Freedman’s Full Wild Card Weekend WR/CB Matchup Breakdown
Joe Sargent/Getty Images. Pictured: Steelers WRs JuJu Smith-Schuster (left) and Diontae Johnson.
Wide receiver-cornerback showdowns might be the most important individual matchups in football.
In this piece, I leverage snap data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) to project NFL Wild Card Weekend WR/CB matchups, especially shadow situations.
For more, see the FantasyLabs Matchups page, where we provide basic and advanced data — including fantasy and red-zone performance — for each offensive skill-position player based on his matchup.
As we get more clarity during the week on the injury status of receivers and corners, I will update my WR/CB projections.
With only six contests to cover, let’s go game-by-game through the slate.
Buffalo Bills (-6.5) vs. Indianapolis Colts (51 Over/Under)
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m. ET on Saturday | TV: CBS
Bills Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Fri. 1/8): WR Stefon Diggs (oblique) missed Wednesday practice but had a limited session on Thursday and is expected to play through his questionable tag. WR Cole Beasley (knee) missed practice on Tuesday and Wednesday but saw limited work on Thursday and is questionable. I’m conservatively projecting him out, but he now has a chance to play.
In his first year with the Bills, Stefon Diggs finished as the league leader with 1,535 yards, 127 receptions and 166 targets.
I used to be a Diggs denier. I was wrong.
John Brown has missed seven full games this year and was injured or hampered in two other games. He has dealt with a variety issues (knee, ankle, COVID-19).
But Brown returned to action in Week 17 and looked like his typical self with 4-72-1 receiving on four targets.
In his seven healthy games this year, Brown is 33-458-3 receiving on 46 targets. Although he is now the No. 2 receiver to Diggs, Brown is still every bit the player who had a career-best campaign last year with the Bills.
Slot receiver Cole Beasley (knee) suffered an injury in Week 16, missed Week 17 and is uncertain for Wild Card Weekend. If Beasley is unable to play, rookie dynamo Gabriel Davis will fill in for him.
A 21-year-old upside fourth-rounder, Davis was monstrously undervalued as a prospect. With 35-599-7 receiving on 62 targets as a rookie backup, Davis is more than capable of playing alongside Diggs and Brown in three-wide sets.
Davis looks like a future 1,000-yard receiver.
UPDATE (Fri. 1/8): CB Rock Ya-Sin (concussion) is out.
For the entire season, the Colts have deployed their cornerbacks in a set fashion: Xavier Rhodes plays at right corner, Rock Ya-Sin at left corner, Kenny Moore II in the slot and T.J. Carrie fills in as needed if one of the starters is out.
But last week, with Ya-Sin (concussion) out, Rhodes lined up on both sides of the formation, most often matched up with the big-bodied Chris Conley, whom the Colts evidently identified as the No. 1 receiver for the Jags with D.J. Chark (shin) out.
It wasn’t a great performance for Rhodes, who allowed 5-57-1 receiving on six targets.
In so many ways, Diggs is not Conley, and I doubt we will see the Colts use Rhodes in shadow coverage again this week, even if Ya-Sin remains out.
The Colts rank No. 6 with a 76.8 PFF coverage grade, and Rhodes and Moore are above-average veterans, but if Ya-Sin misses this weekend, Carrie will be an exploitable downgrade within the Colts defense.
It’s unfortunate for him that he’s likely to match up most with Diggs.
Colts Wide Receivers
Veteran T.Y. Hilton was plagued by a hamstring injury early in the season and then a groin injury in the middle of the campaign, but in the six games since Week 12 — when he was finally removed from the injury report — Hilton is 27-435-5 receiving on 43 targets.
Hilton is back.
Rookie Michael Pittman Jr. and slot receiver Zach Pascal are fine players, but Hilton is the driver of the Colts passing attack. Since Hilton’s Week 12 reemergence, Pittman has averaged 33.5 yards receiving per game; Pascal, 40.8.
No. 1 cornerback Tre’Davious White got a much-needed rest in Week 17, but I expect to see him return to shadow Hilton this weekend. While White typically matches up with bigger-bodied No. 1 receivers, he hasn’t shied away from small-and-fast field stretchers like Hilton.
A 2019 All-Pro defender, White has had an inconsistent season. On the one hand, he has allowed a mediocre-at-best 8.8 yards per target. On the other hand, he has shadowed opposing No. 1 receivers almost every week and allowed only 3.9 targets in his coverage per game. His 77.9 PFF coverage grade this year speaks to his overall talent and play.
For his career, White has a 55.8% catch rate allowed. He represents a very tough matchup for Hilton.
With White on Hilton, we will likely see Levi Wallace on Pittman and Taron Johnson on Pascal for most of the game.
Wallace is an above-average cover man, but Johnson is a liability in the slot. Since last year, he has allowed a 74.7% catch rate. Pascal will have an edge over Johnson in this matchup.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- Stefon Diggs: Moderate upgrade
- John Brown: Small downgrade
- Gabriel Davis: Small downgrade
- T.Y. Hilton: Large downgrade
- Michal Pittman: Small downgrade
- Zach Pascal: Moderate upgrade
Bills & Colts WR/CB Injuries
- Bills WR Stefon Diggs (oblique) is projected IN.
- Bills WR Cole Beasley (knee) is projected OUT.
- Colts CB Rock Ya-Sin (concussion) is OUT.
Seattle Seahawks (-3.5) vs. Los Angeles Rams (42 O/U)
Kickoff: 4:40 p.m. ET on Saturday | TV: FOX
Seahawks Wide Receivers
In just his second season, D.K. Metcalf transformed himself into a superstar with 83-1,303-10 receiving on 129 targets. But the latter half of the campaign was something of a letdown. In the eight games since Week 10, Metcalf is just 40-515-2 receiving on 61 targets.
