I didn't want to start my first article of the 2020 season pontificating on the uncertainty of football in the pandemic, but it's too relevant to this exercise to ignore. My start and sit advice stems from research on the effects of venue, weather, and opponents on fantasy scoring, and I can only guess how much of that former effect comes from the fans in stadiums.
My guess is that it may not be as much as one would expect. Away teams have historically seen bigger boosts to their completion percentages, yards per pass attempt, and touchdowns per pass attempt when they play in domes than home teams have outdoors. I think that suggests that the conditions mean more than the noise, and I'm applying venue factors in our weekly projections the way I would any other year. But I could easily be wrong, and as you'll see in the tables, a misjudgment there could swing the projections by as much as two fantasy points for the players at the matchup extremes.
The consolation I have for you is transparency. I will detail any in-season changes I make to the venue adjustments in this column. And more importantly for the readers who intuitively disagree with me, our weekly projections show their work with discrete point adjustments for each contextual factor. You'll see those called out in the tables in this article, and FO+ subscribers can see them for every player every week on the site. If you think the lack of fans will have a dramatic impact on fantasy scoring, download the full set, regress the listed venue adjustments toward zero, and re-add all of the adjustments to the base point projections.
The following tables feature the players with the best and worst matchups of the week. Each listed player shows a true-talent (TT) ranking that represents how I would rank him within a perfectly neutral game context. Then, that ranking is adjusted by adding the context of the venue (Ven) -- home and road and dome and outside -- the forecasted weather (Wea), and opponent tendencies (Opp). The line beneath those rankings shows how much those contextual factors move projected PPR fantasy points. That total (Tot) number gives you a comprehensive estimate of how many fantasy points the player will score this week more or less than his typical total.
|Best Week 1 Matchups - Quarterbacks|
After all that preamble, the best quarterback matchups feature three players on the road. Go figure. Of course, Russell Wilson, Mitchell Trubisky, and Tom Brady do gain the benefits of playing in domes this week, a fate I already mentioned should be better for their fantasy outlooks than if they played in their own outdoor stadiums. Meanwhile, all three players project for an opponent boost. That is likely obvious for Wilson and Trubisky against the Falcons and Lions, respectively. That former defense was a top-eight booster of completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdowns per attempt last season. The latter was a top-10 touchdown booster, and maybe more important for Trubisky and his 2.3% career interception rate, the second-biggest reducer of interception rate.
Brady's opponent bump may have you scratching your head, especially if you noticed the Saints' silver medal -5.4% defensive DVOA projection in Aaron's latest update. This is a situation where fantasy fails to match realty. The Saints did cut passing efficiencies a small amount last season, but they offset that for opposing quarterbacks by building leads and incentivizing pass attempts. Avoid the Tampa Bay backs, not Brady. Meanwhile, Brees should enjoy an even better matchup across the field. His home dome boost of 1.8 fantasy points dwarfs that of the other top quarterbacks and yet still feels overly regressed from his 5.4-point home advantage since 2017. And the Bucs' split of the best run defense (-34.7% DVOA) and an average pass defense (2.2%, 13th) last season led their opponents to skew their plays toward the pass. Their 4.3% boost to pass plays and 16.3% dock to run plays were both the biggest in football.
|Worst Week 1 Matchups - Quarterbacks|
Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and Daniel Jones are all in my wait-and-see category of young quarterbacks. This is a good week to wait and see with their respective matchups against the Bills, Ravens, and Steelers. All three of those defenses were top-10 decreasers of passing yards per attempt last season. The former two did the same for passing touchdowns, and the Steelers were top-two increasers of both passer fumbles and interceptions. That's a non-starter for Jones after he led the league with 18 fumbles last season. Seriously, don't start him. He falls from 19th to 26th at the position this week because of the matchup.
