Fantasy Football: Evaluating the Toughest Cornerback Matchups for Wide Receivers in 2021
At one point in history, 90’s band Chumbawamba and their one-hit-wonder “Tubthumping” were unbelievably ubiquitous. This turn-of-the-millennium classic is such an earworm that, as I write this article, I’m having to crank down the atmospheric post-rock just to keep from bouncing off my chair from thinking about it.
I’ve really only ever had one problem with the message of this sensation of my youth. Sure, you get up again, Chumbawamba -- but what if you never got knocked down in the first place? Surely that would be easier, no?
That’s going to be our mantra today. We can all typically rebound from one bad wide receiver week in fantasy football, but if we just avoid a knockdown cornerback matchup, we don’t have that problem. That’s why I went through the starting cornerback projections for 2021 -- to figure out which corners performed best against speed receivers, possession receivers, slot receivers, and overall. The more information we have about which wideouts can overperform against a seemingly tough cornerback opponent and which to eschew, the better our chances are in setting winning lineups this coming season.
We’ll be singing when we’re winning, so let’s delve into which cornerback matchups will be the toughest for fantasy football wide receivers in 2021.
There are a few ways to group the toughest cornerbacks for wide receiver fantasy success. The categories I’m evaluating them on are “slot” (the best cornerbacks covering interior pass routes), “speed” (against quicker receivers), “possession” (against stronger receivers), and “overall."
To assemble my ratings for cornerbacks, I compiled general coverage data from Pro Football Focus for the 2018 to 2020 seasons. I combined that with two specific player tracking metrics from PlayerProfiler.com -- target separation (the average distance of a defender from their assignment when the ball arrives) and Burn Rate (the percentage of targets where an assignment was five yards or more downfield from the defender).
I assigned a percentile rank to each stat, target rate (targets per coverage snap), catch rate allowed, yards per coverage snap, and yards after catch per reception (YACR). For the “speed” category, I added in Target Separation and Burn Rate, which will show how much the receiver’s suddenness and raw velocity overwhelmed the corner. When evaluating corners versus “possession” receivers, we prioritize their catch rate allowed and forced incompletion rate in addition to the overall metrics. Then, weighting each percentile rank, I combined them to form a rating for each category.
Cornerbacks who performed particularly stoutly against speed receivers are below.
|Toughest CB vs. Speed WR||2021 Team||Target %||Rec %||Yards Per Rec||TD %||Burn Rate||Targ Sep|
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Tavon Young has thrived as one of the league’s best slot cornerbacks over the last five years. Since the slot typically features smaller and quicker receivers, it’s little surprise to see Young atop the pile of speed stoppers. In 2021, Young saw a target on only 13.0% of his coverage snaps, allowing just a 64.2% catch rate and 12.2 yards per reception. Most amazingly, however, is how he stuck to receivers’ sides, with a Burn Rate of 0.0% and an average target separation of 0.01 yards. Young might not immediately come to mind when thinking of the toughest cornerbacks in the league, but anyone who can stay in the pocket of speed-based receivers will prove a hassle for that wide receiver’s fantasy success.
Patrick Peterson, newly minted CB1 for the Minnesota Vikings, will be tasked with slightly different foes to Young. Whereas Young typically features in the slot, Peterson moves around the field in shadow coverage against top receivers. Despite this, he still allows just 13.2 yards per reception and a 64.3% catch rate when targeted -- though he was targeted at a rate of just 10.6% over the last three seasons. He has allowed the highest touchdown rate and Burn Rate of our top-five toughest cornerbacks, but that can be forgiven some when adjusting for the quality of receiver he’ll likely face.
Cornerbacks who have performed particularly soundly against possession wideouts are below.
|Toughest CB vs. Possession WR||2021 Team||Target %||Rec %||Yards Per Rec||TD %||Burn Rate||Targ Sep|
I want to shine a spotlight on Miami Dolphins cornerback/safety Byron Jones, who has been a versatile and devastating defensive back no matter what role he’s asked to fill. As primarily a cornerback these days, Jones displays the size and explosiveness needed to dominate physical wide receivers at their own games. Jones limited opponents to a 58.5% catch rate in man coverage, following them so closely that they were targeted at a rate under 11% of their snaps. Jones’ game is based on prevention; when a receiver did bring in a pass against him, he allowed 14.0 yards per reception and a 5.5% touchdown rate, getting burned on 3.5% of his routes covered. That said, passing attacks still had to beat him to take advantage of those weaknesses -- and they didn’t beat him often.
Staying in the AFC East, Stephon Gilmore nearly got traded away from the retooling New England Patriots this offseason. Other teams’ loss is the Pats’ gain, however, because Gilmore has been a nightmare for opponents to pass against. He’s on the higher end in target rate allowed, but he makes teams regret throwing his way; Gilmore allows just a 50.9% catch rate, 12.4 yards per reception, and a Burn Rate of less than 1%. You wanna test him? Fine, but you won’t like what happens afterward.
Cornerbacks who have performed particularly well against slot receivers are below.
|Toughest CB vs. Slot WR||2021 Team||Target %||Rec %||Yards Per Rec||TD %||Burn Rate||Targ Sep|
|David Long Jr.||RAM||10.8%||64.7%||12.8||11.8%||3.4%||0.43|
These aren’t guys you’ll often quake in your boots about; the slot is still a pretty good fantasy football hack for wide receiver success. These slot corners are pretty good at preventing your PPR machines from racking up a ton of points, though.
Bryce Hall of the New York Jets subtly put together a strong rookie campaign, despite poor draft pedigree as a 2020 fifth-round pick. He has parlayed that into keeping a starting job going into this season in a division with some daunting slot mavens who he’ll be tasked with keeping in check. He should be up to the task, however, as he was targeted on just 12.6% of his slot snaps and allowed a paltry 10.7 yards per reception, while not getting burned once in his first season. Expect his catch rate and target separation to improve as he gets a better feel of the NFL in his second campaign.
In 2021, Hall will likely face Terrace Marshall Jr. (Week 1), Tyler Boyd (Week 8), Cole Beasley (Weeks 10 and 18), Waddle (Weeks 11 and 15), DeVonta Smith (Week 13), Laviska Shenault (Week 16) and Chris Godwin (Week 17) in the slot.
Cornerbacks who have been particularly strong against wide receivers overall are below.
|Toughest CB vs. WR||2021 Team||Target %||Rec %||Yards Per Rec||TD %||Burn Rate||Targ Sep|
|William Jackson III||WAS||12.5%||55.9%||14.2||5.4%||2.7%||0.31|
As I mentioned before, it’s hard to beat White and Ward when looking for the cream of the crop at cornerback right now. Jones and Darious Williams also made more than one list, however, so these faces pop up in quite a few terrifyingly good places.
It’s worth noting that White and Ward play for teams that will likely feature high-pace game scripts and will often be in games that DFS players target. When building your lineups, make sure you know how the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City will be using these two each week, so you can avoid running into a buzzsaw when you “run it back” against your Buffalo and KC stacks.
It’s never too early to begin looking for the edges in a fantasy football season. Whether you play season-long, DFS, dynasty, or something else entirely, the earlier you can mark a particular corner to avoid, the better you can establish a benchmark to work from in season. That’s just one way we can improve our fantasy football process.