Taking stock of the quarterback situation

Back in March, I wrote an article that explored the QB position across the NFL: https://www.thepigskinpapers.com/posts-1/haves-and-have-nots-an-early-look-at-the-nfl-qb-landscape-for-2022. The main takeaway is that there’s an imbalance between the two conferences at the QB position, with the AFC having a stronger and younger group than the NFC. But also apparent is that the QB position is stocked with talent across the league, with much of it under the age of 30. QB is the most important position in all of sports and a bunch of NFL teams have excellent QBs and even more have outstanding fantasy options at QB. That’s what I’ll discuss today. With fantasy draft season approaching, it’s worth looking at all of that high-end QB talent from a fantasy perspective.

In recent decades, we’ve all watched the NFL evolve into a pass-happy league. Rule changes have contributed to this but mostly it’s been the advent of new offensive schemes, coupled with athletes who’ve been coached and developed to execute them. This trend started in the 80s and 90s but has really taken off since 2000. Plenty of stats show this evolution in stark terms so I’ll just share a few. From 2002-2010, there was only one season where more than 7 QBs threw for more than 4,000 yards (2009, 10 QBs). In each of the 11 seasons since 2010, at least 8 QBs have eclipsed 4,000 passing yards, and in 7 of the last 8 seasons at least 10 QBs have bettered that total. TD pass totals show a similar upward trend – in 2003 only 1 QB threw for 30 or more TDs, while in 2020 (the last season with 16 games), 10 QBs hit that plateau, with 3 of them throwing 40 or more. Here’s another one – the 125 reception plateau has only been hit 8 times – all 8 instances are since 2002, and 7 of the 8 have occurred in the last 8 seasons. Team stats also bear out the trend – in 2003, only 5 teams threw the ball on 58% or more of their offensive plays. In 2021 that number was 19 teams, which is more than half of the league. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.

High volume passing only tells part of the fantasy QB story. In the last decade we’ve also seen the emergence of a new breed of QBs that can be equally dangerous with their arms and legs. Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts can give defenses fits with their ability to break off big runs, and that’s just scratching the surface of what’s coming this season with Justin Fields and Trey Lance poised to have starting jobs. And beyond these 6 truly gifted runners are a host of QBs who can do plenty of damage with their legs when needed, including in the red zone. From 2002-2012, not once did a QB rush for 500 yards in a season. But in each of the last 4 seasons, and in 7 of the last 9, at least 3 QBs have eclipsed that mark. And in each of the last 6 seasons, at least 4 QBs have run for at least 5 TDs. For most of the decade of the 00s, only 1 or 2 QBs per season hit that total.  

Lamar Jackson: A Nightmare for DCs

 So how does all of this translate to fantasy points, and what does that mean for draft strategy? I’m glad you asked. The obvious answer is that not only have QBs been scoring a lot more fantasy points in recent years, but the number of QBs who can put up very big fantasy totals also has jumped. Let’s look at more stats and we’ll start by going back about 20 years. In the 2002 and 2003 seasons combined, the total number of QBs who averaged at least 15 fantasy points per game (FPPG) (minimum 10 games) was 17, or less than 10 per season. Only one QB averaged more than 20 FPPG in either of those 2 seasons, and none reached 25 FPPG. Compare that to the last two 16 game seasons (2019 and 2020), again using a minimum of 10 games played. The combined numbers for those 2 seasons jump up to 48 QBs in total that averaged at least 15 FPPG (well over 20 per season), 17 that averaged more than 20 FPPG, and 3 that averaged more than 25 FPPG. That’s a huge increase in both quality and quantity in 2 decades. In 2003, the #1 QB in the league averaged just under 20 FPPG. In each of the last 5 seasons, the highest scoring QB has averaged more than 24. Times have changed, and the bottom line from a fantasy perspective is this: The result of the trends we’ve been talking about is that QBs are putting up bigger totals, and more QBs keep joining the party. You’re going to get big points from the position, barring injury. And this represents a change from where things stood earlier this century, when there were fewer elite options to go around. 

So how should fantasy players think about the position as draft season approaches? The short answer, which I recently wrote about in this piece: https://www.thepigskinpapers.com/posts-1/fantasy-football-22-5-quick-fixes-to-improve-your-league, is that the game has changed to the point that all but the largest leagues should convert to a Superflex format, where each team can start 2 QBs. If your league sticks with a 1 QB format, the fairly obvious answer is that you should wait on QB, with the possible exception of Josh Allen. Allen is coming off of back-to-back seasons as the #1 scorer in all of fantasy and is a safe bet to again put up huge numbers in 2022.

We’ll circle back to the waiting strategy, which has been a popular approach for a number of years now. But first I want to hammer home the case for Superflex, because I think it’s one that all leagues should consider. It’s a no-brainer for 10 team leagues, and the argument is also strong for 12-teamers. Here’s what I recently wrote about Superflex: 

“For those who aren’t familiar with the term, Superflex leagues are those that allow each team to start 1 QB in one of the flex spots – meaning you can start 2 QBs every week. There is now so much high-end QB talent to go around that Superflex makes sense in all but the largest of leagues. QBs should have a ton of value in fantasy, as they do in real life. But in 1 QB leagues, QBs lose a significant amount of their value because everyone can wait, and still get a great fantasy QB, even in a 12 team league…it makes all the sense in the world to bring more QBs into the fantasy football equation, and to make the position matter in fantasy like it does in real NFL games. Superflex does just that.”

OK, let’s get specific. Listed below are the current top 20 fantasy QBs for 2022, using widely available Expert Consensus Rankings. I’ve bolded the top 12, since the vast majority of fantasy leagues are either 10 or 12 teams deep:

  1. Josh Allen
  2. Justin Herbert
  3. Patrick Mahomes
  4. Lamar Jackson
  5. Kyler Murray
  6. Jalen Hurts
  7. Joe Burrow
  8. Tom Brady
  9. Dak Prescott
  10. Russell Wilson
  11. Matthew Stafford
  12. Aaron Rodgers
  13. Trey Lance
  14. Derek Carr
  15. Kirk Cousins
  16. Justin Fields
  17. Tua Tagovailoa
  18. Trevor Lawrence
  19. Ryan Tannehill
  20. Matt Ryan

What a list. I’ve been playing fantasy football for more than 25 years and I’ve never seen a QB group this strong or deep, much less a top 12 that’s anything close to this. Looking at this list makes the Superflex argument obvious – having each team start 2 QBs changes the basic equation by bringing a lot more QBs into the mix. That dynamic creates some scarcity at the position and makes the top QBs priority picks in early rounds.  

Stafford: Exhibit A for Playing the Waiting Game

A look at this also makes the waiting strategy pretty obvious. Look at that top 12 again – most fantasy players would be fine with any one of them at QB. I know I would be. The 12th guy listed is the reigning back-to-back NFL MVP! Yes, there are tiers within that top 12, and we’ve all got personal preferences, but they’re all highly productive fantasy options who should average close to 20 FPPG if not more, and nobody should be surprised to see any of those 12 players in the top 5 in QB scoring at the end of the year. If your league is sticking with a 1 QB format, the thought process is pretty simple in my view: Drafting is about value, so why waste valuable early-to-mid round draft capital on a QB when you can wait, and fill your roster with players at important positions that have more scarcity of talent, before grabbing any of the 12? I’d much rather take a bunch of WRs, RBs and a TE in rounds 2-8 than use any picks in that range on a QB, when I can get a really good one later on. Even if you wait too long and someone in your league drafts 2 top-end QBs before you take one, there are good options from players 13-20 where you won’t be yielding that many points, on average, to the top 12. In particular, Kirk Cousins and Derek Carr were both borderline starters in a 12 team league last year (and the Raiders just added Davante Adams). 

 The strategy of waiting on QB isn’t new, and lots of fantasy analysts have advocated for it for years. I’ve used it pretty consistently for most of the last decade, at least. It just makes too much sense from a value standpoint, and especially with more and more QBs putting up QB1 numbers each year. It’s become a popular approach, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other schools of thought. In recent years, as more QBs have put up previously unthinkable numbers (in particular, Patrick Mahomes in 2018, Lamar Jackson in 2019, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Russell Wilson in 2020, and Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Tom Brady and Kyler Murray (when healthy) in 2021), taking QBs with a high pick has gotten more tempting, and some experts have advocated for it. The argument goes something like this: If the goal is to score the most points, why wouldn’t you use high draft picks on fairly low-risk players who are by far the most likely to score the most points? Last season, Cooper Kupp (5th) and Jonathan Taylor (6th) were the only 2 non-QBs to finish inside the top 13 in total fantasy points scored (Half PPR). That’s how strong QB scoring was last year. And 2020 wasn’t much different. The entire top 10 in total scoring for the year was QBs. Alvin Kamara (who caught 83 passes and scored 21 total TDs) and Derrick Henry (who ran for over 2,000 yards plus 17 TDs) had phenomenal seasons and couldn’t crack the top 10 in overall scoring – they finished 11th and 12th in Half PPR. QBs just dominate at the top. 

Finally Healthy, Dak is Back

I hear the argument, but waiting still makes sense. Let’s stick with 2020. Kirk Cousins finished just 4 points behind Henry in total points (Half PPR), and averaged an impressive 20 FPPG, which ranked 13th overall and 11th among QBs. The QBs who ranked 1 and 2, Allen and Mahomes, averaged just over 25 FPPG. Yes, 5 points matters and I’d love to have that every week, but 11 QBs put up what we’d traditionally consider QB1 numbers, with several others (Big Ben, Matt Ryan and Derek Carr) just a couple of FPPG behind Cousins. If you’re in a 1 QB league, that’s more than enough high quality to go around, and the positional value just isn’t there for a QB in the early rounds. One word of caution: If you commit to this strategy you need to stick to it. I know it can be hard to pass on a fantasy stud like Joe Burrow, Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott in favor of players like Marquise Brown, A.J. Dillon, Breece Hall, and T.J. Hockenson – it seems counterintuitive because you know that those QBs are going to outscore them by a lot of points. You just have to keep telling yourself how much QB depth there is, and that the QB you’re going to get a little later is still going to be a stud. 

Makes sense, right? If you’ve got thoughts to share please leave them in the comment box. And stay tuned to this space as I’ll have more preseason fantasy content coming soon, and regularly as the summer moves along.

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