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Freedman’s Week 1 fantasy football breakdown

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Matthew Freedman

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Ah, Week 1. It has finally arrived. All shiny and dewy in its newness, like a late-April weekend morning.

I’m a weird guy, so Week 1 always calls to mind for me the American poet Billy Collins, who is basically the poetry version of Mark Twain, who is essentially the 18th-century American version of Shakespeare, who is more or less the god of literature.

Anyway, Week 1 makes me think of a Billy Collins poem called “Aristotle,” named for the ancient Greek who was basically the philosophy version of Shakespeare. I digress.

 

 

The poem begins thus:

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

My friends, we are at the beginning of the 2021 NFL season. We know not the adventures that await us — but adventures to be sure are in our future.

No time like the present. Tomorrow calls. Let’s turn our destiny into the stuff of history. And if not history, then fantasy.

In the main 13-game weekend slate, here are the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends who stand out to me the most based on our expert rankings and fantasy projections as well as the Week 1 betting odds and our wealth of football content across FTN FantasyFTN Daily and FTN Bets.

Note: As NFL news breaks as kickoff approaches and Week 1 NFL inactives are announced Sunday morning, my perspective on some players in this piece may change. For my most up-to-date thoughts on players, consult our rankings.

To see all my Week 1 bets, check out our FTN Bet Tracker. Use the promo code FREEDMAN to get 10% off your FTN subscription.

 

 

Freedman’s favorite quarterbacks for Week 1 

Below, I take a look at my favorite quarterbacks for both fantasy football and DFS for Week 1.

Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals (at Tennessee)

Key numbers (at time of writing):

  • FTN Ranking: No. 3
  • Spread: +3
  • Total: 52

Sometimes it feels like people forget just how transcendent Kyler Murray was before suffering a shoulder injury last year in Week 11.

Prior to that season-altering event, Murray was the No. 1 fantasy quarterback in the league with 31.4 DraftKings and 30.2 FanDuel points per game (per our FTN Splits Tool).

Check out all the premium stats and tools we offer in our industry-leading FantasyHQ product.

In every single one of his pre-injury slates, Murray had a top-12 fantasy positional performance. In the first half of 2020, Murray looked like an MVP.

I don’t see why we shouldn’t see that same league-dominating player in Week 1.

In his Fantasy Football Multiverse series, Matt Jones highlights Murray’s path to becoming the No. 1 overall fantasy quarterback — and it’s not an unrealistic journey. Basically, all he has to do this year is what he did last year before the injury.

Given that Murray is just entering his third NFL season and is likely still growing as a player, his ceiling is the sky, especially if head coach Kliff Kingsbury can make incremental improvements this year.

His matchup sure doesn’t hurt. Last year, the Titans were No. 5 in most fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks with 23.4 DraftKings and 22.1 FanDuel points per game, and they enter 2021 without their three starting cornerbacks from last year in Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler and Desmond King.

Now, as bad as the Titans were last year with Jackson, Butler and King, they might be even worse this year without them. In our WR/CB Matchups Tool, we project Janoris Jenkins, Kristian Fulton and Elijah Molden to play most of the snaps for the Titans at corner — and that’s not ideal.

Jenkins is on the downside of his career as he enters his 10th NFL season, Fulton last year as a rookie allowed 9.4 yards per target with an 83.3% catch rate, and Molden is a first-year slot man with problematic size (5-foot-10, 191 pounds). Against a Titans defense that had bottom-four marks with 19 sacks and 66 quarterback hits in 2020, Murray should have plenty of time in the pocket to pick apart such mediocre corners.

As I mention in my preseason Arizona Cardinals breakdown, Kingsbury is not an elite strategist or play caller, and he’s a horrid 2-5 against the spread (ATS) as a home favorite, but he’s likely better than most people believe. Even though his Cardinals are just 13-18-1 straight up over the past two seasons, they have notably outperformed expectations in negative circumstances.

  • As underdogs: 12-7-2 ATS
  • On the road: 9-5-2 ATS

And as road underdogs, they are 7-3-2 ATS.

If history is any indication, Murray and the Cardinals will play with urgency, and that’s one of the reasons I am betting the Cardinals-Titans over.

The Cardinals play at a blistering pace in general: Last year they had a league-high no-huddle rate of 38.4% (per our No-Huddle Offense Stats Tool). Against a Titans team that scores at will at home — quarterback Ryan Tannehill has an over/under record of 11-3-1 at Nissan Stadium — the Cardinals should be especially aggressive.

In this environment, I expect Murray to dominate opportunities for the Cardinals with a high volume of passes, scrambles, and designed runs — and that usage should translate into fantasy points.

Murray is one of our top FanDuel DFS plays this week, and he has a position-high player rating and top-three ceiling projection in our new state-of-the-art NFL lineup optimizer

As Shaun Evans notes in his Cardinals-Titans Week 1 breakdown, Murray is a +650 favorite to lead the league in passing yardage this weekend. 

I expect Murray will be one of the top quarterbacks in my Week 1 DFS Cheat Sheets.

Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers (vs. NY Jets)

Key numbers (at time of writing):

  • FTN Ranking: No. 16
  • Spread: -5.5
  • Total: 45

My enthusiasm for Sam Darnold this week seemingly knows no bounds.

I freely admit that Darnold has done almost nothing to this point of his career to warrant my fervor. Last year, he was dead last among all quarterbacks with 10-plus starts with just 5.2 adjusted yards per attempt.

In three years, he has just one 300-yard, three-touchdown passing game to his name — and that was in 2018. Perspective: That was a pandemic ago. 

But Darnold has so much going for him this week — primarily his matchup. Last year, the Jets were No. 3 in most fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks with 24.1 DraftKings and 22.6 FanDuel points per game. Under new head coach Robert Saleh (49ers defensive coordinator 2017-20), the secondary almost certainly won’t be worse than it was last year — but, even so, the Jets enter the year No. 32 in Jeff Ratcliffe’s cornerback unit rankings.

I could tell you how bad each of the starting corners is for the Jets, but what’s the point? You probably wouldn’t recognize any of their names.

The Jets have a pass-friendly funnel defense, and they are absolutely one of the top matchups to target for Week 1.

It’s not as if this matchup is perfect. The Panthers are No. 24 in Brett Whitefield’s offensive line rankings, and right guard John Miller (COVID-19) is out for Sunday, so Darnold could face significant interior pressure from defensive tackles Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins. The Panthers certainly don’t have one of the best Week 1 offensive line vs. defensive line matchups.

And for what it’s worth, betting against Darnold has been highly profitable for sports speculators for the past few years. For his career, Darnold is 14-23-1 ATS in all situations and a demoralizing 2-6 ATS as a favorite.

When it comes to Darnold, one shouldn’t be blindly optimistic.

But if you’re not willing to invest in the possibility of a Darnold bounceback after he was shackled to head coach Adam Gase for two years, what are you even doing?

I’ve been on Darnold all offseason. I’m not about to back off now. He was of my favorite upside quarterbacks this year and players to draft outside the top 100, and it’s not as if I am the only person at FTN who has invested in Darnold, who was one of high-stakes dominator Nelson Sousa’s late-round draft targets.

In fact, one of Sousa’s bold predictions for 2021 is that Darnold will be a top-12 fantasy quarterback.

To get all of Sousa’s analysis, check out his high-stakes fantasy package, which comes with coaching sessions and Sousa’s rankings.

Frankly, it’s not hard to imagine Darnold going off this year, especially with the pass-catching weapons at his disposal in wide receivers D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall, running back Christian McCaffrey and even the fortuitously named tight end Dan Arnold, who is obviously the most natural of stacking partners.

Maybe I’m wrong about Darnold: I do have an overactive imagination. Have I told you recently how attractive I am?

But if Darnold does go off this year, his dominance will almost certainly start in Week 1, which is why he’s one of the quarterbacks I’ve highlighted on this week’s Freedman Fantasy Football Show at Bets TV.

And all three of our high-stakes players are on Darnold this week. In Sousa’s FAAB and waiver notebook, he identifies Darnold as a Week 1 streamer. Specifically, he’s the No. 3 quarterback in Matthew Davis’ Week 1 QB streamers breakdown and the No. 4 quarterback in Vlad Sedler’s Week 1 FAAB strategy manifesto.

This is the week to invest in Darnold, who will likely be rostered in less than five percent of lineups in guaranteed prize pools (per our NFL Exposure Projections).

For people looking to pay down at quarterback, Darnold is one of our top DraftKings DFS plays this week.

He’s also the top quarterback in Vlad Sedler’s Week 1 SuperDraft breakdown.

Upside quarterbacks for Week 1

Here are some quarterbacks I think will outperform expectations and whom I especially like as upside season-long and DFS tournament plays.

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (vs. Cleveland): Over the past three years, Mahomes is No. 1 at the position with 26.5 DraftKings and 24.6 FanDuel points on 308.2 yards and 2.5 touchdowns passing per game. The Chiefs have a slate-high implied team total of 30.25 points.

Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (at Indianapolis): One of my 2021 fantasy bold predictions is that Wilson will finish the year as the No. 1 overall fantasy quarterback. I have a +4400 ticket on Wilson to lead the league in passing yards.

Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans (vs. Arizona): Of all starting quarterbacks over the past two years, Tannehill is No. 1 with a 9.0 AY/A (including playoffs), and he’s on the positive side of his significant splits with 26.2 DraftKings and 25.1 FanDuel points per game as a home favorite.

Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles (at Atlanta): Last year, the Falcons were a top-two team in most fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks with 26.1 DraftKings and 24.0 FanDuel points per game, and in his three full 2020 starts Hurts was passed for 847 yards, rushed for 238 yards, and amassed six total touchdowns. Gilles Gallant likes over 45.5 rushing yards for Hurts in the Week 1 prop market. 

Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars (at Houston): Lawrence was a generational quarterback prospect entering the league, and the Texans are without No. 1 cornerback Bradley Roby (having traded him to New Orleans), which means that they will feature a horrendously outmatched unit of Vernon Hargreaves, Desmond King and Terrance Mitchell in nickel packages against wide receivers D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault and Marvin Jones.

