Ranking the NFL's Biggest Matchup Nightmares

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2019

Ranking the NFL's Biggest Matchup Nightmares

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Most NFL players don't keep coordinators up at night in the weeks leading to a matchup.

    But the select few capable of creating unique mismatches on the field can change games outright.

    Opponents can only do so much to contain these players. Their unique skill sets for their respective positions are near one-of-a-kind territory. These aren't merely fast wideouts or quarterbacks who can dissect defenses at the line of scrimmage. They're passers with rarefied traits and defenders who can magically get past even triple-teams.

    These are the biggest matchup nightmares in the NFL on either side of the ball.

10. Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

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    Frank Augstein/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp is just beginning his climb up lists like this.

    Fans got a taste of the real Kupp over eight games in 2018 before he suffered a season-ending injury. He put up 40 catches for 566 yards and six scores, moving the chains 25 times in the process. The Rams attack missed him sorely.

    Kupp has been even better this year over eight games, catching 58 passes for 792 yards and five scores, securing first downs 32 times. Perhaps even more impressive, he has only one drop, 404 yards after catch and six broken tackles.

    Kupp isn't just making easy catches and going down. He's a chess piece for Sean McVay who creates mismatches all over the field and then picks up the majority of his yardage after the catch, using his shiftiness to outmaneuver would-be tacklers.

    There are more explosive wideouts, but few can move around the field and change the complexion of a defense the way Kupp does.

9. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    A year ago, some may have categorized Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson as a one-hit-wonder.

    Jackson stepped in for Joe Flacco and led the Ravens on a run. In seven starts to end the regular season, he threw five touchdowns and ran for 556 yards and four scores on 4.7 yards per carry as Baltimore went 6-1.

    But it was easy to think NFL defenses wouldn't be caught off guard by Jackson this year, using what they learned on film to stop him.

    However, Jackson has evolved in 2019, to say the least.

    He has cruised past opponents such as the New England Patriots on his way to completing 64.3 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns against five interceptions. He's also somehow improved as a rusher, gaining 637 yards and five scores on a 6.4 yards-per-carry average.

    He's too dangerous on the ground. Yet even when defenses account for him, he's ducking and dodging out of trouble and making defenders look like they're playing at a lesser speed

    There aren't many quarterbacks like Jackson. There isn't a good way to game-plan for his pocket presence and Michael Vick-like ability to make plays with his legs. NFL defenses may still adapt and counter. But right now, Jackson's play is MVP material.

8. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    How does a coach even begin to game-plan for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes?

    Mahomes is a statistical outlier who didn't show any signs of regression this season before his knee injury. After his 50-touchdown campaign in 2018, he's put up a 65.1 completion percentage with 15 touchdowns against one interception over seven appearances.

    A complete package, Mahomes isn't just a passer who can run well. The funky arm angles, improbable no-look passes and sheer arm talent to make any throw on the field make him a one-of-a-kind talent.

    Mahomes does have the benefit of playing in an Andy Reid offense with some elite skill players. Regardless, it isn't hard to envision he'd prop up even the worst of franchises with his rare abilities.

7. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

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    Ian Walton/Associated Press

    Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is also filed into the multifaceted-quarterbacks column.

    Watson doesn't seem to get the same star-power recognition as Patrick Mahomes or even Lamar Jackson. But 4,000-plus passing yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions a year ago—with 551 rushing yards and five more scores—should not get lost in the noise.

    Watson hasn't experienced the sort of regression one might expect. Over the course of nine games this year, he's cruising right along with a 70.2 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions, not to mention 279 yards and five scores on the ground. Keep in mind he's doing this while being on the receiving end of 91 blitzes.

    The lack of regression is especially impressive considering the tape defenses now have on him. He's one of the most cerebral passers in the NFL given his week-to-week adaptations to his opponents, not to mention his quarter-to-quarter adjustments. Don't forget his game-breaking plays on the ground, either. 

    Pressure doesn't seem to affect Watson, and three years of film hasn't helped opposing coordinators figure out how to stop him.

6. Khalil Mack, EDGE, Chicago Bears

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    There isn't another defender as versatile or impactful as Chicago Bears edge presence Khalil Mack.

    The proof is in the individual awards—he's been an All-Pro in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. The lines between base formations continue to blur, but nobody at the NFL level can do what Mack does.

    A year ago, he put up 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and an interception. The Bears might be struggling this season, but Mack is certainly doing what he can with 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and four passes defensed, already matching his total from last season.

