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Fluke or For Real? Grading Some of Week 1’s Biggest Fantasy Football Surprises

Bryan Armetta takes a look at four players who had surprisingly big days on Sunday, and breaks down whether they are waiver-wire diamonds or just fool’s gold.

Bryan Armetta takes a look at four players who had surprisingly big days on Sunday, and breaks down whether they are waiver-wire diamonds or just fool's gold.

The difference between fantasy winners and losers over the course of a long season is often the waiver wire. Players that can provide season-long impact are there to be found, especially to start the year. The trick is figuring out which player to use precious roster space on, and whether it’s too early to pull the plug on any underperformers. After a predictably unpredictable opening Sunday, here’s the verdict on four of the day’s biggest surprises.

WR Devin Duvernay, Baltimore Ravens

It was anyone’s guess as to how Baltimore’s offense would look with both J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards out against the Jets on Sunday. Rather than running the ball with a mediocre group of halfbacks, John Harbaugh decided to air it out. Two of Lamar Jackson’s three passing touchdowns in the 24-9 win came courtesy of third-year wide receiver Devin Duvernay. The former Texas star had a total of four catches (on four targets) and 52 yards on the day.

A special teams standout, Duvernay was never in a position to make a big impact with the Ravens prior to this season, when the team decided to send Marquise Brown to the Cardinals. Even with Brown’s departure, Jackson has never shown an ability to support three fantasy-relevant pass catchers over his career, which makes things crowded in Baltimore with Rashod Bateman and Mark Andrews commanding most of the team’s targets. However, Jackson attempted nearly seven more passes per game in 2021 compared to 2020; should that level of volume continue, Duvernay could have a flex-worthy role on a very good offense. Pick him up, but lower your expectations. 

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TE O.J. Howard, Houston Texans

While the Texans offense is starving for skill position talent, it was hard to foresee a major role for O.J. Howard early in the year. Having signed with Houston less than ten days ago, how much of the offense could he even learn in such a short time? The answer: just enough, as Howard’s debut with the team led to two catches for two touchdowns. 

Could Howard position himself as the second passing option behind Brandin Cooks on the Houston offense? Maybe, although the role should still be seen as Nico Collins’ to lose. The red zone connection with Davis Mills feels real, which should be enough to pique interest amongst managers, but that alone makes it difficult to justify Howard as a must-add player. The Texans tight end was still fourth on the team in receptions, and target monster Cooks caps anyone else’s ceiling on a below average passing attack. Given the barren nature of the tight end position, it’s fine for some teams to take a chance on Howard, but there are less volatile options to be had on the waiver wire.

QB Marcus Mariota, Atlanta Falcons 

Although they came up just short against the Saints in a 27-26 defeat, the Falcons’ offense was one of Sunday’s biggest surprises. The Dirty Birds moved the ball with ease (416 total yards) against a stout New Orleans defense, and much of the credit goes to their new quarterback. Despite pedestrian passing stats (215 yards, 61% completion percentage), Marcus Mariota was a menace running the ball, rushing for 72 yards and a touchdown. 

Is Mariota’s performance sustainable? To answer yes involves some faith in the Atlanta offense, which is (to put it politely) lacking outside of Kyle Pitts and rookie Drake London. Still, Mariota has always been a dangerous dual-threat, and Falcons head coach Arthur Smith knows how to use him best from their days together in Tennessee. If the team can keep games close (big if) fantasy points should follow. There may come a time where rookie Desmond Ridder takes over, but Mariota is currently an intriguing backup QB with high upside.

RB Dontrell Hilliard, Tennesse Titans

The Titans had a running back go off for over 20 fantasy points on Sunday, but it wasn’t Derrick Henry. Backup Dontrell Hilliard had a career day, finding the end zone twice to go along with 69 total yards. Hilliard, a five-year veteran, had just four career touchdowns entering Sunday, but his performance points to the possibility of increased work in a Tennessee offense starving for playmakers. The fact that the Giants kept Derrick Henry in check (82 total yards, 0 touchdowns) also hints at the Titans turning to Hilliard when the rushing game is stalled.

The caveat to Hilliard’s breakout is that it might be a flash in the pan; he tallied just five touches all game, making his fantasy worth fairly touchdown-dependent. Hilliard’s two rushes, during a game where Henry was not his normal Herculean self, indicate that consistent usage will be hard to come by during the season. The Titans look significantly worse than last year’s AFC #1 seed, so game scripts may favor more short passes, where Hilliard gets most of his opportunities. Still, there isn’t enough production here for Hilliard to be a priority add.