Fantasy football quarterback primer: Everything to know heading into 2016
- From Tom Brady to Matt Ryan to Jameis vs. Mariota, we tackle fantasy QB questions that need answers and drop our 2016 rankings.
Unless this is your first season playing fantasy football, you’ve probably already figured out the optimal way to attack the quarterback position: You can wait on one. Last year, Cam Newton, Blake Bortles, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Kirk Cousins and Ryan Fitzpatrick all finished in the top 12 in points in standard-scoring leagues, while Tyrod Taylor and Andy Dalton were on pace to do so before falling short due to injuries. Not one of those quarterbacks had a top-12 average draft position.
But now, superflex and two-quarterback formats are becoming more commonplace, which is making fantasy owners completely rethink how they value the quarterback position on draft day. If you want the best fantasy football experience, you should be playing in a league where the ideal lineup includes two quarterbacks, which means that players like Ryan Tannehill, Matthew Stafford and Marcus Mariota would matter.
SI.com will have plenty of coverage of superflex and two-quarterback formats for you this summer, but for now it’s time to look at an overview of the position with our 2016 quarterback primer. My complete quarterback rankings, as well as fellow SI.com fantasy writer Pat Fitzmaurice's rankings, can be found at the bottom of the story.
How much does the four-game suspension deflate Tom Brady’s value?
Now that Brady will finally serve the most inane suspension in NFL history, it will be hard for him to finish in the top 12 at the position in total points. Ben Roethlisberger had a pretty strong 12-game season last year, throwing for 3,933 yards, 8.4 yards per attempt, 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and finished as the No. 21 quarterback. He was, however, ninth in points per game among quarterbacks who played at least eight games, and that should be instructive for all fantasy owners when considering Brady’s value: There’s little, if any, reason to slide him down your cheat sheet. There’s nothing that would suggest the Patriots QB will fall out of the top 10 in points per game, meaning you’re getting a strong QB1 back into your lineup once he returns against the Browns in Week 5. Brady may not be a QB1 in total points, but he’ll be a top-10 quarterback from Week 5 through the rest of the season.
Can Matt Ryan rebound?
Would you believe me if I told you Ryan’s 2015 season wasn’t as bad as it seemed? You should, because it’s true. Yes, Ryan was a bust, finishing 21st among quarterbacks in total points and 28th in points per game after having the eighth-highest ADP at the position. There was, however, little difference between his performance last year and that of the previous four seasons, when he was a perennial QB1 and had three top-10 finishes. From 2011 through ’14, he completed two-thirds of his passes for an average of 4,526.25 yards, 7.36 per pass attempt. Last year, he had a 66.3% completion percentage, 4,591 yards and 7.48 YPA. Ryan uncharacteristically struggled getting the ball in the end zone, throwing just 21 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. In the prior four years, he averaged 28.75 touchdowns per season. There’s still a lot to like here, from the track record to the fact that he has Julio Jones at his disposal. Ryan provides great value at his ADP, whether you’re drafting him as a platoon starter or backup in traditional leagues, or a QB2 in superflex or two-QB formats. He’d also be a great guy for Brady owners to invest in for the first four weeks.
New year, same question: Winston or Mariota?
When they came into the league last year, Winston and Mariota were the two most recent Heisman winners and the top two picks in the draft. They rubbed elbows as rookies in most draft rankings and were next-door neighbors in ADP. They find themselves in the same position this season, but I have a slight preference for Winston. There’s more to like about him as a pure drop-back passer, and that’s always the first thing I look for in my quarterback. Mariota has more upside as a runner, but that also makes him a greater injury risk. He missed four games last year while Winston played all 16. The Florida State product also has better overall weapons, including the best individual pass catcher of the two in Mike Evans, who set new career highs in receptions (74), yards (1,206) and yards per catch (16.3) last season. Mariota doesn’t have anyone outside the numbers who comes close to matching Evans—or Vincent Jackson, for that matter—but he does have a couple of new running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Winston has continuity in his backfield with Doug Martin and Charles Sims. It all adds up to Winston being slightly ahead of Mariota, yet again.
Which quarterback represents the equilibrium point this year?
Every season a quarterback or group of quarterbacks is in the sweet spot of production and draft-day value. He may not be the No. 1 quarterback at the end of the season, and he may not be the cheapest signal caller, but he’s at the nexus of the fantasy game’s two valuation factors. That’s the equilibrium point, and it appears an old friend is going to fall into that zone this season. Drew Brees has an ADP that places him early in the sixth round of a 12-team draft. Brees, of course, has been a top-six quarterback every season going back to 2006, his first year with the Saints. Now that Marques Colston is gone, every face on the New Orleans offense, other than Brees’s and Sean Payton’s, has changed. Those two, however, are what make it go. You can get Brees 30 or 40 picks later than Cam Newton or Aaron Rodgers in a typical draft, freeing you to load up on receivers and running backs early while nabbing one of the highest-floor quarterbacks in the league. Brees is a sure thing and as safe a commodity as we have in the fantasy world. This season, he has a real chance to provide the greatest return on investment of anyone at the position.
Can fantasy owners trust Kirk Cousins?
Cousins, who was one of the biggest surprises of last season, is being touted as an undervalued asset. But I still peg him as a low-end QB2.
