Fantasy Football Start or Sit: Week 1
"They talk so much, and they go to the Pro Bowl because they talk. They ain't nothing but paper champions. That's all they are, and that's all they're ever going to be."
On a Monday night in late 2002, the Steelers beat the Buccaneers 17 to 7. Prior to the game even happening, Lee Flowers -- a Steeler defensive back -- made that statement.
So when the Steelers beat the Buccaneers, Flowers kind of looked like a genius. After all, Tampa Bay had the better record and were favorites at home in the game.
But when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl that year? Yeah, Flowers wasn't looking so hot.
Teams can't win a championship on paper, no, but the more talented a squad, the better their chances are at being victorious. If your fantasy football team consists of Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Eddie Lacy and Jamaal Charles, as long as you're not in a three-team league, chances are, you're going to be competing for a league title. If you went out and drafted Brian Hoyer and Greg Little, then you need to find a new hobby.
If you have a studly team, you're off on the right track, but it's not time to dub your squad league champion. Though the Buccaneers looked good on paper that year -- at least defensively -- they still had to go out and perform on the field each week prior to lifting the Lombardi.
In fantasy football, your on-field performance comes in the form of transactions and, of course, lineup decisions. I've got you covered with the transactions part -- each Tuesday, the 15 Transactions column gets published here on numberFire.
And each Thursday, this start-sit article will help you optimize your lineup.
I hope your team is a paper champion. I hope other league owners are jealous of it. But don't think it's over. It's only just beginning.
Quarterbacks to Sit
Cam Newton (at Jacksonville): If you're playing daily fantasy this weekend, Newton is the ultimate contrarian tournament play. But in season-long leagues, he's pretty hard to trust.
Without Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers will be trotting out Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown as starters. Try not to laugh. Devin Funchess would help this cause, but as a raw rookie, he's just not ready to see a full Kelvin Benjamin-like workload.
It just makes sense to avoid Newton, especially in a game that Vegas thinks will be very low scoring (41 total points). There are plenty of other options out there (like Dalton) to fill the gap in Week 1.
Jay Cutler (vs. Green Bay): You may be tempted to throw Cutler in your lineup because the Bears will be playing from behind this week. But the whole "playing from behind" narrative really isn't a thing. Last year, every single quarterback averaged more fantasy points in wins than in losses. And according to Rich Hribar, only a handful averaged more points as underdogs versus when they were favorites.
It's easy to think "garbage time" will boost a quarterback's numbers, but the main reason passers are in garbage time in the first place is because they weren't able to perform at a high level over the first three quarters of the game. So while Green Bay's secondary is projected to be the 15th best one -- average -- this season per our metrics, this matchup isn't all that juicy for Cutler. Add in a low team total projection and an injury to Alshon Jeffery, and you've got even more reason to avoid the king of DGAFing.
Quarterbacks to Start Instead
Carson Palmer (vs. New Orleans): Among quarterbacks with 200 or more attempts last year, Palmer ranked sixth on a per drop back basis according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Half of his contests played in 2014 resulted in a top-six fantasy performance, while five of the six games saw him end as a top-16 option. In other words, Carson Palmer balled out before he went down with a season-ending ACL tear.
Week 1 should get things back on track for the now-healthy Palmer. The Cardinals are favorites against the Saints in Arizona, and New Orleans will be without cornerback Keenan Lewis. Jairus Byrd's status is still up in the air, too, meaning the Saints' secondary could look a lot like Kanye West's rant sounded at this year's VMAs: disoriented and all over the place.
Despite Michael Floyd's health, Palmer has plenty of weapons to crush this Saints' defense. It shouldn't surprise anyone if he puts up top five or six numbers this week.
Andy Dalton (at Oakland): Using Dalton will feel uncomfortable, I totally get it. But there's reason to believe that he'll be one of the best -- if not the best -- streaming options at quarterback in Week 1.
The Bengals are favorites in Oakland, which is a plus. Oakland's defense -- at least the secondary -- isn't very strong, either. Their top corner is TJ Carrie, a seventh-round draft selection in 2014. A.J. Green is guhn eat.
