Identifying the receivers that most consistently shine when facing man and/or zone coverage shells (i.e., the number of defenders assigned to the deep portions of the field) can provide a significant DFS advantage. DFS platforms establish WR salaries based on the matchups. But their models are not intended to be more complex than "Fantasy Points per Game Allowed to Opposing WRs." Breaking that down further by separating Slot WRs vs. Outside WRs vs. TEs and then by success facing coverage types will allow us to zero in on individual receiver strengths and coverage shell limitations.
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
What else can be said about Michael Thomas that hasn’t already been said? “CantGuardMike” is the clear-cut No. 1, tier all to himself receiver in reality and fantasy. Even when facing the 49ers’ smothering Cover 3 defense in Week 14, Thomas cruised to an 11/134/1 line with 52 yards after the catch (YAC). Thomas possesses a fast-twitch musculature that allows him to annually finish at the top of the league in YAC. With the signing of Jameis Winston, he’ll have a QB with a decent track record of supporting elite fantasy wideouts in waiting whenever Drew Brees hangs up his cleats.
It’s a tough ask to nitpick the type of record-setting season Thomas had in 2019. Thomas only finished two games with less than 15 points in a PPR format (PPR points). Considering early, multiple TD leads, game flow appeared to be the solitary culprit in both performances. Thomas simply ragdolled man coverage (Cover 1) last season. I couldn’t find a single corner that made a difference in the defense of Thomas. The sharpness of his route-running talents made defending him on slants, crossers, and out routes a near impossibility. With corners crisscrossing their feet in anticipation of his cuts, Thomas simply polished off his lovable hook route for easy yardage.
Defenses to exploit this season: It should be entirely clear that Thomas should be a DFS target independent of the matchup. The only reason he shouldn’t be universally-owned each week is his lofty salary.
Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Davante Adams had himself a whirlwind of a ‘19 season. He missed four weeks due to injury and didn’t score a single TD until Week 12. Adams even found himself ghosted until late in the 3rd quarter in Week 12 when he scored on a 2-yard strike followed by a two-point conversion. The Packers were obliterated in that game by the 49ers 37-8. Fantasy owners everywhere began to believe that their late 1st- or early 2nd-round pick had been a waste. That is until that first TD score catapulted Adams to an average line of 7.3/76.7/0.8, nearly 20 PPR points over his final six games.
Adams’ pedal toe sprain recovery must be considered as a significant reason for the slow start. I originally wanted to blame his down games in Week 1 at Chicago and Week 3 vs. Denver on a high number of Cover 6 shells (zone with six deep defenders). Then Adams proceeded to drop a 7/103/1 line on the Bears in Week 15. Similarities found in Adams’ struggles against the LA Chargers and Washington Football Team are the 3-Seam coverage (five-man zone blitz) and elite No. 1 corners (Casey Hayward and Quinton Dunbar). But we hold the knowledge that Adams loves to face man coverage.
Defenses to exploit this season: Vikings (W1 & W8), Lions (W2& W14), Falcons (W4), Buccaneers (W6), Texans (W7), Eagles (W13)
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
I was surprised to watch the extent of Julio Jones’ struggles with targets of 20 yards or more last season. A man with his size (6-3, 220) and speed (4.34) is expected to own vertical targets. But it was actually the intermediate and shallow targets that fed Julio. Quintorris Lopez Jones had zero issue eating up those short-to-intermediate routes with teams throwing zone coverages at him. It’s no surprise at all considering how dominant Jones is when facing man coverage.
Julio wasn’t able to exploit all zone coverage shells. The Titans and Saints were able to contain him with their Cover 2 (two safeties over the top) and solid play at cornerback. The Panthers also did an admirable job covering him with a 5.5/78.5/0 average over two games. However, with the retirement of Luke Kuechly’s irreplaceable, elite cover skills, Jones should be able to rack up the numbers against Carolina this season.
