Start 'Em, Sit 'Em Week 1: Top Matchup Plays and Sleepers for Opening Games

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2017

Ben Roethlisberger is a strong Week 1 play despite opening the season on the road.
Ben Roethlisberger is a strong Week 1 play despite opening the season on the road.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Fantasy football enthusiasts spent August laboring over pivotal draft calls. Now they will instead pull their hair out when deciding of those players to start.

Snagging a star sleeper won't matter if he breaks out on the bench. Most managers will trust their opening picks in Week 1, but the matchups mean more than the draft slots.

This isn't an endorsement to bench Aaron Rodgers against the Seattle Seahawks, but perhaps Ty Montgomery should ride the pine. Although selected far later, Jacquizz Rodgers is a favorable Week 1 play.

Optimal lineup management can transform a solid team into a championship contender. Let's start on the right foot by identifying premier matchup plays and sleepers for the opening slate.

                

Quarterback

Top Matchup Play: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (at CLE)

Pittsburgh's offense is at full strength with Martavis Bryant reinstated.
Pittsburgh's offense is at full strength with Martavis Bryant reinstated.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Were any numbers discussed more during draft season than Ben Roethlisberger's home-road splits?

He stumbled away from Heinz Field last season, accumulating just 1,904 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns in eight games. That caused fantasy players to either flee entirely or select him late as a streamer.

Roethlisberger opens the season on the road. Everyone should start him.

The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback hasn't played with Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant since amassing 4,952 passing yards and two six-touchdown games in 2014. As noted by Rotoworld's Evan Silva, Roethlisberger and his fantasy investors should be giddy to see the reinstated wideout return:

Yes, the quarterback left last year's trip to FirstEnergy Stadium with 167 passing yards and no scores. Don't panic. The Browns still surrendered Yahoo Sports' second-most fantasy points to opposing passers, and Big Ben closed out 2015 with three touchdowns at Cleveland.

Roethlisberger is the star player on a loaded offense against a vulnerable defense. Don't pass it up because he'll be playing in front of Browns fans with bags over their heads.

            

Sleeper: Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings (vs. NO)

Maybe Sam Bradford is the life of the party off the gridiron, but he's a boring fantasy option.

In an era where throwing for 4,000 yards is a requirement rather than milestone, he is still aiming to reach the milestone. Seventeen quarterbacks tossed more than his 20 passing scores last year.

His safety is also endearing in the right matchup. Running an overly cautious Minnesota Vikings offense, he registered an NFL-best 71.6 completion percentage. He'll open 2017 against the New Orleans Saints, who yielded a 64.9 completion percentage and secured nine picks.

For Bradford to earn fantasy relevancy, he'll need to pair that rousing efficiency with big plays. As detailed by NFL.com's Matt Harmon, the former No. 1 pick succeeded when given the green light to throw downfield:

Rookie running back Dalvin Cook should balance Minnesota's offense and enable the 29-year-old to take some vertical shots. A weak Saints secondary gives Bradford the perfect chance to open up the aerial attack and deliver solid streamer value for anyone who needs to replace Andrew Luck.

              

Running Back

Top Matchup Play: Jacquizz Rodgers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at MIA)

Jacquizz Rodgers may be on borrowed time, but he should offer a short-term jolt during Doug Martin's three-game suspension. His brief showcase commences with a favorable matchup against the Miami Dolphins, who surrendered 4.8 yards per carry last season.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't run effectively last year, averaging 3.6 yards per run with Football Outsiders' third-worst Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA). Yet they kept trying; only six teams attempted more rushes.

In five games as the lead runner without Martin and Charles Sims, Rodgers averaged 21.4 carries for 92.4 yards. According to Pro Football Focus, he tied Ezekiel Elliott for the seventh-most fantasy points among running backs during that condensed sampling.

Sims could stifle such a heavy workload this September, but he's more likely to function as a third-down back. That would leave Rodgers in position to receive plenty of reps, raising his floor as a solid No. 2 running back or flex play.

          

Sleeper: Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers (at 49ers)

Think Christian McCaffrey is heavily hyped now? People may start offering naming rights to their unborn children for the Carolina Panthers rookie if he accepts the scheduling gods' gift known as the San Francisco 49ers.

San Francisco allowed 27.16 fantasy points per game to running backs in standard Yahoo formats last season, 4.09 points more than the runner-up Browns. McCaffrey should introduce himself to NFL fans with a stuffed stat line, but don't forget about Jonathan Stewart. 

Since averaging a tame 3.8 yards per carry last season, the running back celebrated his 30th birthday. That makes him archaic in the unforgiving world of NFL rushers.

He also scored nine touchdowns in 13 games, and the 49ers relinquished 23 rushing scores in 2016. Although McCaffrey will eat into Carolina's backfield touches, he shouldn't replace the stocky veteran in the red zone. The neophyte will pile up the yards and stockpile catches for his points-per-reception (PPR) owners, but look for Stewart to steal a touchdown or two.

          

Wide Receiver

Top Matchup Play: Sammy Watkins, Los Angeles Rams (vs. IND)

Sammy Watkins will make his Los Angeles Rams debut against the Indianapolis Colts, who will play without top cornerback Vontae Davis.
Sammy Watkins will make his Los Angeles Rams debut against the Indianapolis Colts, who will play without top cornerback Vontae Davis.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Sammy Watkins is the ultimate boom-or-bust player. His talent is undeniable, but the same cannot be said for Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams offense. Although One week won't offer full clarity, the situation is ripe for a promising debut.

The Indianapolis Colts yielded Football Outsiders' fourth-worst DVOA to No. 1 wide receivers last year. That was predominantly with top cornerback Vontae Davis, who won't be ready for Week 1, according to Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder:

Indianapolis also opened 2016 without Davis. In two games against the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, they capitulated 8.7 yards per pass attempt and a combined 87 points.

Watkins will likely now line up against Rashaan Melvin and/or Quincy Wilson, setting the bar for matchup-winning upside this weekend. Reaching that ceiling, of course, hinges on Goff feeding him accurate passes. At least the 24-year-old has little competition for targets.

Following a down year, the Rams wideout has unheralded post-hype breakout appeal. In his last 16 games, eight ending 2015 and the other half in 2016, Watkins recorded 1,162 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Consider him a high-end No. 3 receiver or flex play with massive potential.

            

Sleeper: Ted Ginn Jr., New Orleans Saints (at MIN)

Ted Ginn Jr. has a huge opportunity to make an impact with the New Orleans Saints.
Ted Ginn Jr. has a huge opportunity to make an impact with the New Orleans Saints.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ted Ginn Jr. may no longer hold sleeper status by the time the New Orleans Saints open their season on Monday night. 

Fantasy managers are still processing the blindsiding news of Willie Snead receiving a three-game suspension, as first reported by ESPN's Field Yates. Previously a solid bench pick, Ginn now upgrades to an intriguing flex play in deeper leagues.

He's Drew Brees' No. 2 wide receiver behind Michael Thomas, but FantasyPros remains cautious of the all-or-nothing speedster. As of Monday, Ginn is the No. 49-ranked wideout in standard formats.

Although the Vikings limited opponents to the third-fewest passing yards last year, don't go overboard on the New Orleans road narrative. Drew Brees fared just fine away from the Superdome last year, averaging 305.1 passing yards per game. He'll look Ginn's way often if Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadows Thomas.

Ginn is a confounding player to trust. He could finish with five yards or justify a starting spot with one big play. As a top option on a consistently elite attack, he at least deserves recognition as a top-40 fantasy receiver.

               

Tight End

Top Matchup Play: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles (at WAS)

Zach Ertz had 10 receptions in his last game against Washington.
Zach Ertz had 10 receptions in his last game against Washington.Rob Leiter/Getty Images

The last time Zach Ertz faced Washington, he caught 10 of his 13 targets for 112 yards. In Week 16 of the 2015 campaign, he reeled off 13 catches for 122 yards.

He also didn't score in either game, a common refrain for a tight end with 13 touchdowns in 61 career bouts. Last season's middling tally (four) wasn't due to a lack of opportunities. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, he caught six of 14 red-zone targets, three of which he converted into touchdowns.

Alshon Jeffery could absorb some of those chances, but he also may draw Josh Norman's attention on Sunday. That will redirect Wentz to move the chains with Ertz against a Washington defense that yielded 108 catches for 1,119 yards against tight ends last season.

Ertz didn't enjoy a grand-scale breakout in 2016, but he quietly placed fifth at the position in targets (101), receptions (78) and receiving yards (816). He should open 2017 with another exceptional PPR performance.

            

Sleeper: Evan Engram, New York Giants (at DAL)

Evan Engram is an interesting tight-end flier.
Evan Engram is an interesting tight-end flier.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Rookie tight ends take a long time to reach their stride as pass-catchers. Ertz spent years in sleeper purgatory before establishing himself as a worthwhile fantasy starter. The highly regarded group of Evan Engram, O.J. Howard and David Njoku will likely disappoint investors expecting an immediate breakout.

Engram, however, can tease them with a promising debut.

The Dallas Cowboys, his Week 1 opponent, allowed an NFL-high 120 receptions and 1,206 yards to tight ends last season. As the newcomer explained to New York Daily News' Pat Leonard, he's a versatile target and matchup nightmare waiting to happen.

"I think I’m kind of a chess piece," Engram said. "I can get matched up with a linebacker and really use my speed to my advantage. (Or if I’m) getting on a DB (defensive back), I’m just being more of a receiver and being savvy and physical … And then when the big play comes, it’s going up and making it."

Eli Manning, who hasn't had a trustworthy tight end in years, may need to quickly get Engram involved if an injured ankle limits or sidelines Odell Beckham Jr. He's an intriguing flier for someone planning to work the waiver wire at tight end.

         

Note: All fantasy scoring data obtained from Yahoo Sports