I am sometimes blown away by the amount of information available
to us now as opposed to when I started playing this game more
than 20 years ago. Unfortunately, almost all of the analysis is
focused on the offensive side of the ball. It makes sense. Fantasy
football is an offensive game, after all. However, ask most analysts
about placing more than a minimal amount of emphasis on potential
matchups for the upcoming season and the answer is usually some
form of "defense is highly volatile or too unpredictable
from one year to the next" and not seriously worth considering
when ranking players. For those folks, do you know what else is
highly volatile from one year to the next? Injuries, touchdown
production, job security, etc. That hasn't stopped the industry
from hiring injury experts, trying to predict TD production or
writing articles when Tua Tagovailoa will overtake Ryan Fitzpatrick
Ignoring potential defensive matchups is somewhat akin to taking
a rowboat or kayak out on the ocean, in my opinion. Sure, the
water may be peaceful and allow the rower to go from Point A to
Point B without incident eventually. But what if the water is
choppy? I realized as early as 2004 that I didn't like the idea
of my players then having to face the Ravens or the Steelers,
especially during the fantasy playoffs. Certainly, my approach
has evolved quite a bit from that initial premise, but I think
my track record of success speaks for itself and suggests there
is substantial value in forecasting what the ocean will be like
before the rower before he/she attempts his/her journey. The key
is giving potential matchups the proper amount of weight to a
That brings us to our focus for the next two weeks. With defenses
operating out of sub packages (nickel, dime, quarter, etc.) almost
70 percent of the time in today's game, it makes sense to take
a look at what each team will probably look like in base and sub-package
personnel. Furthermore, it helps to have an understanding of how
each veteran defensive player who will be in those packages in
2020 graded out and/or performed last year. With the help of sites
like Pro Football Focus, Sports Info Solutions and Pro Football
Reference, we can do that.
Defense is a team endeavor, so the process is never as easy as
spotting a player with a weakness and exploiting that shortcoming
over and over. An important part of coaching in any sport is the
ability to maximize players' strengths and mask their weaknesses,
so players will either get help or they'll get benched before
too long if they are struggling. Nevertheless, the goal of any
good offense is to isolate the weak link in the passing defense
as often as possible or take advantage of what may be a "soft"
side of a run defense (assuming that matches up with the run-blocking
ability of the offensive line). It's also important to understand
that no defender lines up across any offensive player on every
play, so we are playing odds and not dealing with virtual certainties
(i.e. shadow cornerbacks sometimes "shadow" only 50-60
percent of the time.
Let's get to some fundamental points about Preseason Matchup
Analysis before we start:
1) My color-coding system has never been about last year's results
or last year's "strength of schedule." My PMA color
coding has always been predictive, not reactive;
2) The color coding in this four-part series is based on last
year only because we have no information about this season. Last
year's results help set the stage for this year, but they do not
define the stage.
3) A "base" is typically deployed on probable running
downs, so the content below for "Base" will be primarily
how front-seven defenders stack up against the run. Likewise,
sub packages focus on slowing down passing games, so my thoughts
for that area will focus primarily on coverage players.
The purpose of this article is simple, even if the execution
of it is not: attempting to identify what defenders present fantasy
owners with an opportunity for success. There is a heavy amount
of subjectivity that goes into my color coding when I analyze
matchups in advance of the Big Board. It is my hope this process
will reduce a lot of that and give my readers a look under the
hood, so to speak.
SHAD - A CB that shadowed
receivers in roughly half of the team's games last year and/or
is likely to do so again this season. Green box - Player graded 80 or higher in that
particular discipline per PFF (100 point scale) White box - Player graded between 70 or 79.9
in that particular discipline Yellow box - Player graded between 60 or 69.9
in that particular discipline Red box - Player graded 59.9 or lower in that
Italic (player name) - Rookie
or Free Agent likely to return to the team Bold print (player name) - Over 30 years of age
or will turn 30 by the start of the season
Grades - Run defense (RD),
pass rush (PR) and coverage (COV) Catch % - Catch percentage allowed in player's
coverage QB rating - Passer rating allowed in player's
coverage Percentages (left, right, etc.) - How often a
defensive back lined up at left or right cornerback or in the
slot. For safeties, time at free safety or in the box is included
to provide insight as to how often he is asked to help against
the run as opposed to how often he plays center field.