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (vs. Philadelphia): Longtime No. 1 wide receiver Julio Jones is gone, but Ryan still has playmaking wide receiver Calvin Ridley and upside tight end Kyle Pitts, and since 2018 he trails only Patrick Mahomes in regular-season 300-yard passing games with 24.

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers (at Detroit): Say whatever you want about Garoppolo, but rookie backup Trey Lance (finger) might stay on the sideline for all of Week 1 because of his finger, Garoppolo is No. 8 among all starting quarterbacks since 2017 with a 7.9 AY/A, and the Lions were a top-two team last year in most fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks with 25.4 DraftKings and 24.2 FanDuel points per game.

Tyrod Taylor, Houston Texans (vs. Jacksonville): #KonamiCode.

Teddy Bridgewater, Denver Broncos (at NY Giants): Bridgewater has stacked pass-catching talent with wide receivers Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and Tim Patrick and tight ends Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam — and he’s an utterly unbelievable 21-3 ATS on the road throughout his career.

Mac Jones, New England Patriots (vs. Miami): Jones is the cheapest DFS quarterback on the slate, and he’s not Jared Goff.

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Freedman’s favorite running backs

Below, I take a look at my favorite running backs for both fantasy football and DFS for Week 1.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals (vs. Minnesota)

Key numbers (at time of writing):

  • FTN Ranking: No. 6
  • Spread: +3.5
  • Total: 47.5

Although Joe Mixon missed 10 games last year with a foot injury, he was the leader of the Bengals offense for Weeks 1-6 with 566 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage on 199 carries and 26 targets.

When that is tacked on top of his back-to-back seasons of 1,400-ish yards and 8-9 touchdowns from scrimmage in 2018-19, it’s hard to consider Mixon a disappointment although he has routinely left fantasy investors wanting more throughout his career.

This year, he might finally deliver.

Mixon doesn’t have a great matchup. Last year the Vikings were No. 6 in most fantasy points allowed to opposing backfields with 27.6 DraftKings and 24.1 FanDuel points per game — but they should be notably better against the run in 2021 thanks to the addition of edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, nose tackle Michael Pierce and defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson.

But even with the matchup, Mixon has a top-eight ceiling projection in our DFS optimizer is an attractive option because of the usage he’s likely to enjoy, especially now that change-of-pace back Giovani Bernard is no longer with the Bengals.

Over the past four years, Bernard has capped Mixon’s upside and functioned as the team’s primary pass-catching option out of the backfield, racking up a 155-1,196-5 receiving stat line on 210 targets since 2017.

With Bernard gone, those familiar with the Bengals very much expect Mixon to see increased work as a receiver.

Indeed, the sample is small, but in Mixon’s four Bernard-less games over the past four years, he has seen more overall opportunities (16. 8 carries and 5.0 targets vs. 16.2 carries and 3.0 targets) and leveraged those opportunities into extra production (per our Splits Tool).

  • Without Bernard (4 games): 19.7 DraftKings, 17.3 FanDuel points
  • With Bernard (46 games): 14.4 DraftKings, 12.5 FanDuel points

With quarterback Joe Burrow moving into his second season and the addition of wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals might be better on offense than they were last year, and with his three-down role Mixon should be able to produce regardless of game script.

Right now, Mixon’s rush attempt prop for Week 1 is 15.5 at DraftKings.

You know I’m betting the over.

James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars (at Houston)

Key numbers (at time of writing):

  • FTN Ranking: No. 12
  • Spread: -3
  • Total: 45

Robinson is one of Chris Meaney’s top DFS picks for Week 1, and I can’t disagree at all.

Even on a 1-15 team that ranked No. 30 with 19.1 points per game, James Robinson last year came out of nowhere as an undrafted rookie to explode for 1,414 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage on 260 carries and 60 targets in 14 games.

Last year, ranking No. 5 among all backs with 21.4 carries and targets per game, Robinson was a league winner.

Even so, new Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer selected running back Travis Etienne in Round 1 of the draft, and that seemed to seal Robinson’s fate as a long-term backup. Of course, the fantasy gods had other ideas: Etienne suffered a season-ending foot injury in the preseason, which in turn resulted in Eliot Crist releasing a hostage video masquerading as instant reaction.

Life, right?

With Etienne on injured reserve and only the aging carcass of Carlos Hyde to compete for snaps, Robinson now seems poised once again to dominate touches in the Jags backfield.

This week especially, that means something, because Robinson has a great matchup. Last year the Texans were a top-two team in most fantasy points allowed to opposing backfields with 33.1 DraftKings and 30.0 FanDuel points per game, and they also yielded the most yards after contact of any team in the league with 3.56 yards per attempt (per our Advanced Rushing Defense Stats Tool).

In his two games against the Texans last year, Robinson didn’t go off — he averaged a respectable 84.5 yards and 0.5 touchdowns — but he did have at least 20 opportunities in each contest. If Robinson enjoys that kind of usage this week, will likely have a top-12 fantasy performance.

Given that Week 1 salaries were set while he was still expected to be a timeshare back behind Etienne, Robinson is now a massive DFS value play for the slate. He will likely be chalky, but that’s fine for cash games, where his low salary and high ceiling make him an attractive option.

Robinson is also one of Zac Graham’s favorite Week 1 SuperDraft picks.

In only one game last year were the Jaguars favored, and in that game Robinson went off for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

I’m not putting any stock into a one-game sample — but the Jags are favored, so Robinson could have a run-heavy game script against a defense that last year bled fantasy points to the running back position.

Robinson is in an imminently exploitable situation.

Upside running backs for Week 1

Here are some running backs I think will outperform expectations and whom I especially like as upside season-long and DFS tournament plays.

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers (vs. NY Jets): Over the past three years, McCaffrey is No. 1 at the position with 28.3 DraftKings and 23.6 FanDuel points on 24.3 opportunities per game.

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings (at Cincinnati): Cook is No. 2 behind Christian McCaffrey with 24.1 DraftKings and 20.8 FanDuel points per game over the past two seasons, and after the bye week last year Cook was an unholy 220-1,068-9 rushing and 32-297-1 receiving on 38 targets in his final nine games. I’m betting the over on Cook’s receiving yardage prop of 21.5.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans (vs. Arizona): This game has a high total of 52.5, Henry is the only player in the league with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing in each of the past three seasons, and he’s on the positive side of his splits with 21.7 DraftKings and 19.5 FanDuel points per game as a favorite since 2018.

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints (vs. Green Bay): Quarterback Drew Brees is no longer around to dump the ball off, and the Saints have been forced to “host” this game in Jacksonville — but Kamara is still in a good situation, as the Packers were No. 5 last year in most fantasy points allowed to opposing backfields with 27.9 DraftKings and 24.1 FanDuel points per game, and he should see a heavy workload without wide receiver Michael Thomas (injury), tight end Jared Cook (free agency) and running back Latavius Murray (release).

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers (at Washington): Monitor Ekeler’s status, because he missed Wednesday’s practice with a hamstring injury. In his eight full games last year with quarterback Justin Herbert, Ekeler had 834 yards and three touchdowns on 95 carries and 63 targets. With offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (2016-20 Saints quarterbacks coach), Ekeler could have 100 receptions this year.

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers (at New Orleans): Jones is one of just three players (along with Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook) to have 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns from scrimmage over the past two years, and without Jamaal Williams on the team, Jones could have a career-high target share this season.

Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (at Buffalo): Harris is one of the rookies I’m betting on this year, as I expect him to have over 1,350.5 yards rushing and receiving with something akin to 2014-17 Le’Veon Bell and 2018 James Conner usage, especially now that backup Anthony McFarland (undisclosed, IR) is out. As significant road dogs, I could see the Steelers heavily using Harris in order to shorten the game — and I’m betting on the Steelers to cover.

Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team (vs. LA Chargers): Giving off major 2016 David Johnson vibes, Gibson is one of Sousa’s breakout running backs for 2021. Last year, in his first campaign since high school as a running back, Gibson had 1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns on 170 carries and 44 targets in 14 games. Under offensive coordinator Scott Turner (2018-19 quarterbacks coach), Gibson could see Christian McCaffrey-like usage this season. 

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Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers (at Detroit): Last year, the Lions were a top-two team in most fantasy points allowed to opposing backfields with 33.1 DraftKings and 30.0 FanDuel points allowed per game, and Mostert is 221-1,236-13 rushing and 25-233-2 receiving over his past 16 games (including playoffs). I have a +10000 ticket on Mostert to lead the league in rushing yards.

Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons (vs. Philadelphia): The Falcons are home favorites, they gave Davis $3 million in guaranteed money this offseason after he put up 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns last year, and his primary backup is gadget guy Cordarrelle Patterson. Davis might fall off as the season progresses, but early on he could dominate the Falcons backfield. 

Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals (at Tennessee): The Cardinals are road dogs in a game with a high total, Edmonds is slated to open the year as the lead back, and he’s a competent pass catcher as evidenced by his 53-402-4 receiving on 67 targets last year.

Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers (at Detroit): The 49ers often use two-back committees, they are big favorites against a porous run defense, and Sermon could do real damage with even just 10 carries as one of my favorite upside running backs.

Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions (vs. San Francisco): The Lions are No. 6 in NFL guru Brett Whitefield’s offensive line rankings, they could attempt to shorten the game as underdogs by relying on their rushing attack, and Williams is more of a ground-and-pound between-the-tackles runner than D’Andre Swift.

James White, New England Patriots (vs. Miami): With quarterback Mac Jones starting, White is likely to be heavily involved in what could be a short passing attack. In the four years prior to his 2020 campaign with quarterback Cam Newton, White averaged 94 targets per season, and last year he was still No. 2 among all running backs — behind only Alvin Kamara — with a 12.7% share of first-read targets (per our Advanced Passing Stats Tool). In managed leagues, White is a Week 1 waiver wire target.

Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos (at NY Giants): The Broncos are favorites, and Williams is a 21-year-old second-round rookie with good size (5-foot-10, 212 pounds), a three-down skill set (157-1,140-19 rushing and 25-305-3 receiving last year), and only aging Melvin Gordon ahead of him. 

Freedman’s favorite wide receivers

Below, I take a look at my favorite wide receivers for both fantasy football and DFS for Week 1.

Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons (vs. Philadelphia)

Key numbers (at time of writing):

  • FTN Ranking: No. 3
  • Spread: -3.5
  • Total: 48.5

Longtime franchise wide receiver Julio Jones is no longer with the Falcons. The king is dead, long live the king.

In Jones’ absence, Calvin Ridley should absolutely dominate.

In his eight career games without Jones (seven of which were last season), Ridley has made a mockery of defenses.

  • Without Jones: 21.9 DraftKings & 16.3 FanDuel points | 11.1 targets | 107 yards
  • With Jones: 15.2 DraftKings & 12.4 FanDuel points | 6.6 targets | 61.3 yards

It’s not wise to extrapolate from an eight-game sample — but Ridley’s upside is tantalizing, and his production without Jones is probably not a fluke.

Last year, Ridley was No. 1 in the league with 1,918 air yards, well ahead of Stefon Diggs, who was No. 2 with 1,700 (per our Air Yards Tool). Imagine what Ridley could do with a full season as the locked-in top receiver on his team?

Ridley is likely to see shadow coverage from cornerback Darius Slay, who has fallen off since his 2015-18 heyday. Last year, he allowed a career-high 77% catch rate. Slay shadowing Ridley is a neutral situation at worst for the receiver (per Jeff Ratcliffe’s Week 1 WR/CB matchups breakdown). 

With his unquestioned upside, Ridley is one of David Jones’ DFS tournament picks for Week 1. 

Marvin Jones, Jacksonville Jaguars (at Houston)

Key numbers (at time of writing):

  • FTN Ranking: No. 41
  • Spread: -3
  • Total: 45.5

Last year, the Texans were No. 7 in most fantasy points allowed to opposing wide receivers with 41.4 DraftKings and 33.1 FanDuel points per game — and I don’t see why they should be any better this year. On top of that, No. 1 cornerback Bradley Roby is gone now, shipped to New Orleans. The Texans are deliciously exploitable. Like a grape. (Just go with it.)

In addition to the matchup, Jones has a number of factors in his favor. 

First, he knows offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell from their time together with the Lions (2019-20). Bevell specifically brought Marvin Jones with him to the Jags, and Jones is the wide receiver most familiar with Bevell’s scheme.

For a rookie quarterback like Trevor Lawrence, Jones’ certain knowledge of the scheme is invaluable, and it might mean — at least early in the season — that Jones will be Lawrence’s most dependable receiver.

Second, Jones is the most established of the Jaguars receivers. D.J. Chark was a surprise producer in 2019 with his 1,000-yard campaign, but he has underwhelmed in two of his three NFL seasons, and Laviska Shenault — as promising as he is — remains a potential-laden dual-threat offensive weapon who hopes not to become the latter-day Cordarrelle Patterson.

Jones, however, has averaged 859.2 yards and 7.2 touchdowns receiving on 95.6 targets in 13.8 games per year over the past half decade. He’s an all-around professional receiver who can line up across the formation and create for his quarterback. His 9.0 yards per target in his five-year tenure with the Lions speaks to his overall playmaking ability.

Third, Jones is a DFS cost saver, especially on DraftKings, where he’s only $3,600. For comparison: Chark and Shenault are respectively $5,800 and $5,000. Given that Jones last year had a 13.0-yard average depth of target (per our Advanced Receiving Stats Tool) and has a real chance to lead the Jags in targets this week, he could put up big numbers at a steep discount.

Even in season-long fantasy, Jones is an option: He’s one of Chris Meany’s top Week 1 start/sit options

Upside wide receivers for Week 1

Here are some wide receivers I think will outperform expectations and whom I especially like as upside season-long and DFS tournament plays.

Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers (at New Orleans): Last year, Adams was No. 1 in the NFL 98.1 yards receiving per game and a 35% market share of first-read targets (per our Advanced Receiving Stats Tool). I have a +1300 ticket on Adams to lead the league in receiving yards, and he is the No. 1 wide receiver in our NFL Simulation Model

Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs (vs. Cleveland): The Chiefs at -6 are one my best bets of Week 1, in part because I don’t believe the Browns can stop Hill. Even with star cornerback Denzel Ward moving across the formation and defending him for some of the game, Hill still went off for 8-110-0 receiving on 10 targets (adding 3-9-0 rushing) against the Browns in the Divisional Round last year. 

DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals (at Tennessee): Last year, the Titans were a top-three team in most fantasy points allowed to wide receivers with 45.9 DraftKings points and 36.2 FanDuel points per game — and now they’re without their three 2020 starting corners. As the joke goes: The food at this place is really terrible … and such small portions.

Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings (at Cincinnati): Last year, Jefferson was the primary slot receiver for the Vikings in Weeks 1-2, and he underwhelmed in that role, but after moving to the perimeter in Week 3 he flashed with a top-three mark of 95 yards per game. With tight end Irv Smith (meniscus) out for the season, Jefferson could see more targets this year and build upon his historic 1,400-yard rookie campaign.

Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills (vs. Pittsburgh): After the first month of last season — his first with the Bills — Diggs never had fewer than eight targets in a game, and in Week 14 he was 10-130-1 receiving on 14 targets against the Steelers, who are now without 2020 starting cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton.