    His dominance goes deeper. Mack has only allowed four completions. He has 20 hurries, three quarterback knockdowns and 29 pressures.

    Even getting the ball out fast against Mack isn't a viable strategy. He eliminates one side of the field and wears down linemen on a per-play basis unlike any other talent in the NFL.

5. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

    No player is as explosive or versatile as one of Patrick Mahomes' favorite targets, Tyreek Hill.

    Hill isn't a simple coverage assignment for defensive backs. He's a former track star who has put his speed and supreme elusiveness to good use. Last year, he put up 1,400-plus receiving yards with 12 touchdowns, moving the chains 66 times. Add in 151 yards and a score as a rusher, as well as 200-plus yards and a score on punt returns.

    Injury woes have limited Hill to five games this year, yet he's averaging better than 17 yards per catch with four scores.

    When Hill isn't blowing past some of the world's best athletes, he's got the ball in his hands and avoiding then anyway. He averaged better than six yards after catch last year, and 527 of his yards came after making a reception.

    Explosive and seemingly faster than any weapon in the game, Hill doesn't figure to fade from this sort of list soon.

4. George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Rob Gronkowski doesn't qualify anymore for this list given his retirement, but George Kittle hasn't had any problems taking his place.

    The San Francisco 49ers tight end is in a bracket of his own. He exploded onto the scene last year with 1,377 yards and five scores, averaging better than 15 yards per catch despite being without his starting passer under center for most of the year.

    It's been business as usual for Kittle in 2019. He's at 541 yards and two scores through eight games, and more than half of his yardage has come after the catch, including five broken tackles. He also hasn't dropped a pass.

    A 6'4", 250-pound target who can move like Kittle and bully would-be tacklers is the type of presence opposing coordinators hope to never encounter. He's only 26, so it won't be a shock if he represents tight ends on this sort of list for a long time.

3. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is firmly in the MVP conversation after taking another leap in his already jaw-dropping development.

    McCaffrey didn't get a ton of attention last year for his impressive 1,098 yards and seven scores on an average of five yards per carry with 867 more yards and six scores as a receiver.

    But he's at a whole different level in 2019. With Cam Newton largely out of the picture, McCaffrey has put up—through just eight games, by the way—881 yards and 10 touchdowns on a 5.3 average with 363 yards and three scores through the air.

    Take it a step further—McCaffrey has 346 rushing yards after contact, and 345 of his receiving yards are after the catch with just one drop.

    A bully between the tackles, a patient and agile outside rusher, and an elusive receiver, McCaffrey is the definition of an all-around weapon. He seems to do whatever he wants to whatever defense happens to be in front of him.

2. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Aaron Donald stands alone as the most disruptive interior player in the NFL.

    Popular statistics don't do him justice, which is wild considering this defensive tackle who excels at rushing the passer put up 20.5 sacks last year.

    Donald is an anomaly in modern football, even if he only has five sacks through eight games this year. He's still put up 15 hurries, four quarterback knockdowns and 24 pressures.

    Last year, Donald faced double-teams about 70 percent of the time through eight weeks (via J.B. Long of ESPN Los Angeles). That has only continued this year.

    While Donald's numbers might be down, keep in mind what his drawing double- or even triple-teams does for those around him (six other Rams have sacks, two at five or more). Sometimes being a matchup nightmare doesn't produce gaudy individual stats, though it's safe to presume the Donald dam will soon burst and he'll do just that.

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Scott Eklund/Associated Press

    Russell Wilson has withstood the test of time even as the NFL's best defensive minds try to counter him, sometimes without stars around him such as those who flank Patrick Mahomes. It's a testament to his standing as the NFL's biggest matchup nightmare.

    Through nine games, Wilson has a 68.3 completion percentage with 22 touchdowns against a single interception. He's on pace to throw fewer than 10 interceptions in a season for the fifth time. He's rushed for three touchdowns, matching his high from the past four seasons.

    He's done all this while having 138 blitzes thrown his way, resulting in 37 hurries and 30 hits. He's averaging 9.2 yards per attempt under pressure, per Rich Hribar of Sharp Football Analysis. The rest of the league averages 5.9 in the same category.

    Wilson is a magician in the pocket with a cannon for an arm and unmatchable game sense and improvisational ability. He's been doing it since 2012 with a varied cast, more recently during a supposed reset.

    Opponents can't game-plan well for a matchup with Wilson. They can only hope to withstand it.