There have been 25 players suspended to start the 2018 NFL season, 19 of whom currently are on rosters. Those currently suspended are scheduled to miss anywhere between one to four games — there are no longer suspensions right now.
And that means a few opponents of those players' teams are set to benefit from playing them early on this year. Don't overlook these hidden beneficiaries in the big picture, at least in a few cases.
Of the 19 active suspended players, we rate 11 as starter-caliber (or significant enough contributors to be considered here): Packers RB Aaron Jones, Rams OG Jamon Brown, 49ers LB Reuben Foster, Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston, Cowboys DT David Irving, Patriots WR Julian Edelman, Saints RB Mark Ingram, Panthers LB Thomas Davis, Chargers DL Corey Liuget, Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict and Eagles LB Nigel Bradham. Just missing that cut were players such as Raiders OL Vadal Alexander and Giants DL Josh Mauro, who could earn that level of role with their respective teams.
Two NFL teams appear to be benefiting most from their opponents' bad fortune early on. The Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions, given how the schedule happened to fall in their favor, catch a few nice breaks that might spring them to an extra win or two in the first month of the season.
The Lions will face three teams early that have suspended players — at 49ers in Week 2 (Foster, Victor Bolden); vs. Patriots in Week 3 (Edelman); and at Dallas in Week 4 (Irving). That's a nice little bump for first-year head coach Matt Patricia as he takes over, especially in facing his old New England friends without Edelman. You also can't discount the benefit for a Lions team eternally searching for answers in their running game facing the 49ers and Cowboys, who each will be missing a key front-seven defender against Detroit.
The Falcons also will catch breaks in a noticeable way, playing four straight teams that will be down a key man to start the year. They start with the Eagles in the season opener without starting linebacker Bradham; followed by the Panthers in Week 2 without longtime standout Davis; the Saints without leading rusher Ingram in Week 3; and then the Bengals without Burfict in Week 4.
That's perhaps three of the NFL's best 15 or 20 off-the-ball linebackers we're talking about there, not to mention the notable loss of Ingram, who tallied 309 yards in three games vs. Atlanta (including playoffs) last season.
Are these massive benefits? Maybe, maybe not. Clearly the three teams facing the Buccaneers while Winston is out — the Saints, Eagles and Steelers — are receiving major one-game bumps, even if you somehow believe that the dropoff isn't huge to backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Edelman's loss also could help the Texans (Week 1), Jaguars (Week 2) and Dolphins (Week 4) catch the Patriots shorthanded. The Winston-less Bucs actually get a little help in Week 1 when they face the Ingram-less Saints, as do two of the NFL's three worst teams last season in the Browns (Week 2) and Giants (Week 4).
The Vikings catch the Foster-less 49ers in Week 1, which certainly helps Kirk Cousins in his team debut, as well as Dalvin Cook running in his first game back from ACL surgery. Minnesota comes back in Week 2 to face the Packers, who will be down a running back with Jones out. The Vikings actually have two players of their own suspended, but neither Cayleb Jones nor Kentrell Brothers are considered major losses.
Along with the Lions and Falcons, one other team — the Rams — will face four suspended players' teams. But the impact doesn't appear to benefit them quite as much, as we're talking about them facing the Raiders in Week 1 (Alexander), the Chargers in Week 3 (Liuget) and the Vikings (Jones and Brothers) in Week 4. Liuget's loss will be felt in the battle for L.A. supremacy, and Alexander has been a valuable swing tackle and extra blocker the past few seasons for the Raiders. Jones, who was signed to a futures contract in January, has yet to play an NFL game and faces long odds to even make a stacked Vikings roster.
Three teams — the Patriots, Jets and Titans — don't face an opponent with a currently suspended player. Every other NFL team faces at least one such team in the first four games. Not counting the Vikings, five other teams lucked into facing three suspended players' teams early: the 49ers, Giants, Texans, Browns and Bills.
This is just another way to factor in strength of schedule, and history as shown that teams starting out hot have a far higher chance of making the playoffs. Likewise, those that struggle early face major odds climbing back into the race. It's not gospel, true, as the 0-2 Saints won the NFC South last season, and the 0-4 Chargers nearly stormed back into the playoffs. But there's a clear correlation there between early-season records and making the playoffs or not.
There are a lot of ways to measure strength of schedule for the upcoming NFL season, and some are better than others. For instance, going straight off 2017 win-loss records and tallying those up is a tired, outdated model. Heading into last season, that method of tabulating schedule strength would have told you that the Bears (whose 2017 opponents had a combined win percentage of .479) would have had an easy slate. They ended up playing the fifth-hardest schedule in the league. Ditto with the Broncos, who were rated as having the highest 2016 opponent win percentage (a whopping .578) coming into 2017, but Denver's schedule ended up ranking 26th-toughest when the games were eventually played.
But whatever method you choose, don't forget that teams missing one or two players — even with an entire offseason to prepare for the loss — can be dramatically affected. And it appears that the Falcons and Lions, along with perhaps a few more clubs, will be getting a small boost early on from their opponents' misfortunes. Stealing a win or two early might be the difference between making the playoffs or winning the division ... or missing out on the postseason entirely.