Strength of Schedule Should Not Influence Your Draft Strategy
Finding exploitable matchups to give your squad an edge is Fantasy 101 and a routine that every fantasy owner goes through weekly. Taking a stance like avoiding the Seahawks “Legion of Boom,” especially at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, was the standard play for years if you wanted any production out of your quarterback position. Playing matchups have become so ingrained in the fantasy culture that most sites, including our own, have a “Strength of Schedule” page to help drafters try to get ahead of the curve.
Not to disparage the people who put that section together for us, but it would be better if it was ignored. Every year we get analysis that shows how hard a player’s schedule is and to avoid said player.
Last year, we heard to avoid Dez Bryant because of his difficult early-season schedule. We salivated over the fact that the Falcons and Saints, who combined for 147 points in two 2016 matchups, were to meet twice in the fantasy playoffs. We were told to trade Todd Gurley after the first few weeks because his schedule tightens up.
Well, the Falcons and Saints combined to put up a total of 73 points in their two contests. Todd Gurley went on to become the top scoring player at the running back position. Dez Bryant was admittedly lackluster, but he was the same player he had been the previous two seasons. I acknowledge the examples above are cherry picked, but they’re the most glaring way to say in written form what the numbers below show.
What The Numbers Are
|I pulled the last 10 years of fantasy points allowed to the QB position from Pro Football Reference to use as our sample. With offenses becoming more pass-heavy than ever, using quarterback and, by extension, wide receiver stats would give us a picture of how defenses are performing year to year. Some changes can be for a particular reason – turnover luck is a thing, and injuries happen – but these are outside of our control. They can happen to any team any year, and the randomness needs to be accounted for.
I considered looking at this by year-end rank and by adjusted points per game. Ultimately they came to similar conclusions, so I’ll just address both.
What The Numbers Say
Over the 320 data points collected there are some trends.
- A defense is going to move an average rank of 9.4 spots, either up or down, from the previous year.
- Top five defenses by rank moved up an average of 9.7 spots from the previous year, only to see their average rank fall to 10.4 spots the next year to an average rank of 14.
- Bottom five defenses by rank moved down an average of 11.4 spots from the previous year, to make almost all of that back by climbing up 11 spots for an average rank of 19 the following year.
If you think “top five” and “bottom five” are arbitrary cutoff points, you’re not entirely wrong, but across the board, the rankings tend to regress back towards the mean.
Looking at where each specific rank finished the following year we can see the #1 ranked defenses are typically still very good, coming in with an average rank of #7 the following year. Our second best average finish comes from the still solid defense #8 spot, finishing with an average rank of 11.6 the following year. Then our next highest finishes come from…the 28th slot? With an average next-year rank of 12.9, #28 and #6 (13.0) are nearly identical, and are followed by #3, #14, and #15 being exactly tied with a next-year rank of 13.7 to round out our top five.
But rankings themselves can be misleading. In 2016, for instance, the Rams, Packers, and Colts all finished with 17.7 points per game against. Changing where to account for each team could affect the overall numbers. Looking at next-year points per game (adjusted to make every season equal) could give us a clearer look at the true change in between seasons.
|Points Per Game Allowed||Next Year’s Points Per Game Allowed|
Here we see that the points per game numbers agree with our rankings numbers. Generally, a good previous-year defense the will do better than a bad previous-year defense, but both will regress towards the middle.
The problem is the average defensive rank for teams allowing 14-14.9 points per game is #6. That’s going to be planted firmly as a red “tough matchup” category for our strength of schedule purposes. The average defensive rank for teams allowing 16-16.9 points per game is #13, which will be considered a neutral matchup despite allowing, on average, the exact same amount of points per game the following year.
What The Numbers Mean
The Seattle Seahawks had a four year run that put them in the conversation for the best defense ever and thee 2015-2016 Broncos followed that up with another dominant display, but even great defenses fall back down to earth. Above I lumped everything under 14 points per game against together, which included four teams that allowed less than 10 points per game. Of those four teams, three of them finished with below average points against the following year.
Simply put, letting what happened last year alter your rankings or draft strategy is a futile approach when you’re typically looking at a roughly one point per game difference on average. Outliers like the Seahawks can exist, but there’s too much year to year volatility in defenses to reliably predict whether a player’s strength of schedule will have a significant impact on his season.
Don’t be turned off of a player by a daunting playoff schedule in August because there’s a good chance it won’t matter in 14 weeks. Draft the guys you believe in, play your studs, and start evaluating your matchups when we have a few weeks of current-season data to look at.