This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
I suppose we should do a quick introduction, seeing as this is my first season taking over the start/sit, upgrade/downgrade column from Luke Hoover. I'm 28 years old and I live in Baltimore. Yes, I like Lamar Jackson ... a lot. Yes, I've watched all five seasons of The Wire multiple times. For some odd reason I have three pet cats. No, I didn't ever intend to have three cats. Sometimes weird stuff happens.
Now that I've reached my max energy level for an introduction, I'd like to apologize for any unsuccessful lineup decisions I might encourage. I'll also take credit for anything that works well, if you're feeling generous enough to share the glory.
But really, you probably shouldn't, because a start/sit column — despite the name — is intended to inform decisions, not to make them. And we can only start the players we draft or pick up, so any success is at least partially a matter of skill, even if it involves Brian Hartline exploding for 253 yards when we would've been happy with 53. (Yes, it's a real thing that happened.)
The challenge of scoping out matchups is even greater in Week 1 when we're forced to rely on information from past seasons and general intuition, rather than evaluating recent outcomes. At this time last year, I was confident in the Saints blowing out the Buccaneers in the season opener — so much so that I started the New Orleans D/ST and got slapped with negative fantasy points after Ryan Fitzpatrick accounted for five touchdowns and 14.9 yards per pass attempt.
A few other things I thought I knew in early September last year?
- The Jacksonville defense was elite. No doubt.
- The Indianapolis defense would be a cupcake matchup all year. Easy money.
- A rookie running back on a bad team was a stupid first-round fantasy pick. Only a fool would think otherwise.
I could keep telling you more, but at some point it just starts to get embarrassing, and in any case, none of it prevented me from winning a pair of fantasy championships. (You had to know this was going to round into an obnoxious humble-brag, right?)
My point isn't that we should rely on blind guesses or "gut feelings" for Week 1. Rather, we should use probabilistic thinking to make optimal decisions, accepting all the while that limited information early in the season means it's a sure thing some of these decisions — many of them, in fact — will blow up in our faces.
Good fantasy players and bad fantasy players alike will end up with guys on the bench that outscore the guys in the starting lineup. Unswayed by emotion, the best fantasy players re-evaluate the available information each week, accounting for a wide range of factors including but not limited to the following (in no particular order):
- Betting lines/odds
- Pace of play
- Coaching strategy
- WR vs. CB matchups
- Opponent and teammate injuries
- Target/carry share
- Snap counts
- PFF grades and route/coverage data
- DvP stats
Of course, a new season means a lot of this information is based on last year, which means many of our best guesses will turn out to be wrong. For now, let's just do the best we can, keeping in mind that sometimes weird stuff happens (™).
Tom Brady, NE vs. PIT
Recent Pats-Steelers matchups haven't been the shootouts one might expect, but we have seen Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels maintain their pass-heavy preference against a Pittsburgh defense with a reputation for defending the run better than the pass. Brady has attempted at least 32 throws in every regular-season matchup between these AFC heavyweights, averaging 37.5 passes for 309 yards and 2.4 touchdowns in 11 games. My point isn't that statistics from 2003 are relevant; it's that Belichick has never wavered from his preference for chucking it around against the Steelers. The plan will be the same as always — win with the passing game, then shut the door with the run.
Dak Prescott, DAL vs. NYG
This one involves a bit more narrative than I'm generally comfortable with, but I nonetheless think it's reasonable to expect a couple extra pass attempts or carries for Prescott if post-holdout Ezekiel Elliott is on a limited snap count. More important, the Cowboys play host to a joke of a defense — one that traded away its best pass rusher (Olivier Vernon) and "replaced" him with a guy (Markus Golden) who had 2.5 sacks in 15 games the past two years. Apart from run-stuffing tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, is there any player on the Giants defense we can confidently label as an above-average starter at the current stage of his career?
Chris Carson, SEA vs. CIN
I know few of you picked up Carson to be your No. 1 running back, especially if your draft took place back when Rashaad Penny hype was still a thing (oh, how I long for the days of early August). Regardless of draft position, find a way to get Carson into your lineup this week. I actually think the No. 10 RB spot in Jeff Erickson's weekly rankings is too low, even though it puts Carson ahead of a bunch of players that were consistently drafted before him.
