A quick start in fantasy football is crucial — the faster you assemble a winning record, the easier it is for you to position yourself for success later in the year.
In 2014, two data scientists from Automated Insights, the firm that creates computer-generated draft report cards for Yahoo’s fantasy football leagues, found that a Week 1 win put your playoff chances at 61.9 percent in a 12-team league, while half of those squads make the postseason. Their research also found that teams starting 3-0 made the playoffs 84.8 percent of the time, while winless teams after Week 3 had just a 15.5 percent chance. Go 4-0 and your playoff chances skyrocket to 91.6 percent.
Even high-stakes players are emphasizing strength of schedule, giving further credence to its use in selecting the best overall roster.
To figure out which players are up against the easiest and most difficult strength of schedules, I took the weighted average of fantasy points allowed in point-per-reception, or PPR, leagues over the past three seasons and broke those down further by a player’s position on the depth chart, isolating performance against a team’s top two running backs, top three wide receivers, No. 1 tight end and starting quarterback.
Overall, the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens have the easiest schedules in 2017, with Seattle and Carolina’s running backs getting a break in the first half of the season. As do the wide receivers and starting quarterback on Minnesota, giving the Vikings some fantasy gems for the early going of the 2017 fantasy football season.
Here are five players being drafted among the top 50 who could be the best bargains based on the early matchups of 2017, and five more that have their work cut out for them. A higher ranking in strength of schedule equals a better opportunity for more fantasy points in PPR leagues, with the No. 1 defense projected to allow the most and No. 32 allowing the least PPR points in 2017.
Helped by schedules
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals, first-half schedule rank: 5th
It’s hard to call Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick in mock drafts, a draft bargain, but if you are looking for another reason to lock him in with the top overall pick, consider he led the league in touches last season (373) and gets to start his 2017 campaign against the Detroit Lions (23rd against the run in 2016), Indianapolis Colts (32nd), San Francisco 49ers (31st) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24th) over the first seven weeks of the season.
And during those first seven weeks leading into the bye, only three — the Cowboys (22 percent), Eagles (24 percent) and Rams (29 percent) — stopped opposing running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage at an above average rate (19 percent).
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers, 3rd
McCaffrey isn’t the top running back on the team’s depth chart but the 5-foot-11, 202-pound player out of Stanford had over 1,900 total yards of offense in consecutive seasons as a dual rushing and receiving threat, scoring a minimum of 13 touchdowns in both 2015 and 2016.
Among the first eight NFL defenses he will face in 2017, five ranked in the bottom 10 per Football Outsiders against the run last season, with four of those five in the bottom 10 at defending running backs in the passing game.
Sam Bradford, QB; Stefon Diggs, WR; Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings, 2nd
It isn’t often a quarterback-wide receiver-tight end trio all provide fantasy value early in the season, but the Vikings play the season opener against the New Orleans Saints, the fourth-worst passing defense in the NFL last season, and face the Detroit Lions (32nd), Green Bay Packers (22nd) and the Cleveland Browns (30th) in the first half of the season.
Hurt by schedules
Dak Prescott, QB; Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys, 23rd
Prescott was named offensive rookie of the year last season after completing 68 percent of his passes for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns against four interceptions. Bryant caught 50 of those passes for 796 yards and eight touchdowns over 13 games. But this year they have to get though the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals in the first three weeks of the season. In the two games against the Giants last season, Bryant was targeted 13 times but held to two receptions for 18 yards. Prescott, meanwhile, had a 58.6 passer rating in those games. Denver and Arizona are two of the best pass defenses in the NFL, making it unlikely this duo shines in the early part of the season.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers, 32nd
Hyde had a solid season in 2016 — 217 carries for 988 yards (4.55 yards per carry) and six touchdowns and 27 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns — but will once again be the featured back on a team projected to finish well below .500, giving him fewer opportunities to run with the ball. And that’s in addition to having to go up against the Carolina Panthers (3.9 yards allowed per carry in 2016, ninth-best), Seattle (league-low 3.4 yards allowed per carry in 2016), Los Angeles Rams (league-high 29 percent stuff rate by defensive line), Arizona (sixth-highest stuff rate), Dallas Cowboys (eighth-highest stuff rate) and Philadelphia Eagles (third-highest stuff rate) during the first few weeks of the 2017 season.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Oakland Raiders, 31st
Lynch came out of retirement to play for the Raiders this season, but not only is he past his prime — he turned 31 years old in April — he has to navigate through three of last year’s top 10 defensive lines during the first eight weeks of the season with a revolving door at right tackle on Oakland’s own offensive line.
And as good as the Raiders’ offensive line was, the team still struggled in the power game, with just 59 percent of runs on third or fourth down of two yards or less to go achieving a first down or touchdown — the 23rd-lowest rate in the league last year.
Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers, 29th
Injury risk aside — he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Week 1 last year and was limited to eight games in 2015 due to a lacerated kidney — Allen has a brutal schedule in the first half of the season.
The 2017 opener is against the Denver Broncos, whose two cornerbacks, Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, allowed the second (0.66) and fourth (0.74) fewest yards per snap, respectively, in coverage last season. And he will have to play against them again in Week 7. In between those contests lurks the Kansas City Chiefs (seventh-best pass defense in 2016), New York Giants (second-best) and the Philadelphia Eagles (fourth-best).