Perhaps most important is Dalton's splits in favorable matchups. Over the last two years, Dalton's averaged roughly 10 more fantasy points per game against bottom half secondaries than top half ones. Moreover, in the eight games where he's been a favorite and faced a bottom-half secondary, he's averaged over 25 fantasy points per contest.
He shreds bad competition. And he seems to crush teams who haven't seen him recently, as shown by Bengals' analyst Joe Goodberry. According to Joe's data, Dalton's quarterback rating is an impressive 104.6 against uncommon opponents, or teams who haven't faced him over a two-year span. Versus common opponents? 70.1.
Oakland is an uncommon opponent.
Sam Bradford (at Atlanta): There's reason to believe that Sam Bradford -- yes, the player who rarely succeeded in a Rams uniform over the last five years -- could be a top-five fantasy option here in Week 1. Not only has he looked great in the preseason, but the Eagles have the highest team total, per Vegas, of any team not named the Patriots. The Falcons secondary, too, has been among the worst in the NFL over the last few years -- this season, our metrics have them 28th.
Let's not forget what Chip Kelly's offense can do to the quarterback position. After failing in New York, Mark Sanchez finished as the 12th most efficient quarterback in the entire NFL last year according to NEP. And Sanchez and Nick Foles -- two passers with a worse body of work compared to Bradford -- combined for low-end QB1 numbers in fantasy a season ago.
Things are setting up well for Bradford this season, and this is especially true in Week 1. Let's just hope he can stay healthy.
Running Backs to Sit
Melvin Gordon (vs. Detroit): San Diego's first-round rookie finished the preseason with a 2.2 yards per carry average, and now we're expected to see a running back-by-committee system on the Chargers with Gordon, Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver. The Lions may not stop the run like they have over the last two seasons (one of the top units in the league according to our numbers) thanks to a revamped defensive line, but there are still strong pieces there to be a good run-stuffing unit.
Gordon isn't even guaranteed red zone work right now, let alone passing down plays -- those belong to Woodhead. Because the Lions could keep the Chargers honest on the ground, I'd expect this to be a game more for Woodhead -- especially if he sees more volume with Antonio Gates out -- than for Gordon. Before you plug Gordon into your lineup, make sure he has the volume, let alone the efficiency, to be a relevant fantasy back.
Tevin Coleman (vs. Philadelphia): Look, guys, I'm on #TeamTevin. I even wrote about it earlier this summer. But my fear with him in Week 1 is similar to the hesitation I have with Gordon: how exactly is he going to be used?
Moreover, is this Atlanta offensive line going to get enough push against one of the better run stopping groups in the NFL? Remember, the Eagles are good defensively, too, especially against the run, where we have them listed third in the NFL entering the season.
Although there will be a ton of points scored in this game, the question marks surrounding his use, the poor offensive line and the not-so-great matchup makes Coleman a sit this week. If he shows up, you can plug him in next week against the Giants.
Alfred Blue (vs. Kansas City): It's true that Kansas City couldn't stop the run last year, ranking in the bottom 10 in schedule-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. But it's also true that Alfred Blue was even worse at running the football. Of the 32 running backs with 150 or more carries last year, Blue ranked 29th in Rushing NEP per rush. And only Andre Ellington had a worse Success Rate among this group, or the percentage of rushes that contribute positively towards a player's NEP.
There's also the idea that we don't really know how he'll be used. If we're guaranteed volume, he's not a terrible play. But we're not. I'd stay away and go with a running back with a more obvious role, if I've got one.
Running Backs to Start Instead
Doug Martin (vs. Tennessee): Is this happening? Is this really happening? Are we about to play Doug Martin confidently again in fantasy football?
Maybe not confidently, but Martin presents a lot of upside this week against Tennessee. The Titans, after all, are projected to have the 29th best rush defense this year according to our metrics. They're not good at stopping anything. And Martin was strong in the preseason, showing the burst he had during his rookie campaign.