A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans (vs. Arizona): Brown has a career average of 11.2 yards per target, and the Cardinals are without ostensible No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler, who recently retired for “personal reasons” … such as no longer being an average NFL cover man.

Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans (vs. Arizona): The Titans have a run-heavy offense, but Jones should still see sufficient opportunities via the targets vacated this offseason by departed wide receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith. Jones is now 32 years old, but even last year in an injury-plagued season he had a career-high 11.3 yards per target overall with 700 yards exactly in his seven games with a snap rate of at least 70%. Jones was one of my favorite upside wide receivers to draft this year.

Terry McLaurin, Washington Football Team (vs. LA Chargers): Under new head coach Brandon Staley (Rams 2020 defensive coordinator), the Chargers could have a stealth secondary with the return of All-Pro safety Derwin James and addition of rookie cornerback Asante Samuel, but McLaurin — the No. 10 wide receiver last year with a 26% share of first-read targets — is slated to run most of his routes against mediocre cover man Michael Davis, and he could see more targets and better targets without teammate Curtis Samuel (now on IR) and with new, YOLO-loving quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers (vs. NY Jets): Whether he was near the line of scrimmage or running deep last year, Moore was one of the top receivers on the left side of the field, and now he gets to face undrafted rookie Isaiah Dunn in his first NFL game at right corner. Moore is one of our top Week 1 DFS plays on Yahoo, and he’s the only wide receiver in the league to have more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in each of the past two seasons. He could dominate against the Jets man coverage scheme. 

Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers (at Detroit): The Lions last year were a top-three team in most fantasy points allowed to wide receivers with 45.5 DraftKings and 36.5 FanDuel points per game. In his final eight games of the 2020 season, Aiyuk was 48-595-5 receiving with 9.3 targets per game.

Robby Anderson, Carolina Panthers (vs. NY Jets): Last year, Anderson was No. 5 in the league with 101 first-read targets, and the #RevengeGame narrative is in full effect as Anderson teams up with quarterback Sam Darnold against the Jets. Anderson will likely run most of his routes against cornerback Bryce Hall, who allowed a 75% catch rate last year.

Odell Beckham, Cleveland Browns (at Kansas City): Beckham has underwhelmed in his two years with the Browns, and he’s coming off an injury-shortened season in which he averaged a career-low 7.4 yards per targets — but the Chiefs-Browns game easily has a slate-high over/under of 54.5 points, and the Browns will need to throw to keep up as significant road underdogs.

Brandin Cooks, Houston Texans (vs. Jacksonville): Without Will Fuller (free agency), Randall Cobb (trade), Keke Coutee (release) and most likely Anthony Miller (shoulder injury), Cooks is the only proven wide receiver on the Texans. In his four games without Fuller last year, Cooks was 29-431-3 receiving on 41 targets. Based on his target splits, Cooks needs to be in your lineups. In 2020, the Jaguars allowed a league-high 10 games of 100-plus yards, one of which was an 8-161-1 smackdown to Cooks. I’m very high on Cooks in my rankings this week.

Laviska Shenault, Jacksonville Jaguars (at Houston): It’s impossible to know how Shenault will be used under new head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, be he seems likely to line up most in the slot, where he’ll face cornerback Desmond King, who last year allowed a 74% catch rate in his coverage. In his final month last year as a rookie, Shenault averaged 8.3 targets per game

Corey Davis, New York Jets (at Carolina): Davis was targeted on 10-of-13 pass routes this preseason, which is utterly sustainable, but that usage does signal that Davis is highly likely to be the No. 1 receiver for the Jets, and he has had a superior 9.8 yards per target over the past two seasons. Davis is a Week 1 sleeper likely to awake.

Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos (at NY Giants): The Giants-Broncos game has a slate-low total of 41.5, so we shouldn’t expect much scoring, but teammate Courtland Sutton should draw shadow coverage from No. 1 cornerback James Bradberry, which leaves Jeudy with the overrated Adoree’ Jackson. Last year Jeudy was No. 6 with 1,541 air yards while Jackson allowed 10.5 yards per target (albeit in just three games played).

Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals (vs. Minnesota): In the eight games last year from his Week 3 breakout to quarterback Joe Burrow’s Week 11 season-ending injury, Higgins was 40-594-4 receiving on 65 targets. He’s likely to see the most coverage from cornerback Patrick Peterson, which is a good reminder that sometimes there’s no difference between a shadow and a ghost. 

DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles (at Atlanta): The Falcons are no longer bound to former head coach Dan Quinn, but their cornerback unit is still the same one that last year was No. 1 in the league in most fantasy points allowed to wide receivers with 47.3 DraftKings and 37.4 FanDuel points per game. Addition by subtraction only goes so far. Smith is one of the rookies I’m betting on for 2021. I think he’ll be the No. 1 receiver for the Eagles as early as Week 1, and his DraftKings-only special prop of over 999.5 yards receiving at +300 is one of my favorite season-long bets

Michael Pittman, Indianapolis Colts (vs. Seattle): Veteran T.Y. Hilton (neck, IR) is out, so Pittman is likely to function as the No. 1 wide receiver in his stead. In his four games last year with seven-plus targets, Pittman put up 307 total yards (including playoffs). 

Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts (vs. Seattle): Talk about leaving some analytical meat on the bone — I just talked about a Colts receiver and didn’t mention that last year the Seahawks were a top-six team in most fantasy points allowed to wide receivers with 45.1 DraftKings and 34.4 FanDuel points per game. Done.

Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins (at New England): Waddle has an intriguing matchup in the slot against cornerback Jonathan Jones, who allowed just 6.8 yards per target last year and has the speed (4.33-second 40-yard dash) to hang with most pass catchers. Of course, Jones also allowed a 71% catch rate, Waddle was 25-557-4 receiving in his four fully healthy games last year, he could see extra target volume without Will Fuller (suspension), and he has Henry Ruggs-like athleticism.

Marquez Callaway, New Orleans Saints (vs. Green Bay): Teammate Michael Thomas (ankle, PUP) is out, so Callaway is slated to serve as the top receiver for the Saints — but he could also draw No. 1 cornerback Jaire Alexander in shadow coverage. Callaway dominated the preseason with 8-165-2 receiving on nine targets in two games, but Alexander allowed just 4.6 yards per target and a 48.7% catch rate in his coverage last year. Callaway is cheap with significant upside in DFS, but he will also likely be chalky with underappreciate downside.

Rondale Moore, Arizona Cardinals (at Tennessee): Moore is a rookie — but so is slot corner Elijah Molden, and in the battle of guys making their NFL debuts Moore has the clear edge. The Cardinals are likely to manufacture touches — quick screens and jet sweeps — for the electric Moore, who tore up the Big 10 as an 18-year-old true freshman with 114-1,258-12 receiving and 21-213-2 rushing. 

Elijah Moore, New York Jets (at Carolina): Slot receiver Jamison Crowder (COVID-19, core) is out, so Moore could see extra targets. A playmaking 21-year-old rookie, Moore last year had one of the most productive seasons ever for a Power Five receiver with 86-1,193-8 receiving and 14-64-0 rushing in eight games.

Terrace Marshall, Carolina Panthers (vs. NY Jets): Marshall has a great matchup and strong athletic profile (6-foot-3, 205 pounds, 4.40-second 40-yard dash), and last year he was the No. 1 receiver for LSU with 48-731-10 receiving in seven games. He can play inside and outside. He’s the total package — and he’s cheap in DFS. Whatever anyone else tells you, I’m the original Marshall truther.

Freedman’s favorite tight ends

Below, I take a look at my favorite tight ends for both fantasy football and DFS for Week 1.

Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (vs. Cleveland)

Key numbers (at time of writing):

  • FTN Ranking: No. 1
  • Spread: -5.5
  • Total: 54.5

You know who Travis Kelce is. He’s the guy who has been the No. 1 tight end in the league in each of the past five years.

You don’t need to read a long blurb talking about how great he is and why you should play him.

But, nevertheless, I’m going to write it and you’re going to read it — because that’s what we do here.

Not once in NFL history has a tight end led the league in receiving — but Kelce was close last year. Despite sitting out Week 17, he finished the year No. 2 with 1,416 yards receiving, and entering the final week of the season he was just 43 yards behind Stefon Diggs for the league lead.

Kelce was especially prolific in the second half of the season. Starting in Week 8, he had 1,275 yards receiving on 129 targets in his final 11 games (including playoffs). In not one of those games did he have fewer than eight targets. If he manages to carry that usage with him into 2021, he will absolutely challenge for the receiving crown once again.

With an average of 1,327 yards and 8.7 touchdowns per season over the past three years, Kelce essentially is a wide receiver at tight end.

They are sure to be chalky, but the offensive edge they provide is so massive that the Chiefs are still the No. 1 team in our NFL Stacking Model, and Kelce is one of Javi Prellezo’s “Must Javs” for Week 1, ideally as a stacking partner with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

The Browns have an impressive defense led by edge rusher Myles Garrett and shutdown cornerback Denzel Ward — and the offseason additions of edges Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley and cornerbacks Troy Hill and Greg Newsome should make the unit even tougher — but I doubt they will be able to stop Kelce.

In my opinion, Derek Brown’s Week 1 game-by-game DFS breakdown is an industry-best piece. Here’s what he says about Kelce in his Chiefs-Browns section:

“Kelce has been the red zone weapon for Mahomes since he became the starter. He takes on a defense that was 28th in DVOA last year against the tight end position allowing the eighth-most receiving yards (907) and fourth-most receiving touchdowns (10). Kelce is a priority play this week, even if you’re not stacking Chiefs. He can break the slate, and there’s too much value this week not to attempt to wedge him into your lineups.”

Kelce is one of Brown’s core plays for cash games and tournaments alike, and I’m similarly all-in on Kelce, who provides too large of a positional edge to fade.

Since Kelce started enjoying a steady weekly diet of double-digit targets last year in Week 8, he has had fewer than eight receptions in just 1-of-11 games. Right now, his receptions prop is 7.5 at Caesars with +120 on the over. Clearly, the market is expecting regression to the mean — and that’s not an unreasonable thing to expect for the average player — but Kelce is anything but average.

Last year, Kelce was 8-109-1 receiving against the Browns in the Divisional Round. In a game with the slate’s highest total, I’m willing to bet that the Chiefs will throw aggressively and funnel enough targets to Kelce for him to hit the over.

(Join this FREE contest at DraftKings Sportsbook to earn your share of $20,000.)

Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons (vs. Philadelphia)

Key numbers (at time of writing):

  • FTN Ranking: No. 5
  • Spread: -3.5
  • Total: 48.5

When Kyle Pitts was selected No. 4 overall by the Falcons in this past draft, he made history.

People use the phrase “generational talent” way too often when talking about players, but in Pitts’ case that phrase doesn’t actually go far enough. 

With his draft capital (No. 4 pick), athleticism (4.44-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds), and college production (43-770-12 receiving in eight games last year as a 20-year-old true junior), Pitts is unlike any other tight end the NFL has ever seen — at least as a prospect.

Although he’s designated as a tight end, Pitts very much has a wide receiver skill set, evidenced by the fact that last year he was named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as one of the top pass catchers in the country, becoming the first tight end in history to be a Biletnikoff finalist.

Tight ends historically start slow, and maybe Pitts will suffer that fate, but Pitts is not the typical rookie tight end.

Longtime franchise wide receiver Julio Jones is gone. No. 2 wide receiver Russell Gage has performed forgettably to this stage of his career. The Falcons don’t have an established No. 3 wide receiver. And No. 2 tight end Hayden Hurst is suited to his role as an above-average supporting player.

Even with wide receiver Calvin Ridley expected to see an increase in target share as the new No. 1 option, Pitts could still have a big role immediately as the majority inheritor of Jones’ vacated targets.

Priced in the top three at FanDuel, Pitts is just $4,400 on DraftKings, where he is salaried as the No. 8 tight end. With his low acquisition cost, Pitts has a very real shot to be the most rostered tight end on DraftKings.

 

 

Upside tight ends for Week 1

Here are some tight ends I think will outperform expectations and whom I especially like as upside season-long and DFS tournament plays.

George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers (at Detroit): Over the past three seasons, Kittle is No. 2 behind only Travis Kelce at tight end with 16.7 DraftKings and 13.1 FanDuel points per game — and he’s No. 1 at the position with a 28% target share and 10.0 yards per target.

T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions (vs. San Francisco): Hockenson has a tough matchup against strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, as the 49ers last year held tight ends to a league-low 7.9 DraftKings and 6.2 FanDuel points per game — but the Lions have Tyrell Williams as their “No. 1 wide receiver,” so …

Noah Fant, Denver Broncos (at NY Giants): Since he entered the league in 2019, Fant has been outproduced in targets (5.1 per game) and efficiency (7.8 yards per target) only by Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Darren Waller and Mark Andrews. Phrased differently: Fant might be the No. 5 tight end in the league. 

Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots (vs. Miami): Among all players at the position with 50 targets per year over the past three seasons, Smith is No. 8 with 8.0 yards per target, and over that time he’s No. 5 with 15 touchdowns. He’s an explosive playmaker, and with rookie quarterback Mac Jones starting instead of Cam Newton, the Patriots might utilize a short passing attack that plays to Smith’s after-the-catch ability. In Jeff Ratcliffe’s Player Props Table, over 2.5 receptions at -135 for Smith at Caesars has a 5-star rating — and I’m betting it.

Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns (at Kansas City): The Browns will likely need to throw aggressively as road underdogs in the game with the slate’s highest total, and Hooper is Matthew Davis’ No. 1 tight end streamer for Week 1.

Gerald Everett, Seattle Seahawks (at Indianapolis): The Seahawks lack an established No. 3 wide receiver, Everett has familiarity with offensive coordinator Shand Waldron’s scheme from their years together with the Rams (2017-20), and he should see a career-high number of snaps this year now that he no longer needs to compete with Tyler Higbee for playing time.

Anthony Firkser, Tennessee Titans (vs. Arizona): Firkser was one of my favorite upside tight ends to draft this offseason. Although he has scored just three touchdowns over the past three years, he has been an explosive contributor for the Titans with 8.4 yards per target, and now, with tight end Jonnu Smith and slot receiver Adam Humphries gone, Firkser could see a significant boost in opportunities, especially inside the red zone, where Smith last year had 18 targets and one carry, which he leveraged into nine touchdowns. Firkser is one of Kyle Murray’s best DFS values

Jordan Akins, Houston Texans (vs. Jacksonville): Besides wide receiver Brandin Cooks and I suppose running back David Johnson, who else is quarterback Tyrod Taylor going to target? With 8.1 yards per target across his three-year career, Akins is surprisingly not bad, and last year the Jaguars were No. 30 in pass DVOA against tight ends (per Football Outsiders).

Tyler Conklin, Minnesota Vikings (at Cincinnati): In Kyle Rudolph’s absence last year, Conklin played alongside Irv Smith in two-tight end sets for the final four games, and he was somehow serviceable with 15-168-1 receiving on 5.3 targets per game. With Rudolph gone and Smith injured, Conklin will function as the No. 1 tight end for the Vikings. You could do worse. Relative to the consensus industry rankings, FTN is high on Conklin.

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