In my Rotoworld strength of schedule (SOS) series I will examine methods used to understand the 2017 landscape for teams. I’ve attempted to pioneer a more educated analysis of SOS because the current method is the least efficient possible. The established method looks only at prior-year win percentage with zero context and measures those rates against current-year opponents. The Parcells-ism “you are what your record says you are” is true only as it relates to making the playoffs in that particular season. It is not a method of forecasting.
Measuring 2017 SOS based on 2016 records is lazy, inaccurate and inefficient. But like most things in the NFL, it was an accepted method from the past, and there is a reluctance to shift away from established thought processes, regardless of the low-intelligence level such processes reflect. I’ve built my foundation on questioning tradition and employing more efficient means of making NFL decisions.
At my in-season analytical-thought website (SharpFootballAnalysis.com) I attack the NFL from an analytical perspective, often using contrarian thinking to find edges. I also developed a free stats website (SharpFootballStats.com) which uses advanced analytics and a visual graphical representation to allow users to customize, visualize, process and retain information unlike anything they’ve seen before.
When it comes to SOS, using in-season data produces a more effective measure of opponents as opposed to pre-season projections. But most NFL media don’t see it that way. They will chime in a lot between now and September with wrongly-calculated SOS. And then during the season, you won’t hear them ever discuss schedule strength. I’ve produced some of the most useful SOS metrics for both understanding performance year to date as well as predicting future capabilities based on schedule.
This article, the first in a multi-part series, will focus on 2017 Offensive SOS Predictions for each team. Each team section first will discuss SOS for the passing offense following by a discussion of SOS for rushing offenses. The analysis hinges on an understanding of the team’s ranking across various defensive metrics accumulated by the end of last season, with minor adjustments. As we are focusing on the strengths of opposing pass and run defenses, it's notable that the correlation between one year and the next for run defense is 0.46 and for pass defense it is 0.35. Those are fairly moderate relationships considering all of the moving parts. Obviously, some teams correlate stronger year over year than others. Teams with consistent coaches and more returning players should have a correlation much higher. Teams who fire coaches or try to get rich quick in free agency may have a weaker correlation to prior-year results.
We can see the success of this technique by looking at last season’s article I wrote for Rotoworld. Last year, the Cowboys' offense was forecast to have the easiest schedule in the NFL. They produced the 2nd most efficient offensive numbers of the season per my custom analytic Early Down Success Rate (EDSR) and finished with the 2nd best record in the NFL (13-3). Of the 7 teams I forecasted to have the easiest offensive schedules, 5 made the playoffs.
I pegged the 49ers with the most difficult 2016 offensive schedule, and they won only 2 games for the 2nd worst record in the NFL behind a 30th rated finish in EDSR offense. However, some teams were able to exert their will and win despite tough schedules. The best example is the team which led 28-3 with minutes to go in the 3rd quarter of the Super Bowl: the Falcons. I pegged them with the 2nd hardest schedule to start the season. That wasn’t wrong: they ended up with the 2nd hardest schedule based on actual 2016 year-end metrics. But they were able to “rise up” over the course of the season and dominate a ridiculously tough schedule.
I also projected the easiest and hardest starts to the season for the opening 6 weeks. The 5 teams I projected with the easiest offensive start went 22-12 (65%) over their first 6 weeks and none produced a losing record. (Those same teams went 36-25, 59% the rest of the season). The 5 teams I projected with the most difficult offensive starts went 10-19 (34%) over the first 6 weeks and only 1 team produced a winning record in the first 6 weeks. (Those same teams went 23-27, 46% the rest of the season).
These metrics are accurate with the context that I am predicting performance 4.5 months before Week 1. That said, this is far from anything more than a reference tool to review now and revisit later in the offseason. It should be one of many elements considered when trying to understand the landscape of the 2017 NFL season from an offensive perspective.
5 Easiest Offensive Schedules:
1. Carolina Panthers
The Super Bowl runners-up from 2015 slumped in 2016, finishing 6-10 and in last place in the NFC South which they dominated the prior season. This was in large part due to an offense which finished bottom 8 in EDSR, offensive efficiency and pass protection efficiency versus a 1st place schedule. As a result in 2017, they get the last place schedule and all the goodness it entails.
And the difference is measurable. They face the 3rd easiest schedule of pass defenses after facing the 6th hardest in 2016. That’s the largest drop-off in pass defense difficulty for any team. The passing offense which was so tame last year due to a battered and gun-shy Cam Newton will enjoy facing the 24th rated pass rushes this year. The Panthers’ pass offense should start fast, with its first 5 games coming against pass defenses cumulatively ranked bottom 12 -- including Nos. 32, 29 and 28 -- by far the easiest pass defense schedule for any team through the first 5 weeks. A lull from Weeks 6-10 should be expected, as the Panthers face their toughest stretch of pass defenses, ranking as the 5th hardest stretch for any team those weeks. The key to late season recovery will be an easier schedule post-bye week in addition to expected improvement from the offensive line, as the Panthers face 3 consecutive games against top-7 pass rushes in Weeks 14-16 (MIN, GB, TB). Fortunately, all 3 games are in Carolina.
From a rushing offense perspective, the Panthers not only face the NFL’s easiest schedule of run defenses, they also face the NFL’s easiest “rush blend” of defenses (a blend of rushing efficiency, rushing explosiveness, and RB target efficiency). It should be a fast start for the Panthers’ ground game, with their first two games against bottom-3 run defenses. And fortunately, during that difficult stretch for their passing offense from Weeks 6-10, they have the luxury of leaning on the run game with the 4th easiest “rush blend” of defenses in that span.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Last year, Minnesota’s passing offense faced the brutal combination of facing the NFL’s most difficult pass rush schedule while dealing with the most injuries suffered by any offensive line in the NFL. Coupled with a virtually nonexistent run game (31st), the passing offense did its best to produce the 18th most efficient metrics, but the Vikings finished 8-8 and outside the playoffs. This year, things look better provided the team gets better injury luck. Minnesota faces the easiest pass defenses of any team in the NFL. Their best stretch of sustained efficiency would come from Weeks 8-12, but the better idea for daily fantasy would probably be to target the Vikings’ passing game off tough opponents when less people are inclined to take them. For example, Week 4 vs the Lions after a tough pass defense of the Buccaneers, Week 8 against the Browns after a tough pass defense of the Ravens, and Week 12 for another game against the Lions after the Rams.
In their first season without Adrian Peterson, the Vikings’ run defense catches a break. They have the 29th overall schedule of run defenses, and after facing the 17th rated schedule last year, it is the 2nd largest drop of any team as compared to 2016. That no doubt should help improve their 31st rush offense rank from last year. The run game should get off to a decent start through the first 5 weeks of the season, but there are especially juicy matchups against poor run defenses littered across their schedule from Week 8 onward.
3. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens’ 2016 pass offense was an abomination, and there is good and bad with the 2017 schedule. In good news, the Ravens face the 3rd easiest schedule of pass defenses. The bad news is they faced the 5th easiest schedule in 2016, and their offense ranked 27th in EDSR, 26th in passing efficiency, 32nd in explosive pass offense, and 30th on 3rd down. And unfortunately for the Ravens, while the overall passing efficiency projection of opponent defenses is similar, their 2017 opponents are projected to rank slightly better defending the explosive pass and in pass rush. Pass protection was one of the many interesting quirks for the 2016 Ravens. Baltimore ranked 8th in pass protection against a very easy schedule (29th) of pass rush units, yet Joe Flacco delivered his 2nd consecutive season with a passer rating below 85 and just 6.4 yards per attempt. The Ravens’ pass offense may start slower over the first 8 weeks, as they face the 6th most difficult “pass blend” of defenses (a blend of pass efficiency, yards per attempt, explosive passing and pass rush), but they close the season from Weeks 9-16 with the 3rd easiest schedule of pass defenses.
