Welcome to Week 1 of the 2021 Footballguys Roundtable. Our intrepid and oddball panel of fantasy pundits discuss and debate topics that will hopefully help your fantasy football campaigns or at least keep you entertained:
- Who Changed Your Mind This Summer?
- Game of the Week: Browns-Chiefs
- Scouting the Waiver Wire
- Bold Predictions
Who Changed Your Mind This Summer/
Matt Waldman: Jason Wood writes a series of features every August that covers players whose performances have led Wood to have second thoughts about his stance on their fantasy potential. Here's where you can find his articles on running backs, quarterbacks, tight ends, and wide receivers.
Wood is part of the roundtable this week, so we're going to do something a little different. With the exception of Wood, I want each of you to do the following:
- Check out Wood's four articles and pick 2 players where Wood's arguments might change your mind and explain why.
- Give me one player independent from Wood's features who is leading you to have second thoughts about his value this fall.
Jason, since you wrote these features, I want you to give me two players who didn't change your mind and you're still pessimistic about their value and one player who you've been bullish on all along. Let's start with you and your version of the "Wet Blanket Calls."
Jason Wood: Kenny Golladay has been a fade for me all summer and remains so. The Giants outbid themselves for his services, as allegedly no other team had an interest in paying him elite money. While he has unquestionable physical gifts, he's going from a pass-happy offense with an excellent quarterback to a balanced offense with a terrible passer. And that's to say nothing of his injury history which robbed him of the entire preseason; he's had zero time to acclimate to the new playbook or build rapport with Daniel Jones.
Another player I've faded all summer is Diontae Johnson. While it's plausible he'll be the top Steelers receiver, I worry about his drops in the context of whether Ben Roethlisberger will trust the young receiver more than other options, most notably JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Ryan Weisse: I came into the offseason thinking David Johnson was going to have much the same role he had in 2020. Sure, he'd split time with Phillip Lindsay but he did that with Duke Johnson Jr last year and was still a top-24 fantasy back. Instead, as Jason points out, it appears the Texans are ready to move on from him without actually cutting him from the roster. The result is that the value we saw in the middle rounds now could be an actual bust if Johnson is relegated to a 3rd-down role.
I started this summer lower than most on Michael Pittman Jr. TY Hilton ended 2020 strong and, as an Ohio guy, I had high hoped for Parris Campbell. With Hilton's injury and Campbell ceding time to Zach Pascal, the spotlight turns to Pittman. He has excellent speed and size and played well as a rookie despite what could have been a bad leg injury. We should see a major leap in production and Pittman will be considered a true #1 by the end of the season.
I've had a rocky year with Mark Andrews. Last year, I thought he had a chance to be the best tight end in fantasy and he was definitely not that. Sure, he was the 6th best, but with the current tight landscape, that is not nearly as impressive as it sounds. I was down on Andrews as just another guy in that wasteland, one of the many traps to be found at the position in the middle rounds.
While it wasn't Jason's work that changed my mind, it was another Footballguys contributor, Jeff Bell. Jeff wrote a great piece for our Player Spotlight series on how well Andrews did to end the season when Lamar got his passing back on track. Those numbers, plus injuries to the Ravens' two best wide receivers, has me back to calling it the "Elite four tight ends" instead of just three. Andrews belongs in the Kelce, Waller, Kittle conversation and his draft capital makes him a bargain, not a trap.
Jeff Haseley: Kareem Hunt for the better. I've always been a fan of Hunt's talent and productivity but only recently did I begin to understand just how effective he has been, even as the Browns RB2 to Nick Chubb. In 51 games, Hunt has scored 39 touchdowns. Only five active running backs have a higher per-game touchdown ratio than Hunt. He has also never finished lower than 10th in PPR scoring when he played at least 9 games in a season. He's a scorer, and I want scorers on my roster. I have Hunt rostered in four of my six redraft leagues.
Saquon Barkley for the worse. I did some research on running backs who returned from an ACL tear over the last 25 years and how they performed in their first year back. Adrian Peterson and Jamal Lewis were the only ones who showed definitive success in their first year back. Many others took time to regain their form if they did at all. This includes but is not limited to Terrell Davis, Edgerrin James, Reggie Bush, Rashard Mendenhall, Jamaal Charles, and recently, Dalvin Cook. Can Barkley come back to finish in the top 10-20? Yes, but it's not likely. He could also suffer a compensatory injury and miss time due to that. It happens and it's more common than you might think. All of these yellow and red flags are enough for me to look elsewhere.
Andy Hicks: With the season just about to commence, we should all be relatively set in our opinions on players. There are some players Jason has mentioned that I agree 100 percent on and others I disagree with. That said I did do a double-take on a few.
Zack Moss is one. Moss appeared to have beaten out Devin Singletary for the majority of touches, so Jason‘s report has me back to probably ignoring both and letting others deal with the committee. The other player that gives me a late re-evaluation is Adam Trautman. With the loss of targets on the team through the offseason and the arrow pointing up on Trautman through training camp, his late preseason fade is worrisome.
Josh Palmer with the Chargers is worth noting. After being drafted in the third round this year, he was expected to develop in 2021, but he won the third receiver role late in the preseason. The Chargers have Mike Williams on the final year of his rookie deal and Keenan Allen is approaching the veteran stage and free agency. If a rookie comes out of nowhere this year, let alone in dynasty, Palmer looks the guy.
Jordan McNamara: Trey Lance created a lot of buzz in training camp. The climax of that rising tide of sentiment was his deep ball to Trent Sherfield in week one of the preseason. Lance has a lot of promise, but he's a walking turnover waiting to happen this preseason. I like the player, but I have a lot of caution on quarterbacks who have not done it yet, particularly ones who have played one game in two years.
I also love the boldness of Calvin Ridley's WR1 potential. If he plays 17 games there's very little doubt he will be in the top 5 wide receivers in targets in 2020, with 200 in his range of outcomes.
One player that has changed my mind is Matt Ryan. I was cautiously optimistic entering the season, but Atlanta's 72.7 percent designed pass rate in the preseason, ranking second in the league, reassures me new Head Coach Arthur Smith will adapt his style to his personnel.
Chris Allen: I’ve been cautiously optimistic about Matt Ryan all offseason. We like his skill-position players, but there’s no one on that roster like Julio Jones. Losing a wide receiver that was among the top eight in nearly every efficiency metric from PPR per Game to Yards per Route Run would be tough on any passer. We’ve seen passers continue on as QB1’s without their top pass-catcher (Kirk Cousins was QB11 after losing Diggs, Deshaun Watson was QB6 without Hopkins), but there may have been too much turnover in Atlanta for Ryan to get back to top-12 status.
I’m sold on Washington’s offense being better. I’m also buying into them playing faster and with more aggression with Ron Rivera and Scott Turner as the team was above league average in pace, neutral passing, and deep-ball rate in 2019. But I’m not sold on Curtis Samuel’s place in the offense. Or, at least if his place is a solid one. He essentially missed the offseason and Washington has players that can fill his roles. Samuel had the highest slot rate last season. Washington brought in Adam Humphries and still has Cam Sims. Samuel was running deep routes the year prior. Washington drafted Dyami Brown. I get Samuel’s connection to the coaching staff, but his health issues and increased competition for targets may keep him from meeting our on-field expectations.
I left Tevin Coleman for dead in San Francisco. He was injured and outplayed by Jerick McKinnon. His last start netted just 20 yards. Even his signing in New York felt like a ruse. His familiarity with the staff (like his move from Atlanta to San Francisco) was the only reason he wasn’t a free agent. But he’s at least shown some juice throughout the offseason. Both him and Ty Johnson relegated fourth-round pick Michael Carter II to the back of the rotation in what appears to be a promising offense. Coleman might not hold up the full season, but he's a fine stash to start the season.
Sean Settle: Going into this summer I was very high on D'Andre Swift. I thought he was going to get the chance to take over a leading role, that we were going to see a more balanced offense with Jared Goff under center, and that the Lions did a great job addressing the offensive line during the draft and offseason. Enter Jason’s article and he made some great points about the injuries this summer, Jamaal Williams is going to take away touches, and the Detroit offense projects to be downright bad this year. I had him firmly as a top-10 running back with the value of a 2nd-3rd round pick. That simply does not seem to be the case anymore.
I will also have to agree with his comments on David Johnson. I was excited at the idea of being able to wait for late in the draft and get a starting running back that I thought would lead a very poor Houston offense. However, the Texans have shown they favor Philip Lindsay and even Mark Ingram II looks to resurrect his career. Ingram will take the goalline work if there is any, and Lindsay has shown the ability to run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield during his tenure in Denver. David Johnson is nowhere close to the guy who burst on the scene in Arizona and looks to be relegated to the 3rd back on a very poor offense. I 100% agree with Jason and will not be taking a late-round flier on Johnson.
One player that I do not see mentioned in Jason’s articles and I have soured immensely on is Kirk Cousins. Despite not being the big name QB he always managed to sneak into the top 10-15 in most categories at the end of the season. To this point he has not looked good in preseason, has off the field issues that raise questions about leadership in the locker room, and plays in a run-first offense centered around Dalvin Cook. I used to love to target Cousins as a second quarterback and play him in favorable matchups, but I am to the point of not even wanting to spot start him or take him in 2 QB leagues this season.
Victoria Geary: I was never “down” on Calvin Ridley and have had him ranked within my top six all year, but as the offseason progressed, his path to being the overall WR1 on the season became undeniably clear to me. Ridley averaged 12 targets and 117 yards per game when Julio Jones was out of the lineup last season. Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts will further assist in keeping defenses honest. The combination of Jones’ departure, a mediocre wide receiver corps, and a defense not expected to have improved presume Ridley is fully capable of leading the league in targets and yards.
Most people had fallen out of love with Anthony Firkser as a late-round steal when Julio Jones was traded to the Titans, but I still believed he was a fantastic dart throw at the time. Heck, he ran over 70 percent of his routes lined up from the slot in 2020 and defenses would be forced to laser-focus on Julio Jones and A.J. Brown. But as the preseason came to an end, it was abundantly clear that Jonnu Smith’s departure and vacated targets weren’t enough to catapult Firkser to the top of the team’s depth chart. Being on a run-first team coupled with competition from tight end Geoff Swaim is a recipe for a low fantasy floor that I want no part of this season.
