Kickoff is time to start ’em, sit ’em or prepare to swap ’em

Hallelujah! NFL Kickoff is finally upon us.

For fantasy football junkies everywhere, this day is akin to Christmas. Or your birthday. Or Halloween – I really love Halloween. Or all of them rolled into one. It’s huge.

The big boys strap on the helmets and pads for real tonight when the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens travel to Denver to take on Peyton Manning’s Broncos in what should be a fun night for loads of fantasy footballers.

The plays tonight are all fairly obvious. You’ll want to start Ray Rice and Torrey Smith for the Ravens and Manning and his trio of wide receivers, for sure. If you’re more of a risk-taker, or you play in a deeper league, you may be starting Joe Flacco and Ed Dickson on the Baltimore side of the ball or flexing one of the three Denver running backs in the mix for carries. My recommendation on the latter? Plug somebody else in this week while we all watch to see who John Fox leans on the most tonight.

And that brings me to today’s subject: Who and what to watch for in Week 1. Inevitably, there will be unexpected players who come out of nowhere to explode in the first official week of play, only to fade away as the season moves forward. Kevin Ogletree and Frisman Jackson immediately spring to mind.
But the fact is, most valuable free agents in your league this season may not do very much at all this weekend.

It’s important to have a list of potential targets to keep an eye on and look for the subtle things that may signal an up-tick in playing time, production and, subsequently, value. Here’s my list of those guys to keep an eye on and some specific things to watch for:

* E.J. Manuel – Buffalo’s rookie quarterback is healthy and will be starting against the always intimidating New England Patriots in Week 1. Chances are, Manuel will struggle with the stage and the multiple looks Bill Belichick will throw at him on defense. Still, the rookie from Florida State is cut from a similar physical mold as some of the more recent young success stories at the QB position. Watch for Manuel to make a few “flash” plays and track how often he pulls the ball down and runs versus his efficiency in the passing game. He doesn’t have to be a prolific passer to be valuable. He just needs to be mobile, accurate and protect the football.

* Isaiah Pead – Okay. I understand what you’re thinking. Pead is suspended for Week 1, so how can we keep an eye on him? That’s kind of the point. I’m not totally sold on Daryl Richardson as the starter in St. Louis and I believe Pead may have a large role still to play for the Rams if Richardson comes out of the gate slowly vs. the Cardinals. The Rams did invest a 2012 second round pick in Pead, after all. It’s tough to see them giving up on him this soon.

* Joseph Randle – Another guy whose team invested in him and has yet to find a clearly defined role. In fairness to Randle, however, he is just a rookie. What you’ll want to watch for Sunday night against the Giants is whether Randle gets involved in the Dallas offense and how he looks if he gets the nod as DeMarco Murray’s backup over Phillip Tanner. It’s crucial that Randle makes the most of his touches because the Cowboys have shown a preference to Lance Dunbar at RB2 and Murray is an injury magnet. The winner of this backup spot will almost certainly have fantasy value this season.

* Cordarrelle Patterson – Patterson is a supremely talented player who is owned in barely 50% of leagues due largely to doubts about QB Christian Ponder. Patterson’s raw athleticism is enticing and bears watching to see if Minnesota gets him involved on slants, quick outs, bubble screens and reverses a la his predecessor, Percy Harvin. The rookie is listed as questionable right now, but is a must-watch if he plays Sunday.

* Brian Hartline – Hartline is the anti-Patterson. Nothing about him screams athletically gifted or raw. He’s a refined number two NFL wideout who — despite coming off a 1,083 yard season — has been overlooked in standard 10-team leagues during draft season. The addition of Mike Wallace opposite Hartline in Miami should be a boon to the former Buckeye’s fantasy prospects rather than a hinderance. Pay attention to his targets against Cleveland.

* Tyler Eifert – Rookie tight ends are not typically big fantasy football contributors. Even the almighty Gronk didn’t post big reception or yardage numbers as a rookie in 2010. But Gronkowski did put up ten touchdowns. Eifert is probably not as good as Rob Gronkowski, but the fact that we can’t say he definitely isn’t is enough for me to be watching the rookie from Notre Dame with a keen eye. Eifert has crazy athletic ability and adjusts to balls in the air as well as any TE to enter the league in many moons. He could be a breakout this year or merely fall in line behind veteran Jermaine Gresham.

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