After a monthslong slog of offseason activity and quasi-meaningless preseason games, it's finally go time. The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos kick things off Thursday, and there will be a full skein of games Sunday. But is your fantasy squad in prime-time shape? If, for example, you're rostering Johnathan Franklin or Zac Stacy in anything other than a dynasty league, it probably isn't. Give your team a tuneup and peruse some suggested adds before the games start counting.
Standard ESPN-League Finds
Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks (owned in 35.7 percent of ESPN.com leagues): I'll admit I was skeptical of Michael at first. He was an injury and discipline problem at Texas A&M, and I've been a Robert Turbin supporter. But watching Michael in the preseason was eye-opening; there might not have been a player about whom my opinion changed more. Unlike many other workout warriors whose supposed impressive size and speed never really translated to the NFL, Michael looked like a man among boys. As of this writing, it's not clear that Michael would be Marshawn Lynch's solitary replacement if Lynch gets hurt, but that's OK, because I'm writing about him here as a non-handcuff ownable player. If I've got any dead weight on my fantasy squad right now, Michael would be my speculative add. Do I think he'll get a big enough workload to be startable in fantasy with Lynch healthy? Probably not. But it's not impossible, and if it ever comes down to a Michael/Turbin platoon, I now acknowledge there's no question who the more exciting player would be.
LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers (2.7 and 5.4 percent, respectively): Rookie Le'Veon Bell could return as soon as Week 2, but this week we should reportedly expect a three-headed backfield trio, which will also include Isaac Redman. If I'm desperate -- and really, if you're this desperate, you should stop drinking Ouzo on draft day -- I'd pick LSH over Jones. (Redman is the clear choice over either of these guys, but he's owned in 95.2 percent of leagues.) I've seen enough of Jones over the past few seasons, and his constant spate of injuries has sapped his speed and quickness. Stephens-Howling does yeoman's work wherever he lands, and in Todd Haley's offense, the pass-catching smaller back has a significant role. Remember also that the Tennessee Titans (Sunday's opponent) feature a defense that was third-easiest for opposing RBs to score fantasy points against last year.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (43.8 percent): Well, this is awkward. I rarely find myself in the position of defending Blackmon, whom I've been dogging since before the 2012 NFL draft. But even I'll admit Blackmon is probably worth a bench spot in all leagues while he serves his four-game suspension. Like it or not, the guy did have five-plus catches in six of his final seven games last season, scoring four TDs and posting one 236-yard contest while he was at it. Now that our expectations are more reasonable -- remember when your friend kept telling you Blackmon was exactly like Terrell Owens, despite the fact that he's 3 inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter and significantly slower? -- Blackmon will eventually settle in as a very solid flanker, lacking deep speed but possessing great ball skills. Obviously, Blaine Gabbert and/or Chad Henne under center is a mitigating factor, but come October, Blackmon is going to find himself well within the top-50 WR rankings every single week.
Jeremy Kerley, WR, New York Jets (4.6 percent): Yes, here's another player hurt by a seemingly awful QB situation. But this one could be smart for all you PPR league devotees. Kerley grabbed 56 passes in '12 and is almost certainly the safest target either Geno Smith or (eventually) Mark Sanchez has. Santonio Holmes will reportedly play Week 1 but is still an unknown because of his serious foot injury, and Stephen Hill still looks pretty raw. I think a 70-catch season is well within reach for Kerley; he probably won't get you many more than his three TDs from last year, but he could tickle 1,000 yards in a best-case scenario.
Zach Sudfeld, TE, New England Patriots (47.1 percent): Sudfeld is my No. 7 TE for Week 1, and he's owned in fewer than half of ESPN leagues. Remedy that situation, please! Is he a lock to produce at Rob Gronkowski-like levels? Of course not. But is he at least as good as the group of week-to-week frustrating tight ends that comprise that position's middle class? I think so. Don't get me wrong, Sudfeld comes with plenty of risk, even putting aside the fact that he's an undrafted rookie. He had six surgeries at the University of Nevada! But for a couple of weeks, you'll be hard-pressed to come up with a higher-upside option at fantasy's most frustrating position.
Julius Thomas, TE, Denver Broncos (19.4 percent): If you're a Gronkowski owner who couldn't get Sudfeld, let me suggest a freak athlete who could break out this season. Jordan Cameron got all the ink this summer (he's owned in 50.4 percent of leagues), but Thomas is just as intriguing, except instead of Brandon Weeden he gets to catch passes from Peyton Manning. Thomas probably won't be a target monster in an offense that features three potentially elite WRs, but the targets he does see will probably be pretty far downfield.
Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers (10.7 percent): Here he is again, my personal Binky. Longtime readers know that I've been hyping Hunter as Frank Gore's heir apparent for two-plus years, and it finally seemed to be clicking for him toward the end of '12, but he tore an Achilles and missed the Niners' run to the Super Bowl. In the interim, LaMichael James picked up steam (probably because he was a higher-profile collegiate player), but I still like Hunter better as an every-down option. In addition, James is battling a knee sprain and will miss most of September. To me, Hunter is Gore's clear handcuff (and as such should probably be owned in all leagues), but if you're in a deeper league and don't own Gore, I still think Hunter is worth a bench spot.
Danny Woodhead, RB, San Diego Chargers (25 percent): I understand why standard-leaguers are hesitant to roster Woodhead: His upside seems pretty low. The Chargers' offensive line looks dreadful, Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown are still around, and Woodhead isn't likely to be much of a TD maker away from Tom Brady's sweet offense. But in a deeper league, I would take the chance that while Woodhead doesn't have an every-down back's body, he's clearly the best football player in the San Diego backfield. Mathews has been a dog, and Brown is cooked. I fully expect Woodhead to get enough work in Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt's new Chargers offense that he'll eclipse his career high in single-season touches (116). Especially in deeper PPR leagues, Woody could provide bye-week value by grabbing passes from an increasingly distance-challenged Philip Rivers.
Michael Cox, RB, New York Giants (0.2 percent): My Super-Deep Sleepers for '13 are off to a pretty decent start. True, the Miami Dolphins cut Jonas Gray, but Cox suddenly finds himself a potential Week 1 backup behind David Wilson, as Andre Brown is out for the first half of the season with a fractured leg. Da'Rel Scott could also be in the mix, and I don't rule out the possibility that the Giants could sign a free agent between now and Sunday. But as things stand, Cox is a Brown clone who did some really nice things in the preseason and might just work his way into a persistent role as a power and pass-blocking complement behind Wilson.
Quinton Patton, WR, San Francisco 49ers (4.1 percent): Here's another Super-Deep Sleeper who could become a Week 1 factor. The Niners are still thrashing around trying to find viable receiving weapons for Colin Kaepernick after Anquan Boldin. For the moment, the team's No. 2 WR appears to be Marlon Moore, which is pretty uninspiring. While Patton missed the early part of training camp with a fractured index finger, he lit up the Minnesota Vikings and the Chargers in the final two exhibition games. A polished receiver with a smooth all-around game, my opinion on Patton hasn't changed since I wrote the S.D.S. column. I own him in both of my deep keeper leagues.
Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans Saints (5.9 percent): Personally, I was never that in love with owning Devery Henderson in his prime. But then again, I don't play in fantasy leagues that give huge rewards for big plays. Stills will be in the Henderson role that Joseph Morgan occupied last year (Morgan tore an ACL this summer), which means he'll probably score three TDs from a massive distance away and rack up three or four 100-yard games, but rarely catch more than three balls per week unless Marques Colston or Lance Moore gets injured. As I say, in some leagues, that profile is actually pretty valuable, and Stills is an intriguing longer-term prospect, too. He was a fun player to watch at the University of Oklahoma.
Patrick Edwards, WR, Detroit Lions (0.1 percent): Boy, am I in the tank for the Super-Deep Sleepers, or what? Here's my third and final callback to the S.D.S. column. Like Patton, Edwards has seen a quick rise up the depth chart, as the Lions continue to look for a reliably explosive second option opposite Calvin Johnson. Edwards is just 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, so he's probably destined for the slot much of the time, but he's a jitterbug in open spaces. He's also a kid you can root for: He was a walk-on at the University of Houston who worked his way into three 1,000-yard seasons and a senior campaign that saw him rack up 1,752 receiving yards and 20 TDs. He spent last year on Detroit's practice squad, and while I'd like to believe Ryan Broyles is going to be the exciting inside threat in this offense, his knees may not be ready. And if they're not, Edwards might shine.
Heath Miller, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers (17.1 percent): If you're in a deeper league and don't have an ironclad tight end situation, Miller is your guy. Amazingly, despite a catastrophic knee injury late last December, he was able to avoid the PUP list to begin the regular season, which means the Steelers believe he'll be able to contribute in the season's first six weeks. Now, I take this as a grain of salt, because they did the same thing with Rashard Mendenhall one season ago, and Mendy proved not to be worth the investment. But Miller was so good in Todd Haley's offense last year, I'm willing to take a chance.