An easy way to help a quarterback is to establish the run game, and that should be something Baltimore attempts with more success in 2017. After facing the 10th most difficult run defenses in 2016, they face the 3rd easiest schedule in 2017. It’s the biggest drop-off for any NFL team. The Ravens don’t play a single run defense better than the 10th ranked unit. And apart from a tough Steelers defense in Week 14, the Ravens' late-season schedule should be exceedingly kind with games against the run defenses of Detroit, Cleveland and Indianapolis to close out the year.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Prospects for the 2017 Bucs passing offense are extremely promising. DeSean Jackson is a game-changing piece any time he lines up on the field, regardless of play call. The Bucs also face the 6th weakest explosive pass defenses from 2016. And overall, the Bucs’ strength of pass defense drops from 12th in 2016 to 26th in 2017, the 4th largest drop for any team. Quarterbacked by a developing Jameis Winston with limited passing weapons, the Bucs’ pass offense ranked 11th in the NFL last year. With an easier schedule and more weapons, it should create more excitement in 2017. And the final piece to the puzzle is the strength of opposing offenses faced by this Bucs defense: They face the 3rd most difficult schedule of opposing offenses in 2017.
The Bucs' division foes are typically tough offenses (Atlanta, New Orleans, Carolina) but they add games against Green Bay, Detroit and New England as well. Which means the Tampa Bay offense will need to continue to produce for all 4 quarters, potentially leading to a better fantasy season for this passing offense. But the Bucs’ schedule is a tricky one: in their first 8 games, every single pass defense ranks average or better in “pass blend” defense. But from Week 9 onward, every single pass defense ranks bottom 9 in “pass blend” save for the Panthers in Week 16. In season-long fantasy, a strong recommendation if you didn’t land a Buc in the pass game is to target these players around Week 8. Their pass defense schedule from Week 9 onward is not only easiest in the NFL, it’s 17% easier than the 31st ranked schedule and is 52% easier than average.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, the same optimism doesn’t exist for the rushing game. The 2017 schedule is more difficult than 2016, when they ranked 28th in run efficiency. If Doug Martin is still with the Bucs after his 3-game suspension to start the season, absolutely steer clear of him for several weeks. From Weeks 4-6, the Buccaneers face the Giants, Patriots and Cardinals run defenses, each of which ranked top 7 last season. The run game should take off following their bye, but unfortunately they have the latest bye for any team (Week 11). But they should have an ability to make a lot of noise the final 6 weeks of the season, as they face the easiest run defenses of any team from Week 12 onward.
5. New Orleans Saints
We’re so accustomed to great things from the Saints’ offense that it was overlooked last year when this team faced the 3rd most difficult defenses and the 3rd most difficult pass defenses. That didn’t stop them from finishing 4th in EDSR offense, 6th in offensive efficiency and 6th in pass efficiency. This year, however, they face the 21st rated pass defenses, the 3rd largest drop-off for any team. The Saints’ passing offense may come in like a lamb in 2017, but it is poised to go out like a lion. Following 4 consecutive opponents which rank top 15 in “pass blend” defense (3 of which are on the road, 1 in London, with a home game against a more difficult Patriots pass defense) the Saints go on bye in Week 5. They’ll storm back playing just 3 games the rest of the season against pass defenses ranking above average, and those are teams they are quite familiar with: Tampa Bay twice and Carolina once, with 2 of the 3 games at home.
For the fantasy season, which ends in Week 16, the Saints have the easiest schedule of defenses from Week 6 onward, and the 3rd easiest schedule of pass defenses. The potential problem is 5 consecutive games from Weeks 7-11 against top-10 pass rush defenses. But if the Saints can keep Drew Brees upright, they face defenses that are extremely burnable for explosive passes and which will give up extreme yards per attempt. Without Brandin Cooks, the Saints’ passing game will provide new opportunities from last season, and following their Week 5 bye, these opportunities could be extremely productive. Helping their schedule is that their two worst “weather-opponent-road-games” are Green Bay and Buffalo, but those games are in Weeks 7 and 10, so conditions should not be severe then. From Week 11 onward, they play outdoors in just 2-of-7 games, and those games are in California (Rams) and Florida (Buccaneers).
