The NFL offseason has reached it’s latest milestone thanks to the league’s decision to release the full 2019-20 regular season schedule.
While this new information allows fans to begin planning their tailgates, the true beneficiaries are fantasy football players: We can finally start estimating which teams and position groups might have an especially easy beginning, middle and end of the season.
Let’s start by looking at what the 2019 schedule means for the various defenses.
2019 NFL Defenses & Year-Over-Year Changes
Of course, next season’s defenses won’t exactly resemble what fans saw during the 2018-19 season.
Nine teams hired new defensive coordinators. Those squads are the Cardinals (ex-Broncos HC Vance Joseph), Bears (ex-Colts HC Chuck Pagano), Bengals (ex-Giants DB coach Lou Anarumo), Browns (ex-Cardinals HC Steve Wilks), Broncos (ex-Bears DB coach Ed Donatell), Chiefs (ex-Giants DC Steve Spagnuolo), Dolphins (ex-Packers LB coach Patrick Graham), Jets (ex-Browns DC Gregg Williams) and Bucs (ex-Jets HC Todd Bowles).
And the NFL has eliminated blindside blocks. Specifically, a blindside block “is a foul if a player initiates a block in which he is moving toward or parallel to his own end line and makes forcible contact to his opponent with his helmet, forearm, or shoulder.”
This rule could theoretically lead to better defensive performance thanks to the defender’s easier path to tracking down ball carries.
There are still a number of defensive playmakers unsigned, particularly on the defensive line. Former Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Chiefs safety Eric Bery, Browns linebacker Jamie Collins and Eagles defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan highlight the league’s remaining pool of viable defensive free agents.
Several teams made defensive splash signings that could change their unit’s outlook next season.
My top-five marquee signings in no particular order are the Lions inking former Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers, the Jets scooping up former Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, the Redskins signing former Giants safety Landon Collins, the Ravens signing former Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and the Raiders picking up former Rams safety LaMarcus Joyner.
Keep in mind that certain defenses have historically thrived inside the friendly confines of their own stadiums, so it’ll be important to consider home/away splits in addition to matchups throughout the season.
Best defenses at home in the NFL over the past five seasons:
1. Chiefs (16.5 PPG allowed)
2. Patriots (17.5)
3. Ravens (18)
4. Vikings (18.3)
5. Texans (18.9)
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) April 2, 2019
With all that in mind we can now take a look at the easiest and hardest schedules for each position group to identify potential early-season targets as well as waiver wire adds who could blow up in the playoffs.
The following charts feature each team’s respective remaining opponents’ rank in fantasy points allowed (DraftKings scoring) to that position per game during the 2018 season.
Fantasy Football Strength of Schedule for Quarterbacks
Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen and Ben Roethlisberger have the easiest first month of matchups among all quarterbacks.
Dak Prescott in particular is an intriguing fantasy option in 2019, as he’s demonstrated high-level consistency thanks to his elite rushing ability in the Cowboys’ ever-evolving passing offense.
Only three players have been a top-10 fantasy quarterback in each of the past three seasons:
Dak Prescott 👀
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) April 16, 2019
Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson are also set up fairly well during the first month of the season, while Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Fitzpatrick stand out as the quarterbacks with the toughest opening stretch.
The middle of the season (Weeks 5-13) shapes up a bit differently. Overall, the Cardinals eventual starting quarterback (Kyler Murray?) as well as Nick Foles in Jacksonville, Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan look like the league’s best bets to find themselves in plus matchups during October and November.
Meanwhile, Eli Manning’s remains, Matthew Stafford, Joe Flacco in Denver and Patrick Mahomes appear to have the toughest mid-season stretch. (Future Mahomes fantasy owners can disregard this warning.)
We have a while till the fantasy playoffs roll around, but Andrew Luck, Jimmy GQ, Fitzpatrick, Manning’s body, Marcus Mariota and Andy Dalton appear to have the most advantageous schedules for Weeks 14-16.
But Derek Carr, Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes have the toughest schedules for the fantasy playoffs. Again, this probably isn’t anything to worry about for Mahomes or Rodgers. Also, it seems unlikely that fantasy teams built around Carr will have much to worry about in December.
43 quarterbacks have started at least 16 games since 2014.
Derek Carr's career stats and ranks among this group …
Yards per attempt: 6.69 (38th)
Completion rate: 62.8% (28th)
TD rate: 4.4% (26th)
INT rate: 1.9% (12th)
QB Rating: 88.8 (26th)
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 10, 2019
The Saints and Raiders are the league’s only defenses that are bottom-12 in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks in each of the past five seasons. The Browns and 49ers are the only other defenses to rank bottom-12 in each of the past three years.
Last year’s five worst fantasy defenses against quarterbacks (in order): Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers, Bengals and Chiefs.
Fantasy Football Strength of Schedule for Running Backs
Running backs with the best opening season schedule include Mark Ingram with the Ravens, Kerryon Johnson and the rest of the Lions backs, Tevin Coleman and company in San Francisco, James Conner, the Bills’ elderly backfield and generational talent Saquon Barkley.
NFL leader in broken tackles by year (PFF):
2010: Adrian Peterson
2011: Michael Turner
2013: Marshawn Lynch
2015: Doug Martin
2016: David Johnson
2017: Kareem Hunt
2018: Saquon Barkley 👑 pic.twitter.com/5KViwCiAGn
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) April 2, 2019
Meanwhile, Damien Williams, Lamar Miller, Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman along with Nick Chubb could have a tough time getting things going during their respective tough September schedules.
The middle of the season could feature fantasy-friendly stretches for Conner, David Johnson, Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray in New Orleans, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis as well as (crosses fingers) hopefully just Aaron Jones in Green Bay.
Nobody has too brutal of a mid-season schedule at running back, although it looks like Barkley, Marlon Mack, Joe Mixon and the Lions backs could have the toughest paths to fantasy glory in October and November.
The Patriots easily boast the league’s friendliest fantasy playoff schedule with cozy matchups against the Chiefs, Bengals and Bills — three of the league’s bottom-eight defenses against fantasy running backs in 2018.
Leonard Fournette, Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage, Conner, Christian McCaffrey, Chubb and Barkley also have cozy postseason schedules, while the Titans, Packers and Bills all have tougher end-of-season stretches.
The Steelers and Ravens stand above the rest of the league in terms of how friendly their schedules are for their running backs. Both Conner and Ingram appear to be on their way to securing three-down roles for the 2019 season.
Current RBs in the AFC that *should* have a three-down workload come Week 1 are …
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 25, 2019
The Falcons, Dolphins and Bengals are the only three defenses to rank among the league’s bottom-eight units in fantasy points allowed to running backs over the past five seasons (in point-per-reception scoring).
Last year’s five worst fantasy defenses against running backs (in order): Bengals, Cardinals, Chiefs, Falcons and Buccaneers.
Fantasy Football Strength of Schedule for Wide Receivers
The Rams, Vikings, Eagles and 49ers stand out as the offenses with the best wide receiver matchups in September. It’ll be particularly interesting to see how much better the Eagles will be with elite field-stretcher DeSean Jackson added to the fold.
QB yards per attempt with vs. without DeSean Jackson #SpeedKills
Donovan McNabb: 7.44 Y/A with vs. 7.02 Y/A without
Mike Vick: 7.79 vs. 6.44
Nick Foles: 8.13 vs. 6.58
Kirk Cousins: 8.42 vs. 7.53
Jameis Winston: 7.81 vs. 7.7
Ryan Fitzpatrick: 7.91 vs. 6.68 pic.twitter.com/1G0kGf6Lbm
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 11, 2019
The Raiders, Chargers, Dolphins and Chiefs have the toughest opening stretch of games when it comes to facing elite secondaries. Mahomes and company shouldn’t be doubted, but September matchups against the Jaguars, Raiders (lol), Ravens and Lions (meh) shouldn’t be completely scoffed at.
Wide receivers poised to thrive in Weeks 5-13 include those on the Panthers, Cardinals, Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers. It remains to be seen what Arizona will look like in Kliff Kingsbury’s pass-happy Air Raid offense, but there might be enough targets to allow both Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk to thrive.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) April 10, 2019
For Weeks 5-13, the Chiefs again have an unfortunate string of matchups for their wide receivers. Other offenses with fantasy-unfriendly wide receiver matchups in October and November include the Titans, Steelers, Texans and Broncos.
T.Y. Hilton and the Colts receivers easily have the best potential stretch run for the fantasy playoffs with matchups against the Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers in Weeks 14-16. Wide receivers for the 49ers, Cowboys, Redskins, Giants and Texans also are set up particularly well in December.
On the other hand, the Browns, Raiders, Buccaneers and Chargers stand out as offenses that could have a rough time passing the ball in the winter.
The Eagles, Buccaneers and Saints are the only three defenses among the league’s bottom-eight units in PPR points allowed to wide receivers over the past five seasons.
Last year’s five worst fantasy defenses against wide receivers (in order): Saints, Jets, Packers, Eagles and Falcons.
Fantasy Football Strength of Schedule for Tight Ends
With tight ends, there’s more disparity in workload within the position relative to other skill players, so their strengths of schedule aren’t as impactful. Still, George Kittle, Hunter Henry, Jared Cook (now on the Saints) and Delanie Walker appear to be set up well for a strong September. The Raiders and Jaguars also boast plus matchups for their tight ends (whoever they may be).
The Packers, Eagles, Patriots and Bengals aren’t so lucky: They have the least fantasy-friendly schedules at the tight end position in Weeks 1-4.
The Steelers, Texans, Colts, Ravens, Packers and Titans boast the best midseason schedule for tight ends. Vance McDonald in Pittsburgh is particularly intriguing, given the targets that have been freed up in the offense with the departure of wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Ben Roethlisberger adjusted yards per attempt to tight ends during his career (min. 10 targets):
1. Vance McDonald (8.54) 👀
Ladarius Green (8.21)
Heath Miller (7.88)
Matt Spaeth (7.42)
Xavier Grimble (7.34)
Jesse James (7.22)
David Johnson (7.14)
David Paulson (6.5) pic.twitter.com/heGjJ4fnvE
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 31, 2019
Tight ends from the Giants, Eagles, Panthers, Cowboys and Buccaneers have the toughest matchups in October and November. Zach Ertz will probably get enough volume to overcome his schedule, although the addition of D-Jax and an increased workload for second-year tight end Dallas Goedert could feasibly lead to reduced target share for Ertz in 2019.
The Broncos, Buccaneers, Bears, Patriots and Bengals stand out as the offenses with the most fantasy-friendly December schedules for their tight ends. The opposite is true for the Redskins, Packers, Giants, Ravens and Steelers.
The Colts, Giants and Raiders are the only three defenses among the league’s bottom-eight units in PPR points allowed to tight ends over the past five seasons.
Last year’s five worst fantasy defenses against tight ends (in order): Chiefs, Bengals, Colts, Texans and Browns.
Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports
Pictured: James Conner