When looking at the top offensive matchup weapons in the NFL, think of players who can create stress for opposing defensive coordinators due to their skill sets, formation flexibility and the one-on-one situations they consistently exploit.
In today’s league, with more spread looks and versatile play-callers, there are plenty of names we can point to in this discussion. But here are five players who would force me to adjust the defensive game plan to try to limit their production.
TE Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Gronkowski is one of the few players in the league who can consistently dictate one-on-one matchups given his rare combination of size, power and athleticism.
A complete player at the position who can also produce as a blocker in the run game, Gronkowski has the ability to align in multiple spots on the field within the Patriots game plan. Whether that is on the line attached to the core of the formation or as the backside receiver in a 3x1 set, the Patriots can move him to get the exact matchup they want.
Think back to the Super Bowl and Gronkowski’s touchdown reception versus Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright. He was removed (or isolated) to get the matchup and to win over the top on the deep fade route.
When you watch tape on Gronkowski, focus on his ability within the route, or at the break point, to initiate contact, create separation and generate the necessary leverage to shield the defender. That puts both linebackers and safeties in a tough spot when they are asked to recover and play the ball through his massive frame.
Here’s an example from the Bears' Week 8 matchup against the Patriots, with Gronkowski running a basic in-cut versus man coverage (Cover 1).
This is a straight stem up the field, with Gronkowski pushing through the contact and playing off the safety's leverage in coverage. That allows him to work away from the outside shade, get separation and catch the football.
However, look at what Gronkowski does after the catch when Ryan Mundy tries to make an open-field tackle. He simply tosses the Bears safety out of the way and takes the ball to the end zone.
If I’m a defensive coordinator, the goal is to at least get a jam on Gronkowski when he is removed from the formation—walk a linebacker out to collide with the tight end—with a safety playing over the top. Make someone else beat you, because he demands that kind of attention as a matchup nightmare in today’s game.
WR Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant is one of the game's top matchup players because of his natural ability to make plays at the point of attack and the physicality he brings to the wide receiver position.
In terms of body control and balance, Bryant is excellent when tracking the football. The Cowboys' No. 1 wide receiver can climb the ladder, adjust and use his strength to beat defensive backs in coverage. Plus, he is explosive after the catch. That’s where you see his straight-line speed and toughness in the open field, when the Cowboys get him the ball underneath or from an inside alignment.
Whether through the original formation or pre-snap motion, Dallas can script situations to get Bryant open in the middle of the field versus zone coverage or combo-man schemes that highlight his skill set.
Check out this example from the Cowboys' matchup against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Wild Card Game, with Dallas using motion (to an empty formation) in order to widen the cornerback on the edge. That leaves Bryant inside versus a linebacker underneath.
This is a simple route concept with Bryant on the shallow drive route and tight end Jason Witten coming back across the formation to create traffic for linebacker DeAndre Levy in coverage. That allows the Oklahoma State product to separate, make the catch and then turn upfield to produce an explosive gain.
From a defensive perspective, Bryant is going to create plenty of issues for both zone and man coverage.
Playing a safety over the top (Cover 2) sounds good, but given the Cowboys' ability to run the football with that top-tier offensive line, Bryant often sees one-on-one matchups (both inside and outside of the numbers), which he can exploit. And once the ball reaches the deep red zone (plus-10-yard line), you know the fade is coming given his ability to win versus solo coverage. This guy is a beast.
RB De’Anthony Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs
Thomas didn’t produce big numbers as a rookie (113 yards rushing, 156 yards receiving), but I expect the Oregon product to get more touches in his second pro season, creating stress for opposing defenses due to his unique skill set, speed and versatility in the game plan.
Guys like Thomas can align anywhere on the field. As a defense, that forces you to prep for exotic schemes, pre-snap movement, the screen game and rare personnel groupings. That means more time in the film room and extra practice reps on the field because Thomas can get the ball from a variety of spots. Anytime he is the huddle, defenses have to be alert for misdirection or a gadget play.
We saw some of that this past season in Andy Reid’s offense, with Thomas catching the ball out of the backfield, running the jet sweep or as part of packaged reads on the bubble screen.
Take a look at this “crack” screen with the Chiefs showing “pony” personnel (two tailbacks in the game) versus the San Francisco 49ers.
The Chiefs motion (or shift) Thomas into the backfield, run misdirection with Jamaal Charles in an offset alignment and then run the rookie on a swing concept out of the backfield. Get him the ball and let him make a play.
Thomas already has proven that he can impact the return game on special teams with his open-field speed and vision. But given Reid’s ability to build creative schemes around his core West Coast concepts, Thomas should play a much bigger role on offense this season as a matchup player who will force defenses to adjust.
WR Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers wide receiver leans on his lightning-fast acceleration and change-of-direction ability to take advantage of matchups. Brown is so quick off the ball and often wins with lateral movement to get after defensive backs when they walk up in a press position.
Take a false step as a defensive back, or fail to slide your feet, and it’s over versus Brown. That sounds too easy, but we are talking about a receiver who consistently tests defenders' technique in coverage. And once Brown wins at the line of scrimmage, defensive backs will not recover because of his vertical speed down the field and the ability to rack up numbers after the catch.
Let’s go back to a Ravens-Steelers matchup from this past season with Brown running a 7- (corner) route versus 2-Man (two-deep, man-under).
Start with the release, where Brown utilizes his lateral quickness. That forces the defensive back to open his hips and immediately fall into a trail position with a safety over the top. However, the real story here is the production after the catch. Look at the angles Brown exposes in the secondary along with the vision and speed to cut this ball back and find the end zone.
Pittsburgh is loaded on offense, and that impacts how defensive coordinators focus on taking Brown out of the game. He can win outside, but I also love the damage he can do from an inside alignment on crossing routes and option concepts. This guy is simply electric in Todd Haley’s offense.
TE Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks
Graham can align in that traditional tight end look, but he’s more of a receiver with the size and athletic ability to match up to anyone on the field. Throw a cornerback at him, safety or a linebacker. It doesn’t matter, because Graham is going to beat you from the slot, as the "X" receiver or running the slant/fade combo in the red zone.
While Graham doesn’t have Gronkowski's physical style, the Seahawks’ new tight end is always a threat in the middle of the field and a true matchup nightmare for opposing defenses once the ball gets into the red zone. That’s where he can use his size and leaping ability to take the ball away from defensive backs or stretch the seam versus zone coverage. Just put it up and let Graham go make a play for the quarterback.
Here’s an example of that from last year's Week 2 Saints-Browns matchup, with Graham isolated on the backside of the formation versus cornerback Joe Haden.
Quarterback Drew Brees has no progression here after he sees the pre-snap matchup with Graham aligned against a cornerback. That allows Brees to put some air under the ball, while Graham makes the play over the top of Haden. And even when the defense knows the fade is coming, it still comes down to the one-on-one situation with a rare target running to the corner of the end zone.
I thought the Seahawks’ trade to land Graham was one of the best moves of the offseason, as it gives quarterback Russell Wilson a dynamic weapon in the passing game. This is a major upgrade for Seattle, and it allows offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to script a game plan that caters to Graham’s matchup ability.
Five More Matchup Weapons…
- WR Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
- RB Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
- WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
- TE Travis Kelce, Chiefs
- WR Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.