Don’t overreact to preseason… unless Ja’Marr Chase drops four passes in two of Cincinnati’s three preseason games. Chase seemed poised for a rookie breakout season, and his ADP has reflected that this offseason, going as high as the WR22 overall. Back when FBG Predicted The AFC North Finish, I mentioned, “Joe Burrow could be ready to play when Week 1 rolls around, but I personally don't believe that means he will be at 100 percent [health].“ My concerns still linger with Burrow, as his mobility is something that helps keep plays alive. Burrow’s health and Chase’s uninspiring preseason performances (albeit without Burrow) lead me to have second thoughts on Chase leading all rookies in production this season.
Game of the Week: Browns-Chiefs
Waldman: On paper, this is the best game of the month and potentially the season (don't at me, readers, I'm contractually obligated to hype this game as a Browns fan).
Answer the following:
- Who in the top 150 from recent ADP is most likely to be underwhelming in this matchup?
- Who outside the top 150 from the list above will deliver beyond expectations for this matchup?
- Give me potential game script scenarios for each answer that could lead to the opposite results for each player.
Geary: It would be too easy to single out Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman for this segment, so I will go with Odell Beckham Jr Jr. here. Everyone seems to be waiting for Beckham to catapult back into fantasy relevance, but the truth is that we may have seen the last of his spark after a torn ACL injury derailed his 2020 season.
Will he get back to his old self this year? I’m not sure that question is more important than the fact the Browns are a run-first team with many capable, talented pass-catchers, and quarterback Baker Mayfield tends to spread the ball out. I don’t have much faith left in Beckham for the foreseeable future.
Austin Hooper has the potential for a big fantasy day this weekend. The Chiefs defense gave up over 950 total yards and the 6th-most touchdowns in the league to tight ends last season (9). If the Chiefs laser-focus on Beckham and Landry in the end zone, Hooper could reap the benefits.
The counter-argument to these thoughts: If Beckham is sincerely back to full health, he could surprise us this year. The Browns look great on paper and could potentially lean on a more aggressive passing attack than in years past — especially if they are forced to keep up with the high-scoring Chiefs. If this becomes a defensive battle, however, both Beckham and Hooper will likely disappoint as both teams keep the ball on the ground.
Settle:The Browns have gone from downright bad, to an underdog story everyone wanted to root for, to real playoff contenders. With that said, I think the best years are behind Odell Beckham Jr, Jr. and he will not be able to live off the infamy from his catch with the Giants all those years ago. The Chiefs have put together a very tough secondary and a defensive front that can put pressure on the quarterback. We may be rooting for a bounce-back year, but Beckham is going to struggle out of the gate.
Austin Hooper was paid a lot of money to come in a solidify the tight end position for the Browns. He had a very poor 2020 fantasy campaign and has been forgotten about by many. With the scrambling ability of Baker Mayfield and the outside coverage drawn to Beckham and Jarvis Landry, look for Hooper to go back to doing damage across the middle as he is poised for a bounce-back season.
If the Browns get down early and are playing comeback mood with a Chiefs defense that can play a little softer, Beckham could easily have at least 10 targets with Mayfield trying to force the game back into contention. If the Browns cannot run the ball and control the clock, Beckham would get a better opportunity to shine. On the flip side, if the Browns are playing well and controlling the clock on the ground, Hooper is not going to get the same opportunity to do anything across the middle. Mayfield pushes when they are down and is prone to mistakes on the outside. If Nick Chubb is ripping off runs with an average of five yards per carry, Hooper will be a non-factor again this week.
Wood: Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the obvious choice. He's already dealing with an ankle injury, which although minor is still concerning considering he wasn't 100 percent for much of 2020, either. The Browns project as a top-10 run defense, and should bottle up the Chiefs ground attack.
Donovan Peoples-Jones isn't on many fantasy rosters, but he could be a fantastic play against the Chiefs. It's not clear whether Odell Beckham Jr is fully healthy, and if he's not, Peoples-Jones should step into the starting lineup. He had a terrific preseason and vaulted Rashard Higgins as the No. 3. Peoples-Jones has good size and is physical at the point of attack, which is vitally important against the Chiefs' defensive backs.
The counter to all of this? The Chiefs have the league's top offense, and Patrick Mahomes II can put any defense on its heels. If the passing attack strikes quickly, the Browns may have to concede the run game particularly in the second half, which could allow Andy Reid to salt away a lead and shortens the game by relying on a ball-control ground attack.
Peoples-Jones could easily be a non-factor if Odell Beckham Jr is healthy, and the Browns probably want to try to sustain long drives to keep the Chiefs from having too many possessions. If the game turns into a Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt show, Peoples-Jones may not figure into the box score whatsoever.
Allen: Kareem Hunt will be underwhelming. Last season, after Nick Chubb returned and was healthy, Hunt surpassed Chubb in snap share just once in Week 17. Early in the season, Chubb led 54 percent to 44 percent. Hunt would need to make up his opportunity in the passing game. But all of the Cleveland wide receivers are healthy and have historically been more efficient with their targets. Hunt’s timeshare with Chubb in the red zone may be his only path to a viable day as an RB2.
Donovan Peoples-Jones could exceed expectations. Baker Mayfield was sixth in deep-ball rate last season. Cleveland’s offense as a whole was also sixth in Expected Points Added (EPA) per Play after the extreme weather games in Weeks 10 and 12. Peoples-Jones’ snap share was steadily increasing until he wound up on the COVID-19 list, but his speed vastly outmatches any of the ancillary receivers currently on the Browns’ roster. With Tyrann Mathieu’s status still uncertain for gameday, Peoples-Jones has shot to be the flex play you’d want in your lineup.
The counterargument? Kevin Stefanski’s play-calling could change both player’s outcomes. A conservative approach to the passing game would feature intermediate throws to the primary wide receivers and dump-offs to Hunt or Austin Hooper. All in an effort to keep the offense on the field and one of the best quarterbacks in the league off of it. A strong defensive showing from Cleveland would lend credence to this approach which would limit the deep-passing with shorter targets for Hunt to boost his production.
Waldman: Thank you.
McNamara: Ha! Austin Hooper has the game to improve beyond his 2020 disappointing season.
Waldman: I'll fill in the reason why: Hooper didn't disappoint his team but he disappointed the expectations of the fantasy community. We often conflate the two. Hooper is a skilled contested-catch receiver with a knack for breaking the first tackle in the open field. He's not a speedster, but he has a better quarterback suited to his strengths as a ball winner than Matt Ryan, whose weakness at throwing receivers open in tight windows has been understated for years.
The biggest threat to Hooper's fantasy production isn't Hooper's lack of skill but the potential emergence of David Njoku's work ethic after trying to whine his way out of town through his agent and found that the Browns' new coaching staff and personnel management were actually adults and expected Njoku to behave as such. Fast-forward to this offseason, and Njoku wants to stay in Cleveland and has worked on his game. Cleveland's use of two- and three-tight-end sets also could limit Hooper's upside as well. Still, knocking Hooper for his skills is a myopic look at the spreadsheet and not his actual game.
What's your counterargument to your takes, Jordan?
McNamara: Hardman could break out if the game turns into a shoot-out where Mahomes throws fifty times. On the flip side, Hooper could disappoint if the game turns into a run-fest where Cleveland is able to move the ball on a gettable Chiefs defense.I don't love Odell Beckham Jr in this first week back. The Cheifs are surprisingly good against fantasy wide receivers, and Beckham hasn't played since last October. I think he still could be great, and I love the Browns overall this season, but Week 1 might not be the best for Beckham or the Brownies.
Cleveland has a great defense and a stellar secondary. Tyreek Hill should be fine, but the Chiefs' lesser wide receivers could struggle. As Jason mentioned, Clyde Edwards-Helaire is not 100 percent. Enter Jerick McKinnon: an excellent threat out of the backfield and could operate in the space left open by the Browns' corners chasing down wide receivers. In PPR formats, receptions can quickly help a running back shoot up the weekly ranks, and McKinnon could catch 5+ passes this week, easy.
Waldman: To get into some X and O's geekery, expect Cleveland to try some Cover 3 (three high safety) looks against the Chiefs, who struggled mightily in the Super Bowl against this look. Part of the problem was the awful play of the banged-up Kansas City offensive line that didn't give Mahomes time to assess the field. Still, if Cleveland's pass-rush rotation of Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, and Takkarist McKinley get pressure, Mahomes could have flashbacks to February.
Cleveland's safeties are a strength of this team and if you're in an IDP dynasty league, keep an eye on former Georgia safety Richard LeCounte III, who was a top prospect heading into last year, but a car accident nearly killed him. When he recovered enough to work out, he performed at the level of a high school athlete. This summer, he was back to his full athletic capabilities and the Browns think they got a steal. And they did, LeCounte can play the alleys as a tackler and he's an excellent anticipator of route breaks. If Grant Delpit can't return to form, LeCounte could very well give Cleveland three-safety looks that bedevil more than a few quarterbacks.
Ryan, what's your counterargument to your takes?
Weisse: If Kansas City gets out to a big lead, both points could be moot. The Browns will have to throw a lot, and Beckham would be in for a ton of target volume. Efficient or not, volume is volume, and Beckham will have a good week if he's targeted more than 10 times. In that same scenario, the Cheifs would likely lean on Edwards-Helaire and Darrell Williams to kill the clock instead of throwing it to McKinnon. No passes basically mean no value in that situation.
Haseley: Patrick Mahomes II is my call on the most likely top player to be underwhelming. It's a bad decision to bench Mahomes, however, he doesn't have the best matchup in Week 1 against arguably one of the most improved defenses heading into the 2021 season. Cleveland added two top defensive backs in Troy Hill and John Johnson III, along with Clowney at defensive end who will be paired with Garrett. The rebuilt Chiefs offensive line will get a big test in Week 1 and Mahomes may not have a performance that we're accustomed to seeing.
Hooper is barely outside of the top 150 but he qualifies as an option to exceed expectations. Hooper had an eyebrow-raising finish to 2020 with 16 receptions and 2 touchdowns in the last 3 games. Hooper is one year removed from two top-10 fantasy seasons (albeit with Atlanta) and could see an uptick in production with the Browns in 2021.
if the Chiefs re-built offensive line performs well against a tough Browns front four, and if the Browns offense, particularly their running game has success, this game could turn into a shootout. If that happens, Mahomes will most likely be one of the top five fantasy quarterbacks in Week 1. A game script that could keep Austin Hooper in check is if the Browns and Chiefs play a more ground-controlled, clock-controlled game with defense being the primary strategy. If that happens, fantasy production will be hard to come by for several receiver participants, including Hooper.
