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Fantasy Playbook: Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Are Poised to Define This Fantasy Football Season

Elsewhere, Sammy Watkins looks like a WR1, Dalvin Cook carved up the Falcons, and the Cardinals appear to be fantasy-relevant. Plus: this week’s fantasy risers and sliders, usage trends, and waiver wire advice.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was a popular fantasy sleeper pick heading into this season, but mostly because of his incredible talent as a runner. The explosive signal-caller set a record for QB rush attempts as a rookie last year, carrying the ball 147 times for 695 yards and five touchdowns, most of which came in just seven starts to close out the season. But there was a reason that Jackson ended up as just the QB14 in drafts this year with an average draft position of just 106th overall: His tepid 58 percent completion rate and six-touchdown, three-interception passing line generated plenty of concern about whether he is capable of making a jump throwing the football in Year 2.

Well, Jackson did just about everything possible to smash those doubts in the Ravens’ 59-10 win over the Dolphins on Sunday, completing 17 of 20 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns to notch a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Jackson said he wouldn’t run the football as much this year, and true to his word, he carried it only three times for 6 yards, handing the ball off to Mark Ingram (14 carries, 107 yards, 2 TDs) when he wasn’t calmly threading the needle to his receivers streaking downfield. He became the first QB in Pro-Football-Reference’s database to post 300-plus yards and a perfect passer rating in a season opener. He shot a barb at his critics after the game, quipping that his performance was “not bad for a running back.”

Those critics would be quick to counter that the Dolphins appear to be in full-on tank mode, but Miami does have a talented secondary, and it wasn’t like Jackson was just throwing to wide-open receivers all game: 20 percent of Jackson’s passes went into tight coverage, per NFL Next Gen Stats, the sixth highest among quarterbacks this week (before Monday Night Football). Jackson was aggressive as a passer and showcased pinpoint accuracy; put that together with the electric rushing ability that certainly hasn’t gone away over the offseason, and Jackson’s performance on Sunday could portend an overall QB1 finish for the sophomore quarterback. For those who took Jackson in the eighth, ninth, or 10th rounds or later, that gives him league-winning upside—similar to the fantasy impact Patrick Mahomes had last year.

Jackson’s passing performance should also dramatically change expectations for Baltimore’s pass-catching corps the rest of the year. Rookie receiver Marquise Brown—an afterthought last-round throw-in as the preseason WR61 with an ADP of 185th overall—was the main beneficiary of Jackson’s passing outburst, shrugging off concerns surrounding his offseason recovery from Lisfranc surgery to reel in four catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns in his debut as a pro. The speedster won’t be that efficient week in and week out (he did it all on just 12 snaps), but his production doesn’t feel fluky, either: The Ravens’ fearsome run game, which changes the math for defenses by making Jackson a threat to run the ball, should dictate that Baltimore will see an awful lot of eight-man boxes. That opens up opportunities for receivers on the outside and deep down the field—there’s simply one less defender back there to cover all that green. That’s where Brown’s speed makes him so dangerous, whether he’s running a simple slant route, like this one in the first quarter:

Or when he’s running a deeper post, like this one later in the same frame. One misstep by the opponent and Brown has the speed to hit a home run.

Brown (who is rostered in just 31 percent of Yahoo leagues) is an absolute must-add in all formats on this week’s waiver wire (I’ll have more on that in a bit), and he’s not alone in this pass-catching group. Tight end Mark Andrews (rostered in 79 percent of leagues) lived up to preseason hype with an eight-catch, 108-yard, one-touchdown performance—another must-add if he’s still out there to pick up in shallow leagues. Veteran receiver Willie Snead (two catches for 41 yards and a TD) may be worth a speculative add (at worst, add him to your watch list), and don’t forget about rookie pass catcher Miles Boykin, who caught a touchdown in the second quarter. Boykin may not be a regular contributor quite yet, but he has the speed and size to take advantage of one-on-one looks on the outside. He might be worth a stash, because a breakout could be coming.

Now, let’s get to the rest of the action around the league on Sunday.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: The Cardinals Offense

Kyler Murray’s debut in the Kliff Kingsbury offense was decidedly a mixed bag. The rookie top pick looked out of sorts for most of the first three quarters in the Cardinals’ 27-27 tie with the Lions, sailing passes and struggling in the face of pressure. But the former Heisman winner bounced back in a big way in the fourth quarter and overtime, finding some much-needed rhythm to finish 29-for-54 for 308 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick. Murray had four passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage, a concerning number for the 5-foot-10 quarterback, but this pass, a rainbow that he perfectly placed into a bucket about 52 yards downfield, was a great example of why Arizona ultimately didn’t care that Murray is an outlier in his lack of height.

