The chaos of a football Sunday can make it hard for fantasy football managers to focus on the truth behind the stat lines, whether a player delivered an amazing performance — or a big fat goose egg. It can be difficult to figure out what to care for, and what not to care about. But don't worry — Matt Harmon is here to help us sift through it all and determine what is true signal — and what is simply noise.
Five Things I Care About
The Giants leave Week 1 in a blender
A fascinating Sunday of football was capped off by a full and complete takedown the likes of which we rarely see in the NFL, much less between two playoff teams from the year prior.
The New York Giants fell to the Dallas Cowboys, 40-0, in their own building. Their newly paid quarterback was sacked seven times, threw two picks and was left a dejected man in a drenched jersey as he strangely trotted back onto the field for his pointless final drive with just over nine minutes left in the blowout.
It was as bad as it gets.
It’s hard to provide any sort of silver lining to a performance like that. Not if you are a Giants fan or if you sadly deployed any of their players in fantasy. In fact, there is nothing good to say. You’ll have to be just like the players; they’ll lick their wounds and move on to the next week while trying not to linger a moment too long on the disaster they just experienced.
The only good news? It won’t always be like this.
It’ll never get this bad again. What you watched the Giants experience Sunday night was a uniquely nightmarish event and you’ll never witness something quite so severe again.
Head coach Brian Daboll and coordinator Mike Kafka built a strong ecosystem with this offense last year and added quality pieces to the attack in the offseason. Jones experienced real breakthroughs in 2022. Whatever you felt about the Giants' offense and its quarterback 24 hours ago is exactly how you should feel now. If they show any scar tissue from this defeat against the lowly Cardinals next week, we can have a conversation.
For now, panic is not advised.
The horrors the Giants lived through were not demons of their own making. This result has everything to do with the opponent they lined up against.
The Dallas Cowboys' defense has everything you look for in a special, result-tipping stop unit. They feature an elite, one-of-the-best-in-the-sport type of player in Micah Parsons, a turnover ballhawk in Trevon Diggs, layers upon layers of veteran supporting actors and they're coordinated by a proven head coach with buy-in from his guys in Dan Quinn.
Everything about them screams buzzsaw.
The Giants were shredded by that buzzsaw on Sunday night. They were the first victim but they won’t be the last. Many more teams will leave a Sunday affair with that special Dallas defense with the “What just happened?” glazed looks that danced across so many Giants faces.
The Cowboys are not a normal opponent, so react appropriately.
Anthony Richardson exceeds expectations
The idea that the Colts were going to be an absurdly run-heavy offense never passed the smell test to me. It was mostly speculation based on the inexperience of their quarterback, not founded by any breadcrumbs dropped from the team. And if that was their plan heading into training camp, you had to imagine a flexible head coach in Shane Steichen was willing to toss that plan out when the team entered into a nasty public spat with their star running back.
Imagine a sharp coaching staff — and I think this one is — making the Deon Jackson-Evan Hull-Jake Funk backfield the identity of their offense.
Anthony Richardson dropped back 45 times in his first NFL game. Only C.J. Stroud, Kenny Pickett and Kirk Cousins beat him out in the opening window on Sunday. Unlike the first two names on that list, Richardson and the Colts weren’t in negative game script all day. In fact, they actually led the heavily projected AFC South champs 21-13 heading into the fourth quarter. Jacksonville broke the game open with two touchdowns in just under 90 seconds of game time.
Richardson was far from perfect. He had a handful of missed opportunities, threw a late pick and averaged just 6.03 yards per attempt. But he moved the offense with his arm and legs and most important, he didn’t wilt under the weight of all the Colts put on his plate. This backs up some of the talk in training camp that he had an advanced grasp of the offense early. He needed to scramble only four times.
Richardson also showed an instant connection with No. 1 wideout Michael Pittman Jr., who drew a target on 28.2% of the team’s passes. He’d be the direct beneficiary of the boost in expected pass volume. Pittman has big-time talent and if Richardson plays like this all year, he’ll way outkick his fantasy football ADP.
There are no moral victories in the NFL but this young Colts team put some pressure on the Jaguars and their rookie quarterback played well. And he did it in a different fashion than most expected.
The young Rams are alright
There were plenty of Week 1 surprises but I’ll admit to being especially taken aback by the Rams' road upset over the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks seemed especially thrown off too, considering they started coming apart at the seems late, led notably by a silly penalty by DK Metcalf.
The Rams took down Seattle because multiple young guys stepped up on both sides of the ball. The one who interests me the most is Day 3 rookie receiver, Puka Nacua.
There was a massive Cooper Kupp-sized hole in the Rams' passing game coming into Week 1. Nacua squeezed himself in to the tune of 10 catches for 119 yards on a whopping 15 targets. The more you think about it, the more Nacua fits perfectly with what the Rams need, especially in Kupp’s absence.
