1:00 PM ET Games
NY Jets @ Buffalo
Team Totals: Bills 24.5, Jets 15.5
You rarely never see a team trade its best cornerback and wide receiver four weeks before Week 1, but the Bills did exactly that, and then had the audacity to tell their fan base they’re going all out to win in 2017. An Opening Day home game against the league-worst Jets is Buffalo’s best-case opportunity to keep any gullible fans coming back to the stadium, and their best chance to feign competitiveness is to feed LeSean McCoy until the wheels fall off behind one of the league’s best lines and Pro Bowl FB Patrick DiMarco. The Jets will be widely viewed as a tough matchup based on their historical run-defense stoutness, but Gang Green’s trade of Sheldon Richardson severely weakens the front, eliminating PFF’s No. 2-rated run stopper among last year’s 53 qualified defensive ends one offseason after stud NT Damon Harrison walked in free agency. The Jets also released longtime team leader ILB David Harris and surprisingly let run-stuffing NT Deon Simon go at final cuts. Especially since the Jets are unlikely to sustain drives offensively and figure to get dominated in time of possession, this is no longer a run defense to fear. Among Week 1 running back plays, I would rank only David Johnson (@ DET) and Le’Veon Bell (@ CLE) higher than Shady. … The new Bills regime is clearly sour on Tyrod Taylor, who struggled in the preseason under first-year OC Rick Dennison and missed the final two weeks of camp with a concussion. Still, Tyrod offers enough playmaking ability to be worthy of a two-quarterback-league start and contrarian DFS consideration. Taylor has finished top two in rushing yards and top four in rushing touchdowns among quarterbacks in each of his two years in Buffalo.
Outlooks for Bills pass catchers are murky due to the revised offense, surefire run-first approach, and Taylor’s early struggles in Dennison’s system. McCoy – not a wide receiver or tight end – is the favorite to lead Buffalo in Week 1 targets. Among the Bills’ remaining pass catchers, Tyrod has the most historical familiarity with Charles Clay, who will face a Jets defense that starts two rookie safeties (Jamal Adams, Marcus Maye) after allowing the NFL’s third-most touchdowns (10) to tight ends last year. … Rookie Zay Jones is the Bills’ de-facto No. 1 wide receiver after the Sammy Watkins trade and Anquan Boldin’s retirement. Jordan Matthews is Jones’ main competition for wideout targets after finally returning from a chip fracture in his sternum to resume practicing this week. Taylor has gotten in precious little practice time with any of his wide receivers.
Whereas last year’s Browns tank was executed with a lucid short- and long-term plan, there is no discernible method to what the Jets are doing beyond simply getting worse with every transaction. They have let their best young players walk, they have done little stockpiling of future early-round picks, and they certainly aren’t using analytics to unearth undervalued waiver-wire gems. They are just sucking and sucking with no hope in sight. It should come as no surprise that New York has the lowest team total on the Week 1 slate. At least until Austin Seferian-Jenkins returns from his two-game suspension, only Bilal Powell is worth approaching with any confidence as an Opening Day fantasy start, and even Powell is far from a sure thing with Matt Forte and rookie Elijah McGuire in the mix for touches and snaps. The Jets’ wideout corps is a total quagmire after they traded for Jermaine Kearse and signed Jeremy Kerley. Streak-route specialist Robby Anderson and third-round rookie ArDarius Stewart round out the unit. Even against a Bills secondary that has been completely remade from last season and appears entirely vulnerable, I’m not sure where to go with any of the Jets’ wide receivers in an offense that figures to struggle to string together possessions. I do think Anderson is the best dart throw in the bunch.
Score Prediction: Bills 27, Jets 13
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Philadelphia @ Washington
Team Totals: Eagles 24.25, Redskins 23.25
I like the over on this game’s 47.5-point total, seeing it as a potential shootout between teams that have played five times with Kirk Cousins starting over the past three seasons to 27-22, 27-20, 38-24, 23-20, and 37-34 results. Cousins threw multiple touchdown passes in 4-of-5 games, including solid-if-unspectacular QB14 and QB11 weekly fantasy finishes last year. Philly’s defensive front seven is as imposing as ever, but Cousins should be able to exploit matchup edges at cornerback, where RCB Jalen Mills finished dead last among 119 qualifiers in PFF’s 2016 grades, scrapheap slot CB Patrick Robinson is on his fourth team in four years, and LCB Ronald Darby was acquired just a month ago, then got abused by DeVante Parker among others in the Eagles’ third preseason game. Cousins is a high-floor, high-ceiling QB1 play. … Rob Kelley convincingly held off Samaje Perine in camp, pulling far ahead with a 10/57/1 rushing line in Washington’s regular season dress rehearsal. A 5-foot-11, 226-pound two-down grinder with 4.68 speed, Kelley is a max-effort runner who fizzled out with a 3.33 YPC average over the final six weeks last year, dropped 4-of-18 targets, and ranked 41st among 61 qualifiers in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency. Chris Thompson’s presence as a passing-down specialist severely curbs Kelley’s PPR appeal. Still, Kelley is a role-secure home-game running back in a good offense facing an Eagles defense last year’s Redskins backs carved up for a combined 49/332/6.8/3 rushing line in two meetings. Kelley is very much playable as a volume-based, touchdown-hunting RB2 and is sure to go widely overlooked on DFS sites, where he is egregiously underpriced.
Jamison Crowder runs 74% of his routes inside and arguably has the most favorable matchup in Washington’s pass-catcher corps against journeyman Eagles slot CB Patrick Robinson. Next Gen Stats charted Crowder with the NFL’s highest average of yards of separation at target (3.60) last year, and he caught all seven of his touchdowns in the slot. Active only in three-receiver sets his first two seasons, Crowder has been promoted into two-wide looks following DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon’s exits. … Jordan Reed reported to camp with a sprained big toe and missed nearly a month, but he played in the Skins’ third preseason game and tied for the team lead in targets (4) with Cousins on the field. Concern remains about the stability of Reed’s toe, but this could be the healthiest and freshest we’ll get him all year. Reed has outscored Rob Gronkowski in PPR points per game in back-to-back seasons, and Cousins averages 48.0 more yards, 1.15 more yards per pass attempt, and 0.64 more TDs with Reed in the lineup during that span. The Eagles are typically not a plus tight end matchup due to solid safety play and athletic linebackers – they allowed the fewest yards in the league (414) to the position last year – but Reed is a genuinely elite and matchup-proof fantasy asset whenever he’s available. … Last year’s Eagles were one of just three teams to allow more than 3,000 combined yards to enemy wide receivers, and we already discussed their vulnerability on the boundaries. Terrelle Pryor was still quiet enough in August that he may be best approached as something of a boom-bust WR2 early on. Pryor caught only two balls all preseason, although he was targeted seven times by Cousins and had two uncharacteristic drops after Pryor dropped just 6-of-140 targets in Cleveland last year. … Josh Doctson battled a hamstring strain all camp, so coaches pet Ryan Grant is expected to operate as Washington’s third receiver for the time being. Until further notice, Redskins sub-package pass catchers are safe to ignore.
Carson Wentz was a high-volume quarterback as a rookie, finishing fifth in the league in pass attempts (607) and 12th at his position in rushing attempts (46), and the hope is Wentz’s efficiency will spike with improved weapons as a sophomore. The Eagles intend to play shotgun-heavy, three-receiver offense and were especially impressive in up-tempo, no-huddle packages this preseason, most notably on a nine-play, 93-yard TD drive that spanned 3 ½ minutes in their dress rehearsal against Miami. Albeit with surrounding talent far worse than he has now, Wentz did scuffle in last year’s two meetings with Washington, emerging with QB29 and QB14 fantasy results. As Adam Levitan has noted, however, Wentz completed 64.8% of his passes with a 10:2 TD-to-INT ratio when RT Lane Johnson was active, versus 61.2% with a 6:12 TD-to-INT ratio during Johnson’s ten-game suspension. Last year’s Skins ranked a lowly 24th in pass-defense DVOA and allowed the NFL’s 12th-most points per game (24.8). I like Wentz as a high-end two-quarterback-league play and Week 1 streamer. Unfortunately, Wentz has a brutally difficult schedule over the ensuing five weeks (@ KC, vs. NYG, @ SD, vs. ARZ, @ CAR). … Philly’s backfield is a fantasy nightmare after they kept five backs on their 53-man roster. Darren Sproles has the most secure role, although he topped 12 touches in just 4-of-15 games last year and reached 15 touches twice. LeGarrette Blount is the Eagles’ best running back bet to fall into the end zone for a touchdown, but Blount struggled mightily running out of the shotgun this preseason and battled conditioning woes in camp. Wendell Smallwood will mix into the game, but his workload is unclear. Even in a plus draw, this is a situation to avoid.
Zach Ertz stands out as the Eagles’ best Week 1 fantasy play facing a Redskins defense that yielded the NFL’s second-most catches (106) and third-most yards (1,100) to tight ends last season, then lost SS Su’a Cravens to the exempt/left squad list as he contemplates retirement. Ertz’s slow-starter and fast-finisher reputation is well earned, but I expect that to change with slot WR Jordan Matthews out of the way, clearing the middle of the field for Ertz to vacuum targets. Ertz rang up target totals of 15 and 16 in Matthews’ two missed games last year, converting them into 9/79/1 and 13/139/2 receiving lines. Behind the obvious high-end tight ends, Ertz and Delanie Walker (vs. OAK) pop off the Week 1 page with plus matchups and defined roles. Ertz dominated the Dolphins’ linebackers and safeties in the Eagles’ third preseason game, compiling a team-best 3/44/0 receiving line in one quarter with Wentz in the game. … Alshon Jeffery also looked in sync with Wentz in August, particularly on shallow crossers and slants, routes that Skins LCB Josh Norman struggles to guard most. Norman’s shadow coverage does add some risk to Alshon’s outlook after Norman allowed a stingy 74.3 passer rating when targeted last season, but Jeffery is at worst a high-end WR3 play. Norman came away with two interceptions in last year’s Week 16 meeting with Jeffery in Chicago, although Alshon emerged with a passable 5/92/0 receiving line. … Torrey Smith drew just one target all preseason, catching it for a 50-yard touchdown on a coverage bust. Smith still runs fast in a straight line, but he projects as a low-volume lid lifter on the Eagles. Smith hasn’t reached the 50-reception plateau in a season since 2013. … Slot options Nelson Agholor and Trey Burton figure to share time on sub-package plays and should be avoided until further notice.
Score Prediction: Eagles 27, Redskins 24
Oakland @ Tennessee
Team Totals: Titans 26.25, Raiders 23.75
Raiders-Titans has Week 1’s second-highest Vegas total (50) and is a game to attack in lineup decisions. As a home-favorite quarterback in a potential shootout, Marcus Mariota stands out as a high-end QB1 play against an Oakland pass defense that last year finished 25th in DVOA and dead last in sacks (25), then played musical chairs at inside linebacker and cornerback all preseason. The Raiders got flamed by Dak Prescott and Jason Witten in their third preseason game. Mariota-Delanie Walker is this week’s premier quarterback-tight end stack. … DeMarco Murray missed over two weeks of camp with a hamstring injury, but he returned for the regular season dress rehearsal and should push for 20 touches after hitting that mark in 11-of-16 games last year. When the Titans and Raiders met last Week 3, Murray hung 155 total yards and a touchdown on Jack Del Rio’s team, which went on to finish 17th in run-defense DVOA, allow the NFL’s sixth-most rushing scores (18), and surrender 4.47 yards per carry, the league’s eighth-highest clip. Oakland made no noteworthy front-seven additions in the offseason. Derrick Henry looms as a threat for 8-11 touches and perhaps short-yardage/goal-line work, but the Titans’ coaching staff has insisted Murray remains the bellcow. Murray should be a high-floor fantasy option whose upside is enhanced by his cupcake matchup and this game’s high-scoring projection.
The Raiders present a gorgeous matchup for Delanie Walker after allowing the NFL’s fifth-most yards to tight ends (1,027) last season, then doing almost nothing to address their porous inside linebacker and safety positions. On just 19 pass routes in the Cowboys’ third preseason game, 35-year-old dad-runner Jason Witten caught 6-of-6 targets for 74 yards and a touchdown versus the Raiders’ first-team defense. In two years with Mariota, Walker has finished sixth and fourth among tight ends in red-zone targets, and Walker is the pass catcher with whom Mariota is most familiar in Tennessee’s revamped receiver corps. … Rishard Matthews led last year’s Titans in touchdown catches (9) and is Mariota’s second-most familiar pass catcher after finishing their first season together with a bang, compiling 16-game pace stats of 76/1,176/12 over the back half of 2016. Matthews’ long-term role isn’t vise-grip secure because Eric Decker, Corey Davis, and Taywan Taylor will all eventually cut into his targets, but Matthews’ near-term every-down usage should be safe after mid-June signee Decker missed part of camp with an ankle injury and No. 5 overall pick Davis missed nearly all of camp with a hamstring strain. Third-round rookie Taylor should also figure in. Matthews and Decker look like the best two Week 1 fantasy bets against a bad Oakland cornerback group, which dealt with injuries (LCB David Amerson, concussion; first-round CB Gareon Conley, shin splints), ineffectiveness (slot CB T.J. Carrie), and even a benching (RCB Sean Smith) in August. I like Matthews as a WR3 play who’s sure to go widely overlooked, and Decker as a fringe WR3/flex who should play most of his snaps in the slot against Carrie. Rams rookie Cooper Kupp dogwalked Carrie for 6/70/1 in the second week of preseason.
This game’s shootout potential also makes Derek Carr an appealing QB1 play. The Titans did pour free agent (LCB Logan Ryan; SS Johnathan Cyprien) and draft (first-round CB Adoree Jackson) resources into their secondary after finishing a lowly 27th in pass-defense DVOA, but Ryan turned in an up-and-down preseason and may not be as effective outside of the Patriots’ scheme, Jackson is a rookie who showed a tendency to gamble and pay for it on college tape, Cyprien has never been a coverage asset, and RCB LeShaun Sims (groin) has been ruled out. Carr’s schedule takes an alarming turn for the worse beginning in Week 4 at Denver, but I like his odds of emerging from Weeks 1-3 with top-ten quarterback stats against the Titans, Jets, and Redskins. … The Raiders kept Marshawn Lynch in preseason bubble wrap, playing him on 12 snaps. We haven’t seen Lynch perform successfully on an NFL field since 2014. The 31-year-old was dogged by recurring hamstring and calf strains and underwent late-season sports hernia surgery in 2015. Lynch spent 2016 pushing himself as a quasi-celebrity, shooting Skittles commercials, making multiple reality TV appearances, and starting a clothing line. I don’t pretend to know what Lynch has left, and I don’t pretend to know exactly how the Raiders are going to use him because change-up complements DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard are both very good and will have Week 1 roles. Until we see the Raiders giving Lynch consistent, high-volume usage, I’m approaching him as a touchdown-or-bust RB2 option regardless of matchups. All of that said, Lynch seems likeliest to turn in his best performances when he is freshest early in the year.
Only eight players in NFL history have logged more receiving yards through their first two seasons than Amari Cooper, who didn’t turn 23 until June and is younger than popular 2017 rookies Kenny Golladay, Cooper Kupp, ArDarius Stewart, Dede Westbrook, and Mack Hollins. It is very surprising that some treat Cooper as if he is a finished product. Carr targeted Cooper on a team-high 40% of his preseason throws, and Cooper offers major Week 1 blowup potential in this possible shootout against Tennessee’s remade secondary. … Even for as much as I am on the Amari-leap train for 2017, it can’t be ignored that Michael Crabtree has out-targeted Cooper 37 to 20 in the red zone the past two years, and 14 to 7 inside the ten-yard line. Whereas the average length of Crabtree’s touchdowns is 17.5 yards, Cooper’s average length to score is a whopping 37.2 yards from the end zone. All five of Cooper’s 2016 touchdowns came from at least 30 yards out. Until something flips, Crabtree is going to be a better bet to hit pay dirt than Cooper every single week. Essentially the AFC’s version of Larry Fitzgerald, Crabtree is perennially undervalued in season-long leagues and underpriced on DFS sites. In this probable high-scoring game with plus matchups, Crabtree is one of the top wide receiver bets to score a touchdown on the Week 1 slate. … Jared Cook is an inconsistent talent with a poor fantasy track record, but I wouldn’t underestimate his field-stretching impact on the Raiders’ offense, even if it doesn’t translate to independent fantasy value. Last year’s Packers averaged just 24.6 points per game in Cook’s six missed weeks compared to 29.0 PPG with Cook in the lineup, including the playoffs. Cook’s addition is more reason to buy into Carr during his favorable Weeks 1-3 schedule.
Score Prediction: Titans 28, Raiders 24
DFS Players: Raiders at Titans is the RotoGrinders Matchup of the Week. Some of RotoGrinders' top NFL minds break down this game from every angle and help prepare you to set winning lineups this weekend in daily fantasy football.
Jacksonville @ Houston
Team Totals: Texans 22.5, Jaguars 17
The 39.5-point total on Texans-Jags is the lowest of the week, pitting against each other two poorly-quarterbacked, low-scoring offenses and two high-end defenses for a divisional matchup in which neither team reached 25 points in last year’s two meetings. The 2016 Texans defense finished No. 9 in DVOA and No. 11 in points allowed, and three-time DPOY J.J. Watt is back after missing all but three games. The Jags were 12th in defensive DVOA, then added DE Calais Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye, and SS Barry Church. The Texans are arguably the top D/ST play of the week, and Jacksonville is a solid plug-and-play streamer against Tom Savage, a statuesque pocket passer with almost no semblance of athleticism and a maddening tendency to take forever to get the ball out of his hands. Among the 42 NFL quarterbacks who took at least 80 dropbacks last season, Savage’s average time of 2.61 seconds to attempt a pass ranked 12th slowest in PFF’s metrics, and Savage will play this game without three-time Pro Bowl LT Duane Brown (holdout). Fill-in LT Kendall Lamm, mainly a jumbo tight end in short-yardage situations last year, will square off with two-time Pro Bowler Campbell on Sunday. … With Alfred Blue (ankle) and D’Onta Foreman (groin) both at less than 100%, Lamar Miller should get a full workload after combining for a pedestrian 37/146/3.95/1 rushing line in last year’s two meetings with Jacksonville and catching two passes for 26 yards. No longer viewed as an “exciting” fantasy commodity after a sub-par first season in Houston, Miller’s DFS ownership is sure to be low, even as a home-favorite running back set up to flirt with 20 touches. In season-long leagues, Miller is a high-floor RB2 play with RB1 upside.
