Fantasy Football Week 1: Who to fade — and who could be an outright bust?

We made it, folks! It’s officially Week 1 of the NFL season, which means fantasy football is back. It also means it’s time to set those lineups! Week 1 is one of the most difficult times of the year to make those start/sit decisions without any live game reps outside of the preseason to guide your process.

Here, I’ll break down six fades for your fantasy football teams ahead of Week 1.

As always, we need to give a little bit of context to the term “fade.” Keep in mind as you read that just because a player is listed as a “fade,” that doesn’t mean they are automatic sits. As the adage goes, “Always start your stars.”

What a “bust” designation does mean is that you’ll want to consider higher upside options in the flex.

Aaron Rodgers, QB, New York Jets — FADE

Though there’s a lot of buzz for Aaron Rodgers in his debut as a Jet, he’s a fade in Week 1 in a tough defensive matchup against the Buffalo Bills. The Bills ranked 29th in fantasy points allowed to opposing quarterbacks last season, even despite the absence of CB Tre’Davious White (rehabbing a torn ACL) and Pro Bowl safety Micah Hyde (neck) for the majority of the season.

Even with those major holes, Buffalo’s defense rallied, particularly in the red zone, where they allowed the second-fewest touchdowns (22) and the second-lowest red-zone touchdown rate in the league — not a very warm welcome for the new guy in town.

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants — FADE

This is not at all a call to sit Saquon Barkley.

I repeat: This is not a call to sit Saquon Barkley! (Please refer to the context around the terms "bust" and "fade" in the intro above.)

This is a call, however, to temper expectations for Barkley in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys. With Micah Parsons at the head of it all, the Cowboys have taken a leap as one of the top defenses in the league, top to bottom.

In 2022, the Cowboys allowed just 16.23 fantasy points per game to opposing running backs, the second-fewest in the league. The disappointing fantasy production came on the back of a total lack of efficiency caused by their playmakers up front, allowing just 0.4 rushing touchdowns per game to running backs (second fewest), while also ranking top-five in negative rush attempts forced (45) for an overall 10.9% stuff rate.

The inefficiency that the Cowboys have forced as a unit to opposing rushers should have fantasy managers tempering expectations out of the gate, perhaps seeking some higher option flex plays to pair with Barkley and provide upside in case this Cowboys defense does contain Barkley throughout the game.

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers — BUST

Speaking of difficult defenses, did you hear that Najee Harris has the pleasure of facing the 49ers' top-five run defense in Week 1? Unfortunately for him, the offensive line and Kenny Pickett, 49ers edge Nick Bosa got a record-breaking deal under lock Wednesday, meaning their fearless leader on defense will, in fact, be around to wreck the hopes and dreams of fantasy managers.

There was just one team to allow fewer than 15 fantasy points per game to opposing running backs, and yes, you guessed it, that team was the 49ers. This crew dominated upfront between Fred Warner, Bosa and now this year the addition of Javon Hargrave on the interior.

I send peace and blessings to all running backs unlucky enough to face this defense in 2023.

Though there’s been a lot of conjecture that Harris may lose carries to second-year speedster Jaylen Warren, the team has been pretty vocal that this is Harris’ team. Their usage of Harris (or lack thereof) throughout the preseason and training camp caught the eyes of spectators and fans, but keep in mind, it’s seemed all along that this could be an effort to keep Harris fresh and healthy leading up to the season. Remember, it was just a year ago that Harris suffered a foot injury in training camp that derailed the first half of his season.

Expect Harris to get the bulk of the workload in Week 1, but if you have better options for a flex play, they’re probably worth considering against this run defense.

Marquise Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals — BUST

I could take the easy way out and install Marquise Brown as an “evergreen” fade in this weekly series, but instead, I’ll just use my platform here in Week 1 to send a gentle reminder that he has no business being in your flex this week (or most other weeks) until proven otherwise. The cat got out of the bag on Wednesday that the Cardinals would likely be starting Josh Dobbs at quarterback in Week 1 (much to the dismay of HC Jonathan Gannon, who appeared ready to guard the secret with his life).

Dobbs, for the record, has thrown a total of 85 passes in the NFL, resulting in 456 passing yards, two TDs and three INTs.

It feels a little like whichever quarterback Gannon decided to start was being thrown to the wolves, putting them in line to start against the Washington Commanders. This Commanders' crew enters 2023 as one of the NFL’s most underrated defenses. With a healthy Chase Young, Montez Sweat and Jonathan Allen forcing pressure up front, this will likely force some mistakes from Dobbs, who’s got an accurate throw rate of just 54.2%, per PFF.

In the four games following Kyler Murray’s torn ACL last season, Brown totaled just 14 receptions for 144 receiving yards and zero touchdowns, averaging a disappointing 5.38 fantasy points per game in half-PPR scoring formats. Across those four weeks, the Cardinals ranked 27th in both points and offensive yards per game in addition to leading the league with 10 giveaways.

Gabe Davis, WR, Buffalo Bills — BUST

If you’re looking for a flex play in Week 1, you won’t likely find the answer anywhere on the Bills depth chart. That’s not to say that Gabe Davis might not actually be a little underrated overall heading into this season, either. After all, he’s coming off a career-best 48 receptions for 836 receiving yards, with six or more touchdowns in each of his three NFL seasons so far. There’s a lot to like here!

Just … maybe not in Week 1 against the New York Jets. Sorry, #BillsMafia.

For as much upside as Davis holds on a weekly basis, fantasy managers will be smart to remember that the Jets ranked dead last in fantasy points allowed to opposing wide receivers in 2022. That was in part thanks to 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Sauce Gardner, of course, but also due to the play of outside corner D.J. Reed, who probably was a little under-appreciated because of the star lined up opposite him.

In Reed’s first year with the team, he ranked 10th among 120 qualifying cornerbacks with a 77.5 PFF coverage grade, allowing a 56.6% catch rate and 75.7 passer rating when targeted. Simply put, it doesn’t matter which Jets cornerback covers whom — there are no great matchups for these Bills receivers to have. Don’t be surprised if we see some immediate involvement out of the slot from Deonte Harty or rookie TE Dalton Kincaid, right out of the gate.

Pat Freiermuth, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers — BUST

The San Francisco 49ers are a tough defense, we've discussed that already. They force pressure up front, especially with Mr. Highest Paid Defensive Player In History in the lineup. They added Hargrave on the interior to further bolster things up front, with Warner as one of the best off-the-ball linebackers in the NFL. This unit allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game last season to opposing tight ends, allowing fewer than 40 receiving yards per game and just four total touchdowns to the position all season.

Though there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful for the overall outlook of this Steelers offense, second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett has shown a willingness to spread the ball around to the various talents in the offense (WRs Diontae Johnson, George Pickens), which could have Freiermuth's fantasy managers in line for a volatile season. The 49ers' greatest liability this season will likely come on the outside rather than over the middle of the field, where Freiermuth is likely to see the most work. New to the mix this year is also rookie TE Darnell Washington, who should see a fair bit of snaps. Though primarily a blocking tight end, Washington’s an elite athlete who could serve as a focal point in specific packages, particularly in the red zone with his 6-foot7, 265-pound frame.

Be wary of the Muth!