Fantasy: Which teams have the easiest, hardest early-season schedules?
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With the release of the NFL's regular-season schedule Thursday, we can begin to infuse that information into our 2022 fantasy projections.
While injuries can have a major impact on the campaign's latter stages, you can gain an advantage by focusing on the first few weeks to draft players set for hot starts or avoid those destined to struggle against an unusually tough streak of opponents.
Players with difficult schedules in the early going are prime trade targets after the first few weeks when managers begin to question their value.
We'll also publish a detailed fantasy strength-of-schedule matrix for the entire year soon - but for now, let's take a quick look at the teams with the easiest and hardest early-season slates.
The schedule-makers wasted no time pitting Russell Wilson against his former club in what should be a favorable first outing against a Seattle Seahawks squad that also lost defensive leader Bobby Wagner.
In fact, three of the Broncos' opening four opponents (Seahawks, Houston Texans, Las Vegas Raiders) finished in the bottom 12 of Football Outsiders' pass defense DVOA for 2021. Aside from the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3, Wilson should face very little resistance as he gets acclimated to Denver's offense.
Acquiring pieces of the Broncos' attack has been a priority for fantasy managers since the team landed its new franchise quarterback, and this early-season schedule justifies that.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers enter the 2022 campaign as legit contenders following a spectacular offseason on both sides of the ball. On the offensive side alone, they re-signed wideout Mike Williams, brought in Gerald Everett to take over at tight end, upgraded their backfield depth with rookie Isaiah Spiller, and spent another first-round pick on a lineman in guard Zion Johnson.
With a loaded supporting cast, Justin Herbert should start the season strong with a pair of divisional matchups he dominated last season. Herbert threw for 605 yards and six touchdowns in his two meetings with the Raiders in 2021 and added another 517 yards and seven scores (one rushing) over two contests versus the Kansas City Chiefs.
And somehow after that, things get even more agreeable with back-to-back games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Texans. At this point, investing in the Chargers' offense is a must.
While it's not on the same level as Wilson's arrival in Denver, the Commanders are hoping Carson Wentz can stabilize the quarterback position and help them contend in the NFC East.
Their opening schedule should at least offer a chance to get some positive momentum out of the gate, as the Jaguars and Detroit Lions are still works in progress despite some new additions this offseason. Detroit was particularly generous to fantasy running backs last year (fifth-most points allowed), while Jacksonville was hit hardest by receivers (seventh-most points allowed).
Competition for touches might be the problem for Washington when it comes to fantasy production. Its backfield is crowded - Antonio Gibson is expected to share volume with pass-catching specialist J.D. McKissic and physical rookie runner Brian Robinson. Even wideout Terry McLaurin's targets could dip with Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas returning from injury, as well as first-rounder Jahan Dotson in the mix.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick and the Patriots face a tough gauntlet to begin their 2022 campaign. Though their schedule lightens up in the middle of the season, they'll face four quality opponents in the opening month, many of whom improved by stockpiling talent in free agency and the draft.
Mac Jones' sophomore year could get off to a rocky start with the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Green Bay Packers all finishing in the top half of the league in fewest passing yards allowed in 2021. The Baltimore Ravens are also likely to return to that range if they can stay healthy.
Sadly, the outlook isn't much better for New England's rushing attack - the Ravens, Packers, and Dolphins were all above average at preventing yards on the ground.
With the Patriots' offense likely to spread the ball around through the air and incorporate multiple options out of the backfield, it's hard to trust any of New England's skill position players in fantasy.
All four AFC East teams have their work cut out for them in the early part of the season. They all rank in the bottom nine of Sharp Football's strength of schedule, which is based on projected win totals.
The Dolphins must overcome a daunting first month that includes outings against the Buffalo Bills (first in overall defensive DVOA), Patriots (fourth in overall defensive DVOA), Ravens - who are set to bounce back with better injury luck - and an underrated Cincinnati Bengals unit that reached the Super Bowl.
You also have to consider the growing pains that could come from installing Mike McDaniel's new offensive system and the time it could take the offseason acquisitions (Tyreek Hill, Cedrick Wilson, Chase Edmonds, Sony Michel, Raheem Mostert) to develop chemistry.
All things considered, we might see a slower start from some of the Dolphins' fantasy stars - so keep them in mind as buy-low candidates in early October.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The NFL didn't exactly roll out the red carpet to welcome Tom Brady back after his short-lived retirement. The Buccaneers will tangle with three of last year's top seeds, including the Packers (first in NFC), Chiefs (second in AFC), and Dallas Cowboys (third in NFC), as well as the New Orleans Saints, who barely missed out on the playoffs with a 9-8 record.
All four opponents boast opportunistic defenses that'll increase the degree of difficulty for Brady, especially if Chris Godwin is slowed in his return from a torn ACL suffered in December.
That's not to suggest you should shy away from the Bucs' fantasy assets - just know that their offense might not hit full stride until the midway mark this season.
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