Base: Three projected starters in the base defense
received grades of 90 or better in rush defense last year (Purcell,
Miller and Johnson). Simmons was close at 86.1. Essentially replacing
Derek Wolfe with Casey further solidifies the defensive line, and
Chubb's return from an ACL injury adds a linebacker with defensive
end size (6-4, 275) to the front seven and help set the edge. Led
by a renowned defensive mind in HC Vic Fangio, Denver should boast
a scary good rush defense and pass rush barring a rash of injuries.
Sub: Fangio may need to work his magic for the
Broncos to avoid becoming this year's Buccaneers (great run defense,
terrible pass defense). Simmons established himself as one of the
league's best safeties last year, but Denver lost Chris Harris Jr.
and has to hope Bouye bounces back after a career-worst year in
Jacksonville. Yiadom will need to take a big jump in his third season
just to get to the point of respectable, although a vast improvement
in his play won't be as important if Callahan is ready for training
camp and finds his 2018 form after missing all of last season with
a foot injury. Even if Bouye rebounds, that still leaves the Broncos
with two potential holes if Callahan can't stay healthy (he averaged
just over 11 games per season before last year) and Yiadom - or
any other cornerback on the roster - doesn't step up. Expect quarterbacks
to tread lightly when it comes to targeting Bouye and work over
Yiadom as often as possible initially. If Bouye regains his form,
Fangio should be able to protect Yiadom or Dawson. If not, Denver's
secondary will be a matchup for target in fantasy.
Base: It's too simplistic to say the Chiefs don't
care about stopping the run, but it's hard to recall the last time
they invested in a "run-plugger." Yes, Jones and Nnadi
both check in around 310 pounds, but Clark and Kpassagnon were acquired
due to their pass-rushing talents (or their potential in that regard,
in the case of the latter) and athleticism. Hitchens was signed
away from Dallas a few years ago in large part for his coverage
abilities. And so on. It also hurts Kansas City's rush defense numbers
that opponents typically have no desire to put Mahomes & Co.
on the field more often than they have to, which drives up the number
of rush attempts and ends up making the Chiefs look worse than they
might actually be against the run. Kansas City made no obvious attempt
to improve the personnel on defense outside of Gay in the offseason,
so the Chiefs should continue being one of the more advantageous
matchups for running backs yet again.
Sub: Once Kansas City was able to embrace DC Steve
Spagnuolo's complex defensive scheme a bit before Thanksgiving,
the Chiefs became a matchup to avoid more often than not. As noted
earlier, the defense has been constructed to be stingy against the
pass. Even with the potential absence/loss of Bashaud Breeland,
the only potential weak spots entering the season appear to be a
somewhat inexperienced Fenton (who graded out well in 130 coverage
snaps) and Sorensen, although his presence can be a positive when
isn't needed as anything more than be a third safety (as opposed
to the starting role he was thrust into following Thornhill's season-ending
ACL injury in Week 17). Ward was a bit of a revelation last year
after going undrafted in 2018, but it's hard to imagine he's not
for real after limiting receivers to a 47.6 percent catch rate.
As such, opposing offenses figure to spend much of their time attacking
Fenton or isolating Wilson on a back or tight end when he's in the
Base: The Raiders did not have a single defender
grade out in the green as a run defender, and only three projected
contributors on this year's roster even finished in the 70s. Some
of that "success" can be attributed to the team's woes
defending the pass, but it is almost always notable when a defense
can hold opponents under four yards per carry for a season. Las
Vegas has plenty of reason to believe things will be even better
in 2020 even if it can't hold teams below last year's average.
The team may have upgraded across the board at linebacker. Crosby
and Ferrell will no longer be rookies. Abram will almost certainly
play more than one game. If Collins and/or Hankins prove to be
stout against the run, fantasy owners may not want to see their
backs face the Raiders.
