Thursday Night Football

Kansas City @ New England
Team Totals: Patriots 28.75, Chiefs 19.75

Thursday night’s NFL opener has the fourth-highest total (48.5) of Week 1 with New England favored by nine. In New York and Kansas City, Tom Brady has faced Chiefs DC Bob Sutton’s stay-at-home, man-coverage defense nine times over the past seven years and emerged with yardage/touchdown totals of 302/2, 159/1, 323/3, 259/2, 329/3, 321/1, 299/2, 326/4, and 248/2, locking in Brady as a high-floor, high-ceiling quarterback play. No NFL team is more adept than the Pats at identifying and exploiting its opposition’s weaknesses, and Kansas City has major holes and/or question marks at right cornerback, slot corner, and inside linebacker. At nearly 29 points, it can’t hurt that New England has the highest team total on the Week 1 slate. … All of the Patriots’ top-four running backs should be owned in season-long leagues, but their Week 1 workloads are uncertain. Based on preseason usage, my best guess is we’ll see Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee share early-down snaps with Gillislee as the favorite for goal-line work, Dion Lewis changing the pace on 6-10 touches, and James White dominating passing downs. It’s worth noting that longtime Bill Belichick confidante Mike Lombardi mentioned on this week’s Ringer podcast that he anticipates Burkhead emerging as “everybody’s fantasy delight” on Thursday night. Although no member of this backfield is projectable for more than 12 touches to begin the year, Patriots backs who can catch passes have the most favorable Week 1 draws, as New England seems likely to aggressively attack Chiefs ILB Derrick Johnson, who turns 35 in two months and tore each of his Achilles’ tendons over the past three years. Burkhead, Gillislee, and White all warrant flex consideration, albeit with high risk. One of my bold Week 1 predictions is that Burkhead leads the Pats in touches versus the Chiefs.

Brandin Cooks drew all three of his preseason targets on the left side of the offense, where Cooks would mainly avoid Chiefs LCB Marcus Peters’ coverage. No. 2 receiver Chris Hogan did run a combined 71% of his 2016 routes at left-side or slot receiver and should also catch plus matchups against whomever the Chiefs trot out at right and slot corner, the tentative favorites being Terrance Mitchell and Phillip Gaines after Kansas City lost slot CB Steven Nelson (groin) to I.R. this week. Mitchell is a 2014 seventh-round pick on his fifth stint with an NFL team. Per Pro Football Focus, Gaines allowed a near-perfect 143.8 passer rating on throws into his coverage in the slot last year. The Chiefs were worried enough about their cornerbacks that they pursued free agent Joe Haden after he was cut by the Browns. I like Cooks as a high-ceiling WR1/2 play on Thursday night and Hogan as an upside WR2/3. Brady showed a flawless rapport with Hogan in New England’s third preseason game, connecting on 4-of-4 targets for 70 yards and two scores. Overall this preseason, Hogan was targeted on a team-high 26% of Brady’s 24 attempts. I think Hogan will be the biggest box-score beneficiary of Julian Edelman‘s (ACL) loss. … At least until trade acquisition Phillip Dorsett gets up to speed, Patriots sub-package pass-catcher snaps figure to be spread amongst Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Dwayne Allen, and the running backs. Amendola turns 32 in November, logged a minuscule 26% snap rate last year, and has accepted annual pay cuts to stay in Foxboro. I want to see on-field evidence of Amendola becoming a legitimate part of the offense before favoring him in start-sit decisions. … Keyed by SS Eric Berry’s stingy man coverage, the Chiefs allowed the NFL’s sixth- and third-fewest fantasy points to tight ends the past two seasons. A healthy Rob Gronkowski is an entirely different animal, of course, so it should be no surprise that Gronk dropped a 7/83/2 receiving line on Kansas City when these teams met in the 2015-2016 Wild Card Round of the playoffs. Gronkowski remains the premier fantasy tight end play on the Week 1 slate.

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Spencer Ware’s year-ending knee injury vaulted Kareem Hunt into Chiefs feature back duties, making Hunt a strong RB2 play even in a tough matchup. Kansas City is a nine-point road dog facing a New England run defense that finished top five in Football Outsiders’ 2016 run-defense DVOA. The Patriots did allow the NFL’s third most receptions to running backs (101), a product of putting their opponents in negative game script. The Chiefs project to be in negative game script in Week 1, and Hunt has shown excellent receiving skills both at the college and pre-pro levels, catching 41 passes as a senior at Toledo and shining as a pass catcher both in training camp and preseason games. Hunt is a better PPR play than non-PPR pick on Thursday night. He should be locked into season-long-league lineups regardless. … The Chiefs insist otherwise, but Alex Smith deserves to feel heat after his team traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes at No. 10 overall, and Mahomes turned in a highlight-filled preseason. A fearful game manager since arriving in Kansas City in 2013, Smith has reached 300 passing yards in just 3-of-61 starts (4.9%) as a Chief and has thrown multiple touchdown passes in nine of his last 31 games (29%). Almost entirely independent of opponent, Smith is never more than a back-end two-quarterback-league play. And that is especially the case with Kansas City offering no proven pass catchers beyond Travis Kelce.

Bill Belichick’s Patriots unfailingly devote extra defensive resources to stopping their opponents’ most dangerous weapon, and I think it’s conceivable if not likely that they envision Tyreek Hill as that guy in Week 1. Hill is a 4.29 speedster who scored 12 all-purpose TDs as a rookie despite handling just 85 offensive touches. Hill never reached 600 receiving yards in a college season, however, and he is still learning to play wideout full time. Hill turned in a quiet preseason, catching just three of Smith’s 32 pass attempts for 52 scoreless yards. Having paired Stephon Gilmore with Malcolm Butler, the Patriots are loaded at cornerback. Hill’s big-play ability gives him matchup-proof potential, but I’m approaching him as a boom-bust WR3/flex until we see on-field evidence Hill is capable of handling a lead wideout role. … Travis Kelce topped 100 yards in 3-of-4 games missed by Jeremy Maclin in 2016 and should be the focal point of Kansas City’s passing attack. When Maclin missed time over the past two seasons, Kelce’s per-game yardage average spiked from 57.3 to 90.6, and he averaged 8.8 targets per game compared to 6.5 with Maclin healthy. The Patriots return all key back-seven components from a defense that yielded the NFL’s ninth-fewest yards (725) and seventh-fewest TDs (4) to tight ends last season. The matchup isn’t ideal for Kelce, but with all things considered, only Gronk, Jordan Reed, and perhaps Greg Olsen are noticeably better Week 1 tight end plays. … Chris Conley and Albert Wilson round out Kansas City’s probable three-receiver set. Conley is a SPARQ freak with minimal NFL production whom the tentative Smith figures to largely ignore against Pats CBs Gilmore and Butler. Wilson will draw more favorable matchups in the slot, but Wilson has reached 70 receiving yards in just 3-of-42 (7.1%) games as a Chief.

Score Prediction: Patriots 27, Chiefs 17

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