This NFC West rivalry has been very one-sided in the recent past.
NFC West rivals will clash tonight when the St. Louis Rams host the Arizona Cardinals at 8:20 pm EST on the NFL Network. The Cardinals have been one of the better stories in the NFL after one month, as Ken Whisenhunt’s club is one of only three undefeated teams in the league. Arizona has won 10 of the last 11 meetings against the Rams, but St. Louis has won both of its home games under new coach Jeff Fisher.
Never bench your studs. Yeah, right. Just because you drafted a running back in the first round, don't think you can just set him in the starting lineup and not have to worry about him falling on his face.
Case in point is Week 1 and Baltimore's Ray Rice. If you're in a non-PPR sit him. If you're in a league without a flex position, sit him. And if you're in a PPR league with a flex position, really consider going somewhere else this week if you have better options/matchups.
Ray Rice gets Pittsburgh to open the season — he will also have to face the Steelers and their No. 1 run defense in the NFL and No. 1 in points per game allowed to RBs in fantasy last season at just 12.9 in Week 9. Yes, we love Ray Rice. But maybe we love him too much considering he has to face the Steelers twice this season and the Jets in Week 4 (No. 2 in PPG to RBs at 14). But back to Week 1. In two games against the Steelers last year, Rice ran for 52 yards total, caught three balls for 27 yards total and failed to reach the end zone. In two starts that's 10.9 points in a full PPR league and 7.7 in a standard league — in TWO starts.
In five regular-season games against the Steelers in his career, Rice has a total of 281 yards rushing, nine catches for 108 yards and NO touchdowns. That's 77.8 total yards and 1.8 catches per game. So his career fantasy average vs. the Steelers in a full-PPR league is 9.5 points and 7.7 in non-PPR.
You need look no further than what Chris Johnson, coming off a 2,000-yard rushing season, did in the opener against Pittsburgh last year: 34 yards rushing and five catches for 19 yards — 5.3 in a non-PPR and 10.3 in a full-PPR.
Rice was the ninth-best back in PPG last year at 15.3. Seeing Pittsburgh twice a year, along with the Jets, all before the fantasy postseason, is not a confidence builder for his 2011 prospects if you just assume he is not going to come close to reaching his average in those three games.
No other top-12 back faces Pittsburgh twice, but there are three that face Pittsburgh and the Jets: Rice, Jamaal Charles and Maurice Jones-Drew.
We know Rice's numbers vs. the Steelers. He has played the Jets once (last year's season opener) and went for 43 yards rushing, 19 yards receiving on two catches and no scores. That's 6.2 points in a non-PPR and 8.2 in a full-PPR.
Charles has faced the Steeler and Jets once each — 58 yards rushing, two catches for eight yards and one score against the Steelers in 2009 and 45 yards rushing, one catch for four yards and no scores against the Jets in his rookie season of 2008.
MJD has faced the Steelers three times, rushing for 80 yards and one score and adding 13 catches for 59 yards and no scores. He has faced the Jets twice, rushing for 182 yards and three scores and catching two balls for 22 yards and no scores. Clearly, MJD is the best against these two teams, but now with the release of QB David Garrard and teams knowing it's stack the box time, having success against these two teams in the first six weeks of the season is a tall order.
Here are the top five fantasy defenses against RBs last season, and which RBs have to face them this year.
Pittsburgh — 12.9
New York Jets — 14.0
Green Bay — 15.7
Atlanta & Baltimore — 16
No. 1 Arian Foster — Pittsburgh (Week 4), Baltimore (Week 6), Atlanta (Week 13) No. 2 Adrian Peterson — Green Bay (Week 7), Green Bay (Week 10), Atlanta (Week 12) No. 3 Ray Rice — Pittsburgh (Week 1), N.Y. Jets (Week 4), Pittsburgh (Week 9) No. 4 LeSean McCoy — Atlanta (Week 2), New York Jets (Week 15) No. 5 Jamaal Charles — Pittsburgh (Week 12), New York Jets (Week 14), Green Bay (Week 15) No. 6 Chris Johnson — Baltimore (Week 2), Pittsburgh (Week 5), Atlanta (Week 11) No. 7 Rashard Mendenhall — Baltimore (Week 1), Baltimore (Week 9) No. 8 Maurice Jones-Drew — New York Jets (Week 2), Pittsburgh (Week 6), Baltimore (Week 7), Atlanta (Week 15) No. 9 Darren McFadden — New York Jets (Week 3), Green Bay (Week 14) No. 10 Steven Jackson — Baltimore (Week 3), Green Bay (Week 6), Pittsburgh (Week 16) No. 11 Matt Forte — Atlanta (Week 1), Green Bay (Week 3), Green Bay (Week 16) No. 12 Frank Gore — Baltimore (Week 12), Pittsburgh (Week 15)
Of course you can't run from all of the top-12 backs in fantasy football, but this is just meant to inform you of when to beware. And maybe with eight of the first 12 backs each facing a top-five fantasy run defense at least three times, perhaps their value is not as great as once thought.
Bottom line: Sit em vs. the Steelers and Jets and cross your fingers for the rest.
On to Ask Athlon for Week 1...
Kevin Kolb or Jay Cutler Week 1? — Mike Crowther from Athlon Sports on Facebook
Wow, that's a tough one. Cutler was sacked a league-high 56 times last season, but Kolb's opponent, Carolina, wasn't far behind with 50 sacks allowed. Cutler faces an Atlanta team that allowed the fifth-most points to fantasy WRs last year (30.5 PPG), while Carolina was much better at fifth-best (22.8 PPG). Arizona has Larry Fitzgerald and Todd Heap and a new QB in Kolb and the Cardinals are on the road against a coach In Ron Rivera hired for his defensive mind. The Bears are at home, with more weapons and Cutler in his second year in Mike Martz's offense. It's a close call, but I'd go Cutler.
Julio Jones, Jonathan Stewart or Marshawn Lynch at the flex spot, non-PPR — Chris Kaschok from Athlon Sports on Facebook
All I see when I think of the Falcons, Week 1 and a receiver is Michael Jenkins streaking down the field to catch Matt Ryan's first-ever pro pass for a 62-yard touchdown in 2008. One play and Jenkins had 12.2 points in non-PPR leagues, add a point in PPR. Chicago's Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman are no bums when it comes to covering receivers but the Bears' rush defense was second in the league last season. So expect the Falcons to come out showing off their new weapon in the rookie receiver from Alabama. I feel better about his opportunities to get you the 12 points you want from your flex spot than the other two options.
Stewart ran for 137 yards and no scores against Arizona last season when he was the primary back. But DeAngelo Williams is back, rookie QB Cam Newton can't throw and expect the Cardinals to key on the run. With Stewart playing second fiddle and the Cardinals focused on one thing — stopping the run — hard to expect much from JStew in this one.
Lynch is in Seattle. Enough said. Get the great playoff run he had against the Saints out of your mind. I am not touching a single Seahawk this season until they get a new QB — and that QB is not currently on the roster.
Who do you like more this week. Big Ben at the Ravens or Tony Romo at the Jets? — @AthlonBraden on Twitter (because even Athlon editors need help setting their lineups)
Both teams are in similar situations. The Steelers and Cowboys go up against top-notch run defenses and will probably have to go to the air to have success. I give the edge to Roethlisberger for three reasons: familiarity, health and the other team's defensive backfield.
Roethlisberger has not lost in his last seven tries against his AFC North rivals, and averages 21.6 points per game over the last 12 meetings. The Steelers are healthy, minus Emmanuel Sanders being banged up with his foot injury, although Antonio Brown filled in nicely in the preseason. Jets shutdown corner Darrelle Revis is not on the other side of the field for Big Ben to face.
Romo has only faced the Jets once — 195 yards, two scores and an interception in 2007. Romo does have to face Revis. He does so with a hamstring injury to his No. 1 receiver, Miles Austin, who would be lined up against Revis. His No. 2, Dez Bryant, is unproven with Romo at the helm so far. Add all that with the fact the Cowboys' No. 16 run offense from a year ago, now minus Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode who they released, goes up against the No. 3 ranked rushing defense.
Athlon Sports looks at the sleepers and busts at the quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end positions this week. These are the players we think you can wait on and still get solid production from and the players we think have an average draft position (ADP) that is too high for what you will get in return.
Now it's the quarterbacks' turn. There are five QBs you can seemingly set it and forget it — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning (if he's back in time for Week 1). But what do you do if you pass (or miss) on them? Well, if you keep on waiting, here are some that could serve you well.
See more of Athlon Sports value players, overvalued players and top rookies in our Best Bets story
Guys that give you a reason not reach for the five set it and forget it players...
