Fantasy Football: Players to watch in each game

By The Sports Xchange  |  Sept. 15, 2017 at 8:54 PM
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As fantasy lineups are established for games Sunday and Monday, The Sports Xchange reporters have taken a look at their teams with an eye on what could happen.

Grouped by games, here is a look at each team from a fantasy perspective.

CLEVELAND at BALTIMORE

BROWNS

Anyone who has Kenny Britt on his or her fantasy team should think twice about making him active this week. Britt, a 1,000-yard receiver with the Rams last year, started against the Steelers and had one catch for 13 yards. He is listed as a starter on the depth chart this week, but head coach Hue Jackson hinted he might bench Britt. Britt dropped a pass in the fourth quarter against the Steelers and appeared to run a route incorrectly earlier in the game. Britt also had a spotty preseason. Even if Britt does hold onto the starting job, as play-caller, Jackson might shy away from calling Britt's number.

RAVENS

The Ravens' defense was completely dominant against the Cincinnati Bengals, forcing five sacks and four interceptions for the first time in team history. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton finished with a 28.4 passer rating -- the second lowest of his career. Look for the Ravens to be just as aggressive against the Browns and rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, who was sacked seven times and threw an interception in the opener against the Steelers. Rookie quarterbacks are 0-5 all-time at M&T Bank Stadium. ... Baltimore's offense remains a work in progress, but the Ravens could still spend much of the afternoon in Cleveland territory. This means potential opportunities for Justin Tucker, who is the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Tucker made a pair of kicks in the opener against the Bengals. ... Baltimore has committed to the running game this season. Terrance West and Buck Allen combined for 40 carries against the Bengals. However, the Browns run defense is solid and held Le'Veon Bell to just 32 yards on 10 carries in the opener. West and Allen also might struggle to find yards this week.

BUFFALO at CAROLINA

BILLS

LeSean McCoy is going to be the featured player in the Buffalo offense just about every week, but that could be a problem this week against a Carolina defense that is stout against the run with defensive tackles Star Lotuelei and Kawann Short in the middle of the line and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at the second level. The Panthers are not going to worry about Buffalo's passing game, and they will sell out with eight in the box to contain McCoy. The Jets did not succeed, but the Panthers may be better suited to do it. The Bills are going to need to complete some passes down the field to possibly create more space for McCoy.

PANTHERS

The Panthers have a dual-threat situation with running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey, the latter a rookie who was a first-round draft pick in the spring. Getting McCaffrey involved is a priority and that worked out fine in the opener at San Francisco, as he was used frequently in various situations in the first half. Stewart had a better run of it in the second half, though there was no need for the Panthers to show other ways they might use McCaffrey. So, in a closer game or in a game with a different emphasis, it could mean fewer touches for Stewart. Already, the Bills are expected to concentrate on stopping the rushing attack this week, so it might be more difficult for Stewart to get untracked.

ARIZONA at INDIANAPOLIS

CARDINALS

With star running back David Johnson now on injured reserve and sidelined up to eight to 12 weeks with a dislocated left wrist, everyone wants to know who will be the primary ball-carrier out of the Cardinals' new backfield. It might not matter, quite honestly. Whoever gets the bulk of the runs isn't going to represent nearly 40 percent of Arizona's offense the way Johnson did. Kerwynn Williams starts out as No. 1, but don't be surprised if veteran Chris Johnson, who was re-signed on Tuesday, ends up as the bell cow in a week or so. Given how angry Chris Johnson was about being released a week ago, it might be wise for the Cardinals to give him a significant amount of snaps vs. the Colts.

Digging deeper, however, one of the running backs who should not be discounted is second-year pro Elijhaa Penny, who is built like David Johnson, runs rugged like David Johnson and is an underrated pass receiver along the lines of David Johnson. Penny might very well get a token shot this week at the Colts and receive a larger role moving forward because he patterns his game after David Johnson. Andre Ellington will get his looks, but probably mostly in third-down situations. Newcomer D.J. Foster will need a few weeks to be brought up to speed before he can even be considered for any type of important role.

