With the NFL schedule release, we finally have a full picture of the fantasy layout for the pending 2021 season. When using strength of schedule for fantasy purposes, we never want to over-extend ourselves and look too far down the line. The NFL is a fluid game with a lot of variance, so attempting to plan for Weeks 15-17 in the fantasy playoffs is much tougher to do. A lot of teams will look much different at the close of the season than the open of the season and many of the teams we’re projecting to be strong or poor in an area can flip.
That said, we can use that opening outlook to our advantage in planning on coming out of the blocks with our best foot forward. The two positions where I particularly look for a schedule advantage and believe actually carry a matchup influence are at the quarterback and team DST.
I am not weighing schedules and opponents heavily in for the running back and pass catchers, but I am always entering a draft with the mindset to use advantageous starts out for passers. With the tightly linear scoring of the position on a per-game basis, the position has become replaceable from a top-down view. Very few starting quarterbacks are worth the full 16- or 17-week squeeze in a given season.
I absolutely will take a high-end passer that falls to the right cost and I particularly want to take a passer that offers dual-threat ability. But so does the rest of your fantasy league as those dual-purpose quarterbacks are the most expensive players at the position now. If you do miss out on one of those elite options or you are also someone who likes to wait as long as possible on selecting their fantasy quarterback, then you know that sometimes when flying into the sun of late-round quarterback that you may end up taking a passer built around a great opening schedule over a full season expectation of starting.
Sometimes this even leads to a full-season starter like Lamar Jackson in 2019. Although he was not a late-round option last season, Josh Allen’s opening schedule was a big component of why he was part of our initial plans at the quarterback position and he turned out to be the highest-scoring player at his position over the season.
Using the strength of schedule tool available at Sharp Football Stats, there are a plethora of data points and options to adjust for. Taking that tool and looking at the passing blend (combining efficiency and explosive plays) schedules over the opening month of the season, we can highlight some passers with favorable opening outlooks from a matchup perspective.
NFL Pass Efficiency Schedule Weeks 1-4
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
WK1: @ LV
WK2: vs KC
WK3: @ DET
WK4: @ DEN
Jackson was already one of the winners exiting the NFL Draft as the Ravens made a concentrated effort to give him more wide receiving options in the draft. The Ravens are no strangers to starting out of the gates on fire. Under John Harbaugh, Baltimore is 10-3 in their season openers, winning their past five Week 1 games by a combined score of 177-26.
In Jackson’s two season openers, he has passed for the most yards he did in each of those seasons. Baltimore opens with a Raiders defense that was 28th in EPA as a pass defense and 22nd in passing points allowed per attempt and made marginal improvements on their roster this offseason.
Jackson does open with three road games, but gets two indoors versus the Raiders and Lions (who were dead last in EPA as a pass defense last season and dead last in explosive plays allowed as a pass defense). The Chiefs have had the Ravens’ number in this rivalry and have held Jackson to 5.4 yards per pass attempt over the past three meetings, but Jackson has still managed to tack on 71, 46, and 83 rushing yards in those games.
Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
WK1: @ TEN
WK2: vs MIN
WK3: @ JAX
WK4: @ LAR
Murray could run into a sticky Week 4 matchup (although the Rams have lost a few contributors on the back end as well as their defensive coordinator), but the opening three weeks here are as strong as you could hope for against pass defenses that were 27th, 25th, and 31st in EPA defending the pass in 2020. Only the Vikings have really made moves to suggest that they could make a significant stride forward in 2021. In 16 career games against bottom-half pass defenses, Murray has averaged 259.6 passing yards per game and 7.8 Y/A as opposed to 6.4 Y/A, 221.3 passing yards per game otherwise.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
WK1: @ IND
WK2: vs TEN
WK3: @ MIN
WK4: @ SF
No quarterback has played his best football early in the season over the past two years like Wilson has.
Wilson First Half/Second Half Season Splits 2019-2020
Wilson has had just five top-10 scoring weeks post Week 8 in 16 games the past two seasons as opposed to 10 in games over the front halves of those seasons. While these splits can be considered more happenstance than an official trend, Wilson has been an early-season fantasy demon the past two years.
This season, he opens with two games indoors (Indy isn’t technically indoors, but close enough) and draws two bottom-10 pass defenses in EPA from a year ago (TEN and MIN) while the Colts were middle of the pack (16th). From a pressure created standpoint, all four of these teams were in the back half of the league as well.
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
WK1: @ CIN
WK2: @ ARI
WK3: vs SEA
WK4: vs CLE
Now that we have touches on three passers that will require high draft capital, let’s move on to some that you can wait on at the position.
Cousins has been a bit of a real-life punching bag, but he has been a steady performer on the stat sheet. Cousins has thrown 25 or more touchdown passes in six straight seasons. Over the past two years, Cousins has ranked fifth and sixth in the league in passing points per attempt and seventh and third in yards per pass attempt.
Despite the efficiency, the thing holding Cousins back from elevating past QB2 status (he has ranked as the QB13, QB16, and QB11 in fantasy scoring over his three seasons in Minnesota) has been that he has ranked 29th and 26th in pass attempts per game over those seasons.
While with the Vikings, Cousins has 19 games against bottom-10 pass defenses (all four of these teams were that in 2020), averaging 9.4 Y/A and 278.3 passing yards per game in those contests compared to 7.2 Y/A and 245.9 yards per game otherwise. Cousins not only has this great layout to open, but he also gets DET, CAR, and DAL over his next three games after these listed through Week 8 (the Minnesota bye is Week 7). If you are a gamer that wants to stash either Justin Fields or Trey Lance until they take over the starter, Cousins is an ideal bridge option that is more than affordable to pair up with one of those rookies.
Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers
WK1: vs NYJ
WK2: vs NO
WK3: @ HOU
WK4: @ DAL
Darnold was another one of our big post-draft winners at the position as he will have his best supporting cast of playmakers of his career and no viable backup on the roster to press him. Darnold still has much to answer on his own merit as his 6.3 yards per pass attempt from a clean pocket last season were ahead of only Mike Glennon and Nick Foles in 2020, but we should have a solid feel for what we can expect from Darnold early in the season as he draws three stellar streaming matchups we piggy-backed on a year ago against the Jets, Texans, and Cowboys. Dallas is the most improved of those defenses this offseason, but still are littered with question marks as far as their secondary.
We are always a sucker for a good revenge game narrative, and Darnold opening the season versus the Jets is too perfect. While Robert Saleh was brought in to turn around this defense, as of right now, New York still is lacking the personnel at cornerback.
Jets CB situation:
Blessuan Austin (2019 6th)
Bryce Hall (2020 5th)
Javelin Guidry (2020 UD)
Lamar Jackson (2020 UD)
Michael Carter II (2021 5th)
Jason Pinnock (2021 5th)
Brandin Echols (2021 6th)
Corey Ballentine (2019 6th)
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) May 11, 2021
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
WK1: @ KC
WK2: vs HOU
WK3: vs CHI
WK4: @ MIN
Last season, Mayfield rebounded across the board off his 2019 efficiency numbers in completion rate (62.8%), yards per attempt (7.3 Y/A), and touchdown rate (5.4%). For fantasy, Mayfield has struggled to make a huge impact, closing as the QB25 in points per game (15.5), but he was strong when the Browns found a favorable schedule to close the season.
Mayfield played two poor pass defenses (LV and HOU) in wind storms last season where nobody could throw a forward pass, but outside of those two games, we saw Mayfield throw for 8.0 Y/A 0.66 passing points per attempt against the other six bottom-half passing defenses he faced as opposed to 6.9 Y/A and 0.38 passing points per attempt outside of those weeks.
Mayfield’s biggest career bugaboo so far has been his splits versus pressure and 2020 was no different. Mayfield averaged 8.1 Y/A from a clean pocket last season as opposed to 4.5 Y/A under pressure. That 3.6 Y/A difference under pressure ranked 37th at the position. Outside of the Chiefs, all of Houston (26th), Chicago (22nd), and Minnesota (29th) were at the bottom of the league in pressure rate in 2020.
One thing you surely noticed in the table above is that both the Bears and 49ers open with two of the strongest passing schedules in 2021. While we have a strong idea that both Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will be immediate starters in Week 1, there is more of a question for when both Justin Fields and Trey Lance will get their first start in early May.
Does the opening schedule favor either getting on the field early or does it provide a runway for Andy Dalton and Jimmy Garoppolo to postpone each from starting?
Chicago opens with a potentially sticky matchup versus the Rams, but then draws the Bengals, Browns, Lions and Raiders. The Bears’ bye does not come until Week 10. A good schedule also may not mean much for Dalton. The veteran passer is coming off completing 64.9% of his passes with 6.5 yards per pass attempt with a much more talented Cowboys offense last season while averaged 6.8 Y/A from a clean pocket (37th).
The 49ers open with games @ DET, @ PHI, GB, SEA, and @ ARI before their Week 6 bye. The interesting thing about Garoppolo is that he has actually turned in better performances against higher-caliber pass defenses with San Francisco than the bottom dwellers. Garoppolo has turned in 8.1 Y/A and 226.1 passing yards per game against bottom-10 pass defenses versus 8.6 Y/A and 240.6 passing yards per game otherwise.
As for Lawrence and Wilson, each of those Week 1 starters draw favorable opening outlooks. Lawrence opens with games @ HOU, DEN, ARI, @ CIN, TEN over his first five weeks. Outside of that early trip to Denver, the other four games offer upside and streaming ability.
Wilson opens his career up with games @ CAR, NE, @ DEN, TEN, @ ATL. While there are a couple of sketchy spots in there against the Patriots (who have notoriously mushed rookie passers under Bill Belichik) and also on the road against the Broncos, the matchups versus the Panthers, Titans, and Falcons will offer some matchup-based intrigue.
- Jalen Hurts draws three pass defenses that were in the bottom-half of the league in EPA as a pass defense while the one game versus a top-half defense over that stretch comes against a 49ers defense that has ranked 31st and 30th in rushing yards allowed to quarterbacks the past two seasons. Out of the non-elite passers, Hurts has the most upside in turning in a Lamar Jackson/Josh Allen type of fantasy breakout we have seen over the past two seasons.
- Joe Burrow continues to trend positively towards starting the season after tearing his ACL in Week 10 last season. If there are no setbacks, Burrow and the Bengals open the season with home matchups against the Vikings and Jaguars over the opening four weeks with games against the Jets and Raiders over the opening 10 weeks of the season.
- Tua Tagovailoa does not get a great opening start to the season at New England and then at home versus Buffalo (and then Tampa Bay in Week 5), but does have matchups versus the Raiders, Jaguars, Falcons, and Texans over his opening nine games.
- We will have to wait and see how the quarterback competition plays out for Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater (or if Denver pulls off landing Aaron Rodgers), but Denver has games @ JAX, NYJ, and LV in three of their opening five games.