The NFL schedule has been released and we're now one step closer to the start of the 2021 season.
In this piece, I'll be examining the slate down to the nuts and bolts. How does this schedule impact the fantasy landscape? Which players have it the easiest and hardest, including during the fantasy playoffs? Which 14 teams will make the NFL playoffs? How about an early look at the 2022 draft order? Some housekeeping before I dive into this.
First, I'll be excluding Week 18 from the fantasy categories, though including it has only a minor impact on the findings. Next, note that my strength of schedule evaluation is not based on final 2020 records, which is often what you'll see in this type of column. There already has been a ton of roster movement this offseason and injured players will return to action this season, so all of that is factored into each team's 2021 prospects. My evaluation of each roster -- not last year's production -- is what I use to generate the easiest and toughest schedules.
The analysis below is your next step in preparing for the 2021 NFL and fantasy football seasons.
Easiest Opposing Defenses
1. Denver Broncos - Drew Lock is entering a make-or-break season and he and his terrific, young supporting cast will benefit from a schedule that looks obscenely light on paper. Denver benefits from six games against an underwhelming trio of opposing divisional defenses in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Kansas City. The Broncos are also set to face the Eagles, Cowboys, Jaguars, Jets, Bengals, and Lions. That's 12 of the team's 17 games. The toughest challenge for the Denver offense will come against the Steelers, Browns, Ravens, Washington and perhaps the Giants. Expectations for Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams should be bumped up. Note that the Bears were in this slot last year and you may recall the likes of Allen Robinson and David Montgomery absolutely torched an extremely easy slate during the second half of the season.
2. New England Patriots - The Patriots are a new-look team in 2021 and their offense is sure to benefit from a schedule that includes only two super-intimidating defenses (Tampa Bay, Cleveland). Otherwise, New England draws the Jets twice, as well as the Texans, Jaguars, Cowboys, Falcons. The Chargers, Panthers and Titans also aren't very daunting. The Bills (took a step back in 2020) and Dolphins (likely facing turnover regression to the mean and aren't overly impressive on paper) could go either way and make up nearly one-quarter of the schedule, but we obviously don't need to move the needle for them. The only "issue" here is that the Patriots spread the ball around a lot, so there aren't any fantasy stars who benefit. The likes of Cam Newton, James White, Damien Harris, Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry can be bumped up slightly.
3. Indianapolis Colts - The Colts' schedule includes a few potentially scary matchups (Ravens, 49ers, Patriots, Buccaneers), but that's about where the fear ends and the positives begin. Indianapolis will benefit from six games against an underwhelming group of divisional foes in Jacksonville, Houston and Tennessee. Also on the slate are showdowns with the Raiders, Seahawks and Jets. This is good news for first-round fantasy pick Jonathan Taylor and adds some sleeper appeal to Carson Wentz, T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr.
Toughest opposing defenses
1. Detroit Lions - Detroit opens against a good (and healthy) 49ers' defense and its schedule also includes six divisional games against tough Bears, Packers and Vikings' defenses, as well as other showdowns against standout Browns, Ravens, Steelers, and Broncos units. That adds up to 11 of the team's 17 games, with the Lions' easiest outings likely to be against Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Atlanta. This is not great news for the sleeper appeal of Jared Goff and the team's suspect WR room and could limit the production of D'Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson.
2. Green Bay Packers - The Packers will benefit from a pair of games against the rebuilding Lions, as well as a game against the Bengals and perhaps from a shootout against the Chiefs. Otherwise, however, the schedule is loaded with good or solid defenses. That includes four divisional games against Minnesota and Chicago, and showdowns with good Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington and San Francisco defenses. Assuming Aaron Rodgers returns, we obviously don't need to panic here, though perhaps we can anticipate a slight step back for one of the league's highest-scoring offenses of 2020.
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3. Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals are in a similar position to the Lions, as they'll face tough Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh defenses twice and the Minnesota, Green Bay and Chicago units once. Cincinnati's slate also includes Denver and San Francisco. Fortunately, the Bengals' schedule includes some defenses we expect to struggle, including the Lions, Jaguars, Raiders, and Jets. This is not great news for a potential breakout offense that includes Joe Burrow (consider him a streaming option), Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and first-round pick Ja'Marr Chase.
Though we don't want to get too caught up in strength of schedule based on 2020 results, I noticed that fantasy points allowed by position does seem to correlate some with projected fantasy strength of schedule based on 2021 rosters. That said, I'm including a chart that shows each offense's strength of schedule based on what their Week 1-17 schedule allowed last season. For example, the Panthers are set to face the fourth-easiest schedule for wide receivers, but the 29th-easiest (aka fourth-hardest) for running backs.
Week 15-17 observations
Many of your leagues will observe the fantasy playoffs during Weeks 15-17 (remember, Week 18 is now the final week of the regular season), which makes it worthwhile to focus in on those games. The 49ers will benefit from the easiest projected schedule during the fantasy playoffs and that actually extends back a week as well, as their Week 14-17 slate includes the Bengals, Falcons, Titans and Texans. None of those four defenses are intimidating on paper, which sets up the likes of George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and, yes, even Trey Lance for a strong finish. Take note, super flex crowd.
The Broncos, Football Team, Cardinals and Jaguars round out the top-five easiest playoff slates.
