This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
To give me inspiration for this week's introduction, I looked back at what I said for the Week 2 installment of Exploiting the Matchups over the past four seasons (still can't believe we're in Year 5 with this odyssey).
And the inspiration I drew from four years of previous responses to the always wild Week 1's was to not write an intro this week. Well, not a full one anyways. It's analyst gospel to urge fantasy owners not to go nuts over anything that happens in the first real football of the season. I've said it several ways over the years, but it's always the same message you'll hear all over: Don't overreact.
So, instead of regurgitating the same soap box rant, I'm going to take five seconds to gloat. If you missed my first Vampire (Football) Diaries entry last week, you may not be familiar.
I've started three Vampire leagues and will blog about my experience being the Vampire throughout the journey. And to even my incredible surprise, I FREAKING WON. I took the undrafted also-rans and beat a team with Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Jordan Howard. God bless James Conner, Randall Cobb and Quincy Enunwa for leading the way for Count Chocula. As is the twist of a Vampire league, my 'W' gave me the rights to a player on my opponent's team. So, Captain Cobb will now be joined by Elliott, Count Chocula's first victim.
So if your Week 1 was a disaster, smile. It couldn't have been worse than my Vampire opponent, and it's a good reminder that even if your roster doesn't look ideal now, there's always talent on waivers that can fix it if things break right. Just keep playing to win.
As always, upgrades are players you wouldn't roll out every week while downgrades are generally lineup mainstays but for whom you might want to consider an alternative based on elements of their opponent/situation. With that out of the way, let's get to it.
Note: This column is not intended to be a traditional "Start/Sit" piece. My goal is to provide perspective you may not have considered and help make those tough decisions easier -- or make you rethink those "no-brainer" choices.
Upgrades are not necessarily weekly starters (outside of the top 20 RB/WR, top 10 QB/TE) but are set to boost their production. Downgrades are worth benching or, for some bigger names, should be held to lower expectations for this weekend.
Alex Smith, WAS vs. IND
Andy Dalton and Smith had similar games last week, both completing at least 70 percent of their throws on 28 and 30 attempts, respectively, while gaining at least 8.5 YPA and netting two scores. The big difference is that Smith did his damage against a Cardinals defense boasting the reigning sack champion, Chandler Jones, and Patrick Peterson taking away half the field in coverage. Dalton burned a dreadful Colts defense whose best player, free safety Malik Hooker, is still on the mend from last year's torn ACL and not in top form yet. Although his weapons can't match Dalton's on paper, Smith is the more surgical passer and better scrambler. He should take Dalton's success versus one of the three fantasy-friendliest defenses to the next level.
Tyrod Taylor, CLE at NO
After going just 15-of-40 passing and taking seven sacks in the sloppy Cleveland rain for Week 1, it's safe to assume Taylor will be glad to get perfect conditions inside the Superdome. He'll be equally excited to get his shot at a Saints defense that saw Ryan Fitzpatrick figuratively drop a match in their collective gas tank. While a New Orleans defense with Pro Bowl-caliber talent on all three levels is unlikely to let another journeyman look like peak Joe Montana, it's also highly unlikely the Browns finish a game with over 70 plays (in regulation) and only a combined 30 yards by Josh Gordon and David Njoku. Their athleticism will be hard to contain, just as the Saints struggled to cover the uniquely athletic Buccaneers pass catchers. Factor in what Taylor can do with his legs -- he gashed Pittsburgh for 77 yards and a score on eight runs -- and you have the recipe for a top-10-quarterback week.
Case Keenum, DEN vs. OAK
Short week? In the thin Mile High air? That recipe could spell disaster for a Raiders secondary that allowed 233 yards and two touchdowns to a rusty Jared Goff, who didn't throw a pass in the preseason. Keenum, who was an up-and-down gunslinger in Week 1 (three touchdowns, three interceptions), produced 8.4 YPA while easily clearing 300 yards because his weapons are loaded. In Jon Gruden's first AFC West divisional game since returning as head coach, the Raiders secondary is about to find out how talented the trio of Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and Courtland Sutton are while getting gassed in a game that could quickly get out of hand.
Eli Manning, NYG at DAL
If Manning could avoid death or paralysis with human turnstile Ereck Flowers attempting to block Calais Campbell with his mind last week, he should be able to survive DeMarcus Lawrence. That means he'll be throwing for over 300 yards on a Cowboys secondary that cannot compare with Jacksonville's. Odell Beckham Jr. is clearly back to his sensational self, and there's no way Dallas will hold the trio of Sterling Shephard, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley to a combined 88 receiving yards. If anything, they may double that number now that they don't have to contend with the Jaguars' elite back seven.
