Projecting strength of schedule with a high degree of certainty is not only destined to miss the mark, it’s the height of arrogance. If someone knows exactly how defenses will perform four months in advance, the only person they’re telling is the anonymous face behind the betting window. If they tell you, they’re a liar.
While this disclaimer needs to preempt any discussion of schedule strength, it does not prevent us from milking value from a study of quarterbacks’ opponents. Sure, injuries and unexpected performance fluctuations will skew our best laid preseason prognostications – but there are certain likelihoods that we can build upon. Ultimately we all are basing our draft plans on probabilities.
Like last year, I attempted to identify the toughest defenses for fantasy quarterbacks. Instead of again classifying them as “Probable Top-10” and “Probable Top-Half” defenses, I broke those groups down into three “Must Avoid” and four “Avoidance Advisable” units.
Unlike last year, I also attempted to identify pass defenses that will be accommodative to fantasy quarterbacks. Those were broken into three “Surefire Shootouts” and four “Favorable Foes.” That left 18 unclassified defenses, which we will address later. Unless otherwise stated, “pass defense” refers to both coverage and rush elements.
Also like last year, a color-coded schedule grid was constructed. It provides a season-long snapshot of every passer’s schedule, and can be used to pair quarterbacks for streaming, bye-week, and general draft optimization. Notable findings are again listed below the chart. If you refer back to last year’s piece, be sure to note the touted Jay Cutler-Carson Palmer pairing, and kindly avert your eyes from the Josh Freeman-Joe Flacco dumpster fire. Thank you.
Without further ado, here are the seven defenses that project to be toughest on fantasy passers, followed by seven that should be easy pickings.
Seattle Seahawks – Last season, 47 quarterbacks scored more fantasy points per game than the 8.4 that Seattle’s defense surrendered. The Seahawks gave up even less than that in seven of their eight home contests. Opposing passers averaged just a single touchdown pass and 6.8 fantasy points per game in Seattle, where the Seahawks intercepted more balls than 16 other teams picked off all season. Yes, they lost contributors from a unit that led the league in PFF marks for both pass rush and coverage, but most of them (Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, Red Bryant, and Brandon Browner) were among the lowest graded players on Seattle’s defense. They’ve got youthful depth ready to fill any gap without skipping a beat …or a beating delivered to fantasy quarterbacks.
Carolina Panthers – Carolina registered a sack every 16.3 defensive snaps and totaled 60 altogether, both of which led the league. Their 20 interceptions ranked fifth. Despite the fact that their secondary will be another mish-mash of questionable parts, they will again be aided by a dominant pass rush. The Panthers will feature one of the league’s top defensive fronts, led by Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson – who ranked fourth and fifth in Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) among 4-3 defensive ends, respectively. Carolina will continue to rely on a ground-based offensive attack, not as if they have much of a choice. This projects to again limit opportunities for opposing offenses, an area in which they ranked third-best last season while surrendering just 178 defensive possessions.
New Orleans Saints – The Saints deliberate and highly-efficient offensive approach limited the exposure of a flawed defense. They faced the fewest defensive snaps and it, along with regular scoreboard advantages, helped hide a weakness against the run (4.6 yards per carry surrendered; 6th-worst). In 2014, with upgrades to the secondary (Jarius Byrd, Champ Bailey, a healthy Kenny Vaccaro), and natural progress from a talented front-seven, it’s time for Rob Ryan to let his freak flag fly. New Orleans collected 49 sacks, or one every 19.2 snaps (both ranked 4th-best), and feature strong pass rushers in linebacker Junior Galette (9th best PRP among 3-4 OLBs), and unheralded stud defensive end Cameron Jordan (2nd best PRP among 3-4 DE). With their back-end reinforced, it’s time for the Saints to attack.
New England Patriots – They surrendered the 11th-most fantasy points to quarterbacks during an injury-ravaged 2013. A return to health for Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo is huge. Adding Darrelle Revis to the secondary, and eventually Brandon Browner as well, will allow Bill Belichick to deploy more exotic, turnover-inducing looks. Perhaps most importantly, further maturation by athletic freaks Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins add an explosive element that Belichick’s defenses have been missing for some time. They also boast PFF’s top-graded coverage safety in Devin McCourty. This is a borderline “Must Avoid” defense, and they won’t face an offense that poses significant challenges until Week 8.
Denver Broncos – While Denver gave up the 10th-most points to quarterbacks last year, their per-game average of 16.6 was skewed by two shootouts (at Dallas and New England). Without those games they would have given up the 11th-fewest points. We can expect that ranking to improve with ex-Cowboy Demarcus Ware stalking quarterbacks with a soon-to-be-healthy Von Miller. The Broncos upgraded their secondary with PFF’s fourth-ranked safety, T.J. Ward, and shutdown-capable cornerback, Aqib Talib – who had a +7.9 coverage grade before getting injured in Week 6. He bounced back late in the year and will join Chris Harris and rookie Bradley Roby in a talented back-end.
St. Louis Rams – This would be a “Must Avoid” defense if their back-end was as imposing as they are up front. Their coverage will improve from last year and their pass rush projects to be even more formidable. St. Louis was the 10th-stingiest defense for fantasy quarterbacks in 2013, and shaved nearly two points per game off of their first half average (15 vs 13.1). Their second half pace would have ranked 8th-best on the year. The Rams’ snap per sack rate (19.1 plays/sack) ranked third, and they added stud interior rusher Aaron Donald to a ferocious line. Third-year corner Janoris Jenkins is ascending (-5.2 coverage grade pre-bye; +4.3 post-bye) along with the unit as a whole.
