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The Dirty Dozen - 2023 Edition

By Doug Orth | 11/30/23 |

Ten 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 few do it in much detail. Until this becomes a more common practice, there will be thousands of managers who will avoid matchups they should not and vice versa. Even in an era where teams play zone defense more than 70 percent of the time, it does not mean we cannot isolate the matchups that could help or hinder our fantasy receivers the most.

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 doing 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. Receivers expected to see less of him will be listed second or third.

New this season: I have included the percentage of snaps that each receiver lines up in the area that the cornerback usually defends. In other words, if a cornerback plays primarily lines up on the right side of the defense, the number to the side of the receiver indicates how often he lines up on the left side of the offense.

All coverage data courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

12. Devon Witherspoon, Seahawks (Passer Rating Against: 75.6)

* Has logged 313 of his 319 perimeter snaps at left cornerback and 295 in the slot.

Witherspoon has been just about everything Seattle hoped he would be when the Seahawks made in the fifth overall pick last spring. Since he was roughed up for 64 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut in Week 2, the rookie has yielded only two scores and an average of 22.9 yards in the following nine games. Witherspoon has not been a shutdown corner by any means - he has allowed 13 of 20 targets to be completed in his coverage for two touchdowns over the last four contests - but quarterbacks are only completing 50.9 percent of their throws in his direction for the season. Perhaps the best part of his game is that he has already emerged as the primary slot defender for Seattle. Among cornerbacks who have played at least 150 snaps in the slot, Witherspoon ranks second in passer rating allowed, which is a big deal when we consider that means he has lined up opposite players such as Adam Thielen, Ja'Marr Chase and Cooper Kupp and come away looking good. Given his pedigree as the best all-around corner in this most recent draft class, Witherspoon will likely only get better as the season progresses.

Week 13: CeeDee Lamb (61-19 slot-right)/Brandin Cooks (37-35 slot-right)

Week 14: Deebo Samuel (34-31 slot-right)/Brandon Aiyuk (23-34 slot-right)

Week 15: DeVonta Smith (32-30 slot-right)/A.J. Brown (42-22 slot-right)

Week 16: Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (51-28 slot-right)/DeAndre Hopkins (21-31 slot-right)

Week 17: Allen Robinson (73-13 slot-right)/Diontae Johnson (20-43 slot-right)

11. Ahkello Witherspoon, Rams (Passer Rating Against: 73.8)

* Has logged 492 of his 591 cornerback snaps on the left side.

Witherspoon was available in free agency well into the summer, eventually signing a one-year deal with the Rams on June 29 to serve mostly as a veteran presence for a young secondary. As it turns out, he may be playing himself into a big contract. It has not always been a smooth ride, however, as he rebounded from one of his worst games of the season in Week 11 (3-59-1 on five targets) with his best of the season in Week 12 (2-23-0 and three pass breakups on seven targets). Witherspoon is only allowing 48.2 percent of the passes in his coverage to be caught - a mark that ranks second among the cornerbacks who qualified for this list. He is also doing a fine job of limiting the damage when those targets are caught, as he ranks 11th in yards allowed after the catch with 99. Along with the man in the previous section (Devon Witherspoon), Ahkello is the only other player on this list who has surrendered at least three scores, so it is not as if he needs to be avoided in matchups (Dallas Goedert, Brandin Cooks and DK Metcalf are the players who have scored against him). He is best viewed as a poor matchup against middling receivers who line up on the right side of the offensive formation, but he is not a scary matchup for most of the receivers we consider to be top 25-30 options in fantasy.

Week 13: Amari Cooper/Cedric Tillman (35-31)
Week 14: Odell Beckham Jr./Zay Flowers (42-34)
Week 15: Terry McLaurin/Jahan Dotson (44-29)
Week 16: Chris Olave/Rashid Shaheed (40-23)
Week 17: Jalin Hyatt/Darius Slayton (40-39)

10. Charvarius Ward, 49ers (Passer Rating Against: 72.6)

* Has logged 576 of his 604 cornerback snaps on the left side.

