Fantasy Football Strength of Schedule Beneficiaries: WRs
Strength of schedule shouldn’t take an outsized role in evaluating fantasy options and determining to whom you’ll latch your proverbial fake football wagon. A player’s schedule can, however, serve as a nice tiebreaker for borderline players in the later rounds.
You’re not going to downgrade a perennial elite fantasy producer because his schedule shows a block of tough matchups here and there, and rightfully so: High-end running backs and wide receivers thrive in part on volume of opportunity – a nice anecdote to a tougher-than-usual schedule.
I find 4for4’s Schedule-Adjusted Fantasy Points Allowed (aFPA) metric to be most useful when deciding which late-round players might benefit from an easy slate, and which ones face a never-ending thresher of the league’s best defenses. The SOS Hot Spots Reports work in tandem to provide at-a-glance matchup planning now and throughout the season.
The best part of 4for4’s aFPA metric, as you may know, is that it’s been adjusted so that we’re looking at an apples-to-apples comparison of how defenses perform against certain positions. Schedule bias has effectively been removed.
4for4 bossman Josh Moore has somehow improved the site’s strength of schedule offerings for 2014, creating SOS Rankings by position that show which teams (and players) face the easiest slates, and which face the toughest schedules at each position.
Below is a look at teams with the most favorable wide receiver schedules heading into 2014. I’ve left out the Bears and Packers because I doubt strength of schedule would affect their valuation in fantasy circles. I included the Saints for reasons explained below.
Remember that changes to teams’ defensive lineups are reflected in the strength of schedule tool. So while pre-season SOS is most certainly a fuzzy science, this is not based on 2013 performance alone.
New York Giants
We learned quite a bit about new Big Blue offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s offense this offseason, including its use of a mechanical approach to route running – a far cry from Kevin Gilbride’s system, which was reliant on timing routes. This, according to Giants beat writers, was especially good news for Rueben Randle, who struggled mightily in Gilbride’s option route-based system.
New York’s receivers have arguably one of the easiest schedules of any pass catchers in the NFL this season. They’ll face just two “very strong” secondaries, along with one “moderately strong” coverage unit. Giants’ receivers will also get a crack at seven very or moderately weak pass defenses.
The Giants’ passing attach won’t face an unfavorable game until Week 10 when they go to the Thunderdome that is Seattle.
Randle, who caught 41 of the 80 balls thrown his way last season, led the Giants with six touchdowns. He’s the only big receiver slated to see significant playing time in New York, as first-round pick Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jerrel Jernigan make hay underneath. I think the strength of schedule tool, while not making a big difference for a volume guy like Victor Cruz, makes a decent case for Randle and company as options that could very well be more reliable than once thought.
They’re the (self proclaimed) worst receiving corps in the NFL after losing the aged Steve Smith, who scored about as many fantasy points per snap in 2013 (.22) as Jarius Wright. I think the narrative here should be that Carolina’s receivers were bad in 2013 and look to be less-than-great once again in 2014.
The upshot: Carolina receivers square off against six very weak secondaries this season (including W17), the most of any receiving group in the league. They only face one nightmare matchup – Week 8 against the Seahawks – and two moderately unfavorable matchups. Fully four of their final seven games look like very favorable matchups for wide receivers. You could hardly ask for more.
Kelvin Benjamin could be the winner here, as he could see No. 1 receiver type volume with Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood competing for snaps. Smith averaged 119 targets per season as the Panthers’ No. 1 option during Cam Newton’s time under center, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Benjamin – or whoever emerges as the primary receiver – will see more than 100 looks in 2014.
Carolina’s offensive production will be occasionally stifled by the team’s top-end defense and conservative offensive approach. Still, I think the team’s receivers will benefit from an easy schedule, and Benjamin – the 52nd receiver off the board – could pay nice dividends.
Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline get the softest schedule of any starting receiver duo in the league. Only a dozen receivers were targeted more than Wallace during his first (mostly terrible) season in Miami, and Hartline racked up a cool 127 targets on the other side – more than Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson, amazingly.
