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. All stats used in this post will be from the Next Gen Stats dashboard unless otherwise noted.
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 1.
Saints pass-catchers vs. Raiders defense
When the Raiders travel to the Superdome to square off with the Saints, fantasy expectations will be sky-high. Both offenses are talent-laden units and the Saints defense, in particular, is quite poor. This has the potential to be the highest-scoring contest of the week, which is always of interest to fantasy gamers.
New Orleans' offense is typically difficult to predict in terms of where the targets will go on a week-to-week basis. The Raiders defense looks like it made some improvements over the offseason, and two of those moves, in particular, could help us predict where the volume will flow in this Week 1 shootout.
Oakland appeared to solidify their cornerback corps in the offseason by signing Sean Smith away from the Chiefs in free agency and extending David Amerson, who revived his career with the Raiders after a mid-season signing last season. Both Smith and Amerson allowed catch rates under 55 percent last season, and that was despite teams trying to pick on Amerson (20 percent target rate) after he looked like a draft bust in Washington. Rather quietly, the Raiders might have one of the better cornerback duos in the NFL this season.
Amerson (6-foot-1, 205) and Smith (6-foot-3, 218) are big physical corners who specialize in press coverage. Those are the type of defenders who give Saints No. 1 receiver, Brandin Cooks, some trouble. Cooks registered below average success rate vs. press coverage scores in his Reception Perception evaluations in each of his two pro seasons, including a 52.7 percent mark last year. He might be a player to fade in daily fantasy since he will likely be the highest-owned Saints pass catcher, even though it would be unwise to bench him in season-long leagues given this potential shootout in the Saints home dome.
If the passing production is going to flow inside with Cooks tied up in press coverage on the outside, Brees' other options come into play. Many predicted that Michael Thomas would assume Marques Colston's old role as the big slot receiver, but he played just 19 percent of his snaps on the interior during the preseason. On the other hand, established pro Willie Snead played in the slot on 75 percent of his snaps after playing there on just 29 percent in 2015. Snead makes for a high-upside FLEX play this week with a reasonable floor and is a fine pivot play off of Cooks in daily leagues.
Despite the overwhelmingly negative reports that came out regarding Coby Fleener's grasp of the offense as the preseason waned, he makes for a great play in Week 1. He recorded 32 percent of his yards with the Colts last season when he lined up in the slot and the Raiders tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns allowed to tight ends last season with 12. He should also go under-owned in DFS this week because of those negative training camp reports. The Raiders could be one of those defenses that funnel production to one area of the field, and it looks like that will be down the middle for pass attacks.
Titans running backs vs. Vikings front seven
Exotic smashmouth is real. Both DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry were dynamic running out of the I-formation (one running back lined up directly behind a fullback) in the preseason. Murray took seven of his 19 preseason carries for 40 yards on a 5.7 yards per carry clip. The dynamic rookie was even more impressive as Henry took 17 of his 34 carries in the exhibition games for 96 yards (5.6 YPC) and a touchdown.
It's a minuscule sample size, but the Vikings gave up 51 yards and a touchdown on just four carries to Melvin Gordon in their third preseason game, all of which came from the I-formation. There's some history of Minnesota having a soft spot against this formation. Back in 2015 the Vikings gave up 43 yards and a touchdown on 10 attempts to Thomas Rawls from the I-formation and 69 yards and a touchdown to Todd Gurley out of the "I" as well. There's more than a few layers of assumptions here, but at least there is a pattern to follow.
The Titans get the Vikings at home in Week 1 in a game where Minnesota will start either a 36-year old Shaun Hill, who threw a grand total of 252 passes the last five years or Sam Bradford who just joined the team last week. Tennessee could absolutely impose their will, or at least keep the game close with plenty of rush attempts. In that scenario, Murray would be a worthy RB2 with the matchup advantage running out of the I-formation and Henry would be a potential boom/bust flex play.
Jordan Matthews vs. Browns CBs
Chip Kelly drafted Matthews with a specific role as a big slot receiver in mind for him. Matthews was one of the NFL's leaders with 87 percent of his snaps and a whopping 97 percent of his yards coming from the slot. The new Eagles coaching staff considered experimenting with him as an outside receiver, but ultimately gave up the idea after minicamps and declared he was better inside.
In Week 1, Matthews should be able to avoid Cleveland's toughest cornerback. Joe Haden struggled with staying healthy last season, but when he did play last year he rarely traveled into the slot:
Haden will man the outside corner position once again for Cleveland, leaving the interior areas free for Matthews to roam. Cleveland cut their presumed nickel corner, K'Waun Williams, after suspending him prior to the season.
With a rookie quarterback under center, it makes sense for Matthews to gobble up targets as far and away the most established wide receiver on the team. He could rack up 10 targets running short routes from the slot on Sunday in a contest where the game script is hard to predict. With that in mind, he makes for a sneaky start as a FLEX option or a savvy contrarian play in daily fantasy.
Keenan Allen vs. Chiefs corners
The Chiefs have an emerging young star in cornerback Marcus Peters, their first-round pick last season. Teams tried to pick on the rookie corner in 2015, as his target rate was over 23 percent while Sean Smith, the other Chiefs starter checked in under 18 percent. However, Peters showed off his talent and held up under the pressure finishing with the third lowest catch rate (42.9) among corners who played over 200 snaps.
While that matchup would seem to indicate we should worry about Keenan Allen on Sunday, that would be a mistake. Peters almost exclusively lined up on the defensive left side of the field as a rookie:
If that holds true in his second season, Allen will run plenty of routes against the less proven combination of Phillip Gaines and Steven Nelson in the slot. During his torrid start to the season in 2015, Allen amassed 54 percent of his yards when aligned on the offensive right side of the field and 12 percent from the slot. His ability to play all three receiver positions makes him a versatile weapon for San Diego, but also helps him avoid shutdown corners who don't shadow like Marcus Peters.
Allen was a target hog in the early portion of 2015 before going down, averaging over 11 targets and 90 yards per game. Even if he doesn't get the raw target numbers his role should be secure as he handled 19 percent of the team targets in 15 games as a rookie under now returning offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt in 2013. The Chiefs are consensus home favorites over the Chargers in Week 1, meaning the team should throw often in catchup mode. Philip Rivers averaged 42 pass attempts in games fitting that criteria over the last three seasons. His volume and Allen's ability to avoid Marcus Peters make them both fine starts this week. Both Chargers are likely to go underplayed in daily fantasy this week.
Jarvis Landry vs. Richard Sherman
Typically fantasy owners see that their wide receivers are playing against Seattle and they're immediately tempted to send them to the bench. Their secondary doesn't have the ferocious nickname, "The Legion of Boom," for no reason. However, a deeper dive reveals that certain types of pass-catchers can succeed against this secondary due to their weakness in the middle of the field.
Everyone remembers Markus Wheaton's wild outlier game of nine catches for 201 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 12 last year. He lined up in the slot on 83 percent of his snaps in that game, and recorded eight of his nine catches, 192 of his 201 yards and the scoring reception from the slot. Similarly, Randall Cobb struggled last season with Jordy Nelson out of the lineup, but he recorded seven receptions and 97 yards on 10 targets from the slot against Seattle in Week 2 of 2015. Larry Fitzgerald went for 81 yards on five catches out of the slot in his Week 10 faceoff with his division rival and tallied up just 49 yards on his five other catches on the outside. Even the Ravens lowly pass-catching trio of Kamar Aiken, Jeremy Butler and Daniel Brown amassed 103 yards on nine catches out of the slot despite Baltimore getting blown out at home by the Seahawks in Week 14.
Enter Jarvis Landry, the Dolphins' slot receiver. Miami travels to Seattle for a Week 1 contest where the Seahawks are heavy favorites. Landry played in the slot on 63 percent of his snaps in 2015 and recorded 67 percent of his receiving yards from the inside. Those numbers jumped to 77 and 88 percent in Miami's preseason games this year.
Richard Sherman is still one of the premier corners in the NFL. In 2015, opposing passers only targeted Sherman on 14 percent of his coverage attempts last season, which was the second-fewest among cornerbacks that were on the field for at least 200 plays. Sherman allowed a catch rate of just 44.4 percent when targeted, the fourth-lowest number among qualifying cornerbacks.
Luckily for Landry, he will avoid Sherman on the vast majority of his routes. Unlike top cornerbacks such as Darrelle Revis or Darius Slay, Sherman rarely shadows the opposing team's No. 1 receiver outside of special circumstances. More often than not he stays on the defensive left side of the field and rarely travels into the slot:
Seahawks writer Keith Myers expectsJeremy Lane to start opposite Sherman but slide inside to defend the slot in the nickel defense. Last season, opposing quarterbacks targeted Lane on 20.3 percent of his coverages (65th in the NFL) and he gave up a catch rate of 55.2 percent (T-39th). He's a solid player but not at Sherman's shutdown level.
With Seattle's recent history of giving up big games to slot receivers and the unlikely event that Sherman covers him on even half of his routes, Jarvis Landry makes a better play than the public imagines this week. The schematic individual matchup is in his favor and the game script should elevate his production, as well.
With major questions throughout their defense and especially in the secondary, the Dolphins should fall behind early during their road tilt in Seattle. A pass-heavy game script should ensue, and the likely absence of DeVante Parker (hamstring) only locks in more volume for Landry as the most-established receiver there. Already a target hog, Landry could push for 15-plus targets in this contest. He's not quite the clear-cut fade most imagine.
Giants offense vs. Cowboys defense
A group you might need to be a bit leerier of than you may think in Week 1 is the New York Giants offense. While there's a chance they get into a shootout with Cowboys on Sunday, since both defensive units have major personnel questions, especially the Cowboys' unit. However, Dallas often eliminates that possibility with the way they play.
With their beastly offensive line influencing their team construction at every level, the Cowboys use a run-heavy approach as the engine of their scoring unit and also to hide their weak defense. When they adopted this strategy in 2014, Dallas ranked 19th in plays run but that was with Tony Romo under center. The team fell back to 29th last season, playing slower in order to hide their defense and backup passers. Showing that they intend to keep with that plan, Dallas ran the fifth-fewest plays in the preseason this year. With a running quarterback under center in Dak Prescott, there is every chance the Cowboys run even fewer plays in 2016 than ever before, slowing their pace down to a sloth-like tempo.
The Cowboys play slow and bleed out the clock. However, that also limits what the opposing offense can do against them. Their slow-paced offense does indeed help hide their defense, as they ranked 19th and 17th in points against the last two seasons.
The Giants fell victim to this in both of their face-offs with Dallas last season. Eli Manning posted a combined 363 yards and no touchdowns in each of those two games. He attempted 36 passes in the first and 24 in the second game against Dallas, both under his 2015 average of 38.6. Odell Beckham was not even immune, combining for 79 yards in those contests.
Daily fantasy players will likely look to target this Giants at Cowboys game as the third big potential shootout of the week along with the Raiders at Saints and Lions at Colts contests. However, considering the potential slowed pace of this game, it makes good sense to consider fading the Giants players, all of whom could come with bloated ownership rates in DFS.
For season-long leagues, you're not benching a player like Odell Beckham who can go off against any team even if the opportunities are limited. However, you may want to temper expectations for a quarterback like Eli Manning or consider other options as potential streamers. Sterling Shepard is a popular Week 1 sleeper, but he might fail to meet fantasy expectations in his first NFL game if Dallas' pace keeps him and the rest of New York's scoring unit off the field.