By Jay Skurski
NEWS FANTASY COLUMNIST
A year ago at this time, Fred Jackson was the right fantasy play at running back for the Buffalo Bills heading into Week One.
Jackson, however, was hurt in the 2012 season opener against the New York Jets, opening a spot in the lineup for C.J. Spiller – who broke out with 194 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.
Spiller went on to have a solid fantasy season, finishing seventh in scoring at running back.
Week One performances can sometimes be a harbinger of things to come, but it’s no guarantee. Take the case of Jets receiver Stephen Hill, who had five catches for 89 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a blowout victory over the Bills. He was added in more than 8,000 leagues that use Yahoo! Sports. Hill scored only once more the rest of the season and didn’t have a game with more than 55 receiving yards.
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, meanwhile, was targeted eight times in the 2012 season opener by quarterback Joe Flacco, making five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. Pitta was added more than 10,000 times in Yahoo! leagues after Week One, and he backed it up with 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns, finishing seventh in scoring at his position.
Kansas City’s Dexter McCluster – who was listed as a running back heading into the 2012 season – caught six passes for 82 yards in the season opener, but failed to produce 60 yards as a receiver in any other game. He also scored only one touchdown. The 10,872 people who added him got very little production.
Redskins running back Alfred Morris carried 28 times for 96 yards and scored a touchdown in the 2012 season opener. He carried that success throughout a dynamite rookie year, with 1,613 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In the case of what happened with Jackson last year, injuries are impossible to forecast. If a starting back goes down this weekend, his handcuff’s value obviously increases.
But finding undervalued players like Morris and Pitta, who slipped through the draft cracks, is possible. Here are a few sleeper candidates to watch in Week One. If they look the part, they could be worth a waiver wire claim Tuesday, provided they went undrafted in your league:
• QB Terrelle Pryor, Oakland: The Raiders haven’t officially named Pryor the starter for their opener at Indianapolis, but all signs are pointing that way. In the 2012 season finale, he produced three touchdowns against the Chargers. There is a good chance the Raiders will be trailing and/or Pryor will be running for his life, giving him a good chance to produce fantasy points, especially as a rusher.
• RB Bilal Powell, New York Jets: The Jets acquired Chris Ivory in a trade with New Orleans in the offseason, but it was Powell who won the running back job in training camp. Ivory will still get a lot of work for the Jets, but Powell has an opportunity to establish himself as the featured back.
• WR Aaron Dobson, New England: Dobson hasn’t gotten as much attention as undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins throughout the preseason, but there’s no telling who Tom Brady will throw to starting Sunday against the Bills. Chances are, it will be all of them.
• WR Chris Givens, St. Louis: Rookie Tavon Austin has received most of the fantasy buzz with the Rams, but Givens is the team’s leader in targets among returning receivers with 81 as a rookie. He had 42 catches for 698 yards and three scores last season, numbers he should build on.
• TE Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis: Allen was taken a round later than Coby Fleener in the 2012 draft, but outperformed as a rookie with 45 catches for 521 yards and three touchdowns (Fleener had 26 catches for 281 yards and two scores). Allen played in more than 75 percent of the snaps as a rookie, and should see at least the same amount this season.
Analyzing the Bills
The return of rookie first-round draft pick EJ Manuel has very little fantasy impact in Week One. Running back C.J. Spiller is an obvious start, while No. 1 receiver Stevie Johnson can be used as a No. 3 or flex player. There are no other Bills to consider in Week One, although the performances of Manuel and the team’s young receivers, especially Robert Woods, are worth watching.
The Patriots are loaded with start-worthy players, including Brady, running back Stevan Ridley, wide receiver Danny Amendola, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and the defense. Tight end Zach Sudfeld is an attractive play with Rob Gronkowski expected to miss the game, and receivers like Thompkins and even Dobson could be considered flex starters, as could running back Shane Vereen. Patriots running backs scored a combined 85 (!) points in two games against the Bills last season.