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Finding 2017 Fantasy Value From 2016 Strength of Schedule

By Jared Smola 8:07am EDT 7/20/17


A simple search on the old Google machine will spit out tons of fantasy analysis on 2017 Strength of Schedule. At best, that requires somewhat accurately projecting how good every defense will be this season against each position. (Not easy.) At worst, it’s lazily using last year’s defensive numbers to make predictions for this year. (Not useful.)

What you won’t find is a look back at 2016 schedules. Who ran up against a tough slate? Who benefitted from an easy one? And how will it impact 2017 fantasy production?

Strength of schedule will tend to regress to the mean. In other words, players who faced tough schedules last year are likely to have easier roads this season. And vice versa.

So let’s look back at the 2016 data and figure out what it means for the 2017 fantasy season.


Tough Sledding: These players faced a difficult slate of opponents in 2016. With an easier schedule this coming season, their numbers could climb.


Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

This just in: Tom Brady is good at football.

After serving a 4-game suspension to begin last season, he ranked 2nd among QBs in fantasy points from Week 5 on. And he did it despite a tough schedule.

Brady faced a top-8 QB defense in 4 of his 12 games. His fantasy finishes those weeks: 11th, 3rd, 20th and 30th. The final 2 — home for Seattle and at Denver — were his only 2 TD-less outings of the season.

Brady also drew just 1 bottom-8 QB defense all year — and it came in Week 17. (He torched the Dolphins for 276 yards and 3 TDs.)

Already gifted Brandin Cooks this offseason, Brady should also benefit from an easier schedule in 2017. He’s locked in as a top 3 QB and has a fair shot to lead the position in fantasy scoring.


Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals

Dalton finished 11th among QBs in fantasy points last year despite some tough circumstances. Three of his top weapons — A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Gio Bernard — combined to miss 20 games. And he was tasked with 1 of the hardest schedules at the position.

Only 1 guy had more games against top-8 QB defenses than Dalton’s 6. Only 2 faced fewer bottom-8 units than his 3.

Dalton struggled vs. those top Ds, averaging just 16.6 fantasy points. That would have ranked 25th among QBs over the course of a full season. Dalton’s 21.7-point average in all other games would have landed him 6th.

That’s the type of upside he possesses in 2017 with what should be an easier schedule and hopefully better health from his pass-catchers.


Derek Carr, QB, Raiders

Carr faced a funky schedule last year. He opened with 3 straight games against bottom-8 QB defenses. His final 12 games featured 0 bottom-8 and 4 top-8 units.

Carr capitalized on the easy start, ranking 6th among QBs in fantasy points through 3 weeks. The rest of the way? Just 13th.

Carr mustered only 16.7 fantasy points per game against those top-8 defenses. But he averaged a nice 22.3 in 8 neutral matchups. That’s nearly a point better than he posted in those 3 plus draws.

We know Carr will have a couple of tough outings against the Broncos this season. But there’s a good chance the rest of his schedule is lighter.


Jordan Howard, RB, Bears

Howard’s massive rookie season came in spite of a difficult schedule. He faced a league-high 7 top-8 RB defenses. Six of those came from Week 4 on, when Howard served as Chicago’s workhorse.

He was super impressive in those 6 outings, averaging 18 carries, 93.5 yards (5.2 YPC) and .33 TDs per game. Howard tallied 100+ yards in 2 of those and failed to reach 77 in just 1 of them. His 15.6 PPR points per game would have ranked 8th among RBs over a full season.

Howard was more productive in his other 7 games as feature back, ripping off 17.1 PPR points per game. That included 3 matchups with bottom-8 RB defenses. Howard posted 22.9 points per game in those.

While we have some concerns about Howard’s supporting cast and pass-catching role in 2017, there’s no arguing that his rookie campaign was 1 of the best by a RB in NFL history.


Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers

Hyde last year played on the league’s 31st-ranked offense behind the league’s worst run-blocking offensive line, according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. One final kick in the groin: He faced 1 of the toughest RB schedules.

