The Primer: Week 1 Edition (2021 Fantasy Football)
Hello. I’m not Mike Tagliere.
The Primer is normally Tags’ domain. As you may have heard by now, Tags has been in the hospital with COVID-19. It’s been a long, slow recovery, and it’s going to be a while before our guy is ready to go back to work.
I’m lucky enough to have befriended Tags several years ago. We met in the fantasy space, following each other on Twitter and exchanging online pleasantries. Eventually we decided that we should play golf together, since we both live in the Chicago area. We scheduled a tee time for the day after Labor Day since it would be one of the last moments of downtime before the start of the NFL season. Our round of golf the day after Labor Day soon became an annual tradition.
Tags and I also joined a fantasy league for Chicago-based fantasy analysts put together by our mutual friend Michael Beller of The Athletic. Drafts were held at a North Side pub, and one year Tags brought his wife Tabbie to the draft. They had a babysitter for their young son and turned it into a date night.
A fantasy football draft for a date night? America, meet the Taglieres.
Tabbie is one of the nicest, most genuine people on Earth – it’s easy to see why she and Tags clicked. We had a blast that night, drafting against each other over beers and then heading out to the patio to enjoy a warm late-summer night.
Tags is one of those people you meet and immediately feel like you’ve known your whole life. Some people are hard to crack. They might seem nice when you meet them, but it takes a while to develop a sense of who they are and what they’re all about. Not Tags. He’s friendly, funny, warm, caring – and you know all of this within 5 minutes of meeting him. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He’s intensely passionate about the things he loves: his family, football, cars, pizza. Oh … and music, of course. He’s crazy about the band Korn (but hates actual vegetables).
Dang. Writing this is making me miss Tags even more.
As I mentioned before, The Primer is Tags’ domain. I’m just subbing. Tags eats, sleeps, and breathes this stuff. He loves going down rabbit holes to dig up useful nuggets of statistical information. I love football and stats, but I’m not going to pretend that I can provide the same level of actionable info that Tags can. He’s a sponge for numbers and has an impeccable sense of how to frame things. What matters most to a fantasy manager trying to decide whether to start Player A or Player B? After reading what Tags writes about those two players in The Primer, you’ll almost certainly know which of those players you’re going to start and why.
Readers and podcast listeners know that Tags has an endearing habit of asking questions that he then answers himself. Allow me to do that here:
Would Tags love to be writing The Primer himself, providing his readers with countless stats and insights?
Would Tags want his readers to enjoy a Primer even if it’s temporarily written by someone else?
Yes, I think he would.
The Primer is the house that Tags built. I’m just renting it while he’s away and taking care of the upkeep — mowing the lawn, cleaning out the gutters, power-washing the siding.
Get well soon, Tags. We can’t wait for you to come back.
For updates on Tags and his family, follow his wife Tabbie on Twitter.
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Seattle Seahawks vs Indianapolis Colts
Russell Wilson: Are the Seahawks really going to let Russ cook? There’s enthusiasm about new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s uptempo attack, which is designed to help Russell Wilson deliver throws more quickly and in rhythm. Not a bad idea considering that Wilson absorbed 48 sacks last year. The Colts don’t blitz much but still managed to collect 40 sacks last year, so left tackle Duane Brown and the rest of Wilson’s protectors will have to be sharp. Wilson has been a top-10 fantasy quarterback for four straight years and checked in at QB6 last year. But after lighting up the Texans for 452 yards in Week 8, Wilson didn’t have a 300-yard passing game the rest of the way. Perhaps Waldron can reignite Wilson.
Carson Wentz: Let’s speak frankly: Wentz was awful in 2020. Once regarded by Eagles fans as a savior, Wentz completed 57.4% of his throws, averaged 6.0 yards per attempt, and threw 15 interceptions in 12 games before finally being benched during an abysmal performance in Green Bay. Wentz was traded to the Colts for a couple of draft picks in the offseason. He missed the preseason after having foot surgery but quickly returned and is now in line to start Week 1. Will a reunion with Frank Reich, his old offensive coordinator in Philly, help turn around Wentz’s flagging career? Uh … maybe. A home game against Seattle might not be a bad place for Wentz to start. The Seahawks boosted their pass rush by re-signing Carlos Dunlap and signing Kerry Hyder, but the Seattle secondary lost CBs Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar and looks sketchy.
Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny: For a guy who averaged 56.8 rushing yards a game last season and didn’t run for more than 80 yards in any contest, Carson has gotten a lot of love from fantasy drafters. It’s not that Carson was inefficient – he had a career-best 4.8 yards per carry. It’s that he averaged 11.8 carries per game after averaging 18.1 yards per carry in 2018-2019. Maybe Shane Waldron’s faster tempo will juice Carson’s carry totals. He might need volume in order to produce this week. Only the Buccaneers allowed fewer rushing yards than the Colts last year. Indy gave up a miserly 3.7 yards per carry. Penny enters a contract year as the No. 2, but Alex Collins, DeeJay Dallas, and Travis Homer are around in case Penny once again gets hurt or fails to deliver.
Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines: Taylor went berserk down the stretch last year, averaging 123.5 rushing yards over his last six regular-season games and scoring seven touchdowns over his last four. Yeah, the schedule was fairly soft during that stretch, but it did include a two-TD game against the mighty Pittsburgh defense. Taylor is the real deal: big, fast, and agile. He was also efficient in the passing game, catching 36 of 39 targets for an average of 8.3 yards a pop. The Seahawks gave up the fifth-fewest rushing yards last year and allowed only 3.9 yards per carry. There was a recent report that the Colts are trying to find more ways to get Hines the ball, but that seems unwise. Hines is a capable third-down back but an ordinary runner who at 196 pounds lacks the bulk to bang between the tackles.
D.K. Metcalf: The 6-4, 229-pound Metcalf just delivered a 1,300-yard, 10-TD season at age 23, and somehow it still feels like he’s only scratching the surface of his talents. Could he still take his game up to Randy Moss levels? It doesn’t deem that far-fetched. Metcalf is likely to draw coverage from Xavier Rhodes in this one. Rhodes isn’t the player he used to be, but he’s still not bad.
Tyler Lockett: If Shane Waldron’s new offense does indeed emphasize quicker throws and shorter routes, as advertised, that would seem to be right up Lockett’s alley. Lockett appeared to be on the way to a career season in 2020 after blasting the Cardinals for 200 yards and three touchdowns (his second three-TD game of the year) in Week 7, but he was held to 67 receiving yards or fewer in his next nine games. Kenny Moore II, the Colts’ solid slot corner, will bear most of the responsibility for trying to keep Lockett in check.
Michael Pittman: Is a breakout season in the offing? Matt Harmon of Yahoo, who studies receivers carefully for his Reception Perception series, raves about Pittman. T.Y. Hilton just had surgery to repair a disc injury in his neck, so Pittman is probably going to be the Colts’ No. 1 receiver (and might have been even if Hilton were healthy). The question might be whether Wentz is good enough to support a Pittman breakthrough.
Parris Campbell: This is our third consecutive year of summer excitement over Parris Campbell. Well, OK, the excitement was a little more subdued this year, but there are still pockets of optimism throughout the fantasy community. The T.Y. Hilton neck injury creates an opportunity for Campbell to play a significant role in the Indy passing game.
Gerald Everett: The notion of significant depth at the tight end position fell apart with injuries to Irv Smith, Evan Engram, and Adam Trautman. By late August, drafters who missed out on the premium tight ends were ready to pack their climbing gear, hire some Sherpa guides and ascend Mount Everett. It never quite happened for Everett in L.A., where he topped out at 41 catches and 417 yards in his final season with the Rams. But Russell Wilson has targeted his tight ends on at least 20% of his throws in each of the last two seasons, and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s system of quicker throws and shorter routes should bode well for Everett.
Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, and Kylen Granson: Doyle is basically a catch-and-fall-down guy at this point, Alie-Cox has yet to make good on his deep-sleeper promise, and Granson is a rookie. But the Colts don’t have much firepower at wide receiver, so it seems inevitable that the tight ends will play prominent roles in this offense.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs Houston Texans
Trevor Lawrence: A rookie quarterback, a new head coach, a mystery-box offense: I can understand why you’d have concerns about using Lawrence for fantasy this week. But, man, you couldn’t ask for a better Week 1 matchup. The Texans are a train wreck. The over/under on their 2021 win total is four games. Houston just traded its best cornerback, Bradley Roby. The Texans probably won’t be able to sustain many drives with their popgun offense, so Lawrence should take plenty of snaps in this one. And let’s not forget that Lawrence might be the most NFL-ready QB prospect to enter the league since Andrew Luck. Lawrence can make all the throws, and he’s a willing and able runner. When I compiled my initial set of Week 1 rankings, Lawrence checked in at QB11. That puts him in borderline start/sit territory. I can understand why you might be hesitant to use him this week, but the matchups don’t get much better.
