Fantasy Football Fact or Fluke: Is Puka Nacua for real, and more Week 1 storylines to make sense of

Welcome to the 2023 Week 1 edition of Fantasy Football Fact or Fluke! In this weekly column, I’ll try to make sense of the performances that left us dazed or confused, bewildered or beguiled, and generally in need of a second opinion.

For many years now, Week 1 has been famous for the gross over-reactions people have to one game’s worth of data. People have innate cognitive biases that lead to our extra emphasis on the first event in any series. In the case of fantasy football, it has to do with our months of anticipation and preparation for the start of the regular season. The chemicals coursing through our brains as we take in each play on NFL Red Zone heighten our alertness, improving our ability to learn and remember while integrating our emotional state with each and every touchdown or dropped pass.

This year, we didn’t see a lot of meaningful, actionable play in the preseason. Most teams either didn’t play their starters at all or we saw them in just one or two series. From this perspective, then, a sloppy Week 1 shouldn’t induce hyperbole … yes, you can still start Ja'Marr Chase and Joe Burrow with confidence next week.

Still, if Week 1 is the first we’ve seen of a team’s game plan, we have to use what we’ve got.

Here, it’s important to differentiate intent from execution. Player usage begets player opportunity and opportunity begets fantasy points. This guiding principle will be the lens through which I discuss some of the unexpected fantasy storylines Week 1 brought us.

Calvin Ridley impresses in return

Ridley was a popular Round Three-Four pick with an ADP that rose to ultimately make him the 15th receiver taken in fantasy drafts. After not playing for so long, some hesitation was warranted but for once in our lives we got a player who was actually in the best shape of his life.

Ridley is a feel-good story through and through and those lucky enough to draft him should be fully enjoying his success. With eight catches on 11 targets, including one for a touchdown, Ridley finished as the WR5 and was by far the most targeted Jaguars player. This level of involvement and the rapport between Trevor Lawrence and Ridley bodes very well for his fantasy managers. It’s even more exciting because everyone on this offense except Christian Kirk had a decent fantasy day. The Jaguars looked tight in their first showing of the season against an acknowledged average-at-best Colts defense, so hopefully they settle in from here.

How did other veteran WRs fare?

Given Ridley’s early season highlights, we ought to check in on some other veteran receivers on new teams or who've returned from extended absences.

Michael Thomas last played in Week 3 of 2022, but earned eight targets from new Saints quarterback Derek Carr in Week 1. Thomas caught five passes for 61 yards, making him the WR3 on his own team behind Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed. He’s a possible flex play in good matchups moving forward.

Odell Beckham Jr. debuted in Baltimore after not being seen since the Rams won the Super Bowl two years ago. He caught two of his three targets and drew two nice defensive pass interference calls to set up one of the three rushing touchdowns for the Ravens. Zay Flowers stole the show, but Baltimore looks to be keeping to its roots with the run-heavy game plan. OBJ will be hard to trust until bye weeks derail us.

Finally, we got a look at DeAndre Hopkins with his new team. If Ryan Tannehill wasn’t so awful, Hopkins’ 13 targets would have me more excited. Still, that kind of volume can’t be overlooked, so I’d be starting Hopkins if I rostered him, especially with a juicy matchup against the Chargers in Week 2.

The Steelers can't be this bad, right?

Count me among those who expected better from the Steelers than what we saw in Week 1 … and those who maintain that expectation. Sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due, and that goes to the 49ers defense. They hit Kenny Pickett nine times, recording five sacks and two interceptions while completely preventing him from finding any rhythm. The Niners’ defensive front totaled eight tackles for loss, derailing Steelers’ drives before they got going. This was a monstrous showing — on both sides of the ball — for a San Francisco team that is not known for its ability to thrive in a 1 p.m. ET game.

I admit, I’m nervous about Najee Harris and George Pickens heading into a divisional showdown against a Browns team that completely demolished the Bengals in Week 1 (more on that below). The injury to Diontae Johnson is to his hamstring — we’ll have to see just how much time he misses with the ailment. The Cleveland pass rush isn’t going to do Pickett any more favors than San Francisco did, so if at all possible, I’m sitting my Steelers Monday night.

Pump the breaks on Bengals concerns

To be clear up front: we are not panicking.

There are actually a couple of interesting facts to consider here. Joe Burrow and the Bengals are now 1-3 in season openers and 1-5 vs. Cleveland. Playing his nemesis team in Week 1 must have been some kind of perfect storm as Burrow turned in career worsts in just about every category (82 passing yards, zero touchdowns, two sacks). Ja'Marr Chase caught five-of-nine targets for just 39 yards, making a disappointing day from Joe Mixon (56 rushing yards, 3/17 receiving) feel like fantasy gold.

Burrow has fared much better against the division rival he’ll face in Week 2; you might remember his 525-passing yard, four-TD masterpiece win over the Ravens in December 2021. Overall, he’s 3-2 vs. Baltimore and the Bengals are 3.5-point home favorites to start the week.

The best strategy here is to forgive and forget (Week 1) because there is no scenario where I’m sitting Burrow or Chase, period.

Meanwhile, Tee Higgins posted a big fat goose egg. Catchless on eight targets, Higgins was well covered and, as noted above, Burrow was endlessly harassed by Myles Garrett and Za'Darius Smith. It’s hard to say if the calf strain played a role in Burrow’s inability to get in a rhythm or find the space and time to make his throws, but it was Higgins who suffered more than most.

Nonetheless, the eight targets are what I’m focusing on — in another game, this volume could equate to 100-plus yards and a score.

Rams give us plenty to ponder

Their upset of Seattle was one of the bigger surprises of Week 1, magnified by the fact that Cooper Kupp wasn’t part of it. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think much of the Rams offense this summer and purposely avoided drafting Rams players in every league I play in. This is a too-soon-to-tell team for me, but there are some immediate usage tendencies to act on.

Kyren Williams, a popular late-round best ball pick, had fewer carries than Cam Akers (15 to Akers’ 22), but more impactful ones on passing downs and in the red zone. He also did more with them, averaging 3.5 YPC to Akers’ 1.3 YPC and scoring two of the Rams’ three rushing touchdowns. Get him if you have the space to drop anyone or lost J.K. Dobbins for the season.

I’m not dropping Akers — yet – but the patience is thin with him after last season’s antics. Watch the opportunity balance between those two over Weeks 2-4. I won’t ding him for an unproductive performance vs. San Francisco, but matchups with Cincinnati and Indianapolis should be telling.

The other surprise of the game was rookie Puka Nacua, who caught 10 of 15 (!!) targets for 119 receiving yards. Maybe hold off on starting him next week against the 49ers, but get Nacua now for deployment in Week 3 and beyond.

On the other side of the ball, the Rams' defense looked fantastic, while the Seahawks' was nowhere to be found. This gave the Rams more offensive opportunities while forcing the Seahawks off the field again and again. Geno Smith attempted only 26 passes, the fifth-fewest of Week 1.

I’ll be starting my Seahawks against Detroit in Week 2 with the expectation of a much more fantasy-friendly atmosphere. The game has the second-highest total of the week so far (49 points), an acknowledgment that neither of these teams has prioritized defense over the past few seasons. In 2022, the Lions allowed the second-most overall fantasy points to opponents and the most to opposing QBs.

Look out for a Smith bounce-back in Week 2.