Matt Ryan, Atlanta
Hype has followed Ryan basically since he entered the league, and it’s not hard to see why. Two of his three seasons have ended in the playoffs, and the fourth-year pro has a career TD-INT ratio of about 2-1. The huge draft-day trade for Julio Jones has the fantasy-hype train chugging along. Ryan, who was fifth in the league in pass attempts last season (571), now has Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas in the slot at his disposal. The Falcons led the NFL in offensive scrimmage plays last season, running at least 49 more plays than in either of Ryan’s previous two campaigns.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
His ceiling remains lower than other passers. Visions of 2007’s 32 touchdown passes dance in some drafters’ heads, but that season remains a bit of an outlier. Roethlisberger’s 7.9 percent TD rate that season stands 1.6 points better than any other he has posted. His next two came in his first two years, each of which included fewer than 300 pass attempts. By comparison, Big Ben notched a 4.4 rate last season, good for 18th in the league, or one spot behind Carson Palmer. Still, it's hard to discount the 3,200 yards and 17 scores in 12 games (extrapolated out it goes to 4,200 yards and 23 scores). Certainly worth racking up other skill positions while the rest of your league grabs QBs and then taking Big Ben in the 5-7-round range.
Matt Schaub, Houston
The thing about Schaub is that you know he’ll throw it a bunch. He led the league in attempts in his breakout 2009 and ranked fifth last year. His two lowest totals opened and closed the season. In between, Schaub tallied fewer than 32 attempts just once — and then it was 29. This season should present a healthy Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. Combine those replenished top two targets with a passer who has lowered his INT rate for three straight years, and there’s little downside.
Sam Bradford, St. Louis
There was a lot to like about Bradford’s numbers as a rookie, including an INT rate better than that of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Most observers believe Bradford has a chance to improve in Year 2, now under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The promise, however, must outweigh the questions at receiver: Will Mark Clayton be OK after his injury? Can Danario Alexander stay healthy? Can Danny Amendola produce like Wes Welker? Will the rookies deliver? If you haven't grabbed a QB yet, this is probably the last who could be counted on as an every-week starter.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit
He produced well in three games last season, but that’s too small of a sample to mean anything in a sport of small sample sizes. We know Stafford has plenty of arm. NFL Films showed us his toughness in that 2009 win over Cleveland. The weapons are obvious — and they don’t matter all that much beyond Calvin Johnson. The big question with Stafford is that shoulder, and it’ll create significant differences in his draft position. If he could only stay healthy is the mantra of many a fantasy player concerning Bradford. He's thrown for 2,800 yards combined in his 13 career games the last two years, and has one of the game's best WRs in Johnson, an emerging TE in Brandon Pettigrew and a pass-catching RB in Jahvid Best.
Jay Cutler, Chicago
A healthy Cutler has to produce more in 2011. The 2010 Bears attempted fewer passes (466) than any other team and tallied their fewest scrimmage plays (936) since 1993. Both numbers will rise. We’ve heard about the complicated Mike Martz pass offense, so it’s fair to assume Cutler and his receivers will have a better grasp this time around. Let’s also assume more weight on their shoulders, as 2010 presented Martz’s first offense that ran as much as 44 percent of the time. Cutler wasn't a complete bum in his first year in Martz's system. He threw for nearly 3,300 yards and 23 TDs while being sacked a league-high 52 times. It's easy to say: If you just add a few extras of this and that he would be ... Since it's easy to say such things, we will. So, give him an extra 50 yards a game and he's a 4,000-yard passer. The offensive line should be somehwat more cohesive and his leading receiver from a year ago, Johnny Knox, is now No. 4 on the depth chart. That tells you the coaches must like what they see from the other three.
Kevin Kolb, Arizona
Kolb remains a fairly hot ticket despite having only seven pro starts and three more career picks than touchdowns. He started the excitement in 2009 with a pair of 300-yard games. One came while playing from behind, though, and the other against a weak K.C. secondary. Injury killed his 2010 starting shot, and Kolb delivered just one noteworthy fantasy outing. An outstanding supporting cast helped him with the big numbers he did tally. After Bradford and Stafford, this has to be the sexy QB sleeper pick of 2011. Groomed by Andy Reid in Philadelphia, the Cardinals coveted Kolb from the get-go. He gets Larry Fitzgerald, one of the game's top five WRs and plays against a relatively easy division and schedule altogether.
Guys that have potential to be more than bye-week replacements...