Tyrod Taylor: The last time Taylor was preparing to start an NFL game, a Chargers team doctor punctured his lung with a misplaced pain-killing injection, inadvertently launching the Justin Herbert era. Now Taylor is starting in place of Deshaun Watson, who had vowed not to play for the Texans and seems unlikely to play anywhere soon due to multiple allegations of sexual assault. Taylor has made four starts in the last three years – one for the Chargers last season, three for the Browns in 2018. He was knocked out early in one of those starts for Cleveland. In the other three games, he completed 53 of 100 passes for 651 yards, with two TDs and two INTs. He also ran for 110 yards and a touchdown. And that’s pretty much Taylor in a nutshell: He’s a backup-caliber passer, but his running ability deliver sneaky fantasy value. Taylor might even have the potential to generate decent passing totals in Week 1. The Jaguars’ pass defense was awful last year, although Jacksonville’s offseason acquisition of CB Shaquill Griffin is a step in the right direction. It’s unlikely you’d consider starting Taylor in a 1QB league. I can’t give him a ringing endorsement in 2QB or superflex leagues when Vegas is saying the Texans’ implied point total is only about 21, but Taylor isn’t completely unplayable in those formats.
James Robinson and Carlos Hyde: It looked as if the arrival of first-round rookie Travis Etienne was going to gut Robinson’s fantasy value, but Etienne sustained a season-ending Lisfranc injury in the Saints’ second preseason game, and now Robinson is once again Jacksonville’s No. 1 back. This should be a great spot for J-Rob. The Houston defense ranked dead last in rushing yards allowed (2,564) and yards per carry (5.2) last season, and only the Lions gave up more than the 24 rushing touchdowns that the Texans allowed. Yet strangely, Robinson didn’t fare especially well in two games against the Texans last year. He had 13 carries for 48 yards and no touchdowns in the first, 25 carries for 99 yards, and a touchdown in the second, and in the two games combined he had only 22 receiving yards. The real wild card here is Hyde. It’s unclear what sort of workload split Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell plan to use, but Hyde played for Meyer at Ohio State and could get considerably more work than any of the Jacksonville backups got last year. Bottom line: You’re playing Robinson this week without question.
David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, and Mark Ingram: What a mess. The Texans list Ingram atop the depth chart, followed by Lindsay and Johnson, but this seems like a true committee. A three-headed backfield for what could be the worst team in the league? No thanks. Even though the Jacksonville run defense was among the league’s worst last season, Ingram, Lindsay, and Johnson are unplayable in all but the deepest/weirdest of leagues.
D.J. Chark: He’s been sidelined with a broken finger, but Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer has said he expects Chark back for Week 1. With the Texans’ best cover man, Bradley Roby, traded away this week, (delete) Chark could face coverage from Vernon Hargreaves, who ranked 117th out of the 121 cornerbacks graded by PFF last season. Chark is a dangerous playmaker, but the arrival of Marvin Jones gives Jacksonville another quality vertical threat and could impinge on Chark’s numbers.
Marvin Jones: After playing in Detroit for the last five seasons. Jones took his talents to northeast Florida. He’s scored nine touchdowns in three of his last four seasons, and in 2020 he has a career-high 76 receptions. The catch ceiling might not be quite as high in Jacksonville, where Jones, D.J. Chark, and Laviska Shenault will have to compete for targets from a rookie quarterback (albeit a very promising one). Chark is expected to play after missing practice time in August with a fractured finger, but if he doesn’t, Jones suddenly becomes an attractive Week 1 play. Otherwise, he’s a borderline start/sit with big-play upside.
Laviska Shenault: Things are looking up for Shenault. He’s looked good in the preseason. He seems to be developing nice chemistry with rookie QB Trevor Lawrence. The arrival of Urban Meyer as Jacksonville’s head coach would seem to bode well, since Shenault is a super-versatile receiver and Meyer has a track record of leveraging the talents of versatile receivers such as Percy Harvin and Curtis Samuel. And as bad as it was for the Jaguars, the season-ending injury to Travis Etienne will probably funnel some extra short-area targets in Shenault’s direction. Plus, Shenault is capable of contributing as a runner – he had 18 carries for 91 yards as a rookie – and he’ll probably see more backfield snaps than he would if Etienne hadn’t gotten hurt. Shenault figures to get at least a little Week 1 face time with the Texans’ best cornerback, slot specialist Desmond King, but it won’t be a shadow job.
Brandin Cooks: It’s been really hard to peg Cook’s fantasy value. The Texans will be his fourth different team in the last five years, and yet Cooks has quickly adapted wherever he’s gone, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark in five of his last six seasons. But he’ll have to be REALLY adaptable to make a go of it in Houston, where he seems destined to be plagued by bad quarterbacking and an unhealthy ecosystem. Another 1,000-yard season would be a Herculean feat with this outfit, and Cook’s touchdown ceiling could be limited on a team that probably won’t score many touchdowns. Cooks’ Week 1 matchup isn’t particularly good, since he figures to draw coverage from the Jaguars’ best cornerback Shaquill Griffin.
Nico Collins: The promising rookie from the University of Michigan is the only Texans receiver other than Cook worth rostering, but it’s too early to consider starting him.
James O’Shaughnessy and Jacob Hollister: An unplayable combo. Hollister may eventually provide some low-level fantasy value, but the Jaguars just signed him last week. He’s not ready to make a meaningful contribution.
Philadelphia Eagles vs Atlanta Falcons
Jalen Hurts: One of the more fascinating case studies of the 2021 fantasy season, Hurts could be a top-five fantasy scorer at quarterback, or he could lose his job. In his four starts last season, Hurts ran for 272 yards and three touchdowns – which project to be Lamar Jackson-type rushing totals over a full season. But Hurts completed only 52.0% of his passes last year, and the Eagles were reportedly interested in dealing for Deshaun Watson a couple of months ago. If the Eagles aren’t fully committed to Hurts, perhaps he can start to make his case in Week 1 with a plum matchup against the Falcons. Atlanta yielded a league-high 4,697 passing yards last year. And of course, Hurts is going to do some running.
Matt Ryan: He finished QB12 last year and QB11 in 2019, which – let’s face it – is pretty good for a quarterback who moves like the statue of David. In the current era, with gazelles abundant among the QB population, an immobile passer like Ryan needs to put up big numbers just to finish as a low-end QB1. In fact, Ryan led the league in pass attempts last season and STILL only finished QB12. If the passing volume decreases and Ryan is a little less efficient this year (not a far-fetched notion now that Julio Jones is no longer around), Ryan could take a tumble.
Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, and Kenneth Gainwell: Fantasy drafters regarded Sanders as a lower-end RB2 this summer, but in the three games he played with Hurts last year, Sanders was the RB6. It’s a small sample size, sure, but the RPO stuff that the Eagles run with Hurts widens lanes for running backs. Two other things working in Sanders’ favor: He can catch passes (though he seems to have contracted a case of the receiving yips lately), and the Eagles have a strong offensive line. Scott figures to see some work on passing downs, though he may be pushed by Gainwell, a fifth-round rookie with a third-down back’s skill set.
Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Wayne Gallman: Davis appears to be the lead guy here, but bet on a 28-year-old career backup at your own risk. I wasn’t wildly confident in Davis before, and I’m even less confident after the Falcons’ release of Qadree Ollison and their signing of Gallman. Ollison hadn’t been able to gain any traction in two previous seasons with the Falcons, but Gallman is a credible NFL running back with credentials very similar to those of Davis. This seems like it’s destined to turn into a committee, and don’t discount a role for Patterson.
DeVonta Smith: “The Slim Reaper” makes his NFL debut and draws a reasonably favorable matchup against A.J. Terrell. At 170 pounds, is Smith too frail to be a lead receiver? Marvin Harrison and Isaac Bruce were great receivers with slender builds. However, even those slim fellows were 15-18 pounds heavier than Smith. But hey, we saw what Smith did at Alabama. Maybe he’s just a unicorn.
Jalen Reagor: It was a disappointing rookie season for Reagor, who was drafted one spot ahead of Justin Jefferson. (Sorry Eagles fans.) A torn ligament in his thumb cost him five games. He had one catch for 55 yards in Week 1, and that would turn out to be his single-game high in receiving yardage. There’s still hope for Reagor, who reportedly had a good camp. But he needs to turn things around quickly.
Calvin Ridley: With Julio Jones out of the picture, Ridley could be in for an even bigger season than he enjoyed in 2020 when he had 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. Of course, without Julio around, opponents with shadow cornerbacks will deploy their ace cover men against Ridley. That shouldn’t be a problem in Week 1, with Ridley set to face Darius Slay a former top cornerback now in the decline phase of his career.
Russell Gage: A lot of people were into Gage as a purported late-round gem this past draft season. He had 72 catches for 786 yards in 2020. But Gage has scored five touchdowns in three NFL seasons, he has a career average of 10.2 yards per catch, and the longest gain of his career covered only 35 yards. I think it’s possible Olamide Zaccheaus is more fantasy-relevant than Gage this season.
Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz: In the offseason, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Eagles would trade the disgruntled Ertz, but it never happened. Too bad, because there aren’t enough good tight ends to go around in fantasy leagues, and Goedert and Ertz throttle each other’s value, particularly on a team that probably isn’t going to post crazy passing numbers.
Kyle Pitts: No matter what Pitts does in his first NFL game, someone is going to be taking a victory lap. Members of the Pitts Army believe he’s a truly unique specimen. He has a slightly bigger wingspan than Calvin Johnson. He clocked in at 4.44 on his pro day. He had 12 touchdowns in eight games in his final college season. Anti-Pittsers point to the traditional lack of success for rookie tight ends. Late in draft season, I started aggressively drafting Pitts to make sure I got enough exposure. I’m of the opinion that his chances of becoming a special player are strong. I’ve seen a lot of interesting comps for Pitts, but my take is that he’s basically going to be Chase Claypool with TE eligibility.