6 Wide Receivers With Great Cornerback Matchups in Week 1
Does it feel like the NFL is starting yet? I sure don’t think so. The recent cold snap across the northern U.S. adds to the vibe that autumn has arrived. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the notion that we’re about to see the beginning of a major U.S. sports season in the middle of a number of global crises. Honestly, I feel less prepared for football to start than ever before and that makes me a little nervous.
It’s hard to calibrate our brains for the season after it feels like it arrived so quickly, but it is here, and it is raring to go. That’s why I’m picking apart wide receiver and cornerback matchups for you once again for fantasy purposes. It’s my comfort food, my brain fuel, and – hopefully – a major help for you every week.
So, let’s armor ourselves in blankets on our couch castles -- which wide receivers’ fantasy outlooks in Week 1 will be braced by their cornerback matchups?
Each week we’ll tackle three star wideouts in good matchups (Lineup Locks), three receivers who you should consider starting due to their good 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 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 AirYards.com, Pro Football Focus (PFF), and PlayerProfiler, as well as our databanks.
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 just looked at the 12 points of a player who caught a 50-yard touchdown, we might think he’s breaking out. But it might be that he ran 50 other routes and wasn’t targeted at all – 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 the results.
Three Lineup Locks
Michael Thomas vs. Jamel Dean – The narrative of this game will be all about Drew Brees versus Tom Brady, as the old guard of NFL quarterbacking – now in the same division. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Brady will not be on the field to stop the New Orleans Saints’ dominant Brees-to-Michael Thomas connection. Unfortunately for Tampa cornerback Jamel Dean, he will be on the field.
Among Week 1 starting receivers, Thomas is in the 99th percentile or higher in each metric we use to analyze matchups. His absurd 80% catch rate, 30 percent target rate, and whopping 2.9 yards per route run (while still running almost 600 routes) makes him an absolute monster for anyone to try to stop.
Dean isn’t a terrible candidate to do so, honestly. He actually allowed just a 49% catch rate last season, ranking in the 93rd percentile, but he was targeted on a strong 18% of his coverage snaps and allowed a fairly mediocre 1.1 yards per route covered. This matchup looks really good due to Thomas’ utter dominance, and that’s where I’m gonna lay my chips here.
Tyreek Hill vs. Lonnie Johnson Jr. – It’s extremely hard to cover speed. With the turn of the 2010’s, we saw NFL offenses attempt to build big wide receiver corps, and defenses countered with physical corners like Richard Sherman and Aqib Talib. As of yet, no defensive whiz has found a solution to the speed problem that a player like Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs present. I’ll tell you upfront: Houston Texans cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. isn’t that solution.
Johnson will step into the starting lineup thanks to Gareon Conley's injury, but things would still be rough for Houston’s right cornerback spot even if Conley were in. Johnson was never torched last season across his 300 or so routes covered, but he gave up a whopping 127.7 passer rating when targeted – largely due to the four touchdowns he allowed. His prevention metrics fall into or under the 50th percentile median across the board, meaning he’s not terrible, but absolutely vulnerable.
Hill, on the other hand, excelled in both target rate (25%, 93rd percentile) and yards per route run (2.5, 95th percentile), which is more than enough to roast a backup cornerback with little prep time at an uncertain beginning of the season. Don’t worry about Hill’s catch rate: he’s still above average and working with the best passer in the league.
A.J. Brown vs. Davontae Harris – Football’s most efficient receiver from 2019 also gets a backup cornerback in Week 1, as the Tennessee Titans and A.J. Brown line up across from the Denver Broncos and Davontae Harris.
Harris will likely be the first up after the Broncos traded Isaac Yiadom away, and he’ll get the toughest matchup on the field in Brown. The former fifth-round pick allowed a 71% catch rate while being targeted on 17% of his coverage snaps last year, and forked over a bottom-third 1.2 yards per route run. In an expanded role, against a team that works well off of play-action to fool corners, Harris will be in for a long day trying to cover Brown.
Brown ended last season with a fairly mediocre catch rate of 62%, but his 21% target rate was solid, and the 2.7 yards per route run was elite. His connection with quarterback Ryan Tannehill surely has to come back down to earth at some point, but he’s on a roll, and hopefully can sustain with a strong performance against the Denver secondary.
Three Good Stocks
DeSean Jackson vs. Ronald Darby – This is actually the matchup I’m most excited for, the one that grades the highest in my Week 1 WR-CB model. The only reason DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles isn’t in the “Locks” section is my worry about Carson Wentz's health (yet again), and whether they’ll need to rely on the passing game here. As for the value of the matchup, though, Jackson’s 96th-or-up percentiles in all areas should annihilate Washington Football Team cornerback Ronald Darby and his 4th-or-lower percentiles in target rate and yards per route run. This is a great matchup to target in DFS at the very least.
Stefon Diggs vs. Pierre Desir – Again, contextual things concern me here. The Buffalo Bills are solid favorites over the New York Jets, so they may not need to pass a ton. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is a new addition to the team over the offseason, so he may not yet have the strongest rapport with quarterback Josh Allen. Josh Allen is the quarterback of this team, so it gives me pause. All that said, this is the second-best matchup grade of the week for me, and we highlighted Pierre Desir as a top target for receiver schedules this offseason.
Jamison Crowder vs. Taron Johnson – On the flipside of the previous matchup, the Jets will almost certainly have to pass a ton to keep up with Buffalo. That means quarterback Sam Darnold will need his security blanket, Jamison Crowder, who he targeted on 22% of his routes last season. Bills slot cornerback Taron Johnson was also a vulnerability we identified this offseason, as he gives up a 76% catch rate. Crowder is a lower-ceiling, higher-floor option for Week 1.
Two Smoking Craters
Brandin Cooks vs. Charvarius Ward – I still don’t know if Chris Harris knows other young cornerbacks, but he named Kansas City starting corner Charvarius Ward as one of the up-and-comers in the NFL. And the data doesn’t believe he’s wrong. Ward limited targets to just 13% of his cover snaps last year (80th percentile), held opponents to a 48% catch rate (95th percentile), and kept them to just 1.0 yards per route covered (70th percentile). That’s bad news for new Houston arrival Brandin Cooks, coming off a down 2019 and needing to start on the right foot. It won’t happen in Week 1.
Parris Campbell vs. D.J. Hayden – There’s been a lot of buzz around second-year Indianapolis Colts receiver Parris Campbell this offseason, but the breakout party will have to wait a week. The Jacksonville Jaguars may have gotten rid of their stars at every other defensive position, but they still have a slot cornerback monster in D.J. Hayden, who held opposing wideouts to just an 11% target rate and 0.6 yards per route covered (94th and 98th percentile marks, respectively). Look for Indy to funnel the ball away from the slot this week.
Week 1 Shadow Situations: Adam Thielen (MIN) vs. Jaire Alexander (GB); DeVante Parker (MIA) vs. Stephon Gilmore (NE); Preston Williams (MIA) vs. J.C. Jackson (NE).