By Matt Citak
Ladies and gentlemen, the wait is finally over. The moment we have all been waiting for is here. The 2017 NFL season kicks off tonight with the Kansas City Chiefs traveling to Foxborough to take on the reigning Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. It is time to see if all of your research and homework has paid off, as tonight’s matchup also represents the beginning of the fantasy football season.
Each week throughout the fantasy football season, I will be noting a few players at each position with favorable an unfavorable matchups that should help make your fantasy football decisions a bit easier. Don’t expect to see guys like David Johnson and Antonio Brown in this piece, as they should be starting every week regardless of who they are playing.
Good luck this year, and happy fantasy football season to us all!
QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers vs. San Francisco 49ers
Newton followed up his 2015 MVP campaign with a complete dud of a season last year. The 28-year-old threw for only 3,509 yards, 19 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and had a career-low 52.9 completion percentage on his way to a 75.8 Passer Rating. Although he is coming off shoulder surgery, Newton will be as motivated as ever to put last year in the rear view mirror, and what better way to do that then with a Week 1 matchup against the 49ers defense. San Francisco was the third-worst defense against opposing quarterbacks in 2016 and did nothing in the offseason to improve their secondary. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked the 49ers as having the eighth-worst secondary heading into the season. With Newton likely transitioning away from his former-mobile ways to a more pass-first approach, look for him to make a strong statement in the season opener.
QB Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns
I am a firm believer that the Browns will be a much-improved team in 2017. However, their improvements will not start in Week 1. After already looking set to have one of the weaker defenses in the NFL, the unit has taken several hits over the last week. First the team decided to cut veteran corner Joe Haden, who has been one of the group’s top defenders since joining the team in 2010. Yesterday, Cleveland lost no. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett for several weeks with a high ankle sprain. Today, the Browns cut safety Calvin Pryor after the veteran got into a fight with a teammate. With the recent reinstatement of Martavis Bryant, along with the arrival of Le’Veon Bell, the Browns were already going to struggle to cover all of Roethlisberger’s weapons in the passing game. Now it is looking like it will be impossible. Although the game is in Cleveland, Big Ben should go off in his 2017 debut.
QB: Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals vs. Detroit Lions
Despite turning 37 towards the end of the season, Palmer threw for 4,233 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. The veteran quarterback finished the fantasy football season strong, scoring at least 21 fantasy points in four of his final six games. To open up the 2017 campaign, Palmer will face off against the Detroit Lions and their pass defense that surrendered 33 passing touchdowns last season, the second-most in the NFL. As if that wasn’t enough, the Lions defense also allowed opposing quarterbacks to have a completion percentage of 72.7 percent against them, the worst in the league and 5.5 percentage points higher than the second-worst. With John Brown good for Sunday, Palmer should have all of his weapons healthy and ready to go against Detroit. If you are looking for a replacement for Andrew Luck or Jameis Winston this week, you could do a lot worse than Palmer.
RB: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings vs. New Orleans Saints
While Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey have received the most attention out of all the rookie running backs, don’t be surprised if Cook ends up having the strongest season. Offseason ankle surgery kept Latavius Murray out for most of preseason, which gave the rookie out of Florida State a chance to run away with the starting running back job. He did just that. Cook carried the ball 17 times for 70 yards while adding six receptions for 35 yards, and looks the part of a three-down back for Minnesota. The Vikings coaching staff raved about Cook all throughout the summer, not only about his skills as a runner but also his ability to catch and block. Going up against New Orleans and their defense that allowed the most fantasy points per rush attempt last season, Cook is in great shape to start his NFL career with a bang.
