Walkthrough Week 1: Eagles Choose their Path



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Welcome to the Week 1 Walkthrough, outlining critical fantasy football context for the season's first week of games.

At the end of the article, I've included an extensive list of the stats used as well as what they are, why they're useful, and where they came from.

Byes: None

Already Played: None

Bills at Rams, 8:20 PM Eastern, Thursday

Bills Implied Team Total: 27.5

The last time we saw Josh Allen, he threw for 329 yards and four TDs, while rushing for 68 yards in a jaw-dropping, heartbreaking outing against the Chiefs.

And Allen wasn't just a superstar in his final game. He finished fifth among quarterbacks in Expected Points Added* per play, which measures efficiency. But Allen finished second to only Patrick Mahomes in EPA per game—meaning that Allen's high efficiency on a per-play basis was able to scale. Allen wasn't succeeding as a counter punch... the Bills were running their offense with Allen as the focal point, and he was still extremely efficient. Allen's combination of efficiency and volume created a massive offensive advantage for the Bills, who led the NFL in point differential.

But Allen also turned in the occasional clunker. He logged highly inefficient performances against the Steelers, Jaguars, and Patriots, with the Bills averaging 11 points and losing all three of those games. And Allen's stats were inflated by the Bills' aggressive approach to playing with a lead. Allen recorded 42% of his EPA when the Bills' chances of winning were greater than 90% or less than 10%; he crushed in non-competitive game environments. Only Mac Jones, Jalen Hurts, and Teddy Bridgewater had more of their positive play in non-competitive environments. As a result, Allen has been more boom/bust than you'd typically expect from a star quarterback. When things are going well, the Bills have pushed the pedal to the floor, but Allen has also laid the occasional egg.

The fact that Brian Daboll is now in New York with Ken Dorsey taking over as offensive coordinator adds some risk that the Bills won't be quite as aggressive when ahead. There's also a chance they won't be as committed to the pass.

Last season, the Bills were third in pass rate over expected. But their passing tendencies leap off the page when looking at neutral situations.

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The Bills led the NFL in situation-neutral pass rate and pass rate over expected on 1st-and-10. The Bills are a decidedly pass-heavy team, but more importantly, they've been pass-heavy in favorable passing situations. The defense has to play the pass and the run on 1st-and-10. By passing aggressively on those downs, the Bills have been setting up Allen for success. Given that Dorsey worked under Daboll, one has to imagine he won't stray too far off course.

Even if Dorsey plans to run more, this isn't a great week for it. Last season the Rams led the NFL in Pro Football Focus' run defense grades, so even if the Bills plan to go more run-heavy this season, we're unlikely to see that game plan in Week 1. The Rams also finished fifth in pass rush but lost Von Miller... to the Bills. The Rams were beatable in the secondary in 2021, ranking 12th in coverage grade. It will be a bad sign for Buffalo's 2022 philosophy if the Bills don't attack through the air.

Despite a highly efficient season from his quarterback, Stefon Diggs had a down year in 2021. After an incredible debut with the Bills, in which he delivered 2.49 yards per route run, Diggs had just 1.84 YPRR in 2021—a solid but not overly impressive mark. And he was very quiet in the playoffs with a 6-67-0 receiving line on 10 targets and a very poor 1.10 YPRR. But Diggs doesn't turn 29 until November and looks like a strong bounce-back candidate, given his connection with Allen.

He could also benefit from the emergence of Gabriel Davis, who will steal more targets than Emmanuel Sanders, but also give opposing defenses a lot more to worry about. Davis played 17 games in 2021 but ran a route on 60%+ of dropbacks just seven times. Six of those seven games came in his final six games played. By that point, Davis was emerging as a full-time player in the offense, playing 80%+ snaps in five of his final six outings, including his 8-201-4 eruption against the Chiefs. With Sanders no longer on the team, Davis appears to be locked into a full-time role. The third-year player has had an average depth of targets (aDOT) of 17.4 and 15.3 in his first two seasons, making him a true deep threat, akin to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. But Davis' 2.02 YPRR in 2021 is an elite mark, especially for a second-year player. He could ultimately be a deep threat more in the mold of Courtland Sutton.

Even if he's an MVS clone, Davis should still boost the offense. Sanders was used in a similar downfield role in 2021 with a 16.0 aDOT. It didn't go well; the 34-year-old recorded a career-low 1.27 YPRR. Davis will have to flop badly to be worse than Sanders was at stretching the field. He should allow Diggs—who has had aDOTs of 11.5 and 11.8—to better work the intermediate areas of the field.

Strong play from Davis could also help open up underneath targets out of the slot. Isaiah McKenzie looks like the main beneficiary there as long as he's healthy enough to play on Thursday night. Otherwise, Jameson Crowder could soak up underneath volume. But McKenzie is the more exciting play. In his only game with an 80%+ route rate, McKenzie recorded an 11-125-1 receiving line on 12 targets. He has plenty of upside if used as the full-time slot receiver.

Improved receiving competition is not great news for Dawson Knox, whose main path to fantasy value in 2021 was running a lot of routes. Knox's 1.20 YPRR ranked 19th among 25 tight ends with 50+ targets. He was just a hair more efficient than Tyler Higbee and Jared Cook. Knox is entering his age-26 season, so he may take another step forward. But if Davis and McKenzie prove to be meaningful improvements on Sanders and Cole Beasley, Knox will need to improve as well. Otherwise, he profiles as a TD-or-bust option.

After seeing 60%+ snaps just four times in 2020, Devin Singletary hit that mark nine times in 2021. Then in the playoffs, he logged an 86% snap share against the Patriots and a 100% snap share against the Chiefs. Reports out of camp suggest that Zack Moss will have more of a role in 2022, however, and James Cook will eventually have a pass-catching role in the offense. Singletary is particularly susceptible to a receiving specialist. Among 139 players with 50+ targets in 2021, Devin Singletary ranked dead last in YPRR (0.61). As a capable pass protector, though, he will likely continue playing on most passing downs against the Rams. He looks like a low-end RB2 play, given his lack of receiving upside and the risk that Josh Allen or Zack Moss could snipe a TD.

 

*(Quarterback EPA in this article is pulled from rbsdm.com's Adjusted Expected Added, which softens the impact of negative plays).

Rams Implied Team Total: 25

The Rams opened up 2021 by airing it out against the Bears with an 11% pass rate over expected. They followed that up with a PROE of at least 8% in three of their next six games and didn't post a negative rate in their first 10 games. Following their Week 11 bye week, however, they had a negative PROE in six of their final 11 games, including a season-low -10% PROE against the Cardinals in the Divisional Round and a -2% PROE in the Super Bowl. With Matthew Stafford dealing with elbow pain, the Rams would likely prefer to keep things balanced for as long as they can get away with it.

The Rams will also be dealing with a Bills defense that ranked second in defensive DVOA in 2021 (including the playoffs) and second in EPA success rate allowed. The Bills' pass rush was a bit lacking in 2021, but with the addition of Von Miller, it should be more formidable.

Given the strength of the Bills' defense, the Rams could be preparing to slow down the game. In their first 10 games, the Rams snapped the ball with an average of 9.7 seconds on the game clock—this was roughly a league-average rate in 2021. But following their Week 11 bye, they didn't just shift to the run; they slowed down. The Rams finished the regular season by snapping the ball with 8.3 seconds left on the play clock. Only the 49ers (8.2), Colts (6.7), and Packers (6.2) were slower in 2021. The Rams used the same approach in the playoffs, averaging 8.2 seconds remaining in their Super Bowl run.

It's hard to argue with the results of these tactics... the Rams won the Super Bowl. It's also hard to believe that the Rams will want Stafford throwing with reckless abandon after monitoring his elbow throughout training camp. The Rams can always scheme up efficient offense, but they are unlikely to pass a ton unless Buffalo pushes them.

Speaking of efficient offense, Cooper Kupp led the NFL in YPRR last season. His 3.12 mark is absolutely off the charts. Since 2006, among players with 50+ targets, only Steve Smith (3.63), Julio Jones (3.23), and Andre Johnson (3.21) have had more efficient seasons. Johnson followed up his historic 2007 season with another 3+ YPRR season in 2009, and Jones hit 3+ YPRR for three straight seasons in 2015-17. The only other wide receivers to hit 3+ YPRR since 2006 are Kenny Britt (2010) and Wes Welker (3.0). What Kupp did was historic, but that doesn't mean he can't do it again.

Kupp was also the Rams' go-to scoring option. He saw 20 targets within the 10-yard line (green zone) and 15 goal-to-go targets in the 2021 regular season, which led all players. He saw another seven green zone looks in the playoffs.

The Bills will obviously be focused on taking away Kupp, and this week's offensive game plan could be somewhat conservative... but betting against Kupp is likely to be painful once again this year.

Allen Robinson is coming off a disastrous 2021 season. Despite playing with Blake Bortles to begin his career, Robinson set a career low in YPRR, with a very poor mark of 1.13 and scoring only one TD. Robinson is hoping to rebound in Los Angeles.

It's worked for other receivers. Robert Woods had a then-career-best 1.73 YPRR in Buffalo in 2016. In his first year with the Rams, he jumped to an elite 2.28, the only 2+ YPRR season of his career. Brandin Cooks also hit 2+ YPRR for the first time with the Rams, in his fifth NFL season. Odell Beckham had an abbreviated first season with the Rams, but he posted 2.52 YPRR in the playoffs after a slow start in the regular season. Clearly, there's some reason for optimism.

In his debut, Robinson's best path to a big fantasy outing is getting in the end zone. After scoring 14 TDs in his second season, Robinson has never since topped seven. But he should be taking over the role that allowed Odell Beckham to score seven TDs in 12 games last year.

Van Jefferson's status is uncertain for Week 1 after he underwent a cleanup procedure in his knee. And it's reasonable to expect a reduced role even if he does play. That puts Tyler Higbee in play as the Rams' most likely tertiary receiver. Higbee missed the Super Bowl with an MCL injury but should be healthy for Week 1. He's coming off a poor season where he posted just 1.19 YPRR, which is concerning for a player who turns 30 in January. But the Rams appear set to use Higbee in an every-snap role once again this season, making him a viable dart throw.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Rams' offense is how they will deploy their running backs. In his rookie season, Cam Akers emerged as the Rams' lead running back in Week 13. He had at least 61% of snaps from that point on, including snap shares of 71% and an absurd 96% in the Rams' two playoff games. After Akers ruptured his Achilles in 2021, the Rams turned things over to Darrell Henderson. Henderson opened the season with a 94% snap share, hit 80%+ five times, and never dropped below 60% from Weeks 1-12. After Henderson suffered a quad injury, Sony Michel played 97% of snaps in Week 13; he hit 100% the following week and again in Week 17 and never finished below 73% for the rest of the regular season.

It certainly seems like the Rams would prefer to have a clear do-everything back. The issue is that Akers' early-season health may not allow for that. In the Super Bowl, Akers logged 57% of snaps, with Henderson mixing in for 32%. Akers saw nearly three times as many snaps on first and second downs but half as many third and fourth down snaps, making Akers the clear early-down running back and Henderson the passing down RB2. With evenly split first-team reps in training camp, and McVay telling reporters that he sees the team as having two starting running backs, the same split looks likely in Week 1. However, given the way the Rams operated before Akers' early Achilles return, there's a chance that McVay commits to Akers as a clear No. 1 running back right away, if his health allows.

 

Eagles at Lions, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

Eagles Implied Team Total: 26.25

The Eagles are a difficult team to project into 2022, which isn't surprising because they were difficult to pin down in 2021. After opening the season as a genuinely pass-heavy team, they were surprisingly balanced against the Buccaneers, 2021's biggest pass funnel, in Week 6. From then on, they had a positive pass rate over expected just once, transforming into a thoroughly run-heavy team. However, the Eagles' pass volume was also trending up to end the season, and they were more focused on the pass in their playoff rematch with the Buccaneers than they were in Week 6.

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After trading for A.J. Brown, the Eagles could start 2022 the way they did 2021. Or, they could build their offense around their more successful run-heavy style.

It will be up to them how to play their Week 1 matchup. The Lions' defense was poor across the board last season, and while they should have a better pass rush with the addition of Aidan Hutchinson, the Eagles' elite offensive line is likely to hold up just fine against the rookie. So instead of needing to attack a matchup, the Eagles can call this game however they prefer. What they choose to do should tell us a lot about how they intend to play in 2022. Personally, I expect them to play balanced with a slight lean to the pass this week.

After leading all quarterbacks with 782 rushing yards in 2021, there's no doubt that Jalen Hurts is a rushing weapon. If he can improve on his 21st finish in passing yards, he can emerge as a week-winning fantasy option. And Hurts did show some promise as a passer last season. He finished 18th in EPA per game, directly behind Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson. 2021 was a down year for both dual-threat quarterbacks, but with a significant upgrade at WR1, it's easy to imagine Hurts taking a step forward to rival the peak form of Murray and Jackson. If Hurts' game has another level, a matchup with the Lions is as good a time as any to show it.

A.J. Brown is an absolute superstar. Since entering the league, he's averaged 2.59 YPRR, the highest mark on record through a wide receiver's first three seasons. Demaryius Thomas, Deebo Samuel, Kenny Britt, and Odell Beckham round out the top 5. Of course, he's enjoyed efficient quarterback play, with Ryan Tannehill finishing third in EPA per play since 2019. But his off-the-charts per-route efficiency has also been partially masked by the Titans' philosophical approach. Over the last three seasons, the Titans rank dead last in situation-neutral pass rate, and they have really been in a tier of their own as a run-first offense.

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Brown's transition to the Eagles comes with risks. His target competition is much more talented, his quarterback is unlikely to be quite as efficient, and he could once again be in a low-volume offense. But even if the Eagles are run-first, they'll need to be really committed to the bit match what the Titans have done. On the other hand, if Brown can consolidate sufficient target share, Hurts shows improvement, and the Eagles are willing to play modern football, his elite efficiency can shine through more often for huge fantasy performances. Like Hurts, this matchup provides him an opportunity to show that ceiling.

