Mission Impossible: The NFL's Biggest Matchup Nightmares

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 9, 2017

Mission Impossible: The NFL's Biggest Matchup Nightmares

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    Football is the ultimate team sport, but it's a game compromised of dozens of minigames. Those are better known as matchups, and the more matchups you win, the better off you are as a team.

    As the NFL enters the second half of its 2017 campaign, we decided to take a few moments to get an updated feel for which players provide the most challenging matchups. After all, it's the kind of list that is always evolving in a league with short shelf lives, especially as players bloom faster than ever and rookies make immediate impacts. 

    Excluding guys who are out indefinitely due to injury—don't @ us about absentees Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr., David Johnson or J.J. Watt—here's a look at the league's most nightmarish players to match up with in 2017. 

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell

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    Thinking about Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is a surefire way for a defensive coordinator to develop insomnia. There isn't a player in the game who poses as much of a threat as both a rusher and receiver, which is why Bell reportedly even argued in the 2017 offseason that he should be paid to play both positions, according to former Steeler Ike Taylor (h/t NFL Network's Mike Garafolo). 

    The man averaged a conference-high 105.7 rushing yards per game and was first among AFC backs with 51.3 receiving yards per game last season. He's on pace to once again put together nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage despite a slow start to the 2017 campaign. 

    Bell does all that despite being one of the larger regular backs in the NFL. And when teamed up with a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger and an outside receiver like Antonio Brown, that makes the 25-year-old one of the toughest players in all of football to defend. 

    Bell's been owning linebackers and safeties since 2013. And when he stops doing that, cornerbacks could be next on the list. He suggested last year that a move to wide receiver might eventually be in the cards.

    "Maybe when I'm old and not wanting to play running back, get the ball 20 times a game, maybe I could convert, but not right now," Bell said, per his team's official Twitter account.

    For now, NFL corners can breathe a sigh of relief. 

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton

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    Cam Newton isn't a perfect quarterback. The Carolina Panthers veteran has faced accuracy issues for much of his rather inconsistent career, and there are times he tries to do too much. But Newton is nonetheless one of the league's most unique talents. 

    The reality is the NFL has never seen a quarterback quite like the 2015 MVP and No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Newton weighs at least 20 more pounds than every other starting quarterback in the NFL. He's basically an elite linebacker with an NFL quarterback's arm and a short-yardage running back's speed. 

    Just six-and-a-half seasons into his NFL career, Newton has already become the first quarterback in league history to rush for 50 touchdowns. But he needed that missile to win that MVP award, and only seven quarterbacks threw more passing touchdowns in their first six seasons than Newton did.

    That's pretty amazing considering how many touchdowns Newton the rusher stole from Newton the passer. 

    The numbers reveal why he's been giving fits to opposing defenses since coming into the league in 2011. 

    "You have to be good in so many different areas," Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of Newton recently, per Philly.com's Zach Berman. "He can be a pocket passer, he can run the read-option, he can run designed runs, he can run off-schedule runs, but he’s as good a pocket passer as there is. So I think that’s what makes it difficult to defend every one of those. He’s not a one-trick pony."

Kansas City Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill

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    Kansas City Chiefs versatile offensive weapon Tyreek Hill makes this list mainly because he's one of the NFL's fastest players. But speed doesn't get you very far in this league if you're not also crafty and elusive. 

    Hill is faster, craftier and more elusive than any active key player in the NFL (you're not there yet, John Ross). That explains how he was able to become the first player in NFL history to score three-plus touchdowns as a receiver, a runner and a return man in one season as a rookie in 2016. He's also on pace to go over 1,000 yards through the air despite having a target on his back in a more focused role as a No. 1 receiver this season. 

    His attributes also explain how in Week 9 Hill became quite possibly the first player ever to break through a prevent defense and score on what was essentially a Hail Mary pass-and-run and one of the 2017 season's most memorable plays. 

    The 23-year-old had eight 20-yard catches, eight 20-yard punt returns and four 20-yard runs in 2016, with 14 of those 20 big-yardage plays coming during the second half of the season. Nine games into his sophomore season, he has seven more 20-yard catches (a joint-NFL-high three of which have gone for 55-plus) and punt returns of 82 and 32 yards (the former was his fourth career return touchdown). 

    There's nobody in the NFL quite like Hill, and the Chiefs are especially adept at getting the most out of one-of-a-kind weapons. As a result, the rest of the league is still left wondering how to stop the guy. 

Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The "matchup nightmare" label is usually attached to offensive skill-position players, but plenty of defenders create mismatches for opposing blockers or attackers. And although he isn't the tallest, heaviest or quickest interior defensive lineman in the league, Aaron Donald's skill set makes him a near-impossible block for opposing offensive linemen. 

    His explosiveness and a deep arsenal of pass-rushing and run-stuffing techniques give him the ability to consistently blow up runs and manhandle double-teams, and that's exactly what he does on a weekly basis. 

