This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
For the most part, it's been business as usual in the promised land of matchup, with our usual suspects (Jets, Falcons, Lions, Jaguars) once again proving hospitable. Of course, we've also seen a few surprises, including the Raiders defense coming up big against Baltimore and Pittsburgh in back-to-back weeks.
That's not to say Vegas is now a universally difficult matchup, but we should at least rethink some of the preseason assumptions as our sample from 2021 continues to grow. Other candidates for most-improved defense include Carolina (the early leader), Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Arizona, though in all four cases an easy early schedule certainly has helped.
Looking at the Week 3 slate, QB injuries may actually be a larger concern than matchups, with three starters already ruled out (Andy Dalton, Tua Tagovailoa, Tyrod Taylor) and two others attempting to play through injuries (Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Wentz). Sure, none of them are particularly good at this point, but just wait 'til you see their backups...
Unless otherwise noted, references to 'fantasy points' are based on PPR scoring with 25/10 yards per point and 4/6 points for TDs. Start % comes from Yahoo, as of Wednesday night / Thursday morning.
Daniel Jones (vs. ATL)
Atlanta's defense is about the same as ever, allowing QBs to produce a league-high 58.4 fantasy points and eight passing TDs through two weeks. Meanwhile, Jones sits fifth at the position in fantasy scoring, with a chance to climb even higher (at least temporarily) after Week 3. He still looks shaky as a passer, and thus seems more likely than not to slip outside the Top 10 eventually, but there is a chance Jones does enough with his legs to stick around in low-end QB1 range. (He's tied for fourth among QB in both scrambles (six) and carries on designed run plays (nine), per PFF). Even if you have no faith long term, it should work out alright this week.
- Honorable Mentions: Jalen Hurts, PHI vs. DAL; Teddy Bridgewater, DEN vs. NYJ; Sam Darnold, CAR at HOU
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (vs. LAC)
It's been an ugly start to the season for both Edwards-Helaire (118 total yards, lost fumble) and the Chargers run defense (NFL-high 287 rushing yards allowed to RBs). Patience may be wearing thin with the former, but he does have a favorable matchup and home-field advantage on his side this week, not to mention Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and a dominant share of KC's backfield work. Edwards-Helaire has played 69 percent of snaps on offense through two games, handling 27 of the team's 31 RB carries and three of the four targets. That second number should rise soon enough, as the three seasons with Mahomes at QB have produced middle-of-the-pack cumulative target totals for KC's backfield — 97 in 2018 (t-24th), 111 in 2019 (16th), 111 in 2020 (t-13th).
Javonte Williams (vs. NYJ)
This is more about the team-level matchup than the individual matchup, as run defense is the one thing the Jets might actually be decent at. So far, they've simply been average (212 yards allowed, 4.2 YPC), with the biggest issue against RBs being poor coverage (18 catches on 18 targets). That's probably Melvin Gordon's turf more so than Williams' based on their roles through two games, but the hope here is Denver can cruise to an easy win and get the rookie to a dozen or more carries for a third straight week... perhaps with a trip to the end zone this time.
Williams' role does hint at some problems ahead if he can't take more snaps from Gordon, but he has one last chance to take advantage of Denver being a heavy favorite before the October schedule brings Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Vegas, Cleveland and Washington. A big game this weekend might create a sell-high opportunity, or it might be the start of his coup on Gordon. Not that we're counting our chickens before they hatch, mind you.
- Honorable Mentions: Saquon Barkley, NYG vs. ATL; Miles Sanders & Kenneth Gainwell, PHI at DAL; Ty'Son Williams & Latavius Murray, BAL at DET; Kenyan Drake & Josh Jacobs (or Peyton Barber), LV vs. MIA; Chase Edmonds & James Conner, ARZ at JAX
Marquise Brown (at DET)
While early draft picks tend to break out in their first or second seasons these days, Brown is trying to revive the oft-mentioned third-year breakout of yesteryear. So far, so good, with his production (12-182-2 on 16 targets) backed by a dominant share of Baltimore's passing game. Among wide receivers, Brown ranks eighth in target share (29.6 percent) and 14th in air-yard share (39.6 percent), perhaps even making his move to supplant Mark Andrews (18.5 percent TS, 15.1 percent AYS) as Lamar Jackson's most trusted pass catcher.
Granted, Andrews should also have a nice Sunday, facing a young Detroit defense that had been hoping to solidify the cornerback spots with 2020 first-round pick Jeff Okudah (ruptured Achilles) and 2021 third-rounder Ifeatu Melifonwu (IR - thigh). Brown now figures to run most of his routes against 2019 fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye and 2020 UDFA Bobby Price, while Andrews gets a beatable safety duo of Tracy Walker and
Kenny Golladay (vs. ATL)
Golladay hasn't gotten much love around here, and fantasy managers are probably a little nervous to see him outproduced by both Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton. It is possible that continues, at least in Shepard's case, but the Week 3 matchup sets up nicely for Golladay to make a big play (or three) downfield. The Atlanta defense is already a joke, and it won't get any better if top corner A.J. Terrell (concussion) misses time. (The 2020 first-round pick was held out of practice to start the week, after entering the concussion protocol Sunday.)
- Honorable Mentions: Courtland Sutton, DEN vs. NYJ; Sterling Shepard & Darius Slayton, NYG vs. ATL; DJ Chark, JAX vs. ARZ; Jakobi Meyers, NE vs. NO; Sammy Watkins, BAL at DET; Jalen Reagor, PHI at DAL; TIm Patrick & KJ Hamler, DEN vs. NYJ
Tyler Higbee (vs. TB)
Higbee has to deal with good defense, but the matchup should work in his favor when it comes to volume, especially if RB Darrell Henderson (ribs) is limited or absent. Higbee has run a route on 84.7 percent of Matthew Stafford's 59 dropbacks, hinting at potential for 30-plus routes once the Rams end up throwing more passes. That should happen Sunday, with the Bucs well on their way to being a pass-funnel defense (3.0 YPC, 106 opponent pass attempts) for the third year in a row. There's potential for multiple LA pass catchers to feast this week, even if it happens via volume rather than efficiency.
Aaron Rodgers (at SF)
This isn't a panic-worthy matchup where you'd bench Rodgers for a streamer, but you might give him the week off if you have someone like Jalen Hurts or Matthew Stafford waiting in reserve. The San Francisco defense looked awfully banged up at this time last week, but apart from the long-term absences (LB Dre Greenlaw, CB Jason Verrett) the only key guy who ended up missing the win over Philly was CB Emmanuel Moseley... and he may be back this coming Sunday. More important, the Niners' top pass rushers all appear healthy, including superstar Nick Bosa (three sacks already) after an ACL tear wiped out his 2020.
Damien Harris (vs. NO)
With 39 carries and four targets through two weeks, Harris is already looking like an every-week starter in deep leagues. For shallower formats, we still need to look at the matchups, as his snap share (49 percent) suggests his workload won't be nearly as stable throughout the season. There were even signs of trouble in last week's blowout win over the Jets, as Harris was quiet for most of the day apart from his 26-yard TD run, getting eight of his 16 carries in the fourth quarter when New England was nursing a big lead.
The Patriots should lean on James White (and Mac Jones) again this week, facing a Saints defense that's allowing just 2.8 YPC despite losing a bunch of bodies in the offseason and then facing Aaron Jones and Christian McCaffrey in Weeks 1 and 2. Maybe it catches up to them eventually, but so far the Saints have been even tougher against the run than they were the past few seasons.
