We've waited tirelessly for the start of the NFL season, and it's finally here. Week 1 offers some great matchups, superstars slated to go head-to-head on Thursday Night Football and rookies playing in their first NFL games with zero preseason game experience. The 2020 season is going to be like no other.
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In this weekly preview of the NFL slate, I'll take a deep dive into every Week 1 game looking for DFS picks, sleepers, busts, deep-league plays and waiver wire moves, with consideration for injuries and other fantasy-relevant news and notes. Consider it a weekly peek behind the curtain of my weekly fantasy rankings.
The 2020 NFL season kicks off with the reigning Super Bowl champions hosting a team that held a huge lead against them just last January. The Houston Texans were up 24-0 in the Divisional Round and ran into a buzz saw named Patrick Mahomes, ultimately losing the game to the Kansas City Chiefs by a score of 51-31.
Including last season’s playoff onslaught, Mahomes’ last two games against the Texans have gone quite well — he's averaged four passing touchdowns and just under 300 passing yards per game and has been sacked just one time.
Mahomes' fantasy points per game (29.5) falls just short of Deshaun Watson’s tally in his last two games against the Chiefs (30.3), which is why I have Watson ranked as my No. 1 quarterback in Week 1. Watson has relied on his legs heavily against K.C. in the past, averaging 1.5 rushing touchdowns and just under 40 rushing yards.
I also expect Will Fuller to be heavily involved whether or not Brandin Cooks gets over his quad injury. He's averaged 8.5 targets in his last two games against the Chiefs and his fantasy production fell below expectation.
A name to not overlook is Kenny Stills, especially in DFS. Stills owns the highest wide receiver rating among any of the wide receivers Watson has had in his career (126.4). Stills could easily progress from last year in his second season with the team — remember that he was traded last year right before the season started.
Both Texans running backs should get some nice run as well, with the Chiefs bringing back the worst-graded run defense from last season. It could depend on the game script, but both David Johnson and Duke Johnson Jr. provide some fantasy value in the passing game if the Texans fall behind.
The Chiefs allowed the most targets, most receiving yards and second-most receptions to the running back position in 2019. Duke Johnson was the second-most targeted player (21 targets) for Watson on third down, and his 17 receptions ranked third among running backs.
Jordan Akins is probably my favorite dark-horse candidate to break out all over the place in this game. The Chiefs last season allowed the second-highest target share to opposing No. 1 tight ends. They also allowed the most receptions, targets and third-most receiving yards to the position.
What gets me most amped up about Akins is that he is going to destroy this defense by making plays after the catch. In 2019, Akins ranked second in yards after the catch per reception (8.1), fourth in yards after contact per reception (7.0) and sixth in forced missed tackles on receptions (eight) among all tight ends with at least 25 targets.
The Chiefs allowed the second-most yards after the catch to the tight end position last year.
Speaking of tight ends, Travis Kelce might be the highest-scoring player in this game. In his last two games against Houston, he's owned a massive 27% target share and averaged 25.6 fantasy points per game. He also accumulated the same amount of pass plays over 15 yards (eight) as all the other Chiefs offensive players combined.
The targets are going to be there — the Texans allowed the second-highest target share to opposing No. 1 wide receivers. Kelce isn’t technically a wide receiver, but considering his high-end target share in the offense he more or less is the No. 1 option for Mahomes. I'd actually prefer Kelce over Tyreek Hill in the DraftKings Thursday Night Showdown Contest.
When it comes to the ancillary wide receivers, Mecole Hardman is not worth the dart-throw. You might be tempted to because of his big-play upside, but it's not a good call in this matchup. Hardman’s aDOT (6.6) and yards per reception (10.7) against the Texans was utterly low compared to 9.8 and 21.0 he put up the rest of the season.
On Hardman's eight targets against Houston last season, he accumulated fewer receiving yards (64) than teammate Sammy Watkins (76) despite six more targets. Don’t forget, Hardman’s best finish last season was WR19.
