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The Dirty Dozen - 2020 Edition

By Doug Orth | 11/19/20 |

As much as the league tries to legislate defense out of the game, owners need to understand matchups will always play a fairly big role in how an offense attacks a defense does on a game-to-game basis. One of my bigger frustrations as a fantasy owner is the lack of easily accessible analytics to understand which receiver-cornerback matchups should be targeted and which ones should be avoided without always crunching the tape.

Fantasy owners playing in free or low-stakes leagues aren't going to be overly motivated to drop anywhere from $100-1000 to get all the advanced analytics they think they need to compete with the big boys and girls. As many of you already know, I have been a high-stakes player for years and won a fair amount of money. Even now, I think it's ridiculous to pay $150 for the one advanced analytics site I do use.

Seven years ago, I introduced "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Delicious Dozen" around Thanksgiving time. The idea then - as it is today - was to identify negative and positive receiver matchups, respectively, as a way to prepare owners for the upcoming stretch of fantasy games that usually determine who moves on and who doesn't.

Receiver-cornerback matchups are among the most critical ones in the real game, yet very few fantasy analysts spend any time breaking them down in much detail. Until all owners can enjoy the same kind of access to defensive "production" as the privileged few, there will be thousands of owners who will avoid matchups against the New Orleans Saints' Marshon Lattimore or Philadelphia Eagles' Darius Slay. Lattimore is allowing 68.1 percent of the throws in his coverage to be completed and given up five touchdowns. Slay is allowing a completion rate of 73.9 percent.

The point to be made here is the fantasy industry as a whole tends to rely on name recognition when it comes to avoiding a potential matchup rather than do some research to find out which defenders are playing well consistently. The truth is defensive players ebb and flow in much the same way offensive players do.

Note: My cutoff for this piece was 270 coverage snaps. At roughly 30 coverage snaps per game, we should be able to eliminate any players who aren't "full-timers." Below each write-up is the remaining schedule and the projected matchups each corner should see in coverage in that week. Please keep in mind that receivers move across the formation a lot, while most defensive coordinators seem to favor keeping their corners on one side of the formation, so this is far from an exact science.

In cases in which a receiver there isn't a discernible difference in how often a receiver plays on one side of the field or the other (which is quite common), the most likely player to see coverage from the cornerback below will be listed first and the receiver expected to see slightly less of him will be listed second.

*** - Indicates the cornerback has been/will be used as a "shadow"

12. Marlon Humphrey, Ravens (Passer Rating Against: 77.2)

* Has spent 293 of his 550 snaps in the slot.

Humphrey is the first of two consecutive "if there's a problem, yo, I'll solve it" cornerbacks to begin this list. The 24-year-old has been in the slot on 67 percent of his coverage snaps, but the truth is he is the team's most trusted cornerback and will typically be asked to erase the other team's primary receiver regardless of where he lines up. Oddly enough, most of the production he has allowed this season came in Week 4 against Washington, which targeted him 16 times (!!!) and recorded 14 catches - but for only 79 yards. He's allowing a high rate of completions in his coverage (69.2 percent), but opponents are averaging only 8.8 yards per completion when they do so. In other words, fantasy owners need to hope the quarterback of their favorite receiver is going to be happy throwing five-yard passes all day long because Humphrey typically isn't going to allow much after the catch and he's probably not going to give up a touchdown (two in his last 18 games, including playoffs). A fine example was in Week 8 when JuJu Smith-Schuster caught all four of his targets in Humphrey's coverage for 32 yards. While he's not a matchup to avoid, Humphrey simply isn't going to allow receivers in his coverage to reach their fantasy ceiling.

Week 11: A.J. Brown/Cameron Batson (Titans)
Week 12: JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers)
Week 13: CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys)
Week 14: Jarvis Landry (Browns)
Week 15: Keelan Cole (Jaguars)
Week 16: Golden Tate (Giants)

11. Jalen Ramsey, Rams (Passer Rating Against: 76.3)

* Has spent 184 of his 536 snaps on the left side, 190 on the right and 113 in the slot.