Without the addition of Brown, we would have likely spent a lot of time this offseason discussing DeVonta Smith's strong chances for a second-year breakout. Because Smith was coming off a Heisman campaign and wasn't nearly as dominant as fellow top-10 pick Ja'Marr Chase was as a rookie, his 2021 felt a little quiet. But Smith had an impressive rookie season, recording a 22% target share and 1.73 YPRR. There seemed to be more buzz around Elijah Moore and Jaylen Waddle's rookie seasons, but both receivers essentially tied Smith's efficiency with 1.75 YPRR. Smith was also playing out of position in a sense. After an aDOT of 10.7 in his breakout 2020, Smith shifted from an intermediate receiver to a deep threat, posting an aDOT of 14.9 as a rookie. Brown, who has excelled with aDOTs of 13+, should take on more deep targets in the offense, potentially allowing Smith to run shallower routes more frequently. However, Brown can potentially steal a massive target share, making Smith a boom/bust option. He may depend on the Lions putting up points and pushing the game into shootout territory.

One issue for Smith is that he wasn't actually the No. 1 receiving option on the Eagles last season. Technically, for the full season, he was. But after the Eagles traded Zach Ertz to the Cardinals, Smith's target share declined slightly from 23% to 22%. Meanwhile, Dallas Goedert's target share skyrocketed, from 11% in Week 1-6 to 24% for the rest of the year. Goedert also flashed extremely high-end efficiency, leading all tight ends with 2.33 YPRR. Even better, Goedert's play improved dramatically once he was a significant part of the offense.

For the first six weeks of 2021, Goedert ran routes on less than 70% of dropbacks in every game. From Week 7 on, outside of a Week 10 in-game injury, he had a 70%+ route rate in every game and hit 80%+ eight times. He was electric during that stretch with 2.61 YPRR. Only Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, Davante Adams, Antonio Brown, A.J. Brown, and Deonte Harty topped that mark on 50+ targets last season. Goedert faces the same target squeeze as Smith, but because of his tight end eligibility, he comes with far more reward if he operates as the clear No. 2 in Week 1.

While the passing game is exciting, the backfield is a bit of a headache. With Miles Sanders (hamstring) ailing, he'll be tough to trust in Week 1. Even if Sanders misses the game, we should see Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell split time. Scott may ultimately have the edge on snaps, but Gainwell would be an intriguing bet on talent play. Gainwell flashed some real potential as a receiver with 1.53 YPRR as a rookie, on top of a prospect profile that indicated a high ceiling as an explosive receiving back. He's in the dart throw mix if Sanders can't go.

 

Lions Implied Team Total: 22.25

The Lions were a run-heavy team in 2021. Only the Saints, 49ers, and Titans had a lower pass rate over expected than the Lions (-5%) last season. They were closer to balanced in their first eight games, with a -2% PROE. But that was with Anthony Lynn calling plays.

After Dan Campbell took over play-calling duties in Week 10, the Lions dropped to a -8% PROE. Interestingly, their PROE on 1st-and-10 increased slightly from -3% to -2%. The Lions' situation-neutral pass rate also stayed fairly flat. This indicates that while Campbell is almost certain to have a run-heavy game plan on tap, he won't be aggressively run-heavy in favorable passing situations like 1st-and-10. Instead, the Lions are likely to run a lot more than expected in situations that require putting Goff in risky situations or where passing isn't strictly necessary.

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With Campbell calling plays, the Lions had a -11% PROE on 2nd-and-8+, -20% on 3rd-and-3+, and -24% on 3rd-and-short. This approach should lead to a fair number of punts from the Lions but potentially fewer mistakes out of Goff than we otherwise might expect.

When Goff does drop back, he'll likely throw short. Goff ranked 38th of 38 qualifying quarterbacks in aDOT last season... in a league that still included Ben Roethlisberger. This was nothing new for Goff; it was his second straight season with a 6.8 aDOT. Fortunately, his top target Amon-Ra St. Brown functions well underneath. Among wide receivers with 50+ routes, St. Brown ranked 81st in aDOT, just ahead of Jaylen Waddle, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Hunter Renfrow. After seeing double-digit targets in all six of his final games, he will be projected as the top option this week.

However, St. Brown may struggle to get to 10+ targets now that T.J. Hockenson is back in the lineup. 5-of-6 of St. Brown's 10+ target games came with Hockenson out of the lineup, although the two did combine for 18 targets in Week 13.

Hockenson and St. Brown will be somewhat directly competing for targets. The tight end had a 7.7 aDOT last season, making both players true underneath options. However, with the Eagles presumably more focused on St. Brown than Hockenson, we could see Hockenson take advantage of better matchups.

In the backfield, D'Andre Swift will be in a committee with Jamaal Williams. But he still has massive upside this week. Before picking up a shoulder injury in Week 10, Swift saw an elite receiving workload that eventually caused him to miss four games.

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If Swift can get back to that type of usage, he'll be a week-in-week-out RB1 play behind what could be an elite offensive line. With that in mind, Swift is actually better off if the Eagles play aggressively through the air. His best path to upside is operating as an explosive, high-volume receiver.

 

49ers at Bears, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

49ers Implied Team Total: 24

Last season the 49ers were extremely run-heavy; with a -7% PROE, only the Titans established harder. And this was before they made the switch to a rushing quarterback. The 49ers will probably be even more of a ground attack in 2022; in the three games where Lance saw significant work, the 49ers averaged a -9% PROE.

San Francisco will undoubtedly run a lot to protect Lance as a passer, as they did last season, but he'll also be involved heavily in that rushing game plan. Last season, Jimmy Garoppolo executed a designed run on 3% of his snaps, a slightly below-average rate. Trey Lance executed a called run on 15.1% of his snaps, over four times the league average. Only Cam Newton (16.7%) and Taysom Hill (14.6%) were anywhere near Lance's designed run rate. Shanahan can call runs for Lance at only two-thirds of last year's rate, and Lance would still have the same designed run rate as Josh Allen did last year while being well ahead of Kyler Murray. We'll see some regression here, but there's a good chance that Lance is used on rushing plays at a Lamar Jackson (10.3%) and Jalen Hurts (9.5%) rate.

Lance runs a lot on his own as well. He scrambled on 14% of his dropbacks in 2021, leading the NFL (Justin Fields was second at 12.7%). He'll almost certainly regress from that rate, but like with his designed run rate, he can regress substantially and still land near Lamar Jackson (10.6%) and Jalen Hurts (9.2%).

All of this running should be very good for Lance's fantasy production. But it could leave minimal passing volume. Jimmy Garoppolo averaged an aimed pass (attempts minus throwaways, spikes, hit as thrown, and batted passes) on 86% of his dropbacks, above the league average of 82%. Lance averaged 73%; only Geno Smith, Justin Fields, and Jake Fromm had lower aimed pass rates. And aimed passes are, of course... targets. So the fewer there are the fewer targets to split up in the passing game.

Fortunately, Deebo Samuel was incredibly efficient in 2021. Per RotoViz's expected points metric, he delivered 82.1 fantasy points over expected. Only Ja'Marr Chase and Cooper Kupp were more efficient. He'll need to maintain elite efficiency to remain an elite fantasy option.

For the first nine weeks of the season, Brandon Aiyuk saw 5+ targets just three times, averaging 4.0 targets per game. He saw 5+ targets seven times in the last nine weeks of the year, averaging 5.9 targets per game. That coincided with a dropoff in targets for Samuel, who averaged 9.9 targets per game from Week 1-9, but just 5.0 targets per game from Weeks 10-18. Samuel's fantasy managers didn't mind his target decrease because it came with a jump from 0.8 rush attempts per game to 6.6. If Samuel continues operating as a hybrid player, he should be just fine as part of a low-volume passing game. But he and Aiyuk are unlikely to co-exist if he returns to being a pure receiver. Aiyuk, who had a 90%+ rate route rate in 13 of his final 14 games last season, has a realistic chance to lead the team in targets if reports on his strong connection with Lance translate to the regular season.

At tight end, George Kittle profiles as a volatile option. He saw less than five targets in five games last season but averaged 12.7 targets in his three highest target games. Kittle only played three halves with Lance at quarterback last season, seeing just four total targets. However, Kittle has been phenomenally efficient over his career. In 2021, he finished with 2.21 YPRR, his fourth consecutive season with 2.2+ YPRR. Targets will be at a premium, but Kittle is at least capable of earning them like an elite wide receiver. Kittle also runs routes at an elite rate for a tight end, averaging a route on 84% of dropbacks last season. The 49ers might not throw many passes, but he'll be running routes when they do.

At running back, Elijah Mitchell looks set to operate in a similar role to last year, when he handled 64% of snaps and 63% of team attempts. Mitchell averaged 1.7 receptions per game, which is not great considering that the offense is about to contract in passing volume. He looks like a big-play-dependent RB2 with Jeff Wilson or Tyrion Davis-Price potentially stealing goal-line work. And that assumes that his hamstring injury won't be a factor.

 

Bears Implied Team Total: 17.5

Justin Fields had a brutal rookie season. He finished QB36 in EPA per play, ahead of only Zach Wilson. But Fields finished QB26 in CPOE, which, while not good, was also not atrocious. He wasn't far behind Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts and finished ahead of Carson Wentz and Jameis Winston. Fields' accuracy indicates that his surrounding situation was hampering him. With good surrounding units, Fields could deliver a surprisingly good second season. But um, about those surrounding units. If anything, the offensive line and wide receiver group got worse.

The Bears ranked 17th in pass blocking grade and 22nd in run blocking grade in 2021. They've since lost LT Jason Peters and will have fifth-round rookie Braxton Jones protecting Fields' blind side. They look pretty solid at left guard, but there are major question marks across the rest of the line. Lining up opposite the Bears in the trenches will be a Nick Bosa-led unit that ranked fourth in pass rush grade last season.

Fields scrambled at the second-highest rate in the NFL last season, and we should see him on the move plenty in this game. That could lead to a nice fantasy line but will likely make his receivers dependent on big plays. Unfortunately, the 49ers were pretty sound in 2021. They ranked ninth in dropback success rate and 11th in preventing 15+ yard passes. Fields will certainly test them, though. His 10.1 aDOT was the second highest in the NFL last year, behind only Russell Wilson.

With 4.38 speed, Darnell Mooney is more than capable of getting deep. However, as Fields' only reliable wide receiver, he may operate less as a home run hitter and more as an intermediate possession receiver. Mooney saw 44% of his snaps in the slot in 2021, and his 11.4 aDOT was well below deep threat territory. Mooney should see a ton of first reads this week, but he'd arguably be more interesting as the deep threat in an offense with another reliable intermediate option. As is, he should easily lead the Bears in targets but could be in for an inefficient day.

Cole Kmet has a similar setup but without any possibility of operating downfield. Kmet's aDOT was up to 8.1 in his second season after an ultra-shallow 6.3 as a rookie. But with just 1.23 YPRR, he was still very inefficient on the routes he ran in 2021. He also recorded a sub-elite 75% route rate last season and didn't hit 80%+ in any of the five games Jimmy Graham missed. As a result, Kmet looks like a TD or bust option in a game that will likely have very low passing volume on both sides.

David Montgomery's 75% snap share was second only to Najee Harris' (84%) and Alvin Kamara's (76%) last season. But Montgomery's fantasy managers are some of the only people on the planet who would prefer that Matt Nagy was still coaching the Bears. With Matt Eberflus and Luke Getsy now running the show, we're likely to see more of a rotation than last season. Although, Montgomery should still be the lead back because he does do some things well. Montgomery finished RB18 in missed tackles forced last season and fourth in 2020. He is also a capable pass blocker who can also be used as a check-down option. But while Montgomery can break tackles... he doesn't do much afterward. He ranked 19th in yards after contact per attempt in 2020 and fell all the way to 48th last season. Khalil Herbert was much better in this metric, finishing 30th, and bested Montgomery in elusive rating (RB24 vs. RB38). Odds are we see enough of Herbert his week to make Montgomery a TD-dependent option on a low-scoring offense.

 

Steelers at Bengals, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

Steelers Implied Team Total: 19

Mitch Trubisky is set to start his first game since 2020. Although he rehabbed his value while backing up Josh Allen last year, there's a reason why he didn't have a starting job last season. After a rough rookie year, Trubisky played three seasons for the Bears. Over that span, he ranked 30th in EPA per play and 34th in CPOE. Given that he was inefficient and inaccurate in Chicago, it's hard to imagine him being a whole lot better behind one of the worst offensive lines in football.

At the same time, the bar is low for what Steelers receivers need from their quarterbacks in order to produce.

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Over the last three seasons, the Steelers' offense ranks 26th in EPA per dropback. Only the Bears, Jaguars, Panthers, Commanders, Giants, and Jets have been worse. But despite that, Diontae Johnson, who was a rookie in 2019, has a respectable career YPRR of 1.77. With Ben Roethlisberger on his last legs, Johnson averaged 1.89 YPRR in 2021. The case for Johnson usually comes down to targets, but keep in mind that a lack of quality quarterback play has also hurt himLikewise, Chase Claypool has been better than you'd expect, averaging 1.84 YPRR over the last two seasons. George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth complicate things by spreading out targets. But Johnson's ability to earn looks still makes him the most enticing way to play this passing game.

The Steelers will likely shift toward a run-first offense with Trubisky under center, but the Bengals could push them out of that script, making Johnson a volume-based WR2 play. Claypool, who has seen more work out of the slot this offseason, is in FLEX consideration for teams who are thin at wide receiver. George Pickens looks like a wait-and-see option until we know he has a full-time role in the offense.

With targets potentially spread out downfield, Najee Harris looks like the most reliable way to play the Steelers' offense. He led all running backs in snap share in 2021... as a rookie. 

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Harris hit 80%+ snaps in 12-of-17 games and 70%+ snaps in 14-of-17 games. His usage was absurd, yet he is in line for the same workload this year. Unfortunately, Harris was not efficient as a rookie, finishing RB37 in NFL Next Gen's rush yards over expected per attempt, RB42 in breakaway percentage, and RB51 in YPRR. Harris at least finished RB12 in elusive rating, showing some solid after-contact ability, but he struggled to generate explosive plays.