Hicks: I agree with Ryan's choice of Beckham Jr. Like Ryan, I think Beckham has a great year, but in Week 1 he will need to get his sea legs. Cleveland will try and run the ball and eat up the clock. If they play with a lead as I expect, forget about Beckham altogether.
Realistically only an early injury should see a guy outside the top 150 deliver a good fantasy game. Both of these teams have stars and backups. A surprise touchdown to David Njoku or Noah Gray does the trick.
The counterargument: The Chiefs are not likely at their best in Week 1. They rightfully have Superbowl ambitions and peaking on opening day is unlikely. I expect the Browns to play to their strengths and run the ball every chance they get. Killing the clock and holding a lead puts pressure on the Chiefs to score quickly, which they obviously can do, but I expect rust to be evident. The Browns alternatively will pressure the new offensive line and I expect the advantage to be with Cleveland.
Waldman: I want to add more thoughts to this game. While I think this will be a close game. I can see a situation where Cleveland blows out Kansas City. Defenses are usually ahead of offenses early in the year, especially teams that have new offensive lines and the Chiefs have made wholesale changes upfront. As I described above, if Mahomes can't earn enough time to work through Cover 3 scenarios that killed his offense against the Buccaneers, Cleveland can take early advantage and play with a significant lead and generate turnovers that put Kansas City further behind.
I believe Odell Beckham Jr will have a big night. The uncertainty over his health is understandable, but there have been zero issues in camp. As someone who studies the mechanics of route breaks for a living, Beckham's cutting and route-running from in workout videos prior to training camp have been indicative of a player who is confident in his knee where it matters most. Will he maybe need to gain some confidence as an open-field runner? Perhaps, but given his ultra-aggressive mindset as a player, I'm leaning towards the bullish end of Beckham's performance outcomes.
I like the Hooper call, but Andy's brief thought on Njoku is a good one. To fill that out a bit more, Njoku will be the seam threat that will be difficult to cover at 25-30 yards in the middle of the field. Expect Njoku to earn 1-3 of those targets this week and if he converts all three, he could be one of the two most productive receivers for the Browns in this blow-out scenario I'm proposing as a possibility.
I think Chubb will disappoint. I don't think he's going to deliver non-starter production, but you never like to see fantasy RB3 production from your RB1. It may seem like a narrative, but every coach knows that there's added incentive for a player to deliver against his former team. I think Hunt will get 2-3 extra looks in the red zone in this game and that will tilt his totals to fantasy RB1 value this week.
Scouting the Waiver Wire
Waldman: Sigmund Bloom's Upgrades, Downgrades, and Waiver Wire feature is published every Monday evening during the season and it's a must-read feature at Footballguys. As one of the former writers of this weekly feature, I still impress upon my readers throughout the summer that having a shortlist of players to monitor at each position for your in-season waiver wires is wise preparation.
Give me your top choice of free agents that fantasy players should monitor this weekend so they can make an appropriate bid for that player next week if needed:
- 1 candidate who is likely a free agent in leagues with rosters of 15 players.
- 1 candidate who is likely a free agent in leagues with rosters of 20 players.
- 1 candidate who is likely a free agent in leagues with rosters of 40 players.
We could generalize these as church league, work league, and mother's basement league in terms of knowledge although I've seen some great church leagues, super-serious workplace leagues, and awful basement leagues.
Allen: For 15-player rosters? Quez Watkins, Philadelphia's receiver. Watkins quickly overtook Travis Fulgham and Greg Ward for a starting spot in the Eagles’ passing game. His 4.35 40-time matches with Jalen Hurts’ aggressive passing style and a fine complement to DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor. Between the primary wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs, Watkins may struggle for consistent targets but he’s an ideal late target to add some punch to our roster.
Waldman: Chris, he's my bold prediction to lead the Eagles in receiving. He's more rugged than Smith and Reagor for a thin guy and he'll earn a ton of two-way-go situations as a slot option, which means easier opportunities to get open. He's also just as good after the catch as either. Who else do you have?
Allen: For 20-player rosters, it's either Justin Jackson or Joshua Kelley, the backs for the Chargers. Austin Ekeler has been the subject of many offseason debates and for good reason. His target share was fourth amongst all running backs and he still handled a 51.1 percent rushing share throughout his injury last year. But his work in the red zone has been anything but secure. He split time with both Joshua Kelley and Kalen Ballage last season. Justin Jackson has been “Ekeler-lite” during the preseason. How the other running backs are deployed will be of some fantasy value given the team’s improvements along the offensive line.
In 40-player formats, I like Hayden Hurst, Atlanta's second tight end. We can’t expect every target to go to Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts. Plus, Atlanta’s passing rates have been in the top five for the last three seasons. Even if Arthur Smith’s arrival signals less passing, Smith’s offense had the highest 12-personnel rate last season. Smith was also a tight-end position coach for five years prior to his ascension as an offensive mind. Hurst may spend most of his time inline, but his blocking ability may keep him on the field in high-value situations.
Waldman: Hurst is another easy-money value in drafts. He's effectively the No.1 tight end, in the scheme, whereas Pitts will be the No.2 wide receiver.
