- Five crucial questions to consider before drafting a fantasy quarterback.
In this era of the NFL’s passing game explosion, fantasy quarterbacks have produced at unprecedented levels. Last season, 12 players threw for more than 4,000 yards. In 2008, only six players reached that number. In 1998, only two. Dan Marino, one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, had six seasons over his 17-year career with more than 4,000 yards. Eli Manning has seven. Kirk Cousins just delivered his fourth straight. In fact, 18 of the top 20 seasons for passing yards have come in the last eight years.
With changes to the rules that favor the quarterback, even middle-tier guys are putting up gaudy numbers their predecessors could only have dreamed of. The much-maligned Derek Carr threw for 4,049 yards last year, and Case Keenum had 3,890. Drew Brees threw for 3,992 and everyone called it a down year. Same goes for Matthew Stafford and his 3,777. Those are numbers that would’ve come close to leading the league just 20 years ago but are subpar in the modern NFL. With this change comes questions about just how much fantasy owners should value the position, and which players present the most value.
Here are the five most crucial questions for fantasy owners to consider heading into the season.
Can Patrick Mahomes repeat what he did in 2018?
The simple answer is no. Perhaps the better question is, does he need to? Mahomes was unbelievable in his first full season as a starter after essentially a redshirt rookie year behind Alex Smith. He threw 50 touchdown passes and averaged an astounding 32.3 fantasy points per game, 5.9 points higher than the second-place Matt Ryan. Those numbers are historically good and will be incredibly difficult to repeat, even if Mahomes continues to be that good. The sheer numbers he put up hint at probable regression of some kind, but even if his production drops a reasonable 20%, he’ll still score 25.8 fantasy points per game, or 0.1 less than 2017 league-leader Russell Wilson. That’s how amazing Mahomes was in 2018.
So, can Mahomes be 80% of what he was last year? Certainly. With head coach Andy Reid still around, and tremendous weapons around him, Mahomes should be just fine. Reid helped Alex Smith to a career year in 2017, when he finished fourth among fantasy quarterbacks with 23.1 points per game. With an ADP in the late-second round, Mahomes will cost you if you want to draft him, putting him out of reach for a lot of fantasy owners who prefer to wait at the position. However, he’s the top-ranked quarterback heading into the season with very little downside. If he slides into the third round, he’s well-worth the draft capital, even factoring in some regression.
What do new offenses mean for Jameis Winston, Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins?
These three quarterbacks are coming off wildly different seasons, but each will be running a very different offensive system than over the bulk of last year. Let’s start with Matt Ryan, who had a fantastic fantasy season in 2018 that would’ve been far more publicized had Mahomes not gone nuclear. Ryan threw for 4,924 yards and 35 touchdowns with only seven interceptions, while completing 69.4% of his passes. It was the second-best season of his career after 2016, when he had slightly higher numbers and efficiency, and won the MVP award. Ryan has had two of his worst seasons in the first year with a new coordinator—2015 and 2017—and then blossomed in the second year in each system. With Steve Sarkisian off to coach the Alabama offense, Ryan will be back under Dirk Koetter, his coordinator from 2012 through 2014. His familiarity with the system should limit the effects of changing offenses for the third time in five years, and Ryan was productive under Koetter. He threw 32 touchdowns in 2012 and the Koetter Falcons never ranked lower than seventh in passing attempts. Of course, it helps to have Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to throw the ball to. He also got some help on the offensive line with rookies Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary providing improvements on the right side. With an ADP in the sixth round of 12-team leagues, Ryan is good value considering his steady production and upside.