But, I mean... come on, what do you expect? Harris was a rookie, playing behind a poor offensive line with a soon-to-retire quarterback. He wasn't exactly set up for a game-breaking season. Still, Harris is in a similar situation this year with suspect offensive line and quarterback play. If Kenny Pickett eventually brings some efficiency to the passing game, Harris could take a step forward. But he looks like a volume-based RB1 this week.

Bengals Implied Team Total: 25.5

Joe Burrow emerged as a star in 2021, ranking ninth in EPA per play and seventh in EPA per game. He could get a chance to take his game to another level in 2022 if the Bengals' offensive line improves as expected. After ranking 29th in pass blocking grade in 2021, Cincinnati overhauled its line. They probably won't be a high-end unit this season, but fixing a major weakness could still make Burrow's life much, much easier.

Improved line play could also make Burrow much more productive if Zac Taylor now feels more comfortable calling passing plays. After a 4% pass rate over expected in 2020, the Bengals went with a balanced approach in 2021, dropping to a 1% PROE.

But there seems to have been some method to the madness. The Bengals opened up the season conservatively, with Burrow working back from an ACL tear. They were then balanced for much of the season. Then, in two critical wins against the Chiefs and Ravens, they fully opened up the passing game with a 15% PROE. Finally, they operated like a Packers-style pass-first team in the playoffs with a 5% PROE.

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With a talent like Burrow at quarterback, fantasy managers won't be fully satisfied unless the Bengals start calling plays like the 2021 Buccaneers. That won't be their plan. But it does appear likely that the Bengals will at least be a solidly pass-first team this season, even if not truly pass-heavy.

But even if building the offense entirely around the passing game isn't the plan, is Taylor really going to stop passing if Ja'Marr Chase takes a step forward this season?

As a rookie, Chase was the most efficient fantasy receiver in the NFL, delivering 92.1 fantasy points over expected. He also recorded the fourth-highest rookie YPRR on record, after Odell Beckham, Justin Jefferson, and Alvin Kamara. Chase's efficiency came from explosive, game-breaking ability. He recorded 39 15+ yard receptions in the 2021 regular season, behind only Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp, and Davante Adams. This week he faces a defense that ranked 25th in coverage grade and allowed explosive plays at the 11th highest rate in 2021. The Steelers will again have a formidable T.J. Watt-led pass rush, but Chase can have a huge fantasy day even if the Bengals limit their passing volume.

Tee Higgins will likely be the bigger beneficiary if the Bengals open things up. He can win deep but isn't the ultra-efficient playmaker that Chase is; he is a bit more volume-dependent as a result. With an elite 2.18 YPRR last season, though, Higgins has a huge ceiling if the Bengals lean into the strength of their team.

Tyler Boyd is even more dependent on passing volume and doesn't offer much of a ceiling. He recorded just one 100+ yard game in 20 outings last year. And with a 7.6 aDOT and 89% of his snaps out of the slot, Boyd is very much an underneath option. However, with an 89% route rate in 2021, he was nearly as involved as Higgins (90%) and Chase (93%), keeping him in play as a FLEX option.

Hayden Hurst is expected to take over C.J. Uzomah's role in the offense. Uzomah had a very poor 1.12 YPRR but ran a route on 75% of dropbacks. Hurst has a career 1.21 YPRR, making him unlikely to be more than a check-down option. But if Hurst takes over Uzomah's full role, he'll be in the mix as a dart throw tight end.

The Bengals improved offensive line play should also help Joe Mixon. But he might not see as significant an improvement up front as Burrow does. Cincinnati ranked 20th in run blocking grade last season; they weren't great, but they weren't a disaster like they were in pass protection.

But with Mixon, the play is that defenses simply have no choice but to play two-high against the Bengals' passing game, allowing Mixon to churn out yards. That's not an ideal strategy, but it's probably a lot better than the alternative.

Mixon doesn't play on third down and will be TD-dependent as a result. But he scored in 12-of-20 games (including the playoffs) last season, so betting on him to get into the end zone is hardly a longshot.

 

Patriots at Dolphins, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

Patriots Implied Team Total: 21.75

The Patriots underwent one of the biggest coaching shakeups on offense this offseason, replacing Josh McDaniels with... Bill Belichick? That's the hope, anyway. The Patriots didn't bring in a new offensive coordinator and instead have former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and former special team coach Joe Judge running the offense. The scheme, which is expected to be a version of the Mike Shanahan offense, will hopefully have a heavy dose of Belichick's input.

Changing offensive schemes isn't the oddest part of the Patriots' offseason, but it's still surprising, given how good Mac Jones was as a rookie. Jones ranked 11th in EPA per play in 2021 and eighth in CPOE. He was both highly efficient and accurate as a rookie. The scheme change creates risk of a step back to begin his second season.

Jones' top wide receiver is difficult to project. Last season, Jakobi Meyers ran a route on 92% of dropbacks, making him the safest bet. He is primarily a slot receiver but played 34% of his snaps out-wide and should be on the field in 2WR sets. Last year, he had a mediocre 1.58 YPRR but flashed elite efficiency with 2.24 YPRR in 2020. If he and Jones have more of a connection this season, he could step up his game.

DeVante Parker looks likely to start alongside Meyers in 2WR sets, with Nelson Agholor joining for 3WR sets. Although Kendrick Bourne, who had a 70% route role last season, is likely to have a role of some kind. This could make Parker and Agholor less than full-time players. For the time being, only Meyers looks worthy of dart throw consideration.

Hunter Henry ran a route on 71% of dropbacks last year, which put him on the startable borderline. His nine TDs rewarded those with the confidence to roll with him. This year, a shift towards more 2WR sets could mean a bigger role in the offense for Henry. However, Jonnu Smith could see more playing time this season, significantly reducing Henry's route. Henry is best left on benches until he shows he still has a sufficient role in the offense.

The Patriots backfield should have more clarity this week than their passing game. With Ty Montgomery dealing with an ankle injury, Rhamondre Stevenson looks set to take on the James White role in the offense. Stevenson weighs around 227 pounds, but he's flashed some intriguing receiving skills. He finished his college career with 2.11 YPRR, which is an elite mark that bests receiving talents like Aaron Jones (1.84), Tony Pollard (1.74), Saquon Barkley (1.66), and D'Andre Swift (1.53). He also bested Leonard Fournette (1.62), who could end up being a comp, as a big-bodied downhill runner who can also operate as a receiver. Stevenson's promising prospect profile translated immediately. He finished RB8 in YPRR in 2021, ahead of Alvin Kamara (RB9), Kareem Hunt (RB11), and Austin Ekeler (RB13)—and well ahead of Fournette (RB27). He'll likely cede a lot of early down work to Damien Harris, but if Stevenson gets the team down to the goal line, he's the type of back who can stay on the field to punch in a TD.

Harris, meanwhile, shouldn't be forgotten about. He finished RB6 in RYOE per attempt and RB6 in breakaway percentage, besting Stevenson (RB10 and RB48) in both marks. If Stevenson is a committee-back version of Fournette or Najee Harris, then Damien Harris is a poor man's version of Nick Chubb. Harris, who is unlikely to see many targets, looks TD-dependent, but both backs are in the RB2 mix.

Dolphins Implied Team Total: 24.75

The Dolphins had an interesting philosophy in 2021. They ran 715 plays out of 2TE sets, more than twice as many as the second-ranked Packers. But despite the frequent use of heavy personnel, the Dolphins were a pass-first team, operating with a 3% pass rate over expected. They even passed heavily out of 2TE sets; their 59% pass rate was the fifth-highest mark in the league.

Mike McDaniel will likely make major changes to the Dolphins' alignments in 2021. The 49ers ranked 31st in 12 personnel (1RB, 2TE) sets last season but led the league in 21 (2 RB/FB, 1 TE). They spent over 100 more snaps in 21 personnel than the second-place Ravens and 370 more snaps than the 28th-ranked Dolphins. From this alternative power set, the 49ers were extremely run-heavy; their -7% PROE was higher than only the Titans.

And, of course, the Dolphins were somewhat cheating the stats last year... because they were utilizing Mike Gesicki as a tight end when he's really a big slot receiver. Logically then, the shift to the new offense could be very bad for Gesicki, who may now be a part-time player. But it could be good for the Dolphins' ability to protect the quarterback by replacing a fake power set with a real one.

The Dolphins ranked 32nd in pass blocking grade last season, but they bolstered the unit in free agency, most notably by signing Terron Armstead. If they can get to even a mediocre level of blocking, it should be a huge boost to the passing game.

Tua Tagovailoa averaged just 14.5 fantasy points per game last season, which trailed Jimmy Garoppolo (15.8). His passing volume is about to fall, but hopefully, his efficiency will improve. Tagovailoa ranked 21st in EPA per play in 2021, well behind Garoppolo (8th), but he was impressively accurate, ranking 10th in CPOE, well ahead of Garoppolo (18th). There's a lot more to executing an offense than putting the ball on target. Still, Tagovailoa has upside to operate as a more accurate version of Garoppolo in what should be a replica of the 49ers' offense.

Even if Tagovailoa doesn't improve as a quarterback, he should be dragged forward by better weapons. Tyreek Hill's addition to the offense and a potential breakout season from Jaylen Waddle could make Tagovailoa's accuracy far more dangerous for opposing defenses.

We've never seen Hill outside the Chiefs offense, but it's hard to believe he's a product of Patrick Mahomes when he was consistently head and shoulders above his competition.

In six seasons with the Chiefs, Hill never once turned in a season below 2.1 YPRR. Travis Kelce is the only other player to hit that mark even once, and Sammy Watkins (1.90) is the only other wide receiver over 1.7. Mahomes helped... but Hill is a superstar. He's likely to be the featured wide receiver this week, with Waddle having nursed an injury during training camp.

Even if fully healthy, Waddle may struggle to match Hill's production early in the season. Hill has delivered elite efficiency as an underneath option (7.5 aDOT in 2016), a pure deep threat (15.9 aDOT in 2018), and an intermediate option (10.6 aDOT in 2021).

Waddle had an impressive rookie season, but so far, he's only operated successfully as an underneath target. He could have an early-career Deebo Samuel role in the offense, with McDaniel presumably taking advantage of Hill's versatility in the passing game. Belichick may be more focused on taking away Hill, but he still looks like the better option this week.

After Sony Michel was a surprise cut, Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert look set to split touches. Mostert still looks to have elite speed, but the 30-year-old is coming off a cartilage repair in his knee and is unlikely to see a big workload. That leaves Edmonds in line to lead the backfield. Edmonds is also unlikely to see workhorse volume, though, and has never had a goal-line role. Edmonds is also a bit overrated as a receiver. He has a career YPRR of just 1.17 and probably benefited from his time in the horizontal raid more than people realize. Still, while Edmonds may not be the most dynamic receiver, he's capable. Edmonds is in the RB2 mix as a lead back with receiving opportunity.

 

Browns at Panthers, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

Browns Implied Team Total: 19.5

The Browns will be starting Jacoby Brissett at quarterback this week, which should lead to a very different offensive approach than we'll see later in the season. Brissett first saw significant action in his second season in 2017. Over that span, he's been QB46-of-79 in EPA per play and QB65 in CPOE. Brissett's accuracy is a major issue, but he's mobile, which allows him to at least bring non-disastrous efficiency to the table.

But we should still expect the Browns to limit his throws. Cleveland has a solid defense that should hold its own against the Panthers—and they certainly know what to expect from Baker Mayfield. With the Panthers unlikely to dictate to them, the Browns should be able to execute their game plan this week. And their typical game plan in 2021 was very run-heavy.

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We could see even more commitment to the run this week, with the Browns using their high-end offensive line and elite backfield to muscle their way to victory.

Nick Chubb is wildly good at football. He finished fourth in rush yards over expected per attempt in 2021, after finishing first in 2020. And he finished RB2 in both breakaway yards and elusive rating. He does literally everything you want as an NFL rusher. And... Chubb isn't terrible as a receiver. He's certainly a very specific type of receiving back, but with 1.02 career YPRR, he's shown baseline competence that hasn't been rewarded with volume.

Part of the reason for that is that Chubb shares a backfield with Kareem Hunt. Hunt was excellent as a receiver in 2021, setting a career-high with 1.60 YPRR. We should expect the same split backfield dynamic that we've come to expect in Cleveland. But given Brissett's skillset and the Browns' most likely game plan, Chubb looks like the way to play the backfield this week.

When the Browns do pass, targets should be reasonably concentrated. Donovan Peoples-Jones has been a low-volume field stretcher so far in his career and should be in the same role this week. David Bell was injured for most of the offseason and will probably be in a part-time slot role. David Njoku could finally be in an every-down role, but Harrison Bryant may steal snaps. And while Njoku has been impressive when targeted, he has not been impressive at earning targets in the first place. That leaves Amari Cooper as the clear favorite to lead the Browns in targets.

Cooper is coming off a disappointing season where he averaged just 1.65 YPRR, his lowest since 2017, the year before he was traded to Dallas. But only 28, Cooper shouldn't be assumed to be washed up. With an ability to earn quite a few targets this week, he looks like a low-ceiling but playable FLEX option.

Panthers Implied Team Total: 22

After playing through injury for almost all of 2021, Baker Mayfield gets an immediate revenge game in his first start for the Panthers. Mayfield finished 11th in EPA per play and 16th in CPOE in 2020 but dropped to 22nd and 30th in 2021. But even 2021 Mayfield would be an improvement on Sam Darnold, who finished 35th in EPA per play and 36th in CPOE last year. So for the Panthers, any positive regression towards Mayfield's 2020 is all upside.

And for Mayfield, the change could bring some additional passing attempts. The Panthers had a slight lean to the run in 2021, but the Browns were genuinely run-heavy, tied for 27th with a -5% PROE. Mayfield's change of scenery could be a win-win in terms of improved passing production.

D.J. Moore certainly hopes so. Since being drafted in 2018, his primary quarterback has ranked 23rd, 38th, 29th, and 36th in PFF's passing grades. His 1.99 career YPRR is a borderline miracle. And Moore is far and away the best receiver on the Panthers. His 28% target share trailed only Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, and Diontae Johnson last season. If Mayfield can be even close to league average, Moore has a chance to emerge as a superstar.

Unfortunately, this week isn't his best chance for a breakout. The Browns ranked first in coverage grade and eighth in pass rush grade in 2021 and are set up to be stout against the pass yet again. Still, Moore is an interesting way to bet that Mayfield returns to his pre-2021 form.

Regardless of how Mayfield plays, Christian McCaffrey will be a fantasy force. McCaffrey went for 24+ fantasy points in four of seven games in 2021. Given that he was injured in two of those games, it was an incredibly strong showing for the fifth-year back. Excluding his final injury-shortened game, McCaffrey led all running backs with a 21% target share. He projects as an elite RB1 option regardless of matchup. And in this case, the matchup could help. The Browns ranked 15th in run defense last year, and McCaffrey could see some short receptions designed to counter the Browns' strong pass rush. He looks set for a triumphant return to form.

 

Colts at Texans, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

Colts Implied Team Total: 27

When looking at the Colts' weekly pass rate over expected last season, it feels like you can literally see them losing faith in Carson Wentz. Outside of a Week 12 loss to the pass-funnel Buccaneers, the Colts were run-first in every game from Week 9 on. They were extremely run-heavy in five of those games, with a -10% PROE or lower.

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Maybe you'd argue that the Colts' approach reflected their growing confidence in Jonathan Taylor rather than waning belief in Wentz. But that doesn't explain why the Colts also slowed down their pace at the end of the season. The Colts were slow to begin the season, snapping the ball with an average of 7.1 seconds remaining on the play clock; only the Packers were slower. But from Week 9 on, that dropped to 6.2, the slowest pace in the league. This was down considerably from 2020 when they ranked 25th in play clock remaining. In 2021, the Colts also finished last in situation-neutral seconds per play.

Given Frank Reich's offseason comments on not wanting to be a run-heavy team, last year's offensive design appears to be partly the result of a suboptimal situation. With the offseason quarterback switch, I think the Colts would prefer to play like they did to begin the season: balanced football at a slow but not intensely sluggish pace.

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That will, of course, be dependent on their quarterback play. Matt Ryan was worse than Wentz in EPA per play last season, ranking 23rd to Wentz's 17th. But the Colts hope he'll step up his game behind a much better offensive line. The Colts ranked 23rd in pass blocking rate last season but have some strong players on the line and could be in for a much better 2022. And Ryan will have a low bar for them to clear after dealing with the 31st-ranked line last season.

With better pass blocking and a little more volume, the Colts should have a productive day through the air against a Texans defense that ranked 32nd in coverage grade last season. But as 8.5-point favorites, we know they will eventually turn things over to Jonathan Taylor.

Taylor is coming off one of the most impressive rushing seasons you'll ever see. Per NFL Next Gen, Taylor's 481 rush yards over expected are the most since 2018 (which is as far back as the stat goes). Derrick Henry's 411 in 2020 is the second-highest total, but Henry got 46 additional carries and still finished short. Taylor also hit 1.48 RYOE per attempt. Nick Chubb (2021), Derrick Henry (2019, 2018), and Saquon Barkley are the only other backs to reach 1+ on 200+ carries.

Taylor's efficiency was fueled by dominant breakaway ability. Here's a crazy stat: only 26 running backs rushed for 700+ yards last season; Taylor hit 700 yards on 15+ yard runs alone. Nick Chubb (454) was a distant second in breakaway yards.

Taylor was also a strong tackle breaker, finishing 10th in PFF's elusive rating. And he's a capable receiver; he finished just behind Leonard Fournette, Aaron Jones, and Chase Edmonds with 1.23 YPRR. But clearly, the strength of Taylor's game is breakaway ability.

This week he's getting a Texans defense that was poor against the run last season, ranking 26th in run defense grade. Even better, they were vulnerable to the big play. The Texans had a respectable success rate against the run, ranking ninth, but they were much worse in EPA per play, ranking 23rd—showing a tendency to give up big plays when unsuccessful. Taylor helped make these stats what they are. In two games against the Texans, he combined for 114 breakaway yards while going 46-288-4. Taylor hit 25+ PPR points in both games last season. The Colts aren't likely to give him 32 carries as they did in their Texans rematch last year, but Taylor needed only 14 carries and two targets to hit 28.8 PPR points in Week 6. If the Colts play with a lead and deliver functional offense, Taylor is set up for an elite week.

When the Colts do pass, Michael Pittman should lead the way. Pittman had a fairly uninspiring rookie season, finishing behind fellow rookies Laviska Shenault, Van Jefferson, and Denzel Mims in yards per route run. But he was better in 2021, with only Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins, Henry Ruggs, and Gabe Davis topping his 1.95 mark. Pittman could be in line for a true breakout season, given the potential for better quarterback play and more consistent offense.

The Colts treated Pittman like an elite No. 1 option last season. Only four receivers ran a route on 95%+ dropbacks in 2021: Justin Jefferson (95%), Diontae Johnson (95%), Michael Pittman (96%), and Cooper Kupp (97%). Rookie Alec Pierce may eat into his targets down the line, but this week, against a weak secondary, Pittman could approach a 30% target share.

 

Texans Implied Team Total: 18.5

Davis Mills emerged from the third round last season to start most of the year. Despite a head coaching change, he should have some continuity on offense, with 2021 passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton now serving as offensive coordinator. But while Mills was a nice story in 2021, he'll need to take major strides in his second season to avoid being replaced in 2023.

Mills finished 34th in EPA per play in 2021, ahead of only Sam Darnold, Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson. But he did show some promise in terms of accuracy, finishing 21st in CPOE. As a capable thrower, perhaps he can take a step forward in his second year.

He starts his 2022 against a Colts secondary that was good at forcing turnovers in 2021 but fairly middling otherwise. They ranked 18th in pass rush grade and 14th in coverage grade. We should get a decent sense of what Mills brings to the table from his performance this week.

The most interesting question in the Texans passing game is if Mills will be as dialed into Brandin Cooks as last season. Cooks led the Texans with 131 targets, a 28% target share, 1,369 air yards, and a 40% air yard share. He was a true No. 1 wide receiver. Surprisingly, Cooks was efficient while accounting for a huge share of an inefficient passing offense. He went for 1.96 YPRR, which was only slightly worse than the 2.05 mark he posted with Deshaun Watson in 2020. Cooks is a safe bet for volume this week and is still playing impressive football.

Cooks' efficiency indicates that Mills' struggles could be partly down to a lack of weapons. If so, the offense could take a step forward if Nico Collins can emerge as a reliable secondary option. Collins wasn't impressive last season, posting 1.24 YPRR, a thoroughly mediocre mark for a rookie. But Collins has earned a lot of buzz this offseason, and his route rate should be up considerably from last season's 69%. Assuming he runs a route on 85%+ of dropbacks, he's in the dart throw mix.

Brevin Jordan is a less likely breakout play but comes with tight end eligibility. Jordan finished just behind Collins with 1.19 YPRR but earned far less playing time, running a route on just 43% of dropbacks. With Jordan Akins (42% route rate) no longer on the roster, Jordan could be in a near full-time role this week. He'll likely cede some snaps to Pharaoh Brown, though, and potentially a lot of them. New signing O.J. Howard also lurks.

Dameon Pierce had about as good a summer as you could possibly hope for from a Day 3 pick. He looks in line to be the Texans' early-down starter this week and could see a bigger workload in his first NFL game than his final (most productive) college season when he averaged just 7.7 carries and 1.5 receptions per game. Despite an extraordinarily small workload, Pierce showed a real knack for getting into the end zone, averaging a TD per game. And he had a strong career elusive rating of 96, which is in line with Joe Mixon (97), Miles Sanders (96), and Cam Akers (93). Pierce is far from a perfect prospect, but his biggest red flag was his college workload, and he seems to have overcome that fairly quickly. To the extent that earning a workload is a non-physical skill (earning coaches' trust, learning the playbook, day-to-day consistency), Pierce seems to have found a new gear to his game. To the extent that handling a starter's workload is a physical skill, at 5'10" 218, Pierce should be ok. Of course... Pierce may see less work than his exciting preseason would lead us to believe. And even if the Texans plan to feature him as 8.5-point underdogs, they could end up turning things over to passing-down back Rex Burkhead pretty quickly. But Pierce, who never topped 15 attempts at Florida, could be in line for a career-high workload if the game stays close.

 

Saints at Falcons, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

Saints Implied Team Total: 24

Jameis Winston led all quarterbacks in EPA per play last season, which... is wild. After leading the NFL with 30 interceptions in 2019, Winston was somehow the most efficient quarterback in football last season. But that "somehow" is actually pretty clear; the Saints barely passed the ball. Winston was only eighth in EPA per game, as the Saints tried to keep his attempts as low as possible with a -4% pass rate over expected.

I don't want to say that Winston's 2021 was fraudulent... but I will say that he finished behind Daniel Jones, Justin Fields, Jacoby Brissett, Ben Roethlisberger, and Baker Mayfield in completion percentage over expected. He ranked a very inaccurate 31st.

In fairness to Winston, his accuracy numbers were probably hurt by a receiving corps that is now literally the Saints' second string. With Michael Thomas returning to full health (at some point) and Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry joining the team, Winston should be in a much better position to keep his unsustainable efficiency from fully cratering.

But the Saints will likely keep things pretty ground-and-pound when they can get away with it. As 5.5-point favorites, facing a Falcons defense that ranked 28th in run defense grade, this should be one of those weeks.

The Saints are a strange team because good rushing matchups might not be the best game scripts for their running back. Alvin Kamara has become a fantasy far by frequently hitting big plays as a rusher and receiver rather than by handling a big workload. In 2021, his role changed. He saw 18.5 attempts per game, smashing his previous career high of 12.3. But his receptions per game dropped to a career-low 3.6, the first time in his career with less than 5.1. He dropped from a Christian McCaffrey receiving workload into Chase Edmonds territory.

Kamara's rushing efficiency also cratered with this new usage. He dropped below 4.4 YPC for the first time, setting a career-low with 3.7. He recorded the lowest breakaway percentage of his career at 14%, finishing behind Najee Harris and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Kamara also finished RB48 in RYOE per attempt, ahead of only Alex Collins, Zack Moss, Chuba Hubbard, and Mike Davis. It was a worryingly poor rushing season for the now 27-year-old. Still, Kamara should have the workload for a strong day, but he looks more likely to be a volume-based RB1 play than the hyper-efficient star of old.

The Saints should be expected to spread things out somewhat through the air, assuming that Michael Thomas is fully healthy. Thomas missed the entire 2021 season, and his connection with Winston won't match his stellar rapport with Drew Brees. But he should still be considered the team's No. 1 option if recovered from a late training camp hamstring injury.

Chris Olave may already be the No. 2 receiver ahead of Jarvis Landry. That will certainly be the case on deep throws, which suit Winston's skill set better than the shallow routes that Landry excels on. Winston finished fourth in aDOT last season, making Olave a viable big play dart throw in his first NFL game.

 

Falcons Implied Team Total: 18.5

As I mentioned in our Falcons team preview, Mariota played very poorly in Arthur Smith's offense in 2019, finishing 29th in EPA per play and 32nd in CPOE. And this was despite a league-leading play action rate (which you would expect to boost passing efficiency) and an above-average pass-blocking line. When Tannehill took over the same offense, he ranked third in EPA per play and second in CPOE. Mariota posted league-average efficiency in 2017-18, at least, and has recently flashed more rushing upside than in his years with the Titans. But he's also set to operate behind an offensive line that ranked 31st in pass blocking grade last season and is essentially employing the same lineman. He might be a streamable rushing quarterback option, but Mariota is not very likely to produce an efficient passing offense.

He's also likely to produce a low-volume attack. Atlanta had a -1% pass rate over expected, but their -10% PROE on 1st-and-10 ranked 31st ahead of only the Titans.

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This looks to me like a clear sign that they'd love to be more run-heavy if they can spend less time trailing this season. At the very least, Mariota is unlikely to pass a lot on 1st-and-10, which is one of the most favorable passing situations. As a result, whatever efficiency he does bring to the table is unlikely to be maximized by his play calls.

In order to produce elite fantasy production in this environment, it would help to be a generational talent. It would also help to be a wide receiver with tight end eligibility. May I introduce you to Kyle Pitts? Pitts, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 draft, was an exceptional tight end prospect. He went on to score just one TD as a rookie, which has obscured an otherwise sensational rookie season.

Pitts took no time to establish himself as a feature of the Falcons' offense. Despite being a rookie, he was one of only eight tight ends who ran a route on 80%+ of dropbacks—the others being Dawson Knox, Tyler Higbee, Mark Andrews, George Kittle, Darren Waller, T.J. Hockenson, and Travis Kelce. Of that group, only George Kittle (2.21) and Mark Andrews (2.18) finished with a better yards per route run than Pitts' 2.02. And Pitts' rookie efficiency puts him in elite company historically. He's now one of only five rookie tight ends to see 50+ targets with 1.9+ yards per route—the others being Zach Ertz (1.90), Rob Gronkowski (1.93), Mark Andrews (1.96), and Jordan Reed (2.21).

Pitts also delivered on the promise that he was functionally a wide receiver rather than a tight end. Only Mike Gesicki (7%) played a lower percentage of his snaps in-line than Pitts' 22%. He was also asked to pass block on just 3% of his snaps, with only Mark Andrews, Mike Gesicki, Travis Kelce, and Cameron Brate having lower pass blocking rates. Pitts also led the position with 34% of his snaps out wide.

In his second season, we could see some additional inline snaps for the "tight end," but the Falcons understand who Pitts is. He could be more of a factor in the run game, but he won't be blocking on passing plays. With elite usage and an elite profile, Pitts has to be in lineups. However, this could be a difficult week for him due to a tough matchup.