Ryan Fiztpatrick, Buffalo
Fitzpatrick brings two things to the party: 1) opportunity, and 2) running ability. You don’t want to draft some little Ivy-Leaguer from Buffalo with a cool beard, but he’ll throw the ball plenty. That’s why he delivered 23 touchdowns last season in just 13 games. His pace would have meant 543 attempts over a full season, which would have ranked seventh in the league for a team that ran the sixth-fewest offensive plays. The team went defense with its first three picks to start the NFL Draft. They won’t be impacts immediately, plus the Bills lost LB Paul Posluszny and DB Donte Whitner to free agency. If nothing else, just the opportunity to put the ball in the air a lot makes Fitzpatrick appealing, as do the 269 rushing yards he added in 13 games to make him the fifth-best rushing QB.
Colt McCoy, Cleveland
Say this for Jake Delhomme: He’s a good guy to follow as your team’s starting QB. The former Panther was so bad that McCoy looked good while posting a QB rating that would have ranked 28th in the league had he qualified. Actually, McCoy did play well considering his situation. His 60.8 completion rate and 7.1 yards per attempt, over 222 passes in eight games, ranked in the middle of the league despite a weak set of wideouts. The West Coast offense might suit him well and the addition of rookie WR Greg Little certainly helps. He also has a friendly schedule until the fantasy playoffs begin in Week 14.
Jason Campbell, Oakland
Campbell has never had it easy, from the coordinator turnstile in Washington to having Bruce Gradkowski sitting over his shoulder in Oakland last season. He’s better than that, though, and Hue Jackson seems to agree. The new head coach was the offensive coordinator in 2010, when Campbell posted his best TD rate in a season in which he started more than seven games. Campbell has also averaged 5.0 yards per carry in his career and topped 220 yards rushing in three straight seasons. He has two solid RBs behind him, a bevy of quick receivers and a TE in Kevin Boss that may have been under utilized in New York. The schedule is somewhat favorable until the fantasy playoffs and the Raiders' defense, or lack thereof, may allow for more opportunities.
Two rookies worth a late flier on...
Cam Newton, Carolina
The best thing for fantasy owners to do in advance of Newton’s rookie season might be to look back at Vince Young’s debut. Young took over in Week 4, started 13 games, rushed for 300 more yards than any QB not named Michael Vick and finished as a top-12 fantasy passer. The Titans had a solid running back (Travis Henry) and no special pass-catchers. Newton comes with a better arm, two better running backs (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart), two solid TEs in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey and a true No. 1 wideout in Steve Smith. Young scored 225 fantasy points as a rookie, and if you told us we could get a potential 225-point QB in the final three rounds, we would jump at it.
Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville
Newton is the rookie to go for considering he is the most likely to start all season, but Gabbert is the next most likely rookie starting QB candidate. He does have an average offensive line, RB (Jones-Drew), TE (Lewis) and WR (Thomas) to help him along. He was a 63 percent passer, averaging just under 250 yards per game in Missouri's spread offense last season, and can also use his legs to be productive. Let's say he starts after the Week 9 bye, the teams Gabbert will face include: the Colts, Browns, Texans, Chargers, Buccaneers, Falcons and Titans.
Two guys that have already proven they can be dependable fantasy QBs and are playing behind injury-prone QBs... Shaun Hill, Detroit
Considering he entered 2010 as an off-the-radar backup, Hill was terrific. He put forth fantasy-starter value in his first start and generated plenty of other points thanks to a ton of pass attempts. That success helps to build momentum for Matthew Stafford’s fantasy stock now that the starter is back healthy. Hill has tossed 39 TDs versus 23 INTs in his career. If Stafford gets hurt, Hill put up three 300-yard games, 244 yards per game and nearly 1.5 TDs a game in his 11 outings last season.
Jon Kitna, Dallas
Had the Cowboys not opened so poorly, Tony Romo’s injury would have looked like a season-killer. It revived Kitna’s career, though. Two shaky initial starts gave way to four multi-score outings over the final seven weeks. Kitna topped 300 yards four times and helped Jason Witten to a career-high nine touchdowns. He posted the best TD rate of his career. Romo’s return pushes Kitna back behind the curtain, but at least we know what he can do in the event of another injury to the starter. Kitna put up 237 yards per game and 1.6 TDs a game in 10 outings.
BUSTS Michael Vick, Philadelphia
Even Vick’s coaches couldn’t have foreseen his 2010 season. Being the unchallenged starter can only help, even without minicamps and OTAs. First-round pick Danny Watkins, a guard, strengthens an offensive line that ranked fifth-worst in adjusted sack rate, according to FootballOutsiders.com. Speed and talent surround Vick, making it easier for him to create big plays with his arm than his legs. Vick’s career-high of nine rushing TDs figures to regress, but we know he’ll continue to produce there. Of course, he also lost four games to a running-related rib injury.
