Strength of Schedule Fantasy Studs & Duds
One of the great tools at FFToolbox is the strength of schedule chart. I used it recently to identify some players at each position who will face the best and worst opposing defenses this season. Here are some of the highlights.
Note: The parenthetical numbers refer to a player's ease of schedule among those at his position.
Bears QB Jay Cutler (4th)
Cutler averaged 16 fantasy points in 10 full games last season. Now he's the unquestioned starter in Chicago, and he gets to face the below-average pass defenses of the NFC North; Detroit ranked 23rd, Green Bay ranked 24th, and Minnesota ranked 31st last season. Those teams represent six of Cutler's regular-season opponents. With elite options at receiver and a strong running game to support the passing attack, Cutler has a chance to greatly improve upon his 2013 stat line. (Editor's note: FFToolbox ranked Cutler fifth heading into the 2014 season. We foresee a great season for him.)
Redskins QB Robert Griffin III (1st)
Griffin will face some of the weakest pass defenses in the NFL, including juicy matchups against the Eagles and the Cowboys in Weeks 16 and 17, when many fantasy championships are decided. However, he'll also have to face the tough defenses of the NFC West - 49ers, Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks. But with new Redskins WR DeSean Jackson joining Griffin in head coach Jay Gruden's aggressive scheme, the third-year QB should be able to return to his rookie-year form.
Cowboys QB Tony Romo (30th)
Romo has been bandied by some fantasy analysts as a potential sleeper in 2014. He had a top-10 finish in fantasy points last year, and his team hired former Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, in whose passing attack Lions QB Matthew Stafford flourished as a top-five QB for a few years. But the strength of schedule chart states that Romo won't have it easy. Like Griffin, Romo will have to run the brutal NFC West gauntlet. He also draws the better-than-expected passing defenses of the AFC South, including Houston. The Texans ranked 3rd overall against the pass last year.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan (27th)
Ryan is widely expected to post a bounce-back performance after a very difficult 2013. But he'll try to do so in one of the toughest divisions in football, the NFC South. With six games against the Saints, Bucs, and Panthers, Ryan has a tough road to hoe to get back to his previous form. His fantasy-playoffs schedule is particularly tough, featuring matchups against the Steelers, Saints and Panthers, all of whom were top-10 pass defenses last season.
Lions QB Matthew Stafford (6th)
In addition to playing in the pass-vulnerable NFC North, Stafford draws the AFC East this year for four of his games. That includes the middling defenses of the Patriots, Jets, and Dolphins. The Packers made some offseason moves to improve their defense, including the addition of DE Julius Peppers, and re-signing shutdown CB Sam Shields. But still, Stafford shouldn't face too much resistance in his division as he seeks a return to top-five status.
Broncos RB Montee Ball (29th)
Ball appears to have the Broncos' starting gig locked down. But the job that allowed Knowshon Moreno to become the fifth-best fantasy RB in 2013 will not be quite so easy. The Broncos benefited from one of the easiest schedules in the NFL last year. This year, they will face the NFC West, a common theme on this list. That division consists of four of the top 10 defenses from last season. It won't be a cakewalk for Ball in 2014.
Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell (31st)
Bell finished as the 15th-best fantasy running back in 2013 despite playing in just 13 games. With a tougher schedule on the docket for 2014, Bell might be at risk of regression. He'll face the stout Bengals run defense twice in the fantasy playoffs and will also draw tough matchups against the second-ranked Panthers (Week 3) and the third-ranked Jets (Week 10).
Texans RB Arian Foster (3rd)
Fantasy owners are down on Foster this year, drafting the formerly elite RB outside the top 10. But Foster averaged double-digit points in the six full games he played last year, and some of them were against very tough run defenses, including the Seahawks and 49ers. Foster has one of the easiest rushing schedules in the NFL as he gets to face the Colts, Jaguars, and Titans twice each. Those two Jacksonville games come in Weeks 14 and 17, just in time for the fantasy playoffs.
Eagles RB LeSean McCoy (4th)
McCoy is already being taken as a stud RB1. But in case any of you needed any more convincing that he's one of the best picks this year, take a look at his schedule. His first two games are against the Jaguars and the Colts. He also gets the 27th-ranked Cowboys in Weeks 13 and 15. He'll have some tough games against the NFC West, but overall, the deck is stacked in McCoy's favor.
Colts RB Trent Richardson (1st)
Richardson has the easiest schedule of any starting RB. He gets two games each against the Titans, Texans, and Jaguars. He faces just three top-ten run defenses all year. His slate during the fantasy playoffs is particularly tempting, with games against four teams that ranked in the bottom half of the league last season. If Richardson can't perform with a schedule this easy, he's not cut out to be a starter in the NFL.
Steelers WR Antonio Brown (28th)
Brown will face some of the toughest coverage in the NFL in 2014. He'll be up against elite talent in the form of Browns CB Joe Haden and Ravens CB Jimmy Smith twice, and Jets CB Dee Milliner in Week 10. Brown averaged 8.1 fantasy points per game and scored just once when matched up against those players in 2013. He also faces the Bengals' stingy pass defense twice during the fantasy playoffs.
Bengals WR A.J. Green (30th)
Like Brown, Green faces four divisional games against top cornerbacks Haden and Smith. Haden in particular has Green's number, limiting the star WR to five total fantasy points in two games last season. Green's run in the fantasy playoffs is especially tough: In the final four weeks of the season, he faces the seventh-ranked Steelers pass defense along with the Browns, and the Broncos, whose secondary now includes CB Aqib Talib.
Packers WR Randall Cobb & Jordy Nelson (4th)
The NFC North is home to some of the NFL's most dangerous offensive threats, including Cobb and Nelson, which contributes to the division's collectively low pass-defense rating. Simply, the coverage just isn't very good. This duo has a tough start to the season against the Seahawks and Jets. But things look very smooth after the Packers' Week 9 bye with just one game against a top-10 pass defense on the schedule.
Bears WRs Brandon Marshall & WR Alshon Jeffery (3rd)
And here's another NFC North receiving duo. Marshall and Jeffery look set to continue their winning ways in 2014 with some of the best matchups of any receiving corps. They play seven games against teams that allowed at least 30 receiving touchdowns in 2013. Both of these guys have high-end WR1 potential.
Falcons WRs Julio Jones & Roddy White (26th)
The Falcons have an uphill battle as they try to return to respectability this season. The NFC South is tough on opposing receivers with the Saints and Panthers ranking in the top six of the NFL's best pass defenses. Furthermore, the Falcons have games against the Bengals, Browns, and Ravens, each of whom allowed fewer than 250 receiving yards per game in 2013.
Eagles TE Zach Ertz (3rd)
Ertz will face the Cowboys, Redskins, and Giants in six of his regular-season games. Each of those teams allowed at least 7 fantasy points per game to tight ends in 2013. Plus, Ertz gets matchups against the Cardinals and Jaguars, who each finished in the top three in most fantasy points allowed to TEs. Ertz is coming off draft boards as the 11th tight end. With this schedule, he's a strong value pick at that spot.
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski (28th)
Not only will Gronkowski have to overcome health concerns in 2014, he'll also encounter one of the most difficult slates for any tight end. Tough matchups for Gronk include the Chiefs, Lions, Colts, Bengals, and Chargers, and the Bills twice. Each of those teams ranked in the top ten of least fantasy points allowed per game to tight ends last year.