I'm skeptical of Carson's long-term durability given his violent running style, so the optimal approach for RB-heavy teams would involve cashing in on a big Week 1 with a trade for a high-end WR or TE. Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself here, but I'm really that confident in Carson wrecking the Bengals.
Mark Ingram, BAL at MIA
The thinking here is much the same as it is for Carson, looking to take advantage of a large point spread (-6.5) against a team with a soft run defense. The Dolphins actually have a tough secondary led by Xavien Howard, Reshad Jones and Minkah Fitzpatrick, but the front seven is dominated by unproven players, including one projected starter, Sam Eguavoen, who played in the CFL last year. The Ravens should be able to win this game with their running backs, rather than exposing Lamar Jackson to an unnecessary degree of injury risk. Miami gave up the fifth-most fantasy points to running backs last season, and there's no reason to expect improvement this year.
Robert Alford's leg injury might actually be a case of addition by subtraction for the Arizona secondary, but there's no question Patrick Peterson's suspension is a major blow. The Cardinals are left with 31-year-old Tramaine Brock and 21-year-old Byron Murphy as their projected starting corners, backed up by a pair of undrafted players (Chris Jones and Kevin Peterson) with 97 career defensive snaps between them. I pride myself on knowing the ins and outs of every NFL depth chart, but I couldn't tell you anything more about Jones and Peterson.
What I can tell you is that Brock placed 98th among 112 qualified cornerbacks in PFF grade last season, while Murphy will be playing his first regular-season game. As a bonus, there's a good chance for elevated snap volume on both sides of this game, as Kliff Kingsbury figures to push the pace for at least part of the afternoon.
Marquise Goodwin, SF at TB
New coach, same plan. At least when it comes to the secondary. The Bucs are counting on things to finally click for first-round bust Vernon Hargreaves, who was mauled in 2016, benched in 2017 and injured in 2018. The rest of the plan involves a mix of rookies and second-year pros, led by 2018 repeat burn victim Carlton Davis (PFF credits him with a 113.3 opponent passer rating on 53 targets).
Goodwin is the forgotten man and Dante Pettis the oft-discussed, but Goodwin's world-class speed will be particularly useful against Davis (4.53 40-yard dash), Hargreaves (4.5) and M.J. Stewart (4.54). Really, every member of the San Francisco offense should get a boost, with the soft matchups potentially augmented by extra volume caused by Tampa's pass-first, turnover-prone approach on offense.
Hunter Henry, LAC vs. IND
Henry was drafted with every-week starter expectations in most leagues, so we'll keep this one relatively short: I expect the Colts to win, or at least keep the game closer than the betting line (+6.5) suggests. That means Philip Rivers will still be chucking it around in the fourth quarter, facing a Colts defense that struggled against just one position last season, yielding a league-high 1,194 receiving yards to tight ends. The Chargers will need to lean on their passing game in the absence of Melvin Gordon (holdout), with things pointing in Henry's favor against a defense led by 2018 breakout stars Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore (thumb) at cornerback.
Darren Waller, OAK vs. DEN
With Chris Harris and Bryce Callahan lining up at cornerback while Von Miller and Bradley Chubb rush off the edge, Denver likely will force opponents to rely on the running game and/or quick passes. Jon Gruden might like the idea of leaning on his ground attack, but I'm pessimistic about a rookie running back in his pro debut behind a shaky offensive line, especially with Vic Fangio calling plays on the other side. When all is said and done, I think the Raiders end up using Waller and Jalen Richard more than they'd really like, forced to put Derek Carr in his dump-off comfort zone. There's no longer any question about Waller serving as Oakland's top pass catcher at tight end, but it remains to be seen if he'll have a three-down role.
Aaron Rodgers, GB at CHI
Anyone who has read my other work on RotoWire knows I'll never start a team defense against a quarterback of Rodgers' caliber. On the flip side, I'm typically fine with starting a top quarterback against a top defense.... but this is one of those cases where it's best to just stay away from the game entirely, if you can. After all, the Bears weren't just the best defense in the NFL last season. They were the best by a huge margin, with the 11.5-point DVOA gap between them and the second-place Bills representing a wider chasm than that between Buffalo and the 10th-place Colts. Green Bay's implied total of 21.75 points shows that oddsmakers share my concerns about the Week 1 matchup.
