The NFL rarely sleeps, and that's the case this week as the 2019 NFL schedule has been released.
In this piece, I'll be examining the slate down to the nuts and bolts. How does this schedule impact the fantasy landscape? Which players have it the easiest and hardest? How about the cornerback matchups for receivers? Who will make the playoffs?
Some housekeeping before I dive into this. First, I'll be excluding Week 17 from the fantasy categories, though including it has only a minor impact on the findings. Next, note that my strength of schedule evaluation is not based on final 2018 records, which is often what you'll see in this type of column. There already has been a ton of roster movement this offseason, so all of that is factored into each team's 2019 prospects. My evaluation of each roster -- not last year's production -- is what I use to generate the easiest and toughest schedules.
The analysis below is your next step in preparing for the 2019 NFL and fantasy football seasons.
Easiest opposing defenses
If new head coach Kliff Kingsbury can make a Sean McVay-like impact on the Arizona offense, the league's lightest fantasy schedule could help this unit make a quick turnaround this season. The San Francisco (twice), Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and New York Giants defenses all project to struggle this season and constitute nearly one-third of Arizona's schedule. Even better, the Cardinals will dodge all of the toughest projected defenses (think Jacksonville and Chicago) and the most difficult units they will face include the Rams (twice), Saints and a weakened Ravens unit. David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk stand to benefit most.
Unlike Arizona, New England's schedule is a bit more spread out, with a handful of games against very good defenses, but also a lengthy slate of affairs against some of the league's weaker units. The Patriots' offense will benefit from showdowns with the Dolphins (twice), Chiefs, Bengals, Giants and Redskins, but will need to be downgraded against the Eagles, Cowboys and Texans. This is good news for the team's tailback trio and could help Tom Brady to a bit of a fantasy bounce-back season. Keep an eye on the team's moves at wide receiver and tight end, but for now, Julian Edelman, Demaryius Thomas and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are the benefactors.
Like the Cardinals, the Ravens' fantasy schedule is intriguing primarily because it doesn't include any of the league's best defenses. Baltimore's toughest challenges will come in the form of Houston, Buffalo, New England and the Los Angeles Rams. On the other hand, the Ravens will benefit from some weaker defenses in Cincinnati (twice), Miami, Kansas City and San Francisco. A big offseason question mark is whether Lamar Jackson's rushing ability will offset his passing inefficiencies. One of the league's lightest schedules should help his progress. Mark Ingram II, Willie Snead IV and the Mark Andrews/Hayden Hurst tight end duo can also be upgraded slightly.
Toughest opposing defenses
The Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs offense exploded for 66 touchdowns last season, but the combination of history and the league's toughest fantasy schedule suggest a return to earth is on the horizon. Incredibly, 12 of the Chiefs' 16 games will be against defenses projected to be better than average. Their toughest showdowns will come against the Bears, Vikings and Jaguars, but life won't be much easier against the Chargers (twice), Broncos (twice), Titans, Texans, Colts, Patriots and Ravens. A pair of games against the Raiders are the only matchups that stand out as clear upgrades for this offense.
Oakland and Kansas City both play in the AFC West, so a lot of what I said for the Chiefs applies here. The Raiders' unique games are the Jets and Bengals (compared to the Patriots and Ravens for the Chiefs), which is why they fall second in line. I'll get more into the Oakland schedule later, but this tough slate is uninspiring news for Derek Carr, as well as newcomers Isaiah Crowell, Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams.
Injuries and a weak offensive line limited the Texans in the touchdown department in 2018, and the franchise will need to deal with another headache this season in the form of one of the toughest slate of defenses. Facing Jacksonville's stellar unit twice is tough enough, but add the Titans (twice), Colts (twice), Chargers, Broncos, Ravens, Patriots and Saints to the schedule and suddenly 11 of the team's 16 games are against above-average units. The Buccaneers, Chiefs and Raiders present Houston's lightest matchups of the season, though two of them are on the road. The fantasy production of Deshaun Watson, Lamar Miller, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller V and Keke Coutee will be affected.
Week 14-16 observations
Many of your leagues will observe the fantasy playoffs during Weeks 14-16, which makes it worthwhile to focus in on those games.
That's especially the case here as the Dolphins, who have a mid-pack fantasy schedule overall, are positioned with the easiest slate during Weeks 14-16. Miami will travel to play the Jets and Giants before returning home to face Cincinnati.
The Giants, Eagles, Jets and Patriots round out the top-five lightest schedules during the fantasy playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Raiders will need to deal with what is easily the hardest schedule during the fantasy playoffs. Oakland, which I noted earlier as having the second-hardest fantasy schedule overall, will first face off with Tennessee and Jacksonville at home before heading to Los Angeles to play the Chargers in Week 16.
The Chiefs, Cowboys, Packers and Chargers round out the top-five toughest schedules during the fantasy playoffs.
You need to get to the playoffs in order to take advantage of this section, so this information will be best served as a tiebreaker or perhaps when fielding trade offers during the season.
Easiest overall schedule
1. New England Patriots
It wouldn't be an NFL season if the Patriots weren't at or near the top of this list. There are two key reasons why New England often ends up near the top of this category: 1. Unlike 13 other teams, they don't have to play the Patriots, and 2. They get to play the Dolphins, Bills and Jets twice per season. The Jets and Bills improved a bit during the offseason, but both still have glaring weak spots and a lot will rest on the progress of their second-year quarterbacks. Rebuilding Miami got worse, dumping a generous chunk of its good veteran players, and now has the NFL's worst team on paper.