Buffalo Bills – Despite playing the seventh-most defensive snaps in 2013, the Bills gave up the eighth-fewest fantasy points to quarterbacks. The loss of Kiko Alonso (+13.1 coverage grade; 2nd-best among middle linebackers) is a blow, as is the departure of safety Jairus Byrd. However, the Bills still boast a top notch pass rush that was second in sacks (57), and the arrow continues to point upward. The 10th overall pick in 2012, cornerback Stephon Gilmore (-4.0 coverage grade) found his stride down the stretch (+5.3 last six games). He leads a deep secondary that, even without Byrd in their midst, will cause problems for passers who will have one eye downfield and one on Buffalo’s pass rushers.
Washington – Last season’s 28th “best” graded pass coverage squad did little to upgrade their secondary, unless importing “Toasty” Tracy Porter from Oakland to replace the inadequate Josh Wilson is considered progress (it’s not). They also brought in a declining former Steelers’ safety, Ryan Clark, and ex-Cowboy lineman Jason Hatcher – who was damaged goods. Despite strong bookend pass rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, Washington could only muster 36 sacks (tied, 21st-most), allowed the third-most yards per pass attempt, and sixth-best quarterback rating. Their one saving grace was opponents were happy to hand off for touchdowns (23 allowed; NFL-high). Without an enormous pass rush, they’re not covering anyone this year.
Dallas Cowboys – The only way starting a quarterback against the Cowboys could go wrong in 2014 is if their run defense is so pathetic that there’s no need to throw. This is doubtful since similar conditions existed last year (30th-graded run defense) and Dallas still managed to surrender the second-most fantasy points per game to passers (20.3). What little quarterbacks did have to fear, and it was very little (32.2 plays per sack; 30th), departed in free agency with Demarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. Sure, George Selvie might run into another eight sacks if they play Eli Manning four times, but that seems unlikely. Dallas does have talented cornerbacks who will benefit from playing more press coverage, yet even Deion Sanders couldn’t cover his man forever. This hot mess has weekly bloodbath potential.
Atlanta Falcons – Unless they pull a slot corner out of thin air, quarterbacks are going to beat on that spot like a drum. Robert McClain and Washington import Josh Wilson both stink (80th and 76th in cover snaps/reception, respectively), and McClain ranked last by a mile in yards per slot coverage snap surrendered (1.81). Number two cornerback Robert Alford showed promise, but was inconsistent during his rookie year. All will get plenty of action because Desmond Trufant is a stud, and the only one on this defense to fear. Their run stopping should improve due to offseason additions on the line (Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Ra’Shede Hageman), but they have zero pass rush. Even without coverage soft spots, passers will have enough time to sip on margaritas before picking them apart.
Tennessee Titans – They lost one of their bookend cornerbacks when Alterraun Verner walked, and will be deploying their best player (now-DE Jurrell Casey; 36 QB hurries, 11 sacks in ’13) out of his natural habitat as they transition to a 3-4 scheme. Their safeties, Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin, have declined in coverage and aren’t getting any younger. The Titans’ pass rush will be overly reliant on Derrick Morgan quickly making the tough transition to outside linebacker. New coordinator Ray Horton will have them playing well in time, but Tennessee will be easy pickings for Alex Smith, Tony Romo, Andy Dalton, and Andrew Luck during the season’s first month. At the very least.
New York Jets – Expect opponents to again throw on the Jets at a high rate (55.9% in 2013). They had, by far, the best run defense grade (+84.2), and things don’t figure to change there. In contrast to that strength, they ranked 29th in pass coverage (-42.5), and 24th in pass rush (-14.4). New York brought in Dimitri Patterson to solidify their slot coverage, and drafted standout safety Calvin Pryor. That will help, but their other young corners are still question marks, and projected starter Antonio Allen graded as the 78th “best” coverage safety (-7.0). The inside linebackers can’t cover anyone, and the outside backers can’t rush the passer. Their three-man line is the best in the league, but that won’t be enough by itself.
Philadelphia Eagles – They gave up the seventh-most fantasy points to quarterbacks last year, and did nothing that will upgrade their pass coverage. Malcolm Jenkins was imported from New Orleans, and Nolan Carroll from Miami, but both are bad at covering football players. Nate Allen, Bradley Fletcher, and Cary Williams are all expected to see snaps, and none had positive coverage grades last year. The Eagles were sixth-worst in sacks per snap, and besides drafting Marcus Smith did little to upgrade that deficiency. Their run defense is formidable, so opponents will attack through the air with gusto. The Eagles faced the most defensive snaps in 2013, and will be right up there again this year.
Indianapolis Colts – The main reason the Colts only gave up the 16th-most fantasy points to quarterbacks last year was their run defense stunk. They were PFF’s 24th-graded unit in that area, and surrendered 4.5 yards per carry (8th-most). Indy faced the 10th-most rushing attempts, and the eighth-fewest pass attempts. While defensive end Arthur Jones upgrades their run stopping, they will take a step back in pass defense. Robert Mathis is suspended for four games and he’s their sole pass rushing threat. Their safeties are weak, and Vontae Davis is the only standout member of the secondary. The Colts are set to throw more often behind Andrew Luck, and the shootouts will be frequent.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2, as we pull it all together into one big color-coded, seizure-inducing chart. Also discussed will be which of the remaining 18 defenses can cause potential problems for fantasy passers, followed by a gaggle of actionable notes for everyone from early-round quarterback enthusiasts to degenerate streamers.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman