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 15.
Packers receivers vs. Vikings
Are you old enough to remember when the world was in full-on panic mode about Aaron Rodgers this season? Part of the offenses' struggles to begin the season was their inability to get much going deep down the field.
Rodgers posted a 49.6 passer rating on passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air in the first weeks of the season and averaged 4.7 such attempts per game. The script flipped the last month as the Packers went on a four-game winning streak. Rodgers averages 6.3 deep pass attempts per game with a passer rating of 119 the last four weeks.
Vikings on deep passes with Harrison Smith
4.2 attempts per game
1 TD - 5 INTs
21.8 completion rate
7.1 yards per target
24.7 passer rating
Vikings on deep passes without Harrison Smith
4.5 attempts per game
2 TDs - 0 INTS
44.4 completion rate
15.8 yards per target
130.8 rating without
Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson have been the primary deep threats for the Packers during their win streak. The former hauled in a 66-yard touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 14, while Nelson caught the long bomb from Rodgers last week against the Bears. That pass to Nelson traveled 60.8 yards in the air, the longest throw of the season for the Packers quarterback:
Of wide receivers with 70 or more targets from one quarterback this year, Nelson (13.1) and Adams (13) rank 15th and 16th in air yards per target, showing their downfield prowess. If Smith is out again, both Nelson and Adams have a shot to hit big plays in this game.
However, Smith did get back to practice on Thursday. If he returns, there's more risk in both of their outlooks. The Vikings have been one of the best teams in the NFL at limiting perimeter receivers, allowing a league-low catch rate:
Receivers lined out wide vs. the Vikings
49.7 percent catch rate
Both Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes have been outstanding this year in taking away outside passing lanes. The Packers have moved Jordy Nelson inside at times this year to get him more space, as he has 31 percent of his targets from the slot. Adams, on the other hand, should be tangled up with those two almost exclusively, as 76 percent of his targets come when he's lined up outside and 46 percent when he's lined up at left wideout.
Rishard Matthews vs. Jalen Ramsey
Among wide receivers in Week 15 only Brandon LaFell (64 percent) had a higher share of his quarterback's intended air yards than Rishard Matthews' 54.7 percent. Matthews has been a stud for most of this season with 100 yards and/or a touchdown in all but two games since Week 4. It's been clear for months that he is the rightful No. 1 receiver on the Titans.
Rishard Matthews will face a tough matchup this week as he could draw shadow coverage from the Jaguars star rookie corner, Jalen Ramsey. The young up-and-comer has only gotten better as the season has worn on while doing battle with some of the NFL's top wide receivers. He has blanketed some receivers to the point where the quarterbacks won't test his coverage, whereas others he's limited to meager outputs when the quarterback decides to pick on him:
Thus far on the year, 48 percent of Matthews' targets have come when he lines up right wide. However, the Titans showed a willingness to move Matthews around to get him away from Marcus Peters' coverage. He had just one catch on four targets at right wide receiver (where Peters lines up across, but one for 19 yards on three targets from left wide receiver and two more for 81 yards on two targets when lined up in the slot. The Titans could do that again, but while Peters has lined up almost exclusively at left corner, Ramsey has traveled all over the field in his rookie season:
Tyler Lockett vs. Cardinals
Arizona was absolutely ripped up by the Saints speed receiver Brandin Cooks. Whatever the reason may be, the Cardinals did not dictate Patrick Peterson to shadow Cooks across the field. Cooks only saw coverage from Peterson on 16 of the Saints 48 passing plays (33.3 percent). He registered just one catch for 10 yards against Peterson. He scored his first touchdown in a Cover 2 alignment where safety D.J. Swearinger was the nearest defender and his second with Tyrann Mathieu in coverage.
The Cardinals draw another speed receiver in Week 16 when they travel to Seattle to take on Tyler Lockett and the Seahawks offense. Lockett was not healthy for the majority of this season, but is now a feature part of the offensive attack. He's out-targeted Jimmy Graham 35 to 31 over the last six weeks.