The biggest problem with Martin is mostly the offensive line. That, and the Bucs will have rookie Jameis Winston under center potentially without stud Mike Evans, putting a little more focus on the running game. But if there's a team to gash, it's the Titans.
Ryan Mathews (at Atlanta): There's a bit of ambiguity in the Eagles' backfield. We know who's going to carry the ball, we just don't know how often each back will.
Throughout the offseason, we heard reports that Mathews will play a larger role in the Eagles' offense than most realize -- DeMarco Murray is coming off a season where he touched the ball over 400 times, so running him into the ground doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Opportunity means fantasy points. And fantasy points should be scored against a Falcons' defense that allowed 10 RB1 (top 12) performances in 15 fantasy relevant contests last year. Yes, the Atlanta secondary is bad, as shown with the love for Bradford above, but there's an argument to be made that their rush defense is even worse. Mathews makes for a great flex play this week.
Benny Cunningham (vs. Seattle): You're digging deeper for this one, but there are a couple of things to like. First, Cunningham may end up getting the start depending on Tre Mason's health. If he does, he should immediately be on your radar. And even though he's facing a Seattle defense that's been the best in the league over the last couple of seasons, that same defense allowed the seventh-most running back receptions (90) in the NFL last year.
Catching the ball is Cunningham's specialty. He served as the Rams' passing-down back last year, and actually finished eighth in receptions at the running back position across the entire NFL. Though this game shouldn't be high scoring, a negative game script for the Rams -- they're four point underdogs -- could force more throws than usual. That volume is good news for Cunningham, who could be a nice value in PPR leagues this week.
Wide Receivers to Sit
Sammy Watkins (vs. Indianapolis): Watkins is talented, sure, but he's also in an undesirable situation if we're looking at things from a fantasy perspective. The Bills are going to run the ball -- a lot -- this season, and their Week 1 matchup dictates perhaps an even more run-heavy approach.
The Colts' secondary is better than their front seven thanks to Vontae Davis' presence at cornerback. If he shadows Watkins, then the Bills' top wideout is in trouble. And I haven't even talked about Tyrod Taylor, who'll be under center for the Bills. You know, the sixth-round draft pick in 2011 who's thrown the ball 35 times in his NFL career.
Even if Davis isn't in Watkins' grill all game long, the quarterback situation in Buffalo makes Watkins a very average play.
Torrey Smith (vs. Minnesota): Mike Zimmer is a pass defense specialist, as he coached the Bengals to having one of the best groups in the league before taking the head coaching gig in Minnesota. The Vikings are now turning things around, and have a middle-of-the-road pass defense ranking entering 2015 according to our metrics.
That ranking could easily rise as the season goes on, and it may start Week 1 against the 49ers. Vegas has this game pegged with a 41.5 point over/under, with San Francisco scoring just 19.5 points. Given Colin Kaepernick's struggles to go along with this, Smith doesn't seem like an ideal option in Week 1.
Wide Receivers to Start Instead
Eddie Royal (vs. Green Bay): I may not be into Cutler, but one of his wide receivers is in a really interesting position here in Week 1.
Eddie Royal's average draft position shot up as we inched closer to the end of the preseason, and it's because he's going to be taking on a decent role in the Bears' offense. That role may expand even further with Alshon Jeffery nursing a calf injury this week.
Volume at the quarterback position matters a lot less -- it correlates a lot less -- to fantasy output than the skill positions. So while the Bears playing from behind won't help Cutler much, it'll be perfect for a player like Royal, who should then be pelted with targets. The Green Bay pass defense, as mentioned above, is pretty average, so Royal may end putting together a nice line. This is especially true if Alshon doesn't go.
Steve Smith (vs. Denver): Angry, determined Steve Smith will be showing up this season, his last year in the NFL. But that narrative doesn't really matter to me, because it's a narrative. What does interest me is that Smith is the only legitimate pass-catcher with a proven resume in this Ravens' offense, and the team is going to have to throw in a contest that has a 49 point over/under, the fifth highest on the week.
Denver's secondary is a top-10 one according to our metrics, and Chris Harris is one of the toughest corners to beat in the league. Smith could struggle because of that, but the hope here is that volume wins.
John Brown (vs. New Orleans): One of the more popular DFS plays this week will be Brown, who's gone from fantasy sleeper to fantasy starter in what seems like a week.
Brown saw five or more targets in all but one contest last year (excludes Week 17 because it's irrelevant to fantasy football), and now gets a far more efficient quarterback throwing him the ball. He's also no longer a rookie, so his experience should naturally help him be a better pass-catcher.
And, as I mentioned above, the Saints' secondary is hurting. Without Lewis and Byrd, the Cardinals shouldn't have much trouble throwing the ball around on them.
With Michael Floyd potentially out, Brown could see even more volume than usual. Given the matchup, he should shine.
Tight Ends to Sit
Zach Ertz (at Atlanta): Why do people love Ertz so much? It ertz me to say this (I need to log off now), but he's just not a great fantasy asset given his role in the Eagles' offense.
Last year, Ertz finished with six top-12 PPR performances, which is nothing better than low-end TE1 or high-end TE2 production. Now he's got a groin injury and will continue to split time with Brent Celek, making his production very sporadic and unpredictable. I'm staying away in Week 1, especially because he could be a game-time decision on Monday night. By that time, you'll be out of tight end options.
Coby Fleener (at Buffalo): Dwayne Allen, thanks to his red zone abilities, was the superior Colts tight end last year when he was healthy for Indianapolis. Fleener ended with two first-ranked tight end performances in PPR leagues last year, and both of those games came when Allen was sidelined. Those two games totaled over 28 percent of Fleener's season-long total, which helped him become the seventh-best tight end in fantasy last year.
Fleener was still usable enough with Allen in the lineup, but he didn't have the same type of ceiling, finishing as a top-12 tight end just two other times all season long. Given this, a matchup against a good Bills' defense, and more weapons in Indianapolis that could shrink his target share, I'm not huge into Fleener in Week 1.
Other tight ends to sit: Kyle Rudolph
Tight Ends to Start Instead
For whatever reason -- actually, the reason is health -- Jordan Reed is being overlooked. The Redskins lost Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen already this year, leaving Reed as the sole tight end in the offense. Last season, Washington ranked fourth in the NFL in tight end receptions.
There's a ton of opportunity for Reed.
And for what it's worth, during the two games Reed played with Kirk Cousins under center, he caught a total of 13 passes. So even though this Week 1 matchup doesn't scream "potential", the upside with Reed lies in opportunity. He could have a lot of it, which is something you can't say about the majority of NFL tight ends.
Crockett Gillmore (at Denver): I mentioned this with Steve Smith above, but the Ravens just don't have pass-catchers. But, at the same time, game script may dictate a lot of passes in Denver on Sunday. Could starting tight end Crockett Gillmore take advantage? Potentially, as the Broncos ranked as the seventh and eighth worst defense against fantasy tight ends over the last two years, respectively. There may not be a more under-the-radar tight end play this week than Gillmore.
Defenses to Sit
Buffalo Bills (vs. Indianapolis): A ton of people took the Bills early in fantasy drafts -- according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, they had a 10th-round average draft position.
This is why you don't draft defenses early. They're playing Andrew Luck and the Colts in Week 1, and while Luck sometimes has a tendency to turn the ball over, being underdogs at home with a 46.5 point over/under isn't exactly enticing. Don't play the Bills' defense, and stop drafting them before the end of your fantasy football drafts.
Other defenses to sit: Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens
Defenses to Start Instead
New York Jets (vs. Cleveland): I could probably just say "Josh McCown" and that'd be enough for you to start the Jets' defense this week, but there are even more reasons than just their opposition's quarterback. The Jets are favorites, are playing at home, and the game has the lowest over/under on the week. They've improved their defense with this guy named Darrelle Revis, too. And did I mention their facing Josh McCown? They're facing Josh McCown.
Other defenses to start: Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins