Welcome back to a new series of articles I am introducing this summer, entitled Game Theory. In the Game Theory series, I will go into an in-depth discussion on various theories and sciences of fantasy sports and explain them to you in a way which helps you further understand the game, the draft itself, and handling daily operations after the draft. In this second edition of Game Theory, we will examine strength of schedule and it’s impact on predicting breakouts.
In this second edition of the Game Theory series, we are going to look into Strength of Schedule (SOS) and determine whether or not it is a helpful, neutral, or detrimental tool when constructing a season-long fantasy team. There is a lot of debate over this piece of data within the fantasy community each and every summer; some players swear by paying close attention to SOS, while others don;t even consider it when projecting and ranking the players on their draft boards. In this entry, I look to inform you a little bit more about SOS while also looking at some historical trends over the last few years to help you determine whether or not you will utilize SOS data during your draft.
This article will deal exclusively with season-long fantasy leagues. Obviously, SOS does not really factor into Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) games due to the fact that you are constructing a new lineup each and every week. However, for season-long formats, SOS is a hotly debated data point that is worth exploring. SOS really isn’t as helpful of a tool when dealing with bonafide stud players; elite talent players at their positions like Aaron Rodgers, David Johnson, Antonio Brown, etc. will generally have a great chance to perform well each week. SOS is a more helpful tool for some when deciding between fifth-round receivers, tight ends, etc. I believe it is a smart idea to look back at some of the past few year’s breakout players who had great years seemingly out of nowhere and review their SOS to give us some insight into whether or not it is a helpful data point for drafters.
Let us go back a few years or so, to the 2013 season.
Top Breakout QB: Andy Dalton (354 points) – Preseason SOS: 12th toughest / 32 teams
Top Breakout RB: Demarco Murray (258 points) – Preseason SOS: 25th toughest / 32 teams
Top Breakout WR: Josh Gordon (314 points) – Preseason SOS: 21st toughest / 32 teams
Top Breakout TE: Jordan Cameron (213 points) – Preseason SOS: 21st toughest / 32 teams
From the 2013 data, we can see that, generally, the breakout players at their position had weak schedules. The exception to the rule was Andy Dalton, who, despite a tough schedule, returned Top 5 numbers that season. This is especially interesting because generally, the better teams will have better defenses; teams that are “good” are mostly more well-rounded than teams that are “bad” (or bottom 1/3rd of the league.) It’s clear to see that WR Josh Gordon and TE Jordan Cameron both played a weaker schedule and returned great years. In addition, Demarco Murray and the Cowboys played plenty of bad teams, which resulted in a breakout year for him. All 4 of these players truly came out of nowhere in 2014, and it would seem that SOS played a part in 3/4 of their breakouts.
Let us now look at 2014:
Top Breakout QB: Andrew Luck (430 points) – Preseason SOS: 32nd toughest / 32 teams
Top Breakout RB: Le’veon Bell (370 points) – Preseason SOS: T-23rd toughest / 32 teams
Top Breakout WR: Emmanuel Sanders (302 points) – Preseason SOS: 2nd toughest / 32 teams
Top Breakout TE: Martellus Bennett (221 points) – Preseason SOS: 15th toughest / 32 teams
Here in this example we see a complete contrast to the year before as far as quarterbacks go. Andrew Luck had the best season for a player at the position, and had the easiest schedule of any team in the NFL. The year before, we saw Andy Dalton produce in a similar fashion against a tough schedule. This can help us deduce that the schedule for the quarterback doesn’t matter as much as continuity and the player itself. Both players were in their 3rd year in the NFL when they produced these seasons. It would seem that player progression plays more of a role in having a good fantasy year than the schedule does. Maybe the 3rd-year quarterback is the new predicator of success in these modern NFL times. If so, it spells a great year ahead for Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.
Bell, in addition to Luck, had a particulary soft schedule.
It could be that this season helped Bell burst onto the fantasy scene, but it’s more likely that SOS had nothing to do with it. In 2017, we can now identify Bell as one of the best running backs in the world and a perennial Top 3 selection in every format. His staying power goes far in showing us that running back strength of schedule may not be an important piece of data when examining past trends.
Emmanuel Sanders and Martellus Bennett both had relatively tough schedules, but that didn’t stop either from putting up great statistics at their relative positions. Emmanuel Sanders in particular had over 1400 receiving yards that year. Yes, he had Hall of Famer Peyton Manning throwing him the ball, but he also had to contend with Demaryius Thomas for targets. He still turned in a Top 10 year for a low cost. In the following few examples of SOS, we will have more data to compare this wide receiver SOS against, but for now it seems to not really matter as much.
The same goes for Bennett; both Cameron and Bennett burst onto the scene and became weapons for fantasy teams in these years, and yet both faced resistance in the form of competent opponents during their breakouts. It seems as if SOS for tight ends isn’t as big of a point of data as others would make it seem, but again, let’s compare it to the 2015 and 2016 data in the following examples.
Leave your feedback in the comments. The remainder of this article will be published later this week. To be continued…