The Saints’ rushing offense is poised for a better year than 2016 from a schedule perspective. They face an easier schedule of run defenses (26th overall), which allow more explosive runs and better production on running back targets than what Sean Payton’s run offense faced in 2016. Much like their pass offense, their schedule gets extremely easy a few games into the season. From Weeks 4-17, the Saints play the easiest schedule of opposing run defenses. A more treacherous patch featuring 3 top-10 run defenses is clustered in Weeks 12-15, but two of the three are at the Superdome.
5 Hardest Offensive Schedules:
32. Washington Redskins
The Redskins’ passing offense can’t buy much luck with their scheduling. The good news is their schedule isn’t much worse than last year, and they ranked 5th in EDSR offense and 5th in passing efficiency. The bad news is they played the No. 2 rated pass defenses in 2016, and now face the No. 1 rated pass defenses. From Week 12 onward, the Redskins’ opposing pass defenses give them a brutal stretch – a schedule so bad it rates 159% worse than average, and features 5-of-6 games against top-10 pass defenses, including the final 4 games to close the season. But there are some silver linings: the pass rushes of their opponents rank much easier than 2016, when they faced a top-5 schedule. More time in the pocket will lead to the second key: explosive passing. While these defenses are No. 1 overall against the pass, they actually rank below average against explosive passes. The Redskins are without big play receiver DeSean Jackson, so it will be fascinating to see how they fill that void. Could the Redskins’ pass offense outperform their schedule much like the Falcons last year? It’s possible. But they may see a slightly less consistent passing offense which needs to feature more explosiveness to take advantage of defensive weaknesses. With Jackson last year, they ranked as the No. 2 explosive pass offense behind Atlanta.
On the ground, the Redskins’ schedule is also more difficult than 2016, when they faced the 5th rated run defenses. This season, they face the 2nd most difficult run-defense SOS. One thing we’ve seen from the Redskins is that when the game is close, they’ll be extremely balanced. But if they are down by more than 1 score, they are one of the most pass heavy teams in the NFL. So, to see success for this run game against a difficult schedule, it likely will only come via a volume-based approach. Which means those entrusting the Redskins’ 2017 run offense absolutely must hope the team is successful and game script works in their favor. Things may get tough for fantasy owners after Washington’s Week 4 road game in Kansas City, as the Redskins face a bye and an easy home game against the 49ers, followed by 4 more difficult games for their run offense: road trips to Philadelphia and Seattle, and home games vs Dallas and Minnesota.
31. San Francisco 49ers
New coach Kyle Shanahan should feel right at home with this brutal schedule, as his Falcons had the No. 2 hardest schedule last season, and now his 49ers have the No. 2 hardest schedule this year. There are obviously vast differences between the two situations, such as QB talent, team talent, and not the least of which the time it typically takes to master a Shanahan passing offense. The 49ers face the 4th most difficult pass defenses, and it’s a schedule filled with peaks and valleys. Several three-week periods will give relief, such as consecutive games against the pass defenses of the Colts, Redskins and Cowboys from Weeks 5-7, but there are some brutal stretches. From Weeks 8-12, they face the Eagles, Cardinals and Giants, each of which ranked top 5 last year in pass defense. They then play the Seahawks after their Week 11 bye. The problem for the 49ers in general is they may have to lean more on the pass offense, despite a difficult schedule, because their run schedule is the most brutal in the NFL.
Over the course of the entire season, the 49ers’ schedule of opposing run defenses is hardest whether looking at strict run efficiency or the “rush blend” metric. It projects to be 40% worse than average, and starts with a brutal 4-week stretch of top-10 run defenses from 2016: Panthers, Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals. This schedule won’t provide any cushion for Shanahan to rely on the run game while his new starting QB eases into the saddle. This run schedule is so difficult that of their 16 games, the 49ers play just 3 teams that ranked below average in run defense efficiency last year. Every single other opponent ranked average or better. They play 10 games against defenses which ranked top 10 against the run last season.