Geary: With T.Y. Hilton nursing a neck injury and Parris Campbell returning from injury, Michael Pittman Jr has a clear path to being Carson Wentz’s No.1 target this season. As a rookie, he flashed his upside with 4 receptions of a least 25 yards and 2 games with 90 yards or more from scrimmage while dealing with an injury of his own. Pittman's 6-4, 223-pound frame is perfect for red-zone mismatches and contested catches. Watch for his budding rapport with Wentz this weekend. Pittman is my choice for 15-player rosters.
In 20-player formats, I like Gabriel Davis. His rookie efforts were overshadowed by the signing of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders this offseason, but the Bills’ sophomore had a quietly great 2020 season. He had four games as WR22 or better, played 94 percent of snaps in Weeks 12-16, and lead the team with 11 end zone targets. He also had just one fewer touchdown on the season than superstar teammate Stefon Diggs. Davis is the Bills’ big-bodied, jump ball option who can dominate some of the best CBs in the league on the outside seam with ease — where quarterback Josh Allen looks often. Keep an eye on his snap counts and targets this weekend.
In 40-player formats, I'm rolling with Tony Jones, Jr., who becomes a lot more interesting with the release of Latavius Murray. He would step into one of the most coveted roles in fantasy football if anything were to happen to teammate Alvin Kamara. The Saints coaching staff may also need to limit Kamara’s busy workload throughout the season, as wide receiver Michael Thomas is out for a least the first five games of the season and the Saints are lacking other reliable pass-catchers. This could give Jones stand-alone value in leagues down the stretch. I will be keeping an eye on snap counts for both Saints running backs this weekend.
Settle: For 15-player rosters, watch Tyrell Williams closely this weekend. He was largely available in most leagues earlier this week and that is unusual for a No.1 WR on any team. The Lions look to be bad offensively this year and could be in a lot of negative game scripts. Other than Hockenson there will not be a lot of competition for targets and Williams could easily approach 100 this season if he remains healthy. Jared Goff can still sling the ball and Williams has a lot of upside if he is still available after this weekend.
For 20-player formats, Mark Ingram II. There is a good chance Ingram is available in many leagues due to the uncertainty surrounding the Texans' offense. There are not a lot of great pieces surrounding Tyrod Taylor this week, but Ingram has quietly moved to the top of the depth chart and should see all of the goalline work. It will be tough to predict the running back split going into week 1, but it should be very telling after this weekend what it will look like the rest of the season.
For 40-player formats, take a shot on Mitchell Trubisky. With a roster this size, there is a lot of chasing upside and potential. The player I am watching is starter Josh Allen and his reckless running style. One injury is going to propel Mitchell Trubisky to the starting role in what is a very dangerous offense. He looked great at times in Chicago and was solid in the preseason this year. In a super deep league, I am holding on to Trubisky at the off chance Allen gets hurt.
McNamara: Mark Ingram II will probably lead the Texans in touches in week one, in a good matchup against the Jaguars. He's a good add right now for 15-player leagues. In 20 player formats, would it be any surprise any if Bill Belichick ran Rhamondre Stevenson 25 times in Week 1? It shouldn't. It likewise wouldn't be any surprise if Rhamondre Stevenson was a weekly inactive. This is exactly the type of the either/or scratch-off ticket I want early in the season.
Neither Devin Singletary nor Zack Moss is going to be a difference-maker in Buffalo. I'm not sure how big a fantasy difference-maker Matt Breida can be, but he has home run ability in an offense that lacks a big-play threat at the position, and that could be appealing to the Buffalo offense in the weeks ahead.
Hicks: I would be looking very carefully at Terrace Marshall Jr in Carolina if you have a 15-player roster. Sometimes rookies come out and start great. Others are overwhelmed and need time. The release of David Moore gives me confidence that Marshall is ready for prime time. If Sam Darnold can be just half-decent, he has an awesome trio of receivers to play with. Marshall is expected to play in the back seat with D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson in the driver's seat. I expect Marshall to beat out Anderson for targets very soon.
I have already talked about Josh Palmer who fits here, so let us go with Van Jefferson for the Rams if you have a 20-man roster. With expectations high for Matthew Stafford, I am not sure why the number three receiver in Van Jefferson isn’t getting more attention. Assuming Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp see more targets or Desean Jackson is the number three are all less likely than Van Jefferson emerging in his second year. Many second-year receivers leap 200 yards in their debut year to fantasy starter in their second.
These deep rosters of 40-plus are where I love to look at backup quarterbacks who are only an injury away from fantasy stardom. An obvious choice for me is Mitchell Trubisky. So it didn’t work out in Chicago. He was drafted third overall in the Patrick Mahomes II year. He busted. That said, there were times he looked good when used correctly. I love it when teams get a backup quarterback that mirrors the skillset of the starter. Trubisky has looked great in preseason and if he plays to his best is a fantasy starter.
Haseley: Give me Marquez Callaway in 15-player formats. Michael Thomas will be out until Week 8 or 9, but most likely, it will be longer than that. Callaway has shown excellent rapport with Jameis Winston and he possesses the necessary skills to handle the job as the Saints' top wide receiver this year.
I'll take Ty'Son Williams in 20-player formats. Last year, Ravens running backs surpassed 40 snaps in a game only twice, and both times it was J.K. Dobbins. They used a committee approach all year long and we should expect to see a similar strategy in 2021. The loss of Dobbins opens the door for Gus Edwards to shine, but Williams will also be a key participant in the ground game and deserves to be rostered as a potential gem in a run-heavy offense.
