If you made a list of the most important players in fantasy football this season, you could name Aaron Rodgers, Chris Johnson and Reggie Wayne and countless other fantasy studs, and no one would argue the point. But what if we told you that one of the most important players didn't have a passing attempt, carry or reception all season? Crazy? Meet New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.
In the first season under head coach Rex Ryan, the Jets currently rank second in the NFL in total defense. One of the core tenets of their scheme this season has Revis shadowing the opposing team's best wide receiver all over the field in man-to-man coverage, in what's become known as Revis Island. That may seem obvious, but for all the hype about "shutdown cornerbacks," the majority of teams don't deploy their best corner the way the Jets do. Most keep their corners on a preferred side of the field or otherwise adapt to their existing scheme. In recent matchups against the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, not only has Revis switched sides of the field to match up with Randy Moss and Steve Smith, he's even lined up in the slot just to stick with them.
While some astute fantasy owners may consider cornerback matchups before setting their lineups, it's rarely a deal breaker. But in Revis' case, it just might be. The chart below shows the top receivers Revis and the Jets have faced this year, along with their production, fantasy points scored, average fantasy points (in all other games not against the Jets), and the difference between what they did against Revis and the average. Note that we've intentionally excluded games against the Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders, because no receivers from those teams were started by a substantial number of fantasy owners. Miami's Ted Ginn Jr. actually beat Revis for a long touchdown (the only big play Revis has given up all year), but had scored just two points in the previous two games and was started in fewer than 10 percent of fantasy leagues.
Take a look at the far right column again. The numbers are pretty jarring. In seven games, those six wide receivers have collectively been held to an average of 7.4 fewer points versus the Jets than in all other games. Think about that number. In ESPN.com standard scoring, it represents 70 yards, or a touchdown and then some. Fewer than 30 wide receivers are even averaging 7.4 fantasy points per game, yet that's what the top guys are leaving on the table against Revis and the Jets.
How much credit should Revis get versus the collective Jets defense, or other factors? That's impossible to say conclusively, but we enlisted the aid of ESPN Insider K.C. Joyner, who passed along this chart, showing the specific stats generated (for all games) by No. 1 receivers on plays when they were covered by Revis.
Joyner adds: As expected, his numbers were absolutely lights out (3.7 YPA and only 17 completions and one defensive penalty in 47 total attempts). He is truly someone that fantasy owners don't want their guy to face, even if they are elite WRs who would be considered must starts against any matchup.
The point here isn't to crown Revis the best cornerback in the NFL. That's for others to decide. Nnamdi Asomugha can certainly stake a claim to that title. But what matters for fantasy players is direct impact on wide receivers, and Revis has had that in a way that Asomugha has not this season. Even a quick, anecdotal glance at Oakland Raiders box scores this season will show that Vincent Jackson (twice), Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Marshall, DeSean Jackson and Miles Austin have all had excellent games against them. Was Asomugha in man-to-man coverage on those guys? ESPN fantasy analyst Christopher Harris, who watches every game to prep for The Breakdown each week, weighs in:
Asomugha is rarely matched up on one guy per game. I thought he did stay with Chad Ochocinco a couple of weeks ago most of the game, but he didn't against Austin (in fact, he was rarely even on Austin), he definitely didn't in Week 8 against Vincent Jackson, he didn't in Week 6 against DeSean Jackson (Chris Johnson had Jackson most of the time), and he didn't in Week 4 against Andre Johnson (and 62 of his 66 yards came on one play against Chris Johnson).
Down the stretch, Revis and the Jets will face fantasy-relevant receivers Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant (OK, not that relevant), Roddy White, Reggie Wayne and Chad Ochocinco. Of the five, only Wayne qualifies for "start-regardless-of-matchup" status (although that may depend on whether the Indianapolis Colts are resting guys for the playoffs). We can't say conclusively whether you should start Owens, Bryant, White or Ochocinco, but we can say this: The evidence suggests they will perform well below their usual standards. If you have viable alternatives, you need to carefully consider them. And in a season in which we've seen largely undrafted receivers like Miles Austin, Sidney Rice, Steve Smith (New York Giants) and Mike Sims-Walker emerge as top-20 wide receivers, it's highly possible you have viable alternatives, ones who won't be paying a visit to Revis Island.
Nate Ravitz is the deputy editor for ESPN Fantasy and co-host of the Fantasy Focus podcast. ESPN fantasy analyst Christopher Harris, ESPN Insider K.C. Joyner and ESPN AFC East blogger Tim Graham contributed to this report.