TOP 5 PASSING MATCHUPS WEEK 1
Philadelphia at Atlanta
The Eagles have begun the Jalen Hurts Era in earnest; he’ll open the year under center without much pressure off the bat. The front office did just deal for Gardner Minshew, but he came very cheaply and looks maxed out as a backup. Hurts’ leash looks much longer than it did a few months ago, when the team was sniffing around Deshaun Watson. He’ll need to prove he can find the tough downfield windows he did as a rookie fill-in. If he can, he’ll elevate a promising young pass game and serve as a fantasy QB1 himself. If he fails, he won’t be able to point to a lack of pass-catching talent, or at least a game effort by the team to acquire it. Hurts will throw to a trio of receivers in DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, and Dallas Goedert that all came via first- or second-round picks over the past three years. Smith and Reagor will look to utilize their speed against a rebuilt Falcons secondary that may not have its communication down yet. On the inside, Goedert and Zach Ertz will run routes frequently when on the field. The Eagles’ stout front line should not only keep Hurts upright and clear, but also keep that tight end duo free to make plays through the air.
The Falcons enter 2021 with arguably the league’s weakest and most exploitable secondary. No team gave up more passing yardage last year (307 per game), and only 5 allowed more touchdowns (34). Typically a change is needed after such a dreadful showing, but the Falcons may have regressed even further here. They’ll trot out mostly the same rotation of shaky cornerbacks, but will have to break in new bodies at their top three safety spots on the fly. They’ve brought in journeyman types in Duron Harmon and Erik Harris to start – neither inspires confidence – and will hope for a short learning curve for rookie Richie Grant. On the outside, A.J. Terrell, last year’s No. 16 pick, will lead a cornerback group that needs to take a step forward. Terrell impressed at times as a rookie, but faded a bit down the stretch. If nothing else, he proved adept at keeping the ball in front of him for short receptions – though Mike Evans and Antonio Brown roasted this group downfield twice at the end of the year. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, and the new batch of safeties have their work cut out as they look to rebuild spontaneously. They’ll open the year as the most inviting matchup in all of fantasy, boosting even the shaky Eagles passing game into must-play status.
San Francisco at Detroit
The 49ers enter the year with shaky veteran Jimmy Garoppolo under center, though the time for exciting rookie Trey Lance can’t be far off. It’s expected that this air attack will pump its brakes dramatically, at least in terms of volume, focusing instead on Kyle Shanahan’s multi-faceted ground game. They dropped back on 58% of their snaps in 2020, a number that should dip noticeably. Still, it’s naïve to think they’ve assembled such a talented young receiver corps just to waste it. Versatile playmakers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk lead a dynamic group that can win from all over the formation. Aiyuk has the best chance to emerge as a WR1; he’s the more traditional option and more capable of winning down the field. Tight end George Kittle should lead the pack as a wildly gifted two-way star who wins all over the field. Kittle averaged 6 catches for 79 yards a game last year, but found the end zone only twice, an imbalance that should bounce back his way in 2021. Overall, this attack may not be predictable or high-octane, but will boast several sources of week-winning upside.
The Lions closed 2020 with arguably the worst pass defense in football. No one gave up more yardage per attempt, and no one allowed more touchdowns through the air. Virtually every time a marquee wideout popped up on the schedule, he was safe to pencil in for a 100-yard explosion and a handful of touchdown opportunities. And it’s hard to find the 2021 reinforcements on a depth chart that was hardly touched in the offseason. All the team’s eggs are in the Jeffrey Okudah basket, and last year’s No. 3 pick endured an active yet disappointing rookie year. Okudah was beaten on all levels of the field, looking nothing like the shutdown force he was at Ohio State. Only slot man Nickell Robey-Coleman and third-round rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu were added of note, and neither profiles as a shutdown guy. That puts a ton of pressure on the safeties, and holdovers Tracy Walker and Will Harris are subpar at best. It’s no wonder this matchup was so beatable last year, and with so little turnover, it’s fully safe to target the same way in 2021.
