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: This is another case where
PFF's grades fail to line up with the overall (lack of) success
of a unit. To be fair, however, injuries did ravage this defense.
Purcell reverted to being just an above-average run defender in
2020 after an elite 2019 campaign in that area. That is not a surprising
revelation considering Miller was not around to strike fear into
opponents. Harris is one of the better defensive linemen flying
under the radar in the league and should benefit from a healthy
Miller as well. Jones appears to be following down the same path
as Harris, making it possible Denver is destined to turn around
last year's fortunes against the run.
Johnson and Jewell may well be the weakest parts of this defense,
although that is more of a nod to the talent on this defense and
less of a knock on them. Either way, if Purcell has another 2019
season left in him, the Broncos should experience a dramatic improvement
against the run.
Sub: Fangio's defenses tend to focus more on excelling
in coverage than stopping the run, and that belief was pounded home
again with the selection of Surtain this spring. One year after
being rocked by injuries to the secondary, the Broncos may have
the deepest group of quality cornerbacks in the league. Fuller is
familiar with Fangio from their days together in Chicago and should
open the season as the top corner on this defense. Darby joins the
team after a surprisingly great year with Washington. Surtain may
not open the season as a starter, but he will almost certainly overtake
Darby at some point along the way. Even if Darby somehow holds him
off all year, good luck trying to find a better third or fourth
corner than Surtain in the league. When Callahan has been healthy,
he has been one of the league's best slot defenders.
Although Simmons got beat for seven touchdowns in 2020 after
giving up eight over his first four seasons combined, he made
opponents nearly as often with a career-high five interceptions
and is still one of the best safeties in the business. Jackson
is a former corner who has been mostly exceptional in coverage
- even more so than Simmons. As well as all of these players graded
out last season, this pass defense could become the best unit
in the NFL if Miller and Chubb stay on the field. While the Broncos
may not have an elite corner or safety per se, there is so much
high-end talent in the defensive backfield that Denver should
be considered a negative matchup for all but the most elite receivers
Base: Regardless of whether or not
Jarran Reed is a three-down player this year, his arrival gives
this defensive line some quality interior depth that it lacked in
2020. Nnadi gets the nod here over Reed and Tershawn Wharton on
early downs because of his obvious run-stopping ability, but Reed
will easily play more snaps than the other two if he stays healthy
because opponents will be chasing points against the Chiefs most
weeks. Jones may not be quite as good stopping in the run as he
is rushing the passer, but he is also no slouch either.
The one thing this defense cannot have outside of an injury to
Jones is losing Clark for any length of time. He is the one Chiefs
defender outside of Jones capable of striking fear into offensive
linemen, and his off-field problems have to be concerning for
the Chiefs. Bolton should provide an immediate boost in the run
game. Gay graded out reasonably well for a rookie against the
run, but he only played about 15 snaps/game. Hitchens is known
more for his coverage abilities than run-stopping exploits. Any
improvement this defense makes against the run figures to be a
product of the depth they have now at defensive tackle. As such,
fantasy owners can expect a modest improvement against the run.
Sub: Kansas City has done an exceptional job finding
starting corners at a minimal cost. Sneed is a 2020 fourth-round
pick that played about as well as any rookie corner did last season.
Ward is a former undrafted free agent who has been a respectable
cover man in his two-plus seasons with the team. He is the "softer"
matchup of the two but that's not to say he is a plus-matchup either.
Fenton was part of Kansas City's revolving door approach at slot
corner and figures to see plenty of work when DC Steve Spagnuolo
prefers to keep Mathieu in center field. Mike Hughes is a former
first-round pick of the Vikings who just hasn't been able to stay
on the field. If he can finally stay healthy, he could push Ward
for a starting job.
Thornhill took a bit of a step back in 2020, although it is fair
to wonder if his late 2019 ACL tear played a role in that. Before
the injury, he was starting to make an impression as a safety
with significant range. As their usage above suggests, Mathieu
and Sorensen are more "defensive weapons" than true
safeties. Mathieu played in the slot more often than any other
Chief in 2020 but proved to be a bit less of a sure thing in coverage
than in recent years despite a career-high six interceptions.
