An integral factor in finding value at the wide receiver position is determining who will line up opposite them at the line of scrimmage. This can be difficult to predict because some cornerbacks shadow specific players, or because some wide receivers motion from their initial position. But there are statistics we can examine to aid our decision-making.
To help formulate a recipe for success, I’ll be looking at overall fantasy points allowed to the wide receivers last season, using Pro Football Focus’ CB coverage rankings, as well as Football Outsider’s breakdown of defenses against opposing team’s WR #1, WR #2, and WR #3+ (any wide receiver that wasn’t #1 or #2). Since this data is referencing 2016 performance, I’ll make sure to hit on any personnel or scheme changes for the upcoming season.
San Francisco 49ers
Big plays were a plentiful against San Francisco 49ers last season, as the Niners allowed the 25th most catches to opposing wideouts with 188, but ended up allowing the 5th most fantasy points and 3rd most touchdowns to the position. It likely won’t get better this upcoming year, as the returning corners all fall outside the Top 65 in coverage rating, and this year’s third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon has a chance to see significant time on the outside. ESPN’s Mike Clay rated them as the worst cornerback unit in the league for 2017, as their depth is just as questionable as their talent. WR1 had the most success in 2016, racking up nearly eight targets and 72 yards per game. It’s unknown whether the big play frequency will carry over to the upcoming season, but targeting explosive WR1’s should lead to success once again in 2017.
New Orleans Saints
Cornerback depth remains a big concern for the Saints entering 2017. New Orleans used its 11th overall pick to select Marshon Lattimore out of Ohio State, but he’s currently sidelined with a knee injury and hasn’t played in either preseason game. It isn’t considered a long-term injury, but Lattimore is expected to be their best cover corner (even as a rookie) and he could take some time to adjust to the NFL. The Saints really struggled against WR3’s last season, allowing a league high 70 yards per game. This is where their depth plays a huge role, as teams are constantly throwing out 3-WR sets to keep up with Drew Brees’ high-powered offense. New Orleans allowed the 5th most receptions to opposing wideouts with 224, which likely won’t change with the circumstances looking similar to 2016.
New head coach Sean McDermott inherits a defense that looks completely different than a season ago. They lost or traded their top three coverage corners and currently don’t have a defensive back ranked inside the top 70 in terms of coverage skills, other than safety Micah Hyde. Buffalo hopes Tre’Davious White can immediately have an impact in his rookie season, but the LSU product will have a learning curve to conquer and not much help behind him. Shareece Wright, Leonard Johnson, and E.J. Gaines are all well below average in terms of coverage rating, and Johnson and Gaines both have coverage grades of 37, good enough to put them outside the Top 100 of PFF’s cornerback rankings. The free safety opposite Hyde will be either Jordan Poyer or Bacarri Rambo, who both have coverage ratings outside the top 75. Buffalo might be fine against the run, but they’re set up to be extremely vulnerable against the aerial attack.
New York Jets
Morris Claiborne is coming off his best season with the Cowboys, but likely won’t make a huge difference in the Jets’ secondary. He’ll likely improve their success against WR1’s, as the Jets allowed the 8th most yards per game to the opponent’s top option last season. However, the talent level drops significantly with Marcus Williams and Buster Skrine, who are both below average coverage corners. Justin Burris could get more snaps after earning an average rating on 109 coverage snaps last season, but Gang Green’s depth is still lacking. At least the media won’t have Darrelle Revis (now a free agent) to kick around anymore. Todd Bowles will start the Jets’ two rookie safeties, good experience for the future but not so great for the right now. New York allowed the 6th most yards to the WR3+ position last year, and I anticipate everyone outside opposing WR1’s will have great success against a young, unproven secondary. The only saving grace is the Jets’ great defensive line which might limit exposure in the back end.
Los Angeles Rams
While the Rams excelled at holding opposing WR1’s to just 7.2 targets and 53 yards last season, their secondary remained exploitable at other positions. Los Angeles corners ranked 4th and 2nd worst against WR2 and WR3+ matchups a season ago, respectively. They signed former Bills DB Nickell Robey-Coleman to handle slot duties, but the WR2 position will likely still give them trouble this season with Lamarcus Joyner transitioning to free safety. The Rams finished 2016 having allowed the 4th most points to opposing WR’s, and while Trumaine Johnson clocks in as a Top 25 corner, they remain susceptible on the other side of the field. Also, if Aaron Donald continues his lockout into the season, the Rams will lose their best pass rusher, resulting in corners having to cover longer which will lead to more targets and yards for opposing WRs.
Mark Dankenbring (affectionately known as Dank) graduated from Miami University (OH) with degrees in Sports Management and Business Analytics. He’s been playing fantasy sports for nearly 10 years and has started to invest much of his time playing DFS since his graduation in May of 2017. He’s a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan and currently lives in Cincinnati, OH. Follow him on Twitter @MarkDank.