Sunday, September 7, 2014

2014 NFL Week 1 Picks

Football is finally back, and I'm so excited that I'm bringing back my weekly picks. I'll try to keep the explanations succinct, especially in my new If I were a betting man feature that will focus on my favorite parlay options for that week. On weeks that I get these posts up after the Thursday night game (which will be most weeks), I will include a link to my tweets that announce the pick. Lastly, for consistency I will be making these picks based on the lines at

Week 1 

If I were a betting man, I would make two separate 3 team parlays this week to cover the five picks I like. The Chargers +3 would be the one that I double up on with both Patriots -4/Vikings +3 and Steelers -7/Niners -4.5 since I think that's best value pick of the week and so that I could make hedge bets on MNF if I make it through the Sunday games.

Well, we're clearly off to a great start! Having arguably the best safety in the league, Earl Thomas, moonlight as a punt returning despite having hardly any experience at even the college level helped make this one close early. However, once Bryan Bulaga (a former first round pick who has had trouble staying healthy) was injured and replaced at right tackle by Derek Sherrod (a former first round pick who has had trouble staying healthy), Aaron Rodgers and the Packers had no chance against the league's best defense with that crowd noise.

I thought it'd at least be a good game with Green Bay having a legitimate chance to win and thus took the points. Not that it matters, but the Seahawks calling a Spider 2 Y Banana play on 4th and 1 with the game already out of hand was...interesting. Do you think Pete Carroll was hoping to be asked"What's your deal?"

New Orleans -3 at Atlanta

Brees' new toy might make a big impact.
The Falcons beefed up their line on both sides of the ball, but they have questions on the edges. I don't think they'll be able to get any pressure on Drew Brees, so the most intriguing aspect of this game to me is how first round pick Brandin Cooks will be utilized. The small speedster was already likely to get a lot of the underneath targets and special teams touches that used to go to Darren Sproles, but now that second year breakout candidate Kenny Stills is out for this game, Cooks could be in line for a more diverse role as the clear cut #3 target next to Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston doing their work in the middle.

The Saints' biggest acquisition, Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, will be put to the test right away as he tries to help contain Julio Jones and Roddy White now that they're healthy and in line for the majority of the 119 targets that went to the now-retired Tony Gonazlez. Levine Toilolo has some potential with this size but is better suited as a blocker than a receiver for now. This game has some shootout potential, especially if Steven Jackson doesn't show any lingering effects for his hamstring issues. New Orleans is vulnerable against the run, but at the end of the day, they'll get more stops than the home team.

Minnesota +3 at St. Louis

I think the Vikings are currently undervalued under rookie head coach Mike Zimmer since Matt Cassel will serve as a solid bridge quarterback to mentor Teddy Bridgewater, whom they were wise to trade up for at the end of the first round. Norv Turner was a great hire at offensive coordinator, and he will make sure that Cassel gets the ball down the field to everyone's favorite fantasy sleepers, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph, in much the same way that he allowed Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron to realize their potential in Cleveland last year. 

Of course, everything will start with Adrian Peterson running behind a good offensive line, and I believe he will set a career high in receptions in this runningback friendly offense. For example, in Frank Gore's breakout second season, he had a career best 61 catches with Turner as his OC. LaDanian Tomlinson, who had Turner as an OC his rookie year and then as a head coach from 2007-2009, averaged 47.75 catches in his offense, and if you take out his last season in San Diego when he fell apart, that number jumps up to 57 receptions.

St. Louis' biggest strength is their front seven, so getting All Day into open space on multiple passes will tilt this matchup in Minnesota's favor. With Zimmer coaching up their underachieving defense, they will almost always be in games with Peterson getting the opportunity to carry them to the finish line. Despite having a strong rushing game of their own with Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, and third rounder Tre Mason,, the Rams are not likely to put games out of reach with Shaun Hill at QB. He will provide much of the same production that Sam Bradford was likely too, but Bradford's unfortunate knee injury takes away any of the upside their offense might have had. With Kenny Britt supposedly getting his head on straight after reunited with head coach Jeff Fisher, there was some potential with this team, but until I see the hype around Brian Quick, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, and Steadman Bailey actually come to fruition, I won't be picking them against teams that can stop the run.

