Week 1 Fantasy Booms and Busts: Aaron Rodgers, Packers show continuity could be 2020 key

Scott Pianowski
·9 min read

We tend to think of the NFL as a snow globe league, a league of constant change, a league where windows stay open briefly and anything is possible.

But maybe 2020 will be the season of continuity. That was one of the summer buzzwords, and continuity had a good laugh during the first Sunday of the fresh season.

Consider Green Bay’s 43-34 romp over Minnesota, a laugher that was made cosmetically close in garbage time. Same old Aaron Rodgers, racking up 364 passing yards and four touchdowns. And Rodgers focused on old friend Davante Adams from the opening whistle, skimming a whopping 17 targets his way. Adams, ever the brilliant technician, snagged 14 of those passes, good for 156 yards and two touchdowns.

This was a clinic.

Rodgers also had scoring passes to Marquez Valdes-Scantling (4-96-1) and Allen Lazard (4-63-1), encouraging signs if you bet on some Green Bay sleepers. But let’s not miss the message here: When your No. 1 target absorbs 39 percent of the market share, that’s where the action is. Adams should be able to justify his lofty fantasy draft capital from the summer.

The Vikings played towards type, too. The offense was comically simple in the first half — Kirk Cousins had just two completions at intermission — before the game situation opened things up. Adam Thielen didn’t get the Adams treatment, but he was able to collect 110 yards and two touchdowns on a modest eight targets; he’s still the main attraction in this (albeit scaled down) passing game. Dalvin Cook did little on 13 touches (48 total yards), but two touchdowns and a conversion rush applied needed deodorant.

If Week 1 is an accurate signal, Minnesota will have to throw more in the coming weeks. The defense looked shaky on paper all summer, and then somehow played worse on the opening Sunday. Rodgers wasn’t sacked or intercepted, and the Packers averaged 4.9 yards per rushing attempt.

Carnival life for Falcons, Panthers

There weren’t any fans in most of the Sunday stadiums, but you could hear the carnival music in Atlanta. For openers, the Falcons were what we thought they were — fun passing game, disorganized defense. Russell Wilson (31-for-35, 322 yards, four touchdowns, no picks) had his way, brilliantly operating an offensive game plan that was refreshingly proactive. And then it was up to Matt Ryan to fill the boxscore in the second half, with a bunch of the points coming in garbage time.

Fantasy managers certainly won’t complain. This life comes standard with Ryan shares. He led the NFL in completions last year, and he’s gone over 600 pass attempts in six different seasons. He chucked the ball 54 times in the opener — get that elbow into an ice bucket, buddy — good for 450 yards and two touchdowns. The lone interception came on a final-second Hail Mary.

Ryan’s a fantasy favorite not just because of how much he throws, but because of whom he throws to. All three of his primary wideouts received 12 targets on Sunday, and they all topped 100 yards. Calvin Ridley (9-130-2) had the two scores, not that managers with Julio Jones on their team have any right to complain, what with a 9-157-0 haul. And third receiver Russell Gage, a sneaky contributor after the Mo Sanu trade last year, chipped in a useful 9-114-0 afternoon. We love those narrow target trees.

Hayden Hurst was quiet in his debut, to be expected (3-38-0, five targets) given the address change. Eventually, he should be similar to what Austin Hooper provided the last four seasons. Todd Gurley had an ordinary rushing day (14-56-1), though he converted one goal-line rush. He was also targeted five times, not that they went anywhere (net gain: one yard). Eventually, those Gurley pass plays might fall out of the playbook.

Carolina was another team that played as expected in Week 1, scoring liberally but still falling to the Raiders, 34-30. The league’s youngest defense couldn’t stop anything the Raiders tried — Las Vegas rolled up 23 first downs and 372 total yards. But at least the Panthers offense fought back, kept it a game. Teddy Bridgewater (270 yards, 7.9 YPA, no picks, one sack) had a decent debut, and Christian McCaffrey did McCaffrey things (134 total yards, two touchdowns). Give Bridgewater some time to get his timing down with DJ Moore (4-54-0, nine targets).

The Falcons and Cowboys hook up in Week 2; get your popcorn ready. And Carolina’s inexperienced defense could easily get exposed again, up against Tampa Bay.

Cam Newton ready for his close up

Newton looked sharp in his New England debut, a steady 21-11 victory over Miami. The Patriots didn’t ask Newton to be Superman in his opener; it was a back-to-basics effort, a color-by-number job. Newton attempted just 19 passes, most of them high-percentage throws (15 completions, 155 yards). But OC Josh McDaniels unleashed Newton as a physical interior runner — 15 carries, 75 yards, two touchdowns. The Patriots sprinkled the other 27 carries to five players, with no one getting more than 37 yards. If Newton’s able to stay healthy, he’s obviously the Patriots goal-line back.

