Fantasy Football Week 1: A Pre-Kickoff Digest

Jim McCormick@@_JimmyMcCormickFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2016

Fantasy Football Week 1: A Pre-Kickoff Digest

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    The protracted nightmare known as the NFL offseason is coming to an end. From Thursday night in Denver until the Super Bowl in Houston in early February, we will bask in the entertainment of the league's 97th season.

    A major part of this experience, of course, is the fantasy football season. In this piece, we'll prime you for Week 1 with several crucial storylines to consider in the context of fantasy football.

    In this age of instant information and endless internet content, it can feel increasingly difficult to gain an edge on the competition. This doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to grind for advantages where we can find them—quite the opposite—as being well-informed is still one of the key differentiators for success.

    You've likely already drafted your team—now it's time to make prudent lineup decisions and fine-tune the bench.

    With that in mind, we'll cover the top marquee matchups to watch for this week, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown facing the ever-loquacious Josh Norman of the Washington Redskins.

    We'll also focus on the key studs and duds to watch for in Week 1, again with an eye on matchup metrics. The Detroit Lions, for example, could see their receivers thrive against a depleted Indianapolis Colts secondary that is putting out personal ads for cornerback help.

    Even before regular-season snaps have occurred, we have several key injury scenarios to consider, which we canvas in this piece. As for the game of the week, the New England Patriots' trip to the desert to face the Arizona Cardinals delivers two contenders with a number of compelling fantasy narratives to consider.

    Which deep sleepers will emerge in Week 1 and become the top waiver additions next week? No, really, tell us if you know. We cover all of these topics and more in this comprehensive primer.

    Join us in preparing for the kickoff to the inaugural week of the NFL season, and as always, please share any fantasy football questions or tips in the comments below.

Pre-Kickoff Digest: Top Matchups of the Week

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    In this portion of this fantasy football primer, we discuss the top matchup narratives of Week 1 to consider.

    Antonio Brown vs. Josh Norman

    As much as the Washington Redskins' Josh Norman would love to cover the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown solo on Monday Night Football in the bright prime-time lights, it takes an entire scheme to slow the league's best receiver. That doesn't mean we won't find some key battles emerge between the two All-Pro talents, as their matchup qualifies as one of the top narratives of the week.

    In the capital on Monday night, we'll witness Brown, who was Pro Football Focus' top-graded receiver last season, clash with Norman, who earned PFF's third-highest coverage grade among corners last season. Norman allowed a meager passer rating of 54 to quarterbacks when targeted last season, the lowest allowance of 118 qualifying corners graded by PFF last season. Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, enjoyed an 87.3 rating when targeting Brown last season.

    Simply put, Brown is, as Snoop Dogg once aptly phrased, unfadeable, so please don't try to fade him. Norman is a top talent at the position, but adjusting to a new scheme without the pressure-producing front seven the Carolina Panthers boast is a challenging transition on its own, nevertheless facing the toughest playmaker to cover in the league in Brown.

    We're still projecting Brown to top 100 yards and net more than 10 targets from Roethlisberger, so there will be plenty of opportunities for entertainment in this riveting matchup of top talents.

    Titans Tailbacks vs. the Vikings' Front Seven

    The Tennessee Titans' bruising rookie running back Derrick Henry ranked second in the preseason with 216 rushing yards and a guard 6.4 yards per carry, per CBS. Veteran workhorse DeMarco Murray ranked 10th in rushing production, and the pair compiled five touchdowns in exhibition competition.

    Coach Mike Mularkey spoke throughout the offseason of deploying an "exotic smashmouth" offensive scheme he developed years back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, per the team's site. The premise is to counter an increasingly pass-happy, finesse-fueled league with a physical, run-first offense that can show multiple looks with athletic signal-caller Marcus Mariota at the helm ahead of a deep and talented backfield.

    Many were laughing at such coachspeak earlier in the offseason, but the prolific preseason results and obvious talent Henry is flashing have piqued the interest of fantasy investors.

