Week 1 Care/Don't Care: Stafford transforms LA's fantasy outlook

·13 min read

In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned from the Week 1 action and give you five things I care about along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for.

Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.

5 Things I care about

Things are different in Los Angeles

The entire tone around the Los Angeles Rams has been nothing but sunshine and rainbows ever since the Matthew Stafford trade. 

It took less than five minutes of game action to completely understand it.

On his second pass of the game, Matthew Stafford uncorked a 67-yard deep touchdown to Van Jefferson (if he wasn't on your sleeper radar, he should be now). Stafford did most of the work by chucking the ball way downfield to Jefferson after executing a play-action fake.

It was as if Sean McVay and Stafford decided to get the “Why this guy?” answer on the table right away. 

Matthew Stafford #9 of the Los Angeles Rams
Matthew Stafford was as advertised in his Rams' debut. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Stafford continued to push it all night. He averaged 8.8 air yards on his completed passes, the second-highest mark of any quarterback. He brought an electric chunk-play potential to this squad that was utterly absent in 2020. Stafford only threw 13 percent of his passes into tight windows (per Next Gen Stats).

With Stafford’s arm combined with McVay’s ability to scheme open windows, we’re going to see some truly special fireworks.

We might have needed to be even more excited than we were in fantasy. I think we’ll look back at some of the depressed ADPs of Rams players and be a bit ashamed.

A few other new developments were noticeable. Tyler Higbee might just be a huge key to this offense. He drew six targets and caught five for 68 yards. He was on the field for every single Rams’ offensive snap and was consistently an outlet for Stafford, one who added juice after the catch. There will be some huge games available for him when the Rams need to throw more.

Darrell Henderson was also a surprise, playing 94.2 percent of the team snaps. He logged 17 touches for 87 yards from scrimmage with one touchdown. He ceded just one carry to Sony Michel, which came in the scoring area.

We know the rug can be ripped out at any moment here, however, Henderson didn’t look like a guy who needs to lose touches. We should still want to place our bets on a running back in this Rams’ ecosystem. For now — and I mean that caveat — the guy is Henderson.

One thing that didn’t change: Cooper Kupp is an outright baller. The broadcast crew was right to compare him to George Kittle, as Kupp basically plays like a tight end and runs routes the way they do. It makes him a huge advantage. There were several times when Kupp was wide open and Stafford knew right where to go:

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Unlike previous years, Cooper Kupp won’t just get those wide-open looks on popgun plays. Stafford is going to get him more chunk plays than ever. Kupp was my highest-ranked Rams’ player (post-Cam Akers injury) coming into 2021 and I’m starting to think I may have discounted him. If the offense is going to operate like this, he could sneak into the top-10 fantasy receivers.

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The 49ers' 2 surprises

Two popular mid-round picks from the 49ers, Brandon Aiyuk and Trey Sermon, did absolutely nothing in Week 1.

Aiyuk ran as the third receiver behind Deebo Samuel and Trenton Sherfield and was not targeted on the day. Sermon didn’t even play; he was a healthy scratch.

The painful part is that we got absolutely zero indication that this was coming. Anyone dropping an “I told you so” is operating with hindsight bias of the highest order.

Aiyuk eventually started to get more playing time as the game went on but was not used. Here’s what Kyle Shanahan had to say about the matter:

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The 49ers have depth and didn’t need to fully open up the playbook to beat the Lions, even if they let them in for the late cover. It makes some sense to keep Aiyuk on ice and get healthy early in the year. If Sherfield has truly emerged, that’s a good thing; this offense badly needed a quality third receiver.

I’m not moving an inch on my optimistic, sky-high long-term projection about Aiyuk’s future stardom. For the fantasy short-term, however, we’ll need to see him running as a true starter before putting him back in lineups.

Sermon’s demise is a bit more dubious:

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Again, it would have been nice for someone to report this information any time before, you know, after the game ended. A Day 2 draft pick, Sermon ran as a starter in the preseason. What changed? We’ll probably never know. We should be more concerned about Sermon’s prospects than Aiyuk. With Raheem Mostert injured once again, Sermon could start rising again. But after what we saw today, that’s no given.

Jalen Hurts shines

Jalen Hurts finished with a nine-percent completion percentage over expectation. He was one of the worst quarterbacks in this metric last year.

This was exactly the type of 2021 debut you wanted to see from the young passer.

Hurts hit DeVonta Smith early for the first touchdown of the Eagles’ season. It was instantly clear that Smith’s ability to get open quickly is going to be a huge boost to a passing game that was utterly broken in 2020. From then on, the Eagles just kept swinging on the Falcons on their way to a 32-6 win, making their +3.5 line coming into Week 1 look wildly foolish.

We have to give a small caveat that Hurts’ dynamic performance came against the still miserable, under-manned Falcons defense. Still, this was about as encouraging a passing performance that you could ask for from Hurts, and he still tacked on another 62 yards as a rusher. That’ll be a weekly icing on the cake. If Hurts has truly made the leap as a passer, he could be the answer for the Eagles behind center and a potential top-five fantasy quarterback.

The experiment isn’t over, but he knocked out the first trial.

D’Andre Swift’s passing game role

If D’Andre Swift was going to leave behind the “dead zone” tag among mid-round running backs and be a smash fantasy football pick, he was always going to need a special receiving role.

Good news: He has it.

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Swift registered 11 targets, most among running backs and Lions players in Week 1. This was the perfect script for Detroit to unleash Swift in this role. The 49ers were on them in a hurry to the point that the halftime spread checked in at Lions +20.5. Detroit clawed back but they were still firmly in negative game script all day.

The Lions will be in that situation often if their defense plays like it did in Week 1. That’s fine if Swift is going to be featured as a receiver. If this target share and route deployment hold, Swift could scratch his way to a top-15 running back season.

Sean Payton

I’ll admit to being worried about the Saints’ offense heading into 2021 because their on-paper personnel was so weak. There was even a point where I thought maybe it was bad enough to bump Alvin Kamara off of the first tier of running backs. I ultimately backed off that and left him there.

The one thing that held me back from a full-on panic was simply: Sean Payton still exists.

That theory immediately looked smart in Week 1. The elite offensive coach was at the top of his game Week 1. As mentioned in my advanced stats notebook from Friday, the Saints’ offense looked a bit more like the 2011-era teams.

Winston’s 8.7 air yards per attempt was much more vertically-inclined than some of the recent Drew Brees teams. The running backs were averaging almost a full two yards before first contact per carry. That offensive line is so good and Payton designs some electric runs. He had players screamingly open for Winston in crucial situations.

Winston and Payton are going to be fun together.

One sleeper who emerged from Week 1: Converted tight end Juwan Johnson. While Adam Trautman ran more routes (15 to 7) than Johnson, the latter received the love in the red zone. Perhaps both of these guys will play crucial roles.

5 Things I don’t care about

Any justification for not playing Justin Fields

Andy Dalton should not take another scheduled snap for the Chicago Bears.

Hearing Chris Collinsworth offer up countless reasons for why he’s playing was almost painful. There is no logical reason he’s out there at this point.

The fact that Justin Fields was deployed on a handful of snaps to seemingly give the team a spark only proves they need him. The offense simply doesn’t have life with Dalton back there, especially as offensive line injuries continue to mount. Dalton struggled to even approach 6.0 yards per attempt on the night. The Bears have vertical receivers in Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney. You wouldn’t know it with Dalton back there.

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If the justification is to spare Justin Fields from facing tough defenses ... I just can’t even with that. I guess you just don’t want to win football games.

Obviously, facing the Rams on the road was the absolute worst possible start for Dalton. It can’t get more difficult than that. But nevertheless, how much better can this thing get under him? The ceiling is just so close to the floor. After seeing the latter in Week 1, anyone invested in the Bears on any level should not accept another second of it.

Najee Harris’ stat line

Najee Harris took his 16 carries for just 45 yards and caught a single pass for four yards in his rookie debut. Don’t care.

Najee Harris played every single snap for the Steelers in Week 1 against the Bills. I care.

The latter is a much better signal for how the rest of Harris’ season will go. The final line was a letdown but this just wasn’t the game for him, as Pittsburgh had to turn to the quick-passing game to outlast Buffalo. Once Harris gets into a rhythm he’ll be just fine.

Worrying about third-down for Antonio Gibson

Antonio Gibson logged 25 touches in Week 1 and maintained a strong passing game role, relative to the rest of the team. That was a huge development in a game they mostly spent trailing.

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Meanwhile, J.D. McKissic logged just one target (no catches) and one carry. Fellow backfield mate Jaret Patterson checked in with two carries for nine yards. This is Antonio Gibson’s backfield.

McKissic will chip in on third downs and might play more when the team is in deeply negative gamescript. Washington is unlikely to be in many of those situations with how good their defense is going to be this year. Gibson will be the focal point of an offense that’s consistently out in good spots because of that defense. Today was a great example as the team kept it close with Justin Herbert and the Chargers despite losing their own starting quarterback.

I loved Gibson heading into this year but you had to admit he had some questions in his profile. I’m very close to waving those off after Week 1.

New England’s loss

Damien Harris probably cares about the loss because it was his late-game fumble that sealed New England’s fate. We’ll surely be sweating that given the history of Bill Belichick. However, there were so many good signals to come out of the Patriots’ offense in Week 1.

The aforementioned Harris looked like a big winner out of Week 1 prior to the fumble. He handled 23 carries to just six for the rest of the backfield. Efficiency followed the opportunity, as Harris averaged 3.1 yards after contact per rush. Even juicier, he ran only six fewer routes than James White and drew three targets. We’ll see if he loses playing time but I tend to doubt it since the lurking Rhamondre Stevenson also fumbled and blew a pass protection spot that saw Mac Jones take a late hit.

In the passing game, Jones averaged just 6.3 air yards per attempt but maintained a 74.4 percent completion rate. The era of the quick-strike, uptempo Patriots’ passing game is indeed back.

That’s going to boost the Patriots’ pass-catching corps, which looks quite straightforward. Jakobi Meyers (nine targets) and Nelson Agholor (seven targets) led the team with 38 routes run. Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith handled 25 and 19 routes, respectively. This group should only continue to grow with Jones.

Teddy Bridgewater’s past

Live in the now.

The stability and, frankly, the normalcy that Teddy Bridgewater brought to the Broncos offense was so welcome after the nightmares they’ve lived through. Bridgewater ranked second in EPA per play among quarterbacks heading into Sunday night. He maintained a completion rate 15 percent above expectation.

Translation: Teddy played legitimately great football in Week 1. How many times could you have said that about a Broncos quarterback post-Peyton Manning?

He was on his way to making sweet music with Jerry Jeudy but the song went mute when the receiver sustained a high ankle sprain after catching six passes for 72 yards. Luckily, there is so much depth in Denver and Bridgewater actually allowed it to show. Nine players caught passes for the Broncos.

Tim Patrick was the guy who ran the second-most routes (27) behind Courtland Sutton (33) once Jeudy went down. He also snagged a touchdown. If Bridgewater is going to be this proficient, Patrick is a nice add off of waivers in fantasy football. He can play.

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