Metcalf’s upside is unrivaled, but it’s hard for him to get his fill if quarterback Russell Wilson doesn’t cook like a three-star chef.
In the slot, Tyler Lockett is a dynamic playmaker with frustrating weekly inconsistency and admirable yearly dependability. In only four games this year has Lockett gained at least 70 yards receiving. But since his 2018 breakout season Lockett has been incredibly reliable with his seasonal production from scrimmage.
- 2018 (16 games): 1,034 yards, 10 touchdowns
- 2019 (16 games): 1,052 yards, eight touchdowns
- 2020 (16 games): 1,054 yards, 10 touchdowns
On a weekly basis, it’s impossible to know when Lockett will go off, but he has the ability to do so in any game.
David Moore is an underused No. 3 receiver with a respectable 8.7 yards per target for his career. He has more than four targets in just two games this year but with six touchdowns on the season, he’s capable of making an impact.
The Rams are Nos. 1 & 3 with an 88.6 PFF coverage grade and -11.2% pass-defense DVOA (per Football Outsiders). Led by No. 1 cornerback Jalen Ramsey, they are incredibly tough on opposing pass offenses.
Against the Cowboys in Week 1, Ramsey had a tough matchup and allowed 8-81-0 receiving on nine targets. On top of that, he was beat deep for a long reception toward the end of the game that was called back by a questionable pass interference.
By the eyes and the numbers, it was a bad performance.
Since then, however, Ramsey has allowed just 4.4 yards per target on a 44.6% catch rate and four targets per game while shadowing opposing No. 1 receivers almost every game.
This week Ramsey will almost certainly match up most with Metcalf, who hasn’t done well against bigger cornerbacks with above-average speed (i.e. Ramsey and Patrick Peterson).
- Week 14, 2019 (vs. Ramsey & LAR): 6-78-0, six targets
- Week 16, 2019 (vs. Peterson & ARI): 0-0-0, one target
- Week 7, 2020 (vs. Peterson & ARI): 2-23-0, five targets
- Week 10, 2020 (vs. Ramsey & LAR): 2-28-0, four targets
- Week 11, 2020 (vs. Peterson & ARI): 3-46-1, five targets
- Week 16, 2020 (vs. Ramsey & LAR): 6-59-0, eight targets
Metcalf is always capable of going off, but Ramsey is the league’s best cornerback.
And the Rams cornerback unit isn’t just Ramsey and some random dudes:
Slot corner Troy Hill has inside/outside coverage versatility, and since last year he has allowed just 6.2 yards per target.
Perimeter corner Darious Williams has emerged as a strong player opposite Ramsey. This season, he has allowed a catch rate of just 50%.
Both Hill and Williams represent tough matchups for Lockett and Moore.
Rams Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Fri. 1/8): WR Cooper Kupp (COVID-19) has been activated this week and will play against the Seahawks. An established veteran with 2,135 yards over the past two years, Kupp will resume his spot in the slot while WR Robert Woods shifts to the perimeter for most of his snaps and WR Van Jefferson returns to the sideline.
QB Jared Goff (thumb) is tentatively expected to play through his questionable tag.
Slot receiver Cooper Kupp (COVID-19) missed Week 17 due to a positive coronavirus test, and I am skeptical that he will play this week.
The Rams also might be without quarterback Jared Goff (thumb), so their entire passing offense could struggle.
In Kupp’s absence, Woods played the majority of his snaps in the slot (although he still moved around the formation plenty) and if Kupp is out again, I expect Woods to play a similar role this week.
Over his past eight games, Woods has a 26% market share of targets and since the 2018 season, he has been a reliable producer from scrimmage.
- 2018 (16 games): 1,376 yards, seven touchdowns
- 2019 (15 games): 1,249 yards, three touchdowns
- 2020 (16 games): 1,091 yards, eight touchdowns
As for Reynolds and Jefferson, they are league-average warm bodies at best: Without Kupp last week, they combined for 8-79-0 receiving on 14 targets.
UPDATE (Fri. 1/8): CB Shaquill Griffin (hamstring) suffered a soft-tissue tweak in practice this week and missed practice on Thursday, but head coach Pete Carroll has said he expects Griffin to play.
With the return of Rams WR Cooper Kupp (COVID-19), I now expect the WR/CB matchups we see most to be Woods vs. Griffin, Kupp vs. Amadi and Reynolds vs. Reed.
The Seahawks allowed a league-high 3,136 yards to wide receivers this year — but they have been significantly better in pass defense since Week 10.
- Weeks 1-9 (8 games): 30.4 points allowed | 362.1 net pass yards allowed
- Weeks 10-17 (8 games): 16.0 points allowed | 207.9 net pass yards allowed
What happened in Week 10?
Cornerback Quinton Dunbar (knee, IR) suffered a season-ending injury in Week 9, and the next week backup D.J. Reed Jr. transitioned from the slot (where he allowed 12-193-0 receiving on 14 targets in Weeks 8-9) to the Dunbar’s vacated spot on the perimeter.
At left corner, Reed wasn’t great in Weeks 10-11 with 10-109-1 allowed on 13 targets, but he also wasn’t horrible — with his 44.2 PFF coverage grade, Dunbar was horrible this year — and after cornerback Tre Flowers (hamstring, IR) suffered an injury in Week 12, Reed shifted to his spot on the right. There, he has been a shutdown force.
In his five games at right corner since Week 13, Reed has allowed just 13-92-0 on 28 targets.
In the aggregate, Reed has allowed just 4.9 yards per target with a 56.1% catch rate since moving to the perimeter in Week 10.
I don’t want to put too much weight on a half-season sample, and Reed’s not the only reason the Seahawks defense has improved, but the high quality of play we’ve seen from the unit as a whole is reflected in his recent numbers.
