NFL Strength of Schedule and Defensive Projections for 2019
by Adam Hall and David Sciacca
Luck is often defined as preparation meeting opportunity. In this article the résumé of each team is peeled back to expose the liabilities and strengths that the fantasy community can exploit to earn a leg up against the competition in the upcoming season. Through analyzing defensive output from the 2018 season along with all significant off-season changes this model serves to project players who are currently flying under the radar, as well as to ward off fantasy owners from players likely to flounder in 2019.
Last year the strength of schedule pointed to breakout players such as: Phillip Lindsay, George Kittle, Aaron Jones, Tarik Cohen, Matt Breida, and Adam Thielen. It also optimized early-round picks by pointing to Deandre Hopkins and Christian McCaffery as continued superstars. The list of successful picks doesn’t end there, but this work isn’t about the past, it’s about the future.
This Year’s Focus
This article doesn’t focus on playoff strength of schedule; it is optimized for the early portion of the year. An updated model during the fantasy season (that will be available on FootballDiehards.com) will point to emerging trends and will add further credence to the projections laid out in this piece. In lieu of playoff projections, this article will provide both a league-wide strength of schedule and a beginning of the season defensive ranking. Finally, a heatmap of the current schedule projection is provided at the tail end of the piece to help guide the reader’s expectations throughout the year.
When used in concert with an analysis of each team’s supporting cast, this model acts as a powerful tool to locate breakout players before they become household names.
How to Use the Model
The data is arranged in easy-to-understand graphs. Teams with positive values have easier schedules than those with negative figures. For example, the Jets have an easier average schedule than the Broncos or Raiders. This standard can be applied to individual team strengths as well, as the Cowboys have a stronger overall defense than the Dolphins.
Note: Just because a team has a small negative value doesn’t mean that they should be treated as a draft pariah. It is extremely common for numerous breakout players to come from teams ranked in the top-10 of the model (Indianapolis was ranked sixth overall last year, while Green Bay and Carolina both had positive rankings).
Current Defensive Projections
The following three graphs depict expected defensive output based on previous production and off-season adjustments. Negative scores indicate potent defenses, while positive scores point poor defensive expectations.
Some of these rankings may come as a surprise, since New Orleans and Houston had top tier pass defenses in 2017, but they retreated to the rear in 2018.
Since the Texans lost players like Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu and have yet to replace them, the model projects Houston’s defense to continue to struggle in 2019. The same can be said for Alex Okafor’s departure from New Orleans. This pattern was repeated for any and all teams that dropped in the rankings, but the opposite can be said for those like the Colts and Titans that continue to accumulate defensive talent while holding onto cornerstones.
2019 Strength of Schedule
The strength of schedule is made up of accumulating the defensive projections of each team’s matchups throughout the season. Teams who play against numerous teams with tough defenses display negative scores, while those with advantageous schedules received positive scores. (hardest to easiest)
Each team plays against one in-conference division and one out of conference division. Unfortunately, for the teams in the AFC West they have to play against the AFC South and the NFC North, the two strongest defensive divisions in the league. Every team in these divisions ranked in the top-12 toughest defenses in the model. The opposite can be said for the teams in the AFC East who go up against their divisional foes, and the teams in the NFC East, who both comparatively don’t have the same level of production to fall back on as the teams that the AFC West are matched up against.
The remainder of the piece will be devoted to delving deep into the teams that are most likely to succeed or fail in the upcoming season based on their schedule. Supporting casts and coaching staff will be a sticking point as a phenomenal schedule isn’t enough to overcome a poor offensive line and a coaching staff that can’t get the most out of the talent available to them. For example, in 2018 the Jacksonville Jaguars had the easiest overall schedule, and as that bore out for rest of the league, the Jaguars weren’t so lucky. Due to offensive line woes, a quarterback who struggled, and an offensive coaching staff that couldn’t utilize burgeoning talent like Dede Westbrook and Leonard Fournette, the Jaguars yielded a bottom-five offense once again.
Success Waiting to Happen
General: BAL, NE, DAL, PHI, IND, SF, LAR, JAC, SEA, CAR.
Pass: INDY, TB, BAL, NE, CLE, ATL, CAR, DAL, JAC, AZ.
Rush: NYJ, BUF, BAL, CIN, NE, DAL, CLE, PIT, SEA, SF.
Above are a series of lists of teams that have a favorable strength of schedule in 2019. They also have the coaching staff and surrounding talent sufficient to lead to a successful fantasy campaign. Any and all teams listed above are likely to have successful outings in the upcoming season, but no one needs to mention that a great schedule for the Jets will leave Le’Veon Bell with ample opportunity to be a Pro-Bowler once again, that Ezkiel Elliott will make a run at the MVP award, or that Tom Brady will once again turn the AFC East into ribbons. Instead, the upcoming sections will focus on teams and players that are most likely to outperform their
ADP and lead to fantasy dividends.
Offensive line, free agency and roster information will be referenced frequently in these coming sections. Every team’s offensive line ranking will be based on publicly available information from both profootballfocus.com (https://www.profootballfocus.com/news/pro-2018-nfl-offensive-line-rankings-all-32-teams-units-afterweek-17) and footballoutsiders.com (https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/ol), while NFL rosters can be found at NFL.com (https://www.nfl.com/players/search?category=team&playerType=current) and free agency information can be found at spotrac.com (https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/free-agents/).
Arizona: Kyler Murray, Larry Fitzgerald, Hakeem Butler,
Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella.
Offensive Line rank, 2018: 30/32
Passing Rank, 2018: 32/32
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 1 of 32
Although the Cardinals struggled to put up a modicum of offense in 2018, with the addition of Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray, the Cardinals are likely to take a huge step forward in 2019. Not only did the Cardinals add a receiver in Andy Isabella who can run in the low 4.3s, they brought in a 6’6” receiver with 10.75-inch hands that also runs a sub-4.5 40-yard dash in Hakeem Butler. Murray showed elite accuracy while at Oklahoma and is now at the helm of one of the more effective college offenses to appear in years. Kingsbury seems to think that Murray is the perfect person to operate his offense and put his money where his mouth was by shipping off a former first-round pick at a considerable loss after only a year. Kyler Murray is the odds-on favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the year for a reason. The Cardinals have placed a plethora of weapons at his disposal and, with the easiest schedule in the league, they’re poised to take advantage of it.
Cleveland: Baker Mayfield, David Njoku, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry.
Offensive line ranking, 2018: 9 of 32 (PFF ranked No. 2)
Passing Rank, 2018: 14 of 32
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 10 general, 17 passing.
There is little need to discuss the immense opportunity presented to the Browns by having both Landry and Beckham on the same team. What has been receiving less attention is the enormous boost that Baker Mayfield and David Njoku are likely to receive due to the explosion in talent surrounding them. With one of the best overall offensive lines in the NFL and Freddie Kitchen now running the show, the Browns have the offensive cohesion that they have been starved of for decades. With every double-team or zone shift spent to attempt to nullify either Beckham or Landry, Njoku or one of the running backs is likely to be open for chunk yard plays. Baker Mayfield likely feels like a kid in a candy store with too many good options to choose from. As a fantasy quarterback, it doesn’t get much better than that. Everyone with significant snaps could be fantasy contributors in 2019 – the Browns could be the Chiefs of this year.
Tampa Bay: Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Breshad Perriman
Offensive Line Rank, 2018: 25 of 32
Passing Rank, 2018: 1 of 32
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 4 of 32.
It went completely under the radar that last year the Buccaneers had the No. 1 overall passing attack in the NFL. This was all with a bottom-tier offensive line as well. Tampa’s team took advantage of their comparatively easy schedule last season, and they’re primed to do it again. The situation in Tampa was alluring enough to pull Bruce Arians out of retirement. Arians has had success everywhere he’s been ranging from the Steelers with Roethlisberger, the Colts with Andrew Luck, and the Cardinals with Carson Palmer. If there is anyone that can pull Jameis Winston’s full potential out, it’s him. With reports surfacing that Winston needs to be removed from the premise for spending too much time at the facility, the future bodes well for the Buccaneers in 2019. Without Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson in the mix, 179 targets are available to everyone else on the roster not named Mike Evans (who
was targeted 138 times last year).
Indianapolis: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Paris Campbell, Jack Doyle.
Offensive Line Rank, 2018: 3.5 of 32
Passing Rank, 2018: 6 of 32
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 2 of 32
It’s no surprise to see the Colts near the top of the list of projected offensive juggernauts going into 2019. But with the team they’ve assembled it seemed necessary to give them extra attention. With one of the best offense lines in the league, a healthy all-pro caliber quarterback in Andrew Luck, and a new weapon in Paris Campbell that is even faster than T.Y. Hilton, the Colts have everything they need to propel any team into the playoffs. One obvious omission from my list of players to watch is Eric Ebron, who led all tight ends in touchdowns in 2018. This is because Jack Doyle is returning from injury. The last time Luck and Doyle were healthy at the same time, Doyle nearly led the lead in targets for a tight end with 107. This has been the pattern for Luck and Doyle during the whole of their careers. This kind of chemistry doesn’t disappear overnight, so it is expected that Doyle will eat heavily into Ebron’s targets even after his breakout season in 2018.
Honorable Mention Players:
N’Keal Harry – Patriots
Bill Belichick has rarely if ever taken a wide receiver in the first round. With Tom Brady’s willingness to throw to big-bodied receivers, Gronk’s retirement, and the open question of if Josh Gordon will ever return to the field, Harry is the player most likely to become the new No. 2 target in New England.
Dede Westbrook, DJ Chark – Jaguars With the undeniable upgrade at quarterback in Jacksonville, the Jaguars are still in a position to take advantage of a top-five schedule in 2019. Westbrook quietly had over 100 targets in 2018, and with few changes, players like Westbrook and 2018 secondround pick DJ Chark only have up to go.
