The Primer: Week 3 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.
So, how’s your season going so far?
Here’s hoping you’re not a member of the dreaded Thirty Percent Club.
My theory is that 30% of fantasy football teams are doomed to fail even before their first roster spot is filled. The fantasy gods look down upon the managers of these teams as they sit hunched over their computers on draft night, or as they quaff cold lagers and stuff their maws with pork rinds at live drafts, and these cruel deities turn their thumbs downward.
The managers blithely go about the business of filling their rosters, taking pride in all the value they’ve accrued, but little do they know that their fates have been predetermined. The only variable is which form their misfortune will take.
Many teams will succumb to mass injuries. Precious few fantasy teams make it through a season completely unscathed, but some will be decimated by multiple longer-term injuries to valuable contributors. A strong team can survive an injury to a starter. A powerhouse team might be able to navigate two or three such blows. But most teams stay underwater when an injury tsunami hits.
Other teams will fall victim to schedule calamities. They just happen to play the worst team in the league in a week where everything goes right for Team Doormat and they lose because Tevin Coleman, Zach Pascal and Gerald Everett combine for five touchdowns against them. Every year, someone has to lead your league in the opponent-points-against category. The managers of these teams watch helplessly as their opponents overachieve week after week and post improbably high scores.
Some teams will suffer from an unfortunate distribution of points. They’ll win the blowouts and lose most of the close ones. They’ll waste big games against feeble opponents and come up just short in critical games against playoff contenders. At the end of the season, many of these managers will be able to pinpoint a few moments that wrecked their playoff hopes – an unjust offensive pass interference call that took away a big gain, or a player tackled at the one-yard line in a two-point loss.
For all the effort we put into this silly little hobby of ours – all the research we do, all the articles and podcasts we consume, all the deep thinking we do on the players we consider for our rosters – it often comes down to dumb luck. Being a smart tactician and an astute evaluator of talent certainly helps, but if you’ve unwittingly been chosen for the Thirty Percent Club … sorry, my friend. Better luck next year.
Want to know the secret to fantasy football success?
Play in a lot of leagues.
Seriously. It’s the only way to thwart the mischievous fantasy gods. Play in enough leagues and apply sound management principles to enough teams, and you’re going to pump up the odds of hoisting a championship trophy at season’s end. Play in just one or two leagues, and there’s a good chance that your sprint to the end zone will end when you’re gang-tackled by the vagaries of luck.
Keep your head on swivel, partner.
Los Angeles Chargers vs Kansas City Chiefs
Justin Herbert: It’s been an interesting start to the season for Herbert. He threw for 337 yards against Washington in the opener and 338 yards against Dallas in Week 2, but because he’s thrown three interceptions and only two TD passes, and because he hasn’t done anything as a runner, he ranks QB23 in fantasy scoring. A road game in Kansas City offers some shootout potential, but the Chiefs have only given up one TD pass so far. There’s nothing useful to be gleaned from Herbert’s two starts against the Chiefs last year. The first of those two starts was Herbert’s first NFL game, and the second was a Week 17 game in which the Chiefs rested a number of starters. Regard Herbert as a back-end QB1 this week.
Patrick Mahomes: He and the Chiefs may have come up a little short Sunday night in Baltimore, but Mahomes is off to a blazing start. He’s averaging 340 passing yards and three touchdowns a game, completing 76.1% of his throws and averaging 10.1 yards per attempt. His one interception so far (the first September interception of his career) came late in the third quarter against the Ravens, with Mahomes unwisely lofting a prayer ball 12 yards forward as he was being taken to the ground by edge rusher Odafe Oweh. Mahomes goes up against a Chargers defense that has thus far kept the Washington and Dallas passing games in check – the latter much harder to slow down than the former. Longer-term trends like these may be of limited use, but I’ll throw it out there anyway: In five career games against the Chargers, Mahomes has averaged 231.4 yards and two TD passes, completing 61.2% of his throws for an average of 7.0 yards per attempt. I don’t fear his less-than-stellar track record against the Chargers, but I still won’t pay $8,200 to get Mahomes into my DraftKings lineup.
Austin Ekeler: We knew Ekeler’s receiving drought wasn’t going to last. After not being targeted in Week 1, Ekeler was targeted nine times in Week 2, catching all nine of those throws for 61 yards. He needs that work in the receiving game because he’s not a heavy-duty runner. Ekeler has 24 carries so far, and Ekeler investors would probably be satisfied if he averaged 12 carries a game the rest of the way. (He’s averaged 9.4 carries per game over the last two years.) I have Ekeler ranked RB7 this week, and I see appeal in his $7,200 DraftKings price.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire: CEH is everyone’s favorite scapegoat this week after coughing up a fumble at the Ravens’ 34-yard line with 1:25 left in regulation to deprive the Chiefs of a chance for a game-winning field goal. We’re now 15 games into Edwards-Helaire’s career, and the results have been underwhelming. He’s averaged 59.5 rushing yards per game and has scored five career touchdowns. Edwards-Helaire is averaging 3.3 yards per carry through the first two games of 2021, and as Josh Larky of PlayerProfiler.com notes, CEH has faced light fronts (six or fewer defenders in the box) on 63% of his carries this year. Yikes. Could this become a committee soon? Darrel Williams had a short TD run last week, and third-stringer Jerrick McKinnon has been getting snaps, too. Edwards-Helaire will try to turn thigs around against a Chargers run defense that gave up 90 rushing yards to Antonio Gibson in Week 1, then yielded 180 rushing yards and two TD runs to the Ezekiel Elliott/Tony Pollard combination in Week 2.
Keenan Allen: Allen “only” had eight targets last week against the Cowboys, catching four of them for 108 yards. He’s reached the 100-yard mark in both of his games but is still looking for his first touchdown of the season. Allen draws a tough matchup against Chiefs slot corner L’Jarius Snead. You’re starting Allen, of course, and an affordable price of $6,600 puts him on play in DraftKings.
Mike Williams: It turns out that the whole X receiver narrative for Mike Williams might just be true. The thinking was that with Williams ticketed to be the X receiver in new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s system, he’d be playing the same role that Michael Thomas played when Lombardi was the quarterbacks’ coach in New Orleans – and Thomas smashed in that role. Williams, too, is now smashing. He’s been targeted 22 times and has 15 receptions for 173 yards and two touchdowns, making him the WR7 to date in half-point PPR scoring. This week Williams faces the Chiefs, against whom he memorably scored three touchdowns (two receiving, one running) in a Thursday-night game late in the 2018 season. Williams also had 108 receiving yards and a TD catch against Kansas City in the season finale last year, although the Chiefs were resting their starters in that one. Consider Williams a low-end WR2 this week, meaning you’re probably starting him this week, even if it’s just in a flex spot. But I just can’t go for Williams in DFS this week when Keenan Allen only costs $200 more.
Tyreek Hill: The Ravens did their best to lock down Hill last week, limiting him to four targets and 17 air yards. After Hill dropped 197 receiving yards and a touchdown on the Browns in Week 1, the extra defensive attention was understandable. Expect Hill to return to form this week against the Chargers, who don’t have a cover man capable of slowing him down. As expensive as he is on DraftKings ($8,400), he’s worth considering as a lineup cornerstone.
Mecole Hardman: A fantasy disappointment in 2020, Hardman is at least showing a pulse in 2021. With the Ravens throwing extra defensive attention at Tyreek Hill in Week 2, Hardman led Chiefs wide receivers in targets with eight, catching five of them for 55 yards. Hardman wasn’t the only peripheral receiver for the Chiefs to come through in Baltimore. Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle had TD catches, too. But Hardman has played more snaps than Robinson and Pringle and has greater fantasy potential. I have Hardman at WR59, and despite that modest ranking, I sort of like him as a $3,900 what-the-hell play on DraftKings, particularly in GPPs.
Jared Cook: Cook has drawn 13 targets so far and has eight catches for 84 yards. He’ll be facing a Chiefs defense that allowed the Browns’ three tight ends to combine for seven catches and 120 yards in Week 1, and Mark Andrews had five catches for 57 yards against Kansas City in Week 2. Cook is a back-end TE1 for me this week.
Travis Kelce: The supply of superlatives is running low. Kelce continues to come through for his fantasy managers week after week. He scored his third touchdown of the season against the Ravens in Week 2, a marvelous catch-and-run job covering 46 yards. Remarkably, Kelce trails Rob Gronkowski in TE fantasy scoring by 0.4 points. As good as Kelce is, I don’t think I can pay $8,200 for him on DraftKings this week when I can get T.J. Hockenson for $3,000 less.
