Cowboys, Bears among beneficiaries of 2016 NFL schedule

With a potentially easier schedule in 2016, Cowboys players may have their stock jump in fantasy drafts. AP Photo/Michael Perez

Last evening, the 2016 NFL schedule was released. Because the defense is half (okay, maybe less than half) of the equation when determining each player's weekly fantasy value, it's important that we take a thorough look at this year's slate.

Down below is analysis of a variety of hand-picked categories, many of which will impact the 2016 fantasy football landscape.

Easiest opposing defenses

Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans

Throughout the offseason, you're going to see plenty of 'toughest' and 'easiest' schedule analysis, but a lot of it will refer to each team's 2015 success. Although that's not completely useless information, it's important to take it with a massive grain of salt, as most teams make major personnel changes during the offseason. That said, after analyzing each team's current roster, I've manually determined which teams will be good (and to what extent) on both sides of the ball this season. That - and not last year's production - is what I used to generate the easiest and toughest schedules.

That said, the Dallas offense jumps out as a team who will benefit from its schedule this season. The Giants and Eagles added a few impact defensive players, but still have voids at several positions. Showdown with both North divisions means home affairs against Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago, and trips to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Minnesota.

Because the Cowboys struggled last season, they play a pair of light defenses in Tampa Bay and San Francisco. There are a few challenges mixed in, but especially when you consider a Week 14-16 slate that includes the Giants, Buccaneers and Lions, the Cowboys' offensive skill position players are in for a treat in 2016.

Toughest opposing defenses

San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills

On the other hand, Chip Kelly's offense in San Francisco is already deficient in many key areas and will have to deal with arguably the league's toughest schedule. Of course, considering 37.5 percent of the 49ers schedule will come against the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams, this shouldn't be much of a surprise. Additionally, the NFC West will take on the NFC South, which means a trip to Carolina, and the AFC East, which means treks to Buffalo and Miami, as well as, home affairs against the Jets and Patriots.

Having finished last in 2015, the 49ers are matched up with the last place teams from two other NFC divisions, but a trip to Chicago and a home meeting with a healthy Dallas squad won't be easy.

Easiest fantasy playoff schedule (Weeks 14-16)

Bills, Bears, Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers

With a trio of home games against Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Miami, Buffalo is sitting pretty come time for the fantasy playoffs.

Toughest fantasy playoff schedule (Weeks 14-16)

Green Bay Packers, Patriots, 49ers, Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks

Green Bay and New England will have their hands full come December. Although Chicago's defense isn't particularly scary, this is a Week 15 road affair against a bitter rival. Green Bay will host Seattle in Week 14 and Minnesota in Week 16. Both obviously have quality defenses. The Patriots, meanwhile, have a trip to Denver bookended between home affairs against the Ravens and Jets. As if you needed more reason to wait at quarterback, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are certainly going to be worth downgrading come the fantasy playoffs.

Toughest WR/CB Matchups

Rams, Vikings, 49ers, Dolphins, Oakland Raiders

If you're new reader of my work, I should point out that I spend a lot of time analyzing wide receiver/cornerback matchups. In fact, starting with the 2016 regular season, you'll see my weekly WR/CB matchup chart and analysis exclusively right here at ESPN Fantasy. Shameless promotion aside, I've already taken a look at each team's primary receivers and corners for the 2016 season. This will change some based on 2016 draft picks, but it's unlikely to be overly significant.

The Rams have moved west, but the Los Angeles crowd might not get its fair share of big plays this season. In addition to an underwhelming wide receiver corps, the Rams' will be dealing with an extremely tough defensive slate. That's especially the case for the team's wideouts. On the schedule are meetings with Richard Sherman (twice), Brent Grimes, Patrick Peterson/Tyrann Mathieu (twice, Stephone Gillmore/Ronald Darby, Darius Slay, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie/Janoris Jenkins, Josh Norman, Darrelle Revis, Delvin Breaux, Malcolm Butler/Logan Ryan and Desmond Trufant. That's 13 of the team's 16 games. Tavon Austin moves around quite a bit, but plays enough perimeter that he's in trouble here.

Miami has a talented crop of wide receivers in Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills, but the trio will have its hands full in 2016. As the team's top perimeter receiver, Parker stands to lose the most. He'll open up against Richard Sherman and will go on to see plenty of Logan Ryan, Joe Haden, Adam Jones, Jason McCourty, Stephon Gillmore/Ronald Darby, Darrelle Revis, Jason Verrett, Trumaine Johnson and Patrick Peterson. Brutal.

Landry's schedule won't be nearly as tough, but he will see Tyrann Mathieu in Week 14. Speaking of which, Miami has the toughest slate during Weeks 14-16 (the fantasy playoffs for most leagues). Parker/Landry/Stills will go up against the Cardinals, Jets and Bills. Does your league run into Week 17? The Patriots will be in town.

In Oakland, Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper will usually benefit from moving around the formation quite a bit, but both are set for a tough slate of cornerbacks this season. Facing the NFC South, Delvin Breaux, Desmond Trufant, Brent Grimes, and Josh Norman are all on the schedule. Inside the division, Crabtree and Cooper will face off with Marcus Peters, Jason Verrett/Patrick Robinson, and Denver's dynamic Chris Harris/Aqib Talib/Bradley Roby twice each. Frankly, there aren't many "easy" weeks here (Baltimore?), as Jason McCourty, Prince Amukamara, Vontae Davis, and the strong units in Buffalo and Houston are also on the slate.

Easiest WR/CB Matchups

New York Giants, Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens (Honorable mention: Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns)

On the other hand, there are a few wide receiver units who stand to benefit from their schedule.