Puka Nacua definitely has the skill set to fill in some of the gaps left behind by Cooper Kupp for the LA Rams. Good underneath route runner who can also sting defenses downfield on out-breaking routes. Strong hands and YAC ability.
Puka's route success rate (how often he got… pic.twitter.com/UFqtaxGmvN
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) September 10, 2023
Nacua was a rock-solid player in college; he just fell through the cracks in the draft. He dealt with injuries in college, which is always going to cause a fall, but he also carried other aspects that make teams overlook good players. He played at a lower level and he wasn’t flashy; rather, he’s a good route runner with rock-solid hands and a rugged YAC approach.
I’m not saying he’s anything close to the next Cooper Kupp, but you can see the path to Nacua at least being a big win as a Day Three prospect.
He feels like the best highly available waiver wire pickup at wide receiver coming out of Week 1. We’re betting on a long-shot as a Day 3 rookie but he proved a lot in his debut. And even when Kupp is back — who knows when that will be — Nacua should be able to complement Kupp in the same ways Robert Woods once did.
The Dolphins are deadly
The Chargers and Brandon Staley pitched one of the few challenges the 2022 Dolphins faced last time these two teams met. You wouldn’t know it based on how this game went.
In the previous matchup, Staley had the secondary play physical coverage on the outside and close up the middle of the field with disciplined linebacker play.
None of that worked in Week 1 of 2023.
The Chargers' defense has been a letdown for 90% of the Brandon Staley era but I’m not sure it’s ever looked worse than it did Sunday. Tyreek Hill shredded every defensive back the Chargers assigned his way. He handled over 44% of the team’s air yards and was the answer every time Tua Tagovailoa found himself in a bind. The Chargers tried to man up and take him away. That proved to be a non-answer. Hill dominated the game like only he can as a vertical receiver. It had to make the Chargers feel queasy that they were actively worse defending Hill with star acquisition J.C. Jackson back in the fold.
We know that the Dolphins provide a lethal downfield passing game with the speed they bring to the table. But one extra wrinkle stood out to me.
The concentrated nature of the Dolphins' offense was critical for fantasy players last season. I think they’ll be that unit again this year. Hill had 15 targets and while Jaylen Waddle had only five, he could have 10 next week and no one would blink. Yet, I noticed that all three of Durham Smythe, Braxton Berrios and River Cracraft collected between 40 and 44 yards. Tua was judicious and picked his spots. When those guys further down the pecking order after Hill and Waddle were in favorable positions, he made the smart play.
This offense is going to have a baseline of greatness just by being what it was in 2022 with all the main actors back. If Tua takes another step as a post-snap processor, there is another level this team can reach.
That, frankly, should terrify everyone.
No rust on Calvin Ridley
If there was any worry that Calvin Ridley was going to need some time to shake off the rust, the consistent positive drumbeat in training camp should have helped assuage those worries. The way he looked in the preseason should have put an end to that concern.
If you waited for him to slam the door shut on that idea in Week 1, you were too late.
Ridley finished the game with a team-high 101 yards on eight catches. Trevor Lawrence threw his way on 34% of his passes. Ridley had four catches for 41 yards and a touchdown on the first drive.
He wasn’t just back. Calvin Ridley was back-back — like he never left.
The Colts' secondary is an undermanned unit that isn’t much of a formidable challenge. That doesn’t mean we should dampen our optimism about Ridley. Everything is going his way and we no longer need to ever think about a rust narrative.
Five Things I Don’t Care About
Tony Pollard limitations
Tony Pollard looked every bit the part of a Round 1 fantasy football running back on Sunday night.
He ran out as the clear lead back for a team with a, in case you missed it, potentially legendary defense. Pollard had 16 touches in a largely non-competitive, lax environment for Dallas. Preseason hero Deuce Vaughn wasn’t heard from until deep into the fourth quarter and power back Rico Dowdle amassed a mere six carries. It was clear from their lack of backfield activity in the offseason and cemented in Week 1.
This is the Tony Pollard show.
Pollard looked like a man with the two necessary components for fantasy glory. The defense is going to keep Dallas in favorable run-heavy situations. Turnovers and sacks are going to keep this Cowboys offense in positive game scripts with favorable field position. The Dallas offensive line looked as ferocious as ever. Pollard was given layup touchdowns thanks to quality blocks. The newly paid Zack Martin helped blow some of those lanes wide open.
And lastly, Pollard himself looked fantastic. His patience and vision were new tools in his belt and stood out. While the line demolished players on the way to creating lanes, he waited for just the right moment to spring through the gaps. Those intangible skills are what take RBs to the next level.
The fantasy rankers, drafters and managers who threw caution to the wind with Pollard and embraced what we hadn’t seen before — a true season-long RB1 role — will reap the reward.
