I wanted to do something a little bit different for my Tuesday column this week, so I solicited questions from our Premium Discord chat and on my Twitter account. The idea was to do a mailbag.
What ended up happening was I got a ton of questions about some QB situations around the NFL — multiple questions asked about Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton, for instance. I’ve already been doing some research into it, and I figure I’ll just do a deep dive into the QB position for fantasy right now rather than answering all the questions one-by-one.
My philosophy is obvious: I almost always wait on drafting a QB until the early middle rounds at absolute earliest. I was wondering if that philosophy would be harder to defend this year after Lamar Jackson broke the position in 2019 and was being drafted as a second-round pick (note: any reference to ADP in this article will be referencing 12-team ADP at the NFFC from the final two weeks before the regular season). Jackson was so dominant that he forced a significant change in scoring in the wild Scott Fish Bowl leagues.
So far, Jackson’s performance has just reinforced my position.
Lamar Jackson’s 2020
I don’t want this article to be a takedown of Lamar Jackson. As we await the second Tuesday Night Football game in the history of the NFL, he’s currently tied with Jared Goff for 10th in overall fantasy points at the QB position. So he isn’t killing you by any stretch of the imagination.
However, he has regressed by most metrics. We already know how he broke fantasy with the greatest QB season of all time. But he also led the NFL in ESPN’s QBR metric last season at 83.0. He’s 11th this year at 75.6. The thing that surprised most people about Jackson’s 2019 campaign, I would venture to guess, is how efficient he was as a passer. His expected points added as a passer in 2019 ranked 5th in the NFL, while, quite obviously, he finished first in expected points added as a runner by a significant margin, doubling up #2 Deshaun Watson.
This year, Jackson is down to 11th in QBR (75.6). His EPA as a passer is down to 16th in the NFL (QBR is a rate stat, EPA is a counting stat). But most troubling is that Jackson is 10th in EPA as a rusher at the QB position, behind some obvious names (Kyler Murray, Cam Newton) and some not (Carson Wentz, Sam Darnold, Ryan Fitzpatrick).
To me, this suggests that the Ravens’ offense just isn’t operating as the well-oiled machine it was in 2019, or anything close to it. (Just ask anyone rostering one of their running backs how frustrating it is.) Is Jackson the reason for this, or is his play merely a symptom? Is the knee injury that popped up on the injury report last week worse than they’re letting on?
That’s hard to say, but the fact of the matter remains the same — paying for extremely efficient and dominant seasons at the QB position rarely pays off. I’m not going to do a deep dissection of Jackson’s play just five weeks into the campaign, especially since the Ravens are 4-1 and are still looking like strong Super Bowl contenders.
But it’s blatantly obvious that you aren’t getting what you paid for with your second-round investment, and Lamar is running out of time to reverse the course on that.
OK … What About Patrick Mahomes?
Right, here’s the easiest counterargument. “You keep tearing down Lamar being a second-round pick, but so was Patrick Mahomes.” Right, and Mahomes is far outplaying Jackson by every conceivable metric, especially fantasy (Mahomes is QB3). Mahomes is a net positive for your fantasy team.
We ranked Mahomes ahead of Jackson this off-season simply because it feels like his baseline was more achievable than Lamar’s preposterous 2019 campaign, and it’s obvious that Mahomes will likely be our preseason QB1 annually until he shows beyond any reasonable doubt that he shouldn’t be (like Aaron Rodgers used to be). Even still, removing the game in which he got injured last season, Mahomes was the QB3 in FPG behind Jackson and Deshaun Watson, both of whom were going significantly later than Mahomes last year (in Jackson’s case, up to 90-100 picks later).
Mahomes’ strong performance still doesn’t change the bottom line, though — there are five QBs within 2.0 FPG of Mahomes.
Ridiculous QB Play in General
When writing this piece, the one thing I noticed is how insane the QB play around the NFL has been overall. Are defenses simply having a tougher time with the pandemic-shortened off-season? Are offensive coordinators getting that good at their jobs? Is something else happening?
First, let’s look from a fantasy perspective. Last year, Lamar’s 28.2 FPG led all QBs by far — Watson was second with 22.4. This season so far, three QBs (Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson) are averaging more FPG than Lamar did a season ago. Five more — Mahomes, Murray, Rodgers, Cam Newton, and Justin Herbert (!) — are averaging more than Watson did a season ago.