Chris Thompson, WAS vs. IND
Arguably the most elite satellite back in the league, Thompson showed zero rust in his return to action after a broken leg derailed a breakout 2017 season in which he racked up 804 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns on only 103 touches. Last week, he was even better in a shredding of the Cardinals on a per-play basis, gashing them for 65 yards on five rushes and 63 yards on six catches, while also adding a touchdown and leading the Skins in targets and catches. After human battering ram Adrian Peterson softens an already soft front seven some more early, Thompson figures to scorch them with his explosiveness.
Things are looking up for the 49ers offense after having to slug its way through an ugly meeting with the Vikings defense. Morris, in particular, looks likely to benefit against a Lions defense that was gashed by the Jets' tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell, who both averaged at least 5.0 YPC on their way to rolling up 162 yards and two TD on 22 carries. Crowell, New York's power back, was especially effective. Morris got the goal line work in the first half and out-carried Breida 11-6 before the Vikings got a two-touchdown lead and San Fran went into catchup mode. AlfMo should get well-fed in a redemption effort after last week's costly fumble inside the 5-yard line. Breida, meanwhile, also figures to see double-digit touches and a chance to showcase his flash acceleration against Detroit's undisciplined front seven.
Royce Freeman, DEN vs. OAK
It feels safe to say Phillip Lindsay will stay involved as the lightning to Freeman's thunder after matching the bruising back carry for carry and yard for yard in the surprise performance of Week 1, which also included an electric 29-yard scoring catch. And sure, Lindsay has useful flex appeal in this one, as well. But it was Freeman gashing the Seahawks last week for 37 yards in a clock-killing fourth-quarter drive. When the Broncos use their aggressive front seven and explosive pass attack to put the Raiders in an early hole, count on the burly Freeman wearing their defense and the clock out.
Austin Ekeler, LAC at BUF
Okay, so the Chargers may not win by 40-plus the way Baltimore did over Buffalo last week. At least not if Joey Bosa rests his foot another week. But still, blowout or not, the Bills are a less than competitive group and just let ALL THREE of the Ravens running backs find the end zone. Ekeler was phenomenal with his 10 touches in Week 1, netting 126 yards and a score while snagging all five targets for 87 yards through the air. That awesome per-play efficiency validates the 7.3 yards per touch he averaged as a rookie on 74 chances (for comparison Alvin Kamara averaged 7.7 last year) and solidifies the Chargers' new souped-up version of Danny Woodhead as a weekly flex. After all, Woodhead had two seasons with the Bolts posting at least 1,000 scrimmage yards and eight TD.
Jalen Richard, OAK at DEN
PPR Alert!!! If you're looking for a deep-league option in full-point PPR, it looks like Richard is going to be a gem after posting nine grabs and 79 scrimmage yards in Week 1. The Raiders simply aren't built to get and keep leads, so similarly to their blowout loss to the Rams that was close for more than three quarters, they will be in hurry-up mode eventually. That means Richard – their best receiving tailback – will be on the field plenty. And with another top-notch pass rush and secondary tandem on tap, Derek Carr will look to quickly get the ball out of his hands to short, open dumpoffs to Richard again.
Allen Robinson, CHI vs. SEA
Bears wide receivers not named Robinson produced just seven catches for 39 yards against an improved Packers secondary. But as the Broncos' top wideouts proved, the Seahawks shutdown corners of old now resemble the hapless bunch we're used to seeing in Green Bay in recent seasons. Second-year man Shaquill Griffin and rookie Tre Flowers showed their inexperience, giving up a combined 14 catches for 167 yards, with each yielding a touchdown. So, if Robinson can post four grabs for 61 yards against the greatly improved Packers secondary, imagine what he might do to the Seahawks now that he's gotten that first game under his belt after last season's torn ACL.
Kenny Stills, MIA at NYJ
For two weeks in a row, the Jets are going to get burned by a downfield threat named Kenny. Stills, who scored twice in Week 1, has a history of doing this to the Jets. In his last three meetings versus Gang Green, the Dolphins' current No. 1 wideout has burned them for 188 yards and three touchdowns. Normally, past performance against a team means only so much, but knowing your opponent's tendencies is what can often lead to chunk gains and touchdowns. With the Jets' offense looking sharp behind the direction of Sam Darnold, the possibility for more passing only creates more of those big-play opportunities for a player who's scored 17 times in his last 33 games while averaging a very healthy 8.7 YPT.
Brandon Marshall, SEA at CHI
The revenge tour continues! With Doug Baldwin suffering a sprained MCL, the other most experienced wideout led Seattle in targets. Marshall not only saw the most looks from Russell Wilson versus the Broncos team that drafted him, but more importantly, he was targeted twice inside the end zone, snatching one touchdown while having another overturned by an offensive pass interference call. With as good as the Bears looked early despite their Week 1 meltdown versus Green Bay, Seattle could also find itself in catchup mode and expand Marshall's six Week 1 targets to double figures. Versus a Chicago secondary that gave up at least 69 yards and a score to three different receivers, that could spell another visit to the end zone for the once-dominant Bears receiver.
Nelson Agholor, PHI at TB
Sure, it was Drew Brees playing from behind, and yeah, most of the catches went into the strong mitts of Michael Thomas, but it has to go noticed that the Buccaneers – whose defensive strength is definitely their front seven – were the only defense to allow more than 20 receptions to wide receivers. Until Alshon Jeffery (shoulder) comes back from injury, Agholor is pretty much the only wideout who has chemistry with Nick Foles, as evidenced by his eight grabs in Week 1. Clearly a focal point of the offense, the talented receiver should record more than the 33 yards he mustered on eight catches last week.
Dante Pettis, SF vs. DET
With Jimmy Garoppolo favorite Marquise Goodwin derailed in Week 1 by a badly bruised quad, the 49ers' second-round draft pick, Pettis, rose to the occasion. Snagging two passes of more than 20 yards, including a beautiful 22-yard touchdown that showed off his focus and soft hands, the rookie finished with 4.07 yards per route run out of the slot – the fifth-highest mark in the league, per Pro Football Focus. And the guy sitting just two spots lower? Quincy Enunwa, who tormented this same Lions defense with his production from the slot Monday. Even if Goodwin suits up, look for Pettis to build on his promising pro debut.
David Njoku, CLE at NO
Njoku's seven targets in Week 1 tied him for the sixth-most among all tight ends, but in the sloppy wet mess of "The Dawg Pound", he managed a measly 1.9 YPT. O.J. Howard, a similar athletic specimen, averaged 27.0 YPT on his two looks versus a Saints defense that forgot how to defend the pass last week. With only two wide receivers ahead of him in the pecking order for looks, Njoku will translate that volume to production Sunday.
Ben Watson, NO vs. CLE
Among the 22 tight ends with at least four targets in Week 1, only four produced better than old man Watson's 11.0 YPT. One of those big guys was the lumbering Jesse James, whom the Cleveland defense inexplicably lost in scramble drill coverage despite his Jason Witten speed and 6-foot-7 frame. James tallied 60 yards because of it, good for fifth at the position. Watson, who's as chiseled as ever at the ripe age of 37, should have little troubling escaping a Browns back seven that will be fully preoccupied with the whereabouts of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
Aaron Rodgers, GB vs. MIN
If Rodgers was on the roof of that building with the rest of the Ghostbusters at the end of the 1980's classic and was also asked by Zuul, "Are you a God?" the resounding answer would have been "YES!" To throw for 273 yards and three touchdowns in one half against that beastly Bears front seven on one freaking leg, he must be a god. There's no other explanation. On the same token though, he's clearly hurt. If he even does play as he so confidently declared in the postgame interview, you probably shouldn't play him. It's not just that the odds of him having a repeat performance are thin. It's that they're razor-thin. Unless his knee turns out to be fine with treatment – an unlikely scenario – he's going to face the same, if not more, pressure from an equally stellar Vikings front seven. Except Minnesota's secondary is far better overall than Chicago's cover men. Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes and Co. will not get shredded the way that panicked Bears unit did.
Tom Brady, NE at JAX
That's right, the sky is falling. Brady and Rodgers both downgraded in the same week. Let's face it. Brady's cupboard is bare right now. While it's definitely impressive what he did to the Texans, and it's true Rob Gronkowski is a matchup-proof X-factor that could change things for the ageless All-World QB, it's hard to overlook the fact that 19 of his 26 completions, 196 of his 290 yards and both of his passing touchdowns from last year's AFC Championship against this Jaguars defense are gone (Gronk missed most of the game with a concussion). Additionally, the Patriots have almost no threat of a ground game and now may be missing Rex Burkhead to a concussion. In their home opener, the Jags will exact revenge for that title game letdown by putting a hurting on Brady and Co.
Kirk Cousins, MIN at GB
The Packers' upgraded secondary is legit. Only three defenses allowed fewer than the 4.9 YPA Green Bay gave up to an innovative Chicago offense that boasts numerous playmakers. And while the jury may still be out on Mitchell Trubisky, he is after all a former second overall draft pick. He's more talented and more seasoned than the quarterbacks Baltimore embarrassed, for comparison. And Trubisky has a myriad of weapons, unlike Nick Foles (who played on a wet field) and Sam Bradford, the dink-and-dunk king. They faced the other defenses that shut down the pass. Though his playmakers normally give Cousins a safe floor, that will really be put to the test this week by a secondary loaded with sticky cover men and a defensive line that can wreck an offensive line's day.
