NFL

Most important players for NFL Week 1

It's about time the Carolina Panthers get Cam Newton pass protection NFL Week 1
Michael Dixon
Written by Michael Dixon

NFL Week 1 means the beginning of games that actually count and with that, plenty of players fall immediately under the microscope. Who are they?

These players will be the most important in determining who starts 1-0, and who starts 0-1. In some cases, it’s the superstars. While they’re important for slightly different reasons, we just can’t look beyond guys like Cam Newton and David Johnson.

In other cases, though, it comes down to the guys who can let the superstars thrive. Linemen lake Jake Matthews and receivers like Randall Cobb will be integral in determining how well their all-world teammates perform in the openers.

The reasons will differ. But these are the most-important individuals heading into NFL Week 1.

Jake Matthews, left tackle, Atlanta Falcons

Caption: Aug 11, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons tackle Jake Matthews (70) is introduced before a game against the Washington Redskins at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s face it. Even on the road, the Falcons should have their way with the Chicago Bears on Sunday. In Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the Atlanta offense has two of the very best players that the NFL has to offer. Where Chicago can keep this game close (and maybe pull an upset) is if its talented front seven — specifically Leonard Floyd — can pressure Ryan in the pocket.

It will be on Matthews to prevent that from happening. If he neutralizes that rush, then Ryan and Jones will have time to connect down field. If that happens, it’s hard to see the Bears even keeping it close. But if Floyd wins the battle, he makes the Atlanta offense slightly more one dimensional. That would allow this game to be much closer than expected.

Geno Atkins, defensive tackle, Cincinnati Bengals

Given that Joe Flacco is returning from an injury, Cincinnati’s front seven will be tasked with making life as difficult as possible on the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback. While the edge rushers will be the ones actually applying most of the pressure to Flacco, that job really starts with Atkins.

It’s worth mentioning that if Atkins is dominant enough, he can apply his own pressure to Flacco. But his job will really be to keep Baltimore’s interior linemen on their blocks, which would keep the Ravens running game down. If that happens, Flacco has to pass. The more he passes, the more he risks getting hit. For a guy who missed essentially all of training camp with an injury, that’s less than ideal. It may not show up much on the stat sheet, but Atkins will have a vital role in this one.

DeShone Kizer, quarterback, Cleveland Browns

Short term, it’s easy. The Browns are not going to pull an upset over a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers without a good performance from the quarterback. Kizer will not only need to manage the game, but also make the big throws if Cleveland is going to have a chance in this one.

Long term, how well Kizer shows in this one means far more than whether the Browns win or lose. Kizer has made no bones about the fact that he wants to make Cleveland’s ugly past at quarterback a distant memory. Week 1 is his first chance towards making that happen. No, a bad game won’t make him a bust and a good game won’t make him the next Tom Brady. But Sunday will give us our first real look at what kind of NFL quarterback Kizer will be. Given Cleveland’s futility under center for nearly two decades, the significance of that goes beyond just a Week 1 game.

Tyrod Taylor, quarterback, Buffalo Bills

To be quite blunt, there is no NFL team that the New York Jets should beat. The Bills, however, are one that the Jets could beat if things break a certain way. In other words, if Taylor makes a few big mistakes, New York will have a chance here.

It’s on Taylor to not let that happen. Don’t throw into traffic. Don’t be afraid to throw it away or check it down on third and long. If he plays smart, Buffalo should handle New York. But if Taylor does struggle like he did in the preseason, an upset becomes a distinct possibility.

David Johnson, running back, Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson is one of the top NFL players at any position

Sometimes the obvious pick is obvious for a reason. Johnson is simply one of the game’s best players. He’s a running back. But if the Detroit Lions stack the box to take away from the run, Johnson can be one of Carson Palmer’s best friends in the passing game, as well.

The Lions are not going to stop Johnson. But Detroit has to find a way to keep him from going completely off and dominating the game. If he does, the Lions will have a hard time winning — even at home. If Johnson is kept in check, though, this becomes one of the more-interesting games from NFL Week 1.

Mario Edwards Jr., defensive end, Oakland Raiders

Can the Raiders limit Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee offense? If Oakland can, it should pick up a good Week 1 road win. If it can’t, then a loss or at best, a high-scoring win, is in the cards. While the Raiders’ work in progress secondary will be under the microscope, the pass rush can take a lot of the heat off of the defensive backs by getting to Mariota quickly.

Of course, a lot of that will depend on Khalil Mack, the NFL’s first ever double first-team All-Pro. But Mack will also draw a great deal of attention from the Titans’ offensive line. That will put a lot of pressure on Edwards to get in Mariota’s face in the backfield. If that can’t happen, the Raiders’ secondary will be severely tested, which didn’t always work out great a season ago.

Logan Ryan, cornerback, Tennessee Titans

Of course, Oakland’s defense will not be the only one tested in Nashville on Sunday. The Tennessee defense will have its hands full in trying to limit David Carr, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and Oakland’s uber-talented offense.

Naturally, that will be a team effort. Still, it’s hard to look beyond the man who left the defending Super Bowl champs to sign a three-year, $30 million deal with the Titans in the offseason. That’s the kind of signing that should make a significant impact on a defense. For that to happen, these are the kind of offenses that Ryan will need to step up against.

That doesn’t mean that he can’t allow a pass to be completed. But if Mariota and company have to push 40 points to win, it will likely be because Ryan didn’t do his job well enough. If Carr and the Oakland offense put a more reasonable number on the board, then Ryan probably made a big impact.

Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Blake Bortles

Not unlike Kizer in Cleveland, the significance of this one goes a little beyond Week 1 against the Houston Texans. Make no mistake, if Bortles is simply the garbage time king or worse, then Jacksonville has essentially no chance in this one. He needs a good, four quarter effort for the Jags to have a chance against one of the NFL’s best defenses.

But long term, it’s significant, as well. Bortles did not have an especially strong training camp or preseason. He even briefly appeared to lose his job, but will be under center for the Jags in Week 1. He has to make that poor camp a distant memory. Jacksonville has a roster that should be good enough to compete for a playoff spot. But if that’s going to happen, Bortles has to take a leap, and not a small leap.

Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver, Washington Redskins

We know that Kirk Cousins likes to pass. We also know that DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon — the men who accounted for 2,046 of Cousins’ 4,917 passing yards in 2016 — are gone. Pryor is the newcomer and against the Philadelphia Eagles, should get the chances to make a good first impression in Washington.

If he takes advantage of those chances, then the Carson Wentz-led Philadelphia offense will have to match the Redskins, and that’s a tough ask. If not, then Washington will find itself in trouble in Week 1, and potentially well beyond.

Jared Goff, quarterback, Los Angeles Rams

Has Goff taken the steps needed to be a franchise quarterback? If so, he shouldn’t have any problem lighting up the scoreboard against the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts secondary is one of the worst in the NFL when healthy. And with Vontae Davis out of action, the defensive backs are depleted. With Andrew Luck sidelined, the Colts would have an awfully hard time keeping up.

But if Goff hasn’t made that leap, then this becomes another wide-open game. The 2017 season in general will be a big one for the career development of Goff. He’s getting pretty close to the ideal assignment in Week 1. It’s on him to take advantage of that.

Rees Odhiambo, left tackle, Seattle Seahawks

Here’s another one whose Week 1 performance is not only significant on the outcome of his game, but the entire season. The Seahawks did an abysmal job of protecting Russell Wilson a season ago. George Fant entered camp in 2017 as Wilson’s left tackle, but an injury ended his season before it began. Now, the responsibility of protecting Wilson’s blindside falls on Odhiambo, who”ll be making his first NFL start in Green Bay.

As good as the Seahawks’ defense is, it’s not going to keep Aaron Rodgers from scoring, especially at Lambeau Field. Seattle will have to put up a decent amount of points to win this one. If Odhiambo can keep people like Nick Perry or a roving Clay Matthews away from Wilson, that’s possible. If not, then Seattle’s woes in Green Bay don’t figure to get any better.

