It’s 2023 NFL schedule release day, putting us one step closer to the start of the season.
In this piece, I’ll be examining the slate down to the nuts and bolts. How does this schedule impact the fantasy football landscape? Which players have it the easiest and hardest? Which 14 teams will make the NFL playoffs? How about an early look at the 2024 draft order?
Some housekeeping before I dive into this. First, I’m including Week 18 in the fantasy analysis since removing it would have only a minor impact on the findings. Next, my strength of schedule evaluation is not based on final 2022 records, which is often what you’ll see in this type of column. There already has been a ton of roster movement this offseason, and injured players will return to action, so all of that is factored into each team’s 2023 prospects. My evaluation of each roster — not last year’s production — is what I use to generate the easiest and toughest schedules.
The analysis below is your next step in preparing for the 2023 NFL campaign and the accompanying fantasy football season.
The first season of the Jordan Love era will feature the league’s easiest fantasy slate. How convenient is that timing? Green Bay will benefit from six games against NFC North opponents, with none of the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears or Detroit Lions projecting as having top-20 defenses. We’re also not super-intimidated by four games against the NFC South, and the toughest defense on the slate (Pittsburgh Steelers) is more than offset by showdowns with the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Rams. This development boosts Love’s sleeper appeal and adds some value to Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon, Christian Watson and rookie Jayden Reed.
The New Orleans Saints (more on them in a bit), Bears, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers round out the teams with the top five easiest fantasy schedules.
Toughest fantasy schedule: the AFC East
The AFC East is loaded on the defensive side of the ball (all four defenses are good, if not great), which sets up the New England Patriots (first), New York Jets (second), Buffalo Bills (third) and Miami Dolphins (fifth) with four of the five hardest fantasy schedules in 2023. In addition to those six divisional games, these four teams will face off with the AFC West (Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos, Raiders) and the NFC East (Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Commanders). It’s possible (likely?) we’re going to see a bunch of low-scoring games within the AFC East, so keep that in mind when considering drafting skill players from these four teams.
The Giants have the toughest fantasy schedule in the NFC, though the Eagles (sixth) aren’t far behind. This makes sense with both teams (as well as the Cowboys and Commanders) set to play four games against the aforementioned AFC East defenses. The Eagles’ offense remains elite on paper, but the schedule won’t be as easy as its 2022 picnic, so a bit of a return to Earth is likely on tap.
Positional upgrades and downgrades
Though we don’t want to get too caught up in strength of schedule based on 2022 results, there is some correlation between fantasy points allowed by position and projected fantasy strength of schedule (based on 2023 rosters). The chart below shows each offense’s strength of schedule based on what their 2023 opponents allowed last season. For example, based on 2022 results, the Bills are set to face the second-easiest schedule for tight ends but the 28th easiest (that is, the fifth hardest) for running backs. (Green = easy; red = hard.)
Here are a few upgrades and downgrades based solely on this chart:
QB: Jordan Love, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr
RB: Samaje Perine, Javonte Williams, David Montgomery, Jahmyr Gibbs, Isiah Pacheco
WR: Chris Olave, Michael Thomas, Christian Watson, Jayden Reed, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin
TE: Dalton Schultz, Dawson Knox, Dalton Kincaid, Mark Andrews
QB: Kyler Murray, Matthew Stafford, Kenny Pickett
RB: D’Andre Swift, Rashaad Penny, Jeff Wilson Jr., Raheem Mostert, Kenneth Walker III, Zach Charbonnet
WR: Treylon Burks, Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton
TE: Darren Waller, Sam LaPorta, Cade Otton
All win totals provided by Caesars Sportsbook
Easiest overall schedule: New Orleans Saints (win total: 9.5)
There will be opposing teams that are better than expected (and vice versa), but it’s hard not to look at the Saints’ 2023 schedule and be astonished at how easy it looks. For starters, the division is not at all daunting, with the Panthers (Bryce Young), Falcons (Desmond Ridder) and post-Tom Brady Buccaneers (Kyle Trask/Baker Mayfield) all in transition at quarterback. It’s a similar sentiment with the four games against the AFC South. The Jacksonville Jaguars have Trevor Lawrence, but the Indianapolis Colts (Anthony Richardson) and Houston Texans (C.J. Stroud) will start rookies, and the Tennessee Titans aren’t as intimidating as usual and could turn from Ryan Tannehill to Will Levis at some point. The Saints also will face a wide-open NFC North division that is without an elite team and no longer includes Aaron Rodgers. As for unique games, the Saints square off against the Giants, the Patriots and the depleted Rams. For added perspective on the Saints’ light slate, a look at the latest Caesars odds shows that none of the top seven Super Bowl favorites is on their docket this season.
