We live in a golden age of quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers is the most physically gifted, terrifying quarterback any of us has ever seen. The guy is Picasso and Mozart, only with back-shoulder throws and 60-yard bombs on the run. Tom Brady is the most accomplished player in NFL history, with a fist full of Super Bowl rings and three MVP trophies on his mantel. Drew Brees is going to break Peyton Manning’s career passing yardage record this season, and next year will be the third quarterback in NFL history with 500 career touchdowns.
Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are likely to go down as two of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history. Ben Roethlisberger has won a pair of Super Bowls, and is still going strong at 36 years old. Those six suck up so much oxygen, and rightfully so, that we barely talk about the sustained excellence of Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith and Kirk Cousins. And then there’s the great unknown, Andrew Luck, who could be a top-three quarterback if his shoulder is finally healthy.
Take a look at the next generation. Deshaun Watson was putting together a season for the ages before tearing his ACL. Carson Wentz was on his way to an MVP award in his second year in the league before he, too, shredded his knee. Jared Goff made a leap in year two, as well, leading the Rams to an NFC West title. Jimmy Garoppolo finally got his shot and didn’t throw it away, carrying the lowly 49ers to a 5-0 finish to end last year. Dak Prescott, Marcus Mariota, Patrick Mahomes and Mitchell Trubisky are all potential franchise quarterbacks.
The state of the quarterback position is strong. We break it down for fantasy purposes here in our 2018 quarterback primer.
How will Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz bounce back from torn ACLs?
Watson and Wentz finished first and third, respectively, among quarterbacks in points per game last year. They finished 26th and sixth, however, in total points, with both going on IR after ACL tears ended both of their seasons. At one point, it seemed both were destined to be atop quarterback cheat sheets in 2018. Now, both face major injury question marks heading into fantasy draft season.
We’ll start with Watson, who blew out his knee in practice during the final week of October. He has a leg up on Wentz in that he suffered his injury about two months before Wentz sustained his. Even before training camp began, Watson was participating in football activities without a knee brace, suggesting his recovery is right on schedule, if not ahead of the expected pace. That’s huge for a quarterback who does so much of his damage thanks to his mobility. Watson ran for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his seven games last season, and made a number of plays throwing on the run. The mere threat of him taking off opens up elements of the passing game, as well. It will be interesting to see what Watson is able to do during the exhibition season, but he seems to be in fine form. Remember, he put up 24.69 points per game, 2.5 more than last year’s No. 1 quarterback Russell Wilson, and that includes the first game of his career, in which he played just one half in relief of Tom Savage. If he’s healthy, the sky is the limit.
Wentz is in a more compromised position. He tore the LCL in addition to the ACL, and didn’t suffer the injury until the middle of December. When the defending champion Eagles take the field in Week 1, Wentz will be just nine months removed from the injury. There’s a realistic chance that he misses some time at the start of the season, which is at least a small part of the reason Nick Foles is still an Eagle. Wentz will be one of the most important players to watch this summer. If he proves his knee is healthy and he can be himself by Week 1, he’s an easy QB1 in all fantasy formats, with legitimate top-three upside at the position. If he falls short of that standard, though, he becomes a risky play, thanks largely to the depth of the quarterback pool. Wentz is one of the few players whose draft-day value is almost guaranteed to change significantly by time draft season rolls around in earnest.
Was the Jimmy Garoppolo show for real?
It isn’t often that a team sitting at 1-10 through 11 games ends up being one of the most fascinating teams over the last month of the season, but that’s exactly what Garoppolo made the 49ers last year. After a midseason trade from the Patriots, he finally got his chance to take the reins in San Francisco in Week 13, with five games left in the season. The 49ers won all five, knocking off playoff teams in the Titans and Jaguars (they also beat the Rams, but that was in Week 17 when the Rams sat their starters). It wasn’t hard to pinpoint the reason for San Francisco’s late-season success.
Garoppolo was electric in those five games. He completed two-thirds of his passes for 1,542 yards, 8.76 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. In the win over the Jaguars, he led the 49ers’ offense to 38 points (they added another touchdown on defense), the most the Jaguars allowed in the regular season, and 369 total yards. He threw for 242 yards, 8.07 YPA and two touchdowns, while adding another score on the ground. The Jaguars faced Marcus Mariota twice, Ben Roethlisberger, Jared Goff, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson last season. The only quarterbacks to score 20 fantasy points on them were Wilson and Garoppolo.
Previous results do not guarantee future success, especially when those results came in five games. Still, Garoppolo looked the part of a franchise quarterback last season. He has the right sort of coach in Kyle Shanahan leading the way in San Francisco. He’ll get back Pierre Garcon, who was on IR last year when he took over as the starter, adding to a stable of weapons that includes budding talents in Jerick McKinnon, Marquise Goodwin and George Kittle. The pieces are in place, and the optimism surrounding Garoppolo is absolutely justified. The lack of a track record and the depth of the quarterback pool, however, make him a better low-end QB1 or high-end QB2 target.
Where did Drew Brees’s yards and touchdowns go last year, and are they coming back?
From an individual standpoint, Brees had a typically Breesian season in 2017. He led the league in completions (386), completion percentage (72%) and YPA (8.1), and was a fantasy QB1 for the 14th straight season. Yet, his 4,334 yards were his fewest since 2005, while his 23 touchdowns represented his worst total since 2003, when he played just 11 games. So, what happened?
In short, Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, and the best Saints defense in the Brees/Sean Payton era happened. Ingram and Kamara combined for 1,852 yards and 20 touchdowns on 350 carries last year. Saints backs accounted for the second-most carries and yards, and most rushing touchdowns, in any season during Brees’s tenure. Brees attempted 82 passes in the red-zone, his lowest total as a Saint, and 16 inside the 5-yard line, his second-lowest mark. Put simply, the Saints didn’t need Brees to be the one-man wrecking crew last year that he had to be in nearly every previous season he spent in black and gold.
The Saints return largely the same personnel this season, but the bet here is that Brees’s yardage and touchdown totals jump back toward his established career norms. First, even though he failed to reach 600 pass attempts for the first time since 2009, he still racked up gaudy completion and YPA numbers that should have translated to a higher touchdown total. The 72% completion rate was the highest of Brees’s career, yet his 4.3% touchdown rate was the lowest in his time with the Saints. Even with the reduction in red-zone attempts, those two stats do not jibe. Brees and the Saints could change nothing, and we’d rightfully expect him to be in the high-20s in touchdowns, rather than the low-20s. With Ingram suspended the first four games of the season, it’s likely that Brees’s red-zone passing rates will bounce back, at least for the first month. A return to the touchdown rates of old, combined with all the firepower on this offense, will get Brees back toward, if not into, the top five at his position.
Is this the year for Marcus Mariota’s breakout?
Mariota was a popular breakout pick last year, and with good reason. He took a major step forward in his second season in 2016, throwing for 3,426 yards, 7.6 YPA, and 26 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. He added 349 yards and two scores on the ground, finishing the season as fantasy’s No. 12 quarterback by both total points and points per game. With further expected growth in year three, and 2017 No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis added to the fold, everything seemed to be in place for Mariota last season.
Instead of making the leap, Mariota regressed in 2017. He threw for fewer yards and YPA, and half as many touchdowns. He threw more picks (15) than scores (13), saw his touchdown rate slashed by 50%, and increased his interception rate from 2% to 3.3%. Interestingly, he enjoyed more team success than ever, playing in the playoffs for the first time in his career and helping the Titans to their first playoff win since the 2003 season, but Mariota decidedly did not break out.
That regression has helped make Mariota one of the best bargain buys of 2018. His average draft position lands him at the end of the 11th round and beginning of the 12th in traditional one-quarterback, 12-team leagues. He still has easy QB1 upside. Remember, Davis played nearly all of last year at less than 100% because of a nagging hamstring injury. Give him a completely healthy training camp and regular season, and Mariota could have a true No. 1 for the first time in his career. Add him to Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker, and you get the start of a strong pass-catching corps. Mariota turns 25 halfway through this season, so he’s likely far from a finished product. It’s entirely possible we look back at last year as nothing more than a brief speed bump in his career.
It’s also possible, though, that the fantasy community should temper expectations. In three full seasons as a starter, Mariota has a 61.8% completion rate, 7.43 YPA and 58 touchdowns against 34 interceptions. He has added value on the ground, but hasn’t been anywhere near as prolific as Cam Newton—which was always unrealistic—or Russell Wilson, which seemed possible when he was coming out of Oregon. He has been more on Alex Smith’s level as a rusher, and while there’s still plenty of value in that, it’s not the sort that strengthens a quarterback’s floor to a significant degree. The price is right, but keep your expectations in check.
Which late-round targets will enter the starting discussion every week?
Last season it was Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. The year before that, it was Dak Prescott and Matt Ryan. In 2015, it was Kirk Cousins, Cam Newton (seriously) and Tyrod Taylor. Every year, a handful of quarterbacks selected outside the top 15 at the position turn into regular weekly starters, if not outright QB1s. This year will be no different. Who are the best candidates? Consider these two second-year players.
Patrick Mahomes is in a great spot with the Chiefs. First of all, the brain trust clearly believes in him. The team traded up to select him with the 10th overall pick in last year’s draft, and then shipped Alex Smith—who had led them to two straight AFC West titles—to Washington, mere weeks after getting eliminated from the playoffs. When a coach with an offensive mind like Andy Reid trusts you, you clearly have a lot to offer.
It isn’t hard to become enamored of Mahomes. At 6’3” and 230 pounds, he almost looks more like an edge rusher in a modern-day 3-4 base defense than a quarterback. He can make every throw on the field and has a mind for the position, something he proved during his sterling college career at Texas Tech. He has the ideal skill set for both Reid’s offense and the way the game is played at the pro level today, as well as one of the league’s best collections of weapons. More than a few quarterbacks would trade spots with him to get to play with Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt in an offense masterminded by Reid. Mahomes could be special, and that could happen as soon as this year.
Over in Chicago, Mitchell Trubisky is on the crest of a wave of optimism the city hasn’t had for its football team since the first year of the Marc Trestman era. The Bears traded up to make Trubisky the second overall pick in last year’s draft, then spent this offseason with him at the center of every personnel decision. We need a new coach? OK, let’s go get the guy who implemented Reid’s offense last year, former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. Need new weapons? OK, let’s spend a combined $110 million on Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel, then trade up in the second round to grab Anthony Miller out of Memphis. Add them to Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, and there’ are the makings of an exciting offense in Chicago.
Trubisky languished in an archaic offense under John Fox and Dowell Loggains last year, but he flashed when given a chance. He was great on the move, something that should fit Nagy’s scheme perfectly. He also showed an ability to drive throws deep down the field and to the sidelines, which should give Nagy and new offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich confidence that he can make all the throws. Trubisky is the 22nd quarterback off the board in typical drafts, making him one of fantasy’s most exciting late-round fliers.