I included a few honorable mentions to show how many AFC North/NFC East teams sit near the top of this category. Not coincidentally, the two divisions face off this season.

Both in the NFC East, the Giants and Cowboys will each play 12 of the same teams. Similar opponents include the Redskins, Eagles, Vikings, Packers, Bears, Lions, Browns, Bengals, Ravens and Steelers. The likes of Bashad Breeland, Sam Shields, Darius Slay, Joe Haden and Adam Jones are notable, but none are a major threat to stop Odell Beckham Jr. or Dez Bryant. Otherwise, these units shouldn't have much trouble in 2016.

The Ravens face off with an AFC East that features Revis and a pair of strong duos in Buffalo and New England, but the schedule stands out as easier than most because of their interdivision and out-of-conference slate. Relative to the rest of the league, the Steelers, Browns and Ravens' cornerback units do not stack up.

There is some talent (Ross Cockrell, Adam Jones, Haden), but each unit lacks depth and/or struggled last year. As noted earlier, the AFC North is facing off with the NFC East, so the Ravens will take on underwhelming secondaries in Philadelphia and Washington. The Giants added Jenkins but lost Amukamara. The Cowboys have potential, but Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne haven't lived up to expectations, Orlando Scandrick missed all of 2015 and Byron Jones is focusing on safety.

During Weeks 14-16, Buffalo, by far, stands out as having the easiest slate. Sammy Watkins and Co. will play a trio of home games against Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Miami. Watkins already has the look of a potential Top 5 fantasy receiver in 2016 and this only adds to his appeal.

Toughest opposing run defenses

Rams, 49ers, Bills, Patriots, Cardinals, New Orleans Saints

Nailing down the ability of each run defense is tough at this point in the offseason, so I went conservative here, only focusing in on the obvious strongest/weakest units. The NFC West will have its hands full with two meetings against Seattle (for three of the teams), as well as, showdowns with the AFC East and an underrated Buccaneers run defense.

Easiest opposing run defenses

Giants, Detroit Lions

Washington (twice), New Orleans, and Cleveland really stand out as plus matchups on the Giants schedule. This will be especially notable if they make a splash for an impact running back on draft day.

Coldest schedule

Overall: Packers, Steelers, Giants, Browns, Patriots

Road: Giants, Cowboys, Ravens, Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles

December: Browns, Steelers, Packers, Seahawks, Ravens

In the grand scheme of things, temperature isn't a huge factor. But it does matter. An examination of temperature on league-wide rate stats shows that production does drop off slightly-to-moderately in most categories. This include completion percentage, scoring, and how often long field goals are attempted.

Shown here are the teams with the coldest 2016 schedules. This includes the coldest overall slate, the coldest road games and the coldest December games.

It shouldn't be a surprise to see teams who primarily play in the north, but it's notable nonetheless. At a projected 53 degrees, Green Bay's schedule figured to be the coldest. Now playing indoors, Minnesota, who is usually high on this list, is set for the league's 11th-warmest slate.

At 52 degrees, the Giants road schedule will be rough this season. Their slate includes early-season trips to Dallas, Minnesota, Green Bay, and Los Angeles, followed by trips to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington after Week 11.

Cleveland plays host to Cincinnati and San Diego, and heads to Buffalo and Pittsburgh after its Week 13 bye. Speaking of which, if your fantasy playoffs happen to start in Week 13, note that Cleveland and Tennessee will be on a bye.

Warmest schedule

Overall: Buccaneers, Dolphins, Saints, Jacksonville Jaguars, 49ers

December: Saints, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Lions, Atlanta Falcons

Road: Saints, Buccaneers, Bears, Rams, Denver Broncos

At a projected temperature of 71 degrees, the Buccaneers' schedule is a good bet to be the warmest. They play eight games in the warmth of Tampa and travel no further north than Kansas City (Week 11). The Buccaneers' December schedule includes trips to San Diego, Dallas and New Orleans.

The Saints already benefit from playing in the Superdome, but life will be even easier on the road. They will enjoy the warmest road schedule in 2016. After a Week 2 trip to face the Giants, the furthest north the Saints travel is Kansas City in Week 7. They also enjoy the warmest December schedule, which includes trips to Tampa Bay, Arizona and Atlanta.

Projected AFC seeds

1. Patriots 2. Steelers 3. Colts 4. Chiefs 5. Bengals 6. Bills

This one may not seem fantasy relevant, but remember, teams who lead often are able to lean on their running attack in the second half of games (and vice versa). Although I have Buffalo in the second wild card spot, I feel that it's wide open. The Jets, Ravens, Texans, Broncos figure to be in the mix, and the Raiders, Jaguars, Dolphins and Chargers can't be overlooked. The draft figures to shift this a bit, but this is what the projections show today.

Projected NFC seeds

1. Seahawks 2. Carolina Panthers 3. Cowboys 4. Packers 5. Cardinals 6. Saints

I posted this on Twitter and was shredded for going with the Saints over the Vikings. As has been the case for years, the Saints own one of the league's best offenses, but can't seem to advance because of their historically terrible defense. A few offseason upgrades and a new coordinator should get them to some level of competence.

A below average defense, coupled with a top-end offense and a relatively light schedule will be enough to put New Orleans in the wild card hunt. Variance helped the Vikings advance into the playoffs last season and, although I like Teddy Bridgewater, I'm not sure their offense improved enough to allow them a step forward in 2016. This could change if they make some impact moves in the draft and open the offense up a bit. There's a lot hinging on 31-year-old Adrian Peterson, which should be a concern.