Week 1 always gives off 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 who looks at my lineup before locking, wondering who to start. It is the harvest-and-sow self personified. But I’m here to help—or at least give you someone else to blame for a few days.
I’ll be keeping an eye on TNF throughout the year in this weekly column. Specifically, I’ll highlight some fringe players you may be debating in comparison to your Sunday/Monday options. 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 matchup and see what to expect on Thursday night.
A possible Super Bowl 57 Preview in Week 1 when the Rams host the Bills
The NFL schedules gave us a solid Week 1. They matched our excitement to watch live, meaningful football with a contest between two of the top teams of 2021. Los Angeles earned the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. But let’s not forget the rollercoaster ride of Josh Allenthe final game of last season:
Knowing how it ends doesn’t stop my heart rate from rising. And, I know “13 seconds” brings back painful memories for Bills Mafia. But, as we knock on the door of 2022, we can look back and see what Buffalo wants to do this year.
Josh Allen ran the third most passing games with three or four receivers on the field. Couple their top 3 pass rate above expectation (PROE) with their personal additions, and their plan is clear.
Regardless of the departure of Brian Daboll, it’s a spread and fragmented season. And it depends on one guy.
gabriel davis made strides as a quarterback in his sophomore year. His success rate against man/press coverage took a step forward. He also scored more targets, accumulated more yards and had a higher EPA per target than a teammate. Stephen Diggs over their final six games.
Davis’ success, on the other hand, actually puts Diggs back into the all-WR1 discussion.
With a reliable perimeter option, Diggs can move back to the interior, as his snap rate dropped by a third in 2021. We’re cooking with gas if they splurge on contributions from the help options. Los Angeles’ secondary can give Buffalo fits, but we’ll have to see what the Rams’ offense looks like first.
Matthew Stafford unlocked the Rams’ offense last season. He was top-six in air yards per attempt and EPA per play on deep passes. Even when limited deep, Stafford could spam the easy button on sailing concepts to Cooper Coup. But his all-around talent has diminished this year with Robert Woods‘ departure and no schedule for Odell Beckhamthe return of.
This puts on the duty 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 heading for rock bottom. However, despite the fantasy setback, Robinson still has some juice left in the tank.
Reception Perception highlights Robinson’s success on short and intermediate routes. Additionally, he continued to be top-12 in hit rate against man and press coverage. Los Angeles needs a new backfield option to complement Kupp. If Robinson can return to his former self, the Rams will be in contention again in 2022.
Don’t Bench These Guys
But Thursday night isn’t all about the fantasy studs. Our late-round draft targets have value, too. If you’re reconsidering a Sunday option, here are a few playing at TNF with flex appeal.
I would understand any hesitation to start McKenzie in Week 1. He has played more than 75 percent of the team’s offensive snaps just twice since 2020. So, any projection for Thursday is a generous extrapolation of his accomplishments. But let’s not throw them aside at the same time.
Diggs played in both of those games. Other support options (eg. Emmanuel Sanders, John Brown) were also available. Regardless, McKenzie immediately won a 25.3% target share. And not just the layout goals. He took over for Diggs as the team’s deep threat from the slot. Again, it’s a two-game sample, but McKenzie accounted for 30.4% of the team’s air yards. With the Bills’ extreme use of three-receiver sets, McKenzie has a safe path to goals from the beginning of the season.
My only concern is in the red zone. McKenzie’s 5’8″ frame may not be an obvious target for Allen. And yet, his route participation (90.5%) and winning looks in both games say otherwise. McKenzie’s versatility is a wild card the Bills need to play against this caliber opponent – and one you should play against yours.
Knox goes under the radar with so much focus on the 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 get the skepticism. But let’s put his 2021 campaign into context.
Knox was EPA’s most effective tight end per play through the first six weeks. OK, OK. You do not play in leagues awarding points for EPA. High-value targets might shake you up, though. Knox was sixth in red-zone appearances and tied for second on the team. But then he broke his hand, missed two games and couldn’t get back on track. He held the team rank for the rest of the season, but his performance dropped.
In Week 1, Knox and Diggs have the strongest connection with Allen once 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 performances against them came by 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 confused me during the offseason. He was top-10 in routes run despite missing two games and still wound up 14th in target share among all tight ends. I talked a while ago about Robinson’s criticism of the offense. Higbee falls into the same category and already has an existing connection with Stafford.
We shouldn’t expect a massive change in Higbee’s workload. However, with Van Jefferson coming in the season hurts, modest swelling is not unreasonable. Besides, it’s the red-zone targets we’re really looking for anyway.
While he runs routes, Higbee’s deployment last season limited his upside. His 5.7 aDOT was 22nd among his peers. So, unless he was like Kupp after the catch, he couldn’t work much further down the field. However, he was 10th in targets per route run from inside the 20-yard line. His 20 red-zone targets were second on the Rams — and across the league. With few other options available, Higbee should have the opportunity to start the season in the top 12 at the position.
Let’s Wait a Week and See How Things Go
On the contrary, we may need to marinate on certain players and their situations. i understand It’s only Week 1. Regardless, I’d check your bench before starting any of these guys.
Or the Rams Running Back
Take a look. I am giving you value here. Grouping Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson in one recommendation is like a two-for-one special. But, with Akers’ ADP, your other options may be suboptimal. However, it’s a situation I try to avoid.
Buffalo’s defensive front finished 2021 third in adjusted line yards. While the personnel has changed, the talent (and depth) has not. The Bills also came out and signed By Miller. The same Von Miller who improved Los Angeles’ defense last year. From Weeks 1 through 10, the Rams were 19th in EPA rushing allowed. After Miller signed and acclimated, they soared to second. Only three running backs cracked 50 yards. And I haven’t even mentioned the split workload of this backfield yet.
One of them would be feasible in this situation. Los Angeles needs extra receiving options, and the Bills were susceptible to an explosive play or two on the ground. But after all the preseason talk, I’d like to see their situational roles before confidently starting as well.
Buffalo told us with their wallet what they want this offense to look like in the future. Of course, we all want to see Allen torpedo the ball down to Diggs. But you don’t elevate a guy like McKenzie to a full-time role, come on in Jamison Crowdertry to sign JD McKissic and then draft James Cook if you’re looking to build a high-flying offense. You want your quarterback to take the layups. But Allen historically has not.
Allen’s passing aDOT has been in the top ten the last three seasons. His deep attempt percentage was top-12 during the same time. Despite the looming threat of more two-high shells and drop-8 coverages, Allen’s aggression knows no bounds. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have been through that over the last two seasons, and Mahomes’ depth has dropped as a result. We have yet to see Allen do the same.
Cook got one snap with Allen under center during the preseason. It will take time for his responsibilities to solidify. We’ll see more of him as the year progresses, but I’d keep him on hold for now.