After all the mock drafts, player projections and cheat sheets, we've finally made it to Week 1. Strangely enough, the running back with the most yardage and touchdowns in the NFL last year didn't get chosen in a single fantasy draft.
In traditional Rob Neyer fashion, let's take a look at the rushing statistics of two players from last year.
You may recognize Player A's line; it belongs to Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. He was blown away, though, by Player B, who rushed more frequently, averaged more yards per carry, scored more touchdowns and picked up way more fantasy points.
You've never heard of Player B because he's not a player at all. The line for Player B is the combined rushing statistics for the leading rushers on each team in games played against the Raiders last season. And if you'd been able to play that runner on your roster each week, you'd have had the best running back in football.
It's hard to find a more perfect example to explain matchups matter. Analyzing them properly can be the difference between picking up five or 10 extra points a week on the margins. Although Tomlinson picked on the Raiders' defense with a four-touchdown game in Week 6, it wasn't just the elite running backs who picked on them. Ten players had 100-yard games against the Silver and Black, including LenDale White, Chester Taylor, Ron Dayne and Kolby Smith. It's likely that those guys were sitting on your bench or, even worse, on the waiver wire those weeks, having huge weeks for nobody and raising your cholesterol 10 points.
Fortunately, at Football Outsiders, we've developed tools to do the best job possible of analyzing those matchups and what they mean for your fantasy team. Our pet stat is Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which measures how successful a play was after accounting for things like down, distance and opponent. Though your fantasy-league points are measured through yards, DVOA is a better indicator of how those yards were gained and how likely they are to be gained again in the future.
We track several factors when analyzing a player's matchup for the week. They include:
1. Opposing defense. After breaking down the numbers, we see dramatic shifts in how a great defense can affect a player's fantasy value. On average, running backs lose about 30 percent of their fantasy points (from running the ball) when playing a great defense as opposed to an awful one. That's across the board -- Tomlinson loses about as much, percentage-wise, as Chiefs RB Kolby Smith would.
Quarterbacks lose around 30 percent as well, but great passing offenses (in other words, the Colts and the 2007 Patriots) help lower that points-drop percentage to around 20-25 percent. For wide receivers, the effect is less pronounced, with receivers losing around 20 percent of their value. Tight ends are the most consistent, ranging from 10-15 percent of value lost. Fortunately, we have tools to help supplement those issues.
2. How opposing teams do against particular players. Another thing we track is how a particular defense performs against No. 1 wide receivers, No. 2 wide receivers, slot guys, tight ends and running backs. That means that we can point out inefficiencies that pure passing yardage simply doesn't, like how the Raiders had the best defense in the league against No. 1 wideouts but were 31st in the league against No. 2 receivers. Thanks, Nnamdi Asomugha.
3. How likely a team is to win. Of course, picking winners is, at best, an inexact science, but one of the factors that affects how likely a running back is to get carries is how his team is doing; if a team is winning heading into the fourth quarter, its halfback likely is grinding the clock down with carry after carry. If a team is losing, it's throwing the ball to try and catch up.
4. Whether a team is at home. Although this is somewhat intertwined with the third facet of our analysis, players have a minor swing when playing at home as opposed to on the road.
5. The small stuff. There are other factors that aren't as quantifiable across a broader group of players -- such as injuries, where we obviously can't compare the Colts without Peyton Manning to, say, the Packers without Don Majkowski. It's a subjective variable, but one that still plays a plain, obvious role in projecting player performance.
After analyzing all that, we turn the figure into a percentage that forecasts, on average, how much of his fantasy value a player will gain or lose each week because of the matchup he faces. That percentage will be measured against the average performance the player would be expected to produce. We'll also break down the most volatile matchups of the week to give you the deeper scoop on what to watch for in that player's performance.
Of course, as we learn more about a team and its level of play, matchup analysis tends to get more accurate as the year goes along. That's why we use a second Football Outsiders tool known as DAVE. DAVE (which is a name we gave the tool in response to our readers' being tired of complicated acronyms) takes into account last year's performance, changes made in the offseason and our award-winning projections for the upcoming year's performance, and spits out projections of how teams will perform in the first few weeks of the upcoming season.
Now that we've explained why the figures are important, it's time to get to Week 1, and how the matchups will affect players on your team.
Selected DVOA losers and gainers
Chris Perry (RB, Bengals, minus 20 percent): The Bengals' new starting halfback may have pushed Rudi Johnson to Detroit, but he'll struggle against a Ravens rush defense that was the best in football last year. In his two starts against the Ravens last year, Johnson averaged less than five fantasy points despite getting 18 carries in the first game and 22 points in the second. The Ravens also have home-field advantage for the game to compound the issue.
If Perry is to make an impact on the score sheet, it'll have to be through the air; the Ravens were 26th in the league in pass-defending against running backs last year.
Ryan Grant (RB, Green Bay, minus 19 percent): Grant emerged as a stud once given the starting job, racking up nearly 93 yards per game as a starter. Unfortunately, with the departure of Brett Favre, Grant is much more likely to see safeties creeping up into the box as teams challenge Aaron Rodgers to beat them.
In Week 1, though, the Vikings won't need to bother. Defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams make up a run defense that was the stuff of folklore the past couple of years; the addition of Jared Allen only means that teams will be able to devote fewer resources to blocking them. Grant may score a touchdown, but he should have a quiet day.
Joseph Addai (RB, Colts, minus 13 percent): The Colts' offense is unlike any other in football; although most offenses often have to play away from the strengths of opposing defenses, the Colts have an offense that almost always dictates the style of play while allowing the team to run its core plays. This week, though, the Colts go up against a Bears defense that was excellent against the run in 2007 despite losing eight of its 11 starters at one point or another.
In addition, Addai is already missing guard Ryan Lilja and center Jeff Saturday, who would normally be assigned to handle All-Pro defensive tackle Tommie Harris, while linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs excel at sifting through trash to get to ball carriers running horizontally, as the Colts often do on their stretch play. All in all, it will be an uphill road for Addai to get serious traction on the ground; if you have a starting running back with a very good matchup on your bench, you might want to consider benching Addai in Week 1.
Thomas Jones (RB, Jets, plus 16 percent): It seems strange that Jones was a 1,200-yard rusher in 2006, as he's been mostly forgotten in fantasy drafts this year. There's every reason to think he'll improve this year; replacing Chad Pennington with Brett Favre should push safeties off the line of scrimmage, while left guard Alan Faneca transformed the Jets' weakest offensive position into a strength.
This week, Jones gets to play a Dolphins team that was 31st in the league against the run according to DVOA, and that was when the team still had Jason Taylor. As the Dolphins retool their personnel and rebuild, there's no reason to think they'll suddenly develop a stout run defense. Jones is one of the best plays at running back -- or any position, for that matter -- in Week 1.
Selvin Young (RB, Broncos, plus 14 percent) We've already established how poor the Raiders' rush defense was last season; instead of supplementing their defense by adding Sedrick Ellis or Glenn Dorsey in the draft, they gave injured lineman Tommy Kelly an enormous deal to stay and play the three-technique defensive tackle role that Warren Sapp was supposed to occupy.
It remains to be seen whether Kelly can play that role. But regardless of whether he can, there's little reason to think that the Raiders' run defense will suddenly turn around. Make sure you get your running backs in against them until they prove otherwise. This week, that means Young. The only reason we're not higher on Young is the likelihood that Andre Hall could vulture his touchdowns.
Justin Fargas/Darren McFadden (RBs, Raiders, plus 11 percent): Denver's rush defense was no great shakes last year, either. It ranked 26th in the league, and although there's hope that their crop of young defensive linemen will turn into a good front four, they weren't there yet in 2007. With JaMarcus Russell beginning the season as the Oakland quarterback, Lane Kiffin likely will rely on his running game to keep things simple in front of Russell. That could mean 15-20 carries for both Fargas and McFadden; it's entirely possible that this week's second "Monday Night Football" tilt could have 300 rushing yards to go around.
David Garrard (QB, Jaguars, minus 14 percent): As Garrard falls back to Earth this year from his absurd two-interception 2007 performance, the question isn't whether he'll give back some of the performance of his career year; it's how much. Don't get us wrong: Garrard is a fine quarterback, but that sort of interception rate is unsustainable.
That starts in Week 1, when Garrard goes up the best pass defense in football from a year ago. The Titans' defense also is likely to regress some this year, but an upper-echelon pass rush led by defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and coverage from criminally underrated cornerback Cortland Finnegan should shut down Garrard's already-meager targets. Last year, Garrard had only 204 yards and a score in his game against the Titans, while backup Quinn Gray could muster only 101 yards and a score through the air when the teams matched up again in Week 10.
Kyle Orton (QB, Bears, minus 21 percent): If you were planning on starting Orton at any point during the season, your fantasy team is already in trouble. In Week 1, though, Orton goes up against the third-ranked pass defense from 2007, one that also lost eight of its 11 starters a year ago. Although Orton benefits from going up against the same Tampa 2 defense he sees in practice each week, it's Kyle Orton against a great pass rush. You should know better.
Jake Delhomme (QB, Panthers, minus 18 percent): Delhomme was fantastic before he got hurt last year, throwing for 649 yards and eight touchdowns in his three games; with the additions of wide receiver D.J. Hackett and offensive lineman Jeff Otah this offseason, the team shored up two of its weakest offensive points.
Delhomme will still have a bad week, though, while going up against a San Diego defense that ranked second against the pass. Even if Shawne Merriman isn't at 100 percent, the Chargers have budding star Marques Harris behind him, and with NFL interceptions leader Antonio Cromartie firmly implanted in the starting lineup at cornerback, the Chargers should be able to handle Muhsin Muhammad & Co.
