6:20 AM ET
NFL Nation reporters
You hurried and scurried, hustled and bustled. You scoured everything ESPN had to offer, and it was, is and will continue to be a metric ton of news, tidbits and useful information.
Football is back, and many of you have returned to the fantasy football waters. Now whether you’re a shark or simply chum has yet to be determined. But it’s exciting nonetheless.
Our 32 NFL Nation reporters are back to offer their best fantasy advice based on questions asked weekly by ESPN Fantasy Sports Researcher Kyle Soppe. He’ll decide what’s most pertinent, and ESPN’s reporters will give you the inside scoop on what they’ve observed and heard in the locker room and from their sources.
There are high hopes for rookies and well-known faces in new places. You also have the same high hopes regarding your fantasy team. We’re all 0-0. Will your team avoid injuries? Will your late sleeper picks pay off? Can you win it all?
The time has come for the questions and answers for Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season. Away we go:
Who do you expect to be the most productive pass-catcher next to Stefon Diggs?
There’s a reason Cole Beasley received an All-Pro vote last season — in Buffalo’s prolific passing offense, he was Josh Allen‘s favorite target behind Diggs. Beasley has been electric throughout training camp and should pick up where he left off in 2020. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
What are your expectations for Jaylen Waddle with Will Fuller V suspended?
The Dolphins listed Waddle as one of their three starting wide receivers on the first depth chart of the season, and he figures to see plenty of action out of the slot. Miami will try to get the ball in the rookie speedster’s hands in any way possible and, especially against an aggressive Patriots pass rush, he might be a safety valve for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. A good showing in Week 1 could set the tone for what will almost certainly be a plus opportunity for a shootout against the Bills in Week 2. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
What role do you expect for Rhamondre Stevenson in his NFL debut?
In a battle of Alabama QBs — Tua vs. Mac — there is also a reminder that their former Crimson Tide teammate Damien Harris projects to a leading role as the Patriots’ RB1. Any talk of the Patriots’ running game at this point still starts with Harris. Thus, any role Stevenson would play would be secondary — with wide-ranging options including everything from game-day inactive, to niche goal-line option, to spelling Harris every couple of series. — Mike Reiss
Who will rank second in targets behind Corey Davis this weekend?
Rookie WR Elijah Moore is the player to watch. He figures to have a prominent role with slot receiver Jamison Crowder ruled out this weekend after testing positive for COVID-19 last week. Moore plays inside and outside, increasing his chances of seeing significant playing time. Even though he missed the preseason, he developed a good chemistry with QB Zach Wilson on the practice field. — Rich Cimini
How different will the Ravens’ offense look given the rash of backfield injuries?
Extremely different. The top three backs to start training camp — J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill — have all suffered season-ending injuries. Ty’Son Williams, who was projected as the No. 3 running back two weeks ago, is now the starting running back for the Monday Night Football opener. The Ravens love Williams’ physicality, and he is the only current back on the roster who has been with the Ravens beyond Wednesday. But Williams has never had an NFL carry. As far as Williams’ backup, Baltimore could go with Devonta Freeman, who is on the Ravens’ practice squad. Freeman might get the nod over Le’Veon Bell because he is in better football shape after spending training camp with the Saints.— Jamison Hensley
Will the preseason drops have any impact on the role of Ja’Marr Chase?
Preseason drops? No. Chase’s struggles since he arrived in Cincinnati shouldn’t affect how often he is targeted. In fact, it probably means Chase will get some targets early so he can build rhythm and some confidence. However, if he can’t reel in those passes, then his usage could take a hit the rest of the game and beyond. — Ben Baby
Mike Clay expects a turn-around for the Vikings’ defense causing him to downgrade Bengals’ wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.
What should we expect from Odell Beckham Jr. in his first real action since October?
To immediately step into the role of downfield playmaking threat that the Browns missed after OBJ’s ACL injury last season. Beckham might not grab a bunch of receptions this season out of Cleveland’s run-heavy offense. But healthy again, he has the capacity — and a confident QB in Baker Mayfield — to be one of the league’s top big-play TD threats. — Jake Trotter
Which wide receiver do you like most in this matchup?
