Today, I'll be looking at running backs and the strength of their schedule for the 2016 season. This can be done in a myriad of ways, but for fantasy purposes, I try to base the strength of their schedules on statistics I find helpful in fantasy.
My method is to rank each defense in different categories and then average those rankings into a single number. So for running backs, I base the opposing defenses on rushing attempts, rushing yards per game, rushing yards per carry, rushing touchdowns, receptions, total yards, etc. I then average those based on rankings and come up with the numbers you'll see below. The higher the number, the worse defenses performed against running backs, at least in allowing them to score fantasy points.
My usual caveat for looking at the strength of schedule before the season still holds; it is perilous. Personnel moves in the offseason, both in coaches and players, will change what a defense is capable of in 2016. But, teams can only make so many moves, and an extremely poor defense will have trouble becoming a good defense overnight. That leaves us to gain some insight when looking at extremes, especially for the weakest defenses.
Running backs, like every skill position sans kicker, thrive against weak opponents. Give an average running back 20 or more touches against the Saints of last season and you have a fantasy starter. But unlike Running Backs, there are plenty of variables as to how many touches a single running back will see on any given game day. You'll see the New York Giants have a fairly nice schedule for running backs, but there's a good chance no single back will dominate the work in 2016. This makes things a bit tougher when looking at strength of schedule, but like any tool, these numbers can help in certain instances.
Below here, you can see the chart for all 32 teams, but before we get there, I'm going to highlight some individual running backs.
The Muscle Hamster gets the best overall strength of schedule on average this season with eight games against teams that ranked 23rd or worse against running backs last season. The bulk of his easy matchups come from Week 9 on, with Atlanta, Chicago, - two tough games versus Kansas City and Seattle in there -, San Diego, New Orleans, Dallas and New Orleans again to finish out the fantasy season. That gives Martin two games against the Saints in the fantasy playoffs. I do think the Saints will improve from last season, but Ovid isn't going to be writing about their 2016 metamorphoses.
Ameer Abdullah, Stevan Ridley, Zach Zenner, Theo Riddick, and Co.
The Lions get a nice ground game schedule, and like the Buccaneers, they get a cakewalk late in the season. They'll face New Orleans, Chicago, the New York Giants and Dallas to finish out the fantasy season, and maybe by then, the Bucs'll have a starter who sees over 15 touches a game, but they also may not. Abdullah and Ridley are my favorites to go 1-2 in running back carries for the Lions, but Riddick will most likely take a large chunk of the receptions. For the most part, I'll need Detroit's running backs to fall in fantasy drafts this season unless there is some clear sign that one back is going to dominate touches.
On average, the Packers face the fifth-easiest schedule for running backs, but when you look at their total of Top-10 defenses against running backs, they face the fewest in the league. This should mitigate games where Lacy has a shot at being shut down and could make for a consistent back in head-to-head leagues. The only downside is that Lacy doesn't get as many extremely easy matchups, and his playoff schedule ranks 24th out of 32.
Much like the Packers, the Titans don't face the elite running back defenses from last year, as their two toughest matchups on the season are Kansas City and Green Bay, who rank 4th and 10th in my rankings. That leaves 14 teams the Titans face who ranked 11th or worse. Murray is, of course, a little scary after being run into the ground in Dallas and then not looking good in Chip Kelly's offense last season, but he should get back to his downhill-running ways with the Titans, which should help him put up better per-touch numbers on average than last season. Add in the positive schedule, and Murray could be a worthwhile pick this season.
Ingram gets a great start to the 2016 season with games against Oakland, New York Giants, Atlanta and then San Diego. In my rankings, they are 18th, 27th, 28th and 25th. I like Ingram a lot and believe he'll be a useful back against any team, but if he were to get off to an amazing start against these teams, I could see shopping him around, because his schedule after a Week 5 bye is brutal. Let's just run through the schedule from Week 6 on: Carolina, at Kansas City, Seattle, at San Francisco, Denver, at Carolina, Los Angeles, Detroit, at Tampa Bay, at Arizona, and Tampa Bay again. Then, for the Saints' non-fantasy factoring Week 17 game, they get the weak run defense of Atlanta. The only weak run defense in that stretch is San Francisco, and its defense was quite a bit better at home last season. I wouldn't drop Ingram in my rankings, but I would keep this schedule in mind if you could possibly trade him for above his value at some point early in the season.
Ajayi may not even be the starter come Week 1, but whoever is will have to deal with a tough schedule. The Dolphins will have eight matchups through 15 games with teams I have ranked in the Top 10 against running backs. And when it comes to teams I have in the bottom third, Miami will face just two. I don't think it's a death sentence for the Dolphins run game, but with the Dolphins looking to grab a running back early in the draft, this could be a tough committee to reckon with for fantasy. Of course, if Miami trades up to get Ezekiel Elliot, my tune might change a bit.