Tom Savage played meaningful snaps in only two games last season, and DeAndre Hopkins emerged with stat lines of 8/87/0 and 3/43/0 on target totals of 17 and 6 in them. It’s an extremely small sample, of course, but Hopkins was highly inefficient in that two-game window. Even before adding stud RCB A.J. Bouye, the stingy Jaguars secondary yielded the NFL’s fifth-fewest yards (2,394) and sixth-fewest touchdowns (13) to enemy wideouts last year. Add in the possibility he draws shadow coverage from Jalen Ramsey, and Hopkins is best viewed as a boom-bust WR3 play. … Due to Will Fuller’s broken collarbone and Jaelen Strong’s one-game substance-abuse suspension, the Texans will roll with some combination of Braxton Miller, preseason star Bruce Ellington, and waiver add Andy Jones in ancillary receiver roles. Perhaps if the Texans were playing a team like the Saints guys like Ellington and Miller would be worth discussion. … Houston could also run more two-tight end sets involving Ryan Griffin, but C.J. Fiedorowicz is their lone fantasy-playable tight end. Fiedorowicz appeared in only one of Savage’s extensively-played 2016 games and managed a 4/42/0 stat line on seven targets. The 2016 Jaguars were tough on tight ends, allowing the NFL’s ninth-fewest catches (70) and seventh-fewest yards (712) to the position. The Jags held Fiedorowicz to 26 scoreless yards on five targets in his one game against them.
Blake Bortles has so lost the Jaguars’ locker room that he wasn’t even voted a team captain, typically an ominous sign for a quarterback at any level of football. His confidence is shot to the extent that Bortles admitted in an interview with CBS Sports’ Rich Gannon late last year that he’s “not a natural thrower of the football,” to which Gannon reacted, “I’ve never heard a quarterback at any level say something like that.” When asked how many passes per game he wants the Jaguars to attempt this year, coach Doug Marrone replied, “zero.” Bortles’ last three weekly fantasy finishes against the Texans are QB31, QB16, and QB29, and Bortles has thrown a pick six in three of his last four meetings with Houston. … Leonard Fournette did very little over the final three weeks of training camp due to an injury to the same foot that cost Fournette five games in his final season at LSU. Fournette is on track to play against Houston, but his workload isn’t entirely certain, and his floor is lowered as a road-underdog running back whose passing-game usage is also up in the air. Only the Jets have a lower team total than Jacksonville on the Week 1 slate. Fournette projects as the Jags’ eventual offensive centerpiece, but his volume, health, and effectiveness are all major question marks. Fournette is a worrisome RB2 option to begin the season.
The Jaguars’ only playable pass catcher is Allen Robinson, whose last four stat lines against the Texans are 2/15/0, 9/107/1, 5/108/0, and 6/86/1. His outlook is boosted by Houston’s loss of CB A.J. Bouye, who held Robinson catch-less on four targets when they faced off in the aforementioned 15-yard game. With no receiving tight end to speak of, and Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee likely to cancel each other out as complementary parts, Robinson should stay heavily targeted in a game where the Jags project to play from behind. Still, Robinson will remain a boom-bust WR2 play until the Jags figure out their quarterback situation, which of course probably won’t happen before 2018. … Lee is coming off a mini-breakout 2016, but his first-, third-, and fourth-highest yardage totals of the season occurred in games missed by Hurns. Hurns is healthy now and expected to begin the year as Jacksonville’s first-team slot man. On a team that doesn’t want to throw the ball to begin with, their Nos. 2 and 3 receivers are probably guys to fade.
Score Prediction: Texans 20, Jaguars 17
Arizona @ Detroit
Team Totals: Cardinals 24.75, Lions 23.25
This game opened with Detroit as a 2.5-point home favorite, then was bet to the Cardinals’ side enough that Arizona is now favored by 1.5 on the road. It’s a good sign for David Johnson, who is fantasy’s top Week 1 play and should be a DFS cash-game staple, even at his high price. Expect the Cards to prioritize matching up Johnson against Detroit’s terrible linebacker corps, where MLB Jarrad Davis is a rookie, SLB Paul Worrilow was a trainwreck as a 2014-2015 starter for the Falcons, then got benched in 2016, and WLB Tahir Whitehead allowed NFL highs in yards (656) and touchdowns (7) among linebackers last year. … The Lions’ defense is nearly completely devoid of pass rush after finishing 2016 dead last in the NFC in sacks (26), then losing sack leader LE Kerry Hyder to a torn Achilles’ this preseason, and missing RE Ziggy Ansah for the entirety of training camp due to an ankle injury after an ankle injury zapped Ansah’s 2016 effectiveness. He finished with two sacks in 13 games. Carson Palmer’s 2016 step back was due in large part to the Cardinals’ inability to keep him clean as Arizona allowed an NFC-high 127 quarterback hits and Palmer absorbed the league’s fifth-most sacks (40). Commonly overlooked was Palmer’s strong finish, as he posted a 19:9 TD-to-INT ratio and top-12 fantasy quarterback numbers from Weeks 8-17, earning Pro Football Focus’ No. 5 passing grade during that stretch behind only Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Kirk Cousins. Now likely to experience a clean pocket indoors in a game with the third-highest total (48.0) on the Week 1 slate, Palmer is a virtual lock to be undervalued in all forms of fantasy. I fully expect Palmer to start hot against the Lions, Colts, Cowboys, and 49ers in Weeks 1-4.
Palmer’s best DFS stack partner is Larry Fitzgerald, who has topped 100 catches in consecutive years and has a gorgeous draw against Lions slot CB Quandre Diggs, who stands 5’9/196 to Fitz’s 6’3/225 and allowed the NFL’s third-highest passer rating (124.2) on slot targets among 52 qualified corners in PFF’s grades last year. Diggs was beaten for a reception once every 6.6 coverage snaps – the worst mark in the NFC – and Diggs’ 1.70 yards allowed per coverage snap was fifth worst in the league. We may also see the Lions test drive ex-Raiders CB D.J. Hayden in the slot, where Hayden’s metrics were only slightly better than Diggs’. This may sound crazy to season-long drafters who annually undervalue him, but I believe Fitzgerald is a top-ten receiver play in Week 1. Fitz does have a tendency to fade late in seasons, but he is trustworthy with big upside early on. In his first ten games over the past two years, Fitzgerald has averaged 83.8 yards per game with 12 combined touchdowns. … Cardinals wideout matchups aren’t quite as favorable on the outside against underrated LCB Darius Slay and RCB Nevin Lawson, and playing time is murky with Jaron Brown, J.J. Nelson, and John Brown all contending for snaps. I do think one of these guys will make a big play; I just don’t know who it’ll be. We’ll know more after the first game goes in the books. … Jermaine Gresham is a sneaky deep-league or tight end premium play against the Lions, who coughed up the NFL’s seventh-most receptions (87) and third-most touchdowns (10) to tight ends last year, and still have abysmal linebacker play as mentioned above. The Cardinals made Gresham the league’s 11th-highest paid tight end this offseason after he averaged 5.3 targets per game in the second half of last season, which would have ranked 15th at the position if extrapolated over a 16-game slate.
Matthew Stafford has an underwhelming Week 1 matchup versus a Cardinals pass defense that’s ranked fourth and third in DVOA in two years coordinated by James Bettcher. This game’s high total and indoor environment at Ford Field give Stafford low-end appeal as a season-long start, but he’s tough to view as an upside play. Since Jim Bob Cooter took over as Lions offensive coordinator midway through the 2015 season, Stafford has thrown for 300 yards in 6-of-26 games (23.1%). Including playoffs, he threw for multiple touchdowns 7-of-17 games (41.2%) last year. It can’t help that the Lions are missing LT Taylor Decker (shoulder), who would have been tasked with blocking Cardinals ROLB Chandler Jones, who has double-digit sacks in three of the last four years and owned Lions fill-in LT Greg Robinson when Robinson played for the Rams. … The Cards have also been stout up front on Bettcher’s watch, ranking No. 2 and No. 7 in run-defense DVOA the past two years. When these clubs met in Week 5 of the 2015 season, Theo Riddick was the biggest thorn in Arizona’s side with a 10/53/1 receiving line while Ameer Abdullah managed 25 scoreless yards on seven touches. The 2016 Cardinals ranked No. 1 in blitz frequency, and passing-game outlets to Riddick are one way for the Lions to prepare to beat the blitz. Last year’s Cardinals did allow the NFL’s fewest receiving yards to running backs (385), however. I’m approaching Abdullah as a moderate-risk RB2/flex play versus Arizona, and Riddick as a viable if unexciting PPR flex.
