Fantasy Football Start or Sit: Week 1
Some of you continuously can't win fantasy football championships. You're generally fine, but you rarely make the playoffs, coasting to an average record.
Some of you are the Jeff Fisher of fantasy football.
And that's fine -- I mean, hell, Jeff Fisher still has a job after just 6 winning campaigns in 21 seasons as an NFL head coach.
But if you really want to take a step forward with your fantasy football management this year, you've got to win the small battles. You have to make the right micro decisions in order to feel the macro impact.
Those smaller battles can be won each week with your start-sit decisions. And, every week, the hope is that this column can help.
Start Matthew Stafford (at Indianapolis): Part of me believes that the Matthew Stafford resurgence at the end of last year (averaged over 21 fantasy points per game after the team's Week 9 bye) had just as much to do with strength of schedule as it did promoted offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. But there's also no doubt in my mind that Cooter's offense works better for Stafford, as it forces shorter, quicker passes that allows the team's receivers to pick up yards after the catch.
This week, Stafford will run that offense in Indianapolis, where the Colts could be without Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback Vontae Davis. That leaves the Colts with Patrick Robinson and Antonio Cromartie, the veteran who was signed last month. Combine this with the high over/under in this contest, and Stafford should be in store for strong QB1 numbers in fantasy this week.
Sit Philip Rivers (at Kansas City): I wouldn't advise you to drop Philip Rivers this week given his tough matchup, because the Chargers will face the Jaguars, Colts, and Saints from Weeks 2 through 4. But if you have the capacity to start some of the other guys listed in this column, feel free to do it.
Quarterbacks, in general, score more fantasy points in wins than in losses. Rivers is a little more neutral than most in the split but, even still, being a seven-point underdog on the road with a low implied team total against a good Chiefs' defense is not something to get excited about. As a result, he's more of a QB2 this week than a QB1, meaning he should probably stay on your bench.
Start Matt Ryan (vs. Tampa Bay): There wasn't a whole lot to like about Matt Ryan's 2015 fantasy performance, but there is positive regression coming for him this year -- he had the lowest touchdown rate of his career last season, and given what we know from history, that number is sure to rise in 2016.
The matchup this week is pretty juicy, too. Tampa Bay enters the season with the fifth-worst secondary, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, and Vegas thinks this game will be high scoring, giving the Falcons a top-10 implied team total. Ryan at home is also a better bet than Ryan on the road -- over the last three years, his average yards per attempt is over a yard better at home, while he also sees an increase of 0.21 touchdowns and 20 yards per game at home. And, last year, Ryan had just two top-10 performances -- one of them came against Tampa Bay at home.
Sit Eli Manning (at Dallas): Like Rivers, I actually like Eli Manning's potential a lot this year. But in Week 1, despite what looks like a decent matchup on paper, I'm not about that Eli life.
Not that it's the be-all and end-all, but let's start with what Vegas thinks is going to happen in this contest. The Giants are one-point favorites (that's a plus) with an implied team total of 23.5. Not bad.
But the scary part about this game is opportunity. The Cowboys are rolling out Dak Prescott, which means there's little doubt that the already-conservative offense they run could be even more conservative. Ezekiel Elliott will be heavily involved behind their stud offensive line, so we're looking at -- like we did when they had DeMarco Murray -- a Dallas Cowboys team that's playing keep-away.
Last year, Dallas saw 537 pass plays against, which was the fewest in the NFL. In 2014, that number was 584 (a below-average mark) despite the fact that the Cowboys were 12-4 -- teams saw negative game scripts against them, and the Cowboys' defense still didn't see many pass attempts.
Not only that, but in his two games against the Cowboys last year, Manning ranked 30th and 25th in weekly quarterback scoring.
Can he be a QB1 this week? Sure, that's in his range of outcomes. But there are so many good quarterback plays on the board that you should feel more confident in. He's more in top-15 range rather than top-10 range, which, in shallower leagues, could be enough to ride the bench.
Start Rashad Jennings (at Dallas): While I'm not super into Eli given the other passing options this week in fantasy, I do like his top running back a whole lot.
Last season, Rashad Jennings had just 10 carries within his opponents' 10-yard line despite being the lead dog in his backfield. Teammate Andre Williams, who's now gone, had 8. Add on the recent report that noted Jennings should see more goal-line work and, boom, you've got plenty of more opportunity.
Jennings had the highest Success Rate -- percentage of positive runs, per our NEP metric -- among relevant backs last year, and given the ground-and-pound way this game could lean combined with a below-average run-stuffing unit for Dallas, he makes for a strong play in Week 1.
