8 Players to Target and Avoid in Fantasy Football Due to Their Early-Season Schedules

Given their early-season schedules, which players should you look at drafting and avoiding in fantasy football?

Is it foolish to analyze NFL schedules for fantasy football purposes?

If you nodded your head while reading that question, then you must think projecting a player's stat line is a worthless exercise, too. Or what about forecasting overall team performance? Because of the unpredictable nature of the NFL, should we just...not predict?

It's true that the NFL landscape sees big-time changes year over year. A defense that was good at, say, stopping the pass one year may not be good at it during the next.

But we can still use data and information to make sound predictions. We can still forecast. We should still forecast.

And that includes looking at team schedules to see if a player has a promising road ahead or not.

Actually, examining a team's early-season schedule can be even more beneficial for fantasy owners. Because not only are you able to spot players who you can stream once things begin, but it allows you to find guys you can buy low or sell high later in the season.

So, given this game theory component, let's take a look at eight players -- or groups of players -- with favorable or unfavorable matchups to start the 2018 season.

Favorable Matchups

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Matthew Stafford has finished as a top-10 fantasy quarterback in each of the last three seasons, but I don't really care. He hasn't provided elite production -- a QB8 or QB9 performance is replaceable in most leagues off the waiver wire through streaming. A quarterback's got to be extra special at the position in pretend football to be worthy of an every-week start.

But, sure, in deeper leagues, Stafford can be your guy week in and week out. That's definitely true during the front portion of the 2018 season, which is why I'm talking about him in the first place.

To kick off the year, Stafford's Lions will face the Jets at home. New York's secondary has a lot of potential -- maybe we'll look at them in the middle of the season as a rough opponent for opposing quarterbacks -- but as it stands, the Lions are 7-point favorites in that contest with a decent-enough 44-point over/under. Points should be scored, more than likely due to an inept offense for the Jets. At the very least, Stafford should provide a decent floor for fantasy owners.

After the Jets, the Lions will will face the 49ers, Patriots, and Cowboys. Each of those matchups is either a plus one in terms of matchup, one where there could be a lot of points scored by both teams, or both.

You could even argue Week 5 against the Packers in Detroit is fine for Stafford, even with an improved Green Bay defense and secondary.

Drafting Stafford late this season could afford you five weeks -- up until Detroit's bye -- of solid production at the quarterback position.

Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram's Replacement, New Orleans Saints

We're still not entirely sure how the Saints will fill Mark Ingram's role while he's suspended four games to start the year, but his touches won't simply just go to Alvin Kamara. Kamara will benefit, and that's big for his incoming regression, but he's not likely to handle a 60% to 70% rushing share in the New Orleans offense while Ingram is sidelined. That'd be far more than double what he saw last season.

So we're looking at an opportunity opening in one of the better offenses in football. And that O is set to play a Jameis Winston-less Tampa Bay squad in Week 1, followed by Cleveland in Week 2. Though you could make the argument that this sets up best for Drew Brees -- and I won't disagree -- there's a good chance New Orleans sees favorable game scripts in both home matchups. (The Saints are actually double-digit point favorites in some spots against Tampa Bay.) Given this, New Orleans will probably pound the rock a good bit, setting up nicely for the back who takes the number-two job in the offense during the preseason.

Alex Smith, Washington Redskins

Last year, Alex Smith did things that he had never done before. Nearly 19% of his passes traveled 15 or more yards through the air, when his previous high with Kansas City was closer to 15%. Over 40% of his total passing yards came on those types of throws, when his previous high with the Chiefs was about 27%. And 50% -- half -- of his touchdowns came on deep-ball tosses. His high before last year within that category was 29.41%.

We shouldn't assume the 2017 version of Alex Smith is going to appear in 2018. But he should have some usability to start the season. Washington kicks off the season at Arizona, a team with holes in the secondary, Patrick Peterson excluded. Then, in Week 2, they'll face one of the easier defensive matchups in football against the Colts -- Indianapolis is actually power ranked as the worst defense in the league, per numberFire metrics. That means Smith could kick off his Redskins career with two strong performances.

Jared Cook, Oakland Raiders

There's no need to have high expectations for Jared Cook -- the fantasy community is over him by now -- but if you're looking to stream the tight end position this year, he's not a bad target at the tail-end of your draft.

The Raiders' receivers look different this year than they did in 2017 with the additions of Martavis Bryant and Jordy Nelson, and there's a chance that ends up limiting Cook's true volume upside. (That is, unless a suspension is actually handed out to Bryant, which was rumored last month.)

The front part of Oakland's schedule is pretty interesting from a matchup standpoint, though. The Raiders get the Rams in Week 1, and with their offseason adds of corners Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, that could force Derek Carr to target his inline pass-catchers.

After LA, the Raiders will face Denver, a team that's struggled against the tight end position for years (partially thanks to strong corner play), followed by Miami and Cleveland, two bottom-10 units according to numberFire's projections.

You probably want to look for more upside in your draft -- drafting a tight end like George Kittle or Trey Burton a few rounds earlier makes more sense -- but Cook isn't a bad option for those willing to take on some risk at the tight end position.

Unfavorable Matchups

LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

LeSean McCoy has plenty of red flags entering the season. He'll be 30 years old in just a few days. His offensive line is one of the worst in the league. His quarterback -- no matter who's under center -- will be inexperienced.

That alone should make anyone nervous about using an early-round pick on McCoy. It's not that he's not talented, and it's not that he won't see a ton of volume. His situation is just...bad.

On top of this, the Bills' early-season schedule is brutal. Their year starts with games against the Ravens, Chargers, and Vikings, three of the better defensive groups in the NFL. After Week 3, McCoy and company get Green Bay, Tennessee, and Houston. Each of those defenses look better on paper today than they did during the 2017 season, and Green Bay and Tennessee are actually in the top-10 in numberFire's preseason rush defense rankings.

McCoy may end up being fine thanks to volume, but there are plenty of reasons to avoid him at his current cost, with his schedule being one of them.

Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

Heading into the 2018 season, Marcus Mariota is a prime positive regression candidate. Tennessee was the only team to run for more touchdowns than they threw for last year, and that hurt Mariota's fantasy output -- he finished the year with a 2.9% touchdown rate (touchdowns divided by pass attempts), when his first two seasons in the NFL saw a 5.1% and 5.8% touchdown rate, respectively.

Positive regression is coming.

To be quite honest, Mariota looks like a perfect late-round quarterback candidate. Some are down on him due to those 2017 numbers, but we know he has rushing upside. And we, again, know that there's a probable rebound coming naturally.

The issue? Well, it's obviously his early-season schedule.

Tennessee opens up the season against Miami, who shouldn't be tough for the Titans offense. But after Miami, you're looking at Houston, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Baltimore, and Los Angeles (Chargers). Those are some of the toughest matchups you can find throughout the league -- four of those teams are in numberFire's top-five preseason pass defense rankings.

If you're looking for a Week 1 streamer, then, fine, draft Marcus Mariota. If you're in a deeper league and know you'd have to rely on Mariota for multiple weeks to start the season, you may want to pass.

Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams

The start to Brandin Cooks' time with the Rams may be tough. Facing an Oakland secondary in Week 1 shouldn't be a big deal, but from Weeks 2 through 4, Cooks will see at least some snaps against Patrick Peterson, Casey Hayward, and Xavier Rhodes. And it's not like LA needs to force feed Cooks the ball -- they've got alternatives if the matchup isn't there for Cooks. All of this makes him a volatile player to kick off the season.

Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay's backfield situation is still ambiguous, but regardless of how the inevitable split will look, Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber owners should be a little worried. The Bucs are without Jameis Winston for the first three games of the year, which are contests against the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers, three teams with strong Super Bowl odds. Tampa Bay would more than likely be underdogs even with Jameis Winston for those contests. With Ryan Fitzpatrick, their chances of winning are even smaller.

And that matters for their running back duo. Negative game scripts mean fewer rushing (and potentially scoring) opportunities, and while targets create more fantasy value for running backs than rushes do, there'll be far more competition for those looks than what Jones and Barber would find on the ground.

Regardless of the individual rushing matchups, the game script fear for both Tampa Bay backs to start the year is real.