The real sleeper wide receiver is Demarcus Robinson — no player had a lower differential in expected fantasy points than Robinson when these two teams faced off. He scored just 1.4 fantasy points when he should have scored 16.8.
And according to PFF’s WR/CB matchup tool, Lonnie Johnson Jr. would likely be covering Robinson based on where the two line up, and that matchup heavily favors Robinson. Johnson was the lowest-graded cornerback in 2019 (36.8).
Clyde Edwards-Helaire could feast in his rookie debut considering the Texans are without run-stuffer D.J. Reader. The Texans ranked 30th against running backs in terms of fantasy points allowed last season, and pass-catchers did the most damage. They allowed the third-most receptions, second-most receiving yards and most receiving touchdowns (eight).
Fantasy owners might be scared that Darrel Williams will vulture a touchdown from CEH, but his opportunities will be few and far between. The Texans faced the third-fewest plays inside their 5-yard line, and the Chiefs ranked 19th in goal-line plays last year.
One of the best early-slate matchups of Week 1 has the Seattle Seahawks traveling to Atlanta in what looks to be an offensive showdown. This game is the second-highest total on the main slate and will be an attractive game stack for DFS players.
It starts with the two quarterbacks, Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson, who I expect to each finish as top options at the position. The Seahawks graded as the third-worst pass rush unit in 2019 (61.8) — and that was with Jadeveon Clowney on the team.
Ryan is going to have all day to throw from a clean pocket and get the ball to his playmakers, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst, just as backup quarterback Matt Schaub did last season when he threw for 460 yards against the Seahawks.
As I wrote in my Hayden Hurst breakout piece, I expect there to be plenty of man coverage on Hurst with Seattle deploying a base Cover 3 defense, and that matchup definitely favors Hurst. Hurst’s PFF receiving grade vs. man coverage (82.9) ranked fifth among tight ends with at least 10 targets.
Additionally, former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper destroyed Cover 3 last season, ranking fourth in receptions, fourth in yards, fourth in yards after the catch, sixth in yards per route run and earning the third-highest receiving grade (90.7).
You might think the addition of safety Jamal Adams could slow down Hurst — his PFF coverage grade (87.3) ranked seventh-best among safeties — but it will be Adams’ first live-action with this defense, so a blown assignment would not be outrageous to see.
And if you still aren’t convinced Hurst is in a smash spot, just know that Seattle allowed the most yards after the catch to the tight end position in 2019.
Because I expect Atlanta to score points, I do not expect Seattle to impose its will in the run game, so it’s wheels up for all the Seahawks pass-catchers. I have Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf inside my top-15 wide receiver rankings. Lockett posted 100 yards receiving and Metcalf scored two touchdowns the last time these teams met.
Chris Carson still figures to be in the conversation as a high-end RB2 based on his volume and work in the passing game, but tight end Will Dissly is a player that could stand out here. The Falcons allowed the fifth-most passing attempts to tight ends last season inside the 10-yard line, and Dissly has produced when healthy with Wilson at quarterback. Dissly’s passer rating when targeted (152.1) ranks first in the league since 2018 among all players with at least 35 targets.
Two AFC North rivals face off in Baltimore as the Ravens look to rebound after their early playoff exit in 2019.
The Browns were without starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams the first time they faced Baltimore receiver Marquise Brown — Brown was mega-chalk in DFS that week (I would know) and finished the day with four catches for 22 yards. In the second game, Williams and Ward returned and limited Brown to one catch for six yards.
Brown averaged just 3.9 fantasy points against Cleveland, and the expected fantasy points metric didn't paint a much better picture — that registered at just eight fantasy points per game. The Browns were one of the best teams against wide receivers in 2019 (fifth-fewest fantasy points allowed). With both teams looking to run the football, this doesn’t seem like a great spot for Brown.
