The FedEx Air & Ground fantasy preview is back!
In case it slipped your mind, NFL football fans have the opportunity to vote on top performers at the running back and quarterback position following every regular week of action.
The candidates at quarterback last season ranged from underdogs like Trevor Siemian (Week 3) to the more obvious guys like Aaron Rodgers, but at the end of the year Matt Ryan took home the annual honors overall. At running back, Rob Kelley, Latavius Murray and Jay Ajayi were all featured week winners but at the end of the year, the league's leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott took home the honors.
So without further ado, let's dive into some players who could have huge weeks in their respective season openers, both through the air and on the ground.
Bradford is an obvious pick this week in a Monday night game against the Saints. Maybe you've seen the gazillion articles about ole Sam as an ideal streaming option for Week 1.
The Saints, as you probably know, have owned one of the worst defenses in the NFL for a few seasons now. Last year, they had a lot of trouble stopping outside receivers. Per Next Gen Stats, New Orleans allowed a 101.2 passer rating to receivers lined up wide last year, third-worst mark in the league.
Bradford should thrive on his targets to a healthy Stefon Diggs, who the Vikings will reportedly use more on the outside than they did last year. The third-year receiver hauled in 52 percent of his receptions from slot lineups last year. Diggs was already a prime breakout candidate before this move outside, and now that he'll be taking more of his snaps wide, he is poised for some huge plays on his home turf in Week 1.
Another favorable factor for Bradford is Diggs' ability to create separation on deep passes (20 air yards or more). The promising receiver had the fourth-highest separation on passes of this type last season, a 2.6-yard average compared to the 1.9-yard league average. And if you're worried about pass protection given Minnesota's offensive line struggles last year, rest assured Bradford should be just fine there. On his throws from outside the pocket last season, the veteran quarterback led the league with a 126.3 passer rating on his 40 attempts from outside the pocket. Add in Diggs' top-end speed and the multitude of other weapons at Bradford's disposal (Adam Theilen, Kyle Rudolph, Dalvin Cook, Laquon Treadwell/Michael Floyd?) and you can see why he's a candidate for FedEx Air & Ground honors in the season opener.
Palmer will lead his offense into Motown and, despite some question marks in the Arizona receiving corps, still has arguably two of the most reliable pass-catchers in the entire league to dish to.
David Johnson, who led the NFL in running back receptions last season with 80, is arguably the best offensive player in the NFL. Do not @ me (@MattFranchise) on Twitter, okay? Plus, Larry Fitzgerald, despite his advanced age, is still rocking out. He led all receivers with 107 receptions last year, and had 109 in 2015. Fitz will get his, and we know that Palmer at least has these two guys to rely on.
If John Brown is involved, even in a limited workload, he can do damage on deep targets. Palmer and Brown completed a sweet touchdown play in the team's third preseason game a few weeks ago, and Brown can burn just about any defender in the league.
The matchup against the Lions is about as good as it gets, too. Detroit sported the NFL's 28th-or-worse defense last season in the following categories: third down (31st), sacks (30th), turnovers (28th) and red zone (30th). Palmer is about as safe a play as they come in Week 1.
Because of that eye-opening rookie season, Gurley was a first-rounder in fantasy drafts ahead of the 2016 season. In his last 24 starts though, he has just a single 100-yard rushing game and averaged 3.2 yards per carry last year. That was the absolute worst mark in the entire NFL last year among back who had at least 150 attempts. Long story short, Gurley is one of the league's premier talents at running back but landed in a less-than ideal situation a season ago.
If there's one positive stat to come from Gurley's mediocre 2016 performance it's that 66.3 percent of his rushing yards came after contact, the highest mark in the league. Dude can break tackles, elude defenders and slip away from contact, but he was hammered behind the line of scrimmage more often than not. With an upgraded offense to work in this year, Gurley's fantasy football comeback campaign begins in Week 1 against Indianapolis.
The Colts had the third-worst total defense in the NFL a season ago. Opposing running backs destroyed Indy's defense from a fantasy perspective as the unit allowed 21.3 standard fantasy points per game to the position, sixth-worst. With a completely retooled offense, the Rams have a cake matchup to kick the season off, and should dominate time of possession if nothing else, against a turnover-prone Scott Tolzien under center for Indy. There's no doubt Gurley will be a top-10 fantasy runner at week's end.
The Vikings finished 2016 with the lowest-ranked rushing attack in the league, so they went out and added Latavius Murray in free agency and drafted Dalvin Cook out of Florida State. Cook was the featured primary runner with the first-team offense throughout the preseason as the team groomed him to be their high-volume starter to open the season. Murray, on the other hand, admitted he was "behind the eight-ball" in training camp as he recovered from offseason ankle surgery. Cook is a complete, three-down back as showcased in the preseason action and you can bet that Minnesota will take advantage of a Saints defense that allowed a league-worst 873 receiving yards to running backs last season. It's a matchup made in heaven for Minnesota's offense on several fronts here. Pencil Cook in as a guaranteed RB1 on Monday night.
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