BILLS // RAVENS OVERVIEW
As of this writing, the Ravens are the third-biggest favorite on the weekend (seven points), and I expect that by the time Sunday rolls around, there will be at least a couple pieces on the Ravens that are tipping the scales as chalk. This game also quietly pairs two teams that finished top-eight in pace of play last year, and that finished top-eight in “most opponent plays allowed per game.” This should create a volume boost compared to other spots on the slate, and while this is already a game that the field will be targeting, our knowledge of that expected volume boost will allow us to give a small, additional bump to the already-positive factors in this game.
BILLS PASS OFFENSE
Of course, none of the “positive factors in this game” have to do with the Bills’ passing attack, which will feature either Nathan “Five-Picks” Peterman or rookie Josh Allen. In preseason, Allen showed about as expected: uncorking some marvelous deep throws, while displaying poor accuracy (he has never completed more than 60% of his passes in a season — at any level) and being slow to make decisions. Baltimore posted above-average sack and pressure rates last year, and a Bills offensive line that finished 31st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate last year got worse in the offseason. Baltimore finished second in the NFL in pass defense DVOA last year, and even without stud corner Jimmy Smith on the field, this is a mismatch regardless of who is under center.
Baltimore allowed below-average marks last year in catch rate (elite), average depth of target, yards after catch (elite), expected yards per target (elite), and passing touchdowns (elite). Peterman or Allen will be slinging the rock to Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones or Andre Holmes. None of these guys are more than hope-and-pray options.
Baltimore’s weak spot through the air last year was the tight end, as they ranked 29th in DVOA against the position and finished bottom-10 in yards and touchdowns allowed. Charles Clay will resume his steady, low-yardage-upside, decent-red-zone-usage role.
BILLS RUN OFFENSE
I have a deep desire to like LeSean McCoy this week, as he accounts for only 12.17% of the salary cap on FanDuel and 12.0% on DraftKings (FantasyDraft has him priced a bit higher — north of 13% of the salary cap). The Bills have no clear options behind McCoy to steal passing-down or goal-line work from him, putting him in the same theoretical usage range of guys like Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, and Christian McCaffrey — without the price and/or the Week 1 hype. Right now, however, I am leaning away from McCoy myself, as this coaching staff constantly finds a way to sink his upside, and his 21.6 touches per game last year in a similar setup doesn’t leap off the page behind such a poor offensive line. The Ravens ranked ninth last year in DVOA against the run and sixth in defending running backs out of the backfield. McCoy should touch the ball over 20 times if you want to bet that talent will win out over matchup.
RAVENS RUN OFFENSE
And here, we arrive at one of the spots that will excite the masses. Last year, Buffalo ranked 30th in DVOA against the run and 25th in yards allowed per carry. No team allowed more rushing touchdowns than the Bills. The Ravens are a seven-point home favorite (each of which is a favorable data point for running backs), taking on one of two turnover-prone quarterbacks — which should lead to some short fields and elevated opportunities for up-close scoring chances. After averaging over 16 carries per game and nearly four targets per game during the second half of the season last year, Alex Collins is locked into an early-down role heading into Week 1, and if this game goes according to script, he should top 20 carries and mix in two to four receptions. He is silly cheap as well — maxing out at 11.2% of the salary cap on DraftKings (and registering all the way down at 10.2% on FantasyDraft).
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Behind Collins, Kenneth Dixon should mix in for a few “breather” carries, while Javorius Allen will mix in on third downs and obvious passing situations.
RAVENS PASS OFFENSE
The excitement should run high in this spot as well for camp standout and fantasy darling John Brown. Brown’s stock with the general public is low after his injury-recovery issues in Arizona, but he is currently healthy and has balled out in training camp as the top option for Joe Flacco. Working in Brown’s favor are his price and his big-play skill set. Working against Brown is a Buffalo pass defense that ranked ninth in yards allowed per pass attempt last year and second in passing touchdowns allowed (behind only Minnesota). Buffalo forces short-area throws and tackles extremely well after the catch — holding opponents last year to a below-average YAC rate in spite of ranking top five in shortest average depth of target — a rare and impressive combination. The final bright spot for Brown is the addition of Vontae Davis to the Bills’ secondary. Davis looks washed, and is a much easier corner to pick on than Tre’Davious White, creating an opportunity for the Ravens to scheme some quality shot plays for Brown. His day will likely come down to whether or not he connects on one of the two or three deep shots the Ravens will likely take with him. Relative to salary cap, he is a bargain on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, but is a far less significant bargain on FanDuel.
Behind Brown, Michael Crabtree will retain a role within around 15 yards of the line of scrimmage — working the short area of the field and likely emerging as a top red zone weapon. He should settle in at around six to eight targets per game for this Ravens squad and should carry solid touchdown upside this season. In a game the Ravens should be salting away late, it’s difficult to get excited about the low-volume tight end rotation and ancillary receivers.
I will have zero pieces of the Bills’ offense, with the possible exception of a few tourney shots on McCoy — though I should make it clear that I believe McCoy’s role makes him rosterable in any matchup, all year. The upside is evident; but on this week, I can grab similar upside in other spots, with a much higher floor.
Alex Collins is playable on all three sites as a core piece — though if we define a “must play” as “a guy you cannot win the slate without,” I do not believe he should be labeled as such. His worst-case scenario in this spot should be around 10 (FanDuel) to 12 (DraftKings/FantasyDraft) points — and while he has upside for a multi-touchdown, 25-point game, his likeliest scenario is to settle in nicely at around 15 to 18 points.
Given the Bills’ focus on taking away deep shots, I’ll stay away from John Brown on FanDuel — though his price is cheap enough on DraftKings and FantasyDraft (and his role and upside are enticing enough) that I will absolutely have exposure to him on those sites, and he may yet end up on my cash game squad. Even in a difficult matchup, seven or eight targets with explosive upside on the cheap is still seven or eight targets with explosive upside on the cheap. Crabtree could surprise with a multi-touchdown game or a broken big play, and Joe Flacco should provide a strong point-per-dollar floor, but I expect the bulk of the statistical beauty in this game to come from the Ravens’ backfield.
There are a number of solid DST plays this week, but I do believe the Ravens are very much worth paying up for, and there is enough value available this week to justify that decision. They will likely be a cash game staple for me, though I may move off them a decent amount in tourneys to take advantage of the volatility of the DST position — playing that volatility against the high expected ownership this squad will grab. Teams like the Bengals, Chargers, and Jaguars are sneaky bets to outscore this unit if things break the right way.
*UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 8 // Full “Updates” List
I broke down the Week 1 line movements in this spot, but since that post, the line in this game has continued to move down for the Bills. This is not a major update, beyond simply reaffirming what we already know (that this is a great spot for the Ravens’ defense, and a good spot for Alex Collins). But continuous line movement like this is very much worth noting.