The Falcons are unlikely to be a good team overall this year. However, I’m growing more convinced their offense might be a pretty interesting unit and give us at least three every-week fantasy starters.
Arthur Smith has a strangely fussy relationship with the media but I think he nailed his Week 1 player deployment.
Kyle Pitts lined up out wide on just 25.7 percent of his routes. I know everyone has hot takes about how good Pitts could be as a legitimate X-receiver but he's a tight end. We want him running routes against linebackers and safeties. That's where you get real mismatches.
I fully believe that Pitts was used wide so much last year out of necessity because the Falcons were bereft of legitimate outside receiver options. But I should be clear, I also have my own agenda here. Regardless, more actual tight-end usage is a good thing for his fantasy outlook.
Pitts did pass block (20% of passing snaps) a bit more than we want in Week 1 but remains a fixture of the passing game. He inhaled 33% of the team’s air yards. He will have monster games soon enough.
Drake London is the reason the Falcons don't have to do the outside receiver stuff with Pitts as much this year. The rookie stepped right onto the NFL field and looked like he belonged after very little practice time the last month after a preseason injury.
London lined up out wide on 90.6% of routes. He can win as a legitimate outside X-receiver. He handled 31% of the team air yards and the results were solid too, with 74 yards on five catches. London is one of my favorite buys right now and I think he has a path to top-20 receiver production on a regular basis as his rookie year goes on. He’s just a really good player.
A funnel target tree between Pitts and London is exactly what we signed up for in Atlanta. Marcus Mariota is obviously not a long-term answer but can feed these guys underneath to pile up catches.
Lastly, it's clear 2021 was no fluke and Arthur Smith has clearly figured out how to best deploy Cordarrelle Patterson. He was awesome in Week 1.
He was right up there among the league leaders in running-back touches and earned a first down on 45.5% of his rushes. The Falcons were punishing as a rushing team and the Saints have historically been a tough outing for running backs.
It would probably be best for another back on this roster to step up and stay healthy to take some of the grinder carries away from Patterson to keep him fresh. However, Patterson looks like a true NFL running back and as long as the Falcons offense stays afloat, he’s going to go down as one of the most under-ranked players from this fantasy draft season.
A glimmer of Cowboys hope?
I wanted to share this because it's a good reminder that when Cooper Rush started for Dallas last year, all the air didn't go out of the balloon. That being said, this ecosystem is dramatically worse than what the Cowboys rolled out last year.
Rush was still aggressive when he got on the field last Sunday, leading all quarterbacks in average depth of throw. So maybe we can get some air yards going CeeDee Lamb's direction. To be clear, things are still quite bleak but it's just worth noting.
Tua Tagovailoa had the lowest average depth of throw (5.0) among QBs when pressured in Week 1
Conversely, he ranked top-six in aDOT when kept clean, per Pro Football Focus.
It's important to note this because the Dolphins are dealing with injuries on the offensive line. Left tackle Terron Armstead is questionable for Sunday and right tackle Austin Jackson was placed on short-term IR Friday morning.
Tyreek Hill was the biggest addition this team made in the offseason but an improved offensive line was a big part of the thesis for why Tua's life would be easier in 2022. It's not ideal to see injuries this early in the year. We've seen over the last few seasons that Tua changes as a passer when there's extra heat. He also ranked last in aDOT under pressure last year. He has playmakers that can operate extremely well after the catch but it just caps the ceiling of this entire operation.
The Ravens had a cakewalk matchup against their old friend Joe Flacco in Week 1 but they certainly looked back to form from a pass-defense standpoint. Fantasy managers with any level of interest in the Dolphins don't want to see them teeing off vs. Tua behind a compromised offensive line.
Top-five teams in situation-neutral pace of play
The Panthers stand out to me on this list. Ben McAdoo’s offenses traditionally play fast and with tempo. He’s brought that approach to a Carolina offense that desperately needs it.
While I didn't love what I saw out of Baker Mayfield or the passing game in Week 1, I'm willing to give a temporary pass. Mayfield looked like a guy who hasn't spent much time with this team. This makes sense — because that's the case.
The Panthers offense looks like what we want from a structural standpoint. I'm still confident in the optimistic projections on guys like Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore.
