Keeping Week 1 in Perspective?
I imagine many fantasy experts are counselling patience if you own Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson or Rashard Mendenhall and to avoid irrational exuberance of you have Steve Smith, Mike Tolbert or Tom Brady. But keep in mind that Week 1 last year saw the following happen:
• Michael Vick takes over for an injured Kevin Kolb and goes 16 for 24, 174 yards, 1 TD and 103 yards rushing in the second half.
• Brandon Lloyd had five catches for 117 yards.
• Arian Foster rushed for 231 yards and three TDs.
• Brett Favre completed 15 of 27 passes for 171 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT.
• Randy Moss had 5 catches for 59 yards in a 38-24 win.
In other words, while one week of data shouldn't sway us entirely from our preseason convictions, we can't be cavalier and automatically write it off to a sample-size or matchup anomaly. The question as always in these cases is, apart from the unexpectedly strong or weak performances, what has fundamentally changed? Last year with Vick nothing had immediately changed role-wise (Kevin Kolb had just signed a large contract and was still the considered the starter), but we saw Vick's pre-prison running skills had not diminished and that in Andy Reid's system, his previously-unimagined passing skills had a proper outlet. Some of Vick's work came in garbage time, but the Eagles made it a game late, and Green Bay was a tougher-than-average pass defense. In short, there was reason to believe he'd have massive upside should anything happen to Kolb. As it turned out, Kolb missed another couple weeks, and Vick took the job for good.
So in that light, let's consider some of what happened this weekend:
• Cam Newton passes for 422 yards on 11.4 YPA, throws two TD passes, one pick and rushes for a score. Steve Smith catches eight balls for 178 yards and 2 TDs.
Newton isn't Vick, and on the long TD to Smith, the ball was actually underthrown, and only because Smith was so wide open did it not matter. The Cardinals seemed committed to stuffing the run (which they did), and in any event, their pass defense is poor. But it bodes well that the Panthers turned Newton loose right away, and that he immediately found a rapport with his star receiver, something that never happened all of last year in the Carolina passing game. Moreover, Smith at 32 doesn't seem to have lost a step. Put Newton in the top-15 at QB (project him around 18-20, but rank him around 15 due to upside) and Smith in the top-20 at WR.
• Mike Tolbert catches nine passes, scores three TDs. Ryan Mathews scores none.
I'd still rank Mathews narrowly ahead of Tolbert going forward. Two of Tolbert's TDs were on receptions, and he averaged only 2.9 yards per carry. Mathews looked quite a bit quicker and had three catches for 73 yards himself. Both backs will be involved, and Tolbert will get more goal-line carries, but I expect the Chargers to lean on the more talented and explosive back more often as the year goes on. Mathews had more to prove in Week 1, and he did. Moreover, if anything were to happen to Tolbert, Mathews becomes a top-five back in my opinion, ahead of Chris Johnson and probably Charles. Tolbert's value remains roughly constant – comparable to that of Benjarvus Green-Ellis with a boost in PPR (though I'd bet against Tolbert ever catching more than five passes again at any point this season).
• Tom Brady throws for 517 yards and four TDS. Wes Welker has eight catches for 160 yards and 2 TDs.
Take away the 99-yard TD, and Welker's numbers are nothing unusual. While Brady's are still big, they're not historically so, and in any event, it's Tom Brady – a top-five all-time real life QB. It's good to see Welker's 100 percent healthy and in no way permanently slowed down by his early 2010 knee surgery, but he's never been a big-play threat. Boost Welker on evidence that he's the player he was from 2007-2009, but don't expect him to ascend to a new level.
• Chris Johnson has nine carries for 24 yards.
Obviously, given the contract Johnson just received, the team isn't phasing him out of the offense. He also caught six passes and remained relevant in PPR leagues. The Tennessee offense might not be good, but Kenny Britt is someone for whom safeties have to account. I don't think there's much cause for concern if you drafted him expecting 2010 numbers.
• Jamaal Charles had 10 carries for 56 yards and lost a fumble.
Despite an abysmal game by the Chiefs, Charles still managed 5.6 yards per carry, and caught five balls. The environment isn't as good as last year's, but because Charles doesn't get a lot of goal-line carries anyway (and is also involved in the passing game), that matters less to him, i.e., he's not as dependent on environment as a touchdown workhorse like Mendenhall or Michael Turner. The fumble, coming off a preseason with ball security issues, isn't good, but shouldn't cost him touches unless it happens a couple more times. That Kansas City got blown out at home while not involving Charles enough might actually be good – maybe Todd Haley will use his best player appropriately for once. No change in value.
• Rashard Mendenhall had 12 carries for 45 yards and lost a fumble.
The Steelers were blown out, and it's hard for a back like Mendenhall to produce under those circumstances. As it stands, his role isn't in doubt (though it's worth noting his fumble in the Super Bowl was disastrous, and his leash might be tightening), and I'd expect the Steelers to be competitive in the vast majority of their games. The loss of RT Willie Colon is a blow (more to the passing game), but Colon missed all of last year, too, and Mendenhall was fine.
