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 62 percent in a 12-team league in which half of the squads make the postseason. Their research also found that teams winless after Week 3 have just a 16 percent chance to make the playoffs, while teams that begin 4-0 make the playoffs 92 percent of the time. Thus, targeting players with soft early-season schedules can offer a huge edge.
You should also factor in potential opponents toward the end of the year, particularly in Weeks 15 and 16, when most leagues hold their postseasons. Having players who enjoy a soft projected schedule in those weeks could make it easier to claim bragging rights for the rest of the year.
To determine the difficulty of a team’s projected strength of schedule, we can look at a few factors, including the team’s projected wins for 2020, how good their opponents are (via Pro Football Focus’s secondary, defensive line and linebacker preseason rankings) plus any relevant roster changes for the upcoming season. These are then averaged to come up with a simple ranking on a week-to-week basis.
For example, the New York Giants face a very difficult set of run defenses during the first 10 weeks of the season. New York will also have to navigate some stellar pass defenses during that time, and has tricky matchups during Weeks 15 and 16, when the fantasy football playoffs are in full swing.
The Los Angeles Chargers, on the other hand, have one of the easiest projected schedules during the fantasy football regular season. It does get harder during the playoffs, but you could always switch out Chargers players via trade or free agency as the season progresses.
The red numbers below show projected difficult matchups, while the green numbers represent projected softer opponents.
For more, check out our annual Perfect Draft, which gives an idea of how to build an above-average roster, and our 2020 projections, which are the basis for much of our fantasy content. You can also consult our beginner’s guide, which charts out the first three picks for every draft slot. Our fantasy cheat sheet should offer everything you need to feel prepared entering your draft. And here’s an explanation for why Christian McCaffrey should be the top overall pick, along with the rest of the top projected picks.
Now for some specific players to target or avoid based on projected strength of schedule. The average draft positions listed below are from Fantasy Football Calculator as of Aug. 24.
Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas Raiders (1.10 ADP)
Jacobs wasn’t a key contributor to the Raiders’ passing game in 2019 (just two targets per game), but he should have an easy time running the ball in 2020. The Raiders start the season against the Carolina Panthers, a team that is expected to have the fourth-worst defensive line this year, per Pro Football Focus, and play the New England Patriots (25th) and Buffalo Bills (20th) a few games later. Those two are projected to be below average against the run, too.
In Week 16, Las Vegas will play the Miami Dolphins, who are projected to have a terrible defensive line (30th) and linebacking corps (29th).
Marquise Brown, WR, Baltimore Ravens (6.04 ADP)
Brown caught 46 of 71 passes for 584 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie last season and, according to Yahoo’s Matt Harmon, he was one of the best at defeating man coverage (83rd percentile). This year, he and the Ravens face four below-average secondaries during the first five weeks of the season: Houston (projected 25th in 2020, per PFF) in Week 2, Kansas City (23rd) in Week 3, Washington (28th) in Week 4 and Cincinnati (17th) in Week 5. He will also face two terrible secondaries in the fantasy playoffs: Jacksonville (29th) in Week 15 and the New York Giants (27th) in Week 16.
Mitch Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears (undrafted)
The former first-round pick hasn’t had an easy time as a pro but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a contributor to your fantasy squad. Trubisky will have a host of weapons at his disposal, assuming he keeps the starting job. Wideout Allen Robinson, slot receiver Anthony Miller, tight end Jimmy Graham plus running backs David Montgomery (once he recovers from a groin injury) and Tarik Cohen are all fantasy viable. The Bears will face below-average defensive lines and secondaries during five of the first six weeks of the season, which should help keep the pass pressure off Trubisky or Nick Foles. Chicago’s second half of the season, especially during the playoffs, also includes several weaker defensive fronts.
At the very least, Trubisky (or Foles) is worth keeping in mind as an injury or bye-week replacement during those easy weeks.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys (1.05 ADP)
Elliott is a high first-round fantasy pick who won’t see many weeks on the bench. He’s expected to be one of the first five players selected and will be an every-week starter in virtually every league. But there are some potential pitfalls. In Weeks 7 through 9, he and the Cowboys will face three of the best defensive lines in football, per Pro Football Focus: Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He will face the Washington Football Team again in Week 12.
During the fantasy playoffs, Dallas will face the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia again, a hellacious two-game stretch that could keep the star running back from making much of an impact. Only the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts face a more difficult schedule during the fantasy playoffs than Dallas.
It’s also worth noting that running backs peak between 22 and 26 years old, with most of their best performances occurring at the age of 24. Elliott turned 25 in July.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo Bills (6.03 ADP)
The Bills caught a break when New England quarterback Tom Brady left the division, but the schedule-makers didn’t do Buffalo’s fantasy stars any favors. Buffalo will face teams with top 10 secondaries seven times — Weeks 3, 5, 8, 9, 12, 14 and 16 — and quarterback Josh Allen will have to line up against top 10 defensive lines in Weeks 12 through 15. That’s bad news for Diggs. Allen saw his completion rate drop from 65 percent in clean pockets to 42 percent under pass pressure with a decrease of more than a yard per attempt. Diggs is also coming off a career low catch rate on balls thrown on target (80 percent). The league average was 87 percent last season.
Daniel Jones, QB New York Giants (11.05 ADP)
The sophomore slump is coming for the New York Giants quarterback. Jones will have to navigate the toughest schedule for a passer this season. The Giants will face a top 10 defensive line nine times this season — all before its bye in Week 11 — with four of those games coming in the first four weeks of the season.
New York will also face the Baltimore Ravens, projected to be the top secondary of 2020, in Week 16, meaning its hard to imagine using Jones in the fantasy final.