Rams at Panthers gives us a matchup with some elite fantasy names, in a game with the second highest Over/Under on the main slate. At first glance, this appears to be a strong game to build around for core rosters, with a number of pieces that should have a chance to outperform their salary.
We’ll begin with the visiting team, where the Rams have a chance to push around this Carolina secondary. The Panthers are switching to a 3-4 base defense this season with the goal of increasing their blitz disguises and their ability to get after the QB; but honestly, I’m not too scared by that change, as the Panthers don’t have the across-the-board intelligence or talent of (say) Fangio’s 2018 Bears or Belichick’s Patriots to slow down this offense. McVay and Jared Goff should be able to read and execute well enough to hit their normal trajectory — keeping them on track to finish as one of the higher-scoring teams on the weekend.
The Panthers were among the top half of the league last year in opponent aDOT (that is: with the Panthers facing an opponent “average depth of target” of 8.5, they were attacked further downfield than the average team), but this aDOT was not come by honestly, as Carolina ranked near the top of the league last year in short-area targets faced (four to six yards), and near the top of the league in targets 20+ yards downfield (while allowing the sixth most pass plays of 40+ yards). Meanwhile, teams typically avoided attacking the Panthers in the intermediate range.
This means a few things for the Rams’ wide receivers.
Firstly, Cooper Kupp should step right back into heavy involvement, and it won’t be a surprisie if he sees seven to nine targets. This gives him a high floor, and the Rams’ preference for prioritizing him in the red zone adds upside to his plate. (Barring a broken play, he’s likely capped at around 70 or 80 yards; but add in the receptions and the potential for a touchdown, and you could do worse.) Roster Kupp if you are looking for a solid, workload-driven floor with underrated touchdown upside (though of course, you are playing “hope-for-a-miracle ball” if you’re rostering Kupp in search of a tourney-winning score).
Secondly, it means that Robert Woods becomes a little more volatile than normal — though it does, also, make him a little more intriguing. Woods’ route tree can take him all over the field; and while McVay typically allows Woods to operate in the intermediate areas (where he will surely still see a few targets), he is also used close to the line of scrimmage, and he is occasionally used on plays designed to draw the defense in while springing Woods open deep. Woods typically needs a big play in order to post the sort of score you “have to have,” and this does become the sort of spot in which he could have an opportunity or two for such a play. Roster Woods if you are looking for an always-solid floor, with upside. His floor is slightly lower than normal in this spot; but his ceiling is slightly higher as well.
Thirdly, it means that Brandin Cooks should see a couple of his customary downfield shots, and he’ll have a decent chance at connecting. I’m not typically big on rostering Rams receivers, as they come with some of the best floor in DFS, but you’re paying a bit much for the less-than-elite rate at which they go for ceiling. Cooks tends to be good for one or two blowup games per year, however, and it’s not crazy to bet on this being one of those spots. Unlike lesser deep threats in lesser offenses, Cooks rarely posts a dud, making him an interesting deep threat to consider this week. He’s probably guaranteed at least two targets of 20+ yards. If he connects on both, he could wind up topping 100 yards and/or reaching the end zone. Roster Cooks if you are looking for a tourney pivot off more popular receivers in his price range.
As for the L.A. backfield :: Carolina was strong last year vs pass-catching backs, and they were better than average in rushing yards and TDs allowed, as this team is fundamentally stronger up front than they are on the back end. Teams tend to avoid attacking the Panthers on the ground, and this should remain a run-solid unit even with the schematic shift. (Against an 11 personnel team like the Rams, the Panthers will likely be out of base most of the game anyway.) Todd Gurley is a matchup-busting talent; but with workload questions and plenty of other great backs in great spots, there are surer bets this week that can be targeted for the same amount of upside — leaving Gurley as a “bet on talent” play in tourneys, rather than pushing him to the top of the running back pile.
On the Panthers’ side ::
Because Carolina plays slow, teams that can win the possession battle against them can limit play volume. Optimally, we prefer Cam Newton on weeks in which he can either be expected to go run-heavy himself or can be expected to pile up volume through the air. This week, with his ankle a concern, we may see fewer designed runs; and with the Rams finishing eighth in time of possession last year, there is a decent chance that Cam’s passing volume will be capped as well. That’s not the end of the story for Cam, however, as the Panthers may need to get aggressive in order to keep pace with the Rams — with a chance for deep passes to make up for any dip in volume.
The Rams generally did a great job last season forcing teams to throw to the short areas of the field (they were especially willing to give up receptions and yards over the short middle, where both D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel will be used); but as solid as the Rams were at forcing passes to the shorter areas, they did have occasional breakdowns that led to them being one of the more attackable deep passing defenses in the league – with the fifth most plays of 20+ yards allowed.
This season, the Panthers are all-in on Moore and Samuel, and each should see anywhere from six to nine targets in this game. We should also note that it was Samuel, not Moore, who led this wide receiver corps in targets down the stretch last year – both with Cam and without – and it was Samuel who had an average depth of target over three yards deeper than Moore’s. (There have been assorted fantasy reports this offseason noting that Samuel “might even become the lead receiver on this team.” Um. Yeah. Wasn’t he already?) Each of these receivers carries a solid, workload-driven floor – and in this matchup, with Carolina likely needing to score to keep up (against a defense that struggled last year with the big play), each carries a solid ceiling as well.
( In the rest of the passing attack :: Cam will also mix in looks to Greg Olsen (and Jarius Wright…), though with plenty to like at tight end on the slate, it would be fair to take a wait and see approach with Olsen returning from yet another foot injury. )
The rest of this offense, as always, will center around Christian McCaffrey. The Rams are perfectly content to give up yards on the ground (last year, they allowed the most yards per carry in the league), but only two teams allowed fewer receiving yards to running backs, which tightens up CMC’s path to ceiling. If Zeke fails to show up for the Cowboys in time for Week 1, CMC still has the second highest projection among backs (behind only Saquon), but he’s not quite the lock-and-load, set-and-forget play that he usually is at his salary.
JM’s Interpretation ::
I like this game for core builds, and for game stacks in tourneys, as I see it having a strong chance to shoot out relative to other games on the slate. Any of the Rams’ receivers are fair to consider in cash games and tourneys, and Goff is a solid option as well. On the other side: Cam, Samuel, and Moore will all likely make my list. And while there are running backs I like more from a price-considered standpoint, CMC and even Gurley are fine additions to any tourney strategies — with a case even there for CMC in cash.