Tim Gerheim

Football Outsiders' Matchups

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Gotta Sit Vick

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Start and sit decisions are hard during the first week of the season. Teams reconfigure themselves in the offseason. Coaches get fired, hired, and promoted. Players age. They have about six months free to do strange things like get into motorcycle accidents and get shot by off-duty police officers. As a result, there are questions, some louder than others, about nearly every player and team in the league. And that means you're crying out for advice for your fantasy team.

Well, the same things that make picking starters in Week 1 for you make offering recommendations difficult for me. Football Outsiders' insight is based first and foremost on statistics, and no one has stats that can reliably say how well Chester Taylor will do in his first game as a Viking, in Steve Hutchinson's first game with his new line-mates, playing in their first game in Brad Childress' West Coast offense, in Childress' first game as a head coach. As a result, these recommendations lean more than I would like on how the teams played last year. Still, things are changing less from year to year than they have in a decade, and I've avoided offering any advice based on 2005 performance that seems likely to change.

The other thing I've tried to avoid doing is stating the obvious, at least too much. You should start Peyton Manning. You shouldn't need anyone to tell you that. You should start Peyton Manning every week. You should start Peyton Manning against the Bears, even though they have the best pass and overall defenses. You should start Peyton Manning against a defense made up entirely of Tecmo Bowl Bo Jacksons. By the same token, you should sit Alex Smith against Montana State, at least until he proves himself a decent quarterback. It's the guys in between, the ones you picked up between rounds 2 and 10, that warrant start-or-sit consideration more weeks than not.

QUARTERBACKS

There's such a wide gulf between fantasy starting quarterbacks and backups that until starters get hurt and bye weeks come, you shouldn't need much advice. That's particularly true this week, when top quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Jake Plummer, and Donovan McNabb have juicy matchups. So don't take the following recommendations the wrong way: don't start a mediocre quarterback with a good matchup against a good fantasy quarterback; start him over another mediocre quarterback with a bad matchup.

START

Kurt Warner vs. San Francisco – Do you really need me to tell you that the 49ers don't have a good pass defense? Or that Warner might (might!) have the most dangerous set of pass catchers in the league? Warner could outperform a lot of quarterbacks who got drafted as fantasy starters, at least until his inevitable injury behind an offensive line made from construction paper and pipe cleaners.

Chad Pennington at Tennessee – Hey, he won the Jets' wide open quarterback competition. He was a great quarterback before he started getting hurt, so even though he's off fantasy radar screens, it's not crazy to say he may be good for a start here and there this year. It's hard to find a more favorable matchup than the Titans, who rank in the bottom three in five of the seven Football Outsiders pass defense categories, including dead last in projected overall 2006 defense.

J.P. Losman at New England – This is why I wrote that introductory note about not starting a matchup quarterback over an actually good quarterback. The Football Outsiders projections expect the Patriots defense to be fifth-worst in the league this year, so right about where they were last year. If that's the case, then Losman, who has looked better this preseason in winning the quarterback contest with Kelly Holcomb, could have a solid day.

SIT

Michael Vick at Carolina – Panthers rank against the pass last year: 2. Panthers rank against tight ends last year: 7. Panthers rank against passes to running backs last year: 2. Watching Vick, who relies heavily on passes to Alge Crumpler, dumps the ball often to Warrick Dunn, and is missing his favorite wide receiver of a year ago (Brian Finneran), struggle against a defense against which he has only once thrown more touchdowns than interceptions: Priceless.

Drew Bledsoe at JacksonvilleLast week I called Bledsoe ''the immobile object.'' It's not even fair that he starts his season against the team that recorded the highest Adjusted Sack Rate in the league last season.

Byron Leftwich vs. Dallas – This game looks like it should be a defensive battle, possibly an ugly one. The Cowboys ranked very highly in most of our pass defense splits last year, only poor against #2 receivers and tight ends. The Jaguars probably have the least frightening #2 receiver in the league, and they don't have a tight end who will enable Leftwich to have a big day.

RUNNING BACKS

START

DeShaun Foster vs. Atlanta – One of the things that consistently fails to win Football Outsiders any fans in Charlotte is our low opinion of DeShaun Foster. (NASCAR is also hardly a blip on our collective radar.) Last year he appeared to average a respectable 4.29 yards per carry. But he really didn't; he averaged a whopping 7.05 yards per carry against an embarrassing Falcons run defense and just 3.58 yards against the rest of the schedule. Excepting the Atlanta games, he averaged just 3.15 yards per carry when he ran the ball more than 10 times. The point? DeShaun Foster probably got overdrafted in your fantasy league. If you did it, you probaly mean to start him; make sure this is one of the weeks you do it.

Reuben Droughns vs. New Orleans – Unless something unexpected happens during the season, this will be a refrain I'll be singing all season: ''Start every (blank) you can find,'' where (blank) is filled by the mascot of the team playing the Saints. New Orleans was at or near the bottom of every defensive ranking a year ago, and they are dead last in defensive DVOA projection. This week, start every Brown you can find, the best of which is obviously Droughns.

Brian Westbrook at Houston – He's healthy; enjoy it. It's hard to know how the Texans defense will play in their first real game as a 4-3 defense. In most of their last 16 real games in the 3-4, they played very poorly. They also recorded the worst DVOA defending passes to running backs, which are where Westbrook's bread is buttered.

SIT

Joseph Addai at New York Giants – Leave the Manning Bowl to those Manning kids I keep hearing about. Joseph Addai might be a real sleeper this year (as I touched on last week), but odds are he will contribute more later in the season. Get a better feel for how the Colts are going to use him and Dominic Rhodes before you play him. That goes double this week when the Colts play the second-ranked rush defense from a year ago.

