Fantasy Football: 5 Secondaries That Will Allow a Ton of Catches in 2020
With school nearing a return for many parents and teachers across the U.S., we’re facing some tough, scary decisions that will determine how the year ahead of us goes. Kids themselves are the ones in the balance here. We have no idea if months away from peers means they have completely forgotten classroom norms, like “sharing is caring”.
That’s a great lesson for a child to learn, but it’s also a quality we want in NFL defensive backs.
NFL defensive coordinators certainly don’t want that quality, but as fantasy football players, we do. If the defensive backs covering the players in our fantasy lineups can just learn to be a bit more generous, that would be a really kind gesture. That’s how this works, right?
There are just some defensive backs who give and give in the catch column, which can allow a significant scoring floor for our fantasy wideouts. These cornerbacks and safeties tend to have a high target rate (targets per coverage snap) and a high catch rate allowed, and some teams have a few givers in these categories that we can identify and exploit.
Which secondaries should we be targeting with our wide receivers in PPR formats in 2020?
New York Giants (Grant Haley, Montre Hartage)
The New York Giants would have missed the cut for this article a few weeks ago. Since then, the arrest, charging, and probable suspension of cornerback Deandre Baker means the secondary options behind CB1 and free-agent acquisition James Bradberry get much thinner. Instead, 2018 and 2019 slot corner Grant Haley and 2019 reserve safety Montre Hartage will step into the CB2 and CB3 roles for the foreseeable future – and that’s a tough look.
The diminutive Haley in particular was a disaster in coverage last year. On just over 200 coverage snaps, Haley allowed a 91st percentile target rate (meaning among the top 10% of qualifying cornerbacks in 2019). On those targets, he forked over a 99th percentile catch rate of 86% (among the top 1% of 2019 cornerbacks), and – for the coup de grace – he gave up a 94th-percentile 1.8 yards per coverage snap. Hartage wasn’t much better, allowing a 67% catch rate and 120.8 Passer Rating when targeted.
Bradberry should hold his own this year against WR1’s, but WR2's and slot receivers will feast on this inexperienced secondary.
Cincinnati Bengals (Mackensie Alexander, Trae Waynes)
I do hate to pile on last year’s losing teams, but the Cincinnati Bengals are also lacking in the catch-prevention department. I commend their attempt at addition by subtraction in the case of Swiss-cheese defender Dre Kirkpatrick, who allowed the 19th-most fantasy points per reception last year. Cincy didn’t really improve so much as they replaced two mediocre pass defense parts (including Darqueze Dennard) with familiar facsimiles. The Minnesota Vikings-to-Cincinnati pipeline (and vice-versa) is still very real, so it’s no surprise to see the Bengals’ CB reinforcements come from the North Star State.
Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes plied their trade in purple-and-gold until now, when they don the tiger-stripes. Unfortunately, they’ll also have to take up the mantles of CB2 and CB3 in this defense. Waynes allowed an 88th percentile target rate in 2019, to go with an 84th percentile catch rate allowed and a 72nd-percentile 1.4 yards per coverage snap; Alexander joined him in the fray with an 80th percentile target rate and a 73rd percentile catch rate allowed. The latter at least limited receivers to just 1.1 yards per cover snap – a 41st percentile rate – and a 12th percentile 2.2 fantasy points per reception.
In addition, Cincinnati ran shadow coverage on just 5.9% of its potential targets in 2019 (16th-most). Due to this, offenses may end up moving lesser receivers away from Alexander and Waynes, letting their top wideouts run rampant on them.
New York Jets (Pierre Desir, Arthur Maulet)
Far gone are the days of "Revis Island" for the New York Jets’ secondary. No longer do offenses automatically concede half the field, but the situation might be even worse than that in 2020. The cornerback trio of Trumaine Johnson, Darryl Roberts, and Brian Poole weren’t terrible last year, leading Gang Green to a slightly above-average defensive Net Yards per Attempt. Only Poole remains of last year’s starters, however, and he will likely play a decidedly slot-primary role once again.
That means free agent signee Pierre Desir and 2019 depth player Arthur Maulet will draw boundary duties this year. Maulet in particular proved vulnerable last season, earning an 82nd percentile target rate and allowing an 89th percentile catch rate when targeted. Maulet did only allow 1.3 yards per snap (a 60th-percentile mark), but possession receivers should find him amenable. Desir actually proved to be the opposite: only a 55th percentile catch rate on a 74th percentile target rate, but his 1.6 yards per coverage snap allowed ranked in the 89th percentile.
The combination of these players’ skillsets on the outside means the only “no-fly zone” in 2020 will be the slot. Everywhere else is “all systems go” against the Jets.
Buffalo Bills (Josh Norman, Taron Johnson)
In the 1991 MLB World Series, Kirby Puckett's Minnesota Twins were in do-or-die mode going into an elimination Game 6. Puckett said, “You guys should jump on my back tonight; I’m going to carry us,” and he did. The Twins eked out the win that night thanks to Puckett, then shut down the legendary 90’s Atlanta Braves in Game 7 to win the championship. Sportspeople point to that series as a testament to the power of athletes’ force of will.
While that can be true, I’m sure players like Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White wish they didn’t have to tote their teams on their backs every night. Going into 2020, the Bills signed former lockdown star Josh Norman as relief, but they might not get what they hoped for. Norman, going on age 33, is coming off a year to forget. Despite allowing just a 41st percentile target rate of 15%, he gave up a strong 74th percentile catch rate (70% when targeted) and was in the 82nd percentile for yards per snap allowed. Norman’s 4.0 fantasy points per reception allowed was in the 99th percentile as one of the worst performances of 2019.
Somehow, slot corner Taron Johnson was worse for preventing PPR purposes: a 77th percentile target rate and 92nd percentile catch rate allowed means Johnson let catches through left and right. He gave up few fantasy points on those receptions, but part of that is due to the low yardage rates slot players earn. This secondary will be a mess outside of White's shadow coverage on WR1's.
Indianapolis Colts (T.J. Carrie, Xavier Rhodes)
The Indianapolis Colts are jettisoning most of their starting crew from 2019 and hitting the hard reset. Pierre Desir? Gone to the Jets. Kenny Moore and Marvell Tell III? Demoted to bench options. Rock Ya-Sin is the lone 2019 starting remnant – but signing Travis Carrie and Xavier Rhodes should give the Colts hope... Or should they?
Carrie, ostensibly the CB1 for Indy, is coming off a dismal 2019 for Cleveland. He permitted a reasonable 65th-percentile target rate but when targeted gave up an 88th percentile catch rate. To make matters worse, he gave up a 77th percentile yards per coverage snap, a habit that will be hard for him to break. Rhodes is also looking for a career bounceback, after formerly being a lockdown star for Minnesota and then struggling with injury. Last year he prevented targets on all but 15% of his snaps (a 47th-percentile rate), but the targets he allowed were caught at a 98th percentile rate of 84%. He subsequently allowed an 82nd percentile yards per coverage snap.
Ya-Sin should lock the slot down well when he gets to be on the field, but boundary receivers will be Indy’s bugaboo in 2020 thanks to this duo.