Opposite Reed, Shaquill Griffin is a perfectly nondescript perimeter defender.
In the slot, Ugo Amadi is exploitable. An injury fill-in for starter Marquise Blair (knee, IR), who was lost for the season in Week 2, Amadi has allowed a 77.6% catch rate in his two-year career.
Amadi could struggle against Woods in the interior.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- D.K. Metcalf: Large downgrade
- Tyler Lockett: Moderate downgrade
- David Moore: Moderate downgrade
- Robert Woods: No change
- Cooper Kupp: Moderate upgrade
- Josh Reynolds: Small downgrade
Seahawks & Rams WR/CB Injuries
- Rams WR Cooper Kupp (COVID-19) is projected OUT.
- Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin (hamstring) is projected IN.
- Seahawks CBs Quinton Dunbar (knee, IR), Tre Flowers (hamstring, IR) & Marquise Blair (knee, IR) are OUT.
Washington Football Team (+8) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (44.5 O/U)
Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. ET on Saturday | TV: NBC
Football Team Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Fri. 1/8): WR Terry McLaurin (ankle) is technically questionable but fully expected to play. QB Alex Smith (calf) is questionable. I tentatively expect him to play, but he is far from certain to suit up.
There is really only one wide receiver in Washington, and you know who he is.
Throughout his two-year career, Terry McLaurin has had three head coaches and five quarterbacks — and he has still produced. After a 58-919-7 receiving campaign in 14 games last year, McLaurin broke out fully in 2020 with 87-1,118-4 on 134 targets in 15 games.
Among all wide receivers, McLaurin was No. 6 this year with 123.8 air yards and yards after catch (AirYAC) per game.
AirYAC is a leading indicator of fantasy production and can be found in the RotoViz NFL Player Statistical Summary.
McLaurin is already 25 years old, so he’s not precisely a young up-and-comer, but few players enter their third NFL seasons with 2,037 yards receiving. He’s undoubtedly a special player.
As for Steven Sims and Cam Sims … meh.
They both have some playmaking ability — theoretically. Steven Sims had six all-purpose touchdowns last year, and Cam Sims has a career mark of 9.9 yards per target.
But up until last week, Steven Sims was in a timeshare for slot snaps with Isaiah Wright, and Cam Sims is just 29-438-0 receiving on 45 targets in his 10 games since becoming a fulltime player in Week 7.
For the Footballers, it’s McLaurin, and that’s pretty much it.
UPDATE (Fri. 1/8): CB Carlton Davis (groin) missed practice on Tuesday but got in a full session on Thursday. As a result, I expect Davis to play through his questionable designation and shadow McLaurin throughout the game. If Davis returns, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting will shift back into the slot and CB Ross Cockrell will be on the sideline.
With Davis, the WR/CB matchups we should see most will likely be McLaurin vs. Davis, C. Sims vs. Jamel Dean and S. Sims vs. Murphy-Bunting.
The Bucs defense is No. 5 with a -5.4% pass DVOA, so the unit is objectively good — but No. 1 cornerback Carlton Davis (groin) has missed the past two games.
He got in two limited practices last week, so perhaps he’ll suit up against Washington, but I’m skeptical. And even if he plays, Davis almost certainly won’t perform with 100% ability — last week’s doubtful designation suggests that he wasn’t close to returning to action in Week 17.
A physical corner with shadow success against big-bodied No. 1 receivers, Davis if inactive will be missed. His matchup with McLaurin would have been great to watch.
Fortunately for the Bucs, No. 2 cornerback Jamel Dean is a strong replacement.
Without Davis, Dean has played almost exclusively at right corner, where he will naturally match up most with McLaurin.
Across his two-year career, Dean has impressed.
- 2019 (13 games): 6.2 yards per target | 48.9% catch rate allowed
- 2020 (14 games): 5.0 yard per target | 63.1% catch rate allowed
As much as any corner can, Dean should challenge McLaurin.
With Davis out, slot cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting has shifted to left corner and backup Ross Cockrell has played in the slot.
Although Cockrell is just the No. 4 corner, he’s a perpetually underappreciated journeyman who has been a solidly above-average defender for almost every year of his career.
- 2014 (Bills): 68.4 PFF coverage grade
- 2015 (Steelers): 73.5 PFF coverage grade
- 2016 (Steelers): 70.1 PFF coverage grade
- 2017 (Giants): 74.1 PFF coverage grade
- 2018 (Panthers): Injured
- 2019 (Panthers): 61.3 PFF coverage grade
- 2020 (Buccaneers): 74.2 PFF coverage grade
Even though he’s a backup, Cockrell won’t be a liability in the slot.
Murphy-Bunting is another matter. He has been his best this year in the slot but over the past six weeks, he has been forced to play on the perimeter because of injuries to Dean and then Davis.
Since Week 11, Murphy-Bunting has allowed 9.0 yards per target on 6.8 targets per game as primarily a boundary corner. On the outside, he is a liability.
Against the seldom-used Cam Sims, Murphy-Bunting is unlikely to be exposed in a significant way but on the limited snaps that McLaurin lines up opposite left corner, the Bucs will be vulnerable.
Buccaneers Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Fri. 1/8): WR Mike Evans (knee) practiced on a limited basis on Thursday and seems likely to play through his questionable tag. If Evans plays, WR Scotty Miller will resume his role as a rotational receiver.
After a slow start to the season, Mike Evans balled out in the final month of the season with 22-393-2 receiving. He hit the 1,000-yard threshold yet again in Week 17, becoming the only player in NFL history to open his career with seven such receiving campaigns.
The HOF is tweeting about Mike Evans 👀 https://t.co/S9E1wIDYMW
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) January 3, 2021
But Evans (knee) also suffered an injury last week. The team, as of writing, believes that Evans avoided ligament damage and merely hyperextended his knee, but with one less day than usual to recover between games, Evans is uncertain to play on Wild Card Weekend.