Ben Roethlisberger distributed the ball pretty evenly the last time the Steelers took on the Bills, and JuJu Smith-Schuster led the pack with 55 yards on seven targets and a touchdown. But there’s another receiver who should get more attention from fantasy managers this week: Diontae Johnson. Like Smith-Schuster, Johnson also had seven targets, but he had just four catches for 40 yards. His numbers likely would’ve been much higher, but he was benched for most of the first half after drops on consecutive drives in the first quarter. He didn’t get another target until less than two minutes remained in the third quarter. If Johnson has sufficiently solved his drop issue — something he worked on all offseason — he should be in line for a big day Sunday. — Brooke Pryor
Who leads this backfield in touches this week (and this season)?
Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay is the Texans’ starter, and barring injury, that should be the case all season — unless the Texans are trailing by two scores in the second half, in which case David Johnson would see more snaps than usual in passing situations. Coach David Culley said the Texans would take a “running back by committee” approach with their room of veteran backs, but did acknowledge that how often each back is used will be dependent on the flow of the game. Although Houston is carrying five backs (Lindsay, David Johnson, Mark Ingram II, Rex Burkhead and Scottie Phillips) on its 53-man roster, it’s not hard to see a scenario where Lindsay runs away with the job. — Sarah Barshop
Which pass-catcher do you expect to step up in the absence of TY Hilton?
This is the perfect opportunity for Parris Campbell to step up. Coach Frank Reich said this week that Campbell has progressed so much that the Colts can line him up anywhere on the field — in the slot, out wide or use him in motion. None of that will mean anything if Campbell can’t stay healthy. He has played only nine games in his first two seasons because of injuries. — Mike Wells
Who leads this team in targets on Sunday?
Marvin Jones Jr. has been Trevor Lawrence‘s favorite target throughout training camp. Lawrence targeted Jones nine times when they were on the field with the first-team offense in the first two preseason games. So expect Lawrence to continue to look for Jones a lot, especially when it’s a key situation or he is scrambling. — Michael DiRocco
How involved do you expect Julio Jones to be in his Titans debut?
Jones should be heavily involved in the game plan this week. It’s like getting a new car and taking it out for a spin to show it off. Expect the Titans to make it a point to display how Jones and Ryan Tannehill can be a productive tandem, especially against the Cardinals’ cornerbacks. — Turron Davenport
Who will be Teddy Bridgewater‘s go-to target to open the season?
One thing Bridgewater has shown throughout his training camp battle to win the starting job as well as his work in three preseason games — 73.3% completions, three TDs, no interceptions with just one possession he was behind center in which the team did not score points — is his willingness to move the ball around to where the defense wasn’t. So the “go-to” tag could move around this season. But Courtland Sutton has waited since suffering a knee injury in Week 2 in 2020 to get back on the field. And in the only preseason game Sutton played last month, he and Bridgewater showed a quick affinity, including a touchdown. — Jeff Legwold
Will the preseason usage of Mecole Hardman result in improved regular-season numbers starting on Sunday?
As long as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are in the lineup, it’s difficult to see any other Chiefs receiver getting the ball on a consistent basis. Hardman will have his big games, but with Patrick Mahomes having so many other receivers to feed, they won’t happen every week. — Adam Teicher
Is there a pass-catcher not named Darren Waller who will see consistent volume?
Yes, or have you forgotten about Derek Carr‘s security blanket, the guy who goes by the nickname “Third-and-Renfrow”? Now, Hunter Renfrow is never going to light up the stat sheet — he has 105 catches for 1,261 yards and 6 TDs in two seasons — but he is consistent. And while the Raiders have big plans for speedster Henry Ruggs III, Carr needs time for those downfield plays to develop and the offensive line is still a work in progress. Renfrow’s intermediate routes provide production. — Paul Gutierrez
Rookie third-round pick Joshua Palmer had an amazing training camp. He was featured a lot in the preseason and will be a factor early, especially if injuries hit the Chargers’ skill players. — Shelley Smith
Dictated by the matchup and who wasn’t playing for the Cowboys: six-time Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin. Ultimately, throwing that much isn’t the recipe the Cowboys want. Prescott is now 4-11 in games in which he throws 40 or more passes. The Cowboys want to get running back Ezekiel Elliott involved more and have him be a central piece to the game plan, but they also don’t want to be so stubborn that they just run into a brick wall over and over again. Tampa Bay lost a starting corner on the second drive and the Cowboys felt the best way to attack was with Prescott’s arm. After the game, Prescott said the Cowboys will have games they have to lean on him and times they will lean on Elliott. — Todd Archer
Over or under 17.5 touches for Saquon Barkley?