    The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, allowed just five rushing scores to backs last season, third-fewest in the league. The Vikings also ceded the eighth-fewest fantasy points to backfields last season, per ESPN.com. It should prove revealing to see strength versus strength play out on Sunday afternoon in Nashville, as the Vikings' talent and young front seven will match up with the Titans' retooled and imposing offensive agenda.

    Fantasy investors in Henry will be interested to see how his workload unfolds and if he can earn independent flex appeal as the complementary back to Murray. It will also prove intriguing to see how Mularkey unleashes Mariota and his 4.5 jets, who he's promised to let run more this season.

    Dak Prescott Faces the Giants' New-Look Defense

    Former NFL safety and current ESPN Insider Matt Bowen asked whether the New York Giants' $200 million spending spree on defense this past offseason was a wise allocation of resources. The new-look New York defense has a unique first challenge in facing the Dallas Cowboys' athletic rookie signal-caller Dak Prescott in his first start.

    Prescott thrived in the preseason and suddenly inherited the starting gig when Tony Romo went down with yet another injury. The Mississippi State product registered the third-highest grade at quarterback from Pro Football Focus in the preseason. Prescott netted this lofty preseason grade thanks to a 78 percent completion rate on 9.1 yards per attempt. With five touchdowns and no interceptions to go with per-attempt efficiency, he produced a quarterback rating of 137.8.

    While with the Bulldogs in the ever-competitive SEC, Prescott averaged 801.0 rushing yards and 12.3 touchdowns on the ground over the past three seasons, which suggests a good portion of his fantasy value could come on the ground this season.

    That said, Cameron DaSilva of Fox Sports revealed Prescott's presence as a late-round starting quarterback in the NFL proves rare: "Since 1970, only 11 quarterbacks taken in the fourth round have started a single game their rookie year. Only three of those have started five or more: Chris Weinke, Kyle Orton and Mike Pagel."

    So we'll find out a good deal about the Giants' massive defensive investments, namely edge-rusher Olivier Vernon and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, while the Cowboys' hopes, as well as those of investors in Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant, rest in the hands—and legs—of a riveting rookie.

    RGIII vs. Carson Wentz

    Robert Griffin III and Carson Wentz entered the league with a great deal of pressure as the respective No. 2 overall selections in their drafts after their teams spent massive draft capital to acquire them. Griffin is now on his second team after an ultimately disappointing run with the Redskins, while Wentz is just on the doorstep of his first NFL journey for the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson has been regarded as a QB whisper of sorts, as he helped the Cincinnati Bengals' Andy Dalton develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber signal-caller and now has his attention set on helping Griffin regain lost luster after several down seasons. Griffin will meet the Eagles' aggressive pass rush in South Philly on Sunday in what should be a revealing look at the Browns' somewhat intriguing offense.

    Can Griffin again become a weekly fantasy weapon?

    He enjoyed some deep-ball success in the preseason and ranked as the 13th-best quarterback in Pro Football Focus' grading at the position through the first three weeks of the preseason. The Eagles are weakest at outside corner, so it will interesting to see how Griffin challenges them with his capable vertical passing skill set.

    Per ESPN's Adam Caplan, the Eagles are suddenly set to deploy Wentz in his professional debut, so long as he's healed from a preseason rib injury. We've only seen a few series of exposure for Wentz in the preseason, but the team's trade of Sam Bradford to the Vikings opened up this opportunity for instant exposure for the rookie.

    For fantasy purposes, we're mostly interested in the Eagles' Ryan Mathews as a volume running back, while the Browns' Corey Coleman and Duke Johnson could both thrive underneath against an exploitable set of linebackers in coverage. More than anything, we might want to stock up on shares of both fantasy defenses for those seeking streaming options, as both quarterbacks could have long days. 

    On one side, we have Griffin's road to redemption, and on the other is Wentz's initial foray into the fast-paced world of professional football. Even as these quarterbacks don't individually compete with each other, their telling narratives in this opener are tied.

