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The Delicious Dozen - 2020 Edition

By Doug Orth | 11/26/20 |

Seven years ago, I introduced "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Delicious Dozen" around Thanksgiving time. (Here is last week's "Dirty Dozen.") 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 they shouldn't.

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: The cutoff for this piece was 300 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 primary coverage from the cornerback below will be listed first and the receiver expected to see less of him will be listed second.

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

12. Trayvon Mullen, Raiders (Passer Rating Against: 101.7)

* Has spent 503 of his 505 perimeter snaps on the left side.

It's not necessarily a bad thing for a rookie or second-year corner to be on this list; that should probably be the expectation more often than not. (The truth of the matter is he would not have qualified had Denver's Michael Ojemudia not already been benched and Dallas' Trevon Diggs not gotten hurt recently.) Mullen was making a strong case to be the No. 1 play on this list through his team's first eight games, however, as quarterbacks posted a passer rating of at least 108.3 six times in his coverage. The Broncos tried to exploit him more than any other team had in Week 10 and did so to the tune of 107 yards on 13 targets, but Drew Lock only connected on 53.7 percent of those throws. We saw continued growth in Week 11 versus the Chiefs as Tyreek Hill managed to catch only two of his four targets in the coverage of Mullen, who also intercepted Patrick Mahomes in the red zone on a miscommunication with Demarcus Robinson. It's reasonable to assume given his size (6-2, 200) and second-round pedigree that Mullen is starting to figure things out on the pro level, but it would also be a bit hasty to consider him an average corner at this point considering how poorly he played in September and October. Las Vegas' relative inability to mount a consistent pass rush also hurts his cause.

Week 12: Calvin Ridley (Falcons)
Week 13: Denzel Mims/Breshad Perriman (Jets)
Week 14: T.Y. Hilton/Michael Pittman (Colts)
Week 15: Mike Williams/Jalen Guyton (Chargers)
Week 16: DeVante Parker (Dolphins)

11. Vernon Hargreaves, Texans (Passer Rating Against: 102.1)

* As a perimeter corner, he has spent 233 of his 464 snaps on the left side and 231 on the right.

This ranking is more of an indictment on the Texans' inability to develop corners in recent years than on Hargreaves, who was claimed off waivers just over a year ago after the Buccaneers gave up on their 2015 first-round pick. With the additions of Bradley Roby in free agency as well as Lonnie Johnson (2019) and John Reid (2020) in the draft, it was hoped the former No. 11 pick would be a fourth or fifth corner at best. No such luck. On the plus side, he is getting beaten like a drum less infrequently outside in 2020 than he was in the slot last year. On the downside, he was awful in 2019. This season, he ranks sixth in the league in most yards allowed in his coverage (512) and yards after the catch (213). Perhaps the only reason he isn't listed later in this article is that he's yielded only two touchdown catches after giving up a total of six with Houston and Tampa Bay last year. Roby operated as a shadow in most of the Texans' early games before getting hurt early in Week 7 and taking a seat for "disciplinary reasons" in Week 9. We can surmise Houston didn't feel either of its last two opponents (Cleveland and New England) had a receiver the Texans felt was worth shadowing (although Jakobi Meyers told reporters that Houston used a safety over the top on him), so we can move forward with the assumption he'll do so again if/when a "star" receiver pops up on the schedule again. It is exactly the thing we are looking for as fantasy owners because we should be able to predict with some degree of certainty that Hargreaves will be following the opponent's secondary option.

Week 12: Marvin Hall (Lions)
Week 13: T.Y. Hilton/Michael Pittman (Colts)
Week 14: Darnell Mooney (Bears)
Week 15: T.Y. Hilton/Michael Pittman (Colts)
Week 16: Tee Higgins/Tyler Boyd (Bengals)

10. Darius Slay, Eagles (Passer Rating Against: 103.4)

* Has spent 386 of his 545 perimeter snaps on the left side.

Had I done this article at the end of September, Slay would have been one of the 12 players discussed in The Dirty Dozen. As it is, he hasn't been the same since suffering a concussion in Week 5 against the Steelers. Since that game, the only receiver Slay has shadowed is Darius Slayton (in Weeks 7 and 10). Slayton ripped him for five receptions on six targets for 93 yards in Week 10, marking the fourth time this season he has allowed five catches in a game. For the season, quarterbacks are 35-of-48 for 387 yards in his coverage. He's been able to limit the damage to one touchdown, but the surest sign he's not shutting any receiver down is that receivers caught 14-of-16 targets in his coverage from Week 6-10 before last week's "weather game" in Cleveland (1-for-2). DC Jim Schwartz is usually not someone who favors using a shadow corner, and he has only used Slay as one four times in 2020. It appears Schwartz likes to use Slay as a shadow against the opponent's primary deep threat (when the opponent has a high-end one anyway), which would explain why he traveled with Slayton in both games against the Giants (as opposed to Sterling Shepard) and was targeted only while he was guarding Michael Gallup (as opposed to more prominent wideouts such as Amari Cooper or CeeDee Lamb) in Week 8.

