Drafting a strong fantasy football squad is just the first of many steps to a championship. Now one must constantly assemble an optimal lineup to stave off the competition and reach the playoffs.
Sure, we got a long way to go before reaching the fantasy postseason, but there are no meaningless weeks in an NFL season. A slow start can sink your chances before there’s time to locate a waiver-wire gem or shore up your weakness with a trade. Just like any other matchup, Week 1 could end up making or breaking your entire season.
There’s nothing more grueling than watching your starter do nothing while someone else lights up the box score on your bench. It’s such a maddening process that the Best Ball format has risen to mainstream popularity to avoid this sinking feeling. Setting a lineup, however, is an inevitable and essential component of traditional fantasy leagues.
After spending weeks or months evaluating players from a full-season perspective, it’s time to tighten that view to just Week 1. A popular breakout quarterback highlighted below is a poor play to start the season. On the other hand, a veteran running back many drafters avoided this summer is poised to fill them with instant regret — even if the long-term analysis remains somewhat valid — with a big Sunday showcase.
Let’s look at some players to start and sit for Week 1, using the Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) — as of Tuesday night for half-PPR scoring — to identify fringe options and guys more or less popular than usual due to their initial opponent.
Start: Jimmy Garoppolo (SF) vs. ARI: QB17 ECR
Garoppolo rarely came through as an impact 2019 streamer, exceeding 15 fantasy points in just four games. Two of his best performances, however, came against Arizona. He decimated the Cardinals for four passing touchdowns in each meeting, finishing as the QB2 in Week 9 and QB3 in Week 11.
The heavier volume stands out after attempting just 475 passes (29.75 per game) all of last season. It was likely by design, as Arizona placed sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA against the pass, but 26th against the run. Kyle Shanahan targeted his opponent’s weakness in a pair of high-scoring victories, so expect the tepid game-manager from last year’s postseason to make way for a more aggressive Garoppolo in Week 1’s NFC West clash. He’s worth starting over high-drafted quarterbacks Matthew Stafford (vs. CHI), Joe Burrow (vs. LAC), and Baker Mayfield (at BAL).
Sit: Daniel Jones (NYG) vs. PIT: QB26 ECR
Few quarterbacks drew more preseason breakout buzz than Jones, who tallied at least four touchdowns in four games as a rookie. He never had his full assortment of wide receivers (Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, Darius Slayton) and tight end Evan Engram healthy at the same time, and a mediocre Giants defense is likely to force him into a handful of shootouts. Jones is the 14th QB in preseason ADP and 15th in ECR for good reason.
While the experts like Jones’ 2020 outlook, they want nothing to do with him Week 1. His ECR for a Monday Night Football matchup with Pittsburgh plummets all the way to 26th. Heed this foreboding rank and stay away from Danny Dimes in all single-QB leagues. Despite displaying massive weekly upside in the right matchup last season, Jones also crumbled against more tenacious defenses. He finished three games below 200 passing yards and another three with 210-225 yards, one touchdown, and at least one turnover. While his 12 interceptions weren’t too bad for a neophyte, his 18 fumbles (11 lost) can cause major problems. The Steelers held opponents to the NFL’s third-fewest passing yards per game (194.6) while also amassing a league-high 54 sacks. Constant pressure will lead to a lack of time for Jones to make plays downfield, and likely multiple giveaways.
Start: Mark Ingram II (BAL) vs. CLE: RB18 ECR
Anyone who’s spent the past few weeks studying fantasy analysis may be confused to learn that Ingram, not J.K. Dobbins, is still Baltimore’s leading running back. That may change eventually, though it’s more likely the 30-year-old maintains a valuable role in a two-headed monster as long as he’s healthy.
If taking the word of Dobbins’ biggest supporters, Ingram is a washed-up veteran holding the Ravens back. In reality, he just averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season while ranking third in Defensive Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) behind Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry while tying Latavius Murray for an NFL-best 60% success rate. Besides, it’s not like he was a 300-carry workhorse last season anyway. Ingram was the RB8 despite averaging a modest 13.5 carries, never once reaching 20 in a contest. Furthermore, he racked up 718 total yards and 10 touchdowns in Baltimore’s seven double-digit victories. Per the BettingPros consensus, the Ravens are 7.5-point favorites to throttle the Browns, who ranked 30th against the run in 2019.
Ingram’s RB18 ECR depicts him as a firm starter, but he’s even more of a lock than that as a borderline top-12 play. Dobbins, meanwhile, is a high-risk, high-reward flex choice to play at your own peril.
Sit: Ronald Jones (TB) and Leonard Fournette (TB) at NO: RB30 and RB38 ECR
Do I believe Bruce Arians when he says Ronald Jones is still his guy? No. Given his past track record and roller-coaster backfield usage last year, his word holds little currency. Does that mean Fournette will surprise us all and be a stud behind Tom Brady in Tampa Bay? Also no. Only five running backs posted a lower success rate than his 42% last season, and none of them are projected for starter’s touches in 2020.
