Well done, NFL. Pairing America’s Team with the Tom-Brady-led defending champs in primetime on opening night is the kind of goosebumps-inducing magic we’ve all craved since February. The league’s most polarizing franchise facing off against the most polarizing player creates the perfect storm for the NFL. Regardless of the game’s outcome, hot takes will fly Friday morning, filling the gap between Thursday night and the Sunday slate. Whether you love or hate NFL big-wigs, you have to give credit where it’s due. They do a phenomenal job of monopolizing media coverage. Night one should be a fun game, and it’s an especially fun way to start the season for fantasy players.
On opening night, we get to watch 10 players with an ADP in the first eight rounds. Between the star quarterbacks, top-5 running back, and two best receiving corps in football, fantasy players will have plenty to evaluate and overreact to. The Bucs return all starters, yet it feels as if we don’t have total clarity on the wide-receiver-pecking-order. The Cowboys’ hype relies heavily on the surgically-repaired ankle and recently-recovered throwing shoulder of quarterback Dak Prescott. There are a lot of questions fantasy managers want answered tonight. Is Zeke still Zeke? Which receiver is the alpha in Tampa Bay? And, of course, is Dak actually healthy?
Let’s start there.
Dak Prescott was unbelievable last season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. In four full games, he put up a staggering 1,690 yards passing and 12 total touchdowns. Unfortunately, in week one, he goes up against a pass rush that tortured Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl, and he’ll do it without All-Pro lineman Zack Martin. Last year, the Bucs defensive line ranked 5th-best in the NFL in pass rush win-rate while the Cowboys offensive line ranked 7th–worst in pass blocking. Even if Dallas can find a way to protect Dak, Tampa Bay’s secondary ranked 6th-best in the league last year according to Pro Football Focus. Dak is too good and has too many weapons on the outside to be benched outright, but temper expectations.
For Tampa Tom, opening night presents an opportunity to pick up where he and the Bucs left off last year. The Cowboys made an effort to improve the defense this year by hiring Dan Quinn and drafting Penn State standout Micah Parsons, but it is not nearly enough to slow down the Bucs’ arsenal. In 2020, the Cowboys’ secondary gave up a league-high 13 touchdowns of over 20 yards. Last season, Tom Brady led the NFL in attempted air yards and was third in completed air yards. With the Cowboys’ susceptibility to the deep ball, Tom Brady and his gluttony of weapons should feast. Full steam ahead for the defending champs’ offense.
Ezekiel Elliott was drafted as a top-5 pick this season and rightfully so. Since he’s come into the league, he’s gotten arguably the most reliable dose of volume of any running back behind Christian McCaffrey. As we know, volume equals fantasy points for running backs. Unfortunately, volume may not be enough against last season’s top rushing defense. Tampa’s vaunted front-seven boasted league-best numbers in total rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per carry. Zeke will need significant receiving work to validate his top-5 draft capital in week one. It’s not impossible, but he may end up a good early trade target if he struggles to open the season.
Even against a porous defense, I can’t bring myself to love either Tampa running back. Until there is a clearer picture of the workload Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette will carry, it’s difficult to start either player. Ronald Jones was clearly the better runner last year as he led the league in yards per carry after contact while Fournette ranked outside the top-30. Jones also averaged over five yards per carry while Fournette finished south of four. Again, I don’t feel great starting either of these running backs, but in a matchup with a defense that allowed the 9th-most fantasy points to opposing running backs, I’d start Jones as a FLEX in a pinch. Hopefully you’re not already having RB2 troubles…
Despite the less-than-pretty picture I’ve painted for Dak and Zeke, I am confidently starting CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper on Thursday night. Although the Bucs defensive prowess may be enough to prevent a week-winning performance from Dak, the Cowboys are still going to put up points. Dak’s over-unders for yards and touchdowns are set at 293 and 1.5 respectively with the over on his touchdowns juiced to -170, or a 63% implied probability. If Dak has a 63% chance to throw multiple touchdowns, I want to start his two most prolific weapons. Just because Tampa’s defense is one of the league’s best doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable. Let’s not forget when Tyreek Hill literally called for help for the Tampa secondary after putting up 200-plus yards in the first half. Cooper and Lamb may prove to be the most talented wide receiver duo in the league by year’s end. Start each of them with confidence.
In accordance with the pretty picture I’ve painted for the Tampa offense against the Dallas defense, I love basically any Bucs wide receiver. Obviously, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans’ draft capital warrants a spot in your lineup. Godwin always has a high floor, but his typically middling ceiling should raise against a Dallas team that allowed the 4th-most fantasy points to wide receivers in 2020. Evans may have a notoriously low floor for a player usually regarded as elite, but his ceiling in week one is exponential. Considering what we know about Dallas’ defense against the deep ball, Evans has the opportunity to go nuclear against this weak secondary. Last but not least, I love Antonio Brown this week. After joining the team in week 9, he led the team in targets and receptions. Tom Brady and Antonio Brown have a strong connection, yet Brown is an afterthought. What if the drop off from Evans and Godwin to Brown isn’t as big as we suspect? Brown is a great option for week one, especially in full-point PPR.
On Dallas’ side, Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz shouldn’t be seriously considered as starting options. Jarwin, the presumed starter, hasn’t played in a game since week one of 2020. Schultz will be splitting reps with Jarwin against a great defense. Even if defending tight ends isn’t where Tampa thrives, both Cowboys tight ends are long shots.
I’ve dubbed all Bucs starters as legitimate fantasy options in this matchup, but that ends here with Gronk. If there’s any area in which the Cowboys excel, it’s against tight ends. In 2020, they gave up the 10th-fewest fantasy points to the tight end position. This offseason, they got stronger at linebacker and safety, so I see no reason for a major dropoff in 2021. Plus, the Bucs have a healthy Antonio Brown and they added pass-catching specialist Gio Bernard. With Gronk, you’re strictly shooting for a touchdown as the volume likely won’t be there.
For the Cowboys, Dak, Zeke, Amari Cooper, and CeeDee Lamb are unbenchable. Expectations should be tempered against a great defense, but talent often finds a way to prevail, and this is one of the most talented offensive groups in the NFL. Michael Gallup and the Dallas tight ends should be avoided for week one. On the Bucs’ side, it’s everyone but Gronk and Fournette. Give me Brady, Ronald Jones, and all those starting wide receivers in a juicy matchup. Hopefully this game produces as many fireworks as the talent on each side suggests.
Rejoice. We’re finally back.