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Buy Low, Sell High: How to Exploit Strength of Schedule

Last week I used Warren Sharp’s data to make the case that strength of schedule (SOS) projections are essentially useless. I based my case on one measure (average opponent defensive efficiency) applied across the entire 2018 season. I have to confess, however, that I am an SOS truther. As such, in this article, I will try to squeeze some actionable information out of strength of schedule data. 

The Plan

To do this I will make two changes that should hopefully render strength of schedule data useable. First, instead of using Sharp’s Vegas-based SOS projections I will use Pro Football Focus’s SOS projections for running backs and quarterbacks. I don’t have access to historical data to verify their reliability, so we have to just turn a blind eye to this concern. 

Second, rather than attempting to use season-long projections, I will limit the timescale of my analysis to the first three weeks of the season. The idea here is that maybe SOS projections falter because too many variables change over the course of an entire season. Some obvious examples are injuries, coaching adjustments, and lagged effects from off-season personnel changes. We thus have some reason to believe strength of schedule projections are most predictive in the beginning of the season. 

Why You Should Care

Suppose that switching to PFF grade-based SOS projections over the first three weeks solves the problem I discovered last week. You might still be wondering why fantasy managers or DFS players ought to care. I can think of at least three reasons: drafts, trades, and DFS picks. First, most drafts have already happened, but for those who haven’t drafted the data below can be used to secure players who are primed for fast starts. 

Second, these data provide a helpful guide for trading after the first three weeks. When they are correct they provide “buy low” and “sell high” opportunities. In other words, you should seek to trade away your players who took advantage of easy early schedules. Conversely, you should attempt to acquire players who performed poorly due to difficult early schedules. 

Third, it is always draft week for DFS players. These three-week SOS projections highlight players who might over or underperform based on matchups. Even though DFS pricing takes matchups into account, it also takes previous scoring into account. This means that three weeks of sustained under or over performance will produce two biases. The first is lower or higher prices relative to a player’s “true” value. The second is lower or higher expectations among other DFS players, creating opportunities for finding contrarian plays. Remember, the value of a good pick is moderated by its popularity. 

Running Back Early Strength of Schedule

This first graph compares running back SOS for each team in the first three weeks. We see these projections along the y-axis. To compute these I used Pro Football Focus’s weekly SOS rankings, provided here, and simply added the rankings of weeks 1-3 for each team. Lower scores indicate easier SOS and are marked by darker green in the color gradient scale. Higher scores indicate harder SOS and are marked by darker red. The mean is set to yellow at the center of the color gradient scale. I sorted the teams across the x-axis ordered by SOS ranking, from easiest on the left to hardest on the right. 

Let’s begin on the left side of the graph with the teams that begin the season with the easiest three-week slates. Of these, the Jets, Giants, Vikings, Dolphins, and Eagles are actually uninteresting because PFF projects all of them to face easy opponents across the entire season. In other words, the first three games should not be outliers for them. The Tampa Bay Bucs, however, are the exception. Despite having the 5th easiest SOS to start, PFF projects the Bucs to face the 27th easiest (or 5th hardest) running back SOS across the entire season. So, for example, if Ronald Jones has a hot start, his owners should consider putting him on the trading block. 

Let’s now turn to the right side of the graph where we find teams with the easiest three-week slates for running backs. Green Bay has the hardest early SOS by far. They open the season against the three highest graded pass rushing defenses according to PFF (the Bears, Broncos, and Vikings). This is exciting because over the course of the season PFF projects the Packers to have the 21st hardest running back SOS. Note that this ranking (21st hardest) has Green Bay’s difficult first three weeks baked into it. And if you look at PFF’s chart you can see that the Packers get a sea of solid green (easy) after the initial three red games (hard).

New England’s situation is even better. The Patriots start with the 2nd hardest schedule but enjoy the 5th easiest across the season. Cleveland, which has the 5th hardest on my graph,  has the 8th hardest over the season. They remain interesting, however, because their first two games (against the Titans and the Jets) are two of their three hardest of the year. New Orleans’ situation is similar, as they face two of their four hardest teams in the first three weeks. Seattle’s situation is somewhat intriguing (7th hardest on my graph, 16th hardest for the season), as they get a long string of easy opponents from weeks 6-12. It gets harder after that, but by then these projections aren’t probably very predictive. Lastly, note that the Chargers and the Falcons are unremarkable here because their early-season challenges persist across their season. 

The upshot is that we should look for “buy low” opportunities with Aaron Jones, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb (after the first two weeks), Alvin Kamara, and Chris Carson after the first three weeks. Let’s now turn to quarterback strengths of schedule for weeks 1-3. 

