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Soft Early Season Schedules for Fantasy Football - 2023 Strength of Schedule Analysis

Anthony Richardson - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL News

Draft season is in full swing in redraft fantasy football leagues. The shortened preseason is over and we breathe a sigh of relief as many of our favorite players made it through training camp and the preseason live action unscathed. Some did not. Many in the fantasy football space have spent all off-season preparing (and more importantly striving to prepare you) for draft day, the first chapter of the 2023 fantasy season. The number of different and intertwined draft strategies increases every year, but one of the evergreen points of emphasis is focusing on the fantasy strength of schedule (SOS).

In this article, I will present my projected strengths of schedule across the fantasy skill positions, with a focus on the early part of the season. Once a new season gets its legs, weekly fantasy matchups can be analyzed using fresh data. After the first month of the season, we’ll have a good idea of which teams are tougher or easier matchups for the skill positions. But until we have those weeks of real-time results, we need to use a combination of the previous season’s results and various future predictions to project the difficulty of a fantasy player’s schedule, much like projecting individual player statistics and fantasy scoring. A player’s strength of schedule should not be the sole reason you choose to draft or not draft that player. But it should be a piece of the puzzle. It can be a good tiebreaker if you are deciding between two players.

By projecting matchup difficulties now and also breaking the season down into different time frames (e.g. early, middle, late, and fantasy playoffs), it also allows you to strategize for potential trade attempts. Consider a player who has a favorable early-season schedule followed by a brutal later-season schedule. You might be able to reap the rewards of both the fantasy points and the subsequent value increase, then trade that player for someone who has a better later-season schedule. And vice versa. You can keep your eyes on a talented player who underwhelms through a tough early season schedule and make a play for them before their schedule opens up. We’ll start by looking at my season-long projections including some insight into what data I used. Then we’ll look at the teams with the softest early-season fantasy schedules.

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Projected Fantasy Football Strength of Schedule (SOS) Process

Fantasy matchups are something I’ve spent a lot of time on over the last two years. During the season I compile game log data for every game to arrive at raw fantasy points allowed to each position as soon as possible each week. The goal is to have the results available before waivers so matchup strength can be factored into those decisions. Plenty of sites provide fantasy points allowed data. I choose to do it myself so I can rearrange and reorganize in ways I think are helpful. Raw points allowed are helpful but don’t tell the full story. It’s important to dig a little deeper and look at points allowed relative to a team’s average.

For example, if Team A gives up 20 fantasy points to Patrick Mahomes and Team B gives up the same number of points to Baker Mayfield, raw fantasy points allowed would show Team A and B having the same matchup difficulty versus QBs. Using “Points Over Average (POA)” paints a more accurate picture. Let’s say Mahomes has averaged 26 points per game and Mayfield has averaged 15 points per game. Using POA, Team A held Mahomes six points under his average (a POA of -6) while Team B allowed Mayfield to score five points above his average (a POA of +5). Through this lens, these two teams are far from an equal matchup difficulty. This turns raw fantasy points allowed to an “opponent-adjusted” fantasy points allowed.

The other angle I add once the weeks add up is recency. A team’s season-long average points allowed can look different than over a more recent stretch of games. Defenses improve or regress for a variety of reasons. Players get injured or return from injury, coaches adjust their schemes and game plans (on both sides of the ball), and, more qualitatively, players and teams “figure it out.” Neither season-long nor recent data sets are definitive, but it’s important to look at both when trying to increase the probability of making the right future decisions.

These are the two existing data sets in my process for preseason projections of fantasy strength of schedule:

  1. Previous season's POA rank (season-long).
  2. Previous season's POA over the team’s last five games.

Stopping there doesn’t account for the impact of changes made during the off-season. If we could simply use previous season results to predict what will happen the next season, fantasy football would be a lot easier (and less fun). For the future prediction piece of the process, I use Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades for team defensive lines, linebackers, and secondaries. These grades are added to the equation in the following way:

  • Versus QB: Defensive line and secondary grades.
  • Versus WRs: Secondary grades.
  • Versus RB: Defensive line and linebacker grades.
  • Versus TE: Linebacker and secondary grades.