One of the reasons HC Sean McVay moved on from former DC Wade Phillips this offseason was to hire a coach that pushed defensive boundaries and set progressive trends on defense like McVay tries to do on offense. His search led him to a three-year veteran assistant whose only work was as an outside linebackers coach under Vic Fangio in Chicago (2017-18) and Denver (2019). One of Brandon Staley's first ideas was to designate Ramsey at the "star" position of his defense - essentially a position-less player capable of guarding any position. The nature of that position is somewhat reflected in the sentence above with the asterisk (he's even lined up as a box safety 40 times). Last week he did a masterful job in slowing down DK Metcalf, lining up opposite him on 30 of his 42 routes and not allowing a catch in their "head-to-head" battle. (Seattle played into Ramsey's hands by not being more creative with Metcalf, but I digress.) Despite being asked to line up across from the opponent's primary pass-catcher more often than not this season, Ramsey has surrendered only 18 receptions on 34 targets for 186 yards and two touchdowns - both scores against him coming in Week 3 versus the Bills. Ramsey is one of the surest bets to shadow the opponent's top threat each week, and that unfortunate soul - be it a receiver or tight end - needs to be downgraded considerably. Of note, Metcalf was the first receiver Ramsey has technically shadowed this season.

Week 11: Mike Evans/Chris Godwin (Buccaneers)
Week 12: Deebo Samuel/Brandon Aiyuk (49ers)
Week 13: DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals)
Week 14: Jakobi Meyers (Patriots)
Week 15: Breshad Perriman/Denzel Mims (Jets)
Week 16: DK Metcalf (Seahawks)

10. Amani Oruwariye, Lions (Passer Rating Against: 72.7)

There is always at least one shocker on this list every year, and it's probably fair to say most people outside of the real hard-core fantasy players and/or writers probably haven't heard of him. Last year's fifth-round pick out of Penn State surrendered a completion rate of 81.8 percent in his coverage in part-time duty in 2019, helping quarterbacks to enjoy a passer rating of 108.5 when throwing in his direction. This season, he has yet to give up a touchdown and quarterbacks have completed a mere 47.7 percent of their passes in his coverage. These are notable stats in that Bill Belichick's disciples typically utilize man coverage more often than the rest of the league, and HC Matt Patricia has fallen right in line in that regard. In recent weeks, Oruwariye has held up well when he's been asked to line up across from DJ Chark (two catches for 12 yards on seven targets), Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley (a combined 3-48-4) and Zach Pascal (1-16-3). While it should be noted he isn't typically facing the other team's top threat, the previous sentence illustrates Detroit doesn't mind if it happens. Considering how successful quarterbacks have been against his more highly touted teammates Jeff Okudah (108.1 passer rating allowed) and Desmond Trufant (114.4) - who has shadowed in each of the last two weeks - it's no wonder why he hasn't been all that busy lately.

Week 11: Robby Anderson (Panthers)
Week 12: Brandin Cooks (Texans)
Week 13: Darnell Mooney (Bears)
Week 14: Allen Lazard/Marquez Valdes-Scantling (Packers)
Week 15: Corey Davis (Titans)
Week 16: Antonio Brown/Chris Godwin (Buccaneers)

9. Kenny Moore, Colts (Passer Rating Against: 72.4)

* Has spent 322 of his 552 snaps in the slot.

Indianapolis plays zone (specifically Cover 2) at one of the highest rates in the league. However, much like any basketball coach would say, cornerbacks often use man-to-man principles in zone coverage, so it's not as if he's getting off easy in that regard. One of the ways he benefits the most from Indy's defense is that he doesn't line up opposite of the opponent's top receiver very often. For example, he was targeted only one time in Week 10 (Jonnu Smith). In the previous two games, he drew most of his matchups against running backs and tight ends. For what it's worth, those also happened to be two of his worst performances of the season, giving up 10 catches on 14 targets for 134 yards and a touchdown. Danny Amendola (two catches on two targets for 38 yards and no TDs), Marvin Jones (1-3-25-1) and Tyler Boyd (2-3-24-0) have all enjoyed success in his coverage in recent weeks, so he's far from a tough matchup for fantasy purposes. The problem for fantasy owners is there is little we can do to exploit this matchup, as the weakness of Cover 2 is typically about 15-20 yards along either sideline and down the seam - places Moore isn't going to find himself very often. And given how infrequently Indianapolis blitzes and how often the Colts can generate quick pressure with four rushers, there are usually six other players in the secondary to assist if opponents specifically try to target the 5-9, 190-pound Moore.

Week 11: Allen Lazard/Marquez Valdes-Scantling (Packers)
Week 12: Adam Humphries or Cameron Batson (Titans)
Week 13: Randall Cobb (Texans)
Week 14: Hunter Renfrow/Henry Ruggs III (Raiders)
Week 15: Randall Cobb (Texans)
Week 16: JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers)

8. James Bradberry, Giants (Passer Rating Against: 68.2) ***

Bradberry has operated as a shadow for perimeter receivers more than just about cornerback in the league this season and generally held up well. Since giving up two touchdowns in his Giants' debut in Week 1, he has surrendered one score. Along the way, he has shadowed the likes of Allen Robinson (three catches on seven targets for 33 yards and Amari Cooper (1-3-8). In each of those matchups, he traveled with the aforementioned receiver on at least two-thirds of the snaps. More recently, Travis Fulgham and Jalen Reagor combined for a 1-5-10 line. Even better for the Giants, no cornerback in the league has recorded more coverage snaps (392), so he's been durable and dependable. And despite often facing the best of what the opposition has to offer, Bradberry is getting targeted only once every seven times he is in coverage and giving up a catch only once every 12.6 coverage snaps on average (per Pro Football Focus). Perhaps most impressively, he ranks seventh among cornerbacks in yardage allowed per coverage snap (0.84), making him one of only 10 that meet the 270 coverage snap criteria mentioned earlier to accomplish that feat. Bradberry doesn't travel into the slot very often (33 coverage snaps), however.

Week 11: bye
Week 12: Tee Higgins/Tyler Boyd (Bengals)
Week 13: DK Metcalf (Seahawks)
Week 14: DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals)
Week 15: Jarvis Landry/Rashard Higgins (Browns)
Week 16: Marquise Brown (Ravens)

7. Xavier Rhodes, Colts (Passer Rating Against: 63.6)

* Has spent 425 of his 486 snaps at right corner.

Remember how I said earlier cornerbacks ebb and flow in much the same way offensive players do? That has definitely been the case with Rhodes, who was No. 2 in last year's The Delicious Dozen. Injuries have played a somewhat significant role in his career, so one has to wonder if he was anywhere close to 100 percent in 2019 with the Vikings - when he was easily one of the worst cornerbacks in the league - since he is on track to have the best season of his career this year. As mentioned earlier with Moore, Indianapolis plays a ton of zone and Cover 2 in particular. "Cover 2 teams" don't typically believe or ask their corners to travel with receivers, and the Colts aren't breaking any new ground with their usage of Rhodes, who has lined up on the right side of the defense 87.4 percent of the time in 2020. He hasn't been infallible by any means (he gave up a 73-yard play to Marvin Hall in Week 8, for example), but Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, Marquise Brown and A.J. Brown have combined for two catches for 24 yards and a TD on seven targets in his coverage over the last three contests. Weeks 8 and 9 are the only games that quarterbacks have enjoyed a passer rating above 76.6 in his coverage since the opener.

Week 11: Davante Adams/Marquez Valdes-Scantling (Packers)
Week 12: Corey Davis/A.J. Brown (Titans)
Week 13: Will Fuller/Brandin Cooks (Texans)
Week 14: Nelson Agholor (Raiders)
Week 15: Will Fuller/Brandin Cooks (Texans)
Week 16: Diontae Johnson (Steelers)

6. Xavien Howard, Dolphins (Passer Rating Against: 62.3)

Howard's inclusion on this list suggests he is back to being one of the better cornerbacks in the game after last year's disaster. A closer look reveals he has run extremely hot or cold. In five of his nine outings, quarterbacks have posted a passer rating of 79.2 or lower when throwing in his coverage. In the other four contests, they have enjoyed a passer rating of at least 100. In three of those "good" games (against the Jaguars, 49ers and Jets), quarterbacks finished a combined 0-for-11 on throws in his coverage. Against better competition such as the Rams (Week 8) and Cardinals (Week 9), quarterbacks went 10-for-15. Robert Woods caught all five of his targets for 68 yards and a touchdown in his coverage, while Christian Kirk and DeAndre Hopkins combined for three receptions on four targets for 58 yards. He saw more of Jalen Guyton versus the Chargers in Week 10, allowing three catches for 15 yards on five targets. Howard shut down Deebo Samuel on four targets in Week 6 but was torched for 106 yards on four receptions by DK Metcalf one week earlier. It's a roundabout way of saying Howard has been good at times but hasn't exactly been a matchup to avoid. So why does he appear on this list? He makes plays. His five interceptions rank second in the league.

Week 11: Tim Patrick/Jerry Jeudy (Broncos)
Week 12: Denzel Mims/Breshad Perriman (Jets)
Week 13: Tee Higgins/A.J. Green (Bengals)
Week 14: Demarcus Robinson/Sammy Watkins (Chiefs)
Week 15: Jakobi Meyers (Patriots)
Week 16: Nelson Agholor (Raiders)

5. Jimmy Smith, Ravens (Passer Rating Against: 61.2)

* Has spent 250 of his 396 snaps at right corner.

Smith's 270 coverage snaps were just enough to get him on this list. He missed Week 10 with an ankle injury, although it's doubtful playing the Patriots would have hurt his standing all that much. He hasn't practiced since playing in Week 9, so keep that in mind when considering his upcoming matchups. Smith has operated mostly as a corner over the last four games after beginning the season in more of a dual corner/safety role. He has been mostly exceptional in his natural position in that four-game stretch as quarterbacks are 6-for-16 for 43 yards in his coverage. Since the move, quarterbacks just aren't looking his way all that often. Perhaps that in and of itself is the biggest compliment that can be paid to a cornerback, especially one that is 32 years old and has played through injuries most of the season. During the aforementioned four-game span, only Travis Fulgham (three) has been targeted more than twice in Smith's coverage. There doesn't appear to be much of a timeline for Smith's return, but it's important to note 250 of his 258 snaps as a perimeter cornerback have been on the right side, so he isn't going to shadow any more than teammate Marcus Peters will. It's also important to note Peters and Marlon Humphrey are the primary corners for Baltimore, so it will be a fruitless task more often than not for fantasy owners to try to predict what matchups he will be getting each week.

Week 11: A.J. Brown (Titans)
Week 12: Chase Claypool (Steelers)
Week 13: Michael Gallup (Cowboys)
Week 14: KhaDarel Hodge (Browns)
Week 15: DJ Chark/Chris Conley (Jaguars)
Week 16: Darius Slayton right (Giants)

4. Kyle Fuller, Bears (Passer Rating Against: 60.6)

* Has spent 603 of his 604 snaps at left corner.

Talking about players who fantasy owners don't have to worry about shadowing, Fuller may be the most one-sided cornerback I have come across in seven years of the Delicious and Dirty Dozen. The solid play of rookie Jaylon Johnson has allowed the Bears to be predictable in this regard and get away with it. Fuller has been very stingy in two very important areas, permitting 26 catches on 54 targets in his coverage and limiting receivers to a total of 47 yards after the catch. If that last number sounds good, it's because it ranks third among corners who met the aforementioned coverage snap criteria. Even more impressively, the last receiver to catch more than one ball in his coverage was Josh Reynolds in Week 7. Before that, it was Mike Evans in Week 5. While Chicago's usage suggests we can't predict how often he'll be lining up across from our favorite fantasy receivers, all we need to do is assume more teams will attempt to copy Minnesota's plan of attack from Week 10. Justin Jefferson did the bulk of his damage against Johnson and Adam Thielen got free for both of his touchdowns as a result of being isolated on slot corner Buster Skrine. Chicago is still a bad matchup for most fantasy receivers, but the Vikings proved it may take until 2021 before Johnson reaches Fuller's level, allowing the Bears to be stingy against virtually every perimeter wideout.

Week 11: bye
Week 12: Marquez Valdes-Scantling/Allen Lazard (Packers)
Week 13: Marvin Jones (Lions)
Week 14: Brandin Cooks (Texans)
Week 15: Adam Thielen/Justin Jefferson (Vikings)
Week 16: T.Y. Hilton/Michael Pittman (Jaguars)

3. Carlton Davis, Buccaneers (Passer Rating Against: 58.3)

One of the reasons why I was so confident in the Bucs being my third-ranked fantasy defense entering the season was the improvement they made over the second half of last season and my belief in DC Todd Bowles' ability to coach defense. A major reason Tampa Bay went from awful to respectable on defense in 2019 was the huge leap Davis made around the same time. The third-year corner has done nothing but build on that finish, so much so that he has operated as a shadow in about half of his team's games in 2020. Allen Robinson enjoyed a decent amount of success against him in Week 5 and D.J. Moore stung him a bit in Week 10, but he has proven himself and then some in two matchups against Michael Thomas (combined five catches on eight targets for 42 yards in two head-to-heads) and Davante Adams (3-5-33 in Week 6). Like most of today's shadow cornerbacks, defensive coordinators tend to use them as shadows only when the opponent has a receiver that can almost singlehandedly destroy a defensive game plan. Perhaps along with only Jalen Ramsey (at least on this list), Davis is not a matchup fantasy owners want their receiver to be facing now and especially not during the fantasy playoffs. Primary slot receivers should be safe, however, as Davis has lined up inside on only five percent of his coverage snaps this year.

Week 11: Josh Reynolds/Robert Woods (Rams)
Week 12: Tyreek Hill (Chiefs)
Week 13: bye
Week 14: Adam Thielen/Justin Jefferson (Vikings)
Week 15: Julio Jones (Falcons)
Week 16: Kenny Golladay (Lions)

2. Bryce Callahan, Broncos (Passer Rating Against: 45.5)

Were it not for his inability to stay healthy (he's played 53 of a possible 89 games since entering the league as an undrafted free-agent in 2015), Callahan would be more of a household name than he is. True to form, the Rice product missed Week 9, although that was his first absence of the season. Callahan has transitioned into more of a full-time slot corner this year since a rough start as the team's primary left cornerback and been mostly exceptional (although he moved back outside in Week 10 to replace the benched Michael Ojemudia). Among all cornerbacks, only Jaire Alexander (89.9) ranks higher in PFF's coverage grade than Callahan (88.2). Quarterbacks have not posted a passer rating higher than 70.8 in his coverage since Week 2, and he has allowed a total of 36 yards on seven catches and 20 targets over his last four outings. In fact, since allowing completions on 10 of the first 11 passes in his coverage to begin the season, the 29-year-old has yielded a mere 13 receptions on 31 targets over his last six outings. Based on comments made by HC Vic Fangio after Week 10, however, Callahan will likely stay outside for the foreseeable future. That might be a mistake considering what happened earlier in the season to him as a primary perimeter corner and the fact he has worked out of the slot so often in three years with Fangio. Moving forward, we have to assume he'll remain at right cornerback, which takes him from a matchup to avoid for primary slot receivers to more of a middling matchup against perimeter wideouts.

Week 11: Mack Hollins/Jakeem Grant (Dolphins)
Week 12: Michael Thomas (Saints)
Week 13: Demarcus Robinson (Chiefs)
Week 14: D.J. Moore (Panthers)
Week 15: John Brown (Bills)
Week 16: Mike Williams (Chargers)

1. Darious Williams, Rams (Passer Rating Against: 41.4)

Week 10 may have been Williams' coming-out party after picking off Russell Wilson twice, but he's been a problem for opponents all year long. It's fair to wonder at this point if the Rams liked what they saw from him in practice so much last year that they felt comfortable parting with Marcus Peters. With Jalen Ramsey being deployed all over the field to extinguish whatever fire DC Brandon Staley wants to put out on a particular play, Williams is about as likely to line up across from the opponent's top receiver as he is a tight end or running back. To that end, the biggest performance Williams has given up in his coverage (yardage-wise) is to George Kittle (two catches for 51 yards and a touchdown). That kind of effort in his coverage has been the exception much more than the rule, however, as Kittle's touchdown is the only one he has allowed. Receivers in his coverage have caught only 48.6 percent of their targets, and he's surrendered more than two catches twice (none since Week 4). It's reasonable to assume last week's two interceptions (giving him four for the season) will make offensive coordinators think twice about attempting to pick on him, but the reality is that play-callers don't have the luxury of trying to avoid two cornerbacks. Ramsey already receives that treatment more often than not. And given how often both Ramsey and Williams move around in this defense, it is almost pointless for fantasy owners to try to predict when and how often their receiver will line up opposite of them.

Week 11: Antonio Brown (Buccaneers)
Week 12: Brandon Aiyuk (49ers)
Week 13: Christian Kirk (Cardinals)
Week 14: Damiere Byrd (Patriots)
Week 15: Breshad Perriman/Denzel Mims (Jets)
Week 16: David Moore/Tyler Lockett (Seahawks)

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.