There are many ways to take the temperature of an upcoming team’s season before it even begins. You can grade draft picks, parse every free agent signing and departure, note which key veterans are returning from injury and, of course, take stock of impending opponents in an attempt to prognosticate a team’s potential success or failure. Most are imperfect, but all illuminate in their own ways.
For example, strength of schedule, or the attempt to predict a team’s chances of winning or losing games in a given year based on the previous season’s win-loss records of their to-be opponents. Typically, though, these rarely take into account how a team has improved or weakened as a whole and rely on the making of a lot of assumptions. Using it as a general barometer is rarely the best way to go about employing the limited usefulness of diving deep into strength-of-schedule metrics.
Pro Football Focus, though, has found a way to make it a bit more interesting—by using strength-of-schedule as a fantasy football metric, instead, and breaking it down based on the matchups quarterbacks are set to face this year (and by the quarterbacks defenses are scheduled to take on, in turn). And their research has uncovered a bit of interesting food for thought when it comes to the Cleveland Browns’ 2017 slate of opponents.
Before continuing, though, it’s clear to note what Pro Football Focus’ Patrick Thorman took into account when determining his ratings, which can be seen here in a larger format. For one, it’s designed to focus “primarily on the extremes of which defenses will be tough or easy matchups,” and thus is presented in a color-coded scale of Red for most difficult, Orange for next-most difficult, Yellow and White as relatively neutral in difficulty, Light Green for easier matchups and Dark Green for the easiest. Further, “Colors were assigned only partly by schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed in 2016. Equal weighting was given to offseason player and coach movement, win total forecasts, PFF grading, and known offensive approaches.”
With that in mind, the Browns’ quarterbacks have eight matchups in the neutral range for 2017 (including all six against AFC North opponents), four in the easy range, three registering as “Orange” and just one, Week 6’s meeting with the Houston Texans, in the “Red” or most difficult category. This, of course, is assuming a few things about the Browns: First, that Cody Kessler maintains control of the Browns’ starting quarterback job; second, that Kessler’s ability to complete passes under pressure does not significantly regress; and third, that Pro Football Focus isn’t wrong to be ranking Cleveland’s offensive line as second in the league more than two months before the team plays a regular season game.
While that’s an optimistic view of the Browns’ quarterback situation, at least when taken through the lens of fantasy football, it’s not so rosy on the other side of the ball. All 16 of the Browns’ opposing quarterbacks are pegged to have “Dark Green” matchups, or the easiest on the season. Yes, even the New York Jets, who are trying to decide whether Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg or Bryce Petty should be their 2017 starter (and who come to town in Week 5), aren’t predicted to struggle against Cleveland’s defense. Neither are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who aren’t light on offensive weaponry but who have the underwhelming Blake Bortles manning the ship for 2017. So what gives?
For a metric that is supposed to be taking into account player acquisition and departure over the offseason, PFF might be playing a little conservatively when it comes to their expectations of Cleveland’s defense this year. Though there are questions that still need to be answered—the rotation up front at both linebacker and defensive line, who will play safety and when, the fact that two key members of the defense (Jabrill Peppers and Myles Garrett) are rookies and unknown NFL quantities, the health and effectiveness of cornerback Joe Haden—it may be a bit flippant to assume any quarterback should be a plus fantasy play or must-start this year as long as they are up against the Browns.
But that’s the thing with the Browns—and indeed, the “thing” about any team undergoing such wholesale rebuilding as Cleveland has over the last year-plus: You have to take the rough with the smooth. Just as a rebuild can produce reasons to be optimistic, it also produces reasons to approach with caution. And rebuilding teams will never be viewed as tough opponents until a rebuild starts producing tangible results, otherwise known as wins.
But it is worth keeping in mind that at least one set of numbers are pointing to the 2017 season easier on Kessler (and/or the Browns quarterbacks) than one would assume. At the same time, though, that set of numbers also predicts Cleveland’s defense will be a path of least resistance for opposing quarterbacks this year. Numbers, by themselves, don’t lie; however, when they are used as a predictive tool, they are simply a set of guidelines. Based on those guidelines, optimism about Kessler is warranted, while expectations should be tempered about a talent-rich but new-to-each-other defensive side of the ball. Whether this proves true will depend on what happens from September 10 on.