The Saints ranked second in coverage grade last season and should be a strong defense once again. Pitts totaled just 70 yards against them in two games last season. So don't panic if he gets off to a slow start in 2022.

Pitts could also be hurt by the fact that Drake London (knee) might be less than 100% for this game. While London emerging as a target hog would hurt Pitts' upside, having a legitimate second option in the offense would help draw coverage away from the star tight end. London looks like a difficult play this week unless he gets in a full week of practice, but if he looks close to a full-go, it should be seen as a boost for Pitts.

At "running back," Cordarrelle Patterson could be in for a big week if London isn't fully healthy. Patterson saw 32% of his snaps out wide and 18% in the slot in 2021. If London is out, he could operate as close to a pure receiver, which would likely help the offense and give him a high fantasy ceiling. If London does go, Patterson will likely be more of a traditional running back, but one who still has substantial receiving value. The actual running backs behind him, Damien Williams and Tyler Allgeier, will likely split a small workload.

 

Ravens at Jets, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

Ravens Implied Team Total: 25.75

The Ravens were very run-heavy in 2020, ranking 30th in situation-neutral pass rate. But in 2021, that changed significantly, and they jumped to 12th. It was akin to the Titans deciding to play like the Bengals. But 2021 was not the Ravens' year. They lost J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards to ACL tears and Justice Hill to an Achilles rupture. Devonta Freeman led the backfield with just 576 rushing yards, a season after both Dobbins and Edwards topped 700 yards.

Lamar Jackson also struggled with injury, missing five games. And the Ravens' secondary fell apart at the end of the season, making them a major pass funnel. All-in-all, it's interesting that the Ravens have a balanced backup identity, but we should expect them to return to a run-heavy approach as long as things are less hectic for them this season.

As the Ravens' likely decline in passing volume, Jackson will be hoping to play more efficiently. After finishing second in EPA per play in 2019, he's dropped to 20th over the last two seasons. Jackson's CPOE has also dropped from seventh to 21st. So it's possible the league has caught up slightly to the Ravens' elite 2019 attack. But Jackson can still have huge weeks.

This week he faces a Jets defense that allowed the most 15+ yard passing plays last season and did so at the highest rate. They also ranked 30th in coverage grade. For as bad as the Ravens' secondary was last year, the Jets were worse. But the Jets have attempted to address this weakness. They drafted Sauce Gardner and signed cornerback D.J. Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead. Their secondary probably won't be a liability, but it shouldn't be a shutdown unit either.

Jackson's top target should be Mark Andrews. Andrews tied Marquise Brown with a team-leading 27% target share last season. With Brown now in Arizona, he should be the clear target leader in Baltimore. Rookie tight end Isaiah Likely will probably have a role, but Andrew ran a route on an elite 84% of dropbacks with the third highest YPRR among tight ends. The Ravens would be mad not to play their best receiver for as many snaps as possible.

Rashod Bateman is in position to soak up substantial volume, if he can handle it. Bateman had a disappointing rookie season. First, he missed the first five weeks of the season; he then took a long time to establish himself, with his first 90%+ route rate coming in Week 15. He also delivered a concerningly low 1.26 YPRR.

But there are a few reasons for optimism about Bateman. First of all, he was a great prospect. He entered the draft after a very productive and efficient three-year career at Minnesota and was then selected in the first round. Second, Bateman has very little target competition outside of Andrews this season, and the Ravens appear committed to him as their clear No. 1 wide receiver. Third, Bateman was actually pretty good with Lamar Jackson last year. In the five games that Jackson missed, Bateman was terrible, averaging just 0.71 YPRR on 140 routes. That was worse than Dyami Brown (0.82) and damn near Terrace Marshall-level (0.50). But in seven games with Jackson, Bateman was far better, averaging 1.78 YPRR on 211 routes—behind only Ja'Marr Chase (2.44), Kadarius Toney (2.14), and Kyle Pitts (2.02) among rookies with 100+ routes. In that sample, he was just ahead of Elijah Moore (1.75). Jaylen Waddle (1.75), Amon-Ra St. Brown (1.74), and DeVonta Smith (1.73). Bateman was a part-time player in those seven games, so it never felt like he was playing all that well. But with the Ravens certain to have him in a full-time role this week, his connection with Jackson could see him hit the ground running in Week 1.

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Kenyan Drake could very well lead the Ravens backfield in Week 1, with the ACL injuries that kept J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards out for all of 2021 continuing to hamper both players. Drake is a viable draft throw if he has the backfield mostly to himself, but he'll probably split time with Mike Davis. Like last year, this backfield could be desperation only until Dobbins returns to full health. And if Drake or Davis is the top back, we could see the Ravens in a balanced 2021 mode rather than their run-heavy 2020 approach.

 

Jets Implied Team Total: 18.75

With Zach Wilson recovering from a torn meniscus and bone bruise, Joe Flacco is set to start for the Jets in Week 1. Flacco played fairly poorly in his brief stint last season, finishing QB34 in PFF's quarterback grades. But he was still better than Wilson, who ranked 42nd. The Jets did not seem comfortable with Flacco at the helm, operating with a very run-heavy -9% PROE in his Week 12 start. This week, the Jets can safely assume that the Ravens will be taking a non-pass-heavy approach, making a run-heavy game plan less likely to get them into trouble. As a result, the Jets should be expected to be low volume this week.

This is made more likely by the fact that the Ravens have made major improvements to the secondary opponents aggressively targeted to close the season. Baltimore signed a host of free agents, drafted Kyle Hamilton, and changed defensive coordinators. Flacco could be in for a rough day against a much-improved defense.

Flacco's best chance of success is likely to target Elijah Moore early and often. Moore had an impressive rookie season, finishing with 1.75 YPRR despite dealing with a quarterback rotation and below-average to poor play across the board. He also impressed by playing 71% of his snaps out-wide. Entering the league at 178 pounds, some assumed that Moore would be a pure slot receiver as a pro, but he removed that red flag last year and looks set to play outside in 2WR sets. Corey Davis should join Moore in 2WR sets and deserves credit for a decent season last year. Davis played only nine games, so his performance has flown under the radar, but he averaged 1.74 YPRR. Of course, that's not as impressive as what Moore showed, given that Davis was a fifth-year veteran and Moore was a rookie. But he still looks capable of being a reliable secondary option, with rookie Garrett Wilson unlikely to have a significant role out of the gate.

Likewise, rookie Breece Hall may have to earn his snaps throughout the season. The rookie has reportedly had some growing pains this summer, and he's also competing with a very talented back in Michael Carter.

Carter finished RB19 in YPRR as a rookie, living up to his reputation as a strong receiving prospect. But Carter, surprisingly, was even more impressive as a rusher. He finished RB3 in elusive rating, RB12 in RYOE per attempt, and RB17 in breakaway percentage last season.

After the Jets selected Breece Hall in the second round, it was assumed that he would quickly supplant Carter on early downs. Hall is an excellent prospect with the ability to break tackles and then get going again for explosive gains. He is also a capable receiver. But Hall appears to be truly behind Carter to begin the season. That shouldn't be viewed as a major negative. Carter was a productive college back who had a sneaky good rookie year. Hall has exciting upside as the season progresses. But Carter looks like the better play this week.

 

Jaguars at Commanders, 1 PM Eastern, Sunday

Jaguars Implied Team Total: 20.25

2021 was truly a season from hell for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Their reportedly generational No. 1 overall pick was dreadful, ranking 32nd in EPA per play, ahead of only Jared Goff, Davis Mills, Sam Darnold, Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson. But it's hard not to blame his surrounding situation. Lawrence's most efficient target, Dan Arnold, is now a backup. Laquon Treadwell, his most efficient wide receiver, did not make the team.

But his situation doesn't look that much better. His top outside target is likely to be Marvin Jones, who finished WR94 with 1.33 YPRR in 2021. His secondary outside target, Jay Zones, finished WR92 with 1.35 YPRR while playing in a much more efficient offense. It's probably not a great sign that both players were less efficient than Laviska Shenault (1.36), who the Jaguars just traded away. With an outside wide receiver duo that looks destined to be underwhelming (at best), the Jaguars' hopes rest on Christian Kirk.

Kirk had a mini breakout in 2021 with 1.80 YPRR, ahead of Keenan Allen, Mike Evans, and (most notably) DeAndre Hopkins. Kirk's breakout coincided with a transition into the slot. After playing just 16% of his snaps in the slot in 2020, he played 78% of his snaps there in 2021. But Kirk wasn't an underneath option. With a 12.1 aDOT, he was closer to a deep threat than a typical underneath slot option. If this type of deployment continues in Jacksonville, it will be great news for both Kirk and the offense as a whole.

This usage would be a slight departure for new head coach Doug Pederson, whose slot receivers have sometimes been shallow target earners like Golden Tate (7.3 aDOT) and Greg Ward (6.0). But Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews were both used as intermediate targets out of the slot, so we can be cautiously optimistic that the offense will be built around Kirk in a way that gives him a legitimate weekly ceiling.

This matchup should be a good chance for Lawrence and Kirk to show off their connection. Washington ranked 11th in pass rush grade last season but won't have Chase Young back in the lineup for this game, as he's still recovering from an ACL tear. And Washington was quite beatable in the secondary, ranking 27th in coverage grade.

Travis Etienne should also get in on the passing game fun. Etienne isn't a receiving specialist necessarily, but he was efficient as a pass catcher at Clemson. His 1.66 YPRR matches Saquon Barkley's and Jonathan Taylor's college marks. Like Taylor, he can provide an explosive element to the Jaguars' passing game. James Robinson may handle third downs, but Etienne should still see receptions. As a rusher, Etienne was also a very promising prospect. He was exceptionally elusive while also hitting big plays. Etienne is the type of back who can lead a committee and still be an elite fantasy option, as long as he sees enough of the receiving and goal line work. Etienne could be a big beneficiary if the Jaguars use this week to shake off the Urban stink.

 

Commanders Implied Team Total: 23.25

Carson Wentz is down to his last life as an NFL starter after washing out of Indianapolis after just one season. But the quarterback bar is fairly low in Washington. He'll replace Taylor Heinicke, who ranked 27th in EPA per play. Much like the Colts shifted toward the run to hide Wentz, Washington shifted heavily to the run in the back half of 2021. Previously a balanced team through the first 10 weeks (1% PROE), Washington grounded and pounded for the final eight weeks with a -6% PROE.

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Even if Wentz plays like he did last season, he will be an improvement on Heinicke, and obviously, the hope is he will play better than that. But it's unclear what form Wentz is supposed to recapture. 2020 was a debacle; he finished 35th in EPA per play, ahead of only Alex Smith, Dwayne Haskins, and Sam Darnold. He was better in 2018-19 but still not great, finishing 19th in EPA per play. You have to go all the way back to 2017, before he tore his ACL, when he was actually impressive. He finished third in EPA per play that season behind only Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson.

But 2017 Wentz isn't walking through that door. Instead, it's fair to wonder if even 2018-19 is wishful thinking. After finishing 13th in completion percentage over expected over that stretch, Wentz's accuracy has fallen off a cliff down to 42nd. His decline in accuracy makes it much harder to believe that his surrounding environment has been responsible for his declining efficiency. Wentz's PFF grades back up this idea—he ranked 14th in both 2018 and 2019 but cratered to 40th in 2020 and rebounded to only 26th in 2021. So at this point, we should expect Wentz to be who he's been recently: an inefficient quarterback with a decent deep ball who doesn't do much else well.

For Terry McLaurin's sake, Wentz still has a decent deep ball. Wentz ranked 12th in adjusted completion percentage on 20+ yard throws and took care of the ball when going deep, ranking just 28th in turnover-worthy play percentage. For McLaurin, at least, Wentz will be a major upgrade. Last season, Heinicke ranked 32nd in adjusted completion percentage on deep throws. Despite that, he chucked with abandon, going deep at the eighth highest rate, despite the highest percentage of turnover-worthy throws. McLaurin was most efficient as a rookie, with the highest aDOT (14.9) of his career. More deep quality deep throws could be huge for him.

This matchup also presents downfield opportunities. The Jaguars' defense ranked 29th in coverage grade last season, and although they should improve somewhat, McLaurin still has a good chance of hitting a big play with a quarterback who fits his skillset... even if Wentz is in decline.

Jahan Dotson has had a buzzworthy training camp, but it remains to be seen if he'll see a full-time role in the offense right away. Dotson was a first-round pick but was not overly productive at Penn State and did not declare early for the draft. He could have a very strong season, but his immediate value is still in question.

After a thoroughly impressive training camp, Brian Robinson was tragically shot twice in an attempted robbery; thankfully, he appears to recovering quickly. Robinson was placed on injured reserve after final cuts, which means he will be out until at least Week 5, but he'll very likely play this season.

With Robinson out, Antonio Gibson is set to operate in the role that many assumed would be his to begin with. And in a game that could be back and forth, Gibson could get plenty of run. However, with J.D. McKissic locked into a receiving role, Gibson looks like a TD-dependent play. McKissic, meanwhile, looks like a low-end RB2 dart throw.

 

Packers at Vikings, 4:25 Eastern, Sunday

Packers Implied Team Total: 25

In his second-straight MVP season, Aaron Rodgers (obviously) played exceptionally well. He ranked third in EPA per play and second in CPOE. But the Packers have had a frustrating tendency not to push the advantage of having the 2021's literal most valuable player.

The Packers ranked 31st in situation-neutral seconds per play in 2021 after ranking last in 2020. If you look at the league's slowest teams last year, it's a who's who of teams who wanted to limit dropbacks for their quarterbacks due to injury, skillet, or inexperience: the Colts, Bengals, Lions, and 49ers. The Packers also finished last in play clock remaining. The teams directly above them were the Colts, 49ers, Browns, Bengals, Broncos, Panthers, and Steelers. The Packers are an elite offense that plays like it's protecting an injured, inefficient, or system quarterback.