RB: Bilal Powell, New York Jets vs. Buffalo Bills
There is no denying the fact that the Jets are going to be really bad this season. How bad? Well this week, the Jets were listed as 1,000-1 to win the Super Bowl at Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, preseason odds that are longer than any ever seen before. A big reason for that is the lack of talent New York has at quarterback. Josh McCown was really bad in the five games he appeared in for Cleveland last season, yet he is still by-far the Jets’ best option at QB. Enter Powell, who seems to be the only promising piece of the Jets offense this season. Last year the veteran back turned 131 carries into 722 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and added 58 receptions for 388 yards. With Matt Forte on the wrong side of 30, it shouldn’t be long until the Jets turn to Powell as their featured back. That transition could occur as soon as Sunday when the Jets travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills and their horrid rush defense. Buffalo finished in the bottom four in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed, and did not do much in the offseason to remedy that. As long as they don’t go down by 30 in the first half, Powell could have a big start to his 2017 season on Sunday.
RB: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers vs. San Francisco 49ers
If it seems like there has been a lot of talk about the rookie running backs leading up to the season, that’s because there has been. This year’s class of rookie running backs looks like it could produce several big playmakers, and McCaffrey is leading the way. Similar to Cook, the rookie out of Stanford looked great in the preseason. He took 17 carries for 87 yards and a touchdown and added three receptions for 51 yards in limited action. Everyone on the Panthers, from Newton, to Jonathan Stewart, to Ron Rivera, has not been able to stop praising McCaffrey and his play throughout the summer. Carolina even created a selection of plays designed solely for their rookie running back. As noted above with Newton, the 49ers defense is not good. Well, their rush defense is even worse than their pass defense. Last season, San Francisco gave up a league-high 165.9 rushing yards per game, which was over 23 yards more than the next closest team. McCaffrey could not ask for a more appetizing opening matchup.
WR: Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers vs. San Francisco 49ers
If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m going all-in on the Panthers this week. Benjamin had everyone in the fantasy football world worried a few months ago when he showed up to the Panthers’ team workouts looking more like an offensive lineman than a wide receiver. However he spent the summer shedding the extra weight, and looks to be back around 240-pounds. This is great news for anyone that picked Benjamin on their team. The fourth-year receiver showed off his athleticism during the preseason, catching eight passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns in three preseason games. I don’t need to repeat how defensively-challenged the 49ers look this season. However I will note that it was Carolina’s Week 2 matchup against San Francisco last season that saw Benjamin have his best game of 2016, catching nine passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns. He may not repeat those exact numbers, but Benjamin will certainly take advantage of San Francisco’s weak secondary on Sunday.
WR: Sammy Watkins, Los Angeles Rams vs. Indianapolis Colts
Normally I would stay away from a wide receiver making his debut on a new team less than a month removed from being traded to said team. But the Colts’ poor secondary, combined with the absence of top corner Vontae Davis, has Watkins looking like a great fantasy option this week. While the start of his career can only be described as disappointing, injuries have been the biggest reason for Watkins’ performance in his first three seasons. Well, the former Clemson wide receiver is starting the 2017 season as healthy as ever, and while it may not last that long, I’d take advantage of it while you still can. Watkins is also entering a contract-year, as the Bills declined to pick up his fifth-year option before trading him to the Rams. Watkins and quarterback Jared Goff seem primed to start the season off on a good note Sunday in Los Angeles.
WR: Brandon Marshall, New York Giants vs. Dallas Cowboys
For the first time since the 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress suited up for New York almost a decade ago, Giants quarterback Eli Manning will have a tall, talented receiver to target in the red zone. The 6-foot-4 Marshall is coming off his worst season since his rookie year, but a lot of the blame for that must be directed towards the Jets’ quarterback situation. Now the veteran receiver has the most talented quarterback he has ever played with throwing him the ball, and should benefit greatly from lining up opposite Odell Beckham. Marshall opens up his Giants career against a weak Dallas secondary that surrendered 273.5 receiving yards per game last season. Whether or not Beckham plays, Manning will surely target Marshall once New York gets inside the red zone. Marshall seems poised to have a big bounce back season this year, and it starts this week on Sunday Night Football.