Shifting gears to the Browns’ offense and quarterback Baker Mayfield, I'm not concerned about starting either of his wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry. Beckham should be able to put up more than his 9.2 fantasy points per game against Baltimore last season now that he's healthy.
Landry was a machine against the Ravens in 2019, averaging over 19 fantasy points per game despite catching zero touchdowns. With those two figuring to combine for a 52% target share of the offense — as they did in last year’s matchups — they will get fed.
Also factor in that with Kevin Stefanski at the helm, we could see much more efficient play action from Mayfield. The Browns’ quarterback was horrible with play action against the Ravens; his yards per attempt was 3.2 yards less than normal throws.
If this gets corrected, Mayfield will look to his top two wide receivers, who both excelled in play action. Both OBJ and Landry ranked top-rive in yards per route run — only A.J. Brown had more receiving yards off play-action passes.
Plenty of news out of the Buffalo Bills’ training camp this summer surrounding wide receiver John Brown and how he was emerging as Allen’s go-to wide receiver. With more attention from defenses and fantasy gamers paying attention to Stefon Diggs, Brown is being overlooked.
His matchup in Week 1 is great against the New York Jets, who will be trotting out one of the league’s worst secondaries — now also without the services of stud safety Jamal Adams. Brown saw a 27% target share when the two teams faced off in Week 1 of the 2019 season and posted a top-10 wide receiver performance.
And though he is not sexy at all, Cole Beasley could be an option in deeper formats or DFS. The Jets allowed the highest target share to opposing teams' No. 3 receivers, and Beasley fits the bill in that aspect. He also saw eight targets when he last played the Jets.
With the Bills’ running backs, I would point blank rather start Zack Moss than Devin Singletary. With more reports surfacing that their usage will be dictated by the game script, Singletary doesn't project to be heavily used in this week's matchup as the Bills are home favorites.
The rookie is the better option considering the Jets allowed the seventh-most carries inside the 10-yard line to running backs in 2019 and Moss looks to have earned a role in that area of the field.
Chris Herndon also needs to be started across lineups because he has a legitimate shot to lead the team in targets in Week 1. With all the injuries at receiver, I would view Herndon as the No. 2 target on the offense. Last season, the Bills allowed the third-highest target share to their opponents' No. 2 receivers.
Jamison Crowder should also be viewed as a low-end WR3 with 25 targets in his last two games versus the Bills.
The Raiders travel across the country to play the Panthers as 3-point road favorites, and deservedly so because the Panthers’ defense is a mess. If you had any doubt about running back Josh Jacobs up to this point, you are going to have to put it to rest because he is going nuclear this week.
Carolina was by far the worst defense against running backs last season and no longer has Luke Kuechly or Gerald McCoy at their disposal. They did address defense in the draft — using all their picks on defensive players — but expecting a bunch of rookies to immediately step in a gel together is nothing but a pipe dream.
Jacobs is going to be able to run all over this defense and is going to see work in the passing game as well. The Panthers allowed the highest target market share to opposing teams' No. 1 running backs last season. And let’s not forget that through the first nine weeks of the season, Jacobs led the team in receiving snaps over Jalen Richard. Richard only started overtaking Jacobs’ work in the passing game when Jacobs was dealing with a shoulder injury.
Jacobs isn’t the only Raider I'm high on, either — rookie wide receiver Henry Ruggs III is on a mission Week 1. Ruggs is simply a big play waiting to happen with his 4.27, 40-yard dash speed. With the inconsistent Donte Jackson and fourth-round rookie cornerback Troy Pride Jr. tasked with trying to stop this rocket from taking a 9-yard slant to the house, well, you can see why I'm excited.
If you missed out on Ruggs in your fantasy draft, it might be worth sending a trade offer before the games kick off on Sunday.
I don’t expect the same type of offensive production from a team standpoint for Carolina, but I don’t expect the Panthers to just lay an egg. They are going to be trailing, which is common for first-time head coaches (usually because the teams were already bad) and that means plenty of receptions for Christian McCaffrey.
