It’s lit. Not only is the NFL coming back with a strong Week 1 matchup, but FantasyLabs is coming back stronger than ever for the 2018 season.
In case you haven’t heard, we have reigning three-time No. 1 in-season FantasyPros accuracy champ Sean Koerner doing all the projections in our NFL Models.
Our Models now include DraftKings Showdowns, and I’ll be doing free breakdowns for every Thursday Night slate.
Sean and I have Pro Models up on the site now, and thorughout the season we’ll be doing Model preview videos like the ones you’re used to from Bales.
I’ll also be doing premium breakdowns of every other NFL slate: Main, 1 p.m. ET, 4 p.m. ET, Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football.
I’ll start by highlighting the best and worst values and noting important trends I dug up with the Trends tool, then give some roster construction notes (oftentimes courtesy of our invaluable NFL Correlations Dashboard), before tying everything together with a writeup of my overall strategy and favorite leverage plays.
Here’s the breakdown for the Week 1 Showdown slate matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, Sept. 6 (NBC). DraftKings and FanDuel have contests offering grand prizes up to $1,000,000.
Good Matchups & Values
The Eagles will be without their best coverage linebacker in Nigel Bradham. Devonta Freeman was shut down on the ground when these teams met in the playoffs last season, but had a 5-26-1 receiving line and may be able to have similar success.
With the Falcons on the road as a small underdog, it’s shaping up as the best kind of spot to play Julio Jones. Jones leads all wide receivers with 22.2 DraftKings points per game as a road underdog since 2014.
By the same token, Zach Ertz‘s DraftKings Plus/Minus at home vs. the road was +2.6/-0.6 last season and is +3.8/+2.1 since 2014. Ertz will likely be peppered with targets in the absence of injured wideouts Alshon Jeffery and Mack Hollins.
Week 1 Fantasy Football Rankings
Eagles wide receiver Shelton Gibson caught nine passes for 195 yards in the preseason and will reportedly start outside in three-wide sets, as well as serve as the team’s primary kick returner. He costs 10% of the FanDuel cap, but he’s just 0.4% (not a typo) of the DraftKings cap.
Another player who may see an uptick with the Eagles receivers banged up is rookie tight end Dallas Goedert, an NFL-ready second-round prospect who essentially steps into the old Trey Burton/Brent Celek role.
Nelson Agholor, who led the Eagles in targets once Nick Foles took over for Carson Wentz, draws Atlanta’s lowest-rated corner in Pro Football Focus’ coverage grades, Brian Poole (74th of 134 qualifiers).
In addition to going at Poole, another way to target the Falcons defense is with pass-catching running backs. Atlanta has allowed the most receptions in the league to running backs in all three years under Dan Quinn. Darren Sproles was targeted 12 times in his first two games last season before going down in Week 3, and he could go underowned relative to Corey Clement.
Jay Ajayi will still lead the Eagles’ committee of backs, and he’s an underrated play as a 220-plus-pounder who has the size to cause problems with the Falcons’ undersized front. Over 10 regular-season and postseason games with Philly last season, Ajayi rattled off 5.29 yards a carry on 112 attempts behind an offensive line that is ranked first in the league by PFF heading into 2018. After being eased in following a trade from Miami, Ajayi had touch counts of 16, 14, and 16 to end the regular season. He then had games of 18, 21 and nine touches in the postseason.
The Eagles lost one of the NFL’s best slot corners in Patrick Robinson, but Mohamed Sanu‘s matchup might not get any easier, considering the dominant preseason of 2017 second-rounder Sidney Jones.
Both Matt Ryan and Matt Bryant see a dip in production away from home. Ryan has failed to hit 20 DraftKings points in 10 of his last 12 games as a road underdog, while Bryant’s career field-goal percentage is 5% lower outdoors.
Gibson is so cheap on DraftKings it doesn’t matter, but Mike Wallace may have a tough time vs. outside corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, who each finished in the top third among 134 qualified corners in PFF’s coverage grades.
