Week 1 Key Takeaways

Justin Dunbar looks at seven key takeaways from Week 1 of the 2021 season

Did you enjoy Week 1? I know I did! Hopefully, you were able to come away with a victory in your fantasy football matchup, but, regardless, it’s time to move ahead to Week 2.

Well, not exactly. See, the best way to project future outcomes is to adjust our expectations based on new knowledge. If you thought you should eat a candy bar, but then found out you have a deadly allergic reaction to that candy bar, would you still eat it? Probably, but that wouldn’t be optimal. My point; we establish expectations on players from the offseason, but when new information comes in, we’d be foolish to not use it to adjust those expectations.

You’ve probably heard about the main storylines from Week 1 (thanks 49ers), but, in my opinion, these storylines are getting less recognition than they perhaps should. Not only do these seven takeaways appear to have some legs to them, but the ramifications of them could be critical in the fantasy landscape. In that case, I guess we better do our best to get ahead of our league-mates! What are these seven pivotal storylines? Let’s take a closer look.

All Stats via Pro Football Focus and Player Profiler. 

 

Panthers Wide Receivers: Robby Anderson In Trouble, Terrace Marshall Trending Up

 

Last season, Robby Anderson was quite the reliable fantasy performer. In addition to finish as the WR20 in points per game, he ranked 11th in expected fantasy points, indicating that he was being put in favorable situations to perform at a high level. Unfortunately, that won’t likely be true in 2021.

See, prior to 2020, Anderson was mainly seen as a deep threat, which limited his production. However, with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm, Carolina decreased Anderson’s average depth of target to 9.8, allowing him to lead the team in receptions and make plays after the catch. However, with Christian McCaffrey back in the fold and a strong-armed Sam Darnold under center, it appears they have less need for that role. Anderson didn’t see a target in the short passing game and had an average depth of target of 30 yards. Yes, that number can fluctuate on a week-to-week basis, but it’s clear he’s going to be used mainly as a vertical threat, which limits his fantasy value. All of a sudden, he’s more in the mold of Marquise Brown, DJ Chark Jr., and other inconsistent “big-play threats”. Considering how well he performed as a focal point of the offense last year, that would be a shame.

The good news? Terrace Marshall Jr. appears poised to benefit. The second-round rookie was a focal point of the offense, playing 79.2% of his snaps in the slot, receiving six targets (double that of Anderson), and, most importantly, getting an end-zone target. If he continues to be a common fixture in this offense, and someone that the team wants to trust in the red zone, then he’ll be someone you may be starting later in the year. You’ll want him stashed on your bench, and for dynasty purposes, should be doing everything in your power to acquire him now; if you don’t, it might be too late.

 

The Run-Heavy Bengals

 

If you listened to me throughout the offseason, then you probably know I’m quite high on the Bengals’ passing attack. Between Tee Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tyler Boyd, they have one of the most talented wide receiver trios in the league. Best of all; because of such a pass-heavy offense, there would be enough opportunity for all of them to flourish. Well, not exactly.

According to Adam Levitan of Establish The Run, the Bengals had the lowest pass rate above expectation in the NFL last week. That’s in the completely wrong end of the spectrum, especially compared to where they ranked last year. Sadly, I believe this has some legs to it. With Joe Burrow coming back from a torn ACL and MCL, it’s clear Cincinnati wants to ease him into action, and avoid any obvious passing situations. Now, that’s exactly what they’re doing with this strategy, yet none of us was calling them a brilliant coaching regime.

With this, it’s likely they continue to be on the slowest-paced offenses in the NFL. Chase and Higgins, who have clear big-play ability, aren’t as affected by this, but what about Boyd, whose sole upside was leading the team in receptions out of the slot? For now, you cannot start him, even as a FLEX, while the upside of both Chase and Higgins diminish, more for Higgins, considering Chase came with the much lower fantasy investment. Meanwhile, all of the excitement about Burrow as a sleeper fantasy quarterback is tabled for the moment. I wouldn’t expect enough efficiency for him to put up fantasy production without more volume, nor is he likely to make an impact as a runner.

