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Fantasy football impact of the NFL's shadow cornerbacks

The idea that defense doesn’t matter in fantasy football is more of a warning not to overweight at-times fickle metrics from that side of the ball than an assertion that 11 defenders on any given play won’t make a positive or negative impact.

This is mostly because consistent one-on-one matchups between an offense and defense are few and far between. Sure, a left tackle will see plenty of reps against the opponent’s best defensive end, but coordinators regularly scheme their defenders to success by moving their chess pieces all over the formation. The same is true for linebackers vs. running backs and tight ends vs. safeties; the matchups might occur more than a handful of times per game, but it’s hardly an every-snap occurrence. WR/CB matchups are also generally overrated considering plenty of corners don’t stray from their side of the field, and the overwhelming majority don’t travel with a specific receiver.

The act of shadowing an opponent’s WR is a job reserved for the league’s best defensive backs; other times it's a role that we see specific coordinators utilize over and over. Even then, only a few select high-frequency shadow corners chase their assignment into the slot, but at least these WR/CB matchups usually occur for a majority of the game.

What follows is a look at which corners shadowed a single receiver multiple times in 2019 and their ensuing production allowed. Note that full-game box scores will be used, not strictly production allowed in coverage. This will obviously penalize some corners that don’t follow their assignment into the slot or for every snap of the game, but this is the reality of shadow matchups and will help fantasy investors accordingly not sweat players who don’t consistently chase their WR all over the field as much as those that spend a larger majority of their time across from the same player.

I charted every corner who shadowed multiple times in 2019 and looked at: 

  1. The production they allowed
  2. The production they were expected to allow using PFF’s dope “Expected Points” model
  3. The difference in production allowed and expected production

Measuring production against expected performance will keep us from overly critiquing corners in situations in which they might have given up a lot of yards because of copious targets more so than porous performance.

Best high-frequency shadow corners from 2019

Thirty-five cornerbacks traveled with a single receiver for the majority of a game multiple times in 2019. The average difference in expected fantasy points was just +0.24, indicating that in general we shouldn’t put all that much weight behind shadow matchups.

Still, there were more than a few outliers from both a good and bad perspective. The following nine corners allowed 2.0-plus fantasy points per game below expectation during their shadow matchups in 2019:

1. Jason McCourty, New England Patriots (-10)

The Patriots’ talented No. 2 CB shut down Donte Moncrief (3-7-0) and DeVante Parker (0-0-0) during the first two weeks of last season before not being asked to travel the rest of the way. McCourty (No. 20) joins teammate Stephon Gilmore (No. 1) inside of PFF’s top-25 corners entering the 2020 season.

2. Eric Rowe, Miami Dolphins (-5)

The only man in the league to consistently track tight ends, Rowe proved to be a thorn in the side of Zach Ertz (3-24-0) and Eric Ebron (5-56-0) alike. Tyler Eifert (4-57-1) might’ve had a decent day, but it’s hard to ding Rowe too much for the ex-Bengals’ TE Hail-Mary score. The Dolphins suddenly boast a potent secondary after adding Byron Jones.

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