NFL Week 1 WR/CB Matchups: Will the Real Marshon Lattimore Please Stand Up?
Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Mike Evans (13) and Marshon Lattimore (23).
Wide receiver-cornerback showdowns might be the most important individual matchups in football.
In this piece, I leverage snap data from Pro Football Focus to project NFL Week 1 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.
Let’s start with this week’s featured matchup and then run through all the potential shadow matchups and most notable upgrades and downgrades.
UPDATE (Sun. 9/13): I have made updates based on injury reports for the week. Here are some changes and situations to note.
- Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (hamstring) is questionable but tentatively projected IN.
- Chargers WR Mike Williams (shoulder) is questionable but tentatively projected IN.
- Giants WR Golden Tate (hamstring) is questionable but still projected IN.
- Titans CB Adoree’ Jackson (knee) is OUT.
UPDATE (Sat. 9/12): I have made updates based on injury reports for the week. Here are some changes and situations to note.
- Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (hamstring) is projected OUT. WR Chris Godwin moves from slot to perimeter to make way for WR Justin Watson in slot.
- Broncos WR Courtland Sutton (shoulder) is projected OUT. WR Jerry Jeudy moves from slot to perimeter to make room for WR DaeSean Hamilton in slot.
- Lions WR Kenny Golladay (hamstring) is projected OUT.
- Eagles WR Jalen Reagor (shoulder) is projected IN.
- 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk (hamstring) is still projected IN.
- Browns CBs Greedy Williams (shoulder) & Kevin Johnson (liver) are OUT.
- Football Team CB Kendall Fuller (knee) is projected OUT.
WR/CB Matchup of the Week
Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore
UPDATE (Sat. 9/12): Evans (hamstring) has been upgraded from doubtful to questionable but should still be approached with extreme skepticism.
UPDATE (Sat. 9/12): Evans (hamstring) got in a limited practice on Friday after not practicing on Wednesday and Thursday, but he is still doubtful for Week 1. WR Justin Watson seems likely to replace Evans in three-wide receiver sets, although he might play in the slot with WR Chris Godwin shifting to the perimeter, where he could face Lattimore. The Bucs also might play more two-tight end sets without Evans.
Thoughts on the TB WR situation w/out Mike Evans.
1. In 3-WR sets, Justin Watson will play.
2. Watson could be in slot, kick Godwin to perimeter.
3. On outside, Godwin faces CB Marshon Lattimore.
4. Saints SCB P.J. Williams is injured, so Watson could have best WR/CB matchup.
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) September 12, 2020
Last year was an uneven one for Lattimore. In Weeks 1-3, he was extravagantly exploited by DeAndre Hopkins, Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and D.K. Metcalf. Overall, Lattimore allowed a league-worst 20-341-2 receiving line on a 74.1% catch rate in his first three games.
But in Weeks 4-10 and 13-17 (he missed Weeks 11-12 with a hamstring injury), Lattimore found his 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year form and balled out, holding receivers to a 26-323-1 stat line on a 47.3% catch rate.
And then he imploded in the playoffs as he allowed 5-77-0 receiving on five targets, getting juked out of his cleats multiple times by Adam Thielen.
It’s hard to know what we should expect from Lattimore in 2020.
The same is true for Evans.
He’s one of two players in NFL history to gain at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first six seasons. The other is Randy Moss.
Even with the emergence of slot receiver Chris Godwin last year, Evans still managed to rank No. 1 with 158.9 air yards and yards after the catch per game.
Evans is elite.
But perhaps his connection with new quarterback Tom Brady won’t be as productive as the one he had with the departed Jameis Winston, who was consistently willing to chuck the ball down the field and let Evans compete for the catch. In comparison to the gunslinging Winston, Brady is more restrained — and that might work against Evans.
Even though they are established veterans, both Lattimore and Evans enter Week 1 with some question marks.
I probably don’t need to say this, but it’s worth remembering that these two guys have a history.
Over the past two seasons, Lattimore has shadowed Evans three times.
- Week 1 (2018, at NO): 4-115-1 receiving on four targets
- Week 14 (2018, at TB): 2-48-0 receiving on three targets
- Week 5 (2019, at NO): 0-0-0 receiving on one target
In the first matchup, Evans dominated. In the second, they fought each other to a draw. And in the third, Lattimore smashed.
