Tonight, Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season kicks off with a matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While everyone loves Thursday Night Football, fantasy owners struggle with which players they should put in their starting lineups. To help them decide which players they should start and which they should sit, let’s dive into this week’s Thursday Night Fantasy Preview.
All stats are base on four-point per passing touchdown and PPR scoring.
Quarterback – Dak Prescott
Before suffering a leg injury, Prescott was on pace to throw for nearly 6,000 yards. Thanks to his excellent trio of wide receivers and poor defense, Prescott is a prime candidate to lead the league in passing yards this year. In the five games Prescott played last season, he led all quarterbacks with 27.1 fantasy points per game. Furthermore, in his first four games last season, Dak averaged 30.6 fantasy points per game. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers re-signed all their best defensive players from last year. Their defense will make things difficult for Prescott, especially with Zack Martin on the Covid-19 list. While Prescott has the skill and supporting cast to score 20 or more fantasy points tonight, he hasn’t played a down of live football in almost a year.
Running Back – Ezekiel Elliott
With Prescott missing 11 games with the leg injury, defenses stacked the box against Elliott, hurting his fantasy value. In the first five games, Zeke was the RB3, averaging 22.3 fantasy points per game. By comparison, without Prescott, Zeke was the RB24, averaging only 11.2 fantasy points per game. Despite all the issues along the offensive line and at quarterback, Zeke finished the year as the RB9. While the Cowboys won’t have Martin for tonight’s game, the rest of the starting unit expects to play. Last season, the Buccaneers held running backs to only 20.4 fantasy points per game, the sixth-fewest in the NFL. Zeke is a first-round fantasy pick and a must-start each week. However, he is a high-end RB2 this week against a tough Buccaneers defense.
Wide Receiver – Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup
As great as the Buccaneers’ defense was last season, their secondary had some ups and downs. They gave up the ninth-most fantasy points to wide receivers, giving up just under 39 per game. More importantly, the Cowboys have one of, if not the, best wide receiver trios in the NFL. In the first four games of the 2020 season, Cooper averaged 21.3 fantasy points per game. By comparison, Lamb averaged 16.3, and Gallup averaged 11.6 per game. Furthermore, despite the Cowboys starting four different quarterbacks last season, Cooper finished as the WR15, Lamb finished as the WR24, and Gallup as the WR38. Assuming Prescott plays all 17 games, all three wide receivers should finish inside the top 30 this season.
Anyone who picked Cooper or Lamb drafted them as fantasy starters, and they should be in your lineup tonight. Given how poorly the Dallas defense looks on paper, the Buccaneers should score at will tonight, which will force the Cowboys to play from behind. In that situation, both Cooper and Lamb could end tonight’s game with over 18 fantasy points. Meanwhile, Gallup is a more polarizing fantasy player. With Cooper and Lamb cemented as the clear starters, Gallup’s target share and snap percentage will be restricted. That said, the over/under for tonight’s game is around 52 points, suggesting a shootout. If the game goes according to that scenario, Gallup offers flex appeal this week.
Tight End – Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz
Entering the 2020 season, Jarwin was a popular fantasy sleeper at the tight end position. However, on his first catch of the season, Jarwin tore his ACL. As Jarwin’s replacement, Schultz had a career year, averaging 9.2 fantasy points per game, finishing as the TE11. However, 26.6 percent of his fantasy points from last season came in two games. The good news is, both games were with Prescott under center. While the Cowboys passing attack is explosive enough to produce a top-12 tight end, the question is, which one? After Schultz’s play last season, Jarwin’s starting role isn’t secured. Until we see how this tight end situation shakes out, Jarwin nor Schultz is a startable tight end in standard size leagues.
The Cowboys D/ST is like a bad joke and something you should avoid. Last season, the Cowboys D/ST averaged 4.9 fantasy points per game. Moreover, they gave up an average of 28.1 points per game and struggled to stop any offense. The Cowboys gave up 33 or more points in seven games. By comparison, they held their opponents to under 20 points in only three games. Furthermore, fantasy owners would be wise to avoid any D/ST playing against the Buccaneers. Last season, D/STs averaged only 3.7 fantasy points per game against Tampa Bay. With all of the weapons the Buccaneers have, there is no reason to play the Cowboys D/ST.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Quarterback – Tom Brady
Brady finished last season as the QB8, averaging 21.1 fantasy points per game. However, Brady’s play picked up in the second half of the season, once the Buccaneers added Antonio Brown. From Week 10 through the end of the season, Brady was the QB7, averaging 24.3 fantasy points per game. During that span, Brady scored 21.7 or more fantasy points in five of seven games. Meanwhile, in the offseason, the Buccaneers re-signed all of their critical free agents. They have their entire starting offense from last year back this season. Tonight, Brady takes on an awful Cowboys defense and should have his way with them. Furthermore, the only thing that will keep Brady from finishing the week as the overall QB1 is his lack of rushing ability.