Every box is checked for Pollard to push for a top-five finish in 2023.
Pre-established target hierarchy in San Francisco
All the pass-catchers in San Francisco went lower in fantasy drafts than their talent would demand simply because of the potential crowded target distribution on a run-heavy offense.
Brandon Aiyuk went latest among the top three pass catchers (65th overall) and that never made any sense.
My colleague Scott Pianowski likes to say fantasy football is all about “skating to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” Aiyuk is a great example of that.
Deebo Samuel has a dynamic season résumé on his career. George Kittle has long been established as one of the best two-way tight ends in the game. But everything about Aiyuk’s profile shows he has the ability to be the best of the bunch.
He’s a star-level separator at the critical X-receiver position. We get caught up in the gadget, creative wrinkles of the 49ers offense but Kyle Shanahan attacks have always functioned best when they have a dominant X-receiver. Almost all offenses funnel their pass game through that guy when they have a superstar in the spot. The 49ers just might; he is that good.
Of course, it’s just one game. Aiyuk is not going to lead the team in targets every week. But it’s clear he has been on a rocket-ship upward trajectory the past three seasons and the drumbeat of his improvement has been steady. Where Aiyuk shines is some of the most valuable property of the passing game.
We may be on the brink of a new horizon in this offense.
Lamar Jackson throws zero touchdowns
The Ravens breezed past the Texans, as expected. When they got inside the 10-yard, the running backs punched the ball in. That wasn’t a shock by any means; variance just didn’t go Lamar Jackson’s way in the touchdown department.
I still came away feeling good about the passing game after a light-work effort in Week 1. Odell Beckham Jr. made a splash catch and drew crucial pass interferences that moved the offense. Zay Flowers was a dynamic force. He was heavily targeted and was electric in the open field.
Zay Flowers had a 47.6% target share today. I believe (someone can fact check me) that's (by far) the highest target share from a rookie wide receiver in Week 1 since at least 2011. #STUD
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) September 10, 2023
Coordinator Todd Monken’s offense is all about space. You know who creates a ton of space with his route running and is great out in space with the ball in his hands? Zay Flowers. I don’t think he’s going to let up as a massive target-earner in this attack.
Jackson and Co. should get only better with time. They didn’t have Mark Andrews in this game and Rashod Bateman didn’t play much as he continues to work back after a murky injury offseason. Being ahead of the game on the Ravens' passing game will remain a winning move.
Projected changes in an NFC North rivalry
The Packers met up with the Bears in Week 1. Much has changed with Green Bay amid Aaron Rodgers' departure this offseason.
Jordan Love played a clean and efficient game. His beefy 10.6 adjusted yards per attempt trailed only Tua Tagovailoa — he of the 466 yards and three touchdowns — among Week 1 passers. Love's two touchdowns to Romeo Doubs came on perfectly placed red-zone throws. The third to Aaron Jones was perfectly placed and timed so that Jones could dart off for a 51-yard score.
Love doesn’t look like a guy who needs more seasoning. He looked like the commanding figure of an extremely young offense that was operating well south of 100% health.
We have a long way to go before declaring Love the next star quarterback for the Packers. However, the level of confidence is much higher today.
On the other side of the token, the Bears' passing offense didn’t look like it was on the precipice of a huge leap. Justin Fields had some of his usual misfires, took four sacks and committed two turnovers. Prized offseason addition, DJ Moore, had 25 yards on a mere two targets in a game the Bears never led.
If the hope was that Fields and Moore would debut right away as the next Jalen Hurts/A.J. Brown, this was a massive letdown.
Between these two teams, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Kenny Pickett’s preseason
I’ll admit to being quite excited about the Steelers' passing offense … even before their strong preseason run. Entering the season, they had a ton of exciting talent at the skill-position spots and a second-year quarterback who looked capable of making the leap. Being optimistic about the Steelers' passing game wasn’t born in the preseason, but the exhibition results certainly didn’t hurt.
With that being said, we should keep in context that this offense went against what may well be the best defense in the NFL (by a lot) but it'll still leave Week 1 with black eyes and concerns.
Kenny Pickett’s stat line (2.51 adjusted net yards per attempt and 68.4 passer rating) tells the story of how poorly he played. He was under duress often but he was off the mark on at least every other throw. He missed layups and made receivers needlessly adjust to poorly thrown passes.
Again, the 49ers are a formidable foe and will put far more experienced passers than Pickett into the blender all season, but he failed this test with authority.
Making matters worse, the Steelers lost No. 1 receiver Diontae Johnson, who was ruled out eerily quickly with a hamstring. Pat Freiermuth dealt with a chest injury and left the game for a period. It’s less than ideal to come out of this performance with questions surrounding their best separator and trusted red-zone tight end.
I am still optimistic about these players long term and there will be less fearsome opponents down the line. Nonetheless, this was still a troubling start.