Buyer Beware: What Strength of Schedule Can Tell Us About Drafting Quarterbacks in Fantasy Football

What quarterbacks should you avoid, draft or pair based on schedule difficulty this year?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for a career high 4,952 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2014, a remarkable season that saw him finish as the fifth-ranked quarterback in fantasy points per game. 

But a look inside the numbers shows us that he feasted on a pretty easy schedule, averaging 370 yards per game against the terrible NFC South teams not named Carolina (ranked eighth in pass defense according to our metrics), and also having great games against the below average Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars. Oh, and one of those six touchdown performances was against an up-and-down Indianapolis defense that lost their strongest cornerback. That didn't hurt his cause. 

Sure, elite quarterbacks can still produce against good defenses, but identifying outstanding matchups can help you predict when Matt Ryan is going to have a career day. Hint: it's when he plays the Saints and their terrible defense. 

While defensive rankings can often fluctuate year to year, I found it interesting that only two defenses, the Giants and the Saints, went from the top 10 in 2013 to the bottom 12 in 2014. Jumps like that are rare, and more often than not, bad defenses stay average or worse year to year. 

So what can identifying favorable defensive matchups tell us about drafting quarterbacks? 

Understanding quarterback schedules is a great analytical tool to make sure you're targeting not only a good player, but also a player with the easiest path to success. 

To research this, I utilized our numberFire's 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 here in our glossary.

The specific metric I utilized was Adjusted Defensive Passing 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 pass defenses from first, the Houston Texans, to last, the Washington Redskins. 

I then charted the schedule's of the top 26 quarterbacks according to average draft position (ADP) by week, creating a cumulative score based on simply adding together the defensive ranking of each opponent. 

Through this article, any matchup against a top-10 ranked pass defense will be considered an "unfavorable" matchup, while any game against a bottom 12 defense will be considered a "favorable" matchup. The remaining nine are considered a push. 

Quarterbacks to Avoid

Ben Roethlisberger is currently being selected as the fifth quarterback off the board in redraft, but he's a top-10 quarterback I'm fading at his current ADP of 54th overall. While the Steelers offense is expected to possess a top three passing game in 2015, that optimism ignores the fact that Pittsburgh played one of the easiest schedules in the league last year (thanks, NFC South), but have by far the most difficult schedule this year in terms of opposing pass defenses.

According to our Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play metrics, the Steelers have seven unfavorable matchups and only two favorable matchups this season. Roethlisberger's cumulative score was an NFL worst 172, which is 37 points lower than the next ranked passer, Joe Flacco (209 points). For comparison, our top player in this analytic was Cam Newton at 320, 148 points higher than Big Ben. More on him later. 

While the schedule isn't tragic, Big Ben just doesn't get to feast off of terrible defenses in 2015, and I'd rather spend my draft capital on a quarterback with equal talent and a much easier slate.

For late-round quarterbacks, I'm avoiding Andy Dalton as well. While his inconsistency last season (26th in fantasy points per-game) can be largely attributed to the injuries sustained by most of his pass catchers, his 2015 schedule will make it difficult for him to really improve his numbers this season. 

Dalton had our fourth worst cumulative score at just 216, and he will face seven unfavorable matchups as opposed to just four favorable matchups. While he may be good for a spot start here and there, he won't be someone I draft.

Quarterbacks to Target

Cam Newton finished 2014 tied for eighth in points per game, but just 17th in total points after an up-and-down, injury-plagued campaign that saw him miss two games and play hurt in many more. As a result, he is currently being selected as the seventh quarterback off the board despite finishing as a top five quarterback in his first two seasons in the NFL.

In addition to his injuries, which severely limited his mobility, Newton was throwing the majority of his passes to inefficient rookie Kelvin Benjamin, who is likely to improve at least his efficiency in 2015. The team also adds rookie Devin Funchess to the mix, which adds another weapon to this rising offense. 

But it's the ideal schedule that makes me fall in love with Newton, with the Panthers having only two unfavorable matchups and an astounding 10 favorable matchups in 2015, including seven straight to finish the season.

His cumulative score of 320 was by far the best among the top 12 quarterbacks, outpacing the second place players (tie between Matt Ryan and Eli Manning) by 24 points.

His overall schedule, especially the outstanding finish, are strong reasons to target Newton as a mid-round quarterback you can ride all the way throughout the playoffs.

Eli Manning is another player I am targeting, ranking second in the cumulative score at 296.

While his offensive line issues are concerning, the investment is minimal with Manning being selected as the 12th quarterback off the board. The Giants also return a decently healthy Victor Cruz, Rashad Jennings and the outstanding Odell Beckham, in addition to adding another receiving weapon in running back Shane Vereen.

The Giants have only three unfavorable matchups on their schedule as opposed to eight favorable matchups. While his finish to the season isn't nearly as easy as Newton's, the only daunting matchup is against the eighth-ranked Carolina Panthers in Week 15, which isn't terribly imposing if you are looking to start Manning that week.

Outside the top-12 quarterbacks, I'm primarily targeting Sam Bradford, who has a cumulative score of 295, good for fourth in the NFL.

He finds himself in a quarterback friendly system in Philadelphia and has six straight favorable matchups to start the season and nine favorable matchups overall as opposed to just four unfavorable. Unfortunately, he does have three difficult matchups in the last four weeks of the season, but finishes with the 32nd ranked Washington Redskins in the all important Week 16.

For those looking to target a quarterback extremely late with a favorable schedule, look towards rookie Jameis Winston. In addition to having an above average receiving core, especially as red zone targets go, Winston's Buccaneers have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL in 2015. They face just two top 10 pass defenses from 2014, and a league high 10 that finished in the bottom 12 last year. He is currently being selected as the 20th quarterback in redraft leagues.

Quarterbacks to Pair

For those who love best ball leagues or prefer carrying two quarterbacks throughout the season so they don't have to live the daring week-to-week adventures of a quarterback streamer, strength-of-schedule can help us draft the ideal pairings for our starting quarterback. 

Because a sane draft strategy wouldn't have managers selected two quarterbacks in the first eight rounds, I'll only evaluate pairing a top-12 quarterback with a player drafted 13th or later. So that Andrew Luck/Aaron Rodgers stack won't be in contention.

Also, you aren't drafting Luck and Aaron to sit on your bench when they have a tough matchup, so I didn't look into their best pairings, but you will need a fill in during a bye week. For Luck, look at Teddy Bridgewater (vs. 25th ranked Oakland) or Winston (vs. 23rd ranked Dallas). For Rodgers, I like targeting Philip Rivers (vs. Oakland), Winston (vs. 32nd ranked Washington) or Marcus Mariota (vs. 28th ranked Atlanta).

So like the idealistic purpose behind ABC's The Bachelor, what magic can we make playing quarterback matchmaker? 

Peyton Manning/Marcus Mariota

On the opposite ends of their careers, I like pairing the aging Peyton Manning with dynamic rookie Marcus Mariota. If Manning fails to prove he is matchup proof, Mariota offers great value as a fill in as the 25th quarterback off the board. While you don't have to draft Mariota in standard leagues, his upside and value make him worth a flier in deeper leagues.

While the Broncos are on bye in week seven, Mariota draws the 28th ranked Atlanta Falcons in what could be a track meet in Tennessee. He also plays the 19th ranked Doplphins and the 25th ranked Raiders during two of Manning's other difficult matchups.

Russell Wilson/Philip Rivers

Russell Wilson is another player who you aren't likely benching all that often, but if difficult matchups concern you, consider selecting Philip Rivers late in your draft. He's currently going off the board as the 14th quarterback in standard drafts.

During the Seahawks' bye, Rivers draws the 27th ranked Chicago Bears, who will likely be imploding around that time once again. During Wilson's other difficult games, Rivers plays teams like the 26th ranked Steelers, the 15th ranked Packers and the 19th ranked Dolphins.

If selecting Rivers as a backup in the 10th round doesn't appeal to you, Sam Bradford is another great option, with the Eagles playing the 23rd ranked Cowboys during Wilson's bye week.

Ben Roethlisberger/Jameis Winston

I mentioned earlier why I am fading Big Ben at his ADP, but if I am taking him, I'm likely pairing him with Jameis Winston or, if I want to invest a lot at the quarterback position, Ryan Tannehill.

Winston plays the depleted Eagles secondary during the Steelers bye week, in addition to drawing the 30th ranked Titans, the 32nd ranked Redskins, the 28th ranked Falcons, the 23rd ranked Cowboys and the 29th ranked Saints on some of Roethlisberger's other difficult weeks.

Tannehill draws the Cowboys during the Steelers bye, in addition to the Redskins, Eagles, Giants and Chargers during other difficult Pittsburgh matchups.

If you just want a bye week fill in, consider Sam Bradford against the 31st ranked Buccaneers.

Drew Brees/Sam Bradford

If I'm drafting Drew Brees (which I rarely am at his ADP), I would target an upside player like Sam Bradford to pair with him. During the Saints bye week, the Eagles face the 31st ranked Titans, and Bradford should have a field day against that secondary.

While Bradford doesn't have ideal matchups during Brees' most difficult weeks, the Saints actually have one of the league's easier schedules (thanks once again, NFC South). You could spot start Bradford if needed, but Brees only has one matchup against a top seven defense, and only four against top 10 teams.

