When it comes to setting a Fantasy Football lineup, the matchups are really important. OK, fine, maybe not for the stud players who rack up stats each week -- they're starting no matter who they play. But there aren't a lot of those guys. It's the non-obvious guys who we all must make decisions on during the season.
This is my attempt to make some of those decisions now. Before Week 1, before the preseason and before I even draft a single player.
- More Projected Strength of Schedule Rankings: | | |
Every year I revert to the dark side of Fantasy Football and study every defense. I lean heavily on data such as yards after catch or contact, missed tackles, allowed rush and pass attempts, catch rates, defensive ADOT (or DADOT), blitz and pressure rates and also offensive success rates. But I also evaluate who each team added and parted ways with and how good their starters and bench guys actually are.
When I'm done, I have a grade from 1 to 10 on:
- every team's pass rush
- every team's pass coverage
- every team's run defense
I did something different with receivers this year than in the past: Instead of weighing the pass rush and pass coverage grades evenly, I slanted the pass coverage grade heavily ... to the tune of 90 percent. As it turns out, pass rushes obviously impact quarterbacks more, but there's also a noticeable correlation between that and tight end production, but not wide receiver production. I know that sounds weird, but I went with it. So once 90% of the pass coverage grade and 10% of the pass rush grade were calculated, a cumulative grade was created.
I took this grade for each defensive unit and plugged it into each offense's schedule. Each of 17 matchups for every NFL offense now had a grade. I added those grades together to give an informed projection on which teams have easy schedules, and which ones have hard schedules.
Once you get a look, you'll see who I believe to be the biggest winners and losers based on who they'll play, and in a few specific cases, when they play them. Naturally, this doesn't account for who their quarterbacks are or what their specific PSoS are. Just the matchups.
How each defense graded out
Here are the final grades for every defense used in the Wide Receiver Projected Strength of Schedule (PSoS) Rankings, with the toughest defense ranked first:
What the wide receivers are up against
Here are the Projected Strength of Schedule rankings for every team for Weeks 1 through 17 (Week 18 isn't included; easiest projected schedule No. 1):
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Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp: I was already in favor of drafting both Rams receivers because of their upgrade at quarterback. Their sixth-best PSoS cements them as must-starts, and in the case of Kupp, a major bounce-back candidate. It's Fantasy nirvana for both of them after the first three weeks of the season until the tail end of the year. Seek them out on Draft Day -- Woods with a top-40 pick and Kupp as a top-60 pick.
D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson: Through the first 10 weeks of the season, the Panthers receivers have arguably three tough opponents: New Orleans, Minnesota and New England. There's more than enough weakness in their other seven games to have some incredible stat lines. After last year, expectations are set for both receivers to have at least 13.0 PPR points per game, even if Sam Darnold is their new quarterback. If you draft either one, be prepared to pull the rip cord and sell high on them before the docket goes sour just before Thanksgiving.
Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel: The hope is that one or both of these receivers help you win a Fantasy championship thanks to an incredible run of poorly-graded pass defenses between Weeks 11 and 17. By then, Trey Lance might be starting and settling into the NFL game, which only helps their situation. You can also look for Aiyuk and Samuel as Week 1 starts at Detroit, but after that they face a rough patch. You could draft and be patient with both Niners receivers, or you could try acquiring them at midseason to take advantage of their second-half slate.
Will Fuller: A favorable set of games should help put Fuller back on Fantasy draft radars. He won't be available Week 1, which is fine since the Dolphins play the Patriots anyway. There's a pretty high chance Fuller won't be available later on in the season as his injury history suggests. And his quarterback is a question mark, too. But after a tough start, the Dolphins have a bunch of games against inferior pass defenses that should yield some stats for Fuller (and certainly Jaylen Waddle and DeVante Parker, too). It's enough to put Fuller over the top as a pick between 65th and 75th overall.
