FANTASY PLAYS: Evaluating strength of schedule in football

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              FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2018, file photo, Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) and San Francisco 49ers defensive back Richard Sherman (25) run extra drills after a joint NFL football practice in Houston.  Sherman said Wednesday, Aug. 22, that he plans to play San Francisco's exhibition game at Indianapolis on Saturday in his first action for the 49ers at cornerback after spending his first seven seasons playing for NFC West rival Seattle. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)
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One key to fantasy football success comes from looking at strength of schedule. It shouldn’t be the only way you build a winning squad, but matchups help make sure you’re playing meaningful games in December rather than looking ahead to baseball.

Based on the NFL’s scheduling formula, the Houston Texans enter the regular season with the easiest docket. Houston’s opponents for 2018 had a combined .453 winning percentage last season. That alone has been a reason why quarterback Deshaun Watson has climbed into the top 40 picks in most fantasy drafts, and is also a cause of renewed hope in running back Lamar Miller. The Texans play each of the five teams that made the first six picks in this year’s NFL draft.

A healthy J.J. Watt extends into the deeper phase of fantasy drafts, especially if Watt returns to the Hall of Fame-caliber player he had been from 2012-15. Houston’s defense has been among the first six taken off fantasy draft boards and would be a bargain of sorts should Watt re-emerge as the game’s best defender.

Another team with a beneficial schedule is the loaded Steelers offense, which will play a schedule of opponents with a .477 winning percentage. Anyone in position to draft either running back Le’Veon Bell or receiver Antonio Brown now has more fodder, while receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster_who also has risen draft boards this month_sits on the outer edge of being a top 35-40 selection.

Looking for easier schedules can also help when seeking a sleeper pick. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota flies under the radar yet could be fantasy gold as Tennessee has the second-easiest schedule (.465). Wideout Mike Williams’ appeal is bolstered by the Chargers and their 24th-ranked docket (.480), while the Broncos‘ defense has the chance to return to their dominant ways with a schedule tied for 25th (.477).

On the flip side, those looking at Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford should tread lightly, as Detroit has the second-toughest schedule (.535). A schedule with a .523 winning percentage (tied for fifth-highest) is enough to slow down the lofty talk of a Browns revival, along with requiring a second look at the likes of receiver Josh Gordon and running back Carlos Hyde.

Again, strength of schedule isn’t a be-all, end-all when considering a player. The Packers have the league’s toughest schedule (.539), but Aaron Rodgers is consistently the first quarterback off the board, while the bevvy of offensive talent the Saints have stockpiled will still go high despite their third-toughest schedule.

OSUNA CLOSING AGAIN

Controversial closer Roberto Osuna is now the full-time stopper for the Astros after earning his first save for the World Series champions on Wednesday. The decision to elevate him in the ninth inning coincides with Houston snapping out of a funk to take two of three in a critical series against the Mariners, leaving Houston one game ahead of Oakland in the American League West.

The combination of his devastating arsenal and the potential for high-leverage situations could see him approach double digits in saves along with enhancing the strikeout category by season’s end.

RASKY BUSINESS

Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask may no longer be a top-five player at his position, but don’t expect regression this season despite his 5-7 record and .903 save percentage in the postseason.

Rask enters 2018-19 with five straight 30-win seasons and while his save percentage has crested since his .930 mark in 2013-14, he remains a reliable net-minder who could become a value pick if he dips past the 80th overall pick in fantasy drafts.