Sit Arian Foster (at Seattle): There's not a whole lot to like about the Miami offense right now. That includes running back Arian Foster, who rushed seven times for five yards in the preseason.
There's some ambiguity surrounding the Dolphins' backfield, as they'll surely mix in some Jay Ajayi to keep Foster fresh (and off the injury report). That already limits Foster's upside. Then you factor in the matchup -- a game in Seattle against a good Seahawks team and defense that should see a lead in this game, limiting Miami's reliance on the run game -- and Foster becomes a very easy bench for Week 1. There are third-down backs (say, Chris Thompson) that have more upside this week.
Start Christine Michael (vs. Miami): It sounds like Thomas Rawls will be on a snap count this week, which means Christine Michael will have his time to shine in the Seahawks' backfield. And he really shouldn't have a tough time regardless of the personnel he'll face -- Seattle is a big 10.5-point home favorite, which means they'll be running the ball a whole lot. Even if Michael is inefficient, he'll still be very relevant in fantasy thanks to volume.
Sit LeGarrette Blount (at Arizona): If you can't tell already, I take game script very seriously with the running back position. And it's because, in today's NFL where running backs have specific roles, it matters a lot.
The Patriots are rolling out their Jimmy Garoppolo offense in Arizona this week, which frightens me a bit for LeGarrette Blount owners. Arizona is the third-best team in football, according to our preseason power rankings, and they're also six-point favorites in this contest. Anytime the Patriots trail, Blount has a high probability of being game-scripted out -- just 15 of his 165 attempts last year came while New England was trailing.
The running back to target in this backfield this week is the pass-catching James White, not Blount.
Start T.J. Yeldon (vs. Green Bay): There's a two-headed monster in the Jacksonville backfield that may drive us nuts by season's end. This week, though, I'm pretty heavily favoring T.J. Yeldon over Chris Ivory.
The Packers are one of the best teams in the NFC and are decent road favorites in the matchup. Yeldon, the receiving back of the duo, could benefit from that type game flow -- if Jacksonville trails, he'll see the field more than the bruising Ivory. Not only that, but Yeldon was a lot better last year than what people are giving him credit for -- according to an analysis done by our own Brandon Gdula, only Todd Gurley had a bigger per-rush efficiency edge over his teammates than Yeldon had in 2015.
Yeldon's the guy you want this week in this backfield, especially in PPR formats.
Other running backs to start: Spencer Ware (vs. San Diego), Ryan Mathews (vs. Cleveland), Terrance West (vs. Buffalo, deeper play)
Other running backs to sit: Jeremy Hill (at New York), Jamaal Charles (vs. San Diego)
Start Donte Moncrief (vs. Detroit): It's tough to come up with a reason to hate Donte Moncrief's situation this week. The Colts are favorites over the Lions in -- as I said before -- what should be a high-scoring affair. But, to be fair, the Lions also have cornerback Darius Slay, who allowed 20 or fewer yards in six games last season, per Pro Football Focus.
Slay sometimes shadows receivers, which means he could be on T.Y. Hilton in this contest. If that's the case, give me all of the Moncrief. But even if Slay doesn't shadow Hilton, the Detroit secondary is still one you can exploit -- we have them as the ninth-worst unit in the league entering the season.
Moncrief's splits with Andrew Luck under center are well documented, as he actually caught more passes than Hilton last year with the franchise signal-caller throwing the ball. And while the Colts have offensive line issues, that may play into Moncrief's favor -- Hilton's the guy who needs time to stretch the field, while Moncrief is the bigger-bodied possession receiver. That, and Moncrief is a much more natural red zone threat given his size. In fact, 5 of his 9 career scores have come from the red zone versus just 9 of 24 for Hilton.
Sit Torrey Smith (vs. St. Louis): Just to keep it hunnit with you, I'd have a hard time starting any 49ers offensive player until we see something positive from the group. Torrey Smith should be peppered with targets in Chip Kelly's offense, as the offenses have ranked first and third in overall plays run over the last two years. And the 49ers should trail a lot this year, which means more passing. The problem, though, is that there may not be much efficiency, especially against a Rams defense that's well above average (eighth-best entering 2016, per NEP).
Start Marvin Jones (at Indianapolis): Ma boy Marvin Jones is ready to eat in Week 1. I laid it all out above with the Stafford love, but a Vontae Davis-less Colts secondary is one that's ready to get torched through the air. Jones showed a nice rapport with Stafford in the preseason, and he has a decent chance to actually beat out Golden Tate this year in fantasy points scored given his role of running more intermediate and deep routes, as well as being a stronger red zone threat. It could be a great season for Jones, and it'll get jump-started in Week 1.
Sit Corey Coleman (at Philadelphia): It's not that I'm not a fan of Corey Coleman -- I am. I'm just nervous about using a Cleveland Brown in Week 1 in what should be a fairly difficult matchup.
The Eagles, Cleveland's opponent, have a decent defense and are four-point favorites despite the fact that they're playing an incredibly inexperienced quarterback in Carson Wentz. It'd be shocking if they didn't try to slow the game down and run Ryan Mathews to death, which is sort of the routine thing Doug Pederson -- their new head coach -- does. In Kansas City, Pederson's offenses ranked 14th, 30th, and 31st in plays run per game thanks to a run-heavy mentality.
Because of that, there may not be as much opportunity as we'd like for Corey Coleman this week. There's also a lot of question marks around the Browns offense, which should scare you off, too.
Start DeSean Jackson (vs. Pittsburgh): A huge reason for Kirk Cousins' beast-mode play during the second half of last year was because of DeSean Jackson. Without DJax, Cousins averaged 14.74 fantasy points per game last year (seven games). With him, he averaged 21.40 (eight games). And it's because Jackson is one of the most undervalued wide receiver assets in football.
He gets the benefit of facing a Steelers secondary this week that's very, very weak. Per Pro Football Focus, the Pittsburgh corners allowed a 60% completion percentage last year, and because we know Jackson has great after-the-catch ability, there's a ton of upside in that fact. If he ends up breaking free for a vintage DeSean Jackson big play, it'll be icing on the cake for an already high floor.
Other wide receivers to start: Michael Crabtree (at New Orleans), Vincent Jackson (at Atlanta), Will Fuller (vs. Chicago, deeper play)
Other wide receivers to sit: Kelvin Benjamin (at Denver), Kevin White (vs. Houston)
Start Jared Cook (at Jacksonville): One reason the Packers couldn't do what they wanted to offensively last year was because offenses can't go through a slot receiver. But another reason is because they had no true deep threat.
Jordy Nelson is back, which should open things up tremendously for Aaron Rodgers and company. But if Nelson is on a snap count as he comes back from his injury, the default spread-the-defense player becomes the athletic Jared Cook, who caught 9 of 11 preseason targets for 85 yards and a score. Even if Nelson is fine, Cook has upside in a matchup that should be high scoring against a below-average defensive unit.
Sit Jason Witten (vs. New York): The main reason you play Jason Witten is because he gives you a decent floor at volatile position. The problem this week is that the situation around Witten is volatile itself. Not only does the Giants defense have a completely different look this year -- albeit a look that should still be favorable for a tight end -- but Witten's going to be hauling in passes from a rookie quarterback. And, as I said above, there's reason to believe the Cowboys want to play things conservatively this week -- and moving forward -- with Prescott under center. Until we know Witten's true role, he's easy to avoid given the lack of probable upside.
Start Jesse James (at Washington): It's so odd to me: Ladarius Green, who doesn't have that crazy of a résumé, was a single-digit round selection in fantasy football before the drama occurred with his injury that's keeping him sidelined indefinitely. Now, his replacement, Jesse James, is barely being talked about.
But when you take a deeper look, James' situation is actually kind of awesome.
The Steelers' three starting receivers are all 5'11'' or shorter, while James stands at a massive 6'7''. He's a clear red zone threat for Ben Roethlisberger. And there's not any competition at the tight end position for James -- behind him on the depth chart is a former fullback in David Johnson.
James may be more involved in the Steelers offense than most are thinking, but even if he isn't, he's got a chance to be a great red zone weapon. And for a team that's projected to score a lot of points this week, that's great news.
Start the Philadelphia Eagles (vs. Cleveland): The Eagles are at home, are favorites, and they're facing a sack-friendly quarterback who hasn't started a game in a year and a half. Yes, I'm all about the Eagles' defense this week, and you should be, too.
Sit the New England Patriots (at Arizona): According to ESPN.com's start percentage data, nearly half of their leagues have a team starting the New England defense this week. But given the fact that they're facing one of the better offenses in the league on the road and are underdogs, that's a play you can't make. Stream your defense instead by using a lower-tiered one like Tennessee.
Other defenses to start: Seattle Seahawks (vs. Miami), Tennessee Titans (vs. Minnesota)
Other defenses to sit: Pittsburgh Steelers (at Washington), Cincinnati Bengals (at New York)