    That's why he was a first-team All-Pro each of the last two seasons. 

    "Even as much as you prepare and watch film and go against him, he's just a special talent," Tampa Bay center Joe Hawley said last year, per Scott Smith of the team's official website. "You'll feel like you have him locked down and he'll be by you in the blink of an eye. You can't let up against him; you've got to finish every play."

Jacksonville Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette

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    Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette might only have six career NFL games under his belt, but he and fellow top-10 pick Christian McCaffrey entered the league with such unique attributes and skill sets that they both had a chance to become top-notch matchup nightmares the moment they made their regular-season debuts.

    After all, rookie running backs often are able to play massive roles right away. And while McCaffrey has struggled too much as a rusher early on to earn a spot on this list, Fournette's quick start means he can't be denied. 

    The No. 4 overall pick out of LSU is averaging a league-high 99.3 rushing yards per game, and he already has seven total touchdowns in those six affairs. 

    Here's what's most amazing or scary, depending on your perspective: Fournette is a hefty back known more for his power, size and aggressiveness than his breakaway speed. It's not as though he isn't quick, but nine of 13 backs ran faster than him at the combine. That was due mainly to the fact Fournette weighed in at a shocking 240 pounds. He's down to 228 now, but he's still more of a heavyweight than a flyweight. And yet Fournette is one of just three backs with three 30-yard rushes and the only player in football with multiple 75-plus-yard touchdowns this season. 

    Fournette could become a more polished receiver, and rookie backs are almost never good blockers. But when he's healthy, he's a practically flawless runner. And the 22-year-old is only going to get better, which is wild considering how difficult he's already making things for opposing defenses.

    As Mark Long of The Associated Press pointed out last month, opponents have essentially been deploying goal-line defenses against Fournette's Jaguars in the middle of the field, and the Rams even resorted to using a linebacker instead of a safety in run situations. 

    "That’s a credit just because they run the ball so well," Rams head coach Sean McVay said of the strategy, according to Long. "They’ve been able to run it versus those heavy box counts."

    "Teams have been playing some different fronts against us that we haven’t necessarily expected because of the run," Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis added. "Is there a blueprint? I’m not quite sure. It’s a copycat league. ... I would, too. I’d do anything to try to stop what we have going on in the run game."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans

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    Calvin Johnson was one of a kind, but if there's one NFL wide receiver who most closely resembles the matchup nightmare known as Megatron, it's Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

    "We'd have to put [defensive end Deatrich] Wise out there to match up with him physically," New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Evans earlier this year, per Owen Pence of the Boston Globe. "He's a big guy. We don't have any defensive backs as big as him. [There] probably isn't one in the league."

    The 24-year-old 2014 No. 7 overall pick is on track to start his career with four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, mainly because he's almost impossible to cover. He and Kelvin Benjamin are the only starting NFL receivers taller than 6'5" and heavier than 230 pounds, but Evans has better hands than Benjamin and practically every other wideout in the game. 

    In fact, NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt declared in 2014 that Evans had the best hands he'd seen since Johnson. 

    Yes, he struggled with drops early in his career and still can improve in that area, but that doesn't make it any easier for defensive backs to deal with him. Evans is so big, strong and athletic that it's borderline-comical watching corners try to contain him. 

    "He's big, he's fast, he's physical, he catches literally everything that comes his way. He can catch with one hand, two hands. He's one of the top receivers in this league," Pats defensive back Duron Harmon said, per Pence. "The way he moves, and to be that big is really, really impressive. He's just a matchup nightmare for any and everybody."

Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones

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    Evans doesn't quite have Johnson's speed, but Julio Jones does. The Atlanta Falcons superstar wideout also has the hands and is nearly as big as Evans (one inch shorter, about a dozen pounds lighter). He also drops fewer passes, and no receiver except Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been as productive as Jones since the start of 2014. 

    Jones practically demands bracket coverage, but oftentimes even that extra attention isn't enough. Simply committing two defensive backs to him isn't foolproof, and it often causes opposing defenses to get burned elsewhere anyway. 

    What's more, the guy lines up anywhere and everywhere. So even if you have a shutdown corner and you'd like to attach him to Julio's hip, the Falcons can find ways to move him away from said corner to exploit the fact most cover guys aren't as versatile as he is.  

    "He's definitely a freak," teammate Mohamed Sanu said earlier this year, per Mike Giardi of NBC Sports Boston. "If you tried to cover him one-on-one, I don't know how that would fare."

Tennessee Titans OT Taylor Lewan

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    Rarely are offensive linemen called matchup nightmares, but I wanted to include at least one player from that position here, and Taylor Lewan clearly makes the most sense.

