The NFL schedule is officially out, and that means we can start analyzing matchups to unearth an edge in fantasy football. To kick off the 2021 schedule release, I’ll take a sneak peek at some winners and losers based on the favorability of the matchups — especially early in the season.
At PFF, fantasy football strength of schedule considers much more than fantasy points allowed by position from the team’s previous season. After all, many of the teams look different than their 2020 versions. We attempt to leverage each team’s current roster and use PFF player grades to determine the fantasy football strength of matchup for each skill position.
Lamar Jackson has been lights out for fantasy football in the team’s first game of the season since becoming the Baltimore Ravens starting quarterback. He’s averaged over 30 points per game in Week 1 over the past two seasons, and he’s primed to continue his streak of high-end fantasy production with the Las Vegas Raiders welcoming him to the Black Hole on Monday Night Football.
The Raiders have finished 29th in PFF coverage grade the past two seasons. They added safety Trevon Moehrig in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but he’s the only upgrade to a bottom-dwelling secondary.
After Week 1, Jackson gets matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions. The Chiefs have given Jackson issues in the past — a modest 18.8 fantasy points per game — but a high-scoring environment unlocks the potential for him to see heavy pass volume.
No team allowed more fantasy points to quarterbacks than the Lions’ D in 2020. Jackson might be leading the MVP discussion three weeks into the season.
I can’t think of a better team for Trevor Lawrence to start his NFL career against than the dumpster fire that is the Houston Texans. Without many draft picks, Houston wasn’t able to dramatically improve a defense that was PFF’s 31st-graded unit in 2020.
Sometimes fantasy managers can be hesitant to start rookie QBs in their first games as pros, but this plus-matchup gives me the utmost confidence in thrusting Lawrence into my Week 1 starting lineup.
Luckily for fantasy managers, Lawrence will draw the Houston matchup again in Week 15, which will be the first week of the fantasy playoffs in the majority of formats with the new 18-week schedule.
Everyone should make sure their leagues don’t have the playoffs set to start in Week 14 — multiple teams have byes that week.
One way or another, we are going to see fantasy production from a 49ers quarterback in 2021. The season starts extremely favorably with the Lions, Eagles, Packers, Seahawks and Cardinals before the team’s bye week. It’s rougher in the middle of the season, but by Week 11 it looks like smooth sailing.
The Jaguars, Vikings, Seahawks, Bengals, Falcons, Titans and Texans round out the team’s schedule through the fantasy playoffs in Week 17.
Assuming Trey Lance is the starter midway through the year, he’s going to deliver fantasy championships when the dust settles.
No team has an easier schedule based on Vegas odds than San Francisco, which means they are going to be oozing fantasy production all year long.
Top-5 easiest schedules for next season???? pic.twitter.com/Ae62OYpatX
— PFF (@PFF) May 13, 2021
Lawrence won’t be the only Jaguars player to benefit from the Texans matchup — their atrocious run defense should allow rookie running back Travis Etienne to hit the ground running in his first NFL action. Etienne figures to work mostly on third downs to start the year, but that will be more than enough to satisfy fantasy managers against a defense that allowed the most fantasy points to RBs in 2020.
Only Dallas allowed more rushing yards on third down than the Jags last season.
Week 2 will be tougher up against a healthy Denver front, but the easy matchups come right back with Arizona — PFF’s 30th graded run defense in 2020. Rookie Zaven Collins might have something to say about that poor ranking, but I’ll take my chances with the super explosive RB in space versus a 270-pound linebacker.
Fade Najee Harris at your own risk, folks. The rookie running back has a great opening stretch of matchups to start the year: Buffalo Bills, Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers. The first three defenses all ranked bottom-10 in PFF run-defense grade in 2020.
Najee Harris with that Bills, Raiders, Bengals, Packers schedule to start the season (all were top 12 in most fantasy points allowed to the RB position in 2020) pic.twitter.com/DkEfx1mHH2
— Michelle Magdziuk (@BallBlastEm) May 13, 2021
I have been desperately trying to find an excuse to move Nick Chubb up in the rankings, and the schedule may have just offered an outlet.
Week 1: Kansas City Chiefs (eighth-most fantasy points allowed to RBs in 2020)
Week 2: Houston Texans (most rushing yards allowed to RBs in 2020)
In Chubb’s two games versus these teams last season, he rushed for 195 yards on 32 carries (6.1 yards per attempt) and averaged just shy of 14 fantasy points per game.
These early plus matchups also make Kareem Hunt a much more reliable RB2 option.