But the Bucs still have slot receiver Chris Godwin, Mr. Big Chest Antonio Brown and speedy backup Scotty Miller, who has 9.5 yards per target this year.
Even without Evans, the Bucs still have one of the league’s best receiver units.
Football Team Cornerbacks
UPDATE (Fri. 1/8): WR Mike Evans (knee) is cautiously expected to play. If he does, he will likely match up most with No. 1 CB Kendall Fuller.
No matter how you look at it, Washington is one of the best teams in the league against the pass. The Footballers are No. 2 with an 83.4 PFF coverage grade and -18.0% pass-defense DVOA.
Opposing receiver units are No. 28 against them with 2,321 yards and No. 31 with 10 touchdowns receiving.
Without question, a large part of its success is due to the defensive line. Washington is No. 5 with an 81.4 PFF pass-rush grade and No. 7 with a 7.9% adjusted sack rate.
It helps the guys on the back end when edge rushers Chase Young, Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan and interior defenders Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Tim Settle apply steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
But the cornerbacks also deserve their share of the credit.
A slot corner for the first four years of his career, Kendall Fuller has successfully transitioned to the perimeter in 2020, allowing just 6.3 yards per target on a 52.9% catch rate.
At right corner, Fuller should have little trouble with Miller.
And Ronald Darby had a bounceback campaign in his first year with Washington. In 2019 with the Eagles, Darby had the worst season of his career. In 2020, he has had one of his best.
- 2019 (11 games): 62.9% catch rate | 10.7 yards per target allowed
- 2020 (16 games): 54.3% catch rate | 7.9 yards per target allowed
Darby isn’t an elite cover man, but he should provide some resistance at left corner to Brown.
And in the slot second-year seventh-rounder Jimmy Moreland has found his way.
Moreland forfeits too many receptions — his 71.8% catch rate allowed is a subpar mark. And he has just one career interception. His ballhawking instinctiveness is almost nonexistent.
But he keeps everything in front of him and doesn’t surrender big plays. Moreland has allowed just 6.2 yards per target this year and no touchdowns. He’s not a net negative, and considering that he allowed 8.5 yards per target last year on an 82.5% catch rate, that’s impressive.
Moreland is unlikely to slow Godwin down in the slot, but he’s also not a liability in coverage.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- Terry McLaurin: Moderate downgrade
- Cam Sims: Moderate downgrade
- Steven Sims: Small upgrade
- Mike Evans: Moderate downgrade
- Chris Godwin: No change
- Antonio Brown: Small downgrade
Football Team & Buccaneers WR/CB Injuries
- Football Team WR Terry McLaurin (ankle) is projected IN.
- Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (knee) is tentatively projected IN.
- Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis (groin) is projected IN.
Tennessee Titans (+3.5) vs. Baltimore Ravens (54.5 O/U)
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday | TV: ABC/ESPN
Titans Wide Receivers
Slot receiver Adam Humphries (concussion, IR) is out, and in his absence the Titans have gone heavy with two- and three-tight end sets.
Over the past month, three tight ends have out-snapped fill-in No. 3 receiver Cameron Batson.
- Jonnu Smith (4 games): 185 snaps | 71% snap rate
- MyCole Pruitt (4 games): 114 snaps | 44% snap rate
- Geoff Swaim (3 games): 102 snaps | 53% snap rate
- Cameron Batson (4 games): 84 snaps | 32% snap rate
And none of this even takes into account tight end Anthony Firkser, who has played limited snaps but still outproduced Batson since Week 14.
- Anthony Firkser (4 games): 5-54-0 receiving, six targets
- Cameron Batson (4 games): 1-12-0 receiving, two targets
Batson is the No. 3 receiver in title only. In reality, he’s a guy just running wind sprints from the slot.
But the Titans Nos. 1-2 wide receivers are legit.
A.J. Brown balled out this year with 70-1,075-11 receiving on 106 targets in 14 games. Since entering the league last year, he was No. 1 among all NFL players with 11.0 yards per target (minimum of 200 targets).
And Corey Davis this year has hit career-high marks all around with 65 receptions, 984 yards receiving, five touchdowns and 10.7 yards per target.
The Titans are No. 30 with a 49.5% pass-play rate, so they don’t air it out often, but when they do throw the ball, they have two playmaking receivers at their disposal.
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): CBs Jimmy Smith (ribs/shoulder) and Marlon Humphrey (shoulder) are both questionable but seem likely to play.
For my money, the Ravens have the NFL’s best trio of starting cornerbacks.
At left corner, they have Marcus Peters, who returned to action last week after missing Weeks 15-16. A two-time All-Pro defender, Peters can be beaten deep with double moves because of his aggressiveness, but he’s a total ballhawk. Since his 2015 rookie season, he has a league-high 33 interceptions. For context: Trailing him at No. 2 is Xavien Howard, with just 23.
At his best, Peters is one of the best.
In the slot is Marlon Humphrey, who might be my favorite NFL corner. He can do it all. He can play inside. He can play outside. He can shadow. He can hang with fast receivers. He can press physical receivers. He really can do it all.
A 2019 All-Pro, Humphrey has allowed just 6.2 yards per target this year.
At right corner, I tentatively expect Jimmy Smith (ribs/shoulder) to return to action after missing Week 13, exiting Week 14 early and missing Weeks 15-17.
The injury reports for the past few weeks suggest that he is trending in the right direction.
- Week 15: No practice on Wed.-Fri., declared out on Fri.
- Week 16: No practice on Wed.-Fri., declared questionable on Fri.
- Week 17: No practice on Wed., limited practice on Thu.-Fri., declared questionable on Fri.