Brandin Cooks: A mostly decent slate of opponents helps Cooks, who is rapidly becoming the most desirable Texans Fantasy player, not that that's such a good thing. Because the Texans defense is not only void of top talent but also running Lovie Smith's old and beatable Tampa-2 scheme, the offense figures to play from behind a lot. If it's Deshaun Watson at quarterback, Cooks should see plenty of catchable throws. If it's ... gulp ... Tyrod Taylor or Davis Mills, then maybe the number of catchable throws dips but at least there will be good target volume. You shouldn't be afraid to take Cooks, but don't do it until Round 6 at the absolute earliest.
DeVonta Smith: There's a pretty good chance the Heisman Trophy winner starts his career nicely against the Falcons, 49ers and Cowboys. That's the beginning of what amounts to the ninth-best PSoS, helped largely by a chic first-half. By Week 10, Smith might not see such favorable action, so assume a possible sell-high window opening for him. The good news is that no other receiver on the Eagles figures to see the target volume that Smith will, and his versatile skill set makes him an easy and available target for Jalen Hurts. He's in the low-end No. 3 receiver, Round 7 range.
D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones: We're supposed to discount receivers catching passes from a rookie quarterback, but Trevor Lawrence isn't just any rookie quarterback. He's already polished and poised, passing in an offense he's already familiar with. Chark and Jones stand out not only as the top two targets in the system, but because of the Jags' fourth-best PSoS. A scary Week 2 matchup against the Broncos is the only game in the first month of the season that might make you squirm. Chark is already getting picked as at least a flex in Round 6 or 7, but Jones shouldn't be terribly far behind as a matchup-based flex worth a look in Round 9 or later.
Keenan Allen: The Chargers receivers went from the easiest PSoS in 2020 to the second-hardest in 2021. Week 1 at Washington won't be easy, but it's Weeks 5-12 that will really test this offense. Herbert made our loser list on the Quarterback PSoS and his receivers follow. Do not over-draft Allen -- he's strictly a Round 3 pick in PPR and a late Round 4 choice in non-PPR.
Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd: Maybe we should pump the brakes on the Bengals' good-hands trio. The Bengals landed the fourth-worst PSoS in large part because of the division they're in. Their first three games (Vikings, Bears, Steelers) aren't easy, nor are their last four (Denver, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland). How often will all three have big games? Probably never. So could at least one of them be consistently good from week to week? That remains to be seen, but the advice to give here is to not get caught up in the hype with Chase. All three will get taken by 80th overall in PPR, but none should go before 60th.
Kenny Golladay: The Giants have the 12th-toughest PSoS and begin the year with challenging matchups against the Broncos' highly-valued secondary and Washington's much-improved unit. Over the four weeks after they'll also play the Saints in New Orleans and the Rams in New Jersey. There are some favorable matchups mixed in, but between this schedule and the uneven quarterback play and lousy play-calling from last season, it's hard to view Golladay as a safe No. 2 Fantasy receiver. Taking him before Round 6 feels risky.
Odell Beckham: I think the Browns landing the sixth-worst PSoS only makes Beckham's outlook uglier. You already know he's coming back from a torn ACL and really hasn't been the same stud receiver since he left New York. You also know the Browns are more open to running the football (their backs have the 13th-ranked PSoS). What are the chances he'll hit the field and put up numbers like he did in 2015 or 2016? And holy cow has it been that long since he's been a stellar Fantasy receiver?!
Marquise Brown: Already figured to be under pressure for targets with Sammy Watkins and two rookies (Rashod Bateman, Tylan Wallace) added to the Ravens' flock, Brown and receiver teammates old and new must also deal with the third-worst PSoS. The good news? We really might not see the ill effects of this until the end of the season when the Ravens play the Dolphins, Bears, Browns, Steelers, Browns, Packers, Bengals (OK, ONE good matchup) and Rams between Weeks 10 and 17. Enjoy Brown to begin the year but be ready to trade him after one or two of his big early-season games.
Corey Davis: The Jets have a bottom-10 PSoS, a deep receiving corps and a rookie quarterback with 28 games of starting experience for BYU. It took Davis four years in Tennessee to finally show signs of being an effective receiver, just in time to cash in with the Jets. Keep Davis away from your Fantasy team.