Fantasy football players seem to get smarter every year. The leagues get deeper. The competition gets better. That's partially because of the sheer amount of information available to fantasy geeks willing to put the time in.
But it's not always easy to find sound fantasy advice on players making up the back ends of fantasy depth charts. That's where we'll try to help fill in the gaps by providing you with information we've gleaned by being on the Patriots beat.
MARQUEE MATCHUP: JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Stephon Gilmore
How will the Patriots prep for the Steelers when it's unclear how Steelers weapons will be deployed without Antonio Brown? My understanding is they'll look at the one game Brown sat out last season, Week 17, and go from there. JuJu Smith Schuster started on the outside and played nearly every snap that week. Though he played 61.5 percent of his snaps in the slot over the course of the season, with Brown out, Smith-Schuster (6-1, 215) was primarily on the outside in Week 17. He ran just 14 of his 45 routes from the slot in while Ryan Switzer (16) and Eli Rogers (23) were inside more often.
Why is that important to point out? If Smith-Schuster is primarily on the outside, it'd make sense for the Patriots to match him up with Stephon Gilmore. Against another versatile, big-bodied, Pro Bowl receiver last year in Green Bay's Davante Adams (6-1, 215), Gilmore only allowed two catches on four targets for 15 yards. Even if Smith-Schuster goes into the slot, Gilmore can hang inside. He allowed 0.95 yards per coverage snap in the slot in 2018, per Pro Football Focus, which was better than Chargers first-team All-Pro defensive back Desmond King (1.00).
If the Patriots opt to double-team Smith-Schuster with slot man Jonathan Jones and a safety over the top, expect Ben Roethlisberger to try to go elsewhere with the football. A third option for the Patriots would be to trot out J.C. Jackson to man up on Smith-Schuster, as he did last year in Pittsburgh. How'd that go? Jackson gave up just three catches on eight targets for 39 yards. No matter the plan, this smells like it'll be a down day for JuJu. Yes, the Steelers are going to have to throw to someone with Brown gone. And yes, you'll likely have to start Smith-Schuster in season-long leagues since he was one of your top picks.
But keep the expectations low. I wouldn't think about him in daily formats considering what he'll cost you.
SEE 'EM POPPING
RB Sony Michel: The Patriots have a receiving corps that is loaded with new pieces or pieces who missed most of training camp. Their tight end position is made up solely of Ryan Izzo, it seems. And their running backs could have trouble creating yards through the air. That might not be great news for the team and its passing game. But it's tremendous news for Michel fantasy owners. Even though the Steelers were a top-10 run defense in 2018, the Patriots ran on them in Week 15. On 19 attempts, they rushed for 96 yards (5.1 yards per attempt).
They'll run, run and run some more again Sunday night against a Steelers front that now includes 225-pound linebacker Mark Barron as an every-down player. I'd expect a heavy dose of Michel, and I'd expect him to get goal-line work as well. Don't worry about Damien Harris cutting into Michel's workload until we get a sense for how the Patriots want to use him early on. If Michel can add some receiving duties to his plate this season, and if he can stay healthy — both big "ifs" — it should be a nice fantasy year for him.
WR Julian Edelman: Even if they're run-heavy, the Patriots are going to have to throw at some point. When they do, I'd expect a significant percentage of the work to go to Edelman. He saw 11 targets and caught seven against the Steelers last year for 90 yards. He's been a Steelers killer over the last few years, racking up 35 catches for 365 yards in his last four meetings with Mike Tomlin's defense. He's an easy start and a smart buy in daily formats. Pittsburgh's top slot corner is Mike Hilton, who allowed 1.38 yards per coverage snap in the slot last year, which was fifth-worst among corners who played half their team's snaps inside.
WR Josh Gordon: You're banking on Gordon's physical skill set to shine through if you invest in him this weekend. He's had limited practice time. He was away from football for eight months. But he's still so imposing that he could be Tom Brady's bail-out option.
Without Rob Gronkowski in the fold, with N'Keal Harry on IR, and with Demaryius Thomas still working his way back up to full speed, Gordon could be his team's second-most targeted player. With an average of 18.0 yards per catch last year, it won't take much for him to be fantasy relevant Week 1. If he's matched up on new Steelers corner Steven Nelson — a player Brady targeted with success against the Chiefs last year — then I like his chances to put up numbers.
RB James Conner: The Patriots sold out to stop the Steelers passing game in 2018, which opened things up in a big way for Jaylen Samuels. Subbing in for Conner, Samuels rolled for 142 yards on 19 carries in Week 15 against New England. Can Conner expect similar numbers this year against the Patriots? Eh.
Bill Belichick should be able to take a more balanced approach this time around — giving Smith-Schuster to Gilmore with no safety help might allow the Patriots to add an extra body in the box — but Conner still has to be in your lineup. He's Pittsburgh's lead back, and he was one of only three backs who broke 50 tackles through 13 weeks last season (Saquon Barkley, Kareem Hunt).
SEE 'EM DROPPING
WR Donte Moncrief: Moncrief is looking like the No. 2 wideout in Pittsburgh. He must've done something to beat out James Washington. But he graded out as Pro Football Focus' 106th-best receiver in 2018. He caught four passes for 34 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots in Week 2 last year as a member of the Jaguars, but he did it on eight targets for a yards-per-attempt number of 4.25. Not great. He could end up seeing Gilmore if the Patriots double Smith-Schuster with other defensive backs. But even if he gets Jason McCourty — nine targets, six catches, 66 yards allowed to Moncrief in their careers against one another — or J.C. Jackson, I like New England's end of that matchup.
RB James White: We dug deep into why the Steelers actually have the personnel to slow down New England's progress when they want to target backs in the passing game. But here's one more number that might give you pause when it comes to starting White or investing in him in daily: The Steelers were the third-best team in football at defending running backs in the passing game in 2018, according to Sharp Football Stats. Just 39 percent of targets to backs resulted in successful plays and they allowed only 5.5 yards per attempt to backs, which was eighth in the league. And that was before they added Barron and rookie No. 10 overall pick Devin Bush, both of whom are tremendous athletes at the position and suited to run with pass-catchers like White in coverage.
QB Tom Brady: With a game plan that seems like it'll be predicated on the run, without much time with his receivers during training camp, without a tight end of note to throw to . . . this is shaping up to be a week to avoid Brady for fantasy purposes. He was banged up — at least he looked that way — but he completed 25 of 35 passes against the Steelers last year in Pittsburgh for 279 yards, a touchdown and a pick. Being at home will help him, but the combination of the personnel at his disposal and the matchup — the Steelers led the league in sacks last year — this feels like a day where Brady is more likely to hand off than take deep drops and chuck it down the field.
QB Ben Roethlisberger: If the Patriots can successfully wipe out Roethlisberger's No. 1 receiver — and as I explained above, I think there's a good chance of that — then what's he left with? Moncrief, as we mentioned, doesn't seem ticketed for a big day. I guess Ryan Switzer could be a factor in the slot against a player in Jonathan Jones who was relatively generous at that position when compared against his peers in 2018. That probably won't be enough to make Roethlisberger start-worthy. If the Patriots defense — coverage and pass-rush — is as good as we think it might be, there might not be many quarterbacks who make the "SEE 'EM POPPING" list against them this year.
TE Vance McDonald: The Patriots ended up as the 10th best defense in football when it came to defending tight ends last year, per Sharp Football Stats. They were sixth in the league when it came to yards per attempt allowed to tight ends (6.8). That was a drastic improvement from where they were during the first half of the season. If they've found something with their coverage combinations — and if they get meaningful contributions from new potential tight-end matchup options like Jamie Collins and Joejuan Williams (or Obi Melifonwu, if he's healthy enough to play through an ankle issue) — then McDonald might find Sunday night to be tough sledding.
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