You probably shouldn't outright avoid Kyler Murray or especially Deshaun Watson this week -- except maybe in DFS -- but don't expect their usual excellence. The 49ers were top-10 reducers of passing yards per attempt and top-10 increasers of interceptions per attempt. And they cut plays in general with their clock-draining rushing offense. The Chiefs don't do that. They don't even cut pass plays despite their relative weakness against the run (-0.7% DVOA, 26th) versus the pass (-3.9%, seventh). But defensive personnel and scheme improvements under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo flipped the team from a 6.1% completion percentage booster to a 3.0% docker over the last 12 months. And the Chiefs saw similar declines in their passing yards and touchdowns per attempt factors. That plus the trip to Arrowhead costs Watson 1.1 projected fantasy points and lowers him to fifth at the position this week.
|Best Week 1 Matchups - Running Backs|
You may remember from pretty much anything I've written since last fall that the 2019 Panthers were god's gift to opposing running backs. Their year-end boosts of 26.0% to yards per carry and 127.6% (!) to touchdowns per carry were far and away the highest in football. It will be fascinating to see if they can rebound from their historically terrible run defense (15.9% DVOA) anchored by top-10 draft pick Derrick Brown and a unit behind him that is just as young as he is. I think they probably can, at least somewhat. But based on some recent research, I'm not sure that will matter as much for their opponent backs' fantasy production as the team's overall quality. And the Panthers project to again be one of the worst teams in football (-14.3% DVOA, 29th). Even the middling Raiders (-4.5%) are dramatically better, and that should create plenty of carries for Josh Jacobs this week. He jumps from seventh in my true-talent rankings to third for the week.
Marlon Mack may not have a lengthy future of fantasy production next to rookie teammate Jonathan Taylor, whose class-leading BackCAST score earned him historical comps of Saquon Barkley and LaDainian Tomlinson. They're pretty good. But Mack earns a stay of fantasy execution this week as the for-now lead Colts back in a matchup against the Jaguars. His projected 0.9-point opponent boost likely understates how beneficial the matchup will be for him. After jettisoning two of their few remaining quality veterans in Yannick Ngakoue and Ronnie Harrison in recent weeks, the Jaguars have become the closest this year can offer to last year's tanking Dolphins. Relative team quality should drive extra carries for Mack assuming the Colts can build a lead. Mack ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns in his two games last season that the Colts won by multiple scores.
|Worst Week 1 Matchups - Running Backs|
I already mentioned the challenge Ronald Jones could face in a road game against New Orleans. To put some actual numbers to it, the Saints cut their opponents' run plays by 12.2%, yards per carry by 15.1%, and touchdowns per carry by 12.8%. I wouldn't want to start Jones this week even if I were totally confident Leonard Fournette was a non-factor (although Jones is technically a flex consideration for me as the 23rd back in my weekly rankings).
Jones' bad matchup peers all remain in my top 20 at the position, in part because they started with better true-talent rankings and in part because their matchups aren't quite as bad. Saquon Barkley, Kenyan Drake, and Ezekiel Elliott also figure to contribute as both rushers and receivers, which should help limit their sensitivity to matchups -- although I'll note that the Steelers are a top-six reducer of running back completion percentage and yards per target, not just yards and touchdowns per carry.
Chris Carson doesn't enjoy the same receiving benefits of those other backs, but I'm also subjectively less concerned for the Falcons matchup than the projections would suggest. They cut touchdowns per carry by 28.3% but yards per carry by just 1.1% last season. I suspect that difference stemmed from their poor pass defense that led to extra explosive passing scores. With the Seahawks more methodical approach, Carson could find the end zone. Although maybe I should be more scared of the Falcons' league-leading 137.7% boost to rusher fumbles. Carson drafters no doubt want to avoid a similar start to this season as he had in 2019 with a fumble in each of his first three games.
|Best Week 1 Matchups - Wide Receivers|
By and large, the top receiver matchups follow the top passer matchups. Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, and Adam Thielen all enjoy the home-dome boost, and the Bucs and Seahawks seem to have poor secondaries to deal with their opponents' top receivers.
