Fantasy Football Start or Sit: Week 1
If you've played fantasy football with a "set it and forget it" approach, you're doing it wrong. For a lot of reasons.
What we think will happen at the start of the season isn't usually what ends up happening by season's end. We -- and I'm including myself in this, even as a fantasy analyst -- get things wrong all the time. It's a game of probability, not a game of certainty.
There are also ebbs and flows within a fantasy football season. Players we thought would be studs end up getting hurt, some of them underperform, and -- just as importantly -- guys you can usually trust in your lineup are going to face tough competition sometimes.
Matchups matter. They may not be the biggest factor to fantasy football performance -- we know volume is king within the game -- but they matter. Slotting the right players into your lineup based on matchups can be the difference between dancing in your living room on Monday night and having that sinking feeling in your stomach on Tuesday morning.
And that's what this column each week is for -- it's to ensure that you're making the right lineup decisions.
It's to ensure that you're dancing.
Start Sam Bradford (vs. New Orleans): Generally, you don't want to look only at fantasy points against for a matchup in order to make a start-sit decision. That's especially true at the beginning of an NFL season -- last year's data doesn't mean a ton.
But the Saints, man. The Saints! Over the last three seasons (excluding the fantasy irrelevant Week 17), only 6.67% of quarterbacks who've faced New Orleans have failed to post 12 standard fantasy points. And the signal-caller going up against the Saints has averaged over 20 standard points.
Bradford was sixth-worst in air yards per attempt last year, but it had a lot to do with the fact that he didn't toss it deep very often. Just 14.13% of his attempts travelled 15 or more yards through the air, which was the third-lowest rate in football among the 33 passers with 200 or more attempts. Bradford, though, ranked sixth in completion percentage on those types of throws -- he actually was hitting them when tossing them. That could be big against a leaky secondary.
The Vikings are also at home (that's a plus) and they're favorites (that's another plus). It all sets up to be a good one for Bradford.
Sit Philip Rivers (at Denver): The Broncos feature two of the best corners in football, and that's enough to back off of any quarterback facing them from a fantasy perspective. Due to the dominance of that secondary, no quarterback has posted more than 23 standard fantasy points against the Broncos over the last two years, and of the 30 quarterbacks who've faced them (again, this excludes Week 17s), passers have averaged 12.30 fantasy points scored. Rivers has faced Denver three times in relevant fantasy contests over the last two years. His output? 12.68, 11.12 and 6.08 fantasy points. No thanks.
Start Carson Palmer (at Detroit): The only downside to Palmer this week is that the Cardinals are playing a one o'clock game in Detroit, so they fit the whole "west coast team traveling to the east for an early game" narrative.
Aside from that, you've got to love Palmer. Arizona is a road favorite, and they've got a top-10 implied team total on the week. The Lions are also pretty beatable, having finished last season with the second-worst schedule-adjusted secondary according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Particularly in the slot, where the Cardinals will draw a sweet matchup between wideout Larry Fitzgerald and corner Quandre Diggs. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), no slot cornerback posted a worse passer rating against in that area of the field last year (124.2). That matchup alone could make Palmer a reliable option.
Sit Andy Dalton (vs. Baltimore): A big question mark for the Bengals heading into the season is how their offensive line will hold up. After losing a pair of starters over the offseason, they've got a ton of questionable talent lined up in front of Andy Dalton. Baltimore, Dalton's Week 1 opponent, was one of the worst teams in quarterback hurries last year, so the lack of offensive line ability may be a moot point in this one. But the Ravens have enough talent in the secondary with Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Tony Jefferson, and Eric Weddle to be a scary matchup. If Dalton and A.J. Green -- who's had success against Smith in the past -- don't get things going, it could be a long day for Dalton.
Start Jonathan Stewart (at San Francisco): Christian McCaffrey will obviously be in your lineup if you drafted him, but this is a week where J-Stew's in a good spot, too. The 49ers have (arguably) one of the worst front sevens in the league, and as 5.5-point road favorites, Carolina should see a positive game script. The Panthers have been five-point favorites or better in 5 of J-Stew's 24 fantasy relevant matchups over the last two years. In those games, he's ranked in the top-14 in weekly scoring (PPR) four times. Yes, he's got a split backfield now, but if Carolina grinds clock with their veteran, he could have a big day, especially as a bench fill-in for someone like Jay Ajayi.
