It's finally here! The 2016 NFL regular season kicks-off Thursday night with a Super Bowl rematch with the Carolina Panthers traveling to Denver to play the champion Broncos. Fantasy drafts are just finishing up, everyone believes they are going to win their leagues and we're getting ready to watch some actual football! Sorry Santa, but is there really a better time of year? Erm...down to business. Tweaking the series slightly from last season, I'll mainly focus on one game each week that I feel presents the best overall situation(s) for all of the fantasy players involved for both teams, although you may get a little bonus coverage from time to time (as you'll see below). Without further ado, here's the first Fantasy Game of the Week for the 2016 NFL Season!
Detroit Lions at Indianapolis Colts - Sunday, September 11 at 4:25 p.m., Over/Under: 50.5
This works out perfectly for me, as I've been big supporter of several players on both of these teams during draft season and they just happen to be playing each other in Week 1! These two teams are mirror images of each other: pass first offenses with plenty of weapons that will be in 3 WR-1TE sets more often than they'll be in any normal running formation. Detroit and Indy each have a QB, 2 WRs and a TE that I like this season, as well as RBs that should out perform their draft value this season, even if only because of volume. Also important here is the fact that neither one of them has a defense that is particularly good (great news for fantasy!), which Vegas agrees with in the form of an Over/Under of 50.5 points. With all of that in mind, let's dive into the match-up!
Matthew Stafford was my main target at QB when I was waiting until late in drafts (which was pretty much always) and I really like him this season overall. Last year Stafford finished as the #10 QB in standard fantasy leagues, passing for 4262 yards, 32 TDs and just 13 INTs. The important thing to remember here is that current Offensive Coordinator Jim-Bob Cooter -- probably one of the most fun names to say in the league -- didn't take over the offense from Joe Lombardi until Week 8 of last season and then the Lions had their bye in Week 9. From that point forward (Weeks 10-17), Stafford was a new man. Here are his stats pre- and post-Cooter:
|Stafford's Stats||Weeks 1-9 (Pre-Cooter)||Weeks 10-17 (Post-Cooter as OC)|
|Fantasy Points Per Game||19||26|
That's a big difference, right? Now, to start the season Detroit gets an Indianapolis defense that ranked 24th in the league against the pass last season and have done nothing to make me believe they'll be improved this season. In fact, their #1 Corner Vontae Davis is out for the first month or so of the season with an ankle injury, making the match-up even more juicy. Stafford is a Top-5 QB for me in Week 1.
The guys Stafford will be throwing to will no longer include likely Hall of Fame WR Calvin Johnson, who surprised many by retiring this offseason. Nobody can replace Megatron, but the guy brought in to take his spot in the lineup is another one of my favorite players this season: WR Marvin Jones. Jones has looked great in the preseason and seems to be in sync with Stafford on the field. His role will be much larger in Detroit than it ever was in Cincinnati and I believe he'll actually be the #1 WR for the Lions instead of his counterpart, Golden Tate. Jones has more big-play ability and has shown that he can be a weapon in the red zone when he caught 10 TDs in 2013 and at 6'2" and about 200 pounds, he profiles as a more prototypical WR1. With all that in mind, I really like Jones in this game against Indy's pass defense, especially with Davis out of the lineup. Now, that's not to say that I don't like Tate also. Tate is very likely to have more receptions than Jones in the majority of games this season, as he'll definitely get his fair share of short passes thrown his way, making him even more valuable in PPR. If he can return to his 2014 form in the yards after catch (YAC) category, he'll put up some great numbers here with Jones and TE Eric Ebronstretching the field and giving him some room to operate. I see both guys as solid WR2s or high-end flexes this week against the Colts' porous secondary. Veteran Anquan Boldin is now the #3 WR for Detroit and although I don't think he'll have much of a fantasy impact, his presence will be felt and seen on the field for Stafford. He'll be a possession receiver and will give them a physical presence in the middle of the field on short-to-intermediate depth routes.
Speaking of Ebron, he was another guy I was high on prior to the season. Unfortunately, an ankle injury in early August has kept him off the field for most of training camp and all of the preseason. Still, Ebron was a Top-10 pick in the 2014 Draft for a reason. He's 6'4" and can run and the Lions are depending on his ability to make stretch plays down the middle of the field. According to reports, Ebron did return to practice on Monday of this week in preparation for this match-up and against a defense that was Bottom-10 in fantasy points allowed to TEs, I'd keep an eye on his status during the week. He could explode this season and this plus match-up could launch his breakout campaign. For me, he's definitely a starter in standard 12-team leagues if he's able to start.
Here comes the less exciting part of the Detroit offense: the running game. The Lions haven't really been able to move the ball on the ground over the past several seasons and they always seem to be among the league leaders in pass attempts (makes it a bit obvious why I like so many pieces of the passing game, eh?). That being said, someone is going to be useful here. I'm not really an Ameer Abdullah guy, but he's probably the most talented of the RB trio here, which also includes Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner. Zenner is unusable until we see how he's going to be integrated into this rotation, if at all. Riddick is purely a pass catcher and had 80 receptions last season, making him a very solid and often underrated player in PPR formats, but mostly hands off in standard leagues. Abdullah did manage to average 4.2 yards per carry (YPC) last season, but only had 143 total carries. If he has gotten rid of his fumble-itis and gets even the slight majority of work in the running game and a few receptions here and there, which he is capable of, he could produce some solid numbers. It doesn't hurt that the Colts were 26th against the run last season and gave up the 10th most fantasy points to RBs. I like Abdullah as a low-end RB2 or even better as a flex here with some decent upside.
Last season was one to forget for QB Andrew Luck, who was already not having his best season while suffering through a shoulder injury, then an abdominal tear and a lacerated kidney ended his season prematurely after Week 9. I think Luck will come back with a vengeance this season, especially with what should be a more wide-open offense that will reportedly run significantly more 3 WR sets. Now that TE Coby Fleener is in New Orleans, Dwayne Allen should be the lone TE on the field at most times, with WRs T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett joining him in the passing game. That puts all of their best skill position players on the field together and allows Luck to spread the ball around to whoever presents themselves as the best option at the time. The most concerning part about all of this is Indy's offensive line, although they have tried to make some changes this offseason, including drafting center Ryan Kelly. This is going to be another high-volume pass offense and the Lions' secondary doesn't scare me at all, as they gave up the 12th most fantasy points to opposing QBs last season and were a middle of the pack pass defense (15th). With all of these weapons, Luck should be a monster and he too is a Top-5 QB for me this week.
Speaking of Luck's weapons in the passing game, Hilton and Moncrief should both be solid WR2s this week, each with the ability to go off and post WR1 numbers. I like Hilton, but Moncrief was another one of "my guys" this preseason. When Luck was on the field with Moncrief, he posted at least 9 fantasy points in standard leagues in 7 of 9 games last season. Hilton is a big-play guy and has more history with Luck, but despite his size (6'2", 222), Moncrief is not just a possession receiver. This dude ran a 4.40 40-yard dash at the combine and had a 39.5 inch vertical. He has the ability to be a prototypical #1 WR and I believe he could get enough targets to produce in that range this season, starting in Week 1 against the Lions. After all, the Colts are also going to be passing the ball a ton, as they have no reliable options at RB behind the ancient Frank Gore. Like I said, both guys are WR2s with the potential to be more. A popular late round pick in drafts, #3 WR Phillip Dorsett is going to be more dynamic that his counterpart in Detroit (Boldin) but won't get a ton of volume unless Moncrief or Hilton go down with an injury. He shouldn't be started here unless you're in a pretty deep league, but he does have some nice upside down the road.
I love Dwayne Allen this year. Like Stafford at QB, Allen was one of my favorite late round choices when punting at Tight End. TE has been kind of a messy situation in Indy for fantasy owners for the past several years, with Coby Fleener and Allen always taking away from each other's value. Fleener had one big year in 2014, posting 51 catches for 774 yards and 8 TDs, making him the #6 TE in fantasy...and Allen still managed 8 TDs himself that season! Luck has always been known to target his TEs (so has new OC Rob Chudzinski) and with Fleener now in New Orleans and Allen the sole guy expected to soak up the majority of targets at the position, he has a lot of upside. Combine that with the fact that the Lions gave up the 4th most fantasy points to TEs last season and you have a Top-10 guy at the position. The main concern with Allen is usually health, so just keep a wary eye on the injury reports.
