Week 1 always brings up conflicting vibes. We’re so confident in our fantasy rosters after the draft that we can’t wait for Thursday Night Football to start the season. However, I know I’m not the only one looking at my pre-lock lineup, wondering where to start. It is the reaping and sowing meme personified. But I’m here to help—or at least, give you someone else to blame for a few days.
I’ll be spotlighting TNF throughout the year in this weekly column. In particular, I’ll highlight some fringe players you might be talking about compared to your Sunday/Monday picks. Stats and trends help me see the game, but I’ll walk down Narrative Street if the story is compelling enough.
But it’s the first week of the season. Let’s take a look at the match and see what to expect on Thursday night.
Possible Super Bowl 57 preview in Week 1 as the Rams host the Bills
NFL schedulers did us good in Week 1. They matched our excitement to watch live, meaningful football with a contest between two of the top teams from 2021. Los Angeles earned the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February . But let’s not forget the roller coaster ride from Josh Allenthe last game of last season:
Knowing how it ends doesn’t stop my heart rate from going up. And, I know “13 Seconds” brings back painful memories of the Bills Mafia. But as we knock on the door to 2022, we can look back and see what Buffalo wants to do this year.
Josh Allen ran the third most passes with three or four receivers on the field. Combine their top-3 pass rate above expectations (PROE) with their personnel additions and their plan is clear.
Regardless of Brian Daboll’s departure, it’s the season of the spread and shred. And it depends on a man.
Gabriel Davis made strides as a receiver in his sophomore year. His success rate against man/press coverage took a step forward. He also won more targets, gained more yards and had a higher EPA per target than his teammate Stefon Diggs in their last six games.
Davis’ success, however, brings Diggs back into the overall WR1 discussion.
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With a reliable perimeter option, Diggs can move back inside as his slot percentage dropped by a third in 2021. We’re gassed if they sprinkle in contributions from utility picks. Los Angeles’ secondary might give Buffalo fits, but we’ll have to see how the Rams’ offense looks first.
Matthew Stafford unlocked the Rams offense last season. He was in the top-6 in air yards per attempt and EPA per game in deep passes. Even when limited in depth, Stafford could spam the easy-on-sails button Cooper Kupp. But the talent around him has diminished this year with Robert WoodsDeparture and no timetable for Odell Beckhamhis return.
This adds weight Allen Robinson and what he can do with the best quarterback in his career.
Last season, Robinson hit career lows in target share, yards and efficiency. I would also struggle to stay motivated in a team headed for the bottom. However, despite the fantasy disappointment, Robinson still has some juice in the tank.
Reception Perception highlights Robinson’s success on short and intermediate routes. Additionally, he was still in the top-12 in hit percentage against the man and press coverage. Los Angeles needs a new option in the backfield digs to complement Kupp. If Robinson can return to his former self, the Rams will be back in contention in 2022.
Don’t bench these guys
But Thursday night isn’t all about fantasy. Our late-round draft targets also have value. If you’re considering a Sunday pick, here are a few that play on TNF with versatile appeal.
I’d understand any hesitation to start McKenzie in Week 1. He’s played more than 75 percent of the team’s offensive snaps just twice since 2020. So any projection for Thursday is a generous extension of his accomplishments. But let’s not throw them away at the same time.
Diggs played in both of those games. Other auxiliary options (e.g. Emmanuel Sanders, John Brown) were also available. Regardless, McKenzie immediately gained a target share of 25.3%. And not just the layup goals. He took over for Diggs as the team’s deep receiving threat. Again, it’s a two-game sample, but McKenzie accounted for 30.4% of the team’s snaps. With the Bills’ extreme use of three-receiver sets, McKenzie has a safe route to targets early in the season.
My only concern is the red zone. McKenzie’s 5’8″ frame may not be an obvious target for Allen. Still, his route participation (90.5%) and winning looks in both games say otherwise. McKenzie’s versatility is a character wild card the Bills need to play against this caliber opponent — and one to play against your own.
Knox is going under the radar with so much focus on wide receivers. At least, we can hope that’s how the Rams plan for the game. He was the TE11 last year with less than 600 receiving yards, so I’m skeptical. But let’s put it in the context of his 2021 campaign.
Knox was the EPA’s most efficient tight end per game through the first six weeks. Okay. You don’t play in leagues that give points for EPA. However, high value targets can affect you. Knox was sixth in red zone snaps and tied for second on the team. But then he broke his hand, missed two games and couldn’t get back on track. He maintained the team’s ranking for the rest of the season, but his effectiveness dropped.
In Week 1, Knox and Diggs have the strongest connection with Allen when they get inside the 20-yard line. Los Angeles was stingy against tight ends last season allowing just four scores from the position. However, three of the top five looks against them came from offenses with mobile quarterbacks. Allen’s ability to use his legs and make interior defenders pause can create the window for Knox to capitalize.
I would keep him on my starting roster for Thursday night.
Higbee’s ADP has confused me all offseason. He was top 10 in rushing yards despite missing two games and remained 14th in target share among all games. I talked a while ago about Robinson’s criticism of the offense. Higbee is in the same category and already has an existing connection with Stafford.
We shouldn’t expect a huge change in Higbee’s workload. However, with Van Jefferson Entering the season hurt, a modest hit isn’t unreasonable. Plus, it’s the red zone targets we’re really looking for anyway.
While he runs routes, Higbee’s growth last season limited his upside. Its 5.7 aDOT was 22nd among its peers. So unless he was like Kupp after the catch, he wouldn’t be able to work much farther down the field. However, he was 10th in targets per run inside the 20-yard line. His 20 red-zone targets were second on the Rams — and second in the league. With few other options available, Higbee will have a chance to start the season in the top 12 at the position.
Let’s wait a week and see how things go
Instead, we may need to commit to certain players and their situations. I understand. It’s only Week 1. Regardless, I’d check your bench before starting any of these guys.
Either the Rams’ Running Back
Look. I give you value here. Grouping Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson in a recommendation it’s like a two-for-one special offer. But with Akers’ ADP, your other options may be suboptimal. However, it is a situation I try to avoid.
Buffalo’s defensive front finished 2021 third in adjusted line yards. While the personnel changed, the talent (and depth) didn’t. The bills came out and they signed Von Miller. The same Von Miller who improved LA’s defense last year. From Weeks 1 through 10, the Rams were 19th in EPA rush allowed. After Miller signed and acclimated, they moved up to second. Only three runs broke 50 yards. And I haven’t even mentioned the distributed workload of this backfield yet.
One of them would be viable in this situation. Los Angeles needs extra receiving options and the Bills have been prone to an explosive game or two on the ground. But after all the preseason talk, I’d like to see their roles in the situation before I jump in for sure.
Buffalo told us with their wallet what they want this offense to look like going forward. Of course, we all want to see Allen torpedo the ball under Diggs. But you don’t elevate a guy like McKenzie to a full-time role, bring him in Jamison Crowdertry to sign JD McKissic and then draft James Cook if you want to build an offensive attack. You want your quarterback to get the layups. But Allen historically didn’t.
Allen’s passing aDOT has been top-10 the past three seasons. His deep field goal percentage was in the top-12 over the same period. Despite the looming threat of more two-high shells and drop-8 covers, Allen’s aggression knows no bounds. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have been through that the past two seasons, and Mahomes’ depth has fallen as a result. We have yet to see Allen do the same.
Cook took a snap with Allen under center during the preseason. It will take time to stabilize his responsibilities. We’ll see more of him as the year goes on, but I’d keep him on hold for now.