Defenses With Good Opening Schedules
How many of us remember last year riding that glorious dominant defense known as the Cleveland Browns? Anybody? Well if you did somehow select this seemingly bottom feeding “Brown-stained” defensive bunch one of the first four weeks of the season, you would’ve started the top scoring D/ST for Week 2. In fact, the Browns defense nearly doubled the fantasy output of two end-of-season fantasy defensive darlings, the Texans and Chiefs, for the first four weeks of the season.
Since most of us live in the world of streaming defenses week-to-week, it’s imperative that we look ahead to make concerted adjustments, select a team with an advantageous schedule and get that extra step ahead of your opponents.
Let’s take a look at seven defenses with excellent opening schedules that could help give your team some extra oomph to start out the fantasy season. We won’t be using opponent win percentage from 2015 as the ultimate predictive tool for projecting D/ST points in 2016 because so much has changed. As stupid as it sounds, many tools use last year’s win/loss records to give us a picture of how “tough” a schedule a team has for 2016. And yet that would lead us to assume Carolina will almost go undefeated again as well as the Cowboys being among the worst offenses in the league without Dez Bryant, Tony Romo, and an all-world rookie in Ezekiel Elliott. In other words, we need to take an objective approach looking at the 2016 Home/Away schedule, passing/rushing yards allowed, turnover rates, and even diving into Vegas betting lines of forecasted wins.
Quick Note: The clear omission from this list below is last year’s dominant fantasy defense, the Denver Broncos. This article is geared towards measuring the strength of schedule for the first four weeks of the season not predicting how each D/ST will finish up the year. The Broncos will surely be a great choice as a D/ST, albeit probably not at the same historical level at which they produced in 2015.
For an in-depth look at strength of schedule and other positional projections, check out the Ultimate Draft Kit.
2015 Stats to Know: Fifth fewest yards per game allowed (321.7), fourth most INTs (19), six defensive TDs
2016 Opening Strength of Schedule: 15th best
Average Forecasted Wins for Opening Opponents: 8.3
Arizona’s opening schedule is the stuff of fantasy dreams as they start the season at home three out of their first four games. They draw (assuming the suspension holds) a Tom Brady-less Patriots team at home while only traveling to Buffalo, whose offense threw the second fewest times per game (29.1) in the league in 2015. Those two home games against the mistake-prone Jameis Winston, as well as #1 overall pick Jared Goff and the Rams, should generate multiple turnovers. In my opinion, the Cardinals are the top-rated defense in terms of opening schedule as well as projected fantasy points for the entire 2016 season. If you are someone who doesn’t shy away from picking defenses a round early, I recommend taking the Cardinals with confidence.
2015 Stats to Know: Second fewest YPG (291.8), fewest rush YPG (81.5), fewest PPG (17.3)
2016 Opening Strength of Schedule: 1st (best)
Average Forecasted Wins for Opening Opponents: 6.9
Despite the brand name of having the “Legion of Boom” and a Super Bowl-caliber defense over the last few years, the Seahawks’ D/ST unit has actually underwhelmed recently in terms of fantasy production. Perennially Pete Carroll’s bunch has been chosen as the first team off the board in most drafts and yet over the last three years, they’ve finished as D/ST11, D/ST5, and D/ST23. However, when I look at their opening schedule for 2016, Vegas determined that the Seahawks face the weakest teams in terms of projected wins for the year. They still boast an unbelievable pass defense (ranked second best in 2015) and the top-ranked run defense (81.5 YPG) but simply have not been forcing turnovers at the same rate as in the past. Dynamic return man Tyler Lockett is due once again for some big plays in special teams as he scored kick and punt return TDs last year. This D/ST is a slam dunk to start the season.
2015 Stats to Know: Sixth fewest YPG (322.9), most INTs (24), allowed second lowest 1st down percentage (30.5%)
2016 Opening Strength of Schedule: 12th best
Average Forecasted Wins for Opening Opponents: 8.1
It’s not shocking that the NFC Champs make this list as their first three matchups come against some of the worst passing offenses in the league, something Carolina excelled at in 2015 leading the league in INTs. Even with the departure of CB Josh Norman, they still have a solid fantasy defense with a formidable front seven led by LB Luke Kuechly, who last year produced the highest LB rating Pro Football Focus has ever graded out. The Panthers were especially excellent on third down allowing the second lowest 1st down percentage (30.5%) in the league last year. Even on the road against divisional rival Atlanta, who gave Carolina its lone regular season loss last year, the Panthers are still a strong fantasy play. Don’t expect the same type of dominance the Panthers displayed in 2015; but know they should start out of the gate even in the rematch with the Broncos as favorites across the board.
2015 Stats to Know: Third best against the pass (210.4 YPG), #2 D/ST Week 16, #1 D/ST Week 17, finished as D/ST4 overall
2016 Opening Strength of Schedule: 21st
Average Forecasted Wins for Opening Opponents: 8.5
The Texans are another of the teams with a juicy opening schedule playing three out of the first four at home. Last year from Weeks 12-17, they were the top scoring D/ST averaging 14.9 fantasy points, basically the numbers of a solid RB2. They were particularly potent the final two weeks of the season against divisional opponents, scoring 23 fantasy points against the Titans and a whopping 31 in the season finale against the Jaguars. The Texans are among the few teams who start out their schedule with three home games with the added bonus of facing against offenses that all ranked in the bottom ten in passing yards per game in 2015. The only tough call is at Foxboro in Week 3, albeit possibly against backup Jimmy Garoppolo. The Texans are among the elite defenses to be selected on draft day so if you want a leg up on the competition, the Texans are an excellent choice.
2015 Stats to Know: 38 sacks (14th in NFL), 258.8 passing yards allowed (seventh worst in NFL), 24.9 PPG (11th worst)
2016 Opening Strength of Schedule: 3rd best
Average Forecasted Wins for Opening Opponents: 7.0
There’s not a lot of stats from 2015 that I can communicate to you about the Raiders being a stalwart defense. In fact, they were pummeled in the passing game, famously jeered for their lack of coverage against TEs, and needed to address this in a big way during the offseason. Their big signings were LB Bruce Irvin to pair with the unblockable Khalil Mack, and former Kansas City Chief and rival CB Sean Smith. They also went defense-heavy in the draft with their first three picks addressing needs, including versatile safety Karl Joseph, the 14th pick overall. The Raiders have some high turnover potential while also some volatility being an unproven commodity. I’d steer clear of them Week 1 in that nightmare opening matchup against New Orleans. However, after the dust settles, the next two weeks, especially against the Titans and Ravens, you could be looking at a top five defensive play even on the road.
2015 Stats to Know: Eighth fewest YPG (337.4), tenth best against the pass (233.6), league worst 6 INTs
2016 Opening Season Strength of Schedule: 2nd best
Average Forecasted Wins for Opening Opponents: 6.9
Baltimore, according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, is not being considered on draft day as they’re going behind defenses that have opening four-game slates that are nearly twice as difficult. The Ravens are not the dominant force many people associate with them in the Ray Lewis days but still have some serviceable defenders. Their opening schedule is glaringly missing their higher power AFC North opponents in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. In Week 2, they’ll face the Browns who had the third worst PPG in the league last year, while in Week 3 they take on the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles, and the turnover addiction and fumbilitis he suffers from. All in all, the Ravens might be the surprise defense for first few weeks of the season.
2015 Stats to Know: #1 D/ST Week 2, #6 D/ST Week 6, basically not a lot to like…
2016 Opening Season Strength of Schedule: 6th best
Average Forecasted Wins for Opening Opponents: 7.5
Listen it pains me to even put this team on this list. But in terms of purely an easy opening schedule, I’d be lying to you not at least mentioning the fact the Browns have three games to start the season against teams with projected losing records according to current Vegas lines. The Browns actually started out the season as a somewhat streamable defense with their high mark being the top scoring defense in Week 2. However, they bottomed out the rest of the year finishing as the 25th best D/ST. At best, the Browns are a contrarian play in DFS tournaments and a super sneaky start for those who look up and down the waiver wire seeing what’s available.