2020 QB Strength of Schedule
If you’re already tired of hearing about the Tompa Bay Buccaneers … well, I’ve got bad news for ya. I’m going to have some more positive stuff to say about their new-old QB at the end of this article.
On the other side, Ryan Tannehill just might be tested by the Titans’ early-season schedule. That’ll be worth considering as you sort through a crowd of volatile fantasy passers in QB2 range.
But before we get to glorifying Tom Brady or doubting Tannehill yet again, let’s put in some work to get there.
The only thing we know for sure is that the scoring matchups will not play out exactly as we expect them to. Some defenses will move way to the other end of the rankings vs. their 2019 performance. Some tougher defenses will go easier on QB scoring because of luck more than play. And some weaker defenses will wind up allowing fewer QB fantasy points than you’d expect -- for the same reason.
There’s not much year-to-year correlation to be found here. But within each season, we can find some connection to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Over the past 5 years, overall team-defense DVOA has correlated fairly strongly to passing fantasy points allowed. The higher the DVOA rating, the more likely that defense has limited QB fantasy scoring (and vice versa).
Over the past 3 years, that has also been the case for Football Outsiders’ pass-defense DVOA. I can’t say for sure why that window has been shorter, but I do know that FO has continually tweaked its DVOA formulas over the years to sharpen the results.
You might have noticed that I mentioned “passing fantasy points allowed” 2 paragraphs back. That’s a worthwhile distinction for this position. Penalizing a defense for the rushing points it allowed Lamar Jackson isn’t going to help us assess that matchup’s effect on Matt Ryan. And we don’t want to ding the Falcons’ QB defense too much for yielding rushing scores to Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, Taysom Hill and Kyle Allen.
Separating out passing points from the rushing didn’t lead to wide variations in the rankings, but it did produce some significant moves. Four defenses moved 5+ spots up or down the points allowed rankings last season, while another 5 saw 4-spot moves with rushing points removed.
So I looked at passing points allowed over the past 5 seasons and compared each ranking slot to that season’s median total. Here’s the full range of average impact for each ranking slot over that span ...
We find the 8 weakest defenses adding about 10+ percentage points to QB passing scores. The average impact of that group: +15.2 percentage points.
On the other end, the 8 strongest defenses have sapped more than 10 percentage points from QB scoring. That group has averaged 17.4 percentage points in negative impact.
We’ll get back to those numbers later, when we’re assessing the full slate of matchups. For now, let’s get to the defenses most likely to help or hinder QB scoring.
These defenses look like potential bright spots for your fantasy passer ...
The Falcons haven’t ranked better than 20th in overall defensive DVOA since 2012. They finished the past 2 years 25th and 29th in pass-defense DVOA. And now they swap out veteran CB Desmond Trufant for rookie A.J. Terrell. SS Keanu Neal is coming off a torn left Achilles’ tendon just a year after tearing his right ACL. Until Atlanta proves otherwise, this looks like a defense to target for any position.
Carolina has dipped from 3 straight years of top-10 DVOA ratings 2015-17, to #22 and #25 the past 2 seasons. The pass D climbed from 24th in 2018 to 11th in DVOA last year. But then Carolina let lead CB James Bradberry leave for the Giants in free agency. Throw in a new DC who has never coordinated above the college level, and you get a D likely to at least feature some soft spots. Oh yeah, and did I mention the Panthers will start the year without Luke Kuechly (retired) for the first time since 2011?
The Bengals spent big in free agency, importing S Vonn Bell, CB Trae Waynes and slot CB Mackensie Alexander. But none of those 3 actually brings with him a strong history of Pro Football Focus coverage grades. Cincinnati, meanwhile, comes off ratings of 28th and 30th in overall defensive DVOA the past 2 years; 25th and 28th in pass-defense DVOA. So the Bengals will need to prove they’re significantly different before I’m treating them that way.
The Lions finished the past 2 seasons 27th and 28th in defensive DVOA; 31st and 29th vs. the pass. Then they traded away lead CB Darius Slay in the offseason and replaced him with Atlanta castoff Desmond Trufant. Acquiring S Duron Harmon might help, but we’ll see how much.
Las Vegas Raiders
As I mentioned in the WR article, the Raiders have changed quite a bit in their secondary. New guys include FS Damarious Randall, CB Prince Amukamara and rookie CB Damon Arnette. Free agency also brought to town elite coverage LB Cory Littleton. There’s room for this pass defense to take a leap. But it’ll take a major leap. The Raiders finished each of the past 3 years ranked 29th or worse in both overall defensive DVOA and pass-defense DVOA.
New York Giants
If James Bradberry’s departure hurts the Panthers, then it should help the Giants. New York also added S Xavier McKinney early in Round 2. But this defense finished 26th and 31st in pass-defense DVOA the past 2 years, and none of the past 4 units ranked higher than 19th in total defensive DVOA. A new coaching staff could help, but DC Patrick Graham brings just 1 year of coordinator experience. That came with last year’s Dolphins, who ranked dead-last in both pass and overall defense DVOA.
