Warren Sharp

Against the Spread

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Superior Strength of Schedule

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


“What’s the point of strength of schedule?” they said. “Don’t use it, it’s a waste of time.” They didn’t want to entertain drafting Leonard Fournette, the oft-injured rookie out of LSU who would be playing with Blake Bortles on a bad Jaguars team which hadn’t won more than five games since 2010 and would likely face negative game-script situations. In 2012-2016, only two Jaguars running backs produced seasons with more than three rushing TDs, and only three ran for over 500 yards. In 2016, T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory combined for just 904 yards and four TDs. Linemakers projected six wins for the Jags and a fourth-place finish. “Who cares about strength of schedule? I want nothing to do with a rookie in this terrible Jacksonville backfield.”

In this space last year, my non-traditional method of calculating strength of schedule forecast the Jaguars with the NFL’s easiest slate. What does an easy schedule mean? Ideally, better game scripts. And more opportunities to run the ball because instead of trailing by double digits in the second half like the pre-2017 Jaguars were accustomed to, they would have more fourth-quarter leads to hold onto via the run game.

50% of Fournette’s rushes gained two yards or fewer, which ranked 25th out of 28 NFL backs with at least 175 attempts. Only 26% of his runs gained five yards or more (27th). Fournette averaged just 3.88 yards per carry, and his 43% success rate ranked 17th of 28 qualifiers. But thanks to improved game script, Fournette ranked 7th in rushing attempts (268) and finished as the fantasy RB8. This is just one anecdote to show why schedule strength matters.

The current method used to analyze schedule strength is the least efficient possible, looking at only prior-year win-loss records without context and applying them to current-year opponents. Measuring 2018 strength of schedule based on 2017 records is lazy and inaccurate. But like most things in the NFL, it is an accepted method from the past, and there is reluctance to shift away from established thought processes. I’ve built my foundation on questioning tradition and employing more efficient means of making NFL decisions.

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At SharpFootballAnalysis.com, I attack the NFL from an analytical perspective and often use contrarian thinking to find edges. I also developed a free-to-use stats website (SharpFootballStats.com) which uses advanced analytics and visual graphs to allow users to customize, visualize, process, and retain information.

This article will focus on 2018 SOS using 2018 Vegas projected win totals. My method starts by taking three of the largest, most reputable Vegas sportsbooks (Westgate, South Point, CG Technology) to build a model creating a consensus line which factors in juice. Ignoring juice is a massive mistake. For example, ignoring juice on a team with a win total set at 7.0 but juice on the over of -150 would be misleading. My juice-adjusted win totals are a superior means of calculating opponent strength.

The other edge in calculating SOS in this manner is that I can update the data over the course of spring and summer. As bigger-money bets are made, linemakers adjusted the juice and sometimes the win totals themselves. Sportsbooks and sharp bettors tell us how their opinion of each team is evolving.

32. Arizona Cardinals

Arizona’s 2018 home-road splits will be fascinating. They play just one top-ten opponent at home (Rams) and a league-high five top-ten opponents on the road. The back half of Arizona’s schedule features four top-ten opponents in a five-week span. The Cardinals are the only team to not face a single bottom-five opponent this year. On a more specific note, Arizona plays a brutal schedule of pass-rush defenses to start the season. With Sam Bradford’s fragility behind an undermanned offensive line, Josh Rosen figures to start sooner rather than later.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are one of the few teams that might be thankful for an early bye. They play the NFL’s most difficult schedule in September, including three top-ten teams (Saints, Eagles, Steelers) in consecutive weeks. Tampa Bay draws a reasonable midseason slate before closing its final six games without a single below-average opponent. More specifically, the Bucs face one of the league’s most difficult schedules of pass defenses. So if they struggle on the scoreboard against this brutal schedule, the Bucs won’t necessarily be able to rally back in these games via the pass.

30. Seattle Seahawks

Seattle moves from 2017’s second-softest projected schedule to 2018’s third toughest. The Seahawks’ SOS is highlighted by a ridiculously tough final nine games featuring two top-five opponents, two top-ten teams, and four more games against teams ranked 11th-16th. Seattle’s schedule does begin favorably with two bottom-five opponents (Bears, Cardinals) in the first month. But three of the Seahawks’ first four games are on the road, and they have a slightly early bye (Week 7), limiting their rest and recovery ahead of the grueling Weeks 9-16 stretch.

29. New York Giants

New GM Dave Gettleman pushed in his chips on Eli Manning this year. Some have suggested Eli must start hot for that strategy to pay off, but it will be easier said than done. No team plays a tougher Weeks 1-7 schedule than the Giants, who face four top-ten teams in their first seven games (Eagles, Saints, Falcons, Jaguars) as well as the Panthers and Texans. Collectively, the G-Men draw the second-most-difficult schedule of pass defenses in the league. The second half of the season is considerably easier, including five bottom-ten opponents in Weeks 8-16.

28. Kansas City Chiefs

Pat Mahomes won’t be eased into the 2018 season against the difficult pass defenses of the Chargers and Steelers – both on the road – in Weeks 1-2. After that, Kansas City’s toughest two-week test comes in Weeks 5-6 against the Jaguars and Patriots. Overall, the Chiefs face the NFL’s fewest bottom-ten opponents (two) and a league-high six top-ten opponents. Their defense should face an above-average schedule, but the defenses Kansas City’s offense faces are especially difficult, collectively ranking second toughest in the league.

27. New Orleans Saints

Presuming they take care of business in early games they’re favored to win, the Saints should be in good position entering their Week 6 bye. They face four bottom-ten teams in the first five weeks. From Week 8 onward, however, New Orleans draws four top-ten teams in a five-week span (Vikings, Rams, Eagles, Falcons) and overall has the NFL’s most difficult schedule in the season’s second half. The offenses they draw during this stretch are cumulatively the toughest any defense will face, and Drew Brees will have his work cut out against a very tough slate of defenses, as well. The Saints play three primetime games in four weeks between Weeks 12-15, and two are on the road. (New Orleans is 0-3 in on-the-road primetime games since 2016.)

26. Detroit Lions

Detroit’s lone saving grace from facing a downright brutal schedule is the AFC East, giving the Lions games against the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. Because apart from a game against the lowly Cardinals in Week 14, there is nothing remotely easy about this slate. No team in the NFL plays more top-ten (6) or top-five (4) opponents than Detroit. And if they are lucky enough to be fighting for playoff position, they must overcome late-December trips to Buffalo and Green Bay, no easy task for a dome team. From Weeks 8-16, Detroit faces a nasty gauntlet of defenses – toughest in the NFL – highlighted by the league’s toughest slate of pass defenses in that span.

25. Cleveland Browns

Last year’s Browns went winless against an average schedule, but you’d be wrong to think that they can’t have success against the NFL’s eighth-toughest 2018 slate. And that’s because the roster suddenly has plenty of talent. But the reason Cleveland’s schedule is so tough is that they don’t play any easy teams except for the Jets at home in Week 3. The Browns’ next-weakest opponent is the Bucs in Week 7, although that game is on the road. And beyond that, no other team on the Browns’ schedule is worse than in-state rival Cincinnati. The good news is Cleveland gets four of its toughest non-division opponents at home (Falcons, Chargers, Chiefs, Panthers). Gregg Williams’ defense had better ramp up quickly, because through the first ten weeks, the Browns play by far the NFL’s most difficult schedule of opposing offenses. While the Browns are again pegged as the league’s worst team, I can picture them pulling off more upsets than expected with a revamped talent base.


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You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.
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