 

2023 Season-Long Fantasy SOS

I generated tables showing each team’s full season schedule with each weekly opponent color-coded based on their projected rank (1-32) versus the fantasy skill positions. Lower number ranks with a red color indicate tougher matchups. Higher number ranks with a green color represent easier matchups.

Also included are each team’s season-long SOS, which is the average of their opponents’ ranks in Weeks 1-17.

As described above, the projected ranks are based on:

  • 2022 POA season-long rank
  • 2022 POA rank over the last five games
  • 2023 PFF grades for defensive lines, linebackers, and secondaries

Softest Early Season Schedules – Process

In separating the full season into “early, mid, and late” time frames, I define each as follows:

  • Early Season: Week 1-4
  • Mid-Season: Weeks 5-9
  • Late Season: Weeks 11-14
  • Fantasy Playoffs: Weeks 15-17
    • Fantasy playoff weeks do vary, with some starting in Week 14, but since the NFL season added a 17th game most playoffs start (or at least should start) in Week 15 to avoid the Week 14 byes being included in the Fantasy Playoffs.

Here I will be looking mostly at the Early Season schedule and the teams with the Top 10 easiest matchups for QBs, WRs, RBs, RBs (PFR), TEs, and DSTs. I will be looking at Late Season and Fantasy Playoffs in a future article.

My process for determining the Top 10 easiest Early Season schedules for each team/position group is the same as season-long. I average the opponents' ranks in Weeks 1-4 for each team, and the ten highest averages comprise the Top 10.

The new angle I am experimenting with in this article is further breaking those Top 10 teams down, as I noticed that some of the “easy schedules” that are initially determined by average projected rank tend to include an additional characteristic, which I am calling:

  1. Top-Heavy schedule: A mixture of bottom-ranked opponents with one Top 10 matchup. This could also be called “Extreme Matchups.” In this scenario, there may be one week where you are hesitant or at least need to curb expectations, but outside of that, the probability of ceiling games for your fantasy players on those teams is higher. I mentioned this is experimental. I developed my own formula for determining Top-Heavy schedules. I remove each team’s most difficult matchup from the average rank. I then averaged the remaining three ranks. From there I added the difference between 32 (easiest rank) and the new average of the team’s three easiest ranks. This is then filtered from highest to lowest to show the Top-Heavy SOS score and rank. The purpose here is to remove the impact of the one difficult matchup on the overall average while also accounting for just how easy the easier matchups are. The bigger the difference between 32 and the average of the team’s easiest three matchups, the lower the score, because that difference is being subtracted.

I wanted to see if doing this breakdown showed any significant deviation from the score arrived at by simply averaging the ranks of the first four opponents. And I know we cannot simply ignore difficult matchups, but I would rather take my potential lumps with one brutal matchup if it means the chances are higher that the other three opponents could be week-winning matchups. The results? As you will see, the order the teams fall in using the Top-Heavy SOS score is very close to the order generated by averaging the rank of the four opponents, with some notable exceptions.

Soft Early Season Schedules – QBs

The following chart shows the teams with the Top 10 easiest Early Season schedules for QBs according to my SOS projection process, along with the rest of the teams from 11 to 32. This is just a condensed version of the color-coded charts shown for the season-long, sorted by the SOS score in the right-hand column (average opponent rank in Weeks 1-4).

This lets you visualize the schedules as we move into the sub-categories.

The following chart shows each team’s matchup rank (color-coded) in Weeks 1 through 4, followed by the average rank and Top-Heavy score.

The Colts check in with the easiest Early Season schedule for the QB position measured by Top-Heavy SOS. The Colts fit the Top-Heavy schedule criteria, with one Top 10 matchup and three matchups ranked 27th or worse versus QBs. This is ideal for rookie QB Anthony Richardson to have one of the softest landings possible. Week 3 will be an early test for Richardson. After two favorable matchups against the Jaguars and Texans, the Colts will head to Baltimore in Week 3.

The 49ers rank first if looking at the average rank of their first four opponents (“First 4 SOS” in the table). They tick down to third-best matchups with the Top-Heavy view with two opponents in the Top 20. But with dream QB matchups in Week 2 and 4, they are the only team in the Top 10 with two opponents ranked 30th or worse.

