One year after making an unexpected leap, the Los Angeles Rams won’t be taking anyone by surprise this season.
From hunters to the hunted, the Rams are now dealing with great expectations after significantly improving their team with the addition of multiple big-name players.
The reigning NFC West champions, who went 11-5 last year, aren’t just considered favourites in their division – they’re seen as one of the best teams in the league and serious Super Bowl contenders.
Their Week 1 meeting with the Oakland Raiders won’t make or break their credentials, but it will serve as an initial test for a defence that has massively turned over.
Aaron Donald, the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, will take his usual place on the defensive line, but he’ll now be joined by fellow pass rush dynamo Ndamukong Suh.
Oakland have one of the best interior lines in football – if not the very best – so the match-up will be a battle of strengths and showcase just how dominant the pairing of Donald and Suh can be.
In the secondary, new cornerback duo Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib will line up against Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson as they try to limit Derek Carr and the Raiders’ passing attack.
Oakland’s offence as a whole took a step back last season after an impressive 2016, but they still possess the kind of talent that should challenge the revamped Rams defence’s chemistry in their first full game together.
Coping without Mack
On the other side of the ball, the Raiders were always going to have their hands full against last season’s top-scoring team, but after trading Khalil Mack to Chicago last week, they’re also now without one of the best defensive players in the league.
Los Angeles allowed just 28 sacks last year, fifth-fewest in the NFL, but as much as Mack’s pass rushing will be missed – he’s had at least 10.5 sacks in each of the past three seasons – so will his work in the running game and ability to drop into coverage.
Todd Gurley had 2,093 total yards from scrimmage last season and once again figures to be the focal point of the Rams’ offence as both a runner and receiver.
Oakland’s linebackers will have their work cut out trying to slow down Gurley, while the secondary has to contend with the trio of Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks.
The Rams paid a premium for Cooks, trading a first and sixth-round pick to the New England Patriots for the wide receiver and a fourth-round selection. And that was before they extended him with a five-year deal worth $81 million.
The speedster should bring many of the same elements Sammy Watkins did during his lone season in Los Angeles, but it will be interesting to see if he and Jared Goff can develop more of a chemistry and utilise the connection in other ways instead of just deep routes.
Return of Gruden
Along with the action on the field, there will be plenty of intrigue on the sidelines as Jon Gruden coaches his first regular season game since 2008.
Ten years in the NFL is a long time, so it’s unclear how Gruden’s coaching will be affected by his hiatus.
During his previous head coaching gigs, especially with the Raiders from 1998-2001, he leaned on the running game during an era that preceded the passing boom. The league is so much different now, which means Gruden may not have the same success in his return if he continues clutching to past principles.
There’s also some mystery in how Gruden’s players will respond to his coaching. The trade of Mack was a shock for many of them and could have created some mistrust in the locker room.
Whether or not Gruden can unite his team and have them playing hard will be somewhat telling for the rest of the season.
Setting your lineup in Week 1 is relatively easy with few injuries and no bye weeks to deal with, but If you’re willing to get adventurous, here are five sleepers that could pay dividends off your bench or the waiver wire.
A popular streaming play this week, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback has a favourable match-up against the Indianapolis Colts, who last year allowed the fifth-most passing yards per game (246.6) and the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks. And between A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Joe Mixon and John Ross, Dalton has weapons to work with.
Especially for those in PPR leagues, the New England Patriots running back could offer plenty of points with how much work he’s likely to get in the passing game. Rex Burkhead will likely start and get a significant workload, but with how thin the Patriots’ wide receiver group is, White should be lined up out wide or in the slot often. If Tom Brady sees a linebacker lined up against White, he’ll attack the mismatch over and over again.
If you have the fortitude to start a Jacksonville Jaguars receiver this week, make sure it’s Cole. The New York Giants allowed the second-most passing yards last year (252.4), and although they should be better defending the air game this season, they’ll also be without their top pass rusher, Olivier Vernon, in the opener. And who else is Blake Bortles going to throw to? Cole is a better option than Dede Westbrook or Donte Moncrief.
