Fantasy Football: How to Exploit the 2017 NFL Schedule When Drafting Running Backs
Heading into the 2016 season, nothing was certain about the Chicago Bears' backfield. Jeremy Langford was coming off the board as the 20th overall running back in MFL10s, per MFL's Average Draft Position (ADP) data, well ahead of an unheralded rookie named Jordan Howard, but it was hard to be confident about either player.
Yet by the end of the season, Howard, despite starting only 13 games, finished as the second-leading rusher in the NFL with 1,313 yards. Talent and opportunity certainly were the biggest factors. It didn't hurt, though, that, according to our metrics at numberFire, no team had an easier schedule than the Bears.
I don't say that to discount what Howard accomplished as a rookie, but instead to highlight how an ideal schedule can significantly improve a running back's chance at season-long success.
Ty Montgomery -- a college running back turned receiver turned back to running back -- had just one 100-yard effort last season: a 162-yard, 2-touchdown effort against our 32nd-ranked Bears rushing defense.
Each of these examples is an indicator of how identifying good matchups can help you find value picks and streaming options. We also know, though, that volume and elite talent can overcome a dismal schedule.
The most difficult schedule in 2016 belonged to the Buffalo Bills, and yet LeSean McCoy was a dominant force. While Shady did most of his damage in the better matchups he had (421 yards and 6 touchdowns against the three bottom-six defenses he faced), his workload and talent allowed him to overcome a tough schedule.
Additionally, receiving ability or goal line prowess from a back can mitigate the lack of success they find on the ground against stout run defenses. Such was the case for David Johnson, whose 20 total touchdowns (most of any non-quarterback) and 80 receptions (most among running backs) were far more impressive than his 4.2 yards per carry average (18th in the NFL) as the Cardinals slogged through the ninth-most difficult schedule. Or LeGarrette Blount, whose 18 touchdowns were enough for fantasy owners to forgive his 3.9 yards per carry against what was a tough slate of defenses.
Schedules do matter, and understanding the opponents each backfield will face can help you break a tie between selecting similarly ranked running backs, or even identify players who might be worth trading as the season progresses. Even for owners who just want to identify the best bye week fill-in for their weekly starter, identifying positive matchups ahead of time can help you avoid mistakes and target the player most likely to return value to your team on any given week.
To see our research on quarterback streaming and schedules, check out our previous article in this series.
To research running back 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.
The specific metric I utilized was Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, which 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 rushing defenses from first (Baltimore) to last (Chicago).
While defensive rankings can often fluctuate year to year, it is rare for a defense to move from the top 10 to the bottom 10 in just one year, or vice versa. More often than not, bad defenses stay average or worse from one year to the next.
So what are some observations we can make from the 2017 schedule?
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Situations to Target
Nothing is more tantalizing than an ideal schedule matching up with a great backfield. Unfortunately, this is not one of those years where that magic takes place.
The overtly tanking New York Jets have the easiest schedule, according to our metrics, facing just one top-10 rush defense on the season. But set to feature one of the most talent-deficient offensive lines and quarterback rooms, this isn't an attack which is likely to score a lot of touchdowns.
And even if you are willing to overlook the surrounding (lack of) talent, you'd still be left to make a choice between Matt Forte and Bilal Powell. In 2016, the former received almost all of the rushing work prior to Week 12, but Forte was clearly outplayed by Powell down the stretch. That said, Forte's bloated contract and veteran status make this a muddy situation to decipher. While the schedule is appealing, it's hard to make a strong recommendation for any player on the Jets.
Unfortunately, split backfields make up the next five most appealing outlooks, with the Panthers (Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey), Vikings (Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray), Patriots (too many to name), Ravens (Terrance West, Danny Woodhead and Kenneth Dixon), and Saints (Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram) rounding out the six best schedules for running backs.
If you're willing to place a stake in the ground in any of those backfields and can choose correctly, the schedules are friendly. The Vikings, for example, will face only three top-12 opponents all season, which makes Cook or Murray very appealing if one of them could seize the lead role.
Personally, I'd be inclined to target late value in Stewart, who can currently be had in the 11th or 12th round, per his MFL10 ADP. Stewart is not flashy, but he also put up 9 touchdowns and 824 rushing yards in just the 12 games he finished -- on an offense that really struggled. With the Panthers looking to protect Cam Newton from big hits as well as the departure of short-yardage back Mike Tolbert, the goal line work appears to be Stewart's for the taking. McCaffrey was a big investment as a top-10 draft pick, but the team seems committed to giving Stewart a bulk of the carries, with McCaffrey operating as more of an all-purpose weapon.
Meanwhile, the Bears sit at seventh overall in our schedule rankings. With only three games against top-10 rush defenses and a final four games that are as appealing as any in the NFL, the aforementioned Howard could once again be a player who propels you to victory during the stretch run.
Situations to Avoid
Those expecting a strong rebound from 2016 bust Todd Gurley may be left wanting again this season -- his team sits alone at the bottom for the league's most difficult schedule. Facing the sixth-ranked Cardinals and the second-ranked Seahawks a combined four times certainly doesn't help, nor do difficult games against the Vikings (fifth), Texans (seventh sans J.J. Watt) and Giants (third). His easiest games would be a pair of tilts against the 30th ranked 49ers, however one of those games is in Week 17 and won't count in most leagues. If you're looking for a silver lining, at least he starts his season with three favorable matchups.
Like Gurley, Carlos Hyde and the San Francisco 49ers play in that same stingy NFC West division. The 49ers face only three defenses ranked in the bottom-14 of the league and, conversely, have 10 games against top-14 defenses.
Isaiah Crowell is another back getting a ton of love early in draft season, and an upgraded offense line in Cleveland has him going in the early fourth round according to MFL10 ADP. Despite not posting a 1000 yard season in the first three years of his career, optimism is high for the former undrafted free agent. His schedule, however, doesn't seem ready to join in on the party, with half of his games against top-12 competition and only five games against bottom-17 teams. In my own drafts, I'll look the other way at his current ADP.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that Doug Martin will return from his PED suspension (three games) and immediately face three top-8 defenses. That certainly could lead to a rough start, but if his workload is consistent and he looks healthy, it may be the perfect time to buy low before his schedule lightens up in the second half of the season.
While we can't "stream" running backs as we would at the quarterback position (the lack of supply of useable fantasy backs makes it impossible), identifying matchups can be a valuable resource for DFS or even when breaking ties as you are drafting in a standard redraft league.
Bottom line: schedules matter. They might not turn Jeremy Langford into a star, but they can provide insight into which backfields to target. And who knows, maybe Matt Forte will keep the Jets from laying claim to the top overall pick in the 2018 draft.