Quarterback Early Strength of Schedule

Beginning on the left side with the teams facing the easiest early schedules, the first 5 teams are all in the top-12 for easiest SOS on the year. Thus not much opportunity there. However, the team with the 6th easiest early SOS, Buffalo, has the 17th easiest for the season. Therefore, if Josh Allen starts hot, then his owners might want to treat that as a “sell high” opportunity. 

Let’s now move to the right side with the teams facing the hardest early quarterback schedules. Here, unfortunately, most of the teams with difficult starts also face difficult passing defenses all season long. Across the entire season, Miami, Houston, Chicago, and Indianapolis are projected to face the 27th, 28th, 29th, and 23rd hardest passing SOS, respectively. 

There are three exceptions: Washington, Green Bay, and Cleveland. The Redskins are the biggest outlier. They face the hardest early schedule (against the Eagles, Cowboys, and Bears). After that, though, it’s all green for Washington until week 14 (12th hardest passing SOS season-long). The Packers have the 5th hardest start but the 17th hardest for the season. Green Bay’s tough start lasts through week 5. Lastly, the Browns have the 6th hardest start but the 13th hardest for the season. Cleveland’s tough start lasts through week 4. 

The upshot is that we should look for “buy low” opportunities with Case Keenum (after week 3 if he keeps his job), Aaron Rodgers (after week 5), and Baker Mayfield (after week 4).

SOS Funnel Effects

In the third and final graph, we will consider early SOS in a more dynamic manner. To get the idea, suppose a team begins the season against a middling trio of pass defenses but a very difficult trio of rush defenses. It would make sense for them to open the season passing more than they otherwise would. They are facing “pass funnel” defenses and this should affect their play calling in ways that fantasy and DFS players care about. 

To capture this dynamic, I created a simple statistic that takes the difference between a team’s early-season running back SOS score (as seen in the first graph) and their early-season quarterback SOS score (as seen in the second graph). This produces a number that tells us the difference in their running back and quarterback strengths of schedule. 

The third graph charts this funnel statistic along the y-axis. Negative numbers are colored darker green as they get smaller (or more negative) and they indicate defenses that funnel toward increased rushing and thus benefit running backs. Positive numbers are colored darker red as they get larger and they indicate defenses that funnel toward increased passing and thus benefit quarterbacks. 

Beginning on the left side of the graph, in the first three weeks, we should see increased rushing opportunities funneling to running backs for the Dolphins, Jets, Bears, Giants, Redskins, Vikings, Texans, Colts, and Chiefs. Most of these teams, however, have easy rushing SOS during this time. This makes the finding less interesting because we might expect them to run more anyway. 

There are, however, three exceptions: Washington, Houston, and Indianapolis. 

The Redskins open against the 9th hardest rushing SOS but the 1st hardest passing SOS. This predicts an early uptick in opportunity for Peterson and Guice. The Texans open against the 12th hardest rushing SOS but the 3rd hardest passing SOS. This predicts an early uptick for Duke Johnson. Lastly, the Colts open against the 15th hardest rushing SOS but the 5th hardest passing SOS. This is good news for those with Marlon Mack shares. 

The upshot here is potential “sell high” opportunities for Peterson, Guice, Duke Johnson, and Mack. Conversely, this also indicates “buy low” opportunities for their corresponding quarterbacks. These are Case Keenum, Deshaun Watson, and Jacoby Brissett. 

Moving to the right side of the graph, we can expect increased passing opportunities funneling to the quarterbacks of the Patriots, Packers, Ravens, Chargers, Falcons, Bills, and Cowboys. All of these teams also open with an easy passing SOS except three: Green Bay, Los Angeles (Chargers), and Atlanta. 

The Packers open against the 6th hardest passing SOS but the 1st hardest rushing SOS. The Chargers’ difference is 16th and 3rd. And the Falcons’ difference is 17th and 4th. This indicates early upticks in passing and thus “sell high” opportunities for Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan. The converse “buy low” opportunities are thus for Aaron Jones, Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and Devonta Freeman. 

As a caveat, remember that these early SOS rankings and their differences are only one factor to consider. In each case, though, they provide us with situations to monitor in a structured way. If that’s not exciting to you, consider that last year this would have put Christian McCaffrey’s “buy low” opportunity into your crosshairs. Do not be surprised if the McCaffrey of 2019 is lurking among the 22 players highlighted in this article.

You are now officially a strength of schedule truther. Welcome to the club. 

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