I anticipate this changing as Burrow gets more comfortable, but, for now, be careful with this passing attack. On the bright side, it’s officially Joe Mixon’s time to shine! I boldly predicted he’d finish ahead of Derrick Henry (it’s a bold prediction) this offseason, and his usage matched what we were hoping for. 29 carries and four targets all came together for 23.1 expected fantasy points, which ranked 2nd in the NFL among running backs, and I’d expect consistent top-ten production from him moving forward. Even when Cincinnati does shift to a more pass-heavy attack, it’s clear that he’s not leaving the field and will continue to be a fixture in the passing game, adding to his fantasy value. On the bright side, Chase’s stock is rising in a hurry again in dynasty leagues, while Burrow isn’t affected there. For redraft purposes, though, only Mixon is in a great spot right now in terms of fantasy production.

 

Buy Into This Chargers Offense

 

Last season, the Chargers were dysfunctional, to say the least. They suffered from poor clock management, often ran on early downs, and definitely weren’t putting quarterback Justin Herbert in a position to succeed. Instead, the reigning rookie of the year had to perform in admirable form under pressure, and other adverse conditions. Yet, since these are unstable situations of play, Herbert faced regressing negatively in terms of his performance unless those other obstacles were fixed.

Well, here we go! In steps a new coaching regime led by innovative head coach Brandon Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who not only appear to be adopting a pass-heavy gameplan, but are also focusing more on the intermediate areas of the field. Lombardi comes from the Saints, after all, and a similar-style offense could lead to strong overall efficiency.

That’s not all in Herbert’s favor, though. The front office completely reworked the offensive line this offseason, and it’s already paying dividends. Despite facing a top-five pass rush in Washington, Herbert was under pressure on just 12.2% of his dropbacks, while rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater didn’t allow a single pressure facing despite facing star edge rusher Chase Young. With more clean pockets in 2021, expect Herbert’s performance to be even better than it was last year.

Who does this benefit? Well, Herbert, of course. That being said if the offense is scoring more points, everyone benefits. Keenan Allen is averaging almost 12 targets per game with Herbert and will continue to be at least a top-ten fantasy moving forward. Mike Williams, too, seems to have been under drafted; he remains the team’s top end-zone target, and appears to be a focal point of the offense as the team’s X receiver moving forward. In past years, he’d been of a vertical threat, so a slightly decreased average depth of target and higher share could make him a legitimate WR2 this season. Heck, even tight end Jared Cook is in a position to benefit both in terms of touchdowns and with overall production as the team’s unchallenged tight end. Then, you throw in running back Austin Ekeler receiving two carries inside the five-yard line, in addition to his normal receiving prowess, and everything is there for them to be a fantasy goldmine this season.

I get that this was just one game, but it’s not as though the Chargers performed that well. Instead, I’m focused on their new offense, and the usage of their key players. There finally appears to be consistency in place for this organization, and I’m expecting them to finally meet their potential as a result. It’s going to be fun to watch them battle out the Cowboys and Chiefs over the next two weeks.

 

The Good and The Bad With The Falcons

 

People seem to always like to hear the bad news before the good news, so let’s start off with the “bad”. The Falcons got absolutely obliterated against the Eagles. Not only did they lose 32-6, but they simply looked outclassed, and are now a 13-point underdog in Tampa Bay.

There is reason to be concerned. Head coach Arthur Smith is bringing his run-heavy, play-action-oriented offensive gameplan from his days in Tennessee, but that doesn’t work well with a subpar offensive line. Unfortunately, due to the team’s salary constraints, that’s exactly what they’re working with. If this is going to be such a run-heavy offense, I’m concerned about their ability to meet their ultimate offensive capabilities, while Matt Ryan enters Baker Mayfield/Kirk Cousins territory in terms of pass attempts, but without the efficiency that they come with it; his fantasy value could be dwindling.