Sit Joe Mixon (vs. Baltimore): Like I said at the top, volume is king in fantasy football. Without it, fantasy points won't be scored. With Mixon currently sitting third on the Bengals' depth chart, and with Jeremy Hill likely to take -- at the very least -- goal-line looks away from him, I have no idea how you can feel confident trotting out Mixon here in Week 1. And it certainly doesn't help that Baltimore had the second-best rush defense in football last year according to our schedule-adjusted numbers.
Start Danny Woodhead (at Cincinnati): With Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones sidelined with suspensions, the Bengals' defense doesn't look nearly as scary as it could -- the Burfict suspension could especially open things up for Woodhead out of the backfield. Cincinnati allowed the fifth-most receptions to running backs last year, and the Ravens have targeted the running back position over the last two seasons more than any other team not named the Saints. Woodhead returned to practice on Saturday after nursing a hammy injury, so it looks like he'll play. And if he does, he's got a good chance at a high floor in PPR formats.
Sit Frank Gore (at Los Angeles): In July, Gore was in a fine spot from a fantasy perspective. We knew he had a nice floor, as he's carried the ball more than any other running back over the last two years. And in 2016, only seven running backs had more top-24 PPR performances.
But you can't feel good about him in Week 1. The Colts are 3.5-point underdogs against the Rams, Scott Tolzien will be under center for Indianapolis, and center Ryan Kelly is likely out. There more than likely won't be many scoring opportunities for Gore, and assuming the Colts' line will get push is optimistic, too. Stay away this week if you can.
Start Rex Burkhead (vs. Kansas City): Starting Burkhead on Thursday night is certainly risky -- we don't have much of an idea as to how the New England backfield will be split. What we do know, though, is that Mike Gillislee missed important time during camp to get acclimated, and coach Bill Belichick already referenced that he "still has some ground to make up."
Aside from Gillislee, the player who profiles best as a lead, early-down back in the Pats' backfield is Burkhead. James White is a pass-catching specialist, and Dion Lewis hasn't proven he can stay healthy with a large workload. So given Gillislee's missed time and the probable positive script New England is about to see against Kansas City as nine-point favorites, Burkhead makes for an intriguing upside play in Week 1. Of course, his range of outcomes is massive, so don't go into the game feeling like he's a lock.
Start Larry Fitzgerald (at Detroit): As I mentioned above, Larry Fitzgerald will draw a lot of Quandre Diggs in this week's matchup. Fitz ran over 63% of his routes from the slot a season ago, which means a high proportion of his routes will happen with Diggs covering him. And Diggs allowed a ridiculous 91.11% catch rate in the slot last year, per PFF. Darius Slay is a much tougher matchup when Fitzgerald is on the outside, but it would make sense for the Cardinals to try to exploit this matchup against Diggs. Fitzgerald is a strong play this week.
Sit Tyrell Williams (at Denver): Tyrell Williams against every non-Broncos team last year: 15.13 PPR points per game. Tyrell Williams against the Broncos last year: 3.60 PPR points per game.
That's what happens when you have to go up against the Denver secondary.
As is the case most of the time with Denver, we should expect the Chargers to funnel their passing game to their capable tight ends. Some teams don't have the luxury of having two able bodies to create those mismatches, but the Chargers do. And, in turn, not only will Williams have a tough matchup, but he'll probably see little volume as well.
Start Jeremy Maclin (at Cincinnati): Maclin spent a good amount of time in the slot last season, running nearly half of his routes from that location on the field. He'll play that role for Baltimore this year in three wide receiver sets, and he'll more than likely get a lot of run on the outside as well with the inexperienced Breshad Perriman there. With no Adam Jones -- again, he's serving a suspension -- Maclin may catch a lot of Darqueze Dennard, which is a plus matchup.
Sit Emmanuel Sanders (vs. Los Angeles): As good as the Broncos' secondary is, we can't forget about Los Angeles. (The Chargers, of course.) They had the 10th-best schedule-adjust secondary according to our numbers last year, and that was without stud cornerback Jason Verrett for 12 games. Casey Hayward really stepped up for the secondary in 2016, but with Verett back, they now combine to form one of the best 1-2 punches in football. Though volume should be there for Sanders -- Trevor Siemian doesn't have many options outside of his top-two wideouts -- the matchup is worrisome enough to stay away in shallower leagues.
Start Sammy Watkins (vs. Indianapolis): No, I'm not the biggest Watkins fan from a fantasy perspective this season. He's been one of the best deep ball receivers in football over the last two years, with his 2015 and 2016 seasons ranking in the top-five in air yards per catch during this time. Quarterback Jared Goff, meanwhile, was dead last in air yards per attempt last season.
With that being said, Sammy's matchup against a Vontae Davis-less Colts secondary is awesome this week. As our own Jim Sannes noted, in the four games where Davis played fewer than 50% of the team's snaps last year, Indy allowed a 9.79 adjusted yards per attempt and a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In the other 12 contests, the adjusted net yards per attempt was 7.32, and the ratio fell to 18-to-7.
If the Rams' passing attack doesn't show something this week, then we all should be concerned about it this season.
Other wide receivers to start: Stefon Diggs (vs. New Orleans), Kelvin Benjamin (at San Francisco), Paul Richardson (deeper leagues, at Green Bay)
Other wide receivers to sit: Marvin Jones (vs. Arizona), Kevin White (vs. Atlanta)
Start Delanie Walker (vs. Oakland): With their new weapons, there's a very real chance that no player on Tennessee hits 100 targets this season, so the typically-reliable Walker may struggle from a consistency standpoint in 2017. I'd be surprised if he didn't put together a nice performance in Week 1, though. Oakland has issues and inexperience at inside linebacker, and Walker, who'll roam that part of the field, can certainly exploit that. The Titans also have the sixth-highest implied team total of the week, so points will be scored. It wouldn't shock me if Walker finds his way into the end zone this week.
Sit Jack Doyle (at Los Angeles): In 2014 and 2016, with a healthy Andrew Luck, the Colts ranked at least fifth in tight end receptions, at least third in tight end yards, and at least second in tight end touchdowns. Minus Luck for part of the 2015 season, Colts tight ends were 15th in receptions, 26th in yards, and 21st in touchdowns. Coincidence? Of course not. A fully-loaded Andrew Luck does wonders for his pass-catchers, and without him, you can't trust most of them.
Start Coby Fleener (at Minnesota): In the one game that Willie Snead missed last year against the Falcons, Coby Fleener tallied 7 catches on 11 targets (20.37% market share) for 109 yards and a touchdown while playing 77% of the Saints' snaps. It was the third-best fantasy performance of his career.
It's a small sample size and may seem skewed (you're not totally wrong), but it's also logical -- Fleener is the one dude on this team who can truly fill the role as a slot receiver. The matchup isn't a great one against Minnesota this week, but Fleener may see enough volume to combat that with Snead not playing due to his three-game suspension. If you're in a pinch, he's a very serviceable option.
Start the Los Angeles Rams (vs. Indianapolis): Hey, let's pick on Scott Tolzien some more! The Colts have the third-lowest implied team total of the week, they're on the road, and Tolzien has just three career NFL starts. In his lone start last season against Pittsburgh, he threw two picks and was sacked three times. The Rams are low-owned across leagues, so if you need a streaming option, this is it.
Sit the Minnesota Vikings (vs. New Orleans): There are folks out there who think Drew Brees isn't just worse on the road but that he's bad on the road. That simply isn't true -- over the last three years, he still has an above-average 7.38 yards per attempt average, which is barely worse than what we've seen from Tom Brady (7.56). Let's relax on the narrative a bit, OK?
Minnesota should be fine defensively this year, but in a game with a relatively high over-under against Drew Brees -- despite being at home -- they're a risky start this week. And why start them with so many backup and bad quarterbacks getting starts across the league this week?
Other defenses to start: Pittsburgh Steelers (at Cleveland), Buffalo Bills (vs. New York), Jacksonville Jaguars (at Houston)
Other defenses to sit: Seattle Seahawks (at Green Bay), New York Giants (at Dallas)