Curtis Samuel, D.J. Moore – Panthers
D.J. Moore led all receivers in the NFL in forced missed tackles per reception in 2018. This is a statistic that shows that he is making things happen himself without help from his supporting cast. For players like Golden Tate, these numbers have been shown to be reliable and turn into fantasy reliability sooner rather than later. Curtis Samuel is one of the fastest players in the NFL, running a 4.31 40-yard dash and has shown himself to be one of the most versatile and deadly players on the field any time he is healthy enough to be depended on. If he can string 14 or more games together in 2019, he is likely to take advantage of the Panther’s favorable schedule.
Baltimore: Mark Ingram, Justice Hill, Gus Edwards
Offensive line rank, 2018: 9.5 of 32.
Rushing Rank, 2018: 2 of 32 (152.6 yards per game)
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 3 of 32
With another year under Lamar Jackson’s belt, and the addition of speedster Marquise Brown in the first round, the Ravens are likely to take another step forward in 2019. Not only have the Ravens provided Jackson with the assets necessary to lead to fewer stacked boxes, teams will have to continue to contend with Jackson’s elite scrambling ability. All the progress in the world will not change an offense that spent more time on the ground than any other team not named the Seahawks in 2018. With dump-off passes galore and a heavy reliance on the run game, both Mark Ingram and fourth-round rookie Justice Hill are worthy pickups in the middle and late rounds. Gus Edwards is the odd man out in this mix and is likely to be left in the dust.
Cincinnati: Joe Mixon, Giovanni Bernard, Rodney Anderson
Offensive line Rank, 2018: 24.5 of 32
Rushing Rank, 2018: 21 of 32
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 4 of 32
Although the Bengals failed to put up spectacular numbers in 2018, they were better than the media narrative would suggest. The offensive line took a huge step forward in 2018 jumping more than ten spots from 2017 to 2018. With the addition of rookie Jonah Williams to the line, the Bengals are likely to turn this liability into a strength. Even though they boasted the league’s worst overall defense, they were still efficient in the running game, with the eighth best yards per carry average in the league (4.69), and the AFC’s leading rusher in Joe Mixon. Mixon was the ninth overall fantasy running back in the league in 2018 while still serving a time share to begin the year. With a running style and body type nearly identical to Le’Veon Bell, there is no ceiling is sight for Mixon. With a current ADP in the middle of the second round, Mixon stands to be a steal and a top-tier running back in 2019. The other running backs listed are handcuffs at best, especially considering high upside rookie Rodney Anderson has been plagued with injury issues for his entire career.
Buffalo: Josh Allen, whoever emerges as the lead back afterinjury.
Offensive Line Rank, 2018: 28 of 32
Rushing Rank, 2018: 9 of 32
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 2 of 32
Although I have made it no secret in my previous works that I believe that Josh Allen will be a bust at quarterback, this won’t stop him from running like a fantasy star until he is injured once again. Allen was the No. 2 overall quarterback in fantasy once he returned from injury last year. His chemistry with Robert Foster is impressive, and the offensive coordinator has shown a willingness to provide Allen with quarterback runs early and often. If Allen can stay healthy in 2019, it is unlikely that the Bills will win many games with him at the helm, but fantasy players will be happy to see him racking up points on their rosters. The current backfield in Buffalo is too opaque to make suggestions as to whom will be the lead back when the dust clears, but it is often a poor decision to bet against the Inconvenient Truth, Frank Gore.
Seattle: Rashaad Penny, Chris Carson
Offensive Line Rank, 2018: 15 of 32
Rushing Rank, 2018: 1 of 32
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 7 of 32
It wasn’t long ago that the Seahawks were thought to have the worst offensive line in football. Over the last two years, the ship has largely been righted, and the Seahawks are back to having one of the best running games in the league. With a first-round running back in stow (Rashaad Penny), the Seahawks are more likely to unleash him on the league in Year 2. When it comes to later-round steals, both of these players are solid prospects. Carson is currently the 22nd running back coming off the board, and Penny has fallen to the 34th running back spot. With Russell Wilson’s passing threat leading to a myriad of 6-man boxes. This is a golden opportunity waiting to be seized.
San Francisco: Jerick McKinnon, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida
Offensive Line Ranking, 2018: 12.5 of 32
Rushing Rank, 2018: 13 of 32
Strength of Schedule, 2019: 11 of 32
Last year was the first year in his career that Kyle Shanahan failed to have a running back finish as a RB1 (top-12 fantasy running back). Though when taken as a composite, the 49ers running backs would have finished as a RB1 once again. Shanahan continues to show himself to be one of the most impactful and innovative minds in the game. Considering the glut of RBs in SF at the moment, it is difficult to decipher who will be the bell cow going forward, but since GM John Lynch has spent a substantial amount of money on the RB position, it is likely that Coleman and McKinnon are in a position to both show out as Coleman and Freeman did during the Falcons’ Super Bowl year. Everything is lining up in a similar way to Atlanta: an accurate quarterback, a bevy of well-rounded receivers, an elite receiving weapon (Kittle), and a quickly developing offensive line. The 49ers are well positioned for overall success in 2019.
The Draft is on the Horizon
Taken in a combination with a variety of factors, this strength of schedule will give you insight into where the risk in a draft will be. Change is inevitable, but with a sharp gaze those changes slow down and can be capitalized on. Below is a map of the difficulty (or lack thereof) of schedules for each team in the NFL.