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The fantasy strength of schedule matrix is used to determine the overall difficulty of players' matchups from Week 1 to Week 18.
The No. 1 rank means the team is forecasted to see the easiest slate, while No. 32 will face defenses projected to allow the fewest fantasy points to that position.
Our model takes into account several variables, including historical defensive data, offseason roster changes, new coaching staffs, home/road splits, and individual player matchups.
This table shouldn't ultimately decide whether you draft someone, but rather serve as an additional data point to help break ties between players you're considering. The impact on players at the extremes (green or red) will be far greater than the differences among those in the middle range (yellow).
Several teams with quarterback competitions will face softer schedules, including the Patriots (first), Broncos (third), 49ers (fifth), and Saints (10th). Regardless of who wins those starting jobs, they could be nice fantasy values given the weaker string of opponents and relatively low cost to acquire them in drafts.
If Aaron Rodgers does return to the Packers this season, he'll have to overcome the most difficult defensive gauntlet facing any passer in 2021. Green Bay has 11 games against pass defenses projected to be above average. And one of his easiest matchups (versus the Lions) is tucked away in Week 18 when fantasy managers won't be able to take advantage. If Rodgers sits out or is traded, this could be a disaster for whoever replaces him.
Though some may have concerns about the Steelers' offensive line, their schedule - one of the least daunting across all positions - should help take some of the pressure off. That's especially true at running back, which is graded out first overall, setting up rookie Najee Harris for a strong debut season. Entering the year, Harris can be viewed as a solid RB2 with RB1 upside. Only two of Pittsburgh's 2021 opponents ranked in the top 15 of Football Outsiders' run defense DVOA last season. Fellow rookies Javonte Williams (second) and Travis Etienne (seventh) should also benefit from their Year 1 docket.
If you're trying to decide which sophomore runner to invest in, it's worth noting the schedules for Jonathan Taylor, Cam Akers, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire came in fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively. The needle doesn't move much for J.K. Dobbins (14th) and Antonio Gibson (15th), but D'Andre Swift has his work cut out for him with a downgrade at quarterback and the 31st-toughest slate. Though Swift might be the most skilled of the bunch, the deck is slightly stacked against him this season.
The Buccaneers have a committee brewing in their backfield with Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, Giovani Bernard, and Ke'Shawn Vaughn. The defending Super Bowl champs also have the strongest strength of schedule in the league for running backs. It's a situation to stay away from unless someone emerges with the lead role before the season - and even that might not be enough to make them a weekly difference-maker in fantasy.
The arrival of Stafford at quarterback is a major boon to the fantasy projections for wideouts Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. When you pair that with a top-five fantasy schedule among receivers, we could be looking at career years from both. Fantasy managers hunting for offenses to take a significant step up in 2021 should have the Rams at or near the top of the list.
The Panthers are another team betting on a quarterback change. Sam Darnold is far less proven than Stafford, but his escape from Adam Gase and a dysfunctional Jets team makes a delayed breakout possible and raises the ceiling for Carolina's offense. The presence of star wideouts D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, as well as a promising rookie in Terrace Marshall Jr., makes for an intriguing passing attack that'll encounter the eighth-best schedule. The Panthers also have the most positive rest edge this season, according to Warren Sharp.
After a disappointing rookie campaign with the Raiders, the schedule-makers weren't kind to Henry Ruggs. The 2020 first-rounder and his teammates will have to deal with the most challenging schedule of any receiver room in the NFL. There's still hope for Ruggs, but the degree of difficulty has been ratcheted up once again. That's great news for tight end Darren Waller, who already dominated targets last season and now gets a more friendly SOS outlook, as well.
When examining potential breakout tight ends, keep in mind that guys like Irv Smith Jr., Cole Kmet, Anthony Firkser, and Gerald Everett all land in the bottom six when it comes to strength of schedule. That's not to say they won't transcend their arduous 17-game tests, but it could prevent them from making a massive jump into the top 10 at the position.
Uncertainty over how targets will be distributed between free-agent additions Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry has led to both players dropping in fantasy drafts. Perhaps we need to rethink their value, though, based on the fact the Patriots didn't draft pass-catching help until the seventh round and their tight ends will go up against the easiest fantasy schedule this season. This is still a draft-at-your-own-risk offense for fantasy, but big numbers aren't out of the question if Smith or Henry can take the lead.
Even with their excellent schedules, fantasy managers should be wary of Eric Ebron (second), Mike Gesicki (third), and Noah Fant (fourth). Though all three have the potential to deliver productive seasons, their offenses are extremely crowded at the moment. Fant is still someone I'm willing to target, since we haven't seen his peak yet and it's possible Rodgers ends up under center in Denver. Ebron and Gesicki have fallen down my rankings due to a lack of faith they'll be able to overcome the aforementioned volume concerns.