Carolina @ Atlanta
Team Totals: Falcons 21.5, Panthers 18
The sub-40-point total on Panthers-Falcons is Week 1’s second lowest, rendering this a game to avoid in fantasy-lineup decisions. … No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young’s weapons cast is composed of raw rookie Jonathan Mingo, fading 33-year-old Adam Thielen — who averaged an anemic 1.15 yards per route run in Minnesota last season — and D.J. Chark, who pulled his hamstring late in camp. Hayden Hurst has operated as Carolina’s unchallenged first-team tight end but drew just one target from Young on 26 preseason routes run. Moved into the slot, Thielen was Young’s go-to guy in exhibition games. … Trusted by HC Frank Reich stemming from their time together in Philadelphia, Miles Sanders figures to open the season as Carolina’s offensive focal point after the Panthers made him the NFL’s 10th-highest-paid running back in free agency. Sanders faces some risk of losing occasional passing-down work to Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear, although both backups are replacement-level talents. As game script in this one projects as fairly neutral, I like Sanders’ chances of flirting with 15 carries as a low-end RB2.
As a 2022 rookie, Desmond Ridder finished below 225 passing yards in all four of his starts, combined for only two touchdowns, and averaged 16 rushing yards per game. Significant expansion of Atlanta’s passing “attack” seems unlikely with HC Arthur Smith building an offense designed to hide its quarterback. This year’s Falcons used the No. 8 overall pick on RB Bijan Robinson, then took mauler LG Matthew Bergeron near the top of the second round. … While I anticipate Tyler Allgeier handling a larger workload than widely expected, Robinson immediately steps in as Atlanta’s most talented skill player and should push for 20 touches right away. Under now-Panthers DC Ejiro Evero, last year’s Broncos coughed up the NFL’s 11th-most fantasy running back points. Bijan is a surefire RB1 in this matchup. Allgeier is an upside RB4.
UPDATE: The Panthers placed EDGE rusher Marquis Haynes (back) on short-term I.R. on Monday, while star EDGE Brian Burns has been holding out and is questionable for Week 1. Ridder’s two-quarterback-league playability would improve should both Haynes and Burns sit.
UPDATE II: Brian Burns returned to practice at midweek, suggesting he’ll be out there against Atlanta.
Drake London was Ridder’s 2022 go-to guy, accounting for team highs in target share (33%) and yardage share (47%) on Ridder’s throws. Ridder completed 37 passes for first downs as a rookie; London caught 17 of them (46%). … Kyle Pitts didn’t appear in any of Ridder’s starts due to an MCL sprain that Pitts suffered in Week 11 and effectively ended his season. Despite Pitts’ immense skill set — he won the MFin’ Mackey Award at Florida and topped 1,000 yards as an NFL rookie — Pitts can only be treated as a boom-bust TE1 in Atlanta’s run-dominant offense. … Journeyman/role-player types Mack Hollins and Jonnu Smith look set to handle complementary snaps behind the Falcons’ running backs, London, and Pitts.
Score Prediction: Falcons 23, Panthers 17
Cincinnati @ Cleveland
Team Totals: Bengals 25, Browns 22.5
Joe Burrow (calf) is going to start Week 1, although his mobility may be compromised by a conservative game plan designed to limit his movement in and out of the pocket. The Browns’ defense is absolutely loaded up front with Za’Darius Smith bookending Myles Garrett on the edge and physical DTs Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris in the middle. And top Cleveland CB Denzel Ward (concussion) looks on track to go. I’m starting Burrow where I drafted him, but I’m keeping box-score expectations slightly reserved. … Having avoided suspension and with Samaje Perine gone to Denver, Joe Mixon’s workload projection is massive to open the year. Trayveon Williams (55 touches in 34 career games), fifth-round rookie Chase Brown, and theoretical passing-down specialist Chris Evans (35 touches in 26 career games) round out Cincinnati’s tailback depth chart. Mixon leading the entire league in Week 1 touches would not surprise.
Ja’Marr Chase cleaned Cleveland’s clock for 10/119/1 receiving on 15 targets with Ward on the field last Week 14. Chase is a top-three WR1 play on Sunday. … Tee Higgins did miss almost all of that game and is healthy now. At age 24, Higgins enters his contract year with three consecutive 900-yard seasons under his belt. He’s a rock-solid WR2 bet here. … Slot man/glue guy Tyler Boyd enters his age-28/29 campaign having finished below 850 yards in three straight years. Boyd is a possession-slot receiver with capped upside whenever Chase and Higgins are both healthy. … Irv Smith Jr. and Drew Sample figure to share tight end snaps, Smith being the superior pass catcher and Sample the better blocker. The Bengals run a decidedly three-wide receiver offense, so generally, there will only be one tight end on the field at a time.
Deshaun Watson is one of 2023’s biggest wild cards after performing miserably in six 2022 starts, then turning in an up-and-down preseason and camp. In Houston, Watson was a top-five fantasy quarterback in 2018, 2019, and 2020. He’s just now turning 28 years old. In Week 1 DFS tournaments, I like stacking Watson with David Njoku. Njoku ran a pass route on all 17 Watson dropbacks this preseason, while the Bengals lost both starting safeties in the offseason. … Nick Chubb remains the Browns’ offensive focal point, especially following Kareem Hunt’s departure. Chubb’s new top backup is Jerome Ford, who missed all of August with a hamstring injury and has eight career NFL touches. In seven career meetings, Chubb has trampled Bengals DC Lou Anarumo’s unit for a combined 110/601/6 (5.5 YPC) rushing line.
Amari Cooper was Watson’s go-to guy in last year’s six starts, handily leading Cleveland in targets (39), catches (21), yards (368), and first-down conversions (18) on Watson’s throws. Now 29 but showing no signs of slowdown, Cooper last season finished top 15 in the league in yards per route run (2.30). The Bengals’ secondary is their biggest team weakness, having lost both safeties while trotting out Chidobe Awuzie and Cam Taylor-Britt as starting perimeter corners. … Elijah Moore catches the toughest draw in Cleveland’s wideout corps, squaring off with stingy Bengals slot CB Mike Hilton. … Underrated Donovan Peoples-Jones projects to play over Moore in two-wideout sets. Still ascending at age 24, Peoples-Jones topped 800 yards in his third NFL season and has room for growth as an intriguing WR5/6 fantasy stash.
Score Prediction: Browns 27, Bengals 24
Jacksonville @ Indianapolis
Team Totals: Jaguars 25, Colts 20
Trevor Lawrence was a marksman in last year’s two dates with Colts DC Gus Bradley’s defense, going 45 of 52 passing (87%) for 400 yards (7.7 YPA), a 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio, and two additional rushing scores. Now riffing with Calvin Ridley, Lawrence’s ceiling is raised in his second year under QB guru Doug Pederson. Indianapolis’ secondary threatens to be among the worst in the league, potentially running out former undrafted free agents Darrell Baker and Dallas Flowers as starting perimeter corners. Inside the Lucas Oil Stadium dome, Lawrence to Ridley DFS stacks are very live. … Bradley’s 2022 defense coughed up the NFL’s ninth-most fantasy running back points, while this game’s projected script bodes promisingly for Travis Etienne’s workload. Tank Bigsby’s impact on Etienne’s short-yardage/goal-line and receiving roles is to be determined. Etienne is a high-end RB2 play with RB1 upside. Bigsby remains an RB4/5 stash.
Evan Engram piled up 12 combined receptions in last year’s two meetings with Indy and is a respectable mid-range to low-end TE1 option.
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