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Fantasy Football: Breaking down strength of schedule by position - running back

Strength of schedule has traditionally been viewed as a power ranking of teams’ schedules based on their opponents' prior-year record. This method has been shown to not be very predictive of a team’s true strength of schedule (SoS). Instead, PFF harnessed the power of our grading system and its year-over-year predictability to produce an easily digestible SoS tool. The PFF Strength of Schedule Tool uses current rosters to provide a more insightful look at fantasy matchups for the coming season.

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This is the second in a series of articles breaking down strength of schedule by position. The quarterback strength of schedule breakdown can be found here. Note: The values found in the live tool are subject to change, since they’re based on current rosters and can be affected by injuries, opt-outs and trades. The values in this article will not be updated after publication.

Top 3 Overall Schedule

1. Miami Dolphins

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Jordan Howard Matt Breida Patrick Laird

At this point, it looks like Jordan Howard will be the early-down back, while Matt Breida covers most of the pass-catching work. Patrick Laird is listed as the backup in our handcuff tracker, but if Howard were to miss time for any reason, Breida would likely get the majority of the touches.

It will be almost impossible for the Dolphins to be as bad at rushing as they were last season — they ranked dead last in rushing attempts (349), rushing yards before contact (252) and rushing yards after contact (858). One bright spot is the 106 passing attempts to running backs in 2019, good for 11th in the league.

Both Howard and Breida appear to be undervalued in drafts right now, with FFPC ADPs of 98 and 102, respectively. Only three of their 15 matchups are rated below 5.8 by our model (10 being the easiest schedule). Positive regression with an easy matchup schedule bodes well.

2. Houston Texans

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
David Johnson David Johnson/Duke Johnson Duke Johnson

The Texans made a splash this offseason by trading away DeAndre Hopkins in a deal that included David Johnson. Bill O’Brien, if nothing else, seems to have confidence that Johnson will return to the form we saw in 2016 and 2018 for the Cardinals.

While the Texans have an easy season overall for running back matchups, there is definitely an early-season lean to it. The Texans get the benefit of playing the Jaguars twice — they're widely viewed as one of the weakest teams in the league. Then they have four other matchups valued at 7.7 or higher through week 11. It gets a little dicier down the stretch with the Colts twice, the Bears and the Bengals in their final four weeks.

3. Arizona Cardinals

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Kenyan Drake Kenyan Drake Chase Edmonds

The bar chart for the Cardinals isn’t really spectacular — they have only two “prime” matchups on the year. However, they don’t have a single matchup rated below 4.7, either.

Kenyan Drake will most likely be a three-down back for the Cardinals this year, looking to build on his explosive finish to 2019. Chase Edmonds has shown to be a capable stand-in should Drake miss time, but I don’t expect him to eat into Drake’s workload.

In 2019, the Cardinals were tied for the sixth-most explosive rushing plays (10-plus yards) and were second in rushing yards before contact per attempt (2.3). 

Bottom 3 Overall Schedules

1. New York Giants

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Saquon Barkley Saquon Barkley Dion Lewis

We all know Saquon Barkley is near matchup-proof — if you draft him, you’re starting him. In only 13 games last year, he still accumulated 1,441 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns.

His schedule starts tough but ends with a few decent matchups when it counts — during the fantasy playoffs. Barkley is involved enough in the passing game that he will still be a strong start but could pop off in those last few weeks.

2. Philadelphia Eagles

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Miles Sanders Miles Sanders Boston Scott

Miles Sanders truthers, look away! Just kidding, it’s really not that bad. Similar to the Giants' schedule, there are only two potentially good matchups and two potentially rough matchups — everything else is middle of the road. With that being said, Sanders doesn’t have the benefit of a good playoff schedule.

There is also still a chance that the Eagles sign another running back. We've only heard rumors so far, but after the Buccaneers signed LeSean McCoy he said the Eagles showed “plenty of interest” as well. Devonta Freeman, Lamar Miller and a few other journeymen are still looking for jobs for the 2020 season.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Clyde Edwards-Helaire Clyde Edwards-Helaire Darwin Thompson or
DeAndre Washington

Now that Damien Williams has opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns with Covid-19, the hype for Clyde Edwards-Helaire has blown through the roof. He has now vaulted into the middle of the first round in most leagues. There is still plenty of reason to like him, but his fantasy schedule is not one of them.

Early in the year, Edwards-Helaire should have no issues producing within the best offense in football, but after the Week 10 bye, things gets worse. The Chiefs play the Buccaneers, Broncos and Saints during a pivotal point of the fantasy season. If Edwards-Helaire hits a rookie wall near the end of the season, that could spell disaster for your fantasy squad.

Strong Season Starters

1. Baltimore Ravens

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Mark Ingram J.K. Dobbins J.K. Dobbins

This is more of a Mark Ingram take than a J.K. Dobbins take. I like Dobbins a lot — he is projected for just 3.5 fewer fantasy points than Ingram on the year. That being said, Ingram is the projected starter out of the gate for the Ravens.

Ingram will open the year with four matchups in a row rated 6.2 or better. The Ravens will be heavily favored in three of these games, and the fourth will likely be a high-scoring affair against the Chiefs.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Joe Mixon Joe Mixon Giovani Bernard

The Bengals have a great early schedule that peters off after their Week 9 bye. After that, they have two games against the vaunted Steelers defense — one of which is during fantasy playoffs.

Joe Mixon still projects to be a three-down back this year, as the Bengals kept their backfield mostly intact from last season. With A.J. Green back from injury — as well as rookie additions to the offense like 2020 first-overall pick Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins — the Bengals could start the year in a big way. Mixon stands to benefit with more scoring opportunities and a high involvement in the passing game.

3. New England Patriots

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Sony Michel James White Damien Harris

The Patriots have a fairly easy start to the year as far as running back matchups, although projecting who will get the most touches is definitely difficult right now. It is entirely within the range of possibilities that each of Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris and Rex Burkhead gets something in the range of six to eight touches.

There might be value in this group, but I am hesitant to burn a pick to find out. Performances from the first four weeks should give a clearer picture into the Patriots' game plan for 2020.

Tough Early Matchups

1. Denver Broncos

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Melvin Gordon Phillip Lindsay Phillip Lindsay

After Week 1, Melvin Gordon owners will probably be pretty happy with their pick. Weeks 2 and 3… maybe not as much. The Steelers were fourth in explosive rush play percentage allowed at just 9.24% last season. And the Buccaneers were just above them at 9.2%.

Both Gordon and Phillip Lindsay could be bottled up early in the year. Not to mention, we’re not even sure what the touch distribution will look like. Gordon and Lindsay were the 45th- and 43rd-graded receivers among running backs with at least 25 targets last year, respectively. Odds are that Lindsay takes more passing work, as Gordon is built to handle between-the-tackles running.

2. New York Jets

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Le’Veon Bell Le’Veon Bell Frank Gore

I think the Jets are facing my least favorite first four matchups of any team in the league. Their opponents through four weeks are the Bills, 49ers, Colts and Broncos. Not a single cakewalk among them.

I touched on Le’Veon Bell being a high-floor player in a previous article that should make him a reliable second running back for fantasy. That should come to fruition after Week 4, but his start to the season could be rough. Just hang on tight.

3. Tennessee Titans

Early Down Passing Down Handcuff
Derrick Henry None Darrynton Evans

This is another non-concern as far as the decision to draft Derrick Henry. He is a dominant man-beast who is now benefiting from an effective passing game led by Ryan Tannehill.

After Tannehill took over in Week 6, Henry sported the sixth-highest rushing grade (79.1) for the remainder of the season. In his last seven games of the 2019 season, Henry scored at least 20.6 PPR points six times.

Henry might start a little slow, like he did last season, but he is due for another huge campaign in 2020.

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