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To start or sit. That is the question every fantasy owner faces when daunting matchups loom.
Even the best fantasy producers can be derailed by a bad matchup, but overthinking the issue and sitting a surefire starter can be just as problematic.
Making the wrong decision can cost you a win and another step toward a fantasy playoff spot.
Week 1 of the 2018 season has its fair share of difficult fantasy matchups, and we’re here to examine the toughest. We’ll be focusing solely on starting-caliber players—not must-starts like Todd Gurley—to determine whether to start or sit them despite their rough Week 1 opponents.
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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was a fantasy must-start before he missed all of last season to recover from shoulder surgery. We don’t know what to expect from him now, and he’ll be making his return against a tough Cincinnati Bengals defense.
Cincinnati allowed the eighth-fewest passing yards (211.2 per game) last season and looked even more dangerous this preseason. The Bengals logged 13 sacks and three interceptions through four exhibition games.
Regardless, fantasy owners should stick with Luck here. The Colts are playing at home, and Luck is going to be motivated to come out strong. Indianapolis will also have to lean on him because its running game is unproven—presumptive starting RB Marlon Mack (hamstring) practiced Thursday for the first time in nearly a month, according to Pro Football Talk’s Josh Alper—and its defense is mediocre.
Luck will be dropping back frequently Sunday, which will lead to a solid fantasy outing for owners.
Projection: 348 passing yards, 32 rushing yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT
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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has gone 22-2 against the Cleveland Browns since they passed on him in the 2004 draft. However, the Browns now have a healthy Myles Garrett and a rebuilt secondary.
Cleveland’s new-look defense allowed an NFL-low 11.5 points per game in the preseason. That unit also logged 13 sacks and three interceptions in four exhibition games.
The difference between Luck and Roethlisberger in Week 1 is that the latter is on the road, will likely be without pass-catching back Le’Veon Bell and played sparingly in the preseason. He started slow last year (263 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) against a worse Browns defense.
Roethlisberger could be in for an ugly day. You never sit his top target, Antonio Brown, but sitting Big Ben is the right call in this case.
Projection: 217 passing yards, 2 TDs, 2 INT
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New York Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley is widely being drafted like a fantasy must-start—his average draft position (ADP) in PPR formats is 7.0 overall, according to FantasyPros—but he’s an unproven rookie who has dealt with a hamstring issue throughout the majority of the preseason.
Barkley will also be going up against a brutal Jacksonville Jaguars defense, which allowed only 16.8 points per game last season.
But as long as Barkley is healthy enough to suit up, fantasy owners should roll with him. While Jacksonville was dominant against the pass, it wasn’t tremendous against the run (21st overall, 116.3 yards per game allowed).
For his part, Barkley insists he’s ready to be New York’s workhorse.
“I definitely think I’m ready for a full [workload] the way I’ve been preparing and practicing,” Barkley said, per Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com.
Projection: 82 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 38 receiving yards, 1 TD
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Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake impressed after taking over as the team’s starter in 2017. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and had at least 75 rushing yards four times over the final five games of the season.
Drake will be a reliable fantasy starter in plenty of weeks, but this isn’t one of them. This is quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s first game back after missing all of last season with a knee injury. The Tennessee Titans and new head coach Mike Vrabel are going to dare the Dolphins to beat them through the air.
The Titans had the league’s fourth-best run defense last season, allowing only 3.6 yards per carry and 88.8 rushing yards per game.
Vrabel is well-versed in the New England Patriots philosophy of taking away opponents’ strengths, so he’ll be sure to focus on shutting Drake down.
Projection: 50 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 18 receiving yards
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For much of his career, Adrian Peterson was must-start fantasy gold. That’s no longer the case.
Peterson may have a few solid weeks in 2018, and he’ll be starting for the Washington Redskins in Week 1, according to ESPN.com’s John Keim. However, he isn’t a player to bank on against the Arizona Cardinals.
While the Cardinals didn’t have a dominant defense last season, they finished sixth against the run (89.6 yards per game allowed). They allowed only two rushing touchdowns this preseason, tied for seventh-fewest in the league.
Receiving back Chris Thompson is also expected to make his return, according to Keim. Given Peterson’s limited receiving ability (only 11 catches last season), Thompson will likely get all of the passing-down work.
