Welcome to Week 1. Your meticulous draft preparations mean nothing now.
Fantasy football is, of course, the fast food of fantasy sports, which is why Americans love it so much. If there's something on which we can gorge ourselves unhealthily and then regularly be let down by in the end, we are so there.
There's no game that administrative assistants, scatterbrained uncles and 4-year-old neighbors' kids are better at winning than fantasy football. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, injuries are more common in the NFL than bank toasters in Bill Gates' kitchen. Some members of your league's first round will wind up out for the season at some point this year, and there's nothing you can do about it (except handcuff). Also, for all the "experts'" surety about who the consensus top pick should be (last year, most were positive it was Larry Johnson, followed by Shaun Alexander), it's just really hard to predict these things. Yes, you were smart to take LaDainian Tomlinson No. 1 overall, because there's a better chance he scores more fantasy points than anyone else in the league. But I'd still peg that probability at lower then 50 percent. Too many weird things can happen. One minute's guaranteed performance is the next minute's "From Justin to Kelly." And finally, the playoffs in fantasy football are kind of random. As the NFL season winds down, our playoffs heat up, and those two things don't mix very well. Hot weeks from scrubs often cause dominant regular-season teams to go bellies-up by championship time.
Nevertheless, we do what we can. Football's just too awesome to leave alone, and fantasy football's super fun. The best strategy is to stay current with the state of the league, and that's why weekly rankings are useful. On the one hand, all weekly rankings can really do is try to lay out probabilities; the lists that follow here will definitely not be the order in which individual players will deliver value in Week 1. But on the other hand, at least we can dynamically adjust to trends and surprises. And I can write some notes that hopefully make you smile a little. Enjoy!
Notes: Thursday's Colts/Saints game should be an air show. The Saints tied for the sixth-highest fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks in ESPN.com's standard game last year, and while the Colts didn't give up a lot of points to fantasy QBs (mostly because everyone was too busy running on them), you can bet New Orleans will throw a ton to Marques Colston, Reggie Bush, et al. ... Some expect the Bengals/Ravens game to be very low-scoring, but I'm not one of 'em. The Bengals have to throw to win, and while Baltimore's defense will be strong again this year, it gave up a few huge air games in '06. And the Bengals' pass defense doesn't look a lot better than it did last year, when opposing quarterbacks torched them for 17.5 points a game, tops in the league. ... The Giants' secondary is another that scares the bejeezus out of me. The pass rush was injured last year, and should return to relevance, but oh those corners. Sam Madison looked old in the preseason... three years ago ...and if you've got R.W. McQuarters in your IDP league, good luck. Tony Romo will get sacked a few times, and might fumble, but he'll also torch the Jints deep. ... I have Brady lower in Week 1 than I did in my overall rankings, and I was tempted to lower him even more. The Man-genius had his number a little bit last year (the Jets picked him off twice and only allowed him two TD passes), and New York's secondary personnel is getting stronger (man, is Kerry Rhodes getting some national love, or what?). As I say, I almost lowered Brady more, but those weapons should still be pretty fun, even if Randy Moss isn't at full strength. ... Similarly, despite the fact that evidently I've turned into ESPN's biggest Vince Young booster, I put him lower this week than I have him overall this season. Jacksonville's defense isn't stellar fantasy-wise because they don't turn the ball over enough, but they're tough and represent a bad matchup for VY. He threw three picks against them in a game last year. ... I like both Alex Smith and David Garrard a lot this week. Arizona's rush defense may be a bit better, but I'm suspicious of Rod Hood and Eric Green as starting corners. (Antrel Rolle has been very disappointing.) And the Titans' Pacman-free zone should be friendly to Garrard, who frankly isn't a very good quarterback in real life, but makes up for it with his legs in fantasy. ... I'm not all that high on Leinart this year anyway, at least to the extent that I don't have him as a fantasy starter, but from this week's ranks, it's pretty clear I've bought some of the hype about the Niners' defense. Free-agent dollars don't tend to deliver an equivalent bang, but sue me: I've always been a sucker for Nate Clements. ... I have Rivers really low this week, too. He's another dude hurt by his opponent (say it with me in a scary voice: "The Bears!"), and also by the fact that he doesn't throw in the red zone. I probably won't have him much higher next week against the Patriots, either. Such is the life of LT's caddie.
Notes: For all the worries about Kansas City's offensive line, and all the impossible hype surrounding Steven Jackson's awesomeness, I've got LJ a stitch higher in Week 1. Last year, the Texans were the eighth-friendliest defense to fantasy rushers, while the Panthers were 24th. These things don't usually transfer directly from year to year, but at least you understand my logic. ... The Saints were way easier to pass against last season, which explains why I dropped Addai just a bit. Of course, he'll be active as a receiver, too, so maybe I'm just full of it. ... And if we turn Thursday night's opener around, we have my happy twins at Nos. 12 and 13. You can definitely start both Saints backs with vim and vigor this week. Cato June is gone, Bob Sanders is recovering from another shoulder surgery, and offenses can focus a lot of energy on the only guy who really scares you, Dwight Freeney. ... I'm not normally this high on the latter-day Edgerrin James, but as much as I like Nate Clements, he probably doesn't do a lot to help a Niners' rush defense that was second-friendliest to opposing rushers (after the Colts) last season. ... I don't have both Redskins rushers this high because I think Miami is super-soft or anything like that. Mostly, it's that when they're healthy, those Washington offensive tackles are still scary-good. Portis and Betts should split carries pretty evenly this week, though as long as he's healthy, Portis is clearly your goal-line guy. ... If you drafted Tatum Bell thinking Kevin Jones would miss the first six weeks, oops. But you might as well play Bell this week; it might just be his most useful fantasy game of the season. Sure, he'll lose goal-line carries to Duckett, but he'll get most of the work and Oakland was terrible against the run last year. ... I put a lot of rushers on the same team next to one another this week, but not in Carolina. I have a funny feeling that DeAngelo Williams is going to exert himself early and often this season, and turn the tables on DeShaun Foster. John Fox loves Foster for some reason, despite his injury history and his, well, mediocrity, but Williams is more of a weapon in the passing game, and I can see the super-quick Memphis product having a big game on the St. Louis turf. ... Eventually Adrian Peterson will far outstrip Chester Taylor, but for the moment I see the Vikings giving Taylor enough action to keep him relevant. It's Peterson's first pro game, after all, and Atlanta's front seven is still good, paced by Grady Jackson and maybe Rod Coleman, who could surprise by playing Week 1 after rupturing his quad in a wave-runner accident. ... Fred Taylor's been dogged perhaps more than any player in fantasy history, and it's true he's on the wrong side of 30. But the Jags use him well, and he rushed for 1,146 yards in '06, with six overall touchdowns. In leagues that use a flex, he can be a starter, especially this week. ... Gosh, I guess I don't believe in Ahman Green or Jamal Lewis in their new venues.
Notes: I'll be very interested to see how St. Louis CB Tye Hill does against Steve Smith. Hill was the Rams' first-rounder last year, and had some decent moments in his rookie year, but he's taking a serious step up in weight class: St. Louis is relying on Hill to be their shutdown corner. He's a bit size-challenged (listed at 5 feet, 10 inches, which is a stretch), but he's quick, so Smith actually might be an OK match for him. Obviously, though, since I have Smith first overall, I'm thinking it could be a long Sunday for Hill. ... Chad Johnson notched 13 catches for 121 yards against the Ravens last year, while Houshmandzadeh caught 13 for 172 and two scores. Chris McAlister is the guy in Baltimore's secondary who can cover, and Samari Rolle is the guy who kind of can't anymore. The big question is: Will the Ravens strictly stick McAlister on Johnson, or will they mix things up? I'm betting they mix things up, which is why I've got 7/11 higher. But both guys should be productive. ... I put Walker above Holt for a few reasons. First, while Holt reportedly appears to be 100 percent, I'm not completely sold on his health. Next, Carolina's secondary is unusually equipped to cover multiple speedy receivers; I'm not a huge Chris Gamble fan, but Ken Lucas is solid and Richard Marshall was a revelation last year. Finally, I think folks are sleeping a little on Walker. He's motivated, he's more than a year removed from his major knee surgery, and he's a long-touchdown menace. ... Darrell Jackson is in shaky health again (surprise!) because of a hamstring, but the Niners think they'll have him Monday night against Arizona. As I mentioned above, I'm unimpressed with the Cardinals' secondary, and D-Jax is a force when he can get on the field. You have to start him this week; heck, you might not get many chances all year. ... Evans is a big loser on this list in Week 1 because he has to go man-up against Champ Bailey. Bailey's not as good as his press clippings would have you believe; he's not Deion Sanders. Still, he picked off a career-high 10 passes last year, primarily because of the late Darrent Williams being no picnic to throw against, either. Now Dre' Bly has arrived to man the other side, which once again should allow Bailey to focus on the other team's best receiver. Evans is obviously that this week. ... I was tempted to put Santonio Holmes even higher. Cleveland was top 10 in terms of generosity to fantasy wideouts last year, and while they get Leigh Bodden back, they don't have much else in terms of cover corners (rookie Eric Wright should be a starter right away, but, well, he's a rookie). Bodden should be on Hines Ward. ... I'm not particularly worried about Mark Clayton's high-ankle issues, and I like him a lot this week against Cincinnati. He posted an eight-catch game against the Bengals last year, and I think the Ravens learned that they've got to throw to win against a team like Cincy. ... I honestly have no idea what to expect from Randy Moss, and all I really know is that in the past, when I've had no idea what to expect from Moss, he's pretty much performed like garbage. Therefore he's way down on this list. In fact, Stallworth probably should be a little higher. But Tom Brady probably will spread the ball around to 18 different receivers, just to spite us.