Yes, Dolphins’ pass catchers will have to go toe-to-toe with Darrell Revis and Brandon Browner twice this season – including Week 1 – but Hartline and Wallace will get their crack at seven moderately weak or very weak coverage units.
Wallace, on an anecdotal level, has demonstrated a renewed sense of work ethic in his second offseason in South Beach. Coaches are impressed, he’s working more with Ryan Tannehill before and after practice, and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor says he’s committed to moving the speedster around the formation to make Wallace’s usage less predictable.
Miami’s schedule couldn’t be better for Wallace and Hartline.
New Orleans Saints
The rich always get richer, as we know, and fantasy football doesn’t seem to waver from that logic very often. The Saints’ aerial attack faces off against two very strong opponents against receivers, along with half a dozen very weak or moderately weak matchups.
New Orleans pass catchers do, in fact, face a brutal stretch from Week 8-13 that includes a pair of very strong opponents – Carolina twice – and two moderately strong opponents in Cincinnati and San Francisco. Other than that, Saints’ receivers have what we like to call a cake schedule. With extra icing.
This doesn’t impact Jimmy Graham’s value all that much, but it should be a factor in evaluating a guy like Kenny Stills. It’s Stills, as John Paulsen pointed out, who posted the NFL’s highest fantasy points per target, netting 1.88 points every time Drew Brees tossed him the ball. Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, who saw a combined 22.8 percent of the team’s targets in 2013, are no longer in the Crescent City. Stills is in line to absorb a considerable number of that target volume.
4for4 is 26 spots higher on Stills than the consensus averaged draft position of 121 overall.
Probably Stills won’t be an every-week plug-and-play guy as much of his appeal lies in the long ball. The extraordinarily favorable receiver schedule should play a factor in whether or not you decide to invest in Stills as a late rounder with upside that could put him near top-24 receiver territory.
New York Jets
When is a back-to-back top-10 fantasy receiver no longer a top-10 fantasy receiver? When he leaves the confines of Peyton’s Perfect Machine.
Fantasy owners mostly hated Eric Decker – for reasons I’ll never understand -- as he served up buckets full of fantasy equity in 2012 and 2013, and the Decker hate has reached untold levels as he prepares for his first season as a Jet.
Geno Smith’s fantasy numbers won’t be mistaken for Manning’s any time soon, but remember that Geno – as a rookie who really wasn’t meant to play – posted 23.8 fantasy points in eight New York wins, and carved up bottom-half secondaries to the tune of 18.8 points per game.
It’s cherry picking, I know, but it shows that under the right circumstances – not coming from behind, and not against top-flight pass defenses – Smith is a viable passer.
Gang Green’s 2014 opponents give up 21.9 standard fantasy points per game against wide receivers. Jets’ receivers face just one moderately tough pass defense during the first half of the season. Decker will see 100 targets if he falls out of bed on Sunday mornings; I think his mostly squishy schedule could be a boon for his value as New York’s No. 1 receiver.
New England Patriots
Julian Edelman, the 2013 PPR cheat code who saw a whopping 146 targets last year – two fewer than Megatron – could once again be the lead dog if Rob Gronkowski serves his annual stint on the IR. Aaron Dobson, who looked to be the default No. 1 Patriots receiver until he wasn’t, could also take full advantage of a schedule that includes even moderately or very favorable matchups.
Edelman and/or Dobson could have a big-time middle of the 2014 season, as New England faces some of the most generous pass coverage units the NFL has to offer.
Vikings receivers, from Week 4-9, face one of the most favorable stretches of any receiving group in the NFL this year. Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and company see four very favorable matchups during that span.
If Patterson is going to be a top-15 receiver – as he’s being drafted today – he’s going to do so in a decidedly nontraditional way, with screen passes and all-around dink-and-dunk yards after the catch production. Maybe that means schedule doesn’t matter as much to his value.
Jennings notched an average of 12.1 fantasy points per game with Matt Cassel at the helm in Minnesota in 2013. The team’s starting signal caller is yet to be decided, but I imagine Teddy Bridgewater can’t be much worse than prototypical journeyman Cassel.
Minnesota’s easy schedule for receivers is just another reason to invest in Jennings with one of your final picks in 2014 drafts.