1. Larry Fitzgerald — Everyone seems to be in a panic that because of Arizona's shaky and volatile QB position, Larry Fitzgerald, possibly the finest receiver of his era, is suddenly going to put up the sort of numbers that Tywan Mitchell or Marcus Dowdell used to produce for the Cardinals. Let's consider for a moment that in 2007, with Derek Anderson as his quarterback, Braylon Edwards caught 80 passes for 1,289 yards and 16 TDs. Let's also consider for a moment that Larry Fitzgerald has perhaps the best pair of hands in football, while Edwards' hands are so bad that he may as well have canned hams attached to the ends of his arms. The fact that Derek Anderson is Arizona's starting quarterback does not automatically mean statistical ruin for the team's star receiver. Fitzgerald sustained a scary but ultimately minor knee injury in the preseason, and after sitting out the rest of the exhibition slate, he should be at full speed for Week One. A date with the Rams will give Fitzgerald a chance to demonstrate that reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
2. Chris Johnson — There was a long standing ovation, and fans held up their cigarette lighters in tribute, and now the artist Chris Johnson returns to the stage for his encore. But will he play the classic hits that fans want to hear, or will he play something moody and obscure from his new album? The NFL schedule makers, knowing what sort of music fans like to hear, have granted Johnson and the Titans a home opener against the Raiders. Oakland's defense tends to make lesser runners look like Chris Johnson; what will it make the actual Chris Johnson look like? It's a distinct possibility that after one game, Johnson will be on pace to break his own yards-from-scrimmage record.
3. Ryan Mathews — Of all the rookie running backs, Mathews walked into the best situation, or so it would seem, He has no real competition for the featured-back role, and he'll be playing for (presumably) a winning team, with a top QB, in a Charmin-soft division. Mathews has looked crisp in the preseason, and all signs point to a productive year. But the Chargers couldn't run the ball last year. How much of that can be attributed to the decline of LaDainian Tomlinson, and how much of it was due to bad blocking and other structural deficiencies in the San Diego running game? Mathews and the Chargers open in Kansas City in the second half of the Monday-night doubleheader, so Mathews' NFL debut will no doubt decide a good number of fantasy football games.
4. Jahvid Best — By netting Best and Ndamukong Suh in the first round of this year's NFL Draft, the misbegotten Lions just might sweep the Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards. There is little concern about Best's rushing ability, but there are concerns aplenty about his size, his injury history and, of course, the team that drafted him. Detroit is such a snakebitten franchise that it's not hard to imagine Best's rookie season going off the rails in some tragic way. Best and the Lions open the regular season in Chicago, and a healthy Bears defense will provide a good test.
5. C.J. Spiller — The first-round draft pick from Clemson could be the most talented member of this year's promising rookie RB class. With all due respect to Thurman Thomas, Spiller is the most electrifying runner to hit Buffalo since O.J. Simpson. A jaw-dropping performance by Spiller in the Bills' home opener against Miami would cement Spiller in the featured-back role and lay to rest any possibility of a time-share with Fred Jackson, who's recovering from a broken hand. But we'll have to see how much Spiller is affected by the constraints of his team's subpar blocking and mediocre QB play.
6. Jay Cutler — Now paired with passing-game guru Mike Martz, Cutler could either put up the best numbers of his career or become a pariah in Chicago by turning in a second straight disappointing year. Last season, Cutler's combination of raw talent, disappointing results and standoffish personality were reminiscent of legendary underachiever and fellow Indiana native Jeff George. Cutler opens with a home game against the Lions, who've improved overall but still have major issues in their secondary. Week One is a golden opportunity for George ... whoops, I mean Cutler ... to get off on the right foot.
7. Jermichael Finley — After a late-season surge and an eye-opening playoff performance against the Cardinals last season, Finley picked up where he left off in the 2010 preseason, laying opposing defenses to waste. A magnificent physical specimen, Finley seems poised to join the ranks of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game. What should excite Finley's fantasy owners is that Finley seems to have become Aaron Rodgers' favorite target. The Packers have had some pretty good pass-catching tight ends over the years: Paul Coffman, Jackie Harris, Mark Chmura and, at the tail end of his career, Keith Jackson. But they've never had a pass-catching tight end like Finley. Green Bay's rising star opens the season against the Eagles in Philadelphia.
8. Philip Rivers — Isn't there some additional way to handicap Rivers just to see what it will take to throw him off his game? I mean, is it enough that he's merely being asked to perform without his Pro Bowl left tackle and his best wide receiver? Can't we tie Rivers' left hand behind his back? Let's make him wear an oven mitt on his throwing hand and put on a blindfold. Rivers is a terrific quarterback, but the absence of OLT Marcus McNeill and WR Vincent Jackson is bound to pose problems. Rivers still has his elite passing tight end, Antonio Gates. And perhaps Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee (I love saying that name) and the recently acquired Patrick Crayton can minimize the impact of V-Jax's absence. But the McNeill holdout ... ouch. There figures to be a steep drop-off from the battle-tested McNeill to his replacement, relative neophyte Brandyn Dombrowski, although to his credit, Dombrowski faced elite pass rushers Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware in the preseason, and Rivers wasn't hospitalized in either instance. Monday night in Kansas City, Rivers will try to demonstrate that he's capable of doing more with less.
9. Wes Welker — People talk about how Welker tore his ACL "last year." Well, technically, it happened "this year." Welker ripped up his knee on Jan. 3, in the final week of the regular season. With the timing of the injury, it seemed that the best Welker could hope for would be to open the 2010 season on the PUP list and be back by midseason. Remarkably, Welker is set to open the regular season in the Patriots' starting lineup, and he's even hoping to do it without the knee brace he wore in preseason games. Can there be any doubt that, pound for pound, Welker is the toughest guy in football? (Please don't try to make a case for Steve Smith of the Panthers; sucker-punching a teammate doesn't compare with coming all the way back from a torn ACL in such a short period of time.) Welker has 346 receptions over the last three seasons. Will Welker be able to turn in another 100-catch season if the knee injury leaves him at less-than-full speed? We'll get a hint when the Patriots open the season against the Bengals in Foxborough.
10. Brett Favre — The strange dichotomy of Brett Favre never ceases to amuse me. How is it that one of the toughest quarterbacks to ever live can turn into such a drama-obsessed diva every offseason? But never mind. This year, the in-season drama for Favre centers on his ability to remain healthy despite nearly two decades of NFL wear and tear, and on his ability to remain effective despite the health problems of his wide receivers. Favre's best receiver, Sidney Rice, will miss half the season or more with a hip injury, and Favre's second-best receiver, Percy Harvin, gets frequent migraine headaches that throw his week-to-week availability into question. Favre opens his 20th professional season under the national spotlight Thursday night, with the Vikings visiting New Orleans in the sequel to last season's NFC championship game. Expect the Saints to blitz Minnesota's graybeard quarterback early and often, as they did the last time around.
Watch for "Fitz's Four-Course Fantasy Feast" later this week.