Week 12: DK Metcalf (Seahawks)
Week 13: Marquez Valdes-Scantling/Davante Adams (Packers)
Week 14: Emmanuel Sanders/Michael Thomas (Saints)
Week 15: Christian Kirk/DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals)
Week 16: Michael Gallup (Cowboys)

9. Casey Hayward, Chargers (Passer Rating Against: 103.5) ***

* Has spent 433 of his 521 perimeter snaps on the left side.

Just in case folks needed another reminder why this kind of article is helpful, we have already landed on the second big-name corner we were supposed to avoid as fantasy owners entering this season. Hayward was his normal shutdown self through three weeks before getting roughed up in Week 4, mostly against Mike Evans and Scotty Miller. He bounced back with a strong effort in Week 5 versus the Saints, but he has given up a touchdown in his coverage in four of five games since the Chargers' Week 6 bye. In the one game he operated as a shadow since the bye, he traveled with DeVante Parker nearly 85 percent of the time and held him to one catch in Week 10. The most recent example of his struggles came against the Jets last week when Denzel Mims beat him for a 27-yarder and Breshad Perriman tagged him for two catches, 54 yards and a touchdown on three targets. Mims and Perriman are no slouches by any stretch, but Hayward has regularly shut down better receivers during his time as a Charger. The trouble with a struggling stud like Hayward is that he could regain his confidence and rediscover his dominant form at any time. To that end, there's evidence that he has been a bit unlucky: he has allowed only 45.6 percent of the targets in his coverage to be completed and only 98 yards after the catch - the latter of which is good for 12th in the league among cornerbacks who qualified for this list.

Week 12: Stefon Diggs (Bills)
Week 13: N'Keal Harry/Jakobi Meyers (Patriots)
Week 14: Julio Jones (Falcons)
Week 15: Henry Ruggs III/Nelson Agholor (Raiders)
Week 16: Jerry Jeudy (Broncos)

8. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Saints (Passer Rating Against: 104.7)

* Has spent 412 of his 560 coverage snaps in the slot.

The man better known for irritating his teammate (Michael Thomas) and a little-used Chicago Bears WR (Javon Wims) to the point where both took swings at him and got suspended, Gardner-Johnson is the rare player on this list who may be starting to figure things out. It's not surprising opponents opted to look his way as often as they did early considering he is a second-year player in the same secondary as Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins. Gardner-Johnson is still yielding a much-too-high catch rate of 77.6 percent in his coverage for the season, but he hasn't surrendered a touchdown in his coverage in six straight contests after giving up two scores in his first four games. He's also managed to lower that catch rate in each of his last three outings after receivers recorded a catch 33 times over the first 40 times he was targeted. Last week was perhaps his best effort in 2020, permitting 12 yards on three catches while also registering two pass breakups. He's hardly a matchup to avoid at the moment, but he is a player defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn identified as his guy in the slot over the summer. His size (6-0, 208) and athletic profile is such that he could be a handful for average slot receivers before long, assuming he remains on the development path he is on at the moment.

Week 12: KJ Hamler (Broncos)
Week 13: Russell Gage (Falcons)
Week 14: Greg Ward (Eagles)
Week 15: Tyreek Hill (Chiefs)
Week 16: Adam Thielen/Justin Jefferson (Vikings)

7. Tre Flowers, Seahawks (Passer Rating Against: 107.9)

* Has spent 461 of his 474 coverage snaps on the right side and lined up in the slot only 12 times.

It's not much of a surprise Flowers continues to get picked on to the degree he does as a former college safety who got turned into a cornerback in part because he has the size Seattle likes at the position in its Cover 3-heavy scheme. After lowering his passer rating against from 108.6 to 93.8 in 2019, the third-year corner is almost right back to where he started. Flowers hasn't surrendered a touchdown in his coverage since Week 3, but he has made up for it by allowing at least four catches in every game in which he has logged at least 50 snaps. For example, after a decent showing at Buffalo in Week 9, receivers have recorded nine receptions on 11 targets for 100 yards in his coverage over the last two games. Perhaps another bad harbinger for his future in the league: receivers enjoyed a relatively modest 61 percent catch rate in his coverage as a rookie. That number increased to 66 percent in 2019 and is up to 75.6 percent this season. Especially with Quinton Dunbar on IR and Shaquill Griffin sidelined since Week 7, it's not as if the Seahawks have the luxury of benching Flowers. Unfortunately for him, he is exactly what we like as fantasy owners - a struggling cornerback who lines up in the same place virtually every snap.

