2021 QB Strength of Schedule
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This is my 4th year putting together the QB strength-of-schedule outlook, and I try to refine the process a little bit more each time. The primary goal, of course, is to single out some defenses that appear likely to provide strongly positive or strongly negative matchups for fantasy QBs.
The biggest challenge: There’s not much in the way of sticky year-to-year stats.
What does that mean? I have yet to locate an individual statistical category from 1 season that clearly points to what’s likely to happen the following year.
The overall group of QB defenses sees many teams moving way up or way down the rankings from year to year. There are good real-life defenses that prove average-to-poor in allowing QB fantasy points. There are weak defenses that limit QB scoring. And there are defenses that play the pass tough but look like favorable QB matchups because of the rushing numbers.
Take last year’s Broncos, for example. Denver allowed the 12th most fantasy points to QBs, despite tying for the 2nd-fewest TD passes allowed (21). The key: The Broncos tied the Chargers in allowing a league-high 8 QB rushing scores. That included a pair in the Taysom Hill-Kendall Hinton Showdown, 1 from Chad Henne in Week 7 and Sam Darnold’s 46-yard TD jaunt on a Thursday night in Week 4.
That sure looks to me like bad luck more than bad defense. And we’ll get back to the Broncos later in this article.
For now, let’s get a little further into the process.
Over the past few seasons, I’ve realized that teasing out passing fantasy points makes the most sense for achieving our goal here. We can drill down a little further, though, to passing fantasy points per attempt to get an even better read on who was better or worse at limiting QBs.
Take Seattle: The Seahawks allowed the 6th most fantasy points to QBs in 2020. Even if we take away rushing, they still yielded the 9th most passing fantasy points. But at 674 attempts, Seattle faced 46 more passes than any other team in the league. On a per-attempt basis, the Seahawks actually ranked as the 5th stingiest QB defense.
Does that shift Seattle from being a pass defense we want to target to a unit we should avoid in 2021? Not necessarily. We’ll get to the picks for easy and tough matchups in a few minutes.
Before we get there, here’s a table of where 2020 defenses ranked in fantasy points allowed to QBs, passing points allowed and passing points allowed per attempt (higher ranking = more points allowed):
As you can see, there aren’t always huge differences in where a defense ranks by category. But sometimes there are, and that makes these variations worth noting. At the least, it gives us another aspect to consider in gleaning the best and worst matchups.
Because no single area -- or even combination of categories -- has yet revealed itself as an indicator for the next season’s results, I’m still looking at a range of factors in trying to make educated guesses at which matchups will be worth targeting or avoiding in the season to come.
The Best and Worst Matchups
I don’t expect to ever be perfect in picking out the best and worst defensive matchups for the coming season. Last year’s selections seemed to fare pretty well, though.
Here are the 6 defenses I marked as “positive” matchups, along with their final ranking in most passing fantasy points allowed:
Atlanta Falcons: 2nd
Carolina Panthers: 14th
Cincinnati Bengals: 11th
Detroit Lions: 1st
Las Vegas Raiders: 7th
New York Giants: 24th
Five of the 6 finished as bottom-half scoring defenses. Three ranked among the 7 most favorable matchups for passing points. Only 1 turned into a negative matchup, and the Giants still ranked just 22nd in Football Outsiders’ pass-defense DVOA. So I don’t feel too bad about that “miss.”
Now for the 6 defenses I marked as “negative” in 2020:
Baltimore Ravens: 28th
Buffalo Bills: 25th
Chicago Bears: 15th
Minnesota Vikings: 8th
New England Patriots: 29th
Pittsburgh Steelers: 30th
The Vikings went from perennially tough matchup to doormat last year. But they also lost DE Danielle Hunter for the season to a neck injury, OLB Anthony Barr for the season in Week 2 and MLB Eric Kendricks for the final 5 games -- among other issues. I’m not ready to bet on them for a full rebound in 2021, but don’t count on them being a pushover once again.
Now let’s get to what really matters: the defenses to target or avoid for 2021.
In alphabetical order ...
The Falcons finally climbed higher than 20th in overall defensive DVOA last season for the 1st time since 2012 -- all the way to 14th. And their #19 finish in pass defense marked an improvement as well. Perhaps importing Dean Pees to serve as DC on the new coaching staff continues that ascent. But this defense features a pass rush with little upside and a young secondary that can generously be described as unproven. Atlanta has finished 3 straight seasons among the 9 worst defenses in passing fantasy points allowed per attempt. I’ll start worrying about this matchup when the Falcons prove worthy of that.
Cincinnati has “topped” Atlanta by ranking among the 7 worst in per-attempt points allowed each of the past 3 years. The Bengals started their latest defensive overhaul by letting their top pass rusher (DE Carl Lawson) and top corner (William Jackson III) walk in free agency. We’ll see whether they improved by replacing them with Trey Hendrickson and Chidobe Awuzie, respectively.
A new coaching staff for 2021 might help, but there’s nowhere to go but up for a defense that has gotten progressively worse over the past 3 years. As you probably noticed in the chart above, that culminated in last year’s Lions providing the friendliest passing matchup for fantasy QBs.
Will anything go right for the Texans this year? Don’t bet on this particular area turning around. Houston has checked in bottom 8 league wide in passing points allowed per attempt 2 straight years and 4 of the past 5 seasons. It has also ranked 25th or worse in pass-defense DVOA 5 of the past 6 years. I don’t know about you, but I’m not betting that J.J. Watt was the thing holding them back. (He’s now gone to Arizona.)
