News & Analysis

The worst early-season schedules for fantasy purposes

By Daniel Kelley
Jul 26, 2019

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GREEN BAY, WI - OCTOBER 22: Aaron Jones #33 of the Green Bay Packers runs with the ball in the first quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field on October 22, 2017 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

All this week, our Jeff Ratcliffe has been evaluating the strength of schedule for each fantasy football position, looking at the strongest and weakest schedules over the season to help fantasy managers find an edge. Strength of schedule should never be the biggest deciding factor in selecting (or not selecting) a player, but it should definitely be part of the equation.

One thing to remember, though, is that it’s imprecise. Even the method used here — using PFF grading and current rosters to create a strength of schedule, rather than merely the previous year’s points allowed — can become outdated as soon as a coaching scheme changes, as soon as a big-name player gets hurt.

So the strength of schedule in the fantasy playoffs is the most important, but it is also the hardest to forecast. On the flip side, the strength of schedule in the early season is far easier to break down and, while it isn’t as important as the playoffs, it’s probably the next most important. A poor start to your season can doom your whole year; a hot start can buoy you into the playoffs.

Today, I’m looking specifically at the first four weeks of the 2019 season to find the players with the worst early-season schedules. These are players you might ding just a little in drafts because of that schedule, and also players you might be able to buy-low on if they get off to slow starts, because things get easier from there. (Check out the look at the opposite, the players with the easiest early-season schedules, as well.)

Quarterback

(Check out Jeff Ratcliffe’s look at the overall QB strength of schedule)

Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen, Miami Dolphins

(First four weeks: vs. Baltimore, vs. New England, @ Dallas, vs. LA Chargers)

Poor Rosen, man. You could argue he had the worst offensive line and one of the toughest schedules in the league in 2018 with the Cardinals, and now you could argue he has the worst offensive line and one of the toughest schedules in the league in 2019 with the Dolphins. You weren’t rostering either of these guys outside of the deepest leagues anyway. You still aren’t.

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

(First four weeks: @ Chicago, vs. Minnesota, vs. Denver, vs. Philadelphia)

Playing in a division with the Bears and Vikings is a tough road, and adding in the Broncos and Eagles over the first month just makes it worse. Rodgers is a popular bounceback quarterback after a down (for him) 2018, and I believe that will happen. If he struggles over the early portion of his schedule and his manager gets squirrelly about the veteran, pounce hard.

Running back

(Check out Jeff Ratcliffe’s look at the overall RB strength of schedule)

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

(First four weeks: @ Chicago, vs. Minnesota, vs. Denver, vs. Philadelphia)

Just like Rodgers, Jones might get off to a sluggish start to his first year as the (hopefully? Please?) workhorse back in Green Bay. Things get much better from there, including a ridiculously appealing stretch from Week 7 to Week 14, before the Packers close the fantasy playoffs against the Bears and Vikings in Weeks 15 and 16. So the season starts and ends poorly, but man, the middle, he could be a monster.

Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

(First four weeks: @ Minnesota, vs. Philadelphia, @ Indianapolis, vs. Tennessee)

People investing hard in Freeman’s chances at a 2019 bounceback won’t like his schedule, either over the full season or just the early stretch. Remember, strength of schedule is only a small part of a player’s valuation. But that small part of Freeman’s valuation doesn’t really have much in the way of appeal in 2019.

Melvin Gordon/Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

(First four weeks: vs. Indianapolis, @ Detroit, vs. Houston, @ Miami)

Between this poor schedule and the possibility of a holdout, Gordon could see his value at a low point after the season’s first month. And with Ekeler there to take some of Gordon’s workload most of the year, and the Chargers facing a tough RB schedule all year long (outside of a three-week stretch in Weeks 9-11 against Green Bay, Oakland, and Kansas City) … let’s just say it would be good for Gordon’s value if he got paid now.

Wide receiver

(Check out Jeff Ratcliffe’s look at the overall WR strength of schedule)

Corey Davis/A.J. Brown/Adam Humphries, Tennessee Titans

(First four weeks: @ Cleveland, vs. Indianapolis, @ Jacksonville, @ Atlanta)

Overall, the Titans have a reasonable schedule for receivers, but things start out poorly, including three of four games on the road and the one home game coming against the Colts’ rejuvenated defense. If you can hold out on Davis through that portion of the schedule (or trade for him after his owner gets scared), things are much easier for the Titans in the second half of the year, including the third-friendliest schedule in the fantasy playoffs, against Oakland, Houston, and New Orleans in Weeks 14-16.

T.Y. Hilton/Devin Funchess, Indianapolis Colts

(First four weeks: @ LA Chargers, @ Tennessee, vs. Atlanta, vs. Oakland)

Andrew Luck started the 2018 season cold after missing all of 2017 before kicking it into gear after Week 3 and being one of fantasy’s top quarterbacks the rest of the way. A similar stretch could happen in 2019, with the difference being the Colts’ miserable schedule holding him and his receivers back. Like Tennessee, things get much better for the Colts in the playoffs; they have the single friendliest-for-receivers schedule in Weeks 14-16, facing Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Carolina. Shocking as it may seem, trading for Devin Funchess at the end of September could be a league-winning move.

Odell Beckham Jr./Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns

(First four weeks: vs. Tennessee, @ NY Jets, vs. LA Rams, @ Baltimore)

When a game at the Jets is your breather over the first month, you know there are problems. The Browns are one of the league’s most exciting teams this season, particularly on offense, but don’t be altogether shocked if that offense is a bit underwhelming early in the year. Unlike the other teams in this section, things don’t get amazing for the Browns at any point in the schedule, though it does improve after a rocky start.

Tight end

(Check out Jeff Ratcliffe’s look at the overall TE strength of schedule)

Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers

(First four weeks: @ Chicago, vs. Minnesota, vs. Denver, vs. Philadelphia)

Could the Packers start 1-3 or worse? It’s definitely in play given the rocky schedule Green Bay faces early in the year. Things get much better for Graham’s outlook (or Jace Sternberger, if the team makes an earlier-than-expected switch) after the season’s first month, including an incredibly appealing stretch in Weeks 12-14 against San Francisco, the Giants, and Washington, but don’t be surprised if there are loud murmurs about the veteran tight end being done after September.

David Njoku, Cleveland Browns

(First four weeks: vs. Tennessee, @ NY Jets, vs. LA Rams, @ Baltimore)

Just like Njoku’s wide receiver teammates, the Browns tight end could start slow in what buzz says could be his breakout third season. Unlike his wide receiver teammates, though, the Browns schedule gets far more amenable to tight ends after that, and is one of the most appealing after Week 4. Buy low on Njoku if he starts slow this season.

Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints

(First four weeks: vs. Houston, @ LA Rams, @ Seattle, vs. Dallas)

Cook’s start as a Saint could be rocky and could put a damper on the buzz about him being the team’s best tight end since Graham left town. On the other hand, he still has Drew Brees as his quarterback. There is only so much a schedule can be used to ding a player. Cook should be fine.

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