Reggie Bush at Cleveland – The matchup against the Browns run defense isn't actually that bad. But it's the beginning of the season, so Deuce McAllister is healthy; expect him to get a lot of early-down carries. Reggie Bush will be asked to come in more in passing situations – and the Browns were 6th in the league last year in defending against passes to running backs. Give Bush a week to show whether he can be effective behind an epically bad offensive line before you rely on him.

Kevin Jones vs. Seattle – Decent running backs on bad teams against strong run defenses with powerful offenses don't generate big games. Those factors add up to 12 carries for 47 yards.

WIDE RECEIVERS

START

Rod Smith and Javon Walker at St. Louis – The Rams secondary was terrible across the board last year. That was partly due to injuries to both of their top cornerbacks. But Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler weren't setting the world on fire prior to getting hurt last year, and it can't help that Adam Archuleta is now part of Daniel Snyder's fantasy team. The Broncos have a solid passing game, with two really strong receivers for the first time since Ed McCaffrey experienced one of the five most gruesome injuries I've ever seen live. It remains to be seen which of Smith and Walker will be the primary target this season, or whether that distinction will oscillate from game to game. One of these two will probably have a strong game this week. Since you don't have both on your fantasy roster unless the high altitude has sapped your brain of oxygen, start your guy if you don't think you have a better option.

Deion Branch vs. Buffalo – The Bills had the third worst defense against number one receivers last season, so – what? Holdout? Just making sure you're paying attention.

Plaxico Burress vs. Indianapolis – Sure, the Colts have become a pretty strong pass defense. But most of that strength is in the pass rush. If Manning the second finds time to throw, guess who he'll be throwing to. The Colts ranked 21st against #1 receivers but an astounding second against #2 receivers; if anyone will be open, it will be Burress. And players in the passing game always get plenty of chances when playing against the Colts, because Indy plays an up-tempo game, leading to more snaps for both teams, and because the Colts score a lot, forcing the other team to pass to keep up.

SIT

Chris Chambers at Pittsburgh – There are question marks as the Steelers begin the season – Ben Roethlisberger is out, Hines Ward is gimpy, Jerome Bettis is retired – but they don't hurt the pass defense much. The loss of QB killer Kimo von Oelhoffen – okay, that's a cheap shot (the low blow, not the ... never mind) – might be the biggest issue on a defense that can still rush the passer and ranked second last year defending against opposing #1 receivers.

Muhsin Muhammad at Green Bay – Last season, the Packers did approximately one thing well: they covered #1 receivers. Al Harris made the cover of Pro Football Prospectus 2006 by playing truly great defense on a pretty miserable unit. The Packers match Harris up against the other team's top receiver (only the Lions segregated their corners to one side of the field or the other less often last year than the Packers), so expect Muhammad to find little room in the secondary.

Hines Ward vs. Miami – There isn't anything good to say about Ward this week. His quarterback is out. He's been nursing a hamstring for weeks, and there's really no concern about whether it's a legitimate injury (unlike a certain hamstring that shall remain nameless). Miami doesn't have the best defense in the league, but they should be fine in the opener, before their front seven starts collecting social security and worry about when Matlock is on.

TIGHT ENDS

START

Chris Cooley vs. Minnesota – This should hardly be a revelation. Football Outsiders' KUBIAK projection system likes Cooley as the second-best tight end this season, but not everyone agrees. Be somebody who does this week; the Vikings are one of the teams we expect to decline the most this year, and last year they were poor against opposing tight ends.

Tony Gonzalez vs. Cincinnati – There are probably too many people rolling their eyes saying ''duh'' at this recommendation. Yes, Gonzalez is still in the top 12, and even the top eight, fantasy tight ends. But certainly by the end of the season, and possibly early on, he won't be an automatic every start for teams that have solid or up-and-coming backup tight ends with good matchups. But this week he faces a Bengals defense that was 24th against tight ends last year and still relies on a fairly inexperienced linebacker corps, which will miss its best player (Odell Thurman) for four weeks.

SIT

Todd Heap at Tampa Bay – The Bucs were #4 against tight ends last year. Time will tell how Steve McNair runs the offense. Tight end seems to be the most up-and-down position depending on the proclivities of different quarterbacks. The Ravens offensive line is also not what it used to be, and tight ends held in to pass protect have a lot more trouble getting open.

KICKERS

START

David Akers at Houston – The best kickers are on good offenses without correspondingly good running games; they're the ones that consistently move into field goal range but also stall out in the red zone a little more than it might seem they should. The Eagles have fit that description to a T, at least when Donovan McNabb has been healthy.

SIT

Ryan Longwell at Washington – Quick: who's the Vikings' #2 wide receiver? Why would I ask that when talking about the kicker? Because the point is that the Minnesota offense just isn't that good anymore. Even more, an offense featuring an elderly quarterback (by NFL standards), a single speedy deep threat at receiver, a good back, and not much else, is what the Redskins defense works against in practice all the time. Think the Vikings, or their kicker, will score many points this week?

DEFENSES

START

Chargers at Oakland – Can you say ''lateral to an offensive lineman''? Connoisseurs of football as entertainment can't help but love Aaron Brooks. It's difficult for defenses not to do the same. San Diego isn't the strongest against the pass, but they have a pass rush that can force some belly-laughing mistakes from Brooks. They also have a solid run defense that should be able to keep LaMont Jordan from beating them.

SIT

Giants vs. Indianapolis – This is the only seriously unfavorable matchup for a starting-quality fantasy defense this week. And you didn't need me to tell you not to start a defense against the Colts.


Tim Gerheim is a staff writer at FootballOutsiders.com
Email :Tim Gerheim


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