The Eagles rank 11th in neutral situation passing rate
That looks much more like the Eagles' play-calling from the early part of last year, not the unit that finished the season in the basement in terms of pass attempts. The difference between last year's early, pass-heavy Eagles' team and the one we saw in Week 1: It worked this time.
It helps having a transformative talent like A.J. Brown.
If this type of operation keeps up in Philadelphia we are going to have to fundamentally change how we understand this offense and its players. Brown could finish as a top-five receiver, Jalen Hurts would put up bonkers numbers and, eventually, there will be a trickle-down effect for the other pass catchers on the roster.
Top-5 RBs in yards before contact per rush
1 - Leonard Fournette 3.24
2- Javonte Williams 3.14
3 - D’Andre Swift 3.07
4 - Clyde Edwards-Helaire 2.86
5 - Cordarrelle Patterson 2.82
Leonard Fournette and the Bucs running game looked great despite a litany of offensive line injuries. The veteran back looked decisive and ran extremely well on Sunday. There's a weird belief in some fantasy circles that Fournette isn't a good back and just benefits because of his circumstances. Enough already; Fournette is a good starting NFL back. He was an under-drafted player and deserves to be higher in rest-of-season rankings (be sure to monitor his status for Sunday, as he's reportedly dealing with a hamstring injury).
The Broncos did a lot of work to make sure Javonte Williams was out in space both as a rusher and as a receiver in Week 1. I know they just made a huge trade for Russell Wilson in the offseason and everyone was (overly) excited about their receiver corps but the team that took the field in Week 1 looked like a unit where their best player was the running back. Williams will likely get more production as a rusher going forward.
Top-5 players in yards after contact per rush
1 - Saquon Barkley 6.83
2 - D’Andre Swift 6.53
3 - Miles Sanders 6
4 - Jalen Hurts 4.76
5 - Rashaad Penny 4.67
I have a few thoughts here.
Saquon Barkley is back-back. He's been a bit more of a boom/bust runner than most want to admit dating back to his college days. However, the Week 1 version of Barkley ran decisively and barreled defenders over, consistently earning extra yardage. If we get that version of Barkley for 17 games he will join the Tier 1 of fantasy running backs with ease.
I just gushed over the Eagles' passing game early but they're dynamic on the ground, as well. Miles Sanders is never going to be a consistent fantasy option but he has some upside as a big-play runner tethered to a good offense and healthy rushing ecosystem.
You'll notice D'Andre Swift is on both those top-five lists up there. Love to see it. Fantasy managers were irritated that Jamaal Williams siphoned the goal line work in Week 1. You're just going to have to learn to live with that and not let it bother you; Williams is not going away. What's more important is that the Lions' talented offensive line is close to fully operational (although they have some injuries this week) when it often wasn't last year and Swift looks awesome as a runner.
That also wasn't always the case last year. The high target totals from early last year probably aren't returning for Swift this season with Amon-Ra St. Brown a featured player. But if he can make up the ground as a rusher, it won't matter much.
Top-5 RBs in routes run
1 - Darrell Henderson 39
2 - Joe Mixon 38
3 - Jonathan Taylor 34
4 - Aaron Jones 28
5 - Javonte Williams 28
A few of these players were boosted by game script and overtime in Week 1 but we did get some clarity on receiving roles.
Darrell Henderson was already locked into passing work for the Rams ahead of Cam Akers and now with rookie Kyren Williams — a pass-protection maven in college — on IR, he should hold that gig down easily, working well ahead of Akers as long as he's healthy. Until this rotation changes, Henderson is a top-15 fantasy back.
Joe Mixon is also interesting here. Some analysts were down on him with the historical lack of involvement as a pass catcher. Yet, he ran a route on 58% of Joe Burrow's dropbacks and accounted for 17% of the team targets. He'll push for a top-five running back finish if that receiving usage is the new norm.
For the love of God, let's hope we see more actual receiving usage for Aaron Jones in Week 2. He tied for the team lead in routes run with a couple of the receivers but wasn't a featured piece in the target pecking order. He's going to look like a huge Round 2 reach — on several of my teams, by the way — if that doesn't change.