Murray’s 54 pass attempts is tops among all quarterbacks thus far this week, partly because this game went into overtime. But that number is also an indication that Arizona’s passing offense will have the type of volume capable of supporting several viable fantasy pass catchers. The ageless Larry Fitzgerald led the way for Arizona (13 targets, eight catches, 113 yards, 1 TD), but both rookie KeeSean Johnson (10 targets, five catches, 46 yards) and second-year pro Christian Kirk (12 targets, four receptions, 32 yards, and a two-point conversion) finished with double-digit targets on the day.

Running back David Johnson chipped in with six catches for 55 yards and a touchdown through the air to go with his 82 yards on the ground. His 137 yards from scrimmage would have been his third-highest total of 2018, a promising start for those who took Johnson in the first round. All together, it wasn’t pretty, but I’d consider the Cardinals offense a collective fantasy riser.

Riser: WR Sammy Watkins, Chiefs

In completely unsurprising news, the Chiefs offense remains a juggernaut. It took reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes all of three plays to throw his first touchdown of the season, finding Watkins for a 68-yard score on the team’s opening drive. Mahomes shrugged off a scary ankle injury (and the belief that he’d regress this year) to finish 25-for-33 for 378 yards with three touchdowns and no picks in the 40-26 win. With Tyreek Hill missing most of the game because of a clavicle injury (more on that below), Watkins went off to the tune of nine catches for 198 yards and three touchdowns, positioning himself as the overall WR1 with Monday’s games still pending. Watkins is looking like one of the biggest steals of the early season after going in drafts as the WR33 with an ADP of 78th overall.

Slider: Baker Mayfield, Browns

What the hell happened to the Browns offense? Quarterback Baker Mayfield looked sharp to open the game, leading the team on an eight-play, 73-yard touchdown drive. But from there, things spiraled; Mayfield played through a bruise to his throwing hand and tossed three fourth-quarter picks, one of which was returned for a score. I’m not ready to panic quite yet on the season-long ramifications from a Week 1 dud—and I’m not going to bench Mayfield next week when he takes on the Jets—but Cleveland needs to fix some issues with pass protection, and Mayfield has to make better decisions.

Riser: The Cowboys Offense

Dak Prescott made quite a statement in the ongoing contract negotiations with the Cowboys, picking apart an overmatched Giants defense in offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s debut as Dallas’s play-caller. Prescott joined Lamar Jackson as the only two quarterbacks this week to post perfect 158.3 passer ratings, completing 25 of 32 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns in the 35-17 win. Amari Cooper was effective, finishing with six catches for 106 yards and a touchdown, while free-agent addition Randall Cobb chipped in with four catches, 69 yards, and a score. Second-year pro Michael Gallup looks like the potential breakout star whom beat writers saw in training camp, exploding for seven catches for 158 yards. Add in a 13-rush, 53-yard, one-touchdown performance from Ezekiel Elliott, and the Cowboys offense is off to a dominant start. They get juicy matchups at the Redskins (who gave up 32 points to the Eagles on Sunday) and against the Dolphins over the next two weeks.

Riser: RB Dalvin Cook, Vikings

It’s safe to say that Dalvin Cook is fully healthy after hamstring concerns robbed him of five games last year and limited him in many more. Cook looked explosive and elusive in the Gary Kubiak–designed wide-zone run game the team unveiled on Sunday, carrying the ball 21 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s 28-12 win over the Falcons.

If Cook can stay healthy, he has high-end RB1 potential in the Vikings’ run-heavy scheme.

Sliders: WRs Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, Vikings

With Cook representing the backbone of Minnesota’s offense on Sunday, Kirk Cousins attempted just 10 passes all game, completing eight of them for 98 yards and one touchdown. That hurt the bottom lines for both Thielen (three catches, 43 yards, and a touchdown) and Diggs (two catches for 37 yards) and confirmed fears many shared this offseason that Minnesota’s rededication to the run game could severely limit the fantasy ceilings for the team’s two elite pass catchers.

Riser: WR Jamison Crowder, Jets

The Jets offense wasn’t pretty on Sunday against a stout Bills defense, but Crowder emerged as a target vacuum over the middle of the field. The diminutive slot receiver paced all pass catchers this week with 17 targets, catching 14 passes for 99 yards in the 17-16 loss at home. Crowder’s preseason ADP of 140th overall (WR52) always felt way too low, especially compared to that of teammate Robby Anderson (76th overall, WR31). With quarterback Sam Darnold struggling to push the ball downfield, Anderson finished with just three catches for 23 yards. Crowder, who’s rostered in just 46 percent of Yahoo leagues, should remain Darnold’s security blanket underneath and is a must-add in PPR formats.