Matt Cassel, Kansas City
Seven players threw more TD passes than Cassel last season. All attempted at least 25 more throws and threw for at least 589 more yards. No QB has thrown for less yardage than Cassel did last year while ranking among the league’s top 12 in touchdown passes since 2006. That would seem to indicate a TD level that’s tough to sustain. Cassel will need to attempt significantly more passes to have a shot at repeating his numbers. Plus, who knows how efficient the offense will be with Charlie Weis back in college?
Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay
Freeman’s reputation might start to outgrow his actual value. His TD-to-INT ration of 25-to-6 last year was obviously tremendous. Five of those scores, however, came in a single home game against Seattle. It was the only time all year that Freeman threw for more than two TDs in a game. A guy known for above-average running ability also failed to rush for a single touchdown. Luck seems likely to change that, but Freeman’s next NFL ground score will be his first. His team also won’t sneak up on anyone this year. Full disclosure, we have him ranked at 81 in our Athlon 280, and we thought that might be low. But he has an ADP of 100 in MockDraftCentral.com drafts and an ADP of 66 in MyFantasyLeague.com drafts. So he's a bust somewhere and a great value somewhere.
We break down the Cardinals chances at making a Super Bowl run this season.
It seems patently unfair to say this is a critical season for Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. After all, Whisenhunt led the moribund Arizona franchise to the Super Bowl just three seasons ago.
But NFL fans have short memories, and Whisenhunt’s botched handling of the quarterback situation last year has some folks wondering if that Super Bowl run had more to do with quarterback Kurt Warner than the Cardinals’ coach.
• Inside the Locker Room
With Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic
Can we trust any Arizona RB this year? *
Don’t spend a high draft choice on any Cardinals running back, because it’s uncertain if any of their backs will get the majority of the touches. Arizona loves Williams’ potential, but he’s a rookie, and the club wants to give Wells one last shot to see if he can prove he was worth a first-round pick. Also, LaRod Stephens-Howling could be the third down back, further limiting the fantasy value of the others. *analysis prior to Williams season-ending injury
Is the Cardinals defense worth a look as a starting defense in fantasy football this season?
The defense is worth a look only if it picks up a pass-rusher in free agency and top pick Patrick Peterson proves to be a shutdown corner. If the DBs can bottle up the receivers, Arizona’s pass rush — while not the best in the league — could still rack up a few sacks.
• Fantasy Playoff Run — Weeks: 14-16: SF, CLE @CIN
Larry Fitzgerald was third in targets (173) and fourth in catches (90) without a QB and now gets Kevin Kolb. Fitz should have a strong stretch run as he goes against the pass defenses of the 49ers (24th), Browns (18th) and Bengals (14th). All three opponents surrendered at least 96.7 yards rushing per game, as well.
• Athlon Best Bets
Sleeper: Beanie Wells, RB Deep-Sleeper: Rob Housler, TE Overvalued: Kevin Kolb, QB Top Rookie: Patrick Peterson, DB Bounce-Back: Larry Fitzgerald, WR Top IDP: Kerry Rhodes, DB
• Try to Avoid Todd Heap, TE
The tight end class is one of the deepest it’s ever been, and Heap is on the back end of it. He still has momentary flashes of greatness, but we would rather play for the upside at this position. WAIT UNTIL: 19th Rd
• Draft Class Fantasy Impact(analysis prior to Williams season-ending injury)
Williams was a surprising selection in the second round, especially with Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells already in the mix. Barring injury, Williams will likely hold only RB4 value with the Cardinals using a committee approach on the ground. Arizona tight ends caught only 25 passes last season, which could open the door for Housler to play soon. However, the acquisition of Todd Heap may hinder that plan.
The NFL’s quarterback landscape has seen considerable changes since the lockout ended.
Kevin Kolb, Cardinals
Arizona traded away 2008 first-round pick (No. 16 overall) and 25-year-old Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie along with its 2012 second-round pick to acquire the young gun with seven career starts under his belt.
With free agency’s usual five-month time frame being condensed into five weeks, the phones of both team executives and the players they’re pursuing are about to be set ablaze with constant activity. Some teams would rather lay low, but the ten teams that follow have one available move that would fill a tremendous need, offer roster or cap flexibility, or simply get the fan base excited.