Myles Gaskin (at LV)
The Raiders defense may or may not be for real, but it at least seems better than last season, whereas Gaskin and Miami's offense weren't exactly humming even before Tua Tagovailoa fractured his ribs. Gaskin wasn't responsible for that play, but he has played a role in Tagovailoa and Jacoby Brissett taking a beating, with shoddy work in pass protection yielding seven pressures, five hurries and two QB hits on 15 pass-block snaps. Gaskin was solid in that regard last year, but it might start to cost him playing time, as no other RB has allowed more than three pressures or two hurries, per PFF. Given the various concerns, it's safe to say Sunday's game won't look much like Gaskin's last trip to Vegas.
- Honorable Mentions: Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones, TB at LAR; Devin Singletary, BUF vs. WAS; Michael Carter & Ty Johnson, NYJ at DEN
Corey Davis (at DEN)
Even with injuries taking a toll, Denver trots out one of the better starting defenses in the league, subbing in Malik Reed (eight sacks last year) for Bradley Chubb (ankle) at OLB, and first-round pick Patrick Surtain for Ronald Darby (hamstring) at CB. Surtain had a pick in his first start, with Denver limiting Marvin Jones and DJ Chark to a total of 74 yards on 15 targets. Davis had the big Week 1 at Carolina, but he's seen just 12 targets — six fewer than Braxton Berrios and only 17.4 percent of the team total— in what might be the NFL's worst passing offense.
Henry Ruggs (vs. MIA)
As good as he looked last week, Ruggs still has the worrisome peripherals, with his 12 targets accounting for 13.5% of the team total and his 100 snaps working out to 66 percent share. The Raiders have run the second-most plays (72.0) and are tied for the most pass attempts (46.5), with an overtime period and the lack of a running game making Derek Carr a busy many early on. TE Darren Waller is still the only Raider with exciting market shares, and the Dolphins can put speedy Byron Jones on Ruggs even if top corner Xavien Howard is deployed elsewhere.
- Honorable Mentions: Allen Robinson, CHI at CLE; Brandin Cooks, HOU vs. CAR; Marquez Callaway, NO at NE; Jamison Crowder, Elijah Moore & Braxton Berrios, NYJ at DEN; K.J. Osborn, MIN vs. SEA
Robert Tonyan (at SF)
We can make it more complicated — Tonyan's snap and target shares are down a bit from last year — but the main point is that he's a TD-dependent player facing what likely will be his team's lowest implied total (23.0) of the year (unless Aaron Rodgers get injured). The 49ers play good defense, and Tonyan isn't exactly Mr. Reliable when it comes to volume.
For Shallow Leagues (40-65 percent rostered)
QB Justin Fields (at CLE)
RB Alexander Mattison (vs. SEA)
RB James White (vs. NO)
RB Latavius Murray (at DET)
WR Jakobi Meyers (vs. NO)
WR Jaylen Waddle (at LV)
TE Jared Cook (at KC)
TE Gerald Everett (at MIN)
K Matt Prater (at JAX)
K Daniel Carlson (vs. MIA)
D/ST Cardinals (at JAX)
For Medium-depth Leagues (20-39 percent rostered)
QB Daniel Jones (vs. ATL)
RB J.D. McKissic (at BUF)
RB Kenneth Gainwell (at DAL)
WR Jalen Reagor (at DAL)
WR K.J. Osborn (vs. SEA)
WR Sammy Watkins (at DET)
WR Tim Patrick (vs. NYJ)
TE Evan Engram (vs. ATL)
WR/TE Juwan Johnson (at NE)
K Brandon McManus (vs. NYJ)
K Jason Myers ( at MIN)
D/ST Raiders (vs. MIA)
For Deep Leagues (under 20 percent rostered)
QB Jimmy Garoppolo (vs. GB)
RB Jacques Patrick (vs. GB)
RB Ty Johnson (at DEN)
WR Darius Slayton (vs. ATL)
WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling (at SF)
WR Van Jefferson (vs. TB)
WR KJ Hamler (vs. NYJ)
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (vs. CHI)
WR Cedrick Wilson (vs. PHI)
TE Pat Freiermuth (vs. CIN)
TE Jack Doyle (at TEN)
K Chris Boswell (vs. CIN)
D/ST Titans (vs. IND)