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Fantasy Game Day: A Look at Who Projects to Score Big in the NFL’s Opening Week

By: Taylor Bechtold

Most fantasy football drafts have been completed, rosters have been set and the first step toward what we hope will be a championship march is upon us.

By now, countless experts and prognosticators have given their rankings and opinions on who could thrive in Week 1 of the NFL season. But keep in mind that there is underlying data that could help inform smarter roster and lineup decisions.

Stats Perform is here to help with the challenging first moves of the 2020 campaign using fantasy projections based on our data. We’re able to pinpoint not only the top players at each position, but also find those diamonds in the rough who are being undervalued by the consensus rankings.

Let’s start by breaking down the quarterbacks and wide receivers who could come up big in the opener:

Ben Roethlisberger/JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

Big Ben is back after missing the last 14 games of the 2019 season. And that means the air attack is back in Pittsburgh. Last year, the Steelers were below average in pass-play expectancy without Roethlisberger after they were 11% higher than average – 67% of plays were a Big Ben pass attempt – in the three years prior.

It all points to a productive fantasy day for Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson against a New York Giants defense that could struggle without a true shutdown cover man. Cornerback James Bradberry might be the Giants’ top guy in pass coverage, but he’s likely to play on the outside while Smith-Schuster works out of the slot.

Roethlisberger could be itching to throw the ball around in his return in a Monday night showcase. Facing a porous New York secondary, we project him to have the most passing attempts (43.4), completions (29.1) and passing yards (349.4) in Week 1. We also have him second only to Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs in TDs (2.3) and projected fantasy points.

Smith-Schuster is our fifth-ranked wide receiver this week, while Johnson is 13th. Johnson, who we touted in last week’s wideout article, was 20.9% better than average at getting open last season. He should have an even better chance at doing just that against the Giants.

Mitchell Trubisky has been outstanding against the Lions.

Mitchell Trubisky/Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears

While Trubisky may seem like a far-fetched choice on the surface, consider that the embattled Bears QB has been at his best against the Detroit Lions.

In the past three meetings, Trubisky has thrown for an average of 289 yards and totaled nine touchdowns and just one interception while leading Chicago to wins in all three. In the last matchup on Nov. 28, Miller had nine catches for 140 yards and Allen Robinson ended up with eight receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown in a 24-20 victory.

Though Desmond Trufant and No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah were added in the offseason, questions remain about the Lions’ pass defense. They’ve been known to double up on opposing top receivers (in this case, Robinson) and that could lead to plenty of opportunities for Miller, who worked his way open 10.4% more than the average receiver at his position last season.

Trubisky is our sixth-ranked QB and Miller comes in at No. 20 among all wideouts.

Expect Philip Rivers to take a couple of deep shots with T.Y. Hilton.

Philip Rivers/T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts

Rivers gets a great matchup in his Colts debut against a Jacksonville defense that no longer has Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. D.J. Hayden remains in the depleted defensive backfield, but because Hilton lines up on the outside 70% of the time, he’ll likely avoid Hayden in the slot on most occasions.

Rivers has never been afraid of testing a defense with the deep ball and he should have more time to do so, moving from one of the worst offensive lines in Los Angeles to one of the best in Indianapolis. Additionally, Jacksonville is expected to have a far less effective pass rush than it did during its run to the 2018 AFC Championship.

Rivers was ninth in the NFL in both yards per completion (11.8) and passing plays of 25-yards or more (33) last season. For that reason, we project Hilton – a perennial deep threat – to pile up 84.4 receiving yards on 17.2 yards per catch.

He’s our sixth-ranked receiver this week, while we give Rivers a 48% chance to throw for 300 yards – the sixth-best percentage in the league. Here are our projected top five quarterbacks and wide receivers for the opener:

PROJECTED TOP 5 QUARTERBACKS – WEEK 1 (All rankings for PPR format)

PlayerComp.Att.YardsTDsProjected Pts.
Patrick Mahomes24.437.4331.32.627.5
Ben Roethlisberger29.143.4349.42.327.0
Matt Ryan26.940.0323.62.225.0
Deshaun Watson22.333.9269.51.823.5
Dak Prescott24.437.8267.12.123.5

Michael Thomas is our top-ranked WR for NFL’s opening week.

PROJECTED TOP 5 WIDE RECEIVERS – WEEK 1

PlayerReceptionsRec. YardsRec. TDsProjected Pts.
Michael Thomas8.8107.20.825.9
Davante Adams7.698.80.823.7
Julio Jones6.799.50.420.4
Tyreek Hill5.175.90.719.0
JuJu Smith-Schuster6.183.50.518.5

Here are the running backs we project to impact opening fantasy matchups:

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

The last time Ekeler moved into a No. 1 role for the Chargers was the first four weeks of the last season when workhorse Melvin Gordon was holding out. He made the most of it by averaging 122.5 total yards while racking up six total touchdowns.

Now Ekeler has moved back into a lead role with Gordon now in Denver. While we’re not projecting Ekeler to pile up 20 carries per game (he’ll still be a timeshare), he could star for Los Angeles once again if he takes on a role close to what he thrived in early in 2019.

He should be one of Tyrod Taylor’s favorite targets this season, and we certainly project a higher usage for Ekeler and solid production in a matchup with the rebuilding Cincinnati Bengals that the Chargers should be able to exploit.

Chris Carson should be a strong play in the opener against the Falcons.

Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

One thing we know for certain about the Seahawks is that they’re going to run the football. As such, we project Carson to have the third-most carries in Week 1 (18.1) behind only Derrick Henry (19.4) and Josh Jacobs (18.7).

And even though we project Seattle to have the 27th-ranked run blocking this season, Carson should still be able to produce after finishing with 4.3 Yards Created and 0.213 Avoided Tackles Per Touch last season (something we highlighted in last week’s RB analysis). We could see him rattling off a couple of 15-yard runs against the Atlanta Falcons in this one and project him to have the second-most yardage among running backs in Week 1 (77.3).

Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

It isn’t to say that he should be the fantasy choice over starter Nick Chubb, but Hunt is a strong value pick as a No. 2 back with lead-back talent.

In a game that the Browns are likely to be trailing against the Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, Hunt could see a lot of targets in the passing game in a comeback attempt. We project the former Kansas City star to have the sixth-most receptions (3.9) among running backs, the fourth-most receiving yards (44.2) and our model also gives him the best shot at a receiving touchdown (0.5) in Week 1.

PROJECTED TOP 5 RUNNING BACKS – WEEK 1

PlayerRush Att.Yds.Rush TDsRec.Rec. Yds.Rec. TDsProj. Pts.
C. McCaffrey17.075.60.46.351.70.425.1
Alvin Kamara12.155.20.45.151.50.421.1
Ezekiel Elliott17.073.00.53.526.40.218.2
Austin Ekeler10.147.50.34.841.90.418.2
Dalvin Cook16.970.70.33.726.60.317.8

Travis Kelce is our top TE in Week 1. He should be a fixture there.

PROJECTED TOP 5 TIGHT ENDS – WEEK 1

PlayerReceptionsRec. YardsRec. TDsProjected Pts.
Travis Kelce5.980.10.618.8
Zach Ertz6.060.10.414.7
Darren Waller5.255.20.413.4
Tyler Higbee5.458.00.313.3
Dallas Goedert4.747.30.512.9

Data modeling and analysis provided by Greg Gifford and Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads.

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