Panthers, Bengals clear winners of NFL schedule for 2017 fantasy season

Kelvin Benjamin and the Panthers could thrive thanks to a favorable schedule in 2017. Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Not sure if the NFL is a big deal? Check out your Twitter feed, as the football world counted down the minutes to the release of its schedule on Thursday.

Yes, the 2017 NFL schedule is here. It's rich with revenge and narrative-driven matchups, but that's a topic for another column. In this piece, I'll be examining the slate down to the nuts and bolts. How does this schedule impact the fantasy landscape? Which players have the toughest/easiest go? Who has the coldest/warmest schedule (it matters)? How about the toughest and lightest cornerback matchups? Who will make the playoffs?

The analysis below is your next step in preparing for the 2017 fantasy football season.

Easiest opposing defenses

Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears

Same as last year, I need to kick this thing off by pointing out that my strength of schedule evaluation is not based off of 2016 results, which is often what you'll see in this type of column. There already has been a ton of roster movement this offseason, so all of that is factored into each team's 2017 prospects. My evaluation of each roster -- not last year's production -- is what I use to generate the easiest and toughest schedules.

That said, if you're invested in quarterback Cam Newton and are hoping for a bounce-back season, you're feeling good today. The toughest games for the Carolina offense will be meetings with New England and Minnesota. Otherwise, there's not much to fear. The defenses in New Orleans (two games), San Francisco, Buffalo and New York (Jets) supply the Panthers with several plus matchups. Upgrade your Panthers, including Newton, Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin and Jonathan Stewart. Be warned: This is not the last time Carolina will pop up in this column.

The four NFC North teams benefit from playing each other, as only the Vikings sport a particularly intimidating defense.

Toughest opposing defenses

San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Indianapolis Colts

Incredibly, the 49ers also topped this category last season. A Week 5 showdown with Indianapolis is easily the team's lightest matchup from a fantasy perspective. Chicago in Week 13 has some appeal, but otherwise, most of the 49ers' opponents are average or better defensively. This includes meetings with Seattle (twice), the New York Giants and improved AFC South defenses in Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville. New coach Kyle Shanahan will have his hands full maximizing the production of Carlos Hyde and Pierre Garcon.

Oakland has, by far, the worst defense in the AFC West, which is arguably the league's toughest and most competitive division. Denver and Kansas City remain in good shape defensively and the Los Angeles Chargers are quietly pretty loaded with young talent, as well. Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree should be downgraded slightly. The Colts' schedule includes Seattle and Denver in addition to the aforementioned improved divisional competition.

Easiest cornerback matchups

Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals

Benjamin and Devin Funchess won't face much opposition defensively this season. Carolina's big wideouts will match up with standouts Desmond Trufant (twice), Xavier Rhodes, Darius Slay and Brent Grimes, but otherwise, the schedule is super intriguing. The cornerback units in San Francisco, Buffalo, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York (Jets) have serious question marks. Benjamin should obviously be upgraded, and Funchess is looking even better as a post-hype, late-round target in his third year. Atlanta faces almost the same schedule as Carolina, but facing Seattle instead of San Francisco makes life slightly tougher.

Toughest cornerback matchups

Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns

The Titans face San Francisco in Week 15, but they otherwise face an average or better cornerback unit each week. Their slate includes showdowns with the likes of Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Richard Sherman, Vontae Davis, Joe Haden, Jimmy Smith, Patrick Peterson and Trumaine Johnson. This is not ideal for Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, and will be cause for concern for the impact rookie wide receiver the team inevitably selects in the draft.

Cleveland's slate is a bit more volatile. Kenny Britt and Corey Coleman shouldn't have much trouble with the Jets, Titans, Packers and Bears cornerback units, but the duo does face many quality units. They include Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore twice each, as well as Minnesota, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Chargers. Considering their uncertainty at quarterback, this is, once again, a passing game without much fantasy appeal.

Easiest opposing run defenses

Carolina Panthers, New York Jets, Denver Broncos

There are a lot of mock drafts out there and many of them have Carolina selecting a tailback with its first-round pick. If that happens, the rookie back will join veteran Stewart in position for an efficient 2017 season. The Panthers face what I view as a below-average run defense during 10 of their 16 games. Their toughest matchups will be against the Jets (Week 12) and Eagles (Week 6), which says a lot about just how easy this slate is. The likes of Bilal Powell, Matt Forte, C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker also figure to benefit from a favorable 2017 schedule.

Toughest opposing run defenses

San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals

We already determined that the 49ers have a tough 2017 schedule, and the pain extends to their running game. Hyde is a terrific back in his prime years, but he'll face an above-average run defense during 12 of 16 games. That includes Seattle (twice), Jacksonville, Houston, the L.A. Rams and New York Giants. Especially considering the 49ers could address running back during next week's draft, Hyde is not a bad player to sell in dynasty leagues.

Frank Gore is a candidate for a step back at age 34 and with a rookie back likely to join the mix. David Johnson's rushing efficiency already wasn't great last season, but he'll be fine from a fantasy perspective thanks to a massive role as a receiver.

Easiest opposing pass defenses

Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings

I warned you we'd see Carolina quite a bit. The Panthers have as easy a fantasy slate as you'll find this season. They face four above-average pass defenses, and their toughest matchup, by far, is Minnesota. Their schedule is exceptionally light in the first half and includes meetings with San Francisco, Buffalo, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago and Tampa Bay.

The Falcons lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco, but history shows that teams that score at such an absurdly high rate tend to rank among the league's top offenses again the following season. A light schedule will only help the cause for Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and tight end breakout candidate Austin Hooper. It's hard to get too excited about super-conservative Sam Bradford, but Kyle Rudolph, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Laquon Treadwell stand to benefit from a light schedule.

Toughest opposing pass defenses

Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans

Andrew Luck is one of the game's top quarterbacks, but he'll have his hands full this season. Luck will face off with Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville twice. Cincinnati, Denver, Baltimore, Arizona and the L.A. Rams are also on the slate. Denver and Baltimore actually pop up during the fantasy playoffs, which obviously curbs some of Luck's appeal. Based on earlier topics, it should be no surprise that Oakland and Tennessee pop up here as well.

Warmest schedule

Overall: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins

Road: Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans

Offensive scoring and passing efficiency are among the statistical categories that benefit from warm weather, which makes this a worthwhile variable to take a quick look at. Jameis Winston and Ryan Tannehill play their home games in Florida, which helps them to average game temperatures of 70 and 68 degrees, respectively.

The Panthers and Titans are two playoff contenders that will be helped out by their 2017 slate. Carolina's Week 12 trip to New York to play the Jets is its coldest-projected road game (50 degrees). The Titans head to Cleveland and Pittsburgh during the middle of the season, but their final three road games are against Indianapolis (dome), Arizona and San Francisco.

Coldest schedule

Overall: Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns

Road: Cleveland Browns

From Weeks 7 to 16, the projected average temperature of Packers games is 43 degrees, but hey, at least they finish up the regular season indoors in Detroit. Green Bay heads to Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Carolina after Week 9.

Speaking of Cleveland, the Browns' road slate isn't too bad until the second half of the season. They open up with Baltimore and then play three games in stadiums with domes or retractable roofs (Indianapolis, Houston, Detroit). Cincinnati in Week 12 and Los Angeles in Week 13 are next, but this is where it gets really tough. The projected temperature for a Week 16 trip to Chicago is 35 degrees, and for a Week 17 game in Pittsburgh, it's 32 degrees.

Easiest overall schedule

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals made the playoffs five consecutive seasons prior to falling to 6-9-1 last season. The defense still played pretty well, but the offense was annihilated by offseason losses and injuries to A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. A rebound was already a decent bet, and the league's easiest schedule only helps their odds. Cincinnati faces 10 teams I view as below average, including Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit and two matchups with Cleveland. The offensive line losses hurt, but expect the Bengals to rejoin playoff contention again this season.

Toughest overall schedule

New York Jets

The Jets' roster is not in good shape and a brutal schedule only amplifies their issues. The slate actually isn't too bad early on with Buffalo and Cleveland on the docket, but it gets much tougher in the second half. I grade eight of their final 11 opponents as at least above-average teams. That includes a pair of meetings with New England, as well as showdowns with Atlanta, Carolina, Kansas City, Denver, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Chargers.

Projected AFC seeds

1. Patriots; 2. Steelers; 3. Titans; 4. Chargers; 5. Bengals; 6. Colts

The 2016 champion Patriots are well positioned for another Super Bowl run. I have concerns about the Steelers' defense, but the Ben Roethlisberger-led offense won't struggle to score. The Titans and Chargers are two teams poised to make a run for their respective division titles. Tennessee's defense is in good shape, so a lot will fall on Marcus Mariota's progress. Many view my affection for the Chargers as a head-scratcher, but this division is very much up for grabs. The Chargers are quietly pretty stacked defensively and deep with offensive weapons. They have the easiest schedule in the division, which helps separate them from Kansas City, Denver and Oakland. Those three teams join Baltimore, Houston and Jacksonville as the top wild-card contenders.

Projected NFC seeds

1. Falcons; 2. Seahawks; 3. Packers; 4. Cowboys; 5. Cardinals; 6. Saints

The NFC isn't quite as exciting, with all four 2016 division winners rising to the top again. Dallas' secondary took a beating in free agency, but I think the offense is good enough to hold down the fort, especially with the Giants struggling so badly offensively last season. Arizona's defense also lost a few key components, but this remains a talented team that was bit hard by variance last season. The Saints' defense isn't very good, but it's better than in past years. Combined with Drew Brees' high-scoring offense, it's hard not to view them as a strong wild-card contender. The Panthers, Vikings and the rest of the NFC East are also .500 teams that could sneak into a wild card.

Projected 2018 NFL draft top 10

1. Browns; 2. Jets; 3. 49ers; 4. Rams; 5. Bears; 6. Bills; 7. Buccaneers; 8. Lions; 9. Dolphins; 10. Ravens

There aren't many surprises among the top five, as these are teams clearly in need of major improvements. I like Tyrod Taylor, but the Buffalo defense ranks among the league's worst. The Buccaneers are a tricky team; I want to like them, but they have an OK offense, pedestrian defense and a tough schedule. I wouldn't be surprised if they blew my expectations away, but I'm cautiously pessimistic. I expect Detroit and Miami to come crashing back to earth after surprising 2016 playoff runs.