Which CB/WR Shadow Matchups Actually Matter

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Which CB/WR Shadow Matchups Actually Matter

Each week during the regular season, I spend a great deal of time trying to narrow down my weekly pool of wide receivers for DFS. First, I’ll dive deep into a specific wide receiver’s volume, production, and efficiency — (expected fantasy points does much of the heavy lifting here) — and see how that relates to their DFS salary. Next, I’ll dig deeper into the matchup. Really deep. How many schedule-adjusted fantasy points per game (FPG) is this defense giving up to opposing WR1s, WR2s, and WR3s, and to the wide receiver position as a whole? How many FPG is this defense giving up to outside, as opposed to slot, wide receivers? How much of their production allowed comes on short vs. intermediate vs. deep passes? And then where does this specific wide receiver excel? Short? Deep? Is this a slot wide receiver? What scheme does this defense predominantly run? If it’s Cover-1, what is this wide receiver’s history against Cover-1 defenses? And then, of course, what cornerbacks will this wide receiver be going up against? Which cornerback will he see most often? Are they fully healthy or hurt? What’s their track record? Is it possible they’re going to get shadowed this week?

And that last question will be the focal point of today’s article. A cornerback is considered to be “shadowing” a wide receiver if they follow them around the field and line up across from them on over 50% of their routes.

One of the greatest edges to be gained in NFL DFS can be had by paying careful attention to a wide receiver’s cornerback matchup. This isn’t something that typically factors into DFS pricing (at least not to the degree that it should). However, it’s also extremely easy to overstate the impact of a supposed difficult cornerback matchup. If the field is overrating a particular shadow cornerback, that’s a great time to grab a wide receiver at low ownership. And some wide receivers are fairly cornerback-immune.

So, today, I wanted to take a deeper look into the numbers to determine which shadow cornerbacks we should be most fearful of next season. And which ones are the most overrated? I wanted to quantify this impact in real (fantasy) terms.

NOTE: Shadow CB Data is from PFF’s Shadow Matrix

The above chart looks at all cornerbacks to shadow in at least seven games over the past two seasons. The “FPG Allowed” column shows the average FPG scored by opposing wide receivers in a cornerback’s shadow games. (Note: This includes production allowed by the shadow cornerback’s teammates. I do think that’s worth including, as cornerbacks who only shadow on 60% of a wide receiver’s routes vs. 100% should be somewhat penalized for that fact.)

The “Exp. FPG” column represents how many FPG we should have expected the collective grouping of opposing wide receivers to score. I compiled this by taking each wide receiver’s FPG average in that specific season while excluding this one individual shadow game. And then I took the average of that for all wide receivers this cornerback has shadowed. The higher a cornerback’s Exp. FPG, the tougher their average opponent (the more often they were tasked with covering a top-tier wide receiver). The “% Diff” column represents the percentage difference between those two numbers, and tells us how much an individual cornerback should be feared for DFS purposes.

The Cornerbacks

If your fantasy wide receiver is expected to draw shadow coverage from Jalen Ramsey, you can shave off about 38.7% from their FPG average and use that as your expectation. For instance, last season D.K. Metcalf averaged 18.2 FPG when facing anyone but the Rams. Up against the Rams and Ramsey’s shadow coverage, we should have expected just 11.2 FPG from him. (Although, in actuality, Metcalf averaged just 8.4 FPG across two shadow games against Ramsey last season.) However, as fearsome as Ramsey is, he wasn’t asked to shadow very often last year. He did so just three times (against D.K. Metcalf twice and Mike Evans once).

Stephon Gilmore, meanwhile, is asked to shadow just about every week. Although he’s not facing off against top-tier wide receivers quite as often as Ramsey, he’s shutting them down nearly just as much. In a combined eight shadow games since 2018, top-tier wideouts like Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, Stefon Diggs, Keenan Allen, Allen Robinson, and Amari Cooper combine to average just 4.8 FPG when lined up against Gilmore.

James Bradberry was a revelation for the Giants last year. In 10 shadow games, against names like D.K. Metcalf, Mike Evans, Terry McLaurin, Allen Robinson, and Amari Cooper, he only allowed one receiver to gain 45 yards or more when lined up against him (Metcalf for 62 yards in Week 13.)

Over his last 10 shadow games, Marshon Lattimore has allowed just one wide receiver to reach double-digit fantasy points when lined up against him (Calvin Ridley for 15.8 in Week 13 last year). And that’s despite the toughest overall expectation (i.e. strength of schedule) from our chart (16.9). In three shadow games against Mike Evans over this span, Evans totaled a combined zero yards on five targets when lined up against Lattimore (71% of his routes). So, uhh, yeah, don’t ever play Evans against New Orleans if Lattimore is active.

Washington made William Jackson III the 10th-highest paid cornerback in the league this past offseason, but didn’t ask any of their cornerbacks to shadow last year. So, we’ll have to wait and see whether or not he’s a shadow cornerback this year.

Jaire Alexander was PFF’s highest-graded cornerback last season, and although I got skewered for it, I still believe he was more deserving of a first-team All-Pro designation than Xavien Howard. Over the past two seasons, whenever he was asked to shadow, he has done nothing but shutdown the opposing team’s WR1. In 9 shadow games over the past two seasons, he’s been unbeatable. Well, except for that one game against Amari Cooper (Week 5 of 2019) where he was terrible, giving up a whopping 201 yards on 11 targets. But, yes, outside of that one atrocious performance, he’s been unbeatable, allowing just 14.5 YPG to opposing shadowed wide receivers when lined up against him. That includes 25 or fewer yards allowed to Terry McLaurin, Stefon Diggs, and Will Fuller, and zeroes to Mike Evans, Calvin Ridley, Marvin Jones, and Emmanuel Sanders.

According to our chart, Tre’Davious White is the last shadow cornerback we need to be fearful of. In 10 shadow games over the past two seasons, he's allowed just one wide receiver to reach double-digit fantasy points when lined up against him (DeVante Parker's 13.0 in 2019). That being said, in contrast to White’s brand-name recognition, his bark might be a little worse than his bite. And because he typically only shadows a wide receiver on 66% of their routes, it’s not uncommon to see a wide receiver salvage his day against Buffalo’s lesser-tier talent on the remainder of their routes. For instance, Parker, DK Metcalf, and Amari Cooper averaged 20.3 FPG in shadow games against White, with the bulk of that coming on non-shadowed routes.

Chris Harris Jr., was at one point one of the best slot cornerbacks and toughest shadow cornerbacks in football. Last season, with the Chargers, he wasn’t once asked to shadow. So, our sample is only looking at 2019, but he was also a lot better in 2019 than his numbers imply. The nine wide receivers he shadowed collectively averaged 15.5 FPG in those contests, but only 7.9 FPG when actually lined up against Harris (69% of their routes). Still, he’s now 32 years old, and I’m not sure if Los Angeles will ask him to shadow at any point this season, nor am I sure he’s still a cornerback to be too fearful of. (Last season he ranked 50th-best of 85-qualifying cornerbacks in yards allowed per route in coverage.)

Like Alexander, Carlton Davis has been excellent in shadow games… minus one game. But he was brutal in that one game. In Week 12 of last season, Tyreek Hill torched him, catching 8 of 8 targets for 204 yards and three scores when lined up against him. Davis ran a 4.53-forty yard dash at the 2018 Combine, and was no match for Hill’s 4.29-speed. But he’s done extremely well against the top-tier but slower wide receivers he’s been asked to shadow. In nine other shadow games since 2019, against names like Allen Robinson, Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and D.J. Moore, opposing wide receivers average just 7.5 FPG when lined up against him (68% of their routes). If removing the Hill game, he’d rank third-best on this chart (-26.3%).

I’m fairly confident Darius Slay is at least a little better than this chart implies. Over the past two seasons, across 16 shadow games, he’s had two bad games. But in the other 14 games, no shadowed wide receiver has hit 15.0 fantasy points when lined up against him, and, collectively, they average just 7.9 FPG. The first bad game came in Week 10 of last season, when DK Metcalf caught 10 of 13 targets for 177 yards against him. I don’t have a good excuse for him here; he just got beat. The second game came in Week 13 against Davante Adams, who caught 7 of 8 targets for 112 yards and two scores against him. This one is a little easier to excuse. Maybe he was just no match for Adams in a historically great season, but, also, maybe he was just hurt. Slay came into this game questionable dealing with a bad calf injury and left the game early in the third quarter (calf, knee, bruised ego).

All other cornerbacks on our chart can be safely ignored, or perhaps even targeted for DFS-purposes.

Okay, now, just for fun… Who are the most cornerback-immune wide receivers?

Here’s all wide receivers by FPG over the past two seasons in shadow games (min. three such games) against the top-10 cornerbacks on the above chart:

The Wide Receivers

Davante Adams has been shadowed six times over the past two seasons and has only twice failed to reach 17.5 fantasy points. In Week 6 last year, Carlton Davis held him to just 12.1 fantasy points, and only 5.6 when lined up against him (on 68% of Adams’ routes). In Week 3 of 2019, Chris Harris Jr. held Adams to just 9.6 fantasy points.

DeVante Parker has been shadowed eight times over the past two seasons, but only three times against our top-10 cornerbacks. He’s faced Stephon Gilmore once, Tre’Davious White once, and William Jackson III twice. Remarkably, he’s hit 20.0 fantasy points in three of those four games, averaging 18.0 FPG. In his other four shadow games, against lesser-tier cornerbacks, he averages just 8.5 FPG. I’m not so sure what to make of this, however, and think it’s probably just noise in a small sample.

Stefon Diggs is fairly cornerback-immune. He averages 21.8 FPG across the nine games he’s been shadowed since 2019. And 17.7 FPG against our top-10 cornerbacks.

DeAndre Hopkins technically wasn’t shadowed once last year (so our sample is only looking at 2019), but that’s only because HC Kliff Kingsbury never really moved him around the formation. And if he’s not being moved around the formation, we can’t tell whether or not a cornerback is actually shadowing him. A whopping 82% of his routes came lined up at the LWR position last year. For comparison, last season, Adams lined up at LWR on 36% of his routes, RWR on 31%, and in the slot on 32% of his routes. And this inherently puts Hopkins at a disadvantage for fantasy — for one thing, the utter lack of creativity, for another, he was never given a chance to shed his tougher matchups. With other WR1s, like Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs, we’ll see their (probably far more competent) coaching staffs move them around the formation, often into softer matchups (for instance in the slot) away from sticky shadow cornerbacks. Last year, there were five games Hopkins spent lined up across from Tre’Davious White, James Bradberry, Stephon Gilmore, and Jalen Ramsey (twice) on at least 75% of his routes. In those games he scored (respectively) 25.7, 22.6, 10.5, 19.2, and 7.5 fantasy points, averaging 17.1 FPG. Encouragingly, despite this handicap, he was still fairly cornerback-immune.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, shadow matchups rarely pose a problem for Keenan Allen because he typically runs about 55% of his routes from the slot, and with few exceptions (Chris Harris Jr., for instance) shadow cornerbacks rarely follow a wide receiver into the slot. In three shadow games against our top-10 cornerbacks (Harris, Darius Slay, and Stephon Gilmore), Allen averaged 15.5 FPG, but only 7.9 FPG when lined up against those individual cornerbacks (occuring on 61% of his routes). So, he made up a lot of ground on the other 39% of his routes.

Tyreek Hill has been shadowed three times over the past two seasons, but only once against one of our top-10 cornerbacks. He scored 57.9 fantasy points in the game he was shadowed by Carlton Davis, 33.0 fantasy points against Adoree Jackson, and just 13.0 fantasy points against Jonathan Jones. (Patriots HC Bill Belichick probably had him bracketed in this game.)

Scott Barrett combines a unique background in philosophy and investing alongside a lifelong love of football and spreadsheets to serve as FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and Lead DFS Writer.

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