Exploitation Theory: What the NFL Schedule Can Teach Us About Streaming Defenses
Any seasoned fantasy football player understands that a dominant NFL defense does not necessarily equal a dominant fantasy defense. The case and point for this would be the 2014 Seattle D/ST, who were undisputedly ranked as the best defense in the NFL entering the year and thus drafted at an average draft position around 85th overall.
But despite being a great unit once again by NFL standards, they ranked just 23rd overall in fantasy points per game, an undeniable letdown given their unreal eight-round average draft position (ADP). Despite leading the league in points allowed at just over 15 per game, they failed to produce the touchdowns and turnovers needed to catapult them into the top-10 in fantasy.
Instead, the mediocre at best Philadelphia D/ST finished as the top defense in fantasy despite allowing a below-average 25 points per game. They feasted on great matchups, sacks, turnovers and return touchdowns, and, despite going undrafted in 12-team leagues, proved to be by far the best value at the position.
The fact is, defensive fantasy production can be fickle, and owners are often better off playing the matchups on a weekly basis than just drafting the presumed best defense in the NFL. Death, taxes and Blake Bortles throwing an interception were certainties in 2014, and savvy managers took advantage by starting any defense playing the Jacksonville Jaguars.
These are just a few examples about how understanding the schedule can help you identify defenses to target, avoid or stream as the season progresses.
To research defensive strength of schedule, I utilized 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 here in our glossary.
The specific metric I utilized was Adjusted NEP per play, which identifies how effective an offense is as a whole on a per-play basis, adjusted for strength of schedule. This allowed me to rank NFL offenses from first, the Green Bay Packers, to last, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
So what are some observations we can make from the 2015 schedule?
Defenses to Target
Last year's 19th-ranked team in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, the Miami D/ST added dominant defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and look poised to take advantage of an offensively challenged AFC East in 2015.
But the strongest reason to target them is their schedule to open the season, which has them facing bottom 12 offenses in their first six games. This includes awesome matchups against quarterback deficient teams like the Redskins, Texans, Jets, Jaguars, Bills and Titans.
While their schedule does get more difficult late in the season, there is value in being able to draft one defense and start them with confidence until their Week 5 bye.
While the price tag is a little steep as the fourth defense off the board in the 11th round, their schedule more than justifies that price given their upside.
Ranked 16th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play in 2014, the Indianapolis D/ST have one of the easiest schedules to start the 2015 season, making them a team I love targeting in the last round of a standard, 12-team league. They are currently going undrafted in that format, ranking around 193rd overall in 14-team leagues.
With their first five games against offenses ranked 23rd or worse in NEP efficiency (in terms of Adjusted NEP per play), this is a team capable of giving you immense value to start the season as you wait for trends to emerge. During that stretch they play the Bills (26th), Jets (23rd), Titans (29th), Jaguars (32nd) and the Texans (24th).
While they may not be a dominant unit, the return of stud defensive end Robert Mathis from a torn Achilles could certainly help them, and the team is optimistic that he could return by Week 1.
As a defense you can land for free at any point in the draft, they are certainly worth targeting in the last two rounds of your draft.
Defenses to Fade
There is no question that the Buffalo D/ST could be dominant defense in 2015, but that comes at a hefty price as third defense off the board and around the 10th round in ADP.
And with an opening schedule that sees them face the Colts, Patriots and Dolphins, all top 12 offenses according to NEP, you can't feel confident starting them until perhaps Week 4 against the 16th ranked Giants.
Obviously if Tom Brady doesn't play in their Week 2 matchup, they become a much more compelling defense to own. But with his suspension still up in the air, I'm not comfortable drafting a defense early that I want no part of starting until Week 3 or 4.
In addition to losing dominant cogs such as Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, the Detroit D/ST will face three top-11 offenses in their first four games, making them difficult to trust early on in the season. The Broncos (second), Seahawks (sixth) and Chargers (11th) are difficult matchups for any defense, let alone one trying to replace its top two defensive tackles.
While the price is okay as the 14th defense off the board, it's hard to stomach drafting a defense you have no interest in starting more than once in the first quarter of the season, which makes Detroit a prime team to pass on in standard leagues.
Defenses to Stream
The Cleveland D/ST finished the 2014 season ranked 18th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play and are currently going undrafted in standard 12-team leagues. But with their first three games being against the Jets (23rd), Titans (29th) and Raiders (30th), they are a team I like to land late and utilize early in the season before moving on to a better defense.
Currently being selected as the last defense off the board in 12 team leagues, the Minnesota D/ST are one of my favorite defenses to nab when they have favorable matchups. While they ranked as just the 21st overall defense in 2014, this is a young team with exciting talent on that side of the ball like Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Sharrif Floyd.
Specifically, in Weeks 8-10 they face, in order, the Bears (21st), Rams (27th) and Raiders (30th). They will likely be available on waivers after their Week 5 bye and are a team I will target if I see them.
Defenses to Watch
Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons
The Tennessee D/ST and Atlanta D/ST have by far the best schedules for any defensive unit in football. But they were also two of the worst defenses in 2014, ranking 30th and 29th respectively in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
Talent is a major question mark for both units, and unless they demonstrate the ability to be opportunistic early in the season, I wouldn't nab either regardless of the favorable matchups they have throughout the season.
Charting the Matchups
Below is a chart that identifies the ranking of each team's 2015 opponents (by week) in terms of their opponents' Adjusted NEP per play rank from 2014.
I also produced a cumulative (Weeks 1-16) and playoff (Weeks 14-16) score to identify the defense with the best schedule overall. The higher the total score, the easier the schedule.
As you draft or identify streaming targets, utilize this chart to help you navigate the options.
|1||2||3||4||5||6||7||8||9||10||11||12||13||14||15||16||Playoff Schedule||Cumulative score|
While I wouldn't use the matchups to predict the New Orleans D/ST to have more success over the season than the Denver D/ST, it can help guide me as I look to avoid difficult matchups and find more opportunistic plays. Matchups can have a significant enough impact on defensive performances, and good managers keep on eye on schedules as the season unfolds.
Expect some changes to these rankings as the season progresses, of course, and adjust accordingly. But don't overlook the impact strength of schedule can have on a defense's fantasy outlook.