I'm avoiding Brees less because of his schedule, but because there are more advantageous targets I can grab later in drafts. If he were to fall, his schedule is the seventh easiest according to our projections, and I wouldn't hesitate to grab him in the 7th or 8th rounds. 

Cam Newton/Sam Bradford

I can't stress enough how easy the Panthers' season looks on paper, with only two top-12 pass defenses on schedule, and none after Week 6.

In addition, Bradford is the perfect complement if he can stay healthy, facing the 29th ranked Saints during the Panthers bye week. He also draws the 23rd ranked Cowboys and the 22nd ranked Giants on Newton's two difficult weeks.

And if Bradford starts the season strong, you can always look to trade him following Week 6, with Newton facing ideal matchups down the stretch. Just another reason this pairing makes a ton of sense.

Matt Ryan/Jameis Winston

Matt Ryan is another NFC South quarterback benefiting from playing an easy schedule. In addition to playing the Buccaneers and Saints twice, they draw the weak defenses of the NFC East. While I don't target him as frequently due to his proven low ceiling (zero top five finishes in points per game in his career), he admittedly has a lot going for him in 2015.

Pairing him with Winston makes a good bit of sense, with the Buccaneers playing the Cowboys during the Falcons' bye week. And While Matt Ryan plays the eighth ranked Panthers twice during the fantasy playoffs (weeks 14 and 16), Winston draws the 29th ranked Saints and the 27th ranked Bears.

While Winston isn't a great sub for a week four matchup against the top ranked Texans (he plays the Panthers), you could easily grab Joe Flacco (vs. 26th ranked Steelers) off waivers.

If it is apparent early that Winston won't have a great rookie season, Robert Griffin III has an ideal schedule to matchup with Ryan. Of course, he could be injured or benched sooner rather than later, which would make him less than ideal.

Tony Romo/Sam Bradford

If you plan on making it to the championship game in your league, keep in mind that Tony Romo faces off against the number two pass defense from 2014 in the Buffalo Bills that week. 

That's why I'd love to pair him with Bradford, whose Eagles will play the 32nd ranked Washington Redskins in Week 16. In addition, while the Cowboys are on bye, Bradford will face the 22nd ranked Giants, which should be a good matchup for him.

He also could grab a spot start for your team in week five, with the Cowboy's facing the Patriots and the Eagles facing the 29th ranked Saints. But overall, Romo faces the eighth easiest slate of pass defenses based on our metrics and may well be worth his seventh round ADP. 

Tom Brady/Sam Bradford

With a four game suspension looming, Tom Brady's ADP has plummeted to the 10th quarterback off the board, which could be a steal if he finds a way to play all 16 games.

The situation will likely be unresolved in the next few weeks, which makes Sam Bradford the perfect target for those interested in grabbing Brady late in drafts.

Not only does he play the 32nd ranked Redskins during the Patriots bye, but the Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP scores of his opponents during the first five weeks of the season are 28th, 23rd, 21st, 32nd and 29th.

Not a bad way to hold down the fort until Brady returns pissed and ready to go in week six. At that point you can always trade Bradford (if he hasn't already torn his ACL).

Matthew Stafford/Jay Cutler

Jay Cutler may be on thin ice, but if he maintains the starting job in Chicago he is a great compliment for the Matthew Stafford owner.

While the Lions sit home on a bye, the Bears square off against the 24th ranked Chargers. In two of Stafford's more difficult games against the Seahawks and Chiefs, Cutler draws the 25th ranked Raiders and the 18th ranked Vikings.

The only potential land mine is week three, where both quarterbacks face top 10 opponents.

Eli Manning/Ryan Tannehill

Probably my favorite quarterback pairing is selecting Manning and Tannehill back-to-back in the eighth and ninth round. You should already have a good roster, having spent the first seven rounds loading up at running back, receiver and tight end, so why not live a little! 

I've already touched on why Manning is one of my favorite targets, but pairing him with the ascending Tannehill is also a great way to hedge on some of the Giants more difficult weeks.

In all four Giants' matchups against top 10 pass defenses, Tannehill will square off against bottom 12 opponents. That includes the 23rd ranked Cowboys during New York's bye week as well as an important Week 15 fantasy playoff game against the 24th ranked Chargers.

The only potential pitfall is week four, where the Giants play the Bills and the Dolphins will face a vastly improved Jets secondary.

Sam Bradford is also a good pairing with Manning, although Week 15 could be difficult with the Giants playing the eighth ranked Panthers and the Eagles facing the 11th ranked Cardinals.

The importance of that Week 15 game gives Tannehill the slight edge over Bradford as a pairing for Eli.