Fantasy Football: 5 Bold Predictions for Week 1
The 2019 NFL season is upon us, and I could not possibly be more excited.
For several sweltering months we've watched the clock slowly tick on, ever closer to this moment. We've sustained ourselves on practice reports from training camp and gifs of favorite prospects and players, but the wait is finally over.
If there's one thing you can count on the offseason for, it's raised expectations heading into Week 1. Every team's fans expect them to coast to the playoffs, and every fantasy manager thinks their squad is taking the title. So in celebration of these elevated expectations, let's look at some bold predictions for Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season.
Kyler Murray Will be the QB1 in Week 1
One of my favorite storylines to follow this offseason was Kyler Murray's incredible rise from Baker Mayfield's backup and future Oakland Athletic to first overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. He absolutely earned the right to be the first overall pick, too. He posted passing stats nearly identical to Mayfield's from the previous season while tacking on an additional 1,001 rushing yards and another 12 rushing touchdowns.
It's that rushing production that excites me most for fantasy football this year, and that inspired my first bold prediction of the 2019 season: Kyler Murray will finish as the QB1 in fantasy this week.
If you've kept up with numberFire this offseason, you've probably read at least one article or heard at least one podcast talking about the importance of rushing production for quarterbacks in fantasy football. Murray is going to provide that production in droves this season. And while we don't have any athletic testing numbers for the young quarterback, we do have this video of him running neck and neck with Andy Isabella -- who blazed a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the combine -- taken this June. Murray has the kind of elite speed to take a ball to the house on any broken play.
His potential for rushing upside is tantalizing, but his coupling with new Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury might be a match made in fantasy heaven. Kingsbury was one of the most high-volume play-callers in college football over the past several seasons, and he's bringing that aggressive approach to the NFL this season. Larry Fitzgerald expressed excitement and shock at how fast Kingsbury's new offense looked -- and Fitz has seen his fare share of offenses during his 15 seasons in the NFL.
That play-calling volume gives Murray another avenue to achieve a high-end fantasy performance each week. Even if Murray gets bottled up on the ground, he should still have more passing attempts per game than most other quarterbacks. Last year, the three quarterbacks who led the league in pass attempts -- Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and Matt Ryan -- all finished in the top four in fantasy points scored.
Fantasy production is entwined with a player's opportunities to produce on the football field, and Murray is going to be given as many opportunities to produce as he can handle.
David Montgomery Will Finish as a Top-12 Running Back
The first game of the 2019 season is Thursday night, so of course we have a bold prediction prepared for the game!
David Montgomery is a beast. If you're looking for a deeper dive on Montgomery as a player, I wrote about him here immediately after the Chicago Bears traded up to draft him in the third this year. But if you just want a quick summary, here you go: he's a tackle-breaking machine who produced like a stud in college and catches passes.
Frankly, I'm not too worried about Mike Davis stealing carries away from him, and the Bears' coaches have openly stated that they gave too much work to Tarik Cohen -- who led all running backs in total fumbles last year. Montgomery has three-down potential and plenty of upside for fantasy.
Independent of the Bears' running back depth chart or Montgomery's skill, the Bears are in a perfect situation to put a running back near the top of the Week 1 leaderboards. In his timeless piece "How to Pick a Running Back," Chris Raybon noted that the most favorable situation for running backs is when they're home favorites. The Bears just so happen to be taking on the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field this Thursday, and they are three-point favorites.
Montgomery figures to be the lead back in an extremely favorable situation this week. It doesn't hurt that he has a potential three-down skillset and is squaring off against what was a pretty average run defense last year. Don't be surprised when he finishes Week 1 as an RB1.
The 49ers vs. Buccaneers Game Will Have the Highest Week 1 Points Total
This Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers will take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that currently has an over/under of 49.5. Two of last year's worst teams are going to duke it out in Week 1, and I can't wait to watch.
That's partially because of what's changed -- and what hasn't changed -- with these teams since we last saw them.
The Bucs added offensive guru Bruce Arians as their head coach. Arians' play-calling places an emphasis on downfield passing. In his last three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, his squad ranked 5th, 3rd and 19th in total pass attempts, and in that season they ranked 19th, they finished with the second-most passing yards in the league despite losing their quarterback towards the end of the year. Hopefully, Arians is able to reign in Jameis Winston's tendency to make mistakes while emphasizing his aggressive passing style.
