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The Delicious Dozen - 2021 Edition

By Doug Orth | 11/25/21 |

Eight 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 fantasy championships.

Receiver-cornerback matchups are among the most critical ones in the real game, yet very few fantasy analysts spend any time breaking them down - and few do it in much detail. Until this becomes a more common practice, there will be thousands of owners who will avoid matchups they shouldn't and vice versa.

The point 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. They also tend to stick with their opinions about struggling corners for far too long when they finally break through and begin playing well. 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 are not "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. Mike Hilton, Bengals (Passer Rating Against: 108.2)

* Has lined up in the slot on 425 of his 495 defensive snaps.

Hilton built a strong reputation for his pass-rushing abilities in his four seasons with the Steelers. Over that time, he never logged fewer than 60 pass-rush snaps and never surpassed 400 coverage snaps. Through 10 games with the Bengals, he is at 29 and 334, respectively. All of this is to say that Cincinnati is not using maximizing one of his best assets - at least not yet - and using him more often in coverage than Pittsburgh ever did. Last season was Hilton's worst in coverage (62.0 coverage grade, per PFF) and he has not been much better this year, although he has turned in three of his best efforts as a Bengal in the last four games after a rough six-game stretch to begin the season. While he has only given up two touchdown catches in his coverage through 10 games, the primary reasons he finds himself on this list are that he has yet to come up with an interception, recorded only two pass breakups and allowed 80.4 percent of the throws in his coverage to be completed.

Week 12: James Washington/Chase Claypool (Steelers)
Week 13: Keenan Allen (Chargers)
Week 14: Jauan Jennings/Deebo Samuel (49ers)
Week 15: Jerry Jeudy (Broncos)
Week 16: Devin Duvernay (Ravens)
Week 17: Tyreek Hill/Byron Pringle (Chiefs)

11. Mackensie Alexander, Vikings (Passer Rating Against: 108.5)

* Has lined up in the slot on 375 of his 434 defensive snaps.

It is never a good thing when one team has multiple players on this list. Alexander is the first of the two for Minnesota, which enters Week 12 as the fourth-best matchup for fantasy receivers. The former second-round pick returned to the Vikings in 2021 after an unremarkable four-year stay with Minnesota and an unsuccessful one-year stint with the Bengals last year. He is not having any more success in his sixth season. Alexander's passer rating against has declined every year since he became a full-time player in 2017. To that end, he has allowed quarterbacks to compile a passer rating of at least 118.8 five times already in 2021. His PFF coverage grade is at a career-low 46.4 through 10 games this season. Alexander has been reasonable in terms of limiting the receiver's ability to catch the ball in his coverage (catch rate of 67.4 allowed), but his biggest issue so far has been surrendering a ton of yards after the catch (237, 28 off his career high). Minnesota does not have any other appealing options to replace him in the slot, so this should be a matchup that keeps on giving as the season progresses.

Week 12: Jauan Jennings/Deebo Samuel (49ers)
Week 13: Amon-Ra St. Brown (Lions)
Week 14: James Washington/Chase Claypool (Steelers)
Week 15: Allen Robinson/Darnell Mooney (Bears)
Week 16: Cooper Kupp (Rams)
Week 17: Allen Lazard/Davante Adams (Packers)

10. Shaquill Griffin, Jaguars (Passer Rating Against: 109.2)

PFF's coverage grades do not always match up well with the passer rating a cornerback allows in his coverage. Such is the case so far this year with Griffin, who has graded out at 72.7 in coverage but ranks inside the top 10 among full-time corners in terms of passer rating against. The latter number should not come as a big surprise as most corners will struggle to hold up consistently when the pass rush struggles to get home, as is the case with Jacksonville. Griffin has only had one bad game - allowing a pair of touchdowns to DK Metcalf in Week 8 - and played better in the last month, but he is still paying the price for a rough start to the season and has yet to record an interception. On the plus side, he is generally not giving up much after the catch (no more than 13 yards in any game) and quarterbacks are not throwing his way as much as they were in September. Unlike most defenses, the Jaguars have not left their cornerbacks in one spot very much, as Griffin has played on the left side on 38 percent of his snaps and on the right 57 percent of the time. He's not shadowing, so projecting his primary matchup will often come to guessing whether or not Jacksonville's coaches decide they prefer his size (6-0 and almost 200 pounds) on the opponent's most physical receiver or want rookie Tyson Campbell (6-2 and 185 pounds) to do it.

Week 12: Tajae Sharpe/Olamide Zaccheaus (Falcons)
Week 13: Odell Beckham Jr./Van Jefferson (Rams)
Week 14: A.J. Brown (Titans)
Week 15: Brandin Cooks/Nico Collins (Texans)
Week 16: Corey Davis (Jets)
Week 17: Kendrick Bourne/Nelson Agholor (Patriots)

9. Bryce Hall, Jets (Passer Rating Against: 110.6)

* Has lined up on the left side on 538 of his 679 defensive snaps.

Like Griffin, Hall's PFF coverage grade (74.9) and his passer rating against do not match up very well. On three occasions this season, the second-year cornerback has sported a coverage grade of at last 75.2; only twice has he fallen below 60. He also has recorded a very respectable seven pass breakups. The primary reason he appears on this list, however, is that he gave up a touchdown catch in three straight games during Weeks 7-9. While he has not allowed a TD since, he has yielded a catch on 23 of 32 targets in his coverage since Week 4 (seven of 14 through the first four games). Much like 2020 Delicious Dozen graduates Darius Slay, Casey Hayward and A.J. Terrell, Hall is someone I expect to be a cornerstone player for this defense as early as 2022. He is more likely to be a member of Dirty Dozen in 2022 (when the Jets will likely have a better pass rush) than end up on this list again.

Week 12: Nico Collins/Brandin Cooks (Texans)
Week 13: DeVonta Smith/Jalen Reagor (Eagles)
Week 14: Deonte Harris/Marquez Callaway (Saints)
Week 15: DeVante Parker (Dolphins)
Week 16: Marvin Jones (Jaguars)
Week 17: Antonio Brown (Buccaneers)

8. Steven Nelson, Eagles (Passer Rating Against: 111.1)

* Has lined up on the right side on 515 of his 729 defensive snaps.

Sometimes, cornerbacks struggle because they do not belong in the NFL. Other times, they struggle because they work opposite of a player that quarterbacks would rather avoid. While Nelson could be declining in his seventh NFL season as he nears 29 years of age, the most likely answer is that opponents do not want to throw at Darius Slay any more than they have to. Then again, Nelson is not doing much to discourage it. Over the last six games, his coverage grade has topped out at 60.3. In that same span, he has allowed 18 of 25 targets in his coverage to be completed. Perhaps the most appalling thing about Nelson this year is this nugget: among the 52 corners that have logged at least 300 snaps, the average depth of target in Nelson's coverage is 9.8 yards (23rd). Yet, he ranks 19th in that group in yards allowed with 423. With Slay locked in as the starter on one side and Avonte Maddox a fixture in the slot, this is a matchup fantasy managers should be able to continue taking advantage of for the rest of the season.

Week 12: Kenny Golladay (Giants)
Week 13: Elijah Moore (Jets)
Week 14: bye
Week 15: Terry McLaurin (Washington)
Week 16: Kenny Golladay (Giants)
Week 17: Terry McLaurin (Washington)

7. Bashaud Breeland, Vikings (Passer Rating Against: 112.7)

* Has lined up on the left side on 418 of his 504 defensive snaps.

Fair or not, Breeland has long been a target for DFS players and shrewd redraft managers. Although he has managed to keep things under control since about the beginning of October, his rough start guaranteed his appearance in this piece. Over the first three games of the season, Breeland surrendered 256 yards and four touchdowns. In the seven games since, he has given up a more modest 304 yards and zero touchdowns. That is not to say he has been great, however, as he coughed up 139 yards in Week 8 to CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper. That effort came one game after he allowed zero catches on six targets against Carolina. Excluding that performance against the Panthers, Breeland has yielded a catch on 42 of 55 targets in his coverage for the season. While there is always a chance he will be pulled from the starting lineup at some point, it should be clear from the presence of Mackensie Alexander on this list above that Minnesota does not have many quality options after Patrick Peterson.

Week 12: Deebo Samuel/Brandon Aiyuk (49ers)
Week 13: Kalif Raymond (Lions)
Week 14: Chase Claypool (Steelers)
Week 15: Darnell Mooney/Allen Robinson (Bears)
Week 16: Odell Beckham Jr. (Rams)
Week 17: Marquez Valdes-Scantling/Allen Lazard (Packers)

6. Janoris Jenkins, Titans (Passer Rating Against: 114.6)

* Has lined up on the left side on 523 of his 661 defensive snaps.

In theory, Jenkins was an aging player Tennessee was hoping to squeeze one more out of before turning things over to the young pups such as Elijah Molden, Kristian Fulton and 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley. However, the Titans lost Farley for the season a few weeks ago and are well on track to set an NFL record for most players by a team in one season. Jenkins has been awful in three games in 2021 (6-69-1 on seven targets in Week 1, 6-110-0 on nine targets in Week 4 and 4-54-2 on four targets in Week 6), but the fact he has allowed a passer rating of at least 100 in five games suggests he will continue to be an easy target moving forward. It is worth noting he had turned in two of his top three coverage days per PFF prior to sitting out Week 11 with a chest injury. How he bounces back from that injury is anyone's guess, but it is worth noting that he has allowed 60 percent or less of the passes thrown in his coverage to be completed in three of his last four outings. That could be as much of a sign that the front seven doing a better job of rushing the passer as it could be a hint that Jenkins is playing better.

Week 12: Kendrick Bourne (Patriots)
Week 13: bye
Week 14: Marvin Jones (Jaguars)
Week 15: Chase Claypool (Steelers)
Week 16: Deebo Samuel/Brandon Aiyuk (49ers)
Week 17: DeVante Parker (Dolphins)

5. Jalen Mills, Patriots (Passer Rating Against: 119.4)

Given New England's recent play on defense, it is a bit surprising to see someone from the Pats' secondary appears on here. With that said, there is also a reason Philadelphia didn't try harder to keep him after five seasons. At his best, Mills is more of a hybrid cornerback/safety who does not have to start and can give a defense the flexibility of having a safety with cornerback skills to defend a slower and/or bigger receiver or a seam-stretching tight end equally well. That is not happening so much recently, as last week's shutout against an injury-ravaged Atlanta offense was only the second time since Week 3 that Mills did not record a passer rating against of at least 115. (The other time was during a Sam Darnold meltdown game in Week 9.) Considering how well fellow perimeter starter J.C. Jackson is playing and how HC Bill Belichick tends to operate on defense, Jackson will likely continue to play against the opponent's No. 2 receiver most weeks while Mills works against the No. 1 and will receive safety help over the top. Assuming that is the case, there is no reason to expect Mills' fortunes to change for the better anytime soon.

Week 12: Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (Titans)
Week 13: Emmanuel Sanders/Stefon Diggs (Bills)
Week 14: bye
Week 15: T.Y. Hilton/Michael Pittman (Colts)
Week 16: Emmanuel Sanders/Stefon Diggs (Bills)
Week 17: Laquon Treadwell/Marvin Jones (Jaguars)

4. Marshon Lattimore, Saints (Passer Rating Against: 122.2) ***

* Has lined up on the right side on 411 of his 566 defensive snaps.

It took a long time last year before most fantasy managers realized Lattimore was a cornerback to target. He is on pace to have an even worse season in 2021. It is the primary reason why the Saints rank as one of the five best matchups for fantasy receivers this season. However, we need a bit of context here. It appears Lattimore gets bored easily because he has been effective when asked to shadow in 2021:

Week 1: Davante Adams - 5-56-0
Week 5: Terry McLaurin 4-46-0
Week 7: DK Metcalf - 2-96-1
Week 8: Mike Evans - 2-48-1
Week 11: DeVonta Smith - 4-61-0

As good as that looks, he has nonetheless allowed quarterbacks to post a passer rating of at least 118.8 in five straight outings. In the first three games of that stretch, he surrendered four TDs. Tennessee and Philadelphia were not able to beat him for a score over the last two weeks, but he still managed to give up at least 70 yards receiving in four of the five rough games and more than 100 yards in three of those five.

Week 12: Stefon Diggs (Bills)
Week 13: Amari Cooper (Cowboys)
Week 14: Corey Davis/Elijah Moore (Jets)
Week 15: Mike Evans (Buccaneers)
Week 16: DeVante Parker (Dolphins)
Week 17: D.J. Moore (Panthers)

3. Fabian Moreau, Falcons (Passer Rating Against: 124.6)

* Has lined up on the right side on 529 of his 641 defensive snaps.

Most of the public would never know it based on the current state of the team, but A.J. Terrell has emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in the league this season. It should come as no shock then that quarterbacks are targeting him less and every other one of his teammates in the secondary more. Then again, last year with Washington was the one season that Moreau played at something approaching a league-average level. (He was a part-time player in 2020, for what it is worth.) He has already surrendered six touchdowns in 2021 - two times more than his previous career high - and allowed quarterbacks to post a passer rating of at least 110.7 in his coverage six times. With 4 1/2 years of evidence supporting it, Moreau is a player that fantasy managers want to target week after week.

Week 12: Laquon Treadwell/Marvin Jones (Jaguars)
Week 13: Mike Evans/Antonio Brown (Buccaneers)
Week 14: Robby Anderson/DJ Moore (Panthers)
Week 15: Brandon Aiyuk/Deebo Samuel (49ers)
Week 16: Josh Reynolds (Lions)
Week 17: Stefon Diggs (Bills)

2. Marco Wilson, Cardinals (Passer Rating Against: 126.0)

* Has lined up on the right side on 495 of his 557 defensive snaps.

It is far too early to conclude that Wilson is an easy target after he was thrust into the starting lineup after being drafted in the fourth round this spring. At this point, all we can say is that he has the misfortune of being the young guy in a secondary that is getting solid play from Robert Alford on the outside and Byron Murphy in the slot. He has been much better in his last five games (one touchdown surrendered and one game with a passer rating allowed higher than 90) than he was over his first five (four TDs, five games with a 100-plus passer rating allowed). As is the case with most rookies, Wilson will continue to be picked on until he can make quarterbacks pay for doing so. To this point, he has recorded only three pass breakups and zero interceptions. Unlike Moreau above, fantasy managers need to be ready to avoid him as soon as Wilson begins making more plays. Until then, it is fine to target this matchup.

Week 12: bye
Week 13: Marquise Goodwin/Allen Robinson (Bears)
Week 14: Van Jefferson/Odell Beckham Jr. (Rams)
Week 15: Josh Reynolds (Lions)
Week 16: T.Y. Hilton/Michael Pittman (Colts)
Week 17: Amari Cooper/Michael Gallup (Cowboys)

1. Kindle Vildor, Bears (Passer Rating Against: 136.7)

* Has lined up on the right side on 517 of his 662 defensive snaps.

Chicago made the questionable decision to release Desmond Trufant at the end of August, mostly leaving the team with Day 3 draftees Vildor and Thomas Graham Jr. to go along with a bunch of college free agents to work on the perimeter opposite Jaylon Johnson. Trufant doesn't have much left anymore, but he has shown he can be capable in spurts in recent years. The result has been about what should have been expected. Vildor has allowed quarterbacks to generate a passer rating of at least 107.4 in his coverage in all but two games. He has surprisingly only given up four touchdowns but the yardage he has allowed is the primary reason why he has the dubious distinction of being the most delicious matchup in the league at the moment. While others on this list have surrendered more yards - Lattimore is at 655 and Breeland is at 560 - Vildor (526 yards) has yet to pick off a pass. Furthermore, PFF has graded his coverage in the 20s twice and lower than 60 six times. The Bears have little choice but to continue trotting him out there. Moreover, because Johnson rarely leaves the right side, offenses will have the opportunity to attack Vildor with their top receiver as often as they want.

Week 12: Kalif Raymond (Lions)
Week 13: A.J. Green (Cardinals)
Week 14: Marquez Valdes-Scantling/Allen Lazard (Packers)
Week 15: Justin Jefferson (Vikings)
Week 16: DK Metcalf (Seahawks)
Week 17: Kenny Golladay (Giants)

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.