“Temptation will be there to play him a lot,” Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said of Thompson, per Keim.
Projection: 58 rushing yards
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The Denver Broncos defense isn’t as dominant as it was when the ghost of Peyton Manning rode it to a Super Bowl. Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin is coming off a 991-yard season and will again be catching passes from the dynamic Russell Wilson.
That means Baldwin owners are in a good spot heading into Week 1, right?
Well, not exactly.
The Broncos defense still features a quality cornerback duo in Chris Harris and Bradley Roby. Denver may also have the league’s No. 1 pass-rushing duo in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. The Broncos are going to be able to harass Wilson, and with Jimmy Graham gone, Baldwin will be the priority of Denver’s secondary.
The other issue is if the Seahawks do find themselves in the red zone, 6’5″ wideout Brandon Marshall will likely be Wilson’s first read. Baldwin’s best chance of finding the end zone will be on a long play, but Denver’s fearsome pass rush will limit such opportunities.
Projection: 4 receptions, 59 yards
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The San Francisco 49ers face a daunting matchup against the Minnesota Vikings this week, which is a problem for several of their pass-catchers. The Vikings allowed the second-fewest passing yards per game last season (192.4), and they’re going to be hungry to perform better than they did in the NFC title game.
Still, the NFC title game proved the Vikings secondary can be beaten downfield, which makes speedster Marquise Goodwin an intriguing fantasy option this week. He can run the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds, and he doesn’t need much space to find a crease and create a big play.
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan is terrific at scheming to find his playmakers space against even the best defenses. He’s going to design plays that get Goodwin open down the field. As long as Jimmy Garoppolo has the time to get the ball to him, good things are going to happen.
Don’t expect Goodwin to be a high-volume receiver in Week 1, but he should have a few long receptions that make him worth the start.
Projection: 4 receptions, 89 yards, 1 TD
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After racking up more than 1,100 yards in 2016, Oakland Raiders receiver Amari Cooper finished with only 680 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017. Quarterback Derek Carr wasn’t himself last season after coming back from a serious leg injury, so Cooper could easily return to being a fantasy star in 2018.
Don’t expect it to happen in Week 1, though.
This is going to be head coach Jon Gruden’s first meaningful game in a decade, and it comes against a Los Angeles Rams defense that added Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters over the offseason. The Rams just gave star defensive tackle Aaron Donald a fat new contract, and their defense will be at full force against the Raiders on Monday night.
You can bet Donald and his new compatriots will be focused on making life miserable for Carr and Cooper. Will Gruden be prepared to counter and put Cooper in position to succeed? We say no.
Projection: 3 receptions, 45 yards
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It’s fair to wonder whether Graham is a must-start now that he’s playing with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. He may be once he gets more acclimated to the offense—he had 520 yards and 10 touchdowns in his third season with the Seahawks last year—but not necessarily in Week 1.
This will be Graham’s first game with Green Bay, and it comes against the division-rival Chicago Bears. The Bears allowed only 211.0 passing yards per game last season, seventh-fewest in the NFL.
Oh, and the Bears just added star pass-rusher Khalil Mack to their front seven.
Rodgers figures to target Graham at least a few times, but the five-time Pro Bowl tight end isn’t likely to be the focal point of Green Bay’s passing attack right away. You should have better options at tight end this week. Try streaming a tight end against an inferior pass defense, like Tyler Eifert against the Colts.
Projection: 4 receptions, 48 yards
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The Kansas City Chiefs offense was a force in 2017, averaging 375.4 yards and 25.9 points per game. Therefore, fantasy owners who drafted the Los Angeles Chargers defense this year could see the Chiefs as a tough Week 1 matchup.
Don’t let the reputation of Andy Reid’s offense trick you into playing another D/ST this week.
The Chargers are a vastly underrated group that allowed the third-fewest passing yards per game last season (197.3). They’ll be facing second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has only one pro start under his belt, and the Chargers still have the pass-rush threat of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
Run defense is an issue for Los Angeles, and it could give up a few big plays to Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. Still, L.A. should log enough sacks and force Mahomes into enough mistakes to make this D/ST worth the start.
Projection: 20 points allowed, 4 sacks, 2 FF, 2 INT