Fantasy: Best/worst early-season schedules
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With the NFL releasing its regular-season schedule Thursday night, we can begin to infuse that information into our 2020 fantasy projections.

Injuries can have a major impact on the latter stages of the campaign, but focusing on the first few weeks can give you an advantage, opening the door for you to draft players set up for hot starts or to avoid those destined to struggle against an unusually tough streak of opponents. Players with difficult schedules in the early going are prime trade targets after the first few weeks when owners begin to question their value.

In the coming weeks, we'll publish a detailed fantasy strength-of-schedule matrix for the entire season, but for now, let's take a quick look at the teams with the best and worst early-season slates.

Best

Cleveland Browns

Week Opponent
1 at Ravens
2 vs. Bengals
3 vs. Redskins
4 at Cowboys

With head coach Kevin Stefanski now at the helm, Baker Mayfield and company are looking to rebound from a disappointing campaign and this schedule gives them an excellent chance to get off to a strong start.

Beginning against the Ravens' loaded defense isn't ideal, but Cleveland's outlook gets considerably better from there. The Bengals and Redskins allowed the fourth- and sixth-most yards from scrimmage, respectively, in 2019. As for the Cowboys, Jerry Jones' crew lost several key defensive starters, which will force them into plenty of shootouts this year.

Arizona Cardinals

Week Opponent
1 at 49ers
2 vs. Redskins
3 vs. Lions
4 at Panthers

Similar to the Browns, Arizona has the unenviable task of taking on a Super Bowl contender in Week 1. However, the Cardinals played the eventual NFC champions tough last season, losing a pair of close games 28-25 and 36-26. Even if DeAndre Hopkins can't propel his new club to a victory in the opener, the Cards will still have good shot to come out of September with a winning record.

The Redskins and Lions were near the bottom of the league in Football Outsiders' Defensive DVOA in 2019 and neither front office has done enough to solve their issues on that side of the ball. Meanwhile, the Panthers might have the NFL's worst defense on paper after losing Luke Kuechly, James Bradberry, and Mario Addison. With an offensive-minded coaching staff and plenty of skill position talent to put up points, Carolina will be a perfect matchup to attack in fantasy.

San Francisco 49ers

Week Opponent
1 vs. Cardinals
2 at Jets
3 at Giants
4 vs. Eagles

Despite helping lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl, questions remain about Jimmy Garoppolo's ability to take his game to another level in real life and fantasy. A divisional matchup in Week 1 can often be tricky, but Garoppolo torched the Cardinals last season, racking up 741 passing yards and eight touchdowns over two contests.

San Francisco should be favored big over both New York squads and having back-to-back games at MetLife Stadium is also a bonus, since it allows the Niners to spend the week in New York, which could be good for team building early in the year. If you were planning to target potential breakout stars like Deebo Samuel and Raheem Mostert, this early slate makes them even more appealing.

Honorable mentions

  • Chicago Bears
  • Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Los Angeles Chargers

Worst

New York Giants

Week Opponent
1 vs. Steelers
2 at Bears
3 vs. 49ers
4 at Rams

For all the excitement over the Giants' fantasy weapons and the additions made to their offensive line, this schedule is a punch in the mouth that will test them early.

Their blocking will face a gauntlet of some of the top pass-rushers, including T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and Aaron Donald just in the first month. The pressure does ease off a bit after that, so keep Giants players in mind as potential buy-low candidates after their first four outings.

Houston Texans

Week Opponent
1 at Chiefs
2 vs. Ravens
3 at Steelers
4 vs. Vikings

If you thought removing Hopkins from the Texans' lineup would max out the degree of difficulty for Deshaun Watson - you were wrong. While Houston's quarterback acclimates to life without an elite receiver, he'll be challenged by one of the hardest opening slates.

As enticing as is it to watch Watson battle with Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, the Chiefs and Ravens have done an outstanding job of building up their defenses. After those two must-see games, Watson will collide with the Steelers and Vikings, who both finished in the top five in sacks a year ago.

New York Jets

Week Opponent
1 at Bills
2 vs. 49ers
3 at Colts
4 vs. Broncos

If we've learned anything over the last few seasons, it's to keep our expectations in check for an Adam Gase offense. This schedule will help us do that.

The Bills and 49ers are among the league's most feared defensive units and it wasn't long ago that the Broncos were on that list as well. Under Vic Fangio, Denver is inching closer to reclaiming its spot. The Colts' defense is also improved after trading for Pro Bowl defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, and adding Philip Rivers should keep Indy's offense on the field for longer stretches.

If you're holding out hope for Sam Darnold, Le'Veon Bell, or any of the Jets' pass-catchers, you might need to exercise patience in the early part of the season.

Honorable mentions

  • Green Bay Packers
  • Las Vegas Raiders
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Fantasy: Best/worst early-season schedules
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