Running Back – Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones, Giovani Bernard
Last season, Jones and Fournette combined for 1,345 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. At different points last season, one back had control of the starting role while the other appeared glued to the bench. Jones ended the season as the RB20 while Fournette finished as the RB35. However, in the playoffs, Fournette finished as the RB1, averaging 21.7 fantasy points per game. By comparison, Jones scored a total of 13.9 fantasy points in the playoffs. Even after re-signing Fournette in the offseason, the Buccaneers signed Bernard to take over the third-down back role. Bruce Arians has praised Bernard and saying he will have a big role in the offense. During the draft season, fantasy players rightfully did everything possible to avoid this backfield.
That said, the Cowboys finished in the middle of the pack defending running backs last season. Running backs averaged just under 23 fantasy points per game against the Cowboys. Moreover, Brady will want to take advantage of an awful Dallas secondary tonight. In PPR leagues, Bernard is a safe floor flex option. However, Jones and Fournette are riskier options and should be on your bench if at all possible. They could evenly split the early-down work, making neither a startable running back.
Wide Receiver – Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown
Tonight’s game will feature two of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL. While the Cowboys have an up-and-coming trio, the Buccaneers trio combines for 11 pro bowl selections. All three are excellent players, but they hurt each other’s fantasy value. Last season, Evans had 109 targets while Godwin had 84 compared to 61 for Brown. However, on a per-game basis, Brown averaged 7.6 targets compared to 6.8 for Evans and seven for Godwin. Furthermore, in the eight games Brown played, Evans averaged 7.9 targets per game while Godwin averaged 6.9 per game. More importantly, when Brady had a hot streak to finish the season, all three wide receivers were must-start fantasy assets.
Over the final seven games of the 2020 season, Evans was the WR10, averaging 8.1 targets and 18.4 fantasy points per game. Second on the team was Godwin. He was the WR15, averaging seven targets and 17 fantasy points per game. Behind them was Brown. He averaged eight targets and 15.9 fantasy points per game during that span, finishing as the WR18. For reference, all three finished higher than star wide receivers like D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin during that span.
In non PPR, Evans’ downfield play makes him the most appealing option. However, in PPR scoring, Godwin or Brown should be the favorite to lead the unit in fantasy points tonight. The best way for fantasy owners to handle this situation is to play their Buccaneer receiver and hope for a high-scoring matchup. All three will likely finish as a low-end WR2 this week and have the upside to sneak into the top-12. For the fantasy owners with more than one Buccaneer wide receiver, you should rank them as Evans, Brown, then Godwin for this game.
Tight End – Rob Gronkowski
After skipping the 2019 season, Gronk finished as the TE8 last season with 149.3 total fantasy points. However, on a point per game basis, Gronk finished as the TE13. Furthermore, Gronk’s 9.3 fantasy points per game average were the lowest of his career. While he played in all 16 games for the first time since 2011, Gronkowski was inconsistent weekly. He had six games with over 11 fantasy points. By comparison, Gronk scored under 7.5 fantasy points in half of his games. Moreover, the Cowboys gave up the sixth-fewest fantasy points to tight ends last season, giving up only 11.2 per game to the position. Gronk is no longer a plug-and-play tight end, and he isn’t a streaming option this week either.
As great as the Tampa Bay offense was last season, the defense was equally impressive. The Buccaneers finished as the D/ST9, averaging 7.3 fantasy points per game. Their 48 sacks finished tied for fourth in the NFL, while their 15 interceptions finished tied for seventh. However, the unit was inconsistent weekly. The Buccaneers D/ST scored under six fantasy points in just under half of their games last season. By comparison, they scored over nine fantasy points just four times. Moreover, in the four games Prescott was healthy last season, D/STs averaged only 5.3 fantasy points per game against the Cowboys. As talented as the Buccaneers defense is, their D/ST belongs on your bench this week against Dallas.
Prescott: Mid QB1
Elliott: High-End RB2
Cooper: Mid WR2
Lamb: Mid WR2
Gallup: Upside Flex Option
Cowboys D/ST: Avoid
Brady: High-End QB1
Fournette: Risky RB3
Jones: Risky RB3
Bernard: Safe Flex Option
Evans: Low-End WR2
Godwin: Low-End WR2
Brown: Low-End WR2
Buccaneers D/ST: Avoid
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