Ten most intriguing players of Week One

Posted Sept. 05, 2012 @ 1:55 p.m.
Posted By Pat Fitzmaurice

1. Peyton Mannning — One of the finest quarterbacks of his generation returns after a year’s absence. Manning doesn’t exactly get to ease into things with his new team. The Broncos play host to the Steelers, who are still smarting from their overtime playoff loss in the Mile High City last season. And, to no one’s surprise, Manning is being given the Sunday-night stage for his return, so a national audience will draw its own conclusions about whether multiple neck surgeries have sapped Manning’s arm strength. It will be fascinating to see how the cerebral quarterback handles Pittsburgh’s assortment of blitzes and coverages, and to see how in tune he is with WRs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker against something other than vanilla preseason defensive schemes.

2. Adrian Peterson — This feature generally doesn’t include players whose availability for the coming weekend is in doubt. But to omit Peterson from any “most intriguing” list for Week One would be absurd. Everyone is anxious to see whether this truly great running back can make a hasty return (some would say too hasty) from a devastating knee injury in which multiple ligaments were torn. A lot of fantasy owners have gambled that Peterson can outrace the accepted medical timetable for such a return in the same manner that he outraces linebackers to the edge on sweeps. But the Vikings, clearly outgunned by all three of their rivals in the powerful NFC North, might have good reason to tug the reins harder than their featured attraction would like. If Peterson does, in fact, return to action this weekend against the Jaguars, it will be interesting to see how the Vikings divide carries between the recovering star and capable backup Toby Gerhart.

3. Julio Jones — An otherworldly showing in the preseason convinced a lot of people that Jones is ready to blossom into a Calvin Johnson-caliber superstar. Jones has the size and strength to outmuscle overmatched defenders along with the speed to score from anywhere on the field. Yet to be determined is whether the Falcons can successfully adapt to their new, less conservative offensive philosophy, and whether the presence of accomplished veteran Roddy White will prevent Jones from putting up superstar numbers. The Falcons open the season in Kansas City, and while Arrowhead Stadium can be an inhospitable place for opponents, the Chiefs might have trouble keeping Jones under wraps if a heel injury keeps ace CB Brandon Flowers out of the lineup.

4. Robert Griffin III — Among the fantasy crowd, hype for the Heisman Trophy-winning rookie has remained relatively subdued, despite Heisman winner Cam Newton’s wildly successful transition to the NFL a year ago. Indeed, in a lot of fantasy drafts it took only a modest investment to secure a multidimensional quarterback who’s likely to take his owners on a season-long thrill ride. There are risks with RG3, of course. His offensive line is weak. His wide receivers and running backs are below average. His head coach is … er, let’s just say “unpredictable.” His daring, swashbuckling style will frequently put him in harm’s way. Still, it’s hard not to get excited about the possibilities. Newton notwithstanding, there just aren’t many quarterbacks with such exotic skill sets. RG3 is a dangerous runner, but he’s also a highly advanced passer. Griffin will make his debut in a tough road game against the Saints. RG3 might not be able to match scores with Drew Brees, but it will be fun to watch him try.

5. Chris Johnson — The preseason offered mixed signals on CJ2K’s prospects for 2012. There were a couple of times when he exploded through holes the way he did in 2009, the year in which he ran for 2,006 yards and 14 TDs. At other times he looked sluggish and went down easily on first contact, the way he did last season, when he ran for 1,047 yards and four TDs, disappointing his fantasy owners. The Titans will need a vintage performance out of Johnson to have any chance of upsetting the Patriots in Tennessee, because the odds of Jake Locker outperforming Tom Brady are remote.

6. Russell Wilson — How unusual that the Seahawks would sign a well-regarded free-agent quarterback in the offseason, then draft a quarterback whom no one expected to compete for a starting role, and end up starting the rookie in Week One. But that unlikely turn of events was justified by Wilson’s eye-opening performance in the preseason. To Pete Carroll’s credit, he was never too hung up on Wilson’s lack of height to overlook the quarterback’s remarkable mobility, unexpected arm strength and off-the-charts intangibles. Of course, the fact remains that Wilson is still a rookie, and one with a capable veteran behind him. There’s no telling how much leash Carroll will give Wilson if the young QB struggles early on. The Seahawks have designs on a playoff berth and aren’t likely to have a lot of patience for rookie mistakes. Luckily, Wilson gets to open against the misbegotten Cardinals, whose defense might have trouble stopping a well-organized troop of Girl Scouts.

7. Trent Richardson — The former University of Alabama star’s NFL debut would be intriguing under most any circumstances, but the fact that Richardson missed the entire preseason after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery adds an element of mystery. Will Richardson be playing at something close to full capacity? What sort of workload are the Browns going to give him after no preseason action and only a handful of practices? The Browns host the Eagles, who took measures during the offseason to fortify a squishy run defense. If run defense is still a weakness for Philly, will Richardson be fit enough to take advantage?

8. Maurice Jones-Drew — MJD ended his holdout in time for the regular season, but the Jaguars say that Rashad Jennings will start in Minnesota this weekend, with Jones-Drew getting work on third downs. That’s what they’re saying, anyway. One suspects that Mike Mularkey’s plan for his two running backs is somewhat fluid. It’s possible that MJD accumulated some rust while missing all of training camp and the preseason. On the other hand, it’s a safe bet that MJD wasn’t spending his days drinking beer, eating chicken wings and catching up on the soaps. If Jones-Drew looks as good as ever on his early touches, he could quickly reclaim a prominent role in the offense. Or maybe the Jaguars are serious about giving Jennings a greater role in the offense this season, and MJD can no longer be considered one of the league's few workhorse running backs.

9. Darren McFadden — Wouldn’t it be fun to see what sort of numbers this dude could put up if he made it through a full 16-game regular season? His ability is beyond question; it’s just a matter of avoiding the sort of hard-luck injuries that have caused him to miss 19 games over his first four NFL seasons. The Raiders host the Chargers in the nightcap of the NFL’s Monday-night doubleheader. The oft-injured McFadden has played in only one of Oakland’s last five games against San Diego.

10. Brandon Lloyd — With Lloyd now in the fold, Patriots QB Tom Brady has an arsenal of weapons that would make Idaho militia members jealous. Do you think Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray has slept well the past few weeks knowing that it’s his responsibility to hatch a plan to keep Lloyd, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez from trashing his secondary in the season opener? Fantasy owners will be anxious to see how Brady spreads the wealth in Week One. There’s plenty to go around, but not enough to keep owners of all four pass catchers happy each week. Lloyd was quiet in the preseason, with only one reception in three preseason games. But the Patriots didn’t bring him aboard to serve as a decoy. Lloyd is capable of stretching the field for Brady in the same manner that Randy Moss once did.