As good as Peters is on the perimeter, Smith is probably better. With his size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash), Smith is one of the few corners physically capable of hanging with Brown.
Since last season, Smith has allowed just 4.8 yards per target with a 51.3% catch rate.
Smith is yet to garner even a Pro-Bowl nod in his 10-year career, but he has the skills of an All-Pro cover man.
If Smith is out, I think it’s likeliest that the Ravens will kick Humphrey to the perimeter and play veteran backup Tramon Williams in the slot, but they could also leave Humphrey in the slot and put backup Anthony Averett at right corner. The Ravens have a lot of corners they seem to trust.
A quick note on this matchup of Titans receivers vs. Ravens corners: Even though I expect Brown and Davis to be challenged, I think their median outcomes are largely intact. Their ceiling and floor outcomes are significantly lower because they will likely be less efficient than usual. But their median outcomes should be about the same because even with the matchup, they’re still going to get their targets. I think this contextualization is important.
Ravens Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): WR Willie Snead (ankle) seems to be on the positive side of his questionable tag after practicing on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday.
Slot receiver Willie Snead (ankle) missed Week 17 with an injury, and I’m skeptical he’ll play against the Titans given that he sat out every practice session last week.
In Snead’s absence, No. 1 wide receiver Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews saw 15 of the team’s 19 targets in Week 17.
Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay and even Dez Bryant are out there playing snaps and running routes, but they’re not getting targets.
As for Brown, he started the season slowly, and in Week 11 he hit a low point against the Titans with no receptions on just three targets. In the six games since then he is 26-338-6 receiving on 41 targets with either 90 yards or a touchdown in every game.
With his recent performance, Brown is in the best form of his career, and last year against the Titans in the playoffs he was 7-126-0 on 11 targets.
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): WR Willie Snead (ankle) seems likelier than not to play this weekend. If he plays, Duvernay will return to the sideline, and Snead will match up most with CB Desmond King II in the slot.
No. 1 corner Adoree’ Jackson missed the first 13 games of the season with a knee injury, but he finally returned to action in Week 15.
Although the Titans have occasionally used him in shadow coverage the past few seasons — in Week 16 he tailed Davante Adams, to his detriment — for the most part he stays at left corner, where he will likely match up most with Brown.
Jackson has been an above-average corner throughout this career (based on PFF coverage grades):
- 2017: 75.2
- 2018: 69.0
- 2019: 82.5
- 2020: 66.8
But his career 15:2 TD:INT ratio highlights the extent to which he’s not a defender to be feared. And this year he has allowed 9.6 yards per target on an 80% catch rate (albeit in a small sample).
Jackson is good, but he’s not a significant challenge.
Opposite Jackson is Malcolm Butler. The hero of Super Bowl 49, Butler is not the player he once was. In his three years with the Titans under defensive head coach Mike Vrabel, Butler has yielded 8.1 yards per target and a 63.2% catch rate.
At this stage of his career, Butler is a little bit of a liability.
In the middle is midseason acquisition Desmond King II, a 2018 All-Pro slot defender who has fallen on hard times.
King was so bad for the Chargers in 2019 (10.2 yards per target allowed) that they headed into 2020 with every intention of planting King on the bench. If not for injuries to safety Derwin James and slot corner Chris Harris Jr., King might not have seen the field for the Chargers at all.
But he did play significant snaps for the Chargers in Weeks 1-7, and he revitalized his trade value by allowing just 4.0 yards per target on 2.5 targets per game. In the first half of the season, he looked pretty close to his 2018 All-Pro self.
And then the Chargers traded him to the Titans — and his performance fell off again. In his nine games since the trade, King has yielded 8.7 yards per target with a 77.1% catch rate.
Given his current form and 2019 play, King is a league-average corner at best.
For the season, opposing receiver units are No. 4 against the Titans with 3,100 yards receiving — although it’s worth remembering that much of that production came without Jackson and King.
And as uninspiring as they might be, their backups are significantly worse.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- A.J. Brown: Large downgrade
- Corey Davis: Moderate downgrade
- Cameron Batson: Large downgrade
- Marquise Brown: Small downgrade
- Miles Boykin: Small upgrade
- Willie Snead: Small upgrade
Titans & Ravens WR/CB Injuries
- Ravens WR Willie Snead (ankle) is projected IN.
- Titans WRs Adam Humphries (concussion, IR) is OUT.
- Ravens CBs Jimmy Smith (ribs/shoulder) & Marlon Humphrey (shoulder) are projected IN.
New Orleans Saints (-10) vs. Chicago Bears (47.5 O/U)
Kickoff: 4:40 p.m. ET on Sunday | TV: CBS/Prime
Saints Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): WRs Michael Thomas (ankle, IR) & Deonte Harris (neck, IR) have both returned to practice and are expected to play.
The Saints right now have three key wide receivers on injured reserve.
- Michael Thomas: Ankle
- Deonte Harris: Neck
- Tre’Quan Smith: Ankle
With these players sidelined, the Saints last week rolled with Emmanuel Sanders, Marquez Callaway and Lil’Jordan Humphrey as the primary receivers in three-wide sets.
In his 14 games this year, Sanders has exhibited rather stark per-game splits with and without Thomas.
- Without Michael Thomas (7 games): 7.7 targets | 5.7 receptions | 73 yards
- With Michael Thomas (7 games): 4 targets | 3 receptions | 30.7 yards
If Thomas is out, Sanders will function as the clear No. 1 receiver for the Saints, and Callaway, Humphrey and also Juwan Johnson, Austin Carr and even Tommylee Lewis will serve in supplementary roles.
But there’s some optimism that Thomas and also Harris will play this week. Saints head coach Sean Payton indicated that both players are close to returning in an interview with Zach Strief and Bobby Hebert on WWL Radio last week.