Pittsburgh -7 versus Cleveland

The Ohio product wins against his home state.
The Steelers' once vaunted defense has shown its age in recent years, but they have gotten younger and faster in the offseason and are at home against an offense with only two weapons. Ben Tate is currently healthy, knows the zone blocking scheme well, and has a strong offensive line blocking for him on what should be a heavy workload. Whenever they're not handing the ball off, Cameron should be getting most of the targets as he is in another tight end friendly offense under Kyle Shanahan. Unfortuntely, with Josh Gordon's suspension, the heavily featured X receiver role (Pierre Garcon led the NFL with 184 targets in that role last year) is left vacant, and I doubt Pittsburgh will be worried about Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin despite the flashes they've shown in the past.

The Browns have talent at each level on the defensive side of the ball, so the spread is a bit high considering that the game could be a close, low scoring affair. However, the Steelers should be able to move the ball with a balanced attack heavily featuring Le'Veon Bell on the ground and Antonio Brown through the air despite the presence of LeGarrette Blount and Joe Haden, respectively. I only think Blount will spell Bell on occasional series given that he is not a complete back, and Haden has not demonstrated the ability to slow down Brown in the past. If Big Ben does want to only attack rookie first rounder Justin Gilbert, I'm interested in seeing how second year receiver Marcus Wheaton will respond to being a starter after barely contributing last year. 

Jacksonville +10.5 at Philadelphia

I fully expect the Eagles to win this game, but the spread is too high, even if it's at home. Gus Bradley's defense will at least keep it close, and after a 4-4 finish to last season, I loved the selections of Blake Bortles, Marquis Lee, and Allen Robinson early in the draft. I might be one of the few who wasn't surprised at all to see Bortles go that high, but I am surprised at how sharp he looks already. I don't mind the decision to start the established Chad Henne until they are sure Bortles is ready, and with Cecil Shorts already on the sidelines again, I'm excited to see Lee with the veteran throwing to him in a featured role after he fell to the second round due to this injury plagued junior season. Undrafted free agent Allen Hurns had a great preseason, so I'm curious to see how many opportunities he gets under coordinator Jedd Fisch, who also coached him at The U. However, I'm most excited to see the surprisingly athletic Toby Gerhart finally get his opportunity to be a feature back as he will be the Michael Turner to Bortles' eventual Matt Ryan (general manager David Caldwell came from the Falcons organization).

Then again, it's hard not to get excited every time there's an opportunity to watch Shady McCoy at work. There will be some great battles in the trenches, but it's not likely that this high octane offense won't generate a W. I hope that Jeremy Maclin is back 100% as he will excel in DeSean Jackson's departed role. If he isn't, then I would expect an expanded role for second breakout candidate Zack Ertz at tight end, and that the versatile Jordan Matthews, who should start in the slot right away as a rookie, will get even more opportunities. I'm still not completely on board with Nick Foles as a franchise QB, though, so taking the points isn't a tough decision here.

New York Jets -5.5 versus Oakland

Another line that seems a touch high, until you realize that this is a 10 am PST game for a rookie quarterback's first game against Rex Ryan's disguised blitzes. The Jets' cornerback situation is not encouraging with Antonio Allen, who was already a bit stiff at safety, making the conversion to the outside while Dee Milliner is out, but I actually believe that Darrin Walls will be solid on the other side. The Raiders have a talented group of receivers and Derek Carr's strong arm to expose them, but NY's stout run defense will prevent them from leaning on Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden to try to ease in the rook. I've heard Carr compared to a young Jay Cutler in the past, and if he fails to diagnose pressure as anticipated, I think we might see a couple "what was THAT" turnovers.

I still believe that the Raiders have some defensive potential under Dennis Allen, especially after another year of solid free agent signings on that side of the ball and the selection of Khalil Mack. In particular, the front seven is strong, even if I'm not quite sure how they all fit together, and they should contain the Chrises, Johnson and Ivory, on the ground. At the end of the day, though, I think Geno Smith and his new toy, Eric Decker, will score enough to keep this one out of reach for Oakland.