TE: Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans vs. Oakland Raiders
Walker is coming off one of the strongest seasons of his career in which he caught a career-high seven touchdowns. The veteran tight end will have to compete with the newly-acquired Eric Decker, Corey Davis, and Taywan Taylor, along with Rishard Matthews, for targets this season. However Walker has already established a strong rapport with Marcus Mariota over the last two seasons, and his touchdown total could increase even more this season if Mariota takes the next step in his development that many think he will take. Tennessee’s influx of weapons in the passing game should also help open up the field for Walker. Oakland surrendered the eighth-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends in 2016, and with Decker, Davis, and Matthews out there running routes every play, the Raiders might occasionally lose sight of Walker. He’s a top tight end entering his Week 1 matchup.
QB: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions vs. Arizona Cardinals
Stafford threw for over 4,250 yards for the sixth consecutive season last year, but saw his touchdown total drop from 32 in 2015 to 24 in 2016. While I believe that number will increase this season, Detroit’s Week 1 matchup against the Cardinals is one to avoid. Patrick Peterson remains one of the most talented corners in the NFL. He is joined in the Arizona secondary by guys such as the versatile Tyrann Mathieu, the newly-signed Antoine Bethea, and first-round pick Budda Baker. In Stafford’s last matchup against the Cardinals back in 2015, he threw for only 188 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. His 5.88 yards per pass attempt was one of the lowest of his season, while the three interceptions was the highest. If you have another solid quarterback with a decent matchup, I would strongly consider starting him over Stafford this week.
QB: Phillip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers vs. Denver Broncos
This is another case of a quarterback who could easily have a strong 2017 season, but beginning after Week 1. Rivers has the unfortunate luck of facing off against the Denver Broncos and their top pass-defense at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Monday night. The Broncos are coming off a season in which they surrendered a league-low 186 passing yards per game, 16 yards less than the next-best pass defense. Even with several contributors from last season’s defense missing, Denver will once again have one of the league’s best defensive units this year. Rivers’ track record against the Broncos could not be much worse, as he has only one game with more than 20 fantasy points in his last 12 meetings. This is a matchup that you really want to avoid in Week 1.
QB: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants
Prescott put together an incredibly impressive rookie season, both as an NFL quarterback and as a fantasy football quarterback. His 23-4 touchdown-interception ratio was amazing, and his 282 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns boosted his fantasy numbers even more. In fact, he scored at least 20 fantasy points in nine of the 15 full games he played in. But two of those games in which he didn’t came against the Giants, where he combined for just 18 points. New York’s defense is legit, as they allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks in 2016. Returning most of the starters from last year’s group, there is no reason to think the Giants’ defense won’t repeat as one of the best this year. Prescott is better off on your bench for the season opener.
RB: Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers
Hyde is unlucky to have to go up against Carolina and their stout front seven in Week 1. The Panthers’ defense includes defensive studs like Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short, in addition to players like Mario Addison and Charles Johnson. Hyde should have his hands full, as Carolina is coming off a 2016 season in which they gave up just 92.9 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. The one thing going for the 49ers running back is the glaring lack of depth at the position behind him on San Francisco’s roster. If he can stay healthy, which has proven to be very difficult for the 26-year-old through his first three NFL seasons, then Hyde could be in for a big 2017 campaign. However if his last matchup against the Panthers (14 carries for 34 yards and a fumble) is any indication, Hyde could be in for a rough day on Sunday.
RB: Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle enters the 2017 season with the second-strongest front seven in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Between Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, Cliff Avril, Malik McDowell, and the newly-acquired Sheldon Richardson, the Seahawks not only have the talent up front, but they also have the depth to be a truly special defense this season. That is why I would avoid the Green Bay running back in this Week 1 matchup. Unlike last year where Montgomery seemingly came out of nowhere to become the Packers’ starting running back, the Seahawks have had an entire offseason to prepare for him. Any running back in an offense led by Aaron Rodgers has a decent chance of scoring a touchdown in any given week, but I would not take that chance this week, even with the game taking place in Green Bay.
RB: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens
Unlike the other running backs that landed in this category, Mixon’s placement here has just as much to do with his role on the Bengals as the talent of the Ravens and their rush defense. Baltimore allowed only 89.4 rushing yards per game and an even scarier 3.7 yards per carry. While they are unlikely to repeat such great numbers against the run, it is clear that the Ravens have guys up front capable of shutting down an opposing team’s run game. You must not forget that Mixon is also potentially the only top rookie running back that still has to compete with two veterans for carries. Despite injuring his ankle during the preseason, Jeremy Hill is still expected to start Week 1. Giovani Bernard is also expected to see a decent amount of playing time, leaving it up in the air just how much Mixon will see the field in his debut. While he should eventually take over as Cincinnati’s no. 1 back, that is highly unlikely to happen on Sunday.
WR: T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts vs. Los Angeles Rams
Hilton is one of the league’s most talented wide receivers. There is no doubt about it. But with Andrew Luck out, Hilton’s productivity drops significantly. In 10 games without Luck at quarterback over the last two years, Hilton’s per-game production drops by more than 30.5 percent. He has only 41 catches for 630 yards and two touchdowns in those 10 games, and with Scott Tolzien under center, it’s hard to see that trend reversing. In his one game with Tolzien last year, Hilton managed just three catches for 54 yards on five targets. Those are disappointing numbers for any receiver, let alone a team’s no. 1 option. Once Luck returns (whenever that may be), Hilton will immediately return to his status as a must-start every week. But until then, and especially against the Rams and their surprisingly-stingy pass defense, I’m keeping Hilton on my bench.
WR: Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Houston Texans
Robinson has the talent to be a very successful wide receiver in the NFL. Unfortunately for him, he has Blake Bortles throwing him the ball. Bortles was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL last season, and if Robinson wants to have any chance of even coming close to his stellar 2015 campaign, he will need to see an improvement from his quarterback. That probably will not happen in Week 1, as the Jaguars have the displeasure of going up against Houston’s elite defense. The Texans allowed just 214.0 receiving yards per game last season, trailing only Denver’s 200.0. With the return of a healthy J.J. Watt, Bortles will be pressured throughout the entire game, which will likely lead to turnovers. Robinson has the potential to be very good this season, but I would like to see him re-establish some sort of connection with Bortles before I’m putting him in my lineup.
WR: Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers vs. Denver Broncos
I’m actually high on Williams this year, as I believe the return of a healthy Keenan Allen should help take some of the attention away from the third-year wide receiver. Throughout the year, Allen should garner the attention of opposing defenses’ no. 1 corner, leaving Williams to battle it out with teams’ second corner. While that is great for his season outlook, that won’t help him much Week 1 against the Broncos. Denver’s defense contains two of the top three cover corners from last season in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. It doesn’t matter which one covers Williams and which one covers Allen, as both receivers are likely to struggle in the season opener. Add in the fact that Williams had a combined four catches for 32 yards and no touchdowns in two games against Denver last season, and I’m staying as far away as possible from this one.
TE: Martellus Bennett, Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks
Bennett looks set for a disappointing start to his tenure with the Packers as he faces off against his brother in Week 1. Seattle was one of the best against tight ends last season, holding opposing tight ends to under nine fantasy points in 10 games. The Legion of Boom is still very much intact, with Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Jeremy Lane making up one of the most talented secondaries in the NFL. While Rodgers is no doubt one of the best quarterbacks in the league, he is not known for leaning on his tight ends too much. The presence of Bennett will likely help open up the field a bit for Green Bay’s receivers, but that does no good for Bennett’s fantasy outlook this week. I’m not sure if Bennett will finish as a top 10 tight end for the season, but I am confident he will fail to rank that high in Week 1.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.