Jeff Garcia (QB, Buccaneers, plus 14 percent): The worst pass defense of 2007 was in New Orleans, where free-agent acquisition Jason David was appalling, and fellow corner Mike McKenzie blew out his knee in Week 16 and still isn't 100 percent. Tampa quarterbacks threw for an average of 276 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints last year, and although the Saints' defense will be better, much like we said about the Raiders' rush defense, play your quarterbacks against them until they prove that they've improved.
Joe Flacco (QB, Ravens, plus 17 percent): OK, so we bet you didn't expect to see that name pop up. Flacco won't be a Pro Bowl quarterback this year, but he has a very good offensive line, and unlike most of 2007, all of the Ravens' receivers are healthy.
The bigger benefit is that he'll face the second-worst pass defense in football in 2007, a Bengals team that lost defensive leader Justin Smith in the offseason. Flacco isn't a must-start this week, but if you don't want to use someone like Delhomme, and Flacco's on the waiver wire, you might want to pick him up and throw him in the lineup. If he ends up with 250 yards and a couple of touchdowns, maybe you can flip him for something useful after the week ends.
Kurt Warner (QB, Cardinals, plus 12 percent): You know by now that Warner threw a league-high 21 touchdowns in his final eight games; what you may not remember is that his biggest day, a 484-yard explosion in Week 12, came against the same 49ers he'll play this weekend. Although they've added defensive end Justin Smith and return linebacker Manny Lawson to the lineup, plenty of holes remain in the 49ers' secondary, and with Mike Martz on the other side of the field, there's every reason to believe this game could end up a shootout.
Eddie Royal/Darrell Jackson (WRs, Broncos, minus 19 percent): It's hard to judge who Denver's No. 1 receiver is without Brandon Marshall, but Royal and Jackson will have to go up against the fearsome Raiders cornerback tandem of Nnamdi Asomugha and DeAngelo Hall. You probably have heard more about the latter, which is unfortunate -- Asomugha is the best corner in the game today, an absolute treat to watch shutting down opposing wideouts. Last year, Oakland was where opposing No. 1 receivers came to die; only Bernard Berrian and Braylon Edwards scored more than 10 fantasy points against the Raiders last year. Marshall averaged only 7.7; what do you think a rookie like Royal or an afterthought like Jackson will do?
Bernard Berrian (WR, Vikings, minus 17 percent): The Packers were third in the league against No. 1 wide receivers last year; Berrian, playing on an admittedly worse Bears offense, had three catches for 27 yards in two games against Al Harris. Combined. Leave Berrian out this week.
Lee Evans (WR, Bills, minus 13 percent): Evans goes up against Seattle and cornerback Marcus Trufant, who had an excellent 2007. He was particularly effective against deep threats last year -- guys such as Braylon Edwards, Joey Galloway and Torry Holt had mediocre games, while the only No. 1 receiver to score a touchdown against the team last year was Kevin Curtis, pretty much the exact inverse of Evans. Evans is also a notoriously slow starter -- hold off on him for a week.
Joey Galloway (WR, Buccaneers, plus 23 percent): Galloway owns the New Orleans Saints. Owns. In five games as a Buccaneer, Galloway has three 110-plus-yard games and six touchdowns against the team from the Bayou State. Toss in the fact that the Saints were the worst team in football against No. 1 wideouts last year, and you've got a recipe for a huge game.
Santonio Holmes (WR, Pittsburgh, plus 15 percent): Holmes emerged toward the latter half of the season as the Steelers' new No. 1 receiver. Although he'll never be as tall as Ben Roethlisberger wants, he's supremely talented, which is distinctly preferable to the Donald Hayes types of the world.
Reggie Brown (WR, Eagles, plus 14 percent): Brown is the top guy in Philadelphia by default after the injury to Kevin Curtis. Although he's struggling with a hamstring injury, he's going up against a Rams defense that couldn't handle No. 1 receivers last year and that could be missing multiple cornerbacks. Brown should see plenty of the ball in Week 1.
Marcedes Lewis (TE, Jaguars, minus 19 percent): Although Lewis has struggled to make an impact after his selection in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft, there are hopes that he'll emerge as a primary receiver this year in the Jacksonville option. It's possible, but it won't be in Week 1; the Titans had the best defense in the league against tight ends last year, courtesy of Keith Bulluck. Leave Lewis on your bench.
Benjamin Watson (TE, New England, plus 18 percent): Watson is known as a touchdown threat, but against Kansas City this week, it's entirely possible he could see seven to 10 targets and even approach 100 yards. Kansas City's defense was 31st in the league against tight ends last year, and that was with the pass rush provided by the departed Jared Allen. If you're lucky enough to have Watson on your bench, make sure he gets in there in Week 1.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com