Week 12: Travis Fulgham/Jalen Reagor (Eagles)
Week 13: Darius Slayton (Giants)
Week 14: Breshad Perriman (Jets)
Week 15: Terry McLaurin (Washington)
Week 16: Josh Reynolds/Robert Woods (Rams)

6. A.J. Terrell, Falcons (Passer Rating Against: 120.3)

Atlanta is convinced Terrell will be one of the best corners in the league someday. As is the case with most first-round rookie cornerbacks, it will be a bumpy road for him to get there. Eight games into his NFL career, Terrell has allowed a catch rate of 75.6 percent AND surrendered a passer rating of at least 110.0 six times. His only two pass breakups of the season came in the same game. He's given up at least four catches in his coverage in five straight. To say it has been a rough start would be an understatement. He is also giving up 13.4 yards per reception, which indicates he is not playing with much confidence and/or giving the receiver too much space to operate. Much like Trayvon Mullen above, it's fair to wonder what percentage of his struggles can be attributed to the lack of pressure his teammates get up front. With that said, the Falcons have shown little willingness to change what they do defensively to help either one of their struggling young corners (spoiler alert: there's another one on this list), so it seems unlikely Terrell will get much better down the stretch.

Week 12: Nelson Agholor (Raiders)
Week 13: Michael Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders (Saints)
Week 14: Mike Williams/Keenan Allen (Chargers)
Week 15: Antonio Brown/Chris Godwin (Buccaneers)
Week 16: Sammy Watkins (Chiefs)

5. Tre Herndon, Jaguars (Passer Rating Against: 124.2)

* Has lined up on the right side on 268 of his 302 perimeter snaps - including all 52 in Week 10 - and in the slot 196 times.

Jacksonville is ridiculously beat up on defense. Among their many injuries, the Jaguars have lost rookie first-rounder CJ Anderson and primary slot corner D.J. Hayden to injuries. Sidney Jones has proven to be a solid addition from Philadelphia, but Herndon has regressed in a big way after yielding a 48.7 percent catch rate and 79.0 passer rating in his coverage in 2019. This season, he has yet to record an interception to go along with three pass breakups (10 last year), a 68.3 percent catch rate and 14.4 yards per reception allowed. And if things could get worse last week for the Jaguars, they did. Jacksonville's league-worst pass rush (nine sacks) lost its best rusher for at least three weeks to a knee injury (Josh Allen), meaning quarterbacks should have even more time to pick on Herndon & Co. if/when they need it. It's hard to imagine this situation getting any better for Jacksonville or Herndon in 2020, so fantasy owners should be willing to target this secondary without hesitation over the final six weeks of the fantasy season. Last week's usage would suggest Herndon will stay on the right side, but that is hardly set in stone. Hayden played most of that game, giving us relatively little clue as to whether the Jaguars will decide to give Herndon another try in the slot. Given their current state of affairs, that seems unlikely.

Week 12: Rashard Higgins/KhaDarel Hodge (Browns)
Week 13: Justin Jefferson (Vikings)
Week 14: A.J. Brown (Titans)
Week 15: Miles Boykin (Ravens)
Week 16: Allen Robinson/Darnell Mooney (Bears)

4. Sean Murphy-Bunting, Buccaneers (Passer Rating Against: 125.7)

* Has spent 344 of his 469 coverage snaps in the slot.

DC Todd Bowles has made his name in the NFL by bringing the blitz, which made what happened in Week 11 against the Rams all the more unthinkable. In part because Los Angeles used tempo so often and in part due because Bowles didn't rely more heavily on his trademark pressure packages, the Bucs played a lot of zone and got torn apart by Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. Virtually no defender left unscathed, including two of the league's better coverage linebackers in Devin White (9-9-70) and Lavonte David (9-11-39) and one of this year's top corners in Carlton Davis (6-8-102). Murphy-Bunting (5-9-65) wasn't victimized to quite the same degree, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been a liability for most of the season. Ironically, last week was one of his better outings. Over the first nine weeks of the season, Murphy-Bunting surrendered an unthinkable 36 catches on 41 targets in his coverage. He has recorded one pass breakup in 2020 and that came in Week 4. He has yielded more yards after catch (278) than any other defensive back in the league. All of these numbers are a big letdown from a decent showing as a rookie in 2019, and it's a bit of a surprise considering how much better the defense has played as a whole this year.

Week 12: Tyreek Hill (Chiefs)
Week 13: bye
Week 14: Adam Thielen/Justin Jefferson (Vikings)
Week 15: Russell Gage (Falcons)
Week 16: Danny Amendola (Lions)

3. Isaiah Oliver, Falcons (Passer Rating Against: 127.8)

* Has lined up on the right side on 215 of his 243 perimeter snaps and in the slot 223 times.

Time is starting to run out on Oliver, who was drafted out of Colorado in the second round of the draft in 2018. He has become progressively less effective in every season since and managed to come away with only one interception - in his rookie season - despite playing 40 games and logging 1,700 snaps. Things have improved for Oliver since a dreadful start this season that saw four of Atlanta's first five opponents post a passer rating of at least 125.0 when throwing into his coverage, as he has responded with four of five games in the 80s or 90s. Unfortunately, while that is a noticeable improvement, it's not a standard that tends to lead to a contract extension. The Saints mostly ignored him in Week 11, but KJ Hamler (4-6-62) is a recent example of a receiver who thrived against him. Oliver is allowing a career-high catch rate of 73.7 percent and has given up 560 yards in his coverage for the season - the latter mark being one that ranks as the fourth-highest in the league. He's been slightly more effective in the slot (102.5 passer rating against and no TDs allowed in 160 coverage snaps), but it's been a rough year for him almost regardless of where he has lined up.

Week 12: Hunter Renfrow/Henry Ruggs (Raiders)
Week 13: Tre'Quan Smith/Michael Thomas (Saints)
Week 14: Keenan Allen/Mike Williams (Chargers)
Week 15: Chris Godwin/Mike Evans (Buccaneers)
Week 16: Tyreek Hill/Demarcus Robinson (Chiefs)

2. Tre'Davious White, Bills (Passer Rating Against: 127.9) ***

Anyone searching for one of the major reasons why Buffalo has dropped off so precipitously on defense this year might have found their answer. It's almost unthinkable how a cornerback who finished second to New England's J.C. Jackson among full-time corners in passer rating allowed in 2019 (46.3) finds himself with a mark almost three times as high in 2020. The first place to look for such a decline is usually an injury, and White was listed as questionable with a back injury for three weeks in October. One has to wonder if he hasn't been playing hurt since first appearing on the injury report with a shoulder injury in Week 3. White has allowed two perfect games (passer ratings of 158.3) in his coverage this season and hasn't pushed that number below 87.5 in any game since the season opener after registering eight outings with a sub-74 passer rating against in 2019. He did a decent job when he was asked to shadow DK Metcalf in Week 10 (3-4-65), but he's allowed four touchdowns in his coverage this season after giving up a total of five over his first three NFL seasons combined. Based on his stellar track record, we have to assume he is playing through something relatively serious. Unfortunately for the Bills, they don't have any other good options to turn to in the secondary to take a bit off White's plate. At least for the remainder of the season, it seems safe for fantasy owners to assume White is just another guy.

Week 12: Keenan Allen/Mike Williams (Chargers)
Week 13: Deebo Samuel/Brandon Aiyuk (49ers)
Week 14: Diontae Johnson/Chase Claypool (Steelers)
Week 15: Tim Patrick/Jerry Jeudy (Broncos)
Week 16: Jakobi Meyers/Damiere Byrd (Patriots)

1. Jeff Gladney, Vikings (Passer Rating Against: 129.1)

* Has spent 346 of 445 snaps in the slot despite not becoming the team's primary slot corner until Week 3.

Minnesota's inability to keep receivers in check should not have been a surprise to anyone who followed the team's moves this offseason. The Vikings effectively gutted the top half of their depth chart at cornerback, which contributed to the team's decision to draft three in April. The first of those three was Gladney, who was supposed to be one of the more pro-ready players at his position after starting all four years at TCU. The No. 31 overall pick was exceptional for most of his time with the Horned Frogs when he was healthy, but it has been a rough start to his pro career. The main reason he takes the top spot on this list is the league-high seven touchdown passes he has allowed in his coverage, but he is giving too much up all over the field. Only Malcolm Butler (586) has yielded more receiving yards (562) - Butler has played 61 more coverage snaps - and Gladney hasn't helped his cause by ranking seventh among qualified cornerbacks with 195 yards allowed after the catch. (To put that TD number into some perspective, it's rare for a corner to give up 10 in a season.) Perhaps the most interesting factoid for fantasy owners is that Gladney has surrendered two touchdown passes in his coverage three times - all of which have come in the last five games. HC Mike Zimmer's zone-heavy philosophy should be helping him in theory, but it doesn't help matters that the Vikings have two corners they were counting on (Holton Hill and Mike Hughes) serving time on IR, likely leaving each member of the secondary feeling as though they need to do to more than their job.

Week 12: Curtis Samuel (Panthers)
Week 13: Keelan Cole (Jaguars)
Week 14: Chris Godwin (Buccaneers)
Week 15: Anthony Miller (Bears)
Week 16: Tre'Quan Smith/Michael Thomas (Saints)

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.