3 Week 1 Storylines to Watch: Zeke's Debut
It's difficult for me to describe how glad I am that football is officially back.
The NFL's return each September allows us to break away from the tyranny of MLB that reigns supreme for that hot and humid three-month stretch every summer. I know that may sound harsh, but if you've associated yourself with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the last 25 years, you'd fully understand.
Each week, I’ll be highlighting three intriguing story lines to watch for in the upcoming slate of games. Early on, we’ll have our fair share of postulation and theories. But as the weeks go on and specific situations start to take shape, this column will help unearth some player roles that are shifting, offenses that are improving or declining, and other actionable information to help you all in your fantasy endeavors.
It can also make watching the games on Sundays more enjoyable (assuming you're into that kind of thing).
But enough rambling, let’s dive into Week 1.
Ezekiel Elliott's Long-Awaited Debut
Ezekiel Elliott saw seven carries during the preseason -- including a few tremendous collisions with stud safety Kam Chancellor -- but Sunday against the division rival New York Giants, Elliott will make his long-awaited NFL debut for the Dallas Cowboys.
As if a lot wasn’t already expected of the fourth overall pick, Tony Romo's most recent injury could put even more emphasis on Dallas’s run game. The matchup against the Giants' defense -- ranked 24th against the run according to our metrics -- looks like money for Elliott and the Cowboys.
Rookie Dak Prescott has looked excellent in the preseason in Romo’s stead, and the dynamic Dez Bryant finally appears healthy, but the Cowboys return their entire offensive line from 2015 which ranked sixth in Adjusted Line Yards according to Football Outsiders. Choosing to lean on the run game not only showcases a talented offensive line and running back, it also keeps the ball out of the hands of Odell Beckham, a wise move for any Giants’ opponent.
NFC East showdowns are almost always full of drama and make for engrossing television. In this particular matchup on Sunday afternoon, with astronomical expectations looming for the former Ohio St. Buckeye, all eyes with be fixed on Elliott.
Replacing Teddy Bridgewater
Before this early-September shake-up, Minnesota was pegged to compete with Green Bay for the NFC North crown. And as Joe Redemann showed in his article analyzing the trade, Bradford and Bridgewater have posted nearly identical efficiency metrics over their last two seasons. Additionally, Jim Sannes made the case for the Vikings remaining a playoff contending team even without Bridgewater before the deal for Bradford went through.
Vikings' head coach Mike Zimmer is playing coy by not announcing his decision between Bradford and incumbent backup Shaun Hill. If Bradford does end up playing, it’s worth noting that he posted the most efficient season of his career last season based on numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.
The age/production cliff is coming at some point for Adrian Peterson, but with uncertainty at the quarterback position, expect Minnesota to lean heavily on their workhorse running back in concert with a terrific defense. When the Vikings do decide to pass, Stefon Diggs will likely command a majority of the targets with rookie Laquon Treadwell lagging behind in his development.
The Vikings are 2.5-point favorites against the Tennessee Titans, so Vegas doesn’t see the sudden transition at quarterback as a huge hit, at least in the very short term. It will be interesting to see how much the Vikings’ coaching staff asks of Bradford in Week 1, assuming he beats out Hill, and how he handles this sudden change in scenery.
Pittsburgh's Depleted Offense
It's not breaking news at this point, but it's worth reviewing the list of missing offensive personnel facing the Steelers for their Week 1 matchup against Washington -- Le'Veon Bell (suspension), Martavis Bryant (suspension), Ladarius Green (injury), and Markus Wheaton (shoulder).
Couple this with the fact that Sammie Coates has not assumed the WR3 role as many had predicted, and you have an offense once ticketed as one of the league’s best that may face some early season growing pains.
Antonio Brown is likely to see as many targets as he can handle against Washington and remains a locked-in WR1 for fantasy purposes. DeAngelo Williams should also see a massive workload with Bell out, possibly playing close to 100 percent of the Steelers' offensive snaps. Ben Roethlisberger, however, could be in a letdown spot on the road where he saw a substantial dip in performance last season.
The Steelers will likely need to keep pace with a promising Washington offense led by Kirk Cousins that will be bound and determined to exploit Pittsburgh’s weak secondary.
Vegas isn’t as concerned about Pittsburgh's offense as I am, pegging a 26.5-point projected team total on the Steelers in a game with the third-highest over/under (50) of the week. A full offensive implosion is certainly unlikely, but don't be surprised if we see a slight downgrade from the lofty preseason projections.