Exploitation Theory: What the NFL Schedule Can Teach Us About Streaming Quarterbacks
Any great quarterback streamer will tell you that an effective use of the strategy really starts with an understanding of the matchups. Identifying the weakest pass defenses in the NFL and utilizing that understanding to target average quarterbacks who can exploit bad teams is a recipe for success.
These are just a few examples about how understanding the schedule can help you identify the best opportunities to stream quarterbacks, even deep in the fantasy playoffs. But even for owners who just want to identify the best bye week fill-in for their weekly starter, identifying positive matchups can help you avoid mistakes and target the player most likely to return value to your team on any given week.
For example, Matthew Stafford may be a value pick as the 16th quarterback off the board in MFL10 Average Draft Position (ADP), and he could have a strong year if he stays healthy. But if I'm the Eli Manning owner, do I really want to start Stafford against the Houston Texans top-3 defense during the New York Giants Week 8 bye? For my money, I'd rather have Marcus Mariota against the Jacksonville Jaguars or even Brock Osweiler against the Detroit Lions.
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.
Remember Manning's six-touchdown performance in Week 8 against the New Orleans Saints? As it happens, New Orleans was the worst defense in the NFL last year by any metric.
Or any quarterback facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Jaguars last season? Fantasy gold, for those who understood strength of schedule.
In 2015, the data indicated that Cam Newton had one of the easiest passing game schedules in years, especially down the stretch, where he didn't face one top-22 defense for the final 7 weeks. That played out brilliantly for those who didn't fret after a slow start and the loss of Kelvin Benjamin, as the NFL MVP led many owners to a fantasy championship.
This data also accurately predicted that Jameis Winston, Eli Manning and Kirk Cousins could have great seasons. What the data didn't prove, however, was the potential regression of top tier quarterbacks due to difficult schedules.
Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton had the most difficult schedules heading into the year, and injuries aside, both were able to overcome that potential stumbling block and put up good numbers (when healthy). Russell Wilson was also tremendous despite a fairly difficult schedule.
That said, there is no reason not to utilize schedule breakdowns such as this to perhaps break ties among similarly ranked players, especially utilizing their playoff schedules to anticipate who may get hot at the perfect time for your team.
To research quarterback 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 in our glossary.
The specific metric we're going to look at is 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 Denver Broncos, to last, the New Orleans Saints. 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 rare.
Below is a chart that identifies the ranking of each quarterback's 2016 opponents (by week) in terms of their opponents' Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play rank from 2015. 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.
As you draft or identify waiver wire targets, this chart can help you navigate the options. So what does the data show us for 2016?
Situations to Target
Unlike in 2015 where two teams surpassed the 300 cumulative point mark (indicated their ease of schedule), no situation jumps off the charts as an outlier or can't miss opportunity in redraft leagues.
Tony Romo and Jay Cutler lead in the overall schedule sweepstakes, but health and reliability, respectively, remain concerns. That said, Romo is a player to target as the QB19 right now in MFL10s, especially with the incredible matchups he faces down the stretch. Cutler can be had as the QB26, and is a great value as well in all formats.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has a difficult schedule overall, but his playoff score of 83 was the highest of all 32 teams, bolstered by matchups against the putrid New Orleans Saints defense in weeks 14 and 16. If he is on the waiver wire in your league after a difficult week 12 matchup against the Seahawks, he is an easy target to roster down the stretch.
Derek Carr might present the most value for his early season schedule, with no matchups against a top 16 defense until Week 6. But if his talent still doesn't impress you, perhaps Eli Manning is worth your time, with two bottom 12 defenses on his early season schedule and perhaps no really difficult games until Week 7.
Finally, Matthew Stafford should be getting some looks late in drafts for those looking at cheap upside. With one of the easiest schedules, including a fantastic playoff run, his value could climb this year as he continues to develop under the passing attack of Jim Bob Cooter.
Situations to Avoid
Perhaps suspended, pissed off 39-year-old quarterbacks with really tough schedules are your thing, but in the event that you are skeptical about narratives, our analysis would back up the conclusion that perhaps this isn't the year to take Tom Brady. Beginning in Week 7, the Patriots face only two defenses ranked lower than 17th in Defensive Passing NEP per play. In contrast, they have seven games against defenses ranked in the top 12. That includes a finish where four of five opponents are ranked seventh or higher.
He certainly has the ability to transcend this situation, and Brady's suspension does perhaps deflate his value (see what I did there?) to a point where the risk is worth the potential reward.
Another player that may be worth avoiding is Matt Ryan. While many are predicting a bounce-back year via positive touchdown regression, his schedule would indicate that another tough season could be in store. More importantly, his brutal finish to the season, with a late bye in Week 11 and then 4 out of 5 games against top eight defenses, he isn't a guy I want to trust late in the year. It could be much more prudent to grab Romo, who is going only one spot higher (QB 19) than Ryan (QB 20) or perhaps the aforementioned Jay Cutler.
Finally, Drew Brees, like Brady, is a historically great player who has a brutal schedule. While he may get the volume to exceed a poor schedule, he is currently the fifth quarterback off the board, and you have the option of waiting and nabbing a player such as Carson Palmer or Manning, both of whom have much easier paths at a far cheaper price. If you are going to be spending a premium at the quarterback position, Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton are perhaps more preferable targets from a schedule standpoint.
Expect some changes to these rankings, of course, but relying on this data isn't a bad way to start off your year. There is always value to be found on the waiver wire at the quarterback position. You just have to know how to find it.