WR D.J. MOORE, CAROLINA PANTHERS
WR ROBBY ANDERSON, CAROLINA PANTHERS
WR TERRACE MARSHALL JR., CAROLINA PANTHERS
It’s do or die for Sam Darnold and company — they have zero excuse not to be an above-average offense with a layup slate of matchups for the first half of the season. The Jets, Texans, Cowboys, Eagles, Vikings and Falcons all present defenses that ranked bottom-12 in fantasy points allowed to WRs last year.
The super sexy schedule has me more bullish on rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. I originally thought he would let fantasy managers down in Year 1, but there’s an increased opportunity for him to make an impact with favorable matchups.
I could see Marshall being a double-digit touchdown guy, as the Panthers’ biggest issue last year was red-zone efficiency. Teddy Bridgewater was the league’s lowest-graded QB inside the opponent’s 20-yard line (29.0). Marshall is PFF’s third-highest-graded rookie receiver (83.6) in the red zone based on career grades.
The case for A.J. Brown as the overall WR1 just continues to grow. The Titans will play Arizona and Seattle to start the 2021 season — two teams that lost their top cornerbacks (Shaquill Griffin, Patrick Peterson) from a season ago. His next matchup versus the Colts will pit him against Xavier Rhodes, but an aging cornerback can only do so much against a proper alpha WR.
Even if Brown has a down game, he will almost certainly follow it up with a vengeance. His next two games are against the Jets and Jaguars — two of the bottom three teams in PFF coverage grade last season.
The deck is stacked against Derek Carr to be a successful fantasy QB in 2021, especially to start the season. His first six weeks open with a juggernaut of pass defenses that boast top-10 units on paper — Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver.
Based on Vegas win totals per SharpFootball, no team has a more difficult overall schedule than the Raiders. Draft Darren Waller and nobody else from this offense. After back-to-back middling seasons, 2021 looks like the year things might bottom out completely for L.V.
My guy Daniel Jones can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to scheduling. Last season, Jones was a major fade because of his difficult opening schedule. Unfortunately, 2021 has offered a similar fate with Denver and Washington kicking things off.
Just add him off waivers before the Giants take on Atlanta in Week 3.
The tough opening slate also means we should temper expectations for Kenny Golladay from the get-go.
All signs point to Mike Davis being “the guy” to start the year in Atlanta, but he will have his work cut out for him with a brutal schedule to start the year. Three of his first five matchups are against defenses that ranked top-10 versus RBs in 2020. Four of these teams also ranked top-11 in PFF run-defense grade.
The schedule is not ideal for those of us who are Joe Mixon-truthers. The Vikings, Bears and Steelers are no one’s idea of a cakewalk at the RB position. Minnesota was horrible versus RBs last season, but their defense figures to be much improved with Danielle Hunter healthy and Michael Pierce back from his opt-out.
Still, if you can just get over the fact Mixon might stumble out of the gate, he will be well worth the wait. From Weeks 4-6 the Bengals face the Jags, Packers and Lions. That’s where we will see the RB1 fantasy production.
Maybe it’s too early to make this statement, but Zack Moss looks like a prime buy-low candidate after the first few weeks of the season. With three touch matchups against Pittsburgh, Miami and the Football Team (all top-13 run-defense grades in 2020) followed by three plus matchups against Houston, Kansas City and Tennessee, Moss seems destined to be a late-bloomer in 2021. Just be patient and reap the rewards when it matters most.
Swift will face defenses that were above average in PFF grade last season in three of his first four games. The second-year running back’s fantasy appeal stems from his receiving work, so he might escape unscathed. However, high-end upside might be out of reach if the Lions offense can’t move the ball versus formidable opponents.
Detroit’s tough schedule overall makes it critical for Swift to be uber-involved in the passing game in order to function as a low-end RB2. But whispers of Jamaal Williams — a solid pass-catcher in his own right — operating as the 1B in the backfield raise concerns.
Top-5 toughest schedules for the 2021 season ???? pic.twitter.com/ZBUga9paF4
— PFF (@PFF) May 13, 2021
As impressive as Tom Brady was last season, it did take some time to gel with his new receivers. We could see something similar play out with Matthew Stafford and his top two WRs, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. The Bears, Colts and Buccaneers hardly present easy matchups for the Rams’ passing attack early.
Those teams could make it tough for running back Cam Akers to start fast as well — all three teams ranked top-13 in fantasy points allowed to RBs in 2020. The Bucs and Bears ranked top-10 despite missing run-stuffers Vita Vea (injury) and Eddie Goldman (Covid-19 opt-out).
Do yourself a favor and avoid drafting DeVante Parker this season. As the team’s perceived No. 1 option on the outside, he’s going to draw extremely tough matchups through the first part of the season. The Patriots, Bills and Buccaneers secondaries could create serious frustrations for Parker.