What is up FantasyGuru readers!
Happy Friday to all. To kick off the approaching weekend, I thought it’d be a fun Friday article to switch gears a bit from the bestball-heavy content and write about another passion of mine in the football world — wide receiver/cornerback matchups.
This type of analysis can often dive into the weeds a bit. Not all WR/CB matchups are created equal. We find the most actionable data issued at the polar extremes with the large majority of these matchups largely being noise.
The intent in writing these WR/CB columns is to focus on how a particular wide receiver may fare fantasy-wise in a given matchup based on the cornerback(s) he’s anticipated to line up across. The issue here is that we very rarely see a one-vs-one matchup the entirety of a game. Wide receivers move across the formation. They align in different spots and very few teams are equipped with a No. 1 cornerback capable of trailing — or shadowing — a wide receiver on the perimeter and in the slot. These rare corners are the ones we need to account for when setting our fantasy lineups.
As important it is to identify a weak cornerback and target them with a fantasy receiver, it’s equally important to identify the elite corners. Elite shadow corners shouldn’t lead to a flat-out benching of your No. 1 fantasy receiver, but the target rate and quality of targets may decrease. If facing a shadow matchup with your top receiver, it’s generally a good week to be a bit more aggressive with your Flex play as you may need to pick up additional points.
Let’s take a look at some of the elite cornerbacks around the league that need to merit our attention when it comes to potential shadow situations and setting our lineups this year.
Elite Cornerbacks with Shadow Potential
James Bradberry, New York Giants
Key Stat to Know: Bradberry shadowed a league-high 10 games last year.
The Giants acquired Bradberry last offseason to help bolster their secondary and that’s exactly what he did for New York in 2020. PFF charted Bradberry as a shadow corner in 10 games last year. He allowed 50+ yards to a single wideout just once, despite facing some tough competition. His first year in New York led to him posting a career-low in completion rate (56.4%) and opposing QB Rating (70.1) when targeted. He finished the year as the No. 7 cornerback and led all corners in forced incompletions (17).
Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
Key Stat to Know: 53.0 QB Rating allowed when targeted last year.
Following a disappointing, injury-shortened 2019 campaign, Howard bounced back tremendously in 2020 with an All-Pro performance. Howard’s league-leading 10 interceptions certainly caught the eyeballs of many, but that number could’ve been even higher had he capitalized on four dropped interception opportunities. It was the first time we saw double-digit interceptions from a cornerback since 2007 when a 23-year-old Antonio Cromartie hit that mark. Howard also sported a highly impressive 53.0 QB Rating when targeted last year, a rate that was No. 2 among all cornerbacks. PFF graded Howard as their No. 2 overall cornerback in 2020 and he even nabbed three DPOY votes. Howard is a name to pay attention towards every Sunday operating as one of the league’s preeminent shadow cover men.
Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
Key Stat to Know: Gilmore has allowed a 49.3% completion rate when shadowing over the last three years.
Rostering three fantastic cornerbacks, New England frequently utilizes Stephon Gilmore in shadow coverage against opposing No. 1 receivers. Over the past three years combined, Gilmore has drawn 152 targets when in shadow coverage per PFF’s tracking. He’s allowed just a 49.3% completion rate during this span and 6.9 yards per target. Gilmore only played in 11 games last year but is just a year removed from being the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year. The trio of Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones (slot) has blossomed into a fantastic trio in New England that allowed the sixth-fewest FPPG to opposing receivers last year.
Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Key Stat to Know: Alexander’s 50.7% completion rate and 4.9 yards per target rate allowed were both bottom-five among all CBs last year.
