Using Strength of Schedule Analysis to Get Ahead 2021
The color-coded schedules that accompany this article provide a graphic representation of the caliber of passing and rushing defenses each team will play over the course of the season. Projecting a team’s defensive performance begins with analyzing their performance from last season, which I did by finding the average fantasy points allowed in 2020 by opposing defenses to quarterbacks (for passing defense) and to running backs (for rushing defense). Values were assigned to each team based on how far above or below average (in terms of points allowed) they finished last year, and these were then manually adjusted to account for off-season acquisitions, losses, and regime changes. The teams were broken up into nine colored tiers based on their adjusted values, with each tier given a numeric value. The top and bottom tiers were worth +/-6, the next tier +/-4, then +/-2, then +/-1, and finally, a value of zero was given to defenses that fell within the range of league average.
Click for: Rushing SOS Matrix
Click for: Passing SOS Matrix
Taking the entirety of the season into account and putting all thirty-two schedules through a few simple calculations, my overall strength-of-schedule rankings are as follows.
(ranked easiest to hardest):
|16||New York Jets||-3|
|26||New York Giants||-5|
|15||New York Jets||-1|
|28||New York Giants||-13|
When first glancing at the defensive landscape for 2021, you may notice a few things that seem familiar by now – the Rams should be formidable and the Lions should be toothless, for example. However, this was also a year of firsts for this strength-of-schedule guide, now in its fourth iteration. This is the first time, for example, that you will see the same team occupying the top defensive tier (and the first and second overall ranks) in both passing and rushing defense. Suffice it to say, the Washington Football Team looks a hell of a lot scarier than its ridiculous name. It’s no coincidence that several prominent NFC East skill players have landed firmly on my don’t-draft board, but more on that later.
Another interesting new wrinkle this season is the introduction of the ultimate shutdown defense during the traditional fantasy playoffs – a Week 14 bye. There are almost no guarantees in fantasy football, but I can say with confidence that you aren’t getting to the second round of your playoffs on the backs of any Eagles, Colts, Patriots, or Dolphins (don’t @ me with your league’s weird playoff schedules). This is definitely worth bearing in mind when making your picks.
In another interesting first, the Houston Texans are the only
team to ever score below -40 in my projections (a robust -44 out of a possible -45) in either passing or rushing defensive strength. To say that their rush D will be shredded like paper this season would be an insult to the structural integrity of paper. Reactionary owners the world over will be looking to buy middle-of-the-road fantasy players after they drop a fortyburger on Houston, so be on the lookout for trade opportunities.
It is also worth noting that, even as the writer of a strength-ofschedule guide, I’ll be the first to tell you that only the defenses towards the very top or bottom are likely to be particularly impactful on a per-game basis. Strength-of-schedule should usually be used as a tiebreaker more than anything else, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t useful information to be gleaned. There is the obvious – beware the Washington Football Team, target teams playing against the Lions, and for the love of god stream whoever is running the ball against Houston. But there are also some groups of players that SoS can help us identify, such as. …
The common wisdom is that you can’t win your draft in the first round, but you can lose it. It’s also the general consensus that when choosing among the studs generally available with the first 8-14 picks, you’re going to be splitting hairs to make your decision. Without further ado, here are some strength-of-schedule- related hairs I uncovered regarding first-round picks that just may be worth splitting.
Alvin Kamara: Poor Alvin. Not only did he lose his quarterback, but he has the highest number of games in the league against true top-tier rushing defenses. Worse still, one of them is in Week 15 of the playoffs (second-ranked Tampa Bay) and is followed in championship week by the fifth-ranked Dolphins. Is he likely to completely drop an egg those weeks? Of course not. But in the range where you’re likely to have to pick him, you can get other proven studs who don’t have such tough sledding in the playoffs.
Christian McCaffrey: Let’s be realistic, CMC is probably going to have an incredible season. But if, let’s say, you have the first pick and someone wants to trade up to grab him? It might be worth remembering that he plays the elite Tampa Bay rush D in championship week. Just saying.
Nick Chubb: On the more positive side, likely first-rounder Nick Chubb has the easiest rushing schedule in the league that includes tasty matchups against both Houston and Detroit and only one matchup against any defenses in the impactful tiers (Week 10 against fifth-ranked New England). He also has a very favorable matchup against the 29th-ranked Packers rush D in championship week. He is exactly the kind of player who you could target in a trade down from presumed top pick McCaffrey, and he could ultimately end up even having the better season.
Ezekiel Elliott: With most of this list I really am doing exactly what the title suggests – splitting hairs. With Zeke, however, it’s an entirely different story. Not only does his overall schedule rank as the second-hardest in the entire league, but his playoff schedule is the most brutal I’ve seen since I started playing fantasy football a decade ago. If by some miracle you get through Week 14 starting him against the top-ranked Football Team, and win again in Week 15 starting him against the above-average Giants, you then have to start him in championship week against.
