The Primer: Week 2 Edition (2021 Fantasy Football)
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With Mike Tagliere still battling COVID-19, Pat Fitzmaurice is writing The Primer in his absence. We hope you’ll keep Tags in your thoughts.
I’ve been contemplating the nature of work lately. Well, I’ve been trying to contemplate it. Pressing obligations at work keep interrupting my thoughts.
A friend’s dad retired a few years ago. He’d been a successful retailer whom I worked for right after I got out of college. I saw him not long after he’d called it quits and asked him about retirement.
“Work is vastly overrated,” he told me. “I wish I’d realized that sooner.”
That response surprised me. My friend’s dad always seemed to enjoy work. He was a pillar of the Latino community in Milwaukee, where his store was located, and the people who worked for him treated him like family. He literally put clothes on people’s backs and was loved and respected for it.
What he said eventually started to make sense to me. When I looked back on the good times working for him, I didn’t think about spending long days on my feet or unloading delivery trucks full of boxes. I thought about going out to dinner with my friend and his dad after closing the store, talking about the Packers, Bucks, and Brewers over plates of carne asada and big glasses of margaritas. I thought about dancing at the quinceañeras of coworkers’ daughters. The best work memories had little to do with actual work.
But it’s not like that for everyone. Some people are passionate about their jobs and love everything about what they do for a living. They couldn’t imagine not working, couldn’t fathom retirement. I’ve always envied those people.
And now, I get to be one of those people.
I recently took a full-time editor’s job with FantasyPros. I’ve never worked in the fantasy space full time before, and I haven’t had a full-time football job since working at Pro Football Weekly in the late ’90s. That was the last job I genuinely loved.
Not that I’ve been miserable in my work life the last 20-plus years. Not at all. There were elements of my traditional media job that delighted me – working with certain writers, editing high-quality pieces, knowing in advance who would be on the cover of certain magazines. I never dreaded a workday. (Well, maybe once or twice.) All in all, it was a good gig.
But full-time fantasy work is a labor of love. Heck, I loved part-time fantasy work, too. The only bad part was knowing that the extra work was cutting into other things – reading, sleeping, family time. I’ve fallen ridiculously far behind on quality TV shows. I haven’t even seen “Ted Lasso” yet.
Now, fantasy is my career. It’s a surreal feeling. There’s almost a sense of guilt about leaving “real” media behind for the fantasy realm, even though the pillars of traditional print media have been crumbling around me for years. If you had told 25-year-old me that in 2021 I’d be leaving traditional journalism for a full-time job in fantasy sports, I would have wondered why my life was going to take such a dark turn since I’d surely be working for minimum wage and living in my mom’s basement. But now, the mall escalators of traditional media and fantasy sports are heading in opposite directions. The traditional-media escalator is headed downstairs toward the parking lot. The fantasy escalator is headed upstairs to the food court, Spencer’s, and the Nike store.
It’s going to be wonderful to spend more time writing and working with young writers. And I’m probably going to be spending a lot more time on Twitter … heaven help you all.
One thing you won’t catch me doing in this new job is talking about how hard I work during the NFL season. Watching football, doing research, writing, editing, and podcasting – yes, there’s effort involved, and in the fall, it’s much more than a 40-hour-a-week job. But I cringe whenever I see people in the fantasy media tweeting about how hard they’re working. Those tweets are visible to cops, kindergarten teachers, farmers, mechanical engineers, corrections officers, ER doctors and nurses, managers at busy restaurants – people who truly know a hard day’s work. Fantasy content has value, sure. People enjoy it, and someone needs to produce it. But don’t go public about how hard you’re working. Perspective, man. Have perspective.
That said, this week has been pretty tricky. I’ve already climbed the high dive and done a half gainer into the FantasyPros pool, cranking out this Primer and doing some other stuff. But I’m still in my old job, tying up loose ends and showing colleagues how to handle my assignments once I’m gone. One full-time job = good. Two full-time jobs = suboptimal.
That’s why I haven’t been good about answering Twitter questions this week, for which I apologize. I’m just short on time right now. Sorry if you’ve sent me a question that I haven’t answered. I’ll try to be more responsive beginning next week when I’m officially a fantasy-only guy.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do.
