Fantasy Football: How to Exploit the NFL Schedule With Quarterback Streaming in 2017

Identifying the best and worst fantasy matchups for all 32 starting quarterbacks.

If you ever dreamed of joining the numberFire family, just know that your training begins with a 13-hour PowerPoint presentation on the merits of the Late Round Quarterback Strategy -- narrated, of course, by our Editor-in-Chief JJ Zachariason himself. (Just kidding, no such marathon of secret PowerPoint slides exists. Although it probably should.) Learning how to stream quarterbacks is a right of passage here, and a strategy I happily ascribe to (within reason). The numbers just back it up.

And for my money, no tool is more valuable to understanding who to stream than an understanding of the matchups. Identifying the most porous pass defenses in the NFL is essential to finding value on the waiver wire or in daily fantasy. But even season-long managers looking to find value in the middle rounds or a potential bye week fill-in for their weekly starter can benefit from a comprehensive understanding of the schedule.

For example, Andy Dalton may be deemed a value pick as the 16th quarterback off the board in MFL10 Average Draft Position (ADP), but if I own Andrew Luck, the last thing I want to do is start Dalton against the top-ranked Denver Broncos pass defense during the Indianapolis Colts' Week 11 bye. Instead, placing my backup role in the hands of Matthew Stafford against the Chicago Bears or Blake Bortles against the Cleveland Browns (if Bortles is still starting in Week 11, that is) would make a lot more sense.

And it’s not just bye-week matchups that you want to identify, it's weekly matchups -- especially for those playing in daily fantasy formats.

If you started Case Keenum last year against the 31st-ranked Detroit Lions defense, he rewarded you by throwing for 321 yards and 3 touchdowns -- perhaps the best performance in his entire NFL career. Likewise, starting any quarterback facing the Browns or New Orleans Saints last season was often a recipe for success, as their undermanned defenses struggled to keep up with even average quarterback play.

In 2016, according to the data, the Dallas Cowboys had one of the easiest passing game schedules, especially down the stretch, when they didn't face one top-23 defense during the fantasy playoffs. That played out brilliantly for those who took a shot on rookie Dak Prescott.

Schedule data also indicated that Derek Carr would have a cake walk of an early season schedule (which was accurate), and that Stafford was worth a gamble late in drafts (he finished as the QB7).

What the data also showed, though, is that transcendent talents can transcend schedules.

Tom Brady and Drew Brees both faced difficult roads in 2016, and both finished among the top five in fantasy points per game. Greatness gonna great.

Don't toss out schedule breakdowns when analyzing who to draft. But keep this information in context: Bortles may have a far easier schedule than Brady, but don't you dare consider drafting Bortles after the GOAT.

Schedule data can be valuable to break ties among similarly ranked players, especially when you look at playoff schedules -- to anticipate who may get hot at the perfect time for your fantasy team.

To research quarterback strength of schedule, I looked to our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data. A team's NEP indicates how they performed relative to that expectation. You can learn more about NEP in our glossary.

Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play identifies how many points a defense is taking away from an offense on a per-play basis, adjusted for strength of schedule. This allowed me to rank NFL pass defenses from first (Broncos) to last (Browns). While defensive rankings can often fluctuate year-to-year due to injuries or offseason changes, rarely do defenses go from the top-10 to the bottom-10 in just one season. Jumps like that are few and far between, with only the hapless Jets going from a top defense in 2015 to a terrible unit last season.

Below is a chart that identifies the ranking of each quarterback's 2017 opponents (by week) in terms of their opponents' Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play rank from 2016. I also produced a cumulative score to identify the quarterbacks with the best schedule overall, as well as a score for the final three games of the fantasy season (often the playoffs). The higher the score, the easier the schedule.

So what does the data show us for 2017? This chart can help you evaluate the options in your draft or on the waiver wire.

QB Schedules 2017

(Click on image to enlarge)

Situations to Target

In 2016, no schedules exceeded a total of 300 over 16 weeks of matchups. In 2015, the Carolina Panthers' projected total of 320 produced an MVP season from Cam Newton.

So I guess that means we can pencil in Joe Flacco and Sam Bradford as locks to be MVP finalists in 2017, with both teams exceeding that 300-point mark.

Did anyone else just throw up a little?

In all seriousness, an honest conversation on the late-round quarterback strategy begins by agreeing that perhaps there is value to be had in these veteran passers, with both being available as free agents in a standard, 16-round redraft league. Would I recommend drafting them? I can't in good conscience do that, no, but in dynasty leagues or two-quarterback leagues, they are definitely worth a look -- especially Flacco, whose final four games in 2017 shouldn't present much of a challenge.

Dalton, Bortles and perhaps a now-underrated Newton all look to be enticing options at their current ADPs, with each facing top-8 schedules. Obviously each also come with red flags (in my opinion: offensive line, not being good, and health, respectively), but if you're looking for value late in drafts, they certainly should be on your radar.

If you're looking for perhaps the best investment amongst the top passers, I'd take a long look at Matt Ryan. If you feel comfortable with Ryan given the loss of offensive guru Kyle Shanahan and the potential for him to suffer a regression from his 2016 numbers, his schedule is ranked 10th by our metrics above. The Falcons face just one top-10 defense outside of their division in 2017 (Vikings). Oh, and in the fantasy playoffs, he faces the Saints twice and the Buccaneers once -- teams he averaged 312 yards and 3 touchdowns against in four 2016 games (with zero interceptions).

Situations to Avoid

Outside of playing daily leagues, identifying difficult situations will be the most effective use of this analysis. The teams with the six worst schedules for 2017 all feature quarterbacks many see as potential breakout or sleeper candidates.

Carr had a great third season given the expectations, but he now faces the most daunting schedule in the league. He's currently being drafted as the QB7, right before Ryan, Marcus Mariota and Newton, and personally I'd much rather have any of them over Carr. The Raiders start the season facing three bottom-10 defenses, but considering those are the only bottom-10 defenses Carr & Co. will face all season, he's a sell for me starting Week 4.

Prescott and Kirk Cousins would also concern me, and both are currently being drafted in the top-12 of their position. The latter finishes his season with three top-10 pass defenses, which is obviously not what you'd like to see during the fantasy playoffs.

While Prescott had one of the most impressive rookie seasons in NFL history, with seven games against top-10 NFL pass defenses, it's worth wondering if lightning can strike twice. And with Ezekiel Elliott potentially heading for an early-season suspension, I will be looking elsewhere when drafting my starting quarterback.

Finally, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning both face significant obstacles for those looking for late-round values. And with age starting to potentially take its toll on both accomplished passers, it's worth proceeding with caution when considering taking them as your fantasy starter. I'd much rather have them in a committee approach or as streamers so as to avoid the many difficult matchups they will see throughout the season.

There is still plenty we don't know, of course, that will change the way we view quarterback schedules. And as we learn more about which pass defenses should be feared or exploited, we can continue to adjust our strategy to reflect that new information. But as season-long drafts approach, utilizing the data from 2016 is a great way to get an early jump on anticipating who might be in line for a boost in value and who is perhaps worth passing on.

And who knows, maybe at the end of the 2017 season we will have zero doubts as to whether or not Joe Flacco is elite.