Fantasy investors into Golden Tate need the Lions opt for rookie Kenny Golladay in three-receiver sets, because doing so would kick Tate inside and keep him away from Patrick Peterson. Peterson played only 8% of his snaps at slot corner last year, although he has been known to chase select No. 1 wideouts into the slot like Stefon Diggs and Doug Baldwin. The healthy return of Tyrann Mathieu does significantly lower the chances we see Peterson run inside this year. When these teams met in Week 5 of the 2015 season, Tate drew a whopping 18 targets, albeit with Peterson shadowing not-yet-retired Calvin Johnson outside. Despite Golladay’s big offseason, the rookie ran behind T.J. Jones in August. Jones mans the slot, so Tate will play outside if the Lions go with Jones over Golladay. I like Tate as a WR2/3 in season-long leagues and a contrarian DFS bet. … Marvin Jones got off to a league-best 18/408/2 receiving line in Weeks 1-3 last season, then dudded out the rest of the way with zero 100-yard games from Week 4 on and 8-of-12 games below 50 yards. Jones is also at risk of drawing Peterson’s coverage, although RCB Justin Bethel is an inviting target on the opposite end and represents Jones’ best path toward a Week 1 fantasy impact. … After missing most of training camp with a hamstring injury, Eric Ebron returned to practice just under two weeks ago and seems to be all systems go for Week 1. Still only 24 years old, Ebron quietly ranked top ten among NFL tight ends in catches (61) and yards (711) last season despite missing three games while setting career highs in catch rate (71.8%), yards per catch (11.7), and yards per target (8.4). Ebron opens with a tough draw against a Cardinals defense that allowed the NFL’s second-fewest catches (47) and yards (418) to tight ends last season, as well as a league-low two TDs.
Score Prediction: Cardinals 27, Lions 23
Atlanta @ Chicago
Team Totals: Falcons 27.5, Bears 20.5
The Falcons have the third-highest team total on the Week 1 slate, setting up Matt Ryan for a high-floor game versus a Bears pass defense that last year finished 17th in DVOA, then remade its secondary with new starters at strong safety (Quintin Demps), free safety (rookie Eddie Jackson), and both corner spots (Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper). Even with worse personnel last season, masterful Bears DC Vic Fangio’s defense somehow held enemy quarterbacks to the NFL’s fifth-fewest yards (3,828) and 12th-fewest touchdowns (22). When the total on this game was still at 51 points, I did bet the under, and it has since fallen to all the way to 48. The personnel-based matchups work in Atlanta’s favor, but I mildly question Ryan’s ceiling against an underrated Bears defense playing at home and overseen by one of the NFL’s premier defensive strategists. … It’s probably variance, but still worth noting that Tevin Coleman has scored 9-of-12 career touchdowns in road games and last year averaged 88.3 total yards compared to 73 yards at home. Devonta Freeman scored a whopping 11-of-13 TDs in home games. How new OC Steve Sarkisian divvies up the Falcons’ touch distribution remains to be seen. While Freeman is clearly a top-ten RB1 fantasy play, I think Coleman offers a bit more flex appeal than may initially meet the eye.
The most popular Week 1 play on Chicago’s side will be Jordan Howard against a Falcons run defense that finished last year 28th in DVOA and yielded the NFL’s fourth-highest yards-per-carry average (4.58). The Bears return all five starters from a line that ranked top ten in PFF’s yards created before contact per attempt (1.85) and Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards, including a first-place finish in FO’s power-blocking rank. There are red flags on Howard from a season-long standpoint – not the least of which is the fact that he didn’t see a single target in the preseason after the Bears used free agency and the draft to acquire pass-catching specialists Benny Cunningham and Tarik Cohen – and even in Week 1 the possibility Chicago falls behind is concerning for Howard’s outlook. Still, I expect Howard to be the Bears’ offensive centerpiece on Opening Day, and would view him as a low-end RB1 in season-long leagues. … The Bears’ pass-catcher corps is much less settled. Kevin White figures to draw Falcons shadow CB Desmond Trufant, while sixth-year UDFA Deonte Thompson ran as Chicago’s No. 2 perimeter receiver this preseason. Kendall Wright entered in three-receiver sets as the Bears’ slot man and has the best matchup of the group against second-year UDFA Brian Poole, who mans the slot for the Falcons. Poole was no slouch as an unheralded rookie, however, earning PFF’s No. 5 mark among 52 qualified slot cornerbacks in receptions allowed per coverage snap (13.2) and PFF’s No. 6 mark in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.80). Even in a high-totaled game where the Bears project to play from behind, it’s hard to love any of their pass catchers.
The Bears’ secondary turnover could shake things up, but Fangio’s defense did awfully well playing a bend-but-don’t-break style last year that contained enemy No. 1 wideouts Odell Beckham (5/46/0), Jordy Nelson (1/9/0), Allen Robinson (3/49/0), Mike Evans (4/66/0), Dez Bryant (3/40/1), and DeAndre Hopkins (5/54/1). Julio Jones is a top-three fantasy receiver for Week 1, but I think there are some reasons to be concerned about his ceiling in this matchup. … I want to see Taylor Gabriel’s role defined before considering him in fantasy. Gabriel’s 2016 big plays were largely manufactured by outgoing OC Kyle Shanahan, and it remains to be seen how he will be utilized under new OC Steve Sarkisian. In two years under Fangio, the Bears have allowed the NFL’s 13th- and 14th-fewest pass plays of 20-plus yards. … Mohamed Sanu finished under 50 yards in 10-of-15 appearances last season and also has a somewhat uncertain role under Atlanta’s new playcaller. … The 2016 Bears were fairly stingy in tight end coverage, yielding the NFL’s 11th-fewest catches (72) and eighth-fewest yards (717) to the position. Austin Hooper was one of my favorite late-round tight end sleepers during re-draft-league season, but he’s another guy I want to see utilized in a game by Sarkisian before starting in fantasy. In the Falcons’ third preseason game, Hooper was out-snapped by blocking specialist Levine Toilolo with Matt Ryan on the field.
Score Prediction: Falcons 24, Bears 17
Baltimore @ Cincinnati
Team Totals: Bengals 22.75, Ravens 19.75
A team whose personnel is lopsided in favor of its defense, the Ravens held Andy Dalton to weekly fantasy finishes of QB29 and QB19 in last year’s two meetings with the Bengals and offer enough pass rush to make Dalton’s road a rocky one in the season opener. Bengals LT Cedric Ogbuehi showed a concerning lack of improvement this preseason, and C Russell Bodine is a longtime liability. With the Texans next up on Cincinnati’s schedule, I wouldn’t be shocked if Dalton hit waiver wires in most leagues by Week 3. Dalton’s slate opens up quite a bit thereafter. … The Bengals’ backfield is a quagmire entering the season with arguably no usable member. Jeremy Hill is expected to start, Giovani Bernard will mix in on passing downs, and Joe Mixon played extensively with the ones in August but doesn’t yet have a defined role. It doesn’t help that Baltimore returns last year’s No. 4 DVOA-rated run defense. As RBs coach Kyle Caskey has promised a "hot hand" approach, it is conceivable we don’t see any Cincy back reach 15 touches in Week 1.
Bengals analyst Joe Goodberry suggested on Twitter this week that the Bengals will try to spread out the Ravens, perhaps in an effort to circumvent Baltimore’s impenetrable run defense and create favorable passing-game matchups. Beginning with most recent, A.J. Green’s last five receiving lines against Baltimore are 4/34/1, 10/227/2, 6/131/1, 4/61/1, and 8/151/1, and Ravens top CB Jimmy Smith played in all of those games. Dalton targeted Green on a team-high 46% of his preseason pass attempts. … Tyler Eifert dropped stat lines of 5/68/1 and 4/51/1 on Baltimore in their last two meetings and has scored 18 touchdowns over his last 21 appearances. Currently the healthiest he’s been in years, Eifert is a reasonable bet to hit pay dirt in this game. … With John Ross (knee) already on the shelf, the Bengals will turn to Brandon LaFell to start opposite Green with Tyler Boyd in the slot. In Green’s ten full games played last season, LaFell averaged just 41.9 yards on 5.5 targets. Boyd averaged 34.9 yards per game.
In a road game with the fourth-lowest team total on the Week 1 slate, the Ravens are a scary team to invest in from a fantasy standpoint after Joe Flacco missed all of training camp with a herniated disc in his back, preventing him from establishing any tangible rapport with new faces Danny Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin, who both theoretically project as target monsters once everyone is up to speed. … Terrance West was pushed for carries by Buck Allen during a sub-par preseason, while West’s passing-game role is sure to be minimal with Woodhead in the mix. Even against a Bengals defense missing difference-maker WLB Vontaze Burfict, West is nothing more than a touchdown-or-bust option for the time being. … The distribution of playing time between Ben Watson and Nick Boyle will be worth monitoring for deep leaguers and opportunistic tight end streamers. The Ravens have led the NFL in pass attempts in back-to-back years, and Watson, quietly, is just a season removed from finishing as a top-eight fantasy tight end with the 2015 Saints. He missed all of 2016 with a torn Achilles’. … Based on his established rapport with Flacco, it could be argued that Mike Wallace is the Ravens’ safest fantasy bet, even if he is only a WR4/flex play. Wallace was limited to receiving lines of 3/57/0 and 4/33/0 in last year’s two meetings with Cincinnati, however, drawing just four targets in each game. It should be noted that the Bengals will play this game without top CB Adam Jones due to a one-week suspension.