The Chargers rank eighth when sorted by the average rank of the first four opponents, which is largely due to their Week 1 matchup with a stout Dolphins defense. But they jump up to fourth in the Top-Heavy SOS. The Chargers are the best example in the Early Season of why I like the Top-Heavy ranking system. Miami’s projected third-toughest rank versus fantasy QBs pulls the four-team average down, but their schedule outside of that matchup is one of the best. And their brutal matchup is in Week 1 when really anything can happen.

What goes up must come down. Knowing the best Early Season schedules is important, but it is also important to know the worst. Here are the Top 10 toughest Early Season schedules for the fantasy QB position. I did not incorporate the Top-Heavy approach here, so the order is determined by the average rank of the first four opponents.

Soft Early Season Schedules – WRs

As shown with QBs, the following chart shows the teams with the Top 10 easiest Early Season schedules for WR according to my SOS projection process, along with the rest of the teams from 11 to 32.

The following chart shows each team’s matchup rank (color-coded) in Weeks 1 through 4, followed by the average rank and Top-Heavy score.

Not surprisingly, the Top 10 list for WR is the same as for QB, just in a different order.

The Chargers moved from eighth to fourth with QB schedule when looking at Top-Heavy SOS. With the WR position, they move from third to the easiest Early Season schedule. Much like the Colts with QB matchups, it is the Chargers with three matchups ranked 27th or worse versus WRs. Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams should feast early in the season.

The Saints and Falcons have two of the easiest real NFL schedules, and that remains the case in fantasy football. Chris Olave could make his early mark as a WR1 (Top 12) over the first four weeks, and other exciting offenses like the Seahawks and Jaguars should put up a lot of fantasy points. Along with the aforementioned soft schedule for Richardson, the other two top rookie QBs, Bryce Young and CJ Stroud, also fall into this soft schedule group versus both the QB and WR positions.

Here are the Top 10 toughest Early Season schedules for the fantasy QB position.

Soft Early Season Schedules – RBs

The following chart shows the teams with the Top 10 easiest Early Season schedules for RB, along with the rest of the teams from 11 to 32.

The following chart shows each team’s matchup rank (color-coded) in Weeks 1 through 4, followed by the average rank and Top-Heavy score.

Miles Sanders has been a polarizing RB, but he faces the easiest opening schedule for RBs. It will be fun watching the Lions’ running game materialize with the fifth-easiest Early-season schedule. The David Montgomery-Jahmyr Gibbs split has been one of the more interesting discussions this offseason, and we should have a good indication of whether they both can thrive after the first month.

The Falcons are interesting because they have a Top 10 schedule across all fantasy positions other than DST. It should be noted that many of these teams are on most of the lists, which is typical when projecting SOS in the preseason. Without in-season data, it is easier for a defense projected as “bad” to look that way across the board, to where the teams with more of these relatively “bad” opponents will look good regardless of the skill position.

The RBs face the toughest Week 1 opponents (on average) of the position groups, with the Chiefs, Lions, and 49ers all facing Top 10 ranked opponents.

Here are the Top 10 toughest Early Season schedules for the fantasy RB position.

Soft Early Season Schedules – TEs

The following chart shows the teams with the Top 10 easiest Early Season schedules for TE, along with the rest of the teams from 11 to 32.

The following chart shows each team’s matchup rank (color-coded) in Weeks 1 through 4, followed by the average rank and Top-Heavy score.

The Saints have the easiest Early Season schedule for the TE position, adding extra support to the sleeper value of Juwan Johnson as a later-round target if you miss out on the top guys in your draft.

Bengals’ TE Irv Smith Jr. seems like an afterthought at this point (I was very high on him way back when), but he will have a chance to prove us all wrong with the second-easiest early-season schedule. Evan Engram is one of my favorite TE values this year, as he is one of few TEs ranked outside the Top 5 who does have a path to that status. TEs take longer to develop and enter their “prime” than any other position, and Engram is a highly athletic, former first-round TE in an offense that will be throwing a lot. The one obstacle in Engram’s way will be schedule. While the Jaguars have a relatively easy Early Season schedule, mostly due to favorable matchups in Weeks 3 and 4, looking past the first four games, the Jaguars have a tough TE schedule the rest of the season. I will be looking at middle, late, and playoff schedules in my next article.

Here are the Top 10 toughest Early Season schedules for the fantasy TE position.

