Welcome to The Hard Count, my new column dedicated to finding the most interesting pressure-point players for the upcoming weekend. For those folks who remember The Breakdown (which was a column I wrote for ESPN.com for each of the past four seasons), the formula should be familiar: I'll use film study and stats to find value and discuss matchups. But rather than tackle every game (which my schedule found to be all-consuming), here I'll examine ESPN.com's weekly rankings and find players where I deviate from the pack, so I can explain why. Or, at the very least, I can help explain why all the rankers have taken a perhaps-unexpected stance on a player.
Let's look at Week 1, minus Packers/Saints:
Five In Depth:
1. New York Jets' passing game versus Dallas Cowboys' defense. I've been making a case for Mark Sanchez as at least having the opportunity for a breakout season, though whether he makes good on his promise comes down to improving his accuracy substantially. He'll get a nice first matchup. The Cowboys will be without Terence Newman (groin) and will start the utterly unimpressive Orlando Scandrick in Newman's place. In addition, Mike Jenkins reportedly hyperextended a knee in practice this week and required an MRI. Jenkins says he'll play, but yikes. Not that we can read too much into year-over-year fantasy defensive numbers, but recall that this Dallas unit allowed the second-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks last season:
This helps explain why I'm somewhat more bullish on Sanchez this week than our other ESPN.com rankers. Not that I'm entirely convinced that the third-year quarterback is ready to make an accuracy leap. But he looks like a sneaky deep-league starter to me Sunday night, and Santonio Holmes could run wild.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers/Baltimore Ravens blood feud. Although I truly believe that you can't tell much from an NFL team's schedule before the season starts, many folks who drafted Ray Rice and Rashard Mendenhall looked at Week 1 with nerves aplenty. That's because Pittsburgh and Baltimore regularly feature two of the stingiest rush defenses around. I mean, if you're going to project anything to recur from year to year, it would be that these guys will be tough to run against:
Rush Yards Allowed
So it's fair to treat this game with great trepidation. Steelers LB James Harrison may not be at full strength because of offseason back surgery, but the team otherwise has nearly nonsensical depth along the defensive line, and thumping Troy Polamalu's Achilles is apparently fully healed. The Ravens' cast of defensive characters may look familiar, too, but we have no proof yet that Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding or Ray Lewis, probably the three primary cornerstones of the run defense, are slowing down. Listen, you drafted Rice and Mendy to start. It's going to be mighty tough not to do so in the season's first week. But the numbers aren't pretty from the past five meetings between these teams:
Ouch. The primary difference between the two backs is that Mendenhall has scored five times in these five contests (including last year's playoff game), and Rice has scored only once. But is it possible that FB Vonta Leach's presence -- and the absence of Willis McGahee -- will give Rice a cheapie score Sunday? Yeah, it's possible, but I actually rated Mendy above Rice this week and was the only ESPN.com ranker to do so.
3. Not Peyton's place. What in the wild, wild world of sports are the Indianapolis Colts going to look like without Peyton Manning on Sunday? We have to go back to 1997, when Jim Harbaugh was the starting quarterback, to even envision such a scenario. Kerry Collins is 38 years old and has spent all of 17 days working in Indy's complicated pass offense. In theory, starting Week 1 against a Houston Texans defense that was easily the league's worst against the pass last year would make for a gentle ease-in for Collins. But Wade Phillips took over as defensive coordinator and turned over personnel. Johnathan Joseph is now the top corner, finally serving as an adequate replacement for Dunta Robinson (who left for the Atlanta Falcons before the '10 season). Danieal Manning will play center field as the free safety, another strong move. And first-round pick J.J. Watt will play 3-4 end, freeing up Mario Williams to play the DeMarcus Ware role at outside linebacker. I'm not saying this unit will be great. I'm just saying I'm not positive that this is a field-day scenario for Collins.
Listen, it goes without saying that Collins will have elite skill-position weapons. I think it's probably pretty hard to sit Reggie Wayne, even if he's man-on-man with Joseph all day, and to my eyes, the Texans haven't done much that makes me think they're ready to be significantly better against tight ends (they allowed 915 yards and seven scores to the position in '10), so Dallas Clark is also probably a fantasy starter. But until we see how Collins looks, you probably have to sit Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. Collins himself rated No. 21 on my QB list for Week 1; not a ringing endorsement, I know. It's not like he didn't make a little sweet music with Kenny Britt last year, though, right? The untold story here is how Peyton has covered for a subpar offensive line for at least a couple of years. His decision-making and release are so quick that he took relatively few hits. Collins isn't that guy. There are real questions about pass protection in Indy. Seat belts? Fastened.
4. The Daily Show. I'm very, very interested to see whether the Carolina Panthers have made any strides. The obvious, media-driven story one way or another will be Cam Newton. If the Panthers win games, Newton will get credit. If he doesn't, we'll all line up to say, "I told you so." But do we forget how bloody amazing the Panthers' run game was until last year?
Certainly, the drop-off from Jake Delhomme to Matt Moore/Jimmy Clausen/Brian St. Pierre was part of the problem in '10, as was the ever-present skein of injuries these two running backs endure. But also remember that the offensive line suffered a couple of huge medical problems last year: Right tackle Jeff Otah, a terrific run-blocker, didn't play a down after knee surgery, and powerful left guard Travelle Wharton had a serious toe injury that eventually knocked him out for the year. Wharton is certified healthy, and while Otah didn't do much in training camp or the preseason, he's expected to be back in there Week 1, too. Boy, that makes a big difference.
Kevin Kolb (and his effect on Larry Fitzgerald) is the headline story in Arizona, but it's hard to look at the Cardinals' defense and feel stoked. They allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL last season, and I have to say: It looks like kind of the same old crew again out there, except they traded a formerly great veteran corner (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) for a giant rookie corner (Patrick Peterson). D-Willy is a no-doubt starter to begin the year, and this game is no exception. But I've got my eye on Stewart as a sneaky flex. Sure, he'll be battling ankle and foot issues 'til the cows come home, but he always goes out there and plays with 'em, doesn't he? He had 'em in each of his double-digit-TD seasons, after all.
5. The Wes Welker of the Midwest. A couple of ESPN.com rankers seem to believe in Danny Amendola more than I do, and there's a persuasive storyline behind that belief. After all, new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels presided over Welker's transformation into the Slot Machine and even rediscovered Eddie Royal out of the slot last year in Denver after his ill-fated effort to make Royal an outside guy. And Amendola already finished eighth in the NFL in catches last year, under Pat Shurmur's short-passing tutelage. In fact, let's just look at Amendola's '10 season overall:
After you get over the marvel of a player tying for the lead in the NFL in red zone targets and catching 16 of them, and having only three of them go for touchdowns, let's clear our heads. Nobody is claiming Amendola is suddenly going to be a downfield receiver, right? I mean that's not why you'd contemplate using him as a flex. The thought is that McD wants to throw, and Amendola is the only reliable commodity he's got. Which is true.
But the whole reason everyone's getting excited about Sam Bradford this year is the idea that McD will throw it down the field, having created Brandon Lloyd last year from whole cloth. It seems to me that to be excited about Amendola is to believe there will still be a whole bunch of dump-offs in '11. And I'm sure there will be some, absolutely. But to contend in the NFC West, the Rams have to find at least one downfield player with whom they can scare defenses. Who that might be will be a tremendously interesting subplot of Michael Vick's visit to St. Louis. Will it be Mike Sims-Walker or Brandon Gibson, the presumptive outside starting pair? Will it be Danario Alexander, the most talented player in this receiving corps but a knee injury waiting to happen? Will it be one of the rookies, Greg Salas or Austin Pettis? Bradford's fantasy relevance depends on someone emerging from this group. If the Amendola optimists are right, and Danny A. heads for another 85-catch season, I think it might mean bad things for the Rams offense as a whole.
Five In Brief
6. D.C. cover-up? I can't help feeling we're all being hoodwinked by what seemed like a strong preseason for the Washington Redskins. Gosh, Tim Hightower looked great! That offensive line is for real! Maybe Rex Grossman can be enough of a caretaker! The defense has some players! Mike Shanahan knows what he's doing after all! Yeah, maybe. All I know is this defense looks an awful lot like the one that allowed the second-most pass yards and the seventh-most rush yards last season. DeAngelo Hall scares nobody. LaRon Landry is out with leg injuries. The defensive ends are Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker, and Barry Cofield isn't a true nose guy. The New York Giants' defense is so injury-ravaged it's crazy, so we may not get a true measure of the Redskins' offense Sunday. But I think we'll see their defense give it up in a major way.
7. Short people. I was the only ranker to stay away from Danny Woodhead in Week 1. But you know what? The other guys are probably right: Woody likely will finish the week as a top-50 fantasy RB. So why didn't I give him love? It may be a philosophical thing: This early in the year, I'm trying to locate players who could springboard from the dregs into true fantasy relevance. Woodhead might have less downside than guys like Delone Carter, Roy Helu and Deji Karim, but those guys have significantly more upside. BenJarvus Green-Ellis still looks like the TD maker in New England, Stevan Ridley looks like a viable big-back alternative, and eventually Shane Vereen might be heard from. But yes, Woodhead will get his 8 to 12 touches per week, rain or shine.
8. Say No To Knowshon. John Fox helps a team's running game. I do believe that. I hate when analysis comes down to simple connect-the-dots, but the numbers don't lie. Fox likes ball control, and on average his receivers are significantly less far down the field when they make catches than is standard in the NFL. Still, I'm the only holdout when it comes to Knowshon Moreno numbering among the top 20 running backs. I'm not buying it yet. I remember what Moreno looked like briefly in '10, before his hammies starting barking. He was quick around the corner for a pretty big guy. But overall, I think back on his video body of work the past two years, and I'm underwhelmed. And seriously, what would you put the over/under on Willis McGahee's rushing touchdowns this season? Seven? I might take the over. When Tim Tebow spit the bit during camp, it was a momentary reprieve for Moreno. But McGahee already being named the short-yardage back isn't good.
9. Big targets by the Bay. It's a sudden reversal of fortune for the theoretical top wideouts in San Francisco and Seattle. Michael Crabtree was supposed to be the absent one. Sidney Rice was supposed to play. But now Rice's injured shoulder is so bad, it looks like Mike Williams will once again have to step into the No. 1 receiving role. And Crabtree practiced with the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday and pronounced himself ready to go in a return from foot surgery. You have to bench Rice, which is too bad, because a Carlos Rogers/Tarell Brown/Donte Whitner/Dashon Goldson 49ers secondary is about the best an NFL wideout can hope to run against these days (and Goldson might not go because of a knee injury). But what about Crabtree? Well, somehow the Seattle Seahawks are starting a person I never heard of in the corner spot opposite Marcus Trufant. Brandon Browner? A 27-year-old CFL player? Wow. I mean, I guess it could work out. It would be a Cinderella story. I've literally seen no tape on the guy, so I can't weigh in intelligently, plus we haven't seen Crabtree run yet this year. You probably have to sit the mercurial former Texas Tech star. But if he breaks out, it won't be a shock.
10. Bruised purple. Why do I have a feeling the most lopsided score from this weekend's games will be the San Diego Chargers absolutely throttling the Minnesota Vikings? I fear for Donovan McNabb's mental well-being. He had a bad offensive line in D.C. last year, and he jumps to what looks like a worse one in '11. The biggest problem may be that Charlie Johnson, a perennial disappointment with the Colts who's really best-suited to be a guard, has signed up to be the left tackle and protect Donnie Football's blind side. But right guard Anthony Herrera, who's strong when healthy, is also a real worry, as he tore an ACL late last year and may not be at peak effectiveness. Plus on defense, the Williams Wall is gone (Pat Williams was cut, Kevin Williams is suspended) and underrated end Ray Edwards now labors in Atlanta. Of course, the Chargers are capable of doing myriad dumb things early in seasons, but to me this looks messy. Adrian Peterson, please show us you're superhuman.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.