In 40-player rosters, Zach Paschal deserves a look. Over the last two years, Zach Pascal has 85 receptions (in 30 games played) with 10 touchdowns in that span. He's the top slot receiver on the Colts and veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton may be done as a fantasy-relevant, injury-risk wide receiver. Pascal has sneaky value and could be the one who benefits the most due to his knowledge of the offense and confidence from his coaching staff.
Waldman: Love the mention of Paschal. He's a sound football player who has the trust of this coaching staff. Not flashy, but productive when called upon.
Weisse: We should know a lot about Giovani Bernard after the Thursday night game and he's likely a good addition for 15-player rosters. Everyone was so excited when Tom Brady signed in Tampa, not just for the wide receivers but for the winner of the coveted "James White" role. The problem was that neither Ronald Jones II nor Leonard Fournette has the skillset to play in that role, but the Bucs still threw to their running backs over 110 times. Bernard is a better pass-catching back than both and, as a veteran, should already have some trust from Tom Brady. If Gio Bernard is targetted 4-6 times per game, he will be a hot waiver commodity very quickly in PPR leagues.
Sometimes it's a tough choice about spending your last roster spot on a running back or wide receiver. With Cordarelle Patterson, you don't have to choose. On most platforms, Patterson has dual-eligibility, meaning you can start him in your RB or WR slot. The best part is that the Atlanta Falcons don't have a true backup running back or third wide receiver. The end result is that Patterson could play a ton of snaps for the Falcons, a team I believe will be forced into throwing a lot, and he could end up fourth on the team in total touches behind Calvin Ridley, Mike Davis, and Kyle Pitts. Those guys were all gone in the first six rounds of fantasy drafts while Patterson is still on your waiver wire in 20-player formats.
It's pretty common knowledge that you want a piece of the best offenses in football. With the Kansas City Chiefs, their best players go very early in drafts and never see the waiver wire. But what if Mecole Hardman never develops into a WR2? The next man up is probably Demarcus Robinson, and he is just sitting there waiting for someone in your league to notice him. Robinson has been third on this team in wide receiver targets for the last two seasons and has caught 11 touchdowns from Patrick Mahomes II over the last three years. His fantasy output has been pretty disappointing, but so has every other Chiefs wide receiver not named Tyreek Hill. There's no guarantee he makes an impact, but he is in a better position than many wide receivers already sitting on fantasy rosters in 40-player formats.
Waldman: I love the Bernard call, as most readers of mine know. I'm higher on Byron Pringle than Robinson for 40-player formats but I get the logic and it could very well end up in Robinson's favor. Patterson was a favorite for me as a draft prospect years ago but he also taught me a valuable lesson: Players who need intensive coaching each week to grasp a small number of plays tend to bounce around the league and never meet the expectations of their athletic abilities.
Patterson might be a smart dude off the field, but he has trouble translating what's taught in the classroom and practice field to the playing field without a lot of drilling that just doesn't happen in the NFL. This can be a difficult thing to scout based solely on tape but something discovered in workouts and interviews. Patterson is one of those guys. In a different way, so was Brandon Weeden, who was also a smart individual but not able to translate abstract concepts to concrete execution at the highest level on a consistent basis.
Wood: I agree with the mentions of Ingram, who quietly worked his way up the Texans' depth chart and appears to be the 1-A in a committee. It's entirely possible Houston's backfield will be unusable given the shared workload and unattractive game scripts. On the other hand, if Ingram leads the way in Week 1 with 50 percent or more snaps, his price tag will skyrocket. He's a target in 15-player formats.
In 20-player formats, I'm in on Quez Watkins. He started training camp on the roster bubble. A few early standout practices started the drumbeat, but the percussion sounds became deafening as the preseason unfolded. Watkins proved to his new coaches he's much more than a vertical threat and was inarguably the most impressive receiver in Eagles camp. While DeVonta Smith will be the No. 1, Watkins worked his way into the starting rotation and is battling Jalen Reagor for the No. 2 role.
Gary Brightwell bucked the odds and made the Giants 53-man roster as the No. 3 tailback behind Saquon Barkley and Devontae Booker. Barkley's recovery is going well, and Booker would be the next man up in Barkley's absence. But plenty of teams end up playing their third-stringer in a season of attrition, and Brightwell is widely available yet could surprise, particularly in PPR formats. He's a converted slot receiver still learning how to be an inside power runner. Consider him for your 40-man rosters.
Waldman: Dig the Brightwell mention, Wood.
Matt Waldman: Call your wildest fantasy-related shot for the 2020 NFL season that's rooted in some basis of reality. I have eight of mine here. Let's hear some of yours.
No conspiracy theory stuff, unless you want to make up something about our industry friend, Bob Harris, who relishes anything tied to him that seems Lex Lutherish.
Weisse: A 31-year-old Marvin Jones Jr has the best season of his career and finishes as a top-12 fantasy wide receiver. Sure, Jones was the WR18 last season; he was being drafted as the WR48. His main competition for targets is DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. Chark is already hurt, and his new head coach has been bad-mouthing him since he got to town.
