It took a bit longer than usual, but the official 2020 NFL schedule has been released. 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 it the easiest and hardest? Who will make the playoffs? How about an early look at the 2021 draft order?
Some housekeeping before I dive into this. First, I'll be excluding Week 17 from the fantasy categories, though including it has only a minor impact on the findings. Next, note that my strength of schedule evaluation is not based on final 2019 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 2020 prospects. My evaluation of each roster -- not last year's production -- is what I use to generate the easiest and toughest schedules.
The analysis below is your next step in preparing for the 2020 NFL and fantasy football seasons.
Easiest Opposing Defenses
Chicago's offense isn't overly impressive on paper, but the unit will benefit from a light slate that includes matchups with the Panthers, Falcons, Giants, Texans and Jaguars this season. Inside the NFC North, Minnesota's defense isn't quite as loaded as in past years, whereas Detroit and Green Bay check in below average. It's hard to get too excited about many of this unit's top weapons, but the likes of Allen Robinson II, David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen and perhaps Jimmy Graham and Anthony Miller stand to benefit.
The 49ers enjoyed a breakout 2020 season thanks, in part, to Jimmy Garoppolo's first healthy campaign. The roster remains in good shape for another playoff run this season, and the offense gets a boost from a light projected slate. San Francisco's toughest matchups include trips to Dallas, New Orleans and New England, as well as a home matchup with Buffalo. On the other hand, we'll be upgrading the 49ers' offense against the likes of the Cardinals (twice), Giants, Dolphins and Washington. Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle are the prime benefactors.
Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and now one of the league's easiest projected schedules for an offense? Things are looking very pretty for the Buccaneers' 2020 fantasy outlook. It won't all be sunshine and roses for a unit that will need to face off with strong Saints (twice), Broncos, Chargers, Saints and Vikings defenses, but those games are more than offset by showdowns with the Giants, Raiders, Falcons (twice) and rebuilding Panthers (twice). Upgrade Brady, Gronkowski, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Ronald Jones II and Ke'Shawn Vaughn.
Toughest opposing defenses
Tennessee is set to face a generous chunk of the league's top defenses. Showdowns against the Ravens, Broncos, Bears, Vikings, Bills, Steelers and Colts (twice) make up half of the Titans' slate. Their "easiest" matchups are within the division against Houston and Jacksonville units that are trending the wrong direction. This is obviously concerning news for Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith.
The Jets' schedule is loaded with tough matchups, including the division-rival Bills' defense twice, as well as the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers' Colts and Chargers. Their easiest showdowns include rebuilding Arizona, Las Vegas and Miami (twice) defenses, though all should be a bit better than in 2019. There already wasn't a ton to love in fantasy here, but consider downgrading Sam Darnold, Le'Veon Bell, Jamison Crowder, Breshad Perriman and intriguing sleeper Chris Herndon.
Jon Gruden and company will have their hands full this season with a lengthy list of strong defenses on the slate. That list includes the Chargers twice, as well as the Broncos, Saints, Patriots, Bills, Colts and improved Buccaneers. Las Vegas' list of easiest opponents is short with the Panthers, Falcons and Dolphins standing out, though it helps that most fantasy leagues will dodge the Raiders' Week 17 trip to Denver. Nonetheless, we should downgrade Derek Carr, Josh Jacobs, Henry Ruggs III and Darren Waller slightly.
Week 14-16 observations
Many of your leagues will observe the fantasy playoffs during Weeks 14-16, which makes it worthwhile to focus in on those games.
Reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and the rest of the Ravens' offense will benefit from the easiest projected schedule during the fantasy playoffs. Baltimore kicks off the fun with a trip to Cleveland before hosting the Jaguars and Giants. This is obviously good news for the likes of Jackson, Mark Ingram II, Mark Andrews, Marquise Brown and perhaps even rookies J.K. Dobbins and Devin Duvernay.
The Packers, Titans, Seahawks and 49ers round out the top-five easiest playoff slates.
On the other hand, the Bills check in with what is easily the toughest schedule during the fantasy playoffs. Even worse, the brutal slate actually starts just after Buffalo's Week 11 bye. The Bills host the Chargers before traveling to San Francisco. They then kick off the fantasy playoffs with a home game against Pittsburgh followed by trips to Denver and New England. The likes of Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Stefon Diggs and John Brown seem like players you'll want to consider trading away around midseason.
The Steelers, Texans and Vikings are next up in terms of toughest slate during Weeks 14-16.
You need to get to the playoffs in order to take advantage of this section, so this information will be best served as a tiebreaker or perhaps when fielding trade offers during the season.
Easiest overall schedule
The Colts' roster continues to improve under GM Chris Ballard despite the major bump in the road that was Andrew Luck's shocking retirement in August. Indianapolis is well positioned for a run at the AFC South title following another strong offseason, and the team will benefit from the league's easiest projected schedule. The Colts get a boost from six divisional games against Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville squads that all arguably got worse on paper during the offseason and/or are candidates for regression. The Jets, Bengals, Raiders and Bears also show up as games in which the Colts figure to be favored, with their hardest games easily showdowns with the Steelers and Ravens.
Miami overachieved down the stretch last season, but this is still a rebuilding (albeit improved) roster with a lot of youth positioned for big roles. That said, a relatively light schedule will be beneficial in 2020. The Dolphins' toughest matchups will be against the Chiefs, 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos, with their easiest against the Jaguars, Jets (twice), Raiders, Bengals and Cardinals. With the Patriots trending down, the AFC East is wide open, so perhaps the light slate will keep Miami in the mix.
The Arizona offense had the easiest projected schedule this time last season, and, following a bit of a slow start for the overhauled unit, it went on to score three or more touchdowns during eight of its final 11 games. In Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury's second season, the entire team will benefit from a light slate. The Cardinals' toughest matchups are against the 49ers and Seahawks twice, as well as the Eagles and Cowboys. Their easier matchups include the Panthers, Dolphins, Giants, Jets, and Washington, not to mention a Rams' team (twice) trending the wrong direction.
Toughest overall schedule
The Falcons top this unfortunate list this season after checking in fourth during a 2019 campaign in which they were solid on paper but struggled to a 7-9 campaign. It's looking like a tough go again in 2020, with one quarter of the slate made up of a pair of games each against the loaded Saints and much-improved Buccaneers. Additionally, the Falcons will face off with the Cowboys, Chiefs, Seahawks, Packers, Vikings and Broncos. A pair of games against the rebuilding Panthers stand out as their easiest matchups, with the Raiders and Bears next in line. The tough schedule is sure to have a negative effect on the Falcons' chances at snagging a wild card in the NFC.
Carolina is in full-on rebuild mode, especially defensively, and one of the league's hardest projected schedules will only make life tougher on first-year head coach Matt Rhule. Same as the Falcons, the Panthers have the Saints and Buccaneers on the slate twice and will also face off with the Vikings, Packers, Chiefs and Broncos. Carolina's lightest matchups are against Washington, the Raiders, Bears and Cardinals.
New coach Ron Rivera has plenty of work to do as he rebuilds Washington's roster, and a very tough 2020 schedule isn't going to help the cause. Washington will face the division-rival Cowboys and Eagles twice each, while also battling with the Ravens, Seahawks, Steelers and 49ers. The Washington's lightest matchups include the Panthers, as well as improved Giants (twice), Cardinals and Bengals.
Projected AFC seeds
1. Chiefs (bye); 2. Ravens; 3. Colts; 4. Bills; 5. Steelers; 6. Broncos; 7. Browns
The Chiefs' defense gives me pause, but the league's best offense and 10th-easiest projected schedule positions the defending champs as the favorite for the top seed in the AFC. Baltimore is likely to see some offensive regression, but a strong defense keeps them squarely in the mix for the lone bye in the new playoff system. The Colts are the best team in the AFC South and have the league's easiest projected schedule. The defense-first Bills are the early favorite in a wide-open AFC East, but can Josh Allen get it done? Pittsburgh has an elite defense, and Ben Roethlisberger is back to lead an offense that set a franchise record for touchdowns in 2018. Denver's stacked defense and improved offense positions it as a leader for a wild card. The Browns barely get the nod over the Titans, Chargers, Texans and Brady-less Patriots for the new seventh wild card spot.
Projected NFC seeds
1. Saints (bye); 2. 49ers; 3. Cowboys; 4. Packers; 5. Buccaneers; 6. Seahawks; 7. Eagles
New Orleans is all in for what is likely Drew Brees' final season. The Saints have the league's best team on paper, so they get the edge. San Francisco remains in good shape despite trading away arguably its best player in DeForest Buckner. Dallas' 2019 implosion is a concern, but the roster looks excellent on paper and perhaps new coach Mike McCarthy will help the cause. Green Bay's record was better than its actual performance last season, but this remains a solid squad on paper, which gives it a tiny edge over Minnesota and Detroit in a wide-open NFC North. Brady and the Buccaneers are arguably a top-five team on paper and will give the Saints a run for their money. Seattle and Philadelphia are borderline top-10 teams on paper and are safe bets to contend for playoff spots.
Projected 2019 NFL draft Top 5
1. Washington; 2. Panthers; 3. Jaguars; 4. Dolphins; 5. Jets
There's no doubt Washington has upside with so much untapped youth on both sides of the ball, but (A) we haven't seen a majority of the youth play at a high level yet and (B) the roster still includes a long list of concern areas, including quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, linebacker, corner and safety. It feels like a flashback to 1995 with rebuilding efforts underway in Jacksonville and Carolina.