It’s impossible to know how this matchup will play out in Week 1. But it will certainly be must-watch entertainment.
Action: Medium downgrade for Evans
Potential Week 1 Shadow Matchups
Here are the other shadow matchups I’m projecting.
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Jets WR Breshad Perriman vs. Bills CB Tre’Davious White: Once Evans suffered a season-ending injury in Week 14, Perriman stepped up for the Bucs and broke out as the team’s primary field-stretcher, amassing a top-three 20-419-5 receiving stat line on 31 targets across his final four games.
Now with the Jets, Perriman will play the “Robby Anderson role” as the top perimeter receiver for quarterback Sam Darnold in head coach Adam Gase’s offense.
As bad as that sounds, it gets worse: In Week 1, Perriman will probably match up for most of the game with White, a 2019 All-Pro shadow man who has held opposing receivers to just 7.1 yards per target on a 54.3% catch rate since entering the league three years ago.
Last year, White didn’t allow a touchdown in his coverage.
Perriman will likely struggle.
Action: Medium downgrade for Perriman
Dolphins WRs DeVante Parker, Preston Williams & Jakeem Grant vs. Patriots CBs Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty & Jonathan Jones: So much is unknown with this matchup. We know that the Pats will use shadow coverage — as they did in 15 games last year — and we know that Fins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will have no problem throwing YOLO deep balls to his receivers.
But other than that, we don’t know a lot.
Preston Williams (ACL) is recovering from a significant season-ending knee injury, and return dynamo Jakeem Grant is no lock to play the majority of slot snaps in place of Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns, both of whom have opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
At the time of his injury in Week 9, Williams was actually the No. 1 receiver for the Dolphins, not Parker.
- Preston Williams (Weeks 1-9): 32-428-3 receiving, 60 targets
- DeVante Parker (Weeks 1-9): 28-400-4, 52 targets
Of course, Parker had a dominant 44-802-5 receiving line on 76 targets in the final eight games of the season, including a Week 17 performance in which he put up 119 yards directly on Gilmore, the eventual Defensive Player of the Year.
Are the Pats going to put Gilmore on Parker again?
When the Fins and Pats played in Week 2 last year, Gilmore shadowed Williams — but a lot has changed since then.
And who else will be at corner with Gilmore? Veteran Jason McCourty started 2019 on the perimeter opposite Gilmore, but he missed most of the second half of the season. Will he reclaim his spot as a starter?
And if McCourty does start, which cornerback out of J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones will be bumped to the bench or perhaps to safety to replace Patrick Chung, who opted out of the season?
Regardless of how this all shakes out, here’s what’s certain: The Pats corners will challenge the Dolphins receivers.
In his three years with the Patriots, Gilmore has held receivers to a 50% catch rate and 6.4 yards per target. Last season, the Patriots were No. 1 with a -33.8% pass-defense DVOA (per Football Outsiders).
Parker might not have a tougher matchup all year.
Action: Large downgrades for Parker & Grant, medium downgrade for Williams
Patriots WR N’Keal Harry vs. Dolphins CB Xavien Howard: For much of the 2019 season, the Dolphins were starting undrafted rookies at cornerback — and head coach Brian Flores still used shadow coverage. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the Bill Belichick coaching tree.
Now that cover man Xavien Howard (knee) has returned to action, joined by veteran Byron Jones and rookie first-rounder Noah Igbinoghene, the Dolphins actually have three cornerbacks who can play.
Last year the Dolphins were dead last with a 38.9 PFF coverage grade. They almost certainly won’t be No. 32 in 2020.
In his one matchup last year against the Pats, Howard defended Josh Gordon on literally 100% of his routes and held him to 2-19-0 receiving on four targets.
He’s likely to give the Gordon-sized and incredibly raw Harry all he can handle.
Action: Medium downgrade for Harry
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET
Bengals WRs A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd & John Ross vs. Chargers CBs Casey Hayward Jr., Chris Harris Jr. & Michael Davis: As is the case with the Dolphins and Patriots, there’s so much with this matchup that we don’t know.
