The NFL season is back. Week 1 begins on Thursday, which means our first DFS Main Slate beings on Sunday morning.

Each week, I will bring you an early look at which players to target and fade for the upcoming Sunday DFS slate on DraftKings and FanDuel. I’ll do this by using our large suite of analytical fantasy tools, most specifically, our FantasyLabs Player Models.

Keep in mind that a lot can change between now and when lineups lock. Our Player Models update in real-time to help make quick lineup decisions before rosters lock.

This is a wonderful time of year, so let’s take a deep dive into which players to target and avoid in the first week of the 2021 NFL season.

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Quarterback Targets

Sam Darnold ($5,000 DK, $6,500 FD)

Darnold is one of my favorite Week 1 plays, especially on DraftKings, where he is only the 24th-most expensive quarterback. It is the perfect “revenge game” spot against a Jets team playing their first battle under new head coach Robert Saleh. With wide receivers D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and rookie Terrace Marshall, Darnold has a bevy of receiving weapons beyond the best pass-catching running back in the league, Christian McCaffrey.

While now under a different coaching staff, the Jets defense did allow the third-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks in 2020. New York typically brings a strong run defense, but they also ranked eighth in most receiving yards allowed to running backs.

The Jets’ big defensive offseason acquisition was pass rusher Carl Lawson, who suffered a ruptured Achilles in the preseason and is out for the year. Bringing a limited pass rush, New York’s young secondary will get exposed by a motivated Darnold and a plethora of receiving options.

This game has a marginal over/under of just 45 points, but expect New York’s rookie quarterback Zach Wilson to struggle on the road in his first NFL game. Darnold is a fantastic value that I have projected as a safe QB1, allowing DFS players to spend up at the more challenging running back and wide receiver positions.

Darnold has one of the highest QB ratings in our Bales Model on FantasyLabs, ranking higher than Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray, and Ryan Tannehill at the time of writing.

Trevor Lawrence ($6,200 DK, $6,800 FD)

Despite a very reasonable salary on FanDuel (15th among quarterbacks), Lawrence projects as a Week 1 high floor/high ceiling DFS play. The Clemson rookie has the eighth-highest Median Projection and 10th-highest Ceiling Projection, even on the road against the woeful Texans.

Last season, Houston allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks and seventh-most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers. The Texans also allowed 22 touchdowns to wide receivers, the third-most in the league.

In his last preseason game, Lawrence looked sharp at Dallas, leading the Jaguars to two touchdowns on only two of his first three drives. DFS players should also recall Lawrence’s rushing ability, which allows for an explosive play at any time.

The Jacksonville offensive line returns all five starters. Brandon Lindor posted the best pass-blocking grade of any center per PFF, anchoring a stout interior line against a weak Houston pass rush.

The Texans have the worst roster in the NFL and the lowest win total projection at just 4.5. This game only carries a 45-point total, but Lawrence’s versatility should provide enough DFS production to produce an overall QB1 stat line in his first NFL game.

Quarterback Fades

Justin Herbert ($6,700 DK, $7,600 FD)

There are much better Week 1 DFS choices than the second-year quarterback on the road against Ron Rivera’s Washington defense. Herbert was sensational in his first season with the Chargers, rightfully earning AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. But that performance will likely lead to inflated ownership when there are much better quarterback options with a safer floor. Opposing quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has a higher DraftKings projection in our Bales Model, yet is $1,200 cheaper.

Last season, Washington allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks and second-fewest to opposing wide receivers. Herbert only averaged 15.6 rushing yards per game, so his fantasy point contribution as a runner is also limited.

As the quarterback of a road team in a game with just a 44.5 point total, there are much better DFS options than rolling with Herbert’s expensive price tag.

Joe Burrow ($5,700 DK, $7,200 FD)

Burrow is certainly affordable but still a risk in his first game back on a surgically repaired left knee. The Vikings are coming off a disappointing 2020 season, where their defense suffered extensive personnel losses. They lost edge rusher Danielle Hunter (neck) for the season, and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks missed a combined 19 games. In addition, defensive tackle Michael Pierce (COVID) opted out of the entire year. Minnesota added DT Dalvin Tomlinson from the Giants and cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland to solidify the secondary.

Burrow will see his first game action in almost a year against a revamped and hungry Vikings defense. After ranking third and fourth the past two seasons, Minnesota ranked just 18th in defensive DVOA per FootballOutsiders. Head coach Mike Zimmer will bring pressure against a weak Cincinnati offensive line, forcing Burrow into rushed throws. Add in rookie WR Ja’Marr Chase’s preseason drops, and DFS players should look to other options for their Sunday slate signal-caller.

Running Back Targets

Mike Davis ($5,400 DK, $6,200 FD)

Let’s not forget how good Mike Davis was in 2020.

He is the clear lead running back for an Atlanta team playing at home in a game with a 48-point projected total. Quarterback Matt Ryan’s limited mobility always provides passing work for the Falcons’ backfield. Davis finished last season ranked in the positional top 10 in receiving yards (373), receptions (59), and targets (70). At 5’9″, 215 lbs, Davis also profiles as Atlanta’s goal-line rusher, providing a versatile Week 1 skillset against the Eagles.

The Falcons are guided by new head coach Arthur Smith but will need to maintain a fast-paced offense to balance a subpar defense. Atlanta ranked eighth in situation-neutral pace last season,  which should carry over and provide plenty of touch opportunities for the 28-year-old bruising runner.

Davis projects as our fourth-highest rated DraftKings running back on FantasyLabs, despite ranking only 22nd in price.