Under. That’s a high number considering the way the Giants have handled the Barkley situation since the start. Joe Judge has been adamant about taking a long-range view with their star running back and mentioned Wednesday he can’t possibly stress that enough. The Giants also have to be cognizant of playing two games in four days. A range of 10 to 15 touches seems more likely. — Jordan Raanan
Should we be comfortable in starting Jalen Hurts after an offseason of knowing he is “the guy”?
Yes. He was the ninth-best fantasy quarterback over the final four games of his rookie season despite playing behind an injury-ravaged offensive line and for an organization that was in full meltdown mode. The offensive front is healthier, the Eagles added reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and coach Nick Sirianni’s offense has been tailored to fit Hurts’ skill set. Given that he can attack a defense with his arm and his legs, expect plenty of production. — Tim McManus
Matthew Berry has big expectations for Jalen Hurts in his first year under head coach Nick Sirianni.
What role do you expect Dyami Brown to play in his NFL debut?
With Curtis Samuel being placed on the IR on Friday with an ailing groin, it’ll be larger than expected. They love Brown’s speed, but they also say he is fearless on slants or going over the middle and he can be used on bubble routes. The big question, though, is how many targets he’ll receive because there’s a list of players I’d anticipate being ahead of him in opportunities — Terry McLaurin, Adam Humphries, Logan Thomas and J.D. McKissic. Ryan Fitzpatrick also really likes Cam Sims, though Brown could take reps away from him. Still, I would expect them to use Brown’s speed, not just on deep balls but on slants where he could break a long gain. — John Keim
Who ranks second on this team in targets on Sunday night (and for the season)?
Second-year wide receiver Darnell Mooney. As a rookie last season, Mooney caught 61 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns. Mooney is determined to top those numbers in Year 2. After Allen Robinson II, Mooney figures to be the most reliable target for Andy Dalton, and then for Justin Fields, whenever the rookie takes over. — Jeff Dickerson
It’s no secret that D’Andre Swift is expected to be the guy for Detroit at running back, with Jamaal Williams set to thrive as the No. 2 back in a strong complementary role. Throughout training camp, Swift was hampered with a groin injury that kept him out of preseason action and many practices, but he has been a full participant in practice this week and should see the bulk of the touches during the season opener as he is moving with no limitations. “I’m very bad at counting reps,” said Lions running backs coach Duce Staley. “If he’s out there being productive, ‘What number is it Duce? Three.’ It could be play 49, I don’t know how to take him off.” — Eric Woodyard
Will Robert Tonyan see more targets following an impressive 2020?
A strong case could be made that Tonyan is Aaron Rodgers‘ second-favorite target. And why not, considering he never drops the ball (OK, he dropped one once). Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Aaron Jones had slightly more targets than Tonyan did last season. All of them were way behind Davante Adams, but if teams put even more effort into slowing down Adams, Tonyan could certainly benefit. But after catching 11 TDs last season, Tonyan won’t take anyone by surprise this year. — Rob Demovsky
The Fantasy Focus crew analyzes if Robert Tonyan can eclipse 6.5 touchdowns on the season.
Can fantasy managers count on a tight end in this offense with Irv Smith Jr. out?
