A month into the season and schedule strength, matchups, and usage clarity is beginning to solidify. Along with other musings this week, here is a look at potential league winners with optimal schedules late in the season:
Ryan is a solid buy for later in the season as the chatter of Ryan's obvious regression from 2016 swirl plus Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu were both injured in Week 4. Neither is projected to miss extended time and Atlanta's schedule featured three of their six most difficult pass matchups the past three weeks. With 6-of-10 matchups from Week 6 on featuring Pass Efficiency defenses outside the top-10, Atlanta is a prime rebound candidate through the air following their Week 5 bye to get healthy and take advantage of better matchups.
Buffalo has by far the easiest closing stretch of pass defenses. Projecting Taylor's weapons are dicey with Jordan Matthews out for a stretch, but Week 13 on features nothing from green pastures for Taylor including three games against the current bottom-2 pass defenses (Patriots, Dolphins). The schedule is brutal for most of way until then, but stashing Taylor as an upside QB2 for stronger fantasy teams is optimal.
Washington's opening month has featured three average or worse matchups for Cousins in Pass Efficiency defenses. The best part of Washington's schedule is from Week 10 onward, including four straight good matchups from Week 12 (Giants) to Week 15 (Cardinals).
Siemian has a relatively easy schedule all season with only three top-10 pass defenses in the opening 15 weeks. While Siemian may get a fantasy owner to the playoffs with optimal Week 10, 12, 13, 15 matchups against the Patriots, Raiders, Dolphins, and Colts, championship week may be a 'sit' recommendation if Washington current No.7 Pass Efficiency ranking holds.
The opening month has been rough from a schedule perspective as Gordon has faced three teams in the top-half of rushing efficiency allowed. While owners will need wade through three tough matchups in the back-half of the schedule, Jacksonville, Dallas, Kansas City, and the Jets offer prime matchups along the way. Gordon's Week 15-16 finish (Chiefs, Jets) is one of the best in the NFL.
Alvin Kamara has been progressing as a potential darkhorse inclusion to this list, but Ingram has dominated the snaps over Adrian Peterson. The Saints have an optimal closing stretch with Atlanta twice and the Jets in Weeks 14-16, plus the Rams in Week 12. After seven top-half run defenses on the schedule in their first 10 games, it will be a well-deserved reprieve.
Lynch has been managed with touches and snaps. Plus, Derek Carr is out 2-6 weeks with a back injury. While Lynch may be an afterthought by the time the fantasy playoffs loom, Oakland's closing stretch rivals New Orleans in rushing attractiveness. With Carr projected back and four bottom-10 rushing defenses between Week 11 and Week 15, Lynch projects as one of the cheaper additions for title contenders over the next month to add schedule punch for the stretch run.
Week 4 was a notable difficult matchup on Hyde's schedule and not coincidently his lowest efficiency performance. The 49ers have three more above-average defenses on their schedule over the next five weeks, but attractive matchups populate San Francisco's slate from Week 10 onward. Only Week 14 against Houston is an above-average rush defense over their final six games.
Martin returns in Week 4 to Tampa Bay's best rushing matchup of the season. Usage will be a question mark for Martin in his first game back, but the schedule turns ugly through Week 8 with all stingy rush defenses. However, no rush defense from Week 8 on is currently better than No.13 in Rush Efficiency allowed and 5-of-8 are in the bottom-8 of the NFL. After a slow opening month, Martin has league-winning upside based on schedule alone.
With Chris Carson on injured reserve, Seattle's depth chart is unsettled. All three remaining main options are affordable and despite a rough stretch on the Rush Efficiency schedule from Week 8 (Houston) to Week 13 (Philadelphia), their Week 14-16 trio of opponents are all outside the top-20 in efficiency allowed.
Mentioned above with Matt Ryan, but Jones and Sanu are both off to sluggish starts. Jones is a strong regression candidate (0% touchdown rate on 19 receptions this season) and Sanu had at least six targets in each game before his Week 4 injury, only reaching 50 yards in a game once. Atlanta has the No.32 Explosive Pass defense (Saints) on the schedule for Weeks 14 and 16.
Jones has been of minimal impact thus far and Matthews will be out at least a month. However, the schedule is optimal late in the season as Buffalo has the best Explosive Pass schedule in the NFL for Weeks 12-16 and all bottom-half defenses from Week 8 onward.
Thomas, like Julio Jones, is one of the top touchdown regression candidates going forward with no touchdowns over his first 18 receptions of the season. Thomas' volume has been steady with at least five targets in every game and at least eight in 3-of-8 outings. The schedule is rosy every week starting in Week 12 and only three remaining games are against current top-15 Explosive Pass defenses.
The third-year receiver's stock has been beaten to a pulp with his bout of drops and below expectations fantasy results through four weeks. Derek Carr is working through a back injury for 2-6 weeks and EJ Manuel offers uncertainty under center in the meantime. Oakland's closing slate - when Carr is expected back - features three consecutive strong matchups in Weeks 14-16 in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers and only two above-average Pass Efficiency defenses on Oakland's schedule starting in Week 9. While Oakland looks dire, much of their difficult pass schedule is out of the way by Week 9, when Derek Carr should be back.
The veteran tight end has turned ice cold the past two weeks but has one of the best closing stretches among the position. Weeks 13-15 offer two elite and one above-average matchup for tight ends, but just one such matchup between now and then.
Clay is already getting a perception bump with Jordan Matthews slated to miss time. The schedule is decent until December, but Clay has all above-average matchups starting in Week 13, including elite matchups against the Patriots in championship week.
The Colts tight end is dinged up and has two stingy matchups on the schedule over the next month. However, Jacksonville, Denver, and Baltimore (all strong matchups) populate his Week 13-16 slate.