Part II: Individual Matchups
Last week, I was faced with starting A.J. Green against the Cardinals, who employ Patrick Peterson. My alternative was Randall Cobb vs. Minnesota. It was a non-PPR league. I ended up choosing Cobb (8.4 points) over Green (7.9 points), and while I technically made the right decision, I didn’t feel great about it. How did I really know? Did I just get lucky this time? We encounter these decisions every week, and their impacts are magnified in the playoffs. Let’s look at the numbers and see what we can learn.
- Part I: The Elements
- Part II: Individual Matchups
- Part III: Team Matchups
- Part IV: Other Factors
When you think about applying individual matchups to fantasy football, it really comes down to situations like the one I described above (A.J. Green vs. Patrick Peterson). If you have a top tight end like Rob Gronkowski or Greg Olsen, you aren’t going to bench them against a tough defense because the tight end position is simply too shallow. Additionally, you won’t lose sleep over benching lesser wide receivers against tough defenses. And finally, run defense is a team effort – there is no one player on the opposing defense who can ‘shut down’ a running back.
With individual matchups, it’s the elite WRs against the elite pass defenders that we think about the most, and that’s what we are going to look at here.
Identifying Dangerous Matchups for Wide Receivers
To figure this out, we are going to look at two main statistics:
- Who are the stingiest cornerbacks this season (i.e., who can erase a wide receiver)?
- Who are the stingiest defenses against the wide receiver position this season?
Note that I am not trying to predict which top CBs will ‘shadow’ opposing top WRs. Sure, this tactic is often employed by defenses; however, it is very matchup dependent, and therefore unpredictable. A team may like how their CB matches up with one receiver, but not another. Instead, we are going to play the numbers game and look at the 10 weeks of data we have in front of us. If a team has both a top corner and a top pass defense, chances are, they’ve done well against top wide receivers.
So let’s figure out who has both.
Stingy Cornerbacks in 2015
Lucky for us, Pro Football Focus posted a free article a month ago showing their top ten CBs in terms of QB rating when targeted:
Next, let’s look at which teams are the toughest for wide receivers to score points against.
Stingy WR Defenses in 2015
No fancy Pro Football Focus articles necessary this time; plain old ESPN will do just fine (I quickly used Excel to figure out PPR rankings, as the ones on the site were non-PPR):
Combining the Two
Which teams have both a top cornerback and a top wide receiver defense? We have a nice small list now:
This looks cool and all… but is it accurate? How have elite WRs done against these defenses?
Testing the Theory
My 2015 fantasy elite receiver list is certainly up for debate, but for academic purposes:
NFC: Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Larry Fitzgerald
AFC: Antonio Brown, Steve Smith Sr., A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson, Keenan Allen, Demaryius Thomas, Julian Edelman
Finally, the good stuff (results are for a full PPR league):
Conclusion #1: Elite WRs are not as matchup proof as you might think
Through ten games, the elite WRs listed above have done battle 16 times with the five defenses we identified (Denver, San Diego, Arizona, Atlanta, Carolina).
- The elite WRs scored below their season average in 13 out of the 16 matchups, with two of the three exceptions coming against Atlanta.
- The elite WRs were held under 10 fantasy points in six out of the 16 matchups. Remember, we are talking about full PPR here. Less than ten points equates to a straight up dud.
- The elite WRs scored more than 20 fantasy points just three times out of 16, and they never broke 30 fantasy points.
Conclusion #2: The Arizona Cardinals are the scariest defense for elite WRs
Arizona has faced 5 elite WRs this season (Brown, Evans, Green, Smith Sr., Ca. Johnson), and none have even eclipsed 13 points! That is a remarkable feat for Patrick Peterson and company, and it’s something we must be aware of as the fantasy playoffs approach.
Conclusion #3: Denver, Carolina, and San Diego aren’t far behind
Denver and Carolina have only faced two elite WRs each on the season, but they’ve held those WRs to just 8.3 fantasy PPG. This isn’t surprising, as Josh Norman is this year’s top rated corner, while Denver is the only team sporting two corners in Pro Football Focus’ top 10.
San Diego gave up a big game (25.1 points) to Alshon Jeffery, but they had to deal with mid-game injuries in their secondary. Outside of that game, they’ve held their other three elite WR opponents to 13.5, 13.2, and 7.5 points.
Conclusion #4: Atlanta isn’t intimidating, despite being on this list
Atlanta has allowed 27.6 (Beckham), 24.7 (Hopkins), and 7.8 (Evans) points in the three elite WR matchups they’ve had, so albeit our limited sample size, they seem vulnerable. This makes sense to me because Atlanta plays a Seattle-style of defense where the corners typically play sides in a cover 3 alignment, meaning that they don’t look to exploit matchups. They also have a weak pass rush, as they are ranked 31st in the NFL with just 12 sacks through 10 games.
- When considering benching an elite WR, you need to consider whether the opposing defense has a top cornerback and whether they defend WRs well as a team. Don’t get too caught up on one or the other.
- There are four scary defenses for elite WRs: Arizona, Carolina, Denver, and San Diego.
- Against these four defenses, the odds are very high that your elite WR will not have a big game against these defenses, and the odds that they’ll throw up a dud are around 50/50.
The most important point here is not that you should blindly bench your stud WRs when encountering these defenses. The point is that you should account for their likelihood of under-production. That could mean you bench them if you have another strong option available. If you’re stuck starting them though – which will be the case many times – it means that you should look for ways to take on more risk in other parts of your lineup. For example, if you have Julio Jones, who gets Josh Norman twice to close out the year, it will probably benefit you to start riskier, higher ceiling players along with Jones rather than ‘play it safe’ types.
Stay tuned next week for Part III, where we will look at team defense with an emphasis on rushing.
Jack’s undying love for football dates back to his earliest days: bravely sporting Green Bay Packers attire in his hometown of Minneapolis, MN, while playing football every day after – and drawing plays on his notebooks during – school. After five years as a U.S. Naval officer, Jack has become a nuclear engineer for the Department of Energy by day and an aspiring football mind by night. Jack’s interests include fantasy football (both standard and daily leagues), weekly NFL point spreads, and the NFL draft. A steady advocate of data-driven predictions, Jack leverages his technical background to compile and analyze large football data sets, highlighted by an Excel spreadsheet of every single NFL draft pick since 1965. Jack can also be found drawing coverage away from fellow author Brian Jester in flag football leagues on the National Mall in Washington, DC.