Week 1 Studs to Target in Fantasy Football

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    Which players are primed for prolific performances this week? Let's evaluate seven players ranked outside of the top 10 at their respective positions who have choice matchups and rich opportunities for Week 1. Essentially, which offensive players are positioned to outperform their rankings in the opener?

    Marvin Jones and Golden Tate, Detroit Lions

    Jones and signal-caller Matthew Stafford earned raves from beat writers throughout the offseason for their instant on-field rapport. A skilled sideline technician with a 10-touchdown season to his name, Jones is poised to produce top-20 fantasy numbers at the position—and possibly WR1 metrics—against the Colts' depleted secondary that should be without top cover corner Vontae Davis, per Mike Wells of ESPN.com. 

    As for Tate, we project a high floor for him, given he was fourth in routes run in the league last season (Calvin Johnson was second) and posted the highest catch percentage among the top 20 in routes run. This could lead to the rare combination of volume and efficiency, which often yields awesome results for point-per-reception formats. 

    Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs

    The San Diego Chargers ceded the fourth-most rushing touchdowns (14), sixth-most yards (1,780), second-most yards per carry (4.97) and fifth-most fantasy points to tailbacks last season, per ESPN.com. With Jamaal Charles possibly not ready to start the season, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Ware is likely to consume a majority share of meaningful touches—including valuable goal-line duties—against the soft San Diego front.

    Even as he's likely to be priced as an RB2 this week in rankings and found inexpensively on daily fantasy sites—Ware costs just $4,400 on DraftKings and $5,400 on FanDuel—we're aggressively projecting RB1 production for the LSU product in Week 1.

    Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia Eagles

    The main hesitance when investing in Mathews in season-long leagues comes down to durability concerns. Not only is injury prediction a tricky and often flawed methodology, but Mathews is healthy entering the season; therefore, we can at least get excited about this choice matchup with the Cleveland Browns.

    Mathews was fourth among NFL backs last season with 2.93 yards before contact per rush and ninth in yards after contact per tote (2.15 YAC/attempt). In other words, if we worry too much about his injury risks, we might miss out on his potentially high ceiling.

    The Browns allowed the third-most rushing yards to running backs last season on a generous 4.58 yards per carry. With rookie Carson Wentz potentially starting for the Birds, upwards of 20 touches should be expected for this talented, if fragile, workhorse. We're projecting over 100 total yards and a touchdown for Mathews' 2016 debut.

    Donte Moncrief, Indianapolis Colts

    A much-hyped fantasy prospect throughout the offseason, Moncrief could see double-digit targets for a Colts offense that is trending pass-happy for the 2016 season. The defense appears devoid of a capable or consistent pass rush and is depleted in the secondary, which spells the need for a high-octane offense in order to contend.

    Enter Moncrief and his 96th percentile explosion score as a prospect, per MockDraftable. The Ole Miss product enters the vaunted third-year breakout phase of his career after thriving with Andrew Luck last season to the tune of 11 yards per reception and five scores on just 54 targets. Extrapolate this rate over a full batch of targets (let's project 130) and you net 12 touchdowns.

    Odds Shark lists this contest with the Detroit Lions as the week's second-highest implied point total, which suggests shares of both passing games, namely with undervalued assets such as Jones and Moncrief, could prove profitable.

    DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins

    Lost in Jackson's injury-shortened 2015 is the reality he led all receivers in fantasy points per target at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, per an ESPN.com piece conducted by the author. The elite vertical threat was as electric as ever on deep targets.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary, meanwhile, proved exploitable in 2015, as they allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to receivers in ESPN leagues. Despite a clear lack of hype this offseason, we have Jackson positioned as a high-ceiling WR2 for Week 1.

    Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    The Atlanta Falcons were actually somewhat stingy against opposing arms in regard to fantasy allowance in 2015, ceding the seventh-fewest fantasy points to the position. This reality makes it more compelling to project Winston to produce QB1 results in Week 1 in a visit to the Georgia Dome.