Baltimore at Las Vegas
The Ravens enter the year banged up at receiver, but with plenty of weapons for their low-volume purposes. This attack is dominated by Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, with only occasional room for another piece to be fantasy-relevant. The team is thrilled to have Brown (likely) full-go for the opener after he lost most of camp to a hamstring issue. Sammy Watkins impressed coaches throughout camp – when healthy himself – and could eat into Brown’s inconsistent role as a downfield playmaker. The real gem here is Andrews, who works the slots and flats and has the dynamism to make splash plays inside. Lamar Jackson relies on the threat of the run to open things up with play action and movement, so much of their success comes on the heels of the ground game. As long as it’s in place, Jackson should be able to find his weapons against the Raiders’ stuck-in-mud pass defense.
The Raiders have taken steps on offense under Jon Gruden, but there’s been no movement of note to their bottom-of-the-barrel defense. They finished 2020 bottom-seven in completions, yardage, and touchdowns allowed through the air, with no obvious rescue on the way. The pass rush is still non-existent, and the secondary remains a mish-mash of flawed, unproven parts. They’ve now invested four premium picks into the defensive backs over the past three drafts, but none of Damon Arnette, Trayvon Mullen, or Jonathan Abram has yet shown any utility in coverage. In fact, Arnette was demoted to second team during camp as the team looks to lean on any veteran mediocrity it can grasp. On Sunday, the Ravens will look to avoid the lone solid starter, Casey Hayward, which puts Mullen and the inexperienced safeties on notice. Rookie Trevon Moehrig should start off the bat at free safety, though there’s very little veteran security behind him. They could certainly all benefit from some help up front, but the Oakland pass rush remains one of the game’s weakest. Yannick Ngakoue, Maxx Crosby, and Carl Nassib are all strong complementary pieces, but there’s no truly dominant rusher on the roster. It’s hard to imagine them challenging the Ravens’ strong front line much, so the leaky secondary has its work cut out.
Indianapolis vs Seattle
The Colts began a new quarterbacking era Sunday, with ex-Eagle Carson Wentz stepping into Philip Rivers’ vacated shoes. Wentz’s presence comes as a surprise after foot surgery that was expected to sideline him into October. Wentz comes to town after a rollercoaster run in Philadelphia, and he likely won’t be asked to do as much by new coach Frank Reich. The Colts prefer to grind things out on the ground, and they’ll surely look to ease their new passer along in a ball-control setting. They’ll be inclined to throw even less with top wideout TY Hilton on the shelf for the first month. But there’s big-play potential in Michael Pittman Jr, the big-bodied youngster who flashed WR1 ability as a rookie, and Parris Campbell, who says he’s 100% healthy and ready to roll in the slot. Wentz boasts sleeper potential, particularly if the run game dominates as expected and keeps defenses honest.
The 2021 Seahawks may or may not be a “track meet” team, running back and forth with opponents in high-scoring shootouts. Coach Pete Carroll may look to run the ball more and bog down game flow, which would help this unit on paper. They closed out 2020 having allowed the league’s third-most yards through the air, with 9 different receivers topping 100 yards and 10 more clearing 75. Those numbers were a bit inflated – this unit faced more pass attempts (42 per game) than anyone in football. But there’s still reason to view it as one to exploit for fantasy purposes. The cornerback group is badly undermanned, with intriguing rookie Tre Brown sidelined indefinitely and very few useful faces available. D.J. Reed and Tre Flowers are replacement-level players, but both will log heavy snaps as the only experienced options on the outside. Perhaps Sidney Jones will reveal some of his promise, here on his third roster in three years. They’ll lean heavily on playmaking safety Jamal Adams, who’s back in the fold with a new contract, but he can only do so much as a wild card on the back end. There will also be snaps available for Blessuan Austin, who signed this week after starting on and off for the Jets. Austin may be the most talented cover man on the active roster this weekend, and even the run-minded Colts will happily take advantage of that.
Tampa Bay vs Dallas
The Buccaneers’ faith in Tom Brady never wavered down the 2020 stretch, even as he struggled to get on-page with his gifted receivers or even throw the ball 15 yards downfield. They were rewarded as the whole unit came together in the postseason, making a bold statement as to what they’re capable of with such firepower. Brady remains the gold standard as a thinking man’s quarterback, one able to patiently survey the field while waiting for his read to break open. And he now throws to a wildly talented batch of pass-catchers that produce as many splash plays as anyone. Mike Evans and Antonio Brown will work the boundaries most often, with the oversized Chris Godwin in the slot, though all three are versatile chess pieces that will win from anywhere and everywhere. Of course, that can bog down their statistical upsides a bit. With all three in the lineup down the stretch (Weeks 9-16), Evans led the way with a good-not-great 84 yards on 8 targets a game. But these guys – as well as the tight ends – are all dynamic enough to maximize every touch, so there remain gobs of fantasy potential all over this attack. And in their opener, they’ll face a shaky, undermanned Cowboys secondary that gave up big plays in bunches last year.
