There are endless fantasy football draft strategies, and none of them are perfect.
There are, however, certain methods to best exploit value at different positions and in different areas of the draft. One such strategy that could have a major impact this season is waiting to draft a quarterback until the later rounds.
Selecting a surefire stud QB early can be a safe play, but sometimes playing it safe will only take you so far in fantasy.
As the NFL continues to evolve, so must the game of fantasy football.
Adapting your strategy to new league trends is vital to staying ahead of the curve and giving yourself an advantage over your leaguemates.
There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that investing less stock in quarterbacks is a wise way to approach your draft and your fantasy season at large.
Let’s take a look at the value of this strategy from a few different angles.
Impact of an Offense-Friendly League
The NFL continues to break its own records for passing offense. The league has set new highs for total passing yards each of the last five years. The same goes for total passing touchdowns in four of the last five years.
It’s a passing league now more so than ever before. For five straight decades (1932-1982), teams generally ran the ball on a majority of plays. But, over the past 30 years that trend has flipped, as illustrated by B/R’s NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter:
Looking at just the past five years, that disparity has spiked. As the above chart displays, teams now average about 10 more passing attempts per game than rushing attempts.
Not only are quarterbacks throwing more often, they’re becoming more accurate, too. As noted in Andrew Powell-Morse's Best Tickets Blog, pass completion percentage among quarterbacks has steadily increased for more than 80 years, reaching all-time highs in recent years.
As the league implements more and more rule changes to protect quarterbacks and receivers, employing a pass-first offense has become a more favorable strategy. This is a trend that’s not about to change anytime soon, given the clear results.
In NFL history, a QB has completed 420 passes 12 times. 11 of them came in the last four years, with Drew Brees in 2007 being the twelfth.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) August 12, 2014
So, how does this impact fantasy?
As the NFL makes the game easier for quarterbacks to have success, passing statistics have become increasingly inflated. Even the most mediocre of passers can have a big game every now and then.
What do Case Keenum, Matt McGloin, Christian Ponder and Jason Campbell have in common? All four quarterbacks posted at least two weeks of top-12 fantasy quarterback production in 2013.
There are a handful of QBs viewed as unstartable who go on to produce top fantasy numbers each week. And as it becomes more common for an average guy to have a great fantasy day, the scarcity of weekly starters decreases and the position as a whole becomes devalued.
JJ Zachariason, author of "The Late Round Quarterback" and one of the forefathers of the fantasy strategy, explains the basis of the philosophy:
Drafting a quarterback late in fantasy football is no new idea. Folks have been doing it for years because they understand that it doesn’t rely on projections or predictions – it’s all about how fantasy is structured and built. You start one quarterback, and you start two or three running backs and receivers...When you factor in some basic math, economic principles and average draft position analysis, the strategy becomes incredibly obvious, especially in today’s NFL.
Due to the minimal investment placed on the position, owners do not feel beholden to stick with one quarterback for the entire year, allowing them to take advantage of fruitful waiver-wire matchups. Zachariason expands upon this concept:
The beauty of the approach is that it doesn’t really matter who you draft, given you’re spending a late-round pick on the passer. Whoever I get, chances are I’m not sticking with him every week throughout the season, something often misconstrued with the strategy…The quarterback position has a predictability aspect each week that a lot of people don’t realize, making waiver wire players and adds more reliable than any other position.
Let’s put this theory to the test—how would you have fared in 2013 employing a late-round quarterback strategy?
Comparing the Weekly Consistency of Top-Drafted QBs
ESPN’s Tristan Cockcroft’s “consistency ratings” focus on how many weeks a given fantasy player returned starter-level value over the course of the season.
The findings at quarterback from last season are quite revealing.
Just two quarterbacks—Manning and Brees—returned starter-level value (top-10, per ESPN standard leagues) more than half of the time (to be fair, Rodgers would have likely joined that group, had he remained healthy).
This means that if you started any other quarterback every week in 2013, whether it was Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck or Geno Smith, you received eight or fewer games of top-10 fantasy quarterback production.
The difference, as Zachariason noted, is about the investment. If you used an early- or mid-round pick on a guy like Stafford, you likely started him regardless of matchup—you drafted him to be your every-week “stud.”
But those investing less in quarterbacks generally do not have the same loyalty.
So, for savvy fantasy owners, how difficult is it to piece together early- to mid-round QB value using a late-round draft pick and streaming waiver-wire guys with favorable matchups?
Let’s return to the consistency ratings for the answer.
Again, just two quarterbacks finished in the top 10 more than half the time in 2013. Meanwhile, a whopping 13 quarterbacks finished top-10 between six and eight times.
Talk about parity.
And of those 13, five quarterbacks had an ADP (average draft position) outside the top 120 overall players. Tom Brady, drafted 43rd overall (QB4) in 2013, had one fewer top-10 finish last season than Alex Smith, drafted 171st overall (QB22).
And while 13 quarterbacks produced a roughly similar number of starting performances in 2013, this stat only scratches the surface when it comes to late-round QB value last season.
What about all the other guys who made for viable weekly starter options at QB even just a few times?
Let’s delve deeper.
A Week-to-Week Look at Startable QBs in 2013
Just how likely are you to find a late-round or waiver-wire guy on a given week who can provide starter-level value?
Once the season gets underway and the landscape of this year’s league comes into focus—learning which teams have the worst defenses, secondaries, etc.—finding weekly matchup plays at quarterback becomes a less risky method than some may think.
To illustrate this point, let’s take another look at 2013, this time using a 12-team league format.