Sorensen is more of a box safety with safety and slot corner capabilities,
although he is at his best in a part-time role. So, much like
the run defense, expect much of the same this year. The biggest
difference is quality depth at each level, meaning the defense
should be able to avoid a total collapse if key injuries strike
Base: TWhile mass does not mean everything up
front, Hankins (340 pounds) is about the only defensive lineman
poised for significant playing time that has some of it. The rest
of the defense has been built to slow down passing games, which
obviously does not bode well for Las Vegas improving on last year's
run defense marks. The 267-pound Ferrell was drafted No. 4 overall
in 2019 and took a bit of a step forward across the board last
year, but he may need to move inside on passing downs to make
room for the team's best pass rushers (Ngakoue and Crosby). Ngakoue's
contract will keep him on the field for all three downs, but his
246-pound frame tends to make him a bit of a liability stopping
Jefferson was good against the run toward the end of his stay
in Seattle but graded out poorly in that area last year with Buffalo,
which likely contributed to his release from the Bills. As their
grades suggest, Littleton, Kwiatkoski and Morrow are better in
coverage than against the run. Sadly, Littleton's play was dreadful
in both areas in 2020 after a banner 2019 campaign. New DC Gus
Bradley is not known for being overly aggressive either. Put it
all together and Las Vegas looks ripe for the picking against
opposing rushing attacks again.
Sub: The Raiders probably will not be significantly
better against the pass in 2021, but there is reason to expect a
modest improvement. Littleton and Kwiatkoski have strong reputations
for being good in coverage. Hayward should be a noticeable upgrade
over Arnette, who appeared overmatched at times as a rookie, even
though he isn't the stalwart he once was. Lawson played more snaps
in the slot than any other Raider last season and has reportedly
impressed Bradley so far during offseason practices.
Moehrig was arguably the best safety prospect in the draft this
spring and should emerge as a long-term answer in center field,
even if he is picked on as a rookie this fall. Abram was terrible
in coverage last season, which was effectively his rookie season
since he missed all but one game in 2019. Considering Abram has
graded out decently against the run so far in his career and loves
laying the wood to ball carriers, perhaps Bradley will leave him
in the box more often. All told, the Raiders should be a plus-matchup
for receivers and tight ends - maybe not so much for running backs
- unless Hayward can turn back the clock.
Base: It doesn't get much better than Bosa at
one defensive end spot. Entering his age-26 season, Bosa may have
another two or three elite seasons left in him. Joseph was added
last season to stuff the run and continued to do that reasonably
well. However, Jones is clearly the second-best lineman on the
team now after breaking out in 2020. Melvin Ingram declined steadily
against the run over his final two seasons with the Chargers and
apparently will not return to the team. While it is likely Los
Angeles can find a viable replacement for him on early downs,
that "viable replacement" on passing downs is not currently
on the roster.
Tillery has looked nothing like the versatile disruptor he was
in college as a pro and will again be a player opponents target
in the running game. Nwosu (251 pounds) is a bit undersized to
play defensive end full-time or else the Chargers may have already
moved on from Tillery. The biggest improvement Los Angeles can
make against the run rests on the shoulders of Murray and the
health of James. Like many rookies last season, Murray had an
up-and-down year. If a full offseason allows him to display the
kind of tenacity he showed while at Oklahoma, then the efforts
of Bosa, Joseph and Jones against the run may not be wasted. If
James can simply stay on the field, the Chargers could push for
a top-10 finish in run defense.
Sub: Two reasons new HC Brandon Staley's defense
worked so well for the Rams were Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
Staley has a foundation piece up front now with Bosa, but he doesn't
have a Ramsey clone yet. What he has are some potentially nice
pieces in Samuel and James. With Harris looking as if he is in
decline, the Chargers would be thrilled if Samuel quickly turns
into the kind of corner his father was and nails down a starting
spot. James has played just five games since his wonderful rookie
season in 2018. It should come as no shock if Staley uses him
in the same way he did John Johnson with the Rams - part linebacker,
party deep safety and part slot man. If James can avoid yet another
devastating injury, Staley will make sure he is a nightmare for
Adderley's struggles to this point of his pro career are somewhat
surprising, but one would think the upgrade from Gus Bradley to
Staley might just be what the doctor ordered for his career. Davis
was the best cornerback on the roster last year and should benefit
from the coaching change as well. After all, Darious Williams
went from an afterthought during his short stay in Baltimore to
a worthy sidekick to Ramsey. Staley may not be a miracle worker,
but he will almost certainly be more creative with his play calls
than Bradley ever was during his stint with the Chargers. Along
with the health of James, the change from Bradley to Staley may
be all it takes for the Chargers to become a top-10 defense.
Base: When Watt has played something resembling
a full season in his career, he has never earned a run defense
grade lower than 79.3. The last Arizona defensive lineman to do
hit that mark in any year was Calais Campbell in 2016. His presence
is a huge boon to the run defense as well as the pass rush. Allen
should benefit as a result, but it may not matter if Fotu or Jordan
Phillips struggle to hold their ground in the middle of the line
for a second straight season.
