We may have a few months to go before the NFL season starts, but for serious players, fantasy football has almost become a year round activity. And now that the schedule has been released and the draft has come and gone, we have at least a decent idea of how teams are going to look when play starts in mid-September.
In this post, I’m not going to look so much at season-long potential, but rather at a few players (and perhaps a defensive unit or two) that seem primed for success in the first few weeks of daily fantasy play. Let’s get started.
If you’re looking for what will likely be an affordable QB to ride in the early weeks of daily fantasy, the Raiders’ Derek Carr may be a perfect option. A year ago, one in-depth statistical analysis suggested that Carr might not be the long-term solution in Oakland at QB. That analysis looked at NEP (Net Expected Points) and gave Carr a -40.94 rating for 2014 (comparable to rookie seasons for Vince Young, -47.29, and Josh Freeman, -39.56). However, Carr came out bombing last season and put together a strong season. In 2015 his completion percentage was up to 61% (from 58%); he threw for 32 TDs (up from 21) with just 13 INTs (up from 12); he threw for just over 700 more yards; and his fantasy production went up to 273 points (from 192). The trajectory suggests another step up in 2016, and Carr’s early opponents are favorable as well. New Orleans
and Atlanta were both bottom half pass defending teams a season ago, and against Tennessee and Baltimore (his opponents for weeks three and four), he averaged 340.5 yards, 3 TDs, and 0.5 INTs last season.
Amari Cooper – WR, Raiders
It’s easy to suggest that Carr’s best WR would be a strong play given the indications with Carr. But just to acknowledge him specifically, Cooper’s numbers against Baltimore (7 REC, 109 yards, 1 TD) and Tennessee (7 REC, 115 yards, 0 TD) make him an intriguing option in those first few weeks as well. Projection models have Cooper racking up over 1,000 yards and between 6 and 8 TDs in 2016 so he’ll be a strong play all season but the early weeks appear particularly favorable by the numbers.
Thomas Rawls – RB, Seahawks
There aren’t as many stats to back up Rawls given that he’s (presumably) heading into his first full season as Seattle’s lead back in 2016. But the Seahawks’ first three opponents (Miami, LA, and San Francisco) ranked 28th, 20th, and 29th respectively in rushing defense a season ago. On top of that, Seattle has ranked in the top-five in rushing attempts per game four seasons in a row, and Rawls’s 5.6 yards per carry in 2015 topped Le’Veon Bell (4.9), Adrian Peterson (4.5), Devonta Freeman (4.0), Doug Martin (4.9), and Todd Gurley (4.8) among others.
Delanie Walker – TE, Titans
Two of the Titans’ first three games are actually against opponents they didn’t see a season ago, but there are still some numbers suggesting he’ll have a quick start to the season. In week one, he’ll see a Minnesota defense that ranked in the middle of the pack in fantasy points allowed to TEs. In week two, he’ll get the Lions (fourth most fantasy points allowed to TEs at 9.7 per game), and in week three the Raiders (third most at 10.2 per game). It’s also worth noting that Walker has scored an opening week TD in each of the last two seasons. In fact in the past three seasons he’s scored 25% of his TDs in the first three weeks, indicating he’s a reliable fast starter.
Demaryius Thomas – WR, Broncos
Thomas will face the vaunted Panthers defense in week one, but with Josh Norman having left Carolina, the secondary could be exposed even against a Broncos team with an uncertain QB situation. While Thomas has a reputation as a downfield WR, his average reception distance was actually just under 15 yards a season ago, whereas Emmanuel Sanders averaged almost 15 yards per reception exactly. That suggests Thomas was the more reliable short pass option, and makes him the statistically suitable option for presumed Denver starter Mark Sanchez, who ranked near the bottom in success with deep passes (both in 21-30 yard throws and 31-40 yard throws) in 2014 when he last played meaningful snaps as a starter.
Joe Flacco – QB, Ravens
Flacco is likely to be a cheap fantasy option given his 2015 injury issues and his lack of elite receiving help. Yet the early schedule is favorable. He didn’t see the Bills in 2015, but had 210 yards and a TD and 316 yards and 3 TDs against the Browns and Jaguars, respectively in 2015. Those will be his week two and three opponents, followed in week four by an Oakland team Flacco lit up for 384 yard and 2 TDs a season ago. The combined 910 yards and 6 TDs against three of his first four 2015 opponents accounted for 33% of his total yards and 43% of his total TDs in 10 starts last season.
Carolina Panthers – DEF
The Panthers get a Super Bowl rematch in the first week. Heading into the Super Bowl this past season, the Broncos’ defense was singled out in predictions and previews as a unit that would define the game. But this time around the Panthers get the benefit of facing a team with an uncertain QB situation (see the Mark Sanchez statistics noted previously). In fact they get the same benefit in week two against the 49ers, and if Colin Kaepernick starts it’s worth noting that in 2013 the Panthers held him to the fourth lowest QBR (42) of his career. Finally, the Panthers will counter the Vikings and Adrian Peterson with the league’s fourth best rush defense in week three.
Josh Brown – K, Giants
Here’s something a lot of people missed: Josh Brown actually finished as the 4th-highest scoring kicker in the league last season. He also had three double-digit scoring efforts against his first three opponents in 2016 (17 against Dallas, 13 against Washington, and 10 against Dallas again). Brown didn’t perform as well against the Saints, his week two opponent, but the Saints are also coming off a season in which they had the second worst total defense in the league. It should be a big first few weeks for the Giants kicker.
The beauty of daily fantasy, of course, is that you don’t need to lock into players for weeks at a time. But if you’re looking to project some of the top performers for the beginning of the 2016 season, aside from the obvious elite candidates, recent numbers indicate these as eight players to watch. You can find projections for these and all players using the Fantasy Football Analytics Projections Tool.
(Stats courtesy of ESPN, NumberFire, Rotoworld, Rotowire, and NFL.com)
This article was written by guest contributor, Dan Harper. Dan is a freelance writer and sports enthusiast. Until he can support himself solely through fantasy football, he pays the bills by contributing to a range of sports and entertainment sites.