yards and, you guessed it, two touchdowns. Eifert and Seferian-Jenkins were two of the most popular breakout picks at the position, and they certainly made a lot of people look good in Week 1.
Meanwhile, Kelce has a real shot to be an elite tight end along the lines of Gronkowski. After all, he’s been dubbed Baby Gronk for a reason. There was never any doubt about Gronkowski and Kelce, but Eifert and Seferian-Jenkins both look like weekly starters with top-five upside at the position.
It wasn’t just the four of them, however. Jimmy Graham and Martellus Bennett both kicked off their seasons with a touchdown. Eric Ebron had four receptions for 53 yards and a score. Jordan Reed was on the receiving end of seven passes from Kirk Cousins, racking up 63 yards and a touchdown. Ladarius Green did his best Antonio Gates impersonation, catching five balls for 74 yards with one end zone trip. Jordan Cameron had four catches for 73 yards in his first game with the Dolphins. Tight ends across the league delivered on Sunday. Surprisingly, only Greg Olsen, who had one catch for 11 yards, fell short of expectations.
Best debut as a starting quarterback
In this corner is Tyrod Taylor, who faced off with one of the premier quarterbacks in the league and helped lead his team to a victory. Taylor wasn’t on too many radars a few months ago, but he won the Bills' starting gig and showed why against the Colts on Sunday. He went 14 for 19 for 195 yards, 10.3 yards per attempt and one touchdown through the air and added 41 yards on nine carries, all while turning the ball over exactly zero times. He made a number of impressive throws, including a perfect deep ball to Percy Harvin that resulted in a 51-yard touchdown. As expected, he was able to extend plays with his legs, something the Bills haven’t seen from the quarterback position in a long time.
Thanks to Taylor and the stifling defense, the Bills took a 17–0 lead into the locker room at halftime against one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl this year. The only quibble with his starting debut is that he failed to get anything going with Sammy Watkins, who had zero catches and just three targets. He’s going to need to get more out of that connection if he’s going to sustain this kind of production. Still, Taylor can absolutely be a QB2 for the balance of the season.
And in this corner is Marcus Mariota, who showed the one team that passed on him in the draft exactly what he could do. The second pick in the draft got it going right away, connecting with Kendall Wright for a 52-yard touchdown on his fourth career pass. On the Titans’ next possession, he led a seven-play, 63-yard drive, culminating in a 12-yard touchdown pass to Bishop Sankey. By time the first half was over, Mariota had four touchdown passes, and the Titans had the game well in hand. The Oregon product became the first player in NFL history to throw four touchdown passes before halftime in his career debut. My favorite stat, though, is that he had more touchdowns than incompletions. Mariota finished the day 13 for 16 for 209 yards, 13.1 YPA and the four scores, and he bested Jameis Winston for the second time in eight months. It won’t always be this easy, but Mariota proved that over the course of the season, he’s likely to be a mid-tier to high-end QB2.
So who gets the nod for best opener? With all due respect to Taylor, any time you become the first quarterback in NFL history to achieve something positive, you’re going to be tough to beat. Mariota, it is.
Best player who already has us worried
Nothing about Peyton Manning’s performance on Sunday encouraged those who invested in him, or the Denver offense. Before we get into it, I’ll refer you back to the beginning of this column: This is just Week 1, and you have to guard against an overreaction. That does not, however, mean we should take everything with a grain of salt, especially given the way the Denver offense played against Baltimore.
To be fair, the Ravens may again boast one of the better defenses in the league, but Manning just didn’t look like himself. We’re not talking about Indianapolis Manning, or even first year in Denver Manning. He didn’t even look like the guy who started to tail off at the end of the 2014 season. The Broncos won without the benefit of an offensive touchdown, and Manning had a lot to do with that. He completed 24 of his 40 pass attempts for 175 yards, 4.4 YPA, zero touchdowns and one interception. His longest completion went for 18 yards. He had Emmanuel Sanders open twice for big plays down the field and missed both throws.
While we don’t want to put too much stock into one game, we still need to trust what we saw. Manning may not be a top-10 quarterback this week when the Broncos take on the Chiefs on Thursday night. If the Manning we saw against the Ravens is the one we get for most of the season, we also need to recalibrate our expectations for Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson and Owen Daniels. For the first time in seemingly forever, Manning’s offense may not be a fantasy juggernaut. His defense, though, is going to be a nightmare matchup all season.
It was about a month ago that the Chris Ivory boomlet started to grow into something more significant. As more and more people realized that, hey, Ivory is pretty good and, wait a minute, he has that entire backfield to himself, he started to rocket up draft boards. By the time most people were drafting at the end of August and beginning of September, it required a fifth-round pick in a 12-team league to secure Ivory’s services. He did not disappoint in Week 1 for those who paid that price.
Ivory rumbled for 91 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in the Jets’ 31–10 shellacking of the Browns. Bilal Powell did get 12 carries, but that’s not a huge concern if the Jets are feeding Ivory 20 times in games that they’re ahead. Plus, five of Powell’s carries came on the Jets’ final possession. We can essentially bet on Ivory getting at least 70% of the team’s carries this year, and he’ll turn that role into an easy RB2 season. Ivory had four runs of at least 10 yards, including a long of 19. He had a touchdown reception wiped out because of a holding penalty, but he got in on the ground on the very next play. The good news there is that he’s not just on the field on passing plays in the red zone, but can also be a weapon for Ryan Fitzpatrick when he drops back. Ivory’s role could decrease in games where the Jets trail, but he’s going to make a lot of fantasy owners happy this year.
Best player on a potentially bad offense
For all the talk about the reliability of elite receivers, they didn’t really show up in Sunday’s afternoon slate. A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Randall Cobb and Demaryius Thomas were all in action, but Cobb was the only one who scored, and Green led the way with 63 yards (though he also dropped a touchdown). The best WR1 had a big day in a losing effort, something we could be saying about him a lot this season.
DeAndre Hopkins was one of the few players on the Texans’ offense with a pulse against the Chiefs. The third-year receiver caught nine passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns, racking up 21.8 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. More importantly, he seemed to really click with Ryan Mallett when Bill O’Brien inserted him in the game in place of an ineffective Brian Hoyer.
The Houston offense will look a lot different when Arian Foster returns from his groin injury, but Hopkins is going to dominate the targets, no matter who’s playing quarterback. Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts are fine complementary receivers, but Hopkins is a game-changing threat on a team that just doesn’t have very many of those. Remember, even with poor quarterback play last year, he surpassed 1,200 yards and scored six touchdowns. With Andre Johnson gone, his red-zone targets will increase, as well. Hopkins may have come off the board about 20 picks later than those elite receivers in an average draft, but he very well may join their ranks this season.