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Fantasy football debate: Is Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning top QB?

Fantasy football debate: Is Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning top QB? Photo: Tom Lynn/Getty Images, Daniel Gluskoter/Icom SMI

As part of SI.com's fantasy football 2014 preview, Michael Beller and David Gonos will engage in a number of debates. This week, they argue whether the  Packers' Aaron Rodgers or the Broncos' Peyton Manning will emerge as the better quarterback in 2014. 

Michael Beller makes the case for Aaron Rodgers.

I’ll come right out and admit this is an unpopular opinion. After Manning had the single greatest statistical season for a quarterback last year, he is atop most experts’ cheat sheets. And you know what? I get it. Manning is the most prolific quarterback of this generation. He's answered all the questions about his surgically repaired neck. He’s at the center of one of the best -- if not the very best -- offenses in the league. He gets to throw a lot near the goal line. There’s no reason to doubt Manning this year. I would happily take him in the second or third round. This is not a knock on Manning. Rather, it is a statement about how good Rodgers is and will be this season.

Let’s start with what Rodgers did in 2013. Through seven games, he was having another stellar season. He had 2,191 yards, 15 touchdowns, four interceptions and 106 rushing yards, good for an average of 22.03 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues. In his eighth game of the season, he suffered a broken collarbone against the Bears, knocking him out until Week 17. All he did in that last game of the regular season was complete 25 of his 39 pass attempts for 318 yards, 8.15 yards per attempt and two touchdowns, leading the Packers over rival Chicago for the NFC North championship.

At 30, Rodgers is the best quarterback and player in the league. His presence alone makes the Packers a Super Bowl contender. His presence also makes his fantasy owners championship contenders in their league. Few quarterbacks are as consistent as Rodgers. He’s the only quarterback with at least 7.8 YPA in each of the last five seasons. In four of those five seasons, he hit at least 8.2 YPA. Over the last three seasons, he has averaged 2.53 passing touchdowns per game. Manning needed last year’s 55-score campaign to eclipse Rodgers in touchdowns per game over the last three seasons, and he barely did so, ending up with a 2.6 TD-per-game average. Rodgers was simply continuing the pace last year that he had set for himself in his most recent seasons. Manning was throwing up an outlier. Which of those would you rather bet on in 2014? And let me remind you that the guy with the outlier season is 38 years old and has had three neck surgeries.

Manning undoubtedly has a great set weapons in Denver. Demaryius Thomas is one of the best receivers in the league, and our No. 2 receiver on SI.com. Julius Thomas had 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders fill out a strong receiver corps. Montee Ball can be a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield, and keeps defenses honest as a runner. Most important is the quarterback himself, running the show and forcing opponents into situations where they seemingly can’t win. And yet, an honest look at the Packers will show that Rodgers has a superior supporting cast.

Quite frankly, Jordy Nelson is not all that far behind Thomas as a pure receiver. In the eight games started and finished by Rodgers last year, Nelson had 49 catches for 810 yards and seven scores. That’s a 98-catch, 1,620-yard, 14-touchdown pace for a 16-game season, which would have made him the No. 1 receiver in fantasy leagues last year. Everyone throws the back-shoulder fade-stop, and while there’s no way to prove this, I’d be willing to bet no combo is better at it than Rodgers and Nelson. Randall Cobb was limited to six games because of a broken leg last year, but he still managed to haul in 31 passes for 433 yards and four touchdowns. Over a full season, that translates to 82 catches for 1,154 yards and 10 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Eddie Lacy already looks like one of the best running backs in the league, and he showed more than expected as a pass catcher in his rookie year. Defenses will not have the luxury of regularly dropping seven in coverage against Rodgers. If they do so, Lacy will chew them up. Rodgers doesn’t just have better weapons than Manning -- he may have better weapons than any QB in the league.

While Rodgers has all of his toys back again this year (James Jones not withstanding), Manning lost a big weapon in Eric Decker. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound Minnesota product was one of Manning’s favorite red-zone targets. In fact, he had more targets inside the 20-yard-line, 10-yard-line and 5-yard-line than Demaryius Thomas did last year. While Julius Thomas is a great red-zone target, too, it’s a lot more dangerous to throw across the middle in the confined space inside the 20 than it is to the outside. While Welker and Sanders are fine receivers, neither can come close to matching Decker physically. Manning is sorely going to miss him.

FANTASY POSITION PRIMERS:
QB | RB | WR | TE | K | DST

Finally, while these two giants of the game go toe-to-toe as passers, Rodgers has always been a threat on the ground while Manning hasn’t run for more than 50 yards in a season since 2002. Since becoming the Green Bay starter in 2008, Rodgers has averaged 287.3 rushing yards per 16 games. He has 18 rushing touchdowns in 87 games as a starter, which comes out to an average of 3.3 in a full season. His production has hardly waned on the ground as he has aged. In 2012, he ran for 259 yards and two TDs. The year before, he had 257 yards and hit paydirt three times. Even if we peg him at just 200 rushing yards and two scores, Manning would have to throw for an additional 500 yards and three touchdowns to cancel out Rodgers’ advantage on the ground.

It may seem improbable in August, but in December Aaron Rodgers will reign as fantasy’s top quarterback and the NFL MVP.

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Sports Illustrated's lead fantasy writer Michael Beller reveals his three rules to live by on draft day.

David Gonos makes the case for Peyton Manning.

Quarterbacks are like the dessert of your fantasy football Draft Day meal, if we consider running backs the meat and wide receivers the potatoes. (Kickers are like the after-meal toothpick). Quarterbacks are dessert because they are fun and enjoyable and even the worst team has a top-12 quarterback, which means he’s likely throwing 25 touchdowns a season and close to 3,500 yards.

But this debate, between Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, takes us to the cherry on top of the fantasy dessert, as we discuss who the best projected fantasy quarterback is for this season.

There are dozens of reasons why Rodgers is a great choice, especially if you consider in ADP and taking him a round later than Manning, which means you’ll get an excellent player at another position ahead of him. But this debate is which one is the best fantasy quarterback, period.

There’s no doubt, of course, Manning was the better fantasy quarterback last year, considering he broke NFL passing records with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards. Add the fact that Rodgers missed seven games with a shoulder injury, and they’re not even in the same ballpark – for last year.

This summer, however, both quarterbacks have an ADP inside the top 15 players overall on FantasyPros.com. And Manning and Rodgers have average strength of schedules for quarterbacks.

Manning has the keys to the best offense in the league, and the weapons at his disposal even match up pretty favorably to Rodgers’ weapons in Green Bay. Demaryius Thomas hasn’t missed a game since Manning arrived in 2012, and most would prefer him to Jordy Nelson.

Wes Welker has proven to be one of the best slot receivers in NFL history, while Randall Cobb, who also plays in the slot, has emerged only in the past couple seasons, but he still hasn’t played 650 snaps in any one season. Cobb has the edge over Welker in age, but with Eric Decker with the Jets, Welker has a chance to beat him in fantasy points per game. Green Bay still wins this battle, however.

Rodgers’ third target, Jarrett Boykin, broke out last season in Cobb’s absence, but the Packers drafted three wide receivers to compete with him. The Broncos brought in Emmanuel Sanders to replace Decker, and he adds another dimension of speed to this offense. While he won’t be as good as Decker in the red zone, the Broncos already have plenty of options there, including …

Julius Thomas exploded onto the scene in last year’s season opener when he caught two of Manning’s seven touchdown passes against Baltimore. As a matter of fact, Thomas scored a touchdown in 10 of the 14 games he played in last year. Green Bay, however, lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a career-threatening neck injury. The free agent might return to the team, but after spinal fusion surgery, he’s certainly going to be a question mark. That leaves Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless as Green Bay’s tight end options. Advantage: Denver.

Finally, remember  the Broncos’ amazing 2013 season, and realize the team’s best offensive linemen, Ryan Clady, missed all of last year with a Lisfranc injury. He’s back, and he’ll join All-Pro guard Luis Vasquez to make this a top-10 O-line again. The Packers, however, are a below-average offensive line, although, All-Pro guard Josh Sitton is one of the best in the game.

Manning’s age and previous neck surgeries are definitely worry warts, and Rodgers is at the peak of his career. But if you look at their weapons, supporting cast and history, Manning stands out as the much better pick for 2014.

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