2017 Strength Of Schedule Your Blueprint For Success

By Michael Valverde
Michael Valverde The strength of schedule is an interesting instrument to use in fantasy leagues. It can be an incredibly useful tool or something that you toss out the window after Week 3. What it does very well is help a fantasy owner set a blueprint for success. By plotting each week, we can see how well (or not so well) a player might fare over the course of the season. It can also help identify solid bench players for your team and assist you in making a plan for the fantasy playoffs.

Thinking Defense

We all know that on a yearly basis NFL defenses are up and down outside of the perennial top three (Seattle, Arizona, Denver), and so every season a handful of teams will surprise everyone. Then, of course, you have the bottom-tier defenses that you can count on to be at the bottom (Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit).
So which teams might improve this season? Green Bay had a rash of injuries in their backfield last season and finished 23rd against the pass. That will probably improve. Jacksonville is getting better and more cohesive, and they could rise in the rankings if they stay healthy. In Miami this season the Dolphins could move past their 15th ranked passing defense, and are a contender to finish inside the top 10.
During the 2017 NFL draft, several teams looked to improve their defense including Arizona, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England, and New Orleans. Don’t look for huge changes right away, but you can assume a higher level of performance from these teams compared to last season. Expect Arizona and Baltimore to take the biggest steps forward.

Fantasy Playoffs

Another aspect of the schedule that should be taken into consideration is the fantasy playoffs schedule. Most fantasy leagues use Weeks 14-16, but there are some that also include Week 17, or even start on Week 13, depending on the league. I usually focus on the more common weeks when considering the playoff time table, but always find out when your league is ending and review the teams you will face during the postseason.
A key point in analyzing the schedule is noticing what games are being played right before the playoff season begins. You never know when that last regular-season game on the schedule will be important in your playoff chase. Wouldn’t you rather have the Oakland Raiders in Week 13 instead of Week 7?
That being said, never trade a Week 13 matchup for two tough matchups in Weeks 14 and 15. Getting into the playoffs is great, but running the table becomes very difficult when facing an uphill climb. Always take the odds into your favor. An average Week 13 matchup followed by two good ones is much better than an easy 13th week followed by Minnesota and then Denver. Of course, it’s all rainbows when your quarterback faces three easy opponents in back-to-back-to-back weeks. (You will love Russell Wilson’s 2017 schedule.)

Backup QB

One other strategy that works great for me is comparing your regular starter’s strength of schedule to your backup’s. Look for your starting quarterback’s difficult weeks and don’t forget the bye week. Then look to secure a backup quarterback who faces easier matchups on those particular weeks. Of course if you own an elite QB like Aaron Rodgers, then all you really need to do is find a great bye week replacement. Beyond those few set-them-and-forget-them starters, however, using the schedule is a way of streaming this important position.

Passing SOS Rankings

Rushing SOS Rankings

Strength of Schedule Formula

I took key statistics for each position and ranked them according to performance. Passing categories included interceptions, completions, yards, sacks, points per game and touchdowns allowed. Interceptions and sacks equal points for your passing defense, but they are also a good measure on how well a defense can cover receivers. Completions indicate how effective quarterbacks have been against the opposing team, and more completions generally lead to more yards. Touchdowns obviously have a great effect on points per game, and so the more points allowed, the worse the defense ultimately is.
In the running game, we measure fumbles, rushing attempts by the opposition per game, points per game, yards and touchdowns allowed. Higher rushing attempts usually occur if a team’s passing defense is solid but the running defense is weak, or it could also be that the team is just blown out on a routine basis. Points per game show how effective a defense is inside the red zone, while yards and touchdowns show how easily a team can score touchdowns (and not field goals) against them.
I also took every incoming defensive rookie and assigned each one a certain number of points based on the round they were drafted. The lower the round the more points that player received. I then looked at each team’s offseason moves – veteran acquisitions and players released from the team, including those who retired. (Be well Demarcus Ware.) This didn’t have much of an overall effect on the final analysis, as it has minor implications in redraft leagues due to team chemistry and overall impact.
When looking over the chart, keep in mind that the lower the number the better the defense. If Denver is No. 1 and New Orleans is No. 32, the Broncos are the best in that category while the Saints are the worst. Teams ranked from No. 14 to No. 1 are the ones you want to avoid facing, while those ranking 19th down to 32nd are matchups to target. Teams that fall between No. 15 and No. 18 I consider a neutral matchup.
The colors are the same in both the passing and rushing categories. Dark blue boxes are the best matchups, and as the blue gets lighter the schedule gets a little tougher. The white boxes represent a neutral or average defense, and as the boxes change to red we find the matchups get more difficult. The darker the red, the harder the matchup. As we look over the chart, let’s identify some players to target, and some to avoid as you prepare for your upcoming fantasy drafts.

Easy Passing Schedules

The NFL has gone full throttle over the last five years with high-powered quarterbacks. Therefore, it becomes imperative in six point passing TD leagues to grab one early. The nice thing is that three of the top five signal callers (Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson) have easy schedules.
Brees (New Orleans Saints) has the best playoff schedule of the three. Who wouldn’t want Brees feasting on teams such as Washington, Los Angeles Rams, Carolina, Atlanta (twice) and the New York Jets? In the Saints’ final seven games, his toughest foe is a Week 17 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He doesn’t start out very easy with Minnesota and New England in the first two weeks, but then New Orleans faces Carolina, an average Miami defense, and a Week 5 bye. They stay home against Detroit in Week 6, then play Green Bay and Chicago before Tampa Bay and a tough Buffalo passing defense in Week 10.
Rodgers (Green Bay Packers) opens against Seattle, but over the next eight weeks he gets a nice string of soft defenses. He’ll strike gold against Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and New Orleans before his bye week (Week 8). Cincinnati will be a tough defense in Week 3 and Minnesota will pose a challenge in Week 6. Detroit comes into town in Week 9 and then off to Chicago. After the Bears, he’ll have an interesting playoff schedule against Cleveland in Week 14, Carolina in Week 15, but Minnesota in Week 16. However, if your league plays in Week 17 you’ll find a nice present from the Detroit Lions waiting under Rodgers’ Christmas tree at Ford Field.
Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) couldn’t ask for a better five weeks to start the season. Green Bay, San Francisco, Tennessee, Indianapolis, and the Los Angeles Rams and then the bye week. It hits a bit of a rough patch as he’ll fly to New York to face the Giants and then Houston. Wilson enjoys a little reprieve when facing Washington in the following week, but Arizona at home in Week 10 is tough. He has a nice two-week stretch playing both Atlanta and San Francisco but things get a little more difficult with Philadelphia coming into town on Week 13 and the Jaguars on the road the following week. Come playoff time they get the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys in the championship weeks. Hopefully your league avoids Week 17, as Seattle travels to Arizona.
In a tale of two halves, Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have almost opposite halves to their season. They travel to Miami for a Week 1 battle in Florida, and then get to have a relaxing week against Chicago. They’ll need it, climbing a defensive matchup mountain for the next five weeks, including Minnesota, the New York Giants, New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, and Buffalo Bills. Then, as if the chains of blood, sweat and tears have suddenly been broken, they face a downhill slide of weaker opponents with Carolina twice, New Orleans twice, New York Jets, Atlanta twice, Green Bay, and Detroit.
Quarterbacks to consider as backups include Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens), Mike Glennon/Mitchell Trubisky (Chicago Bears), Sam Bradford (Minnesota Vikings), and Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles). Each one has a nice regular-season schedule you can stream with, but be aware that their playoff schedules aren’t where you want to be. The Ravens have Cleveland and Indianapolis in Weeks 15 and 16, but Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in Weeks 14 and 17. Chicago faces similar opponents in those weeks – Detroit and Cleveland in Weeks 15 and 16, but Cincinnati and Minnesota as the bookends in Weeks 14 and 17.

Toughest Schedules

When looking at QBs that have a tough schedule, keep in mind that it shouldn’t sway your opinion in too large of a way. You wouldn’t take Sam Bradford over Derek Carr because Minnesota has the easier schedule. However, if you’re deciding between Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, take the path of least resistance, especially if that path is not marked with a bunch of shrubbery.
Derek Carr (Oakland Raiders) has perhaps the hardest schedule in the NFL when it comes to passing. The first six weeks are not too tough, but then Oakland travels to Denver followed by the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, and Washington Redskins. In the mix are easier matchups against the Ravens and Chargers, but the Chiefs at home and Buffalo on the road will pose significant difficulties. He’ll play Miami on the road in Week 9, enjoy a bye in Week 10, and then prepares for disaster. New England, Denver, New York Giants, and Kansas City on the road in four straight weeks of passing defense hell. He does get Dallas in Week 15, but then goes back on the road to Philadelphia and finishes the season in Los Angeles battling the Chargers.
Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts) faces three teams in the first five weeks that shouldn’t cause problems (Rams, Browns, 49ers), but they have Arizona in week two and travel to Seattle in Week 4. The Colts get Tennessee and Jacksonville in Weeks 6 and 7 before taking on Cincinnati and Houston in back-to-back road games. They come home right before the Week 11 bye week, but only to face Pittsburgh who they’ve struggled with in the last few seasons. Three of the Colts’ final four weeks are really tough as they visit Buffalo, play Denver, go on the road to Baltimore, and land in Houston for Week 17.
Philip Rivers (Los Angeles Chargers) has a very tough opening schedule. He starts the season in Denver’s Mile High Stadium, then takes on Miami, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and the New York Giants. Rivers will get a mini-break when he travels to Oakland in Week 6, but in the next two games before the bye week he’ll face off against Denver again and New England in Foxboro. Rivers flies to Florida after resting to take on the Jaguars, but then has to face the Bills at home. From here the load lightens against teams like Dallas, Cleveland, and Washington, but don’t forget that Rivers has a history of struggling late in the season. He has a tough Round 1 playoff schedule in Kansas City, but finishes Weeks 16 and 17 against the Jets and Raiders.
Kirk Cousins’ (Washington Redskins) schedule will be a challenge this season, but if he can perform successfully at a top level, he could parlay that into a huge deal for himself. Prior to the Redskins’ Week 5 bye, Cousins has four games against a mixed bag of opponents. In Weeks 1 and 4 he battles Philadelphia and Kansas City on the road. In between, he gets the Rams on the road and the Raiders at home. After their bye, Cousins faces the 49ers at home and then travels to Lincoln Financial Field to play the Eagles for the second time. The following week Washington matches up against Dallas before setting out against three of five tough opponents including Seattle on the road, Minnesota, and the New York Giants. After playing New Orleans, he’ll have his second game against the Cowboys in Week 13. During playoff season, Cousins flies to Los Angeles for the second time, but this time to take on the Chargers, followed by Arizona, Denver, and the Giants.
A couple of other QBs to consider include Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys) and Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins). Prescott has an uphill climb late in the season with the Giants (Week 14), Seattle (Week 16), and Philadelphia (Week 17). In Week 15, he’ll travel to the Black Hole to take on the Raiders, which is never fun for the Cowboys. Tannehill probably has the worst fantasy playoff schedule of any QB in the NFL. In the last six weeks, the Dolphins play the Patriots twice, Buffalo twice, Denver, and then Kansas City in Week 16.
Finally, whoever ends up at quarterback for the 49ers – Brian Hoyer? Matt Barkley? Maybe even Christian Ponder? – will also have a tough early-season schedule. Before the Niners’ bye in Week 11 have a three-week set of games against Philadelphia, Arizona, and the Giants. Then they play Seattle right after that. However, starting in Week 14, they will play Chicago, Houston, Tennessee, and Jacksonville which, other than the matchup against the Texans, is not too bad for an end of the season run.