A.J. Green has been a perimeter receiver for most of his career, but before 2018, he was running 39.1% of his routes from the slot. Will Green see some action in the middle filed under head coach Zac Taylor?
And who will be the No. 3 receiver for the Bengals? John Ross had 510 scrimmage yards in eight games last year. Auden Tate was the team’s No. 1 perimeter receiver with 80 targets. And Tee Higgins was just selected with the No. 33 overall pick.
On the opposing sideline, what will the Chargers do at cornerback? Entering training camp, they seemed likely to use Hayward and Harris on the perimeter with 2018 All-Pro defender Desmond King II in the slot — but that was before all-around safety Derwin James (knee) suffered a season-ending injury in training camp.
Without James, the Chargers could shift King to safety and let him play a Tyrann Mathieu-esque role in the secondary. That would liberate Harris to shift to his native slot position while 2019 starter Michael Davis mans the perimeter opposite Hayward in the nickel package.
Hayward enters the season as PFF’s No. 3 cornerback. Harris is No. 6 — and King (if he stays at corner) is No. 14. Even without James, the Chargers are stacked in the secondary — and they’re facing a rookie quarterback in Joe Burrow who is making his first NFL start after an unprecedented offseason with limited practices.
Green and Boyd have their work cut out for them.
Action: Large downgrade for Green, medium downgrade for Boyd, small upgrade for Ross
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Saints WR Michael Thomas vs. Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis: Early in the 2019 season when the Bucs were still starting M.J. Stewart and Vernon Hargreaves III alongside Davis, the coverage unit was an absolute mess.
But in the second half of the year, rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean replaced Stewart and Hargreaves in the slot and on the perimeter respectively. And as a result, the team’s pass unit gradually tightened up, and the Bucs ended the year ranked No. 12 with a -0.3% pass-defense DVOA.
In Weeks 12, 16 and 17, the Bucs had Davis shadow Julio Jones (twice) and DeAndre Hopkins — and he didn’t embarrass himself.
- Julio Jones (Week 12): 4-58-0 receiving, six targets
- DeAndre Hopkins (Week 16): 4-19-0 receiving, seven targets
- Julio Jones (Week 17): 4-58-0 receiving, six targets
Davis isn’t perfect: He did allow seven touchdowns last year, and he only has one interception in his career. But Davis also held receivers to 6.3 yards per target in 2019, and he has the size (6-foot-1, 206 pounds) to challenge big-bodied No. 1 wideouts.
Thomas is a back-to-back All-Pro with NFL-high marks of 125 and 149 receptions over the past two years. It would be foolish to expect anyone to slow him down.
But Davis looks like a corner who is starting to figure out the game.
Action: No change for Thomas
49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson: Aiyuk (hamstring) seems likely to play in Week 1. Given how thin the team is at wide receiver without Deebo Samuel (foot), there’s a decent chance that Peterson will be used in shadow coverage.
A three-time All-Pro defender, Peterson sat out Weeks 1-6 last year due to suspension. Then, he struggled mightily in Weeks 7-14, allowing an ungodly 31-440-4 receiving line with 11.3 yards per target and a 79.5% catch rate in seven games.
He was so bad that for a solid month the Cardinals were like, “Thanks, but no thanks. No need to shadow; just stay on the left side of the field and let’s hope they don’t throw in your direction.”
And then, all of a sudden, eureka! The team used Peterson to shadow Odell Beckham Jr., D.K. Metcalf and Robert Woods in Weeks 15-17, and he was back to his former self. For the final three weeks of the season, he held receivers to a 42.1% catch rate and 4.6 yards per target.
Peterson doesn’t get a total pass for his overall play last year, especially since he’s now 30 years old, but it’s probable that he’s not the total liability he seemed to be for much of the 2019 season.
He’s still good enough to stick with a rookie who is coming off a soft-tissue injury and making his NFL debut.
I like Aiyuk: He should go in Round 1 of rookie dynasty drafts, and he was an underappreciated producer in college.
If you look at the wide receiver leaderboard in the Sports Info Solutions Football Rookie Handbook for 2020, you’ll see that Aiyuk is a top-five receiver — up there with guys like Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb — in a number of key statistics.