DK Metcalf is a relative newcomer to the top 20 at the position, but the Falcons may be even less equipped to stop him than those other teams are to stop their star opponents. Atlanta will likely be without Kendall Sheffield after he suffered an unknown injury that landed him in a walking boot. That leaves the team with A.J. Terrell and Isaiah Oliver at corner and little depth behind them. The rookie Terrell seems likely to draw Metcalf this weekend in his first ever start, and Metcalf has 3 inches and 34 pounds on him.
The weird-seeming inclusion is Kenny Golladay, facing a Bears team that didn't decline nearly as much from their historically great 2018 defensive season as their record would suggest. They finished 11th against the pass (0.6% DVOA) last year and are projected for seventh in overall defense (-3.6%) this year. But interestingly, while their touchdown-per-target factors stayed low or even declined for second, slot, and deep receivers, they increased dramatically for No. 1 receivers. At the end of 2018, those players saw 22.2% fewer touchdowns per target against the Bears. At the end of last year, they saw 18.1% more touchdowns per target. And Golladay himself was a beneficiary of that trend, scoring twice to go along with his 215 yards in a pair of matchups with the Bears in 2019. An aging Prince Amukamara couldn't stick with the physical Golladay a year ago, and now the team has replaced him with second-round rookie Jaylon Johnson. I'm not optimistic for the rookie's chances. His only reprieve might be Golladay's nagging hamstring injury. Check the news on Sunday before you start him.
|Worst Week 1 Matchups - Wide Receivers|
Tre'Davious White, Stephon Gilmore, and Marlon Humphrey are the top corners on their respective teams, and they'll likely be trailing their opponents' top outside receivers in Breshad Perriman, DeVante Parker, and Odell Beckham this week, assuming Perriman can even play. The Patriots have hemorrhaged defensive talent this offseason, but not in the secondary. I trust that as their ticket to continue their 2019 trends of reducing the completion percentages, yards per target, and touchdowns per target of opposing No. 1 receivers by 14.5%, 11.8%, and 67.1%, all top-six in football.
Mike Williams -- if he plays -- and T.Y. Hilton won't face shutdown corners this weekend, but the Bengals and Jaguars could nevertheless damage their fantasy numbers by incentivizing their teams to run the ball. Last year's Bengals were a top-10 booster of run plays and top-10 docker of pass plays. The Jags were less extreme but could easily be more so this season after their offseason losses.
|Best Week 1 Matchups - Tight Ends|
Last year, one matchup mattered more for tight ends than any other. The Cardinals boosted the position's completion percentage by 11.4%, yards per target by 22.7%, and touchdowns per target by 127.9%. They were basically the Panthers' run defense of tight end defenses. Pitting George Kittle against them hardly seems fair. An injury robbed Kittle of one of his Cardinals matchups last season, but he pulled 79 yards and a touchdown in his one game against them, and his backup Ross Dwelley scored twice against them as a fill-in. Expect more of the same for Kittle this week. He's always a top-five option, but he's my No. 1 choice this week and nearly a point ahead of his full-season peer Travis Kelce.
|Worst Week 1 Matchups - Tight Ends|
There are reasons to be skeptical of Austin Hooper's, Jace Sternberger's, Jonnu Smith's, Eric Ebron's, and Mike Gesicki's fantasy value this season. That's probably par for the course for tight ends. But this nevertheless may be a good week to avoid those upside plays against some of the league's better tight end defenses. Hooper comes the closest to a clear start as my No. 10 option. The losses he figures to see moving to Kevin Stefanski's two-tight end-heavy offense should be mitigated by rookie tight end Harrison Bryant's late passing of David Njoku on the team's depth chart. But the Ravens are also top-12 cutters of tight end completion percentage and touchdowns per attempt.