It might be difficult for the Patriots receivers to collect a lot of fantasy value, however. Julian Edelman turned his seven targets into an ordinary 5-57-0 afternoon. N’Keal Harry snagged five of his six opportunities, but they went for a modest 39 yards. Perhaps the most encouraging part of New England’s day, not including Newton looking sharp, was the inspired play of the retooled defense, a unit riddled by free-agency defections and COVID opt-outs. Ryan Fitzpatrick was hounded into three picks, and the Miami ground game went nowhere (87 yards, 3.2 YPC).

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates his rushing touchdown against the Miami Dolphins with teammates in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton was a force on the ground with two rushing touchdowns in Week 1. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Browns, Jets do little right in Week 1

Maybe it was unrealistic to expect the Browns or Jets to have swanky openers, given that they were at Baltimore and Buffalo, respectively. But it was disheartening to watch Cleveland and New York just the same. I’m not sure if I have the heart to roll their game films on Monday.

Sam Darnold hit on one long touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder (7-115-1; you win again, continuity) but otherwise looked like a confused rookie despite being in his third season. And if you told me Baker Mayfield (4.8 YPA) and Odell Beckham Jr. (3-22-0, 10 targets) met for the first time Sunday, I’d believe you. Beckham did draw two defensive penalties, but 22 yards doesn’t feed the cat (Mayfield’s scattershot accuracy didn’t help). The Jets don’t get a break in Week 2 — they’ll host the 49erswhile the Browns should be competitive against Cincinnati.

The only surprising thing about Baltimore’s 38-6 romp over Cleveland was the inefficiency of running backs Mark Ingram (10-29 rushing) and J.K. Dobbins (7-22). Neither had a reception, though Dobbins’s day was saved by two short rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Lamar Jackson flashed his MVP form, throwing for three touchdowns (152.1 rating) and jitterbugging for another 45 yards. Matchup nightmare Mark Andrews snagged two of the scores, and universally-beloved sophomore breakout Marquise Brown popped for 101 yards on five catches.

Speed Round

• It was fun to watch Gardner Minshew go 19-for-20 while Leonard Fournette ran nowhere (five rushes, five yards); there’s justice in the world. But remember Minshew played under Mike Leach in college, where he learned to spread the ball around. Minshew used 10 different teammates for his 19 completions.

• Speaking of Leach disciples, I was skeptical how much the Cardinals would force the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, new kid in town. Not that anyone expected Hopkins to be marginalized, but I expected a more balanced target distribution. That wasn’t the case in the opening upset at San Francisco — Hopkins went off (14-151-1) and saw 16 of Kyler Murray’s 33 targets.

• Josh Jacobs won’t be the last running back to trample the Panthers, but it was notable to see him shine as a receiver, too (4-46-0, six targets). Meanwhile, the Chargers targeted Austin Ekeler just once, and it was Joshua Kelley who cashed in a five-yard rushing touchdown.

• Most of Raheem Mostert’s receiving output came on one long catch-and-run, but I’ve never accepted the common belief that he’s not a capable receiver. If the Niners want to use him in a more expanded role, the skills are there; not to make him Roger Craig 2.0, but Mostert is versatile, and dangerous in the open field. He’s also very easy to root for.

• Josh Allen once again ran proactively, all but nixing the value of the Buffalo backfield. Zack Moss bailed out with a short touchdown catch, but his 12 touches gained just 27 yards. Devin Singletary posted 9-30 on the ground, 5-23 through the air. Allen’s biggest problem is the occasional big mistake; though he was careful with his ball placement, he did fumble twice.

• If you told me Le’Veon Bell was running in ski boots, I’d believe you. Infinite Jets. To be fair to Bell, he only received eight touches. The Jets addressed their offensive line in the offseason, but those types of upgrades generally need time to gel.

• It’s never easy to tell which way to shade the credit, but Washington’s pass rush was relentless (eight sacks) while Philadelphia’s injury-riddled offensive line was as bad as expected. To be fair, most sacks are at least partially on the quarterback, not just the blocking. We’ll see what Monday’s tape says.

• Joe Burrow looked like a rookie. Tom Brady looked like a 43-year-old on a new team. Rob Gronkowski looked like a guy who didn’t even play in 2019, though Brady missed him for one likely big gain.

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