Scheduling Running Backs

There was a time when running backs filled the early rounds in fantasy drafts, but it seems to have gone the way of 10-team leagues and dinosaurs. In those days nine or 10 running backs could go in the first round, but the NFL passing game’s evolution has limited the use of an every-down back. There are very few of them right now, and most likely those bell-cow players will be gone in the first round.
That being said, the smaller scatback players have seen a solid increase in the NFL and on the playing field. They are counted on for blocking, catching the ball out of the backfield, and often serve in a third down role. With more backs shifting to a receiving role, many fantasy leagues are using PPR scoring formats. In those leagues, the third-down back can be a viable fantasy starter, therefore it is important to target players on teams that face good matchups.
Another critical question to consider is does a running back play behind a strong defense? Take the Rams’ Todd Gurley, for example. Los Angeles’ defense is weak which means the Rams are often trailing in games. Forced to throw, the Rams will bring in Lance Dunbar and suddenly Gurley becomes expendable. So much of Gurley’s potential firepower is gone simply because he doesn’t see the field.
Now compare Gurley with David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell. You can make a case that all three of these players have equal talent, so why are these two more apt to outscore Gurley even in a standard league? The Steelers’ and Cardinals’ defenses are much better than the Rams’. If you switched their teams, Gurley becomes a first round pick and the other two would drop.
One last point, due to the changes in the role of the running back, it is not only imperative to look at the strength of schedule for a running back, but also evaluate the schedule for his quarterback, and how tough it is (or isn’t). This will help to clarify the third-down back’s ultimate value as he relates to the passing offense.

Easy Running

Christian McCaffrey/Jonathan Stewart (Carolina Panthers) will look forward to a very nice schedule. Over the first three games they will face the 32nd run unit in the San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills (28), and New Orleans (25), but will see the tough New England (1) and Detroit (7) defenses in their next two games. The Panthers then square off against three easy opponents and two neutrals right before the bye week. They get to see Philadelphia (14), Chicago (30), Tampa Bay (24), Atlanta (15), and Miami (27). After resting, Carolina will fly to New Jersey to take on the Jets (12) then New Orleans. Finally, they play Minnesota (1) in Week 14, followed by Green Bay (13), and then have a great matchup on championship week playing the Buccaneers again.
Mike Gillislee, James White, and Dion Lewis (New England Patriots) have a favorable schedule. It doesn’t start very easy, however, with Kansas City (17), New Orleans (25), and then Houston (6) and Carolina (10). After the New York Jets (12), Atlanta (15), and a nice matchup as the Chargers (23) come into town, they get their bye week. After resting, the schedule opens up for them in a big way. New England flies into Colorado to play the Broncos (19), then faces the Raiders (29), Miami twice (27), and the Bills (28). Week 15 will be tough against Pittsburgh (8), but in Week 16 they will face Buffalo for the second time at home.
Bilal Powell/Matt Forte (New York Jets) couldn’t ask for a better opening to the season. Buffalo (28), Oakland (29), Miami (27), Jacksonville (26), Cleveland (31). Then the Patriots (1) will come into town followed by another matchup against Miami, Atlanta (25), Buffalo, and Tampa Bay (24) before the bye week. God must have been wearing green when the schedule came out – one difficult matchup and a neutral game (at home) is as hard as it gets for the Jets leading into their bye. After playing Carolina (10), Kansas City (17), the playoffs begin in Week 14. The Jets fly into Denver (19) then play New Orleans (25), and finish with the Chargers (23) in Week 16. Cross your fingers that there’s no Week 17 in your league as the Jets finish their season in Foxboro.
When a good running team finds an easy running schedule, it’s a joyous event. Enter DeMarco Murray/Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans. Tennessee plays seven games before their bye week, and five of them are very kosher including Oakland (29), Jacksonville (26), Miami (27), Indianapolis (21), and Cleveland (31). It does get a little tougher after the bye week as they play only one easy team (Indianapolis) heading into the fantasy playoffs. Every other team is ranked in the Top 16, including Baltimore (3), Pittsburgh (8), Houston (6), and Arizona (11) in Week 14. But rejoice, as Weeks 15 and 16 are much easier as the Titans face San Francisco (32) and the Rams (22), before Week 17 when they play the Jaguars again.
Dalvin Cook/Latavius Murray (Minnesota Vikings) have a nice schedule together. Obviously, the Vikings want the rookie Cook to be their full-time back, but it very well could end up being a Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray-type split this season. Either way, the Vikings play eight games prior to their Week 9 bye, and four of them are easy matchups: New Orleans (25) to kick off the season, Tampa Bay (24), Chicago (30), and Cleveland (31). In between there are a few really tough teams in Pittsburgh (8), Detroit (7), and Baltimore (3). They also have Green Bay (13) in Week 6. In Week 10 they will travel to Washington (20) and then come back home against the Los Angeles Rams (22), before heading to Detroit for the second game against the Lions. From there it becomes a neutral playing field over the next four games – at Atlanta (15), Cincinnati (16), and Green Bay. But they also have a Week 14 matchup against Carolina (10) in there. Maybe they can bring home a Week 17 fantasy championship as they take on Chicago at home.


