6 Players to Target and Avoid in Fantasy Football Based on Early-Season Schedules

Projecting NFL schedule difficulty just isn't easy, but that doesn't mean that we can't try to look ahead to the upcoming season -- especially when we're seeking players who could start hot and cold in fantasy football. It's a piece of information that we can lean on, though it shouldn't drive every decision we make.

We may not know which 6-10 team can get on the right side of .500, which playoff teams will be in the gutter this year, or which defenses will ramp it up, but this isn't a complete roll of the dice, either.

We probably know that the Jacksonville Jaguars should be a strong matchup based on game script. We probably know that matchups with the Kansas City Chiefs could lead to shootouts.

To take the subjectivity out of analyzing schedules, I went ahead and used win totals and betting odds from FanDuel Sportsbook to look at early-season games -- focusing on the first six weeks at the most.

Here are some players who could benefit or struggle early based on the schedule sequencing.

Easy Starts

Raheem Mostert, RB, San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers' start with a really nice schedule this year (obviously), but just look at this: versus the Arizona Cardinals, at the New York Jets, at the New York Giants, versus the Philadelphia Eagles, and versus the Miami Dolphins. FanDuel Sportsbook has posted odds on four of those five games.

San Francisco opens as a 9.0-point home favorite (46.5-point over/under) over the Cardinals. They're 5.5-point road favorites over the Jets, 7.0-point road favorites over the Giants, and 5.5-point home favorites against the Eagles. Regressed win totals imply a spread of -9.8 over the Dolphins the following week. The 49ers should be able to run as much as they want, and that's fantastic news for Raheem Mostert and the 49ers' backfield.

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals

So we already talked about the Week 1 matchup that forces the Cardinals on the road as a 9.0-point underdog against the 49ers. After that, though, Kyler Murray's schedule opens up a ton: versus Washington, versus Detroit, at Carolina, and at the Jets. Our initial projections rank those defenses 30th, 27th, 23rd, and 15th. After that, he gets a possible shootout with the Dallas Cowboys, too.

If Murray gets past that opening matchup (he actually put up 23.0 and 26.7 FanDuel points against the 49ers last year), he's pretty much guaranteed to get off to a blistering start. The same also goes for DeAndre Hopkins, Kenyan Drake, and Christian Kirk, too.

D.J. Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

It's hard to love a receiver on a team whose win total is just 5.0 (with -145 odds on the under, mind you), but the efficiency could be somewhat decent to kick off 2020. The Jaguars start off by hosting the Indianapolis Colts as a 7.0-point home underdog (with an implied total of 19.5 points) but then get the Tennessee Titans, Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, and Lions. The average projected defensive rank of Jacksonville's six pre-bye opponents is just 24.0.

The game script for Jacksonville may not often be positive this season, but it's only after the bye where things really heat up (their final six fantasy opponents rank 10.0 on average in projected defense based on numberFire's metrics).

Other Easy Early-Season Schedules: Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots

Tough Starts

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Look, I'm not saying to avoid Saquon Barkley in fantasy football, but his early-season schedule is pretty brutal, and that can play a factor when looking at the top of the first round. The Giants open as 4.0-point home underdogs to the Pittsburgh Steelers before traveling to play the role as 5.5-point underdogs in Chicago. Then they return home to the 49ers as 7.0-point 'dogs. They'll also have to travel to play the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys before finally hosting Washington to start the season.

Wins and positive game script could be scarce for the G-Men early, and that should be something you factor in when contemplating what to do at the start of your drafts. Just know that we may not see the best of Barkley for a few weeks into the season.

David Johnson, RB, Houston Texans

I was going to talk about Deshaun Watson here, but he can probably overcome the Texans' early draw more easily than David Johnson can. Houston is a 9.5-point underdog against the Kansas City Chiefs to kick off the season with a still-good 22.25-point implied total, but the script may not be there for a heavy rushing workload against KC. From there, Houston faces two top-six defenses (Baltimore and at Pittsburgh) before hosting the Minnesota Vikings. Woof.

It remains to be seen just how involved Johnson is as a receiver in Houston. Last year among running backs, Johnson ran a top-five percentage of his snaps from the slot, via Pro Football Focus. Duke Johnson ranked ninth in overall routes run at the position. What we can probably assume, at least, is that he doesn't get a ton of work on the ground given the anticipated game flow early on.

Courtland Sutton, WR, Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos had an offense-friendly draft, and while I don't see reason to worry about Courtland Sutton's target share in 2020, the early schedule is less appealing. There are two strong matchups in the first six weeks (at the Jets in Week 4 and versus Miami in Week 6). The other spots are more than a little worrisome: versus Tennessee, at Pittsburgh, versus Tampa Bay to start the year and then at New England (Week 5).

No team projects to have a tougher first five weeks based on projected defense ranks than the Broncos. We can spin this positively and presume volume will triumph over the tough matchups for Sutton, but the defenses Sutton will face won't be doing him many favors to start off 2020. Touchdowns and yardage totals could dip early before improving later.

Other Tough Early-Season Schedules: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Las Vegas Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans