Best one-on-one matchups to watch every week next season
Analyst Nathan Jahnke identifies the top individual matchups to watch every week during the 2016 season.
Best one-on-one matchups to watch every week next season
The NFL Schedule has been released, and there are some great team matchups for everyone to look forward to. Often overlooked at this time, though, are the great player-to-player matchups that will be incredible to watch. Here is one individual or unit matchup for each week in the 2016 NFL season that we can all be excited for.
Week 1: DE Olivier Vernon (New York Giants) at LT Tyron Smith (Dallas)
The Giants made the biggest move in free agency this offseason by signing defensive end Olivier Vernon (92.5 overall grade in 2015) away from the Miami Dolphins. Over the last eight games of the season, Vernon averaged one sack, three hits, and three hurries per game. That eight-game stretch included a game against the Cowboys where Tyron Smith (93.3) had his worst pass-block grade of his career. Now that Vernon is in the NFC East, Smith will be facing the new Giant twice per season.
Week 2: WR Jordy Nelson (Green Bay) at CB Xavier Rhodes (Minnesota)
Last season, the Packers desperately missed Jordy Nelson. In most games next season, he should return to being one of the best receivers in football, but he hasn’t played as well against the Vikings recently. In each of his last three games against Minnesota, he’s failed to record 70 yards. Part of the reason Nelson hasn’t found success is the solid play of Xavier Rhodes (70.6), who has seen five of the top-15 coverage games of his career come against the Packers.
Week 3: CB Aqib Talib (Denver) at WR A.J. Green (Cincinnati)
If you look at A.J. Green’s (92.1) box score in the 2015 Week 16 matchup against the Broncos, you would think the Denver cornerbacks got the best of Green. He was held to just five catches, but one went for a touchdown and the other four went for first downs. Three of those catches, including the touchdown, came against Aqib Talib (79.8), the man he should line up against the most again in this matchup. With Andy Dalton back at quarterback, Green could see even more success in Week 3.
Week 4: CB Josh Norman (Carolina) at WR Julio Jones (Atlanta)
In Julio Jones’ (96.5) two matchups against the Panthers in 2015, he recorded a combined 16 catches for 264 yards and a touchdown. Some of his biggest plays in those games came against players other than Josh Norman (84.1), but Jones still got the best of Norman over the two matchups. For at least one more year, we’ll get to see one of the best wide receivers and one of the best cornerbacks face off for the majority of two games.
Week 5: LG Richie Incognito (Buffalo) at DT Aaron Donald (Los Angeles)
Aaron Donald (99.9) was arguably the best defensive player in football last year, in part because he was able to destroy inferior offensive lines. When he was matched up against some of the better guards in the league, like the ones in Green Bay and Cleveland, he didn’t find nearly the same success. His biggest test of the 2016 season will come against Buffalo guard Richie Incognito (90.0). Incognito had 15 consecutive games with an above-average pass-blocking grade, and in 11-of-16 games, he allowed one or fewer pressures. This will likely be the best battle between interior linemen in the 2016 season.
Week 6: RT Mitchell Schwartz (Kansas City) at LOLB Khalil Mack (Oakland)
Last year, the Chiefs started with Jah Reid at right tackle and ended with Donald Stephenson—both finished the season in the bottom 10 in pass-blocking efficiency among all tackles with at least 300 pass blocks. Their solution was to get the best right tackle in free agency, Mitchell Schwartz (86.6). While this pickup should help most weeks, he might not against Khalil Mack (95.8). Mack’s second- and third-best pass-rushing games of the year came against the Chiefs, but his fourth-best came against Schwartz and the Browns.
Week 7: LT Trent Williams (Washington) at DRE Ziggy Ansah (Detroit)
This is a battle with arguably the best part of Washington’s offense constantly going up against arguably the best part of Detroit’s defense. Left tackle Trent Williams (85.6) was very consistent throughout the season, never allowing more than three pressures in a game. On the other hand, Ziggy Ansah had three or more pressures in 13 of his last 14 games. On over 80 percent of snaps, Ansah lines up on the defense’s right side, so he should face Williams the vast majority of snaps.
Week 8: Legion of Boom (Seattle) at QB Drew Brees (New Orleans)
Over the last few seasons, the Seahawks and Saints haven’t met often, but when they have, it’s typically been a playoff win for Seattle. Plenty has changed for these two franchises since their last game in 2013, but their star players have remained the same. Drew Brees (87.6) has remained one of the top-graded quarterbacks, even though he doesn’t have the same weapons he once did. Players like Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor have yet to play the Saints in New Orleans, so this will be a new challenge.
