QB SoS Part 2: 2014 Roadmap
Yesterday we looked at seven defenses that project to give fantasy quarterbacks the most trouble in 2014, as well as seven that should lead the league in consistently exploitable matchups. Below is a strength of schedule grid from which we can glean some actionable information.
By no means is this an end-all piece of analysis, and a number of the assumptions will likely prove wrong. However, for the purpose of planning suitable backups for starting quarterbacks, complementary streaming pairs, and who will be hampered or buoyed by matchups, it’s worth spending some time on.
Based mainly on their likely output and the draft capital invested in them, top quarterbacks are not often going to be sat down. Only bye weeks and the worst possible matchups will push them to the bench. Below are recommendations for backups to the upper crust of fantasy passers, followed by contingency plans for the tail-end of the QB1 tier, potential streaming pairs, and a somewhat cursory peek at fantasy playoff weeks.
Aaron Rodgers: His tough Week 1 (Seattle) and Week 7 through 9 stretch (Carolina, New Orleans, bye) are covered perfectly by Carson Palmer and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Alex Smith and Eli Manning work, but not as well.
Peyton Manning: He faces Seattle in Week 3, followed up with a bye. Look to Josh McCown, Chad Henne, Geno Smith, or even his real life understudy, Eli.
Drew Brees: Weeks 6 (bye), 9 (Carolina), and 14 (at Carolina in the fantasy playoffs…again) are hotspots for Brees. Teddy Bridgewater works well (Detroit, Washington, Jets), if he’s the starter. Eli again fills in nicely (Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Tennessee), and Palmer is golden for two of them (Washington, Dallas).
Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Tom Brady are basically in need of a backup for their Week 10 bye only. Luck and Brady fit with Henne (Dallas), Flacco (Tennessee), or McCown (Atlanta). Griffin does as well, but aim for Flacco since he gets the Colts during Washington’s Week 5 contest with Seattle.
Matthew Stafford has plenty of hotspots on his schedule, but the main ones are Weeks 2, 7, 9, and 12. Eli is a good fallback for those, with games against Arizona, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Dallas again, respectively. No other cheap passer fits Stafford’s tough weeks as snugly.
Cam Newton is going to be an issue if you play matchups, as you absolutely should with him. No single backup’s schedule fits well with his, and that’s just one more reason to avoid him in drafts this year unless he falls to a point where you will not feel compelled to start him on a weekly basis.
Pair Joe Flacco with Nick Foles, or just stream a quarterback for the Eagle’s bye week (7), and perhaps Philly’s Week 10 date with the Panthers.
Matt Ryan has a tough combination of weeks to avoid (1, 9, 11, and 16). Considering that most will likely want to start him Week 1 against the Saints anyway, and in a theoretical fantasy Super Bowl (Carolina), the best fill-in for Weeks 9 and 11 are Palmer, Bridgewater, and McCown.
Pairing Colin Kaepernick with Tony Romo is a tricky way to get around the fact that both back-end QB1s have a good number of games to avoid. Geno Smith and Fitzpatrick also fit well with Kaepernick. Eli and Jake Locker synch up nicely with Romo.
Russell Wilson’s schedule doesn’t have many insurmountable roadblocks, with Arizona and San Francisco expected to take small steps back in pass defense. E.J. Manuel and Locker fit with the Seahawk.
Philip Rivers’ many rough spots can be somewhat smoothed over by Flacco’s easier weeks, at least until the stretch run. Last year’s Comeback Player of the Year’s successful 2013 might seem like a distant memory by Christmas.
Jay Cutler and Eli may not be the most popular players, but their schedules mesh together almost perfectly (Week 8 in New England will be trouble for Cutler when Eli is on bye).
Andy Dalton’s schedule fits the narrative that he will decline from last year. However, Bridgewater and Locker can be of help during some rough weeks.
Whoever Cleveland’s quarterback is, Henne slides easily into the weeks where they’ll have tough matchups – or as easily as Henne can manage to do anything. Locker also pairs well. Judging by their schedule (at Pittsburgh, vs New Orleans, vs Baltimore, bye), the Browns may be changing quarterbacks before Locker even gets to Cleveland for their Week 5 matchup.
The latest of Late Round Quarterback enthusiasts will be interested to know that McCown and Fitzpatrick’s schedules match up very well. Then again if they are your passers, their opponents are not your biggest worry.
Alex Smith lovers, and there is a surprisingly large number of them (us), can’t be thrilled with his schedule – but Eli, once again, pairs well. Other than a couple of midseason weeks (8 and 10), they may be a viable cheap combination.
With the caveat that we are a long way off from December, some early candidates for fantasy football playoff success during Weeks 14 through 16 include Romo (at Chicago, at Philadelphia, vs Indianapolis) and Brady (at San Diego, vs Miami, at New York Jets). A pair of passers with seemingly tough fantasy playoff weeks would be Newton (at New Orleans, vs Tampa Bay, vs Cleveland) and Rivers (vs New England, vs Denver, at San Francisco).
And of course Matt Schaub (or, more likely Derek Carr) is at Kansas City, home against Buffalo, and at Denver – so keep that in mind.
There’s a chance that Stafford struggles a bit out of the gate, with matchups against the Giants, at Carolina, and versus Green Bay. He may be available at a discount toward the end of September if you miss out on him in August.
Other slow start candidates include Ryan (New Orleans, at Cincinnati, Tampa Bay), Wilson (Green Bay, at San Diego, Denver, bye), and especially Tannehill (New England, at Buffalo, Kansas City, at Oakland, bye, Green Bay).
If you wind up with Foles, but are not a true believer, hold onto him for a couple of weeks. He gets Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Washington, before taking on San Francisco, St. Louis, and the Giants, prior to his Week 7 bye.
Kaepernick is another candidate for a hot start (at Dallas, Chicago, at Arizona, Philadelphia), before a brutal six game stretch that goes from early October until a couple weeks before the fantasy playoffs.
Proceed With Caution
The yellow group populated below is primarily comprised of teams that possess the ability to shut down passing games, but also have enough questions that they need not be actively avoided. Occasionally we have to start our quarterbacks against quality defenses, yet it is provided upon request for those who would like to see more differentiation amongst the middle 18 teams.
Some yellow shaded teams possess a strong enough pass defense to land in the orange group, but their offense will play at a tempo that lends itself to elevated play counts for both sides (Kansas City and Green Bay, for example). Others could arguably qualify for the neutral category, but will likely employ a more deliberate offensive game plan. Opportunities to pile up passing stats will often be limited by game script (Oakland and Cleveland).
The Bengals surrendered just 12.6 fantasy points per game to quarterbacks last year (4th fewest), still have plenty of defensive talent, and seem an easy pick for “orange” status. However, Geno Atkins’s Week 1 readiness (ACL surgery) is a question, and top cornerback Leon Hall is attempting to return from his second Achilles’ tear. Two other corners are in decline (Terence Newman, Adam Jones), and one has failed to launch (Dre’ Kirkpatrick). They lost Michael Johnson from the line, and perhaps most importantly, Mike Zimmer from the coaching staff.
The Packers gave up the eighth-most fantasy points to quarterbacks but are headed in the opposite direction. Clay Matthews is again healthy, as is standout cornerback Casey Hayward. They brought in Julius Peppers to supplement their pass rush, and defensive ends Mike Daniels and Datone Jones are risers. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields complete what is quietly one of the league’s best cornerback trios. They will be in their fair share of shootouts, but this is an ascending defense that is not yet receiving the buzz that they deserve.
The 49ers have been reflexively avoided by quarterback streamers for years. However, their best pass rusher, Aldon Smith, will be suspended for an indeterminate number of games, and Navorro Bowman is a near-lock to start the year on the PUP list. Justin Smith is still a beast, but he will be 35 in September. If the pass rush doesn’t get home, their questionable back-end will get punished. Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown, and Carlos Rogers were free agent losses that will be felt. By no means is this a defense to target, but it is no longer one to avoid at all costs – at least early in the season.
The Ravens still boast a formidable pair of pass rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, but they are getting a little long in the tooth. Haloti Ngata is a premiere nose tackle but is no longer a spring chicken bear, and he has battled injuries. They’re strong at linebacker in the middle, but have uncertainty at defensive end. Similarly, they have plenty of talent and an equal number of questions in the secondary. While the Ravens gave up the 13th-fewest points per game to quarterbacks last year (14.6), if Peyton’s Week 1 blitzkrieg is removed the average falls to 12.5 – which would have been third-fewest.
The Texans were average in surrendering quarterback points last year, but they got Manning’d as well. Without Peyton piling on points during his record-setting Week 16, Houston would have given up the ninth-fewest points per game to passers. The Texans ranked 24th in snaps per sack (30.3), but that promises to change with the addition of Jadeveon Clowney rushing off of J.J. Watt’s left shoulder. Their front seven should be strong, especially with Brian Cushing back healthy. They may be hampered by soft spots in the back-end, particularly by corners not named Johnathan Joseph.
The Chiefs front seven is littered with studs, and it helped them to the seventh-highest snaps per sack rate (22.7). Among 3-4 outside linebackers, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali ranked third and fourth in Pass Rush Productivity (PRP), respectively. Eric Berry graded as PFF’s second best safety, but they have holes elsewhere in the secondary. Kansas City surrendered just 12.3 fantasy points per game to quarterbacks during the first nine weeks, but 17.9 over the next seven, and the playoffs were a disaster. The truth lies somewhere in between their performance in the first half of 2013 and the second.
The Browns don’t jump out as quarterback killers, especially since they gave up the 13th-most fantasy points to quarterbacks last year. But they added Justin Gilbert across from Joe Haden, and the ascending Jabaal Sheard graded as the 11th best pass rushing 3-4 outside linebacker. There is plenty of young talent on the defense, but classifying Cleveland in the ‘yellows’ also has to do with their offensive game plan. The Browns will keep the ball on the ground, the play clock moving, and the scoreboard relatively quiet. Points will be at a premium more often than not for both teams.
The Giants probably have the best defense in their division, and even though that’s sort of like being the smartest monkey in the tree, it does not mean they should be targeted by quarterback streamers. They surrendered the 11th-fewest fantasy points per game to passers last year, and their secondary was completely revamped for the better. Jason Pierre-Paul needs to rediscover his freakish pass rushing abilities and get a healthy assist from Broncos import Robert Ayers or New York’s much-improved back end won’t be able to live up to their significant potential.
The Raiders’ roster was patched up with 30-year old bandages this offseason, but most of them can still stop the bleeding. Lamarr Woodley and Justin Tuck along with first round rookie Khalil Mack will get after passers with regularity. Cornerback Tarell Brown was an underrated signing, and D.J. Hayden has a high ceiling if he can stay healthy. Tyvon Branch is a load of a safety who was sorely missed last year. Oakland’s offense is going to employ a run-based, ball-control attack, and their defense will present a surprising amount of problems for quarterbacks.
As a wise man once said, “Opinions vary…”
Even if everyone does not agree on if the nine yellow teams deserve to be avoided any more than the nine that have been classified as neutral (white), or less than those that were put in the orange category, we can still pull useful nuggets from perusing players’ opponents. The further we get away from Seattle on one end, or Dallas on the other, more disagreements will arise. That’s okay, especially when training camps are just opening and truck-loads of information is yet to be dumped on our eager heads. As always, the chart will be updated as the landscape comes into sharper focus.
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