And the Packers only have one speed. They play slower when trailing by 7+ than 26 teams do when leading by 7+. Let this sink in... in comeback mode, the Packers play with the pace of the salting-the-game-away Titans. The whole thing is bizarre. Perhaps after their ball control obsession contributed to a home playoff game loss to a now-backup quarterback, they'll speed things up a bit this week. But it's hard to believe that will be the case with Davante Adams no longer on the team. So instead, we'll likely see a very deliberate attack.

But the Packers should still be a solidly pass first team. When Davante Adams missed Week 8 last season, the Packers had a 2% PROE, which was in line with their typical approach. In the two games he missed in 2020, they actually ranked third in situation-neutral pass rate, up from their season-long ranking of ninth. The same thing happened when Adams missed four games in 2019; the Packers jumped from seventh in situation-neutral pass rate up to fifth. I don't actually expect the Packers to be more pass-heavy this season without Adams, but I'm skeptical that they shift meaningfully to the run. Credit where credit's due—the Packers want the ball in the MVP's hands when they get around to snapping it.

The Packers' wide receiver target distribution is quite difficult to project this week. Allen Lazard is the favorite to lead the group, but with a career YPRR of 1.45, he may not fair well if the Vikings' defense treats him as the No. 1 option. Still, he's a better option than Sammy Watkins, who managed just 1.21 YPRR in his final season with Patrick Mahomes. Watkins does enjoy a good Week 1, though.

With Romeo Doubs likely to have a rotational role, perhaps along with Christian Watson, it's possible none of the Packers outside wide receivers have a true full-time role. Randall Cobb figures to hold down slot duties, but the 32-year-old is coming off a poor season of 1.36 YPRR.

There is one place we know there should be value: the backfield. Aaron Jones had 1.52 YPRR last season, besting Lazard, Watkins, and Cobb, which is stunning to see from a running back. While Jones has never had 4+ receptions in a season, this year could be different, especially to begin the year with the rookies not yet ready. Jones saw 11 targets last year when Adams missed Week 8, which has been the story over the last three seasons.

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If Jones is ever going to get used as a high-volume receiver... this would be the year. And with Doubs and Watson having never taken regular season snaps... this would be the week. But, if Jones isn't targeted aggressively, he could be in for a disappointing day, given the matchup. The Vikings ranked 20th in run defense grade last season but made defensive improvements this offseason and should be more stout this year. He'll also be dealing with a split rushing workload with A.J. Dillon.

Jones and Dillon ran well last season, finishing 16th and 17th in rush yards over expected per attempt. Jones handled 43% of team attempts, with Dillon taking 41%. They also split goal line work evenly, with Jones seeing 1.1 green zone carries per game and Dillon seeing 1.3. Dillon profiles as a TD-dependent RB2, with Jones likely to be a bigger part of the game plan.

Vikings Implied Team Total: 23

The Packers' defense will need to adjust to a new look offense from their division rival. After years under Mike Zimmer, the Vikings should operate very differently under Kevin O'Connell. O'Connell, who served as the Rams offensive coordinator, will likely be pass-first but relatively balanced. Of course, the Vikings are very likely to be worse than the Rams last season. Meaning, that even if O'Connell operates with a similar philosophy, the Vikings will probably be in more expected passing situations than the Rams were last year. And O'Connell looks a lot less likely to be committed to the run than Zimmer was.

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This is all good news for Kirk Cousins, who should see more passing attempts, and more passing attempts in advantageous situations, like 1st-and-10. Cousins played well last season, ranking 12th in EPA per play and 14th in CPOE. He could be a top 10 quarterback this season with some marginal improvements.

But Cousins will be going against a Packers defense that could improve after finishing second in pass rush grade and seventh in coverage grade last season. So while we could see a more exciting version of the Vikings this season, they may not take to the air at high volume this week unless trailing.

In either case, Justin Jefferson will be a huge part of the offensive game plan. Jefferson's 30% target share last season trailed only Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams, and he led the league in air yards and air yard share. While doing so, he finished seventh in the NFL in YPRR, with an elite 2.59 mark.

Jefferson's rise to superstardom coincided with a drop in efficiency for Adam Thielen. Thielen peaked in 2017 with 2.15 YPRR and has declined every year since. The falloff was slow at first, and he stayed at 2+ through 2019. But last season, he dropped from 2020's average of 1.86 all the way to 1.63. Thielen should still maintain a role around the goal line, but he had the fantasy scoring profile of a tight end last year, and that's unlikely to change entering his age-32 season.

Thielen will also be dealing with additional competition in the passing game. Last season the Vikings averaged 39 dropbacks per game, with all players combining for 176 routes per game. The Rams (often playing with a lead) averaged one less dropback per game but nine more routes per game. This is because the Rams ran more 3WR sets than the Vikings and also because they tended to have their receiver-eligible players running routes rather than staying in to block. From Thielen's perspective... the fewer route runners, the better. He's already dealing with Justin Jefferson, and the inevitable march of time, more routes to compete with, is just adding insult to injury.

The Vikings' new approach should be good for Irv Smith. Smith will be taking over the role that Tyler Conklin had in 2021. Conklin had a pretty solid 73% route rate. If Smith can build on that and approach Tyler Higbee's 82% route rate, he'll be in the low-end TE1 mix. He's not a bad gamble this week as a bet that the 2-point underdog Vikings pass more than expected.

Dalvin Cook looks locked in as the Vikings' lead back, as expected—especially after the Vikings unexpectedly fielded trade calls for Alexander Mattison. Cook is 27 years old but has shown no signs of decline. He ranked ninth in rush yards over expected, RB14 in RYOE per attempt, RB3 in breakaway yards, and RB3 in breakaway percentage last season. In O'Connell's offense, Cook will likely see fewer attempts. But if the offense as a whole is more efficient, fewer attempts might not mean less production. In particular, Cook could see a big jump in his TD total after only finding the end zone six times last year. Cook has been a capable receiver throughout his career and should be involved regardless of the game script, making him a locked-in RB1 play this week.

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Giants at Titans, 4:25 Eastern, Sunday

Giants Implied Team Total: 19

Last year's Giants were an absolute debacle. Daniel Jones finished 26th in EPA per play and then was lost for the season with a neck injury. With Jones gone, things fell completely off the rails.

From Week 13 on, the Giants ranked 32nd in EPA per dropback and were nearly twice as inefficient as the Panthers. Unsurprisingly, the Giants have a new general manager and head coach this season.

As head coach, Brian Daboll is expected to bring the same pass-first approach he employed while offensive coordinator for the Bills. But it's worth considering that Daboll wasn't pass-heavy in his first two seasons with Allen. In fact, in Allen's rookie season, the Bills ranked 26th in situation-neutral pass rate, with Daboll attempting to hide his struggling rookie quarterback. Things picked up a bit in 2019 when the Bills ranked 11th in situation-neutral pass rate. Then in 2020, with Allen emerging as a star, Daboll leaned into the pass for real. The Bills finished third in situation-neutral pass rate in 2020 and first in 2021.

Last season, Daniel Jones' EPA per play was just above where Allen was as a rookie and less than half Allen's second-season efficiency. So if we're thinking of Jones as being on the Josh Allen trajectory (which is about as massive of an if as exists in the vast cosmos), he should be considered the pre-2019 version of Allen. With that in mind, it's not clear that the Giants—who ranked 10th in situation-neutral pass rate last season—will be significantly more pass-heavy than they were last year.

This may seem hard to believe, but with Jones at quarterback, the Giants had a 4% pass rate over expected, barely behind the Bills (5%). That version of the Giants was erased from our memories when by the end-of-season Giants, who had a -10% PROE over the last six weeks. But it really happened.

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Even on 1st-and-10, where the Bills led the league with a 15% PROE, we might not see a huge difference. The Giants had a 12% PROE on 1st-and-10 from Weeks 1-12. The Chiefs (8%) and Buccaneers (6%) were the only teams other than the Bills to finish above 5% last season. So... while there are plenty of things that Daboll can do to help Jones... Jason Garrett was actually already doing a lot of those things. Now, will Daboll run a schematically superior offense to Garrett? Almost certainly. But I ask you this, what if... (are you sitting down) Daniel Jones is bad? You can't scheme away bad.

This week Jones is going against a Titans defense that ranked sixth in coverage grade last season and added another cornerback in the second round of the draft. This matchup should give us a good sense of what Jones is capable of in Daboll's offense.

Although, in fairness to Jones, the state of his receiver room could make it tough to evaluate his play this week. Kenny Golladay had a very poor training camp, to the point that he was recently compared to a mannequin. He appeared to be at risk of a non-full-time role before Collin Johnson ruptured his Achilles. Kadarius Toney has dealt with knee and hamstring issues this summer and, according to Brian Daboll, "wasn't ready to go" for the preseason finale. He's trending in the right direction, but fantasy managers need to watch his practice reports closely. This all puts a lot of pressure on Wan'Dale Robinson to step up. Robinson is a rookie slot receiver who some thought would fall to Day 3 after weighing in at the combine at 5-foot-8, 178. Robinson could be about to record a breakout season and still not be a great No. 1 option out of the slot. Jones' outlook will be much brighter if Toney looks relatively healthy for this game. If he's active, Sterling Shepard looks tough to trust, being less than a year removed from an Achilles tear.

Jones does at least have Saquon Barkley in the backfield. Barkley is coming off a rough season as a rusher, ranking just RB42 in RYOE per attempt. But he dealt with a high ankle sprain for much of last season. Barkley's best fantasy trait has always been his passing game ability, and Daboll could ramp that up to a new level, especially without a proven playmaker at wide receiver. The last time we saw a Daboll offense, it gave Devin Singletary a 100% snap share. Barkley's efficiency is in question in this game, but his usage should be locked in. He looks like a volume-based RB1 play, with a path to enough volume to put up an elite week.

 

Titans Implied Team Total: 24.5

Ryan Tannehill was brutal in the Divisional round, but even good quarterbacks have bad games. He actually finished sixth that week in EPA per play, ahead of Jimmy Garopplo and Tom Brady. And for the season, Tannehill was an above-average quarterback, finishing 13th in EPA per play.

One issue with Tannehill, or at least the way the Titans have decided to build their offense around him, is that his efficiency is usually on low volume. He was more efficient than Dak Prescott and Derek Carr on a per-play basis last season, but both averaged more EPA per game due to captaining offenses that lean into the pass.

Tannehill has some clear strengths as a passer. He ranked third in quarterback grade on play action passes last season, behind only Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson. But he was less impressive on non-play action throws, ranking 13th. Tannehill has had stretches of elite play within the context of the Titans' offense... but that play is potentially difficult to scale to high volume.

The Titans certainly seem to feel this way. They ranked dead last with a -8% PROE in 2021, and their -12% PROE on 1st-and-10 was also the lowest in the league. Former Titans OC Arthur Smith (-10%) was the only other coach below -7%. So we can count on the Titans to be run-heavy. And we can count on them to be run-heavy in favorable passing situations. This will limit both passing volume and passing efficiency—especially with A.J. Brown no longer on the team. For the time being, Robert Woods looks like the clear WR1 for the Titans, which isn't exactly ideal, given that he tore his ACL in November.

Woods wasn't anywhere near Kupp's level last season, obviously, but he played decently well, averaging 1.74 YPRR. But Woods isn't an ideal replacement for A.J. Brown's role in the offense. Woods hasn't had an aDOT of 10+ since 2018. And over the last three seasons, he has had shallow aDOTs of 8.7, 6.8, and 8.4. Some of that is the result of playing with Jared Goff for two seasons. But even with Stafford, he was a clear underneath option. Brown has a career aDOT of 12.4, exactly where he was in 2021. Brown can see work underneath because he is amazing after the catch. But he can also stretch the defense downfield. Woods, a 30-year-old who is less than a year removed from an ACL tear, is only likely to handle the underneath portion of Brown's duties. That could still lead to a strong target share in an offense that doesn't have many receiving options.

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine should handle the No. 2 outside receiver role, but with a career YPRR of 1.26, he's unlikely to be a difference maker, even with what could be a full-time role in the offense this week. Kyle Phillips' role will be interesting to monitor. He could have some Adam Humphries-type appeal as an underneath accumulator. It'll also be interesting to see just how buried first-round rookie Treylon Burks is or if he mixes in frequently as a WR4. For fantasy purposes, only Woods looks viable this week.

Austin Hooper could eventually be a dart throw option at tight end, but unless Burks can emerge as a field stretcher or they sign one, Hooper isn't likely to find enough room to operate underneath.

Obviously, the fun way to play this offense is through Derrick Henry. Henry led all running backs last season with an 84% rushing attempt share. Despite playing only eight games, Henry finished RB10 in rushing attempts. Ezekiel Elliott played all 17 games yet only finished with 18 more attempts than Henry. Henry... got fed. 27.4 carries is, arguably, not an ideal way to deploy a 28-year-old running back. But the Titans look set to run Henry until the wheels come off this year. Unless the Giants surprise the 5.5-point favorite Titans, Tennessee should be in position to establish Henry at home. He has elite upside in that environment.

 

Raiders at Chargers, 4:25 Eastern, Sunday

Raiders Implied Team Total: 24.5

Josh McDaniels has a long history as an offensive coordinator and has been willing to mix things up based on his quarterback. In two stints with Tom Brady (2006-2007 and 2012-2019), McDaniels' offenses ranked fifth and third in situation-neutral pass rate. And in 2008, with Matt Cassel, and in 2009-10 with (mostly) Kyle Orton, McDaniels still led top 12 offenses in situation-neutral pass rate.

But McDaniels has also finished outside the top 20 in three seasons: in 2011 with the Sam Bradford Rams (21st), in 2020 with the Cam Newton Patriots (31st), and last season with rookie Mac Jones (27th). McDaniels definitely has a preference for the pass, but he's never looked to force it, instead playing to the strengths of his team.