    This tweet from Pro Football Focus' Pat Thorman reveals the Bucs found success with the no-huddle offense already in the preseason, which offers evidence we could see a sped-up Tampa offense emerge in Week 1. 

    With a full arsenal of skill weapons at his disposal and the potential to make a sizable leap in reading the field in Year 2, Winston is positioned to produce 300-plus yards and multiple touchdowns in this division battle.

Fantasy Football Duds for Week 1

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    Associated Press

    Given we just suggested a number of players positioned to outperform expectations in Week 1, it's fitting we now turn to a number of commodities in position to disappoint investors.

    Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers

    Benjamin suffered an ACL injury last preseason and is still working his way back into form for the regular season, per Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer. We don't love the combination of Benjamin still getting into game shape and this Week 1 meeting with the Denver Broncos' stingy secondary, which allowed the fewest fantasy points to receivers last season in ESPN leagues.

    Per Fantasy Pros, Benjamin was drafted as the 21st wideout on average, which suggests he's a starting asset for most fantasy teams. We'd rather deploy guys like the Washington Redskins' DeSean Jackson or either of the Detroit Lions' starting wideouts, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, over Benjamin, to name a few.

    Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

    This big-play maven could quickly make this prediction look foolish, but we're not enthused with the fact Lockett was on the field for just 52 percent of the first-team offensive snaps in the preseason, per Fantasy Labs.

    It's simple, but entirely accurate, to say that a player needs to be on the field to produce fantasy points. We love Lockett's high-ceiling vertical skills but find him difficult to trust with what appears to be a tertiary specialist role for the Seahawks.

    Matt Jones, Washington Redskins

    The information we have for Jones' recovery from a preseason shoulder injury remains murky, but the team's Twitter account has been sending out positive updates of late. Assuming Jones nets the start against the Steelers on Monday Night Football, we're not enthused with his fantasy prospects, given the Steelers allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to backs last season in ESPN leagues. We'd rather send out receiving backs like Giovani Bernard of the Bengals or Spencer Ware of the Chiefs, to name a few ADP peers of note.

    DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins

    Offseason hype for Parker fizzled a good deal once the preseason unfolded and we saw him play behind Kenny Stills in two-receiver sets for the Dolphins this August. That said, Parker was still drafted as a top-100 asset and could be in consideration for WR3 deployment on some fantasy rosters.

    We're here to advise against using Parker until we see him earn more snaps and appear in a better matchup context, as the Seahawks' stingy secondary allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to receivers last season in ESPN leagues.

Jamaal Charles' Status for Week 1 Is One of Several Key Injury Scenarios

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    Associated Press

    Injuries are the bane of a fantasy football manager's existence. In a game defined by the collision of large and fast men, it's an unavoidable reality in our little fantasy game that we'll all encounter several key injuries to our rosters each season.

    On the doorstep of 2016, there are few high-impact injury scenarios to consider. With preparation in mind, we'll canvas the market for the most meaningful injury issues heading into Week 1.

    Beginning with the most prominent situation, Adam Teicher of ESPN suggests the Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles could miss Week 1, as the team just isn't sure yet of his status. With Charcandrick West also ailing, it could turn into the Spencer Ware show against the San Diego Chargers' generous rush defense. Owners of Charles who don't have shares of Ware should prepare to deploy other options at the position this weekend.

    We just mentioned in our projected duds page the Washington Redskins' Matt Jones is a key injury to track as we head toward the start of the regular season. While reports are positive so far for Jones' status, it's wise to track this scenario given the Monday timing of his game. Investors in Jones will want to have backup Robert Kelley in place or better yet have a Sunday contingency in place if Jones' status remains unsettled heading into the weekend.

    Carlos Hyde of the San Francisco 49ers is due a sizable workload this season in Chip Kelly's snap-happy scheme, but he remains in the concussion protocol, per team reporter Joe Fann. Wednesday's practice session could prove telling for Hyde's status, as we'd want to see him cleared for football activity in order to assume starting status for a game with late Monday night timing. Receiving back Shaun Draughn would get the start in Hyde's place, but we'd rather look elsewhere at the position if that were the case.

