NFL Schedule Winners/Losers (2021 Fantasy Football)
The theme of this article is rookies. Some of the most prominent skill-position players taken in this year’s NFL Draft get a big boost or face some tough luck due to the schedule. The biggest winners of this year’s schedule release are quarterbacks opening the season as a starter for the first time or doing so with a new team, as is the case with San Francisco, Philly, New York, Jacksonville, and Indy. Today, I’ll highlight the biggest winners and losers following the 2021 schedule release followed by some advice about how to value schedule when drafting and making in-season moves in your fantasy league.
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Jalen Hurts (QB – PHI)
In his first season as the Eagles’ full-time starter, Hurts gets a hell of a draw with the easiest strength of schedule available to quarterbacks. He’ll face Detroit, Atlanta, Jets, Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs – all ranked in the top-12 most points allowed to the position in 2020.
DeVonta Smith (WR – PHI)
Smith’s quarterback gets an excellent schedule, so why shouldn’t Smith? There’s no better team to face to build chemistry than the Falcons in Week 1. Smith and Hurts should dominate in that one, and from there, Philly gets Dallas twice, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Tampa Bay.
Trey Lance (QB – SF)
Lance may be the biggest beneficiary of the NFL schedule, as he’ll get juicy matchups with the Lions, ‘Hawks, Jags, Texans, and Titans in his first season. Each of those teams allowed the top-10 most points to the position in 2020. His playoff schedule is even better. From Weeks 15-17, Lance gets the Falcons, Titans, and Texans. My goodness! That’s a league-winning schedule if I’ve ever seen one. Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel will be licking their chops for these games, too.
Sam Darnold (QB – CAR)
After a disappointing tenure with the Jets, Darnold will get to prove himself in Carolina, and boy does the schedule set up nicely for him to do so. He opens the year against his former team in a great matchup, and he’ll also face Atlanta twice, Houston, and Minnesota among other strong matchups.
Zach Wilson (QB – NYJ)
The No. 2 overall pick will get every chance to succeed with Gang Green in 2021. He gets an upgraded receiving corps and a talented rookie running back to support him. The Jets get tasty matchups with the AFC South and two divisional draws with Miami.
Michael Carter (RB – NYJ)
Seven of his games will be against teams who ranked in the top-12 most points allowed to running backs in 2020. Those include the Texans, Jags, Titans, Bengals, and Panthers. Just like Wilson, Carter could be in for a productive season aided by a great inaugural schedule.
Carson Wentz (QB – IND)
As I’ve already mentioned, any quarterback who gets to face the Texans and Titans for four of their games is an immediate winner. Playing behind an elite offensive line with this type of favorable schedule could be a shot in the arm to Wentz’s career.
Najee Harris (RB – PIT)
Pittsburgh will look to improve its horrendous rushing game with Harris in the fold this season, and the first-year stud gets some very attractive matchups in the Packers, Raiders, and Lions. He’s got good playoff matchups to boot, so if you weren’t already sold on Harris, take a look at his schedule and get on board!
Trevor Lawrence (QB – JAX)
The first pick in this year’s draft gets to face the Texans and Titans defenses twice each in 2021! That in itself is reason to celebrate, but T-Law also gets the Seahawks and Falcons on his schedule as well. Two of his fantasy playoff matchups are with the Texans and Jets, which is pure dynamite.
Aaron Jones (RB – GB)
Green Bay gets the unfortunate draw of having the most unfavorable schedule for running backs. With Aaron Rodgers potentially out the door, Jones could be a focal point of the offense and be zeroed-in on by opposing defenses. That’s bad enough, but add in the brutal schedule that includes Saints, 49ers, Steelers, Ravens, and Washington.
Green Bay skill-position players
The Packers face a difficult schedule overall this season, but a late-season stretch of games with the Rams, Bears, Ravens, and Browns in succession will be especially tough going if Aaron Rodgers isn’t under center. That’s bad news for Davante Adams and Robert Tonyan.
Justin Fields (QB – CHI)
As highlighted above, there are plenty of first-year or new-situation quarterbacks who will get the benefit of a favorable schedule in 2021. Fields isn’t one of those guys. He faces one of the most difficult schedules of any quarterback, and he’ll get a quick introduction to NFL life with a Week 2 matchup against the Rams. He’ll also face the 49ers, Steelers, and Ravens in some notable contests.
Mike Davis (RB – ATL)
Atlanta running backs haven’t had a ton of success in recent seasons, and the going doesn’t get much easier in 2021. This season, Atlanta gets one of the toughest schedules for running backs thanks to two matchups with the Saints and two with the Bucs and games against Washington, Cleveland, and Miami.
Ryan Tannehill (QB – TEN)/Derrick Henry (RB – TEN)
Unfortunately for these two, the Titans’ playoff schedule is brutal. From Weeks 15-17, the Titans face Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Miami. Those aren’t ideal matchups for either player, and though you never want to fade your studs, schedule matters.
Christian McCaffrey (RB – CAR)
This is another case of not fading your studs but staying aware of their playoff schedules. Though Buffalo presents a fine Week 15 matchup for C-Mac, his next two matchups in Weeks 16-17 are two of the most difficult for opposing backs in Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
As I’ve mentioned several times above, don’t fade your studs. Even in the most difficult matchup, you should never bench Christian McCaffrey. However, if you can get a good deal for him just before the fantasy trade deadline in favor of another stud with a better schedule, you should consider your options. Jonathan Taylor has one of the best fantasy playoff schedules of any running back, and if you can trade McCaffrey for him and potentially another solid piece, that’s a deal you’ve got to consider.
Schedule isn’t everything, but it absolutely matters. This is especially true for playoff schedules because your games are one and done. If you lose, there is no next week to right the ship. Setting yourself up for the most successful season involves drafting well and trading appropriately based on playoff schedule. As in the case of Taylor and McCaffrey, if you can get nearly equal value with a better schedule, that’s the right move. You likely won’t want to trade C-Mac for Travis Etienne, even though Etienne’s playoff schedule is highly favorable, too.
Overall, a “good” or “bad” schedule shouldn’t deter you from drafting guys you feel strongly about or guys with a proven track record. No player is fully matchup-proof, but excellent talent will find a way to succeed, even in unfavorable situations. In a nutshell:
- Be conscious of schedule but don’t let it be an overwhelming factor in your decision-making process
- If all else is equal, draft the player with the better schedule
- Make trades late in the season in anticipation of the fantasy playoffs based on good or bad schedules
- A stud like Derrick Henry or Christian McCaffrey can be on your team most of the regular season and become a trade piece as you approach the playoffs
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy football, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Football Tools as you navigate your season. From our Start/Sit Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup, based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team, and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy football season.