Adept in both man and zone, Jaire Alexander posted top-10 grades in each coverage category by PFF last season. He held opposing quarterbacks to a 50.7% completion rate and an egregiously low 4.9 yards per target when throwing in his direction. Lining up nearly 80% of the time at left corner, Alexander allowed the fewest FPPG to opposing right wide receivers. From Weeks 4-7 (the Packers had a Week 5 bye), Alexander shadowed Calvin Ridley, Mike Evans, and Will Fuller. The trio combined for one single reception in Alexander’s shadow coverage. Surprisingly, that Week 7 matchup was the final time Alexander shadowed in 2020 and was just the 12th time over the last three years. New DC Joe Barry may want to start utilizing him more frequently in this role.
Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key Stat to Know: Davis has logged the most forced incompletions among all CBs over the last two years (34).
Davis closed the 2019 season with some notable shadow situations against DeAndre Hopkins in Week 16 (4-19-0, 7 targets) and Julio Jones in Week 17 (4-58-0, 6 targets). Impressed with his performance, DC Todd Bowles utilized Davis in shadow coverage more frequently in 2020 deploying him frequently in this role against some of the star wideouts in the NFC South. The lone blemish — and it’s a rather large one — is that Davis was listed as the primary scapegoat for Tyreek Hill’s massive 13-269-3 outing against Tampa Bay in Week 12. If we exclude that week, Davis sported a rock-solid 66.6 QB Rating when targeted last year — No. 8 among all cornerbacks with 200+ defensive snaps. Davis forced the third-most incompletions (15) last year even though he missed two games. The season prior, he led the league in this statistic (19). At just 24 years old, Davis should be a mainstay in this category as a shadow corner to keep an eye on.
Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills
Key Stat to Know: White hasn’t allowed a touchdown in shadow coverage since 2018.
Over the last three years, Buffalo has deployed Tre White in shadow coverage in 17-of-45 regular season games. He hasn’t allowed a 100-yard outing in any and hasn’t given up a touchdown while in shadow coverage since 2018. In his four-year career, White has held opponents to a 56.5% catch rate and PFF has tracked him with 17.1% of all targets thrown in his direction resulting in either an interception or pass breakup. White’s 2020 season wasn’t quite up to his lofty standards, but the Bills’ offseason moves to reinforce the pass rush should help make things easier for him on the backend in 2021.
Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
Key Stat to Know: Ramsey’s 50.0% completion rate allowed was No. 2 among all CBs last year.
Ramsey was used as a chess piece for DC Brandon Staley last year, making plays all over the field in their zone-heavy defense. He played a league-high 81.9% of his coverage snaps operating in zone, limiting his opportunities to shadow. Because of this heavy zone rate, I was hesitant on putting Ramsey in here, but his shadow numbers when utilized tipped the scales in favor of a write-up:
Week 10 vs D.K. Metcalf (SEA): 77.1% routes shadowed, 4 targets, 2 receptions, 28 yards, 0 TD
Week 11 vs Mike Evans (TB): 73.3% routes shadowed, 7 targets, 4 receptions, 40 yards, 0 TD
Week 16 vs D.K. Metcalf (SEA): 64.1% routes shadowed, 5 targets, 4 receptions, 38 yards, 0 TD
New DC Raheem Morris is expecting to keep Staley’s principles intact as a primary 3-4 zone defense utilizing Cover-4 frequently. The loss of starting corner Troy Hill to Cleveland could shake up Ramsey’s alignment rates in 2021, but he remains a corner that opposing QBs simply don’t test with the football. Outside of a nine-target outing in Week 1, Ramsey averaged just 3.9 targets per game the remainder of the regular season. When you start hearing Ramsey in conjunction with the word “shadow” in a particular week, it’s a safe assumption to downgrade that receiver’s projections.
Other Notable Names and Situations
Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints – Lattimore can go from wide receiver eliminator to a useless turnstile in any given week as he appears to anecdotally “play up” to the competition. Inconsistency at cornerback isn’t uncommon, but Lattimore’s 2020 season has him trending in a dangerous direction. After allowing five total touchdowns in his coverage during his first three seasons, Lattimore gave up eight scores in 2020 and was among the league-leaders in penalties. His PFF grade has dropped in four consecutive seasons and the Saints shadowed with him on over 60% of snaps just three times last year. He’s historically more than doubled that rate. Perhaps he shadows more frequently in 2021 with Janoris Jenkins now in Tennessee, but we need to see more consistency from Lattimore before moving him up to the elite tier.
William Jackson III, Washington Football Team – Jackson III was a standout shutdown corner for Cincinnati and a lone bright spot at the cornerback position. He took his talents to Washington this offseason — a defense projected to play heavy zone — thus limiting shadow opportunities in 2021. Had he signed with any other team with more man-to-man tendencies, Jackson III would be up in the elite group.
Cleveland Browns – Denzel Ward was PFF’s No. 5 highest graded corner against man coverage last year. A star on the rise, Ward is a name to fear in coverage, but the Browns have let him shadow in just five games across his three-year career. After adding cornerback Troy Hill (LAR), the return of a healthy Greedy Williams (2019 2nd Round pick), and the addition of Greg Newsome (2021 1st Round pick), do we see Cleveland just have their guys man their spots and not travel? This is a phenomenal group of corners but the shadow potential is questionable after seeing how DC Joe Woods utilized his corners in 2020.
Denver Broncos – Like Cleveland above, Denver brings back PFF’s No. 1 highest graded corner against man coverage (Bryce Callahan), added veteran playmakers in Chicago’s Kyle Fuller and Washington’s Ronald Darby, and dropped Round 1 capital to pick up the best corner in the draft in Patrick Surtain II. Callahan will man the slot, but I expect Fuller to stick to his LCB designation that he manned heavily when Vic Fangio was with Chicago (2015-2018). Denver didn’t shadow at all last year and I’m hesitant to believe that will change in 2021.
Baltimore Ravens – Injuries limited this group from playing all 16 games together, but the Ravens’ trio of starting corners — Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Jimmy Smith — are about as good as it gets. Humphrey’s versatility as a slot and perimeter shutdown corner makes him the biggest shadow threat — he had success doing so in 2019 — but Baltimore didn’t shadow one single time last year as they’re content with letting their guys play their roles. It’s a situation to keep an eye on in the event of a prolonged injury, but DC Don Martindale (2018-present) likely isn’t going to shake things up without a need.
Darius Slay, Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles traded for Darius Slay last offseason hoping to get a corner with strong man skills and shadow potential. Coming off three-straight Pro Bowl seasons, Year 1 was nothing short of a disappointment for Slay in Philadelphia. He allowed a career-high 77.3% catch rate and the highest yards per target rate (9.91) of his career. Despite the down year, the Eagles notably had Slay shadowing in seven different outings. His performance didn’t really start to tail off until the final month of the year when lower body injuries started piling up. If he can get back to his 2014-2018 form — where he held a 90.0 PFF Grade — he could return to “elite” status in the section above in next year’s writeup.
Bradley Roby, Houston Texans – Not all shadow corners are created equal. Roby shadowed a receiver on 75% or more of their routes last year four different times. The results weren’t exactly great:
Week 2 vs Marquise Brown (BAL): 82.1% routes shadowed, 4 targets, 4 receptions, 37 yards, 0 TD
Week 4 vs Adam Thielen (MIN): 75.0% routes shadowed, 9 targets, 7 receptions, 96 yards, 1 TD
Week 5 vs D.J. Chark (JAX): 76.3% routes shadowed, 4 targets, 3 receptions, 16 yards, 0 TD
Week 6 vs A.J. Brown (TEN): 91.9% routes shadowed, 7 targets, 5 receptions, 56 yards, 2 TD
Roby wasn’t used in shadow coverage again after that 2-TD outing allowed to A.J. Brown. It’s hard to blame him solely as Houston offered zero semblance of a consistent pass rush and often left Roby on an island. Those issues should continue over into 2021. Don’t be afraid when you see your fantasy receiver projected to run into Roby’s shadow coverage.