6 Wide Receivers With Great Cornerback Matchups in Week 1
As you read this, we are so close to the start of the NFL season, and I could not be more antsy for it. This past week, the wait has been excruciating. After a year marred by a global pandemic, an offseason with drama, rumors, and absurd situations, you’d think I’d have learned to have a little patience. But no.
No, football daddy: I will continue to cry unless you shove gamefuls of mashed-up football into my eyeholes until I am sated. By the end of Monday Night Football this week, I will give a little burp and I will be happy.
Before we can clap with glee at tonight’s opening kickoff, we still have big-kid responsibilities to our season-long and DFS lineups and need to figure out which wide receivers to start. The cornerback matchups that wide receivers face could make or break a fantasy week, and this column will help you “child-proof” those roster decisions.
Which fantasy wide receivers have the best cornerback matchups in Week 1?
Each week, we’ll tackle two star wideouts in good matchups (Lineup Locks), four receivers who you should consider starting due to their matchups (Good Stocks), and two absolute avoids due to strong cornerback play on the opposite side (Smoking Craters). I’ll also examine the previous week’s hits and misses, so you have a bit of accountability to see that what I’m saying works. Since we have no “last week” for Week 1, I want to explain a bit of my process as to how I pick these players.
The three metrics I tend to look at that help us judge the strength and value of a receiver or a cornerback are Target Rate (percent of routes on which the player is targeted), Catch Percentage (percent of targets caught/allowed to be caught), and Yards Per Route Run (the total receiving yards caught/allowed, divided by the number of routes run/covered), with data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) and PlayerProfiler, as well as our own numberFire database.
You might wonder why we’re not looking specifically at fantasy points, but that metric combines a lot of other components that aren’t sticky from week-to-week or year-to-year. If we looked at just the 12 half-PPR points of a player who caught a 55-yard touchdown, we might think he’s breaking out. But, it also might be that he ran 50 other routes and wasn’t targeted at all, and that one touchdown catch was a lucky fluke. These metrics tell us (in order) how often a player is getting targeted when they’re on the field, how often they are productive when targeted, and how productive they are when on the field -- much more predictable skills as opposed to just analyzing results.
Two Lineup Locks
Keenan Allen vs. Darryl Roberts – The Los Angeles Chargers’ passing offense was a pleasant surprise when we last saw it, and it was led by the rookie stylings of quarterback Justin Herbert. One of the young gunslinger’s favorite targets was, obviously, the sure-handed and crisp route-runner Keenan Allen. Allen last year earned a target on 27% of his 520 pass routes (93rd percentile among Week 1 receivers; data from PFF), producing 1.91 yards per route run (67th percentile). When we consider that Allen spent moe than 50% of his snaps in the slot, with an average target distance of just 7.4 yards (97th among wide receivers), that’s a very strong rate.
If Herbert doesn’t suffer a sophomore slump, his top receiver should see high volume and efficient usage yet again. This combination last season gave Allen eight weeks as a fantasy WR1 or WR2, which came on the back of 100 receptions for 992 yards and 8 touchdowns. He ended the season seventh in fantasy points per game among wide receivers.
Across from him lines up Washington Football Team cornerback Darryl Roberts. Roberts didn’t play every down last year, but when he was on the field, he was getting burned by opposing receivers. Roberts was targeted on 17% of his coverage routes last year (70th percentile), and allowed a 71% catch rate (96th percentile) and 1.46 yards per route run (83rd percentile). The former seventh-round pick allowed an average of 2.11 fantasy points per target, and that means Allen should thrive in the first game of this new campaign.
Davante Adams vs. Marshon Lattimore – So, this is a rarity for me. I like to recommend matchups mainly featuring the worst cornerbacks in the league, but his presence at the top of the column shouldn’t malign New Orleans Saints number-one cover man Marshon Lattimore. While he still should be one of the better pass defenders in the NFL this year, he has a few glaring holes in his profile that his opponents can exploit.
Last year, Lattimore did allow a slightly above-average target rate (16%) and a solid 1.27 yards per route run (64th percentile). Thanks to a 4.8% burned rate (plays where the defender is five or more downfield yards away from their assignment), Lattimore forked over a 100.3 passer rating against and 1.86 fantasy points per target. While not devastating, that makes Lattimore vulnerable to the talent of a guy like wide receiver Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers.
Adams remains one of the top fantasy wideouts going into this season, especially so after posting a 31% target rate (99th percentile), 79% catch rate (93rd percentile), and a whopping 2.96 yards per route run (98th percentile) last year. Even if Lattimore plays well and sticks to him most of the day, Adams should feast on fantasy points due to his 27th-highest target separation (2.14 yards; the average distance a receiver is from their defender when the target arrives) and an above-average contested catch rate. Don’t shy away from Adams when Lattimore may continue to be merely mortal in 2021.
Four Good Stocks
Jakobi Meyers vs. Justin Coleman – Fans of New England Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers breathed a sigh of relief when the Pats shockingly chose to start rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Meyers did well enough despite 2020 starter Cam Newton's playing woes, with a 79th-percentile target rate, 82nd-percentile catch rate, and 86th-percentile yards per route run despite working 60% of his snaps from the slot. Miami Dolphins slot corner Justin Coleman also makes for a good target for Meyers in Week 1. Last season, Coleman allowed a 71st-percentile target rate, 96th-percentile catch rate, and 83rd-percentile yards per route run to his assignments. Buy low on Meyers now before the DFS salaries adjust to the new passing volume for New England pass-catchers with Jones under center.
Jarvis Landry vs. L'Jarius Sneed – As a word of caution: we shouldn’t be expecting the Jarvis Landry of the 2020 Cleveland Browns’ stretch run to be the new baseline. With Odell Beckham injured, Landry saw a 79th-percentile target rate and converted that into an 82nd percentile yards per route run. He should see less volume with OBJ back, but the efficiency could maintain in Week 1 thanks to facing Kansas City cornerback L'Jarius Sneed. Sneed in 2020 allowed a 93rd-percentile target rate, and with Landry among the top-10 receivers in contested catch rate, this could be a big PPR day for the veteran slot man.
Parris Campbell vs. Marquise Blair – With Parris Campbell coming off another injury-wracked season that limited him to just 40 routes run, it’s fair to be bearish on the Indianapolis Colts' wideout. What he did in limited playing time is reasonably heartening, though, because he earned a 67% target rate while making an average target separation of 2.11 yards. Even better, he’s facing off against Seattle Seahawks safety-turned-slot corner Marquise Blair, who allowed a target rate in the 82nd percentile, a 97th-percentile catch rate, and a 97th-percentile yards per route run. It’s a long shot to go with Campbell, but low-salary upside wins weeks in DFS.
Hunter Renfrow vs. Tavon Young – Looks like we’re really playing the slots on the deeper options this week! The slot is the easiest place to exploit for fantasy purposes, so it’s not surprising that there are so many who have good profiles at this uncertain point in the season. Still, it is a bit surprising to be recommending Las Vegas Raiders receiver Hunter Renfrow when just a month ago it looked like he had been demoted to second-string. Renfrow isn’t impressive in many major ways, but he did compile a 73rd-percentile catch rate in 2020. He is projected to play a bundle of snaps this week against Tavon Young of the Baltimore Ravens. Young has allowed an 82nd-percentile target rate and 96th-percentile yards per route run. Renfrow has some very deep, very cheap upside in this contest.
Two Smoking Craters
D.J. Chark vs. Terrance Mitchell – All season, we are (rightfully) going to be dunking on the Houston Texans and what should be a heckin’ bad defense. Cornerback Terrance Mitchell might actually be a bright spot for Houston, however, as he allowed a 13% target rate (13th percentile) on his coverage snaps, 56% catch rate (20th percentile), and 1.11 yards per route run (40th percentile) in 2020. Mitchell comes into this season as one of the stoutest cornerback matchups in the league, which means that -- depending on how Week 1 shakes out -- he should be considered a major spot to avoid going forward.
He’ll be facing off against Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver D.J. Chark, who is getting a big-time upgrade at quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. Chark last year was pretty mediocre as a team WR1, catching just 53 passes for 706 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns -- a major step back from his second NFL season. He also earned just a 19% target rate (31st percentile), 58% catch rate (11th percentile), and 1.48 yards per route run (25th percentile). Maybe things will start to click with an overhauled roster, but I’d stay away this week.
Michael Gallup vs. Jamel Dean – Finally, one note to watch for on Thursday Night Football. I love the bounce-back potential of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense thanks to quarterback Dak Prescott's return, but third receiver Michael Gallup may not be the place to look for a piece of that value. Last year -- and, yes, this was with Andy Dalton and Ben DiNucci hucking the rock -- Gallup earned a 13th-percentile target rate (16%), an 18th-percentile catch rate (60%), and a 16th-percentile yards per route run (1.34). Some of that will undoubtedly rebound with better quarterback play, but I don’t expect it will be a sea change overnight that turns Gallup into a fantasy darling.
An even worse herald for Gallup’s “pending” coming-out party is his date with Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Jamel Dean. Dean shuts down opposing receivers to the tune of a 14% target rate allowed (23rd percentile) and just 0.68 yards per route run allowed (3rd percentile). It’s possible that the Buccaneers will employ a shadow method with Dean and/or Sean Murphy-Bunting, as they utilized shadow coverage in 17 player-games last year -- including two with Dean. Therefore, I wouldn’t expect Gallup to get a ton of free run without Dean on his hip. For at least one week, delay the Gallup breakout expectations.
Week 1 Potential Shadow Situations: DeAndre Hopkins (ARZ) vs. Janoris Jenkins (TEN); JuJu Smith-Schuster (PIT) vs. Taron Johnson (BUF); CeeDee Lamb (DAL) vs. Sean Murphy-Bunting (TB); A.J. Brown (TEN) vs. Robert Alford (ARZ).