The debate on whether strength of schedule makes a difference in fantasy football is an interesting one. On one hand, it gives you the opportunity to steer clear of the players who might regress. On the other hand, it gives you a chance to over think things and end up not drafting a talented player specifically because you think he might struggle. Like answers to most things, the best way to analyze it lies somewhere between the two extremes.
When applying strength of schedule to fantasy football, it's important to realize which teams find ways to be successful even with a difficult schedule. These are the teams that you don't have to worry much about when it comes to drafting their players on your fantasy team. On the other hand, there are the younger, less successful teams that have been struggling already and adding a tough schedule on top of that can only make things worse.
How teams have done in the past
Looking back on the 2014 season, the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets were saddled with the two toughest schedules coming in. Talent-wise, both teams weren't considered contenders for a Super Bowl so there wasn't much hype coming in anyway and the results were about what you'd expect. Oakland finished a paltry 3-13 while the Jets ended up 4-12. Both teams failed to produce a reliable fantasy player, as they didn't produce a single 1,000 yard rusher or receiver which limited any chance of fantasy upside from any of their players.
Sure, they had their moments like every team did. Raiders RB Latavius Murray exploded for 112 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries during a Thursday night game against the Chiefs. Jets running back Christopher Ivory served as a plug-and-play flex option for the Jets as he finished with just under 900 yards to go along with six rushing touchdowns.
But while both teams had tough schedules, they also were just plain bad.
What about a good team?
Switching gears, let's take a look at a more talented team who ran through a gauntlet last season. The Denver Broncos held the AFC's best record at 13-3 in 2013 and entered 2014 with the second toughest schedule in the NFL. They finished at 12-4 in 2014.
So their record wasn't really affected, but let's take a look at their individual stats. Quarterback Peyton Manning posted a 39:15 TD-to-INT ratio in 2014 which paled in comparison to his 55:10 ratio in 2013. He also threw for about 700 less yards. Of course, you can argue that him being a year older at 38 and the fact that a 55 touchdown season is almost impossible to top, and you'd be right. Also, his 597 pass attempts in 2014 were less than his league leading 659 attempts in 2013 as well. Their receivers didn't miss a beat either, as Demaryius Thomas and free agent pickup Emmanuel Sanders surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau.
It really was a testament to how talented the team was. The Broncos took on New England and Seattle both on the road. They also played tough teams like Kansas City, Arizona and San Francisco in the earlier part of the season. Manning was fantastic in that early stretch, as he posted 19 touchdowns in the team's first six games. Ironically, he started to struggle later on against considerably worse defenses like Cincinnati and Oakland.
Manning can also be looked at like an exception to everything, considering he's one of the best quarterbacks of all time. So what if we take a medium-range quarterback who had a tough schedule in 2014.
Phillip Rivers and San Diego
The Chargers had the fourth toughest schedule entering 2014, and they finished 9-7 on the year. Quarterback Philip Rivers finished 12th among all fantasy quarterbacks with 254 points. A season ago, he finished sixth with 276 fantasy points. Overall, still not that big of a drop off. So let's look at the next team to undergo a tough schedule.
Pittsburgh Steelers up next
Well, it just so happens that the Pittsburgh Steelers face a similar road like the Broncos had in 2014. Like Denver, Pittsburgh plays both the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos on the road.
The Steelers schedule is murderous in 2015. They play both Seattle and New England on the road in addition to improving St. Louis. They also have Arizona and San Francisco, two teams that were among the best at stopping the run last year. The AFC West is also a decent defensive conference minus Oakland and the Raiders are already starting to show signs that they are improving on the defensive side as well with rookie Khalil Mack turning in a fantastic rookie season.
What does it mean for Le'Veon Bell?
Of all Pittsburgh's players including Antonio Brown and Ben Reothlisberger, Bell is probably the one guy we need to look at when it comes to a tougher schedule possibly hampering him in 2015. He played above and beyond expectations in 2014, and benefited from some weak defenses in the AFC North and also a weak out of conference schedule with the NFC South in 2014. Not saying that to entirely discredit Bell, he turned in a fantastic season and flashed competence in the receiving game that few people knew he had.
Even with all that though, the Steelers are a franchise that has found ways to defeat good teams regardless. They managed to make the playoffs last season. They also have a good offensive line with even better chemistry, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. So does a tough schedule make Le'Veon Bell not worth drafting as an RB1? Absolutely not. Does it make you think twice about drafting him in the Top 3? Maybe. But probably not.
Overall, talent rules over everything. Don't worry too much about strength of schedule when drafting fantasy players. While it plays a slight factor, there are way too many other bigger factors that come into play such as injuries, team chemistry and as mentioned before, talent. The best fantasy players are good/great players on good/great teams. If you have a good player on a bad team, he can still produce. If you have a bad player on a good team, he can still produce. It sounds obvious at it is.