Sean Payton says "when the time comes, hopefully it's sooner than later, there's a handful of players that we're excited to get back in this lineup."
Mentions Pro Bowl and All-Pro type players, so he's referring to Michael Thomas and Deonte Harris.
— Amie Just (@Amie_Just) December 29, 2020
Although he has played just seven games this year, Thomas is still one of the league’s best receivers. A two-time All-Pro, Thomas led the league with 125 and 149 receptions in the 2018-19 seasons.
Harris is more of a return man than a receiver: Last year, he earned his All-Pro designation thanks to his punt-return prowess. But this year he has also pitched in as a receiver, putting up 7.4 yards per target with an 80% catch rate as a low-risk option near the line of scrimmage.
If Thomas and Harris both return — and right I’m now I’m tentatively projecting them as in — I expect Thomas and Sanders to play most on the perimeter with Harris in the slot.
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): CB Buster Skrine (concussion) is out while CB Jaylon Johnson (shoulder) is questionable after practicing on a limited basis all week.
With Johnson back, he will resume his place at right corner and matchup most with Thomas.
The Bears have a good defense, but they are better against the run than the pass.
- Bears Run Defense: 70.8 PFF grade (6th) | -22.5% DVOA (4th)
- Bears Pass Defense: 65.2 PFF grade (13th) | 3.4% DVOA (13th)
And they are without two starting corners in Jaylon Johnson (shoulder) and Buster Skrine (concussion). Not ideal.
Johnson has been out for three weeks. Skrine, a month. And neither one has managed even a limited practice while sidelined. So barring dramatic improvement this week, the Bears will be without them on Sunday.
And that makes them extremely vulnerable.
No. 1 cornerback Kyle Fuller is a strong player: He was an All-Pro selection in 2018 with a league-high seven interceptions and 21 passes defensed, and this year he has allowed just 6.0 yards per target with a 55.3% catch rate.
But he almost never shadows opposing No. 1 receivers. Over the past three years, in only one game have the Bears had him follow a receiver across the field — last week against Davante Adams and the Packers.
But the Packers have pretty much only Adams at wide receiver, whereas the Saints have both Thomas and Sanders.
Maybe the Bears will have Fuller shadow Thomas, but almost everything we’ve seen since 2018 suggests they’ll play him at his regular left corner spot, where he’ll line up most against Sanders.
And that means Thomas and Harris will have A-plus matchups on the other side and in the slot against backups Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley.
Vildor is a fifth-round rookie with a 49.8 PFF coverage grade and three games of starting experience in the NFL. Shelley is the character in a bad Victorian novel.
They are both exploitable.
Bears Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): WR Darnell Mooney (ankle) is technically questionable, but he hasn’t practiced all week. I’m tentatively projecting him out.
Over the past two years, Allen Robinson is No. 2 in the league with 305 targets and No. 4 with 200 receptions and 2,397 yards receiving.
It feels as if Robinson has the worst quarterback luck of all time …
In case you ever feel sorry for yourself, here's a list of Allen Robinson's No. 1 QBs since his sophomore breakout at Penn State.
– 2012: Matt McGloin
– 2013: Christian Hackenburg
– 2014-16: Blake Bortles
– 2017: Torn ACL
– 2018-19: Mitchell Trubisky
– 2020: Nick Foles (so far)
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) November 2, 2020
… but with his sheer target volume, he can overcome a lot.
But after Robinson, the Bears might be thin at receiver this weekend.
No. 2 receiver and surprise breakout rookie Darnell Mooney (ankle) suffered an injury in the fourth quarter last week after hitting career highs with 13 targets, 11 receptions and 93 yards receiving against the Packers.
If Mooney is out, the Bears will use backup Javon Wims opposite Robinson on the perimeter, and he leaves a lot to be desired. For his career, he has 4.8 yards per target and a 50% catch rate.
In the slot, Anthony Miller is an underwhelming presence. After two potential-filled seasons in 2018-19, Miller seemed poise to break out in his third season, but instead he has regressed.
- 2018-19 (31 games): 7.8 yards per target | 5.5 targets per game
- 2020 (16 games): 6.4 yards per target | 4.8 targets per game
Over the past month, Miller has lost much of his middle-of-the-field work to rookie tight end Cole Kmet.
- Cole Kmet (4 games): 15-112-0, 23 targets | 18% target share | 91% snap rate
- Anthony Miller (4 games): 7-52-0, 8 targets | 6% target share | 44% snap rate
If Mooney in fact misses this weekend, perhaps we’ll see a reemergence from Miller, but that seems unlikely.
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (COVID-19) has been activated from the reserve list and will play this weekend. No. 4 CB Patrick Robinson (hamstring, IR) is also tentatively expected to play.
The Saints go back and forth with how they use No. 1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Sometimes, they put him at right corner. Other times, they use him in shadow coverage.
For the past three weeks, he has shadowed, so I expect he’ll man up Allen Robinson this week.
Lattimore is something of a conundrum, as is the entire Saints pass defense. The Saints are No. 3 with a -14.7% pass-defense DVOA, but they have allowed a middle-of-the-road 2,689 yards to opposing wide receivers, and they are No. 19 with a 58.4 PFF coverage grade.
What’s going on here?
The fact is that the Saints are good at rushing the passer. They are No. 3 with an 8.5% adjusted sack rate and No. 4 with a 25.6% pressure rate. But they are inconsistent when it comes to defending passes that are thrown, and the posterchild for that inconsistency is Lattimore.
In 2017, Lattimore was the Defensive Rookie of the Year and looked like a surefire future All-Pro with zero touchdowns allowed and five interceptions, but in 2018 he regressed to 10.0 yards per target as quarterbacks learned to exploit his overaggressive and tendency to jump routes.
