A six pack of games begins the pre-season Thursday night. Plenty of story lines will begin to take shape including the debut of Robert Griffin III and the return of Peyton Manning following a year off due to a neck injury.
Washington (0-0) vs. Buffalo (0-0)
We get our first look at RG III in a Redskins uniform. The dark lord of fantasy football, Mike Shanahan told his rookie quarterback to "let the plays happen—don't try to make it happen." What will also be worth a look will be the depth chart as it pertains to the running backs on the roster. Tim Hightower is currently listed as the top back with Roy Helu third on the charts.
There isn't anything sexy about the Bills and outside of Fred Jackson there isn't a player on the roster that is going to spash from a fantasy perspective. Wide receiver David Nelson will miss the game as he returns from a knee injury. Bills starters are expected to see between 15 and 20 plays in the game.
Baltimore (0-0) vs. Atlanta (0-0)
From all reports, Joe Flacco looks sharp. Memo to all who are in the buying Flacco stock, it is pre-season. From a consistency perspective, Flacco might be the poster child. He rarely misses a start and the past three season his yards and touchdowns are mirror images of one another (3,613; 3,622; 3,610 yards) and (21; 25 and 20 touchdowns). Is he ready to take that next step to become a top 10 fantasy quarterback?
Ray Rice might be the best back in fantasy football. His 15 total touchdowns last season were among the top in the NFL.
Pittsburgh (0-0) vs. Philadelphia (0-0)
Something has to give in the battle of Pennsylvania. We know receiver Mike Wallace is a camp hold out as he attempts to resolve his contract situation. Antonio Brown signed a five-year, $41.96 million contract and will be the guy until Wallace returns. With Rashard Mendenhall returning from a knee injury, the starting job looks to belong to Isaac Redman. It is not yet known how much if any Ben Roethlisberger will play as he is working through a left foot injury.
The self-dubbed "dream team" disappointed last year and while this version of the Eagles has everything to prove, they are now faced with the death of Andy Reid's son. How they collectively work through that will ultimately tell much about them as a team. Mike Vick looks to rebound from a let down performance on the field and receiver DeSean Jackson appears ready to wake from his 2011 slumber.
New Orleans (1-0) vs. New England (0-0)
There may be better storylines on day one, but this is the main event from a match-up perspective. The Saints won their pre-season opener against Arizona this past weekend in the NFL Hall of Fame Game. Both teams will hold joint practices prior to their match-up Thursday night, which could create some fireworks leading up to the game.
Drew Brees completed 4-of-5 passes for 41 yards against the Cardinals while Mark Ingram carried the ball 4 times for 14 yards scoring on a one-yard touchdown.
The Patriots formula for success through the air will continue this year. Dual tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski will once again lead the way and the NFL's most consistent receiver over the past five seasons Wes Welker will give Tom Brady plenty to look at as targets. If you are looking for the poster children of "running back by committee" look no further than the Pats. Steven Ridley is the best of the bunch, but Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden will all create plenty of fantasy frustration in the New England backfield.
Green Bay (0-0) vs. San Diego (0-0)
The elite offense of the Green and Gold is already showing some signs of wear early in camp. Top receiver Greg Jennings suffered a concussion during the annual team scrimmage and has been ruled out. According to reports, Jennings should be ready for week one. Aaron Rodgers has solidified himself as fantasy's top quarterback and there is little reason to believe he will dial that back. It will be interesting to watch the receiver depth develop as camp moves along. The running game is a completely different matter. One would think with a dynamic passing game would allow for a competent running game. Think again. James Starks is the top ranked Packer runner and he is buried at #43.
Philip Rivers didn't have the year his owners were looking for and well, it is difficult if not impossible to believe things will get much better this season. Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem are at the top of the wide receiver charts and Antonio Gates is another year older. Now for the good news. Ryan Mathews appears to have a grasp on the top spot in the backfield and will most likely get the ball at the goal line with the departure of the touchdown sniping Mike Tolbert bolting to Carolina.
Denver (0-0) vs. Chicago (0-0)
All eyeballs will be on this game as Peyton Manning returns after a year away following three neck surgeries. There will no doubt be rust that Manning will have to shake off, but one of the things to watch will be how he develops relationships with his receivers.
One of the most under the radar storylines from the off-season is the Peaches and Herb-esque reuniting of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall in Chicago. The move finally gives the Bears a legitimate down field threat and from a fantasy perspective might give their passing game some relevancy. Matt Forte got paid in the off-season and Michael Bush comes over from Oakland to give the Bears a solid one-two punch in the backfield.
Cleveland (0-0) vs. Detroit (0-0)
The story in Cleveland will be how quickly Trent Richardson can become not just a part of the offense, but the key piece in the Brad Childress "kick ass offense". While the receiver and quarterbacks should be avoided like the bird flu, Richardson is the one offensive piece worth watching in this game.
Detroit is led by the top receiver in fantasy football and one of the top young quarterbacks in the league. When healthy, Calvin Johnson is a fantasy beast and Matthew Stafford held up to put up his best season as a pro. Again the big question comes in the running game. Mikel Leshoure has more street value after being arrested twice for marijuana possession than he does fantasy value. Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith are ranked low on Charch's cheat sheet, but will see time in camp with Leshoure returning from an Achillies tendon tear last year.