1. Don't Expect Jacquizz Rodgers to Imitate Darren Sproles
One corollary of the Matt Ryan hype is a growing expectation that Jacquizz Rodgers will emerge as a flex option at running back, particularly in PPR leagues. Although Rodgers should be owned in most formats and does have some upside as a receiver, he's a fourth running back at most in 12-team leagues.
The reasoning with Rodgers' increased expectations goes like this: The Falcons want to lighten Michael Turner's workload, and Rodgers will get some of the carries. Also, Rodgers is Atlanta's best receiver at running back, and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is installing an aggressive passing offense, which means more snaps for Rodgers. Plus, the Falcons said they like him.
That's all great, but the Falcons said prior to last year that they were going to run the ball less, and Turner still received 301 carries. Some say this year will be different because this is Koetter's first year in Atlanta. That is true. But in Jacksonville Koetter's offenses ranked in the top five in rushing attempts three of five years. And if they run the ball, there's no reason why the Falcons would prefer Rodgers (3.6 yards per carry in 2011) over Turner (4.5 yards per carry).
Finally, even if we assume the Falcons will throw even more in 2012 than last year when only three teams exceed their pass attempts, it's not as if Rodgers would hold a monopoly on the running back snaps – he's too small to be a reliable pass blocker, and the Falcons still value Jason Snelling as a passing down back. Plus, there aren't a great deal of targets to go around after Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Rodgers might be lucky to total 750 yards from scrimmage.
2. Fred Jackson is a Top-10 RB Option This Week
Although some Fred Jackson owners might look at Sunday's road game against a usually tough Jets defense and wonder whether to go with an alternative, a switch should be made only in select situations. The Jets certainly have a strong defensive scheme, but the talent is only average, and it's a defense that should get stretched to its limit by a big snap count Sunday.
The Jets offense is plagued with poor talent at all skill positions, and a huge hole at right tackle undermines what otherwise would be a solid offensive line. That talent deficiency is set to collide with a Buffalo defense that boasts what might be the NFL's most talented front four, with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus being decent bets to make the Pro Bowl. The Jets defense might start strong, but it will be too tired by the second half to keep Jackson in check.
Jackson did well for himself in his one game against the Jets last year, running for 82 yards on 18 carries and catching three passes for 38 yards, but the improved defense on his own team will put him in position to increase those numbers as a helpless Jets offense hangs the Jets defense out to dry with three-and-outs and turnovers.
3. Peyton Manning will Disappoint Early
There's reason to believe that Manning, health permitting, will eventually post good or better numbers with Denver this year. But anyone who relies on him early in the year is asking for trouble, especially Week 1 against a Pittsburgh organization looking for payback over last year's wild card loss.
Optimistic training camp reports don't erase the obvious red flags presented by Manning's year out of football, new team and a neck that showed signs of trouble even before the 2010 season. In addition to those concerns, be aware that the last time Manning played after shaking off this sort of rust he struggled upon his return.
As others have pointed out this week, Manning wasn't himself when he returned from a knee issue that limited his activity before the 2008 season. Manning totaled 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his first seven games that year, averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt.
4. Brandon Pettigrew Should Start Strong in PPR
Detroit tight end coach Tim Lappano said in August that the Lions view Pettigrew as an extension of the running game. Given Pettigrew's average of just 9.4 yards per catch in 2011, it only takes a glance to see what Lappano means. With injury prone running backs, the Lions looked to Pettigrew to fill the short-yardage void.
Lappano reportedly told Pettigrew that he might not get as many chances this season if the Lions run the ball better. Good thing for Pettigrew, then, that there isn't much reason to expect a better running game in Detroit – at least not in the short term.
Kevin Smith enters Week 1 with a wobbly ankle, and Mikel Leshoure is suspended for the first two weeks. Smith's history says he's likely to either aggravate that ankle or add a new injury to his list, and Leshoure's recovery from a ruptured Achilles' tendon from last year likely will limit his effectiveness when his suspension concludes.
His poor touchdown ratio (five on 83 catches last year) and lack of downfield activity means Pettigrew is at most a low-end TE1 outside of PPR leagues, but in those formats he should possess a good floor as long as Detroit's running game remains dysfunctional.
5. Julio Jones' Ascent will Come at the Expense of Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez
If Julio Jones makes the jump to WR1 status this year, as most expect, it won't be because Matt Ryan threw for 5,000 yards. It will be because White's receptions dropped from 100 to at least 85, with Gonzalez's falling from 80 to at least 70.
The Atlanta passing game will probably grow after totaling 4,365 yards last year, but probably not beyond 4,700 yards. The team had the fourth-most passing attempts in the league last year, so there's little room for improvement there, and Ryan's career average of 7.0 yards per pass limits any reason to expect significant improvement over his 2011 average of 7.2 yards per pass – an average he totaled despite facing some of the worst pass defenses in recent memory in Carolina (twice), Tampa Bay (twice), Minnesota and Indianapolis.
Jones needs to exceed his 2011 total of 959 yards by at least 400 yards to justify his draft expense. Even if the Atlanta passing game improves by that amount, Jones won't lay claim to all of it. So, Jones must steal yards from others, and White and Gonzalez are the likely victims.
In the four games that Jones didn't catch a pass last year, White finished with 340 yards, while Gonzalez totaled 234 yards. Both figures exceeded their season rates. That effect will be amplified in 2012 because Jones' targets will increase.