Ranking the Top WR-CB Matchups of the 2021 NFL Schedule
The 2021 NFL schedule reveal means incredible storylines and must-see prime-time games.
Dialing in a little closer, it also means some epic player matchups.
And perhaps no area is more attention-worthy than the razzle-dazzle that occurs when the premium positions of wide receiver and cornerback collide.
Whether it's the biggest names squaring off, underrated stars getting a chance to shine or even noteworthy younger players facing a trial by fire, these are the top wideout-cornerback matchups on the 2021 schedule.
Rarity of the matchup as well as the talent involved make for can't-miss one-on-ones on the boundary and play big roles in formulating the rankings.
6. Weeks 13 and 18: Tyreek Hill vs. Patrick Surtain II
Facing Kansas City Chiefs star Tyreek Hill twice per year in the AFC West is quite the early test for a high-profile rookie.
Hill, after all, is one of the league's most dangerous and fastest weapons and posted 1,276 yards and a career-high 15 touchdowns over as many games last year.
Elsewhere in the division, the Denver Broncos responded to this annual explosiveness by drafting Alabama's Patrick Surtain II at No. 9.
Surtain was the No. 1 corner, if not outright defender, in the class for many. There are several reasons an expert like NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared him to a prime Nnamdi Asomugha, as the rookie is strong against the run and features the skill set that should make him an instant contributor with All-Pro upside,
Onlookers will get their first glimpse of this matchup in Week 13, before a rematch in Week 18. If Surtain can elevate the Denver defense enough, maybe we'll even get a third in the postseason.
5. Week 7 and 16: Ja'Marr Chase vs. Marlon Humphrey
The budding of what could be a special long-term rivalry is always something to watch, especially if it takes place in a gritty division like the AFC North.
It sure helps when someone as talented as fifth overall pick Ja'Marr Chase is involved. The newest high-profile member of the Cincinnati Bengals has a ton of fun built-in storylines going, highlighted by the reigniting of his LSU connection with 2020 No. 1 pick Joe Burrow.
During the Tigers' 2019 title run, Burrow helped Chase put up an eye-popping 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. Cincinnati will try to unearth some of that potential in a passing offense that also boasts Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
Baltimore Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey is one of the main guys tasked with preventing that twice per year. Humphrey, a first-round pick in 2017, has established himself as a top corner. Last year over 103 targets, he allowed just 66 receptions, good for a 76.1 Pro Football Focus grade.
Even better, the second of the two matchups comes near the end of the season in Week 16. Baltimore at least figures to be in the playoff race, so the showdown could hold increased importance.
4. Week 7: Julio Jones vs. Xavien Howard
Thank goodness for the rare cross-conference showdowns.
Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons is must-see material. Even last year while hobbled by hamstring trouble, the wide receiver averaged better than 15 yards per catch and had three 100-plus-yard showings over nine appearances. Before that? Six consecutive seasons with at least 1,394 yards and a high of 1,871.
Jones still has Matt Ryan under center, too, for this showdown against Xavien Howard of the Miami Dolphins.
While the league-elite status of both sure doesn't hurt, the fact that they don't face each other often makes this matchup so much more appealing.
3. Week 17: Julio Jones vs. Tre'Davious White
The Week 17 throwdown between Jones and Tre'Davious White is a great example of a rare matchup.
In 2017, after the Buffalo Bills made him a first-round pick, White was vocal about how much he looked forward to lining up across from the Atlanta Falcons star, telling the team's official site, "Julio's a guy I watched when I was in high school, so to be able to go against him, it's going to be a big-time deal and something that I've waited for."
And the rookie made good on his talk, helping to hold Jones to three catches for 30 yards.
Maybe Jones doesn't specifically recall that, considering he still put up 1,444 yards that season and is just focusing on getting back 100 percent. But he's still got a major task in front of him against White, who only allowed 454 receiving yards last season over 14 games.
Since the two might not see each other much again after this rematch, it's one to mark down on the calendar.
2. Week 1: Michael Thomas vs. Jaire Alexander
Talk about layers to a must-see matchup.
New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas won't have the retired Drew Brees slinging him the rock in 2021, making for a dramatic change for the first time in his career. This is also a comeback story of sorts for Thomas, who played in just seven games last year amid ankle trouble after three consecutive seasons of 1,200-plus yards, topped by 1,725 in 2019.
Across from Thomas will be Green Bay Packers star Jaire Alexander, the top-ranked corner in the NFL last year at Pro Football Focus. He was the definition of a shutdown star in 2020, grading at 90.5 with just 35 catches permitted on 69 targets. He allowed no more than one reception in eight games last year.
While Alexander might not have the same level of name recognition as Thomas, this is as big of a heavyweight matchup as it gets to open the season. The Packers defender will have a chance to announce himself to those who don't know while Thomas seeks a bounce back.
1. Weeks 5 and 15: DK Metcalf vs. Jalen Ramsey
The NFC West gave onlookers not two, but three matchups between DK Metcalf and Jalen Ramsey in 2020.
Metcalf looked like a potential No. 1 wideout for the Seattle Seahawks early and climbed another rung on the ladder as a sophomore last season, recording 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 15.7 yards per catch.
But funnily enough, Metcalf was quietly a non-factor in both regular-season encounters with Ramsey's Los Angeles Rams, catching just two passes in their first encounter and six for just 59 yards in the second. Then the playoff matchup happened. There, Ramsey's Rams prevailed, yet Metcalf bossed on the stat sheet, catching five passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
Ramsey won't always shadow Metcalf, as the Seahawks move their No. 1 all over the formation. But it's proverbial lightning in a bottle when these two stars line up across from each other. This year will feature at least two more epic matchups between the two and will have reputations and even legacies at stake, never mind conference implications.
Stats via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.