And since then he has been a veritable mixed-bag defender. In some games, he is entirely locked in and playing as well as any corner in the league. In other games, he gives up 120-plus yards and a touchdown and seems totally lost.
His PFF coverage grades tell the story of his career.
- 2017: 87.9
- 2018: 75.8
- 2019: 65.7
- 2020: 53.7
Over the past two years, he has allowed 8.1 yards per target and a 10:3 TD:INT ratio.
Anecdotally, he seems to get up for big games, but it’s impossible to know which version of Lattimore will show up in his matchup with Robinson.
Opposite Lattimore is Janoris Jenkins, a steady veteran who joined the team near the end of last year. In his 16 total games with the Saints, Jenkins has allowed 7.3 yards per target.
The best starting corner for the Saints is probably Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. You know, the guy who got sucker punched IN THE HELMET by Wims in Week 8.
What the hell is Javon Wims thinking here with a punch to the head?pic.twitter.com/bEWViPgjQ7
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) November 1, 2020
Gardner-Johnson (COVID-19) is technically on the reserve list, but he’s expected to be activated in time for the game. This year, he has held receivers in his coverage to 5.7 yards per target.
If Gardner-Johnson can’t go, veteran Patrick Robinson (hamstring, IR) will probably take his place in the slot. Robinson has been out for the past month, but he returned to practice last week and is likely to return to action this weekend.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- Michael Thomas: Small downgrade
- Emmanuel Sanders: Moderate downgrade
- Deonte Harris: Large upgrade
- Allen Robinson: No change
- Anthony Miller: Moderate downgrade
- Javon Wims: No change
Saints & Bears WR/CB Injuries
- Saints WR Michael Thomas (ankle, IR) & Deonte Harris (neck, IR) are projected IN.
- Saints WRs Tre’Quan Smith (ankle, IR) is projected OUT.
- Bears WR Darnell Mooney (ankle) is tentatively projected OUT.
- Saints CBs Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (COVID-19) & Patrick Robinson (hamstring, IR) are respectively IN & projected IN.
- Bears CB Jaylon Johnson (shoulder) is tentatively projected IN.
- Bears CB Buster Skrine (concussion) is OUT.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-6) vs. Cleveland Browns (47.5)
Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. ET on Sunday | TV: NBC
Steelers Wide Receivers
If we exclude the three partial weeks that No. 1 receiver Diontae Johnson missed with injury, he has averaged 12.2 targets per game with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this year.
That’s an incredibly elite number. Johnson is a volume monster.
But maybe … maybe he’s not good at football? Johnson has just 6.4 yards per target this year, which is a really low number for a wide receiver. As a point of comparison: Teammate James Conner has a career mark of 6.3 yards per target — and Conner is a 230-pound running back.
Even so, Johnson can do a lot of damage in any given week with his usage.
Across from Johnson is rookie sensation Chase Claypool, who is basically the bigger version of D.K. Metcalf.
- Chase Claypool: 129.8 speed score | 6’4″ & 238 pounds | 4.42-second 40 time
- D.K. Metcalf: 133.3 speed score | 6’3″ & 228 pounds | 4.33-second 40 time
And what Claypool has done in his first season is very similar to what Metcalf did last year as a rookie.
- Chase Claypool (16 games): 62-873-9, 109 targets | 10-16-2 rushing
- D.K. Metcalf (16 games): 58-900-7, 100 targets | 2-11-0 rushing
In the second half of the season, the Steelers have reportedly scaled back his usage to keep him from hitting the “rookie wall,” but in the postseason I expect to see him play well ahead of rotational No. 4 receiver James Washington.
Last week with quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs, Claypool looked like a grown man with 5-101-1 receiving on 11 targets.
In the slot, veteran JuJu Smith-Schuster plies his craft. Long gone are the playmaking days of 1,400 yards. Each year of his career, Smith-Schuster has exhibited less explosiveness.
- 2017: 11.6 yards per target
- 2018: 8.6 yards per target
- 2019: 7.9 yards per target
- 2020: 6.5 yards per target
But, like Johnson, Smith-Schuster has volume to his name. Since Week 8, he has averaged a respectable 8.8 targets per game. And he leads the team with 10 end zone targets.
Any week, Smith-Schuster can go for 70-plus yards and a touchdown because of his workload.
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): CBs Denzel Ward (COVID-19) & Kevin Johnson (COVID-19) are still on the reserve list, but the Browns are optimistic that Ward will be activated by Sunday. Johnson is out.
CB Terrance Mitchell (undisclosed, not injury) missed practice on Friday & CB M.J. Stewart (calf) was limited all week, but both seem likely to play through their questionable tags.
If Ward plays, he will likely shadow Diontae Johnson while Robert Jackson goes to the bench. Mitchell will man up Claypool as he did last week, and Stewart will stay in the slot.
No. 1 cornerback Denzel Ward (COVID-19) and slot corner Kevin Johnson (COVID-19) both missed Week 17 and are uncertain to play this weekend.
If Ward is able to return, he will likely shadow Diontae Johnson.
One of the NFL’s best young corners, Ward is yet to have a subpar season since entering the league in 2018 (based on PFF coverage grades).
- 2018: 83.6
- 2019: 72.7
- 2020: 74.6
For his career, Ward has allowed just 6.0 yards per target on a 51.4% catch rate.
As for Kevin Johnson, he’s a slightly below-average cover man who has allowed a 74.5% catch rate this year — but he’s better than the backups likely to start this weekend.
Without Ward and Johnson, lone remaining starter Terrance Mitchell will probably shadow Claypool, just as he did last week.
A seventh-year, seventh-round journeyman, Mitchell is actually not a bad player. In not one season has he had a PFF coverage grade lower than 60 and for his career, he has held receivers to a catch rate of 54.0%.
But Mitchell also has never been the top corner on his team for an extended stretch, and against the Steelers last week, he allowed 4-88-1 receiving on eight targets.
As the de facto No. 1 corner in this unit, Mitchell is outmatched.
Opposite Mitchell, if Ward is out we should see undrafted special-teamer Robert Jackson, who has 55 coverage snaps in the NFL. Last week — in his first professional start — he allowed 6-129-0 receiving on 10 targets.
Against Diontae Johnson, Jackson will be nearly defenseless.
In the slot, backup M.J. Stewart will fill in for Kevin Johnson. This year, Stewart has allowed 10.1 yards per target. For his career, he has yielded eight touchdowns to just two interceptions.
With Stewart on him for most of the game, Smith-Schuster was 6-65-1 receiving on eight targets last week. Stewart is exploitable.
Browns Wide Receivers
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion) has cleared the league’s protocol and will play this weekend. WR KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19) is out. With the return of Peoples-Jones, backup receiver Marvin Hall will shift to the sideline.
The Browns might be thin at receiver this weekend.
They are obviously already without No. 1 receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury on just his second snap in Week 7, and this week they will also be without rotational receiver KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19).
On top of that, explosive rookie receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion) suffered a head injury last week and is yet to return to practice.
Since Week 13, Peoples-Jones has played as the No. 3 receiver, and in his four games with a snap rate of at least 50% he is 11-277-2 on 14 targets. With 15.2 yards per target, he is a true downfield playmaker — but I’m skeptical that he will play this week.
In his place, the team might go with speedy backup Marvin Hall. In his one game of action with the Browns — Week 16, when literally all the Browns wide receivers were placed on the COVID-19 reserve list — Hall had a 91% snap rate but was just 1-12-0 receiving on two targets.
But without Hodge and Peoples-Jones, the Browns will likely be more of a two-tight end offense this weekend. In Week 17, even with Hodge available, the Browns gave tight ends Austin Hooper and David Njoku more snaps than their No. 3 receivers.
- Austin Hooper: 51 snaps
- David Njoku: 49 snaps
- KhaDarel Hodge: 26 snaps
- Donovan Peoples-Jones: 13 snaps (left game early)
With heavy personnel, Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins might be the only Browns wide receivers we see for stretches of the game.
But the Browns will surely play in some three-wide sets, and when they do, Landry will be in the slot and Higgins will be on the perimeter with Hall.
Landry is a relative unexplosive player, but for a solid five-season stretch (2015-19), he averaged 1,086 yards receiving. Granted, it was on 149 targets per year — but at least he got his targets.
In his nine games this year without Beckham, Landry has team-high marks all around with 68 targets and 48 receptions. Since Week 7, Landry has been his former (high-volume, low-impact) self.
Without Beckham, it’s actually Higgins who has led the team in receiving. Since Week 7, he has amassed 546 yards receiving and 648 air yards. Although he has markedly trailed Landry with just 46 targets, he has been the superior producer.
UPDATE (Sat. 1/9): CB Joe Haden (COVID-19) is still on the reserve list and will not play on Sunday.
No. 1 cornerback Joe Haden (COVID-19) missed Week 17 and seems likely to miss this weekend. Since joining the Steelers in 2017, he has allowed just 6.9 yards per target with a 54.9% catch rate. His absence will be felt.
But the Steelers are No. 1 with a -19.8% pass-defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. They didn’t get that ranking on the strength of just one player.
At right corner, Steven Nelson is also a very good player. In fact, since he joined the Steelers last year, he and Haden have been comparable.
- Steven Nelson (2019-20): 54.2% catch rate | 6.7 yards per target allowed
- Joe Haden (2019-20): 52.4% catch rate | 6.9 yards per target allowed
Nelson is likely to match up most with Higgins, who is a modest 3-68-1 receiving on five targets in two games against the Steelers this year.
In the slot, Mike Hilton has four years of starting experience and has held receivers to 7.0 yards per target since 2017. He’s not elite, but he’s an unheralded professional who does solidly above-average work.
Hilton will likely match up most with Landry, who was 5-51-0 receiving on six targets against the Steelers last week.
If Haden is out, Cameron Sutton will fill in for him at left corner. Although he’s just the No. 4 corner on the team, Sutton has played over 800 snaps since last year as a rotational defensive back and injury fill-in.
Lining up all over the secondary, he has held opposing receivers to 6.3 yards per target with a 59.0% catch rate. I’ll not go overboard in praising him — because he’s still a backup — but Sutton is certainly no worse than a league-average pass defender.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- Diontae Johnson: Large downgrade
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: Large upgrade
- Chase Claypool: No change
- Jarvis Landry: Moderate downgrade
- Rashard Higgins: Moderate downgrade
- Donovan Peoples-Jones: No change
Steelers & Browns WR/CB Injuries
- Browns WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion) is IN.
- Browns WR KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19) is OUT.
- Browns CBs Denzel Ward (COVID-19), Terrance Mitchell (undisclosed) & M.J. Stewart (calf) are projected IN.
- Browns CB Kevin Johnson (COVID-19) is OUT.
- Steelers CB Joe Haden (COVID-19) is OUT.
Wild Card Weekend WR/CB Matrix
Pos = left, right or slot WR or CB
Projected shadow matchups are CAPITALIZED
WR Exp = Wide Receiver Expectation: I rank from 3 to -3 how much I think we should adjust expectations for wide receivers based on matchups. 3: Large upgrade. 2: Medium upgrade. 1: Small upgrade. 0: No change. -1: Small downgrade. -2: Medium downgrade. -3: Large downgrade.
Thanks to Scott Barrett for providing me with some of PFF’s historical data.
Matthew Freedman is 966-750-36 (56.3%) overall betting on the NFL. You can follow him in our free app.
The Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs, Freedman is commonly called the Oracle & the Labyrinthian.