Comparing NFL players is always tricky because they face different schedules. But what if you could remove those advantages and disadvantages? The best measurement of the success of a player is to rate them against all others who played those same defenses.
By the end of the season, each defense will have faced hundreds of ball carriers but there can only be one player that outscored all others that faced the same defense. Ending with a Top 10 or Top 3 performance against that defense clearly shows an elite player in his position.
Quarterbacks versus a defense
In Patrick Mahomes first season as a starter, he ended with six instances where he produced the most fantasy points that the defense gave up all year. And he only faced 13 unique teams (three interdivisional repeats). Deshaun Watson also showed well in this metric with over half of his games ending with a Top 3 performance versus that defense.
The position only starts one in most fantasy leagues and the top players are well represented here as well. Watson and Jared Goff both fared very well in Top-1 games with Goff doing most of his damage earlier in the season.
Running Backs versus a defense
Only 11 different running backs managed to end up with a Top 10 performance versus a defense more than eight times. Considering that they only faced 13 unique defenses per season, they offered a distinct advantage that could become more should the schedule be lighter for 2019. James White and Tarik Cohen both did surprisingly well in this metric even though they weren’t the primary rusher for their team. Kenyan Drake and Joe Mixon also fared well here and have no real competition in their backfields this year.
Alvin Kamara was the only back to end with four different instances of gaining the most fantasy points allowed by a defense. James Conner also did well as one of only five backs to end up with five or more Top-3 performances against a defense.
Tight Ends versus a defense
The fantasy value of tight ends declines sharply so as expected there are several dominant players. Jimmy Graham was a disappointment in Green Bay last season with just two touchdowns but he was one of only five tight ends that produced at least six Top-3 stats versus a defense. Trey Burton proved to be worthy of a fantasy start and yet rarely produced more than Top 10 numbers.
O.J. Howard’s stats were less but he only played in ten games. He was on pace for Top-5 level of finishes.
Wide Receivers versus a defense
Wide receivers that produce the best in this metric are even more impressive than numbers suggest. The reality is that those top wideouts will fight through the very best coverage a defense can produce so their road to elite status is harder than an average wideout.
This is one area where an improving schedule can really help. And it also helps when a receiver is significantly more targeted than any other on his team. Players like Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, and Tyreek Hill all enjoyed a big share of passes on their team and opposing defenses still could not shut them down.
Reaching Top-3 numbers is pretty rare and almost impossible outside of the top dozen or so wideouts in the league. But any player that can end with Top-10 stats against a defense more than half a dozen times in a season is a huge advantage in an otherwise inconsistent position.