Score Prediction: Bengals 21, Ravens 17
Pittsburgh @ Cleveland
Team Totals: Steelers 27.75, Browns 19.25
When returning from injury, suspension, or offseason layoffs, Le’Veon Bell has piled up career touch totals of 23, 26, 27, and 20 with yardage/touchdown counts of 178/0, 132/1, 197/1, and 84/2. There should be almost no concern that Bell’s holdout will limit his usage in a plum draw versus a Browns run defense that finished 27th in DVOA last year and will push 339-pound NT Danny Shelton (knee) to play after Shelton received a 3-6 week timetable in mid-August. No. 1 overall pick DE Myles Garrett is out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain. One of my Week 1 bold calls is that LeSean McCoy will outscore both David Johnson and Bell, but in terms of rankings and weekly projections, only Johnson is a superior probability-based bet than Le’Veon among fantasy backs. It can’t hurt that Bell has scored a whopping 17-of-26 career rushing TDs on the road. … While some will focus on Ben Roethlisberger’s historical home-road splits – he’s long been far less effective on the road – it should also be noted that Roethlisberger averages 60.9 more passing yards and 0.33 more touchdowns per game with Martavis Bryant in the lineup over the past three years, suggesting Bryant’s return from suspension can at least partly counteract or even overcome Big Ben’s diminished road-game stats. Ben’s home-road splits are so widely known at this point that he is almost certain to experience reduced DFS ownership because of them, creating a possible buying opportunity in tournaments. The Steelers have the second-highest team total of Week 1, and the Browns don’t have anyone who can cover Antonio Brown or Martavis.
Antonio Brown has logged target/catch totals of 10/8, 17/13, 14/10, and 10/7 in his last four meetings with Cleveland. As Martavis’ presence lifts Pittsburgh’s offense as opposed to creating a target-stealing effect, Brown’s production has actually been better with Bryant in the lineup over the past three years, averaging a per-game receiving line of 8.4/107.1/0.85 when Martavis plays as opposed to 7.1/93.7/0.7 when Martavis doesn’t. Brown is the top fantasy wideout on the Week 1 slate, yet his DFS ownership figures to be adversely affected by the Steelers’ home-road stigma in a week where most people will pay up for David Johnson and/or Le’Veon Bell at running back, lessening their ability to afford high-priced receivers. … Martavis Bryant finished as a top-15 fantasy receiver in points per game in each of his first two NFL seasons, then missed all of 2016 on suspension. By all accounts a man on a mission, Bryant is up to 225 pounds after measuring 6-foot-4, 211 at the 2014 Combine. As Jonathan Bales showed in a 2014 Rotoworld column, weight is more important than height when it comes to wide receiver red-zone efficiency. Including the playoffs, Bryant has scored 16 touchdowns in 24 career games. … Slot WR Eli Rogers and some combination of tight ends Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and Vance McDonald will fight for passing-game scraps. We’ll have a better read on their usage entering Week 2.
At home facing a grossly underrated Steelers defense, the Browns have the third-lowest team total on the Week 1 slate. Rookie DeShone Kizer mixed amazing moments with bouts of ineffectiveness in the preseason, completing just 51.0% of his throws and averaging a severely sub-par 5.39 yards per attempt over his final two appearances, while taking five sacks. Kizer makes for an intriguing two-quarterback-league prospect against worse defenses, but he is an appetizing Opening Day target for Pittsburgh’s D/ST. Last year’s Steelers finished top nine in sacks (38), including 30 after their Week 8 bye. They get back stud DE Cameron Heyward and OLB Bud Dupree after those two combined to miss 18 games, and used their first-round pick on OLB T.J. Watt, who was a pass-rushing terror in August. … Isaiah Crowell’s matchup isn’t a cakewalk against a Steelers run defense that has ranked top 11 in DVOA in consecutive years and held Crowell to a pathetic eight-carry, ten-yard game last November before Crowell ripped them up for 168 total yards in Week 17, albeit with the Steelers resting starters. Crowell is a volume-based RB2 play behind an upgraded Browns offensive line that added RG Kevin Zeitler and C J.C. Tretter after quietly run blocking well in 2016, ranking fourth in PFF’s yards created before contact per attempt. … Although there has been chatter of Duke Johnson converting to slot receiver, it’s not necessarily a transition that would turn Johnson into a valued fantasy commodity. Johnson drew just two targets all preseason and zero in Cleveland’s third preseason game, which is when starters play the most. Johnson has three TDs on 291 career touches. He looks like a weak flex option in Week 1.
I was lukewarm on Corey Coleman during re-draft season, which is something I may soon regret. Coleman showed superior chemistry with Kizer than Kenny Britt, drawing eight targets in the Browns’ regular season dress rehearsal, including a team-high four with the starters in the first half. Coleman disappointed as a rookie for a variety of reasons, but I thought he had Odell Beckham-like traits coming out of Baylor. The Browns used Coleman as a big-play lid lifter as a rookie, where he averaged a whopping 15.4 air yards per target and the league’s fifth-highest average depth of target (16.0) among wide receivers with at least 50 targets. Continued usage in that manner may hurt his consistency, but Coleman is going to make big plays this year. With that said, his Week 1 matchup doesn’t stand out against a Pittsburgh defense that allowed the NFL’s third-fewest 20-plus-yard pass plays (40) last year despite facing the NFL’s tenth-most pass attempts overall (590). … Whereas Coleman drew four targets of 20-plus yards this preseason, Kenny Britt drew none. The Browns seem to be envisioning Britt as a physical possession complement to Coleman’s deep threat, but we’ll know more after the first week. Until we get more data, I’m approaching Britt as a risky WR4/flex against the Steelers and like Coleman as the superior either-or play. … The Browns seem to be planning to use a committee at tight end involving blocker Randall Telfer, athletic sophomore Seth DeValve, and raw rookie David Njoku.
Score Prediction: Steelers 28, Browns 20
4:05 PM ET Game
Indianapolis @ LA Rams
Team Totals: Rams 22.75, Colts 18.75
The Rams’ offense is in a gorgeous Week 1 spot, and not just because they are at home, favored, and facing maybe the league’s worst defense. They’re set up beautifully because they’re going to have the ball a ton as Indy’s offense figures to fail to sustain drives, allowing L.A. to dominate time of possession. Todd Gurley has been a colossal disappointment for the majority of his NFL career, reaching 90 rushing yards once over his last 24 games with a 3.43 yards-per-carry average during that span, and on tape looking nothing like the player the Rams made a top-ten pick in the 2015 draft. Last year, Gurley finished 37th of 42 qualifiers in Football Outsiders’ running back DVOA and 46th of 58 backs in PFF’s Elusive Rating. Nevertheless, I expect Gurley to start the season hot against the Colts, Redskins, 49ers, and Cowboys in Weeks 1-4. His schedule then takes a brutal turn for the worse with Seattle, Jacksonville, Arizona, the Giants, Houston, Minnesota, and a bye in Weeks 5-11. … Jared Goff showed just enough improvement in August to warrant lower-end two-quarterback-league consideration in plus matchups, completing 24-of-32 preseason attempts (75%) for 250 yards (7.8 YPA), one touchdown, and an interception. In an offense that still figures to revolve around Gurley, Goff wouldn’t yet appear to offer enough upside for streamer or DFS appeal. I am still open to Goff exceeding expectations as a second-year pro surrounded by major talent upgrades. In addition to WR Sammy Watkins, WR Cooper Kupp, WR Robert Woods, and TE Gerald Everett, the Rams supplemented their offensive line with LT Andrew Whitworth and C John Sullivan.
My pick to lead the Rams in Week 1 targets and catches is rookie slot man Cooper Kupp, whom Goff targeted on a team-high 27% of his preseason attempts and is immediately playable as a WR3/flex in PPR leagues. Missing top CB Vontae Davis (groin), the Colts are in such bad shape in the secondary that I couldn’t even tell you what their Week 1 cornerback lineup will be. "It'll be by committee," coach Chuck Pagano said Friday. In August, Kupp played 54 snaps – less than a full game’s worth – and turned ten targets into an 8/105/1 stat line, seeing all but one of his targets from Goff. … Sammy Watkins has NFL’s toughest schedule among wide receivers, so if we’re going to see him have a big game, odds are it’ll be this week against Davis-less Indy. Over the Rams’ first ten games, Watkins will face a murderer’s row of Josh Norman, Richard Sherman, Jalen Ramsey, Patrick Peterson, Janoris Jenkins, the Texans’ secondary, and Xavier Rhodes, then Peterson and Sherman again in the fantasy playoffs. I remain skeptical of Watkins, even this week. Watkins will patrol the perimeter for Los Angeles in the DeSean Jackson role under ex-Redskins OC Sean McVay, yet Goff completed just 4-of-17 targets aimed 20-plus yards downfield as a rookie, and Goff’s air yards per target ranked lowest in the NFL. Goff looked more comfortable targeting Kupp on high-percentage, risk-averse routes in August, as Watkins emerged with just eight yards on five preseason targets. … Robert Woods and TEs Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett round out the Rams’ pass-catching group. I don’t have any fantasy interest in them entering the season, but that could change if they establish larger-than-expected roles.
Andrew Luck fill-in Scott Tolzien is so bad that the Colts seriously considered starting fourth-year UDFA Stephen Morris over him, then traded for Patriots third-stringer Jacoby Brissett at final cuts. In press conferences this week, coach Chuck Pagano didn’t rule out Brissett sharing time with Tolzien, specifically in two-minute drills. … T.Y. Hilton is a terrifying fantasy play after going catch-less on one target this preseason. In ten games missed by Luck over the past two years, Hilton has averaged just 63.0 yards per game with three TDs. His per-game target average falls from 9.8 with Luck in the lineup to 7.4 without him. … The Colts’ offensive line is such an unsettled tragedy coaches were still mixing and matching multiple projected starters in the fourth preseason game, which is typically reserved for impending cuts. After losing C Ryan Kelly to a foot injury and cutting veteran Brian Schwenke, the Colts will start 287-pound UDFA Deyshawn Bond at center. All of this bodes poorly for Frank Gore, who was already in a bad spot as a road-game underdog running back in danger of losing touches to both Robert Turbin and explosive rookie Marlon Mack. … Whereas Hilton still maintains enough big-play potential to be at least considered as a boom-bust WR3/flex, Donte Moncrief is wholly unplayable sans Luck. In a ten-game sample, ‘Crief has averaged 3.8 catches for 42.7 yards with Luck on the shelf over the past two years. … Jack Doyle’s touchdown odds are severely reduced without Luck in the lineup, and Doyle drew just two targets in Tolzien’s Thanksgiving spot start against the Steelers last year. It is possible Tolzien’s dink-and-dunk style winds up benefiting Doyle in the short term, but it is also possible Doyle is forced to help the Colts’ overmatched offensive line block Rams outside pass rushers Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin on enough snaps that Doyle’s number of routes run takes a hit. In general, I try to avoid fantasy plays that look to combine low floors with low ceilings, and I am concerned Doyle fits squarely into that category.
Score Prediction: Rams 24, Colts 13
4:25 PM ET Games
Seattle @ Green Bay
Team Totals: Packers 27, Seahawks 24
Including playoffs, the Seahawks and Packers have met four times over the past three years and played to 38-10, 27-17, 28-22, 36-16 results with Aaron Rodgers posting yardage/touchdown totals of 246/3, 249/2, 178/1, and 189/1. Even at Lambeau where Rodgers has distinct advantages and positive home splits, the Seahawks’ defense is imposing with FS Earl Thomas back healthy and DT Sheldon Richardson added up front. Beyond right corner (rookie Shaq Griffin) and perhaps slot corner (Jeremy Lane), there are no identifiable weaknesses in Seattle’s starting 11 on defense. Pete Carroll’s unit has finished No. 1, No. 1, No. 1, No. 1, and No. 3 in points allowed over the past five years. Rodgers can’t be benched in season-long leagues, but it may be prudent to limit box-score expectations considering the opponent. It certainly helps that Rodgers’ supporting cast is as healthy and talented as it’s been in a long time with Martellus Bennett upgrading tight end, Jordy Nelson two full years removed from his 2015 ACL tear, Randall Cobb finally healthy, and Davante Adams coming off a breakout season. … It’s a small sample, but still promising that Ty Montgomery played 8-of-10 snaps with Rodgers and Green Bay’s first-team offense in their regular season dress rehearsal, while rookie Jamaal Williams handled the remaining two. Williams is a lowly 36th-percentile SPARQ athlete who caught just 15 passes combined over his final two seasons at BYU. At least for now, this is Montgomery’s backfield. Unfortunately, Week 1 opponent Seattle has an unfair amount of front-seven talent after trading for Richardson, who was PFF’s No. 2-rated run-stopping defensive end among 53 qualifiers last season. 8-of-11 Seahawks defensive starters have made at least one Pro Bowl. You know what you’re getting into with Montgomery: He is a job-secure lead back in a Rodgers-quarterbacked offense and favored at home, but his matchup is daunting.
The Seahawks have not historically shadowed Jordy Nelson with Richard Sherman, but Jordy hasn’t quite lit them up despite that tendency. Nelson’s last three stat lines against Seattle are 6/41/2 on 7 targets, 5/71/0 on 8 targets, and 9/83/0 on 14 targets. Jordy is safe to play in season-long leagues, but he is a contrarian DFS option. The fact that the Seahawks are starting rookie Shaq Griffin on the opposite side may increase the odds they change plans and indeed ask Sherman to chase Jordy. … Davante Adams’ three career stat lines against the Seahawks are 4/104/1, 5/33/0, and 1/7/0. Adams did run most of his 2016 routes at right corners, so if Seattle leaves Sherman at home at left corner, Adams would stand to benefit. The Packers have also used Adams to “occupy” Sherman in past games, however. I’m downgrading Adams to a risky WR3/flex rather than the solid WR2/3 option he'll be most weeks. … Slot CB Jeremy Lane was easily Seattle’s most vulnerable cornerback last season, yielding a 119.7 passer rating while Sherman’s rating allowed was a minuscule 63.8. The matchup is strong for Randall Cobb, who ran 78% of his 2016 routes in the slot. Cobb is in play as a WR3/flex with a higher floor than Adams, but without Adams’ touchdown upside. Still only 27 years old, Cobb showed he has something left in the tank in January’s playoffs with an 18/260/14.4/3 receiving line against the Cowboys, Giants, and Falcons. … Martellus Bennett caught a touchdown from Rodgers in the Packers’ second preseason game and has finished as a top-ten fantasy tight end in three of the last four years. For Week 1, I’m approaching Bennett as a touchdown-or-bust, low-end TE1 against a Seattle defense that gave up the NFL’s fifth-fewest catches (62) and yards (704) to enemy tight ends last season.
The Seahawks had drastic home-road splits in 2016, scoring 24 or more points in seven straight games at CenturyLink Field to close out the year but hitting that mark in just 3-of-8 games away from “The Clink” with four meltdowns of 10 points or fewer. Also concerning for Russell Wilson is his rough history versus Packers DC Dom Capers’ defense; Wilson has a brutal 2:9 TD-to-INT ratio over his last two meetings with the Pack, and hasn’t topped 240 passing yards in any of his last four games against Capers’ unit. Still, I’m putting faith in a healthy Wilson in this potentially high-scoring affair as a top-ten season-long-league QB1 start, particularly after Wilson looked as quick, elusive, and decisive as ever on 87 preseason snaps. Wilson stands to benefit from numerous strong matchups in the secondary we’ll get to in a minute, and Green Bay’s middling pass rush doesn’t necessarily have the firepower to fully exploit Seattle’s liabilities on the offensive line. … It’s a wait-and-see week for the Seahawks’ backfield. Thomas Rawls missed time late in training camp with a high ankle sprain, but he practiced fully this week and appears likely to start. Eddie Lacy will mix in on early downs and perhaps at the goal line. C.J. Prosise is locked in as Seattle’s passing-game back, and rookie sleeper Chris Carson outplayed all of the above in preseason games.
As No. 33 overall pick Kevin King failed to earn a starting job in camp, Green Bay’s first-team nickel package will likely have Davon House and Damarious Randall on the boundary corners with Quinten Rollins in the slot. Among 52 qualified slot cornerbacks graded by PFF last season, Rollins’ 109.7 passer rating allowed ranked 12th worst. Doug Baldwin ran 73% of his routes in the slot in 2016 and has been largely immune to Wilson’s historical struggles against the Packers, tagging Green Bay for receiving lines of 6/46/0 on 11 targets, 7/92/1 on 8 targets, and 6/106/0 on 9 targets over their last three meetings. … I’m expecting a 2017 step forward for Jimmy Graham after his remarkable 2016 comeback from a torn patellar tendon. Graham finished as a top-five fantasy tight end despite the daunting recovery, and last year’s Packers allowed the NFL’s eighth-most yards (996) to tight ends. … Paul Richardson and Tyler Lockett will round out Seattle’s three-receiver package and are worth looks as Week 1 dart throws in deeper leagues and DFS, but I’m not convinced either offers a safe floor. Lockett figures to be eased into the offense due to his recovery from last December’s broken leg and high-value return-game contributions. Fellow field stretcher Richardson topped 40 yards in each of Seattle’s final four games including the playoffs last year, although Lockett played in just one of those games. I expect to have a better read on the Seahawks’ usage of their complementary pass catchers entering Week 2.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 24, Packers 23
Carolina @ San Francisco
Team Totals: Panthers 26.5, 49ers 21
Cam Newton threw just two passes all preseason after offseason shoulder surgery, but all indications are he will be all systems go versus a 49ers defense he pummeled for four touchdown passes and 390 all-purpose yards last Week 2. Improvements from San Francisco do seem likely under a revamped coaching staff with a potentially enhanced defensive front if MLB Navorro Bowman and first-round pick WLB Reuben Foster can stay healthy, but certainly not so much that Newton isn’t an elite upside QB1 play in a game where Carolina has the fourth-highest team total on the Week 1 slate. I also think this game will be closer than most people expect, perhaps forcing more onto Cam’s plate. The 49ers have won six straight season openers, and there seems to be a renewed sense of energy surrounding San Francisco under new coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch. … Panthers running backs combined to average 24.4 touches per game last season. Although I believe Christian McCaffrey will eventually emerge as Carolina’s lead back, beat writers think Jonathan Stewart will open the season logging more carries and handling more scoring-position chances. Whereas McCaffrey weighs 202 pounds, Stewart is 235, efficiently converted 9-of-16 carries inside the five-yard line into touchdowns last season, and is expected to take over all of departed Mike Tolbert’s short-yardage work at minimum. Let’s say there are 25 touches to be spread amongst Panthers backs in Week 1. I expect McCaffrey to log 12-16 and Stewart to handle 9-13. Stewart is in the mix as a touchdown-or-bust flex play. McCaffrey is a reasonable RB2.
Kelvin Benjamin looked outstanding this preseason, converting 8-of-8 targets into 107 yards and two TDs and drawing coaching-staff praise for his conditioning. Whereas 49ers top CB Rashard Robinson weighed a praying-mantis-like 171 pounds at 6-foot-1 coming out of LSU, Benjamin stands 6-foot-5, 240 with hulking 10 ¼-inch hands and vine-like 34 7/8-inch arms. Benjamin had the best game of his 2016 season against the 49ers (7/108/2). … Greg Olsen also lit up San Francisco last Week 2 (5/122/1) and makes for a top-five TE1 play in Week 1. Although Olsen is now 32 years old, he has shown zero signs of slippage. He finished No. 4 among 40 qualified tight ends in PFF’s yards per route run (2.09) last year, No. 2 in Number Fire’s Net Expected Points at his position, and No. 2 in Tight End Success Rate. … Devin Funchess has done very little to establish himself as a starting-caliber No. 2 receiver through two NFL seasons, but he’s going to be one to begin the year nevertheless after playing 65-of-67 first-team snaps this preseason by Adam Levitan’s count. Funchess stands 6-foot-4, 232 and has scored ten touchdowns on 59 career catches. While certainly a low-floor risk, Funchess does offer TD upside in this plus draw.
Carlos Hyde is a volume-based RB2 play against Carolina, which ranked No. 9 in run-defense DVOA last season and boasts enough speed at linebacker to cause problems for Shanahan’s outside-zone running scheme. Hyde missed some cutback lanes in the preseason, not appearing totally comfortable in the revised offense. Nevertheless, Hyde is set up to flirt with or exceed 20 touches in a home game with some upset potential. It’s probably small-sample variance, but Hyde has scored five TDs and averaged 5.46 yards per carry in three career Week 1 games. … Panthers second-year CBs James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are far from pushovers from a matchup standpoint, but Pierre Garcon is the heavy favorite to lead the 49ers in Week 1 targets after drawing a whopping seven targets on only 23 snaps in San Francisco’s regular season dress rehearsal. In his career, Garcon has averaged 9.58 targets per game with Shanahan as his team’s offensive overseer, but only 5.85 targets per game without him. New 49ers QB Brian Hoyer also has a history of force feeding his top weapon, as Hoyer started for most of DeAndre Hopkins’ 111-catch 2015 season in Houston and funneled Cameron Meredith 8.75 targets per game in Chicago last year. Hoyer targeted Garcon on a team-high 27% of his preseason throws. … Diminutive speedster Marquise Goodwin is the 49ers’ best bet for a long passing play against the Panthers. Now operating in the “Taylor Gabriel Role” under Shanahan, Goodwin showed a legitimate in-practice deep-ball rapport with Hoyer in training camp and turned eight preseason targets into a 5/104/1 stat line, including a 46-yard touchdown bomb against the Vikings’ stout secondary in the regular season dress rehearsal. I expect Goodwin to be a relatively low-volume and volatile fantasy commodity this year. … The 49ers offer very little at tight end with promising rookie TE George Kittle nursing a recurring hamstring strain. Their three-receiver set should be rounded out by either speedy journeyman Aldrick Robinson or fifth-round rookie slot man Trent Taylor. I’m not fully confident in either’s Week 1 snaps.
Score Prediction: 49ers 24, Panthers 23
Sunday Night Football
NY Giants @ Dallas
Team Totals: Cowboys 25.75, Giants 21.75
If you buy “Angry” narratives, Ezekiel Elliott is your guy on Sunday night with a six-game ban hanging over his head and awaiting a court decision. In last year’s two meetings with the Giants, Zeke amassed 21 and 24 touches, although the Giants’ stout defense held him to total yardage/touchdown counts of 52/1 and 107/0. There is no convincing reason to believe DC Steve Spagnuolo’s defense will take a 2017 step back. Still, Elliott’s locked-in volume, talent, and home-favorite status make him a top-five RB1 play despite the opponent. … A shakier Week 1 bet is Dak Prescott based on the interchangeable nature of the quarterback position in start-one-QB formats and Prescott’s 2016 struggles against the G-Men. Dak’s weekly fantasy finishes versus New York were QB27 and QB27, even though Prescott registered his highest and third-highest pass attempts totals of the season (45, 37). Dez Bryant simply didn’t get open against the Giants’ secondary, forcing Dak to resort to peppering Jason Witten and Cole Beasley with lower-efficiency and lower-ceiling targets. I believe Prescott is going to have a good year when all is said and done, but I am worried about him in a brutally difficult Weeks 1-3 stretch where Prescott faces the Giants first, then visits Denver, and then visits Arizona. As the Cardinals face the Lions, Colts, and Cowboys in Weeks 1-3, I would rather start Carson Palmer than Dak in each of the first three weeks.
After a slow start in their first season together, Dez Bryant wound up catching 10 touchdowns over his final 11 full games with Dak last year, and there aren’t any season-long leagues where I would be looking to sit him. But the risk is real. Janoris Jenkins was Bryant’s 2016 kryptonite, holding Dez to abysmal stat lines of 1/8/0 and 1/10/0 on target totals of 5 and 9. Still, there have been whispers the Cowboys will move Bryant around more this year, and giving Dez more slot snaps would be one way to keep him away from Jenkins, who played just 3% of his snaps in the slot in 2016. … Giants slot CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is no slouch in his own right, of course, and DRC played a leading role in holding Cole Beasley to 106 scoreless yards on a whopping 19 combined targets in last year’s two meetings with the G-Men. Beasley can be a high-floor PPR asset in the right spots, but he rarely offers upside. Beasley has topped 75 yards in 2-of-72 career games. … Including playoffs, Terrance Williams was out-targeted by Beasley 104 to 67 last season, despite the fact that Williams played almost 150 more snaps. … Jason Witten is easily the best matchup-based play in Dallas’ Week 1 offense. Witten has reached 60 yards and/or scored a touchdown in seven of his last nine meetings with the Giants, and over the past five years Witten has scored 14 of his 22 touchdowns (63.6%) at home. Annually vulnerable to tight ends, the Giants allowed the NFL’s fifth-most catches (90) and fourth-most yards (1,048) to the position last year. For what it’s worth, Prescott targeted Witten on a team-high 40% of his attempts this preseason.
Coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, the Giants’ hope is that Eli Manning will improve by way of improved weapons. They signed Brandon Marshall to a bargain-cost deal, drafted Evan Engram in the first round, and get pass-catching specialist Shane Vereen back healthy. As for their putrid offensive line, the G-Men seem to be counting on internal improvement after making no additions of significance. The Cowboys’ defense certainly looks exploitable from a personnel standpoint, but Eli’s 2016 cliff drop and Odell Beckham’s (ankle) unsure availability have me in wait-and-see mode when approaching Manning as a Week 1 fantasy start. I think he’s much more of a mid-range to low-end two-quarterback-league option than a sleeper for a big game. … Despite unimpressive personnel, last year’s Cowboys yielded the NFL’s fourth-fewest fantasy points to running backs in large part because they controlled games with a clock-milking style. No team faced fewer rushing attempts than Dallas. As the Giants seem likely to employ a three-way backfield committee with Paul Perkins as the tentative lead option, Vereen changing the pace and catching passes, and Orleans Darkwa threatening for short-yardage/goal-line snaps, no member of New York’s running back corps stands out as a compelling Week 1 fantasy play.
Odell Beckham (ankle) wasn’t confident about his Week 1 availability when speaking to reporters in the middle of the week. Even with Beckham at less than 100%, I think we know the drill with him if he plays, and to not get cute, particularly against a rag-tag Dallas secondary that lost both starting perimeter corners (Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr) in free agency. … If Beckham does not play, Brandon Marshall would become a highly enticing option in all formats. Marshall is 33 years old and had poor efficiency metrics with the Jets last year, although ESPN Stats & Info charted Marshall with the NFL’s fourth-most “off-target” passes thrown his way. The time to bet on “old” players in fantasy is early in the season, and Marshall fits that bill. I like Marshall as a WR3 if Beckham gives it a go, and a fringe WR1 if we find out OBJ will sit. … Sterling Shepard’s fantasy viability also hangs in the Beckham-dependent balance. Shepard is a mere WR5 with Beckham in the lineup, but he elevates to a passable WR3 in PPR leagues should the Giants rule OBJ out. … Rookie TE Evan Engram’s playing time is uncertain with limited blocking skills, especially considering New York’s offensive line woes and their four-year, $18 million investment into blocking TE Rhett Ellison. Still, Engram flashed dynamic playmaking ability in the preseason with six catches for 75 yards on eight targets and would become an attractive streamer if OBJ can’t go. Last year’s Cowboys got shredded by tight ends, yielding league highs in both receptions (120) and yards (1,206) to the position.
