Week One of the 2014 NFL season is finally here and fantasy owners are now in the final stages of preparing their lineups, hoping to get off to as good a start as possible. Maybe the hardest decision in the opening week is deciding which defense/special teams (DST) to start. Case in point, the different paths the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears took in 2013. St. Louis (which finished 14th in total defense in 2012) started off last season with a narrow 27-24 victory over Arizona in Week One, picking up four sacks and an interception, but giving up those 24 points kept them under 10 points scored in most leagues.
Then the Rams dropped three straight, giving up an average of 32.3 points, and things looked pretty bleak from a fantasy perspective. But from Week Five on, the Rams averaged roughly 11 points per week thanks to their third-ranked pass rush picking up 53 total sacks, and allowing less than 21 points per game. St. Louis finished in the top 10 in fantasy points last season, something we couldn’t have predicted after the first four weeks of the season.
On the other hand the Bears were coming off an impressive 2012, when they ranked No. 5 in total defense and No. 3 in points allowed per game with 17.3, and were a high draft pick for most fantasy owners. Yet other than their Week Three outburst with two picks, 3.0 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two touchdowns scored, Chicago plummeted and gave up 29.9 points per game last season and only scored 10 or more fantasy points in two other games last season.
This year there will be a DST like the 2013 Rams lurking on your league’s waiver-wire or relegated to your bench, and there could be a highly ranked DST like the 2013 Bears facing an unpredictable decline. This season, based off their 2013 performances and their status as the first DSTs off the board in most drafts, Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati and even St. Louis could experience a huge drop this season. But this is the unpredictable nature of your first DST choice of the season.
If you opted for a DST in the later rounds and didn’t land any of the projected top defenses this season, or just plan to play the waiver-wire from week-to-week, let’s take a look at some of the under-the-radar squads that could put up solid numbers in Week One. (This just one opinion. Select your choices at your own discretion.)
In Week One, the Vikings will take on a St. Louis squad that’s not only lost its No. 1 quarterback Sam Bradford due to an ACL tear, but with very few proven receivers and only second-year running back Zac Stacy to rely on. Minnesota fielded a dreadful, NFL-worst defense last season, surrendering 30 points per game, and was 31st against the pass. But this year they welcome back top safety Harrison Smith, and send out newly signed cornerback Captain Mummerlyn, who led Carolina’s No. 2 ranked D with 12 passes defended and two interceptions returned for touchdowns. In turn the Rams will send out veteran quarterback Shaun Hill, who hasn’t started or won a game since 2010.
If you’re in a deep 12 or 14-team league, the Vikings might be your best bet in Week One. Going forward, Minnesota does have some potential to breakout considering they play teams with a combined .477 winning percentage last season, the No. 21 ranked schedule in the league this year.
New York Jets
Most of the attention surrounding the Jets during the offseason were their additions on offense (WR Eric Decker, QB Michael Vick, RT Breno Giacomini), but New York also brought in defensive end Jason Babin to help a pass rush that totaled a middling 41.0 sacks last season, and rookie safety Calvin Pryor was impressive throughout the preseason even though there are some very fair questions about depth at cornerback.
Long term the Jets might not be a solid fantasy play this season, but in Week One against the Oakland Raiders they could feast against rookie quarterback Derek Carr. Consider the recent success Rex Ryan’s defense has had against some of the 2012’s vaunted QB draft class. Then Colts rookie passer Andrew Luck was picked off twice and sacked four times with zero touchdown passes in a 35-9 rout. Miami’s Ryan Tannehill didn’t fare any better throwing one interception while going 16-for-36 for a 50.2 passer rating.
Buffalo ranked second in the league in sacks (57) and interceptions (23) , and was No. 3 in opposing passer rating (74.2) but had a terrible time stopping run (No. 28 at 128.9 yards per game) and as a result gave up 24.3 points per game in 2013. This season there are some concerns now that top safety Jairus Byrd was signed away by New Orleans, and leading tackler and linebacker Kiki Alonso sidelined for much of the season with a torn ACL, but the Bills still have a corps of passer rushers in Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams (a combined 33.5 sacks last year). Fourth-year free safety Aaron Williams tied Alonso with four interceptions last season and he’ll be helped by free agent corner back Corey Graham in the secondary.
In Week One Buffalo does face an uphill battle on the road against Chicago’s versatile offense, with former Miami receiver Brandon Marshall torching them for 38 receptions, for 429 yards and three touchdowns in six career games. But this will be our first real look at Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who missed five games last year due to injury, and threw five picks in his last four games in 2013. Play the Bills as a last ditch effort, but they could surprise Chicago big time this week.
San Francisco 49ers
If any top defense falls this season, it could be San Francisco’s. For a second straight offseason they lost a top safety in Donte Whitner to free agency (Dashon Goldson in 2013), dominant linebacker Aldon Smith will miss the first nine games of the season due to a suspension, and defensive lineman Ray McDonald could also receive a suspension all with head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future with the team in doubt thanks to disagreements over a contract extension and raise.
But in Week One the 49ers will square off against their rival Dallas Cowboys, a team ripe for implosion. His health still in the air, quarterback Tony Romo was expected to practice for three straight days for the first time this summer earlier this week following offseason back surgery, and the Cowboys did very little to bolster a rushing attack that ranked 24th in the NFL last year. Start San Francisco this week, but they might not be as reliable going forward as in seasons past.
Kansas City Chiefs
Last year the Chiefs coasted to nine straight wins to start the season, allowing 12.3 points per game, totaling 36.0 sacks, 12 INTs, 11 fumble recoveries and six touchdowns during that incredible run. And then they fell off a cliff, giving up 27.7 points and losing five of their next seven after the bye week to wound up No. 25 against the pass and No. 22 against the run. Much of that downfall can be contributed to defensive end Justin Houston missing the final five games of the regular season, and he was still tied with Tamba Hali for the team-lead with 11.0 sacks.
K.C. did lose some depth behind Houston and Hali with Tyson Jackson gone, and some insurance for Eric Berry with corner Brandon Flowers moving on to San Diego, but the Chiefs can be just as strong this season for fantasy owners.
In Week One they’ll take on a difficult to gauge Tennessee squad. Last season, the Chiefs nearly fell to the Titans until staging a 13-point fourth quarter rally generated by two interceptions. Tennessee does have talented receivers in Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter, a potential breakout rookie rusher in Bishop Sankey, and quarterback Jake Locker is still a threat even coming off an injury riddled 2013. But the Chiefs have one of the most favorable matchups of Week One and should come out on top.
Week One’s Starts/Sits
Sit: Colts, Broncos, Saints, Packers, Dolphins, Bears
Starts: Ravens, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Browns