Arizona Cardinals vs Jacksonville Jaguars
Kyler Murray: What an epic mismatch this appears to be. Murray currently sits as the QB1 by a comfortable margin, leading his next-closest pursuer, Tom Brady, by more than five points per game. Now he gets to face a Jacksonville defense that has yielded top-12 weeks to Tyrod Taylor and Teddy Bridgewater. It could be a bloodletting when Murray and the Cardinals come to town. Murray ranks second in passing yardage (689) and TD passes (7), and he’s run for a pair of touchdowns. The only glitch in the matrix thus far is his interception total (3). Murray is the QB1 in my rankings this week, and he’s fittingly the most expensive quarterback on DraftKings this week, checking in at $8,300 while Patrick Mahomes is at $8,200.
Trevor Lawrence: Maybe he’ll abruptly turn the corner at some point in the near future, but Lawrence’s first two games have been pretty ugly. For every “wow” throw he makes – and there have been a few of them – he makes two or three head-scratcher throws. He’s completing 50% of his passes and averaging 5.4 yards per attempt. I’ll issue a mea culpa here for believing Lawrence would immediately be playable in fantasy. Whoops … my bad.
Chase Edmonds and James Conner: This situation has been fairly straightforward. Edmonds has been playing slightly more snaps. Conner has out-carried Edmonds 24-20, but Conner hasn’t seen a single target, while Edmonds has caught all nine of his targets thus far. If we’re investing in this backfield, we like that it’s fairly predictable, even if neither guy is delivering starter-worthy value. Conner piled up 16 carries in Week 1 when Arizona blew out Tennessee, and if the Cardinals start pummeling the struggling Jaguars, Conner could see another fairly heavy workload. But that sort of thing is hard to predict. Treat Edmonds as a high-end RB3, Conner as a mid-range RB4.
James Robinson and Carlos Hyde: Does Urban Meyer know what he wants his backfield to look like? In Week 1, Hyde got a lot of the early-down carries, and Robinson was used in the sort of versatile run-catch role we thought we might see rookie Travis Etienne in before he got hurt. In Week 2, Robinson played 75% of the offensive snaps and out-touched Hyde 14-2. If fantasy managers got a vote, I believe they’d overwhelmingly prefer the Week 2 usage plan. For now, Robinson is a flex-worthy RB3, and Hyde is unplayable.
DeAndre Hopkins: The Jaguars would prefer to put second-year corner C.J. Henderson on Hopkins. It’s a matchup Hopkins should win, but it’s the best hope Jacksonville has of keeping Arizona’s star receiver from going berserk. Unfortunately for the Jags, Henderson is dealing with a groin injury and is considered questionable for this weekend, which forced the team to sign Nevin Lawson. Hopkins is going to be a big part of the Arizona game plan regardless, but if he’s up against someone other than Henderson all day, look out.
Rondale Moore: Moore’s average depth of target this season is 3.6 yards, and that number was pumped up by Moore’s 77-yard TD last week, which he caught 37 yards downfield. I don’t have a good answer to this question, but I’ll ask it anyway: Why is the low aDOT working for Rondale but not for Laviska Shenault in Jacksonville? Does it have to do more with the quality of the quarterbacking, the quality of the systems, neither or both? Again, I don’t claim to have an answer, but I find it interesting that the analyst crowd curses Shenault’s low aDOT but has no problem with (and almost celebrates) Rondale’s low aDOT. Anyway … I mostly just wanted to find an angle on Rondale other than his sub-50% snap shares not really mattering because the Cardinals are proactively trying to scheme up ways to get the ball in his hands whenever he’s out there. I have him ranked as a high-end WR4 but will try to find ways to sneak him into as many of my lineups as possible.
Christian Kirk: It’s pretty cool that Kirk is off to a nice start and Rondale Moore is making an immediate impact. I wasn’t sure that was possible. Credit Kliff Kingsbury for returning Kirk primarily to the slot, where he does his best work. Kirk may not be an every-week starter, but I think he’s going to be useful to his managers as the injuries continue to mount and the byes start to hit. Don’t be surprised if Kirk makes more noise from the slot this week against either Tre Herndon, who’s trying to come back from an MCL injury, or rookie second-rounder Tyson Campbell.