The Cowboys defense spent much of 2020 engaged in high-scoring track meets, and it’s hard to expect any different in 2021. They deceivingly finished 11th in net yardage allowed, checking in 21st when adjusted for the volume they faced, and good quarterbacks had little trouble finding efficiency. Matchups with Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, and Kirk Cousins made up a quarter of their season – and produced 302 yards a game, with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they’ll return most of that underperforming secondary to their same roles. There’s promise to be found in top cornerback Trevon Diggs, but running mates Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown graded among the worst in football last year, and little help was brought into the mix. There are also questions up front as the team looks for a pass-rush spark from such a thinned-out group of bodies. They pieced together situational playmakers like Aldon Smith and Everson Griffen last year, but new difference-makers must now emerge. Perhaps new free safety Damontae Kazee can return to his ballhawking ways of 2018-19, but even that wouldn’t be enough to properly bandage this unit. Tom Brady and his weapons will enjoy a handful of exploitable weak spots on the back end.
BOTTOM 5 PASSING MATCHUPS WEEK 1
Chicago at LA Rams
The Bears are in the midst of yet another full rebuild of their passing attack, and it’s tough to project what that will look like midseason. But to kick off the year, it will be journeyman Andy Dalton under center and Allen Robinson dominating his attention. Dalton is viewed as little more than a placeholder for dual-threat rookie Justin Fields, whose development will make or break coach Matt Nagy. For what it’s worth, Rams coach Sean McVay says he’s preparing for the possibility of both quarterbacks playing Sunday. If Fields can answer the bell, he’ll run away with the job and an appreciably long leash. Either will enjoy throwing to Robinson, who’s produced an efficient 7.9 yards per target over the past 2 years. There’s also enthusiasm over the speedy Darnell Mooney, who is looking to get downfield more after languishing in the screen game as a rookie. The team added discarded free agent Breshad Perriman at the tail end of camp, but he’s almost certainly out of NFL lives. There are superior deep-threat options already here in Mooney, Damiere Byrd, and Marquise Goodwin. Tight end Cole Kmet began wrestling the lead role away from Jimmy Graham late in his rookie year, and he’s surely locked it down by now. There’s 50-catch potential there, if nothing else.
The Rams continue to field one of the game’s most suffocating defenses, though they don’t enter 2021 without concerns. This star-studded unit still boasts top-end talent on all levels of the field. The catalyst up front remains Aaron Donald, still the gold standard among difference-making pass rushers from the interior. Donald has produced 46.5 sacks over his last 48 games, which doesn’t even tell the whole tale of his dominant impact. His presence draws offensive focus in and frees up the playmakers around him to provide pressure of their own, which in turn makes life easier for their elite cornerback duo. Jalen Ramsey remains a deserving All-Pro, while Darious Williams more than held his own last year against quarterbacks desperately avoiding Ramsey. If there’s a worry, it’s over the fact that two key defensive backs, safety John Johnson III and slot man Troy Hill, both bolted for Cleveland. That turns those positions over to a committee of semi-proven youngsters, and if the Rams can’t figure it out in time for Week 1, they’ll take on route-runner supreme Allen Robinson in the midst of an identity crisis. Overall, though, there’s little reason to be optimistic about the Bears here. Ramsey will likely follow Robinson around for a hefty chunk of the day, limiting his upside and denting any realistic chance for the productivity through the air.
LA Chargers at Washington
The Chargers enter 2021 with optimism over the future of their air attack, thanks to the dazzling rookie season of quarterback Justin Herbert. Considered a raw prospect by most, Herbert excelled on the level of a mid-career veteran. He gelled immediately with his wideouts, particularly down the field, where he proved one of the game’s most effective in traffic. Herbert has energized the base quickly after Philip Rivers, and there’s no ceiling in sight for him and this gifted receiving corps. Keenan Allen remains among the game’s best pure possession men, winning on quick slants and along the chains, and he caught 93 passes over 11 games with Herbert. Mike Williams is an elite deep-ball threat on the other side; he’ll be a beneficiary of Herbert’s second-year climb. Herbert is a downfield-minded passer, but even underneath, he can rely on Austin Ekeler and new addition Jared Cook as checkdowns. It’s unfortunate for fantasy managers they’ll all open the year in a borderline shutdown matchup, one that projects well below the mean for this talented group. Fantasy managers shouldn’t overreact to a potential slow start here.