COLTS

After his performance in last week's regular-season opener with the Rams, rookie running back Marlon Mack is sure to pick up interest from a lot of fantasy leagues. Mack had 10 rushing attempts, tying starter Frank Gore for the most work against Los Angeles. He also caught a pass for 10 yards. His carries and his targets as a receiver out of the backfield are expected to pick up considerably as the season progresses. Mack has a chance to be the most productive rookie running back for Indianapolis since Vick Ballard in 2012 and perhaps even surpass what Ballard accomplished that season. The issue is that expected starter Jacoby Brissett is new to the offense after coming to the team recently.

TENNESSEE at JACKSONVILLE

TITANS

After struggling in the season opener with only 44 yards on 12 carries, look for the Titans to try and force the issue running the football if they can with DeMarco Murray and to a lesser extent, Derrick Henry. The Titans were third in the league running the football last year, and will need Murray to have more touches than that against a Jaguars defense that teed off on Houston's quarterbacks last Sunday. Balance on offense with Murray leading the way is probably the most effective way to help neutralize "Sacksonville."

JAGUARS

The loss of Allen Robinson to an ACL tear is likely to have a profound impact on the Jaguars' passing game for the rest of the season. Losing Robinson costs the Jaguars their best go-to receiver, the one that Blake Bortles would first look to when third-down yardage is needed. That was already evident in last week's game when, after Robinson was hurt in the team's opening series after catching what will be his only reception for 2017, Bortles threw the ball just 20 more times the rest of the game. With Leonard Fournette showing he has the durability to carry 26 times (resulting in a 100-yard game), the Jaguars have suddenly gone from a pass-first team, to a run-first club. This of course will result in lower reception numbers for everyone, and is likely to keep Bortles' pass attempts in the 20s, low 30s at best. And if the Jaguars' defense continues to dominate teams like they did in the opener against Houston, there won't be a need for Bortles to air it out. Look for Fournette to become the center of attention with the offense and the passing game to take a back seat.

PHILADELPHIA at KANSAS CITY

EAGLES

Running back LeGarrette Blount led the NFL in rushing touchdowns last season with New England. Last week, he did have his first career touchdown catch, but rushed for just 46 yards on 14 carries and was largely ineffective in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The Chiefs gave up 10 rushing first downs and three rushing touchdowns to the Patriots last week.

CHIEFS

Philadelphia tight Zac Ertz led the Eagles in receiving against Washington with eight catches for 93 yards and the Eagles' tight ends could be in line for a big day against the Chiefs' secondary missing All-Pro safety Eric Berry. The Chiefs held Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to just two catches for 33 yards with Berry covering him much of the game. Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray look to fill the gap left by Berry, but neither offer the same pass defense skills. That may force the Chiefs to bracket Ertz more frequently, which could open up opportunities for quarterback Carson Wentz to target the right side of the defense.

NEW ENGLAND at NEW ORLEANS

PATRIOTS

Wide receiver Chris Hogan had a pretty quiet opener. He caught one ball for eight yards despite being targeted five times, mostly well down the field. His biggest contributions actually came on three end-arounds totaling 17 yards. After tying for the NFL lead at nearly 18 yards per catch a year ago, Hogan could transition into a role as a more slot-based underneath threat given the injuries to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (concussion). He has the versatility to make plays on option routes and over the middle and could very well be asked to take over a role as that slot type beginning this week. With the Saints focused on stopping dangerous former teammate Brandin Cooks and tight end Rob Gronkowski, Hogan could see an increase in both his targets and receptions in more of a volume role against a young, very much suspect Saints secondary.

SAINTS

The prospect of Drew Brees facing a Patriots defense that Alex Smith riddled in the opener is tempting, but with the Saints starting two backups at tackle and No. 2 receiver Willie Snead IV serving the second game of a three-game suspension, Brees' numbers might not wind up as high as you might suspect initially.

MINNESOTA at PITTSBURGH

VIKINGS

Head coach Mike Zimmer tried to quash any notion that he might have an advantage by having faced Pittsburgh's high-powered offense twice a year as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator prior to getting the Vikings job in 2014. He says the Steelers have a better advantage because they know his defense because it's still the one the Bengals are running. Either way, something to keep in mind: Zimmer faced receiver Antonio Brown seven times as Bengals defensive coordinator. Brown didn't reach 100 yards receiving in any of those games. Brown, of course is coming off an 11-catch, 182-yard performance at Cleveland. ... Another thing to monitor: Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr did not practice Wednesday and Thursday because of a hamstring injury. If he's unable to play, the Vikings don't have great depth at linebacker. And that could affect all three downs since Barr is a key player in the base and in the nickel.

STEELERS

Starting Ben Roethlisberger against the Vikings defense, regarded as one of the best in the NFL, might not seem like a good idea at first. But when you consider how well Roethlisberger plays at home as well as the way the Vikings played against the pass in Week 1 it might not be a bad idea. Roethlisberger has a 3:1 touchdown to interceptions ratio at home over the past three seasons while averaging a passer rating of 109.5. One also must consider how the Vikings did against Drew Brees in the opener. They won the game, but Brees completed 27 of 37 passes for 284 yards. Roethlisberger will test the Vikings through the air as well, and based on his home-road splits the past few years, it seems like a good bet he'll have some success.

CHICAGO at TAMPA BAY

BEARS

Jordan Howard can be expected to have a bigger day against the Bucs defense than he did against Atlanta. The Bears couldn't be happy about a 13-carry effort for Howard, whose strength is pounding away with stretch plays and the outside zone blocking scheme. Although they had to like what Tarik Cohen did as a third-down back last week, their lack of commitment to power running can't continue going forward. So expect Howard to get more attempts and be especially effective in short yardage or near the goal line. ... Also, tight end Dion Sims can be expected to be targeted more in the passing game, even on seam routes or intermediate passes. Defenses are going to be shifted more to Zach Miller when the Bears go double tight end. Sims has good speed and hands and wasn't used enough in the opener. He can be especially effective against a Bucs secondary that isn't up to par with its linebacker corps or the defensive linemen. Essentially, the Bears have to throw to their tight ends. There really isn't much else to target.

BUCCANEERS

Quarterback Jameis Winston is a notorious slow starter. As a rookie, Winston's first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He threw eight interceptions in his first four games in his first season. Last year, despite beating the Falcons in the season opener when he threw four touchdowns and one interception, Winston still threw seven picks in his first four games, going 1-3. Winston could be rusty since he hasn't played in a game at any time since Week 3 of the preseason.

MIAMI at LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

DOLPHINS

Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen will be someone to watch this week as he could be poised for a big performance, especially because he could find himself matched against Miami cornerback Byron Maxwell frequently. Maxwell hasn't had a good training camp or preseason and he'll be tested. His man-to-man coverage has been shaky, his press coverage has been ineffective and his mental game leakage showed in preseason when he allowed Philadelphia a 50-yard touchdown pass on a blown coverage. Quarterback Philip Rivers won't be deterred by going at Maxwell with any wide receiver, but look for Allen to be the one to get the big plays.

CHARGERS

Tight end Antonio Gates has played eight career games against the Dolphins and has been held without a catch but once. That came in 2003 in the first meeting. Since Gates has been a regular part of the offense when the Chargers face the Dolphins, proven by his 36 catches (27 of which picked up first downs) for 430 yards and three touchdowns. There is also something else at work here as Gates is tied with Tony Gonzalez with 111 career touchdown catches, the standard for tight ends in NFL history. Rivers, who remains Gates' closest friend on the team, would love to get the ball to Gates for the record-breaker at the Chargers new home in their season opener. But it's more than about getting one more scoring catch. Gates was targeted 18 times in the last two matchups with the Dolphins. Rivers could be looking his way often, especially after the Chargers have proven they can go over the top of defenses with a speedy Travis Benjamin stretching the field. That could open up the underneath space for Gates.

NEW YORK JETS at OAKLAND

JETS

Acquired from Seattle only a couple weeks ago, sixth-year receiver Jermaine Kearse had a solid opener, with seven catches for 59 yards and is worth taking a flier on as a fantasy pickup this week in PPR leagues, as the Jets will likely be trailing most of the game. ... Kicker Chandler Catanzaro could be worth a flier as well, because, if the Jets get any sustained offensive drives, don't be surprised if they stall in or before the red zone.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

After catching only five touchdown passes a year ago and going almost unnoticed in the red zone, the Raiders have made it a point to get wide receiver Amari Cooper involved near the goal line. He caught an 8-yard scoring pass for the Raiders' first touchdown of the season. Later, with the Raiders inside the Tennessee 10-yard line, Carr went to Cooper three straight times -- all incomplete -- before the Raiders kicked a 20-yard field goal. It underscores the commitment to get Cooper his touches near the goal line and the Jets defense presents another opportunity for Carr to zero in on Cooper and establish him as an end-zone threat.

DALLAS at DENVER

COWBOYS

With Broncos safety Darian Stewart hobbled by a groin injury, keep an eye on Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. Stewart aggravated his adductor muscle below the groin in the season opener against the Chargers. He expects to play against the Cowboys, but there a question of how effective he can be. If can't go or struggles, that might force the unproven Justin Simmons and/or Will Parks on the field. Witten may be in his 15th year, but remains highly effective. He had seven catches and a touchdown in the season opener. With the Broncos' corners expected to lock on Dez Bryant on the outside, the Cowboys will be targeting Witten in the middle of the field anyway. Now maybe more so.

BRONCOS

Even though the "No-Fly Zone" is in a state of transition after the release of safety T.J. Ward at the cutdown to 53 players, the presence of All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. still poses a major problem for Cowboys wide receivers Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley, and could limit the opportunities they have to make plays. But the Broncos have had trouble containing running backs out of the backfield, a trend that helped lead to Melvin Gordon's touchdown reception last Monday for the Chargers. That could create an opportunity for Ezekiel Elliott, who had just one touchdown reception last year, to still make an impact even if the Broncos' run defense is as stout against Dallas as it was against the Chargers.

WASHINGTON at LOS ANGELES RAMS

REDSKINS

Wide receiver Jamison Crowder has become one of the best slot receivers in the NFL the past two seasons with 126 receptions. The Redskins don't have the depth or consistency without DeSean Jackson or Pierre Garcon after they left via free agency. That raised legitimate questions if Crowder's numbers would take a hit. He certainly didn't have the game he wanted in a 30-17 loss to the Eagles. Crowder caught just three passes for 14 yards.

But don't give up on him after a slow start. Crowder is one of the few receivers left on the roster that quarterback Kirk Cousins has proven chemistry with. Cousins himself struggled on Sunday and that didn't help. He fired high to Crowder near the goal line - a pass that was intercepted. If that ball is a little lower, Crowder falls forward in the end zone. A similar play happened in the first half where an easy 10-yard gain was missed because Cousins threw too high. Crowder is battling a hip injury and was originally listed as questionable for the Philadelphia game so that bears watching. But he caught seven touchdowns last season so the upside is there if healthy.

RAMS

Todd Gurley hasn't had a 100-yard rushing performance in more than a year. He's absolutely due, and there are reasons to think he'll get it this week against the Redskins. Gurley was close to breaking a couple of long runs last week and in fact had two long runs nullified by penalty. That shows the Rams could be close to springing him. Just as important, the passing game arrived in the season opener with quarterback Jared Goff throwing for 307 yards while carving up the Colts throwing to nine different receivers. The added attention the Redskins will have to pay to defending the pass and a vastly improved offensive line could mean Gurley going off the week, which makes him an ideal fantasy pick.

SAN FRANCISCO at SEATTLE

49ERS

OK, you don't need to be told to play the Seattle defense against the 49ers' offense this week. If you absolutely, positively have to have a 49er in your lineup, you have to make it kicker Robbie Gould. The 49ers' offense can be expected to move the ball better than it did last week against Carolina, yet not good enough to get into the Seattle end zone often if at all. It's thus logical to assume that Gould, as he was last week, could be the team's leading scorer. The last time the 49ers beat the Seahawks, kicker Phil Dawson provided 13 of the 19 points, including four field goals.

SEAHAWKS

The return of Thomas Rawls to the lineup will continue to make Seattle's backfield situation a muddled mess. Rookie Chris Carson started against the Packers and received a team-high eight carries. Eddie Lacy and C.J. Prosise will continue to factor into the mix in more situational roles as well.

GREEN BAY at ATLANTA (Sunday night)

PACKERS

Atlanta second-year tight end Austin Hooper was a popular player on the transaction wire this week after a breakout Week 1. But fantasy owners might want to stay away from Hooper this week. Packers strong safety Morgan Burnett will likely line up much of the day with Hooper, which could be bad news for the Falcons' tight end. Last week, Burnett held Seattle's Jimmy Graham to just three catches for eight yards - and Hooper could experience tough sledding, as well, on Sunday.

FALCONS

Quarterback Matt Ryan was incredibly successful when throwing over the middle, completing 13 of 14 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown (142.6 passer rating) in Sunday's win over the Bears. Throwing outside the numbers, Ryan went 8 of 15 for 92 yards (72.1 passer rating). ... Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are not likely good plays this week as Falcons right guard Wes Schweitzer struggled in the opener and figures to be a mismatch for Green Bay's disruptive defensive tackle Mike Daniels. ... Tight end Austin Hooper will get a lot of attention from Green Bay's Morgan Burnett and will be hard-pressed to match his output from Week 1.

DETROIT at NEW YORK GIANTS (Monday night)

LIONS

Aside from one 67-yard catch by Golden Tate on a busted play, the Lions didn't get much out of their receiving corps against the Giants' talented trio of cornerbacks last year. That could be the case once again Monday, but Matthew Stafford still has to throw to someone. Running back Theo Riddick and tight end Eric Ebron should log plenty of targets. Riddick had just 27 yards receiving in the opener, though he did catch a touchdown pass. Ebron had just two catches last week against the Cardinals, but the New Jersey native is another week removed from his summer hamstring injury and always gets up for playing against the team he grew up rooting for.

GIANTS

Running back Shane Vereen came through with nine receptions on 10 pass targets for 51 yards in the Week 1 loss to the Cowboys. If the Giants offense continues to struggle with opening things up, he could be an attractive option in PPR leagues. ... Lions rookie receiver Kenny Golladay, who had five receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason, continued his hot hand in Week 1, finishing with 69 yards, the second highest on the Lions behind Golden Tate, and a team-leading two touchdown receptions. Golladay figures to draw Eli Apple, who last week looked rusty after spending most of the summer trying to come back from ankle sprains to both ankles, in what should be a favorable matchup. ... It's too soon to know if receiver Odell Beckham Jr. will be able to play -- he'll be a game-day decision -- but if he does, he might be worth adding to one's fantasy lineup. Even at half speed, Beckham has shown he can get open and inflict damage, regardless of who is assigned to cover him. After last week's lethargic showing by the Giants, if Beckham is in the lineup, it would be a stunning development if quarterback Eli Manning didn't look to his favorite receiving target for a half-dozen pass targets, even if Beckham isn't 100 percent yet.

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