Fantasy Football: Friday’s Week 1 six-pack
Every Friday during the fantasy football season, Arthur Arkush will open up his second of two weekly six-packs containing thoughts and tidbits for the fantasy weekend ahead.
1. One of the more anticipated reveals this NFL season will be Cam Newton (QB9), two years removed from an MVP award but one year removed from his worst season, and the Panthers offense integrating rookie playmakers and mismatch creators Christian McCaffrey (RB15) and Curtis Samuel. They could put on quite a show Sunday in San Francisco, where the Niners’ once-proud defense sunk to record franchise futility before cleaning house and, like Carolina, largely building a new scheme with plenty of moving parts.
Newton attempted all of two passes – both completions, one for a touchdown – this preseason as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. But other encouraging signs emanated from the Panthers, such as McCaffrey, who’ll make his debut just down the road from his familiar Stanford stomping ground, averaging 6.9 yards per touch and showing versatility, yes, but also impressive play speed and strength; Samuel is on track to play after missing much of the preseason with a hamstring injury; and Kelvin Benjamin was as dominant as any veteran wideout this preseason, finding the end zone twice and, perhaps equally important for a player with inconsistent hands, snaring everything in his direction.
Yes, this is another backfield requiring role clarity, as Jonathan Stewart also looked fresh in the preseason and has the power to handle the early-down work and plunges near the goal line – and lest we forget, there may be no one better in the game at doing exactly that than Newton.
But we’re envisioning roughly 18-20 touches for McCaffrey in his debut, several of them coming underneath as a receiver against fellow rookie stud Reuben Foster. If this was against a better defense, we might recommend watching from the sideline as Carolina’s new offense gets its feet wet. But against the Niners’ last-ranked scoring defense (27th in the red zone), with Vegas envisioning them scoring 29 points, let the Cats out of the bag immediately.
2. If signing Brandon Marshall and spending a first-round pick on Evan Engram looked like luxury decisions by Jerry Reese at the time, they don’t less than 72 hours from Big Blue’s opener with Odell Beckham Jr. officially questionable for the opener in Dallas Sunday night after sitting out practice since suffering an ankle injury Aug. 21.
The NFL’s second-leading active receiver in yards and No. 3 in catches and touchdowns, Marshall was already a fascinating fantasy figure in 2017 as he’s looking to respond after his worst of 11 seasons as a starter. First up: his former Bears defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, and a secondary with two new starters in front of a pass rush without one of its better penetrators by last season’s end, suspended David Irving.
Prior to last season, when Marshall plummeted to WR53 from WR3 overall in 2015, he’s historically been a fast starter — his Week 1 average stat line from 2007-15 is 8-88-.67 receiving, including a touchdown in each of the past four seasons before last year’s Jets dumpster fire. We anticipate another fast start for our WR21 Sunday night — regardless of OBJ’s status.
The most gratifying way to find out whether Dak Prescott will pick up where he left off in his masterful rookie campaign just might be by his owners watching with him on the bench. Prescott, remember, played what were likely his two worst games — Dallas’ only two losses when it was trying to win — against Steve Spagnuolo’s aggressive ‘D,’ returning pretty much completely intact, unlike Prescott’s O-line.
3. Minnesota and New Orleans both struggled mightily to play complementary football last season. The Vikings’ sixth-ranked scoring ‘D’ didn’t get enough help from its 23rd-ranked scoring offense, while the power of Drew Brees’ No. 2 scoring offense was mostly offset by a toothless Saints ‘D’ ranked 31st at keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
Each team thinks it’s made notable strides, making a matchup between Sam Bradford’s improved weaponry — Kyle Rudolph (TE7), Dalvin Cook (RB10), Stefon Diggs (WR24) and Adam Thielen (WR32) — and a Saints ‘D’ whose offseason progress was somewhat stymied by injuries fascinating. Many will focus on Cook making his NFL debut across from predecessor Adrian Peterson, in his return to Minnesota. That’s perfectly understandable.
But we’re just as anxious for our first look at Bradford’s new protection and Diggs and Thielen both coming off promising offseasons. For as bad as Dennis Allen’s defense was, it was less awful defending the run than the pass, and Cook seems poised to share early reps with Latavius Murray. Meantime, Thielen and especially Diggs are going to line up across from still-green and/or rusty corners in PJ Williams, Marshon Lattimore and Sterling Moore. New Orleans was at least average defending tight ends, and their safeties are solid, but Rudolph’s 132 targets led the league at his position and he’ll stay very busy.
4. We should probably expand on that future Hall of Famer in his “revenge game.” Peterson (RB33) is listed as a co-starter alongside Mark Ingram (RB19) and figures to get somewhere in the vicinity of 10 carries, if we’re to use Sean Payton’s 2016 backfield carry proliferation as our guide. Peterson didn’t look good in the preseason, but let’s not forget he hadn’t played a preseason snap since 2011; while making any grand preseason pronouncements is reckless, in particular that holds true when pertaining to him.
If owners lack a better flex option this week, we’re comfortable suggesting Peterson may find the end zone in one of the week’s highest projected point totals. The Vikings’ run ‘D’ under Zimmer has experienced opposite outcomes against power run games the past two Week 1s — it was embarrassed by Carlos Hyde two years ago, before shutting down DeMarco Murray last season — and if there’s an area to attack Minnesota, this is it.
Just don’t play Peterson for the silly “revenge game” narrative, do it because you think the Saints are going to score points and you think he’s got gas left in the tank — the latter probably being implied if he’s on your roster.
5. The Chargers have one of the NFL’s deepest passing attacks, and it remains to be seen whether Philip Rivers (QB14) can keep them all happy. Sunday night the Bolts’ surest bet is Melvin Gordon (RB7), who averaged 25-102 rushing in two meetings last season with Denver, which struggled against plenty of opposing run games.
Last season, Rivers’ frightful stretch of turnovers began on Halloween eve in Mile High, where he was picked off three times, and completed a season-low 42.6 percent of his season-high 47 attempts. The only game in which Rivers was picked off more was two weeks later against Vance Joseph’s Dolphins, who snatched four Rivers throws including the game-sealing pick-six.
Rivers hasn’t fared well the past three seasons vs. the Broncos, when he’s tossed nine touchdowns to nine interceptions and dropped five of six. Long-term view: we’re more worried about choosing which of his many playmakers will go off in any given week than we are Rivers recovering from last season’s struggles, but Sunday owners would be wise to look elsewhere for their QB1.
6. Trevor Siemian is the Broncos’ QB1 — for now — but he and a new O-line anchored by top pick Garett Bolles will struggle with the Chargers’ pass rush. But it’s a great first chance for Mike McCoy to make good on his offseason promise of Demaryius Thomas (WR13) again becoming a RAC monster in the screen game. That’ll be the best way to counter Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram — quick throws — so Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders (WR35) and even Jamaal Charles could find some running room against Gus Bradley’s zone-based ‘D.’
Speaking of defense, these are two of my favorites in fantasy this year, but believe it or not, I prefer the barely prefer Denver (D/ST 8) over the Bolts (D/ST 10) in this one. Can the Broncos find a second pass rush source after Von Miller, with Shane Ray sidelined? And is Denver’s D-line better equipped to handle a full dose of Gordon in Anthony Lynn’s run-heavy scheme?
Despite my rankings, I may have just talked myself into giving Bradley’s crew the edge here, except another interesting question to be answered in Week 1 is what will Bradley do with this impressive array of talent?