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Next Gen Stats: Week 14 fantasy football matchups

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Exploiting matchups is key in fantasy and can help us unearth sleepers, value plays and also alert us to when we should fade or lower expectations for more establish studs. There are a number of statistics and data-based tools to helps us decipher which matchups to exploit and which to avoid, and one of which is the NFL's Next Gen Stats package -- not just the fancy speed numbers you see on television.

Here we'll look where cornerbacks and wide receivers line up, which defenses are particularly susceptible to which player packages and so much more in order to find value with our fantasy players. As the season goes along we'll have even more data to use and a better understanding of the Next Gen Stats. Here are the top matchups that could bring value in Week 14.

Randall Cobb vs. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks' road trip to take on the Packers will be one of the top matchups on the week. The game becomes even more intriguing with the Seattle defense set to be without Earl Thomas. Make no mistake; Thomas is one of the top difference-makers in the NFL. His absence will surely be felt right down the middle of the Seahawks' defense, in what will be the first extended injury absence of his career.

Aaron Rodgers is unlikely to find much success pushing the ball downfield against the Seahawks. The Seahawks give up a 59.7 passer rating on passes that travel 20-plus yards in the air. The Packers offense as a whole has not been all that effective as a deep-strike unit, finding much more success carving up the short to intermediate areas of the field. Rodgers has 105.1 passer rater with 25 touchdowns on throws under 20 air yards, but his passer rating drops to 66.4 when he throws beyond that.

Both Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson will likely see plenty of routes against Richard Sherman, while he's been beat at times this year, can be a dicey proposition to test. Adams, especially, should see the thick of the coverage as he rarely travels into the slot. The Packers may be wise to pick on the middle of the field.

Seattle has locked down the deep middle of the field when both Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor have been on the field together. Seattle allowed just 10 completions on 43 deep middle attempts with the duo playing together and picked off four passes. When Chancellor was out this season, Seattle allowed a 110.8 passer rating on 20 deep middle attempts. As soon as Thomas went out last week, Cam Newton threw a 55-yard deep strike to Ted Ginn down the middle of the field.

If the Packers do stick to the middle of the field, that could bring Randall Cobb into focus. Cobb has racked up 75 percent of his yardage from the slot this season. He could stand to benefit if the team looks to pick apart the short to intermediate areas of the Seattle defense. However, if they are looking to hit a bigger play, they will likely turn to Jordy Nelson. While Cobb averages just 8.0 air yards per target, Nelson works much more downfield with a team-high 12.9 air yards per target.

Without question, Cobb is the primary slot receiver. However, Nelson has been a factor there as well. Nelson has lined up in the slot on 23 percent of his snaps this season, and seen 29 percent of his targets from that position. Nelson has actually made more big plays from the slot, averaging 15.6 yards per reception from there and just 11.2 from the outside.

Sterling Shepard vs. Dallas Cowboys

While Sterling Shepard has had more than 50 yards receiving since Week 3, he's been a consistent touchdown scorer all year and particularly of late. He snared his first career touchdown right off the bat in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, who Shepard faces this week.

Opposing offenses have targeted Dallas in the slot 165 times this year and the Cowboys have allowed a league-high 127 catches. Quarterbacks have a 112.8 passer rating when throwing into the slot, which is also the highest mark in the NFL.

Sterling Shepard has been in the slot for 611 plays this year, which is the most of any player in the league. Only Jeremy Kerley has a higher percentage of his plays taken from the slot with 90 percent to Shepard's 87 percent.

We know that Odell Beckham is the clear No. 1 in New York and his 35.5 percent share of the Giants' intended air yards is one of the 10 highest marks in the league. Yet, Shepard doesn't fall too far off with a 20.4 percent share that puts him in a similar range as tight ends Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski.

The matchup and opportunity is ripe for Shepard this week. If the Giants offense manages to put their foot on the gas, the rookie could be in line for one of his bigger games this year.

Marcus Mariota vs. Denver Broncos

The second-year quarterback has been on a tear this season. Marcus Mariota has 25 touchdowns to eight interceptions this year. His last game without throwing for multiple touchdowns was back in Week 4 against the Texans.

Mariota's 6.6 touchdown rate leads the NFL this year, and while that's indicative of the strong year he's having, it also begs the question of whether some regression could come his way soon. As JJ Zachariason notes, the league-average is right around 4.1. There's no more likely spot for that regression to hit than against the Denver Broncos.

While Mariota has certainly stepped up his own individual play, a good amount of his success came from the Titans altering their personnel at wide receiver. Having their better players on the field took a good amount of pressure off the young quarterback as his receivers created more separation:

While the improvement has been noticeable and marked, it remains to be seen if the Titans passing game can find the same sort of room to work against Denver.

The biggest difference in the passing game has been the promotion of Rishard Matthews to the No. 1 receiver role. Matthews owns a 32.5 percent share of the Titans intended air yards since Week 8, which is a full 10 percent higher than Tajae Sharpe who owns the next highest share.

Matthews takes the majority of his snaps (44 percent) at right wide receiver, which will pit him against Aqib Talib who lines up at left corner on 87 percent of his plays. On the season Talib has allowed just 277 yards on 56 targets. Over the past two weeks Talib gave up 10 catches, but only allowed 8.2 yards per reception. Matthews may struggle to bust off any big plays against Talib's coverage. The only member of the Broncos cornerback group that allows a passer rating of over 60 when targeted is Bradley Roby. And quarterbacks still only earn a 74.7 passer rating when throwing into Roby's coverage.

During his wild tear, Mariota revealed himself to be one of the NFL's best deep ball passers. His 138.4 passer rating on throws of 20-plus air yards leads the NFL since Week 6. He's thrown five deep touchdowns this season. Of course, Denver is one of the best at eliminating the long ball. The Broncos allowed just four 20-plus air yard completions this season with a passer rating of 44.8.

You may not have circled this as such prior to the season, or even back in the first four weeks, but this is a true matchup of strength on strength. It's probably not a week to place faith in the Titans passing game, but if they manage to get over on Denver, we'll need to kick the praise for Mariota and his weapons into high-gear.

Drew Brees vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Drew Brees scored just 7.04 fantasy points and threw three interceptions in a home game last week. Yes, this is real life. Of course, the logical assumption is that he will bounce back this week, even though he'll take his talents on the road.

Again, common assumption would hold that the Buccaneers defense will have no issues acquiescing Brees' bounce-back. However, the unit has taken a big under-the-radar step forward. In Weeks 1 to 9 Tampa Bay was the worst pass-rushing team in Next Gen Stats' pressure metric which measures the average yards of distance pass rushers are from the quarterback at time of sack or throw. The Bucs averaged 3.2 yards of distance in the first nine weeks of the season, ranking 32nd and collecting 17 sacks. However, since Week 10 they've averaged 2.8 yards of distance which ranks them 10th best in the Next Gen Stats pressure metric over that span. The team collected 12 sacks in the last four games, as well.

The good news for Brees is that he's one of the best quarterbacks at getting the ball out quickly. Brees has a 108.5 pass rating with 23 touchdowns to four interceptions when he takes less than 2.5 seconds to release the ball. Over 60 percent of Brees' passes fit under that time period. On throws where he takes longer than 2.5 seconds, his passer rating falls to 87.1 and he's throw seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Another matchup of strength on strength, the Buccaneers defense needs to get more respect from the fantasy world than we're used to giving it the last two seasons. The most likely outcome is that Brees does not flop two weeks in a row, but the pressure numbers the Bucs amassed of late indicate there's a chance they could keep him in check.

Matt Harmon is an associate fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.

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