That's essentially what the Raiders were already doing in 2021. They finished ninth in situation-neutral pass rate last year. And their 2% PROE ranked ninth. They were also aggressive on 1st-and-10, tying with the Chargers and Giants for fourth with a 5% PROE. Only the Bills, Chiefs, and Buccaneers had a bigger tilt to that pass on 1st down.

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McDaniels will likely have a similar pass/run split and may be slightly less aggressive on 1st down. And McDaniels may not change things up a ton in terms of personnel, either. Last year, the Patriots used 11 personnel sets (3WR) on 72% of their passing plays, the 17th highest rate in the NFL. The Raiders ranked just behind at 71% (20th). Sure, you say, but that was because of Mac Jones. Look at the Brady years, you say. But I did... and the 2021 Patriots used by far the most 11 personnel of any Patriots team in the 12 years that McDaniels ran the offense. The 2008 Cassel Patriots (66.4%) and the 2018 Brady Patriots (66.3%) were the next highest.

All of this isn't ideal news for Hunter Renfrow. Renfrow only hit a 90%+ route rate in two games last season. Unsurprisingly, they were two of his biggest games; he combined for 22-219-1 on 24 targets. Renfrow had less than an 80% route rate in nine games. Renfrow could see more work on the outside this season, which would make a ton of sense, given his talent. However, if primarily a slot receiver once again, he might only see a small boost in his usage compared to last season.

However, further use of heavy personnel could be good news for Derek Carr and the passing game as a whole. Carr ranked 23rd in passing grade out of 11 personnel; he was much better out of 12 personnel (2TE), ranking ninth, and out of 21 personnel (2RB), ranking third. This effect is likely partly down to blocking. The Raiders allowed pressure at the ninth highest rate last season and were worse in 11 personnel. With the Raiders essentially returning the same offensive line as last year (excluding waived first-rounder Alex Leatherwood), holding steady or even reducing the use of 3WR sets is probably a good thing. This is especially true with Carr going against a Chargers defense that ranked 13th in pass rush grade last season and has since added Khalil Mack.

Heavy personnel could also be a very good thing for Davante Adams, as it could help condense targets. Although, Adams doesn't really need the help. Clearly one of the best players in football, Adams seems to be getting better every year. Adams entered the league in 2014, and his yards per route run has increased in every year he's played.  

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Obviously, Adams won't have Aaron Rodgers throwing to him anymore, and he'll almost certainly decline in efficiency for the first time in his career. But Adams has been so good that he can decline substantially and still produce an elite YPRR. This is a tough matchup for him to begin his Raiders career with, but with the Chargers offense likely to push the Raiders, Adams has upside for an elite target total this week.

Concerningly, Darren Waller did decline in efficiency last season, dropping from 2.28 YPRR to a decent but significantly less impressive 1.70. Waller turns 30 later this month, so any decline can't be ignored. He also missed most of training camp with a contract-related injury. Still, Waller is one of a handful of tight ends in the NFL who is actually a wide receiver with tight end eligibility. Like Adams, he's a strong play this week as a bet that the Raiders a pushed by the Chargers.

McDaniels has been clear that he plans to use a committee approach at running back, which hasn't made Josh Jacobs' fantasy managers happy. But the fourth-year back has been in a committee for most of his career, hitting 80%+ snaps just once in his three-year career.

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But things could still get worse. Damien Harris—McDaniels' lead back in New England—has topped out at a 64% snap share.

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We're likely to see Jacobs getting squeezed on passing downs by Ameer Abdullah and on early downs by Zamir White. He profiles as a low-floor RB2 play who could lose a lot of work to Abdullah if the Raiders are forced into a pure passing script.

 

Chargers Implied Team Total: 28

Justin Herbert was electric last season, finishing sixth in EPA per play. But Herbert's accuracy wasn't actually that great; he finished just 22nd. What he did do was show an ability to handle a huge portion of the Chargers' offense while still delivering elite efficiency; Herbert finished third in EPA per game behind Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.

And for fantasy... do we really care about accuracy if we have efficiency and volume? Granted, Herbert's subpar accuracy is a genuine red flag, indicating that his efficiency could fall off this season. But the Chargers appear committed to putting him in good positions, which should help prevent major negative regression.

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The Chargers tied for fourth with the Packers with a 4% PROE and were also fourth in PROE on 1st-and-10. They also played with pace, finishing sixth in situation neutral seconds per play. And they continued to push the pace when ahead, with the fifth-fastest pace with a 7+ point lead. Like Josh Allen, Herbert was excellent when playing from ahead, ranking fifth in quarterback grade with a 7+ point lead. As home favorites, the Chargers could be in position to push their edge at quarterback. With an offensive line that could take a step forward this season, the Chargers should be able to dictate the script of this game.

The Chargers also have an edge at wide receiver, with both Kennan Allen and Mike Williams turning in solid 2021 seasons. Allen finished WR8 with a 27% target share, with Williams at just 20%. But Williams was more efficient per route basis with 1.97 YPRR compared to 1.78 for Allen. Williams' route shares fluctuated unpredictably last season. For example, he had just a 72% route rate in the Chargers' must-win Week 18 after running a route on 97% of dropbacks the previous week. Allen was a more consistent part of the offense last season, but Williams was the better receiver. Presumably, after signing Williams to a new three-year deal, they'll feature him for a full slate of routes this week.

Josh Palmer will likely split time with Jaylen Guyton as the WR3, making both unappealing dart throws. Palmer's ascendence could actually be a bad thing for Williams because Palmer brings less speed to the table than Guyton. In sets with Palmer, Williams could be used as more of a pure deep threat. He's capable in that role, but Williams was at his best early in 2022 when he was used as an intermediate option. Ultimately, Williams looks like the highest upside option this week, but there are a couple of paths to failure.

Gerald Everett will be an enticing tight end option if he has a full-time role in the offense. However, the man he is replacing (Jared Cookdid not. Cook ran a route on only 67% of dropbacks last year while ceding snaps to Donald Parham and Stephen Anderson. Everett ran a route on 70% of dropbacks in Seattle last year and profiles as a TD-dependent option until we know more about his role.

Austin Ekeler's role is locked in for this week. The Chargers signed Sony Michel as a backup, and he could eventually steal some goal line looks. But this week, Ekeler should have full control of the high-value touches.

 

Chiefs at Cardinals, 4:25 Eastern, Sunday

Chiefs Implied Team Total: 28.75

Last season the Chiefs completely overhauled their offensive line. With that renovation project going down as a major success this offseason, they blew up their wide receiver room. While that makes it difficult to project where targets will go this week, it's a safe bet that Patrick Mahomes will be delivering a lot of high-quality targets... somewhere.

Mahomes finished fourth in EPA per play last season. It's crazy how used to Mahomes' stardom we've gotten. Given the Cover-2 discourse last season, you'd think Mahomes had a down season; he was the most efficient quarterback in the league in EPA per game.

Mahomes gives the Chiefs the massive advantage of running almost their entire offense through him while still maintaining elite efficiency. The Chiefs led the league with a 10% pass rate over expected and finished second with an 8% PROE on 1st-and-10. Facing a defense that ranked 22nd in coverage grade, the Chiefs are likely to pass aggressively, even with a lot of new faces in the wide receiver room.

The turnover at wide receiver will make Travis Kelce all the more appealing as a target. Kelce showed some concerning signs of decline last season. His aDOT dropped below 8.0 for the first time since 2016, signaling a possible decline in his ability to get deep. Kelce's YPRR also declined to 1.92, his lowest since 2015. But Kelce still ran a route on 85% of dropbacks, tied for the highest rate in the league. And he finished TE4 in target share (22%) behind only Mark Andrews, Darren Waller, and George Kittle. Kelce could eventually see his target share decline this season, but in Week 1, with Tyreek Hill (25% target share) no longer on the team, Kelce looks more likely to see a bigger share of the offense than his typical week in 2021.

Outside of Kelce, JuJu Smith-Schuster looks set to be Mahomes' primary target. In 2018, Smith-Schuster finished WR4 with 161 receptions and WR5 with 1,426 receiving yards. He was an absolute force. He was also efficient, with 2.08 YPRR.

As you know, things fell off the rails after that. Smith-Schuster ranked WR56 in YPRR in 2019 (1.49), then dropped to WR70 in 2020 (1.37), then to WR103 (0.84) in 2021. It's one thing to know that Juju has been bad the last three years... but it's crazy how bad he's been. Certainly, there are legitimate reasons to ignore his last three seasons, with the dregs of Ben Roethlisberger being the best quarterback play he's gotten.

Now Smith-Schuster gets Mahomes throwing to him on a depth chart that lacks a clear No. 1 wide receiver. Despite his recent struggles, his upside makes him a hold-your-breath WR2 play.

In Marques Valdes-Scantling, we know precisely what we have. He's going to be running deep routes on the outside. But MVS will have weekly appeal in this offense, even as a one-dimensional player. If the Cardinals can take the lead in this game, Valdes-Scantling can benefit from a quarterback who has been much more aggressive in comeback mode than Aaron Rodgers.

Mecole Hardman has ceded snaps to just about every wide receiver to step foot in the Kansas City locker room. It will be a surprise if he doesn't lose enough routes to Skyy Moore this week to matter. At the same time, Moore's role is likely to be far too small to put him in play.

Similarly, the Chiefs backfield looks like a split. Clyde Edwards-Helaire looks to be in line for goal line and early down work, with Jerick McKinnon potentially taking over on passing downs. Isaiah Pacheco will be active as the kick returner and should also mix into the backfield. Ronald Jones being a healthy scratch would help clarify things a bit, but all three of the top backs will still be hard to trust. However, McKinnon does look firmly in play for 0RB sickos.

Cardinals Implied Team Total: 24.75

Despite running an offense called the "air raid," the Cardinals were not a pass-heavy team in 2021. Instead, they were perfectly balanced overall and were actually run-first on 1st-and-10, a favorable passing down; they ranked 18th in PROE on 1st-and-10.

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As you can see above, the Cardinals tended to pass heavily on 2nd-and-medium and 2nd-and-long while prioritizing the run in most other situations. Kliff... gotta love 'im.

In Kingsbury's defense, he was dealing with a quarterback who became increasingly difficult to trust after his ankle injury. Kyler Murray turned in very strong performances against the Bears and Cowboys, but he was a disaster in a Week 15 loss to the Lions, very poor in a Week 18 loss to the Seahawks, and so bad in his playoff loss to the Rams that he is almost literally off this chart.

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Murray's three worst performances of the season came with DeAndre Hopkins out of the lineup, which will, of course, again be the case this week. But Murray will at least have Marquise Brown. Brown is coming off a career-low 1.61 YPRR, but that's only because he was extremely inefficient down the stretch with Tyler Huntley. Brown actually had 1.86 YPRR with Jackson, which would have been a slight improvement over 2020's 1.85, marking a career-high. Brown was also incredible with Kyler Murray when the two played together at Oklahoma, averaging 3.66 YPRR from 2017-18. Brown should also add the exact feature to the offense that Hopkins' departure eliminated: a downfield element.

Hopkins had a 13.1 aDOT in 2021, his highest since 2017. This allowed Christian Kirk to transform from an inefficient outside deep threat into an efficient slot receiver. But when Hopkins was lost for the year, Kingsbury replaced him 1-for-1 with Antoine Wesley, which went about as well as you'd expect. That role will now be handled by Brown, who—in games with Jackson last year—had deep targets make up 21.6% of his overall looks, matching Mike Evans and besting Mike Williams. Playing Cardinals stacks through Brown is advisable because if Murray regains his early-season 2021 form, a connection with Brown is likely to be a big reason why.

With Kirk now in Jacksonville, we should see Rondale Moore in a full-time role this week, if healthy. Moore played 76% of his snaps in the slot in 2021, which made it difficult to see the field with Christian Kirk (78% slot snaps) in a full-time role. Moore's route rate hit 70%+ just twice last season.

However, Kirk's role now looks like something that Moore could inherit. Given that Kirk played 70%+ snaps in 15-of-18 games last season, Moore operating in that role would dramatically boost his value. But... if he's still a part-time player with Hopkins out of the lineup, his long-term outlook looks bleak. Entering Week 1 banged up, it might be hard to gauge if a part-time role is health-related or role-related. But a full-time role would be very bullish for him moving forward.

Speaking of bleak, I've never understood the positivity surrounding Zach Ertz this season. And this is coming from a guy who was drafting a ton of him in 2021. In fairness, Ertz ran a lot of routes once he got to Arizona. After ramping up for his first two games, he hit a 79% route rate or better in his final 10 games, hitting 90%+ four times. But Ertz... was not good. He earned targets at a decent rate but had a poor 7.2 yards per target, which contributed to a just-a-guy 1.47 YPRR with the Cardinals. Ertz's late season value came from his complete lock on routes to close the season. With Maxx Williams returning from his ACL tear and second-round rookie Trey McBride likely to get playing time, Ertz is unlikely to be the every-snap player he was to end 2021. Also banged up entering the week, he looks like a stay away.

At running back, James Conner will operate as the Cardinals' lead back. Conner was an absolute force when Chase Edmonds was out of the lineup last year. Although, that could change in a big way this season if Conner doesn't get the receiving workload that he did when Edmonds was out. Conner was a productive rusher with and without Edmonds, but he emerged as a three-down star in the five games that Edmonds missed.

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The signing of Darrel Williams could signal that Conner will be back to being a TD-dependent RB2 this week. However... there's a chance that neither Williams nor Eno Benjamin has a significant role this week, making Conner more of a workhorse than anticipated. If that's the case and the game shoots out, Conner could be in for a massive week. Or, he could be phased out of that type of game environment. His wide range of outcomes makes him attractive in large field tournaments.

 

Buccaneers at Cowboys, 8:20 Eastern, Sunday

Buccaneers Implied Team Total: 25.75

The Buccaneers will have Tom Brady back under center in Week 1... but who will that center be? Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen suffered a knee injury in training camp, and his replacement Robert Hainsey could miss Week 1 with an ankle injury. This is not ideal for facing a team that finished seventh in pass rush grade in 2021 and has an emerging superstar in Micah Parsons.

