Wide Write: What to Look For in Week 1

The NFL season starts tonight, and things at Wide Write HQ couldn’t be better. We’ve got a brand new video blog that will keep you riveted from week to week just like 24 does on FOX. For the next 18 weeks, you can just think of me as fantasy football’s version of Jack Bauer, except that the ass-kickings won’t be so literal. I can deal out absolutely lethal sarcasm to underachieving running backs, though.

We’ll get to the normal start ‘em/sit ‘em/pick ‘em up format next week. For now, there are some interesting fantasy storylines that will have their first chapters written in Week 1. Here are a dozen important ones you need to watch for.

Is 2009 the year of Darren McFadden?

McFadden disappointed during an injury-plagued rookie season in 2008, but he showed flashes of brilliance, and it says here (and elsewhere) that he’s capable of a breakout campaign worthy of a weekly fantasy starting slot. The Raiders have a tough matchup against the Chargers on Monday night, but look at McFadden’s touches more than his results. If he gets the lion’s share of the work while Michael Bush and Justin Fargas spend most of the game on the sideline, we could have a budding fantasy star on our hands.

Will Ahmad Bradshaw fill Derrick Ward’s shoes?

As Brandon Jacobs’ sort-of-understudy last season, Ward carried 182 times and caught 41 passes, totaling 1,409 yards from scrimmage. With Ward off to life in a three-man RB committee in Tampa, the speedy Bradshaw is the Giants’ No. 2 back. Bradshaw looked terrific in the preseason, and Jacobs missed eight games in 2007-08. Watch for Bradshaw to get 10-12 touches against the Redskins, and get on his bandwagon of he does. I think I just talked myself into picking Bradshaw in my final two drafts.

Is Brian Westbrook slipping, or rebounding?

Did you have knee and ankle surgeries during your last vacation? The 30-year-old Westbrook did after a subpar (for him) season of 1,338 total yards and 14 touchdowns. Backs of Westbrook’s age with those kinds of injury problems should scare the heck out of fantasy owners, because there usually isn’t a happy ending for them. If you hear LeSean McCoy’s name more than a few times this week, it could mean that the Birds don’t trust Westbrook to carry the load anymore.

How much does Peyton Manning really like Anthony Gonzalez?

The guess here is “a lot.” With Marvin Harrison apparently headed to the old wide receivers’ home, Gonzalez takes the side of the field opposite Reggie Wayne. The book on Gonzalez is that he has good hands and runs good routes, which sounds right up Manning’s alley. If Gonzo catches five or six balls against the Jags on Sunday, he could be well on his way to an 80-90 reception, 1,200-yard season.

Who’s the man in the Ravens’ backfield?

Rutgers alumnus Ray Rice appears to have a leg up on born fullback Le’Ron McClain and the disappointing Willis McGahee. Like most teams, the Ravens won’t entrust their duties to one back, but during this week’s probable thrashing of the Chiefs, we should start to see if Rice is the lead dog. As a Rutgers alum myself, this would make me very happy.

Who’s going to be Jay Cutler’s favorite target?

Matt Forte should catch plenty of passes out of the backfield again, and assorted Bear watchers are talking up both Devin Hester and Cutler’s Vanderbilt teammate, WR Earl Bennett. But many fantasy wiseguys are locked on TE Greg Olsen, who increased his reception total from 39 in 2007 to 54 in 2008. Cutler liked throwing to his tight ends in Denver, and Olsen is a talented receiver entering his third NFL season. Put ‘em together, and we could have a top-five fantasy tight end. Watch how many times Cutler targets Olsen Sunday night in Green Bay.

Are Matt Hasselbeck and Carson Palmer back?

Hasselbeck missed 9 games due to assorted injuries in 2008 after throwing for almost 4,000 yards and 28 TDs in 2007. He looked good in the preseason, and if he picks apart the Rams this week, it’ll be an indication that he’s ready for a bounceback season. New wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh will help.

Palmer missed some time in the preseason with an ankle injury, but a year ago at this time he was widely considered as one of fantasy’s top five quarterbacks before hurting his elbow. He apparently debated and passed on Tommy John surgery, which sounds pretty scary for a QB. Palmer is a huge wildcard, and if you own him, only a big game against the Broncos will calm you down.

Can the Cowboy offense thrive without Terrell Owens?

The Cowboys sang Kumbaya around the campfire all August long, with Tony Romo spreading the ball around to Jason Witten, Roy E. Williams, Patrick Crayton, Sam Hurd and anyone else that didn’t scream “THROW ME THE FRICKIN' BALL!!!” every time the offense came off the field. That must have been a nice change of pace for Romo.

Now the games are for real, and we’re about to learn if Dallas’ offense really is better off without reality show star Terrell Owens. Sunday’s road game in Tampa will be a good test. If you’re wondering where I stand on this life-and-death issue, here’s an article I wrote recently about Romo’s draft status. I’m buying.

Will the Redskins start giving away more of Clinton Portis’ touches?

Head coach Jim Zorn keeps saying that he plans to give Ladell Betts more playing time, but I’ll believe that when I see it. Portis is still a big-time ball carrier who has averaged 1,687 yards from scrimmage over the last two seasons. Also, if you were Zorn, would you want to hear Portis whine like he did last year after a couple of 11-carry games? I don’t think it’s worth the headache.

How will Maurice Jones-Drew fare as an every-down back?

Through three NFL seasons, MJD has carried the ball 20 times in a game five times, and his 197 carries last season were a career high. Now, he’ll be carrying the load in Jacksonville. There’s no alternative, so the Jags will sink or swim with Jones-Drew, and I’ll be watching all season to see if a heavy workload affects the little fella. I think he’s getting a bit overhyped in fantasy circles.

Will the Buccaneers really rotate three running backs?

Head coach Raheem Morris says he’ll play Cadillac Williams for two series, Derrick Ward for two series and Earnest Graham for one before rotating the three that way all game. Clearly, Morris read the best-selling book, How to Screw Fantasy Football Owners at Every Opportunity, written by former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.

This setup sounds too ridiculous, and too dependent on the injury-prone Williams, to last long. The Bucs signed Ward for big money during the offseason, and I’m betting on him leading the way with more touches than the other two backs combined. In Week 1, I’ll settle for Ward just out-touching the other two individually.

Who’s the Browns’ starting quarterback?

At press time, Browns head coach Eric Mangini had apparently decided on his choice between Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, but was keeping it a secret as part of an elaborate ruse to mess with the minds of the Vikings. As a sign of protest against Mangini’s diabolical plan, you should avoid both QBs. Sunday will likely show that neither is a good bet to help your fantasy squad, anyway.

(UPDATE: On Wednesday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer cited a league source as saying that Quinn has been named as the Browns’ starter. Can’t anyone keep a secret anymore?)

Thanks for reading, and once again, make sure to watch this week’s edition of the Wide Write’s video blog by clicking here. Share it with your friends, post it on your Facebook page – really, I’d like to be just about everywhere if it’s OK with you.

John Halpin writes Wide Write and hosts an accompanying video blog every week throughout the NFL season. He also writes fantasy columns and early-morning blogs four days a week at FOXSports.com/fantasy.

For more fantasy sports coverage, visit FOXSports.com/fantasy.