Joyner: Week 1 passing matchups to exploit


Hello! Many of you may be familiar with my statistical metrics work for the NFL section, but for those of you who aren't, a quick primer is probably in order.

For the past four seasons, I have been taping and breaking down every passing play of every NFL game. Some of the things I look for are the types of routes receivers run, how often quarterbacks force passes into coverage and which defensive backs are targeted and beaten the most. I run statistical analyses from these tape breakdowns and those analyses tell me who the best and worst players in the NFL are when it comes to catching and defending passes.

From a fantasy standpoint, these metrics are a starting point for grading players. I then augment those grades with any scouting notes I might have on a player (e.g., this player did poorly because he was injured). For offensive players, I also adjust the grades to account for the number of passes a player has thrown his way. This ensures that a high-percentage player who isn't thrown that many passes (say Marty Booker) doesn't end up rating as high as a lower-percentage player who is thrown many more passes (say Chris Chambers). After I complete the grades, I put them into a matchup database that tells me who has the best and worst matchups for each week of the NFL season.

For example, in Week 1, I have Chad Johnson as having the most favorable matchup. Johnson is rated as an A-level fantasy player and he is due to face Samari Rolle, who is rated as an F-level cornerback (the grades correspond to the system used in schools). It is possible that the Ravens will move Chris McAlister over to cover Johnson for some, if not much, of the game, but as long as Johnson is facing Rolle, his matchup is incredibly favorable.

As good as it is to know that, if you have Chad Johnson on your roster, you were going to start him anyway, so that won't be the kind of focus this article will take. What I will be looking at are players who might be borderline picks for you: guys like Drew Carter, Joey Galloway and Muhsin Muhammad. I'll review the three best and three worst midlevel receiver matchups each week and pass them along to you every Thursday.

In addition, I will give you two potential sleeper picks. These sleeper picks could range from No. 3 wide receivers facing really poor nickel cornerbacks to good long-shot players who might be available on many waiver wires.

With all that said, let's get to this week's matchups!

Three favorable matchups for Week 1

Braylon Edwards, Browns: Edwards is due to face Ike Taylor. Taylor rates out as a D-level cornerback in large part because he allowed 9.3 yards per attempt on passes thrown at him during the 2006 season. To put that number into perspective, a 5-6 yard YPA is superb, a 7-8 yard YPA is average, and a 9-10 yard YPA will normally get a player benched. Edwards may not be the highest-percentage wide receiver around, but matching up against Taylor means that Edwards has enough upside to justify starting him.

D.J. Hackett, Seahawks: Hackett is a bit of a risky proposition because he is slated to share playing time at the flanker spot with Nate Burleson. That's the downside. The upside for Hackett is twofold. First, Hackett is due to face off against Brian Kelly, whom I have rated as a C-level corner. Injuries prevented Kelly from playing enough in 2006 to be listed as a qualifier, but his coverage during the past couple of seasons, even when healthy, has been mediocre.

Second, Hackett's metrics in 2006 were superb. His 9.7 yard YPA was the 10th best in the NFL in 2006. His 73.4 percent success percentage (the number of times a pass to Hackett yielded a completion or a defensive penalty) was fourth-best in the league. He also had the best medium-pass (throws 11-19 yards downfield) YPA, so Hackett does have vertical capabilities. Add these items up and it shows Hackett is worth the risk.

Isaac Bruce, Rams: Bruce has a lot of upside for numerous reasons. First, he is coming off a very good year in terms of metrics. Second, with Torry Holt possibly being slowed due to his bum knee, Bruce could be thrown to quite often. Third, Chris Gamble, Bruce's lineup matchup, has a tendency to give up big plays. I say this because Gamble ranked 79th among cornerbacks in overall YPA last year.

On a lot of fantasy teams, Bruce is the type of player who is just good enough to start, but is also a candidate to sit because of his lack of upside. This looks to be a week to start him.

Three bad matchups for Week 1

Vincent Jackson, Chargers: I know that Jackson is getting a lot of play as a sleeper candidate this year. I'm not sold on him in that role because he has a slate of incredibly tough matchups all year long. This week is no different. Jackson is due to face Charles Tillman, a B+-level cornerback in coverage. Tillman's 2006 metrics were terrific across the board, even better than Nathan Vasher's in many cases. The Bears are also likely to put Jackson second on their coverage priority list, so that won't help him either. Jackson may end up having a good fantasy season, but the percentages say to sit him this week.

Reggie Brown, Eagles: I have been on the Brown bandwagon for a while, but he is due to face Charles Woodson this week. Woodson is coming off maybe the best season of his career with respect to coverage. He had the second-best YPA among cornerbacks with more than 60 passes thrown their way, with only Champ Bailey beating him out in that category. Woodson also had the eighth-highest forced incompletion percentage and his 14 combined interceptions/near interceptions were tied for the second most in the league. All of those are reasons why Woodson grades out as an A-level corner. I expect the Eagles not to test this matchup any more than necessary, and that makes Brown a risky play.

Bernard Berrian, Bears: Berrian is mostly a one-trick pony in that if he doesn't catch deep passes, he isn't going to be that productive: 24 of Berrian's successful plays and 381 of his overall yards gained last season came on bomb passes (throws 30-plus yards downfield).

The trouble for Berrian is that he is facing Quentin Jammer, who was one of the best shutdown cornerbacks on bomb passes. Jammer ended up having only five of these passes thrown at him last season, and none of them was completed. That means Berrian's upside is likely to be limited, so he is also a risky play this week.

Two sleepers

Bryant Johnson, Cardinals: Johnson is slated to face Shawntae Spencer. Spencer has been at the 9-10 yard YPA mark for a couple of seasons now (F-level in coverage), so he will definitely be a target for the Cardinals' offense. Johnson is quite inconsistent at times, but his 10.5 YPA was No. 2 in the league. That kind of upside makes Johnson a good risk, especially at a flex spot in a three-wide-receiver league.

Travis Taylor, Raiders: I know it may sound crazy to start an Oakland receiver, but hear me out on this. The Lions' secondary wasn't that good coming into this preseason and it lost Daniel Bullocks to an injury for the year. Detroit's backup cornerbacks are Travis Fisher and Keith Smith. Fisher has been the worst cornerback in YPA for the past two seasons and Smith isn't that good either. If Taylor can get matched up against either of those two and go vertical, it could mean a big play. If you are in a deep league and are looking at the waiver wires for a long-shot pick, Taylor could be just what you are looking for.

KC Joyner, aka The Football Scientist, is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider and ESPN Fantasy. His core passing metrics can be found in the ESPN Fantasy Football Magazine, which is on newsstands now. A free sample of his latest release ("Scientific Football 2007") is available at his Web site.