LeSean McCoy, BUF vs. LAC
Hard. Pass. Until proven otherwise, this needs to be the stance on ALL Buffalo skills players. That goes for McCoy too, who touched the ball just eight times for 21 scrimmage yards in their Week 1 blowout loss. And while the Chargers defense may not be the same as the Ravens' minus Joey Bosa (foot), it still possesses a terrific secondary and a stellar pass rusher in Melvin Ingram. Moreover, the Bolts boast a significantly better overall offense than a Ravens unit that rolled up 47 points on Buffalo, so a second straight crushing defeat could be looming.
Devonta Freeman, ATL vs. CAR
Freeman will benefit from the extra rest after leaving the Thursday night game versus the Eagles with a knee injury, but he still will be fighting through soreness if he suits up on Sunday. What's equally concerning to the knee issue, however, is Freeman's role in the Atlanta offense. Despite averaging 6.0 YPC, he saw a meager six attempts and watched as Tevin Coleman actually outtouched him 10 to nine before his injury, including a red zone touchdown run. Facing an aggressive, beefy Carolina front seven that largely bottled up Ezekiel Elliott in Week 1, Freeman is an awfully hard guy to start even if he practices in full before Sunday.
Kenyan Drake, MIA at NYJ
It's encouraging that Drake ultimately saw 17 touches in Week 1, but there's serious cause for concern in the fact that he not only ceded nine attempts to the supposed-to-have-a-foot-in-the-football-grave Frank Gore, but that he also proceeded to barely outgain the old man on almost twice the touches (66 to 61 yards). Gore averaged exactly twice as many yards per carry with a highly impressive 6.8 per tote, and facing a fast and physical Jets defense that limited a Lions committee backfield to 69 scrimmage yards on 21 combined touches, another week of that timeshare life could net even worse results for the big-play-dependent Drake.
Chris Hogan, NE at JAC
What more evidence do you want to feel confident benching Hogan this week? He was fourth on the Patriots in targets Week 1, with only five of Tom Brady's 39 attempts directed at him and he caught just one of them. Without Odell Beckham Jr.'s blinding quickness and speed to separate from the Jaguars' elite corners, it will be another long Sunday afternoon for Hogan.
Corey Davis, TEN vs. HOU
It took Davis a heavy dose of 13 targets to squeak out 62 yards on six receptions (good for 4.8 YPT) against a suspect Dolphins secondary. The Texans squad may not be dramatically better after losing starting corner Kevin Johnson to injured reserve with a bad concussion, but they did just hold Tom Brady's best wideout, Chris Hogan, to a one-catch day. Although Davis will almost certainly get force-fed in a way Hogan was not, those scattershot passes from either a banged-up Marcus Mariota (elbow) or Blaine Gabbert don't figure to end in different results from Week 1. And with "Honey Badger" Tyrann Mathieu now roaming the back end of the Houston defense, they may even look worse.
Davante Adams, GB vs. MIN
There's a lot to be concerned with about Adams this week. Ultimately, he could save his fantasy day if he finds the end zone – after all, he leads the league in touchdown receptions since the start of 2016. But if he can't hit paydirt, he runs the risk of laying an egg. With first-round cornerback Mike Hughes in the fold, this Vikings defense is as loaded as ever. The last time a healthy combo of Adams and Aaron Rodgers faced Minnesota in 2016, Green Bay's top wideout tallied just 70 yards in two games on 14 targets. And, of course, Rodgers' ability to finish this game – if he even plays – is highly questionable, while Adams himself is dealing with a sore shoulder. It could get ugly.
Kyle Rudolph, MIN at GB
Rudolph saved his Week 1 by making his one catch count with an 11-yard TD. But it was surprising to see him receive just two of Kirk Cousins' 36 targets. With the combination of Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook at his disposal, Cousins may not lean on his tight ends the way he used to in Washington. This week, Rudolph may need a score again if he wants to do much against a vastly upgraded Packers secondary that held Trey Burton to one catch on six targets.
Jimmy Graham, GB vs. MIN
The Vikings were burned by George Kittle for 90 yards on five catches in Week 1, but two things are working against Graham in his first rivalry game against last year's NFC North champs. One, he's far from possessing Kittle's speed at this stage of his career; he simply cannot move like that anymore. And two, with far better wide receivers than the 49ers, Green Bay can avoid throwing at All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. Given how Smith ultimately sealed defeat for San Fran with a pick, chances are Aaron Rodgers (or DeShone Kizer) will be glad to look elsewhere.