Facts vs. Feelings: Players who will start strong. Or maybe not

Expect Lamar Jackson to start returning on the investment made in him by the Ravens and fantasy managers in Week 1. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Fantasy football is a passion for many. Sometimes that passion causes fantasy managers to make emotional decisions even when the data suggests otherwise. Each week during the 2023 NFL season, Liz Loza will attempt to strike a balance between what the data states and what the heart wants. This is called Facts vs. Feelings.

Every Labor Day weekend a group of friends and I steal away with our families for an End of Summer hurrah. We swim, we grill, we drink (responsibly, of course) and we laugh until the mosquitoes come out to make us cry. Between the water-blaster battles, Cheetos-stained fingertips and sun-drenched snuggles, I always end up with a case of the Sunday Scaries.

It's this quiet -- but intense -- sensation that life is changing. Lazy pj's-wearing pancake mornings are about to take a hard turn into buttoned-up school uniforms and a rushed toaster waffle out the door. Sharing a late-night bottle of red with friends on a Saturday is quickly replaced by last-minute ranking tweaks and early-morning alarms.

As all of this was running through my mind, I noticed that my 2023 Summer Bops playlist had advanced to a new song. It was, predictably, "Cruel Summer" by Taylor Swift.

I'm drunk in the back of the car
And I cried like a baby coming home from the bar (oh)
Said, "I'm fine," but it wasn't true
I don't wanna keep secrets just to keep you

Without thinking, I pressed the forward arrow button... so that I could move on to a different, less-listened-to tune. It occurred to me at that moment that I was ready -- excited, even! -- for the new season.

I'm giddy at the thought of my daughter learning how to read independently. And I can't wait to watch my son get grass stains all over his brand new fall-ball pants. I'm also wildly grateful to be entering my second year at the World Wide Sports Leader. That last sentence will never not send shivers up this fantasy football girl's spine.

So, let's go!

I can't promise you that you'll win a championship this year. But I can tell you that I will be experiencing all of the feels along with you. And that's a fact.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens: Jackson did a Lamarvelous job of being seen and heard this offseason. Despite rumors that Baltimore was no longer charmed by the former Louisville standout, Jackson went ahead and (once again) flipped the script. He heads into his sixth pro campaign with a hefty new five-year, $260 million contract (that includes $185 million guaranteed), an upgraded WR room, a revamped scheme and a top-five ranked offensive line. And you all get it, making him the No. 4 quarterback off the board in fantasy drafts this season.

There is no way Jackson doesn't come out and deliver on his vow to light up M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. I don't care if the Ravens are favored by 10 points over the Texans, there will be no killing the clock or pumping of the breaks. (That doesn't, however, mean I'm down on J.K. Dobbins. He's a top-20 FF RB for me in Week 1.)

Jackson usually opens big regardless of the headlines that preceded the season's kickoff. In fact, he has averaged 70% completions, 10 yards per passing attempt, and a 12 TD:1 INT ratio in his four career Week 1 starts. Furthermore, John Harbaugh isn't afraid to run up the score, recording 148 total points (37 per game) to his opponents' 58 total points (and even leading 14-0 in the lone loss) over that span. The Raven's Nest is about to take flight... and so are fantasy teams led by Lamar.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions: No one understands flying high better than the Sun God. St. Brown has made a habit of soaring beyond expectations, emerging as a team leader down the stretch of 2021 and continuing to dominate with a 106-1,161-6 stat line in his sophomore effort. A popular second-round pick in fantasy drafts, St. Brown is poised to open the season as a top-eight fantasy producer.

Thursday night's tilt between Detroit and Kansas City presents the highest projected point total for the week (53). The Lions are 5 point underdogs, which means Jared Goff is likely to target his No. 1 WR early and often. From Weeks 8 to 18 last season (after T.J. Hockenson was traded), St. Brown averaged 9.6 targets. The sure-handed slot man is likely to flirt with double-digit looks again Thursday, particularly with Jameson Williams unavailable (suspension).

But St. Brown isn't just going to get peppered, he figures to convert. KC allowed the fourth-most receptions as well as the most touchdowns to the slot last year. Additionally, the Chiefs gave up the seventh-most fantasy points per game to opposing receivers in 2022. With Chris Jones potentially still holding out, Goff should have an easier time finding his go-to guy, who has a penchant for fitting the whole team into that one-of-a-kind chip on his shoulder.

DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks: Metcalf, with his nearly 7-foot wingspan, knows plenty about broad shoulders. He has used his to square up and square off to the tune of 35 career TDs in his first four seasons. Not everyone was happy, however, with his scoring total last year. That's because his spikes were halved, dropping from 12 in 2021 to 6 in 2022. What didn't change drastically, though, were Metcalf's number of red zone targets. In fact, he drew eight more red zone looks with Geno Smith under center (27, WR2) than he had the previous year (19, WR11) with Russell Wilson at the helm.