Shenault is largely unproven and had his own injury issues in college. Meanwhile, Jones has scored 9+ touchdowns in four of the eight seasons he's played. This year, on a Jacksonville team that should be throwing a lot, he is in an excellent position to exceed 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and score 10 or more touchdowns. If you believe in the talent of Trevor Lawrence, Jones' ascension won't shock you, but he could make some fantasy managers look very smart.
Waldman: Ryan, you have filled my contractual obligation to praise Marvin Jones Jr at least three times every preseason.
Haseley: Terrace Marshall Jr leads all Panthers wide receivers in touchdown receptions. Marshall was a capable and prolific receiver at LSU during and after Joe Burrow's tenure. He was known for scoring touchdowns from all over the field, yet he was overshadowed by Justin Jefferson and then Ja'Marr Chase. He wasn't truly a feature of the offense until last season when LSU tried three different quarterbacks to run the system.
Marshall excelled and finished with 23 touchdowns in 19 games in his three-year career at LSU, including 10 in 2020 without all-world quarterback Joe Burrow, playing in only 7 games before opting out for the rest of the season. Carolina has been utilizing him all over the field this preseason, including a slot role that would elevate his fantasy appeal, especially in PPR leagues.
D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson are key pieces to the Panthers' offense, but the lack of touchdowns has kept them from blossoming into elite receivers. Moore has 10 touchdowns in three seasons, and Anderson scored just three times last season. Marshall and his yet-to-be-noticed skills are on the verge of taking flight in Carolina's offense. If he picks up where he left off with three relatively unknown quarterbacks at LSU, he could be a star in the making and a gem fantasy piece as early as this year.
Waldman: Marshall could have the best career of the LSU trio and that's something, considering how much I like the other two. I expect all three of these options — Marshall, Chase, and Justin Jefferson — to have excellent careers.
Wood: DeShaun Watson will help a team, other than the Texans, make a late-season playoff push and simultaneously help fantasy managers win their leagues. Watson's situation has been indecipherable all summer, and the consensus is he'll be a non-factor in 2021. But we know teams have inquired about trading for him recently, and it stands to reason if Watson settles and avoids criminal charges, he'll be in high demand regardless of the PR snafu it'll cause initially.
Hicks: New coaching groups can either right a ship quickly or be in over their head. Can we tell the direction the Chargers, Lions, Jets, Eagles, Falcons, Texans, or the Jaguars are headed just yet? Odds are one of these teams makes the playoffs. Call me crazy, but I predict Jacksonville squeaks in.
Urban Meyer has relevant experience on all the other head coaches and has a boom rookie quarterback. He has enough talent on his team to make an impact in a division that will be more open than expected. The depth in the AFC is weaker than the NFC and with seven playoff teams, Jacksonville carries two wide receivers high in fantasy standings. D.J. Chark Jr I expect to put it all together, while one or both of Marvin Jones Jr and Laviska Shenault Jr are startable for significant portions of the season.
McNamara: The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC runs through Orchard Park, New York.
Geary: OP, NY!
Waldman: You can't have football season without a Bills-crazy representing...
Allen: Russell Wilson finishes as the QB1. Shane Waldron’s quick-passing scheme can bring a much-needed element of consistency to an already efficient offense. It’d rely more on the receiver’s athletic ability than Wilson’s deep ball. But we’ll still take the deep shots. Wilson can add his usual creativity to receiving production from newly acquired pass-catchers like Gerald Everett and D’Wayne Eskridge. The end result is Wilson as the QB1. He’s thrown 30 or more touchdowns in 4consecutive seasons. Adding to that total while maintaining some mobility at 32 years old isn’t too far of a stretch.
Waldman: While I'd personally criticize that as a tame prediction, Chris, I get why most will see it as bold. It's a good call, for sure.
Settle: The Bears will quickly realize starting Andy Dalton was a mistake and will catch the lightning in a bottle that Justin Fields is. After watching the damage Justin Herbert did last season, Fields steps in with Allen Robinson and leads a suddenly dynamic Bears offense to a late-season Wild Card berth after taking advantage of a dysfunctional NFC North.
Waldman: I think the big reason Dalton is starting is that Fields must learn to protect himself with correct pre-snap calls. He nearly got decapitated this preseason and that line already lost its other top rookie, Teven Jenkins. Still, I appreciate the bold call on Fields having enough juice to lead the Bears to a playoff berth. It could happen.
Geary: Jalen Hurts will be a top-5 quarterback in 2021. He possesses tremendous rushing upside and his ADP was reminiscent of Josh Allen and Kyler Murray in years past. His point total of 37.8 in Week 15 was 2020's sixth-highest single-game score from a quarterback, and that is exactly the type of ceiling you want in your lineup each week. When Hurts took over Weeks 14-16, the Eagles jumped to first overall in total yards per game and fourth in rushing yards per game. His 52% completion percentage will improve this year with more short, intermediate passes, as almost half of his 2020 passing attempts were thrown 10 or more yards downfield (the highest rate in the NFL). With a healthy offensive line, the addition of Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, and a sub-par defense, the formula for a top-5 fantasy finish is set for Jalen Hurts.
Waldman: Logical, Victoria. Hard to argue with him as a top-10 option due to the well-stated dynamics here. A bold call for top-5 and entirely possible.
Good luck this week, folks, and may all your bold calls work out — except for your Bills and Chiefs fans, it's Cleveland's year.