I also think it means we could see Teddy Bridgewater knock off the “game manager” profile and key in on Robby Anderson downfield. When Bridgewater was asked to throw deep in 2019, he posted the second-best (57.1%) adjusted completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 14 deep ball attempts.
So with Anderson emerging as the No. 2 wide receiver behind D.J. Moore, I expect him to contribute in this juicy matchup. The Raiders last season allowed the highest percentage of explosive plays (15-plus yards) to the wide receiver position.
We also saw Anderson run circles around the Raiders back in Week 12 when he was still on the Jets, posting 86 receiving yards and touchdown.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford was marked as a sit 'em in my Week 1 fantasy football start 'em or sit 'em article. One of the reasons I'm fading Stafford is the fact that his brilliant opening stretch of 2019 wasn't against any top defenses.
Of the nine teams the Lions played, only two finished 2019 with top-10 coverage grades on defense. With the Chicago Bears offering more of a challenge, I am not so sure we can just automatically assume Stafford will just pick up where he left off.
That doesn’t mean his quarterback play can’t elevate Kenny Golladay. The Lions wide receiver slides in at No. 4 overall for me. The Bears were notoriously roasted by No. 1 wide receivers last season — they allowed the third-highest target share to opposing No. 1s.
Golladay also averaged over 20 fantasy points per game against the Bears last season — that was with the hodgepodge quarterback duo of Jeff Driskel and David Blough. Golladay has scored a touchdown or reached at least 90 receiving yards in his last four games against the Bears.
I think we can all agree Stafford is a massive upgrade over those guys. Even though I'm not recommending starting Stafford this week, he should be able to do enough to enable Golladay.
I can’t believe I'm saying this (or writing this), but Mitchell Trubisky should have a solid fantasy outing this week. Even the worst quarterbacks can put up solid numbers from a clean pocket (most of the time) and with the Lions bringing in PFF’s 29th graded pass-rushing unit from 2019, dare I say it's Trubisky Time?
It can be his time in Week 1 because, again, the matchup is on his side. In Trubisky’s last three starts against Detroit in the Matt Nagy offense, he has averaged three passing touchdowns, 9.5 yards per attempt, 289 passing yards and earned a 90.9 PFF passing grade. That translates to 32.5 fantasy points per game when you also include Trubisky’s rushing statistics.
It could be wide receiver Anthony Miller who sees the biggest boom with a high-end performance from Trubisky. Last season, no team allowed more targets to slot receivers than the Lions.
The Colts are the only road favorite of more than a touchdown in Week 1. This says more about the current state of the tanking Jaguars than it does about the new-look Colts, who seem primed to be all systems go as they unleash a ground assault on Sunday.
I don’t think this game is too difficult to decipher. One team wants to run the football and the other team can’t stop the run. The Jags were already terrible last season, ranking bottom-five in explosive rushing plays allowed (29th), rushing first downs allowed (28th), rushing yards allowed (28th), rushing yards after contact allowed (28th) and rushing yards allowed per attempt (31st).
All they've done this offseason is trade defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell — who was PFF’s second-highest-graded run defender in 2019. Now factor in the one-two punch of running backs Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor and it's shaping up to be a long day for the Jacksonville faithful. Start both of them with confidence.
The one silvering lining for the Jaguars could be garbage time — that’s where D.J. Chark Jr. enters the fold. The road for fantasy points will be wide open with cornerback Xavier Rhodes in coverage, who was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL last season. He earned the fourth-worst PFF coverage grade (46.4), allowed the second-highest catch percentage (84%) and the eighth-most fantasy points per route run.
We all know that Aaron Jones is going to regress at some point, but it is not shaping up to be Week 1. Jones wreaked havoc on the Minnesota Vikings in his two matchups against them in 2019. He averaged 28 fantasy points per game, rushed for 5.8 yards per carry and saw a total of 10 targets.
His success should continue with the Vikings’ defense absent Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen, arguably their two best defenders on the defensive line. Joseph was the team’s highest-graded interior defender (71.2), and Griffen was the team’s second-highest-graded (77.6) edge defender in 2019.
They brought in former Baltimore Ravens interior defender Michael Pierce to serve as Joseph's replacement, but he opted out of the 2020 season. With A.J. Dillon slotted to be the No. 3 running back behind Jones and veteran Jamaal Williams drafters who made second-round investments in Jones are going to be happy with that decision.
With the Vikings’ defense giving up points in this matchup, I do expect them to throw more than most would anticipate. This is great for both Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen, as the team's passing rate was 30% higher when they were trailing by at least a touchdown.
Both players also played well against Green Bay last season when healthy — Cook scored 28.1 fantasy points and Thielen led the team in targets and receptions.
I listed Sony Michel as a start in my Week 1 fantasy football start 'em or sit 'em, and that’s because he has always seen a solid workload against the Miami Dolphins. In his last two games against the Dolphins, Michel has averaged just under 20 carries per game, one rushing touchdown and 79 rushing yards. Michel is entrenched as the goal line back, ranking fifth in carries inside the 5-yard line since 2018.
Those who took the discount on Cam Newton could see a quick payoff. Not only are the Patriots heavy favorites, but mobile quarterbacks wrecked the Dolphins in 2019. Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen and Carson Wentz averaged 27.6 fantasy points against the Dolphins in 2019.
And who cares if N’Keal Harry can’t find separation? All that means is we are more likely to see Newton tuck and run if he can’t find an open receiver.
With the Patriots a touchdown favorite at home, lock Newton into your starting lineup. I'd be more hesitant with Julian Edelman, though. With limited pass volume in a heavy run-game, Edelman’s upside could be limited unless he scores.
I'm benching everyone on the Dolphins not named Preston Williams — he was the most productive Miami receiver the last time he played New England. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is going to be all over DeVante Parker, and tight end Mike Gesicki could theoretically be playing behind Durham Smythe to open the season, per the team’s official depth chart.
Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is known for under-using tight ends, so Gesicki isn't worth the risk in Week 1.
This matchup looked like one the Eagles could run away with, but they've suffered so many injuries that the outlook does not look nearly as great. Still, you need to start DeSean Jackson against a very weak Washington Football Team secondary.
Miles Sanders is becoming more polarizing every day as we get injury updates. The latest reports suggest he will be limited, but I think the team would have signed a veteran back if it was concerned. Since that didn't happen, this matchup is way too good to pass up. Last season, Sanders dusted Washington for over 35 fantasy points on 25 touches.
The Eagles’ defense ranked bottom-nine in both targets and receptions to the running back position in 2019. During their first game against Washington last season, ex-Washington running back Chris Thompson had seven receptions on 10 targets with the team playing catchup.
So, consider this a PSA to have confidence in starting rookie running back Antonio Gibson even with reports of a running back by committee. As long as Gibson is getting the high-value touches via receptions, I'm confident he can do enough on limited volume — just like at Memphis — to still produce.
You can start Tyrod Taylor for the Los Angeles Chargers this week against the Cincinnati Bengals. Last season, they allowed the most total rushing yards in the league but also the most rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns to the quarterback position.
Also, prepare for Keenan Allen to eat with Mike Wiliams slated to miss Week 1 — he has a plus-matchup against first-time starter Darius Phillips. Last season, the Bengals allowed the second-highest yards per attempt (10.23) to slot receivers.
The matchup in the slot for Tyler Boyd against Chris Harris Jr. — or potentially any of the other Chargers’ cornerback — does not project nearly as well for Boyd as it does for Allen. With Harris manning the slot for the Denver Broncos last season, opposing receivers generally needed to score touchdowns to help fantasy lineups. Unfortunately, Boyd rarely sees high-value targets — he ranked outside the top 100 in end-zone targets (two) and 48th in deep targets (14).