However, with there being so much panic regarding this offense’s outlook, this is a nice chance to buy-low on two players. I’ll start with tight end Kyle Pitts, who was utilized in a very interesting way. After being the highest-drafted tight end ever (4th overall) in 2021, it was going to be interesting to see how he was featured in this offense. Presumably, given the investment, it wouldn’t be as a traditional tight end, right? You bet! Pitts played 51.4% of his snaps in the slot, in addition to an extra 27% out wide. In other words, he’s a glorified wide receiver at this point. Think about that; you’re getting a wide receiver with tight end eligibility! If 5.1 fantasy points in a rookie debut is enough for a manager to get worried, make as many inquiries on him as you can. I’m really optimistic about his outlook this year serving as the #2 receiver (nope, not the tight end) of this offense. In dynasty, you’re missing out on a potential cheat code by not trying to acquire him.

If Pitts is too difficult to acquire, someone I could see being an easier target is running back Mike Davis. As mentioned, this is going to be a run-heavy offense, and Davis is clearly the lead back for them. His 18.1 expected fantasy points in Week 1 illustrate how involved (15 carries, 6 targets) he was in the offense, and imagine the uptick in his carries in non-blowouts. I do worry about his rushing efficiency behind such a subpar offensive line, yet, as they say, volume wins! The running back “dead zone”  has been hit hard between James Robinson, Josh Jacobs, Myles Gaskin, Raheem Mostert, Trey Sermon, and Gus Edwards, so if you’re someone in need of an instant fix at the position, Davis is as reliable as it gets. When all else plays, trust the player in a three-down role.

 

More Tight End Depth Than Expected

 

I mentioned how Pitts could develop into a fantasy cheat code later on in the season, but it looks like this could be a very deep year at the tight end position. Consider this:

  • Noah Fant may have the highest target share in the Broncos offense after receiving seven targets from Teddy Bridgewater in Week 1. As a conservative quarterback who wants to play in structure, Bridgewater is going to lean on Fant’s abilities after the catch, especially with Jerry Jeudy expected to miss time with a notable ankle injury.
  • Tyler Higbee was the only tight end for the Rams to see a target, and, in fact, ranked second on the team in total in targets. His 53.6% combined usage from the slot and out wide is certainly going to help boost his production even further.
  • Rób Gronkowski isn’t in any sort of committee situation with the other tight ends in Tampa Bay
  • As mentioned, Jared Cook has a much better situation with the Chargers than many were assuming he’d have.
  • Heck, as a more under-the-radar player, Adam Trautman had a 30% target share for the Saints and ran a route on 18 of their 23 pass plays. If that usage holds, he could morph his way into a starting-caliber tight end in some weeks.
  • Oh, and TJ Hockenson is an absolute fantasy monster with 11 targets in Week 1 and the position to have an elite target share thanks to the conservativeness of Jared Goff.

Mike Gesicki is trending in the wrong direction in terms of his usage, the Hunter Henry/Jonnu Smith committee battle remains unsettled, but this is the first time in a while I can say that I’m confident in starting 10 to 12 tight ends in a given week. If you came up short at the position, now is the time to target someone like Cook or Trautman, if the others aren’t attainable. Should you have any of these players, though, you can (finally) sit back and relax; your tight end problems won’t persist this season.

 

Rams Are Going To Air It Out, But What About Woods?

 

Did you know that Matthew Stafford was a Ram? If you didn’t, he was on full display on Sunday Night Football against the Bears.

After taking over as the head coach of the Rams, Sean McVay established himself out as a sharp offensive play-caller by ranking in the top-seven in yards/play in his first two seasons in the league. However, over the next two seasons, the offense’s production diminished, due to, based on the opinion of many, the limitations of quarterback Jared Goff. McVay clearly was affected by this, adopting a more run-heavy gameplan with an average depth of target of just 6.8 yards. Now, it’s time for him to run the offense he wants to run. In addition to ranking fourth in pass rate over expectation, the Rams let Stafford air it out with an average depth of target of 10.3 yards. Additionally, Stafford benefitted from the team’s use of play-action passes, converting all eight of his passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. In other words, this offense is in great shape early on.