Baltimore -1.5 versus Cincinnati

This game was the hardest for me to pick, and I'm going with the home team given their comparable talent levels. The Bengals lost both of their coordinators to head coaching positions, but I actually think that the promotion of Hue Jackson may actually be an internal improvement given their offensive personnell and his scheme. After selecting Gio Bernard as their running back of the future in the second round in last years draft, they somewhat surprisingly went back to the well and got another great second round talent in Jeremy Hill. Jackson's power running game should provide a high number of touches for both the shifty, pass-catching Bernard and the big, yet agile Hill, while also taking the ball out of the hands of the inconsistent Andy Dalton a bit more. The Red Rifle has struggled against the Ravens in the past, so it will be interesting to see how much Jackson scales back his pass attempts. The A.J. Green-Jimmy Smith matchup should be fun, given their similar builds.

The Ravens have a new offensive coordinator of their own, and they also have a strong personnel set for Gary Kubiak's system, especially since Joe Flacco has underrated mobility and excels in play action. The offensive line disappointed last year, but Bernard Pierce is a great fit for the zone blocking scheme and might not look back once incumbent starter Ray Rice returns from his 2 game suspension. Since Kubiak runs the same system as the Shanahans, Dennis Pitta should be peppered with targets as a valuable tight end, and Torrey Smith is in line for a monster year as the X receiver. I already mentioned that Garcon led the league in targets in that role last year, but do you know who was second? Andre Johnson, playing for...Gary Kubiak. Smith is not quite exactly the same type of player as those two, but he has improved every year and will be given plenty of opportunities to burn veterans Leon Hall and Terrance Newman or rookie Darqueze Dennard.
I'm all in on Torrey this year.

Chicago -7 versus Buffalo

I'm a little nervous about laying a full touchdown with the worst rush defense going against the run heaviest team in the league, but the more talented team is at home and healthy. In the first year of being under Marc Trestman's tutelage, Cutler got the ball out to his weapons quicker and more efficiently behind a revamped offensive line, and he will have a monster year if he stays healthy. With that in mind, Matt Forte is the most critical aspect of this offense thanks to both his receiving skills out of the backfield and their inability to replace him. They have two behemoths out wide, and both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are in line for big days against Buffalo's talented but inconsistent corners.

I liked E.J. Manuel at Florida State, but he never looked like a first round, franchise quarterback. The timing of signing Kyle Orton to be his backup is peculiar, but if neither of them can get the ball to Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, and Robert Woods, then the future first round pick they traded to move up for Watkins, who is a tremendous talent, could end up being quite high. With the addition of Bryce Brown to be the third runningback, they have one of the most talented backfields in the league, so it all really comes down to the question mark at quarterback.

Houston -3 versus Washington

Could the Texans become the third straight team with the #1 pick to turn things around and make the playoffs? It's certainly possible give their talent, particular along the defensive front, but let's see how rookie head coach Bill O'Brien does in his first game before making that declaration. His long-rumored reunion with Ryan Mallett is intriguing long-term, but for now, I think Ryan Fitzpatrick can do enough to put the team in a position to win while leaning on Arian Foster. If Foster were to collapse from a heavy workload again, I'd expect Jonathan Grimes to get a lot of carries, but I'm more intrigued by 6th rounder Alfred Blue, who could never stay on the field at LSU but showed great a combination of size and burst when he did. The entirety of Houston's running game should have success against an underwhelming Washington defense, and O'Brien will likely have a flexible game plan week to week thanks to his Patriots roots.

The rookie head coach on the other side, Jay Gruden, brings a pass-happy approach that would, along with the additions of DeSean Jackson and a healthy Jordan Reed, theoretically mean big things for Robert Griffin III. However, the change in systems and being more confined to being a pocket passer did not look like a smooth transition in the preseason. Until I see how the new offense operates, I'm not likely to pick them in questionable road matchups such as this.

Kansas City -3 versus Tennessee

Everyone knows the Chiefs are due for a regression, but I think they'll still be solid, especially at home. Alex Smith just got a well-deserved, fair extension at market value for just 4 years. Towards the end of the year, he finally showed a willingness to pull the trigger on contested throws down the field, and although Dwayne Bowe will be serving a 1 game suspension this week, Jamaal Charles and the potential laden Travis Kelce should be enough in Arrow Head.

