3 NFL Storylines to Watch in Week 1
The start of the NFL season is finally here! And while the number of storylines is seemingly endless, we're going to focus in on some of the very best from the perspective of both viewers and fantasy owners in this space each week.
Just keep in mind that the NFL is about the long term. Week 1 results are important in projecting what we could see going forward, but early-season outcomes should not always diminish the validity our offseason projections.
Having said that, let's check out some of the stories to watch as the NFL season kicks off.
Mariota vs Carr: A Showdown of Buzzworthy AFC Teams
The Tennessee Titans host the Oakland Raiders at 1:00 PM ET. In this contest, we have a pair teams who some expect to win their respective divisions. For both squads, this is an ideal matchup in which to succeed right out of the box.
As of this writing, this tilt and another between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers are the only ones projected to have an over/under that exceeds 50 points. A big factor that has Tennessee and Oakland here is likely the fact that they're both projected to have lackluster defensive units, who finished 20th and 26th, respectiely, in yards allowed per game last season.
Many of those points figure to be scored by the young franchise quarterbacks who share several positive similarities.
Oakland's Derek Carr and Tennessee's Marcus Mariota were similarly valued as strong second-tier options at their position by fantasy football owners on draft day. On Fantasy Football Calculator, Carr's average draft position (ADP) was 6.07, while Mariota's was 6.11.
Both were accurate throwing the ball downfield, each ranking inside the top 10 with regard to deep-ball completion percentage on PlayerProfiler. And each quarterback will be playing behind an offensive line that ranked among the top-10 units heading into 2017 by ProFootballFocus.
Thankfully, Carr and Mariotta are fully recovered from the another negative they share: Broken fibulas, suffered just hours apart in Week 16 of last season.
This has all the makings of a high-scoring affair, so fantasy-wise, consider this contest a start-'em-if-ya-got-'em event. Play your Titans. Play your Raiders. Heck, go ahead and stream their kickers. These games could also be DFS gold. On FanDuel, Mariota ($7,800) and Carr ($7,700) are among the most intriguing mid-priced options at quarterback.
At wide receiver, Oakland's Amari Cooper ($7,600) has the big-game explosiveness for tournament lineups. Teammate Michael Crabtree ($6,900) offers the price savings, consistency, and touchdown upside for cash games. On the other side, Eric Decker ($6,500) is even cheaper and always has touchdown potential thanks to his red zone prowess. Meanwhile, Tennessee's incumbent leading receiver, Rishard Matthews ($6,100), has been all but forgotten despite an extremely efficient 2016.
Will Cam Newton Become Superman Again?
Back in 2015 -- a mere two seasons ago -- the Carolina Panthers were one of only two NFL teams to average more than 30 points per game (31.3). Last year, only the Atlanta Falcons (33.8) exceeded that mark. As for Carolina, they scored 130 fewer points and finished near the middle of the pack at 23.1.
You wouldn't have seen any of that coming had you only watched the performance Cam Newton and the Panthers put on against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2 of last year. In what would prove to be easily his best game of the season, Newton completed 24 of 40 passes for 353 yards and 4 touchdowns in a 46-27 Panthers beatdown.
That contest also saw Kelvin Benjamin go off for 7 receptions, 108 yards, and 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Greg Olsen caught 5 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. Even Fozzy Whittaker got into the mix, rushing for 100 yards on 16 carries.
Unfortunately, the magic wouldn't last. Newton suffered a concussion in Week 4 against Atlanta and missed the following contest. During the tribulations of the season, Newton would struggle mightily in many aspects of his game. As a rusher, he ran 30 fewer times when compared to his full season career average from 2011-15 and was less effective, posting a career-low 4.0 yards per carry.
As a passer, his abyssal 52.9 completion percentage was 6.7 percentage points below his career average coming into last season. And after leading the league with a sensational touchdown rate of 7.1 percent in 2015, Newton's touchdown rate plummeted to just 3.7 percent.
A dramatic swing in Net Expected Points (NEP) is another way to get a quick look at the sharp drop in Newton's bottom line. NEP reflects the number of points a player contributes -- either positively or negatively -- to his team versus what is expected against the league average. That is determined by looking at historical results in similar game situations (down, distance, line of scrimmage). You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
During his stellar 2015 season, Newton's 99.69 Passing NEP ranked inside the top 10 among quarterbacks. Last year, that number was an absolutely dreadful -3.44.
Heading west to face the 49ers, Carolina (-5) is one of three road teams that are favored by more than two points this Sunday. It's also something of a homecoming for Christian McCaffrey, the Stanford product whom the Panthers selected with the eighth pick in the NFL Draft last spring.
How Newton and McCaffrey will mesh has been a topic of discussion this offseason. In just the last several days, we've seen reports that McCaffrey has his own specialized portion of the playbook. And if Kyle Shanahan's offense works anywhere near as well as it did in the preseason, the Panthers may need to deploy a number of those McCaffrey plays to stay ahead of the rookie's former babysitter.
During the offseason, Newton underwent rotator cuff surgery on his throwing shoulder, which could certainly explain some of his struggles from a year ago. For the 2015 MVP, a date with the Niners is one of the softer landing spots to prove both his health and his ability to succeed in a revamped offense. After all, San Francisco was one of the league's 10 worst defenses in 2016, per our metrics.
Since Cam Newton entered the league in 2011, no team has targeted their running backs less frequently than the Carolina Panthers. pic.twitter.com/RT9HjQY9Md
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) May 1, 2017
Even though Newton has never been one to pepper a running back with targets, the previous talent pool in the Carolina backfield has never lent itself toward that style of play until McCaffrey's arrival.
Ty Montgomery: Every-Down Workhorse?
Last year, the Seahawks placed seventh in rushing yards allowed, with their 3.4 yards per carry being the best figure in the league. And their rush defense was one of the best in football, per our metrics.
So, they were pretty good.
When Green Bay hosted Seattle last year in Week 14, Ty Montgomery ran just 9 times for 41 yards and scored a touchdown while playing 51 percent of the snaps. As a receiver, he caught 3 of his 4 targets for another 45 yards.
If Montgomery was only mildly successful against Seattle last year and the matchup now looks even scarier with Sheldon Richardson added to an already stout defensive line, is this really a storyline to monitor?
During the offseason, the Packers purged their stable of running backs and replaced them with middle-round picks during the NFL Draft, most notably Jamaal Williams in the fourth round and Aaron Jones in the fifth.
With only a pair of unheralded rookies behind him, there should not be any realistic threat to Montgomery's opportunity share in any phase of the game. But for both season-long fantasy owners and DFS players, it will be useful to see how these snaps and touches are divided.
Last season, after Montgomey was converted midseason from a wide receiver to a running back, he saw double-digit carries in only one regular season game. However, Montgomery also ran the ball 11 times in Green Bay's first two postseason contests.
Ty Montgomery's PPR Points when he played 50+ percent of snaps last year: 20.4, 22.6, 7.6, 17.6, 30.3, and 8.0. https://t.co/F0OzfOZNin
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) September 4, 2017
When Montgomery played the majority of the snaps, he was extremely productive. The fact that he hired a private coach to hone his already impressive agility and evasion skills makes him all the more intriguing.
While the matchup is an intimidating one for the Packers, we really just want to see a high level of involvement from Montgomery. If he's on the field often and sees double-digit touches -- but struggles against one of the league's best defenses -- take advantage of the buy-low opportunity on one of the buzziest players coming into the 2017 season.