On Thursday night, Dion Lewis displayed the value of a sneaky fantasy football flex play.
Riding the New England Patriots’ revolving running back carousel, the 24-year-old amassed 120 total yards (69 rushing, 51 receiving) during a 28-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. With LeGarrette Blount serving a suspension and Jonas Gray surprisingly cut before the season began, Lewis seized the opportunity in his first game since 2012.
He’s the first but far from last player to exceed expectations this season. Several benched and unowned guys will tear the house down while established commodities deliver duds. Nothing ever fully follows the script, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from forming logical estimations for Week 1.
Here’s a look at flex rankings, tailored for standard scoring, for the opening weekend. After that, let’s dive deeper at players on the cusp of starting status.
RB Alfred Blue, Houston Texans (vs. Kansas City Chiefs)
Without an opportunity, even the most talented player becomes a meaningless fantasy option. But fantasy managers often fall into the trap of assuming anyone receiving reps automatically deserves their undivided attention.
Although Arian Foster has made rapid progress in his recovery from an offseason groin injury, he will not suit up for the Houston Texans on Sunday. That clears the way for Alfred Blue, who will look to do his part for a depleted offense, per the team’s Twitter page:
If he gets 36 carries like he did last November against the Cleveland Browns, the understudy will certainly make a great flex play. Still, the 24-year-old needs such a high-volume workload to flourish after averaging 3.1 yards per carry last year. Aside from the 156 yards compiled against Cleveland, he procured 154 total yards in two other games without Foster.
After getting worked to the ground against the Browns, Blue recorded 138 rushing yards on 65 carries over Houston’s final six games. Even with the likelihood of 15-20 touches, he’s more of a placeholder than difference-maker.
Considering Kansas City relinquished 4.7 yards per carry last year, stable touches make Blue flex-worthy for many owners. Just temper expectations. If 75-80 yards sounds good for someone needing to replace Foster, take the plunge and hope he stumbles his way into the end zone.
WR Rueben Randle, New York Giants (at Dallas Cowboys)
Victor Cruz won’t put on his dancing shoes just yet. The New York Giants officially ruled out the wide receiver playing his first game since Oct. 12, when he suffered a torn patellar tendon in his knee.
As a result, the widely ignored Rueben Randle will once again start alongside Odell Beckham Jr. Although a volatile option, he can make a major impact during a Sunday night shootout with the Dallas Cowboys.
Randle scored only three touchdowns last year, but he also amassed 938 yards on 127 targets while closing the 2014 season with 290 yards over New York’s final two games. While some may have expected him to take a back seat once Beckham emerged, he instead shined with defenses drawn to the star rookie.
Despite defying basement-low expectations last year, Dallas’ defense enters this NFC East showdown with some secondary concerns. Nerdy Football’s Matt Camp examined issues that present an opening for Randle:
Now, with a chance to get his season off to a strong start, Randle faces a Dallas secondary that lost their best cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, to a torn ACL and MCL just a few weeks ago. With that injury, the Cowboys are left with Morris Claiborne attempting to come back from a torn patellar of his own and Brandon Carr, who has been a massive disappointment since signing back in 2012.
The Giants have plenty of their own personnel concerns on defense, but that’s more about a general lack of talent. What this adds up to is a possible high-scoring affair with two quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to throw it in Manning and Tony Romo. Beckham should draw plenty of attention as the team’s top weapon, which could open things up for Randle to take advantage and with a height advantage over both Carr and Claiborne. Randle can go up and get jump balls and be a factor in the red zone.
Risk is inherent for any non-stud wideout, but Randle twice finished games with single-digit receiving yards, notching a lone yard during last year’s Week 1 slate. He also managed an inefficient 55.9 percent catch rate, so a breakout effort is far from a done deal.
WR John Brown, Arizona Cardinals (vs. New Orleans Saints)
During a solid yet unspectacular rookie campaign for the Arizona Cardinals, John Brown collected 48 catches for 696 yards and five touchdowns. Had Carson Palmer not torn his ACL, the sophomore wideout would have received much more attention in draft rooms.
In six games with the veteran quarterback, Brown produced 315 receiving yards and three touchdowns, which prorates to 840 yards and eight scores over a full 16 games. NFL.com’s Matt Harmon compared the undersized pass-catcher to T.Y. Hilton, who notched 861 yards and seven scores as a rookie before breaking out:
John Brown performed markedly better when the team’s starting quarterback was in the lineup. Had Palmer played out the full season, it is not out of the question Brown would have finished right in line with Hilton’s 2012 season. The two players have very similar skill sets, and are both in the 5-foot-10 and 180-pound [Bruce] Arians‘ mold. For his encore, Hilton recorded 82 catches for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns. No one should rule out Brown having a similar season, if Carson Palmer plays all 16 games.
Week 1 presents the perfect opportunity to ignite his breakout campaign. The New Orleans Saints, last year’s No. 31-ranked defense, declared cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Jairus Byrd out for Week 1 in Friday’s injury report. Meanwhile, Michael Floyd isn’t a lock to compete for Arizona.
Brown won’t receive as many targets as Randle, but he is a bigger threat to break free for a major play. Unless he realizes the Hilton comp, Brown is a high-upside matchup play ideal for a flex gamble.
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