If Jake Locker could finally stay healthy, he could be in line for a big year under a new coaching staff with Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, Nate Washington, and Delanie Walker at his disposal behind a deep offensive line. Kansas City can be exposed on the back end, but their already fearsome pass rush added Dee Ford in the first round to learn under Justin Houston in a contract year and Tamba Hali, who's almost 31 and will be entering the last year of his contract next season. The Titans have some potential on defense under new coordinator Ray Horton, but I'm in wait and see mode mode as they transition to the 3-4.

New England -4 at Miami

I am cautiously optimistic about the Dolphins this year with new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor installing an Eagles-like attack. That should take advantage of Ryan Tannehill's potential and make Mike Wallace worth his contract. Too often last year, Wallace was confined to one side of the field with a limited route tree, but he should be more involved in a variety of ways this year in a system that produced DeSean Jackson's most consistent year. With some changes to the offensive line, Lamar Miller could be a post-hype breakout player as Lazor's "LeSean McCoy," and Knowshon Moreno looms as a solid alternative now that he's healthy.

With that being said, the Patriots are loaded this year, and Rob Gronkowski is chomping at the bit to prove that he is healthy. The 4 game suspension of star strong safety Reshad Jones creates a hole on the back end that Tom Brady is sure to exploit as long as he gets protection against a good pass rush. The surprise trade of beloved veteran guard Logan Mankins actually makes sense on paper since Marcus Cannon is younger and cheaper, and New England has had success bailing on guys a year early rater than a year late. If the Dolphins are able to get some pressure, I expect a lot of quick passes to Shane Vereen, who is in line for a big contract year after a wrist injury slowed his breakout last year. The Pats have a lot of options on the other side of the ball, as well, with Darrelle Revis taking over for Aquib Talib as Bill Belichick's shutdown weapon of choice.

Tampa Bay -3 versus Carolina

Cam Newton is a game time decision due to fractured ribs, which has always been the concern with the way he's used on so many designed runs, but I like Tampa in this game, regardless. Replacing Greg Schiano with Lovie Smith will be a huge improvement, especially with such a talented defense. I'm curious to see how Jeff Tedford does as an offensive coordinator with Josh McCown getting a chance to start after being reborn under Trestman in Chicago. Doug Martin and the run game should be the focal point, especially now that Mankins was added to a questionable line.

The Panthers' relentless front seven masks their weaknesses in the secondary, but on the other side, I'm more concerned about Newton's protection than the receivers he's throwing to. After winning the National Championship for Florida State, Kelvin Benjamin came out as a redshirt sophomore, but he is already 23 and is a full grown man at 6'5, 240. He's already on the same page with Newton, but they need their new offensive line to hold up at the point of the attack.

San Francisco -4.5 at Dallas

The 49ers come into the season with a lot of red flags, but winning cures everything. The Cowboys defense has the potential to be all-time bad, and with cornerback Orlando Scandrick suspended the first four games to boot, Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore should be in line for big games. Michael Crabtree is questionable with yet another leg injury, but I think he'll get his contract year off a to a good start in his home state.

Back at his old position with Bowman out, the D will be solid as long as Patrick Willis is roaming the field.
This game does have some shootout potential with Navarro Bowman and Glen Dorsey injured to start the year and Aldon Smith suspended the first 9 games. The Cowboys' offensive line has become a strength, and DeMarco Murray has always produced whenever healthy. I'm optimistic about the Niners revamped secondary with the free agent addition of Antoine Bethea to pair with rising star Eric Reid at safety. Surprise first rounder Jimmie Ward is also a safety, but he was drafted with playing the all important nickel position in mind and should see plenty of playing time right away. Chris Culliver should be a solid starter opposite Tramaine Brock, but if his ACL gives him any problems, they could turn to the versatile Perrish Cox, fourth round project Dontae Johnson, or former Vikings' second round pick Chris Cook. I think Cook could be the best bargain bet of free agency now that he's healthy and worked on his ball skills; he reminds me of the #22 he replaces, Carlos Rogers. In any case, Dez Bryant will certainly give them all they can handle to start his contract year.

