XANADAMERE’S SHOWDOWN SLANT ::
The NFL is back, baby! It’s Week 1 and I have the honor of writing up the first Showdown game of the season as the Cowboys visit the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. The game has a nice healthy total of 52 with the Bucs favored by 8, as of this writing.
Let’s first talk macro. Dallas’ total is 22 points despite having Dak Prescott back, and according to reports, fully healthy. In the first four games Dak played last season before getting hurt, the Cowboys scored 17, 40, 31, and 38 points. The Bucs have a really good defense, one of the best in the NFL. And Dallas is missing their best offensive lineman with Zack Martin out. But, I feel like Vegas is underestimating how good the Cowboys’ passing game is with a healthy Dak at the helm. Is this game guaranteed to be a shootout? Of course not. Tampa Bay’s defense is clearly elite, and an easy Bucs win is certainly within the range of outcomes here. But a back and forth high-scoring affair is, I think, more likely than the odds are giving credit for.
The second macro piece to consider is themes of player usage. Dallas should be a fairly concentrated offense, with most of the work going to their starters. Tampa tends to run things more spread out (thanks, Tom Brady), with nine or ten guys commonly getting targets in any given game; and, they also have a split backfield. What this means is that even if you believe Tampa wins the game, we could easily see 3-3 or even 4-2 Cowboys rosters at the top of tournaments as long as Dallas doesn’t get completely blown out. Even with fewer total fantasy points to go around for Dallas, those points are likely to be distributed among fewer players.
We’ll start by breaking down the Cowboys. Their run game has a nightmare matchup as a road underdog against what was last year’s top overall run defense. On top of that, we have some usage questions. Ezekiel Elliott is generally viewed as a bell-cow running back, but Tony Pollard showed a lot of ability last season…could he have more of a split role from the start? This is one of those “it’s Week 1, we really don’t know” situations. In the five games that Dak started last year, Zeke averaged 87.6% of the offensive snaps and saw 24.2 touches per game, including 6.4 targets per game. In the 10 games that Zeke played in after Dak went down, he only played on 64.2% of the snaps, averaging 15.5 carries and 4 targets. Of course, without Dak, Dallas saw a lot of negative game script (Zeke only hit 20 carries once after week 5). Pollard’s snap count went from 16.2% in Dak’s starts, to 35.6% in games that both Pollard and Zeke were active in post-Dak injury, seeing an increase from 4.6 total touches per game to 9.7. Dak’s injury last season dashed their playoff hopes early in the year so the question remains, did Dallas pull back on Zeke’s workload to protect him, given their large contractual investment? Or, has Pollard really earned more of a workload split based on his play? We can’t know. I tend to lean to the former, that Dallas wanted to protect Zeke, but this is one of those areas we just won’t know until we see how the Cowboys play this season. As large road underdogs against an elite run defense, the matchup couldn’t get worse. The one saving grace is that no team gave up more catches to running backs in 2020 than Tampa; so, there is an opportunity for Zeke to get there on volume, if the volume is there. Both Dallas running backs shape up as contrarian plays and will probably come at modest ownership, but there isn’t much to point to in their favor besides just low ownership, with Zeke priced as the third most expensive player on the slate.
In the passing game, we should expect to see the trio of Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, and Michael Gallup dominate snaps, routes, and targets. There might not be a more talented WR trio in the NFL and this is what gives Dallas hope of keeping up. All three of them are elite players with an elite quarterback but they are priced as if a backup QB was still starting instead of Dak. All three are capable of winning in any matchup, and they can have a big game against any opponent, but the matchup lines up best for Lamb, who should spend most of his time in the slot. The slot is, by far, the Tampa secondary’s biggest weakness, with Sean Murphy-Bunting and his 126.1 PFF passer rating allowed. I’m not sure where the ownership is going to go yet, but my guess is that Lamb will be the highest-owned Dallas receiver, though not dramatically so. He will probably be my highest-owned receiver in the game. Cooper, and especially Gallup, are riskier plays who are worth having exposure to in tournaments, but there is less to clearly point to success for them besides “they’re good receivers on a good offense.” At tight end, all indications are that Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz will split time to begin the season. Jarwin is generally viewed as the superior receiving talent (he was a very popular late-round best ball pick last season, as well as being drafted ahead of Schultz this year), but Schultz actually showed up very well in 2020, catching 63 of 89 passes including four touchdowns. Jarwin’s popularity in best ball drafts is an indicator that the market likes him more than Schultz, so I expect him to be more highly owned despite this being basically a coin flip. I’ll lean towards Schultz in my exposures. Past these guys, Cedrick Wilson, and perhaps Noah Brown, will mix in for a handful of snaps and could be considered in MME player pools, but with such a clear top three WRs, it’s hard to have much confidence in them as anything more than a dart throw.
On the Tampa side, their backfield is shaping up to be a three-way timeshare with Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette splitting early-down work, while Gio Bernard was brought in as a third-down receiving back. This is going to be a DFS pain in the ass all season long. What we saw last year was that RoJo was the 1A to Fournette’s 1B throughout most of the regular season before largely disappearing in the playoffs as Fournette really took over. If we figure that a player likely needs about 15 or so fantasy points to be a good tourney play, Fournette hit that mark in four regular-season games last year while Rojo did it six times (with a seventh that was pretty close). Bernard is only $2k, but I would guess he is not likely to see a tremendous amount of work if the Bucs control this game; he’s more valuable in rosters that hypothesize Tampa playing from behind. What to do with the Tampa run game is one of the more critical decision points on the slate. Personally, I’m going to lean towards Rojo if ownership looks similar between him and Fournette, as Rojo’s $2,000 price discount is awfully tasty. This is another of those “we really don’t know” situations though, and it’s worth acknowledging that. Tampa gave each guy “hot hand” treatment last year so any individual game was generally not an even workload split. And while the general consensus seems to be that we’ll see a similar situation this season, we can’t really know how it will play out until we see it in action.
In the passing game, we’ll see plenty of the Bucs’ big three trio of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown. As noted previously, I’d expect nine or ten Bucs to get a target here. Tom Brady has always run his offenses in a more spread-out fashion. We’ll see Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson rotate in at wide receiver a fair bit, as well as probably three tight ends seeing work. This means that even if the Bucs win the game, the points are going to be distributed more widely than on Dallas, and thus I will get most of my “scrub” exposure from the Tampa side. Evans and Godwin are an elite duo, and both had strong seasons last year, with Evans being a little more boom/bust while Godwin showed the more reliable floor. Frankly, I have a hard time separating them when looking at this game. I’ll be playing both in roughly equal amounts. Antonio Brown, however, draws the eye with a price of just $5,600 despite averaging just 1.5 to 1.7 fewer Draftkings points than Evans and Godwin last year. Brown earned the highest PFF grade last season of any Bucs wideout, as well as putting up 2.07 yards per route run (a highly predictive stat) vs. 1.94 for Godwin and 1.77 for Evans. Brown doesn’t play as many snaps as Evans and Godwin, but he saw a higher target rate on his routes, leading to a similar overall market share of Brady’s targets compared to Evans and Godwin. All of this is to say that Antonio Brown had a really strong 2020 and should be in position for a big year. I view him as closer to Evans and Godwin than the pricing indicates and plan to be significantly overweight the field. At tight end, O.J. Howard’s return should push this into a three-way split with Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate. Gronk is, of course, one of the greatest tight ends of all time and has played with Brady for years, while Howard is an athletic freak with tremendous upside. I think this leaves Brate as the odd man out, he will likely still see the field, but probably last in line for targets among the tight ends. Given the enormous price difference between Howard and Gronk, I plan to lean towards Howard, and hope that people overlook him after he missed most of last season. Howard is also likely to see more between-the-20s usage, and he has the ability to break off a long play from anywhere, while Gronk is more of a “catch and get tackled” guy at this point in his career, someone who will need a touchdown to pay off.
The way this game is likeliest to play out is with Tampa maintaining a lead start to finish, as the Vegas odds indicate. The key matchup in this game is the Dallas passing game. Tampa’s defense is elite, but we need to understand what it is that makes them elite. They’re extremely elite against the run, and their pass rush is fantastic, which masks an only “good” secondary (their coverage is, overall, strong – but it’s the weakest point of their defense). Playing from ahead means their opponents are generally forced into pass-heavy game scripts (i.e. the defense knows what’s coming), and the pass rush then forces their opponents into mistakes. But, the Cowboys have an elite passing offense with a mobile QB who has historically been good in the face of pressure. The most reasonable “other way the game could go” is for Dallas to be able to successfully execute their offense despite the Tampa pass rush, and they manage to at least keep things close, if not give themselves a real chance at winning outright. A further tributary could go the other way, with the Bucs’ defense shutting down the Cowboys outright; as in, maybe Dak isn’t fully ready for game-speed NFL action after his injuries.
My cash game pool consists of the QBs, the kickers, RoJo, Lamb, Brown, and perhaps Howard or Bernard, if I really need a cheap play to make it all work.
In tournaments, my favorite captains are Brown, Lamb, Godwin, and Rojo; and I’ll likely mix in a few of the other receivers a bit as well. From an overall strategy perspective, the lean I want to take on this game is heavy on Dallas. Because Tampa is favored, projections are going to like them a lot more, and we should see the bulk of rosters from the 3-3 to 5-1 (5 being Tampa) range. I’ll want every one of my rosters to have at least 3 Cowboys, with a heavy focus on 4-2 Dallas constructions. My reasoning here is that I have two outs to this working: first, if the Cowboys keep the game highly competitive or win outright; and second, if Tampa wins but Dallas more concentrated offense results in higher individual scores on their side. That’s how I’m going to play this one, at least, as I feel it gives me a good balance between “chance to be in 1st” and “chance to win with a unique or not-very-duplicated lineup.”
SOME GROUPS TO CONSIDER: