Using Strength of Schedule Analysis to Get Ahead
The color-coded schedules that accompany this article are 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 for next season begins with analyzing their performance from last season, which I did by finding the average fantasy points allowed in 2018 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 and losses. The teams were broken up into nine colored tiers based on their final adjusted values.
Overall Rankings (from easiest to most difficult)
Taking the entirety of the season into account and rating each team’s schedule, my overall strength-of-schedule rankings (with Week 17 omitted) are as follows:
ease of schedule
|8||New York Jets:||+4|
|26||New York Giants:||-8|
ease of schedule
|3||New York Jets:||+7|
|19||New York Giants:||-5|
Damien Williams is a risky proposition. The journeyman running back came on strong for the Chiefs after Kareem Hunt’s departure, putting up excellent numbers all the way through the playoffs. This season, however, he faces the toughest schedule in the league for running backs and plays for a team that will happily put its fate in the hands of the passing game should the matchups so dictate. With an ADP in the late second/early third round, the longtime backup will have a lot to prove.
Invest in the Baltimore backfield. Not only have the Ravens been open about their commitment to a power running game this upcoming season, but they also happen to have the most favorable rushing schedule in the league this year. Mark Ingram is a solid RB2 who can be had in the fourth or fifth round, and Justice Hill is a promising rookie who could surprise people and can be had essentially for free.
Don’t sleep on Le’Veon. This probably doesn’t need to be said, but Le’Veon Bell remains one of the most talented running backs in the NFL. His new team didn’t pay him big money to not use him to the fullest, and a friendly schedule should provide additional opportunity and reward owners who take the perceived risk on him in the second round.
A warm welcome for Kyler Murray. The future of the Cardinals’ franchise enters his rookie season with the easiest schedule of any quarterback in the league. While rookie QBs rarely make a significant fantasy impact, he has the talent and a shiny new offense that could make him a fantastic late-round steal for those punting the QB position.
Avoid the Denver passing game. A difficult schedule can be overcome by a truly elite quarterback (see below), but Joe Flacco’s “elite” status was only ever a meme. His Broncos are tied with KC for the toughest schedule in the league in terms of passing, and an aging mediocre QB combined with a good-not-great receiving corps makes for a passing offense that I’ll be avoiding.
Rough matchups for elite QBs. Outside of Flacco in Denver, the two toughest passing schedules belong to elite franchise QBs Aaron Rodgers and Pat Mahomes. Players of their caliber tend to be less affected by matchups so I wouldn’t lend this too much weight, but since this pair will frequently be the first two players drafted at their position it might be worth punting QB altogether in 2019 and stocking up elsewhere.
Questions in Kansas City. Speaking of Mahomes, it is worth mentioning that Kansas City has the toughest schedule in the league in terms of both passing and rushing -- and that’s not all. Field-stretching but-troubled superstar Tyreek Hill could face a lengthy suspension due to off-field issues, rookie sensation Pat Mahomes is almost certainly due for some regression, and stud center Mitch Morse has departed for Buffalo. With all these factors in play, the only Chief I feel comfortable buying at their current ADP is Travis Kelce.
Simple rankings can provide valuable information, but a closer look has the potential to reveal much more. Week-to-week schedule analysis can enable you to identify certain specific archetypes of players, such as the following, before they appear.
Schedule-Based Player Archetypes
Fool’s Gold: This archetype consists of players who have an easy schedule out of the gate and seem likely to rack up numbers at the beginning of the season, but who have a much more difficult schedule for the remainder and are likely to fall off in value. Identifying these players allows you to invest now but still cash out before their value takes a hit from a rash of difficult matchups. The following are a few good examples of this archetype in 2019, along with the general timelines they are likely to follow in terms of value.
Amari Cooper: People have been waiting for Amari Cooper to become a true WR1 for as long as he’s been in the league, and through the first half of 2019 it may seem like it has finally happened. The Cowboys don’t have a single unfavorable passing matchup until Week 10, and will play five of their nine games up to that point against bottom-seven passing defenses. If you’re a Cooper owner, this would be the time to sell, as over the following five weeks the Cowboys will end up playing the top-three passing defenses in the league (including the formidable Bills, the only team in the top tier of difficulty). It is also worth noting that they will face the star-studded Broncos pass rush in Week 16, when most leagues are playing for their championship.
Jared Goff: The young Rams’ QB struggled mightily against the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, but for many it is easy to chalk this up to the brilliance of Bill Belichick. A closer look, however, will show that Goff was downright terrible throughout the entirety of the playoffs -- which raises questions about his ability to beat a good defense without Todd Gurley to keep them honest. All this aside, and despite a potentially difficult opening week against the Panthers’ monstrous D-line, in Weeks 2-8 the Rams play against the four worst passing defenses in the league as well as four others that are middling to bad. With the weapons he has, even a game manager like Goff should be able to shine during this period and silence many of his doubters. This is the time you sell, as immediately following the bye the Rams play four consecutive games against top-ten passing defenses that could expose Goff and shut him down if Gurley is anything less than 100 percent.
Late Bloomers: This archetype consists of players who have a difficult schedule out of the gate and seem likely to struggle through the first part of the season, but who have a much easier schedule later on and seem likely to see a dip and then a spike in value (effectively the inverse of the “Fool’s Gold” archetype). Late Bloomers are a great investment target towards the end of the difficult part of their schedules while their value is low and primed to shoot up on the backs of easier matchups. The following are a few good examples of this archetype in 2019, along with the general timelines they are likely to follow in terms of value.
Miles Sanders: The rookie RB for the Eagles enters the season with quite a bit of hype, as the Philadelphia brass seems to love him and the Eagles have a high-powered offense anchored by a fantastic offensive line. Expectations may have to be tempered through the first half of the season, however, as the Eagles play six of their first nine games against teams in the top third of the league in rushing defense. They have a particularly brutal matchup against Chicago in Week 8 that could likely be Sanders’ worst game of the year, and a bye the following week that presents an excellent opportunity to go out and grab the young RB. The Eagles face no particularly fearsome rushing defenses over the rest of the season, and the four games immediately following the bye are against teams in the bottom third in rush defense.
Antonio Brown: Yes, you read that correctly. While I don’t think that Brown will truly struggle in his new home in Oakland, his Raiders play three of the top-six (and two of the top-three) passing defenses in the opening five weeks of the season. I suspect that his numbers will dip to “merely” low-end WR1/high-end WR2 level during this period, and antsy owners may be willing to part with him at a discount during the Week 6 bye. Keep your ear to the ground for this opportunity, as the Raiders play only one top-eight defense during Weeks 7-16 and have generally favorable matchups over that period, on which King Diva will almost certainly feast.
Best Ballers: This archetype is made up of players who have additional value in best-ball formats due to a schedule that features a lot of particularly easy matchups. With the exception of quarterbacks, these are generally players who aren’t considered top-end studs and who will therefore see more variance in their production. The following are a few good examples of this archetype in 2018, along with the number of weeks in which they play bottom-five passing or rushing defenses.
Jared Cook: 4 (Tampa Bay x2, Atlanta x2)
Austin Hooper: 4 (New Orleans x2, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia)
Playoff Heroes: This archetype consists of players who have a favorable schedule in the playoffs and are thus most likely to lead you to a fantasy championship. The following players make up the potential playoff heroes of 2019, and are listed along with their Week 14-16 matchups in chronological order (and the passing or rushing defensive rankings of those teams in parentheses).
George Kittle: New Orleans (32), Atlanta (30), LA Rams (19)
Eric Ebron: Tampa Bay (31), New Orleans (32), Carolina (14)
Playoff Villains: The inverse of Playoff Heroes, this archetype consists of players who have a highly difficult schedule in the playoffs that could act as an anchor weighing you down and prevent your team from winning when it matters most. The following are the players that fall into this archetype for 2019, along with their Week 14-16 matchups (and the passing or rushing defensive rankings of those teams in parentheses).
Travis Kelce: New England (22), Denver (6), Chicago (3)