Brees posted 21 fantasy points against them in Week 11, but the Buccaneers’ defense was much better down the stretch — even when facing Deshaun Watson and Matt Ryan. Both quarterbacks failed to finish inside the top 15 in the final two weeks of the season, averaging just 13.8 fantasy points per game.
Ian Hartitz and I dove into this game on the PFF Fantasy Football Podcast — to both our surprise, we spent the time covering the two defenses in this game and not the offenses. They're both seriously underrated.
In seasonal leagues, you're going to start the obvious stud wide receivers — Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Michael Thomas. Just keep in mind that Evans struggled in the past when matched up with Marshon Lattimore. That’s why I have Godwin ranked higher. Evans is also reportedly working through an injury.
If you wanted to pivot off the higher-owned receivers in a DFS format, Emmanuel Sanders is interesting as New Orleans' No. 2 wide receiver at just $5,700 on DraftKings. The Buccaneers allowed the second-highest target share to No. 2 wide receivers last season, and Tre’Quan Smith has zero receptions in three games against the Bucs in his career.
Jimmy Garoppolo is probably my favorite quarterback to stream this week. The matchup is just too good against the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers’ offense last season struggled to run vs. the Cardinals, so they let Jimmy G throw it all over the yard.
In his two games against Arizona in 2019, Garoppolo averaged four passing touchdowns, 370 passing yards and 9.0 yards per attempt — good for a total of 29.25 fantasy points per game. And one of those games came without PFF’s highest-graded tight end from 2019, George Kittle, in the lineup.
Arizona allowed the most yards after the catch last season, which is a staple in the Kyle Shanahan offense. I would not be shocked at all to see Garoppolo outscore Kyler Murray, especially if we get a fully healthy performance from Brandon Aiyuk. The rookie averaged 10.9 YAC per reception in college, which ranked sixth among receivers with at least 50 targets last year.
Another concern for Murray — he was heavily reliant on rushing production for fantasy the last time he played the 49ers. If the Cardinals revert to the high-tempo offense we saw during the beginning of the season, rushing production may not follow.
During the first two weeks of the 2019 season, Murray totaled just five rushing attempts for 17 yards. I also think the offense will focus heavily on Kenyan Drake in this matchup, as he did a ton of damage to the 49ers last year. The 49ers’ PFF run-defense grade was a combined 48.6 in those two matchups.
Their run defense has not improved, either, as they took a massive hit this offseason with the loss of DeForest Buckner — the highest-graded interior run defender on the roster. When Buckner was on the field, the 49ers earned an 81.0 PFF run-defense grade (fifth). Withoug Buckner, that mark dropped to 73.8 grade (12th). They added Javon Kinlaw in the draft, but he profiles better as a pass-rushing lineman than a run-stuffer.
If you already drafted Drake, here’s my advice: Sell high. With a nice opening schedule to start the season, he should produce starting in Week 1.
Last season, Brown started the Rams’ Week 6 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers and finished the day with 11 carries for 40 yards on 67% of the offensive snaps. In that same game, Henderson had 11 carries as a backup and rushed for 49 yards with two catches for 20 yards, despite seeing just 33% of the offensive snaps.
With Brown a non-factor in the passing game, don't let this report deter you from Akers in Week 1 starting lineups. But, at the same time, if Darrell Henderson is deemed active, I might be more hesitant use Akers until we see how this situation plays out. Henderson could eat into Aker’s potential for receptions, and Brown has already proven to be a capable goal-line back.
Also don’t get your hopes up for Tyler Higbee to continue to just make big play after big play — at least here in Week 1. The Cowboys’ defense allowed the fourth-lowest percentage of explosive plays (15-plus yards) to the tight end position (13.0%) last year.
All Dallas offensive players should be locked into lineups, especially the No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. There’s a good chance we see Jalen Ramsey follow Amari Cooper around, which could open up the floodgates for either of these guys to go off in Week 1.
I'm not expecting much out of the New York Giants offense in this game, and that's going to negatively impact one of their highest-projected players in Evan Engram. The Pittsburgh Steelers were a top-eight defense in terms of fantasy points allowed to the tight end position in 2019. The defense also allowed the third-lowest percentage of explosive plays (15-plus yards) to the tight end position (12.8%).
It doesn't get any better for quarterback Daniel Jones, either, pitted up against a defense that ranked top-five in both pass rush and coverage grade in 2019. So, if you're hoping for one of those four spike performances we saw last year for Jones when he faced Tampa Bay, Detroit, New York and Washington, you might be out of luck.
All of those tams ranked either outside the top half of the league in defensive coverage or pass-rush grade. Two of those games also coincided with two of Engram’s highest performing weeks — TE4 and TE7 finishes.
Jones’ eight other performances are more indicative of what we can see on Monday night, so here’s what you can expect: 12.5 fantasy points per game.
From a wide receiver standpoint in those contests, Sterling Shepard ranked highest in targets per game (8.6), Golden Tate led the team in fantasy points per game (13.5) and Darius Slayton was nowhere to be found.
This is likely to be a massive split between the three receivers and Engram. Unless we hear news of a player missing because of injury, it's a situation to avoid. Tate has apparently been dealing with an undisclosed injury, so the pivot would be to Shepard and Engram.
Things look a lot more positive on the Pittsburgh side with Big Ben back under center and James Conner established as the three-down bell-cow RB. Last season, the Giants faced the seventh-highest run play percentage in 2019 — Conner should see plenty of run and put up solid fantasy numbers.
With a great ground game established, I also expect the Steelers to use more play action. The Giants allowed the most passing yards off play-action in 2019, partly because they faced the most deep pass attempts off play-action (38).
This could be great for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who led the team in targets and receptions off play-action last year. He should also benefit from playing out of the slot against New York — the Giants allowed the second-most touchdowns to slot wide receivers in 2019. In 2018, Roethlisberger ranked third among quarterbacks in touchdowns to slot wide receivers.
The last time these two teams faced off was back in Week 6 of the 2019 season, and it was the final straw that broke Marcus Mariota’s back, paving the way for Ryan Tannehill to take over the starting quarterback job in Nashville.
So much of Tannehill’s success for the remainder of the season came from a clean pocket. From Week 7 on, he owned the second-highest NFL passer rating (123.4), the fourth-most passing touchdowns (17) and the highest PFF passing grade (91.3).
The Denver Broncos defense is going to struggle to apply pressure to the quarterback position without the recently injured Von Miller and potentially Bradley Chubb, who still is not 100% after tearing his ACL in 2019.
Vic Fangio’s defense needs to generate pressure with the front four to work effectively. If they are unable to do so, the team is going to need to be creative to scheme up the pressure, which could expose its secondary.
This Broncos are a far from the “No Fly Zone” status from yesteryear after losing Chris Harris Jr. and replacing him with A.J. Bouye, who last year was beaten for a passer rating of 103.8 when targeted — the first time in his career that number has crossed 100.0.
Safe to say the Broncos won’t be able to repeat their seven-sack performance against the Tennessee Titans from Week 6. So expect to see another efficient performance from Tannehill. I can’t say the same about the Tennessee ground game, as the defense may still present a formidable matchup against running back Derrick Henry.
No team held Henry to fewer rushing yards (26) or yards per attempt (1.9) than the Broncos last season. Denver finished the 2019 season as the highest-graded run defense (91.2). With the majority of their linebackers and interior defensive linemen returning — in addition to ex-Titan Jurrell Casey — I expect them to be tough on the Tennessee ground game.
I have Henry ranked outside my top 12 running backs for Week 1.
