Week 1 always gives off conflicting vibes. We’re so sure of our fantasy rosters after the draft we can’t wait for Thursday Night Football to kick off the season. However, I know I’m not the only one staring at my lineup before lock, wondering who to start. It’s the reaping-and-sowing meme personified. But I’m here to help —or at least, give you someone else to blame for a few days.
I’ll be spotlighting TNF throughout the year in this weekly column. Specifically, I’ll highlight some fringe players you may be debating on compared to your Sunday/Monday options. Stats and trends help me see the game, but I’ll walk down Narrative Street if the story is compelling enough.
But it’s the first week of the season. Let’s look at the matchup and see what to expect on Thursday night.
Possible Super Bowl 57 Preview in Week 1 as Rams host the Bills
The NFL schedule makers did us a solid in Week 1. They matched our excitement to watch live, meaningful football with a contest between two of the top teams from 2021. Los Angeles won the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. But let’s not forget the rollercoaster ride from Josh Allen’s final game of last season:
Knowing how it ends doesn’t stop my heart rate from elevating. And, I know "13 seconds" brings back painful memories for Bills Mafia. But, as we knock on 2022’s door, we can look back and see what Buffalo wants to do this year.
Josh Allen ran the third-most passing plays with three or four receivers on the field. Couple their top-3 pass rate over expectation (PROE) with their personnel additions, and their plan is clear.
Regardless of Brian Daboll’s departure, it’s spread and shred season. And it hinges on one guy.
Gabriel Davis made strides as a receiver in his second year. His success rate versus man/press coverage took a step forward. He also earned more targets, accrued more yards and had a higher EPA per target than teammate Stefon Diggs over their final six games.
Davis’ success, however, actually puts Diggs back in the overall-WR1 discussion.
With a reliable perimeter option, Diggs can move back to the interior as his slot rate dropped by a third in 2021. We're cooking with gas if they sprinkle in contributions from the ancillary options. Los Angeles’ secondary may give Buffalo fits, but we’ll need to see how the Rams offense looks first.
Matthew Stafford unlocked the Rams’ offense last season. He was top-six in air yards per attempt and EPA per play on deep passes. Even when limited deep, Stafford could spam the easy button on sail concepts to Cooper Kupp. But his surrounding talent has diminished this year with Robert Woods’ departure and no timetable for Odell Beckham’s return.
This puts the onus on Allen Robinson and what he can do with the best quarterback in his career.
Last season, Robinson hit career lows in target share, yards and efficiency. I’d also struggle to stay motivated on a team spiraling towards rock bottom. However, despite the fantasy letdown, Robinson still has some juice left in the tank.
Reception Perception highlights Robinson’s success on short and intermediate routes. Additionally, he was still top-12 in success rate against man and press coverage. Los Angeles needs a new option on backside digs to complement Kupp. If Robinson can return to his former self, the Rams will be in contention again in 2022.
Don’t Bench These Guys
But Thursday night isn’t just about the fantasy studs. Our late-round draft targets have value, too. If you’re reconsidering a Sunday option, here are a few playing on TNF with flex appeal.
I’d understand any hesitancy to start McKenzie in Week 1. He’s played more than 75 percent of the team’s offensive snaps only twice since 2020. So, any projection for Thursday is a generous extrapolation of his accomplishments. But let’s not toss them aside at the same time.
Diggs played in both those games. Other ancillary options (e.g., Emmanuel Sanders, John Brown) were available, too. Regardless, McKenzie instantly earned a 25.3% target share. And not just the layup targets. He took over for Diggs as the team’s deep threat from the slot. Again, it’s a two-game sample, but McKenzie accounted for 30.4% of the team’s air yards. With the Bills’ extreme usage of three-receiver sets, McKenzie has a secure path to targets from the start of the season.