Hyde’s 13 outings featured 5 top-8 RB defenses and just 1 bottom-8 unit. His production was wacky, though. Hyde scored just 8.7 PPR points in his 1 plus matchup, averaged 15.7 in 7 neutral matchups and 15.4 against the 5 top-8 Ds. Two of his 3 biggest fantasy performances of the season came in those negative draws.

Consider that a reminder that this is a talented dude. We’ll see exactly how Hyde settles into new HC Kyle Shanahan’s offense this summer. And durability remains a concern. But there’s still big fantasy upside here, especially for a guy lasting into the 4th or 5th rounds of drafts.


Rob Kelley, RB, Redskins

Kelley’s rookie campaign was largely underwhelming. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry for the season — but just 3.2 over his final 6 games.

Note, though, that those final 6 games brought 3 top-8 RB defenses. In 9 total games as Washington’s lead back, the rookie drew 5 top-8 Ds and 0 bottom-8 units.

Now, his efficiency was flip-flopped from what you’d expect. He averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry in those tough matchups but 3.6 in the easy ones. Remove a 9-carry, 8-yard outing against the Panthers, though, and that latter mark jumps to 4.0.

We’re working with small samples here, but know that Kelley faced a stout group of run defenses over the 2nd half of last season. Fantasy drafters are betting on rookie Samaje Perine winning the starting job this year, but we’re not counting out Kelley.


T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts

Hilton torched bottom-8 WR defenses last year, averaging 20.4 PPR points per game. Only Antonio Brown averaged more over the course of 2016. Problem is, Hilton drew only 3 bottom -8 units.

He also faced 7 top-8 WR defenses — tied for most in the league. Hilton’s per-game scoring average dropped to 16.4 in those outings.

Already locked in as a solid WR1, Hilton could really explode in 2017 if he draws more weak WR defenses.


Mike Wallace, WR, Ravens

We’ve already highlighted Wallace as a value pick in 2017 fantasy drafts. Last year’s schedule is just another reason to like him.

The Ravens drew 6 top-8 WRs defenses in 2016 — tied for 3rd most. And they faced only 2 bottom-8 Ds.

Wallace averaged a decent 10.8 PPR points per game in his tough matchups. That would have left him 41st among WRs over a full season. He rocked a 13.6-point average in his other 10 outings, though. That mark would have ranked 18th for the year.

A good bet to face an easier slate of opponents this season, Wallace remains an easy buy at his WR49 ADP.


Rishard Matthews, WR, Titans

Matthews turned in a breakout 65-945-9 line in 2016, despite facing 6 top-8 WR defenses. He had little trouble against in-division opponents Houston and Jacksonville, averaging 4.5 catches, 66.3 yards and .75 TDs across 4 games. He went for 63 yards and 2 scores vs. San Diego’s 8th-ranked WR defense. Only Denver’s top-ranked unit gave him trouble, holding him to 1 catch for 26 yards.

In total, Matthews averaged an impressive 15.1 PPR points against those 6 top-8 Ds. That was actually up from his 12.3-point average in his other 10 games, which included just 2 bottom-8 defenses.

Matthews will face much more target competition this season with the arrivals of Eric Decker and Corey Davis. But don’t just assume he’ll fall to 3rd on the depth chart. His 2016 was super impressive.


Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks

Not only was Graham returning from a nasty torn patellar tendon last year, he also contended with a tough schedule. He squared off against 7 top-8 TE defenses (3rd most) and saw only 3 bottom-8 units (9th fewest). One of those easy matchups came in Week 1, when Graham was eased in and played just 17 snaps.

Three of his 6 worst PPR outings of the season came against those top-8 Ds, although he also exploded for 103 yards and 2 TDs vs. Buffalo’s 5th-ranked unit.

In his 2 plus matchups, excluding Week 1, Graham posted lines of 6-89 and 6-63-1. He finished among the top 8 TEs both weeks.

Graham figures to face an easier schedule in 2017, on top of being another year removed from that knee injury. His ceiling extends into the top 2 at his position.


Cake Walks: These players feasted on favorable schedules this past season. A tougher slate could dent their fantasy production in 2017.