Divisional games aside, the Patriots also benefit from matchups with the Giants, Redskins and Bengals. Their toughest games are against the Chiefs, Eagles, Texans and the rest of the AFC North. The Patriots have a relatively easy path to their 17th consecutive 10-plus-win season.
I'm combining the Jets and Bills in lieu of a pair of redundant capsules analyzing two teams with similar schedules to New England's. Whereas the Patriots' unique games are against the Texans and Chiefs, the Bills will face off with the Titans and Broncos and the Jets with the Jaguars and Raiders. As noted, both the Jets and Bills improved their rosters at least slightly during the offseason, but the path to a wild-card berth rides primarily with the progress of second-year quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Josh Allen. Light schedules help make both realistic sleepers in the AFC.
Despite a few notable offseason losses, the Eagles are still arguably the league's best team on paper. As an added bonus, they're set up with the easiest projected schedule in the NFC. Same as the rival Cowboys, the Eagles will benefit from one quarter of their schedule coming against the struggling Redskins and Giants. The Eagles also benefit from a home game against the Lions, as well as showdowns with the Dolphins, Bills and Jets from the AFC East. Philadelphia's toughest matchups are against the Patriots, Bears and Cowboys (twice). Its showdown with Seattle will be at Lincoln Financial Field, though matchups with the Packers and Vikings are on the road. The light schedule presents the Eagles with a good opportunity to retake the NFC East crown.
Toughest overall schedule
1. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders' rebuild continued this offseason with a significant influx of new players under new general manager Mike Mayock. Oakland certainly improved the roster, but major voids and question marks remain. Add that to what is projected to be the league's hardest schedule and the Raiders appear to be at least one more year away from competing in the AFC.
The tough schedule begins, of course, with the division rival Chiefs and Chargers, who both went 12-4 last season and remain in good overall shape on paper. Oakland will also face tough challenges in the form of Chicago, Indianapolis, Houston, Minnesota and Green Bay. We've now accounted for nine of the Raiders' 16 games and that doesn't even include two games against the division-rival Broncos or matchups with tough Jacksonville and Tennessee defenses. Oakland's "easiest" path to wins are home games against the Bengals and Lions, as well as a road game against the Jets.
The Broncos have a good defense and seem to feel they upgraded at quarterback by trading for Joe Flacco, but one of the league's toughest schedules makes it a long shot that they'll return to the playoffs this season. Denver's schedule is, of course, similar to Oakland's, though the Broncos' unique games are against the Browns and Bills (as opposed to the Bengals and Jets for the Raiders). Facing Oakland twice is why Denver's slate comes in slightly "easier" than the Raiders' schedule.
3. Houston Texans
The Texans' 2019 schedule is short on "easy" games and heavy on some of the league's strongest teams. The latter includes road trips to face the Colts, Chiefs, Saints and Chargers, as well as home contests with the Colts and Patriots. Add in two games each against the division-rival Jaguars and Titans and that's 10 of Houston's 16 games. The Texans' only opponents that stand out as "easy" are the Buccaneers and Raiders. Houston has a ton of talent and upside, but a tough schedule clouds a potential return to the playoffs.
The Falcons' defensive prospects are much better for 2019 with a healthy Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and Ricardo Allen back in the fold, but the NFC's toughest schedule could be what holds them back from a return to the playoffs. Facing the loaded division-rival Saints twice is bad enough, but Atlanta also has tough matchups with the Eagles, Colts, Rams, Texans and Vikings. There also aren't many light matchups, with the Falcons' easiest-projected opponents showing as the Cardinals, 49ers and Buccaneers (twice).
Projected AFC seeds
1. Patriots; 2. Colts; 3. Chiefs; 4. Browns; 5.Chargers; 6. Steelers
The Patriots are a no-brainer, especially considering their aforementioned light schedule. The Colts are arguably a top-five team on paper and have the easiest schedule in the AFC South. Pick your poison between the Chargers and Chiefs, but Los Angeles playing its "home" game against Kansas City on a neutral field is the difference. Both figure to get in. The Browns are a bit better than the Steelers, but the demise of the latter has been exaggerated. Major offseason defensive losses make the defending AFC North champion Ravens a playoff underdog. The most notable omission here is probably the Texans, but their tough schedule can't be overlooked.
Projected NFC seeds
1. Rams; 2. Eagles; 3. Saints; 4. Bears; 5. Cowboys; 6. Packers
The Sean McVay-led Rams are the only team I show as a favorite in each of their 16 games, which helps them to the top seed. The Eagles and Saints will be right there in the mix. Chicago's defense remains loaded, but quarterback is a question mark and an improved Packers team (perhaps my favorite sleeper team for 2019) is arguably better overall on paper. Green Bay and a solid Dallas team get the leg up on the likes of Seattle, Minnesota, Atlanta and Carolina for the wild-card berths.
Projected 2019 NFL draft top five
1. Dolphins; 2. Raiders; 3. Redskins; 4. Giants; 5. Bengals
Rebuilding Miami is the heavy favorite for the first overall pick in the 2020 draft. Shaky quarterbacks and/or defenses figure to be the primary culprit behind rough 2019 seasons for the Raiders, Redskins, Giants and Bengals.
For more in this department, ESPN+ subscribers can check out my 2019 win total projections and analysis for all 32 teams.