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The Dirty Dozen - 2021 Edition

By Doug Orth | 12/2/21 |

Eight years ago, I introduced "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Delicious Dozen" around Thanksgiving time. (Here is last week's Delicious 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 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 even fewer do it in much detail. Until this becomes a more common practice, thousands of fantasy managers who will avoid and target matchups they shouldn't.

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 330 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.

All coverage data courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

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

12. Casey Hayward, Raiders (Passer Rating Against: 76.2)

Hayward is the rare aging player (32 years old) afforded a legitimate chance to recapture his former glory. Perhaps the most interesting part about it all is the fact he was able to change teams but keep the same defensive coordinator (Gus Bradley), and perhaps it was because of Bradley that he was given a legitimate chance and is taking advantage. It has not been all sunshine for him in his new home, however, as he has allowed quarterbacks to complete each of their throws in his coverage in three of his last five games. All four of his worst coverage grades per PFF have come in the last six games, while four of the five games in which he has recorded a passer rating against of at least 91.0 have come over the same span. It does not mean he is becoming a target for fantasy managers or DFS players though. Although Michael Gallup (3-for-3, 90 yards) enjoyed success against him on Thanksgiving Day, Hayward has only surrendered a mere 18 completions on 34 throws for 245 yards and zero touchdowns in his coverage for the season.

Week 13: Terry McLaurin (Football Team)
Week 14: Demarcus Robinson/Byron Pringle (Chiefs)
Week 15:
Donovan Peoples-Jones/Jarvis Landry (Browns)
Week 16: Courtland Sutton/Tim Patrick (Broncos)
Week 17: T.Y. Hilton/Michael Pittman Jr. (Colts)

11. Adoree Jackson, Giants (Passer Rating Against: 75.8)

There was always a good chance that Jackson would prove to be a strong addition to any defense if his body stopped betraying him as it did throughout his first four years in Tennessee. So far, so good in New York. Whereas Hayward's passer rating against has spiked in recent weeks, Jackson has been playing at an exceptional level in his last four-plus games, yielding 10 scoreless catches on 25 targets for 70 yards over that time before making an early exit due to a quad injury in Week 12. Even more notable, quarterbacks have failed to exceed a passer rating of 64.6 in his last four outings. For the season, Jackson is allowing a completion rate of only 57.6 percent. He has given up a mere two touchdowns - the last one coming in Week 6. Perhaps the most impressive part is opponents are now taking more shots at teammate James Bradberry, who is still one of the more feared cornerbacks in the league despite going through one of his worst seasons as a pro.

Week 13: Albert Wilson/DeVante Parker (Dolphins)
Week 14: Jalen Guyton/Mike Williams (Chargers)
Week 15: Michael Gallup/Amari Cooper (Cowboys)
Week 16: Jalen Reagor/DeVonta Smith (Eagles)
Week 17: Darnell Mooney/Marquise Goodwin (Bears)

10. Darius Slay, Eagles (Passer Rating Against: 71.3) ***

* Has lined up on the left side on 499 of his 725 defensive snaps.

Slay has lined up exclusively on the left side of the defense in seven games and split his time on the left and right side almost equally in the other five, suggesting he is one of several corners in the league who will shadow when DC Jonathan Gannon believes the opposition has a receiver worthy of being followed. Except for a nightmarish effort against the Cowboys in Week 3 (in which he surrendered touchdowns to Dalton Schultz and Cedrick Wilson) and another uneven showing in Week 9 versus the Chargers (allowed a touchdown to Donald Parham and a 49-yard catch to Mike Williams), it has been mostly smooth sailing for the 30-year-old. In his other 10 games combined, he has snagged three interceptions while yielding 143 yards and no TDs. Week 6 against the Bucs and Week 7 versus the Raiders are the only other times quarterbacks have recorded a passer rating higher than 75.7 in his coverage.