Sub: It's rare the biggest addition to a team's
pass defense is a linebacker, but Littleton is about as good as
it gets when it comes to coverage duties at the position. Running
backs combined for 90 catches and six receiving touchdowns versus
the Raiders in 2019; it is highly unlikely there will be a repeat
of that. Based on last year's coverage grade only, Joyner appears
to be the biggest weakness on this defense, but he was very solid
in coverage over the previous three seasons with the Rams; a rebound
is highly possible. Las Vegas is probably still a year away from
fielding an upper-level pass defense due to the number of inexperienced
players in key spots. Opponents may begin the season by testing
Joyner in the slot in hopes he doesn't bounce back, but the odds
are Amukamara and, more specifically, Mullen will be busier as a
result of Littleton and Kwiatkoski making it much more difficult
for running backs and tight ends to run free.
Base: One would be hard-pressed to find a more
gifted group of 11 defenders on one team. The Chargers were already
one of the most talented defenses entering the offseason before
adding Murray, who may have been this draft's most complete linebacker.
Jenkins is a highly athletic player HC Anthony Lynn believes will
"break out" in 2020. Joseph should be an upgrade on Brandon
Mebane. Perhaps the only weak link might be Vigil, and that assumes
he remains the same player that he was in Cincinnati. A good defensive
coordinator can typically hide an outside linebacker if he needs
to, and it's not as if Vigil is a bum after logging over 2,500 defensive
snaps with the Bengals in his first four years in the league. In
short, it would be an upset if Los Angeles doesn’t field a
top-10 run defense.
Sub: It doesn't get much better than Bosa and Ingram
coming off the edge. Even though Hayward and Harris will both turn
30 before the start of the season, there may not be a better cornerback
tandem. James has all the tools to become the best safety in the
game at some point in his career. Davis is not a household name
and occasionally draws the ire of Chargers' fans, but the team believes
enough in him that it avoided drafting a corner and will ask Harris
to become a fixture in the slot in sub packages. Whether that confidence
is justified or not, he appears to be the only weakness LA will
have when offenses put three receivers on the field; with Hayward
and Harris around, he will be the target of most teams that faces
the Chargers. King is only a year removed from being considered
one of the best slot corners in the league, so even though last
season was a disappointment for him, he figures to have the advantage
over most of the receivers he sees in dime packages.
Base: The Cardinals have the pieces in place
to field a solid three-man front if Allen stays healthy and shows
the same run-stopping abilities he did at Boston College after
an injury-shortened rookie campaign. Peters and Phillips both
bring well over 330 pounds of mass to the table and should be
able to tie up blockers consistently, allowing the team's upgrades
at linebacker (Campbell and Simmons) to stay clean and roam sideline
to sideline. The temptation for HC Kliff Kingsbury to increase
the tempo of his offense in Year 2 may be too much and end up
wearing out the defense, but there's more than enough talent in
this front seven now to take a significant leap forward against
Sub: There appeared to be signs of slippage in
Peterson's play early last season, but he picked things up as the
season progressed. Still, it's fair to wonder if the soon-to-be
30-year-old is about to begin his decline. The smart money says
he has at least one more good left. Simmons' arrival should quickly
put a halt to what was a laughable effort by the defense against
tight ends last season. As a result, expect opponents to continue
taking shots at Murphy, who surrendered a league-high nine touchdowns
as a rookie last season. Last year's second-round pick is too smart
and too savvy to get embarrassed like that again, so fantasy owners
targeting a matchup in this secondary need to tread cautiously;
the "Murphy well" is one that could dry up at any time.
The good news for owners is that Peterson was used as a shadow a
fair amount of the time upon his return from last year's season-opening
six-game suspension, so there may be some predictability when it
comes to identifying his matchup each week.
Base: If stopping the run was merely about the
defensive line handling its business, the Rams might not have
anything to worry about. Donald, Robinson and Brockers make for
a formidable trio that should be able to keep the linebackers
clean. The problem is the second line of defense needs to be up
to par, and there's not a lot of proof Los Angeles has that. Hager
has logged a total of 292 defensive snaps four years into his
pro career, while Kiser has not played a single defensive snap
since entering the league in 2018. That's the group currently
slated to help replace Cory Littleton. The Rams are hoping Floyd
turns his career around in LA as Dante Fowler did, but that's
far from a given considering how his career has played out- especially
when one considers first-time DC Brandon Staley is being tasked
with the responsibility of replacing Wade Phillips.
Sub: If it wasn't already apparent following the
loss of Littleton, the Rams could get hammered by scatbacks and
tight ends in the short and intermediate passing game this season.
Ramsey was used as a shadow on occasion to varying degrees of success
upon his arrival from Jacksonville last season, while Hill held
up quite well in holding receivers in his coverage to a 45.1 percent
catch rate. That's the good news. The bad news is Nickell Robey-Coleman
is no longer around to cover the slot and Eric Weddle retired. Williams'
green grade came on only 126 coverage snaps, but the Rams must have
seen enough to believe he is the future in the slot. They better
hope they are right, considering the lack of proven depth behind
him. Rapp showed well as a rookie, but Johnson lasted only six games
before hitting IR with a shoulder injury. Much like cornerback,
Los Angeles probably won't be able to withstand an injury at safety.
Base: There is no question the team will experience
a drop-off as Kinlaw attempts to replace DeForest Buckner, but
the 49ers did well to get themselves such a capable replacement.
Bosa and Armstead are well-rounded players capable of defending
the run and attracting double teams, so Kinlaw and Jones need
only focus on beating their blocks as opposed to occupying blockers.
Although Warner and Greenlaw have been pleasant surprises as a
whole, neither graded out particularly well against the run and
are both more suited to be in coverage. The same can be said about
Alexander, who struggled with a pectoral injury for most of the
season. All in all, there's some reason to believe the 49ers will
struggle mightily at times against power-rushing attacks.
Sub: Buckner's departure will undoubtedly hurt
the pass rush in the short term as well, but there is still minimal
reason to expect much of a decline from last year's unit. At least
three of the defensive linemen are capable of double-digit sacks,
while Kinlaw could get there in a year or two. Warner, Greenlaw
and even Alexander are exceptional in coverage. Sherman is still
among the league's best at his left cornerback spot, while Williams
was one of the league's better slot corners in 2019. Moseley impressed
enough in Witherspoon's absence that he kept the starting job
once the latter returned from injury. The amazing thing is this
pass defense could be even better if Verrett could ever stay healthy.
Although he hasn't been riddled with injuries to the same degree
Verrett has, Ward has battled durability issues of his own. He
made it through 13 games last season, however, and is even capable
of defending the slot if/when necessary. Tartt is probably the
closest thing to a "box" player San Francisco has in
the defensive backfield, but the team's heavy use of zone coverage
and elite pass rush limits how often he can get exposed.
Base: Jadeveon Clowney, Quinton Jefferson and
Al Woods were three of the Seahawks' top four run defenders up
front last season. None of them will be back in 2020 barring an
unlikely return from Clowney. Reed and Ford are still more than
serviceable against the run, while Wagner is still one of the
best in the game at his position, but everyone else in the projected
front seven is either an average run defender at best or unproven.
In short, there's a reason Seattle probably feels compelled to
run the ball as much as it does (much to the dismay of Russell
Wilson supporters), and that would be to limit the number of plays
this defense has to be on the field.
Sub: Seattle utilized its base defense 69 percent
of the time last season, almost twice as often as second-place
Arizona and well over the league average of 27 percent. Collier
was a surprise first-round pick in 2019 and promptly suffered
a high-ankle sprain in camp that pretty much wiped out his rookie
season. Irvin is the only Seahawk who can be considered a viable
pass-rush threat at the moment, but he'll turn 33 in November.
Mayowa notched a career-high seven sacks with the Raiders last
year, but he would be better served to work as a backup rather
than a player who will probably be asked to play 500 or more snaps.
If Wright can return to form after missing 11 games with a shoulder
injury last season, linebacker should be an area of minimal concern
in the nickel package. Dunbar's arrival could make the secondary
a strong point once again if he can match the level of play he
achieved in Washington last season, but he's got to avoid punishment
from the league for an off-field incident first. The safety spots
should be in good hands with McDougald and Diggs, but quarterbacks
will almost certainly try to take advantage of Seattle's heavy
lean toward base personnel and try to work over the slot defender.
LBs Mychal Kendricks - now with the Eagles - and Wright led the
team in coverage snaps in the slot in 2019, followed by McDougald.
Needless to say, that's not ideal.
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.