It hasn’t been that long since this looked like a formidable defense on the rise. Of course, centerpieces such as CB Jalen Ramsey and DL Calais Campbell have moved on and so -- for now at least -- has defensive success in Jacksonville. Last year’s Jags ranked 31st in both pass-defense and overall DVOA. That followed rankings of 22nd and 29th the year before. The pass rush continues to look iffy at best, after posting the league’s 5th-worst pressure rate in 2020. Jacksonville did pay up for CB Shaq Griffin and S Rayshawn Jenkins in free agency. But will that be enough to turn things around … under 1st-time DC Joe Cullen?
Las Vegas Raiders
The past 4 seasons have found the Raiders ranking 7th, 4th, 8th and 9th worst in total passing fantasy points allowed. Adding CB Casey Hayward (after the Chargers cut him) and drafting S Trevon Moehrig in Round 2 should help. Vegas also signed DE Yannick Ngakoue in free agency in hopes of upgrading the pass rush. Will all that significantly alter the passing matchup for our fantasy QBs? We’ll see.
Also in alphabetical order …
Despite plenty of changes in personnel and coaching staff, Baltimore has finished 6 straight seasons among the top 10 in pass-defense DVOA.
Including their aforementioned 2020 efforts, the Broncos have now finished 4 straight seasons among the top 15 in pass-defense DVOA. They checked in 11th last season. That was without lead pass rusher Von Miller, who returns from his ankle injury. Bradley Chubb was around but now has a full season between him and the ACL tear of 2019. Denver added CBs Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency and then drafted Patrick Surtain II 9th overall. So CB Bryce Callahan goes from being their top cover guy to maybe the #4 corner. Of course, it’s worth remembering that all this defensive talent plays under HC Vic Fangio, who spent 19 years as a DC across 5 franchises before landing the Denver head job.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams lost their DC when Brandon Staley moved across town to lead the Chargers this offseason. But their #4 finish in pass-defense DVOA last season marked the 4th straight time L.A. has landed among the top 10. That predated Staley’s arrival. This was the toughest QB defense in the league last year, as well as the stingiest overall in points and yards allowed.
New England Patriots
Did last year mark decline or a temporary dip for the Patriots defense. After leading the NFL in pass-defense DVOA in 2019, the Pats fell to 18th. (Blame Tom Brady.) Even so, they still held QBs to the 4th-fewest passing fantasy points. New England did prove less efficient on a per-attempt basis, but they look prepared to continue with a slower-paced offense that would cut down on the number of plays. The Patriots also added edge pieces -- Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy -- in free agency, as well as DB Jalen Mills. J.C. Jackson and Kyle Dugger look like maturing upside players as well.
These guys look like about as big a lock as the Ravens for this category. Pittsburgh has ranked 1st and 3rd in pass-defense DVOA the past 2 years. The most significant loss from last year’s top-shelf defense looks like OLB Bud Dupree, and they already got a preview of life without him after Dupree tore an ACL in Week 12 last season.
Washington Football Team
This squad has actually ranked among the 3 stingiest QB defenses 2 of the past 3 seasons. Last year found Washington ranking #2 in pass-defense DVOA, the unit’s 3rd top-11 finish in that category in 4 years. Washington let CB Ronald Darby walk in free agency but paid up for William Jackson III to replace him. The Football Team also gets S Landon Collins back after he lost the final 9 contests to an Achilles’ tear.
What scoring impact will we see from the best and worst matchups? I took the past 6 seasons of passing fantasy points allowed, calculated the median for each season and compared each spot, 1-32, to that year’s median. That gives us the impact for each matchup on a QB’s scoring vs. league-median defense.
Example: Last year’s worst QB defense, Detroit, came out to 128.44%. So the Lions added 28.44% to QB scoring.
I got those numbers for each year and then averaged the 6 seasons. Below, you’ll find the resulting average scoring impact for each spot in the rankings …
Now it’s time to put all those pieces together and see how they might help us in 2021. Before we get to the schedule, though, let me reiterate that this is far from scientific. I might be wrong about half or more of these defenses. We might very well have a positive 2021 matchup -- or 2 -- hidden among the “negative” picks. And nothing you read below should force big changes to your QB rankings or drafting.
Consider this a potential tiebreaker between QBs, or an assistant for deciding which QBs to pair on your fantasy roster.
Now the full schedule with positive and negative matchups marked:
The chart below counts up the positive, negative and neutral weeks. The “16-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 1.153. That’s the average impact from the bottom-8 defenses in the chart above.
The negative matchups get a value of 0.829. That represents the average negative impact of the top 8 defenses from our 6-year average.
(And we’re starting with the 16-game version to cut out Week 18, the new end of the regular season.)
Last year’s table listed the Buccaneers, Chargers and Saints among the top 5 in favorable QB schedules.
As you can see, the 49ers, Patriots and Rams lead the way, mostly by avoiding our “negative” matchups. (New England, however, could see their “Factor” change significantly if Miami’s defense continues to trend upward and/or Buffalo proves tough on QB scoring.)
On the other end, Justin Herbert and Baker Mayfield tie for most matchups with our “negative” group. Mayfield’s schedule looks especially challenging late, with both Baltimore matchups sandwiching a Week 13 bye, and then a Week 17 trip to Pittsburgh. His positive home date with Cincinnati also doesn’t come until the last week of the regular season -- missing most fantasy schedules.
Herbert’s schedule at least appears to lighten later in the year. A home matchup with Denver in Week 17 looks like the biggest challenge among his final 6 contests. And the only 2 road trips among his final 5 for most fantasy schedules will take Herbert to Cincinnati and Houston.
If your league plays through the end of the regular season, then here’s your chart: