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Fantasy Playoff Preparation: Strength of Schedule, Part 1
By Alex McCarthy
So things are looking good for your team right now, and you’re looking for ways to prepare for a postseason run. You may have already mathematically made the cut or you may be in a position where it would be near-impossible to miss out, but either way you’re ready to shift gears into playoff mode. The regular season is far from over for most of the fantasy football-playing world, luckily, so there are still willing trade partners out there and moves to be made to shore up your team for the playoffs.
Strength of schedule is a fickle tool at best when used pre-draft, mostly because it’s hard to tell exactly what a defense will look like with new personnel and often a new coordinator. However, now that we are midway through the season we have a fairly good idea of what the various defenses look like and how many fantasy points they are likely to give up to certain positions. That is why part of my strategy in playoff-preparation situations is to sell players who have difficult playoff schedules while buying those who have friendly matchups in those weeks (for the purposes of this article, “playoffs” means weeks 14-16). Players who I have designated a “buy” have at least two of their three playoff matchups against bottom-10 positional defenses, while players I have designated a sell had at least two of their playoff matchups against top-10 positional defenses. This article is primarily about strength of schedule and is not *technically* dynasty-exclusive (as dynasty-relevant factors are not mentioned), but it is implied that dynasty value should be taken into consideration when buying or selling any of the players listed. The first part discusses running backs and wide receivers and the second part here discusses quarterbacks, tight ends, and defenses. Be aware: it is important to remember that while matchup strength can be important, it is only one facet of player analysis and should be treated as such.
Note: Teams listed next to players are in chronological order from weeks 14-16, and the numbered ranks in parentheses are in terms of favorability for “buys” and unfavorability for “sells” (so the team giving up the most points to RBs would have the number (1) next to it in the “buy” section, and the team giving up the fewest points to RBs would have the number (1) next to it in the “sell” section). Also, rankings are done according to standard scoring.
Running Back Buys
Demarco Murray/Derrick Henry: Arizona (24), San Francisco (1), LAR (2)
When he is healthy Demarco Murray is the guy in Tennessee, and I don’t see that changing by the end of this season. It may remain somewhat of a committee situation (especially if Murray’s health issues persist), but both Titans RBs could have serious playoff value considering they play the two weakest rush defenses in the league in weeks 15 and 16.
Jay Ajayi/Corey Clement/LeGarrette Blount: LAR (2), NYG (9), Oakland (7)
The explosive Philadelphia offense plays all three of it’s playoff games against bottom-ten rush defenses, which means there should be plenty of points to go around despite a clear committee system in place. I personally prefer Ajayi of the three, but any could be worth it for a good price and are worth extra consideration due to their friendly playoff matchups.
Isaiah Crowell/Duke Johnson: Green Bay (4), Baltimore (10), Chicago (15)
Crowell has been generally uninspiring this season, so despite having extremely favorable matchups in weeks 14 and 15 he should be available for a reasonable price. Duke Johnson has been a pleasant surprise for owners this season so he is less likely to be available at a bargain, but he has the same friendly matchups as Crowell and is worth a look.
Jonathon Stewart/Christian McCaffrey: Minnesota (31), Green Bay (4), Tampa Bay (5)
Our final RB buys are yet another committee and have the unfortunate luck of playing the stout Minnesota rush defense in week 14, but if you manage to secure a bye week the Carolina RBs play bottom-five rush defenses in weeks 15 and 16. Stewart can probably be had for extremely cheap relative to his upside, and while McCaffrey may be a bit pricier his matchups could make him well worth the investment.
Running Back Sells
Ty Montgomery/Aaron Jones/Jamaal Williams: Cleveland (6), Carolina (3), Minnesota (2)
The Green Bay offense, already struggling to make defenses respect the pass without Aaron Rodgers, plays against three of the best six rush defenses in the league during the playoffs. If you’re looking to sell out for a run this year, any Green Bay running back should be sold immediately.
Todd Gurley: Philadelphia (4), Seattle (7), Tennessee (12)
Obviously, Todd Gurley is a stud and you should not sell him for anything less than exactly what he is worth. That said, if you could acquire a player of similar caliber with a more favorable schedule (say, a LeVeon Bell) by giving up a little extra on your end, you should absolutely try and do it. Gurley owners will have a tough road to the championship going through top-ten rush defenses in Philadelphia and then Seattle, and even in week 16 the matchup against the 12th-stingiest Titans rush defense is not particularly friendly.
Chris Thompson: LAC (25), Arizona (9), Denver (5)
Chris Thompson has been one of the biggest surprises so far this season, leading the Washington rushing attack and continuing to put up numbers despite repeated warnings from “experts” such as myself that he is due for regression. However, I am here to tell you that come playoff time at least he is indeed due to regression- with the Cardinals in week 15 and the Broncos in week 16, his value now is almost certainly greater than the production he will be able to provide your team in the playoffs. Sell, sell, sell.
Jordan Howard: Cincinnati (8), Detroit (21), Cleveland (6)
It pains me greatly to include one of my pet players in the “sell” section, but as he has two of the ten best rush defenses in his playoff schedule I had no choice. His week 15 matchup with Detroit is fairly friendly, but a week 16 tilt with a strong Cleveland run defense does not bode well. If you have running backs to spare and are trying to buy a high-end WR, Howard is a good trading piece.
Wide Receiver Buys
Michael Crabtree: Kansas City (1), Dallas (8), Philadelphia (14)
Now that Amari Cooper has reemerged from hibernation, Crabtree will likely resume his role of “extremely underrated”. He has a playoff schedule that includes the best and 8th-best wide receiver matchups, and his week 16 matchup against the mid-tier passing defense of the Eagles could be deceptively friendly if an Oakland/Philly matchup turns into a shootout.
Keenan Allen: Washington (27), Kansas City (1), NYJ (9)
Though a matchup against the Redskins in week 14 could be difficult, if you end up with a bye week Keenan Allen is an ideal candidate to help bring you to a championship. He has the best matchup in the league in week 15 and another top-ten matchup in week 16, making him a fantastic investment if you can get him at a reasonable price.
Jarvis Landry/DeVante Parker: New England (2), Buffalo (25), Kansas City (1)
Landry and Parker may have some trouble in his week 15 matchup against Buffalo, but in week 14 they should tear up the porous New England secondary and in championship week have the best possible matchup in the league against Kansas City.
Antonio Brown/Juju Smith-Schuster: Baltimore (30), New England (2), Houston (6)
Antonio Brown is likely completely unnattainable at this point, but Smith-Schuster may not be yet. A week 14 matchup against Baltimore could be difficult, but New England in week 15 will be an opportunity for the pair to rain down points, and in week 16 they play a Houston defense that is not only 6th-worst against the pass but also happens to be best in the league against the run (meaning Big Ben will be slinging it like crazy, much to the delight of Steelers receivers owners).
Devin Funchess: Vikings (21), Packers (5), Bucs (3)
With Kelvin Benjamin out of the picture, Funchess is already a good guy to buy purely on volume. However, with two bottom-five pass defenses in weeks 15 and 16, he also looks like he has the potential to be a somewhat unlikely league-winner for many owners.
Wide Receiver Sells
Doug Baldwin: Jacksonville (1), LAR (5), Dallas (25)
The Seattle offense has already been struggling this year, and even if they manage to pull things together in the next few weeks any Baldwin owner would have to make it through the number one Jaguars and number five Rams wide receiver defenses in weeks 14 and 15. His matchup in week 16 is friendly, but given the two weeks prior any owner would be unlikely to make it so far.
DeAndre Hopkins/Will Fuller: San Francisco (27), Jacksonville (1), Pittsburgh (2)
The injury to DeShaun Watson has already lowered the value of the Texans receivers, but it is also worth noting that they have the worst possible matchups in the last two weeks of the playoffs, with number one Jacksonville and number two Pittsburgh in weeks 15 and 16. As with Gurley, you should not sell Hopkins for less than he is worth, but if you can swap him for a comparable player with a more favorable schedule by giving up a little extra, it is definitely worth it. Fuller, on the other hand, will probably be useless in the fantasy playoffs.
TY Hilton: Buffalo (8), Denver (4), Baltimore (3)
After three straight games with under five fantasy points, Hilton exploded last week and provided owners a fantastic and timely opportunity to sell high. His matchups in weeks 14-16 are all against top-ten defenses against wide receivers, and they get harder and harder as the playoffs go on. Hilton is still very talented so don’t put him on fire sale, but definitely be on the lookout for potential buyers offering anything close to market value.
To read about playoff strength of schedule for quarterbacks, tight ends, and defenses, continue with part two here.