Indianapolis +7.5 at Denver

I may regret this one considering Peyton Manning is playing in a prime time game at home, but I can't bring myself to pick against Andrew Luck by more than a touchdown despite his questionable offensive line and running game. With the addition of Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief and the healthy return of Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen, this is the best receiving core the game's best young quarterback has ever had. Rob Chudzinksi was brought in to assist offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and should help maximize the usage of T.Y. Hilton's game changing ability, possibly in a similar way to how he used Steve Smith in Carolina.

How much Montee Ball is used in his first game as the starter replacing Moreno will be another thing to keep an eye on, as John Elway made no effort to bring back the versatile back or any competition for carries. It'll be Ball's show, and he has the talent to become the focal point of the offense. With the huge additions of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and Bradley Roby on defense, they may lean more on the running game to preserve their now 38 year old QB. I don't think Manning will approach his record-breaking numbers, but he'll still lead an elite despite losing Eric Decker in free agency and Wes Welker to a suspension for 4 games. The Thomases, Demaryius and Julius, will be targeted relentlessly in the red zone, and their big free agent addition on offense, Emmanuel Sanders, can kick in to the slot as needed. Second rounder Cody Latimer will likely push veteran Andre Caldwell for reps on the outside before Welker's suspension is finished.

Sidenote: is "my Molly was laced with amphetamines without me knowing" this year's "adderall" excuse for suspensions since the MDMA alone wouldn't have triggered a violation?

Detroit -6.5 versus New York Giants

Say what you will about Jim Caldwell's tenure as the Colts' head coach, but the additions of him, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, free agent receiver Golden Tate, and first round pick Eric Ebron mean that Matthew Stafford is in for a monster year. He may not get the sheer volume of passes as under the previous regime, but he'll be more efficient with better mechanics and less double coverage on Calvin Johnson. Lomardi comes over from the Saints, so you can expect the running game to be a committee approach with Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, and possibly even Theo Riddick all getting carries behind an underrated offensive line.

While I expect the Lions offense to be an elite unit, I'm not nearly as optimistic about their defense, especially on the back end. Of course, a fearsome front can make up for the secondary by not giving QBs time to attack deep, and the Giants' offensive line is nothing to write home about. Eli Manning should be able to get the ball out quick in the new offense Ben McAdoo is bringing over from Green Bay, but if they fall behind early, Detroit's pass rush could tee off. I've been singing the praises of Rueben Randle since before his LSU days (he was the #1 recruit in the class of 2009, the same year I graduated), and this could be his coming out party on the national stage. At 6'3, he is New York's only red zone option, so unless they can pound it in with fourth rounder Andre Williams on the ground, I'd expect a lot of targets for #82. Rashad Jennings was a great free agent singing in light of David Wilson's unfortunate neck injury and will get his touches, but I don't think he'll find much running room in this one.

San Diego +3 at Arizona

I am shocked that the Cardinals are favored by this much, even if they are at home. Their defense has suffered a lot of losses, and even if dynamic defensive back Tyrann Mathieu (gametime decision) plays, I don't think they have enough up front to stop the Chargers' efficient offense. They struggle to cover tight ends, so Antonio Gates (GTD) and/or breakout candidate Ladarius Green could have big games. Of course, their biggest threat is Keenan Allen, who was an absolute steal in the third round last year. I've viewed him as a first rounder since his first game at Cal against UC Davis, and the fact that he posted a 1,000 season as a rookie despite not getting significant playing time until Week 4 was remarkable. Patrick Peterson was made the highest paid corner for a reason, but he will have difficulty containing the smooth route-runner.

I liked Andre Ellington at Clemson, but he fell to the sixth round last year due to injury concerns, which are showing up now, unfortunately. If he can't go, Carson Palmer will have to air it out even more than usual in Bruce Arians' vertical attack. Michael Floyd may be ready to ascend past longtime mentor Larry Fitzgerald as the number #1 option, and I also want to keep my eye on third rounder John Brown. He hails from tiny Pittsburg State (notice the spelling of the Kansas school) and could have a T.Y. Hilton-esque rookie year thanks to his game breaking speed. The Chargers made some improvements in their secondary with the additions of Brandon Flowers and first rounder Jason Verrett, but I still question their pass rush outside of Corey Liuget. This could end up a shootout in the desert, but I'm rolling with the more complete team.

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