Tannehill working without pressure should also benefit A.J. Brown, who owned a 23% target share with his quarterback kept clean. The second-year receiver also ranked third in the league in yards per route run (2.88) and fourth in PFF receiving grade (88.5) among receivers with at least 25 targets.
The only other fantasy option to consider here is my tight end offseason-breakout candidate Jonnu Smith, though his chances of finding the end zone are slim. The Broncos had the second-lowest percentage of their defensive plays result in touchdowns to the tight end position in 2019.
Even if Smith can’t find the end zone, he could still put up solid yardage and reception totals — Denver allowed the fifth-most receptions, sixth-most targets and fifth-most yards to the position last year.
If the Broncos had allowed just an average amount of touchdowns to tight ends last season (six) then they would have been the third-easiest matchup for tight ends. I have seen Smith available in a ton of waiver wires across leagues, so even if you decide to not start him in this matchup, he is worth a speculative add because he might be a hot waiver wire target post Week 1.
The Broncos are three-point underdogs at home and will be led by second-year quarterback Drew Lock, who I expect to be much more aggressive downfield with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur at the helm.
The former New York Giants head coach is going to help generate more big passing plays for Denver — Shurmur’s 2019 Giants under rookie quarterback Daniel Jones ranked top-10 in deep ball passing attempts (20-plus yards). We know that Lock can create big plays for his receivers from both his days in college and the NFL.
In his final season at Missouri, Lock ranked top-10 in adjusted deep ball completion percentage and deep ball touchdowns. During his peak performance as an NFL starter against the Houston Texans in Week 14, Lock helped generate eight passing plays over 15 yards and had a season-high 11.4 yards per attempt.
We could see this downfield aggressiveness on full display as early as Week 1. Including postseason play last year, the Titans allowed the most 20-plus pass attempts, 10th-highest deep pass play percentage (13.9%) and the fifth-highest deep pass percentage to opposing wide receivers.
So, yes, it’s time to get the fireworks ready for Lock and Courtland Sutton to connect on some bombs, building off Sutton’s No. 6 ranking in deep receiving yards from last season. Sutton posted solid numbers in his last contest against the Titans: four catches for 76 yards on seven targets. He also owned a top-5 aDOT (17.0) in that game.
Combine that with the fact that when Lock was under center Sutton was the WR13 overall, ranking 11th in the league in targets (39), seventh in target rate on routes run (24%) and, most notably, leading the league end-zone targets (six). I fully expect Lock to pepper Sutton with money targets and unleash him as a downfield monster.
At the running back position, the constant drumbeat out of training camp screamed that this is going to be closer to a 50/50 split than we initially had anticipated between Melvin Gordon and Philip Lindsay. I'm not sure we see either running back get going on the ground against the fourth-highest-graded run defense (80.0) from last year, but they should both be used as receivers.
The Titans were particularly weak against running backs as pass-catchers, allowing the fourth-most receptions and third-most targets to the position in 2019. In this same matchup last year, Lindsay and Royce Freeman combined for seven receptions for 47 yards on eight targets. Freeman’s five receptions led the Broncos.
Still, Gordon is the clear back to own because he is still likely to work ahead of Lindsay at the goal line and on passing downs despite the praise Lindsay has gotten in training camp for his pass-catching chops. Gordon has at least 40 receptions in each of the last four seasons, and once he returned to the Chargers in Week 5 last season, he ranked eighth in attempts inside the 5-yard line (15). The Titans faced the fourth-most goal-line plays in 2019. Gordon is a solid RB2 for Week 1.
Noah Fant was a boom-or-bust tight end during his rookie season. With Lock under center, he is much more of a wait and see. The chemistry with Lock was not apparent during the last five games of last season. Fant was the TE19 in fantasy and saw fewer targets than Sutton (39), DaSean Hamilton (26) and Tim Patrick (20).
He was averaging fewer than three targets per game. Even though the Titans’ matchup is favorable per PFF’s strength of schedule tool, I'm not confident enough that volume will be there to slot Fant into my starting lineup.