And the 49ers will be welcoming their starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo back into the starting lineup for the first time since Week 3 of the 2018 season. Garoppolo's return should be a boon for the entire offense. Despite Nick Mullens' relative "success" piloting Kyle Shanahan's offense, there should be little doubt that Garoppolo's return is anything but great for the team as a whole.
What hasn't changed since last year is that neither of these teams have particularly impressive defenses. They ranked second and fifth in total points against last year -- surrendering a combined 899 points to opposing teams -- and we shouldn't expect them to have taken substantial leaps during this offseason.
That means Jameis Winston should be able to do what he does best -- that is, chuck the ball down the field against a defense that somehow only created seven turnovers in 2018. And Jimmy Garoppolo should be able to slice and dice a porous Bucs secondary that generously allowed opposing passers to throw for over 4,000 yards on them.
So what happens when you pit two high-flying offenses against each other's struggling defenses? You get an absolute shootout. The 49ers and Buccaneers game is going to look more like a home run derby than an NFL game and will have the highest total points of any game in Week 1.
JuJu Smith-Schuster Will Have a Better Game Against the Pats Than Antonio Brown Ever Did
This offseason was packed with drama, and a significant portion of that drama stemmed from new Oakland Raider Antonio Brown. But let's ignore the downright bizarre events of the past few months and focus on something that happened a little earlier in the offseason -- and even during the 2018 season.
We may never know for certain what drove Brown to force his way out of Pittsburgh, but we do know for certain that he threw some serious shade at JuJu Smith-Schuster before he left town. And this I cannot abide. So in something of a "fantasy revenge fantasy," I'm predicting that JuJu will score more fantasy points against the New England Patriots in Week 1 than Brown ever did.
Brown has faced off against the Pats on seven different occasions including the playoffs. In those outings, his highest single-game fantasy output was 23.8 fantasy points (using FanDuel's scoring system). JuJu is going to top that this Sunday.
Even with Brown on the roster last season, JuJu finished the year with a solid 24% target share on the Steelers offense. The truly elite receivers in the NFL -- like Brown himself, who managed a 26% share last year -- usually top out at a target share around 30%, so JuJu could realistically see a bump of several percentage points this year. Brown's departure opens up 168 targets for the rest of the offense.
Obviously, JuJu won't just absorb all of Brown's target share, and the Steelers offense will suffer somewhat without Brown, but we've already seen JuJu operate as a top fantasy asset whenever Brown has missed time. In the four games Brown missed since JuJu entered the league, Smith-Schuster had at least 100 yards or a score in each of those games -- three of which came during his age-21 rookie season.
For context, JuJu's precocious production is approaching legendary levels already. Only Josh Gordon and Randy Moss produced more receiving yards by age 22 than Smith-Schuster -- and when it comes to fantasy production, those are two names you want to be compared to. Brown was a fantasy monster in Pittsburgh, but his relocation has paved the way for an extreme breakout for JuJu.
Baker Mayfield Is Going to Unleash Odell Beckham Jr.
No one will argue with you if you say Odell Beckham is an elite wide receiver in the NFL. Not even the most die-hard New York Giants fans can refute his on-field production. But this year, we'll get to see how OBJ fares with top-notch quarterback play for the first time in his career.
We don't need to pile it on Eli Manning here. We'll just leave it by saying that just 73.4% of OBJ's targets last season were deemed catchable according to PlayerProfiler.com -- the 72nd-ranked rate among receivers in the league. This year, he'll be drawing targets from a quarterback who completed an impressive 68.44% of his passes -- once the team fired Hue Jackson, that is.
Beckham still managed to produce over 1,000 receiving yards in 2018 despite his situation and despite only playing in 12 games. Imagine what he can do with a quarterback who hits him in stride, or who delivers catchable passes down the field? It's going to be dangerous.
Finally placed in a situation where he can thrive, OBJ is primed for his best season yet. He's going to pop off against the Tennessee Titans and finish as the top overall wideout in Week 1.