We might have to watch out for this group of defenses …
Baltimore has ranked among the 4 toughest QB defenses in total fantasy points allowed for 3 straight seasons. The unit has finished 4 straight campaigns ranked 6th or better in overall DVOA -- including rankings of 3rd, 3rd and 4th the past 3 seasons. A full season of CB Marcus Peters, draft upgrades at ILB and the Calais Campbell trade won’t hurt.
The Bills checked in 2nd and 6th in defensive DVOA the past 2 years; 2nd and 5th against the pass. They have allowed less than 1 TD pass per game in 2 of the past 3 seasons, including last year. Only the Patriots yielded fewer passing scores in 2019. Buffalo has finished 3 straight seasons among the 4 stingiest defenses in passing points allowed per attempt.
Even without DC Vic Fangio (gone to Denver) last season, Chicago allowed the 4th-fewest total QB fantasy points. The Bears have finished 3 straight seasons ranked 10th or better in fewest passing points allowed per pass attempt. That included rankings of #1 and #4 the past 2 years.
The Vikings shed their top 3 corners from last year’s defense, which certainly leaves room for change. But the 2019 unit remained tough against QB scoring even with those corners supplying lackluster play. (Hence, the departures.) Minnesota returns 2 of last season’s 3 highest-graded coverage safeties, according to Pro Football Focus. And MLB Eric Kendricks comes off his best season to date. Overall, the Vikings have finished 4 consecutive years among the top 8 in both comprehensive DVOA and pass-defense DVOA.
New England Patriots
New England’s 2019 pass-defense results marked a significant turn vs. 2018 and 2017. But it featured strong performances across the secondary. The Pats sport arguably the league’s best crew of starting corners and, of course, 1 of the NFL’s top defensive minds in HC Bill Belichick. Betting on the Patriots rather than against them -- especially after this defense’s dominant turn in 2019 -- has generally been a good idea.
You wouldn’t think the Steelers corners scary just by reading the depth chart, but Joe Haden and Steven Nelson each posted terrific seasons in 2019, and Mike Hilton has enjoyed 3 years of strong slot coverage. Adding Minkah Fitzpatrick at FS early last season helped, and the Pittsburgh pass rush isn’t going anywhere. The Steelers ranked 3rd in pass-defense DVOA in 2019 and finished each of the past 2 years among the top 7 in overall defensive DVOA.
One to Watch
I had a hard time leaving the Chargers out of the “negative” section. They challenge the Pats and Steelers in CB play, led by Casey Hayward and free-agent addition Chris Harris. And this season returns a healthy S Derwin James, who missed most of 2019 after a foot fracture. The Chargers finished each of the past 3 years among the top 7 in limiting QB total points. But they also allowed the 13th most passing points per attempt last season. And they ranked 21st in overall DVOA, 20th vs. the pass. So I left the Chargers in the “neutral” category for now. But I certainly won’t begin 2020 targeting them with fantasy QBs.
Now that we’ve got a top 6 and a bottom 6 picked out, let’s plug them into the team schedules and see who might get a boost … or some extra hurdles.
The chart below counts up the positive, negative and neutral weeks. The “15-game factor” column assigns values to those matchups. Neutral counts as 1, representing 100% of a QB’s expected scoring -- no adjustment up or down.
The positive matchups get a value of 1.152, for that bottom-8 boost I mentioned near the top of the article.
The negative matchups get a value of 0.826, representing that decrease of 17.4 percentage points in scoring vs. the league median.
As you can see, Brady comes out as a winner in this exercise. He gets a league-high 6 positive matchups, and that doesn’t even count a Week 17 home date with the Falcons. Even the Minnesota matchup that follows Brady’s Week 13 bye comes in Tampa, a more favorable spot than if he were traveling north.
That NFC South boost also helps Drew Brees, even though his 2nd meeting with the Panthers doesn’t come until Week 17.
On the other end, Tennessee and Houston come away with the toughest draws. Facing the AFC North and NFC North hurts, and each schedule brings early challenges.
Ryan Tannehill faces a trip to Minnesota and home dates with the Steelers and Bills in consecutive weeks (3-5). He also opens at Denver. The Broncos didn’t make the “negative” matchup category for this article, but they don’t look like a friendly draw for passing offenses.
Deshaun Watson and the Texans, meanwhile, open at Kansas City, home for Baltimore, at Pittsburgh and then home for the Vikings.
Each QB’s mobility has a chance to flip the matchup for fantasy production, but those schedule starts are worth noting as we break ties and make decisions on draft day.
On the other end of the schedule, Buffalo’s Josh Allen could find some late matchup trouble. After his Week 11 bye, Allen will go …
Like Tannehill and Watson, Allen’s mobility helps. But beware of that looming stretch as we move through the season.
Here’s a 16-game version of the table, in case your league plays through Week 17 ...