If not for a Week 2 against the Rams in which he gave up 10 catches on 11 targets for 88 yards, Ward might be in play for No. 1 on this list. In the team's other 10 games, he has permitted only 29 catches on 59 targets (49.2 percent). The two touchdowns he has surrendered this season were even a bit fluky, as Jordan Addison ripped what could have easily been an interception in Week 7 and Andrei Iosivas scored on a play in which it appeared most of San Francisco's defense stopped prematurely on a play in the red zone the following week. Other than those two blemishes, Ward has held up very well despite being the seventh-most targeted corner in the league (70). He has two interceptions and ranks second in the league with 12 pass breakups - including eight in the last four games alone - although it is worth mentioning he is also tied for second in the league with three dropped interceptions. While Ward does not move off his LCB spot much, opponents are not getting much relief targeting RCB Deommodore Lenoir (86.6 passer rating allowed, zero TDs allowed). Either way, most receivers are likely in for a long day on the right side of the offensive formation when they face the 49ers.

Week 13: A.J. Brown/DeVonta Smith (42-37)
Week 14: Tyler Lockett/DK Metcalf (47-25)
Week 15: Michael Wilson/Marquise Brown (39-38)
Week 16: Odell Beckham Jr./Zay Flowers (42-34)
Week 17: Terry McLaurin/Jahan Dotson (44-29))

9. Brandon Stephens, Ravens (Passer Rating Against: 71.7)

* Has logged 601 snaps of his 742 cornerback snaps on the right side.

Stephens has the distinction of being the most targeted defender in the NFL through 12 weeks (83 targets). He is allowing a catch on 60.2 percent of those targets, which should raise an eyebrow as to why he is on this list and not on last week's countdown. It is a good question with a relatively simple answer: he has given up only one touchdown and 10.1 yards per catch - a mark that is tied for 12th among the cornerbacks who qualified for this list. Before running into the Keenan Allen buzz saw last week (five catches on five targets for 50 yards), Stephens was finally starting to see less action than he did throughout September and October. Over the previous three games, the SMU product had surrendered only five receptions on 11 targets for 37 yards and a touchdown. To his credit, Week 12 also marked the first time he allowed a completion rate higher than 55.6 percent in his coverage since Week 4. With the pass-rush success Baltimore is enjoying AND Marlon Humphrey playing at his usual high standard, Stephens can probably expect to remain the most targeted corner in the league. Fantasy managers do not necessarily have to avoid playing receivers that line up primarily on the left side of the offensive formation just because Stephens is usually there, but the Ravens' pass rush and defensive scheme make starting any non-elite receiver against them difficult.

Week 13: bye
Week 14: Tutu Atwell/Cooper Kupp (36-32)
Week 15: Calvin Ridley/Zay Jones (43-34)
Week 16: Brandon Aiyuk/Deebo Samuel (43-28)
Week 17: Jaylen Waddle/Tyreek Hill (39-28)

8. Kenny Moore, Colts (Passer Rating Against: 71.5)

* Has logged 484 of his 605 cornerback snaps in the slot.

Moore is a great example of how things can change drastically for defenders from one year to another, even if the coordinator and/or scheme remain the same. At this same point last year, Moore was No. 2 on The Delicious Dozen with a 123.6 passer rating allowed. Some parts of his profile have not changed, such as a high catch rate (76.3 percent and 255 yards after the catch in both seasons). The biggest difference might be that he did not start slow in 2023. Moore surrendered touchdowns in each of his first three games and four overall in 2022, but he has yet to give one up in 2023. He also failed to pick off a pass last season but has three this year. As one might be able to imagine for a player who has surrendered a catch on three of every four targets in his coverage, he has just one pass breakup for the season. If it was not already obvious, fantasy managers with receivers who see a lot of action in the slot do not need to fear Moore. What they do need to understand is that Moore has surrendered just one TD in his coverage over his last 20 games.

