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If you’re looking for a fantasy sleeper to plug into your lineup for the very first week of the 2018 season, then things probably haven’t started out the way you’d hoped.
Maybe you spent a second-round draft pick on San Francisco 49ers tailback Jerick McKinnon, who is out for the season after tearing his ACL. Or you used the first overall pick on the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and are now in mid-panic attack because the Pittsburgh tailback hasn’t reported yet.
Take a deep breath. Calm down. Adversity is part of every fantasy football season.
Here’s the thing—fantasy championships aren’t won on draft day. They are won by the teams that not only draft well but also stay active throughout the season. They comb the waiver wire for fresh blood each and every week.
And they are able to plug the holes in their weekly lineup with matchup plays and “sleepers.”
Yes, it’s a drag that the season hasn’t even started and some teams are already springing leaks.
But lamenting those leaks isn’t nearly as productive as filling them by finding under-the-radar fantasy plays capable of helping your team start the season off right.
So let’s get down to it.
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Frank Victores/Associated Press
Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (at IND)
Andy Dalton has shown the ability to be a valuable fantasy asset. Back in 2013, he passed for almost 4,300 yards and 33 touchdowns and ranked fifth in fantasy points among quarterbacks in NFL.com default fantasy scoring.
However, we’ve also seen Dalton reduced to a fantasy afterthought. Last season, Dalton passed for 3,320 yards and 25 touchdowns—good for just a 17th-place finish at the position for the season.
The biggest difference between those two years? Protection, or a lack thereof. When he has a clean pocket and time to survey the field, Dalton can be a Pro Bowl-caliber passer. But when he’s harried, things tend to fall apart quickly.
After a preseason in which both Cincinnati’s offensive line and quarterback looked considerably improved relative to last year, Dalton told Laurel Pfahler of WCPO-TV that he’s eager to get the season started.
“I felt really comfortable with the way that I played,” Dalton said. “There’s a couple things I wish I could have done a little bit better. Just with the way this offense has moved and the way we are doing things, I feel really good about where we are.”
There’s no guarantee that newcomer Cordy Glenn and the Cincy line will hold up into the season. However, it’s reasonable to posit Dalton will have time Sunday to throw the ball against an Indianapolis Colts team that was last in the AFC in sacks in 2017.
And with that time to throw, Dalton should have a solid game against a Colts club that allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to quarterbacks in 2017.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
As John Reid reported for the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone has quite the expectation for starting quarterback Blake Bortles in 2018:
“Zero turnovers,” Marrone said. “I mean really, and I say that with anyone on our team that touches the football. That’s the one thing that is the biggest cause of winning and losing games. I think that we talk about ball security and that’s not just for a quarterback, but for our receivers, our tight ends, running backs, all the time. When you turn the ball over, it’s hard to win football games.”
In related news, I expect to win Powerball on Saturday night. Neither is likely to happen.
Those may be ridiculous goals, but it’s not ridiculous to think Bortles could be a solid starting option in Week 1 for fantasy owners who like to stream at the quarterback position.
In 2017, Bortles finished just outside weekly starter territory in 12-team leagues, passing for 3,687 yards and 21 touchdowns and averaging 15.2 fantasy points per game.
There’s a good chance he’ll exceed that average in Week 1 against the New York Giants. The Giants have a new defensive coordinator and scheme, but essentially the same secondary that was 31st in the NFL in pass defense last year and gave up the most fantasy points per game in the NFC to quarterbacks.
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
The Chicago Bears were already a team that had garnered a fair amount of offseason hype thanks to the arrival of new head coach Matt Nagy and improved passing-game weaponry with the additions of Allen Robinson and Trey Burton.
The blockbuster trade that brought Khalil Mack to the Windy City just kicked that hype into overdrive.
However, the brouhaha around the Bears didn’t extent to second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky—at least in fantasy circles. Better weapons or no, it’s difficult to get excited about a young signal-caller who threw just seven touchdown passes in 12 games last year.
However, Trubisky told Larry Mayer of the team’s website that he’s eager to show what he’s learned this offseason when the Bears face the Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in my role,” Trubisky said. “I feel a lot more comfortable with the offense and what I need to do, and having more responsibility on my shoulders and just being more of a leader this year and more vocal and having guys look at me.”
