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Mass: Analyzing strength-of-schedule impact on team defenses

8/15/2008

When it comes to selecting your team defense on Draft Day, there are a lot of factors to take into account. Certainly, past performance, the talent level of the players on the team and any personnel changes over the offseason are all factors that do (and should) weigh in during the evaluation process. However, a lot of fantasy owners like to go that one step further and look to find a sleeper pick among the teams that will be facing a softer schedule in the upcoming season. While I am all in favor of going the extra step, there is one inherent problem with this particular plan. How do you determine what teams are going to be facing a tougher or easier schedule?

Where most people make the mistake is by looking at the strength-of-schedule lists easily available in many locations on the Internet, including here. While these lists make for a nice jumping off point for discussion and debate, they are completely useless to a fantasy player because they are based entirely on the 2007 combined win-loss record of each team's slate of opponents. The fact that the Steelers and Colts may be playing better 2007 teams than anyone else in the upcoming season doesn't tell you anything at all about how either team's defense will perform in 2008.

The concept of looking for a team defense that will be facing off against a schedule with weaker offensive squads is a very good one. After all, since many leagues award huge points to defenses for limiting the opposing offense's scoring totals and yardage output, it stands to reason that a team facing opponents that are more likely to struggle moving the ball up and down the field will have a greater chance at achieving fantasy success. That's not to say that a team can't be so bad defensively that even the worst offense in the league manages to run up 450 yards on it; it just means that the likelihood for success is greater for a team that isn't facing the expected top-scoring teams in the league week in and week out. We just need a better way to figure out which teams will be high scoring than by simply looking at last season's final standings.

So, what we're going to do is to total up all of the individual players' projected offensive statistics for each NFL offense (which can be found in the ESPN Draft Kit here) and use them to compile each team's total expected offensive output for the 2008 season. You don't want to use the actual 2007 stats for this analysis because it won't paint an accurate picture of the upcoming season. After all, Green Bay's offense under the leadership of Aaron Rodgers is not going to produce the same way it did last season with Brett Favre at the controls. The Lions may have been pass-happy in 2007, but they should be a bit more run-based with the departure of Mike Martz. Once we have those numbers in place, we can then use them to determine the expected total offensive output of each team's scheduled opponents for the season. Here's what the results of that process show:

So the Steelers do indeed have the "toughest" schedule for 2008. Remember, we're not basing this exclusively on past performance, but rather, what we project to be the actual level of play of the teams they will face this year. Conversely, the Saints defense should far and away have the easiest time of things in 2008. Now this doesn't mean I'm going to draft New Orleans as my team defense instead of Pittsburgh. Saying the Steelers have tougher opponents isn't equivalent to saying their actual performance will be worse. They may well have the talent to rise to the level of the offenses they will face, but even so, because of the level of competition, they'll likely have a tough time repeating 2007's top-rated defensive performance in yards allowed per game. Consequently, they're going to drop a bit on my personal charts. Similarly, the Saints, who finished 26th overall in yards per game last season, are going to get a huge bump on my list … probably not enough to make them draft-worthy as a starting unit, but certainly one to consider if my league makes me take a backup or as a possible bye-week replacement for my primary defense.

Based on these strength of schedule numbers, there are a few teams that I would consider to be sleepers to finish in the top 10, and that I might take a flier on if other owners jump on teams like San Diego, Dallas, New England and Minnesota early. They are Tampa Bay, the Jets, Oakland, Kansas City, and yes, even New Orleans. All of these teams have the potential for marked improvement from last season's numbers based on the expected level of opponents they are going to face during the season. Remember, the two worst defenses in 2006 (Tennessee and Washington) skyrocketed into the top 10 last season, so it's not like a dramatic turnaround hasn't happened before. It could happen again. And if it does, it's far more likely to happen to my sleeper picks than a team like Cincinnati, San Francisco or Cleveland.

AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.