Four years ago, I introduced "The Dirty Dozen" and "The
Delicious Dozen" around Thanksgiving time. The idea then -
as it is today - was to identify negative and positive receiver
matchups, respectively, as a way to prepare owners for the upcoming
stretch of fantasy games that usually determine who moves on and
Receiver-cornerback matchups are among the most critical ones
in the real game, yet very few fantasy analysts spend any time
breaking them down in much (if any) detail for what I can only
imagine is a fear of being wrong or a general lack of readily
available information. While progress has been made in terms of
more attention on the week-to-week matchups, far too little time
is being spent on looking ahead to the fantasy playoffs.
Although football is the quintessential team game, the receiver/cornerback
battle is often as individual as it gets at the skill positions.
Without getting into too much of a philosophical discussion about
how individual it is, we can generally assume that a defense will
remain either a team that uses a “shadow” cornerback
or opts to “play sides” and not change its method
during the course of a game. Receivers tend to move all around
the formation and many of the top receivers nowadays spend time
in the slot, so the most any analyst can say with any certainty
is that a certain receiver should see a lot of a certain
receiver in coverage based on where he has lined up in the past.
While the receiver position will probably always remain the most
difficult fantasy position to predict from week to week, we do
have some tools at our disposal to evaluate just how difficult
their upcoming matchups are. Pro Football Focus has many stats
that can help us to make informed decisions about what receiver/cornerback
matchups we should target, and I am using their coverage grade
(as opposed to their overall grade) as a tool to help discern
what receivers could be in for a slow day. Below is a list of
the 12 cornerbacks most likely to slow down fantasy receivers,
ranked from the 12th-best to the best.
Note: The average
number of coverage snaps for the 117 cornerbacks to qualify (as
in the player isn't currently suspended, on IR, no longer employed,
etc.) for PFF's rankings was 261 this week, so I chose to use
that number to eliminate players who aren't or haven't been "full-timers".
Below each write-up is the remaining schedule and the projected
matchups each corner should see in coverage in that week. Please
note while I do watch enough film to feel confident about my projected
matchups, I am not so naïve to believe I've got each one
pegged. Receivers move across the formation a lot nowadays, while
most defensive coordinators seem to favor keeping their corners
on one side of the formation.
Julio Jones owners beware: Atlanta's top
wideout will face Marshon Lattimore in Weeks 14 and 16.
*** - Indicates corner that has been/will be used as a "shadow"
The "No-Fly Zone" has come under some heavy fire lately, although
it is a bit unfair to say the secondary - at least the parts of
it fantasy owners have come to fear in recent years - deserves
much blame. Need proof? New England didn't bother targeting a
receiver until Philip Dorsett gained 11 yards against zone coverage
on a drag route with about 10 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter.
In all, Patriots' running backs and tight ends accounted for 171
of the 297 passing yards allowed by the Broncos. One week earlier,
Philadelphia only threw for 222 yards; receivers shared 139 of
those yards. In other words, despite getting "destroyed" by two
of the NFL's top quarterbacks, Denver still ranks fifth overall
in pass defense. So while folks are jumping off the train of the
Broncos' defense, this pass defense is still one for "normal"
passing games to fear, especially for those receivers who line
up across from Talib and Chris Harris Jr.
One example of how slowly information can travel from reality
to fantasy is what has happened this year in the Colts' defensive
backfield. For the first three weeks of the season, owners targeted
receiver matchups against Indianapolis in large part because top
corner Vontae Davis was recovering from a groin injury. Less than
two months later, Davis was cut and Melvin had earned enough trust
from the coaching staff to shadow Antonio Brown in Week 10, holding
the best receiver in football to three catches for 47 scoreless
yards. He's quickly emerging as this year's A.J. Bouye and needs
to be feared in the same way the former Texan was last season.
Given his success against Brown last week, it would seem obvious
he'll be asked to chase receivers more often after the team's
Week 11 bye. However, if there are two things we've learned over
the years regarding true shadow cornerbacks, they are how few
of them there are and the unpredictability in which coaches choose
to use them as such.
Coming off microfracture surgery late in 2015, Fuller allowed
the second-highest passer rating (122.7) among slot corners as
a rookie last season. It appears another year to heal and a reunion
with his position coach from Virginia Tech has done him wonders,
as the second-year corner's coverage grade is noticeably better
than his two more "big-name" teammates in Josh Norman (80.9) and
Bashaud Breeland (47.1), while his passer rating allowed is fourth
in the league (55.0). Fuller is unquestionably a slot corner,
playing 95 percent of his snaps there. He is fairly tall (5-11)
for a slot cornerback, so this may be the rare case in which he
will benefit from the recent trend of offenses putting their bigger
receivers in the slot in order to get better matchups. In other
words, players like Keenan Allen (Week 14) and Larry Fitzgerald
(Week 15) may struggle a bit more than they otherwise would.
Another season-ending injury to Jason Verrett was supposed to
sink the Chargers' secondary, but a funny thing happened instead:
Los Angeles found a bigger corner nearly as capable and one that
is probably a better fit for DC Gus Bradley's zone-heavy defense
in Williams. Obviously, not much was expected from a 2016 undrafted
free agent out of Penn State who played the position for only
2 1/2 years in college. Even less was expected after he surrendered
18 catches on 29 targets in his coverage last season, including
12 first downs. This year, he's being targeted on only 16 percent
of the pass routes in which he is on the field. More impressively,
the Chargers trust him everywhere; Williams is one of only several
defensive backs to line up on left, right or in the slot on at
least 10 percent of his snaps.