Week 9: MLB Luke Kuechly (Carolina) at HB Todd Gurley (Los Angeles)
As a rookie, Todd Gurley (79.1) had his ups and downs. He had five games with 125+ rushing yards, and five games with fewer than 50. If he wants to become an All-Pro, he needs to be able to play well against good teams like the Panthers. Linebacker Luke Kuechly (99.1) had the second-highest run-stop percentage for linebackers at 14.0, and he will play a big factor in stopping Gurley, if the Panthers can indeed slow the second-year RB.
Week 10: LBs Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan (Chicago) at HB Doug Martin (Tampa Bay)
The Bears have spent their last two offseasons rebuilding their front-seven with top-tier free agents. This includes adding two of the NFL’s top-10 inside linebackers, Jerrell Freeman (90.6) and Danny Trevathan (86.6). Each had 37 run stops last season, tied for seventh-best among inside linebackers. Their biggest test of the 2016 season will come against the Buccaneers, where Doug Martin (87.8) returned. He had 906 yards after contact, which was 139 more yards than any other running back.
Week 11: LBs Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins (New England) at HB Carlos Hyde (San Francisco)
The 49ers’ offense as it currently stands will need to rely heavily on Carlos Hyde (78.8). While he missed most of last season with an injury, he averaged 0.28 forced missed tackles per carry, which was the best for backs with at least 50 carries. He will face two of the better linebackers in football in Jamie Collins (90.1) and Dont’a Hightower (88.6) in Week 11. Collins’ biggest flaws is missed tackles (15 in 2015), causing him to have one of the lowest tackling efficiencies among linebackers.
Week 12: CB Jason Verrett (San Diego) at WR DeAndre Hopkins (Houston)
Cornerback Jason Verrett (86.8) has missed a lot of time in his short career with injury, but when he’s healthy, he plays at an All-Pro level. He has allowed a career catch rate of 56 percent, and has never allowed more than 93 yards in a game. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (91.6), on the other hand, had 94 or more receiving yards in nine of 17 games last year, and should have better quarterback play next season. This could be the best wide receiver/cornerback matchup of the 2016 season calendar.
Week 13: CBs Vontae Davis and Patrick Robinson (Indianapolis) at WRs Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker (New York Jets)
In Week 2 of the 2015 season, the Jets and Colts faced off, and the duo of Brandon Marshall (85.9) and Eric Decker (83.5) each had over 90 yards. Vontae Davis (79.5) was beat on one play for 42 yards, but over the rest of the game he allowed three of six passes thrown his way to be caught for 11 yards. The Colts were using bottom-of-the-depth-chart players at the other cornerback spots, but now they have Patrick Robinson (79.4), who will be a huge upgrade. This depth will help especially in games where the offense is two-deep at wide receiver.
Week 14: CB Tyrann Mathieu (Arizona) at WR Jarvis Landry (Miami)
The best defensive back in football last year was Tyrann Mathieu (91.6). Against a team like the Dolphins who frequently uses a three-wide-receiver set, Mathieu should play in the slot most of the game. One of his toughest matchups will be Jarvis Landry (86.7), who spends 70 percent of his snaps in the slot. Landry had 784 receiving yards from the slot last season, third-most among receivers. Mathieu had five interceptions from the slot, while no other cornerback had more than two.
Week 15: DT Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia) at RG Marshal Yanda (Baltimore)
The highest-graded guard in football last year was Marshal Yanda (92.5). He was dominant as a run-blocker, and only allowed one sack and one hit on the season as a pass-blocker. One of his biggest challenges this upcoming year will be Fletcher Cox (90.3). Over Cox’s last five games, he had four sacks and nine hits. While Cox has played more on the defense’s right side in the past, we can only hope he plays a lot on the left side to watch two of the best go head to head.
Week 16: HB DeMarco Murray (Tennessee) at DE Dante Fowler and DT Malik Jackson (Jacksonville)
The Titans’ biggest investment this offseason has been at running back with the addition of DeMarco Murray (48.6). The Jaguars, on the other hand, will have a defensive line that looks much different from last year. Dante Fowler, Jr. missed all of his rookie season, but should be in to help stop the run at this point, while free agent Malik Jackson (87.6) had a higher run-defense grade than any other Jaguars’ defensive linemen last year.
Week 17: LT Joe Thomas (Cleveland) at ROLB James Harrison (Pittsburgh)
For the last several years, this has been a matchup to look forward to. In the last nine years, Joe Thomas (94.3) has only allowed two sacks by James Harrison (85.5). While everyone will be focused on the playoff scenarios in Week 17, it’s worth remembering this could be the last time we see these great players go head-to-head. Nearing his 38th birthday, Harrison is the oldest defensive player in the NFL.