Pro Football Focus: Advanced WR/CB Matchups – Week 1

We have finally made it guys. Week 1 is here and I couldn’t be more excited.

I hope you all had as profitable a preseason as I did, but after stretching my legs with that appetizer, I’m ready to move onto the main course with the regular season. Unlike other sports, the 17-week NFL season is a sprint compared to the marathon-esque 162 played in baseball. As such, we need to take advantage of all the information and statistics at our disposal to our advantage.

It is my goal to bring you that advantage in this weekly column, highlighting the best WR/CB matchups as my ProFootballFocus colleague Scott Barrett did last year. Given all the tools and data we have at our disposal at PFF, we can find ways to spot plus matchups that others may be overlooking. It’s my goal to present these “hidden gems” to you all at FanVice, as well as how to approach the studs at the wide receiver position in regards to targeting and fading them. Without any further ado, let’s dive into it:

Studs to Target

Julio Jones vs Marcus Cooper – Julio initially had a nice matchup against Prince Amukamara but now draws a great one against Marcus Cooper given Amukamara’s questionable status for Sunday. Cooper has bounced around from team to team over the last few years and now finds himself in Chicago. Last year, Cooper was our 108th-ranked cornerback out of 119 qualifying. He allowed the 15th-most fantasy points per reception and somehow finds himself spending most of his afternoon on Sunday lined up against one of the league’s best wide receivers in Julio Jones.

Over the past three years, Julio has averaged a league-high 20.9 DK points per game on the road, and we should see new HC Steve Sarkisian actively trying to find ways to get Jones matched up against Cooper in this one. The only thing to worry about this game is pace, where the Bears ran the third-fewest plays per game last year and didn’t allow opposing offenses a ton of snaps. Atlanta was right there with Chicago, ranking seventh in this category, but Julio has the ability to score on just about any play. Julio is likely best utilized as a tournament option given the lack of dependable volume in the season opener.

A.J. Green vs Jimmy Smith – A.J. Green is hands-down my favorite wide receiver to pay up for this week given the history he has against this Baltimore secondary, particularly Jimmy Smith. Green put up a collective 14 catches, 261 yards, and three touchdowns in his two matches against Jimmy Smith back in 2015 when these two last faced each other healthy. Green ran 78% of his routes from the outside last year, bouncing back and forth left and right, and should get plenty of opportunities against the stationary Smith (86% right). He ranked second in yards per route run (2.86), seventh in WR Rating (116.3), and led all wideouts in fantasy points per game (20.7) excluding his two-snap game in Week 11. Smith on the other hand, finished as our 47th-ranked cornerback.

While most of the time we want to target the corners at the lower range, we won’t get always get that on a weekly basis. Given Green’s history against Smith, we can reasonably project him for double-digit targets with one of the highest ceilings at the wide receiver position this week. Only the Packers allowed more receiving touchdowns to wideouts than the Ravens last year.

Doug Baldwin vs Damarious Randall – Targeting the Packers’ secondary was a fruitful exercise last year in making money, with the unit allowing the most receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and fantasy points to opposing wideouts. While GM Ted Thompson did address the secondary in the draft with some of his early picks, there are still quite a lot of players to upgrade. One of them is slot cornerback, Damarious Randall. Randall allowed a whopping 0.48 fantasy points per route defended (third-worst) and 2.02 yards per reception (fourth-worst). He was our No. 116 graded corner out of 119. Baldwin is coming off a 94-catch, 1,128-yard, 7-touchdown season.

Over the last two years playing against the Packers in Green Bay, Baldwin has scored 22.2 DK points and 10.6 points. Vegas has this game projected as the highest total of the week (51 points) with the Seahawks as 3-point road dogs. I’m expecting a ton of Baldwin and Paul Richardson in this one, with Baldwin scoring another 20-plus point outing against the Packers.

Studs to Fade

Dez Bryant vs Janoris Jenkins – Dez has a tough first Week 1 matchup against Janoris Jenkins. Last year Dez averaged 2.06 YPRR versus all cornerbacks when not playing the Giants. That was sixth-highest in the league. It dropped down to 0.21 YPRR in Weeks 1 and 14 when playing NYG. For some perspective, out of all 196 WRs to catch a pass last year, that 0.21 would’ve ranked 194th.

Dez was held to two catches for 18 yards on 14 targets across those two contests. Jenkins is expected to shadow Dez in this one and presents one of the easiest fades of the week. That being said, this is a widely anticipated and popularized view of this game. Dez should come in at considerably low ownership if you’re looking to play a stark contrarian angle. No wide receiver has scored more touchdowns than Dez since he entered the league in 2010.

T.Y. Hilton vs Nickel Robey-Coleman – With a name like Nickel Robey-Coleman, NRC was born to defend the slot in nickel packages. He’ll be given the task of taking on last year’s receiving yardage leader in T.Y. Hilton in Week 1. Hilton ran 57 percent of his routes from the slot last year and should draw a considerable amount of Robey-Coleman in this one. NRC allowed just 0.21 fantasy points per route defended last year, top-12 in the league. He also didn’t allow a single touchdown to a receiver last season. Hilton will be tasked with the unenviable chore of trying to bail out quarterback Scott Tolzien in a game where the Colts are 3-point road dogs. It wouldn’t shock me if Tolzien became a checkdown machine and avoids throwing 50/50 balls to the 5’-9” Hilton. Save your money and safely fade this one.

DeAndre Hopkins vs Jalen Ramsey – Another wideout with a ceiling capped due to quarterback play is DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has averaged 12.9 PPR points against the Jaguars over the course of his career compared to 14.3 against everyone else. He could be in for an even worse outing against Jacksonville given all the defensive upgrades they added. Hopkins will draw second-year corner Jalen Ramsey who is already making a name for himself at a tough position.

Ramsey allowed just a 51 percent catch rate last year as a rookie – only 12 corners did better. One of those 12 happened to be new teammate A.J. Bouye who will man the right side and just present one more reason to fade Hopkins in this one. Ramsey is likely going to shadow Hopkins in this one and it could spell trouble for a receiver who is coming off a 2016 season where his catch rate was an abysmal 51.7 percent.

Values & Hidden Gems

Larry Fitzgerald vs Quandre Diggs – Larry Fitzgerald is by no means a hidden gem this week, but he’s a tremendous value on both sites. Fitzgerald will run most of his routes out of the slot against Quandre Diggs, who was one of our worst-ranked slot cornerbacks last season. Diggs was thrown at 46 times last season, yielding a whopping 91.3 percent completion percentage. It was the highest completion percentage we’ve ever seen in the PFF era. As such, the Lions gave up the most PPR fantasy points per game to opposing slot wide receivers last season. We know that 34-year old Fitzgerald runs red-hot in the month of September. He’s finished as the WR8 through the first four weeks of 2016 and as the WR2 through the first four weeks of 2015. His legs won’t be any fresher than they will be in Week 1. He makes for a terrific play in cash games.

Kelvin Benjamin vs Rashard Robinson – I’m a big advocate of game-stacking in tournaments. One of the heaviest games I’ll be stacking is the CAR-SF game. When these two teams played each other last year (Week 2), Newton threw four passing touchdowns and racked up 34.8 DK points. His top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, is in a plus-matchup that isn’t being talked about widely enough. Benjamin has a whopping four inches of height and 68 pounds over Robinson. For my fellow size-speed-metric freaks reading this, Benjamin should absolutely bully Robinson around on Sunday. Robinson was our 85th-ranked cornerback last year and was credited with three touchdowns allowed last year. Two of which were against the Buccaneers (one being against another size-speed freak in Mike Evans) and the other was against 6’-5”, 254-pound TE Luke Willson. Benjamin looks to be a very safe play that should have volume and touchdown upside in his corner, and isn’t being talked about widely in DFS circles.

Stefon Diggs vs Sterling Moore – For anyone playing games that include the Monday slate, Stefon Diggs has piqued my interest as a guy to target now that he’ll be playing a lot more snaps on the outside. Diggs ran 64 percent of his routes from the slot last year, but the team wants to put Adam Thielen in that role and slide Diggs to the outside. That should mean a ton of Sterling Moore for Diggs on MNF. Moore was a middling cornerback by our grading system, finishing as the No. 67 corner in 2016. He gave up a 64 percent catch rate to opposing wide receivers last year and 1.22 YPRR. Both of those numbers are completely exploitable by a receiver like Diggs who was lights-out when healthy and not on the injury report. When not listed with any ailing injuries last year, Diggs averaged 18.9 PPR points and saw at least seven targets in every one of those eight games. Diggs is entering the season now as healthy as he’ll likely ever be this year. Fire him up in lineups with confidence this week.