30. Oakland Raiders (tie)
The bad news for the Raiders is their offense moves from a league-average defensive schedule in 2016 up to the second most difficult in 2017. But the biggest difficulty increase will come in the run game. Last season, the Raiders’ pass offense faced the No. 1 rated pass defenses, and this season that changes little against the No. 2 rated pass defenses. They were able to post the 4th most efficient passing offense last year, so their schedule should not lead us to believe they can’t have a similarly efficient season if healthy. Their season should start off strong in the pass game, as their first 3 opponents ranked bottom 10 last season. They have the easiest first-3 games in the NFL. But it’s all downhill from there. The Raiders face the most difficult schedule of pass defenses from Week 4 onward, in large part due to the strength of the AFC West, but it doesn’t help playing top-10 pass defenses of the Ravens, Giants and Eagles.
In 2016, the Raiders faced the 5th easiest schedule of run defenses and posted the 15th most efficient rushing numbers. But in 2017, they must face the 9th most difficult run defenses. It’s the 2nd largest jump in difficulty for any team, and looking at the “rush blend” metric, they face the largest increase in difficulty from 2016. All of that said, it’s not a total shy-away schedule. It simply is scattered with various top-5 and top-10 run defenses. But there are easier run defenses sprinkled in, so targeted use of the Raiders’ backfield is the smartest fantasy move. But don’t weight receiving productivity from Raiders’ RBs too highly from 2016: they faced the 2nd easiest schedule of RB passing target defenses, and that increases to 13th hardest in 2017.
30. Dallas Cowboys (tie)
Many were surprised by the efficiency of rookie Dak Prescott last season, but lost in the discussion was how brilliantly Jason Garrett called plays for his young QB and catered to the strengths of this offense. (Of course, Garrett’s decision making arguably cost them in the playoffs.) The Cowboys had the 2nd best EDSR offense of 2016 and ranked 3rd in pass efficiency. They will be tested more in 2017, facing a far tougher schedule of pass defenses. It starts right away, with their first 3 games coming against top-4 pass defenses, including the Giants, Broncos and Cardinals (the last two are on the road). But after that, the schedule becomes manageable. Four straight games against bottom-12 pass defenses follow, with a bye week nestled in. In the following 5 games, from Weeks 9-13, the Cowboys will play their most difficult pass defenses in home games against Kansas City Week 9, Philadelphia Week 11 and the LA Chargers Week 12. If a fantasy owner gets impatient with any pieces in the Cowboys’ passing game following Week 3 in Arizona (after the most difficult start to the season of any team), look to pounce on them if the price is right.
The most coveted piece of the Cowboys’ offense is the run game, and like the pass game, they will face a more difficult schedule in 2017. Last year they faced the 23rd rated run defenses, and this year that increases to 13th. Fortunately, Ezekiel Elliott is nearly matchup proof, so a potentially slower start won’t scare too many owners. But don’t get frustrated if he does start slow. The juiciest part for his schedule is right after the bye, where the Cowboys face 4 consecutive games against defenses which ranked 25th or worse last season defending the run. There is another upside to their Cowboys’ late season schedule for the run game: After playing 3 consecutive home games from Weeks 11-13, the Cowboys play three of their final 4 games on the road, outdoors, with colder/windier conditions possible for Week 14 in New York and Week 17 in Philadelphia. This could potentially mean more reliance on the ground game, despite stout run defenses, producing volume-driven success and production.
28. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs play the Broncos twice, so it isn’t surprising to see them with the 5th most difficult offensive schedule, including the 5th most difficult schedule of pass defenses. But it’s the non-divisional pass defenses which will give the Chiefs a tougher 2017 test. Recall that in 2016, the Chiefs played the NFC South and AFC South, providing plenty of easier pass defenses. In 2017, they face the AFC East and NFC East. While most of those pass defenses are not particularly imposing, the Eagles and Giants’ pass defenses are solid and any way you slice it, those divisions will challenge a passing offense far more than what the Chiefs saw in 2016. One thing that Andy Reid was successful doing last season was generating explosive gains without going deep. He designed an incredible assortment of plays that, based on alignment or route concepts, allowed for solid yardage after the catch. Unfortunately, the Chiefs face the 6th rated defenses at preventing explosive gains in the passing game, after playing the 23rd rated schedule in 2016, so it won’t be as easy to generate those chunk plays. The Chiefs’ passing offense typically isn’t targeted by daily fantasy players, but in-season recency bias may help keep ownership lower in 2017. The Chiefs play a number of games against poor pass defenses right after a game against a solid pass defense: the Redskins (Week 4) after the Chargers, the Raiders (Week 7) after the Steelers, the Cowboys (Week 9) after the Broncos and the Bills (Week 12) after the Giants.
Kansas City plays tremendously more challenging run defenses in 2017. In moving from the 19th hardest schedule in 2016 to the 7th rated in 2017, they face the 4th largest jump of any team. Additionally, last season the Chiefs faced the easiest schedule of defenses to target in the RB-pass game. This year, that moves to the 8th most difficult schedule. The Chiefs face just two bottom-10 run defenses from 2016 this year: the Redskins (Week 4) and Bills (Week 12), both games coming at home. With the Chiefs playing 6 road games in their first 10 games, they close with 4-of-6 games at home against defenses they should be able to run the ball against.
Prior to NFL bye weeks kicking in starting Week 5, two NFC West teams coming off of disappointing 2016 campaigns should start fast. The offenses of the Cardinals and Seahawks have the easiest starts to the season, with Arizona playing the Lions, Colts, Cowboys and 49ers while the Seahawks face the Packers, 49ers, Titans and Colts. With the 3rd easiest offensive start to the season, the Super Bowl runner-up Falcons should start fast with games against Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit and Buffalo before a Week 5 bye. Rounding out the top-5 easiest starts are the offenses of Carolina and the LA Rams.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are several teams we discussed earlier. The Cowboys have the misfortune of starting with the NFL’s most difficult defenses over their first 4 games. Dallas must battle the 3 most efficient defenses from 2016 to start the season (Giants, Broncos, Cardinals) before facing the Rams at home in Week 4. The 49ers face the 2nd hardest schedule overall and the 2nd most difficult start, including by far the worst start of run defenses. The Chargers face the 3rd most difficult start in their new Los Angeles home, going up against the brutal pass defenses of the Broncos, Chiefs and Eagles, and that doesn’t even account for the Giants in Week 5. The Lions rank as the 4th hardest start, facing 5 top-10 defenses in 4 of their first 5 games. The Titans round out the top-5 most difficult starts based on opposing defenses faced.
The Buccaneers face the 4th easiest overall schedule and have the best chance of finishing strong, with games against Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. The Bears’ offense has the second easiest ending to the season, with the Lions and Browns sandwiched between the Bengals and the season finale in Minnesota. The unfortunate part of Chicago's schedule is that three of the four are on the road, but weather won’t be an issue for the two divisional tilts as both are indoors. The Ravens have the 3rd easiest schedule of defenses and the 3rd easiest close to the season, facing the defenses of the Browns and Colts, sandwiched between two tougher divisional opponents: the Steelers and Bengals. Denver’s first 9 weeks are littered with solid defenses, but the second half to the season is extremely light, and that includes the last 4 games, where they face the Jets, Colts, Redskins and Chiefs. The Saints round out the top-5 easiest endings for their offense.
The Redskins’ offense must deal with the most difficult defenses this season, and face the most brutal close to the year for any team. Their last 4 opponents rank top 10 in defensive efficiency, and the last 3 opponents rank Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in defensive efficiency: Cardinals, Broncos, Giants. The only reassuring factor is that their NFC East rival Cowboys face the 2nd most difficult close to the season. Dallas faces three top-5 defenses in their last 4 games: Giants, Seahawks, Eagles. The Colts face the 3rd most brutal ending, with their offense having to tangle with three top-7 defenses in their final 3 games: Broncos, Ravens, Texans. Oakland has the 4th hardest ending, and the Seahawks’ offense has the 5th hardest finish to the season.