Credit: USA TODAY Sports
Roster Construction Notes
- Falcons RB1 and RB2, i.e. Freeman and Tevin Coleman, had a fairly strong negative correlation (-.37) in Year 1 under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
- Ryan’s highest Plus/Minus correlations in 2017 were WR2 (.37), DST (.30), TE1 (.19), and RB1 (.12) — all higher than WR1 (.10). Not stacking Julio and Ryan is an option that will likely be somewhat contrarian.
- Eagles QBs’ highest Plus/Minus correlations are to WR1 (.56), TE1 (.48), and WR2 (.42), which sets up well for Agholor, Ertz and Torrey Smith replacement Mike Wallace in this game.
- Unlike the Falcons, Eagles QBs had a negative correlation to RB1 (-.34) and DST (-.24).
Strategy and Leverage
You want the highest-ceiling plays in the Captain slot on DraftKings (called MVP on FanDuel), and these usually come from members of the passing game. That’s especially true with these two teams, which both employ committee backfields.
Julio is the top option, and you should be able to gain some differentiation by not stacking him with Ryan considering their opposing track records as road underdogs and Ryan’s overall lack of Plus/Minus correlation with Jones.
Especially after Foles’ disaster of a game in Week 3 of the preseason, the public is down on the Eagles, and this can be exploited by putting Foles in the Captain or MVP slots.
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Foles is at his best when he can carry out a scheme designed by an innovative offensive coach such as Chip Kelly or Doug Pederson, so while I do think the Falcons should be able to win this game, I wouldn’t overreact to the preseason.
Foles has a top-three ceiling projection in line with that of Ryan and Julio, but will likely have nowhere near the same amount of Captain/MVP ownership.
I’m not sure how chalky he’ll end up being by the time rosters lock, but I definitely want to be overweight on Gibson on DraftKings. His $200 salary allows you to put Jones in the CPT and still roster almost any combination of the highest-priced players on the slate.
I think combos including five of the highest-ceiling plays on the slate plus Gibson will go underowned as entrants attempt to find the right mix of players in the Goedert-Clement-Sproles-kicker-defense tier.
I love Sproles as a leverage play on Clement and Goedert. The Eagles have about 50 yards of offense to replace with Jeffery out, and one of the signatures of Quinn’s scheme is a willingness to concede catches to backs in the flat.
I’m not sure people will roster Sproles as much since he’s more expensive than both Clement and Goedert on DraftKings, and on FanDuel, the non-full PPR scoring may deter users despite his minimum price tag.
Another way to optimize rosters in the event of positive game flow for the Eagles is to surround Julio with an Eagles-heavy lineup built around a Jay Ajayi-Eagles DST stack. This allows you to benefit from the positive game-flow correlations of RB-DST while minimizing the downside of rostering a defense. In terms of Plus/Minus, DST has a significantly weaker negative correlation to the opposition’s WR1 than its QB (-.41) or RB1 (-.24) since 2014.
From a pro-Falcons game-flow angle, I like the idea of avoiding Ryan-Julio stacks by pairing either of them with Devonta Freeman instead. The Plus/Minus of the Falcons’ RB1 had a slight positive correlation with QB last year (.12), and no negative correlation with WR1 (.00). I’d also consider including the Falcons DST, which had a positive correlation with Ryan (.30) as well as slightly positive ones with the team’s top back and receiver.
Either way, both of the DST should be in play: Including the postseason, 66% of Eagles home games under Pederson and 63% of Falcons road games under Quinn have failed to go over the total.
Justin Hardy is another interesting leverage play on DraftKings. He could end up rotating with Calvin Ridley as Atlanta’s No. 3 receiver and will also return kicks. In fact, Hardy, Johnson and potentially Sproles are all stackable with their team’s DST for that reason.
Let’s get this schmoney!
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Chris Raybon is a Senior Editor at the Action Network and a co-host of “I’ll Take That Bet” on ESPN+. He has watched every snap of every NFL game since 2010 — even the kneel downs. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisRaybon and read about how he quit his accounting job and got paid to watch sports.
Top photo credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Julio Jones