- Yards per target: 11.5 (t-4th)
- Yards after catch: 10.9 (2nd)
- Yards per route: 3.2 (t-2nd)
Aiyuk has great long-term potential. But that’s in the future, not Week 1.
Action: No change for Aiyuk
Sunday Night Football
Cowboys WR Amari Cooper vs. Rams CB Jalen Ramsey: Last year, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips consistently used Ramsey in shadow coverage, especially against teams with big-bodied No. 1 receivers.
Ramsey even followed JuJu Smith-Schuster into the slot when the Rams played the Steelers in Week 10 — and it’s relatively rare for perimeter man-coverage corners to tail receivers in the slot.
That makes me think that regardless of wherever Cooper lines up — and it’s very possible that he could be the primary slot receiver for the Cowboys in Week 1 — Ramsey will probably be the guy covering him.
Cooper is criminally underappreciated. Sure, he’s inconsistent from one week to the next, but he has four 1,000-yard campaigns in five NFL seasons. Since joining the Cowboys in Week 8 of 2018, Cooper has amassed 2,085 yards and 15 touchdowns receiving and averaged 17.3 DraftKings points across 27 games (including playoffs).
But he can struggle in tough matchups. In the 58.3% of his routes run against Ramsey in Week 15 last year, Cooper did literally nothing: He wasn’t even targeted. For the entire game, he managed just 19 yards on two targets.
We don’t know how new DC Brandon Staley will deploy Ramsey this year — if he’ll be used in shadow coverage and if he’ll follow No. 1 receivers into the slot. But as bullish as I am on Cooper for 2020 and beyond, he could underwhelm once again if he draws Ramsey’s coverage.
Action: Medium downgrade for Cooper
Monday Night Football
Titans WR A.J. Brown vs. Broncos CB A.J. Bouye: Bouye’s PFF coverage grade has dropped in each of the past three seasons — from a near-elite career-high 89.9 in 2016, down to 84.7, 79.3 and 55.4 in successive seasons since then. Although his best days are behind him, Bouye still seems likely to be a shadow defender in 2020.
Under HC Vic Fangio last season, the Broncos frequently had Chris Harris Jr. tail opposing No. 1 receivers. And after trading away Jalen Ramsey, the 2019 Jaguars used Bouye in a similar fashion, giving him shadow matchups with Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Keenan Allen and Julio Jones.
Now the top corner in Denver, Bouye is slated for a tough matchup with his former AFC South rival.
As a rookie last year, Brown was No. 1 with 12.5 yards per target and No. 3 with 2.67 yards per route (among qualified wide receivers) during the regular season. He’s tied with Mike Evans at No. 15 — just below A.J. Green and above Keenan Allen — for most receiving yards by a rookie in NFL history with 1,051.
In Week 3, Bouye was the primary defender on Brown, who did almost nothing. But when they rematched in Week 12 — with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback instead of Marcus Mariota — the outcome was very different:
- Week 3 (at JAX): 1-4-0 receiving, five targets
- Week 12 (at TEN): 4-135-1 receiving, five targets
Against Bouye in particular in Week 12, Brown turned three targets into a masterful 3-99-1 stat line.
The touchdown especially was embarrassing for Bouye: Facing one-on-one man coverage, Brown simply beat Bouye with a slant route and then outraced him — and the rest of the Jags defense — to the end zone for an untouched 65-yard catch-and-run backbreaking score to give the Titans a 35-3 lead.
Brown will experience regression in his sophomore campaign: He’s almost certain not to be as efficient as he was in 2019. And perhaps in Fangio’s defense, Bouye will reemerge as a defensive force.
But Brown vs. Bouye is an unfair matchup at this point in their careers.
Action: Small upgrade for Brown
Notable Wide Receiver Upgrades
Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill vs. Texans CB Vernon Hargreaves III: Last year, Hill ran 52.7% of his routes from the slot, where the Texans almost exclusively played Hargreaves after picking him up in Week 12.
Since entering the NFL four years ago, Hill has been one of the league’s most dynamic receivers, averaging 10.0 yards per target. Over that same time, Hargreaves has been one of the league’s most generous cornerbacks, allowing 9.1 yards per target.