Jackson also led all NFL QBs with a 83.0 QBR. That number would be 5th so far this year. In 2019, the NFL had seven QBs with a QBR of 70 or higher, and 13 at 60 or higher. This year, those numbers are 15 (!!) and 20, respectively. In 2018, just three QBs finished with a QBR of 70 or higher.The last time more than five QBs finished with a QBR of 70 or higher was all the way back in 2009.
It’d be foolish to assume this level of excellence at sports’ hardest position is sustainable, not just for the rest of 2020, but for the future as well. However, is it possible that Jackson’s success — along with that of OC Greg Roman — has ushered in a new era of offensive efficiency and emphasizing the strengths of QBs (look at what Brian Daboll is doing with Allen in Buffalo, for instance)? Today’s QBs are the most athletic they’ve ever been. That’s a fact. And while pocket play is still essential, it’s no longer the end-all-be-all indicator of success that it was even five years ago.
So What Does This Mean for Fantasy?
The most incredible part of this historic QB season is the names of the guys who are performing at high levels for fantasy.
Yes, high picks like Murray, Mahomes, Prescott (pre-injury), and Wilson are here. But mid-round pick Josh Allen — one of our three main QB targets we wrote about this summer — is the #1 QB in fantasy points per game. But also in the top-10 of QBs in fantasy points per game? Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Justin Herbert. Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr have scored nearly as many fantasy points as Jackson has this year.
So, if you have a QB who is underachieving — like a Matt Ryan, for example — that QB is absolutely droppable! Never has it been easier to find a QB who is producing not just serviceable numbers, but elite numbers. My entire philosophy around drafting QBs for fantasy is that I want to get serviceable numbers from my QB while I load up elsewhere. If I hit a home run in the mid-late rounds — like Carson Wentz in 2017, Mahomes in 2018, Jackson in 2019, or Allen in 2020 — that’s the ideal outcome. But even if I don’t hit that home run, there are always multiple streamers with whom I can cobble together a fantastic season.
Situation matters significantly this year. Ryan has been hurt by injuries to his receiving corps. Wentz has been hurt by injuries to, well, literally everything around him. Jackson might be hampered by a knee injury.
So when I see someone like Andy Dalton available on the Waiver Wire with perhaps the NFL’s best set of WRs, my ears perk up. Everything about this season suggests Dalton can be an elite fantasy option. At minimum, he should be above serviceable. The Cowboys have a bad defense and a fantastic receiving corps. Dalton has experience and has had good fantasy seasons in the past. Dallas might not be a contender without Prescott, but they should be able to score points.
Would I be blowing my FAAB budget on Dalton? Well, that depends. In a 2-QB league, absolutely. But I think it’s pretty obvious right now that there is plenty of depth at the position that you don’t need to go wild here.
What I’m Watching for 2021
I think it is so supremely unlikely that I’ll be backing an early-QB strategy in 2021 that it’s probably not even worth discussing the chance I’ll do so. What I’m starting to wonder is if the entire fantasy community — both professional, hardcore hobbyists, and just casual office players — is going to be on board with that.
Through one third of the 2020 NFL season, there has been no perceived game-changer like Jackson who is even worth the argument. Why? Because there have been multiple game-changers. And if there is no scarcity, there will be no premium to pay.
While Josh Allen is on pace to outscore Jackson’s 2019 campaign, so are multiple players! If the season were to end today, I doubt any QB in 2021 carries higher than a fourth-round ADP. That’s a situation we’ll have to evaluate if and when it comes to pass.
One main reason I don’t advocate drafting a QB early is that it’s so easy to replace an underachieving QB with one off the Waiver Wire. That’s played out this year. But another reason is that it’s easy to identify the QBs who could be the next breakout candidate. We highlighted Allen in 2020. I would venture to guess Justin Herbert will be on that list in 2021. Herbert’s success — if it continues — could be a precursor to 2021’s talented rookie class having immediate value.
In the off-season, we’ll have more time to look at this and what it means. Perhaps these first five weeks are just a small sample, but multiple QBs putting up ridiculous numbers doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Lamar Jackson broke fantasy in 2019. But it’s looking pretty likely at this point his season was an outlier — not because it was impossible for him to replicate it, but because maybe we underestimated how much the rest of the league’s offensive coordinators could catch up and get huge production from their own talented players.