Notes: The Bears gave up the second-fewest fantasy points to tight ends last year (only New England gave up fewer), and yeah, it doesn't matter. Gates is still your top guy. ... Heap takes a leap, again by virtue of my doubts about Cincinnati's defense. It allowed the third-most fantasy points to tight ends last season. ... This might be pretty high for Crumpler. He was always Michael Vick's security blanket in Atlanta, and putting those questionable hands together with Joey Harrington (not exactly a king-maker when it comes to receiving targets) could present a shaky combo. But think of it this way: Who the heck else is Joey throwing to? (Okay, I'm being melodramatic: I actually did rank Joe Horn pretty high.) ... With Greg Olsen's knee injury and San Diego the most generous defense to tight ends in '06, Desmond Clark gets a final shot at glory this week. He's startable in a lot of leagues. ... Gosh, Broncos fans, don't you love tight-end platoons? Scheffler would appear to be the correct receiving target here, but Daniel Graham has made a living usurping the fantasy glory of positionmates. ... Have I changed my tune a little on McMichael? Maybe, but this week it's mostly about the opponent. Carolina has been weak against tight ends for a couple seasons. ... Can David Martin really play the Antonio Gates role in Cam Cameron's offense? If so, he'll wind up an enormous fantasy sleeper, beginning as soon as next week.
Notes: Let's face it: Year-to-year kicker ratings are pretty useless. So we'll try and focus on the guys who've had good careers, who tend to kick for good offenses in controlled environments. That leads me to Vinatieri in Week 1. ... Has anyone's fantasy fortunes changed faster than Olindo Mare's? He went from the 25th-rated fantasy kicker last season to getting the keys to the kingdom in New Orleans. I wonder if the Saints have actually seen him kick lately, though. ... Jason Hanson has been in the league 83 years, but he's still a great long-distance boot man. ... I know Gostkowski displayed a big leg in college, and he had a very fine year replacing Vinatieri in New England last season. But I can't put him in my top 5 just yet, especially not when the Pats are traveling to the Meadowlands to take on their southerly clones, the Jets. ... Graham is low here because of his hip injury. He's expected to play, but you'd hate to be burned by a mid-game replacement, a la David Akers a couple years back. ... Lawrence Tynes still wants you to know that if it's not Scottish, it's crap.
Notes: I appear to be the only one, but I do see vague storm clouds brewing for the Bears defense. First off, I completely think it's hubris when experts "guarantee" that a fantasy defense is the best around. I've been burned by that particular red-hot poker too many times. Also, there are several very unhappy (and one suspended) campers on this D. I'm not saying they won't be good. But for me, there's too much drama for them to be the best, especially this week against LT. ... On the other hand, San Diego is just about my favorite defense all season. The Chargers are supremely motivated after last year's bemusing playoff loss, they'll presumably have Shawne Merriman for an entire year, Shaun Phillips continues to be dramatically underrated, and I'm finally coming around a bit on Quentin Jammer (and there's nothing to come around on with Antonio Cromartie...he's good). ... Speaking of drama, you have to downgrade the Patriots at least a little bit. No Richard Seymour for six weeks, and now there are rumors circulating that he could miss the entire season, which would be devastating. Rodney Harrison is suspended, Asante Samuel missed camp and wasn't as good as his numbers last year anyway. Hey, I like Adalius Thomas, too, but he's not Ray Lewis. We shall see. ... The Vikings quietly posted a really big fantasy season on defense last season. There's nothing quiet about the interior line, where Kevin and Pat Williams were super-solid, and E.J. Henderson is better than I believed at middle linebacker. They'll be good this week against Joey Harrington and the Falcons. ... Seattle's defense worries me quite a bit. Losing Marcus Tubbs is very tough on the rush defense, and the corners will be exposed against more dynamic offenses. However, against teams like Tampa, whose o-line is shaky at best, Julian Peterson, Patrick Kerney, Lofa Tatupu and company will get after it and make some big plays. ... And yes, I've got Houston's defense really high this week. No, I don't think they make a quantum leap this year, though if you play in leagues where you get points for defense and special teams together, owning a piece of exciting rookie Jacoby Jones is a good thing. But with Chiefs OT Damion McIntosh questionable and hurting, Mario Williams could have a big day, and I don't worry too much about the Texans' shaky secondary against Damon Huard (or Herm Edwards). LJ will get his, but the Houston D will nevertheless be quasi-fantasy-worthy in Week 1.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.