By now most fantasy football owners realize how futile it is to project and prepare for their fantasy playoffs on draft day.
If we could just know for sure which players would have the easiest go of things when our fantasy playoffs take place (typically Weeks 14-16), we'd be sure to lean in their favor when it came our turn to decide between two evenly ranked players. But that's the problem: We don't know for sure. For instance, on first blush, that Cardinals' schedule looks mighty favorable for running backs during the playoff weeks with Detroit and Kansas City on it, but just because those were two of the bottom three run defenses in 2008 doesn't mean anything for 2009. After all, the Miami Dolphins pulled up the rear defending the run in 2007, only to rise to the top 10 last season. Similarly, Green Bay was three yards shy of being the 12th-best run defense in 2007 only to become a generous sieve in 2008, falling to 26th in the league. Fortunes can change quickly in the NFL because of player turnover, coaching/philosophy changes and injuries, as well as simply the quality of teams a defense is scheduled to play.
Part of the problem with player projections is that they are usually done entirely from the point of view of the individual's situation. For example, when we as a group met to determine our 2009 ESPN Projections, we decided that Drew Brees would be our top quarterback. We based that on many things -- his 5,000 yards passing last season, his overall consistency, his health, a potential full season from weapons Marques Colston and Reggie Bush, just to name a few, and other factors. What didn't enter the discussion was the fact he will be playing all the teams from the AFC and NFC East this season (just one of those teams finished below .500 in 2008) instead of the AFC West and NFC North teams (which finished a combined 16 games below .500 in 2008, even if we throw out the winless Lions) he faced last season. That's a huge difference, and yet it didn't factor into the projection at all. And while I'm not suggesting a player's schedule should be a huge factor in our draft day decision-making process, it shouldn't be completely ignored, either. The key is in how you use the data at hand to make it meaningful.
Building the rankings
So here's what I did. First, I took the 2008 offensive stats for each team, then, using the 2009 schedule, I figured out what each team's defense would allow this season assuming what would have been an average offensive day from every team on their schedule last year. A look at these results show which teams are going to face the toughest passing attacks over the course of the season, and which will face more teams that keep the ball on the ground.
2009, versus opponent: Passing
The numbers reveal the Panthers will face the best aerial attacks (according to 2008 statistics), while the Steelers will face the weakest passing teams.
2009, versus opponent: Rushing
The numbers reveal the Buccaneers will face the best rushing offenses (according to 2008 statistics), while the Seahawks will face the worst rushing teams.
Naturally, offenses will have improved or declined at certain aspects. But in general, as we look before the season, this is what kind of attack they should be expected to face in the upcoming season. And check out the matchups the Panthers have above, by far the toughest set of offenses of any team in the league. Now, this doesn't mean Carolina will be the worst defense in the league, but considering the Panthers finished 18th in the league last season in yards allowed per game, it does tell us not to expect them to finish this season much higher than that, if at all. After all, even if they do play better than they did last season, the competition they face is far better as well.
Now, the next step is to take these new "defensive numbers" and apply them to the 2009 schedule for each team's offense. Not to pick on the Panthers, but if we assume they're going to be faced with trying to stop solid offense after solid offense on a weekly basis, odds are they're going to be more apt to have a poor defensive season than a team such as the Steelers, who face a far easier slate of offenses. After doing this we can rank our 2009 offenses according to what this new take on "strength of schedule" predicts for each of them.
Team offenses, actual total yards and projected total yards
According to our formula, the Saints should (again) rack up the most offensive yards in 2009, while the Bengals are projected to have the fewest.
What I find fascinating about this chart is how well it tracks with player movement in the offseason, though no free-agent signings or trades enter into the analysis. For example, Buffalo, now with Terrell Owens, is expected to improve by close to 30 yards per game. Meanwhile, Jay Cutler's change of scenery is reflected in both Denver and Chicago's yardage differential. As for how to use this chart on draft day, you simply refer to it when you're making that decision between two players of generally equal abilities. You're not going to pick either Kellen Clemens or Mark Sanchez over Tom Brady based on the Jets' lofty showing in our chart. That's lunacy. However, you might decide to grab Thomas Jones ahead of Ryan Grant if you're otherwise torn, based on this new application of "strength of schedule."
Certainly, because this list comes from a look back at 2008, its value is lessened once the 2009 season gets underway and we truly begin to figure out which teams we don't want our fantasy players to be facing. But for now, it does give us a clearer window into the future than basing our decisions simply on the combined won-loss record of the teams on the schedule. And that just might make the difference between a .500 fantasy team and a fantasy champion.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.