Other players of note:
• QBs: Chad Henne (mild upgrade), Mark Sanchez (upgrade due to pass-heavy play calling), Matthew Stafford (upgrade due to health and effectiveness), Eli Manning (mild downgrade due to shoddy offensive line play), Rex Grossman (mild upgrade, but keep in mind Giants decimated secondary), Kyle Orton (downgrade – played decently under the circumstances, but terrible line play, and a crowd chanting for his backup in Week 1).
• RBs: Darren McFadden (upgrade – looked healthy, fast and powerful, and Raiders can run block), Cedric Benson (upgrade – Cincy might not be a total doormat), Ben Tate (upgrade – showed he could take over should he be needed), Cadillac Williams (mild upgrade – opportunity plus unexpected spring in his step), Beanie Wells (upgrade – looks healthy for now), Steven Jackson (durability downgrade), James Starks/Ryan Grant (upgrade for Starks, downgrade for Grant), Danny Woodhead (upgrade – still involved in the offense as a runner and receiver).
• WR/TE: Kenny Britt (upgrade – targeted and healthy), Reggie Wayne (mild upgrade – hate to admit it, but the downgrade in QB might help Wayne as Kerry Collins locks in on him), Fred Davis (upgrade – Rex Grossman may prefer him to Chris Cooley), Aaron Hernandez/Rob Gronkowski (upgrade – same as last year, but both are better), Dez Bryant (mild upgrade – he looked dominant early even against Darrelle Revis, but he has to stay healthy), Miles Austin (mild downgrade – Bryant might be so good he steals No. 1 status), Robert Meachem (mild upgrade due to Marques Colston's injury), Scott Chandler (upgrade – Fitzpatrick made a player of Steve Johnson last year; why not the 6-7 Chandler this season?), Earl Bennett (mild downgrade – Jay Cutler didn't look his way much in Week 1).
Things to Watch for in Week 2
• The Philip Rivers-Tom Brady duel in New England
• Matt Ryan tries to pick up the pieces against Philly's all-world secondary
• Cam Newton-Steve Smith face a different degree of difficulty hosting Green Bay
• After dominating the Falcons, the Bears take on the Saints in New Orleans.
Beating the Book
Raiders +3.5 at Bills
The Bills annihilated the Chiefs in Kansas City last week, and I think we have to adjust our view of them somewhat. But the Raiders went into Denver Monday night and gave them a physical beating on both sides of the ball, pressuring and sacking Kyle Orton and running with authority. I think Buffalo can air it out effectively if Ryan Fitzpatrick has time, but I don't think he'll get it against Oakland's defensive front. Back the Raiders who win outright.
Raiders 20 - 17
We lost with the Jets last week to go 0-1 on the year, and went 8-7-1 in Week 1 overall. We were 10-7 in this forum last season and 40-27 over the four years of the column (we skipped Week 17 in 2007). From 1999-2010 we've gone 1565-1387 (53%, not including ties).
The full article comes out on Wednesday night.
Surviving Week 2
Last week, I rolled with the Texans which was about as stress-free as a survivor pick can be – though it was painful in the late games to see all those Arizona backers undeservedly make it through.
This week, the Steelers at home against the Seahawks are easily the biggest favorites on the board, but it's also a question of how many people in your pools are on the them. According to OfficeFootballPools.com, 43.4 percent are on Pittsburgh, while 17.7 percent are on the Jets (home against Jacksonville), 11.9 percent are on the Packers (in Carolina) and 9.9 percent are on the Lions (home against the Chiefs).
Let's assume for a moment you had a 10 unit entry fee and 100 people are left in your pool. If the Steelers were to lose, and you got through, that means 57 people would be left (assuming your pool picks roughly in line with the national average). In other words, your 10-unit stake would now be worth 17.5 units (1000 unit prize divided by 57 remaining survivors). If the Jets were to lose, and you got through, there would be 82 people left, and your stake would be worth 12.2 units. For the Packers and Lions, the numbers are closer to 11 units.
The bottom line is whether the extra risk of avoiding the Steelers (who are the most likely to win) is worth the added equity you gain should they in fact lose. Because the equity gain is roughly 60 percent, you have to ask whether the Steelers are 60 percent less likely to lose than those other teams. According to the Vegas moneylines, the Steelers are +650/-850, which means the true line is about -750. That translates into an 88/12 favorite (-750 means 750:100 which is the same as 750 out of 850 = 88 out of 100). The Packers are the next biggest at +400/-470 which means the true line is about -435. That translates into an 81/19 game. So at least according to Vegas, the Packers are about 58 percent (19% to 12%) more likely to lose than the Steelers.
That means when you consider the "pot odds," so to speak, these choices are very close. The Jets look like the team to avoid because their moneyline (+348/-407) is a little lower, and the equity growth (given the number of people on them) is slightly less. And Detroit is just +330/-400. But between Green Bay and Pittsburgh it's a very tough call.
My gut says the Steelers are more likely to play up to their capacity after an embarrassing home loss in Week 1, while Green Bay is more at risk of a clunker if they take the Panthers lightly on the road. For now I'm going Pittsburgh, though I reserve the right to change my mind Thursday night when the full article comes out.
You can follow me on Twitter at @Chris_Liss.