Cousins shocked the football world when he threw for 4,166 yards, 7.67 yards per attempt and 29 touchdowns last season, ending the year as the No. 10 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues while leading the Redskins to the NFC East crown. Dig beneath the surface, though, and you start to find some holes. Before a late-season flourish, Cousins was headed toward a relatively nondescript season. In his first 12 games, he had eight weekly finishes of 20th or worse. Over the final three weeks, though, he threw 11 touchdowns against zero interceptions. Cousins also found a way to score five rushing touchdowns with just 48 rushing yards, which had only happened four times previously in NFL history: The last five-TD season with yardage that low happened in 1972—the other three came before the merger. Cousins could very well give back most, if not all, of those rushing scores this season, and he’d need seven passing touchdowns to recoup those losses. Jordan Reed is a wildly talented tight end, but he has had trouble staying healthy going back to his days at Florida. Washington’s run game is unimposing on paper and could be worse in reality, putting a ton of pressure—and defensive focus—on Cousins and the passing game.
Elite: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Cam Newton blew away the quarterback field last season. There was a wider gap between him and No. 2 Tom Brady than between Brady and No. 11 Ryan Fitzpatrick. Russell Wilson had his best season yet, and remains on the ascent. The king is still the king, however, and until we see truly diminished play from Rodgers, he’s the No. 1 quarterback. The 32-year-old gets a pass for last season thanks to the Jordy Nelson injury. Even fervent Nelson fans like myself underestimated how his absence would effectively disenfranchise the entire Green Bay passing game. Deprived of his lone deep threat, Rodgers had to dink and dunk his way down the field with receivers incapable of consistently creating separation. It’s a near miracle that he still finished ninth in points among quarterbacks in standard-scoring leagues. Nelson is back from his torn ACL, but dealing with tendinitis in his other knee. His progress in training camp is one of the most important factors not only for the Green Bay offense, but for the overall fantasy landscape. Should he come back at 100%, the importance of his return cannot be overstated. With defenses accounting for his presence, Randall Cobb will have more room to work his magic in the middle of the field. Eddie Lacy and the run game will have more freedom, as well. All of this trickles back to Rodgers, the maestro at the controls. With the Packers operating at full capacity once again, Rodgers will get back atop the quarterback position.
Breakout: Tyrod Taylor, Bills
Check out the following two stat lines for a pair of quarterbacks. You know one is Taylor since his name is at the head of this section, but which one? And who is the mystery quarterback?
Quarterback A: 63.7% completion percentage, 3,035 yards, 7.99 YPA, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions, 568 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns
Quarterback B: 64.1% completion percentage, 3,118 yards, 7.93 YPA, 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 489 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns
QB A is Taylor last year. QB B is Russell Wilson in his rookie year. I’m not saying Taylor is the second coming of Wilson, but the former’s numbers in his first season as a starter should certainly have Bills fans and the fantasy community excited about what’s to come. Taylor missed two games due to injury, which pushed him down to QB16, but he was ninth in points per game. Had he maintained that pace over a full season, he would have been QB7, ahead of Rodgers and Eli Manning. Buffalo does play at a slower pace than the league average, and we may not see Sammy Watkins at all this summer while he rehabs a broken left foot. But Taylor’s running ability helps counteract what he loses due to the Bills’ slow pace, and all reports on Watkins suggest he’ll be fully healthy by the start of the regular season. Taylor waited five years to get his shot at a starting gig. It will only take two for him to go from first-year starter to a legitimate breakout player.
Value: Eli Manning, Giants
Manning may feel like a boring pick. He doesn’t have the upside to be the No. 1 quarterback and might not even be capable of jumping into the top three. The Giants’ offense doesn’t appear to have the same juice as that of the Steelers or Cardinals. But Manning is the most regularly overlooked QB1 on the fantasy landscape, and he is somehow slipping too far in typical drafts yet again. Manning has had his two best statistical seasons the last two years, which just happen to coincide with Odell Beckham Jr.’s tenure with the Giants. Manning set career highs in yards and touchdowns last season after posting his completion percentage in 2014. Over the last two years, Manning has averaged 4,423 yards, 7.26 YPA and 32.5 touchdowns per season. He’s one of four quarterbacks to throw for at least 30 touchdowns in both of those seasons. The other three are Rodgers, Brady and Brees. Manning has never missed a game due to injury in his NFL career, which sets him apart from quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer. And, oh yeah, he’ll still have the luxury of throwing as many passes as he pleases to that Beckham guy this season.
Reach: Blake Bortles, Jaguars
Don’t get me wrong: I like Bortles, the Jacksonville passing game, and the team’s offense as a whole. I also love what they’ve done on defense and think they can be a playoff team this year. Even if they fall short of the playoffs, they’re going to be much improved on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s bad news for Bortles’s fantasy value. As good as he was last season, his QB4 season was aided by a defense that finished 24th overall and 31st in scoring in the league. The Jaguars lost four games in which they scored 27 points, and Bortles threw at least 35 passes in nine games. With the additions of Malik Jackson, Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler—last year’s first-round pick who missed the entire season after tearing his ACL—Jacksonville’s defense can’t help but be better than it was a season ago. The team also brought in Chris Ivory, helping to legitimize a run game that was at times stagnant last season. Even if Bortles slightly increases his efficiency, he simply may not get the volume to equal last year’s stats. Don’t forget, too, that he threw 18 interceptions and has had a penchant for being careless with the ball in both of his NFL seasons. I still like the player, but I’m not sure I like that he is a mid-seventh round pick, with a higher ADP than Palmer and Manning.