- Fantasy Quarterback scoring reached historic levels in 2018
- Quarterback is the most replaceable fantasy position
- Are we good at setting the QB market for fantasy football?
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The quarterback position carries the most meaningful weight in real-life football games, but in our virtual game, the position doesn’t carry the same significance. More and more, gamers have come around to waiting on the position in their fantasy drafts as they’ve become cognizant of the position’s lack of fantasy edge compared to real-life value.
After a steep decline in league-wide passing output in 2017, NFL passing games bounced back a year ago in a big way. The 2018 season produced the third-most passing yards in an NFL season, the most yards per pass attempt in a season (7.4 yards) since 1965, and the highest league-wide passer rating (92.9) and most passing touchdowns (847) ever in a season.
The top of the quarterback food chain received the biggest gain. Eight quarterbacks posted over 300 fantasy points in 2018 — after just one did so in 2017 — the most ever for an individual season. The QB1 portion (top-12 scorers) of the position combined for their highest-scoring fantasy output ever in a season while the top of the QB2 group (QB13-18) posted their second-largest scoring season ever. In a season when passing ruled the game, everyone had quarterback points for fantasy purposes.
Given it was a collectively historic year for quarterbacks, it’s no surprise we had a player in Patrick Mahomes set the single-season record for fantasy points scored at the position. What is somewhat of a surprise, however, is that despite everyone in your league seemingly having quarterback production, Mahomes still provided one of the biggest edges over the field in recent seasons. Last year’s QB2 (Matt Ryan) produced 84.9 percent of Mahomes’s season-long fantasy output, the largest gap we’ve had from the top overall scoring quarterback to the second quarterback since 2007 when Tom Brady threw 50 touchdown passes and outscored the next quarterback (Tony Romo) by 102.7 fantasy points on the season. In the 10-year gap between Brady’s 2007 and Mahomes’ 2018 seasons, the QB2 produced on average 93.4 percent of the scoring output as the lead scorer. Doubling-down on a historic individual season such as the ones Brady and Mahomes produced is no easy task — and we’ll explore the probability of Mahomes repeating his 2018 season during this series on the position — but even in the highest-scoring season all-time for the position, the season-long QB1 still provided a tangible edge on the competition.
Replicability and Replaceability
We still don’t know where the NFL passing game spike inevitably reaches an apex, but no matter how much the game of the NFL changes, until fantasy football follows suit, the overall value of the quarterback position for fantasy purposes is still not one to sink capital into.
A running theme throughout these posts has been opportunity cost and the reasons why the wide receiver and running back positions are so important during the early drafting stage. You must start multiple players at those positions and you must allocate further resources to those positions to account for being wrong, with busts and injuries. That puts a premium on the supply and demand of those positions over the ones that require you to play one player weekly. They are a necessity. The difference between tight end and the quarterback position among the “start one” positions, however, is that there is a much larger surplus of usable players to choose from and those players have a far tighter and predictable linear drop in scoring.
Bringing back this image that we originally used in the tight end post, we’re looking at the number of players who produce starting-caliber weeks and sustain that output over the course of a season. Whereas with the scarcity of consistently good season-long tight ends runs thin, the complete opposite holds true for the quarterback position. Quarterback stays above all other positions in terms of players producing multiple starting-caliber weeks until we get to the nine game-plus level for wide receivers and running backs.
On average over that span, 15 different quarterbacks per season produce six or more starting weeks (excluding Week 17). On average, eight quarterbacks per year produce starting-caliber weeks in at least half of the NFL season. If you’re in a 10- or 12-team league, over half of your league is going naturally uproot the players providing that production in that given season. In 2018, we had 10 different quarterbacks register a QB1-caliber scoring week in at least eight games with six different passers doing so in 10 or more games.
Identifying special players who provide a weekly edge such as Patrick Mahomes did in 2018 prior to the draft is also actually harder than you’d believe it is. It’s not as easy just following last year’s top scorers. Over the past five seasons, only five quarterbacks have multiple seasons with double-digit starting-caliber weeks in a given year. Only one — Russell Wilson over the past two seasons — has done so in back-to-back seasons.
There are two things in play for as to why it is so hard to find those players. The first is due to the quarterback position having the tightest window of production in relation to the baselines set for each position.
In terms of gaining a weekly advantage, the highest-scoring quarterback has the lowest rate of gain on the baseline of his position. On average, the weekly QB6 has produced 69.6 percent of the weekly QB1 over the past seasons while the QB12 has produced 55.3 percent of that watermark scoring output for the week. In fact, the QB18 still holds more positional value than the secondary baselines for any other position. Even in a season that saw someone produce as highly as Mahomes did, he paced the position in entirety in just three weeks and you were still able to replicate more of the top weekly scoring output as the QB1 per week than you were at the other positions.
Just as we highlighted with tight ends, this is where a value-based approach can lead you away from the true advantage you’re gaining because there’s no cost involved in relation to where the baselines for each player is being drafted. In current ADP, the QB12 is being selected in front of the RB38, the WR41, and the TE11. The QB18 is being selected in front of the RB48, WR51, and the TE14. You’re sacrificing your perceived value over the baseline player at the quarterback position when taking one early on because the other baselines at the other positions are inherently much more expensive, to begin with.
The other reason why it is hard to find those consistently elite-level quarterbacks wire-to-wire is that it is inherently tough to reproduce those high-level seasons and we are flat-out bad at correctly marketing the position as a whole.
If you’ve followed along from the beginning, you’re noticing that the only position that we’re worse at in terms of setting the market on is tight ends. Also, that wide receiver is by far our “best” position. With quarterback having so many tangible fantasy producers, it’s harder for the best of the best within the position to maintain the edge they may have gained the year prior. The last time the overall QB1 in seasonal scoring repeated was Daunte Culpepper in the 2003-2004 seasons. The last time the seasonal QB1 was also the QB1 in ADP was Peyton Manning in 2006. In three of the past four seasons, the highest-scoring seasonal quarterback has been drafted as the QB5 or later while the top three overall scoring fantasy quarterbacks last season were all drafted on average as the QB13 or later.
That kind of late-round quarterback scoring development is more recent than the previous norm, though. Despite our shoddy track record of setting the quarterback market in a direct relation to fantasy output, we typically don’t have that many “late-round” quarterbacks break the bank. Of the 42 seasons above in which a quarterback reached 300 fantasy points, 31 of those seasons came from players that were selected with QB1 (top-12) draft capital and 22 of those seasons were quarterbacks that held a top-five selection within the position. We may not be great at nailing down who will lead the position in scoring, but rarely are those picks absolutely busting on us within the position, either. They just aren’t typically worth the overall squeeze of where you have to acquire them in relation to other players at the remaining positions.
Closing up, the TL:DR bullet points are everyone has quarterback points, the overall top of the position holds the lowest competitive advantage out of all of the positions, and it’s harder for players at quarterback to replicate pantheon seasons. This is why more and more leagues have slowly moved on to incorporating a second quarterback into their lineup requirements. Whether through a true 2QB league or the addition of a FLEX spot where you can play another quarterback, to inherently make the position more valuable while making the elite players at the position matter more over the baseline options of the position. Those leagues are still scarce compared to the general population of fantasy gamers, but we will cover ground in those leagues in our draft approach at the end of the week.