- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
You'll see and hear it quite a bit from both fantasy football and NFL analysts this week, and really in September and beyond, how a certain NFL team destroyed its opponents in 2011 running the football, how one team's defense couldn't stop the pass, how strength of schedule means this or that ... You know what? It's a completely new season. Personnel around the league has changed. Game plans have been altered. It's time to form new opinions.
Of course, since it's only the first week of the season, the Week 1 fantasy rankings look quite a bit like the preseason ones we've been ruminating over for months, because nothing has really happened yet. That said, some teams have better or worse matchups than others, not based solely on 2011 stats but on reasonable opinion. For example, the Green Bay Packers offense faces arguably its toughest defensive test of the season against the San Francisco 49ers. Similarly, the 49ers are lucky enough to face the shootout-oriented Packers. Well, I ranked quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his wide receivers a bit harsher than my colleagues, but I'm not sitting them, and Alex Smith still didn't crack my top 10 quarterbacks, nor do I expect a monster day from wide receivers Michael Crabtree or Mario Manningham.
As you can see in the rankings provided by Matthew Berry, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Christopher Harris and I, they're relatively similar. Here and there a player breaks from the group pack, and while I cannot speak for my colleagues, nor do I question their fine work, I will discuss below the reasons why I rank certain players better or worse than the group. Look for this weekly blog entry we call "rankings reaction" each Wednesday, in conjunction with the weekly staff rankings. By the way, our rankings will be updated each Friday; this week, it happens on Thursday, after the Giants and Cowboys meet. Set your lineups now and get Dez Bryant active (and Jason Witten benched).
Quarterback: My Rodgers rank of No. 5 stands out here, but all it really means is that I like four other quarterbacks more for this week. It's not like one of them is Christian Ponder, though. Rodgers reached 20 standard fantasy points in all but one of the games he played in last year, so I wouldn't expect a disaster performance. If anything, this is the one week to avoid the 49ers defense. ... Similarly, while I expect that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must improve defensively from the second half of last season, this is likely the best I'll rank Cam Newton (second). ... I also ranked Dallas Cowboys passer Tony Romo two spots worse than average because I worry a bit about weapons Miles Austin and whoever starts at tight end. I suppose Kevin Ogletree could catch 100 yards worth of passes, in theory. ... You'll see the staff greatly differs on Seattle Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson; I ranked him 25th because even though he faces what shouldn't be a great Arizona Cardinals defense, relying on a guy in his first start is dangerous. ... My No. 21 quarterback didn't make the group cut: It's the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez, who faces the Buffalo Bills. It seems we're all unfairly writing him off. While he's not close to starter-worthy for me, he does have skills. Tim Tebow was not ranked by anyone. Just wait until those bye weeks, though.
Running back: The two players I seem far less comfortable with than my colleagues are Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks and Darren Sproles of the New Orleans Saints. Lynch is still a viable No. 2 fantasy back for me, but he has dealt with back spasms the past few weeks, and let's face it, he's missed games for lesser reasons before. Would it shock anyone if Sunday morning we find out he can't play? I'm not really that worried, though. Plus, his backup, Robert Turbin, had a big preseason, so a relative timeshare this week wouldn't be a shock. I'll move Turbin into my top 50 later in the week. As for Sproles, I'm sure the knee problems that have plagued him for the past month aren't that big a deal, but the Saints do have other options. Sproles is more flex than RB2 for me Sunday. ... I liked Frank Gore, Reggie Bush and apparently Maurice Jones-Drew more than others. I'm sure I'll write more about MJD later in the week, but suffice it to say this is a terrific time to buy low on him, if possible. Perhaps he really does see only 10 or so touches this week, but I'm not buying it.
Wide receiver: There's always more movement at wide receiver. I'm lowest on Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, but I still have each as No. 2 fantasy receivers. ... I'm lowest on Steve Smith, though I acknowledge his potential. You can tell me how Smith blew up in Week 1 last season for 178 yards and two scores, but I think that's irrelevant. What, playing well in Week 1 is a particular skill? Tell me how bad the Bucs are defensively and I'll point out that in two games against them last year, Smith totaled five fantasy points. Still, I do have Smith 16th. ... I'm not wasting time ranking Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens well; he's in my No. 20 spot. ... I'm highest on Indianapolis Colts veteran Reggie Wayne. Is it overcompensating from a relatively low preseason rank? This is the Chicago Bears he faces. I see the Bears scoring early and the Colts throwing often. I actually like the Colts offense this season, but this isn't a pleasant matchup, on paper. ... And finally, for deeper leagues, I ranked Santonio Holmes, Kendall Wright (this week only, probably), Greg Little and Danny Amendola better than the others.