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The Draft, The Schedule and You
David M. Dorey
1997

The NFL weekly schedule, that seventeen week period of time when everyone seems to get a break but your favorite team, can help give you the edge on finalizing your draft list. In Fantasy Football, the schedule is an important weapon to keep in your arsenal of information.

Think about it. Certainly everyone uses the schedule in determining their weekly line-up, but how many consider it before the draft? It can be a insightful tool to use in determining player rankings because players tend to gain their points - 'surprise' - against opposing defenses. How can you fully evaluate a player without considering directly what that person is to perform against?

Seriously, in several years of obsessive analysis and what some call information overkill, I have come to embrace the schedule as my friend on draft day. There are many who will decry the "strength of schedule" as unpredictable, but it is less so than perhaps it may seem. The reasoning to follow offers a guideline for probability, and should be used as a factor in considering player values for the upcoming year. This works like magic for RB's, but is somewhat less revealing for a QB or WR as they can actually benefit from being behind, abandoning the run game and getting garbage yards and scores from a prevent defense.

Let's consider the hard statistics. We'll use yardage allowed as our criteria. While you could use points allowed, I have found yardage as or more consistent with the following year's performance since I always play in performance leagues. If I played in a TD only league, I'd probably do points allowed. Now which were the best ten defenses (yards allowed) and the worst ten defenses for 1996? For 1995?

1996 - Best 1995 - Best 1996 - Worst 1995 - Worst
Green Bay San Francisco Baltimore Cincinnati
Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Atlanta Atlanta
Dallas Houston Washington New England
Denver Kansas City New York Jets Detroit
Philadelphia Philadelphia St. Louis Arizona
Houston Indianapolis Cincinnati Tampa Bay
San Francisco Dallas Seattle Baltimore
Oakland New York Jets San Diego Seattle
Buffalo Carolina Indianapolis New Orleans
Carolina San Diego Arizona Minnesota

Of the best ten for the past two years, there were four teams that failed to repeat in 1996. However, of the four new teams in 1996 only Buffalo came from less than average (17th-1995) and barely so. For a two year span, that's reliable enough for probability's sake. For the worst ten teams, only two dropped from a previous best ten to a worst ten, and five were repeaters in futility again. Again, the bad typically stay fairly bad within a year. We're omitting those middle ten defenses where order is more changing and no particular advantage either way can be relied on.

The previous years performance is indicative, but not controlling of the future season. In order to gain some a better view of what could be expected from defenses, let's look at what the order is when you average the defensive rankings from the two years, but give twice the "weight" to the most recent year's rankings ((1995 x 2(1996))/3):

Weighted 10 Best Weighted 10 Worst
Pittsburgh Atlanta
Dallas Baltimore
Green Bay Cincinnati
Philadelphia Washington
Houston Seattle
San Francisco Arizona
Denver Detroit
Carolina New England
Oakland St. Louis
Buffalo New York Jets

Now looking at the result, mathematically sound and subjective only in weighting 1996, it would be difficult to argue that those are not ten very good, and very bad, defenses. And to further the analysis but spare you the spreadsheets, I have compared each team's schedule against the number of times they will play against a top or bottom ten defense. This will give me a feeling for the number of games that they will probably have an offensive advantage or disadvantage. Below is a listing of the ten best schedules in the NFL for 1997 using this measurement.

Team vs. Worst 10 Defenses vs. Best 10 Defenses 
New York Giants 
Indianapolis
Chicago 
New Orleans 
Pittsburgh 
Philadelphia 
Houston 
San Diego 
San Francisco 
Atlanta 

Using this, who would appear to have better chances at scoring? Since it is most useful for RB's, it indicates that Anderson, George, Watters, Faulk and Bettis get seven games against soft defenses. However, Anderson also faces the same number of good defenses. This is also useful for that time when you can be certain who the Giants, Bears, Saints, Chargers and Niners will be using at RB. It is not certainty, but I'll take probability over wild-ass guessing or ignorance any day.

And what is the reverse? Which teams face more imposing mach-ups that could most likely affect a RB?

Team vs. 10 Worst Defenses vs. 10 Best Defenses 
Kansas City 
Jacksonville 
Cincinnati 
Washington 
Dallas 
St. Louis 
Atlanta 
Seattle 
Arizona 

Does this mean to forget Emmitt Smith? Hardly, for the marquis players will overcome a stingy defense. Any true top ten player lines up every week regardless. But if you follow the weekly rise and fall of that top ten, you'll notice the number of players that enter and leave and these are often strongly correlated with the defenses they've played against. More often than not, a player who turns in an above average season performance for himself did so against a softer schedule. Knowing this can be useful for is considering those players who you find are "on the bubble" or in comparing two similar players. Determine the number of match-ups each player had that will prove difficult and adjust your evaluations accordingly.

This is also useful in determining who a sleeper may be for a season. When did someone have a breakout game against Pittsburgh? Green Bay? Philadelphia? Conversely, watch for those new players who step in during a string of soft games and pick them up when the time is right. While your fantasy team may be randomly pitted against another team which has no affect on your score, your players are trying to earn a living against some very big, violent men who are earning their money by preventing the opposing offense from doing their job. Looks like a break-out performance is far more likely with the Giants than in KC. Things to consider!

Lastly, this analysis is more than merely something to do in the off-season. It is not a golden rule and numbers do change, but on the whole you can increase your knowledge and drafting skill refining what to expect from your players. If you are any further interested in statistical analysis for trends, drop me a line and I'll send you the spreadsheet. This is actually only part of the preparations I do in evaluating players and if you want to take this to yet an even higher level of analysis, read my upcoming article on Dorey's Rule and the Draft. Later in the preseason, The Huddle will have at least one more article that will extend this schedule analysis to an even higher level.