Need another reason to like Mark Andrews this season?
No? Well, I’ve got one anyway. It looks like his schedule could be pretty favorable. Thank matchups with Cincinnati, Cleveland and the NFC East.
But before we get any further, let’s back it up a bit.
I looked back at each of the past 10 seasons to find the annual median for PPR points allowed to TEs, and then compared each ranking spot for that year to the season’s median. After doing that for each season back through 2010, I got the median percentage for each spot in the points-allowed rankings.
The “Diff” column represents the difference (in percentage points) between each 2 spots in the rankings. As we’ve seen at other positions, the gaps grow toward the top and bottom of the rankings, indicating a greater impact on TE scoring from the best and worst defensive matchups.
We also see that the 9 most favorable matchups add 10+ percentage points to TE scoring. The 9 toughest matchups sap 10+ percentage points. So we’ll use those ranges for applying our scoring factors later.
The tested range of seasons here also revealed that about 6 defenses from the top 9 and bottom 9 tend to carry over year to year as finishers in the same half of the league. To put it more clearly, we can expect about 6 of last year’s 9 worst TE defenses to rank among the bottom half in 2020. Same thing at the other end.
This year, I also checked the correlation between Football Outsiders DVOA in TE coverage and a defense’s points allowed. I found a stronger correlation between DVOA and points allowed per target than for total points allowed. That indicates points per target ties more closely to strong defensive performance, which makes sense.
Last season, for example, Seattle allowed the 2nd most PPR points to TEs, while Carolina allowed the 4th-fewest. But the Seahawks saw 138 TE targets vs. just 83 for the Panthers. The defense that sees 55 more targets is far more likely to allow more fantasy points.
If we break it down by target, though, Carolina allowed the 9th most. Seattle ranked just 18th.
Now let’s try to predict 6 teams that will present tougher TE matchups in 2020, and then 6 who will be favorable to your TEs ...
Who Will be Tough
I’ll go ahead and bet this will be the most surprising entry on the list. The Falcons, though, have ranked among the top one-third of teams in PPR points allowed per target to TEs for 3 straight years. Getting SS Keanu Neal back can’t hurt (assuming he’s close to normal performance level). MLB Deion Jones’ ability in coverage might be the key factor, though. Atlanta climbed from 15th in DVOA vs. TEs in 2018 -- with Jones missing half the season -- to 6th in 2019.
The past 2 years have seen the Bills allow the fewest and then 2nd-fewest fantasy points to TEs. Last year’s #14 rank in DVOA vs. the position actually marked a downturn for the defense. Buffalo hadn’t dipped to that level since 2013. Of course, that still put the Bills among the league’s top half.
The Bears tumbled in 2019, allowing the 9th most PPR points to TEs after 4 straight years ranking 20th or lower on that list. But target volume was part of the problem. Chicago still allowed the 9th-fewest points per target to the position, following seasons of 4th-fewest and 8th-fewest. The defense’s DVOA vs. TEs fell from 11th in 2017 and 3rd in 2018 to 16th last year. But the Bears seemed to address that issue by letting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix walk and replacing him with Tashaun Gipson. The former Texan hasn’t posted great PFF coverage grades, but Houston’s performance vs. TEs improved last year after Gipson arrived; and Jacksonville’s declined after Gipson left following the 2018 season.
The past 3 years have seen the Vikings rank 1st, 8th and 7th in limiting overall TE scoring. They’ve fared even better on a points-per-target basis: 1st, 9th and 1st. Minnesota has renovated its CB group, but the defense returns both stud safeties and MLB Eric Kendricks off arguably his finest season.
The Saints have finished 4 straight years among the top one-third of NFL TE defenses. They also finished 3 of those 4 years in that range in limiting fantasy points per target. New Orleans just might get even tougher against TEs after bringing back S Malcolm Jenkins, a key cog in Philadelphia’s tough TE defense over the past few seasons.
