Best, worst matchups at all fantasy football positions for Week 1

Tristian H. Cockcroft
ESPN PLUS


lways play the matchups.

Weighing matchups helps you make difficult decisions between similarly valued players, and every week, it's important to analyze the best (and worst).

So what exactly constitutes a favorable or unfavorable matchup?

The answer to this is never trickier than it is annually in Week 1. Matchups data are the sketchiest they'll be all season in the opening week, and it's a mistake to present "matchups numbers" that pertain exclusively to last season's or preseason statistics. Citing solely 2017 statistics assumes no change to defensive personnel, whether players on the roster or injury situations. Citing 2018 preseason statistics puts weight on a four-game sample in which first-team defensive players played limited snaps (often one-third of those games or less).



An additional wrinkle to consider with 2017 statistics: Fantasy point totals against individual skill positions are useful tools, but they need to be taken in context, considering the strength of schedule those teams faced.
For example, the Detroit Lions in 2017 afforded the 13th-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks (244.20, or 15.3 per game). They also, however, played only seven of 16 games against quarterbacks who finished among the top 20 at the position in fantasy points and only three against top-10 passers. Totaling these, the Lions wound up facing the fourth-easiest schedule against quarterbacks of any NFL team last season and easily the easiest such schedule of any NFC squad. Adjusting for this schedule -- comparing opponents' seasonal averages to the team's fantasy point total allowed in each game -- the Lions actually finished 20th against quarterbacks, or seven spots worse than their raw fantasy point total allowed, illustrating that they were a below-average unit.



That's where the "Matchups Map" comes in. Each week, I'll provide a schedule-independent method to determine strength of positional matchups using the most recent, relevant data. Check back for updated numbers each week, including matchups highlights at each position -- both favorable and unfavorable -- based on those statistics. For these purposes, we will use PPR (Point Per Reception) scoring, though I have analyzed this data for both PPR and non-PPR and have found that the rankings would scarcely change (if at all). These do, therefore, apply to both scoring formats.



For Week 1, the maps include two measures: The first, "Rk," is my personal ranking of how favorable/unfavorable I consider that positional matchup; the second, "Adj. FPA," reflects how far above or below a player's average that defense held opponents at that position. For Week 1, 2017 full-season data is used for the latter, so take those with a grain -- or several grains -- of salt. Beginning in Week 4, we'll use 2018 data (three weeks in the books at that point), and starting in Week 6, we'll use the most recent five weeks.



Finally, a caveat: Remember that matchups are only one ingredient in my rankings formula. Not every favorable matchup should be exploited; not every unfavorable matchup should be avoided. To get the most complete recipe for whom to start and sit, consult my weekly rankings.

Quarterbacks


Favorable matchup: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (at Indianapolis Colts; available in more than 80 percent of ESPN leagues). It's conceivable that fantasy managers will need a Week 1 streaming candidate -- Carson Wentz's (knee) ongoing recovery from surgery and Jameis Winston's suspension are two obvious situations that demand it -- and Dalton is easily the strongest choice from those available in more than 50 percent of leagues. He was the No. 17 scorer among quarterbacks last season, but much more importantly, he averaged 18.39 fantasy points in his five games against bottom-eight defenses (using the 2017 full-season Adjusted Fantasy Points Allowed numbers in the chart below to define them), illustrating his strength exploiting matchups. The Colts, a team in clear rebuild mode, sport one of the game's weakest units, a 4-3 defense lacking an elite pass-rusher or a shut-down corner, which is a dicey combination. At least they have a healthy Andrew Luck back, and that might be additionally good for Dalton, as it eases potential worry that the Bengals could grab a quick, sizable lead and seek to run out the clock.



Unfavorable matchup: Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles (versus Atlanta Falcons; rostered in 11.5 percent of ESPN leagues). He might be a more popular streaming candidate, thanks to his having won the last "game that counted" and one on the big stage at that, and this is the NFL Kickoff game in which everyone's Super Bowl LI memory will be freshest. Unfortunately, this is a bad matchup for Foles in what might be his only start of 2018 -- or one of many, depending on Carson Wentz's ongoing recovery from knee surgery -- as he's without Alshon Jeffery (shoulder), affording the Falcons more flexibility to utilize safety Keanu Neal to cover tight end Zach Ertz, though linebacker De'Vondre Campbell will probably draw that assignment most. The Falcons' secondary is better than you think, and while no one should read too much into preseason performance, Foles' exhibition-season work was less than stellar (to say the least). Regression is in order, beginning Thursday.



From the Sunday games: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (at Los Angeles Chargers; rostered in nearly 80 percent of ESPN leagues). Mahomes cleaned up most of his accuracy problems from the opening days of training camp with a much more mistake-free preseason, but he's still a work in progress who has only one game's worth of NFL tape in the tank, and that came in meaningless-to-both-teams Week 17. Be careful expecting too much from him immediately, especially in a game in which he'll be facing elite pass-rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and elite cover corner Casey Hayward. On vertical passes (those thrown 15-plus yards downfield) during the second half of 2017 (Weeks 10-17), the Chargers afforded a 25.5 completion percentage (second-best) and tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions.



Running backs

Favorable matchup: Isaiah Crowell, New York Jets (at Detroit Lions; available in only 13 percent of ESPN leagues). He's one of the few parts of the Jets' offense who could do some damage to this defense, as one of the game's stronger inside runners facing one of the weakest defensive interiors. Since 2015, Crowell's 4.95 yards-per-carry average and 10 carries of 20-plus yards on inside runs ranked second and first in the league, and the 2017 Lions afforded the fourth-most yards per carry (4.78) and sixth-most yards after contact per carry (2.02) on runs up the middle. It's no surprise, then, that Crowell's second-best fantasy point total of 2017 came against the Lions, with 16.5 in Week 10. The Lions did little to upgrade their unit during the offseason, leaving free safety Glover Quin as their best counter to Crowell, with their strongest run-stoppers unfortunately at defensive end.



Unfavorable matchup: Alfred Morris, San Francisco 49ers (at Minnesota Vikings). To some, it might seem like an obvious nod, but to others, who might get too carried away reacting to recent news, it'll provide proper caution. Following Jerick McKinnon's season-ending torn ACL, Morris might be the 49ers' starting running back -- though the team's Week 1 depth chart lists pass-catching back Matt Breida as the "starter" -- and therefore his managers might be too quick to thrust him directly into their lineups, especially since Morris has predictably been the most-added player in ESPN leagues the past week. One word: Don't. The Vikings present the stiffest matchup a running back could face, having afforded the position the fewest total fantasy points as well as the fewest Adjusted Fantasy Points Allowed last season, and that's before they upgraded their defensive line with another quality run-stopper in defensive end Sheldon Richardson. Morris has also been a 49er for 25 whole days, and with some uncertainty surrounding the team's backfield rotation, he's a poor play in the season opener.



Wide receivers

Favorable matchup: Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears (at Green Bay Packers; available in roughly 70 percent of ESPN leagues). The 2018 rookie wide receiver class probably won't fill too many active fantasy lineup spots in the group's NFL debut week, but if there's one freshman worth the gamble -- accounting for both projected role as well as the matchup itself -- Miller is it. He's ticketed for slot receiver duty to begin the season, affording him the ability to let his speed rack up yards after the catch, and he's going up against a Packers defense that will have either second-year cornerback Kevin King or rookie Jaire Alexander matched against him. Ultimately, Miller's matchups come against a largely untested secondary, filled with mostly inexperienced players, and a team that afforded opposing slot receivers the 10th-most fantasy points last season. It only helps Miller's cause that the Packers' offense has some firepower that should keep the Bears in passing situations deep into the game.



Unfavorable matchup: Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders (versus Los Angeles Rams; 15th most-rostered wide receiver in ESPN leagues). Considering the Raiders' early-season schedule -- Week 2 also brings a trip to Denver -- I'd prefer a wait-and-see approach to their players wherever possible. Cooper is the one seemingly "automatic" in fantasy, the team's No. 1 wide receiver, but he also faces one of the toughest seasonal matchups at the position, which begins with this assignment against a Rams defense that was top-10 against the position in 2017 before upgrading with cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib (not to mention defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to help the pass rush). Peters' Chiefs and Talib's Denver Broncos, incidentally, both ranked among the best defenses at containing the position in each of the past two seasons. Cooper is probably too talented to bench in most cases, but considering where he's ranked, it's conceivable you'll have stronger alternatives this week.



Tight ends

Favorable matchup: Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans (at Miami Dolphins). Although he might draw a questionable listing on the weekly injury report, Walker's Week 1 matchup couldn't be much more favorable and makes him a strong play regardless of any concern about injury limitations (barring any late setback). This Dolphins defense afforded the position the most total fantasy points (257.4) and most Adjusted Fantasy Points Allowed (plus-4.28 per game) last season and did little to upgrade outside of drafting safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.


Unfavorable matchup: Evan Engram, New York Giants (versus Jacksonville Jaguars). While he's fortunate to dodge the Jalen Ramsey matchup -- that one falls squarely upon Odell Beckham Jr.'s shoulders -- Engram won't find things any easier against a Jaguars defense that is stout across the board. Although tight end was the one "weak" spot for this unit from time to time last season, it still gave many of the position's elite headaches: Jimmy Graham (Week 14) was shut out, Hunter Henry (Week 10) had 1.7 fantasy points, Jack Doyle (Week 13) had 4.6, and Delanie Walker (Week 17) had 5.4. Beckham's return also gives Eli Manning one more receiver to throw to than he had during most of Engram's games last season, and Saquon Barkley's arrival will further shift the Giants' offensive focus to the running game.