Week 13: Nick Westbrook-Ikhine/Chris Moore (51-24)
Week 14: Tyler Boyd/Ja'Marr Chase (86-25)
Week 15: Allen Robinson/Diontae Johnson (73-20)
Week 16: Scott Miller/Van Jefferson/Drake London (48-47-25)
Week 17: Hunter Renfrow/Jakobi Meyers (92-24)

7. Cam Taylor-Britt, Bengals (Passer Rating Against: 70.5)

* Has logged 228 snaps at left cornerback and 244 at right cornerback.

Taylor-Britt has allowed the most yards in his coverage (514) of any player on this list despite missing Week 12 with a quad injury, surrendering at least 60 yards in six of 10 outings. Interestingly, no cornerback who qualified for this list is targeted further down the field (16.9 - 1.1 yards more than second-place Ahkello Witherspoon). The primary reasons he appears on this list are his four interceptions and a catch rate allowed of 55.8 percent. Likely due in part to his targets being more down the field than other corners, he has only yielded 118 yards after the catch. While it is notable that his four picks this season have all come in the last six games, it is also important to point out that both of the touchdowns and four of the six biggest yardage totals for the season have as well. Considering he has not been targeted all that much relative to other high snap corners (52 targets ranks 29th among corners who qualified for this list), it may not take long for quarterbacks to test their luck with him more often despite his obvious playmaking ability. With Chidobe Awuzie struggling in 2023, D.J. Turner still proving himself and Taylor-Britt being a bit reliant on the big play, fantasy managers do not need to avoid the Cincinnati secondary.

Week 13: Calvin Ridley (40-43 right-left)/Zay Jones (36-34 right-left)

Week 14: Michael Pittman Jr. (37-34 right-left)/Alec Pierce (39-48 (right-left)

Week 15: Jordan Addison (43-32 right-left)/Justin Jefferson (31-44 right-left)

Week 16: Diontae Johnson (43-37 right-left)/George Pickens (43-43 right-left)

Week 17: Marquez Valdes-Scantling (39-29 right-left)/Justin Watson (38-30 right-left)

Darious Williams

6. Darious Williams, Jaguars (Passer Rating Against: 69.8)

* Has logged 390 snaps at left cornerback and 242 at right cornerback.

Jacksonville entered the season not knowing what it could count on at cornerback after Tyson Campbell. It turns out Williams has been the stalwart of the position group thus far while Campbell has struggled with injuries. Williams was mercilessly picked on by the Bills in Week 5 (10 catches on 13 targets for 165 yards) but that game is responsible for 27.8 percent of the receptions he has allowed, 21.7 percent of the time quarterbacks have thrown his way and 34.7 percent of the yards he has given up. In the last three weeks, he has only been targeted seven times. Even with the Buffalo game included, he has yielded more than 38 yards in just three games. He ranks 14th among qualified corners with 106 yards allowed after the catch, which is not bad considering Williams' size (5-9, 187) has long been considered one of his biggest liabilities. Perhaps the best part of his resume is that he gets his hands on the ball. In addition to his three interceptions, he leads the league with 13 pass breakups. As good as that sounds, he also leads the league with four dropped interceptions. Williams should not be considered a scary matchup for fantasy managers - although it would be hard to target his matchup with how often he moves around - but it seems clear receivers probably are not going to have a big day as a result of being in his coverage.

Week 13: Tee Higgins (44-39 right-left)/Ja'Marr Chase (35-39 right-left)
Week 14: Amari Cooper (35-40 right-left)/Cedric Tillman (31-27 right-left)
Week 15: Odell Beckham Jr. (43-45)/Zay Flowers (33-32 right-left)
Week 16: Chris Godwin (45-20 right-left)/Mike Evans (23-49 right-left)
Week 17: Jonathan Mingo (39-30 right-left)/DJ Chark (37-31 right-left)

5. L'Jarius Sneed, Chiefs (Passer Rating Against: 60.3)

* Has logged 344 snaps at left cornerback and 258 at right cornerback.

