There are a lot of factors that can go into deciding which player to select when your turn comes up during your fantasy draft. Certainly, there's pure ability to consider, as well as the type of offense a team runs, and the supporting cast around a particular player, just to name a few. But even after doing all of your homework, it can still be very difficult to decide between two or three players at the same position who are pretty much equal on paper. That's when you have to try and look a little deeper, and get away from the intangibles and into something far more tangible: the NFL schedule.
Players earn fantasy points according to the stats they accumulate on the field, and the players who face the weakest opposition over the course of the season are the ones who are more likely to put up the gaudy numbers on a consistent basis and earn you that championship trophy. Now, you're still going to want to draft your perennial studs in the first couple of rounds. Even the toughest schedule in the world is not going to turn Peyton Manning into his brother Eli, and if Jacksonville happens to have a much easier schedule than San Diego, I'm not going to tell you to make that first overall pick of LT go by the name of LaBrandon Toefield instead of LaDainian Tomlinson. What I am going to tell you is that when faced with a choice in the later rounds between players of roughly equal ability, the better bet is to go with the guy who is facing the easier schedule.
So the first thing we have to do is decide how to rank the NFL's defenses as they relate to fantasy football. The simplest way to do this is to try to project which teams are likely to give up the most yards of offense. Why? Because in most leagues the majority of fantasy points are awarded based on the number of yards a player gains. Yes, touchdowns are a huge part of the equation, but if you're not gaining any yards, you're not scoring. It's the yardage that counts most. However, there are other factors to consider. Teams that have a good running offense, like the Chargers, tend to go on longer drives and eat up the clock, keeping their defense fresher and, more importantly, the other team's offense off the field.
Teams with an explosive offense like the Colts tend to strike quickly, forcing their defense back out onto the field without as much recovery time as is necessary for peak performance. In addition, because they often play with such a huge lead, teams like Indianapolis will often allow lots of garbage-time yardage toward the end of the game. While this has absolutely no impact on the NFL result, it can make a huge difference in your fantasy game. Many a fantasy team has lost thanks in large part to meaningless fourth-quarter touchdown drives by your opponent's players facing an incredibly lax prevent defense.
Similarly, a team with a totally inept offense will also see a lot of three and outs, forcing its defense to become overworked. Defenses like the Redskins' have very little chance at success when they seemingly spend the entire game on the field. A defense like Oakland's proved itself to be more than competent last season, but when there's zero offense, and the opposition keeps taking possession in the red zone thanks to countless turnovers, the fantasy stats against the Raiders begin to add up quickly, in spite of the efforts of the defensive unit.
Taking these factors into play, how the teams stacked up last season, along with player personnel and coaching changes among other things, we can project which NFL defenses are likely to earn the most fantasy points in the upcoming season, and determine which teams you don't want to see your own starting lineup squaring off against. Here is a list of the best and worst of the lot:
Armed with this information, we can take a look at the NFL schedule and assign a value to each team based on how many tough, strong, weak and easy defenses they will face over the course of the upcoming season. The higher the number, the more difficult the schedule. Here's how things shake out:
So what does this all mean to you, the fantasy player? As we've been saying, given the choice between players of equal abilities, you should go with the player who is going to face the easier schedule. If you're looking to pick up a quarterback, and your choice is between Vince Young, Philip Rivers and Jon Kitna, selecting the man from Tennessee, who has the easiest schedule by far, makes the most sense.
Who should you pick when faced with the option of Bernard Berrian, Matt Jones or Greg Jennings? Maybe you like Jennings because he's got Brett Favre throwing to him. That's OK, but I'm going to go with Matt Jones and take my chances that Byron Leftwich finds him often against Houston and Indianapolis (both twice), Atlanta and New Orleans.
Strength of schedule is a primary reason I would choose Carnell Williams over Marion Barber or Brandon Jacobs. It's why I'd rather select Bo Scaife over Chris Baker as my backup tight end. It's a large reason why a Wes Welker or a Brandon Jones is a much better selection than Nate Burleson or Peerless Price. Again, I'm not going to look at the numbers and decide to pass up Shaun Alexander for Edgerrin James. But I will give old Edge the nod over equally old Jamal Lewis.
Strength of schedule is an excellent tool a fantasy player should not overlook when deciding which players to select come draft day. But the usefulness of strength of schedule doesn't end once the season gets underway. In Part 2 of this story, we'll see how we can use this tool all season long to help make the right in-season moves to take your team all the way to the title.
A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.