In the following table, the left side shows the top-12 quarterbacks drafted in 2013, per ADP, and the right displays the top-12 overall QBs at year’s end.
|Drew Brees||Peyton Manning|
|Aaron Rodgers||Drew Brees|
|Peyton Manning||Cam Newton|
|Tom Brady||Andrew Luck|
|Cam Newton||Andy Dalton|
|Matt Ryan||Philip Rivers|
|Colin Kaepernick||Matthew Stafford|
|Matthew Stafford||Russell Wilson|
|Andrew Luck||Colin Kaepernick|
|Robert Griffin III||Tony Romo|
|Tony Romo||Nick Foles|
|Russell Wilson||Ben Roethlisberger|
Not too bad—that’s a 66.6 percent success rate if you drafted a top-12 QB expecting top-12 value on the year.
But don't be misled. As we’ve already discussed, fantasy football is a weekly game. You don’t get wins based on total fantasy points.
Forget the final standings. Here’s a table with every low-investment quarterback who returned top-12 value on a given week in 2014:
|Week 1||Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Matt Schaub, Sam Bradford, Terrelle Pryor|
|Week 2||Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler|
|Week 3||Jake Locker, Geno Smith, Christian Ponder, Terrelle Pryor, EJ Manuel, Ben Roethlisberger|
|Week 4||Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, Jake Locker, Brian Hoyer, Matt Schaub|
|Week 5||Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford, Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers|
|Week 6||Nick Foles, Andy Dalton, Thad Lewis, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Mike Glennon, Sam Bradford|
|Week 7||Andy Dalton, Geno Smith, Jake Locker, Mike Glennon|
|Week 8||Andy Dalton, Jason Campbell, Alex Smith, Mike Glennon, Terrelle Pryor|
|Week 9||Nick Foles, Case Keenum, Ben Roethlisberger, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Joe Flacco, Christian Ponder, Philip Rivers|
|Week 10||Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Foles, Case Keenum, Kellen Clemens, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Andy Dalton|
|Week 11||Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith, Nick Foles, Matt McGloin, EJ Manuel, Mike Glennon|
|Week 12||Philip Rivers, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Josh McCown, Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger|
|Week 13||Nick Foles, Alex Smith, Josh McCown, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, EJ Manuel|
|Week 14||Josh McCown, Jason Campbell, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt McGloin, Geno Smith, Nick Foles|
|Week 15||Nick Foles, Alex Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Cassel, Matt Flynn, Ryan Tannehill, EJ Manuel, Kirk Cousins, Jay Cutler|
|Week 16||Andy Dalton, Geno Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Foles, Chad Henne, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco|
|Week 17||Carson Palmer, Terrelle Pryor, Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, Kyle Orton, Geno Smith, Chase Daniel|
Some interesting notes about this chart:
- An average of 6.5 quarterbacks drafted outside the top 12 (54 percent) churned out top-12 numbers each week.
- Six quarterbacks drafted outside the top 12 returned top-12 value at least six different weeks—Nick Foles (8), Philip Rivers (7), Andy Dalton (7), Alex Smith (7), Ben Roethlisberger (6), Geno Smith (6)—only one, Foles, has a 2014 ADP in the first eight rounds of a standard league draft.
- Over the final nine weeks of the season, at least half of the top-12 QBs each week were drafted outside the top-12.
- In Week 15, Championship Week in many leagues, each of the top-eight quarterbacks were drafted outside the top 12, six of whom went undrafted entirely.
The point of this exercise is not to suggest that you should blow off the quarterback position entirely and throw darts at guys like Matt McGloin every week. That's a losing proposition.
Rather, the point is that several of those guys will always be out there, and, when needed, many of them will sustain starter-level value over short periods of time.
This waiver-wire insurance allows you to draft a guy like Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger for relatively little investment and use your early-round picks on positions of greater need.
The Risk of Drafting an Early Round QB
You might be asking yourself, “If there are only a couple quarterbacks at the top of the pack before parity sets in, then why shouldn’t I just grab one of the best guys early and be done with it?”
Good question. I’m glad you asked.
To answer, we must take into account the more volatile positions—running back and wide receiver. By selecting Manning, Brees or Rodgers in the first two rounds, the risk is not about what you are receiving, but rather what you are losing.
Again, we look to our friend Mr. Zachariason, who recently examined the “bust-rate” for running backs and wide receivers. He found that, after the first few rounds, the chances of landing a top RB or WR become relatively astronomical. This is worrisome considering you must start multiple players at both positions every week.
Per Zachariason, after the first 24 running backs go off the board, the likelihood a player flames out skyrockets. Some early round RBs will surely bust as well, but those drafted after the first few rounds fail at an alarming rate.
For wide receivers, the results are not much different. After the first six guys go off the board, the chances of landing a top-12 WR immediately drop from 73.33 percent down to just 26.67 percent for WRs drafted No. 7 through No. 12. And it gets exponentially uglier from there.
Sure, a rock-solid player like Brees is an essential lock to finish as a top-five quarterback in 2014. But the cost of missing out on early round RBs and WRs could negate the “safety” of such a pick.
Focusing on running backs and wide receivers in the early and middle rounds gives your fantasy team the highest probability to land a roster full of consistent and startable fantasy producers at every position—the ultimate goal.
And, as we’ve shown, once the top QBs are off the table, the weekly similarity among mid-to-late round passers makes your decision a simple one—wait to draft your quarterback in 2014.
James Paradis is a fantasy football featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Be sure to check out his entire archive on fantasy strategy and analysis.