… The Football Team. Again. For a RB who has already fallen off since the days when his offensive line was doing most of the work for him, this is too much. Get yourself a different RB or a nice top-end WR in the first and let someone else draft the Ewok this year. Mark him down on your no-draft board before we move on to our next section and look a little bit at our. ...
Stock Market Specials
Everybody wants to buy the next GME or Dogecoin, but a big part of winning a fantasy championship is successful in-season trading. Just because you didn’t get in at the floor doesn’t mean you can’t profit. In fact, sometimes you can make more by buying the dip! The following players have stock that could rise and fall fairly predictably based on SoS, and can thus be bought or sold at specific times for maximum profit. Apes to the moon, my friends.
Cam Akers, Weeks 4-6: Akers has a relatively difficult start
to the season and could really struggle in Week 3 against the mighty Bucs rush D, leading some owners to wonder if he really is the stud workhorse they were hoping for when they drafted him. If you think this owner is in your league, throw out a few offers between Weeks 4-6. He plays Houston and Detroit backto- back in Weeks 7 and 8, though, so after that point any buy window is likely to be firmly closed.
Josh Allen/Stefon Diggs, Weeks 3-4: The Bills’ offense as a powerhouse is still a relatively new phenomenon, and QBs have followed up seasons like Allen’s 2020 with major down years. I don’t think this will be the case, but it wouldn’t surprise me if his numbers (and consequently those of his receivers, primarily Diggs) don’t jump off the page through Week 3. They play the 11th-, third-, and second-ranked passing defenses to start the season, and, if they look less than stellar, some owners who invested early picks might be looking for a way out. Be the one to give it to them.
Justin Herbert/Keenan Allen/Austin Ekeler, Weeks 2-3: Holy reactionary management, Batman! Yes, this move is based entirely on the fact that the Chargers play the terrifying Washington Football Team in Week 1. Most owners aren’t willing to give up on players after one bad game, but being the season opener it could make a difference. If you sense that it’s possible, try and pick up any of these three from an impulsive opponent after a possible Week 1 debacle.
Michael Thomas, Weeks 5-6: Leading into 2021 Michael Thomas is basically a human red flag, but it’s impossible to ignore his past production, and his early schedule could provide a huge opportunity for investment. The Saints’ schedule the opening five weeks leading up to their bye is absolutely brutal and includes four matchups against top-7 passing defenses, culminating with a Week 5 matchup against the Football Team. After the bye? Only one matchup against any team in the Top 12 in passing D. There is no single player with a more polarized schedule, and Thomas is a guy that many people are ready to give up on already. Offer to take him on before the bye, and you may get him even cheaper.
Calvin Ridley, Weeks 4-5: Ridley is another player with a big red flag, albeit only one compared to the large array wielded by Thomas. Will he be the same player without Julio Jones to keep defenses honest? Nobody knows yet, but what we do know is that in Week 3 he plays the fourth-ranked Giants’ pass D and in Week 4, the infamous Football Team (rank 2). If he puts up two bad weeks out of his first four, there will definitely be owners out there worried that he is the next Juju Smith-Schuster and won’t be able to produce without a generational talent alongside him. If you disagree with that take (I’m on the fence, personally), be ready to float some offers after Week 4.
Joe Mixon, Weeks 6-8: You can bet that Mixon is already rubbing his hands together at the prospect of the first six weeks of the season. The Bengals open against 28th-ranked Minnesota, but, more importantly, proceed to go back-to-back-toback against the 30th-ranked Jags, 29th-ranked Packers, and 31st-ranked Lions in Weeks 4-6. Unfortunately, they don’t have a single favorable matchup beyond that, and it seems incredibly unlikely that his production will continue at whatever rate he has established from that point on. Workhorse RBs are always in demand, so shop him for a few weeks after he runs all over Detroit and see what you can get.
D.J. Moore/Robby Anderson, Weeks 8-9: Moore and Anderson are blessed with matchups against three of the four worst passing defenses in the first half of the season and don’t have their bye until Week 13. If either one of them goes off in two or three of those early matchups, this combination of factors means he could be looking at some very gaudy and not – necessarily – sustainable numbers after Week 8. As is almost always the case, sell for peak value and get the added benefit of never having to eat his bye week.