The Football Team are building their new identity on defense, and the early returns have been positive. They closed 2020 as the league’s second-best unit against the pass, giving up a meager 212 yards a game. Over the final two months, only two opposing passers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, topped 300 yards against them – and Roethlisberger needed 53 attempts to do it. Much of the credit goes to the pass rush, which has been handpicked with premium draft picks that have all hit off the bat. Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Montez Sweat are all difference-making talents that could collectively storm the All-Pro roster as soon as this year. Adding Chase Young, the last draft’s edge rusher extraordinaire, to the mix made for almost too much explosive talent. All this pressure makes life easier for the secondary, which was already well-stocked before William Jackson III was signed in the offseason. Jackson brings shutdown ability, especially when protected by such a disruptive pass rush, which he rarely enjoyed during a rollercoaster run in Cincinnati. Paired with the still-overlooked Kendall Fuller, Jackson is poised to serve as one of 2021’s biggest bargains. And on the whole, it won’t be easy to produce in this matchup while the playmakers are healthy.
NY Giants at Denver
The Giants are in a precarious position heading into Week 1 of the 2021 season. Daniel Jones enters his third season as the Giants starting quarterback. The big question will be the health of the Giants entering Week 1 as Saquon Barkley, Kenny Golladay, and Evan Engram are all questionable or doubtful this week. Barkley plays a pivotal role in the passing game has been limited for almost all the preseason. He will undergo a test practice on Thursday that will determine whether he’s good to go this week, but he was able to get in a limited practice on Wednesday which is a great sign. At the tight end position, highly skilled but oft-injured tight end Evan Engram appears like he will miss this week with a calf injury. Golladay appears like he will be able to go this week, but the question for the free agent signing is how well he will perform as he has practiced just a handful of time this season.
The Broncos enter 2021 sporting arguably the league’s best secondary – and therefore one to avoid in fantasy whenever possible. It’s certainly not a unit to test with the Giants questions in the passing game. The Broncos gave up yardage in bunches down the 2020 stretch, but spent the offseason spending up to retool. And at this point, they’ve seamlessly transitioned the secondary from the Chris Harris Jr/Aqib Talib era to today’s deep group of playmakers. At cornerback they’ll trot out a pair of prized free-agent acquisitions in Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, with gifted rookie Patrick Surtain II bouncing around the formation as he learns the trade. Surtain looked fantastic in the preseason; his nose for the ball will play well on a defense dedicated to applying pressure. The pass rush remains formidable, safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are both coming off strong years, and there’s ample talent up and down the depth chart. The Jaguars can throw a handful of intriguing skill players at this unit, but it’s hard to find many openings here. Coach Vic Fangio has long been known for the fast development of his secondaries, and for their stinginess against opposing pass games.
Las Vegas vs Baltimore
The Raiders are still seeking some kind of pass-game personality under coach Jon Gruden. He’s coaxed mostly strong football out of Derek Carr, who has averaged between 253 and 256 yards in each of the last three seasons. Carr remains a bit gun-shy downfield, but the bigger problems lie up front, where the offensive line is undergoing a rebuild, and out wide, where no receivers have yet seized their opportunity on a thinned-out depth chart. The passing game still revolves around tight end Darren Waller – partly because of personnel, and partly because Carr almost always prefers to check down underneath. Waller looks poised for another season of massive volume. The hope is that Henry Ruggs III, last year’s first-round pick, can add to his game as a go-to threat all over the field. Ruggs has added weight this offseason, hoping for more opportunities to make plays with the ball in his hands. His deep speed (a 4.27 dash) certainly isn’t up for debate. The team will also want to see growth from Bryan Edwards, a versatile weapon who was invisible (just 15 targets over 12 games) while popping in and out of the lineup as a rookie. There’s not much dynamism behind them, with one-dimensional slot man Hunter Renfrow and a pair of veteran retreads in Zay Jones and Willie Snead IV. It’s worth noting the team was confident enough in the youngsters to let John Brown go after training camp. But for the time being, it’s only safe to project this attack as far as Waller’s volume will take it.