It’s too early to tell if Tyler Conklin can pick up where Smith left off or if Chris Herndon finally replicates the success we saw him have in 2018 now that he is in a new offense. Mike Zimmer said the Vikings might have to go three wide more often with Smith likely sidelined for the year, and I’d expect a lot of those targets to go to Dede Westbrook, assuming he can stay healthy and emerge as WR3. The Vikings love running the ball and will probably rely on their tight ends to do more blocking than pass-catching early on. — Courtney Cronin
Can Mike Davis repeat his near 5 targets per game from 2020 with Carolina?
Probably not, and there are reasons for that. First would be overall target share — Davis is likely fourth or fifth in line for targets (and that might be high) — certainly behind Calvin Ridley and likely Russell Gage and Kyle Pitts, too. Combine that with his expanded role in the run game and the likely usage of Cordarrelle Patterson in passing situations for his receiving skills and five a game might be a bit much. Now, if he ends up as the Vikings’ two-minute back in certain situations, that’s where he could eclipse it, but don’t expect that from week to week. — Michael Rothstein
Moore, particularly when it comes to scoring in the red zone. He had only four receiving touchdowns last season. Look for that to at least double. Anderson thrived as a possession receiver last season. Some of his production is likely to go to rookie wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. and running back Christian McCaffrey. — David Newton
Do you expect Marquez Callaway to dominate the target share?
Yes, I expect Callaway to be the Saints’ top target — especially until fellow WR Tre’Quan Smith is fully healed from a nagging hamstring injury that sidelined him all summer and has landed him on the IR to begin the season. Smith was originally expected to be New Orleans’ No. 1 receiver while Michael Thomas was out, so he could be a factor again once healthy. But Callaway’s emergence as New Orleans’ WR1 this summer was no fluke. He stepped up consistently throughout every practice session, just as he did in both preseason games. — Mike Triplett
Is Mike Evans set to be the WR3 in terms of target share this season?
No. The Bucs’ coaching staff was absolutely thrilled with the training camp Evans had, with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich calling him “lights out” and wide receivers coach Kevin Garver saying, “He came into camp the best I’ve seen him.” Evans also said, “This is the best shape I’ve ever been in.” Thursday night’s three-catch performance was a combination of Tampa Bay having only so many mouths to feed — Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown both eclipsed 100 receiving yards — and Evans being shadowed by Trevon Diggs, who played a terrific game. Should Evans have played better? Absolutely. But it’s no reason to hit the panic button. He’ll get more than his share. — Jenna Laine
What sort of day one role do you expect for Rondale Moore?
He’ll be eased into the receiver rotation in terms of targets, but will see the field early and often Sunday against the Titans. Don’t be surprised if he gets a pass and a run early in the first quarter to get his legs under him. Coach Kliff Kingsbury will use him to stretch the defense as well as on plays like jet sweeps. His speed will, undoubtedly, be utilized. — Josh Weinfuss
Who will Matthew Stafford target most in his team debut?
That’s a tough call between receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, both of whom Stafford built chemistry with over the offseason and into training camp. Woods’ and Kupp’s versatility has allowed them to be go-to targets for Stafford anywhere on the field and he is expected to look to both of them often when the Rams open against the Bears. — Lindsey Thiry
Mike Clay expects a big day for the Rams pass offense vs. the Bears secondary.
There’s little reason to believe the 49ers will stray from the “hot hand” approach they’ve taken under coach Kyle Shanahan. Which is to say that they’ll give Mostert and Sermon (and possibly Elijah Mitchell) opportunities, and whoever seems to be rolling will get the most work. That said, Mostert looked really good in the preseason and camp and Shanahan has said he wants to see what Mostert could do if healthy and able to stay on the field over the course of the season. If things go according to plan and everyone stays healthy, Mostert should be in the 17- to 20-touch range with Sermon probably closer to 9 to 12. — Nick Wagoner
Will a third pass-catcher prove productive, and if so who?
Tight end Gerald Everett seems like the most likely candidate, at least for now. Rookie Dee Eskridge might still begin the season as Seattle’s third receiver behind Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, which is what the Seahawks envisioned when they drafted him in the second round. But all the time he missed because of his toe injury added to an already challenging learning curve. Everett, on the other hand, has had no catching up to do in Shane Waldron’s new offense, which is similar to the one he played in while both were with the Rams. — Brady Henderson