The bounce-back begins versus the Rams in Week 1. Los Angeles allowed the ninth-most fantasy points to wide receivers in 2022. Since then things have only gotten worse for L.A. 's defense, which enters 2023 a bottom-three-ranked unit after having been gutted over the offseason. With Jalen Ramsey nursing a knee issue in South Florida, Metcalf (who found the end zone just three times over his past six meetings against Ramsey) figures to start the year with an on-brand boom. Give me the over on .5 TDs and a top-10 fantasy WR finish for Seattle's mightiest X.

Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers: I've met Deebo Samuel twice. The first time at the NFLPA's Rookie Premiere in 2019, then again on Radio Row a few days before Super Bowl LVI. His diamond stud earrings had been significantly upgraded over the three years in-between. His new sparklers were so stunning that I told him as much. He agreed, though he wasn't terribly amused. *shrug emoji*

I mention this because Deebo is one of the league's swaggiest players. After his 2021 effort, not even those high-wattage, big-carat sparklers could compete with Samuel's shine. While the 27-year-old wide back remains an ultra-versatile weapon in an uber-creative offense, there are other large characters casting shadows on his shimmer in 2023.

Chief among them is Christian McCaffrey, who shared the field with Deebo for seven games last season. Samuel registered fewer than 60 receiving yards in each of those contests while finding the end zone just two times. Furthermore, Samuel's red zone rushes dropped from 15 in 2021 to just eight in 2022. Deebo's glitz figures to remain a significant part of the 49ers game, but he's no longer alone in the spotlight. Facing a healthy Steelers defense that filled necessary holes and added depth, Samuel is closer to WR20 than WR12.

Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans: Pierce, undoubtedly, delivers on Main Character Energy. The Florida product outperformed his backfield mates by a wide margin throughout the preseason and is a shoo-in for RB1 duties heading into 2023. He's also cruising into Week 1 as a 10-point underdog with a rookie QB, and facing one of the league's most vaunted run defenses. This is where feelings (but not facts) get complicated.

Out of 38 RBs who handled the rock at least 150 times last year, Pierce ranked 36th in fantasy points per touch (ahead of only Brian Robinson Jr. and D'Onta Foreman). Additionally, only 37.2% of his touches occurred in the red area, severely capping his scoring upside. That doesn't figure to change for the better, at least at the top of this season. The Ravens allowed the third-fewest rushing yards per game (92.1) and the eighth-fewest rushing TDs (11) in 2022. The Texans may want to feed Pierce, but C.J. Stroud is going to have to put the ball in the air to keep pace with Baltimore. The majority of those looks aren't going Pierce's way, making him a low-end RB2 for Sunday's fantasy purposes.

Brian Robinson Jr., RB, Washington Commanders: Speaking of six-win teams that I'm irrationally rooting for and am likely to have my heart broken by... Washington figures to kick off the post-Dan Snyder era with a big ol' dub. The Commanders are the second-biggest favorite (-7.0) in Week 1. That means a robust number of touches for the team's most qualified thumper.

Robinson -- whose first pro effort could melt even the chilliest of Elsas -- recorded 20-plus touches in half of his games last season. He additionally registered 80-plus rushing yards in four of five contests to end 2022. Facing an average of 6.8 defenders in the box, the Alabama product wasn't efficient (4 yards per touch) but still managed to evade 60 tackles (RB17) and post a top-18 juke rate (28% per Player Profiler). Now imagine his rushing numbers if the team weren't constantly playing catch-up.

Betting on game flow alone can be a tricky venture. But that's not this. Robinson averaged 17 carries per game in 2022. He's also facing a Cardinals team that's undergoing a rebuild on both sides of the ball. There probably aren't going to be many weeks in which managers can confidently flex the 24-year-old. So, lean into the luck while you have it.

Darren Waller, TE, New York Giants: The Cowboys certainly have something worth leaning into. I'm not 100% sold that they have a championship-winning offense. But the team's defense is no joke. That's exactly why this is going to be a huge debut for Waller. The 30-year-old was traded to the Giants for the 100th overall pick in the 2023 draft (which the Raiders used to select Cincinnati Bearcat WR Tre Tucker).

On a roster short on size and small on big names, Waller sticks out... well, like a 6-foot-6, 255-pound converted receiver. That's a large part of why he figures to lead the G-Men in looks this season. Waller has managed a target rate of 25.7% (TE4) and a red zone target rate of 25.2% (TE9) since 2019. The matchup versus Dallas -- a team that allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to opposing TEs in 2022 -- will, without a doubt, be rough. Waller, however, has proved he can do hard things, as evidenced by a top-10 reception percentage (69.8%) and an average YPA of 12.5 over the past four years.

It has, admittedly, been a minute since the Maryland native (who coincidentally grew up entrenched in the drama that surrounds NFC East rivalries) posted top-five fantasy numbers, but that doesn't mean the window has closed. Despite being limited to 20 total games over the past two seasons, Waller heads into Week 1 healthier than Travis Kelce (knee), George Kittle (groin) or Mark Andrews (undisclosed). Those are some facts that trigger big feelings. As will a splashy Week 1 showing from a player who has regularly beaten the odds.

Follow Liz on social @LizLoza_FF