Randall Cobb, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers

With the Legion of Boom likely to put its best players onto Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, Rodgers is going to have to look for other options. Going against a formidable Seattle pass rush, he’s also going to have to get rid of the ball quickly. What all of that means is that Cobb should be a vital part of the game plan.

If Cobb can make those big plays against the Seattle secondary, it will put the Seahawks secondary in a heck of a predicament. Either help on Cobb with Kam Chancellor or Earl Thomas (thereby making Nelson and Adams more viable downfield threats), or risk Cobb having a monster day himself. If Cobb does his job, especially early, it gets hard to imagine Green Bay dropping this one.

Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina Panthers

While the San Francisco 49ers boast a talented front seven and should be improved from 2016, they still don’t have the overall talent of the Panthers. But the traditional “if the quarterback of the better team plays a clean game, his team will win” concept isn’t exactly what makes Newton the most-important player in this one.

San Francisco does have a talented front that should put a lot of pressure on Newton. Even with an injury that cost him much of training camp, Newton isn’t planning on taking the run out of his arsenal. So, how will he handle his first hit? If he gets jumpy, then he becomes more one dimensional. A one dimensional Newton will keep the 49ers in the game longer than they should be. If Newton bounces up from those early hits and keeps coming at San Francisco’s defense, though, Carolina should prevail without much of a problem.

Olivier Vernon, defensive end, New York Giants

These teams always play close games and more often than not, close games are decided in the trenches. For New York to win the battle of the trenches, a big game from Vernon is necessary. Vernon has to get into Cowboys’ backfield early and often. He has to make Dak Prescott feel uncomfortable. In fact, he has to make Prescott feel so uncomfortable that Dallas gets predictable to the run.

If that happens, then the Giants can stack their defensive front and overwhelm the best offensive line in the NFL with numbers. Otherwise, the Cowboys offensive attack should be a balanced one. A balanced offensive attack will keep the New York defense guessing and if that happens, Dallas will control the trenches. There are many great individual battles up front in this one, but Vernon’s will be front and center.

Nolan Carroll, cornerback, Dallas Cowboys

On the other side of the ball, our focus should go out to the perimeter. How well Carroll handles his assignment against Brandon Marshall will also go a long way in determining what happens in this one. If Carroll can contain Marshall, that frees the Dallas safeties up. They can help Orlando Scandrick against Odell Beckham Jr. They can blitz Eli Manning. Really, there are plenty of options.

But if Marshall is getting the better of that battle and Carroll can’t hang with him one-on-one, then those safeties get a lot more restricted. That opens up the rest of the field for Beckham, and should get Manning all of the time he needs to make the big passes.

Dalvin Cook, running back, Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook against the Seattle Seahawks in NFL preseason Week 2

With Adrian Peterson returning to Minnesota, much of the spotlight will fall on both he and Cook, the back who replaced him. But Cook’s importance against the New Orleans Saints goes well beyond the fact that he’s replacing Peterson.

The best defense against a Drew Brees-led offense is Brees on the sideline. That means long possessions and ball control. That can’t happen unless the running back — in this case, Cook — is doing his job. If Cook is doing his job, then it also means that Sam Bradford can be more effective at his. The Saints don’t have a great defense, quite the opposite, in fact. So, the situation sets up well for Cook to thrive. Come Monday night, he has to do just that.

Trevor Siemian, quarterback, Denver Broncos

If the Broncos make the playoffs, they have a defense that can win the Super Bowl. But in order to make the playoffs, the offense has to be passable. That doesn’t mean that it has to be record setting, but it has to avoid turnovers and consistently put enough points on the board to take at least some pressure off of the defense. Siemian will be the man tasked with overseeing that mission.

The Los Angeles Chargers don’t have a particularly strong defense. With receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Siemian’s second year as Denver’s starter opens up with a pretty good chance for him to make a statement. If that can’t happen and the Broncos win close or even lose, it doesn’t bode well for the season. If, however, he has a big game under center, Denver’s chances go up to not only win on Monday, but also to have a big year.

About the author

Michael Dixon

Michael Dixon

Bay Area born and raised, I have extensive experience in both the print and online worlds. There are few things in this world I love doing more than talking sports.