Soft Early Season Schedules – Defense/Special Teams (DST)

The following chart shows the teams with the Top 10 easiest Early Season schedules for DST, along with the rest of the teams from 11 to 32.

The following chart shows each team’s matchup rank (color-coded) in Weeks 1 through 4, followed by the average rank and Top-Heavy score.

One of my favorite in-season, regular activities as a fantasy manager is streaming DSTs. I love looking ahead at matchups and picking up DSTs preemptively when my roster construction allows it. I gladly watch my league mates reach for the best NFL defenses, like the Eagles or 49ers, while I grab depth at the WR and RB positions. I then pick one of the teams with a great Week 1 matchup in the last few rounds. This year that target for me is the Commanders, with a Week 1 home game versus the Cardinals.

The Commanders did not make the Top 10 for Early Season DST schedules, which is why I would then pivot to a different streamer in Week 2. I have not deep-dived on which strategy is more effective, I just know the top-scoring fantasy DSTs look different year over year, so I am not spending draft capital on a DST as it would also pin me down to that DST because I would not want to drop them when their inevitable brutal matchups hit.

The Saints are another under-the-radar DST with a great Week 1 matchup and better season-long SOS scores as well. When I am streaming with DSTs, I am not only looking for one good matchup. The Saints start with three favorable matchups in the first four games. The other good Week 1 streamers that may not have been drafted are the Jaguars and the Bengals, with the second-easiest and easiest Week 1 opponents, respectively.

Here are the Top 10 toughest Early Season schedules for DST.

Thank you so much for reading! I love diving deep into the data in search of statistics and combinations of statistics that can help you make the best decisions possible in the maze of fantasy football decisions. If you have any questions about this article or general questions about fantasy football, reach out to me on Twitter (@MunderDifflinFF).



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Luther Burden - College, NCAA, Draft, Prospects, CFB, Missouri

2025 NFL Draft - Early Wide Receiver Prospect Rankings

Heading into 2023, everybody knew that Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers, and Rome Odunze made up the top of a heavy wide receiver class. That held true, and all three studs heard their names called in the top-10 selections. Looking ahead to next season, two receivers have cemented themselves ahead of the rest of the... Read More


Rico Dowdle - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, Waiver Wire Pickups

Five Fantasy Football Running Back Deep Sleepers for 2024

One of the best parts of playing fantasy football is finding potential sleepers in your draft. The second you hear a league mate exclaim “Who?!” immediately after your pick, you know you’ve done something right. Due to the natural fragility of the position, it's even more important if you can find sleepers at running back.... Read More


Sneaky QB1 Candidates? 2024 Fantasy Football Quarterback Sleepers

The NFL season is right around the corner, which means that fantasy football drafts will soon take place. Drafting your fantasy team is one of the most exciting times for managers. But it also is one of the most stressful times, especially when making certain decisions like when is the best time to draft a... Read More


Video: Undervalued Wide Receivers? 2024 Fantasy Football Sleepers and Draft Steals

We're preparing for football around the clock here at RotoBaller! With early 2024 best ball drafts already underway, we're evaluating fantasy football's most impactful players. NFL Network contributor and RotoBaller analyst LaQuan Jones digs into the potential impact of fantasy football options in 2024. Are these wide receivers being undervalued? Check out some of our... Read More


UFL DFS PICKS, FANTASY FOOTBALL, DRAFTKINGS, FANDUEL

UFL DFS Value Plays: Championship Game Bargain Bin for DraftKings Including Anthony McFarland, C.J. Marable, More

Welcome to the Championship Game edition of RotoBaller's UFL DFS Bargain Bin, where the goal is to touch on some potentially mispriced players in DraftKings' Conference Championships UFL contests. Each week during the UFL 2024 season and postseason, I’ll give you my thoughts on where there may be some value spots to exploit for DraftKings'... Read More


Garrett Wilson - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, Waiver Wire Pickups - rotoballer icon

Five Fantasy Football Players You Must Have in 2024 Dynasty Startup Drafts

Dynasty has quickly become my favorite format and is easily my preferred way to play fantasy football. When you partake in a startup draft, you are locked into your team for the long haul, strapped into the roller coaster of ups and downs that your particular roster construction is fated for. Dynasty is a bit... Read More