Jones (biceps) and Golden were average at best against the run,
but as has been noted several times already in this series, it
is rare to see a 3-4 OLB grade well against the run since their
primary focus is usually rushing the passer. Simmons and Collins
figured to benefit the most from Watt's presence against the run.
Arizona's last two first-round picks arguably form the most athletic
inside linebacker duo in the league, so getting that extra lineman
tied up with Watt instead of trying to track them down should
go a long way toward making the rush defense even better.
Sub: Simmons and Collins' biggest contribution
will undoubtedly be what they do in the passing game. Both players
have the speed and size to hang with the most athletic tight ends
in the league, even if Simmons didn't always show that as a rookie.
Collins was a very good blitzer in college, which leaves DC Vance
Joseph with plenty of ways to get creative with his pressure packages.
Baker has been a stud on this defense from almost the time he became
a full-time player halfway through his rookie season in 2017, but
that is about where the good news ends for this pass defense.
Even though Patrick Peterson is no longer in his prime, he was
easily the best cornerback on the roster. His departure to the
Vikings leaves the 31-year-old Butler and Murphy as the top corners.
Murphy was significantly better in 2020 than he was as a rookie
one year earlier but will need to take another similar leap forward
before the team can feel rest easy about Peterson's departure.
Dennard has struggled to stay healthy recently and is on his third
team in three years as a result. He was mostly inconsistent last
season with the Falcons, and it is fair to wonder if he'll be
trusted to be anything more than a third corner in Arizona. Thompson
has graded out as a middle-of-the-road safety through two seasons
in part-time duty, so it is easy to believe he will be further
exposed if forced into more of a full-time role.
Base: Every game plan begins with trying to
neutralize Donald. Virtually all of them have failed. He is the
engine that drives this defense. As long as he is in his prime,
the Rams will probably be a top-five defense. Robinson has a terrible
year in 2020, and it would appear that he knows it based on how
much he trimmed
down this offseason. He will need to be up to the challenge
of replacing Michael Brockers because there is not a ton of quality
depth up front. While Joseph-Day undoubtedly benefited from playing
next to Donald, his second-year breakout was not a fluke. He will
not be the second coming of Ndamukong Suh in this defense, but
he doesn't need to be either. As long as he can hold the point
and maintain the same two-gap discipline he showed last year,
he should consistently grade out well for the foreseeable future.
Things get a bit murkier at linebacker, however. How many of Brandon
Staley's defensive concepts will new HC Raheem Morris keep? Last
year, the Rams used a single linebacker on about 46 percent of
their defensive snaps and two linebackers on 47 percent of the
snaps. Under Staley, Los Angeles used creative solutions such
and Tite Fronts that have become popular in the college game.
Both concepts featured one linebacker (Floyd) - an edge player
as opposed to a coverage backer in the Rams' case - and took advantage
of the team's depth at cornerback and safety. Thus, Los Angeles
is only masquerading as a 3-4 defense. The inside linebackers
(Reeder and Kiser) rarely ever played together - injuries contributed
to that - but it seems reasonable to believe both will be part-time
players in 2021 if Morris keeps things as they are.
Sub: Perhaps the most interesting question that
needs an answer is if Morris will keep Ramsey in the "star"
position he held under Staley, who tasked the stud cornerback with
the responsibility of shutting down the opposition's top threat.
Those responsibilities could change on a play-by-play basis (receiver
on one play, a tight end on the next, etc.) and Ramsey handled them
exceptionally. Williams flourished in a full-time role and finished
as a top-12 cover corner per PFF. While Ramsey will not always shadow
and Williams will not always guard the other team's second receiver,
the latter proved he is a dangerous playmaker in his own right (59.9
passer rating allowed).
The Rams took a committee approach guarding the slot, as Ramsey
led the way with 169 snaps there and LB Kenny Young finished second
(118). Orr played 45 of his 46 snaps in the slot with the Titans
last year, so he gets the nod above. Look for the primary slot
defender to be targeted early and often regardless of who ends
up with the job. Los Angeles took a big hit when John Johnson
left for the Browns, and it is not exactly clear who will replace
him since Fuller and Rapp were fighting for the same job opposite
Johnson in 2020. The most likely answer both will start and share
Base: Injuries wrecked several defenses across
the league. San Francisco was easily one of the hardest-hit teams
in that regard. Bosa (14 missed games), Richard Sherman (11),
Tartt (nine), Dee Ford (15) and a host of reserves were unable
to go for large parts of the season, while Kinlaw was thrust into
an impossible situation in which he basically had to replace DeForest
Buckner as a rookie with no offseason. If ever a team deserved
a pass for the amount of red on its grade chart, it would probably
be the 49ers. While Kinlaw will likely scare more quarterbacks
than running backs as he develops over the next year or two, there
is almost no chance he comes close to repeating his 46.9 run defense
grade in 2020.
