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With the NFL releasing its regular-season schedule Wednesday night, we can begin to infuse that information into our 2021 fantasy projections.
Injuries can have a major impact on the campaign's latter stages, 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 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 year, but for now, let's take a quick look at the teams with the easiest and hardest early-season slates.
The Bucs kick off their attempt at a repeat with a pair of shootouts against the high-powered attacks of the Cowboys and Falcons. Both opponents are loaded at the skill positions but feature below-average defensive units - so expect Tom Brady and Co. to come out of the gates firing in September.
Though the battle with Aaron Donald and the Rams isn't ideal in Week 3, Brady will be plenty motivated to stay on pace in an effort to break the all-time passing yards record in a Week 4 showdown with his former club - the New England Patriots.
Despite putting Denver on the road for its first two contests, the schedule-makers were kind to the Broncos at the start of the year. They open with three matchups against teams that ranked in the bottom half of the league in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA for 2020 (NYG - 19th, JAX - 31st, NYJ - 21st).
While the Giants have shown improvement on that side of the ball, the Jags and Jets offer an opportunity for the Broncos' offense to find their rhythm regardless of who's under center to open the season.
Putting aside a Week 2 meeting with a stout Saints' defense, the Panthers will have a fairly soft beginning to the Sam Darnold era. The Jets allowed the third-most fantasy points to quarterbacks last season, and the 2018 first-round pick will be driven to keep that trend going against his former club in Week 1.
Surrounded by one of the best sets of weapons in the NFL, including Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr., Darnold should also be able to capitalize on favorable matchups with the Texans (sixth-most fantasy points allowed to QBs) in Week 3 and Cowboys (20th most) in Week 4.
If Darnold struggles during those less challenging games in the first month, it'll be safe to question whether he's the long-term answer to Carolina's search for a franchise passer.
Vegas' early-season schedule is so difficult, it makes you do a double-take the first time you read it. Not only do they face the Ravens, Steelers, and Dolphins in the first three weeks, the Raiders' next three contests pit them up against the Chargers, Bears, and Broncos.
That's six straight outings against quality defenses, many of which added more talent to their arsenals this offseason.
Darren Waller should be matchup proof for the most part, but this is bad news for the fantasy outlooks of Josh Jacobs and any of the Raiders' receivers you may have been considering as sleepers. There's not much of a buy-low opportunity either, as Jon Gruden's crew has the worst strength of schedule for the year.
Now that Matthew Stafford is in town, the Rams are an offense we should all be hoping to roster pieces of this season. However, be prepared for some growing pains in the opening month, as they encounter three defenses that finished among the top 11 in fewest total yards allowed last year.
This gauntlet of menacing opponents might worry some, but it'll be a speed bump that merely delays those bigger days that are guaranteed to come as the schedule eases up in October and beyond.
After getting a friendly start to the 2020 season followed by a much more difficult second half, the Bills are about to experience the opposite effect this campaign.
Pittsburgh and Washington have strong cases to be the league's best defense in 2021, with the Dolphins not far behind. All three clubs ranked among the top six in Football Outsiders' pass defense DVOA a year ago.
For a team like the Bills that's built their offense around the passing game, this will be a real test to see whether they're ready to take the next step and become true Super Bowl contenders. If they stumble in the early going due to this rough slate, don't hesitate to make trade offers for Buffalo's stars like Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs.