NFL Football Column: Draft Analysis
Quarterbacks & Fantasy Value
Guest writer JJ Zachariason authored The Late Round Quarterback in 2012. A link to his book can be found here. JJ is also on Twitter.
Drafting a quarterback late in fantasy football is no novel idea. Back when it was ordinary for a guy like LaDainian Tomlinson to score over 15 touchdowns in a season, plenty of fantasy owners swore by the late-round quarterback philosophy. It was clear that obtaining stud running backs – players who would score an obscene amount of fantasy points on 30-plus touches each week – was the way to approach the early rounds of a draft.
That was 2004. That was when five quarterbacks would throw for over 4,000 yards in a season, and when it was excessive to see over 40 passes by a signal caller in a game. Things are different nowadays. The spread offense is everywhere, and quarterbacks are posting numbers we'd only hope to accomplish on our Xbox. As a result, mainstream fantasy experts promise that this spike in quarterback efficiency should dictate the way we approach our August drafts.
I’m here to tell you that this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
The movement was in full force entering the 2012 season. Because of outrageous, top-heavy passing numbers witnessed in 2011, we were told that it was a necessity to have an "elite" quarterback in our fantasy lineup. The league was moving to a pass-first one, and it’d be wrong to fall behind this supposed trend. Everyone wanted us to be early-round quarterback hipsters.
The problem with this logic was that fantasy football league structures weren’t changing. We were still starting a single quarterback in a typical lineup, and the majority of that lineup was littered with slots for running backs and receivers. The greater need for standout running backs and receivers still existed, and a pass-happy NFL wasn’t going to change that fact.
Really, the idea behind the late-round quarterback philosophy has nothing to do with any NFL offensive tendency. Rather, it has everything to do with basic economic principles baked in logic and simple math. It has to do with value.
Defined as “relative worth”, value helps identify which player – and more importantly which position – is the most important to fantasy football. You should rarely concern yourself with how one position scores against another. That’s not the way you create the most valuable team. The way you create the most valuable team is by having the highest positive fantasy point differential at each position in a lineup compared to your opponent.
You can wait to draft a quarterback given the inherent demand of the position in a standard fantasy lineup. In a 12-team league, there are just 12 quarterbacks started per week. In that same league, there could easily be up to 30 running backs or receivers used. You need more runners and pass catchers than you do quarterbacks.
The counterargument here is that, because elite passers are throwing the ball so effectively in today’s NFL, people believe they need to reach in order to obtain someone that is far and away the best at his position. Regardless of that position's lineup need, if a player puts a Herculean effort in each week, like Aaron Rodgers did in 2011, then he should be highly regarded no matter the position he plays.
But that’s just not true. While Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are slinging the ball like they’re using a controller, so is Tony Romo. So is Peyton Manning again. So is Ben Roethlisberger. Andrew Luck. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick. And those latter guys bring difference-making rushing points to the table.
"Elite" quarterbacks aren’t the only ones getting better from a numbers perspective. And we saw the impact in 2012. The go-to, top-notch quarterbacks still finished as the highest-ranked players, but given the outstanding rookie class and overall depth at the position, these top passers were replaceable. They just weren’t that much better than the other guys at their position.
In other words, they didn’t inject your fantasy lineup with much value.
This isn’t new. You limit yourself by drafting a quarterback early because you lose out on the opportunity to select a top back or receiver. You may look back on 2012 and pretend you dodged a bullet by not selecting Chris Johnson or Darren McFadden, but to feel that way would be rather anecdotal and shortsighted. Why? Well, historically, if you were to compare general average draft positions to post-season positional ranks, you’d find that running backs, receivers and quarterbacks are equally inconsistent. It sounds ridiculous to someone new to the fantasy space, but the reason is simple: There’s one quarterback starting in each fantasy lineup, and as a result, there’s less room for error when it comes to a quarterback's performance. (Here’s hoping you didn’t draft Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, or Michael Vick, all of whom had early-round ADPs.)
Think about it. If a running back is ranked 10th at his position, then his positional rank would equate to a 5th ranked quarterback. In order for a running back to be “startable” in a 12-team league, for instance, he would have to rank in the top 24 at his position. At quarterback, a player has to rank in the top 12 to obtain the same tag.
Given the abundance of quality passers in today’s NFL, the quarterback position is going to be very deep moving into 2013. Stafford could easily be drafted outside of the top 10, and Romo may not even be a starter on someone's team. And people want a first-round quarterback when they can get a quality starter in the tenth?
You'll hear about this depth a lot from numerous fantasy experts as we move into the offseason, and while the notion is correct, it’s actually not very innovative. In actuality, the quarterback position is deep every year.
Until we can accurately predict a repeat of the obviously anomalous 2011 season, and unless two-quarterback leagues become the model of fantasy football, selecting a quarterback in the early rounds of a fantasy draft will never be a good idea. The NFL is clearly a different beast than it was when Jeff Blake played quarterback, and throwing the ball 500 times in a season is no longer a big deal. But this new reality has little to do with the overall value of the quarterback position in fantasy football.
The ball may be moving through the air more, but we have to face the truth. Truly "elite" receivers -- beginning with Calvin Johnson and ending somewhere around Demaryius Thomas -- are becoming less and less common because of the spread offense. Running backs touching the ball more than 20 times a game are scarce. If Tony Gonzalez retires, how many tight ends will be left to provide a weekly fantasy advantage? Gronk, Graham, and maybe Hernandez?
Just as you learned in Econ 101, when the supply of something you need is no longer there, you pay a higher price in order to obtain that something.
Spend your early-round choices on the limited products.
It’s simple: Load up on running backs and receivers early and often. While your league mates use a first-round pick on Aaron Rodgers, a second-rounder on Matt Ryan, and a fourth-rounder on Andrew Luck, you sit back and build a massive running back and receiver library. You wait -- and you wait long -- to snag your starter. Once the draft is over and the season starts, your opponents will see their obvious holes. They’ll notice they could have obtained a similar-quality quarterback in Round 12 as they did in Round 3. They’ll regret their subscription to the early-round quarterback strategy. I promise you that.
Look, you need a running back that gets touches. Since 2005, Darren Sproles and Maurice Jones-Drew are the only rushers who received fewer than 200 carries and finished as top-10 backs. That statistic alone limits your targets at the position to just over 20 running backs. And you need week-to-week consistency from your receivers, too.
There are plenty of ways to win a fantasy league. I'm sure some Aaron Rodgers owners won their leagues this past year. But why not give yourself the best chance to win? Why not make logical, common sense choices en route to your league finals? By waiting on quarterbacks, you minimize overall risk, lower your reliance on luck, increase your overall team value and set yourself up for the ultimate prize: A Fantasy Football Championship.
Join the vintage movement. Do the right thing. Let someone else draft the early-round quarterbacks.
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