No game has seen its complexion change more over the last month than this one. The Melvin Gordon holdout has continued throughout the preseason. Derwin James is out for most of the year, removing one of the NFL’s elite defensive playmakers from the equation in this game. And then…yeah, Andrew Luck retired two weeks before the start of the season.
Last season, the Colts played at the fastest pace in the NFL (the Chargers, by the way, played at the slowest pace), but Frank Reich is one of the four or five most adaptable coaches in the NFL – expertly crafting his offense around the players he has, and around the matchup at hand. Because of this, it’s fair to assume that the approach Reich will use for winning games with Jacoby Brissett will be different from the approaches he used with Luck. And although the loss of Derwin James hurts the Chargers, the impact of this loss would have been felt quite a bit more if Luck were under center for the Colts. (Last year, the Chargers allowed the eighth fewest points per game and the ninth fewest yards per game, while ranking eighth in fewest points allowed per drive — and that was not solely because of James.) There is a reason the Colts have one of the lowest Vegas implied team totals on the slate.
The Colts have the pieces on defense to win a slower paced game, and it won’t be surprising if Reich slows down the pace on offense a bit, continuing to focus on a short area passing attack, and trying to mix and match looks throughout the game in order to find opportunities to spring a big-play. The talent (and offensive design) is there for a slim case to be made for players like Jack Doyle (who should be the lead tight end), Eric Ebron (who should see the field plenty in two tight end sets), and Devin Funchess; but the best way to handle this team in Week 1 – against a tough defense, with Brissett under center – is to avoid them in cash games, single entry tourneys, and small field tourneys, while only giving attention in large field tournaments to players who can make something big happen all at once: targeting the speed of T.Y. Hilton, the big-play upside of Marlon Mack, or a potential screen to the house for Nyheim Hines.
Although the Chargers have the talent to be an explosive, aggressive offense, their philosophy as a team is to play slow, methodical football – leaning on the run, slowing down the pace, and working in synergy with their defense to take a lead and gradually close out games. This offense is good enough that you could get some floor from them this week, but if you are targeting week-winning upside, you would likely need Indianapolis to put up points early and force the Chargers to get aggressive. As such (with the exception of one player (possibly two; more on this in a moment)), the Chargers are better suited to game stacks than they are to one-off plays – rostering some Chargers in tournaments alongside explosive Colts players, in the hopes of catching a slim-likelihood blowup between these two teams.
If hoping to isolate an individual Chargers player, the toughest matchups belong to the wide receivers. Last year, the Colts quietly allowed the second fewest receptions and the second fewest yards to wideouts. The goal of this defense is to filter targets away from wide receivers, and to tackle well on running backs and tight ends after the catch. While Indy was elite against wideouts last year, they allowed the most receptions and the most yards in the league to tight ends, and allowed the second most receptions to running backs.
Austin Ekeler figures to be a somewhat popular play, as the Melvin Gordon situation creates an opportunity for us to get a “starting running back” at a discount. There is at least a 50% chance, however, that this turns into more of a 65/35 split with Justin Jackson than into a true workhorse setup for Ekeler. He is appropriately priced (or perhaps even slightly underpriced) on DraftKings for his pass catching role against this defense that filters targets so heavily to the running back – though there is some concern here when looking for upside that the Chargers had a tendency last year to NOT increase targets to running backs when the matchup called for it. Ekeler should have a floor of six or seven points through the air on DK (four to five on FanDuel), making him more than acceptable to consider. With how good Indianapolis is against the run, however (top eight last year in both rushing yards allowed and yards allowed per carry), Ekeler will need a big play, a ramped up pass game role, or closer to a full complement of touches in order to put up the type of score you would regret missing out on. He’s a solid piece, though his likeliest-scenario ceiling is not as high as most will, at first glance, assume.
This all filters us over to Hunter Henry – who is the easiest play in this game to gravitate toward in all game types (cash games, small field tournaments, large field tournaments, etc.). The worst case for Henry this season (assuming health) is for him to finish the year as a top eight tight end, though it honestly wouldn’t be surprising if he cracked the top five or even (heresy, I know) made a push for the top three. There are a number of tight ends to like this week, but if we put Engram, Kittle, Kelce, and Henry into a bucket and stuck our hand in blindly to try to grab the highest score on the weekend, there is at least a 15% chance that Henry would be the guy we would come up with. Some of this, obviously, would come down to touchdowns (the flukiest and least predictable element in DFS), but as long as the Chargers appropriately adjust to this matchup, Henry should clear seven targets, giving him a strong shot at posting one of the higher tight end scores on the slate.
JM’s Interpretation ::
I doubt many people will be on the Brissett Colts this week, even in large field tournaments, and from that angle, it could make some sense to go overweight against the field in multi-entry play. After all, if Hilton (for example) is only 3% or 4% owned, is there a greater than 3% or 4% chance that he posts a big game? With his speed and with Frank Reich calling the shots, there probably is – and you could carry this same thinking to the other big-play threats on this team, and make a case for some large field tournament exposure. I don’t expect to be there at all myself, but this wouldn’t be totally out of place in a large field Week 1 strategy.
A case could also be made for Keenan Allen or Mike Williams, as the volume for Allen and the big-play upside for Williams could theoretically lead to them becoming tourney winning pieces. But because the DFS community does not yet have the respect for this Colts defense that they should have, we should also expect ownership to be higher on these players than their percentage chances of posting a big game. With plenty to like in other spots on the slate, I’m not seeing much to draw my eyes here this week. I’m also sure to be underweight against the field on Ekeler (I don’t think he’ll have a bad game, but there are other players with a higher likelihood of a blowup game, and Ekeler is an easy name for the public to click this week, which should elevate his ownership above his likeliest-outcome expectations), but I do expect to find a steady dose of Hunter Henry on my rosters; and while I have enough respect for Reich (and even for Brissett) that the Chargers probably won’t be my staple defense, there is obviously something to be said for targeting an elite defense against a backup quarterback in the first game of the season.