Don’t get me wrong. The Bears probably aren’t going to win this game. Not on the road. Not against Aaron Rodgers, who has absolutely owned Chicago in his career.
But that’s fine. As a matter of fact, it could be good. If the Bears fall behind, then Trubisky will be forced to the air more against a Green Bay defense that was 23rd in the NFL in pass defense and surrendered the eighth-most fantasy points to quarterbacks in 2017.
It’s not a play for the faint of heart. But there’s a chance for some tasty garbage-time production.
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Jason Behnken/Associated Press
If you were expecting to see Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner listed in this piece, you’re going to be disappointed.
It’s not that Conner isn’t a decent plug-and-play fantasy start against the Cleveland Browns. But with Le’Veon Bell still MIA in the Steel City, his understudy in the backfield may be the single most talked-about player in all of fantasy football as Week 1 gets underway.
His status as a “sleeper” has been revoked—and then some.
On the other hand, Bilal Powell of the New York Jets is still snoozing quietly.
It was Powell, and not Isaiah Crowell, who drew the start for the Jets in the team’s preseason dress rehearsal. Powell also outsnapped Crowell 25 to 10 in that game, although in fairness, Crowell spent part of the preseason sidelined by a concussion.
The workload split in the regular season will likely be a lot more even. Crowell will get the between-the-tackles and early-down work, while Powell serves as a change of pace and enters the game on passing downs.
That’s been Powell’s role in New York for some time now, and he’s rather good at it. The eighth-year veteran has topped 900 total yards each of the last two years, has a career average of 4.4 yards per carry and piled up 58 receptions and 1,110 total yards two years ago.
Facing a Lions team Monday night that led the NFC last year in fantasy points given up to running backs, Powell’s a sneakily good flex play in point-per-reception formats who could slide his way into RB2 territory.
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Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Being selected as a middling RB4 in 12-team fantasy leagues gets the pass-catching scatback “sleeper” status entering Week 1.
It won’t take him long to wake up.
“He’s one of the most dependable players,” Belichick said. “Everybody has a lot of confidence in him. He’s earned it. He’s earned that confidence and trust from his teammate and his coaches by doing it on a consistent basis. There’s no real magic to that. It’s just going out there and being consistent and dependable, and he’s done a great job.”
White, like just about every New England tailback of the past five years, isn’t a guy who gets a steady diet of touches week in and week out. How he’s used in a given week depends largely on game plan and game flow.
With Rex Burkhead (knee) and Sony Michel (also knee) banged up, most of the work on the ground for the Patriots could fall to White and Jeremy Hill.
Guess which one of those players Belichick trusts more?
Guess which one is the far superior receiver in a week where Tom Brady’s favorite underneath target, Julian Edelman, is suspended?
You don’t have to guess. Those were rhetorical questions.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
Per Thomas Lott of the Sporting News, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup might just be the best first-year pass-catcher most fans aren’t familiar with:
“Gallup is another player you may have overlooked because he took a less traditional path to the NFL going the junior college route to Butler Community College and then the way of the Mountain West at Colorado State. This doesn’t make him less of a player though as he is a good route-runner with a big body, good hands and deceptive speed. Also, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is already raving about the connection between Gallup and quarterback Dak Prescott.”
That last part is of particular interest to fantasy owners.
Granted, it’s a limited sample size. But in the preseason at least, Prescott looked to Gallup (seven catches for 75 yards) more than veteran Allen Hurns (three catches for 26 yards). The presumption that Hurns would be the de facto No. 1 receiver for the Cowboys this year may not have been accurate.
The Cowboys kick off the season with a trip east to face the Carolina Panthers, who had their issues with pass defense in 2017. Carolina allowed 229.1 passing yards per game last year (18th in the NFL), 25 passing touchdowns (22nd in the league) and the second-most fantasy points in the NFC to wide receivers.
If Gallup really is Dak’s go-to through the air, his first NFL game could be a big one.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
In 2017, veteran wide receiver Ted Ginn of the New Orleans Saints caught 53 passes for 787 yards and four touchdowns—numbers that were good for a low-end WR3 finish in PPR leagues.
The belief among most fantasy pundits is that the arrival of Cameron Meredith will cause the 33-year-old’s stats to drop in 2018. It’s not an unreasonable expectation.
But it also might not be happening just yet.
Meredith is still working his way back from the torn ACL that ended his 2017 season, and while he was on the field in the preseason finale, it may be a little while before he’s up to full speed.
That means a larger target share for Ginn early in the season.
In Week 1, that’s of particular interest to fantasy owners. The Saints open at home against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that was horrible at defending the pass in 2017. As in, “dead last in the NFL, allowing 260.6 yards per game” horrible. As in, “gave up the most PPR fantasy points per game to wide receivers a year ago” horrible.
If that saucy matchup doesn’t seal the deal for you, consider this: The last time the Saints welcomed the Buccaneers into the Superdome, Ginn reeled in four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown.
He finished that week as the 17th-ranked fantasy receiver.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Two years ago, Tyrell Williams was a breakout performer for the Los Angeles Chargers. With Keenan Allen sidelined for most of the season, Williams erupted for 69 receptions, 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns.
Fantasy owners far and wide rejoiced.
Allen stayed healthy last year, though. And while Williams’ 43 catches for 728 yards and four scores weren’t terrible numbers, a healthy Allen and the arrival of youngster Mike Williams landed Tyrell Williams back on the waiver wire in most leagues.
This week at least, Williams belongs back on rosters—and in lineups for teams that have an early hole at the wide receiver spot.
The Chargers kick off the season at home on Sunday against the defending AFC West champions. And while the Chiefs did many things right en route to winning the division, defending the pass wasn’t one of them. Kansas City was 29th in the league in pass defense and allowed the most fantasy points in the AFC to wide receivers.
That was with Marcus Peters in the lineup. Now Peters is gone, and the Chiefs secondary may actually be worse.
Mike Williams hasn’t yet seized the No. 2 receiver job in Los Angeles, and while Tyrell Williams has been injured in the preseason, he was back on the practice field this week and is expected to be a go against the Chiefs.
With Kansas City sure to focus defensive attention on Allen, that sets the stage for a big game from Williams.
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This recommendation comes with a bit of a caveat. Earlier this week, Jags head coach Doug Marrone told the Associated Press (via Fox Sports) that while he was hopeful Austin Seferian-Jenkins would play against the Giants in Week 1, his core muscle injury clouded the issue.
“He’s a guy that’s been around, knows his body,” he said. “If it was a younger guy, I think there would be more of a concern.”
However, Seferian-Jenkins was at practice on Thursday, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. With the 25-year-old looking like a decent bet to play, it’s time to fire up the sleeper signal.
Think Bat-Signal, only with a bunch of “Zs.”
We’ve already established that the Giants struggled against the pass last year. In addition to that 31st-ranked pass defense in 2017, the G-Men allowed 32 touchdowns through the air.
No team allowed more.
Tight ends were just as big of a problem for the Giants. New York was the best fantasy matchup in the league for opposing tight ends, allowing 16.8 points per game.
Seferian-Jenkins has shown the ability to be a startable fantasy option. From Week 3 to Week 10 last year, he was eighth in fantasy points at the position with the New York Jets.
With receiver Marqise Lee out for the season, the Jaguars need a big target in the red zone. It’s a role Seferian-Jenkins should be able to fill, starting on Sunday.
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Sunday’s season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals is a time of celebration for the Indianapolis Colts. After a lost 2017 season, the Colts get star quarterback Andrew Luck back.
The party isn’t going to last long.
In 2017, the Colts led the NFL in sacks allowed with 56. That’s 3.5 sacks per game—every game. Yes, the team added Quenton Nelson in this year’s draft, and he looks like the real deal. But Nelson can’t play all five line spots, and whether it’s veterans Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap or youngsters Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis, the Bengals are one of the league’s deeper and more talented units up front.
In addition to that loaded front four, the Bengals also have a solid stable of cornerbacks. If the Colts fall behind and that pass rush pins its ears back, those cornerbacks are going to have a shot at notching a takeaway or three.
Indy’s best chance at avoiding that scenario probably lies in establishing the run, controlling tempo and keeping the Cincinnati front from just going all-out after Luck from the get-go. But a Colts team that was 22nd in the NFL in rushing last year is banged up in the backfield and will starting a fifth-round rookie.
The argument can be made (fairly easily) that the Colts will be better with Luck offensively in 2018 than the 31st-ranked unit that allowed the third-most fantasy points per game to team defenses last year.
But it’s still a unit with a lot of holes—holes the Bengals should be able to exploit.