The Ravens have a novel problem, with simply too many talented defenders to fit into their smothering secondary. This group boasts a pair of All-Pro cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, and they conform their safeties well to play in support of them. Peters remains the gold standard for confident, ball hawking cornerbacks capable of baiting passers into easy interceptions. It’s a volatile role, but few are as impactful against top wideouts than Peters, whom quarterbacks often try to avoid. Humphrey will often bump down into the slot, He’s capable of rotating all over the formation with Tavon Young, who’s developed into a solid puzzle piece on the inside, and a still-productive Jimmy Smith. The safety play behind them is less crucial than with some other teams, but they’re well-stocked with a handful of usable options. All in all, this is virtually the same stingy group from 2020, which gave up just 5.8 net yards per attempt (4th in the NFL) and 13 touchdowns through the air (5th). The Raiders are still seeking an identity in their pass game beyond Darren Waller, and this isn’t a wise week to bet on them figuring it out.
Miami at New England
The Dolphins clearly prioritized their ho-hum passing game over the offseason. They added explosive big-play threats in Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle, and their patience with slot man Albert Wilson, who opted out of 2020, pays off with his return. It’s certainly the most exciting cast of receivers in Miami in a decade or more, even before tight end Mike Gesicki is considered. Of course, baby steps are to be expected. Fuller won’t even suit up Sunday (suspension), and Tua Tagovailoa is still seeking to prove he can push the ball downfield with any gusto. When Tagovailoa last took on Bill Belichick’s defense, in Week 15 of last season, the rookie turned 26 throws into just 145 scoreless yards. Granted, Tagovailoa was playing with a skeleton crew of receivers, but it’s worth noting he avoided the downfield areas like the plague. Even stocked with a slew of new, dynamic pass-catchers, the team may ease along his downfield game, leaving him to hand off and check down most of the time.
The Patriots have impressively restocked their secondary on the fly, covering over a handful of key personnel losses from the offseason. Even with premier cornerback tandem Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty on the shelf, there’s still plenty of playmaking depth all over this secondary. They’ve found a rising star in J.C. Jackson, who has broken up 20 passes and intercepted a league-high 12 over his last 21 starts. He’s a gambler, but he looks well-suited atop the depth chart, even if he likely won’t shadow opposing No. 1s like Gilmore often does. Around him, the team has built up a deep, versatile depth chart, and the fact that it’s schemed by Bill Belichick doesn’t hurt. The coaches spent camp finding a role for second-year prospect Kyle Dugger, who profiles as a Patrick Chung type of playmaker on the ball. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve added firepower up front, where ex-Raven Matt Judon makes for a big upgrade as the catalyst of the pass rush. Judon was an underrated nuisance his entire time in Baltimore, posting solid sack numbers but fantastic pass rush metrics. His move to New England is the kind of shrewdly impactful play that keeps a defense afloat in transition. Having gems like Jackson sitting around helps as well, and this looks like one of Belichick’s best units of the past decade or so.
|San Francisco||at Detroit||Great|
|Baltimore||at Las Vegas||Great|
|Tampa Bay||vs Dallas||Great|
|Carolina||vs NY Jets||Great|
|NY Jets||at Carolina||Good|
|Green Bay||at New Orleans||Neutral|
|Cleveland||at Kansas City||Neutral|
|Kansas City||vs Cleveland||Neutral|
|Dallas||at Tampa Bay||Neutral|
|Washington||vs LA Chargers||Neutral|
|LA Rams||vs Chicago||Neutral|
|Detroit||vs San Francisco||Tough|
|New England||vs Miami||Tough|
|New Orleans||vs Green Bay||Tough|
|Denver||at NY Giants||Tough|
|Miami||at New England||Bad|
|Las Vegas||vs Baltimore||Bad|
|NY Giants||at Denver||Bad|
|LA Chargers||at Washington||Bad|
|Chicago||at LA Rams||Bad|
Methodology: Best matchup does not mean the players who are projected for the most amount of points. We try to balance the impact that the defense will have on the offense as we start with a baseline for each team and try to determine which defenses will have the biggest impact on the offense. More often than not, bad offenses will show up on the worst matchups and good offenses will show up on the top matchups but occasionally you will have a scenario where the top offense is facing the top defense, therefore, making it a difficult matchup for that offense.
You should always start elite players even if they are in one of the more difficult matchups of the week.