Lockett showed the full range of his powers in Week 15 as he and the Seahawks demolished the Rams. He owned a team-high 36.9 percent share of Russell Wilson's intended air yards on Thursday night and averaged 4.4 yards of separation on his eight targets. That was the second-highest mark of Week 15, showing his ability to get wide open. Lockett earned 3.94 yards of separation on his 57-yard deep touchdown over the Rams' best corner, Trumaine Johnson.
Lockett is in a great position to sustain the momentum he's been building over the last month. As Josh Hornsby of TwoQBs.com noted, the Cardinals have been vulnerable to wide receivers on the right side of the field more than any other spot. So far this season 46 percent of Lockett's targets have come when he lines up at right wide receiver.
Broncos receivers vs. Kansas City Chiefs
One trend we've followed for most of the season is X-receivers lined up wide left tearing up the Chiefs on the other side of the field from Marcus Peters. Emmanuel Sanders was one of the receivers to take advantage of that defensive weakness back in Week 12. The Broncos moved Sanders to left wide receiver for 44 percent of the team's pass plays that night and Sanders racked up over 70 percent of his yards from that side of the field. That was out of the norm for them, as Sanders sees just 37 percent of his targets from left wideout on the season.
However, that trend has started to trail off here in the later portions of the season, and mostly since that Week 12 game. The primary reason is that Phillip Gaines, who was the primary victim of Denver's onslaught that night, has been hurt. Gaines allowed a whopping 209 yards and two touchdowns on just six catches in 34 coverage snaps that night. He's played just one game since and missed his second-straight practice with an injury on Thursday.
In Gaines' stead, journeyman and former practice squad member Terrance Mitchell has stepped up and actually provided an upgrade. Quarterbacks targeted Mitchell 18 times the last three weeks and he allowed just seven catches for 53 yards. Mitchell has played the right corner position on 95.8 percent of his snaps, as Steven Nelson shifts to cover the slot when the opponent brings out three wide receivers.
Of course, Mitchell is an inexperienced player with a limited track record that's only developing now. Don't be too surprised if the Broncos are able to exploit him in a similar fashion as they did with Gaines a few weeks back. Both Sanders and Demaryius Thomas move around enough for them to both be able to succeed in this matchup, unless Mitchell proves himself to not be a fluke.
Matthew Stafford vs. Cowboys
Matthew Stafford Week 16
Air yards per completion: 7.54 (14th)
Air distance: 20.71 (13th)
Time to throw: 3.04 seconds (29th lowest)
Matthew Stafford season averages
Air yards per completion: 6.2 (33rd)
Air distance: 19.25 (30th)
Time to throw: 2.55 seconds (8th) *QBs with 200-plus attempts
You would expect Stafford to be more cautious with a damaged finger, but that did not appear to be the case as he held the ball longer and threw it farther. Stafford may not find much success if he takes that approach against Dallas.
Much of the Cowboys success on defense is due to their keep-away strategy on offense were they play slow and limit the opponent's play count. However, they've also been quite good at limiting big plays this season. Dallas allows a 49.7 passer rating on deep passes this season, fourth-lowest in the NFL. The league average passer rating on passes that travel 20-plus yards in the air is 81.2, so the Cowboys have been hyper-effective.
Stafford typically hasn't tested defenses deep for most of this season, as his 48 deep attempts this season are the fourth-lowest among quarterbacks who have started since Week 1. Back at the beginning of the season, Marvin Jones was a downfield playmaker but he disappeared a long time ago. Jones averaged 3.0 yards of separation on his targets from Weeks 1 to 3 but just averages just 1.7 from Weeks 4 to 15. Jones' separation ranks 97th out of 97 receivers who averaged three targets per game in that span).
All of those factors should provide us some pause when confidently projecting Stafford this week, but the likely pace of this game provides the biggest hindrance to any ceiling projection. We know the Cowboys like to hold the ball on offense, and their 32:07 time of possession is the second-highest this season. However, as the season has gone on, Detroit continues to slow down the pace of their own offense. Their 33:37 time of possession the last three weeks is the fourth-highest.