Slay leads all cornerbacks in interceptions (four) and passes
defended (13) through nine games, while allowing a passer rating
of 63.4 against receivers in his coverage. Despite following the
likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and Jordy
Nelson, he's given up more than 70 yards receiving just once this
season - a Week 5 loss in Carolina when he gave up 71 - and held
opponents under 50 yards receiving to his coverage seven times.
All told, wideouts have mustered 348 receiving yards and three
touchdowns in his coverage this season.
White was drafted at No. 27 overall this spring and was a bit
of a divisive prospect in that he succeeded at LSU more on technique
than raw athleticism. He was supposed to be the steady second
cornerback alongside Ronald Darby, someone the Bills were hoping
could bounce back from a rough 2016. In the blink of an eye, he
ascended to the top of the depth chart once Darby was traded to
Philadelphia and E.J. Gaines was acquired from the Los Angeles
Rams. So how's he doing? Per PFF, White has broken up a league
high 10 passes and is allowing only one catch per every 13.5 snaps
spent in coverage. Considering he is defending an average of 37.1
routes, it means he is routinely giving up two or fewer receptions
in his coverage. White has played 86 percent of his snaps on the
left side this season, so owners can expect him to remain a "stationary"
corner moving forward.
In regards to his overall grade, Bouye is performing slightly
worse than he did last year (90.7 versus 88.7). The drop is hardly
an indictment of his play, as quarterbacks have to pick their
poison when it comes to throwing at him, Jalen Ramsey or slot
CB Aaron Colvin. He has yet to allow a touchdown in his coverage
while quarterbacks have a 36.8 passer rating when throwing at
him. DC Todd Wash has occasionally used Ramsey to shadow - which
by extension means Bouye has done the same with the opponent's
No. 2 wideout. For the most part, however, Bouye (right) and Ramsey
(left) have stuck to one side, each logging 77 percent of their
playing time on the aforementioned side.
Hayward doesn't always follow receivers across the formation
- he didn't do so against Marqise Lee last week - but he has chased
the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Alshon Jeffery and Amari Cooper
in recent games, so perhaps DC Gus Bradley likes to match up the
5-11, 192-pound Hayward against bigger receivers and less against
the shifty and more elusive ones. It is noteworthy Hayward has
logged roughly 70 percent of his snaps this season at left cornerback
and no team has allowed fewer fantasy points from that spot on
the field than the Chargers.
Smith spends 95 percent of his time lined up on the left side
of the defense. Over the first half of the season (prior to the
team's Week 9 loss to the Titans and the Week 10 bye), the seven-year
veteran led all quarterbacks in defensive passer rating (24.5)
and had yielded 12 catches for 100 yards and no touchdowns. And
he hasn't done it against slouches either. Smith held A.J. Green
to one catch for 13 yards, Antonio Brown to one catch for 14 yards
and Michael Crabtree to a single three-yard reception. Jarvis
Landry did not catch either one of the two targets thrown in his
direction while in Smith's coverage. As long as he stays healthy
- which has long been his biggest issue - it's not unthinkable
Smith will be mentioned in the same breath as Patrick Peterson
sooner than later.
While Robinson has the pedigree of being a top-flight cornerback
- he was the No. 32 overall pick in 2010 - rare is the occasion
in which a 30-year-old on his fourth different team finds himself.
When he wasn't battling injuries in his career, he had confidence
issues. PFF gave him a 78.2 overall grade in 2015 in his only
year with the Chargers but, outside of that, he has mixed in as
many poor seasons with good ones. One of those came during an
injury-plagued campaign with the Colts last season, which resulted
in him getting cut by incoming GM Chris Ballard in March. He was
forced to take a one-year, $1 million prove-it deal with the Eagles.
That investment has paid off handsomely for Philadelphia, as Robinson
has been far and away the team's top corner while playing nearly
70 percent of his snaps in the slot. He spends about a quarter
of his time at right corner as well.
Ramsey showed plenty of promise in 2016, finishing his rookie
season as PFF's 18th-best cornerback last year. The few people
who were not aware of the level he is playing at this year probably
received their a-ha moment in Week 9 when he jawed on virtually
every play with A.J. Green and held him to one catch for six yards
before Green had enough and took a couple swings at Ramsey, resulting
in ejections for both players. The 23-year-old Florida State product
was the highest-graded cover corner for a good part of this season
and may soon be recognized as the best at his position before
long, especially if the Jaguars continue to make a playoff push
this season. The one caveat: Ramsey has been ejected twice in
25 career games for fighting (or being involved in a fight, as
was the case in Week 9). Hopefully, he'll let his play speak louder
than his words as he matures.
The Saints are seeing immediate returns on their 2017 draft class,
as Lattimore and Alvin Kamara are the headliners who have completely
changed the way people see New Orleans. Per PFF, quarterbacks
targeting Lattimore - which they have done 35 times - have posted
a measly 42.3 passer rating. Furthermore, the rookie has yet to
allow more than 38 receiving yards in a game this season. Lattimore
has obviously already done enough to convince DC Dennis Allen
he can and should shadow, so it means little he has spent 75 percent
of the time on the right side of the defense. The fact he is performing
at such a high level at 21 years old means owners have to start
getting used to the idea their WR1s may not produce against the
Saints for the next five to 10 years.
Other top-flight corners who missed the
list due to lack of coverage snaps (coverage grade in parentheses:
Jason McCourty, Cleveland (92.1); Tramon Williams, Arizona (84.3);
Desmond King, LA Chargers (83.3), Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Cleveland
Doug Orth has written for FF
Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy
Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s
hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday
in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national
sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”.
Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.