Marvin Jones: So far, Jones leads the Jacksonville receivers in targets (20) and snaps (116). For all of Trevor Lawrence‘s struggles, Jones has managed to score a touchdown in each of the Jaguars’ two games and currently sits WR19 in half-point PPR fantasy scoring. I think he’s overachieving, and I have him at WR40 this week, even though I don’t hate his matchup against Cardinals CB Robert Alford.
D.J. Chark: Chark has caught 4 of 16 targets this season. That’s a pretty sorry catch rate, but when you’re fielding throws from a rookie quarterback and your average depth of target is 16.3 yards, it’s understandable. That’s not a recipe for consistency, and it makes Chark a risky play from week to week. I like his matchup against rookie fourth-round CB Marco Wilson on Sunday, but Chark’s boom-or-bust profile is scary.
Laviska Shenault: He’s dealing with a shoulder injury, but Shenault has been practicing and is expected to play. He’s run more routes than either Marvin Jones or D.J. Chark, but his average depth of target is 3.9 yards, and he’s averaging a preposterously low 5.2 yards per catch. I’m enamored with Viska’s talent and believe a breakout is inevitable, but I’m going to sit this one out for a while. I have him ranked as a WR5.
Maxx Williams: He didn’t seem rosterable a week or two ago, but Williams has played 77% of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps and has caught 7 of 8 targets for 94 yards. I still don’t think you can trust him in a starting lineup, but in larger leagues, he’s at least a viable depth piece.
Chicago Bears vs Cleveland Browns
Justin Fields: All right, Matt Nagy, you can slow-play the changing of the guard at quarterback as much as you want, and you can keep calling Andy Dalton your starter. But with Dalton sidelined by a bone bruise in his knee, Fields is going to make his first NFL start Sunday, and it seems like a long shot that Dalton will be reclaiming his job from a first-round draft pick who Bears fans regard as a potential savior. Fields wasn’t especially crisp in relief of Dalton last week. The rookie completed 6 of 13 passes for 60 yards, with no touchdowns and a bad interception. He also ran 10 times for 31 yards. Fields probably isn’t going to dissect a good Browns defense through the air in his first professional start, but you can bet that he won’t hesitate to take off and run when he starts to feel the heat from Myles Garrett and the rest of the Cleveland pass rush. Fields was timed 4.46 seconds at his pro day. He’s got some serious wheels, and at 6-3 and 237 pounds, he isn’t automatically going down on first contact. That’s the appeal here. Don’t expect attractive raw passing totals or admirable efficiency, but I think you’re going to get some useful rushing numbers. The Browns have already given up TD runs to Patrick Mahomes and Tyrod Taylor this season. And hey, we can’t entirely rule out a decent passing day for Fields. Before injuring his hamstring last week, Taylor completed 10 of 11 passes against the Browns for 125 yards and a touchdown, and Taylor isn’t exactly known as a pinpoint passer. I have Fields ranked QB14 this week.
Baker Mayfield: Mayfield is doing a fine job of running Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense, but that’s cold comfort to anyone seeking to derive fantasy value from Mayfield, who ranks QB20 in fantasy scoring. The Browns have a league-high seven TD runs but only one TD pass. Mayfield is completing 81.6% of his throws and averaging 10.9 yards per attempt, but only the Saints have attempted fewer than the 49 passes the Browns have thrown. Mayfield will be going up against one of the weaker cornerback groups in the league when the Browns take on the Bears. The thing is, with Jarvis Landry sidelined by an MCL injury and Odell Beckham only just now making his return from the torn ACL he sustained last year, the Browns might not be able to take full advantage. Despite the appealing matchup, I have Mayfield ranked QB19 for the week.
David Montgomery: Montgomery faces a Browns defense that has given up two TD runs to quarterbacks but hasn’t allowed one to a running back so far this year. Montgomery continues to play a big role in the Chicago offense, with 36 carries through two games. He’s also caught 4 of 5 targets. It will be interesting to see how the QB change affects Montgomery’s production. Conventional wisdom suggests that a mobile quarterback who poses a running threat will make things easier for his running backs, since on zone-read plays, linebackers can’t overcommit to the running back for fear of letting the quarterback dash past them. But mobile quarterbacks also tend to check the ball down to their running backs less often in the passing game. For what it’s worth, the primary RBs at Ohio State during Fields’ two seasons there, J.K. Dobbins in 2019 and Trey Sermon in 2020, collectively averaged 1.6 receptions per game with Fields at quarterback. With receiving expectations for Montgomery lowered in Fields’ first start, I’m not interested in using him in DFS, but I have no issue starting him as usual in redraft.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt: The Browns’ running game will be tested by a Bears defense that has thus far allowed 71.5 rushing yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry, doing a reasonably good job of keeping Darrell Henderson and Joe Mixon in check in the first two weeks. The Bears have allowed only three receptions to opposing RBs, but the Cleveland backs don’t really need passing-game production to succeed in a given week. Chubb is averaging a ridiculous 6.8 yards per carry, has three TD runs and is the RB4 in fantasy scoring (half-point PPR). We haven’t seen Hunt do much in the passing game yet (4-30-0), but he had a TD run against the Chiefs in Week 1 and had 13 carries for 51 yards in last week’s run-heavy win over the Texans. Same old, same old: Chubb is a midrange RB1, Hunt a lower-end RB2.
Allen Robinson: A-Rob scored his first touchdown of the season this week, but his overall numbers (8-59-1) certainly aren’t what his stakeholders were hoping for. A slow day against a good Rams defense in Week 1 wasn’t a surprise, but a 24-yard output at home against the Bengals in Week 2 was disheartening. The insertion of a rookie quarterback generally isn’t great for a star wide receiver, but in this case, with the talented Justin Fields replacing mediocre starter Andy Dalton, investors in Robinson might be encouraged by the QB change. Fields has a superb arm, and perhaps he can start getting Robinson the ball downfield. So far, A-Rob’s average depth of target is just 3.7 yards. Consider Robinson a midrange WR2 this week. And at only $6,200 in DraftKings games, A-Rob will find his way into at least one of my lineups this weekend.
Darnell Mooney: Justin Fields throws a pretty deep ball, and as the Bears’ primary deep threat, Mooney is probably going to be the target on some of those long spirals. That’s good, because much like Allen Robinson, Mooney has been targeted at much shallower depths than he’s used to with Andy Dalton at quarterback. Last year, Mooney’s average depth of target was 11.5 yards. This year it’s 5.9 yards. The second-year speedster from Tulane is averaging just 8.4 yards per catch – a number befitting a tight end. Mooney has 11 catches on 15 targets, and those are numbers we like, but here’s hoping Fields starts delivering higher-value targets. I have Mooney ranked as a high-end WR5.
Odell Beckham and Anthony Schwartz: The Browns’ wide receivers have thus far accounted for only 33.3% of team targets and 32.5% of team receptions. The leader in both categories is Jarvis Landry, who’s out with an MCL injury. Beckham is finally ready to come back after tearing his ACL last October. It’s unclear whether he’ll play a full complement of snaps. The speedy Schwartz has six targets so far, tied for the team high among receivers, but he’s only playing about half the offensive snaps and can’t be trusted in lineups. Even in an appealing matchup against a weak group of Chicago cornerbacks, this group should be avoided.
Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Harrison Bryant: The Cleveland passing game leans heavily on the TE position. Unfortunately, there are three tight ends sharing the load, limiting their individual fantasy value. Hooper and Njoku are tied for the team lead in targets with eight. Bryant has six targets – as many as any receiver on the Browns’ roster. Collectively they’ve accounted for 45.8% of team targets and 45.0% of team receptions. Snap percentages for this group through two games: Hooper 67%, Njoku 59%, Bryant 42%. Hooper and Njoku both fall into the TE2 range, while Bryant is in the TE3 zone.
Cole Kmet: The second-year man from Notre Dame was blanked against the Bengals last week, his only reception negated by an offensive pass interference call. I’m still bullish on Kmet. He’s played 73% of the Bears’ offensive snaps, and Chicago doesn’t have a legitimate No. 3 receiver. Kmet isn’t likely to rock the Browns’ defense the way Travis Kelce did in Week 1, but he profiles as a midrange TE2 this week, and at only $3,200 he’s an interesting thrift play on DraftKings.