Defenses to Avoid this season (Rather than making a lengthy list of teams he should be able to exploit, here is the short version of defenses to avoid): Packers (W4), Saints (W11 & W13), and Chargers (W14)
Allen Robinson II, Chicago Bears
As volatility goes, the Bears offense can be found at the top of the list. Still, Allen Robinson II’s breakout ’19 season properly rewarded the Bears for signing him to a three-year, $42 million contract prior to the 2018 season. The Bears put faith into Robinson repeating his 2015 (80/1,400/14) rather than his replacement-level 2016. But “AR12” has suffered from poor quarterback play for much of his career. Chicago did trade for Nick Foles, restructuring his contract to three years and $24 million remaining, but it appears they will continue to roll with Mitchell Trubisky.
The first thing that stood out about Robinson’s game was his route-running ability. He’s clearly worked very hard finetuning his footwork to benefit from the entire route tree. He didn’t pop off the screen when facing man coverage, the first receiver on this list without that distinction, but he crushed the Cover 6 zone of the Raiders and Vikings (2x). We also know Robinson can succeed with Trubisky under center and he’ll have Foles available to replace him should the bottom fall out.
Defenses to exploit this season: Lions (W1 & W13), Panthers (W6), Packers (W12 & W17), and Vikings(W15)
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Outlandish trade details aside, the acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins should pay off in epic proportions during the development of Kyler Murray. The Cardinals will roll out a receiver group consisting of Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald, and a side dressing of Andy Isabela. Not to mention the need to account for Kenyan Drake. A Mike Leach-disciple, Kliff Kingsbury has acquired an embarrassment of riches that will allow him to interweave routes on three-levels of attack. At no time in Hopkins’ career has he been surrounded by this level of skill and speed and without a drop off in quarterback talent.
Considering that offenses, on average, will see twice as many zone shells as man coverages, the sheer number of coverage holes will prove dramatic. Imagine the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” with a mobile QB and Hopkins playing the role of Isaac Bruce. “Nuk” simply loves to attack the left sideline and middle of the field. Regions of the field, especially deep down the left sideline, where Murray required an upgrade. Another missing component for the mobile quarterback was a trusted jump ball target on scramble adjustments. It just so happens that Hopkins is rather sexy filling that exact role.
With teams throwing a large amount of zone shells at Arizona, defenses will play directly into Hopkins’ strength of attacking with slants, outs, digs, hitches, and crossing routes. The Chargers and Jaguars did a tremendous job of containing Hopkins last season with their Cover 3-Seam shells. We could chalk that up to elite corner play — Casey Hayward Jr. and, in Week 2, Jalen Ramsey — but the Jags’ A.J. Bouye, a far cry from an elite corner, limited Hopkins to 48 yards in Week 9 after Ramsey had been traded. The upgrade in surrounding talent could render Hopkins uncoverable, but he’ll face off against a murderer’s row of top defenses this season.
Defenses to exploit this season: Panthers (W4), Seahawks (W7 & W11), Dolphins (W9), Giants (W14), and Eagles (W15)
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Talk about a roller-coaster of a season. On the one hand, you have a receiver who threw down an 8.8/150.6/1.4 line over five games. On the other, he averaged a line of 2.9/50.5/0.1 over the remainder of the season. That’s a difference of 23.6 points in DraftKings’ PPR format per game! Mike Evans’ averages mirrored the inconsistency of Jameis Winston. No doubt the exchange of Winston for Tom Brady will eliminate the desperation jump ball opportunities thrown into double- and triple-coverage. But Evans will finally have a consistently defined role in Bruce Arians’ vertical attack.
I counted no less than five interceptions allowed on targets over the middle to Evans last season. Bearing in mind that, sans vertical sideline routes, Evans does his absolute best work over the middle of the field. This left the impression that much of Evans’ inconsistency was due to Winston forcing the ball to the regions of the field he knew Evans crushed. This target saturation essentially killed Evans’ trump card.
When constructing a receiving profile for Evans, I found that he was dynamite against man coverage, was unable to replicate that success vs. zone shells, and didn’t utilize a full route tree. However, I don’t think that is a true representation of his weaknesses. Rather, in addition to Winston over-targeting Evans on routes with previous success, he also failed to properly distinguish man from zone coverages. Brady will not make the same mistakes, but I do have slight concerns with the target distribution in “Tompa” Bay.
Defenses to exploit this season: Panthers (W2 & W10), Raiders (W7), Giants (W8), Falcons (W15 & W17)
Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
It’s relatively clear that Kirk Cousins is never going to be an elite quarterback. The Vikings have attempted to force the matter by cycling through offensive coordinators like Terrell Owens went through career earnings. Cousins has shown gradual improvement over the last three seasons. However, we really don’t need him to be elite so as to support fantasy receivers. The trade of Stefon Diggs will allow the Vikings to showcase Adam Thielen alongside Dalvin Cook… as long as the former is able to remain on the field.
Thielen suffered “slight vertebrate fractures” in ’18 and tore his right hamstring in Week 7 last season that principally erased his effectiveness until the Wildcard matchup with the Saints. When healthy, Thielen is likely only behind Michael Thomas and Davante Adams in field utilization efficiency. Cousins and Thielen balled out against Cover 1 last season. With Thielen’s ability to read zone coverages and exploit the entire field, he tactfully deconstructed Cover 4 (Quarters) shells with regularity prior to his injury.
Defenses to exploit this season: Packers (W1 & W8), Texans (W4), Falcons (W6), and Buccaneers (W14)
Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns
Odell Beckham Jr. brought his cult-like following to Cleveland last season with the expectation they were getting the WR who wrecked the league from 2014-2016. The Browns put down $77 million on “OBJ” maturing beyond the player habitually complaining of mild injuries with a diva personality that led to the Giants running him out of town. But, following the worst season of his career, Odell passed along that he played the entire season with an inguinal groin sports hernia suffered during training camp. His attitude did seem to improve in Cleveland, and he played through the pain without missing a game. However, everyone likely would’ve been better served had he undergone surgery months prior to his January operation.
We were left dealing with constant questionable tags and only one difference-making DFS performance all season, Week 2 against the Jets. In fact, Beckham Jr. was absolutely worthless on targets beyond 20 yards. After watching five years’ worth of his film, it became clear that he hasn’t provided a lid-lifting impact since 2015. Combine that insight with Baker Mayfield’s own third-level struggles last season and we are left with very little confidence in their DFS usage.
Through every dark cloud there is always a silver lining. Beckham Jr. struggled facing every conceivable coverage shell last season. Although he did utilize a full route tree, reports state the sports hernia is behind him, and he will continue to be fed with No. 1 receiver targets.
Defenses to exploit this season: Bengals (W2 & W7), Raiders (W8), and Jets (W16)
Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions
Despite losing Matthew Stafford after Week 9, Kenny Golladay’s fantasy scoring remained relatively consistent. Golladay’s ability to succeed when facing Cover 1 is simply several levels above other receivers with similar experience. By tapping into elite-level ability on outs and crossers over the middle, “Babytron” irritated the ulcers of Cover 3 disciples leaguewide. It can be very tricky to identify Cover 3-Seam shells. It’s a matchup-zone concept with seven in coverage and a four-man rush. But Golladay was not only able to decipher the coverage type growing in popularity across the league, he properly manhandled it.
I differ a bit on Golladay’s value from the excellent fantasy minds at Fantasy Points. I currently have him ranked fifth among outside receivers with a similar ranking among deep threats, and in field utilization efficiency. He is the type of talent that will produce the expected numbers against vanilla and top defenses alike. In addition to the typical collection of NFC North opponents he has already handled quite remarkably, Golladay’s out-of-division ’20 schedule is stacked with stylistically-favorable matchups.
Defenses to exploit this season: Bears (W1 & W13), Packers (W2 & W14), Falcons (W7), Washington(W10), and Panthers (W11)
Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
While far from possessing his potential to detonate for monster performances, Calvin Ridley’s strengths and weaknesses when facing particular coverage shells reminds me of a younger Mike Evans. They both love to face Cover 1 and are happy to utilize shorter-stemmed routes to attack Cover 6. They both also have the benefit of a second receiver drawing attention away from themselves. Of course, the downside of having elite running mates is being left with the occasional empty plate.
The departure of Austin Hooper will likely be a boon to “Code Red’s” numbers. With coverages dead set on preventing Julio Jones from beating them deep, Jones evolved to nourish himself over the middle on intermediate routes. In response, Ridley has taken up the mantle as the de facto target outside left and right. The Falcons will put a lot of points on the board this season to fuel their skill position usage in DFS.
Defenses to exploit this season: Panthers (W5 & W8), Lions (W7), Raiders (W12), and Buccaneers (W15 & W17)