The NFL schedule is out, which means we are one step closer to the start of the 2022 season.
In this piece, I'll be examining the slate down to the nuts and bolts from both an NFL and fantasy football standpoint. How does this schedule impact the fantasy landscape? Which players have it the easiest and hardest? Which 14 teams will make the NFL playoffs? How about an early look at the 2023 draft order?
Some housekeeping before we dive into this. First, Week 18 is included in the fantasy categories since removing it would have only a minor impact on the findings. Next -- and most importantly -- my strength of schedule evaluation is not based on final 2021 records, which is often what you'll see in this type of column. There has been a ton of roster movement this offseason and injured players will return to action, so all of that is factored into each team's 2022 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 2022 NFL and fantasy football seasons.
Easiest opposing defenses for fantasy
1. Washington Commanders: The Washington offense disappointed last season (losing starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 1 didn't help), but perhaps an attractive 2022 schedule will help this unit rebound. Washington's toughest projected games are a home affair against Green Bay and road trips to San Francisco and Indianapolis. There are a lot of attractive matchups, including the Lions, Bears, Falcons, Texans and Jaguars. The six games against the NFC East also aren't too intimidating, as the Giants' defense took a step back during the offseason and the Cowboys are headed for some serious turnover regression to the mean. The likes of Carson Wentz, Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Logan Thomas and rookie Jahan Dotson stand to benefit.
2. Green Bay Packers: Green Bay benefits greatly from playing six games against the NFC North. Both the Lions and Bears are in rough shape on defense, and while the Vikings are a bit improved, several holes remain. The Packers don't have many overly intimidating matchups, with a trip to Buffalo easily the scariest. The Cowboys, Rams and Patriots would've been tough last season, but none of those units are as good on paper this season and all three games are in Green Bay. Upgrade the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon, Allen Lazard, Christian Watson and Robert Tonyan.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jacksonville overhauled a big chunk of its offense during the offseason, and the new-look unit is set up with an extremely pretty 2022 slate. Three of the games are against two of the league's weakest projected defenses (Detroit, Houston x2), and the Jaguars also draw the rebuilding Jets, as well as a Giants defense that took a step back during the offseason. There aren't any elite defenses on the schedule, with the Colts (x2) perhaps their toughest matchup. For what it's worth (more on this later), second-year QB Trevor Lawrence will play 11 games against defenses that were 11th or worse in fantasy points allowed to QBs last season.
Toughest opposing defenses for fantasy
1. Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta has one of the league's shakiest offenses on paper and a tough schedule is only going to compound what could be a rough 2022. The Falcons benefit from matchups with Carolina (x2), Seattle and Chicago, but that's where the positives end. The division-rival Saints (x2) remain an elite defense, and the Buccaneers (x2) figure to again be solid. The Bengals, 49ers and Rams are also on the schedule. In fact, of Atlanta's 17 games, 13 are against defenses projected to be average or better. We're already avoiding most of this offense in fantasy, but this certainly isn't pleasant news for the breakout prospects of youngsters Drake London and Kyle Pitts.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh finished 25th in offensive touchdowns while dealing with a tough schedule last season, and things aren't looking too rosy again in 2022. The Steelers' "easiest" games are matchups with the Falcons, Panthers and Jets, though two of them are on the road. Their toughest matchups include the Saints, Bills, Bengals (x2), Buccaneers and Colts. Healthy and/or improved Baltimore (x2) and Cleveland (x2) defenses will also make life tough. Same as Atlanta, Pittsburgh has a major question mark at quarterback, so combined with a tough schedule and weak offensive line, the Steelers' skill-position players could continue to struggle with efficiency. Keep this in mind when evaluating the likes of Najee Harris, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth.
3. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers are in essentially the same boat as the Falcons, as they'll need to deal with the Saints and Buccaneers twice, as well as the 49ers, Rams and Bengals. Carolina's schedule checks in slightly "easier" because of games against the Giants, Broncos and Lions, compared to Atlanta's tougher trio of games (Commanders, Chargers and Bears). The Panthers have QB issues again this season (Sam Darnold is somehow still the projected starter), so the tough schedule exacerbates concerns about this offense's effectiveness. The likes of Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Robby Anderson stand to suffer.
Positional upgrades and downgrades
Though we don't want to get too caught up in strength of schedule based on 2021 results, I noticed that fantasy points allowed by position does seem to correlate some with projected fantasy strength of schedule based on 2022 rosters. That said, I'm including a chart that shows each offense's strength of schedule based on what their scheduled opponents allowed last season. For example, based on 2021 results, the Panthers are set to face the fourth-easiest schedule for wide receivers, but the 24th easiest (aka ninth hardest) for quarterbacks. Green = easy. Red = hard.
Here are a few upgrades and downgrades based solely on this chart, though you'll notice some correlation with the previous analysis:
QB: Daniel Jones (NYG), Trevor Lawrence (JAC), Russell Wilson (DEN)
RB: David Montgomery (CHI), Jonathan Taylor (IND), Javonte Williams (DEN)
WR: A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith (PHI); Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney (NYG); CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup (DAL)
TE: Evan Engram (JAC), Austin Hooper (TEN), Albert Okwuegbunam (DEN)
QB: Lamar Jackson (BAL), Zach Wilson (NYJ), Trey Lance (SF)
RB: Leonard Fournette (TB), Joe Mixon (CIN), Cam Akers (LAR), Miles Sanders (PHI)
WR: Rashod Bateman (BAL); Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore (NYJ); Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool (PIT)
TE: C.J. Uzomah (NYJ), Mark Andrews (BAL), Noah Fant (SEA), Darren Waller (LV)
Easiest overall NFL schedule
1-3. The NFC East: The Commanders (first), Eagles (second), Giants (third) and Cowboys (sixth) are all at or near the top of the list, which is hardly a surprise considering they share a majority of their opponents. The common foes for the four teams include the AFC South and NFC North divisions. The Texans, Jaguars, Bears and Lions are among the league's shakiest teams, and the Vikings, Colts and Titans aren't overly intimidating, either. In fact, it's not hard to make a case that those are the league's two weakest divisions. Washington, whose "unique" games are the 49ers, Falcons and Browns, has an underrated roster, and the league's easiest projected schedule should help vault the Commanders into contention for a playoff spot.
4. Detroit Lions: Eastern division aside, Detroit has the easiest slate in the NFC. It's a big shift after the Lions entered 2021 with one of the toughest projected slates. They benefit from a pair of games against Chicago, as well as showdowns with the Seahawks, Panthers, Jaguars, Giants and Jets. Their toughest matchups include the Bills, Cowboys and, of course, the division-rival Packers (x2). Detroit's defense has a long way to go, but the offense is in pretty good shape. Coupled with a friendly schedule, the Lions are a wild-card sleeper in the NFC.
5. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts check in with the easiest slate in the AFC. Facing the Texans and Jaguars twice is a large reason for it, but so are matchups with the Giants and a Steelers team with major QB concerns. Indianapolis' schedule doesn't include many overly intimidating games, and its toughest projected matchups (Chiefs and Chargers) are both at home. The Colts have the best roster in the AFC South and an appealing schedule will help their push for a return to the playoffs.
Toughest overall NFL schedule
1. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs play the Texans, Jaguars and Seahawks this season. I got that out of the way early, because it's where the positives end, in terms of their schedule. Yes, it's that tough. The pain starts within what is easily the league's best division, as six games against the Chargers (added J.C. Jackson and Khalil Mack), Broncos (Russell Wilson) and Raiders (Davante Adams and Chandler Jones) will be harder than ever. The rest of the Chiefs' opponents are as follows: Bengals, 49ers, Cardinals, Bills, Titans, Colts, Rams and Buccaneers. Yikes. All but the Colts (who added Matt Ryan) made the playoffs last season, and all eight teams can safely be considered anywhere from "solid" to "great" on paper. The Tyreek Hill-less Chiefs will have their hands full in 2022.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers check in second on this list for the second consecutive season. The AFC North will face the AFC East and NFC South divisions, which means tough games against the Buccaneers and Bills, but also a few easier ones against the Panthers, Falcons and Jets. The biggest problem for Pittsburgh is that the AFC North is perhaps the league's second-best division. The defending AFC champion Bengals are better on paper than they were in 2021, the Ravens will almost certainly rebound after league-worst injury luck last season and a good Browns roster now includes Deshaun Watson. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season as a head coach, but especially with the team's suspect QB situation, 2022 is going to be a challenge.
3. Los Angeles Rams: The defending Super Bowl champions -- not coincidentally -- check in with the toughest projected schedule in the NFC. Los Angeles actually has a few relatively easy games (Falcons, Panthers, Seahawks x2), but every other game is against a legitimate playoff contender, if not a straight-up elite team. That includes the 49ers (x2), Cardinals (x2), Bills, Cowboys, Packers, Buccaneers and Saints, as well as the aforementioned loaded AFC West (Chiefs, Chargers, Broncos, Raiders). The NFC West sent three teams to the playoffs last season, and while it's possible they'll do it again (see below), it will certainly be a challenge.
Projected AFC seeds
1. Bills (bye); 2. Bengals; 3. Chargers; 4. Colts; 5. Chiefs; 6. Ravens; 7. Broncos
The AFC is absolutely stacked, and multiple good teams will miss the playoffs as a result. Buffalo was already a Super Bowl contender last season and actually improved/solidified its roster during the offseason. The Bills are arguably the league's best team on paper. The defending AFC champion Bengals fixed their super-obvious weakness (offensive line), which cements them as a conference favorite. The aforementioned AFC West is a strong bet to send three teams to the playoffs, but one of the four has to miss out (the Raiders in this case). The Colts' appealing schedule and offseason improvements give them an edge over Tennessee for the AFC South. Back to full health after a brutal barrage of injuries last season, Baltimore is primed for a return to the postseason.
Projected NFC seeds
1. Packers (bye); 2. Buccaneers; 3. Cowboys; 4. Rams; 5. Saints; 6. Cardinals; 7. 49ers
Whereas the AFC is loaded, the NFC looks weak, so especially when you consider the aforementioned strength of schedule, don't be surprised to see some very pedestrian teams in the tournament. That doesn't include the Packers, Buccaneers, Cowboys and Rams, who are the four best teams in the conference and good bets to repeat as division champs. It does, however, include a Saints team with a stacked defense but questions on the offensive side, as well as a Washington club with the easiest projected schedule. I do, in fact, have three NFC West teams in as of now, but it's basically a toss-up for those final wild-card spots. The 49ers are somewhat of an unknown with inexperienced Trey Lance expected to replace Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Washington, Minnesota and Philadelphia just missed the cut here.
Projected 2023 NFL draft Top 5
1. Texans; 2. Falcons; 3. Seahawks; 4. Panthers; 5. Bears
The five teams projected to pick in the top five last season all ended up with top-six picks in this April's draft. Houston and Carolina are good bets to repeat as contenders for the first overall pick, as both have fairly shaky rosters, including some of the league's weakest QB situations. Atlanta fits that bill, as well, especially with Marcus Mariota and third-round rookie Desmond Ridder under center. Seattle is in rebuilding mode after shipping Russell Wilson to Denver. The Bears are also rebuilding, though a big leap from Justin Fields could launch them up the standings a bit.