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This article is an examination of the usefulness of strength of schedule analysis in fantasy football. To get there however, we first have to take a hard look at something else.

That something else is the Buffalo Bills. Defensive performance is very difficult to predict year to year, and below I'll dive into this further.

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Just How Unpredictable Are Defenses Year to Year?

It should not come as much of a surprise to say that the Bills were not a good football team in 2015. While their offense took the step forward that fans have been hoping for the last decade, the defense under Rex Ryan oscillated between decidedly mediocre and downright bad. By the season’s end the Bills would rank 19th in total yards allowed and 15th in points allowed. In terms of fantasy points, they would earn a double digit finish only four times all season, with eight games with less than 5 fantasy points.

A down season for the Bills defense came as a surprise with solid personnel along with renowned blitzing guru, Rex Ryan. ESPN analysts thought so highly of the Bills that they ranked them as the number two defense in all of football. They were not alone in this regard. CBS' Jamey Eisenberg called the Bills’ defense “a dominant unit with Ryan now in charge...[noting that] they were actually the No. 1 Fantasy DST in standard leagues in 2014, finishing one point ahead of the Seahawks.” He concluded that players “should plan on drafting the Bills DST right after the Seahawks come off the board in all formats.”

I don't say this to criticize ESPN or Eisenberg, I say this because it speaks to how truly unpredictable the game of football is. The Bills defense should have been good. They were dominant in 2014. What’s more, they’d brought in a defensive minded head coach in Rex Ryan. With the talent they had on their roster, Buffalo should have been a tough matchup for other teams, and yet they weren’t.

It’s worth noting, that the Bills weren’t the only team the fantasy community swung and missed on last year. In terms of points per game, Carolina was the fourth best defense in all of football last year. They would rank 15th on ESPN's predraft rankings. Kansas City was the second best fantasy football defense last year. ESPN ranked them 18th, behind the Cleveland Browns and the SF 49ers. The once in a generation Broncos defense that would carry the team to a Superbowl win? They didn’t make ESPN’s top 5.

The point of all this is to illustrate a very simple point: fantasy analysts aren’t good at predicting how well a defense will play before the season starts. It makes a lot of sense when you consider the example of Jamal Charles. After eight NFL seasons, we have a pretty good idea of who Charles is as a player by now. Even still between questions about how he’ll perform coming back from last year’s injury, how much gas he has left in the tank at age 29, whether or not he’ll be able to stay healthy going forward, and how much the Chiefs plan to rest him in favor of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, there’s a lot we don’t know. The sheer amount of uncertainty surrounding Charles has been enough to even push him down into the second round of drafts. Now consider that most teams will carry about 26 defensive players on their roster throughout the season, many with much less game tape to watch than Charles. Predicting how those 26 different players will preform, not just individually, but as a unit, is a mind-boggling challenge in itself. Doing so for all 32 teams and then comparing the results in an effective way? It’s not surprising analysts get things wrong as often as they do.

Once you accept the basic unreliability of defensive predictions, however, there are a lot of other predictions that you have to take with a very large grain of salt. That brings us full circle to strength of schedule evaluations. You hear a lot about them during the offseason. How many analysts have you heard advocate taking Adrian Peterson over Todd Gurley for reasons which include strength of schedule? After all, the Rams having the 3rd hardest schedule in the NFL by last year’s win percentage while the Vikings have the 18th. Not everyone uses last year’s win percentage of course. Some people prefer to quote Vegas odds, others have custom strength of schedule rankings which incorporate offseason moves, injuries, coaching changes, and any number of other things.

In the end, it doesn’t matter much. Any prediction that relies on strength of schedule has a fundamentally flawed foundation. It’s this kind of poor wishful thinking that leads to wasting a draft pick on the Buffalo Bills defense in 2015. There are any number of legitimate reasons to take Peterson over Gurley in your drafts this year. However, Gurley having to face Seattle in week two is not one of them. As much as we’d like to think that we do, we simply don’t know what that means in August.

 

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