Action: Large upgrade for Hill
Panthers WR Curtis Samuel vs. Raiders CB Lamarcus Joyner: In 2017-18, Joyner was one of the best coverage safeties in football for the Rams, racking up four interceptions for DC Wade Phillips and holding receivers to a parsimonious 53.9% catch rate
But after signing with the Raiders, he was moved to slot corner, where he struggled the first few years of his career under then-Rams HC Jeff Fisher. Predictably, the result was catastrophic. Joyner had a career-worst 44.4 PFF coverage grade and allowed a gaping 73.9% catch rate.
After the team signed veteran Prince Amukamara and drafted first-rounder Damon Arnette, I assumed that the Raiders would shift Joyner back to safety — as any rational human would — but now that the Raiders have released Amukamara, it seems probable that Arnette and Trayvon Mullen will play on the perimeter while Joyner continues to man the middle.
As an athletic slot receiver with after-the-catch dynamism and a short-throwing, high-accuracy quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, the playmaking Samuel could ball out.
Action: Large upgrade for Samuel
Eagles WR DeSean Jackson vs. Football CB Fabian Moreau: In his one healthy game last year, D-Jax overpowered Washington with an 8-154-2 onslaught on nine targets. Over the past two years, Jackson trails only A.J. Brown and Tyler Lockett with his 11.1 yards per target (among players with at least 50 targets).
Given how thin the Eagles are at wide receiver, Jackson should dominate usage in Week 1. Moreau may not offer much resistance, given his PFF pass coverage grades of 42.2, 58.3 and 56.4 in his three NFL seasons.
Action: Medium upgrade for Jackson
Notable Wide Receiver Downgrades
Browns WRs Odell Beckham Jr. & Jarvis Landry vs. Ravens CBs Jimmy Smith, Marcus Peters & Marlon Humphrey: The Ravens have the No. 1 secondary in the league, and it’s primarily because of their cornerback trio of Smith and Peters on the perimeter and Humphrey in the slot.
Beckham will move across the formation, but I expect he will mostly play the “Stefon Diggs role” wide to the left in HC Kevin Stefanski’s offense. But wherever Beckham lines up, he will be challenged.
In Week 4 last year, he was shadowed on 83.3% of his routes by Humphrey, who held him to 2-20-0 receiving on six targets. And in Week 16, Beckham had a better but still modest 4-44-1 stat line on six targets against Peters and Smith.
In 2019, Landry flashed against the Ravens with a combined 15-241-0 receiving on 19 targets in two games — but much of that production is irrelevant. In Week 4, when Landry had 167 yards …
… Smith was out injured, Peters was still on the Rams and Humphrey was shadowing OBJ: Literally zero of Landry’s targets came against one of the three starting corners in this game.
And when Jarvis matched up with Humphrey in the slot in Week 16, he managed just 13 yards on three targets against the All-Pro defender.
To borrow from Michael Scott: Beckham and Landry are good, but Smith, Peters and Humphrey are bigger.
Action: Large downgrades for Beckham & Landry
Ravens WR Marquise Brown vs. Browns CB Denzel Ward: The odds are high that Hollywood will break out this year, but in Week 1 he faces a cornerback in Ward who has the speed (4.32-second 40 time) to keep up with him. In his two games against Cleveland last year, Brown achieved a combined 5-28-0 receiving line on nine targets.
In his two-year career, Ward has held receivers to a 49.7% catch rate and just 5.8 yards per target. He is not a cornerback to test.
Action: Medium downgrade for Brown
Giants WRs Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate & Darius Slayton vs. Steelers CBs Joe Haden, Mike Hilton & Steven Nelson: The Steelers don’t have a single corner who gives offensive coordinators restless nights, but the trio of Haden, Hilton and Nelson — along with safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds — all work remarkably well together in DC Keith Butler’s system. Each guy does his job.
Last year the Steelers were No. 3 with a -16.5% pass-defense DVOA, and they return all five of their secondary starters.
If his years with the Cowboys are any indication, new Giants OC Jason Garrett is likely to utilize a slow-paced, run-focused system that deemphasizes the wide receivers.
NFL Week 1 WR/CB Matrix
I take a cautious approach to injured players who I expect to be questionable or out. If by the weekend it seems likely that they will play, I will include them in my updates.
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.