These players benefit most from their early season NFL schedule


I recently wrote an article that looked into the idea that the lack of preseason playing time by NFL starters has led to a burst in early season fantasy scoring (Weeks 1-4). The study found there has been a recent spike in scoring and also determined that a notable portion of that spike was due to a higher percentage of defensive coverage errors in the first quarter of the season.

Since this implies that there may be an edge to be found in early season schedules, especially with defenses that have vertical pass coverage issues, let's take a look at which fantasy players might best benefit from this in the 2019 campaign.

To do this, I used a formula that gauged projected coverage performance and mistake levels on vertical passes (defined as aerials traveling 11 or more yards downfield). Those grades were then applied to each team's Weeks 1-4 schedule to determine the favorability level of early season matchups. Those favorability levels were broken down into tiers, with tier 1 being the most favorable and tier 4 being the least favorable.

Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, let's take a look at each of the tier rankings along with some notes as to how fantasy managers might use this information to their benefit.

Tier 1

Baltimore, Carolina, Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa Bay
Lamar Jackson threw only three vertical touchdown passes last year, yet the Week 1-2 matchups against Miami and Arizona defenses that ranked 29th and 30th, respectively, in my coverage error rankings last year could allow him to throw for that many in the first two contests of 2019.

The Steelers are in a similar boat, as in Weeks 1-4 they have three games against defenses that ranked 27th or worse in coverage gaffes (San Francisco, Seattle and Cincinnati). Ben Roethlisberger is currently rated on the border of QB1/QB2 in current ESPN average draft position (ADP), but the schedule would suggest that fantasy managers could consider him for a low-tier QB1 role.

This could also provide the Steelers with a potential sleeper pick in Vance McDonald, as McDonald scored three touchdowns on only 17 vertical targets last season. McDonald is just on the outside of TE1 ADP at the moment and thus could make a for part of a 1-2 tight end combination for fantasy managers who can't draft Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz or George Kittle and want to go with a high upside streaming strategy in their place.

The Rams have some early upside potential in games against New Orleans and Tampa Bay, two teams that haven't upgraded their coverage personnel from defenses that ranked 29th and 30th, respectively, in vertical yards per attempt (VYPA) last season. The logjam of quality wide receivers in the Rams pass catching corps is currently keeping all of them in the WR2 tier, but those looking to get out to early season success may do well to place speedster Brandin Cooks into the low end of the WR1 tier given this upside potential.

Tier 2
Arizona, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles Chargers, New England, Philadelphia

A tough road matchup against Baltimore in Week 2 is the only thing that kept Arizona from claiming a Tier 1 ranking. This adds to the possibility that Kyler Murray's current upper-tier QB2 ADP might be justified and could allow him to post QB1 fantasy point totals multiple times in September.

A.J. Green has been a WR1 four times in the past seven years and is currently on pace to return from his toe surgery in time for training camp, yet he is squarely in the middle of the WR2 tier in ADP. Cincinnati was also only one tough matchup at Buffalo away from earning a Tier 1 ranking, so Green may be an excellent value prospect in many ESPN draft rooms. Tyler Boyd landed a WR2 ranking last season in Green's absence, so the favorable early schedule could also put him into the excellent return on investment category given his current low WR3 ADP.

Tier 3
Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minnesota, New Orleans, Tennessee

Tier 4
Atlanta, Green Bay, Miami, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland, Washington

Matt Ryan has the most points among fantasy quarterbacks since 2016, but facing three very strong vertical coverage defenses to start the year (Minnesota, Indianapolis and Tennessee) could get him out to a tough start. It's not enough to keep Ryan out of his mid-tier QB1 ADP, but it could be enough to justify passing on him for a round or so to offset the downside of this potential roadblock.

Aaron Rodgers doesn't have it quite as tough as Ryan, but breaking in a new offensive scheme versus Chicago on the road in Week 1 and Minnesota at home in Week 2 might keep Rodgers below the upper-tier QB1 performance that fantasy managers expect given the fourth or fifth round investment in Rodgers.

That could be enough to justify taking Andrew Luck ahead of Rodgers. Luck's early season schedule is marginally better than Rodgers and they both land in the 300-plus point range in ESPN's fantasy scoring projection, but Luck is currently being selected roughly one round later than Rodgers on average. The difference in early season schedules might make it worth hedging against Rodgers' potential downside to take Luck instead.