Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season starts with Thursday Night Football as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play host to the Dallas Cowboys. Here is my fantasy football preview to the game, offering up my starts and sits for Thursday night action.
The Dallas Cowboys are likely to be without four-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin this week after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. The Bucs were able to bring back all 22 of their Super Bowl starters from last year, while adding standout rookie pass rusher Joe Tryon in the first round. Sans Tryon, The Bucs’ fearsome front-seven unit was top 5 in QB hurries, knockdowns, sacks, and pressures last year. On the bright-side, right tackle La’el Collins returned to practice on Monday (full participant) after battling a stinger as of late.
If the four remaining members of Dallas’ should-be-good offensive line can negate the Bucs’ rush a bit, Dak Prescott has the receiving corps to stay relevant as a QB1 in fantasy football this week. This will be the first live action he’s seen since his gruesome lower leg injury in Week 5 of the 2020 season though, so there’s some question as to whether or not the young, dominant passer will be “seeing ghosts” in the pocket. Regardless, if the Bucs and the Boys play anything like they did last year, when both offensive units were top 5 in pace, fantasy managers should rest assured that there will be passing-game-points-aplenty in this one. Offensive pace can have an even larger impact than defensive match-ups. Consider Prescott a safe bet to finish in the QB6-12 range.
Both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb can be viewed as top-15 WRs this week. With Lamb potentially taking over as the Cowboys’ No. 1 WR, he should make frequent trips to the perimeter of the formation, rather than being locked in the slot on over 90% of plays like last year. Cooper will be afforded more visits to the interior—a setup that Cooper, one of the league’s most dynamic route runners, should take full advantage of.
Amari Cooper didn't play last night. But it was encouraging to see primary slot man CeeDee Lamb get all 11 of his snaps outside. And Michael Gallup 6-of-10 snaps in slot.
Only way Gallup pays off ADP is if his route tree diversifies this season.
— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) August 14, 2021
Michael Gallup was a one-trick downfield pony last year, much to the dismay of those who rostered him. Gallup’s range of outcomes in 2021 is a wide one though; he saw increased slot usage this preseason and his contract with the Cowboys expires at the end of the league-year. If Gallup is able to maintain a 25%+ slot rep rate this season, he should have little issue providing a sturdy flex floor, while providing the odd spiked week on the shoulders of deep shots from Prescott. Playing for a new deal is also ample incentive to, in the parlance of our times, ball the hell out.
Tight end Blake Jarwin is not an ideal candidate for TE1 results this week. Fellow tight end Dalton Schultz maintained a decent level of play in the preseason and it’s unclear as to whether or not Jarwin will see featured tight end usage.
Ezekiel Elliott deserves back-end RB1 treatment this week because of his gaudy usage but managers beware; this is one of the most difficult matchups Elliott will see all season. As mentioned above, Tampa Bay returned the entirety of the defensive front-seven from last year, and added rookie pass rusher Joe Tryon via the draft. As a unit, they surrendered the fewest rushing yards (1,289) and rushing touchdowns (10) in 2020 and was the No. 1 ranked unit in Paddi Cooper’s Run Defense NEFF ratings.
Tony Pollard does not have standalone value this week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady should garner serious top-5 fantasy QB consideration this week as he’s got the perfect storm brewing for an explosion of passing production. The Cowboys’ pass defense units are entirely unimposing yet the passing offense is sure to push the pace on the Bucs like few can. Expect a near-season-high passing attempt total from Brady when all is said and done.
Chris Godwin dealt with a quad injury early in the week but he was left off of Wednesday’s injury report, giving fantasy managers the green light to fire him up as a WR2 (at worst) against Dallas’ lacking slot coverage. Mike Evans, whose 14 end zone targets were fifth in the NFL last year (tied with teammate Rob Gronkowski and Seattle Seahawks’ D.K. Metcalf), is as much of a touchdown-guarantee as there exists in the sport. He’s a high-flying WR1, as is Z-receiver Antonio Brown who is rumored to be back in Pittsburgh-form. Although Brown is best deployed as a flex play given the dearth of passing game weapons at Brady’s disposal, he’s ceiling is that of a top 15 play. All three need to be in season-long lineups.
Related: Week 1 Fantasy Football Rankings
Rotational receivers Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, and rookie Jaelon Darden should all be in DFS lineups as at least one of them is likely to return flex value on a long score.
The only thing likely to slow down tight end Rob Gronkowski is a snap count and we won’t know if he’s on one until after the fact. As of now, he’s firmly in top-12 TE contention and could easily finish any given week with four receptions, 50 receiving yards, and a score.
Running back Giovani Bernard is the best bet to return value from Tampa Bay’s three-headed backfield due to his rock-hard role in the passing. A sure bet to take snaps on 3rd down in obvious passing situations, Bernard also has the benefit of seeing passing work on early-downs and in the redzone. From Week 9-on last year, The Bucs threw the ball on first-half early-downs 63% of the time (3rd) and on 60% of their plays in scoring position (7th). Bruiser backs Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette will simply neuter each other’s box score reliability. Bernard can return flex value, especially in full-point PPR leagues but the other two are wait-and-see guys.