Sneed may finally be on the verge of getting his due as one of the league's top corners in his fourth season. Even after a game in which he lined up mostly against Davante Adams (four catches for 66 yards on six targets in their individual matchup and seven catches on 10 targets for 90 yards against every Raider pass-catcher), the 2020 fourth-round draft choice has surrendered a mere 36 catches for 342 yards and zero touchdowns on 56 targets in his coverage. Prior to Week 12, he had permitted only 67 yards over the last five games combined. He isn't giving up many free yards either; Week 12 (41) was the first time all season players in his coverage produced more than 21 yards after the catch. Sneed has done this despite following the other team's best receiver on occasion. For the season, quarterbacks are completing only 57.1 percent of their throws in his coverage. Sneed may be the first player on this list that fantasy managers should do their best to avoid with their non-elite options. Even the elite wideouts (Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle failed to catch any of their three targets against him in Week 9 and A.J. Brown settled for one catch and eight yards on four targets against him in Week 11, for example) need to be downgraded.

Week 13: Christian Watson (39-26 right-left)/Romeo Doubs (38-47 right-left)

Week 14: Stefon Diggs (36-33 right-left)/Gabe Davis (40-43 right-left)

Week 15: JuJu Smith-Schuster (36-24 right-left)/DeVante Parker (34-54 right-left)

Week 16: Davante Adams (33-55 right-left)/Jakobi Meyers (46-27 right-left)

Week 17: Tee Higgins (44-39 right-left)/Ja'Marr Chase (35-39 right-left)

4. Martin Emerson Jr., Browns (Passer Rating Against: 50.5)

* Has logged 496 of his 516 cornerback snaps on the right side.

As impressive as Emerson's rookie season was in 2022, he is playing at a higher level in 2023. The Mississippi State product is yielding a catch rate of 44.2 percent in his coverage and has yet to give up a touchdown after allowing four last season. Only once has he permitted more than three catches in a game, which has resulted in him giving up 19 for the season - the lowest number for any cornerback who qualified for this list. The 323 yards Emerson has surrendered in his coverage ranks 10th in that same group, while his 95 yards allowed after the catch ranks 10th. Just as impressive is the fact he has been targeted only 43 times in 11 games - seventh among qualifying corners - which is eight fewer than highly touted teammate Denzel Ward, who has played one less game and logged 44 fewer coverage snaps. Considering the rest of the league stopped attacking him after DK Metcalf mustered only four catches on 10 targets for 58 yards against him in Week 8, fantasy managers should probably avoid his primary matchup as well moving forward.

Week 13: Tutu Atwell/Cooper Kupp (36-32)
Week 14: Calvin Ridley/Zay Jones (43-34)
Week 15: D.J. Moore/Tyler Scott (48-39)
Week 16: Nico Collins/Tank Dell (45-31)
Week 17: Garrett Wilson/Jason Brownlee (41-31)

3. Paulson Adebo, Saints (Passer Rating Against: 45.7)

* Has logged 501 of his 536 cornerback snaps on the left side.

One season after allowing quarterbacks to post a 123.6 passer rating on 69 throws in his coverage, Adebo has been considerably better this year - especially since Week 7. He has been good for an average of one pass breakup per week over that five-game span, which is the same period of time in which he has recorded three of his four interceptions for the season. The former third-round pick ranks 12th among qualified cornerbacks in fewest yards allowed (331) and is tied for sixth in fewest yards allowed after the catch (93). He is also one of only seven qualified corners who has yet to give up a touchdown, joining Sneed, Moore and Emerson as the players from this list who have achieved that feat. Opponents have enjoyed a bit more success against him of late, however, as pass-catchers have hauled in 12 of 16 targets over the last three contests. Considering Tyson Bagent, Joshua Dobbs and Desmond Ridder were the quarterbacks that New Orleans faced in those games, perhaps Adebo is a bit too high on this list. While fantasy managers do not need to go overboard in avoiding Adebo's primary matchup, it is fair to wonder if at least a couple of the Saints' upcoming opponents (Panthers in Week 14, Giants in Week 15) have the personnel to challenge him.

