Strength of Schedule (SoS) is a fantasy football factor that is sometimes touched upon when discussing how players may perform in an upcoming season but rarely is it used with accuracy. This is because often times SoS statistics are based purely upon last years defensive statistics. For example, last year Seattle allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league. Most people would use this statistic to state that if Seattle is on your schedule, you are going to be playing the best run defense in the league. However, I don’t think that is the most accurate statistic to use. I believe yards-per-carry allowed (YPCA) is a greater measure of a defense’s ability to stop the run. YPCA ignores the fact that team’s like Seattle played with a lead more often than not. If you are playing with a positive game script, the opposing team will pass the ball more which skews yards-against statistics. The team with the fewest yards per carry allowed was actually Denver. (3.3 ypc allowed) Seattle came in 4th on the list. This may not seem like much of a difference, but when calculating strength of schedule, it can give a very distorted view of the perceived SoS.
When I calculate SoS I take a look at previous year’s statistics for reference, but I rank every defense based on which team I would least want to run against to the most. This takes into account previous year’s stats a little but also allows you to compensate for offseason changes that can vastly affect the performance of a defense. Once I have every team ranked, I give them point values based on their rankings and add up point totals for a full schedule. Based on my rankings, I predicted that Chicago and Detroit will have the 2 easiest SoS’s for 2016 running backs. My rankings also show that New Orleans and New England have the 2 hardest schedules for running backs. I used this same method to predict that Carolina and Tampa Bay would have two of the easiest SoS seasons for running backs in 2015. I used that information to draft Jonathan Stewart and Doug Martin at good values and reaped the rewards.
Is SoS a Relevant Way to Draft Players?
In a recent study I did, I was curious to see how strength-of-schedule affected overall fantasy points for running backs. I decided to create a graph to see if there was a correlation. I plotted relevant players and their end-of-season fantasy point totals on one side, then plotted their strength of schedule (based on the formula I created) on the other side. To my great surprise, the two variables (fantasy points and strength of schedule) did not show any correlation whatsoever. The R² values (a statistic that represents a correlation between two variables) were below .01 for each of the past 3 fantasy seasons I tested. (2013-2015) For positive strong correlations, generally you want your R² value to be above 0.5 if not higher, so this correlation was not even in the ballpark.
For these running backs, I tested other variables such as strength of offensive line, yards per touch, touchdowns per game, and offensive run/pass ratio. However, the strongest correlation I found by far was touches-per-game vs. fantasy points-per-game. What this tells me is that the more touches you get, the more opportunities you have to gain fantasy points for running backs. It’s a simple statement, but often it is overlooked. I didn’t have a R² value below 0.77 (which is a pretty strong correlation) for any of the past 3 years in touches per game vs. standard fantasy points.
What Does That Mean For My Fantasy Team?
The lack of correlation between SoS and fantasy points was strange to me because I usually look to play the best matchups. Better matchups do usually include more touches, but I am also looking to play against the porous defenses. There could be higher correlations for other positions (not tested yet), but a correlation that low for strength of schedule for the running backs, tells me a few things:
- Start your studs, regardless of matchup. They are getting the most touches, and you spent a high pick on them for a reason. Unless they are really underperforming (like some of the early-round running backs from last year), leave them in there and trust that their talent and/or situation will win out.
- Play the matchups with players whose production and/or volume seems to vary based off of who they are playing. Volume isn’t a guarantee for some guys, but if it looks like they will get more touches than usual, they may be worth a shot in your lineup.
- Stay on the waiver wire like a hawk. Look for players who are getting touches and may have good fantasy matchups late in the season. Also, seek trades for players that fit this category.
Just because the correlation between fantasy points and SoS was low doesn’t mean there aren’t advantages to playing the matchups. Any seasoned fantasy owner knows this, and this is why some statistics can be misleading. Strength of schedule is a biased statistic in foresight no matter how you look at it, and there are probably other factors at play that I have not even thought to consider.
Can I Use This Knowledge to My Advantage?
Here is a strategy that can turn dividends for your fantasy team: Find players who you can pick up or trade for that aren’t high draft picks but have great schedules in the fantasy playoffs.
Tim Hightower. After Mark Ingram got hurt, anyone who grabbed Hightower had to have loved to see that he was scheduled to play Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Jacksonville in the fantasy playoffs. (assuming weeks 14-16 are your playoff weeks)
David Johnson: Facing Green Bay and Philadelphia in the fantasy playoffs in 2015 probably won his owner’s championships. Johnson likely was drafted very late or not at all. (Read more about whether or not he is worth a top-5 pick here)
Neither of these players would have been taken in the first few rounds of your fantasy drafts, and in Hightower’s case, you likely didn’t draft him at all. However, if you can identify teams that look to have good schedules in the playoffs, you can have a significant advantage. Even picking up backups on teams with fantasy playoff schedules can be a low-risk, high reward play. Take Minnesota for example: In weeks 14-16, of this upcoming season they play Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Green Bay. If these teams play at the level I expect, they won’t be great at stopping the run. This makes picking up or trading for Jerick Mckinnon a play with huge upside if you didn’t get the ability to draft him. If Adrian Peterson goes down in week 12 and you traded for him in week 11, you now have a potential RB1 with an amazing playoff schedule sitting in front of you. He probably won’ cost much either, an owner could probably trade a flash-in-the-pan wide receiver to get him. In redraft leagues, the later in the season you get, the less depth will matter for your roster.
As the season goes along, you should be looking to trade away depth for the best starting lineup you can get. These types of high-potential backups are a great way to “sweeten the deal” in another trade. Consider the hypothetical situation where you have a WR2 and an RB1 and are looking to trade for a WR1. If you tell the team with the WR1 to throw in a guy like Mckinnon, he probably won’t object. For you, you could have a steal knowing you just upgraded your WR2 to a WR1 and have the potential to get your value back on the RB1 with an amazing playoff schedule if Adrian Peterson were to get hurt.
I am not saying to bet on injuries. There are players who may have their opportunity increase because of poor/inconsistent play in front of them on the depth chart. I would never wish anyone to get injured, but this is the NFL. It happens. Being prepared for injuries and poor play can greatly increase the strength of your fantasy team going into the playoffs.
Here are some other teams besides the Vikings with good playoff schedules for running backs based on my pre-season defensive rankings:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Oakland raiders, Arizona Cardinals, and the Buffalo Bills
If choosing between two guys like Theo Riddick and Charles Sims, Sims may be the better pick because he will have a favorable playoff schedule.
When Should I Start Looking to Make Moves?
Strength of schedule is hard to predict before the season starts as many defenses can play below or above expectations. I usually wait until after 6-8 weeks of the season because then you will get an idea of who can play and who can’t. Around this time is when you should look at some schedules, and identify some low-risk trade and waiver wire targets. If you drafted these players, then you are already ahead of the curve.
If you draft a player with a bad playoff schedule, no need to worry. The best thing to do with a player like this is to ride out his good early season schedule and then look to trade him at peak value before he hurts your team in the playoffs. Many owners fail to look at playoff SoS when evaluating mid-season trades, especially for a player who has been having success so far during the year. With that said, there are a small group of players who are virtually matchup-proof. By mid-season, you will know who these players are, and you shouldn’t be concerned with their playoff schedules.
When Push Comes to Shove
Don’t draft a player based on his fantasy playoff schedule, but if you are having trouble deciding between 2 similar players, especially later in the draft, take a look at their schedules for your fantasy playoffs. If there is a perceived difference, go with the player who you won’t have any questions about starting when it matters most, if their situation were ideal.
As always, please take a look at our work at The Fantasy Authority and other articles focusing on draft strategy . We want you to do well!