Jameis Winston, who Koetter coached for the past four years, will now be under new head coach Bruce Arians. Arians has long been known for his propensity to throw the deep ball, and when he’s had healthy and talented passers, his offenses have produced excellent fantasy numbers. In 2016, he helped Carson Palmer to a phenomenal season, and his offense ranked second in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns. This should suit Winston, who likes to chuck the ball downfield. Mike Evans was second behind Julio Jones in air yards last year and fifth in 2017 (although part of that time was with Ryan Fitzpatrick slinging it). The only downside to Winston in an Arians offense is Arians’s history of spreading out his offense with large receiving sets, leaving limited protection. This can expose his starting quarterbacks to more hits. In 14 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Arians’s offenses have finished in the top-10 in sacks allowed nine times. Those additional hits could lead to durability concerns with Winston. That being said, this should be an excellent marriage of skill and offensive mentality, making Winston a sleeper in the 10th round.
While Ryan and Winston are expected to thrive in their new situations, Cousins may struggle. After John DeFilippo was fired following Week 14, the Vikings promoted Kevin Stefanski to the offensive coordinator role. In the three games that followed, Cousins averaged only 27.3 attempts, 200 yards and two touchdowns. Under DeFilippo, he averaged 40.3 attempts, 284.5 yards and 1.8 touchdowns. While it’s nice to see the number of touchdowns go up under Stefanski, the significant drop in attempts and yards doesn’t bode well for the future. This is Stefanski’s first job as a coordinator, so it’s a small sample size to work with, but a run-first mentality mirrors comments made by head coach Mike Zimmer in November, where the TwinCities Pioneer Press quoted Zimmer as saying, “I do think there’s times we need to stick with it a little bit more,” in regard to the run game. The Vikings used a third-round pick on bruising running back Alexander Mattison in April, and he’ll pair with Dalvin Cook in what should be an emphasized rushing attack. Cousins is available in the 12th round in most leagues right now, but his downside is significant given the new offense.
What can we expect from the five projected rookie and sophomore starters?
Last year, we had five rookie quarterbacks assume starting positions, and four of those five are heading into year two as unquestioned starters. Additionally, Kyler Murray, the number one overall pick this year, is firmly entrenched as the starter in Arizona. These five young guns have wildly disparate expectations, but all are a lock to start.
Let’s begin with Baker Mayfield. The Browns are in a state of pure euphoria after Mayfield led the team to a 7-7 finish and threw 27 touchdown passes. That’s the most touchdowns thrown by a Browns quarterback since 2007. Mayfield also averaged 266.1 yards passing per game and completed 63.8% of his passes. Plus, he got some help in the offseason with the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. to the receiving corps. Expectations are through the roof, but much of that is projection at this point. He was 18th in fantasy points per game last year, and 37% of his touchdown passes came against two of the six-worst pass defenses in the league—Cincinnati and Atlanta. Expect production from Mayfield, but his sixth-round ADP makes him super risky compared to other players like Matt Ryan for a similar price.
Kyler Murray is perhaps the most interesting of the young starters. He comes to Arizona with lofty expectations, in a familiar offense, boasting tremendous rushing and passing skills. Murray has a great arm and he’s efficient. He completed 69% of his passes last year at Oklahoma and threw a staggering 42 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions. Oh, and he ran for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s also a generous 5'10" and he’s starting for a team that was by far the worst offense in football last season, and a team with one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Thus the enigma. Can an undersized rookie arriving with a familiar coach elevate a terrible offense? Or will the size limitations and adjustment to the pro game doom them both? With an eighth-round price tag, it may be best to let someone else gamble on him.
Lamar Jackson, and to a lesser extent Josh Allen, are in similar situations. Both were scatter-armed as rookies and provided the bulk of their production on the ground, with 695 and 631 rushing yards, respectively. Both players have questionable receiving options heading into the season, and both have strong rushing attacks behind them. While the same production may not be sustainable—particularly for Allen—both will continue to be used as dual-threat players, providing a little boon to their fantasy values. Both can be had after the 10th round in most fantasy drafts, and owners looking for a little upside could do worse than to grab one as their second passer.
