Yet another landmark has been reached during the 2018 offseason. The NFL schedule is here.
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? How does it look against the pass and run? How about the toughest and lightest cornerback matchups? Who will make the playoffs?
The analysis below is your next step in preparing for the 2018 fantasy football season. Note that I'll be excluding Week 17 from the fantasy categories -- since many leagues finish a week earlier -- though including it has only a minor impact on the findings.
Easiest opposing defenses
I need to kick this thing off by pointing out that my strength-of-schedule evaluation is not based off of final 2017 records, 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 2018 prospects. My evaluation of each roster -- not last year's production -- is what I use to generate the easiest and toughest schedules.
The Bears had a busy offseason. John Fox is out and Matt Nagy is in as head coach. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton were injected into an offense that also includes dynamic backfield duo Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, as well as 2017 second-overall pick Mitchell Trubisky. There was already 2017 Los Angeles Rams-ish optimism surrounding this offense and the league's lightest fantasy schedule only adds to the hype.
Chicago benefits from the NFC North facing off with the NFC South and AFC East. Seattle's defense isn't what it used to be and Arizona and San Francisco both have holes or unknowns on that side of the ball. The AFC East is arguably as top-heavy as it has ever been during the Tom Brady era with the Dolphins, Bills and Jets all in rough shape for the current season. The Bears also will face the Buccaneers and Giants and they benefit in fantasy by playing one of their Minnesota games in Week 17. There's obviously some risk here considering the new regime and an unproven quarterback, but the light schedule means we should be upgrading Chicago's skill players in fantasy (more to come on the specifics).
Minnesota, Jacksonville, New England and San Francisco round out the top five in this category. Consider that the Patriots will play 38 percent of their schedule against the Bills, Jets and Dolphins.
Toughest opposing defenses
If you sit down to evaluate all 32 NFL offenses, you might come to the same conclusion as I did, that Pittsburgh has the league's most-talented unit on paper. The offensive line is terrific and the quarterback, running back and top three wide receiver slots are filled with good or great players. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Steelers' loaded offense will face the league's toughest schedule in 2018.
For starters, the AFC North is tougher than it's been in a while, top to bottom. Baltimore's defense is still very good and Cincinnati returns most personnel from a unit that quietly allowed the 10th-fewest touchdowns last season. Cleveland still has some holes, but the roster talent is much improved from years past. AFC North teams will face the AFC West (Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City, Denver, Oakland) and the vaunted NFC South (New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay). The Broncos, Panthers and Chiefs have taken a step back, but are still solid, and the Bucs and Raiders are both better defensively. The Steelers also will face two top-five defenses in New England and Jacksonville. Their skill players are still good fantasy targets, but a rough 2018 slate means we'll need to knock them down a spot or two in the ranks.
Indianapolis, Tennessee, Kansas City, New Orleans and the New York Giants round out the top six in this category.
Easiest opposing run defenses
Baltimore's toughest matchup is Denver in Week 3 and otherwise faces an average or worse run defense in 11 of 14 games prior to Week 17. Similarly, Green Bay, Carolina and New England aren't projected to face any severely tough defenses against the run. The likes of Alex Collins, Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Christian McCaffrey and Rex Burkhead stand to benefit.
Toughest opposing run defenses
This is an important one to consider during draft weekend. The Redskins are likely to select an impact running back on Day 1 or 2 of the draft and the team's newest tailback will be in for a rough slate during his rookie campaign. Washington is without a single "very easy" matchup, and faces an above-average run defense nearly every week. This includes five straight to end the season (Eagles, Giants, Jaguars, Titans, and the Eagles again in Week 17).
Easiest opposing pass defenses
Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons
As noted earlier, Chicago doesn't face Minnesota's Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes-led secondary a second time until Week 17. Additionally, Trubisky will benefit from a season-opening slate that includes Green Bay, Seattle, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Miami. His sleeper appeal continues to rise.
Atlanta might seem surprising considering the loaded NFC South, but the Buccaneers and Panthers both failed to improve weak secondaries during free agency. Matt Ryan and Co.'s toughest assignments are the Eagles, Bengals and Ravens, and all come before the fantasy playoffs begin.
Toughest opposing pass defenses
I show Kansas City as facing a better-than-average pass defense during nine of its 15 outings this season. That includes a pair of tough matchups with the division-rival Chargers and showdowns with the Jaguars and Rams. Oakland, which is actually improved defensively, is arguably the easiest matchup for the Chiefs' passing game, but one of those matchups comes in Week 17. Patrick Mahomes is an exciting but risky fantasy target and a tough schedule hurts his appeal.
Jacksonville, Houston and Tennessee project as quality teams against the pass this season and the trio accounts for one-third of the Colts' pre-Week 17 schedule and 27 percent of the Titans' slate.
Easiest cornerback matchups
Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers
Chicago's light 2018 slate also includes outstanding matchups for its wide receivers, though this figures to apply more to the team's No. 2 and 3 receivers and less to Robinson. The ex-Jaguars standout has a very nice early-season schedule (Green Bay, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Miami), but he's likely to be shadowed by the likes of Patrick Peterson, Stephon Gilmore, Darius Slay (twice), Xavier Rhodes, Janoris Jenkins and also will face the Rams' and Jets' improved perimeter corners. Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White and whomever the team adds to replace Cameron Meredith should be on your sleeper radar.
Toughest cornerback matchups
Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Chiefs have a brutal cornerback slate in 2018. The schedule includes the Chargers (twice), Broncos (twice), Steelers, 49ers (hello Richard Sherman), Jaguars, Patriots, Bengals, Browns (added E.J. Gaines and TJ Carrie), Rams and Ravens. In most cases, these defenses have, at least, a good one-two punch on the perimeter. That means trouble for both Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill. Both are super-talented players with explosive playmaking ability, but when you can say the same about the defenders they'll be facing, it's something that needs to be considered on draft day.
The Steelers' tough slate is notable, but Antonio Brown has proven matchup-proof for the most part and his early-season slate is very light. Slot man JuJu Smith-Schuster will avoid a lot of the tough corners, leaving Martavis Bryant in the toughest spot.
Easiest overall schedule
New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers
The Patriots seem to lead or end up near the top of this category every year and there are two key reasons why: 1. Unlike 13 other teams, they don't have to play the Patriots and 2. They get to play the Dolphins, Bills and Jets twice per year. As noted earlier, New England's three division rivals remain in rough shape. Miami dumped quite a few talented players during the offseason (including Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh), Buffalo got worse and has arguably the league's worst quarterback situation and though New York made nice additions (Trumaine Johnson, Avery Williamson), it also lost a few solid players (Demario Davis, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kony Ealy, Austin Seferian-Jenkins) and still has many roster voids. The Patriots have a relatively easy path to another 12-plus wins in 2018.
The Chargers' roster is in outstanding shape, and this is a team that was a bungled field goal or two away from a playoff appearance last season. One of the league's easiest schedules secures them as a strong contender for an AFC West title or, at the very least, a wild card.
Toughest overall schedule
New York Giants
Teams that finish at or near the bottom of the standings often end up with a relatively light schedule the following season, but that is not the case for the 3-13 Giants. New York will face the league's toughest slate in 2018. The NFC East will suffer from a rough setup that includes matchups with both southern divisions. In the AFC South, Houston is healthy and loaded with talent, Indianapolis is expected to have Andrew Luck back and then there are 2017 playoff teams Jacksonville and Tennessee, which are still in good shape. In the NFC South, New Orleans and Atlanta both made the playoffs last season and remain loaded on paper. Carolina snagged a wild card last season and figures to contend for one again this year, and Tampa Bay has some holes, but is better than it was this time last year. Even the Giants' other games are against improved teams in Chicago and San Francisco. The Giants' roster is in rough shape and the schedule only adds to their problems in 2018. New head coach Pat Shurmur has his work cut out.
Projected AFC seeds
1. Patriots; 2. Steelers; 3. Texans; 4. Chargers; 5. Jaguars; 6. Titans
Three AFC South teams? I realize that may seem ludicrous, but the division is much improved and the AFC is not very good right now. In fact, don't be shocked if an 8-8 team steals a wild card. That means even an Andrew Luck-led Colts team would be squarely in the mix for a spot. The Chiefs are probably the most glaring omission, but the defense is in the midst of an overhaul and it's fair to hedge on the quarterback situation after Alex Smith was replaced by the unproven Mahomes.
Projected NFC seeds
1. Rams; 2. Eagles; 3. Saints; 4. Vikings; 5. Packers; 6. Falcons
Whereas the AFC is weak, the NFC is extremely strong. Five of these six teams are in good or great shape on both sides of the ball and Green Bay has some fellow named Aaron Rodgers healthy and under center. I think the Eagles are the league's best team on paper, but the Rams' easier schedule gives them the edge for the top seed. The loaded conference means the likes of Carolina, Dallas, Detroit and Seattle could be left out, even after a solid season and makes it tougher for popular sleepers like the 49ers, Bears and Buccaneers to make noise.
Last season, I projected a lot of playoff turnover and -- though I missed on a few teams -- that proved true. This year, a lot of top-end squads actually improved during the offseason and are strong contenders to repeat as playoff teams.
Projected 2019 NFL draft top five
1. Bills; 2. Dolphins; 3. Giants; 4. Jets; 5. Cardinals
Because the Bills, Dolphins and Jets play six games each between themselves, it's probably not realistic that all three will end up top five once variance has its say. Still, these are five of the league's worst teams on paper right now and, thus, the heavy favorites to be picking early in next year's draft.