    As for starting-caliber assets who are already ruled out for Week 1, we find the Cincinnati Bengals' Tyler Eifert eyeing a Week 4 return, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    Sticking at the tight end position, the Detroit Lions' Eric Ebron is questionable for Week 1 with a lingering ankle ailment, although the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett estimates Ebron could play against the Indianapolis Colts, given he's been vocal to the media the past week. Even as the Colts allowed the 10th-most fantasy points to tight ends last season in ESPN leagues, we'd like to find more reliable options than Ebron to start the campaign.

    As for another talented tight end in question, Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times recently wrote Jimmy Graham "appears to be recovering well but it’s still uncertain if he will play Week 1." Even if he's active, we don't trust Graham to earn enough snaps or routes to produce meaningful fantasy results. Patience is key for Graham's investors, as he could still provide profit, but it's unlikely to occur in Week 1.

    The Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz could start as early as this Sunday in South Philly against the Cleveland Browns, per ESPN's Adam Caplan. If Wentz is fully healed from a rib injury suffered a month ago in the first preseason game, he's likely to get the start, per the report. While we wouldn't send Wentz out there in normal fantasy leagues, interest in two-quarterback leagues and in DFS leagues at the pricing minimum could be interesting for tournaments.

Game of the Week: The Patriots Head West to Face the Cardinals

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    Associated Press

    The game of the week for both real and fantasy purposes is the New England Patriots heading to the desert to take on the Arizona Cardinals. These two contenders deliver a number of prominent fantasy narratives in a contest that could reveal a good deal about each roster.

    First of all, how will the Pats' Jimmy Garoppolo fare against a Cardinals defense that led the league in blitz rate last season? Arizona sent extra pressure on 45 percent of opposing dropbacks last season. In fact, Arizona has blitzed on at least 42 percent of opposing dropbacks in each of the past four seasons.

    Albeit over a small sample, Garoppolo completed 80 percent of his passes facing 15 blitzes this preseason with 14.1 yards per attempt and a robust 118.8 passer rating, per Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus. It's clear the Cards are bringing the heat for the green quarterback; therefore, it will prove revealing to see how he responds.

    According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Patriots ran 589 offensive plays last season with at least two tight ends, the most in the NFL. New England scored 29 total touchdowns and passed for 18 touchdown passes with at least that many on the field—most in the league last season.

    The Cardinals, for their part, faced at least two tight ends on the field for just 234 snaps last season. Only the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys faced fewer such formations lasts season. Fittingly, the Cards, Lions and Cowboys were three teams among the worst in completion percentage allowance in those situations.

    It will be telling to see how the Pats' multiple-tight end sets with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett produce in this unique matchup. Shares of Bennett for those who punted the tight end position in drafts and as a cheap asset in DFS play could prove fascinating.

    How will the Cardinals' deep receiving corps produce? The Pats were somewhat fallible against receivers last season, as they allowed the third-most yards to receivers. The real query is how the pecking order unfolds, as speedster John Brown is expected to play, given he was on the field in the team's final preseason contest despite lingering concussion issues.

    Much like his teammate Michael Floyd, Brown is ideally suited for Bruce Arians' vertically inclined offense, ranking seventh among receivers in air yards per target in 2015. Floyd, for his part, was fourth in the NFL with 15.4 air yards per target last season. These two will compete for valuable vertical targets, as both are poised as upside-laden WR2 options for Week 1.

    Veteran stalwart Larry Fitzgerald was a top-10 fantasy option last season but didn't inspire a ton of hype in fantasy circles given his age (33) and his deep-threat peers on the same depth chart. We still find him to be a fine option in PPR leagues and as a red-zone threat, but it's somewhat clear the big-play opportunities will go to Brown and Floyd.

    We're confident the Cardinals' elite tailback David Johnson can thrive against the Pats, especially as New England was one of 12 teams to allow as many as 92 receptions to tailbacks in 2015. Conversely, we're less confident in how New England's often-inscrutable backfield plays out.

    With LeGarrette Blount once again making the 53-man roster as the team's top early-down and goal-line back, he bears interest in standard formats for his touchdown potential. The Cards allowed just 3.71 yards per carry to backs last season, the sixth-fewest in football, so we're not so enthused with Blount's yardage floor, although that's never been his angle.

    As for receiving back James White, it's worth mentioning Arizona allowed the third-most yards per reception to backs last season (7.8), which suggests he could provide sneaky value in PPR formats if a shootout emerges or if Blount proves incapable of gaining yardage on early downs.

    This rare meeting of cross-conference contenders offers a variety of real and fantasy narratives to consider.

The Packers' Jared Cook Among Several Key Deep Sleepers in Week 1

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    In this portion, we'll cover widely available sleepers to consider for Week 1.

    Finding waiver-wire gems before they even go off is a rewarding practice to pursue. We find several key assets worthy of such attention, such as the aforementioned Spencer Ware of the Kansas City Chiefs. We'll touch on him again in the bold predictions slide.

    The Baltimore Ravens offense has been difficult to price for fantasy football all summer. While we like Mike Wallace's position as the team's top receiver to start the season, we're also intrigued by Terrance West's role as the team's leading option on early downs in the running phase. An impressive preseason could give way to a solid debut. West is still available in well over 60 percent of ESPN leagues.

    We also dig slot receiver Eli Rogers of the Pittsburgh Steelers in deeper PPR formats, but going deeper we could envision tight end Jesse James earning valuable red-zone looks, given Ben Roethlisberger's penchant for targeting tight ends in close.

    If the Indianapolis Colts' Dwayne Allen is a fine tight end target against a Detroit Lions defense that allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to tight ends last season in ESPN leagues, the team's tertiary receiver Phillip Dorsett is also a fun target to consider for his big-play upside and wide availability—he's a free agent in more than half of ESPN leagues.

    After an offseason developing a strong rapport with Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers' Jared Cook—rostered in fewer than half of ESPN leagues at press time—could thrive facing a Jacksonville Jaguars defense that allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to the position last season in ESPN leagues.

Bold Predictions for Week 1 in Fantasy Football: Winston Shines

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    Bold can be defined as deploying ideas or predictions that assume risk and come with a measure of confidence. Fantasy football often comes down to researching the marketplace for talent in the NFL and making firm decisions on specific players and teams. In this context, we're sharing some bold predictions that aren't likely to occur but could prove true given a number of telling trends in play. 

    For our first bold prediction, we'll proclaim Jameis Winston produces top-three fantasy metrics at the quarterback position. The Tampa Bay Bucs' second-year signal-caller handled a complicated NFL offense as a rookie and is now completely comfortable with Dirk Koetter's fantasy-friendly scheme. If the team can find success in the no-huddle offense in the Georgia Dome this Sunday, we envision huge numbers for Winston and his passing targets.

    For a bold backfield call, we'll say the Kansas City Chiefs' Spencer Ware produces top-five fantasy results at the position. Just last November, Ware tallied 101 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns against the San Diego Chargers, whose defense appeared as generous as ever in the preseason.

    Going with a player whom few will roster this week, the Los Angeles Rams' Kenny Britt will submit a top-25 fantasy performance against the San Francisco 49ers. He was third in the league last year in air yards per target with a robust 16.1 per target; therefore, big-play upside is possible against a spotty San Francisco secondary.

    For our final bold bid, we say the Saints' C.J. Spiller outscores Mark Ingram in fantasy production this week. The team has made a concerted effort to get Spiller reps with the first team in the preseason, and the former Clemson dynamo looks much sprier than he did in last season's disappointing campaign. With the Saints targeting their backfield so often, we're intrigued by shares of Spiller in deep PPR formats and for contrarian DFS competition.

       

    Data such as formation information, blitz percentages and air yards for this piece sourced from an ESPN database. 

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