It’s important to get off to a strong start to the fantasy football season — teams starting 3-0 made the playoffs 84.8 percent of the time — yet you can’t expect all players available to help you in the first half of 2017.
Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys have to get through the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals in the first three weeks of the season, teams that allowed fewer than six yards per attempt combined last season, well below the 7.2 league average.
Carlos Hyde of the San Francisco 49ers will square off against the Carolina Panthers (3.9 yards allowed per carry in 2016, ninth-best), Seattle Seahawks (league-low 3.4 yards allowed per carry in 2016), Los Angeles Rams (league-high 29 percent stuff rate by defensive line), Arizona Cardinals (sixth-highest stuff rate), Dallas Cowboys (eighth-highest stuff rate) and Philadelphia Eagles (third-highest stuff rate) during the first few weeks of the 2017 season.
But those two aren’t expected to finish among the NFL’s top fantasy performers in 2017, unlike these five highly drafted starters whose impending slow starts make them excellent buy-low candidates during the season’s second half.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants, 1.06 ADP
Beckham has been one of the most dynamic receivers in the game since breaking into the Giants’ starting lineup in 2014, with Randy Moss as the only other wideout to surpass 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns receiving during his first three years in the NFL.
This year, things could get tough. The Giants have it easy during the first two weeks of the season but then face the Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos over the next four weeks, teams that ranked 2nd, 6th, 9th and 1st against the pass in 2016 according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), a metric that measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.
Beckham also has to play the Eagles and Cardinals again during a time when most leagues have their playoffs. He is clearly an elite talent and fantasy producer, but his schedule won’t make it easy to match his previous numbers.
Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars, 2.11 ADP
Rookie running backs, even those drafted in the first round, don’t always pan out. Over the past decade, just six of 20 first-round backs managed to surpass 1,000 yards and five touchdowns in their first year.
If Fournette is going to join that group, he’s going to have to start off well against a brutal six-week stretch to start the season. Four of the first defenses he will face — Texans, Titans, Ravens and Jets — all ranked in the top 10 for allowing the lowest percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown, with the latter three in the top five. The final three teams in that six-week span — Jets, Steelers and Rams — ranked in the top 10 for largest percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 8.08 ADP
What makes the Steelers’ passing offense so dynamic is its ability to be efficient and explosive — mostly at the same time.
No quarterback made more attempts than Roethlisberger 20 or more yards past the sticks last season (45) and only Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck saw a higher percentage of those throws end up in the end zone.
In 2017, there may not be as many as those explosive plays through the air during the first few weeks.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers will probably get off to a good start in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, but then they will slow down once they face the Vikings, Bears, Ravens, Jaguars, Chiefs and Bengals.
The first two defenses in that group ranked No. 1 and No. 4 in adjusted sack percentage last season, and should be able to keep Roethlisberger under duress, thus reducing his effectiveness. In 2016, his passer rating dropped from 100.2 to 66.5 under pressure. It declines to 83.6 when facing a blitz.
The Vikings also boast last year’s top cover corner, Terence Newman, who allowed just 0.57 yards per snap in coverage. The Bengals have Adam Jones and Dre Krikpatrick, who ranked fifth and eighth, respectively. The Jaguars allowed the third-fewest passing plays over 25 yards in 2016 (19). And the Ravens and Chiefs each ranked in the top 10 for DVOA against the pass last season.
That bye in Week 9 won’t come soon enough.
Demaryius Thomas WR, Denver Broncos, 3.04 ADP
Denver is known for slowing down even the most highflying passing offenses during the season, but the Broncos face some stiff competition of their own at the start of 2017.
Their first opponent, the San Diego Chargers, ranked ninth against the pass in 2016, per Football Outsiders, and had a league-high 18 interceptions.
In Week 6, Denver plays the New York Giants, owners of the fourth-toughest pass defense last season, featuring Janoris Jenkins at corner. Jenkins had a Pro Bowl season in 2016 after allowing 0.84 yards per snap in coverage, ninth-lowest among 79 qualified cornerbacks per the game charters at Pro Football Focus. In Week 7 they play the Chargers again, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, the seventh- and second-best pass defenses per DVOA.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals, 7.03 ADP
Eifert lives off red-zone touchdowns. He led tight ends with 11 scores inside the 20-yard line in 2015 and tied for fourth-most in 2016 with five, despite missing the start of the season due to injury. No tight end has more red-zone touchdowns over the past two seasons.
This may be the year Eifert finally loses some ground.
In Week 1 the Bengals face the Ravens, who allowed a below-average number of points per trip to the red zone last season (4.77 vs. 4.85 average). In Week 3 they face the Green Bay Packers, who were the seventh-best team defending tight ends last season, per DVOA. In Week 5 it is the Buffalo Bills, who not only allowed just 4.68 points per red-zone opportunity, but they were also good at limiting the length of opponent drives, forcing a three-and-out 24.6 percent of the time in 2016, 10th-best overall.
In Weeks 7 and 8 the Bengals face the Steelers and Colts, the fifth- and sixth-best red-zone defense in the NFL last season.
Average draft position data from Fantasy Football calculator, based on a 12-team draft using PPR scoring. Strength of schedule charts from sharpfootballstats.com.