LV at PIT | SF at PHI | HOU at CLE | DEN at JAC | NO at CAR | LAR at IND | BUF at MIA | NE at NYJ | CIN at CHI | ATL at TB | MIN at ARI | TEN at SEA | DAL at LAC | KC at BAL | DET at GB |
Las Vegas Raiders vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Derek Carr: In the three seasons from 2018 to 2020, Carr was sacked 65 times – an average of 1.4 times per game. He’s good at unloading the ball before the pressure arrives. But the Ravens sacked Carr three times in the Monday-night opener, and I wonder if pressure is going to be much more of an issue for him this year. The Raiders’ offensive line could be a major problem. Rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood and center Andre James visibly struggled against Baltimore, and now the Raiders head east to deal with a Pittsburgh defense that had an NFL-high 56 sacks last season. On Monday night, Carr finished with a bang and rewarded the fantasy managers who played him with 435 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns. But I suspect there weren’t many fantasy managers who started him, and I also suspect Carr won’t fare nearly as well in the Steel City this weekend.
Ben Roethlisberger: Ugh. The signs of decay we saw last season are still abundant. Big Ben, who once stood in the pocket so admirably and was willing to withstand big hits if it meant waiting an extra second for a receiver to break open downfield, has been reduced to dinking and dunking. His average depth of target shriveled to 6.9 yards in 2020, and last Sunday against the Bills it was just 5.9 yards. Roethlisberger finished with 189 passing yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. He averaged 5.9 yards per pass attempt. Big Ben’s Week 2 matchup against the Raiders is more favorable than his Week 1 matchup against the Bills, but he’s still just a mid-range QB2.
Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake: With Josh Jacobs declared out for Week 2 with a toe/ankle injury, Kenyan Drake figures to carry a heavy load against the Steelers this week. Given his versatile skill set, Drake is probably going to play on all three downs and is probably looking at something close to a 75% snap share — a workhorse role, in other words. That sort of load would have more value in a better matchup though. The Pittsburgh defense is certainly no pushover, and the Raiders are traveling cross-country for a game with an early kickoff — typically not a recipe for success. Peyton Barber will occasionally spell Drake, but the plodding Barber has little fantasy appeal. Fullback Alec Ingold might also get an extra touch or two as a result of the Jacobs injury.
Najee Harris: If there was a concern about Harris during draft season, it wasn’t about talent or volume; it was about the Steelers’ frequently ineffective offensive line. That concern arose in Week 1, with Harris on the field for all 58 of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps but limited to 49 yards from scrimmage on 17 touches. But hey, you’re still rolling out Harris this week against a Las Vegas defense that just yielded 25.2 fantasy points (half-point PPR) to an unsettled Baltimore backfield.
Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, and Hunter Renfrow: After being blanked for most of the Raiders’ Monday-night win over the Ravens, Ruggs and Renfrow both made big plays down the stretch to help pull out the victory. Edwards caught 4 of 5 targets for 81 yards, and Ruggs caught 2 of 5 targets for 46 yards. Renfrow is the steady one in this group, and his Week 1 stat line reflects that: nine targets, six catches, 70 yards. You can’t start any of them in a difficult matchup against the Steelers. I have Edwards ranked the highest of the bunch, and he only checks in at WR59.
Diontae Johnson: Johnson investors had their hearts in their throats when the young receiver went down with an apparent leg injury in the first quarter of the Steelers-Bills game, but he quickly returned to action. Johnson saw 10 targets and has now seen double-digit target totals in eight of his last 10 games. He only had five receptions for 36 yards against the Bills but made an acrobatic five-yard TD grab to brighten the bottom line for his fantasy managers. Of course, you’re playing him this week in a plus matchup against the Raiders.
Chase Claypool: Claypool had to deal with Tre’Davious White for much of Week 1, yet he still managed to grind out 45 receiving yards on three catches and tack on a 25-yard run. The Raiders’ cornerback group presents far easier matchups across the board, putting Claypool in high-end WR3 territory.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: Well, at least JuJu’s average depth of target ticked up a bit. After logging an aDOT of 5.5 yards last year, Smith-Schuster’s aDOT crept up to 6.3 yards in Week 1. Yeah, I know … not really much of an improvement. JuJu’s Week 1 stat line was pedestrian (4-52-0 on eight targets), but he has a promising matchup this week against fifth-round rookie slot corner Nate Hobbs.
Darren Waller: What a machine this guy is. Waller jolted a good Baltimore defense for 105 yards and a touchdown in the Week 1 finale, catching 10 of 19 targets. The Steelers present another tough matchup, but Waller is basically matchup-proof.
Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth: The arrival of Freiermuth in Pittsburgh is going to make Ebron widely available on waivers. The rookie from Penn State out-snapped Ebron 29-27, and that gap is probably going to widen as the season wears on. Neither guy is playable for now, but Freiermuth is more likely to warrant a start a month from now.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Jimmy Garoppolo: Let’s give credit where credit is due: Jimmy G. was highly efficient in the 49ers’ Week 1 victory over the Lions, completing 17 of 25 passes for 314 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. That works out to 12.4 yards per pass attempt. Not bad. But then again, it was against the Lions. This week, Garoppolo faces the Eagles, who were weak against the pass last year but looked much better in a Week 1 pasting of the Falcons. What makes Handsome Jimmy an unappealing start even in superflex leagues is that he’s going to lose a few snaps to Trey Lance every week. Lance played four offensive snaps in the opener, and his snap total seems destined to climb as the season goes on.
Jalen Hurts: Hurts was fabulous in the Eagles’ Week 1 decimation of the Falcons, completing 27 of 35 throws for 264 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions, and rushing for 62 yards on seven carries. He’s a lethal runner, and there’s passing upside this week against a 49ers’ secondary reeling from the loss of CB Jason Verrett to a torn ACL. Start him if you’ve got him.
Elijah Mitchell, JaMycal Hasty, and Trey Sermon: Surprise! 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan presented fantasy managers with the first major puzzle of the season. It was expected that Raheem Mostert and Sermon would divide most of the carries in a potent and alluring backfield. Mostert was indeed a prominent part of the picture in Week 1 – until he sustained a knee injury that wound up being season-ending. But Sermon was a healthy scratch, and instead of the third-rounder from Ohio State, it was another rookie, sixth-rounder Elijah Mitchell of Louisiana-Lafayette, who made noise. Mitchell played 35 of 55 snaps and carried 19 times for 104 yards and a touchdown (though he didn’t see a target). JaMycal Hasty played 16 snaps, with his only carry being a three-yard TD run. He also had a 15-yard catch. The debate in fantasy this week has been whether Mitchell is worth the huge waiver expenditure it took to get him in FAAB leagues this week. A lot of fantasy managers believe Sermon is still the guy you want to have in this backfield. I touted Sermon throughout the offseason because I’ve seen the Shanahan family’s zone-blocking scheme turn jobbers like Tatum Bell and Reuben Droughns into one-year wonders, while elite talents like Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis produced legendary seasons in it. If Sermon is an elite talent – and he sure looked the part at OSU last year – he could be an RB1 at a committee-back price. That could still be the case. But as a golfer, I also believe in playing the ball as it lies. For whatever reason, Shanahan used Mitchell over Sermon in Week 1, and then Mitchell proceeded to have a good game. It seems counterintuitive that Sermon would vault past Mitchell in Week 2. Sermon is an errant drive into the rough, and I’m not going to deceive myself about the reality of the situation by fluffing up a bad lie. I have Mitchell ranked RB23 this week and RB22 in the rest-of-season rankings. Sermon is RB48 this week and RB40 rest of season. Hasty is unplayable for now, but with all the Shanahanagans going on in this backfield, who knows? He could be the hot waiver add next week.
Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell: When the Eagles drafted Gainwell and signed Kerryon Johnson and Jordan Howard in the offseason, some people interpreted it as a lack of confidence in Sanders. Turns out it was a lack of confidence in Boston Scott. Sanders had a meaty role against the Falcons last week, playing two-thirds of Philly’s offensive snaps, carrying 15 times for 74 yards, and catching 4 of 5 targets for 39 yards. Gainwell’s debut was fun. On 25 offensive snaps, Gainwell carried nine times for 37 yards and a touchdown and caught 2 of 3 targets for six yards. He also had a TD catch negated by a penalty, so he almost had two touchdowns in his first NFL game. The Eagles’ opponents this week, the 49ers, let Detroit running backs hang 33.4 fantasy points on them in Week 1, but the Lions also ran 81 plays, a freakishly high total. Consider Sanders a high-end RB2 this week and Gainwell an intriguing roster stash.
Deebo Samuel: With Brandon Aiyuk‘s usage curtailed in Week 1, Samuel went off on the Lions, catching nine passes for 189 yards and a touchdown. He had 12 targets, accounting for nearly half of the 49ers’ 26 pass attempts. His biggest play was a 79-yard touchdown where he managed to shed the coverage of Jeff Okudah down the right sideline, work back to the ball to make the catch, then sprint down the middle of the field untouched. Samuels was used in a gadgety way last year. His average depth of target was a mere 2.2 yards, and it’s hard to do a lot of damage when you’re catching balls so close to the line of scrimmage. Samuel’s Week 1 aDOT was 8.3 yards – a much more favorable number than 2.2. If Samuel keeps getting alpha-receiver usage, he’s going to blow away expectations and handsomely reward stakeholders.
Brandon Aiyuk: In another Kyle Shanahan surprise, Aiyuk played fewer snaps than Trent Sherfield last week and didn’t see a single target. Aiyuk had been dealing with a hamstring injury, but when asked about Aiyuk’s non-involvement, Shanahan said, “If he wants to be out there every single play, he’s got to be a lot better than the guy behind him.” Um … we could *probably* make a reasonable case that Aiyuk is a lot better than Trent Sherfield. I almost want to recommend Aiyuk in a prove-it spot here, but with the snap share uncertain and fairly tough matchup against veteran CB Darius Slay, you simply can’t play him in fantasy this week.
DeVonta Smith: We probably shouldn’t be concerned about Smith’s weight anymore. The Heisman Trophy winner looked terrific against the Falcons in Week 1. He had six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown, and those numbers could have been better in a more competitive game. The Heisman Trophy winner coasted past Atlanta CB Fabian Moreau to make his first professional TD catch, making it look effortless. Treat Smith as a mid-range WR3 for now, but be prepared to revise that assessment upward.
Jalen Reagor: After a disappointing rookie season, Reagor made a fresh start by catching 6 of 6 targets for 49 yards and a touchdown vs. Atlanta last week. The matchup against a depleted San Francisco CB group has appeal, but Reagor is still just a low-end WR5 for now.
Quez Watkins: He played a 48% snap share, saw some early targets, caught three balls for 23 yards, and then sort of disappeared. As much as the Eagles are going to use two-TE sets, it would probably take an injury for Watkins to become fantasy-relevant.
George Kittle: On Elijah Mitchell‘s 38-yard touchdown run last Sunday, Kittle actually took TWO Lions defenders off their feet with a single block. It was a play so impressive that we can easily forgive him for “only” having four catches for 78 yards in the opener. You’re starting Kittle this week, of course.
Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz: As expected, the Eagles used plenty of two-TE sets in their opener, so Goedert wound up with a 73% snap share, Ertz a 58% share. Goedert caught 4 of 5 targets for 42 yards and a score. Ertz hauled in both of his targets for 34 yards. The 49ers have a nice pair of safeties, and their linebackers are good in coverage, so this doesn’t seem to be a great matchup for the Philly TEs. But then again, Lions TE T.J. Hockenson hung 97 yards and a touchdown on the Eagles last week.
Houston Texans vs. Cleveland Browns
Tyrod Taylor: The Cleveland defense goes from facing Patrick Mahomes to facing Taylor. That’s like taking Calculus 3 one semester and Basic Algebra the next. But I don’t want to keep bashing Taylor. He’s a capable NFL backup thrust into a starting role. Besides, Taylor deserves to be celebrated for helping to ruin Urban Meyer’s NFL coaching debut. That’s something we can all get behind, right? Taylor completed 21 of 33 passes against Urb’s Jaguars for 291 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran four times for 40 yards. The Tyrod Taylor fun probably ends there. But hey, we’ll always have Week 1.
Baker Mayfield: I was fence-sitting on Mayfield throughout fantasy draft season and wound up drafting him only once, in a best-ball league. I generally like it when a quarterback has a solid infrastructure. Mayfield has a terrific offensive line – and thankfully, left tackle Jedrick Wills‘ lower-leg injury doesn’t appear to be serious. Mayfield also has a bunch of tight ends he can throw to, and his WR corps might be pretty good if either Donovan Peoples-Jones or Anthony Schwartz steps up. The Browns’ powerful running game makes their play-action passing game effective, and we saw Mayfield average a tidy 11.5 yards per pass attempt in the opener. But the Browns really want to use that powerful running game. They had four TD runs in their 33-29 loss to the Chiefs (including one by WR Jarvis Landry) and nary a passing touchdown. So Mayfield had 321 passing yards but didn’t meet his fantasy quota because he didn’t take part in any scores. Ultimately, I think Mayfield is a worthy QB2 in superflex leagues but not worth owning in 1QB leagues simply because the Browns can afford to go super run-heavy even in favorable matchups for their passing game.
Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay, and David Johnson: This trio combined for 160 rushing yards, 18 receiving yards, and three touchdowns (one for each RB) in the Texans’ Week 1 drubbing of the Jaguars. Chalk it up to a favorable game script. Houston jumped on Jacksonville early and could afford to keep running all game long. This isn’t a backfield to chase with waiver claims. All three guys are involved. Heck, even Rex Burkhead played 13% of the snaps, so it’s more like a four-headed backfield. But the more important issue is that the Texans are still a bad team, Week 1 results notwithstanding. That’s going to mean a lot more unfavorable game scripts than favorable ones and significantly less than 160 rushing yards to be spread around most weeks. Ingram is coming off a 26-carry game, yet he’s still only my RB37 this week.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt: The Cleveland running game is a machine. Chubb plunged into the end zone twice in Week 1 and has now scored at least one touchdown in seven consecutive regular-season games. He’s scored 14 times in his last 13 regular-season games. Hunt had a touchdown against the Chiefs, too. He now has 12 TDs in his last 16 games. The Texans gave up a league-high 2,564 rushing yards last year, to the tune of 5.2 yards per carry. This is a golden spot for the Cleveland running backs.
Brandin Cooks: He’s still only 27 – Cooks turns 28 a week from Saturday – and he already has five 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. With a 132-yard game last week, he has a good head start on a sixth. I’m sure there will be games where Taylor malfunctions as a ball-delivery mechanism and Cooks turns in poor numbers as a result. But he’s the undisputed No. 1 receiver in Houston and by far the most dangerous weapon in this offense, so he’s going to be involved week after week. I’m considering him a mid-to-low-end WR3 even though he’s stuck in a bad offense, and even that ranking seems disrespectful.
Nico Collins: It’s hard to gauge the rookie’s Week 1 usage in a game the Texans dominated. He played 55% of Houston’s snaps and caught 1 of 3 targets for seven yards. It looked as if Collins had scored his first NFL touchdown when he made an acrobatic end-zone catch on a 1-yard fade and managed to stay inbounds, but he was called for offensive pass interference. Collins isn’t playable yet, but he’s stash-worthy in some leagues.
Jarvis Landry: During his heyday in Miami from 2015 to 2017, Landry saw double-digit targets in 27 of 48 games. In Cleveland, he’s only hit double-digit targets in nine of his last 40 games, and these days he rarely gets there even in games that Odell Beckham Jr. misses. Landry is still fantasy-viable. He caught all five of his targets for 71 yards against the Browns last weekend and had two carries for 13 yards and a touchdown. This isn’t a bad fantasy profile by any means, but Landry’s weekly ceiling is much lower than it used to be, particularly in full-point PPR leagues.
Anthony Schwartz and Donovan Peoples-Jones: Odell Beckham Jr. is going to miss another week as he recovers from a knee injury, so these two young receivers are going to get some run. Peoples-Jones played 80% of Cleveland’s offensive snaps in Week 1, but he had only one catch for four yards on just that lone target. Schwartz, a speedy rookie from Auburn, played 16 fewer snaps than Peoples-Jones but caught 3 of 5 targets for 69 yards, highlighted by a diving 44-yard catch on a play where he used his extraordinary wheels to separate from two defenders with ease. Schwartz also had a 17-yard run. These young fellas aren’t playable in most leagues, but they should be on your watchlist.
Pharaoh Brown and Jordan Akins: Brown had four catches for 67 yards in the opener, while Akins was blanked. Both played a majority of Houston’s offensive snaps. No doubt the Texans’ big lead enabled them to use more two-TE sets than they would if they trailed for much of the game. There’s really nothing to pique our curiosity here.
Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Harrison Bryant: In an interesting development, Njoku played nearly as many snaps as Hooper in Week 1 and caught 3 of 5 targets for a team-high 76 yards. Hooper had a quieter day, catching 3 of 3 targets for 27 yards, while Bryant played about a third of the Browns’ offensive snaps and caught 1 of 2 targets for 17 yards. The takeaway here should probably be that Hooper can’t be trusted in lineups right now with Njoku back in the picture (at least temporarily). Njoku, heretofore known for being a draft bust, is probably another good game away from becoming a waiver-wire darling. Don’t forget that Njoku is a freakish athlete who put on a show at the 2017 Scouting Combine after an eye-opening junior season at the University of Miami-Fla.