Melvin Gordon (San Diego Chargers) has a decent outlook this season, especially with the AFC West on his side of the playing field. So that means twice with Oakland (29), Denver (19) and Kansas City (17). He also plays the East (AFC and NFC) this season, so he’ll match up against New England (1), New York Jets (12), Dallas (2), Philadelphia (14), New York Giants (18), Washington (20), Buffalo (28), and Miami (27). Toss in Cleveland (31) and Jacksonville (26) and it rounds off to a nice schedule for the Chargers’ running game. Weeks 13 and 14 are solid weeks for fantasy owners against Cleveland and Washington, but it gets a bit tougher in Weeks 15 and 16 with Kansas City and the Jets. He’ll finish with the Raiders in Week 17.

Tough Running

Frank Gore/Robert Turbin/Marlon Mack (Indianapolis Colts) will join forces with Andrew Luck for a difficult running schedule. Their first ten games are going to be tough as they face Arizona (11), Cincinnati (16), Seattle (9), Tennessee (5), Houston (6), and Pittsburgh (8) all before their Week 11 bye. Indianapolis does have the Rams (22), Cleveland (31), San Francisco (32) and Jacksonville (26) in that early stretch which balances things out a little. After the bye week, the Colts play the Titans again, Baltimore (3) and then finish the Texans in Week 17. Don’t overlook a nice little stretch starting in Week 14 with Jacksonville, then Buffalo (28) and Denver (19), however. Perhaps the not-so-rough playoff schedule can help offset the brutality of the earlier weeks.
Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers) always has it tough playing in the AFC North. Every team (except for Cleveland) plays a rough style of defense, but even outside their division it won’t be easy in 2017 for the Steelers as they face Minnesota (2), Baltimore (3), Detroit (7), Tennessee (5), New England (1), and Houston (6). Worse yet, many of those tough games come at the end of the season during playoff time. Starting in Week 14 Pittsburgh battles the Ravens, Patriots, and then the Texans. Hey, at least in Week 17, they play Cleveland at home.
Carlos Hyde/Joe Williams (San Francisco 49ers) will have to battle through four of their first seven games as they play Carolina (10), Seattle (9), Arizona (11), and Dallas (2). It will be a bit easier in the other three going against the Rams (22), Colts (21), and Redskins (20). Their next three games are against neutral teams in the Eagles (14) and Giants (18) although they also get Arizona again. After the bye week, they battle Seattle and then should have a relaxing trip to Chicago (30). But during the playoff season it gets tough again. In Week 14 they play at Houston (6) and then Tennessee (5) in Week 15. Championship week could bring a nice surprise against Jacksonville (26) and, if your league goes the extra mile, in Week 17 they get the Rams.

Others to Consider

Ty Montgomery/Jamaal Williams/Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers) face Chicago (30) twice, New Orleans (25), Tampa Bay (24), and Cleveland (31), but outside of those contests the schedule doesn’t go well for Packers running backs. They take on Seattle (9) at home in Week 1, then Atlanta (15), Cincinnati (16), Chicago, Dallas (2), Minnesota, and New Orleans. That’s five of the team’s first seven games against defenses inside the Top 16. They do face the Browns in Week 14, but finish the fantasy playoffs against Carolina (10), Minnesota (4) and Detroit (7).