Nobody is excited about it, but yes, Frank Gore is still the starting RB in Indy. Last season was a notoriously bad one for running backs in fantasy and Gore took advantage, finishing as the #12 RB in standard leagues at the end of the year. Most people would say that he just wasn't good, posting only 3.7 YPC on 260 rushing attempts and scoring just 6 TDs....but I'm not most people! I'm going to be honest, Gore wasn't as bad as his numbers suggest. I watched several Colts' games last year and Gore pretty much looked like the same-old Gore (no pun intended). The problem was terrible offensive line play and the lack of a decent passing game once Andrew Luck was injured. Gore is 33 years old, he can't have much left in the tank and I don't think he gets quite that many carries again. But who else do the Colts have? What are they gonna do, give the ball to Robert Turbin? Playing in 3 WR sets more often should give Gore more running lanes, allowing him to be more efficient. And remember that he also had 34 receptions last year and he's a fantastic pass blocker, which is what the Colts should covet more than anything in their quest to protect Luck from further injury. I think Gore is just going to keep plugging along and will be a solid RB2 again this year, as well as in this game. You heard it here first!
Other Games I Like
There are several games that are shaping up to be high-scoring this week and although I like Detroit-Indianapolis the best, here are a few more to keep your eye on:
Oakland at New Orleans - Sunday, September 11 at 1:00 p.m., Over/Under: 51
If not for the Lions-Colts game, this would be the game of the week. Oakland's offense has plenty of weapons and the Saints' defense has been as consistently bad as it gets over the years. QB Derek Carr is a great streaming option if you waited on QB in drafts. WR Amari Cooper is a WR1 here and Michael Crabtree is fine as a WR2 or a great flex. RB Latavius Murray should see a ton of work and is a RB1 and even TE Clive Walford is start-worthy in deep leagues or as a streaming option.
New Orleans opens up the season at home, which is always good news for fantasy owners of Saints players. Look for Drew Brees to shred Oakland's secondary, although Khalil Mack will probably pop in and say hello a few times. WR Brandin Cooks is a borderline WR1 and Willie Snead is a flex, especially in PPR. TE Coby Fleener had high expectations coming into the season and looks to get off to a hot start here as a Top-5 TE this week. RB Mark Ingramis a must start coming off his performance last season until we see something different.
Green Bay at Jacksonville - Sunday, September 11 at 1:00 p.m., Over/Under: 48
I'm a little less certain about this game, but there's some big-time fantasy players here. The return of WR Jordy Nelson to the Packers' offense is a main story-line and we'll get to see how he looks in his first action since returning from an ACL tear that kept him out of the entire 2015 regular season. The entire Packers' offense, including QB Aaron Rodgers and WR Randall Cobb will be effected by Nelson's return and hopefully Green Bay will get back to their old ways in the scoring department. Hopefully we also see a return to form for RB Eddie Lacy, who had a terrible 2015 season after coming into the year overweight and out of shape. Free-agent acquisition TE Jared Cook has looked good in the preseason and could be very good with Rodgers as his QB. I'm starting all my Packers here and seeing where the chips fall afterwards.
Led by QB Blake Bortles, the Jaguars' offense exploded last season. I'm wasn't super-high on Bortles coming into the season and some statistical regression can be expected, but he looked really good in the preseason. One guy I am in love with is WR Allen Robinson. This dude is a beast who will get targeted early and often and is a must-start WR1. #2 WR Allen Hurns is a great complement and can make plays in his own right, but I wouldn't use him as anything more than a flex for now. TE Julius Thomas should get targets in the middle of the field of both the short and long variety and if you drafted him, you're starting him. I like the pieces of the passing game, but I'm avoiding the RB split between T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory until I see how it shakes out, if I can help it. Neither guy is a horrible flex though.
Pittsburgh at Washington - Monday, September 12 at 7:10 p.m., Over/Under: 50
This is another game that I'm not totally confident in, although both offenses should be really good and the Over/Under says differently. I could just see Washington and QB Kirk Cousins laying an egg against the Steelers, even though their defense isn't very good. WR DeSean Jackson should be started as a low-end WR2 or solid flex option in standard leagues and TE Jordan Reed could very easily be the #1 TE this week. I'm staying away from the running game until there's more clarity about RB Matt Jones' shoulder injury.
The Steelers on the other hand, should put up points no matter what. QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Brown were in mid-season form in preseason Week 3 and RB DeAngelo Williams makes his first of three starts for the suspended Le'Veon Bell. All three guys are must starts this week. TE Jesse James will be playing for the injured Ladarius Green, who is on the PUP. Keep an eye on how he looks with Roethlisberger, as he could be a useful guy during the beginning half of the season. WRs Markus Wheaton and Eli Rogers will both see targets, but I don't think either one is start-worthy at the moment in most leagues.
That's it for this week! If anyone has any questions or comments, you can find me on Twitter @GarrettHobgood. Good luck in Week 1 and for the rest of the season!