Cam Newton, QB, Panthers

Newton’s 2016 campaign is more concerning when you factor in the cushy schedule he faced. Five of his 15 games came against bottom-8 QB defenses. He faced just 3 top-8 units.

Newton was schedule agnostic, though. Check out his per-game averages against tough, neutral and easy opponents:

So perhaps it won’t matter that Newton is likely to face a tougher slate in 2017. But it’s just another potential problem for a guy coming off surgery on his throwing shoulder who might see another dip in rushing production this year.


Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers

Winston raised his passing yardage, TDs and completion rate from year 1 to 2. That’s mostly natural progression from a talented 23-year-old.

But let’s also give an assist to the schedule-makers. Winston faced the 2nd fewest top-8 QB defenses (2) and the 2nd most bottom-8 units (5). He predictably struggled in those tough matchups against the Broncos and Seahawks, finishing both weeks outside the top 20 at his position.

He did his thing against the bad defenses, averaging 21.3 fantasy points. Only 7 QBs averaged more over the course of the season.

Winston was solid in his neutral matchups, posting 20.1 points per game. That full-season pace would have landed him 10th at the position.

There’s a good chance that Winston draws more top-8 QB defenses in 2017. But we also know he’ll get another 2 games against the Saints. Don’t let schedule scare you away from Winston in fantasy drafts this summer.


Latavius Murray, RB, Raiders

All things considered, Murray should have had a better 2016 season than he did. He played on the league’s #6 scoring offense behind the #11 run-blocking offensive line (according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards). AND he faced 1 of the easiest RB schedules.

Murray saw just 1 top-8 RB defense all season. He mustered only 37 yards on 10 carries against the Titans in that one, although a TD salvaged his fantasy day.

Murray drew a bottom-8 RB defense in 4 of his 14 total games. He averaged a nice 4.7 yards per carry in those. But in his 9 neutral matchups, he limped to a 3.8-yard average.

Now in Minnesota, Murray will contend with more backfield competition, a weaker offensive line — and probably a tougher schedule. He’s not an appealing fantasy target.


Julio Jones, WR, Falcons

Jones drew a bottom-8 WR defense in exactly half of his 14 games last season. And he faced only a pair of top-8 units.

His production was unaffected, though. He actually averaged more catches, yards and TDs in neutral and negative matchups than he did in those 7 plus draws. Jones was held to a 2-29 line by Denver’s top-ranked WR defense, but he went for 174 yards in his other game against a top-8 unit.

Jones will likely face more top-8 WR defenses in 2017. But he also gets 2 more games against the Saints.

Ultimately, the schedule doesn’t matter much. This guy is a stud.


Doug Baldwin, WR, Seahawks

No position group faced an easier slate last year than Seahawks WRs. They had a whopping 9 games against bottom-8 WR defenses. And Seattle was 1 of only 3 teams to draw 0 top-8 WR defenses.

Baldwin averaged just .2 more PPR points per game in those plus matchups than his neutral draws. But that’s a bit misleading.

He tallied 6.3 catches and 72.6 yards per game against bottom-8 defenses vs. 5.3 catches and 67.9 yards in all other games. His neutral-matchup scoring average was boosted by 4 TDs. But 3 of those came in 1 game vs. New England. Remove that outing and Baldwin’s PPR average drops to 13.0. That would have ranked 22nd over the course of a full season.

Baldwin is a near lock to face a tougher schedule in 2017. That’s not necessarily a death knell. But it’s another reason — on top of a likely decline from last year’s career-high 125 targets — to be wary of him at his pricey late-2nd-round ADP.


Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles

Ertz faced the easiest schedule at his position last year. His 14 games included 8 bottom-8 TE defenses (most in the league) and just 1 top-8 unit (tied for the fewest).

Ertz fared fine in that lone difficult matchup, posting a 6-35-1 line in Seattle. But he also took full advantage of the plus draws, averaging a whopping 15.3 PPR points. For comparison, Jordan Reed led all TEs with 14.2 PPR points per game on the year.

In his 5 neutral matchups, Ertz averaged 9.2 PPR points. That tally would have left him 14th at the position over the course of a full season.

Bank on Ertz facing a tougher schedule in 2017 — on top of increased target competition from Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.


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