Armstead just missed finishing in the green against the run last
year, while Bosa has established himself as one of the better
defensive all-around ends in the league. Kerr has consistently
stuffed the run over the last four seasons. While it helps that
he is so typically well protected by his defensive line, Warner
has emerged as a top-five linebacker in the league and is yet
another reason San Francisco should stuff the run even better
than it did in 2020. Greenlaw was unable to build on a solid 2019
but is far from a weak link. The other linebacker job might end
up being a battle between Azeez Al-Shaair and Ebukan. The 49ers
ran two-linebacker packages on about two-thirds of their defensive
snaps last year, so the winner of the aforementioned battle will
be a part-time player and not overly relevant to this discussion.
Sub: As good as Warner is, he excels in coverage.
(It's not a coincidence running backs tallied only 73 catches
against San Francisco last year, nor is it a coincidence the 49ers
were the worst fantasy matchup for tight ends.) To this point
of the offseason, Sherman has yet to decide on where he will play.
Assuming it is not San Francisco, his absence is a big deal for
new DC Demeco Ryans. Verrett stayed healthy for the most part
last year and lived up to the promise he flashed on the rare occasion
he wasn't hurt earlier in his career, but San Francisco could
be in big trouble if he misses significant time again and Sherman
doesn't come back. Williams didn't play up to his 2019 level in
the slot last year, but he's been good enough there for long enough
that quarterbacks won't go out of their way to target him too
Johnson and Moseley seem like they have been battling for the
other starting job opposite Sherman with the 49ers for some time.
While both have shown some promise, neither one has nailed down
the job long-term - making the left cornerback slot a likely target
for quarterbacks. Ward appears to have moved past the injury woes
that dogged him for the better part of his first five pro seasons;
he is another key reason why tight ends did not do particularly
well against the Niners last year. Tartt is somewhat exploitable
in coverage, but he has rarely been healthy enough for long enough
to make a final determination on him.
Base: Theoretically, the Seahawks should be even
stouter against the run than they were last season with a long-time
solid run-stuffer in Woods replacing Jarran Reed. Ford (5-11,
310) has just the kind of fire hydrant build many coaches want
in their defensive tackles because he is so hard to get leverage
on and move off his spot. Hyder holds up better against the run
than Dunlap, but both men are paid more for their ability to put
heat on the quarterback. They are the best pair of bookend defensive
ends Seattle has employed in some time.
Wagner continues to play at a level that may warrant him a permanent
spot in Canton one day, although his coverage grade has fallen
off a bit in recent years. Brooks really struggled in coverage
despite standing out in that area in college (coverage grade of
29.8 in 2020), but his run defense grade was more than acceptable
for a rookie (68.6). Seattle has yet to decide on K.J. Wright,
likely leaving the team with a choice between Ben Burr-Kirven
(11 snaps in 2020) or Barton (54.5 run defense grade). The winner
of that battle figures to be the weakest link of the base defense
by a wide margin.
* - Played 16 total snaps in 2019, did
not play in 2020
Sub: Shaquill Griffin's departure was a blow
to this secondary. The signing of Smith could minimize the impact
if he can stay on the field though as a third capable pass-rusher.
Witherspoon played well for the most part when he was on the field
in 2020, but 11 missed games in the last two seasons are cause
for concern. Reed stepped into the starting lineup around midseason
for an injured Flowers and played so well that he kept the job
when Flowers returned for the playoffs. Reed's solid play was
at least a small part of the defensive turnaround the Seahawks
enjoyed over the final two months. Amadi appears to have a solid
grasp on the slot job, but he will undoubtedly be the most targeted
cornerback on the field for Seattle if Witherspoon and Reed play
to the level they did a year ago.
The Seahawks have shown patience with Flowers in his long-term
transition from college safety to cornerback, but the selection
of Tre Brown this spring may be a hint the team is on the verge
of moving on. Adams is the new breed of safety in the NFL - part
linebacker, part safety and occasional slot defender. His 9.5
sacks last year is an NFL record for a defensive back and should
indicate to casual observers just how many areas of the field
he affects. Diggs was a Pro Bowler last year - mostly on the strength
of his five interceptions - but he appears to have settled in
as a slightly above-average center fielder. There is a chance
for him to change that perception, however, as this offseason
will be his first with Seattle (traded during the season in 2019
combined with last year's unusual offseason).
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.