Damien Harris ($5,200 DK, $5,800 FD)

DFS players will shy away from New England’s Damien Harris, especially on DraftKings PPR scoring. But as we have seen in the past with players such as LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, the leading rusher for New England is always fantasy viable. 

The Patriots have again assembled one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, ranking third overall per PFF. With rookie quarterback Mac Jones preparing for his first NFL start, look for New England to scheme run-heavy in an opening home game against the division-rival Dolphins. In last year’s season opener, Miami allowed the Patriots to gain 5.2 yards per carry, including three rushing touchdowns. The Dolphins allowed former New England lead running back Sony Michel to average 7.4 yards per carry in their second matchup. 

New England was the second-most run-heavy team in 2020, trailing only Baltimore. Harris is secure as the lead rusher,  and his projected touch volume should overshadow any concerns about limited involvement in the passing game. 

Running Back Fade

Clyde Edwards-Helaire ($6,600 DK, $6,800 FD)

The role of Edwards-Helaire is still very much unknown. At just 5-foot-7 and 205 lbs, he does not profile as a three-down running back, which limits his fantasy production. There is a likelihood of 6-foot-1, 220 lb Darrel Williams earning the coveted goal-line carries with veteran Jerick McKinnon playing a role on passing downs. This stifles Edwards-Helaire’s upside and makes his price point difficult to accept on both platforms. 

The Browns allowed the seventh-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs and the sixth-fewest receptions. This game will be a target for many DFS options, carrying a 54-point over/under, the highest of any game in Week 1. There are many attractive DFS options in this game, but CEH is not one of them.

Wide Receiver Targets

Laviska Shenault ($5,000 DK, $5,600 FD)

Always look to stack a quarterback and receiving option in your DFS lineups. If you believe a quarterback is going to have a big week, then it is logical to try and find the receiving beneficiary. Selecting one team to provide big fantasy production is much easier than selecting two. It’s easy to see how they correlate together in our Correlation Dashboard.

Against the defensively-challenged Texans, I’m stacking oversized slot receiver Laviska Shenault with Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Shenault stands 6-foot-1, 227 lbs, and brings a 103.2 (78th percentile) Speed Score per PlayerProfiler. He should feast off a Houston defense that allowed the seventh-most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers in 2020, including 22 touchdowns (third-most).

Offensive coordinator Darren Bevell has big plays for Shenault, as outlined by this excerpt from The Athletic’s Brandon Howard:

Shenault carries our ninth-highest wide receiver rating in the Bales Model for Week 1, at the 35th-highest price. Shenault is only the third highest-priced wide receiver on his own team, with D.J. Chark and Marvin Jones both valued higher on FanDuel.

DJ Moore ($6,100 DK, $6,700 FD)

Stack Sam Darnold with his likely WR1 this week, DJ Moore. The former first-round pick from Maryland enters his fourth season on the verge of a breakout. Moore’s production dipped in 2020 with Teddy Bridgewater under center but should see a big increase in deep targets with the still 24-year old Darnold.

Moore’s 4.42 speed has served as the basis for consecutive seasons of 1500-plus Air Yards, finishing fifth among all wide receivers last season. He has also remained the critical piece of the Carolina passing attack, tallying over a 24% target share each of the past two seasons, with different quarterbacks. Moore is a PPR monster, facing a Jets secondary that allowed the sixth-most receptions (227) to opposing wide receivers.

Wide Receiver Fade

Adam Thielen ($7,000 DK, $7,300 FD)

This is a high price tag to pay for a 31-year-old receiver who now relies on touchdowns for fantasy production. I expect head coach Mike Zimmer to feature a heavy dose of Dalvin Cook, especially for a Minnesota team that was the sixth-most run-heavy in the NFL in 2020.  Thielen ended last season with three games of overall WR46 or worse. As Justin Jefferson’s role grew, Thielen was limited.

Using the FantasyLabs Bales Model, Thielen projects as only the 59th rated DFS wide receiver. He is the ninth most expensive wide receiver on DraftKings and ranks 10th on FanDuel. With his age and limited speed (4.54), Thielen is a prime regression candidate after having the fourth-highest touchdowns over expectation rating of any wide receiver last year.

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Tight End Target

Zach Ertz ($3,800 DK, $5,000 FD)

I can’t remember when Zach Ertz had a cheaper DFS price tag. After surviving the rumors of a trade to Buffalo, the three-time Pro Bowler impressed throughout the preseason. The miserable 2020 season that the 30-year-old Ertz suffered through has suppressed his price tag to the current ranking of WR20 on DraftKings.

Ertz faces an Atlanta Falcons team that allowed the fifth-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends, including the fourth-most receiving yards. Ertz is a full $1000 cheaper than teammate Dallas Goedert and was more explosive and productive than Goedert in the preseason. If you are looking for a cheap DFS play with TE1 upside, this may be the most affordable Ertz is the entire season.

Tight End Fade

T.J. Hockenson ($4,900 DK, $5,700 FD)

San Francisco’s defense has been one of the NFL’s best at limiting opposing fantasy tight ends each of the past two seasons. Last year, the 49ers held their opposition to an average of just 4.6 tight end fantasy points per game (0.5 PPR scoring).

T.J. Hockenson certainly profiles as Jared Goff’s top target, but he isn’t worth the high price tag he brings in Week 1. Hockenson is the fifth highest-priced tight end on both DraftKings and FanDuel. Per our FantasyLabs projections, Hockenson carries a lower floor and ceiling to Atlanta rookie Kyle Pitts, who is actually $500 cheaper on DraftKings.

Detroit’s modest 45-point game total, a tough San Francisco defense, and a new quarterback in Jared Goff lead me away from risking a capped ceiling with Hockenson.

Pictured above: Sam Darnold
Credit: Chris Keane/Getty Images