Week 13: Josh Reynolds/Jameson Williams (32-30)
Week 14: Jonathan Mingo/DJ Chark (39-37)
Week 15: Jalin Hyatt/Darius Slayton (40-39)
Week 16: Puka Nacua/Tutu Atwell (44-22)
Week 17: Chris Godwin/Mike Evans (45-23)

2. Jaylon Johnson, Bears (Passer Rating Against: 37.7)

* Has logged 284 snaps at left cornerback and 258 at right cornerback.

Even though his year-end totals from his first three seasons do not show it, Johnson has dabbled with greatness on what has been a bad defense throughout his NFL career. Although it figures to be another non-playoff year for the Bears in 2023, the 24-year-old may be on the verge of being recognized as one of the best at his position in the league. He has not surrendered more than three catches in his coverage during a game all season long. Johnson has not given up more than 22 yards in his coverage since Week 2 and has surrendered a league-low (among qualified corners) 162 for the season. Since that Week 2 outing, Johnson has permitted only 16 catches on 32 targets for 88 yards and one touchdown versus three interceptions. Quarterbacks are completing only 50 percent of their passes in his coverage. Of the 40 targets he has faced, only one of them resulted in a play of more than 16 yards. Johnson already has a career-high three interceptions. While it will be hard to predict who his primary matchup will be from week to week, Johnson is now a cornerback that fantasy managers should try to avoid.

Week 13: bye

Week 14: Josh Reynolds (32-29 right-left)/Jameson Williams (30-36 right-left)

Week 15: Amari Cooper (35-40 right-left)/Cedric Tillman (31-27 right-left)

Week 16: Marquise Brown (38-42 right/left)/Michael Wilson (39-33 right-left)

Week 17: Drake London (29-46 right/left)/Van Jefferson (27-26 right-left)

1. DaRon Bland, Cowboys (Passer Rating Against: 36.9)

* Has logged 467 of his 470 perimeter snaps at right cornerback.

There is a good chance by now most of America is familiar with Bland's handiwork. He has already returned a league-record five of his league-high seven interceptions for touchdowns. Perhaps the most fascinating part of his emergence is that he started the season as the team's primary slot corner before Trevon Diggs tore his ACL in practice before the team's Week 3 game. Bland has tallied four of his picks over the last five games, three of which he has returned for a score. With that said, he is far from a "lucky guy." Quarterbacks are only completing 52.5 percent of their throws in his coverage, while nearly a third of the yards he has allowed (122 of 353) came in the team's Thanksgiving Day rout of the Commanders. Bland also comes with the incredibly rare distinction of having more than twice as many yards after the catch (interception return yards) than the men he has guarded (209-102). As a result of playing opposite Stephon Gilmore, quarterbacks will likely continue trying their luck with Bland until Gilmore shows signs of a decline. The great thing for Bland is that he should be able to continue playing aggressively since Dallas' pass rush removes much of the fear of getting beat deep. Bland (and Gilmore, for that matter) is not an avoid-at-all-costs matchup for managers, but there is little to no chance of a ceiling outcome for receivers facing the Cowboys' defense this season.

Week 13: DK Metcalf/Tyler Lockett (59-19)
Week 14: DeVonta Smith/A.J. Brown (37-36)
Week 15: Gabe Davis/Stefon Diggs (43-33)
Week 16: Jaylen Waddle/Tyreek Hill (39-28)
Week 17: Jameson Williams/Josh Reynolds (36-29)

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.