Ebron may be less susceptible to matchups as mostly an end zone target for his new team in the Steelers. They have JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington to move the ball down the field. But really, that could be the problem for Ebron's fantasy value this week. The Giants boost wide receiver yards and touchdowns per target by 17.5% and 52.2%. The Steelers may not need Ebron's size to score in the red zone against New York.
|Best Week 1 Matchups - Kickers|
Kicker factors are relatively subtle, but there's one that creates most of the extremes at the position, such that there are any. Kickers in home dome games attempt 8.1% more field goals from 40-plus yards, no doubt driven by the increased possibility of 50-plus-yard attempts in a controlled environment. Wil Lutz, Younghoe Koo, Matt Prater, and Dan Bailey are the big winners this week in that respect. And Lutz ascends to my No. 1 choice at the position with the extra bump from a Bucs opponent that is a top-10 increaser of both short and long field goal attempts thanks to a stout run defense that keeps offenses out of the end zone.
|Worst Week 1 Matchups - Kickers|
On the other end of the spectrum, teams limit their opponents' field goal attempts by limiting their total plays (like the 49ers), keeping them out of range (like the Bills and Patriots), and building big enough leads that they can't settle for field goals (like the Chiefs). Zane Gonzalez, Sam Ficken, Jason Sanders, and Ka'imi Fairbairn have the luck of those draws this week, although none crack the top 10 in my true-talent rankings in any case.
|Best Week 1 Matchups - Defenses|
My early-season defense projections rely on their regressed tendencies from the previous year, so I'll need to do a bit of cherry-picking in September to account for the unusual turnover some teams experienced with opt-outs. The Patriots were hit harder than most teams in that respect and had already lost most of their starting linebackers to the Dolphins and Lions in free agency. Still, I'm willing to support the projections' opinion that they are the No. 1 option this week in fantasy at home against the Dolphins. The Patriots' secondary motivated their league-leading 111.4% boost to opponent interceptions last year, and Week 17 upset aside, Ryan Fitzpatrick seems a likely candidate to fall victim with his 3.4% career interception rate. Meanwhile, the Dolphins' patchwork offensive line (8.6% adjusted sack rate, 28th) led to 35.2% and 29.3% increases in their opponents' tackle-for-loss and sack rates last year. The team is trending in the right direction with their free-agent and draft additions of Ereck Flowers, Austin Jackson, and Solomon Kindley, but I would be surprised if they realized major improvements immediately in 2020.
Unless the Patriots fall off from their personnel losses, they, the Bills, and the Steelers are probably every-week defensive starts. My No. 2 true-talent ranking suggests the Eagles belong in that camp as well, but that one may not match your expectations. Whatever your opinion there, definitely deploy their defense this week on the road in Washington. Washington were top-five increasers in tackle-for-loss and sack rates last season and would have looked more extreme if Dwayne Haskins had been the starter all year. His 12.5% sack rate was easily the highest in football and dramatically worse than that of early-season starter Case Keenum (5.7%).
|Worst Week 1 Matchups - Defenses|
You won't make many bad decisions avoiding top offenses with your fantasy defenses. That should disqualify the Rams and Saints defenses facing the Cowboys and Bucs immediately for you. But I'll throw the Cowboys and Packers defenses into that mix against the Rams and Vikings as well. Despite Todd Gurley's publicized decline, the Rams continued to pass protect in 2019. Their 3.7% adjusted sack rate was the best in football and led to a 53.7% reduction in their opponent's sack rates. It may be difficult for the Cowboys to stop the Rams in general in their home opener. And while the Smith brothers and an improved secondary offer the Packers much more true-talent potential than their Week 1 ranking would suggest, you should still avoid them this week against the Vikings. Head coach Mike Zimmer is the driver of Minnesota's conservative offense. Kirk Cousins had a small 1.7% interception rate for the team before Kevin Stefanski even became the offensive coordinator. Now without Stefon Diggs to stretch the field, look for the Vikings to run and throw short passes to an even greater extreme. That offensive approach limits the Packers' chances to make the big defensive plays that drive fantasy scoring.