Week 13: Corey Davis/Elijah Moore (Jets)
Week 14: bye
Week 15: Terry McLaurin (Football Team)
Week 16: Kadarius Toney/Kenny Golladay (Giants)
Week 17: Terry McLaurin (Football Team)

9. Byron Murphy Jr., Cardinals (Passer Rating Against: 70.4)

* Has lined up in the slot on 322 of his 592 defensive snaps; has also lined up on at left cornerback on 202 of his defensive snaps.

It has been a bit of a mixed bag for Murphy. In four games, quarterbacks have enjoyed a passer rating of at least 106.3. In his other six outings, that number has been 70.5 or lower. The good news for Murphy is that three of his bad games happened consecutively in Weeks 7-9. In the two games since, he has returned to being very stingy. If we remove his poor three-game stretch from consideration, he has tallied three interceptions while allowing 18 catches and one touchdown on his other 35 targets. Perhaps just as impressively, receivers have failed to top 28 yards in his coverage in half of his 10 games, including each of his last four. That is a far cry from the 57 or more yards he gave up in four of his first six. Considering Marco Wilson appeared in last week's Delicious Dozen, it makes much more sense to target him (on the left side of the offensive formation) than Murphy for fantasy purposes.

Week 13: Allen Robinson/Darnell Mooney (Bears)
Week 14: Cooper Kupp/Van Jefferson (Rams)
Week 15: Amon-Ra St. Brown/Kalif Raymond (Lions)
Week 16: Zach Pascal/Michael Pittman Jr. (Colts)
Week 17: CeeDee Lamb/Michael Gallup (Cowboys)

8. Amani Oruwariye, Lions (Passer Rating Against: 69.8)

Of all the players that we could have expected to see on this list two years in a row, I doubt anyone could have imagined it would be Oruwariye. Unlike last year's appearance, this one is not for all the right reasons. The Penn State alum has posted coverage grades of 48.0 or lower in six of 11 games and allowed quarterbacks to register a passer rating of at least 118.8 four times. So why is he on THIS list? Oruwariye enters Week 13 in a four-way tie for third in the league with five interceptions, including one in each of his last two outings. Otherwise, he ranks 24th among corners who qualified for this list in most yards allowed (430). He is also giving up a completion on 66 percent of the throws in his coverage. This does not mean the third-year pro is a fraud - it is rather impressive that a player on a winless team in Week 13 has the ball and anticipation skills necessary to pick off five passes on a defense that has a lackluster pass rush. What it does mean is that Oruwariye is not a matchup to fear for fantasy purposes in 2021.

Week 13: Justin Jefferson/Adam Thielen (Vikings)
Week 14: Courtland Sutton/Tim Patrick (Broncos)
Week 15: DeAndre Hopkins/A.J. Green (Cardinals)
Week 16: Tajae Sharpe/Olamide Zaccheaus (Falcons)
Week 17: DK Metcalf/Tyler Lockett (Seahawks)

7. Trevon Diggs, Cowboys (Passer Rating Against: 69.8)

* Has lined up on the right side on 496 of his 689 defensive snaps.

Considering how much interceptions drive passer ratings down for quarterbacks, it is rather amazing Diggs does not appear later on this list. How much does it matter for cornerbacks, you ask? Diggs recorded six interceptions through his first five games - including at least one in each outing - and quarterbacks did not post a passer rating higher than 70.1 in his coverage. Since then, he has only two interceptions and quarterbacks have enjoyed a passer rating of at least 116.7 in four of six contests. While there is no question his ball and anticipation skills are among the best in the league (one of several reasons why he leads the NFL with eight interceptions), it is hiding the fact he has surrendered the most yards of any cornerback in 2021 (728). The average yards per reception in his coverage is the second-highest of any player who qualified to be on this list (16.9). The most concerning part: quarterbacks have completed at least 70 percent of their passes in his coverage in five of the last six after failing to top 50 percent in four of the first five games of the season.

Week 13: Marquez Callaway (Saints)
Week 14: Terry McLaurin (Football Team)
Week 15: Kenny Golladay (Giants)
Week 16: Terry McLaurin (Football Team)
Week 17: DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals)

6. Patrick Surtain II, Broncos (Passer Rating Against: 69.2)

* Has lined up on the left side on 306 of 307 defensive snaps since Week 5.

Denver has taken its lumps publicly for passing on a quarterback in this spring's draft (Justin Fields and Mac Jones were still available at No. 9), but it would seem Surtain is well on his way to being the same kind of impact player his father was for most of his career in Miami. After quarterbacks were able to post a passer rating of at least 101.9 in the younger Surtain's coverage in two of his first four games as a pro, he has kept that number below 80 in all but one game since. The rookie enjoyed a four-game stretch after his rough start in which he did not allow more than 27 yards and has held his own despite a tough draw lately (faced off regularly against Amari Cooper, DeVonta Smith and Mike Williams), giving up 74 of the 142 yards he has allowed over that span after the catch. He likely cemented his place on this list with a two-interception performance in Week 12, although the more telling statistic about his recent improvement might be that receivers have caught a mere 12 passes on 30 targets in his coverage in the last five contests, lowering quarterbacks' completion rate while throwing at him to 53.2 for the season.

Week 13: Tyreek Hill/Byron Pringle (Chiefs)
Week 14: Kalif Raymond/Josh Reynolds (Lions)
Week 15: Tee Higgins (Bengals)
Week 16: Zay Jones/DeSean Jackson (Raiders)
Week 17: Jalen Guyton/Mike Williams (Chargers)

5. Taron Johnson, Bills (Passer Rating Against: 69.2)

* Has lined up in the slot on 459 of his 563 defensive snaps.

There are several reasons why Buffalo's defense has taken a step forward in 2021. Among them: watching Johnson dramatically increase his PFF coverage grade from 58.4 last season to 82.9 so far in 2021. It could be argued his worst games of the season have been the last two, but it is clear he has set a high standard for himself when five receptions on seven targets for 59 yards and a touchdown (to Jonathan Taylor) is a bad stretch. Taylor's touchdown is the only one he has allowed in his coverage this season, while the 36 yards he gave up in Week 12 were the most he has permitted in a game since Week 5. Receivers have only caught only 53.2 percent of the throws in his coverage. Perhaps just as impressively, Johnson has surrendered a catch rate higher than 50 percent in only two outings. In case it was not obvious by now, fantasy managers do not want their receivers lining up in the slot against Buffalo right now.

Week 13: Jakobi Meyers (Patriots)
Week 14: Chris Godwin (Buccaneers)
Week 15: Brandon Zylstra/Terrace Marshall Jr./Robby Anderson (Panthers)
Week 16: Jakobi Meyers (Patriots)
Week 17: Russell Gage/Olamide Zaccheaus (Falcons)

********Note: Tre'Davious White (61.4) was No. 4 on this list but was lost for the season in Week 12 with a torn ACL. ***********

4. A.J. Terrell, Falcons (Passer Rating Against: 63.5)

* Has lined up on the left side on 508 of his 619 defensive snaps.

Whether it is due to the arrival of DC Dean Pees or just the natural progression of a player taking the next step in his second NFL season, Terrell has emerged as a cornerstone for the Atlanta defense in 2021. He is allowing a league-low (among cornerbacks that qualify for this list) 50 percent of the passes in his coverage to be completed and has not given up more than 32 yards receiving in any game. For the season, receivers have accumulated a mere 130 yards and two touchdowns (Marquez Callaway, Nelson Agholor) against him. He has surrendered one catch of more than 20 yards. He is among the league leaders in pass breakups with seven, suggesting he could easily have more than one interception. Unsurprisingly, his 88.2 PFF coverage grade ranks as the best among cornerbacks who qualify for this list, just ahead of Jalen Ramsey (87.0).

Week 13: Tyler Johnson (Buccaneers)
Week 14: DJ Moore/Robby Anderson (Panthers)
Week 15: Deebo Samuel (if healthy)/Trent Sherfield (49ers)
Week 16: Kalif Raymond/Josh Reynolds (Lions)
Week 17: Stefon Diggs/Emmanuel Sanders (Bills)

3. Jamel Dean, Buccaneers (Passer Rating Against: 58.6)

* Has lined up on the right side on 442 of his 523 defensive snaps.

Tampa Bay can only wonder what could have been with its pass defense this season. Carlton Davis was emerging as one of the league's best young corners at the end of last year but has been sidelined since Week 4 with a quad injury. (He has a shot to play in Week 13.) Slot corner Sean Murphy-Bunting just returned from a lengthy injury absence himself. While not to the same degree as Davis last year, Dean is stepping up his game in 2021. Since the season opener in which he gave up five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown to CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper, Dean has permitted only 17 receptions for 192 yards and no TDs on 33 targets over his last nine outings. A good chunk of that production came against in the Bucs' surprising Week 10 loss to Washington, as the combination of Terry McLaurin (two catches, 27 yards), DeAndre Carter (one catch, 22 yards), J.D. McKissic (one catch, 11 yards) and John Bates (one catch, 18 yards) accounted for over 40 percent of the yards he has allowed since Week 1.

Week 13: Tajae Sharpe (Falcons)
Week 14: Emmanuel Sanders (Bills)
Week 15: Marquez Callaway (Saints)
Week 16: Robby Anderson (Panthers)
Week 17: Elijah Moore (Jets)

2. Denzel Ward, Browns (Passer Rating Against: 58.5) ***

Durability has not been Ward's calling card since he was drafted in 2018 (he played a maximum of 12 games over his first three seasons), but he has generally been among the better corners in the league when he has been on the field. He got off to a rough start by allowing five catches on seven targets in the opener. His worst game by far was in Week 2 when the combination of Brandin Cooks (three catches, 45 yards), Nico Collins (one catch, 32 yards) and Chris Conley (one catch, 13 yards) roughed him up for 90 of the 269 yards receiving he has permitted all season. Ward has not allowed more than 32 yards in any other game. He did not give up his first touchdown catch until falling victim to a scramble-drill play to Mark Andrews in Week 12. Just as impressively, he has surrendered only 16 catches on 29 targets since Week 2. While Ward is not a shadow corner per se, fantasy managers should assume Ward will line up across from the opponent's top perimeter receiver - assuming DC Joe Woods considers him worthy of such treatment - approximately 60 percent of the time.

Week 13: bye
Week 14: Marquise Brown (Ravens)
Week 15: DeSean Jackson/Zay Jones (Raiders)
Week 16: Davante Adams (Packers)
Week 17: Diontae Johnson (Steelers)

1. J.C. Jackson, Patriots (Passer Rating Against: 38.1) ***

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

What does a cornerback need to make it to the top of the Dirty Dozen list (or bottom, depending on your perspective)? It helps if he allows a low catch rate, gives up a minimal number of touchdowns and is fortunate enough to rank among the league leaders in interceptions. Check, check and check. Quarterbacks have often tried to test the former undrafted free agent out of Maryland this season and the results have not been overly favorable. Jackson is allowing a completion on only 35 of the 69 times he has been targeted for 472 yards and one touchdown versus seven interceptions. The 50.7 catch rate allowed is second only to A.J. Terrell, while his seven picks are good for second in the NFL behind only Trevon Diggs. Last week against Tennessee marked the first time since Week 6 (Dallas) that Jackson allowed receivers to catch more than half of their targets in a game. Even with that blip on the radar, quarterbacks have not posted a passer rating higher than 40 against him in four straight contests. The one touchdown he surrendered this season came in Week 5. Jackson may not be the second coming of Darrelle Revis and will give up the occasional big play (i.e. 41-yarder to Keenan Allen, 67-yarder to Chris Moore). While there is no guarantee that receivers will struggle against Jackson in every game, fantasy owners would be wise to downgrade their receiver from a WR1 to a WR2 or a WR2 to a WR3 at the very least in the week(s) he faces Jackson.

Week 13: Stefon Diggs (Bills)
Week 14: bye
Week 15: Michael Pittman (Colts)
Week 16: Stefon Diggs (Bills)
Week 17: Marvin Jones (Jaguars)

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.