Score Prediction: Cowboys 24, Giants 23
Monday Night Doubleheader
New Orleans @ Minnesota
Team Totals: Vikings 25.75, Saints 22.25
I’m not sure Sam Bradford offers enough upside for DFS – he’s thrown multiple touchdown passes in just 10 of his last 30 starts with only seven 300-yard games during that stretch – but I do think he’s an excellent two-quarterback-league play and worthy of one-quarterback-league consideration over tough-matchup passers like Andy Dalton (vs. BAL), Matthew Stafford (vs. ARZ), and Philip Rivers (@ DEN). Back from his first full offseason with the Vikings after they acquired him a week before last season began, Bradford is surrounded by ascending weapons and an improved offensive line, and he is playing indoors against one of the league’s leakiest defenses. Last year’s Saints allowed the NFL’s sixth-most fantasy points to quarterbacks, and reasons to believe in them as an improved unit are few after the losses of difference-maker DT Nick Fairley to a heart condition and top CB Delvin Breaux to a broken fibula. … The Saints also hemorrhage points to running backs, a trend that should spill into 2017 as they start Chargers and Panthers castoffs Manti Te’o and A.J. Klein at Mike and Sam linebacker and third-round rookie Alex Anzalone on the weak side. Even with Latavius Murray posing a possible short-yardage/goal-line threat and Jerick McKinnon mixing in on passing downs, Dalvin Cook is a high-floor, high-ceiling fringe RB1 play as a home favorite in a plum draw. The 2016 Saints allowed the NFL’s ninth-most catches (85) and second-most receiving yards (868) to enemy backs. Cook got fed in the passing game this preseason, where his eight targets led all projected Week 1 starting running backs.
Another reason to like Bradford as a sneaky Week 1 start is the individual outlook for each of his pass catchers. Now a perimeter receiver after working in the slot on 63% of his 2016 routes, Stefon Diggs figures to draw hamstring- and knee-hobbled Saints rookie CB Marshon Lattimore for most of this game. Some in the season-long-league fantasy community were concerned Diggs’ move outside would cost him targets, but Bradford targeted Diggs on a team-high 33% of his preseason throws. Diggs’ position switch will give him more splash-play opportunities, and last year’s Saints surrendered the NFL’s second-most yards per attempt (7.9) to enemy passing games. … Adam Thielen ran 70% of his 2016 routes on the outside, but he moved to slot receiver in training camp and ran a team-high 20 slot routes in the Vikings’ regular season dress rehearsal. (Diggs ran zero slot routes.) Now essentially playing Diggs’ old position, Thielen is a sleeper to lead Minnesota in receptions. Thielen outperformed Diggs in several efficiency metrics last year, including yards per route run, passer rating when thrown to, and yards per target. PFF’s Scott Barrett identified the Vikings as having the NFL’s second-softest 2017 schedule for slot receivers. I wouldn’t bet against Thielen emerging as a legitimate every-week fantasy starter this year, especially in PPR leagues. … Kyle Rudolph led all NFL tight ends in both targets (132) and red-zone targets (24) last season and appears to be the Vikings’ best bet for a receiving touchdown in this game. Rudolph’s usage rose when Pat Shurmur replaced Norv Turner as Vikings offensive coordinator last November, averaging 8.7 targets in games coordinated by Shurmur compared to 7.7 targets under Norv.
Matching up with Mike Zimmer’s Vikings is never a walk in the park – Minnesota has finished Nos. 8 and 11 in pass-defense DVOA the past two years – but overthinking Drew Brees is probably a mistake we should avoid making in Week 1. This game will be played indoors and is tied for the third-highest total on the slate, and over the course of his career Brees has averaged 312.3 yards and 2.35 touchdowns per game beneath domes. A lot of people worried about Brees in Week 15 last year when he traveled to Arizona (another dome) based on the Cardinals’ defensive efficiency and road-game environment. Brees promptly lit up the Cards for four touchdowns and 420 all-purpose yards. … The Vikings have been more vulnerable to running games than passing attacks on Zimmer’s watch, finishing 25th, 18th, and 16th in run-defense DVOA during Zimmer’s three years at the helm. Last year’s Saints running backs averaged 31.1 touches per game. If we project New Orleans backs to combine for 30 touches against Minnesota, I like Mark Ingram’s chances of handling 12-15, Adrian Peterson to fall into a similar range, and Alvin Kamara to clean up the scraps. Peterson has the ex-team narrative working in his favor, which may encourage coach Sean Payton to feed him an extra goal-line carry or two when the Saints reach scoring position. Ingram is the Saints’ top all-purpose runner and should have the most secure role in the backfield. I like Peterson as a touchdown-or-bust RB2/flex play and Ingram as a high-floor RB2 start on Monday night.
Michael Thomas’ schedule opens up quite a bit in the weeks to come, but he starts with a tough draw against Vikings shutdown CB Xavier Rhodes. Thomas ran 87% of his 2016 routes outside, where Rhodes figures to chase him almost without fail. Per PFF, Rhodes’ 47.0 passer rating allowed last year led the NFL among 117 qualified cornerbacks. I’m not sitting Brees’ No. 1 wideout in any season-long leagues, but we also can’t say we were surprised if Thomas finishes with a below-par stat line. … Rhodes’ likely shadow coverage of Thomas should make life easier on Week 1 sleeper Ted Ginn, who figures to match up with inconsistent LCB Trae Waynes. The Vikings have been disappointed enough with Waynes that they traded for Tramaine Brock at final cuts. Ginn’s outlook is also enhanced by Willie Snead’s three-game suspension. Ginn’s drops make highlight reels, but he is still one of the NFL’s premier deep threats at age 32 and is now playing with by-far the best deep passer of his career. Ginn is a volatile-if-exciting WR3/flex. … The Saints are going to need another pass catcher to step up during Snead’s ban. It could be Coby Fleener, who is entering his second season in the offense after a forgettable debut but did draw a season-high 11 targets when Snead missed Week 3 against the Falcons last year, and produced a year-best 7/109/1 receiving line. It could be 6-foot-6 Brandon Coleman, who allegedly had a great camp and caught six balls for 75 yards this preseason. It could also be backup slot receiver Tommylee Lewis, who led the Saints in preseason catches (14) and receiving yards (165). Your guess is just as good as mine.
Score Prediction: Vikings 27, Saints 24
LA Chargers @ Denver
Team Totals: Broncos 23, Chargers 20
This game’s standout play on Los Angeles’ side is Melvin Gordon, who tallied 54 combined touches in last year’s two meetings with Denver and totaled 249 all-purpose yards. The Broncos ranked 21st in run-defense DVOA, and their run-defense personnel has arguably gotten worse with box safety T.J. Ward gone to Tampa, LE Derek Wolfe nursing an ankle injury serious enough that Wolfe recently admitted he was only “75 to 80 percent,” RE Jared Crick (back) ruled out, and washed-up Domata Peko signed to play nose tackle after Peko earned PFF’s No. 65 run-stopping grade among 73 qualified defensive tackles last year. … As a road-dog quarterback in a projected low-scoring affair, Philip Rivers was already in a tough Week 1 spot before you consider his last four weekly fantasy finishes against Denver are QB23, QB16, QB28, and QB20. The Broncos are a rare run-funnel defense that encourages opponents to try to attack them on the ground rather than through the air, and longtime NFL RBs coach-turned-Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn is an ardent running-game believer from the Rex Ryan coaching tree. I am expecting the Chargers to take a conservative game plan into Monday night, and Rivers to turn in underwhelming fantasy results.
Based on his fourth-round ADP, Keenan Allen is going to prove a fantasy value if he stays healthy this season. Unfortunately, Allen couldn’t draw up a tougher matchup to start off than at Denver, which returns its full nickel package of LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Bradley Roby, and slot CB Chris Harris after the Broncos permitted league lows in catches (148), yards (1,570), and touchdowns (7) to wide receivers in 2016. Normally an every-week WR2 with WR1 upside, Allen needs to be downgraded to a risky WR3. … With Allen back, Tyrell Williams is almost unplayable considering the matchup. Even in a de-facto No. 1 wideout role last year, Williams managed abysmal stat lines of 3/28/0 and 1/4/0 in two dates with the Broncos. … Denver did show vulnerability to enemy tight ends, giving up the NFL’s sixth-most receptions (88) and 11th-most yards (939) to the position. The Broncos’ stout cornerback coverage can funnel targets inside to Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates. Henry’s 2016 stat lines against Denver were 6/83/1 and 2/14/0; Gates went 2/16/0 and 4/33/1. Because Henry and Gates rotate almost evenly and the Chargers don’t use many two-tight end sets, Henry and Gates are both touchdown-or-bust streamers.
The good news for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders is that they have locked-in target shares. Denver has no legitimate third receiver to swipe meaningful looks underneath, and the Broncos’ tight end situation remains unsettled. Thomas didn’t draw fewer than six targets in a game last year and hit double digits in eight of the final 11 weeks. Sanders drew eight or more targets in 12-of-13 weeks to begin the season, then faded due to injury. The bad news is Trevor Siemian is their quarterback on a low-scoring team, neither Thomas nor Sanders reached 70 yards in either of last year’s two meetings with the Chargers, and this year’s Bolts corner duo is even stronger with Jason Verrett back from his torn ACL to tag team with Casey Hayward. Typically strong WR2s, Thomas and Sanders are better viewed as WR3/flex options in Week 1. On top of the return of Verrett, Los Angeles brings back all key components from a pass defense that finished No. 9 in DVOA last year. … The Bolts are weaker on the ground after finishing 15th in run-defense DVOA, then losing ILB Denzel Perryman (ankle) to I.R. C.J. Anderson will operate as Denver’s lead back with Jamaal Charles changing the pace. Charles did play well enough in the Broncos’ third preseason game that his role may be bigger than expected, but his still-uncertain usage renders Charles a mere flex-play shot in the dark. Anderson should have a floor in the 15-touch range as a home-favorite running back in an unimposing matchup, making him a viable-if-not-sexy RB2.
Score Prediction: Chargers 21, Broncos 20