The other NFC South teams — Falcons (second easiest), Panthers (fourth) and Buccaneers (sixth) — join the Saints in having a light 2023 schedule. The Colts are set up with the lightest slate in the AFC, though that might not be enough to snag a wild card in a loaded conference.
Toughest overall schedule: New England Patriots (win total: 7.5)
In line with what was mentioned earlier, the Patriots’ schedule grades as the toughest in the league, while the rest of the AFC East is just behind. Focusing in on the Patriots, they project as the worst of the four teams in their division, as the Josh Allen-led Bills remain a powerhouse, the Jets added Aaron Rodgers and the Dolphins filled out an elite defense with Jalen Ramsey and get back a healthy Tua Tagovailoa. New England’s schedule also includes the NFC East and AFC West, which means showdowns with last season’s Super Bowl teams (Eagles and Chiefs), as well as games against the Cowboys, Giants, Chargers and Sean Payton-led Broncos. The Patriots’ unique games include the Steelers, Saints and Colts.
The AFC West also is facing a tough schedule, with the Raiders (third hardest), Chiefs (fifth), Chargers (seventh) and Broncos (ninth) all in the top 10.
Projected AFC playoff seeds
All playoff odds provided by Caesars Sportsbook
1. Chiefs (-400); 2. Bills (-240); 3. Cincinnati Bengals (-380); 4. Jaguars (-180); 5. Dolphins (-115); 6. Baltimore Ravens (-160); 7. Chargers (-105)
Same as last season, the AFC is stacked, which means some good teams are going to miss the playoffs. The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs remain loaded on offense and solid on defense. Josh Allen and Joe Burrow pilot Buffalo and Cincinnati teams that feature good defenses. Trevor Lawrence has the Jaguars positioned as the AFC South favorites. Miami has arguably the league’s best defense on paper, and its offense was terrific with a healthy Tua Tagovailoa last season. The Lamar Jackson-John Harbaugh duo will keep Baltimore competitive, though I worry a bit about the defense. The Chargers’ roster talent hasn’t lived up to its billing in recent years, but it should be good enough to battle the Cleveland Browns (+110) and Jets (-150), among others, for a wild-card berth.
Projected NFC playoff seeds
1. Eagles (-380); 2. 49ers (-460); 3. Saints (-180); 4. Vikings (+120); 5. Cowboys (-210); 6. Seattle Seahawks (-130); 7. Lions (-170)
The Eagles took a hit on defense during the offseason, but it’s still a solid unit, and the Jalen Hurts-directed offense is elite. The 49ers’ QB situation is dicey, but Kyle Shanahan has a way of maximizing the offense, and the defense remains one of the league’s best. The Saints’ aforementioned light schedule could help them to 10 or 11 wins in the ugly-looking NFC South. The Lions are the fun sleeper team this season, but while I see them as a viable wild card contender, the Vikings’ roster still looks superior. Is Dallas actually the NFC’s best team? It might be, at least on paper, especially considering its defense is better than the new-look Philadelphia unit. Seattle was a surprise nine-win team in 2022, and it again figures to be in the playoff mix in a weak NFC.
Projected 2024 NFL draft top five
1. Rams; 2. Commanders; 3. Arizona Cardinals; 4. Raiders; 5. Titans
The Rams went 5-12 last season, and the roster looks substantially worse on paper than it did entering 2022. This is one of the worst defenses you’ll see on paper at this point in the offseason. And aside from Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp, L.A.’s offense isn’t much better. The rebuild is on. Washington (Sam Howell vs. Jacoby Brissett) and Arizona (Kyler Murray’s torn ACL) have major QB concerns. A ton of holes remain in the Las Vegas defense, and the QB change (Jimmy Garoppolo in for Derek Carr) might not prove to be an upgrade. The Titans have major holes on both sides of the ball and could turn to Will Levis at QB if they’re struggling.