We’ll see if that also is true of veteran receiver Robert Woods. Would it surprise you to know that Woods actually ranked 5th on the team in routes run, behind second-year receiver Van Jefferson. Meanwhile, Cooper Kupp appeared to be Stafford’s go-to target, commanding a 36% target share. Woods, on the other hand, didn’t see the same target depth bump that Kupp had, and clearly wasn’t the focal point of the offense. I’m not going to overreact to one week and make any definitive conclusions, because that’s the #1 thing I advise not to do. At the same time, I’ll definitely be watching how the pecking order fares in Week 2. If Woods once again isn’t a key part of the offense while Kupp is clearly Stafford’s top option, then serious adjustments will have to be made. This is a small-sample size season, and if there is information that can improve our projection here, it’s better we know about it before it’s too late. Considering he’s 29-years-old, it’s at least worth exploring Wood’s trade market dynasty, since that’s more a bet on the historical age of receiver aging curves than anything else.

 

Surprising WR1s For 49ers and Giants

 

In the offseason, the second-year receivers were one of the main talking points of fantasy football, and one that was consistently spotlighted was Brandon Aiyuk. A first-round pick in 2020, the Arizona State product flourished with an 80.8 PFF receiving grade and a top-ten finish in expected fantasy points/game. So, he’s continued that upward trajectory, right? Nope. Instead, he’s now behind Trent Sherfield on the depth chart? It’s a bizarre story that may or may not involve an injury, but for the time being, he’s likely not going to be factoring in a lot into the 49ers’ passing attack.

Well, I guess it’s time to get aboard the Deebo Samuel train. He received a target on 12 of San Francisco’s 25 pass attempts, and, most importantly, saw his average depth of target increase to 8.3. If he’s going to be utilized as an actual receiver (as opposed to someone being peppered passes behind the line of scrimmage) while seeing time in the slot (44%), then we need to excited about his fantasy upside if Aiyuk continues to be limited. In a run-heavy offense, dispersing targets between Aiyuk, Samuel, and tight end George Kittle was going to be tough. Now, that’s less complicated at the moment. I’d be looking to buy-low on Aiyuk in dynasty, as his talent should win out overtime, yet Samuel is the clear top option here for 2021.

When you sign a free agent receiver to a $72 million deal, the expectation is that you cater your offense around him. That is, unless you’re the New York Giants. After seeing his stock slip due to a tough training camp and an injury, Kenny Golladay is going to see his stock slip further after ranking third on the team in targets. Rather, quarterback Daniel Jones continued to avoid passes 20+ yards down the field, centering on receiver Sterling Shepard. After leading the team in targets again, Shepard continued that trend with nine targets, and his usage is encouraging; he played 65.1% of his snaps from the slot, where he can gain separation and makes plays after the catch- his speciality earlier in his career. In PPR formats, Shepard’s ability to accumulate receptions, as well as not be a liability in terms of yards/receptions based on his production after the catch in the slot, all voids well to him being the top receiver for the Giants. Could you take a buy-low on Golladay? I probably wouldn’t; this isn’t an offense to be chasing anyways, and he’s almost 28-years-old stuck in an unfavorable situation. This might not be the outcome we expected, but hey, as I alluded to by calling Shepard a “sleeper” in the offseason, maybe he should have! Anyways, moving forward, Shepard is looking like the clear top receiver here, while Golladay and Darius Slayton will serve as vertical threats on the outside.

 

With that, it’s time to make those adjustments and enjoy Week 2! There are a lot of games that should be high-paced shootouts, and if that’s the case, you know what time it is: get your popcorn ready! I wish you the best of luck in conquering your opponent in your fantasy football matchup this weekend.

(Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire)

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