Dissecting the QB Draft Strategy – Go Early, or Wait it Out?

While I was an eager, unversed fantasy footballer, I was informed that the best strategy was to wait until the mid-rounds before drafting a quarterback. Now, I don’t recall the exact source, but given my pliability, I followed the advice because I didn’t know any better, and logically, it made sense.

At the time, the options at the running back and receiver positions were sparse, and since I only had to start one quarterback but two running backs and three wide receivers, why would I waste an early pick on a QB at the expense of one of these positions?

I wouldn’t, I didn’t, and it worked (for the most part).

Over the years, I stuck to the philosophy under the presumption that it was working. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Now, if you’ve ever tweaked an ankle, hyper-extended a knee, or experienced a “minor” injury then you may have noticed that what may not technically be broken still needs fixing before matters get worse. There are countless businesses who find success year after year, success in the form of millions of dollars, but not only can a small change boost productivity and profitability, failing to do so can leave them playing catch-up, and losing money while their competition innovates, and streamlines.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” isn’t going to cut it… Where’s the data?!

In a recent post on the 3rd year wide receiver breakout theory, I unearthed a gem – the game is changing! Ok, not really a gem (or news), but the league’s increased focus on player safety has led to rule changes, which have led to more stats.

Especially through the air.

In 2006, five quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards. That number was thirteen in 2016, and seems to be increasing almost yearly.

I think we all understand that quarterbacks have the largest impact on a team’s offense – if you don’t, just watch a few Browns games this season – but, that doesn’t necessarily translate to more fantasy points than the other positions… Or, does it?

Since 2012, 86% of the top-10 finishers in overall fantasy points, and 74% of the top-25 overall fantasy performers have been quarterbacks.

There have only been seven RBs to finish in the top-10, a big zero from any other position, and meanwhile, 43 have been QBs.

They put up more fantasy points than any other position.

Here’s the kicker, over the past five seasons, an average of 19 quarterbacks have finished among the top-25 overall fantasy scorers – there’s only 32 teams in the league. Which means, unless you’re in a 20-team league, take your pick, QB doesn’t even matter because there’s a 59% chance that your QB will wind up a top-25 performer anyway, right?

Yes. Technically…

In looking at the top QB over the past 5 seasons vs. the QBs who fell at the bottom end of the top-25, the difference has been 9 fantasy points per game. The #1 QB has put up an average of 378.2 points per season – 23.6 ppg, while the QBs on the bottom end of the top-25, are putting up about 234 points – 14.6 ppg.

Sam Bradford averaged 14.7 fantasy ppg last season… I’ll just leave that there.

But wait, there’s more!

Joe Flacco was our guy in 2016, finishing 23rd overall. Now if you drafted Joe Cool to be your starter, you either dropped him (rather quickly) or, had a very long season. In real life, he was straight (I mean he did finish 7th in passing yards), but fantasy football isn’t played on an overall basis, it’s played weekly.

Flacco had just four top-10 QB weeks, and while he probably gave you a good shot to win those match-ups, the rest of the year included four bottom-10 QB weeks, and eight middle of the pack QB weeks… He basically gave you a head start on taking the L in 75% of your match-ups.

On the flip side, eight of the top-10 QBs put up top-10 finishes in at least seven weeks, and only Blake Bortles & Tyrod Taylor finished in the top-10 while putting up less than seven top-10 weeks (four each).

I’m not trying to suggest that seven is some magic number, this year the number may be nine, may be five, but what I do want to emphasize is the consistency that the top QBs provide. If you’re getting a top-10 week from your QB a minimum of 44% of the time, that’s just one less thing for you to worry about. And, when that number starts climbing into the 60-70% range, unless you just blow all of your remaining draft picks, you’re in great position to dominate your league.

Does the risk of waiting outweigh the reward?

Drew Brees has finished as a top-10 QB for five straight years. Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, and Russell Wilson it’s been four of five for them. Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan have been top-10 finishers in three of five…

You get the point, it’s pretty much the same cast of characters representing 80% of the top-10. So, while there are a few guys who will surely sneak into the top-10, basing your draft strategy on an outcome that occurs around 20% of the time doesn’t seem like the smartest way to go about things.

In fact, outside of these eight guys, Blake Bortles, Eli Manning, and Kirk Cousins are the only active QBs to have at least two top-10 QB finishes over the last 5 seasons.

While the numbers suggest that the top-10 class remains largely unchanged, in recent years, the variability has actually been increasing. In 2012, there was one oddball to hit the top-10, RGIII (but we assumed he’d be good). We saw just one “breakout” in 2014, but two in 2013 and 2015. Then, the last season gave us three: Dak Prescott, Tyrod Taylor, and Derek Carr.

When you consider the new talent which comes in the league annually, variability is to be expected as the older QBs are phased out and younger ones emerge. However, we can’t forget Brady didn’t play a full season last year, Wilson played at less than 100% for most of the season, and Rodgers and Luck missed significant time in 2015 and 2013, respectively -The three seasons which featured the most breakout QBs.

So, while it may seem like the unexpected guys are taking the top-10 by storm, in reality, most of them are just there by circumstance. If you wait on QB, you’re rolling the dice on landing one of those 2-3 guys, and to me risk > reward.

But, there might not even be a reason to consider rolling the dice…

I’d be a derelict to consider the increase in passing independent of the impact its had on the guys actually catching these passes.

Compared to the 19 receivers we saw hit 1,000 yards in 2006, we saw 23 last season, and while we can see that the number is trending upward, the increase hasn’t been quite as drastic as the change we’ve seen at the QB position.

However, since 2016, 75% of the top-25 fantasy receivers put up at least 1,000 yards. So, seeing guys like DeSean Jackson, Willie Snead, and John Brown (who all have a pretty damn good shot at 1,000 yards) being drafted in the 9th round or later is a pretty strong indication that receivers aren’t exactly a scarce commodity.

As a result, the initial point of waiting on a QB to avoid missing out on the top talent elsewhere doesn’t really hold the same weight. You can take that early pick on a QB, and still wind up with a surplus of options at the skill positions.

Ok, but how does this apply to my drafts?

There’s always a run on QBs. It never fails. Once someone breaks the seal, the herd mentality kicks in, and before you know it you’re in your head exploring all of the ways to justify taking Trevor Siemian in the 8th round.

So, given the presumed depth at receiver, I’ll probably employ a RB/RB/QB approach to a standard scoring draft followed by a heavy dose of WRs and RBs. Historically, the data suggests this is the way to go.

However, many of us play in PPR leagues, and ESPN has actually converted their default scoring system to PPR. Based on ADP, going RB/RB/QB would leave us with a questionable WR1 – Demaryius Thomas, Sammy Watkins, and Allen Robinson are some of the guys going in this range – and while there’s no questioning their talent (I actually like Watkins and Robinson a lot this year), their situations aren’t the most ideal for fantasy purposes.

I’ll roll the dice on them as a WR2, but as a WR1? It’s scary, even knowing that there’s a ton of value late.

Now, there are a lot of question marks at RB, so it’s best to try and accumulate as many as possible, and since both RBs/WRs gain added value that the QBs don’t see in PPR, it’s logical to wait on QB in this format.

Ok, I get it… But, how long should I wait?

There isn’t a definitive answer, depends on your draft, but if you see names like Winston, Roesthlisberger, and Taylor going… And, you don’t have a QB yet – you’ve waited too long.

Now, I’ve mentioned Philip Rivers (and why I’m avoiding Dak Prescott), but two other guys being slept on which should be potential mid-round targets are Cam Newton, and Matthew Stafford.

There are various reasons for their low ADPs heading into 2017, Cam is coming off a horrendous year (and shoulder surgery), while Matthew Stafford and the Lions are just perennially slept on – for reasons unbeknownst to me.

Stafford has played a full 16 games in 6 of his 8 NFL seasons, but for some reason, people still consider him an injury-prone guy (it does feel like he’s hurt more than he actually is). But, here’s the deal, he’s put up at least 4,000 yards and 20 TDs in six straight seasons.

Given his consistency, I’ll gladly take my chances in the 11th round.

Cam is different. He’s still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, and last season was easily the worst of his career. Among qualified starters, he finished 2016 last in completion percentage, only Brock Osweiler and Ryan Fitzpatrick had a worst passer rating, and adding insult to injury, he rushed for the fewest yards/TDs of his career.

Yikes.

But, I can’t help but wonder if the shoulder played a role in his passing inaccuracies, and if so, the shoulder surgery should then be viewed as a positive – even if it does take him a few weeks for him to get up to speed. Also, last season seems like more of an outlier than a rule. You can ignore his five prior seasons in the NFL if you so choose, but I won’t be joining you.

The Panthers have one of the best tight ends the league has to offer – Greg Olsen. Kelvin Benjamin, and Devin Funchess are healthy, and look good in camp. They drafted Christian McCaffrey – who you might have heard is going to be a dangerous weapon for this offense. Oh, and an improved o-line… Add all that with the bare minimum of around 50 points you’ll get from his legs, and it’s hard not to project him as a top-10 finisher.

He might not be the #1 overall fantasy scorer that we saw in 2015, but I’ll take my chances on him not being the guy we saw in 2016 either.

So, in standard leagues, it’d be wise to jump on QB early as they provide unmatched value, but in a PPR league, just wait it out and look for guys like Cam, and Stafford who are likely to finish among the league leaders. And, as always, thanks for reading!

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