On the other hand, the Eagles and Packers check in with the toughest schedule during the fantasy playoffs. Philadelphia faces a terrific Washington defense twice, as well as a solid Giants' unit, during the stretch. The Packers have the toughest slate if we include Week 14, as they follow their Week 13 bye by facing the Bears, Ravens, Browns and Vikings.
The Raiders, Cowboys, Titans and Panthers are next up in terms of toughest slate during Weeks 15-17. Carolina has the hardest Week 15-18 slate (Bills, Saints, Buccaneers x2), whereas the Vikings Week 14-18 schedule is toughest (Steelers, Bears x2, Rams, Packers).
You need to get to the playoffs in order to take advantage of this section, so this information will be best served as a tiebreaker or perhaps when fielding trade offers during the season.
Easiest overall schedule
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - The defending champions get the easiest schedule? That may not seem fair, but remember that the schedule is a pre-set formula. Tom Brady an company will benefit from six divisional games against the Drew Brees-less Saints and underwhelming Atlanta and Carolina rosters. They'll also face the AFC and NFC East divisions. As for unique games, remember that the Buccaneers did not win the NFC South last season, which means they'll face three second-place teams, as opposed to three defending division champs. That means games against the Rams, Bears and Colts instead of the Seahawks, Packers and Titans.
2. Atlanta Falcons - The Falcons share a majority of the same schedule with the Buccaneers, so it makes sense that they're also near the top. Atlanta's unique games are the 49ers, Lions and Jaguars. Those are obviously easier than Tampa Bay's uniques, but remember that Tampa Bay gets to play Atlanta twice (not particularly intimidating), whereas Atlanta has to play Tampa Bay twice (arguably its hardest two games).
3. Buffalo Bills - Buffalo is set up well for another AFC East title run and a light schedule only helps the case. The Bills' divisional foes aren't overly scary (six games against the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets) and they'll also take on the NFC South and AFC South divisions. Buffalo's unique games aren't easy (Titans, Chiefs, Steelers), but that's offset by the rest of the schedule.
Toughest overall schedule
1. Chicago Bears - Chicago's schedule has the unique appeal of no back-to-back road games, but that's where the positives end. The Bears' slate is overloaded with tough opponents and they have the league's hardest projected schedule despite two games against the rebuilding Lions. Chicago will face the Packers and improved Vikings twice, and nearly half of its schedule is made up of tough NFC South and AFC North teams. The Raiders and Giants aren't overly intimidating unique games, but the Buccaneers, of course, are. Chicago will have its hands full finding its way to a wild card in 2021.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers started the 2020 season with 11-consecutive wins, but the impressive streak was criticized because of the extremely easy schedule during the stretch. That won't be an issue in 2021. Pittsburgh has the toughest schedule in the AFC and its headlined by four games against two of league's best teams (Ravens, Browns), as well as showdowns with fellow 2020 division champions Kansas City, Buffalo, Tennessee and Seattle. Pittsburgh's slow finish to 2020 suggests the franchise is on the downturn and a very tough 2021 slate suggests a return to the playoffs is very much in doubt.
3. Detroit Lions - The Lions are in the midst of a rebuild after overhauling the front office, coaching staff and even the quarterback position during the offseason. The schedule won't be doing them any favors with the NFC North teams set to face the AFC North and NFC South divisions this season. The Lions' unique games aren't overly scary (Eagles, Falcons, Broncos), though it's possible all three, especially Denver, will be better in 2021.
Projected AFC seeds
1. Browns (bye); 2. Bills; 3. Chiefs; 4. Titans; 5. Ravens; 6. Colts; 7. Broncos
The Browns in the top spot might seem like a bold/hot take, but it's not: I have them with the AFC's best all-around roster on paper. My choices are to either play it safe and knock them down a peg based on franchise history or stick with my roster evaluations. As always, I'll choose the latter. The Bills and Chiefs are the next-best contenders for the all-important bye. The Titans did a decent job rebuilding their defense, but can they overcome so many offensive losses? I think so, if only because I was left uninspired by the Colts' offseason moves. Baltimore remains a legitimate threat to the Browns. The seventh seed is very close, with the Steelers, Patriots and Dolphins in the discussion.
Projected NFC seeds
1. Buccaneers (bye); 2. Packers; 3. Cowboys; 4. Seahawks; 5. Vikings; 6. Rams; 7. Football Team
The Buccaneers have all 22 starters back from their Super Bowl team and the league's easiest projected schedule. Green Bay's tough schedule could lead to a step back, but assuming Aaron Rodgers returns, the Packers are the favorite in the NFC North. Dallas has an elite offense and shaky defense, but I think that adds up to a slight edge over a Washington team with a great defense and mid-range offense. I expect a big rebound from Mike Zimmer's defense, which would get Minnesota back into the playoffs. The NFC West is extremely hard to project, as all four teams are legitimate playoff contenders. I give Seattle and Los Angeles the edge here, but note that Arizona and San Francisco are just a tick behind.
Projected 2022 NFL draft Top 5
1. Lions; 2. Jets 3. Jaguars; 4. Panthers; 5. Eagles
The Lions are rebuilding and have a very tough schedule. They're the heavy favorite to be picking a quarterback at 1.1 in the 2022 NFL draft. The Jets, Jaguars and Eagles are in the midst of rebuilding behind young quarterbacks. The Panthers overachieved last season, but if Sam Darnold doesn't make a big leap, I'm not sure they have the roster to overcome poor quarterback play. Note that Houston would undoubtedly jump into this mix if Deshaun Watson were ruled out for all or most of the 2021 season.