By Taylor Maxston (@TMaxston)
Football season is finally back, bringing a whole new breath of excitement into Sundays, Mondays, and of course Thursdays! On the fantasy football side of things, it can also mean stressing about whether to put certain players in your lineup for the Thursday Night Football matchup over later games on the weekend.
My goal with this series is to help provide some clarity on the Thursday night NFL games during the regular season and use that information to inform owners of fantasy gold-mines and pitfalls when it comes to lineup decisions. There will be three categories that a player could be placed into: must start, must avoid, and sleeper. If a player is not listed, that just means I don’t have a strong enough opinion of them to put into one of the clear-cut categories.
This week, I will be taking a look at the season opener when the Kansas City Chiefs head to Foxborough, Massachusetts to take on the defending Super Bowl champion-New England Patriots.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. New England Patriots
Date and Start Time: Thursday, September 7 at 8:30 p.m. EST
Notable Injuries and Status:
Offensive and Defensive Rankings (2016):
Travis Kelce (TE, KC)
Despite being limited in practice by a calf injury on Tuesday, all signs point to Kelce starting on Thursday night. With the passing offense flowing through him and Tyreek Hill, it’s all but guaranteed that Kelce will get a consistent workload and be targeted as a reliable chain-mover.
Tom Brady (QB, NE)
Even if I told you that Brady was in store for the toughest matchup of all time, there would be no way you would be sitting him for Week 1. Last year’s Super Bowl MVP is 4-2 all-time against the Kansas City Chiefs in the regular season, tilting to an even more favorable 3-0 in matchups at Foxborough. Although Eric Berry and Marcus Peters will find a way to disrupt passing plays, Brady will have plenty of matchups to exploit with the plethora of different skill position players at his disposal and should produce a stat-line in the ballpark of 300 yards and two touchdowns.
Rob Gronkowski (TE, NE)
Gronkowski is easily the best tight end in professional football when healthy and will get plenty of looks Week 1. As a mismatch nightmare at any spot on the field, ‘Gronk’ will easily be able to out-run the likes of Derrick Johnson and Ramik Wilson who aren’t particularly adept in coverage despite being prudent tacklers. Start him with confidence.
Chris Conley (WR, KC)
New England’s cornerback tandem in Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore is one of the best in the NFL, meaning it becomes even harder to trust Conley as the third man up in the receiving pecking order. He and Albert Wilson will likely split the No. 3 wide receiver targets, but expect very little from either as far as generating fantasy relevant yardage or touchdowns.
Assuming you have other starting options at the running back position, Week 1 should pose as the litmus test for how the Patriots’ backfield shapes up rather than a must start scenario for Gillislee or Burkhead. Gillislee experienced a large setback when he suffered a hamstring injury in August and Burkhead just returned back to practice after dealing with an undisclosed injury. With it being unclear how both will carve out a role in the offense, it’s best to stay away from this backfield entirely in a game against a tough Kansas City run defense that has returned to full health after an injury-riddled 2016.
Kareem Hunt (RB, KC)
I have a tough time giving a must start designation to an unproven rookie going up against a New England defense that ranked third in the NFL against the run in 2016 and hasn’t experienced any huge losses to their front-seven. At the same time, now that an injury to Spencer Ware has given Hunt the keys to the starting job and virtually locked him in as the team’s feature back. Despite the occasional spell from Tyreek Hill or Charcandrick West, Hunt is a solid, dual-threat RB2 that is virtually guaranteed a monopoly on the running back carries.
Chris Hogan (WR, NE)
With Brandin Cooks likely drawing attention from the Chiefs’ top corner in Marcus Peters, Hogan is to be shadowed by the team’s No. 2 cornerback Phillip Gaines. Gaines ranks as the 108th best corner by Pro Football Focus heading into 2017 and should be no match for Hogan’s size-speed combination. The only question mark will be his usage given how Brady likes to spread the ball around, but it seems pretty clear that he will get some form of action given how blatant this particular positional matchup favors Hogan.
Other Notable Sleeper Picks: James White (RB, NE)