My only concern is in the red zone. McKenzie's 5’8” frame may not be a clear target for Allen. And yet, his route participation (90.5%) and earning looks in both games say otherwise. McKenzie’s versatility is a wildcard the Bills need to play against this caliber opponent — and one you should play against yours.
Knox goes under the radar with so much focus on the wide receivers. At least, we can hope that’s how the Rams are planning for the game. He was the TE11 last year with less than 600 receiving yards, so I get the skepticism. But let’s contextualize his 2021 campaign.
Knox was the most efficient tight end by EPA per play through the first six weeks. OK, fine. You don’t play in leagues awarding points for EPA. High-value targets might sway you, though. Knox was sixth in red-zone looks and tied for second on the team. But then he broke his hand, missed two games and couldn’t get back on track. He held onto the team rank for the remainder of the season, but his efficiency dropped.
In Week 1, Knox and Diggs have the strongest rapport with Allen once inside the 20-yard line. Los Angeles was stingy against tight ends last season allowing just four scores from the position. However, three of the top-five performances against them came by offenses with mobile quarterbacks. Allen’s ability to use his legs and make interior defenders pause can create the window for Knox to capitalize.
I’d keep him on my starting roster for Thursday night.
Higbee’s ADP has confused me all off-season. He was top-10 in routes run despite missing two games and still wound up 14th in target share amongst all tight ends. I talked a bit ago about Robinson’s criticality to the offense. Higbee falls into the same category and already has an existing connection with Stafford.
We shouldn’t expect a massive shift in Higbee’s workload. However, with Van Jefferson coming into the season hurt, a modest bump isn’t unreasonable. Plus, it’s the red-zone targets we’re really after anyway.
While he runs routes, Higbee’s deployment last season capped his upside. His 5.7 aDOT was 22nd amongst his peers. So, unless he was like Kupp after the catch, he couldn’t work much farther up the field. However, he was 10th in targets per route run from inside the 20-yard line. His 20 red-zone targets were second on the Rams — and across the league. With few other options available, Higbee should have the opportunity to start the season in the top 12 at the position.
Let’s Wait a Week and See How Things Go
Conversely, we may need to marinate on some players and their situations. I get it. It’s only Week 1. Regardless, I’d check your bench before starting any of these guys.
Either Rams’ Running Back
Look. I’m giving you value here. Grouping Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson into one recommendation is like a two-for-one special. But, with Akers’ ADP, your other options may be suboptimal. Nonetheless, it’s a situation I’m trying to avoid.
Buffalo’s defensive front finished 2021 third in adjusted line yards. While the personnel changed, the talent (and depth) hasn’t. The Bills also went out and signed Von Miller. The same Von Miller who improved Los Angeles’ defense last year. From Weeks 1 through 10, the Rams were 19th in rush EPA allowed. After Miller signed and got acclimated, they soared to second. Only three running backs cracked 50 yards. And I haven’t even mentioned this backfield's split workload yet.
One of them would be viable in this situation. Los Angeles needs extra receiving options, and the Bills were susceptible to an explosive play or two on the ground. But after all the preseason talk, I’d want to see their situational roles before confidently starting either.
Buffalo told us with their wallet what they want this offense to look like in the future. Of course, we all want to see Allen torpedoing the ball downfield to Diggs. But you don’t elevate a guy like McKenzie to a full-time role, bring in Jamison Crowder, try to sign J.D. McKissic and then draft James Cook if you’re looking to build a high-flying offense. You want your quarterback to take the layups. But Allen historically hasn’t.
Allen’s passing aDOT has been top-10 the past three seasons. His deep attempt rate has been top-12 for the same time. Despite the looming threat of more two-high shells and drop-8 coverages, Allen’s aggression knows no bounds. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs went through this over the last two seasons, and Mahomes’ depth dropped as a result. We’ve yet to see Allen do the same.
Cook got one snap with Allen under center during the preseason. It’ll take time for his responsibilities to solidify. We’ll see more of him as the year progresses, but I’d keep him on standby for now.