This entry might actually be more surprising than Atlanta’s. Only the Cardinals allowed more TE fantasy points last year than the Seahawks did. But that marked a sharp increase vs. the previous 3 seasons. Seattle finished each of those campaigns among the league’s 9 toughest TE defenses. The team addressed its 2019 weakness by trading (a lot) for S Jamal Adams. His Jets allowed the 2nd-fewest fantasy points per target to TEs last season and finished each of the past 2 years among the top 3 defenses in limiting total TE points. It’s also worth noting that the Seahawks allowed just the 18th-most points per target to the position even amid last year’s downswing.
Who Will be Easy
After ranking 28th or worse in DVOA vs. TEs 2 of the past 3 years, the Bengals threw money at S Vonn Bell in free agency. Bell’s best Pro Football Focus coverage grade to date placed him 63rd among safeties in 2018. Cincinnati also drafted a new MLB and will hold auditions to round out that corps this summer. Tough to bet on any combo of unproven youngsters suddenly making this a tough matchup, though.
The Browns have finished 4 straight years among the league’s 10 most generous TE defenses -- and last year’s #10 finish marked significant improvement after rankings of 5th, 3rd and 2nd. They didn’t actually get any tougher, though. Cleveland yielded the 2nd most PPR points per target to the position. The Browns have renovated at both LB and safety. We’ll see how that impacts their TE coverage.
The Cowboys have ranked among the league’s bottom half in DVOA vs. TEs for 4 straight years. That includes 3 finishes of 23rd or worse. Dallas also finished 3 of those 4 years among the 8 most-friendly TE defenses. That included yielding the 3rd-most points to the position in 2019. Importing SS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix doesn’t look like it will help that area. The Cowboys’ loaded offense, meanwhile, looks likely to drive opponent passing volume.
Myriad changes could start the Raiders defense down a new path this season. Cory Littleton ranks among the league’s top coverage LBs, and both safeties are basically new. Damarious Randall spent the past 2 years in Cleveland; Johnathan Abram missed the final 15 games of his rookie campaign after a Week 1 shoulder injury. But the Raiders have finished 6 straight seasons among the 12 most friendly TE defenses, including 3 straight among the bottom 8. They’ll need to prove things have changed.
The Bucs finished each of the past 2 years among the 9 friendliest TE defenses, and they’ve ranked 22nd or worse in DVOA vs. TEs each of the past 3 seasons. It should only help opponent TE target volume if the team plays with more leads now that Tom Brady’s around.
Washington allowed the 4th-most TE PPR points last season, the team’s 3rd finish among the bottom 7 in the past 4 years. No additions at LB or in the secondary look ready to turn that around.
Now let’s apply those easy and tough matchups to the full 2020 schedule to see which TEs might find some fantasy help or hindrance.
Because I have yet to say so in this article, I’d like to remind you that these matchups are just educated guesses. Some will be wrong. Some defenses will move unexpectedly in one direction or the other. And there will be a few bad/good luck performers who limit or add TE scoring just because footballs bounce funny sometimes.
That said, here are the potential schedule effects. “Neutral” matchups get a score of 1. Each “good” matchup counts as 1.1741, with 17.41 percentage points the median added by the collection of 9 weakest TE defenses over the past 10 seasons. A “bad” matchup counts as 0.8174, the median scoring impact for the 9 toughest TE defenses over the past 10 years.
Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas and Washington all show up on the “positive” matchup list. So it’s not surprising to find AFC North and NFC East teams dominating the top of the chart. Not only do rivals benefit from doubling the matchups with some weaklings, but those 2 divisions face each other this year. Baltimore has enough defensive talent to become a bad TE matchup, but I left them in neutral territory for this exercise.
At the other end, 2 matchups apiece with Chicago and Minnesota figure to look unattractive for T.J. Hockenson and Jace Sternberger. The Bucs, meanwhile, come out with a negative TE draw despite avoiding a Week 17 matchup at Atlanta in this chart. It’s particularly worth noting that Tampa follows a Week 13 bye with Minnesota and then a visit to the Falcons in what will be fantasy-playoff weeks for many leagues.
In case your league plays through Week 17, here is a 16-game chart …