Tom Brady is also expected to be without his No. 1 wide receiver, Chris Godwin, as well as his most efficient receiver from last season, Antonio Brown, and his hall of fame tight end. Given all that, it's fair to wonder if Brady will fall off from last season's QB7 finish in EPA per play. It's also fair to wonder if the Buccaneers might back off the league's second-highest PROE (8%) last season.

But it's more likely that Brady continues to be Brady. Russell Gage played 50% of his snaps in the slot last season and should be capable of doing a Godwin impression for a few weeks. While on the Falcons, he put up 1.96 YPRR; Godwin was at 1.97. Julio Jones should also fill in decently well for Brown. His 1.84 YPRR in 2021 was nowhere near Brown's elite 2.79 mark but was still a decent showing. Jones struggled through injury on the Titans, but when available, he was actually decent. He'll likely be in a Brown-like part-time but high target per-route role.

Mike Evans also showed in the playoffs that he's capable of operating as a target dominator, even if it means seeing shallower targets. He saw 24 targets in those two games with aDOT in both games (8.0 and 12.4) below his regular season average of 13.6. If Brady isn't clicking with the new additions right away, Evans will be able to pick up the slack.

Still, it seems unlikely that we'll see the same aggressively pass-heavy attack that the Buccaneers rolled out in Week 1 of 2021 against the Cowboys when they had a 15% PROE. Instead, they may lean on the payer that Brady may trust most: Leonard Fournette.

If Brady doesn't like his protection up front, you can be damn sure that Fournette is going to see plenty of work as both a rusher and an outlet receiver. From Weeks 4-14 (Fournette was injured in Week 15), Fournette emerged as a huge part of the Buccaneers' offense with a 70% snap share. Only Najee Harris, Alvin Kamara, David Montgomery, Dalvin Cook, and Derrick Henry had a 70%+ snap share for the full season. Fournette also showed upside for huge weekly workloads, hitting 80%+ in 4-of-10 games.

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With Rachaad White, a third-round rookie, as his primary backup, Fournette is set up very well for a heavy workload as a rusher and receiver, setting him up as an RB1.

Cowboys Implied Team Total: 24.25

The Cowboys are dealing with a major injury on the offensive line, with LT Tyron Smith going down with a hamstring injury and avulsion fracture. Rookie Tyler Smith is in line to fill in for him, which could cause some stress upfront. Fortunately, the Buccaneers ranked just 27th in pass rush grade last season. The Buccaneers can get to the quarterback, but they generally have to blitz to do so; they operated with the second-highest blitz rate on passing downs. Prescott wasn't deadly against the blitz last season, but he was still very good, grading out as QB9 when blitzed. But the Buccaneers weren't worried about him in Week 1 last year; they blitzed at a 51% rate, well above their 2021 average (43%). So Smith, and by extension Prescott, could be in for a long night.

It seems likely that the Cowboys won't attack as aggressively through the air as they did in last season's opener, especially if the Buccaneers aren't as aggressive on the other side. The Cowboys were so pass-heavy against the Buccaneers in Week 1 that it gave us a false perception of who they wanted to be last year.

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It would also make sense for the Cowboys to play things more conservatively, given major changes in the wide receiver room. After completely misreading the wide receiver market and trading away Amari Cooper for a sixth-round pick, the Cowboys lost James Washington to a foot injury. In addition, starting X receiver Michael Gallup is still recovering from his ACL tear. That leaves CeeDee Lamb as the only returning starter from 2021, with Noah Brown set to join him outside with Jalen Tolbert in the slot in 3WR sets.

Lamb has been solid in his first two NFL seasons but hasn't yet emerged as a star. Given that Cooper was subsequently traded, it's not ideal that Lamb saw just under a target more per game last year. Lamb was also, frustratingly, not a true full-time player last season. He had an 82% route rate, which would be elite for a tight end... but was well short of the 90%+ range for elite wide receivers; Cooper was at 86%. Lamb's route and target competition this week is so poor that it's extremely difficult to see how he doesn't lead the way through the air in a full-time role. Instead, the issue is that the Cowboys could have an inefficient passing performance or pass less than they might with a deeper set of receiving weapons.

Prescott will at least have a reliable underneath option in Dalton Schultz. Schultz ran a route on 78% of dropbacks and wasn't bad with 1.52 YPRR. With a 7.1 aDOT, he's not challenging deep, but he should still help Prescott move the sticks and profiles for a strong target share, with Prescott needing to quickly counter the blitz.

Tony Pollard will also help counter the blitz by playing out of the slot. Just kidding. Pollard will be on the bench watching Zeke churn out three-yard runs.

Last season, Elliott played 66% of snaps, and that was while playing through a knee injury for much of the year. He will likely see around 70% of snaps with more than 60% of the team attempts. Elliott's efficiency has dropped off considerably, making him more of a high-end RB2 with that workload than a true RB1. But he has enough TD upside here to have a legitimate ceiling.

 

Broncos at Seahawks, 8:15 PM Eastern, Monday

Broncos Implied Team Total: 24.25

The schedule makers know what they're doing. Week 1 closes with a legitimate revenge game, with Russell Wilson returning to Seattle. Wilson had a disappointing final season with the Seahawks, finishing just 20th in EPA per play. He ranked fifth in CPOE, showing impressive accuracy, but struggled will ball placement through the middle part of the season.

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It helps to know that Wilson was recovering from mallett finger during that stretch, though. And Wilson was trending back up in his final games as a Seahawk. Wilson has also been insanely accurate over the course of his career. Since he was drafted in 2012, Wilson has been the most accurate quarterback in the NFL

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Wilson will be working with a brand new group of receivers, so it's fair to wonder if he'll be quite as on point as in years past. But he'll also be operating in a new offense, one more likely to be built around his skillset.

Despite having the 12th ranked quarterback in EPA per play over the last 10 seasons, the Seahawks ranked 26th in situation-neutral pass rate. Consider this, since 2012, the Jaguars have started Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, Blake Bortles, Cody Kessler, Gardner Minshew, Nick Foles, Mike Glennon, Jake Luton, and Urban-tainted Trevor Lawrence. They've been just a fraction more run-heavy in neutral situations than the Seahawks were during the Wilson era.

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Nathaniel Hackett should help immensely in this regard. In his three years as offensive coordinator, the Packers finished seventh in situation-neutral pass rate. Their 4% PROE was also tied with the Chargers for the fourth-highest in the league last season. Hacket isn't going to run his offense like Andy Reid; he'll still be balanced at times. But Hackett is also not going to run his offense like Pete Carroll, perpetually afraid that one too many passes will irreparably change his team identity.

Pace remains a key question mark, though. The Packers were brutally slow during Hackett's tenure, but Wilson has indicated that he wants to play with pace. If the Broncos play fast and let Russ cook, they could be a very exciting passing game.

Courtland Sutton looks likely to operate as Wilson's top target this week, but that can't be taken as a certainty. Sutton ran a route on 90% of dropbacks in 2021 and has been treated as the No. 1 wide receiver this offseason. There's no doubt that he'll be in a full-time role this week. By contrast, there was plenty of doubt surrounding Jerry Jeudy's Week 1 role when Tim Patrick was healthy. Patrick played ahead of Jeudy last season (87% route rate to 77%) and looked poised to do so once again. But Jeudy now looks like the clear No. 2 option, with K.J. Hamler having an even smaller role in the offense last year (55% route rate in his 3 games) and coming back from an ACL tear.

Given that we know Jeudy will have a full-time role this week, it shouldn't be a surprise if he outperforms Sutton. Sutton had just 1.43 YPRR last season. Yes, he was in his first year back from an ACL tear. But Jeudy was playing through a high ankle sprain he suffered in Week 1 against the Giants. And he still had a far better 1.85 YPRR. Given the level of his quarterback play and the fact he was playing through injury, Jeudy's efficiency last season was downright impressive.

Granted, Wilson reportedly has a strong connection with Sutton. And I do believe he is the better bet for Week 1 production. But don't count out Jeudy to emerge as the Broncos' most productive receiver this week.

Outside of Sutton and Jeudy, the Broncos pass catchers look like low-floor dart throws in this game. We simply don't have a great read on how big the roles will be for Hamler and Albert Okwuegbunam. Although, Okwuegbunam is definitely in play as a TD-or-bust option. Despite a tumultuous offseason, there's also a chance that he starts in a full-time role. Given the offseason hype for blocking tight end Eric Saubert, that's far from a given. But if the Broncos operate out of 2TE sets at a decent clip, with Hamler on the mend, that should help Okwuegbunam deliver immediate value.

Javonte Williams made a strong case for a bigger workload as a rookie, finishing RB13 in rush yards over expected per attempt and RB5 in elusive rating. But Melvin Gordon had a very strong season as well, finishing 10th in RYOE per attempt and 13th in elusive rating. Unfortunately, they will likely be in a fairly even split this week, making both RB2 options. Williams obviously has far more upside; if the Broncos treat one of their backs as the clear top option, it will be Williams. Still, for the time being, Williams looks fairly TD-dependent, with Gordon potentially having an edge on passing downs.

 

Seahawks Implied Team Total: 17.75

Fortunately, for the sake of good football, the Seahawks got a good look at Drew Lock in the final preseason game. As a result, Geno Smith will be starting Week 1.

Smith was actually impressively accurate in 2021, finishing second in CPOE behind Joe Burrow. However, he did so on a small sample of 120 plays. (Burrow played 637 in the regular season). And despite being accurate, Smith was not efficient. He finished 27th in EPA per play, behind Trey Lance and just ahead of Taysom Hill. And Smith was not accurate in his two years as a starter for the Jets in 2013-14, finishing 38th in CPOE. It's quite possible that Smith's play in 2021 was misleadingly good. 

But if Smith can keep up his 2021 level of play, D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett should be in decent shape. From Weeks 6-8, Metcalf scored three TDs, but he also averaged an elite 2.59 YPRR, while Tyler Lockett wasn't far behind at 2.22. Smith will be a major downgrade from Wilson. But the offense will remain condensed, especially with last year's WR3 Freddie Swain among the Seahawks' final cuts.

Noah Fant should mix in as a pass-catching tight end, but preseason indications are that he doesn't have a full-time role in the offense. With everything likely to flow through Metcalf and Lockett, one of them could be in for a big day if the Broncos offense can push the Seahawks off scripts.

Because... come on, we know what the Seahawks are planning to do here. They want to run the ball as much as they can get away with and then a few more times for good measure. And if Rashaad Penny plays like he did to close 2021, I can't even blame them.

Penny led the NFL in rush yards over expected per attempt last season. But, more impressively, he finished third with 246 rush yards over expected. I say more impressively because of how few attempts Penny had in 2021. He finished 23 RYOE behind Nick ChubbChubb had 109 more attempts than Penny. Penny had fewer attempts than Devonta Freeman, D'Onta Foreman, Tony Pollardand Rex Burkhead. For him to be third in a volume-based performance stat is... wild. Penny also finished fourth in breakaway yards (yards on 15+ runs), behind Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, and Dalvin Cook. Again, to pull that off on just 119 attempts is truly special.

But was it real? The Seahawks certainly seem to have their doubts. They signed Penny to a one-year deal and then spent a second-round pick on Kenneth Walker, who has Penny's exact two-down breakaway runner skill set. However, with Walker dealing with an injury, we should see Penny get the early down work to himself.

Penny should be in a similar role to the one he was in for the last four weeks of 2021 when the backfield was down to him, DeeJay Dallas, and Travis Homer. Penny had a 59% snap share over that stretch and handled 67% of team attempts.

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But Penny will need the Seahawks to stay competitive. In a 20-10 loss to the Rams in Week 15 last year, Dallas played 58% of snaps to just 42% for Penny. Penny does not play on passing downs and is at risk of being phased out if the Seahawks consistently trail. So a bet on Penny this week is a bet against Wilson finding another gear in Denver.

 

Sources

To write this article I relied on the following stats, metrics and grades.

  • Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/Play).

    • Efficiency metric based on how much a play improved a team's likelihood of scoring.

    • I use this metric primarily for QB efficiency, but also for defensive efficiency.

  • Completion Percentage Over Expected

  • Pass Rate over Expected

    • Measures passing decisions against what would be expected given the game situation.

  • Situation Neutral Pass Rate

    • Measures pass rate on downs and in situations when a team truly has the choice to pass or run.

  • Situation Neutral Seconds per Play

    • Seconds between plays in neutral game script.

    • Faster play generally means more plays, which provides more opportunity for fantasy scoring.

  • Adjusted Line Yards

  • Snaps and Snap Share

    • Probably the single most important stat for running back opportunity.

      • Teams check in and out of runs with only one back on the field. Being on the field is critical.

      • Data from Pro Football Focus, AddMoreFunds and RotoViz

  • Target Share and Air Yard share

    • The combination of these is called WOPR. Created by Josh Hermsmeyer, this metric scales from 0-1.

      • Data from Pro Football Focus and RotoViz

  • Routes run per dropback

    • Snap share for receivers... since I'm not concerned with who is playing run-blocking snaps.

      • Data from Pro Football Focus

  • Yards Per Route Run

    • A YPRR of 1.8+ is good and anything 2+ is very good.

    • This metric is particularly useful for young wide receivers whose role could grow as a result of strong play.

    • It can also help identify truly elite wide receivers.

    • It filters out in-game injuries and blowouts much better than target share does.

      • Data from PFF

  • Target per Route Run

    • TPRR and Yards per Target combine to make up YPRR.

    • TPRR is especially useful for tight ends.

      • Some offenses and quarterbacks prioritize throwing to the tight end much more than others.

      • Some tight ends are far better at getting open than others.

    • TPRR is much more stable than YPT, so in small samples especially, I'd rather know who is drawing targets than what happened afterward.

  • Expected Fantasy Points.

    • Both RotoViz and PFF have similar Expected Points metrics that adjust opportunity based on the context of each play.

      • I am referencing PFF's metric unless otherwise stated.

  • A number of other PFF stats including Time to Throw, Play Action Rate, Pressure Rate, Screen Passes and Defensive Grades.