Darnold is the boring option, but he also represents value and security. New head coach Adam Gase had success as a coordinator in Chicago with Jay Cutler before a mostly forgettable stint as the Dolphins coach, and Darnold has some weapons to work with. Robby Anderson is a reliable deep threat who developed a nice rapport with Darnold toward the end of last season, scoring three times over his final four games. The Jets added free agent Le’Veon Bell, one of the most prolific pass-catching backs of this generation, who should keep defenses honest. Darnold is available at the end of drafts and any kind of progression in his second season could make him a valuable spot-starter with upside.
What about the health of Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo?
Marcus Mariota is a conundrum. Capable of putting up excellent fantasy numbers in any given week, Mariota has a tremendous amount of upside. However, his constant nagging injuries and mind-boggling inconsistency make him a risky fantasy option. That being said, there’s reason for optimism with him heading into a contract year. Mariota has been hampered by injuries, but he’s actually missed only eight regular season games over his four-year career—though he’s also left seven games early. He’s played through a lot of injuries as well, however, and he focused on bulking up this offseason in an effort to stay healthier. Mariota has a strong group of young receivers and a solid running game to support him, and if his new bulk can help him withstand the punishment he takes, he could be well-worth his ADP. He’s available in the last round of most drafts, and his upside makes him a bargain as the second quarterback on a roster.
Jimmy Garoppolo has teased talent throughout his five-year career, but 2018 was the first time he entered a season as the expected long-term starter. It didn’t last long. After one win, one loss, all but one snap of a second loss, five touchdowns and three interceptions, Garoppolo tore his ACL in the third game against the Chiefs. He missed the remainder of the season. Garoppolo also tore a ligament in his throwing shoulder in 2016 when he was filling in for a suspended Tom Brady. In 10 career starts, Garoppolo has suffered two torn ligaments. While the timing of the injury makes his recovery for Week 1 more likely, fantasy owners should be concerned about counting on him to carry them through an entire season. The 49ers gave up the ninth-most sacks in the league and still have serious problems along the interior of their offensive line. For a 13th-round pick, you can find far safer options than Garoppolo, and fantasy owners should take a wait-and-see approach to him given his history.
For the second straight year, the long-term health of Carson Wentz is a concern. A year ago, we were worried about Wentz coming back from a late-season torn ACL and LCL. After missing the first two games of the season, he made 11 starts before suffering a fracture in his back that cost him the final three games and the playoffs. Once again, a late-season injury leaves his status in doubt. Wentz has been productive when healthy. Before hurting his knee in 2017, he threw 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 13 games. His 21 touchdowns in 11 games last year made him a borderline fantasy starter each week. The concern is whether or not he’ll get through this two-year injury stint and become a reliable option for owners to hinge their season on. That’s certainly where he’s being drafted, with an ADP in the eighth round of 12-team leagues. Owners investing that much in him will need to be confident in his ability to come back strong from a back fracture and then stay on the field. Given the consistent depth at the position, Wentz is all risk without any of the value at his ADP. With guys like Jared Goff available nearly a round later, there are safer ways to play it.
Can I still wait on a quarterback?
Emphatically, yes! Even owners in the ever-increasingly popular 2QB and Superflex formats can still wait on a quarterback. Put it this way, in a 12-team league, even if you are the last person to pick your two quarterbacks, you can still wind up with something like the 15th and 25th ranked quarterbacks. That equates to a combination of players like Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford.
That goes double for single quarterback leagues, where owners can get someone like Philip Rivers or Dak Prescott in the 10th round. Owners can also easily gamble on two young players with upside in rounds 13 and 14 by grabbing Allen and Darnold. Owners can also pair up two quarterback options based on schedule. While it’s important to identify value at the position early on if a top player is sliding, it’s also important to remember that each season, more quarterbacks are fantasy relevant than ever before. The position is easy to stream, and 4for4 even has a handy weekly guide to help you make your streaming choices. It’s never been easier to get a quarterback, so owners who are patient and scoop up high-upside running backs and receivers when everyone else is grabbing passers will benefit greatly from the added depth at other positions, while still getting a quality starter each week.