This situation will likely infuriate fantasy managers all year. It may be Jones one week, but as we learned last year, he could suddenly get benched after missing a block. Fournette’s fantasy appeal in Jacksonville all boiled to volume, and he’s unlikely to get it in a timeshare. Even if one goes down, Keshawn Vaughn is waiting in the wings. Dare Ogunbowale can also play a third-down role. Besides, Brady didn’t leave the greatest dynasty of this generation to not utilize Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as much as possible.
For now, it’s a guessing game of which Tampa Bay back will have flex value in a given week. While the wheel could prove worth spinning in an advantageous matchup, the favored Saints ranked fourth in rushing defense last season. Brady should have a busy day in his Buccaneers debut inside the Superdome, meaning that Jones or Fournette would need a lot of dump-off catches or a touchdown to salvage Week 1 value.
Start: Tyler Boyd (CIN) vs. LAC: WR32 ECR
Bengals fans, rejoice. A.J. Green is expected to play his first game since December 2, 2018. The experts apparently aren’t too frightened of rust, as the seven-time Pro Bowler currently resides at WR31 in the Week 1 ECR. That’s directly above Boyd, who logged his second straight 1,000-yard season with 90 receptions in his teammate’s stead last season.
While initial reports labeled Green a “full-go,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Green could be limited below a full snap count. Either way, his return doesn’t spell doom for Boyd. When they shared the field from Weeks 1 – 8 in 2018, Green and Boyd were the WR8 and WR12, respectively, in half-PPR scoring. They’ll both welcome No. 1 pick Joe Burrow with open arms, but the rookie quarterback could especially elevate Boyd. As noted by ESPN’s Matthew Berry, more than half of Burrow’s 5,671 passing yards at LSU last year went to the slot.
With or without Green, expect Boyd to again play a major role in Cincinnati’s offense. Although the Chargers stifled wide receivers well last year, they’ve already suffered a major blow, losing safety Derwin James to a knee injury. Just in case Green comes back as a decoy in limited reps, it’d be wise to play another high-upside WR3 such as Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks, Marvin Jones Sr., or DeSean Jackson in his place.
Sit: DeVante Parker (MIA) at NE: WR33 ECR
Parker closed a long-awaited breakthrough 2019 with eight catches for 137 yards in an upset win over the Patriots. In Week 2, however, he didn’t catch any of his seven targets in a humiliating 43-0 loss. Suffice to say, he has a wide range of outcomes entering Sunday’s next encounter with star cornerback Stephon Gillmore. Per Pro Football Focus, Gillmore earned the third-highest grade in single coverage last season. He also allowed the NFL’s lowest catch rate (44.6%) and opposing passer rating (41.8) of any cornerback, according to Player Profiler.
While Parker got the better of Gillmore last December, it’s not wise to bet on a repeat. With Preston Williams back on the field, Ryan Fitzpatrick probably won’t target Parker another 11 times. Parker received 52 targets in eight games with Williams, and 76 in as many contests after Williams suffered a season-ending ACL injury. The 27-year-old should remain a high priority in Miami’s offense, but this matchup should motivate Fitzpatrick to make more use of Williams and burgeoning tight end Mike Gesicki against a New England defense missing Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung.
Start: Hayden Hurst (ATL) vs. SEA: TE8 ECR
The Hurst hype train turned into a runaway locomotive by season’s end. A second-stringer for the team last in passing attempts last season now goes to 2019’s leader in passes thrown. Matt Ryan can support a top fantasy tight end alongside Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in Atlanta; Austin Hooper trailed only George Kittle and Travis Kelce in half-PPR points per game (11.9) at the position last season.
For all of the excitement, this is Hurst’s first true chance at a staring role. Maybe drafters should make him prove his worth before tossing him right into the fray? Nope. Perhaps that strategy would fly if presented a tough matchup, but the Seahawks surrendered the fourth-most fantasy points to tight ends last season. Only two games top this contest’s current consensus over-under line of 49 points, per BettingPros. Look for Hurst to commence his breakout immediately a la former teammate Mark Andrews, who began his 2019 with 108 yards and a touchdown.
Sit: Austin Hooper (CLE) at BAL: TE15 ECR
Hurst is in a great position to flourish because Hooper is no longer with the Falcons. Instead, he’s on a Browns offense with a pair of high-profile running backs (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt) and wide receivers (Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry) to feed. Hooper also hasn’t had a normal offseason to work with his new quarterback, but his starting matchup is far scarier. He’ll begin his Cleveland tenure against Hurst’s former squad, which permitted an NFL-low 3.25 catches and 4.9 fantasy points per game to tight ends last season. That’s despite Baltimore facing George Kittle and Travis Kelce. (They stymied Kittle to 17 yards, but Kelce managed 89 without finding the end zone.) Although he’s talented enough to eventually prove his worth as a top-12 fantasy tight end, Hooper falls below that baseline this week.
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