By Gary Davenport
Gary Davenport

There's no denying, as we begin another season of fantasy football, that matchups play a huge part in this pastime/hobby/obsession that we all love. Over the next several months, millions of words will be written and spoken about players that are going to blow up or bust because of them.
Here's another thing about fantasy football that is undeniable. Early in the season, much of what you'll read about matchups is speculative. It's based on either what we know about last season or what we think we know about the season to come.
The former can turn out to be irrelevant so quickly it gives you whiplash. Two years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were third in the league in total defense, giving up just under 306 yards per game. Last year, they fell to 24th in the NFL and gave up the most yards per ground per game in the league.
A lot can change on a defense in one offseason. But there are some matchup factors that tend to remain relatively steady-like the battles between elite wide receivers and high-end cornerbacks.
This isn't to say that players at those positions can't have aberrant seasons. Allen Robinson started trying to wash off the stink of a miserable 2021 season with the Chicago Bears last night against the Buffalo Bills (he needs more soap). Darius Slay spent most of his first season playing cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020 getting roasted like a rotisserie chicken.
But generally speaking, great players at these positions tend to be consistently great. And that means, as we turn the page on another season of The Shadow Knows here at Football Diehards (don't ask me how many-I really don't know), that by looking at the biggest WR vs. CB matchups of Week 1 hopefully we can get an early edge on exploiting positive (and avoiding negative) matchups.

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (Jaire Alexander vs. Justin Jefferson)

Not that Justin Jefferson really needed to further establish himself as a superstar in the making after his phenomenal rookie season, but in Week 11 last year he had a game that makes him a central figure in Minnesota's rivalry with the Packers for the foreseeable future-eight catches on 10 targets, 169 yards and two scores in a 34-31 win over Green Bay. However, as Will Ragatz of Inside the Vikings wrote, that was without Jaire Alexander on the field.
"Alexander is back healthy this year," Ragatz said, "meaning this is the first time we'll get to see both star players go at it since Jefferson's rookie year. It should be one of the better individual WR-CB matchups in the entire NFL all season. Jefferson is a borderline unstoppable force hoping to establish himself as the league's best receiver, and Alexander is a big, sticky cover corner who allowed a passer rating of just 68.3 on targets in his coverage in 2020, per PFF."
Not only is Alexander healthy, but he has publicly stated that given his choice, he'll be on shadow detail against Jefferson Sunday. That doesn't mean he will be. It certainly doesn't mean that Jefferson is anything but a must-start. But Alexander may well be the best cover corner in the league, and if he is on Jefferson all day eight grabs at 20-plus a pop is a tall ask for anyone-even JJ.


Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans (Stephon Gilmore vs. Brandin Cooks)

Not that long ago, Gilmore was handed an award as not only the league's best cornerback, but as the top defensive player in all the NFL But since winning Defensive Player of the Year honors with the Patriots in 2019, Gilmore's play (by those standards at least) has slipped, and he's changed teams twice. Now 31, Gilmore told ESPN's Stephen Holder that he's eager to use this opportunity with the Colts to show that he's still an elite cover man.
"I just feel stronger, my legs feel strong and my body feels good," Gilmore said. "I'm just looking forward to this season. I've got a new slate. A new opportunity to show what I still can do."
Gilmore's probably going to get that chance whether he's ready or not Sunday in Houston. Per PFF's Ian Hartitz, while running the Raiders defense last year, Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley used his corners to shadow opposing receivers more than any team in the NFL. Meanwhile, there may not be a larger chasm between No. 1 and No. 2 at wide receiver than the gulf between Brandin Cooks and whoever in Houston. The targets will probably still be there for Cooks. But he's going to have to work to make something of them.




Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys (Mike Evans vs. Trevon Diggs)

Diggs may have been the most talked-about cornerback in the entire NFL last year. His supporters pointed out that he led the NFL with 11 interceptions. His detractors pointed out that he also allowed more yards in coverage than any cornerback in the NFL. As ESPN's Todd Archer wrote, Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay is most assuredly in the former camp.
"The [hardest position in the NFL] is quarterback. The second-hardest is corner in the NFL," McClay said. "And No. 1, to be able to match up and cover the best receiver that he does sometimes, to be able to go and get the football, all those different things that he does, he has to support the run, he's an All-Pro player. And there's been very few that do everything 100% complete at the top level."
To Diggs' credit, when these two teams met last year (in Week 1, coincidentally), he mostly held Evans in check. But the circumstances in this opener are different. Chris Godwin is iffy to play. Antonio Brown is gone. And Russell Gage and Julio Jones are unknowns for Tampa. Evans is all but certainly going to see a boatload of targets Sunday night-and a boatload of targets for Mike Evans is usually a good thing.




Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys (Carlton Davis vs. CeeDee Lamb)

Lamb was a trendy breakout pick this year, if by "trendy" you mean that everyone and their mother expects a huge third season from him. Amari Cooper is gone. Michael Gallup is hurt. The door appears wide open for targets galore. Per the Dallas Morning News, you can count Lamb among the folks who expect an eruption in 2022. In fact, he thinks he could rival last year's gold standard at the position.
"Man, I mean at your position, at your respective position, you always want to look at the best and whoever they consider the best,' Lamb said. "You want to watch what (Cooper Kupp) has done throughout the season and I love what he's done. I love the way he run routes and his ability to compete. And I'm not too far off, honestly. That's personally how I feel. I feel like I can literally be one of the best receivers in this NFL.'
Tampa's Carlton Davis is a quality NFL cornerback-he allowed just 57.1 percent of the passes thrown in his direction last year to be completed and gave up less than 425 yards in coverage. But his numbers in "shadow" coverage last year were just so-so, and last year against Tampa Dallas threw the ball a whopping 58 times.




Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions (A.J. Brown vs. Amani Oruwariye)

The 2022 offseason had no shortage of big-time trades involving wide receivers, including the draft-day deal that brought Brown to the Eagles as Philly's No. 1 wideout. There's been no shortage of discussion about what Brown's arrival could mean for Jalen Hurts and the Eagles passing game, but the fourth-year wide receiver told NBC Sports Philadelphia he's ready to stop talking and start playing.
"We have a lot of great guys on this offense," Brown said. "What we can do is be really special. But we have to focus on what we have to do and execute. That's what it comes down to. No matter how many good players we have, if you don't execute the game plan, it doesn't matter. That's my mindset. Good thing Jalen knows my mindset. I'm excited, he's excited."
Talent is not and has never been a problem for Brown. What was in Tennessee and could be again in Philadelphia is volume-the Eagles were dead last in the league last season in pass attempts. Being covered by Oruwariye doesn't really help matters. After a six-interception season with a passer rating against under 75, were the fourth-year pro playing in a bigger market he wouldn't still be a relative unknown.




Cleveland Browns at Carolina Panthers (Denzel Ward vs. D.J. Moore)

The quarterback carousel in Carolina has spun and spun and spun in recent years, with Teddy Bridgewater giving way to Sam Darnold, who then gave way to Baker Mayfield. Throughout it all, D.J. Moore has kept putting up 1,000-yard seasons, and Chris Towers of CBS Sports believes this is the year that Moore finally breaks through and becomes an elite fantasy option.
"Moore has been good at everything in his career except getting into the end zone, with just 14 touchdowns in four seasons - including just four in three straight," he wrote. "However, it's worth noting that the Panthers haven't had more than 17 touchdown passes in any of their past three seasons, so he's actually scored more than one-quarter of their passing touchdowns in that stretch. With Baker Mayfield at QB, I expect the Panthers offense to be much more functional, and that gives Moore a much better chance to find the end zone. Here's hoping he does it a whole bunch more."
It's not a huge stretch to say that Mayfield is the best quarterback that Moore has played with. It's also not a huge stretch to say that facing Ward all day would be a less than ideal situation-in four seasons, Ward has made two Pro Bowls and has yet to record a passer ration against of 80. But unless Joe Woods breaks from form, Ward won't be on Moore all day-it's rare for the former Ohio State star to shadow a single receiver.




Jacksonville Jaguars at Washington Commanders (Shaquill Griffin vs. Terry McLaurin)

Much like D.J. Moore, Terry McLaurin has made a career of turning nothing into something-in each of the past two seasons he has logged over 1,000 receiving yards despite playing with quarterbacks who were more into chucking wormburners than hitting him in stride. It's a resume that has caught the eye of veteran defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell, who said via NBC Sports Washington that slowing McLaurin down is a focus of Jacksonville's Week 1 game plan.
"I call him a 5-star," Caldwell said on Thursday morning. "I know that might be a college term, but he's a 5-star. You got guys that are go-to guys and he's a go-to guy. He has the speed, has the routes, has the hands-so he's gonna be a challenge for us. We're gonna go out there and, just like we do every week, go out there and compete against him and see what shakes out."
How Caldwell's defense will approach limiting McLaurin is anyone's guess-Shaquill Griffin is in theory the team's best cornerback, but like so many other Jaguars his 2021 season was a mess. In any event, the bigger concern for fantasy managers rolling out McLaurin this week is whether Carson Wentz might finally be the quarterback who takes the top off his potential.
Depending on Baker Wentz and Carson Mayfield or whatever their names are. What could go wrong?
It's gonna be a year, folks.