    At 6'7", 309 pounds, the sensational Tennessee Titans left tackle is one of the larger blindside protectors in the game. But he plays larger than that, and his big, nasty style separates him from other monster-sized tackles such as Jared Veldheer, Nate Solder, Zach Strief, Austin Howard, Andrew Whitworth, Andrus Peat and Anthony Castonzo. 

    What's more, he's become one of the league's most efficient and technically sound offensive linemen. 

    "He's crafty, he's a vet, so he knows how to change it up, he knows how to throw a variety at you," 2017 No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett said of Lewan after the two matched up in October, per Cleveland.com's Dan Labbe.

    Lewan dominated Garrett that day (here's a taste) just as he's been dominating the league in 2017 as he comes into his own in his fourth year. 

    If I had to take one snap as an NFL pass-rusher and was allowed to veto one offensive tackle for that matchup, it'd be Taylor Lewan. 

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown

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    He doesn't have the size or strength of Jones and Evans, and he doesn't have Hill's speed, but Antonio Brown's routes are crisper than all of his peers, and he's as explosive off the line as anyone in the game. His technique makes him arguably the toughest receiver in the league to cover. 

    Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. made that case in a 2016 piece for The Players' Tribune, where he noted one other attribute that separates the Pittsburgh Steelers' perennial Pro Bowler from the pack. 

    "AB's body control in the air is second to none," said Harris. "An NFL field is 160 feet wide, but with the way Antonio is able to control his body, it's like he makes it 165 feet wide."

    How is a defensive back supposed to defend passes 2.5 feet beyond the field of play? 

    Combine that with his route versatility and his fit within one of the league's most lethal offenses, and it's easy to see why Brown is one of four receivers on this list despite his physical shortcomings. 

New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski

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    Nobody on this list will generate less controversy than New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been generating matchup nightmares since he came into the league in 2010. Linebackers can't keep up with him, defensive backs can't handle him and double-teams cause defenses to sacrifice too much against one of the NFL's smartest, deepest and most talented offensive units. 

    "For a guy to be that big, that fast, that strong, it's really…it's not right," recently traded Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo told Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg in 2015. Garoppolo added that what separates Gronk from the pack is "his burst in and out of routes."

    "Most big guys, it takes them a while to start and stop," Garoppolo addded. "He is really an offensive tackle with wide receiver speed.”

    Even if he hasn't used that explosiveness to get open, Gronk just tosses aside any defenders silly enough to try to outfight him. And even if those defenders stick around, his catch radius extends beyond the Rhode Island border. Defending him is often a fruitless task, and that applies after the catch with his ability to break tackles like Rihanna breaks dishes (my apologies). 

    Frankly, because of his injury history, Rob Gronkowski is usually the only person who can stop Rob Gronkowski. Everybody else is left watching. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson: Wilson isn't big or particularly strong, but his improvisational skills set him apart from all of his quarterback peers. Blitz at your own peril. 

    Miami Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh: He's so damn big, so damn strong and faster than anyone in his weight class. He's everywhere as a run defender and a pass-rusher, and even on the wrong side of 30 he is the ultimate double-team destroyer. 

    New York Giants DT Damon Harrison: He's a 6'4", 350-pounder who swats away offensive linemen like mosquitoes and can somehow effectively rush the passer as well.

    New York Giants TE Evan Engram: The rookie first-round pick out of Mississippi is 6'3", 234 pounds and runs a 4.42-second 40-yard dash. His athleticism makes up for a lack of size, which explains why he's on pace to catch nearly 70 passes for more than 800 yards and score eight touchdowns.   

    Chicago Bears DE Akiem Hicks: My favorite under-the-radar matchup nightmare, Hicks is an every-down pass rusher at 6'5", 318 pounds. Nobody really talks about him, but check out the tape. He's simply overpowering, has a hell of a motor for a guy that size and is often dominant as both a rusher and a run-stuffer. The 27-year-old 2012 third-round pick has 17 sacks in his last 28 games.

    Washington Redskins RB Chris Thompson: "He can line up in the backfield, he can spread them out wide, he can catch the football," teammate Jamison Crowder recently said of the versatile running back, per the AP. "He definitely gives you mismatches against the defense. He's just a great player. He has the speed. He's not that big of a guy, but he has the speed, the toughness and he just makes plays."

    Every elite edge rusher: Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa immediately come to mind. All are of course nearly impossible to completely shut down, but they don't make the main list because it seems as though it's easier to focus on and limit the damage done by outside rushers than interior guys who also blow up runs and can feed on guards and centers. 

    Every elite cornerback: No receiver wants to face the big, aggressive Richard Sherman. Or the uber-athletic Jalen Ramsey. Nobody wants to deal with the near-flawless technique Patrick Peterson brings to the table, or the emerging coverage artist known as Marshon Lattimore. Josh Norman, Xavier Rhodes, Harris, A.J. Bouye are also studs. These guys practically never get beat.