In physics, electricity is known to follow the path of least resistance and its a rule everyone generally tries to follow in all walks of life. Even in fantasy football, such perfectly reasonable logic would seem to lead to incredible success. Pick players who have easier schedules and they should excel on your roster and lead you to a fantasy championship.
Except, when looking back on the last five NFL seasons, there doesn’t appear to be any distinct correlation between a team’s strength of schedule (SoS) and fantasy success. This isn’t to say that fantasy owners should completely ignore a team’s strength of schedule, but rather use it as a guide and couple it with more extensive research into personnel changes on each NFL team.
In the chart below, you see the last five seasons and SoS ranking for each team. The “Top 100 Fantasy” column is the number of players on each team who ranked in the top 100 for that particular season, according to stats compiled by Pro-FootballReference.com. Since its 100 players, each team should average 3.125 top fantasy players, but of course there’s wide variation.
At the very top, we can see that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati had the two hardest schedules in the league last season, but the Bengals tied a league high with five top 100 players and the Steelers were also tied for the second-most at four. The Colts and Falcons had the easiest runs and had only three apiece.
In 2014, the Broncos had the second-toughest slate and were still tied for the league-best with five top 100 players, while the Seahawks, Chiefs, and Cardinals had the sixth, seventh, and eighth easiest schedules and each fielded only two top fantasy players.
Looking back in 2011, we see the Chargers rolled out six top 100 players with the third-hardest schedule while the Giants and Falcons managed five players with much easier treks.
All this tells us that looking at the entire season, in terms of difficulty from a strictly macro perspective, can’t truly determine where to find the best fantasy players. And it shouldn’t, because SoS is based off what opponents did last season and doesn’t take into account changes made in the offseason via coaching, free agency, or the draft.
But we can still use SoS rankings to better parse our draft boards, and the best way to do so is to go position by position. Based off FantasyPros.com’s rankings of easiest schedules for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, let’s determine which players could actually have strong fantasy seasons.
1.Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
2.Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
3.Eli Manning, New York Giants
4.Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
5.Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
Romo returns from an injury plagued 2015 to the easiest schedule for any quarterback this season, and he still has Dez Bryant and Jason Witten as his top targets. There’s also rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, who’s expected to have a sensational year behind Dallas’ stacked o-line. However, just because the schedule’s easy doesn’t mean Romo can stay healthy. Stafford doesn’t have Calvin Johnson anymore so beware, while Manning has Odell Beckham Jr., but little else. Flacco is coming back from a serious knee injury, and Cutler hasn’t inspired faith in fantasy owners for half a decade. When it comes to quarterbacks this year, best not to base your decision on SoS.
1.Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks
2.Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3.Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
4.Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
5.Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Rawls was astounding last season and will get the bulk of the carries, so he’s a certifiable stud with the easiest schedule for any RB1 in 2016 even if his ankle might need more time to heal. Martin should also be a top selection with the Bucs young but talented offensive line getting another year of experience and already helping Martin post one of his best seasons in 2015. Jennings has been too inconsistent for the Giants, while Abdullah enters an important second season and could be a solid sleeper pick as he faces some inferior running defenses. Elliott is perfectly placed and as long as Romo stays healthy he should be a top 10 back in 2016. In this case SoS is a good guide.
1.Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
2.A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
3.Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
4.Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens
5.Corey Coleman, Cleveland Browns
Focusing solely on the WR1s, here’s where SoS really goes off the rails. No surprises here with Brown and Green at the top, though Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins are still fantasy superstars no matter how strong their opponents might be. Smith’s value lies solely in Flacco’s ability to come back, while the rookie Coleman has Robert Griffin III as his quarterback and shouldn’t even be considered a fantasy draft pick until good news comes out of training camp.
1.Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
2.Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers
3.Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
4.Jared Cook, Green Bay Packers
5.Ryan Griffin, Houston Texans
Similar to receivers, we see no Rob Gronkowski, Delanie Walker, or Jordan Reed. Kelce exploded last season and Olsen remains a top tier tight end, and both should stay among the NFL’s elite in 2016. Seferian-Jenkins has had health issues, which have limited him to 77 total targets in his first two seasons. He’s a massive 6-foot-6 target for Jameis Winston but owners shouldn’t gamble on Seferian-Jenkins if TE1s like Cook are available. Cook joins a Packers offense that’s been in desperate need of a reliable tight end for a long time and will face teams that were quite poor against TE1s last season. Griffin’s entering his fourth season and could see lots more targets, but he’s a free agent or waiver pick-up after drafts at this time.