THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY OF FANTASY ANALYSTS DO NOT CONSIDER
DEFENSIVE MATCHUPS WHEN CREATING PROJECTIONS.
Sometime between the end of the preseason and the first week
of the season, fantasy owners and analysts alike shift gears from
not caring one iota to what their players' matchups look like
to making it their primary consideration when setting about 70
percent of their lineup. A tough three- or four-game stretch for
a player at the beginning of the season or end of it shouldn't
surprise fantasy analysts, yet most of them are.
Defense may not matter as much as it used to, but let's not pretend
as if it does not matter at all. Not accounting for it on some
level suggests a belief that NFL games are like seven-on-seven
drills. I realized as early as 2004 that I didn't like the idea
of my players 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 (finishing in the black in each of
the 20-plus seasons I've played fantasy football) and suggests
there is substantial value in putting a fair amount of weight
into "the matchup." The key is giving potential matchups
the proper amount of weight to a player's evaluation. By itself,
it will not transform an RB3 into an every-week RB1 or turn a
perennial WR1 into a bench option, but it is helpful for fantasy
owners trying to find values.
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
2021 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
repeatedly. An important part of coaching in any sport is the
ability to maximize players' strengths and mask their weaknesses,
so players either will get help from the scheme or benched if
they continue to struggle. 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 is 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 usually only "shadow" about
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 color codes help set the stage for this
year. Film analysis and advanced analytics help us predict what
3) Base defense is typically deployed on likely running downs,
so the content below for "Base" will be primarily how
front-seven defenders stack up against the run. Similarly, sub-packages
focus on slowing down passing games, so my thoughts for that area
will focus primarily on coverage players.
Note: Try not to get too caught up in 4-3 or 3-4 (or even
the base defense, for that matter.) Defenses rarely ever line
up in a standard package anymore and most of them use "multiple"
fronts at that. There are "over" and "under"
concepts in the front seven, for example. In the secondary, teams
are engaging in traditional man or zone coverages as well as man
match and zone match coverages. Those concepts are just the
tip of the iceberg. Fantasy managers also need to get over the
thinking that the opponent's best cover corner mostly lines up
opposite the offense's top receiver.
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 Bold print (player name) - Over 30 years of age
or will turn 30 by the start of the season
Grades - Pass rush (PR), coverage
(Cov) and run defense (RD) Catch % - Catch percentage 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: Mercilus has enjoyed some good years in the
NFL, but his play fell off a cliff - which was par for the course
for Houston's defense - in 2020. Blacklock was a solid value in
the second round of the 2020 draft. With that said, the talent level
is not much better than one might expect for an expansion team.
Blacklock is more of a pass-rushing defensive tackle at this stage
of his career, while free-agent addition DT Maliek Collins has been
a red-level run defender every year through five NFL seasons. Maybe
DeMarcus Walker gets the nod over him - at least he has some history
of grading out well against the run. For now, we will go with the
280-pound Omenihu - a player the new coaching staff seems high on
after watching him this offseason.
The Texans at least have a prayer at linebacker, although Kirksey
struggled to stay healthy in 2020; Kamal Martin ultimately outplayed
him when he was on the field in Green Bay. Cunningham led the
league in tackles last year, but don't make the mistake of believing
he was among the league's best at his position. He made a fair
amount of his tackles because opponents were able to run the ball
so often. He could benefit from the change in defense, but the
majority of linebackers need protection from their defensive line
and he is unlikely to get that. The conclusion is simple as it
relates to the Texans' run defense in 2021: they could be significantly
worse than last year's league-worst unit, which was already one
of the worst in recent memory. How bad was last year's defense?
Derrick Henry averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2020. Houston's
defense nearly matched that (5.2)
Sub: The news is slightly better in the secondary,
but let's not get crazy. This unit's color codes look somewhat respectable
in part because teams attempted 541 passes (tied for ninth fewest)
against the Texans. Roby occasionally shadowed receivers early in
2020, but it seems unlikely he'll do much of that under new DC Lovie
Smith. (Cover 2 proponents tend to play sides with their corners.
Smith's history suggests he will keep his corners on one side as
well.) Mitchell is coming off a decent three-year stint with Cleveland,
although last season was the first time in his six-year career he
could be considered a full-time player. He gave up five touchdowns
and allowed quarterbacks to post a 100.1 rating in his coverage
last year, so it is highly doubtful he will do better on a team
that will struggle to rush the passer.
King once looked like he was on the verge of becoming the best
slot corner in the game. That was 2018. It has been mostly downhill
since then. In case it wasn't clear already, expect Mitchell and
King to be targeted relentlessly. Johnson is a former big corner
turned safety and should theoretically be able to handle the majority
of tight ends that find their way into his coverage. Justin Reid
is one of the few cornerstones the new regime hopes it can build
around for the future. That's not to suggest he has been great
through three seasons, but he has been more than respectable for
a third-round pick.
Base: Most four-man lines need at least
one stud to command a double team so linebackers can run sideline
to sideline without worrying much about getting picked off by an
offensive lineman. Buckner proved to be worth the first-round pick
Indy gave up to get him and he deserves as much credit as anyone
for this defense emerging into one of the better ones in the league
in 2020. Stewart is a solid run-stopping complement. Free-agent
signee Antwaun Woods should push him for playing time in either
the base or nickel package - if not both. Either way, the defensive
interior is set barring an injury to Buckner.
The Colts used their base package more than most teams last season
(three-linebacker packages on 21 percent of their snaps in 2020)
and aren't too exotic with their pressure packages. That might
change a bit in 2021 given how little proven quality they have
at linebacker after Leonard, who is about as good as it gets at
the position. Leonard had his worst year in three NFL seasons
and was still one of the league's top 10 linebackers. Okereke
fell flat in a full-time role after flashing as a part-timer as
a rookie. Was that a product of a virtual offseason and/or a midseason
position change? He and whoever gets the most playing time at
the other outside linebacker spot between Franklin and Malik Jefferson
will be the two front-seven players opponents will try to target
the most in the run and pass game.
Sub: Rhodes enjoyed a rebirth in his first year
as a Colt, playing like the three-time Pro Bowler he is. Can he
string consecutive seasons like that together for the first time
in nearly five years at age 31? The 2021 season may be a make-or-break
one for Ya-Sin. After looking every bit like the second-round pick
he was in 2019 (62.2 coverage grade), his coverage grade plummeted
to 48.2 in 2020. Talent and toughness are not a question with him,
but quarterbacks generating a 105.2 passer rating in his coverage
is not what Indianapolis is looking for. If he struggles again,
he could swap roles with Carrie. Moore has been a consistent force
in the slot since 2018. The Colts would prefer to leave him there
for a multitude of reasons - one of which is that it would mean
Ya-Sin was playing well - including but not limited to his ability
to play the run at a high level.
Blackmon took over for an injured Malik Hooker and held his own
as a rookie, which is saying something in what was a bad year
to be a rookie. He should take a huge leap forward with the benefit
of a full offseason. Willis graded out well overall, but he gave
up as many touchdowns in his coverage as he recorded pass breakups
(four). He can - and probably will - be better in his third NFL
Base: The Jaguars are expected to move to a
3-4 base, but new DC Joe Cullen has roots in Baltimore's multiple-front
defensive philosophy. Brown was a savvy addition from the Saints
and should serve as an above-average anchor against the run at
nose tackle. The two defensive end spots will likely be up for
grabs, although former Raven Ward should have an early advantage
over the competition. He and Costin are adequate run-stoppers
at best. Cullen is fortunate Allen is one of those rare incredible
athletes capable of transitioning from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4
outside linebacker and make it appear seamless. His run-stopping
ability was about average in his first two NFL seasons, so perhaps
getting him off the line of scrimmage will help him improve a
Chaisson fits a similar profile as a highly versatile defender
capable of standing up or putting his hand in the dirt. The second-year
LSU product will also be making the move from 4-3 defensive end
to 3-4 OLB and will arguably benefit more, at least when it comes
to rushing the passer. If there is one strength in Jacksonville's
front seven, it might be at inside linebacker. The fact both players
graded out reasonably well against the run in 2020 despite getting
so little help from the defensive line bodes well for them. Their
play - especially if Brown can hold up well - should keep this
run defense from being one of the worst in the league again. A
finish somewhere around 20th is possible if they can stay healthy.
Sub: Jacksonville made its biggest defensive strides
this offseason against the pass. Henderson has the talent to shadow
one day, although it may take another year or two - and a lot more
pressure up front - to get him to that point. Getting Griffin from
Seattle gives the Jaguars a realistic shot at holding up in coverage
- something that could not be said very often in 2020. Griffin's
arrival makes Herndon the most likely cornerback with a bullseye
on his back. The former undrafted free agent has not graded out
higher than 54.1 in coverage across his three seasons in the league.
Jacksonville could be tempted to put Henderson in the slot more
often in 2021 should Jones or second-round draft pick Tyson Campbell
show well early.
Jenkins and third-round pick Andre Cisco may actually be Jacksonville's
best two safeties by the end of the season, but both are better
in the box. Wilson saw the most action of any returning Jacksonville
safety a year ago, but he struggled along with just about every
other Jaguar last season. Tight ends scored 13 touchdowns versus
Jacksonville last season, and it seems likely that number will
not go down too much against this group of safeties.
Base: The Titans desperately needed to add size
and talent along their front seven. In Autry and Dupree, they
at least got a significant boost in talent. (Neither is great
against the run, but that may be less of an issue on a team featuring
an offense with Derrick Henry, Julio Jones and A.J. Brown.) Simmons
is the one defensive lineman opponents must account for on every
play. Autry has been mostly average against the run over the last
two seasons, while Hamilton and undrafted rookie free agent Naquan
Jones are about the only players capable of playing the nose on
this defense. In short, Tennessee must avoid an injury to either
one or both of those players.
Along with Simmons, Landry is about the only other front-seven
defender who has a history of grading out well against the run.
Evans appeared on his way to joining them before last year, but
he took a step back in 2021. Brown has been mostly excellent in
coverage for some time, but his average run-stopping grades also
took a hit last year. While Evans could easily take the next step,
it's hard to imagine Brown will experience much of a rebound.
Because nearly half of the front seven is questionable against
the run, Tennessee should be considered a plus-matchup for running
backs in fantasy.
Sub: Many in the draft community believed Farley
was the best cornerback prospect in this spring's draft. If he
ends up proving that sentiment right, Tennessee should have a
much-improved secondary. If the back that has already had two
surgeries on it continues to give him problems - including at
any point this season - things could get ugly in a hurry despite
the improvements the Titans have made to the pass rush. Jenkins
has been a solid - and occasionally very good - corner for a long
time, but he will turn 33 in late October and saw his play decline
toward the end of last season with the Saints. Tennessee invested
a second-round pick into Fulton last spring, only to watch him
miss most of the second half of the season with a knee injury.
He will most likely compete with third-round pick Molden, who
played plenty of nickel at the University of Washington.
Byard has seen his play steadily decline since his breakout 2017
campaign, but he is still the unquestioned best player in the
secondary until Farley reaches his potential. He was slightly
above average last season, although he probably deserves the benefit
of the doubt given his track record and the lack of pass rush
Tennessee had last season. Hooker wasn't overly proficient at
breaking up throws last year (19-of-24), but he picked off four
passes and surrendered no touchdowns in his coverage.
Base: The hiring of one defensive coordinator
is not going to change this defense overnight, but make no mistake
about it: new DC Dean Pees will raise the level of play here.
Jarrett is a better pass-rusher than a run defender, but he typically
does both at a high level. His play against the run dropped off
a bit last season, however, it's highly likely Pees will get creative
with his usage and make sure he rebounds in a big way. Tyeler
Davison is the favorite to operate across from Jarrett, but it
seems reasonable that a more aggressive defensive coach like Pees
will probably want a more explosive athlete like Davidson to emerge
after the Falcons spent a second-round pick on him in 2020. It
would be stunning if Atlanta were not significantly better inside
if the light comes on for Davidson in Year 2.
Fowler is another player Pees should be able to get more out
of, but his impact will likely be felt much more rushing the passer
than against the run. There is a glut of other players that should
be expected to compete for the other defensive end job, none of
which has shown much. It means the edges should be soft for opposing
ground games. Jones hasn't been quite the same since a foot injury
sidelined him for most of 2018, although he has remained the best
linebacker on this team by a fairly wide margin. Oluokun was generating
Pro Bowl buzz last season after being in the right spot at the
right time several times but he actually graded out worse than
he did as a part-timer in his first two seasons.
Sub: While this defense should look much different
than it did last season, it would not be shocking to see Atlanta
use some kind of nickel personnel at the same rate it did last season
(71 percent) and perhaps more, especially given their lack of depth
and quality at linebacker. Jones is still very good in coverage
entering his sixth season, and it seems reasonable to believe Pees
will use him in such a way where the Falcons aren't among the league
leaders in giving up catches to running backs once again. Any amount
of schemed pressure figures to help the secondary, which gave up
the most fantasy points to wide receivers in 2020.
Pees will have his hands full here more than he did with Baltimore
or Tennessee since Oliver, Terrell and Sheffield have not proven
to be ready for the big leagues yet. Terrell was a first-rounder
last season, so he still has some time to show he is every bit
as good as the previous regime thought he was. Sheffield is entering
his third year, while Oliver is set to begin Year 4. What is important
to note here is that none of them have had the fortune of playing
in a pressure defense before (Dan Quinn relied heavily on passive
Cover 3 looks). It is also possible one of them sits in favor
of a heavy "big nickel" as the Falcons may possess more
depth at safety than at any time in recent memory. Harris enjoyed
a solid career with the Raiders, Jaylinn Hawkins held his own
in coverage as a rookie, Grant flashed the ability to make big
plays during his time at UCF and Harmon has been a steady pro
for eight seasons.
Base: Brown was drafted at No. 7 overall in
2020 to be the anchor of this defensive line and it appeared as
if he was well on his way to doing that with his play as a rookie.
Jones' overall grades above don't reflect what he can be since
Tennessee had a multitude of problems defensively a year ago,
but he earned a respectable run defense grade in each of his previous
five seasons. Burns will likely always struggle against the run
as long as he is a full-time defensive end playing at 250 pounds,
but the value he brings comes as a pass-rusher (10 sacks in 2020)
makes up for it. Gross-Matos is a bit sturdier setting the edge
at 260 pounds. He could easily experience the same second-year
spike in his play as Burns did this season.
DC Phil Snow's defense used one linebacker on nearly a third
of the team's defensive snaps and only two linebackers on 47 percent
of the time. For that reason, it's only worth talking about Thompson
- at least versus the run - and he had easily his worst year as
a pro. If Jones and Brown offer him the type of protection they
are capable of, he should rebound. Reddick figures to be a big
part of this defense, but his impact will be felt rushing the
passer (much like Burns and Gross-Matos). Ultimately, if Jones
is not at least above average up front and/or Brown does not play
well enough to command a double team consistently, this could
be a long year for what is otherwise an undersized defense - even
by today's standards.
Sub: The Panthers have quickly remade what was
a questionable secondary in just over a year. Cornerback should
be a strength of this team if Horn can hit the ground running (he
allowed a completion rate of 26.7 percent on throws in which he
was playing man coverage in 2020 … in the SEC, no less). He
should not be expected to shadow as a rookie, but he has that kind
of talent. Horn's arrival bumps Jackson into a more comfortable
CB2 role one year after he enjoyed his finest season as a pro. Turning
30 in August, Bouye cannot be expected to return to his 2017 form
and has not been particularly good over the last two seasons, but
it is hard to knock having someone with his resume as a third corner.
Horn will be tested by quarterbacks right away as all rookies do,
but Bouye will probably be the cornerback who sees the most action
in 2021 if Horn proves to be a quick study.
Chinn and Burris were used somewhat interchangeably last year, although
there is no question which one strikes the most fear into offenses.
In what was mostly a dreadful year for rookie defensive players,
Chinn proved he could operate in the slot, hold his own in the box
and patrol center field with relative ease. Finding a safety who
could handle all those tasks as well as Chinn does should make him
a household name in the next year or two.
Base: Even with the loss of Sheldon Rankins,
the Saints should remain a very solid run-stopping unit. Onyemata
outperformed him in 2020, which could have been the final push
New Orleans needed to trade away Rankins when it was trying to
create cap room this spring. How good was Onyemata? He finished
ninth among all interior defensive linemen per PFF's overall defense
grade. Jordan's 84.6 overall grade on defense last season was
his lowest since 2015, which only speaks to how long and how consistently
he has been among the best at his position. Tuttle effectively
replaces Rankins - at least on early downs - and should be expected
to continue holding things down inside; he has graded out in the
70s as a run-stopper in both of his years in the league. Pressure
has been building on Davenport to realize the potential that convinced
the Saints to trade up for him in the 2018 draft. While it has
yet to come together for him, there have been signs this summer
he may be on the verge of a breakout season.
The Saints used a two-linebacker set 84 percent of the time in
2020 and a three-linebacker set less than one percent, so there's
no point in pretending we need to spend much time on anyone outside
of Davis and maybe Werner, who was drafted in the second round
this spring. Considering how consistently good Davis has been
since joining New Orleans in 2018, offenses will almost certainly
prioritize finding him on the second level and taking their chances
with Werner and Baun on the perimeter. If either one or both of
the youngsters can shed blocks like a five-year vet, this should
once again be one of the stingiest run defenses in the league.
Sub: New Orleans will take a bit of a hit after
losing Janoris Jenkins to Tennessee, although that loss could
be minimized if Robinson can stay healthy for any length of time
- something that has not happened much lately. Things could go
south quickly if he struggles to stay on the field again, although
the Saints showed foresight by selecting Adebo in the third round
of April's draft. It is more likely than not he'll be needed early.
His size (6-1, 198) makes him a good fit for DC Dennis Allen's
defense, but he earned a reputation of being more ball-hawk than
a potential shutdown corner at Stanford. That might have been
a better fit when Drew Brees was slinging the rock all over the
yard years ago; the 2021 Saints may be more defensive-oriented
than any other team during the Sean Payton era and need a cornerback
more noted for his ability to stick with his man.
While Gardner-Johnson quickly made his name as a professional
irritant for receivers (including those on his team on occasion)
and held up fine, he took a small step back last year. New Orleans
is in good shape at safety with Williams locking things down in
center field and Jenkins spending progressively more time in the
box. Both players didn't grade out as well as they did in 2019,
but that shouldn't be a concern. Williams has consistently been
a standout at free safety, while Jenkins rarely leaves the field
even at age 33. Opponents will obviously target Jenkins more often
if given the chance, but he is hardly a liability (yet).
Base: Pro Football Focus has any number of
applications, but it is fair to question how the league's No.
1 rush defense - by a fairly wide margin - did not have a single
defensive lineman or linebacker grade out as an elite run-stopper.
(Vea and David came close.) Vea is as good as it gets at nose
tackle and almost impossible to move off his spot. Having Suh
on one side of him as a defensive end almost feels like cheating.
Gholston has been a serviceable early-down defensive end for most
of his eight-year career, but he is easily the weakest link in
what is otherwise a dominant run defense. Although White did struggle
for most of last year, he and David form perhaps the most talented
inside linebacker duo in the league. Considering Vea missed 11
games and White did not play up to his standard last season, the
Bucs could be even better against the run in 2021.
Sub: Like most outside linebackers in a 3-4
base, Pierre-Paul and Barrett get paid to rush the passer. So
while the duo's run defense grades are not awe-inspiring, it is
easy to overlook that when they have combined for 45.5 sacks in
two years together. Outside of the infamous game last season in
which Tyreek Hill burned him for three touchdowns, Davis was asked
to shadow relatively often and typically won that battle (Davante
Adams totaled seven catches for 64 yards and a TD in two matchups
against him, while Michael Thomas managed only two catches for
nine yards in his battles with Davis).
While Dean was a bit up-and-down despite his near-elite coverage
grade (78.6) - four of the five touchdowns surrendered in his
coverage came during a three-game stretch - he was more consistently
good during the playoffs. Murphy-Bunting followed a similar path.
The good news for Tampa Bay is none of them is even 25 years old.
However, the single biggest difference-maker for this defense
last year might have Winfield. Defenses that blitz as often as
DC Todd Bowles' units do usually need a very good free safety
to erase mistakes. More often than not, last year's second-round
draft pick did that. Odds are he'll push for a Pro Bowl appearance
Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and has appeared as a guest analyst on several national sports radio shows and podcasts, including Sirius XM's Fantasy Drive, FantasyPros and RealTime Fantasy Sports. He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.