Slider: WR Curtis Samuel, Panthers

The Panthers’ pass offense got off to a sluggish start in Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Rams. Cam Newton finished 25-for-38 for 239 yards and a pick, and D.J. Moore (10 targets, seven catches, 76 yards) lived up to the hype as the team’s new no. 1. But offseason riser Samuel saw just four targets, converting them for three catches and 32 yards. If the explosive former Buckeye is going to have a breakout, it’s going to be at least another week. I’d urge patience.

Riser: DeSean Jackson, Eagles

Jackson’s return to Philly was a rousing success, with the explosive deep threat getting loose for eight catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns on a team-high 10 targets in the Eagles’ 32-27 win over the Redskins. The 32-year-old veteran gives quarterback Carson Wentz the type of threat who can take the top off a defense, which the team missed most of last year after losing Mike Wallace to a broken leg. If Jackson is still out there on waivers (he’s owned in 66 percent of Yahoo leagues), the chemistry he showed with Wentz makes him worth adding.

Meanwhile, Alshon Jeffery, whose lumbering playing style presents a contrast to Jackson’s, benefited from the speedster’s field-tilting presence, reeling in five catches for 49 yards while adding another score on a screen pass from the 2-yard line (which was a catch but technically counted as a run). Jeffrey looks locked in as a weekly WR2 as Wentz’s trusted underneath threat.

Slider: WR Dante Pettis, 49ers

Up until a few weeks ago, Pettis had projected as the 49ers’ de facto no. 1 receiver. After one game, it’s no longer clear whether he’s even a starter. Pettis played just two snaps on Sunday, reeling in his only target for 7 yards in the team’s 31-17 win over the Buccaneers. And head coach Kyle Shanahan’s postgame comments could be interpreted in a number of ways. Shanahan noted that Pettis missed a week of practice to a groin injury, which put him behind the eight ball for Sunday night’s game. But other comments from the coach implied that even when Pettis was healthy, he wasn’t a shoo-in for the lineup. Until the pass-catching hierarchy is more clear in San Francisco, Pettis should remain on your bench.

Slider: WR Corey Davis, Titans

Cornerback Denzel Ward was a tough matchup to draw for Davis this week, but it doesn’t bode well for the former first-rounder that he put up a goose egg on three targets in the Titans’ shocking 43-13 blowout of the Browns. Davis, who posted team highs in his second season last year with 112 targets, 65 catches, 891 yards, and four touchdowns, isn’t droppable quite yet. But for those expecting a big jump from the Davis, Week 1 was a blow. Keep him on your bench until his role is more defined.

Cutting Up the Pie

Tracking the Rams’ Running Back Rotation

The day got off to a fairly terrifying start for people with Todd Gurley on their team, as the superstar running back played sparsely in the first half of the Rams’ 30-27 win over the Panthers. Gurley went into the half with just five carries for 8 yards and ceded valuable red zone snaps to Malcolm Brown, who vultured the team’s first touchdown of the year in the early second quarter. But as the game wore on, L.A. leaned harder on Gurley, and the former All-Pro finished with a team-high 14 carries for 97 yards, playing on 51 offensive snaps (71 percent) compared to a combined 21 for Brown and rookie Darrell Henderson. Of course, that snap breakdown is of little consolation in Week 1 considering Brown outscored Gurley on 11 carries (picking up 53 yards and two scores), but Gurley isn’t doomed just yet. On the other hand, it wasn’t a great start for Henderson truthers; the rookie didn’t get a touch in his debut.

Beware a Committee Approach in Atlanta

Things didn’t go well for those hoping for a big bounceback year for Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, who finished with an underwhelming 19 yards on eight carries in his return to the field after sitting out virtually all of last year due to a groin injury. The Falcons trailed for most of the game, limiting their rushing opportunities, and backup running back Ito Smith (six carries for 31 yards) out-snapped Freeman.

With Atlanta losing first-round guard Chris Lindstrom to a broken foot and having to face off against the Eagles next week, Freeman heads into Week 2 as a risky play.

There Are Lots of Mouths to Feed in Philly

The Eagles split things up pretty evenly at the RB spot on Sunday: The immortal Darren Sproles got nine carries for 47 yards; Jordan Howard added six totes for 44 yards; and rookie Miles Sanders got 11 carries for 25 yards. Sanders did have a big touchdown run called back to a penalty, but this backfield is still very much a committee.

Is Adrian Peterson on the Outs in Washington?

The Redskins made Peterson a healthy scratch in their opener (the first of his career), leaving Derrius Guice (10 carries for 18 yards; three catches for 20 yards) as the lead back, with Chris Thompson taking on pass-catching duties (10 targets, seven catches for 68 yards). Head coach Jay Gruden didn’t mince words when explaining the decision, either, citing Peterson’s lack of utility on special teams and the passing game. “If we have a game where we think we can run the ball 55 times in a game in an I-formation,” said Gruden, “then sure, I’ll get him up.” Don’t be surprised if Peterson tries to force a trade. He’s worth holding onto in the meantime.

Damien Williams Leads the Way in K.C.

Williams dominated first-half touches in the Chiefs backfield Sunday, finishing with a team-high 13 carries for 26 yards and one touchdown while adding six catches on six targets for 39 yards. LeSean McCoy made the most of 10 carries, gaining 81 yards while adding one catch for 12 yards. The Darwin Thompson breakout watch will have to wait: The rookie finished with zero carries and just one catch for 3 yards.

The Injury Report

QB Nick Foles, Jaguars: The Jacksonville passer suffered a broken clavicle on a touchdown pass to DJ Chark in the first quarter. Rookie sixth-rounder Gardner Minshew II took over for Jacksonville, completing 22 of 25 passes for 275 yards with two touchdowns and a pick. It was an impressive performance by the rookie, who could be worth an add in two-quarterback or superflex leagues.

WR Tyreek Hill, Chiefs: Hill suffered a shoulder injury that will cause him to miss a few weeks, according to reports. It gives Watkins a boost in the meantime, and Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson may be worth a look in deep leagues.

WR Mike Williams, Chargers: Williams suffered a knee injury late in the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ win over the Colts. He didn’t return, and if he misses time, expect Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman to move into bigger roles.

WR Devin Funchess, Colts: Funchess broke his collarbone. That could give T.Y. Hilton a bump and puts second-year receiver Deon Cain and rookie Parris Campbell in line for more snaps.

RB Joe Mixon, Bengals: Mixon suffered a sprained ankle. Early reports are optimistic, but if he misses time, Giovani Bernard is the starter and has RB2 upside.

RB Tevin Coleman, 49ers: Coleman injured his ankle Sunday in Tampa Bay, and could miss time. That makes Matt Breida the top dog in the San Francisco backfield and makes Raheem Mostert a name to monitor.

Smash the Add Button

Marquise Brown is the most obvious waiver wire add of the week for the reasons outlined above, but there are a few other potential breakout stars who may not be rostered in your league. Here are a few to add this week.

WR John Ross, Bengals (rostered in 9 percent of Yahoo leagues): For Ross, late is certainly better than never. The ninth overall pick from the 2017 draft struggled through his first two seasons, but opened up 2019 with a bang, catching seven of 12 targets for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Ross showed off an undeniable swagger and repeatedly exploited a porous Seahawks secondary to help Andy Dalton to a career-high 418 passing yards. Ross looks like a real weapon in new head coach Zac Taylor’s Rams-style offense.

RB Malcolm Brown, Rams (12 percent): The Rams are committed to a committee approach at running back in the hopes of keeping Gurley fresh. Week 1 confirmed that Henderson isn’t quite ready to be the no. 2 option.

RB Giovani Bernard, Bengals (13 percent): See above. Bernard is in line for starters’ touches if Mixon is forced to miss time.

WR DJ Chark, Jaguars (2 percent): Chark was on the receiving end of a first-quarter touchdown pass from Foles and added a big gain on this pass from Minshew. The second-year pro finished the game with four catches for 146 yards and a touchdown.

TE T.J. Hockenson, Lions (52 percent): The first-rounder had about as good of a premiere as anyone in Detroit could have hoped for, with six catches for 131 yards and a score to set the record for receiving yards in a tight end’s first game. If you’re looking for the next George Kittle, this guy might be it.

WR A.J. Brown, Titans (3 percent): Brown got his career off to a quick start, grabbing a 47-yard catch on Tennessee’s first drive. The rookie finished with three catches for 100 yards and should challenge Davis as the team’s de facto no. 1 this year.

WR Terry McLaurin, Redskins (3 percent): McLaurin made a handful of big plays for Washington in their opener, including a long touchdown grab and 50-50 ball in the second quarter. He finished the game with five catches for 125 yards and a score and looks like the no. 1 in that offense.

The Watch List

Sometimes one big game isn’t quite enough. Here’s a handful of players to add to your waiver wire watch list. Be ready to pounce.

WR Preston Williams, Dolphins (2 percent): There weren’t many reasons to be excited about the Dolphins offense on Sunday, but Williams continues to impress. The rookie UDFA grabbed Miami’s first touchdown pass of the year, a toe-touch catch in the back of the end zone. He’s worth a speculative add in deep leagues, but in Miami’s dumpster fire offense, his upside is likely limited.

TE Vernon Davis, Redskins (2 percent): Davis got most of his 59 yards receiving on an absurd catch-and-run touchdown in the opening frame. He’s one to monitor if Jordan Reed’s absence lingers, but for now he’s not worth an add.