Matt Ryan, ATL at MIN
Ryan opens his season on the road against a consistent Minnesota defense, one with a three-year streak of finishing in the top 10 in DVOA, points allowed and yards allowed. Popular logic at the moment dictates that we start Ryan whenever he plays indoors, but don't forget that his outrageous splits are swayed by home-field advantage and soft NFC South matchups. A road game against Xavier Rhodes, Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith is much different from a home game against whoever the Bucs are paying to attempt to play defense.
I care about monitoring the workload split here to inform future decisions; I don't care about the results, because neither Ballage nor Drake will come anywhere near my Week 1 lineups. This game had blowout potential even before the Dolphins fully committed to tanking with the trade that sent away LT Laremy Tunsil and WR Kenny Stills. What's left is arguably the worst offensive line in the league, and very likely the worst overall team in the league.
It's a terrible situation for backfield production, and that's before we even mention the matchup with a Baltimore defense that limited RBs to the second-fewest fantasy points in 2018 and the fourth-fewest in 2017. The Ravens lost linebackers C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs during the offseason, but they still have 675 pounds of beef up the middle with defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce.
Joe Mixon, CIN at SEA
Playing as a 9.5-point road underdog is problematic for any running back. It's even more so for a guy like Mixon, who figures to yield some passing-down snaps and no-huddle work to veteran teammate Giovani Bernard. I probably can't convince you to remove Mixon from season-long lineups, but we can at least cross him off the list for DFS, and potentially some of those super-charged dynasty teams. I'm not kidding when I say I'd rather start Mark Ingram, Damien Williams and Duke Johnson, among others.
My predecessor in this space, Luke Hoover, will probably be horrified if he reads this. I can't say I share Hoover's level of optimism about Mixon, but I do think there will be some fruitful days ahead — just not Week 1 at Seattle. Thinking out loud now — would a Carson-for-Mixon trade be reasonable if this game plays out the way I expect?
Dede Westbrook, JAX vs. KC
The target upside relative to cost makes Westbrook a nice choice in DFS tournaments, but for season-long lineups I think we can do better than a slot receiver who is facing a defense that uses its best cornerback, Kendall Fuller, to cover the inside. You may have noticed I listed Chris Conley as an "honorable mention" in the upgrade section. While only relevant for DFS (debatable) or extremely deep leagues, it's a product of my expectation for Westbrook to run most of his routes against Fuller while Conley and Marqise Lee (or D.J. Chark?) get the privilege of facing Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward. It's not that Fuller is some unbeatable matchup nightmare; rather, it's that Westbrook's teammates have the relative advantage. Maybe we should end this conversation before I accidentally talk myself into using Nick Foles.
Jarvis Landry, CLE vs. TEN
Most of the 2019 campaign will be marked by Chubb weeks and OBJ weeks, rather than Landry weeks. That's even more likely for Cleveland's opener, with Landry drawing the toughest individual matchup against Titans cornerback Logan Ryan. The former Patriot has been less than stellar in outside coverage, but his inside work remains top-notch, with PFF crediting Ryan with the fifth-fewest yards allowed per snap (0.84) in slot coverage last season (200-snap minimum). The Browns should rely on Odell Beckham early in the game and Nick Chubb to close things out.
Jimmy Graham, GB at CHI
I actually don't hate the case for another bounce-back season for Graham. I just don't see it happening Thursday night when he faces the same first-rate defense that held him to a 5-40-0 receiving line on eight targets in two matchups last year. It doesn't help that the drop-prone tight end has been dealing with a finger injury.
David Njoku, CLE vs. TEN
This is similar to my logic for fading Landry, with a tricky individual matchup compounded by the concerns about overall pass volume in a contest the Browns should win. Beckham and Rashard Higgins have solid matchups against inconsistent cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoree' Jackson, while Njoku takes aim at a defense that yielded the second-fewest fantasy points (and 6.4 YPT) to tight ends last season.
I'm not saying we should heavily rely on DvP stats, particularly from the prior year, but it does make some sense when analyzing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Tennessee defense. With Kevin Byard at free safety and Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans at inside linebacker, the Titans encourage opponents to throw outside the hashes.