He may be old and well past his prime, but Gates can still help fantasy owners in the right situation, and this week against the Kansas City Chiefs is certainly that. The game should be a high-scoring affair with both defences dealing with key injuries and from Gates’ perspective, he’ll likely get a Chiefs unit missing Eric Berry. He should be able to do damage in the middle of the field and he’s also a favourite target of Philip Rivers near the end zone.
Streaming defences is one of the most common strategies in the fantasy community because it’s so predicated on match-ups. Defences facing the New York Jets this season will often be used, with the Detroit Lions getting the first crack at rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. While he does have immense talent, Darnold should make his fair share of mistakes as he gets his feet wet as a starter. The Jets’ skill players don’t exactly strike fear into hearts either.
The anticipation is over. The first Sunday of the regular season is here and with it comes a glorious slate of football.
After Thursday night’s season opener proved to be a bit of a clunker, Sunday should offer hours of entertainment with no shortage of interesting match-ups.
Here, we pick out the juiciest storylines to keep an eye on.
Odell Beckham v Jalen Ramsey
As far as individual match-ups go, there may not be a more compelling one than Odell Beckham Jr versus Jalen Ramsey – two of the very best at their position and players known for more than just their football abilities.
Ramsey is arguably the biggest trash-talker in the league and a cornerback who can more than back it up by locking down opposing receivers. Beckham has a flair for highlight plays, but also a penchant for losing his composure and falling into the diva mould for wide receivers.
When they clash on Sunday, Ramsey will almost surely try to get in Beckham’s head to throw off his game, like Josh Norman did in 2015. But the Giants star said this week he learned his lesson from that encounter and won’t take the bait this time.
Regardless, the duel has the potential for fireworks.
Return of Deshaun Watson
Few players in the NFL are more exciting than Deshaun Watson, who raises the Houston Texans’ ceiling whenever he’s on the field.
After his rookie season was cut short due to a torn ACL last year, the duel-threat quarterback is back and healthy to make the Texans a dark horse challenger in the AFC.
To get Houston where they want to go though, Watson will have to go through the New England Patriots, who’ve owned the Texans over the years. Watson nearly beat the Patriots in Week 3 last season, and if he can avenge the defeat on Sunday, that would send a major statement on what the Texans are capable of this year.
On the flip side, it’s a chance for the Patriots to send a reminder that they’re still at the top of the food chain, and for Tom Brady to continue showing that his age is just a number.
No Bell, no problem?
Le’Veon Bell won’t be on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they face the Cleveland Browns as the reigning AFC North champions begin life without their star playmaker.
The bulk of the running back duties will fall to second-year player James Conner, who impressed in the preseason as both a runner and receiver.
Bell is expected to be back at some point this season, but with it all but certain that he won’t be on the Steelers roster next year, Week 1 will provide a glimpse into how Pittsburgh’s offence will operate beyond 2018.
Cleveland, meanwhile, are searching for their first win since Week 16 of 2016 as they attempt to end the woes the franchise has suffered for the past decade.
With the roster almost completely changed, the Browns have an opportunity to begin a fresh chapter on the right foot.
Something has to give
Jimmy Garoppolo carries a perfect 7-0 record as a starter into the new season, but that mark will be put to the test immediately in the opener against the Minnesota Vikings’ stout defence.
Minnesota are expected to be one of the best teams in league this season, in large part due to their defence, which allowed the fewest yards (275.9) and points per game (15.8) last year.
The San Francisco 49ers may not yet be in the same tier as the Vikings, but the team should take another step forward in the second year of the Garoppolo-Kyle Shanahan pairing. Week 1 will help reveal where the 49ers currently stand in relation to the top contenders in the NFC.
Defence could be in rare supply in the contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers.
Kansas City looked like they couldn’t stop anyone in the preseason, while the Chargers are seriously banged up and will be without pass rush extraordinaire Joey Bosa for the match-up.
Add in the Chiefs’ high-octane offence with big-armed Patrick Mahomes under centre, and the Chargers having their own set of dangerous weapons, and the game has the potential to be the highest-scoring of the week.