The NFL undoubtedly is a passing league. Rules protecting quarterbacks and defenseless wide receivers make them nearly untouchable. Corners and safeties get called for pass interference on plays that wouldn't draw a whistle from an NBA referee for hand checking. Six of the 10 highest totals for passing yards in a season have happened since 2001.
With the shift in the league, fantasy owners have increasingly turned to quarterbacks earlier and earlier in drafts. Both Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers are going in the first round of an average 12-team league, while Drew Brees is coming off the board in the middle of the second. Even though this may be the age of the quarterback, even though Brees is coming off a historic three-year run, Vick is the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback since Steve Young and Rodgers is an elite pocket passer who has run for 672 yards and nine touchdowns the last two seasons, I'm here to tell you that there has never been a better season to wait on quarterbacks than this one.
The favorable passing conditions in the NFL haven't just benefitted the best of the best. Passers who in another era would have sat just outside the top tier have crashed the party. A growing stable of big, fast, physical wide receivers coupled with nominal tight ends who play like receivers has resulted in a diffusion of weapons in the receiving game across the league. Finally, a crop of talented young quarterbacks has made the worst-case scenario of missing out on the top tier or two of signal-callers more palatable than ever.
Of course, you have to have a strategy mapped out heading into your draft to make sure you can pass on Vick, Rodgers and Brees and still come out with a quarterback who carries top three potential. Your path to stealing a QB is below.
First, we need to determine our targets. Obviously, the three quarterbacks we've already discussed are out. Tom Brady is only going about half a round behind Brees, so he is too rich for our blood. After those four, however, our triumvirate of targets reveals itself: Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo. To me, grabbing one of these three players at or slightly below his current going rate is the best way to ensure fantasy success with one pick this season.
While trying to make an apples to apples comparison between "Is it better to take Vick in the first round or Romo in the sixth?" is usually fraught with assumptions, the fantasy gods are smiling on us. Vick is currently the seventh player off the board, and Romo is the 66th, a pick that just happens to belong to the person in the seventh slot. If that weren't enough, Rodgers is going 11th in an average draft while Rivers is going 35th. Guess who owns the 35th pick in the third round? Yep, the person with the 11th pick. This makes our exercise much easier. So, would it be better to take Vick in the first round or Romo in the sixth? How about Rodgers in the first or Rivers in the third? Let's find out.
Before fracturing his clavicle early in the Cowboys' sixth game of the year, Romo had 1,605 yards and 11 touchdowns while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. That puts him on a pace for roughly 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. He shares a huddle with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Felix Jones. Meanwhile, he's going early in the sixth round of a 12-team draft, a full 60 picks after Vick. Let's say you take Vick at seven, his average spot. Here's an idea of what your team will look like through six rounds, compared with someone who takes LeSean McCoy at seven while targeting Romo in the sixth.
Team two has superior running backs and far superior receivers, while also having a quarterback who has two seasons of 4,200-plus yards under his belt. Give me team two any day of the week.
That's the most extreme case, though. What if we compare Rodgers and Rivers? Rodgers has a three-year average of 4,131 passing yards, 29 passing touchdowns, 293 rushing yards and four scores on the ground. He also has a deep group of receivers with Greg Jennings, JerMichael Finley, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Guess what? Rivers' three-year average is 4,324 yards and 31 touchdowns. He doesn't run like Rodgers, but he has an equally dangerous corps of pass catchers with Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd. He's also hearing his name called 25 picks later than Rodgers, or two rounds in a 12-teamer. Let's run the same simulation we did for Vick vs. Romo for Rodgers and Rivers, this time through four rounds. Rodgers is coming off the board at 11 in an average draft.
Once again, the opportunity cost of taking the quarterback early is too high. The gap between McFadden and Hillis plus the gap between Calvin Johnson and Vincent Jackson is much greater than the narrow difference between Rivers and Rodgers. Here, too, the play is to wait on a quarterback.
On to our final pair, Brees and Manning. This one becomes problematic due to Manning's neck injury, but that just means you should get him at a cheaper price. Like Rodgers and Rivers, the three- and four-year averages for Brees and Manning are nearly identical. Yet Brees is already going nearly a full round before Manning, and that gulf is certain to widen with the uncertainty surrounding Mr. Laser-Rocket Arm. We can't make the same comparison between these two as we could with the other four because of Manning's injury, but the fact remains that they have posted, for all intents and purposes, the exact same stats since 2007 yet one is going significantly higher than the other. I'll always take the cheaper option in that case.
The obvious downside to this strategy is that if you miss out on Romo, Rivers and Manning, you've missed out on the elite quarterbacks. In past years, that would be cause for concern. In 2011, it just calls for a minor course correction.
Eli Manning is widely seen as a fringe starter in a 12-team league, yet he's coming off back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons with a combined 58 touchdowns. Matt Schaub has thrown for more than 9,000 yards the last two years and has the best receiver on the planet at his disposal. Matt Ryan threw for 3,705 yards last year with a 28/9 TD/INT ratio. Ben Roethlisberger piled up 4,328 yards in 2009 and 3,200 in just 12 games a year ago, while throwing for 43 touchdowns compared with 17 interceptions in the two seasons combined.
All this, and we haven't even mentioned young guns Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman and Sam Bradford, the talented enigma Jay Cutler, or Kevin Kolb, a guy who was good enough to start over Michael Vick and now finds himself in pass-friendly Arizona with Larry Fitzgerald on the outside.
Yes, my fantasy friends, it is good to be a quarterback in the new age of the NFL. But the realities of the new age also mean it's more beneficial than ever to wait on a QB.