San Francisco 49ers RBs, Weeks 1-16: Yes, you read that correctly. The unpredictability and “feed the hot hand” nature of Shanahan’s offense means that an RB having a good game (or even several) has much less predictive value than they would as a RB on any other team. If you own a SF RB and they go off in a particular week and you get offers that are worth a workhorse back, take them. Immediately after Week 1 could be a particular time to keep your eye on, as whichever RB gets the call is likely going to stomp all over the 31st-ranked Lions’ rush D.
Travis Etienne/James Robinson, Weeks 2-3: The Jags may have been comically stupid for drafting Etienne in the first round with Robinson already aboard, but you can bet that both backs will make absolute fools of the hapless Texans in Week 1. Rookies are hype machines already, and it is highly likely that Etienne will have his best game of the season against that buttercup matchup in Week 1. Cash in on that hype and smile all the way to the bank when he plays a real defense and crashes back down to earth.
Marquise Brown, Weeks 3-4: Remember when Marquise Brown stormed out of the gate against the Dolphins in 2019 and everyone thought he was the next hot WR until he wasn’t? We could be in for more of that in 2021. With favorable matchups in Weeks 1 and 2 (and Detroit doing whatever the opposite of looming is in Week 3), he could easily get off to another hot start. But don’t be fooled. If you can sell high on him at that point, do it. Lamar’s passing issues aren’t going anywhere and the rest of the Raven’s schedule doesn’t look particularly good either.
Best Ballers are players whose value in best-ball formats is greater than their value in traditional formats, specifically because their schedule contains a high number of games against
easily shredded defenses (even if some other weeks aren’t so favorable). In best-ball leagues where your leaguemates are drafting based off rankings for traditional formats, target the following for some added value and a high probability of some big weeks. Their impact matchups (and the defensive rankings of those matchups) are listed alongside each player’s name.
Chase Edmonds/James Conner: Week 2 Minnesota (28), Week 3 Jacksonville (30), Week 7 Houston (32), Week 8 Green Bay (29), Week 15 Detroit (31)
Joe Mixon: Week 1 Minnesota (28), Week 4 Jacksonville (30), Week 5 Green Bay (29), Week 6 Detroit (31) David Montgomery: Week 4 Detroit (31), Week 12 Detroit (31), Week 14 Green Bay (29), Week 16 Minnesota (28)
Darrell Henderson: Week 7 Detroit (31), Week 8 Houston (32), Week 12 Green Bay (29), Week 13 Jacksonville (30), Week 16 Minnesota (28)
Sam Darnold/D.J. Moore/Robby Anderson: Week 1 New York Jets (29), Week 3 Houston (30), Week 4 Atlanta (32), Week 14 Atlanta (32)
Carson Wentz/T.Y. Hilton/Michael Pittman: Week 1 Seattle (28), Week 6 Houston (30), Week 9 New York Jets (29), Week 10 Jacksonville (27), Week 13 Houston (30)
Matthew Stafford/Robert Woods/Cooper Kupp: Week 5 Seattle (28), Week 7 Detroit (31), Week 8 Houston (30), Week 13 Jacksonville (27), Week 15 Seattle (28)
Ryan Tannehill/A.J. Brown/Julio Jones: Week 2 Seattle (28), Week 4 New York Jets (29), Week 5 Jacksonville (27), Week 11 Houston (30), Week 14 Jacksonville (27)
Trevor Lawrence/DJ Chark Jr./Marvin Jones Jr./Laviska Shenault: Week 1 Houston (30), Week 8 Seattle (28), Week 12 Atlanta (32), Week 15 Houston (30), Week 16 New York Jets (29)
Playoff Pariahs & Golden Gods
Perhaps the most significant way in which strength of schedule can play a part in your fantasy success is in determining who your players have to line up against in those crucial playoff contests – Weeks 14-16. Those players who find themselves across from elite defenses like the Football Team (and could hamper you in your hunt for glory) are dubbed Playoff Pariahs, while those playing teams like the Lions have the potential to be championship-clinching Golden Gods, a la the immortal Dennis Reynolds. Playoff matchups for each player and their respective rankings are listed alongside their names.
David Montgomery: Week 14 Green Bay (29), Week 15 Minnesota (28), Week 16 Seattle (20)
Austin Ekeler: Week 14 New York Giants (14), Week 15 Kansas City (18), Week 16 Houston (32)
Trevor Lawrence/ DJ Chark Jr.: Week 14 Tennessee (25), Week 15 Houston (32), Week 16 New York Jets (11) George Kittle: Week 14 Cincinnati (19), Week 15 Atlanta (32), Week 16 Tennessee (26)
Melvin Gordon: Week 14 Detroit (31), Week 15 Cincinnati (24), Week 16 Las Vegas Raiders (27) Courtland Sutton/Noah Fant: Week 14 Detroit (31), Week 15 Cincinnati (19), Week 16 Las Vegas Raiders (23)