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Underrated Upside: Quarterbacks

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Underrated Upside: Quarterbacks

Hopefully by now, you’ve already read my recent tome, “Upside Wins Championships,” and have come to the conclusion that that title implies. Today’s article will be a less-philosophical, more-actionable accompaniment to that piece, and the first part of a larger series in which we highlight a number of players who have massive (ideally league-winning) upside and who have underrated upside relative to ADP. Today’s article will focus on the quarterback position.

Notes: The top-5 quarterbacks (by ADP) are all a little too obvious, so we’ll be ignoring them in this article. But I discussed them all at length earlier this offseason (here).

Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: QB10)

As far as Konami Code QBs go, Lamar Jackson was always “The Chosen One” — inarguably the greatest Konami Code prospect of all-time — and whoever is No. 2 still doesn’t come very close. Some would argue it’s Michael Vick, or Cam Newton, or Kyler Murray. You can make a compelling case for any one of those three, but I’d argue Hurts firmly belongs within that tier. Jackson averaged an astounding 135.2 rushing yards per game in his final collegiate season. That ranks best among all QBs drafted in the first four rounds since 2014. Hurts ranks second (101.6). Murray ranks third (76.5) and Dak Prescott ranks fourth (57.8), though really both are a sizable distance behind Hurts. In any case, 2021 Hurts reminds me a lot of 2019 Lamar Jackson. Which is to say, he’s being drafted around his floor, and has massive league-winning upside in his sophomore season, thanks mostly to his hyper-mobility.

Last season, Hurts averaged 24.8 fantasy points per four quarters (11.3 rushing). Or 25.9 FPG in games started and finished (9.9 rushing FPG). For perspective, 24.8 FPG would rank as the eighth-best QB season all-time and 25.9 FPG would rank fifth-best all-time. 11.3 rushing FPG would rank best all-time and 9.9 rushing FPG would rank third-best since 1975. In other words, if Hurts remains who he was last year and doesn’t lose the starting job, he doesn’t just have high-end QB1 upside, he has overall QB1 and historically great levels of upside.

There will be a brand-new offense in Philadelphia, which could be a concern, but Hurts will also have his first full offseason taking first-team reps as a starter. And his supporting cast will be much-improved following the healthy returns of a number of key starters, in addition to the arrival of Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. Due to a massive amount of injuries last year, Philadelphia's three most-targeted receivers last year were Greg Ward, Zach Ertz, and Travis Fulgham. Gross, I know. So, it’s not unreasonable to think Hurts can’t improve on his ridiculous numbers from last year.

Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: QB17)

Trey Lance is an inevitability.

What I mean by that is, with Lance, I don’t think we have a question of “if”, but only of “when.” And what I mean by that is, we don’t know exactly when he’s going to take over as the team’s starting QB, but I think we do know that once he’s on the field, he’ll have legitimate top-6 upside and should be a virtual lock to put up QB1 numbers on a per-start-basis.

When will he start? Bovada gives him only a 25% chance of starting Week 1. Though (and maybe I’m crazy) I’d put it at about 55% he starts Week 1 and 90% he starts by the mid-season. My reasoning? For one thing, he’s awesome. For another, he’s an ideal scheme-fit and allows HC Kyle Shanahan to do a lot more with the offense. And for another, Shanahan paid a fortune for him, and as I argued here, quietly seems to be rooting for him to start Week 1.

Of course, I could be way off on his chances of starting, but even if I am, I still think his upside is well worth the risk at his current price-tag (with the opportunity cost of holding him until he does start factored in). So why am I so confident in Lance producing when on the field?

Well, first off, Lance has massive Konami Code-upside. He averaged 77.0 rushing YPG and 13.3 rushing FPG throughout his career at North Dakota State. Those of you who read the section on Jalen Hurts will note that those are truly elite numbers, slightly more than what Kyler Murray put up in his Heisman Trophy-winning season at Oklahoma (76.5 rushing YPG, 12.8 rushing FPG).

Second, he landed in a dream scenario, coached by Shanahan and surrounded with an elite receiving corps. Since 2018, Russell Wilson averages 7.8 yards per pass attempt. That’s less than both Nick Mullens (7.9) and Jimmy Garoppolo (8.2, behind only Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes) over the same span. Brandon Aiyuk averaged 9.9 yards after the catch per reception during his career at Arizona State. That ranks best by any Power-5 WR since at least 2014. Deebo Samuel leads all WRs by the same stat since entering the NFL (9.8). And George Kittle leads all TEs since entering the NFL (7.9). Essentially, Lance is so well set up (playing alongside all of these YAC superstars) that he could average a 7.8 YPA on a 4.3 aDOT. Add in the rushing floor/ceiling and it’s clear he has legitimate league-winning upside.

And third, as a little bonus, San Francisco has the second-softest fantasy schedule for QBs, and the overall softest playoff schedule for QBs, worth an additional +2.9 FPG to their average.

Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, QB, New Orleans Saints (ADPs: QB28 & QB31)

If going full-punt at the QB position, or if I really feel the need to draft a capable backup, I love the idea of grabbing both Winston (ADP: QB27) and Hill (QB31) for cheap. Current betting odds imply there’s a ~70% chance Winston starts Week 1 versus a ~35% chance for Hill. Truthfully, I feel compelled to bet on Hill, and Greg Cosell and Adam Caplan both told us they think Hill wins the job outright, but the primary point is that it’s at least close enough to warrant drafting both. Either one — whoever is inevitably named the starter — has massive upside, and they’re both cheap enough to make it easy and worthwhile to grab both.

Winston ranked 7th in fantasy points per start in 2019 (21.0) and 10th in 2018 (20.5). It’s hard to imagine the hyper-aggressive Winston won’t be able to find success in a Sean Payton offense. And it’s even possible he could be an improvement on a 41-year-old somewhat noodle-armed Drew Brees — both in terms of what he can open up for the offense and for what he can bring to your fantasy team.

And Brees was certainly no fantasy slouch, even in the twilight of his career. If excluding just two games Brees exited early due to injury, he would have finished 13th (18.4), 2nd (22.4) and 7th (20.3) in FPG over the past three seasons. And Teddy Bridgewater ranked as the QB12 across the five games he started in 2019, averaging 17.1 FPG. All of this makes me feel like Winston is a lock for QB1 production for however long he remains the starter.

Hill might not be the passer Winston is, or the likely starter, but he offers something Winston does not — Konami Code upside. Hill averaged 21.6 fantasy points per start last season (11.2 rushing FPG), and 0.65 fantasy points per dropback over that span. For perspective, in 2019, only one QB averaged more than 21.6 fantasy points per start and only two QBs averaged more than 0.65 fantasy points per dropback.

And if Hill does become the starter, I expect an improvement on these numbers. This is his first offseason training and practicing exclusively at QB, and he would have the offense more closely tailored to his skillset. Lamar Jackson wasn’t set up for success as a rookie, not really fitting into an offense designed for Joe Flacco. He then exploded as a sophomore in an offense fully designed for him to succeed. I can envision something similar for Hill if he outplays Winston in training camp.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans (ADPs: QB20)

Through four NFL seasons, Watson has finished 6th (23.1), 2nd (21.4), 5th (20.7), and 1st in FPG (24.1).

Assume he plays all 17 games this year. What are the chances he finishes as a top-six fantasy QB on the lowly Texans? Probably about 85%. What are the chances he finishes as a top-six fantasy QB on any other team (with Denver or Carolina being the most-likely landing spots)? Probably about 95%.

But what are the chances he actually plays 17 games this year? Or 10 games? Or even one game?

It’s hard to say. For one thing, according to ProFootballTalk, “Deshaun Watson has no intention of playing for the Texans ever again.” So, either the Texans trade him, he’s bluffing, or he sits out all year. Much more serious are the 22 civil lawsuits accusing Watson of sexual assault and misconduct. A suspension or an extended stay on the Commissioner Exempt list seems far more likely than not.

This could be like the Tyreek Hill situation in 2019, where drafters thought he’d sit out the full year due to off-the-field concerns. His ADP dropped from Round 2 to Round 11. And then it was announced there would be no discipline against him and his ADP jumped back up to Round 3. Players in massive tournament-style leagues (e.g. FFPC’s Main Event, DRAFT's Best Ball Championship) were disheartened or apoplectic, assuming it was borderline impossible to win without the cheat code of a Round 11 Hill.

Or, it could be like 2020 Antonio Brown. And I’d say that’s the better comparison. Only that the odds are significantly worse Watson actually plays this year. I argued last year, the odds were something like 60% Brown would play 8 or more games. But it feels like odds of 7% or worse for Watson this year. Still, he’s going undrafted in those large tournament-style leagues, and is certainly worth gambling on in that format and at that pricetag.

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (ADP: QB12)

The argument for Rodgers is essentially the same as it is for Watson. Rodgers is fresh off of an MVP-winning season in which he finished 5th in FPG (24.2). But, like Watson, he’s also in the middle of a holdout — or, at least the threat of a holdout.

If we assume 17 games for both players, Watson’s ceiling and floor are both a bit higher than Rodgers’. But Rodgers’ chances of playing at least one, 10, or all 17 games feels much higher than for Watson, given there’s no major legal issues for Rodgers (obviously). The markets account for that — Rodgers is much more expensive than Watson.

As we hinted at up at the top, Watson and Rodgers would be off limits for me in a typical best-ball league. But they might be low-level targets for me in the FFPC Main Event or the DraftKings Best Ball Millionaire. And, ideally, if stacked with some of their discounted receivers to further increase your upside. (And maybe even, in Rodgers’ case, if stacked with Denver’s receivers.) Remember, these are the leagues that especially lend themselves towards an “Upside Is Everything” approach — in the Main Event, you're competing against up to 2,999 other teams, and 1st place pays out 50X as much as 10th place.

Quick Hits

1. Matthew Stafford already has the 5th-best odds to win MVP (+1600), and Greg Cosell made it seem like those odds are still way too low, and yet he ranks just 11th among all QBs by ADP. Just two years ago, Rams HC Sean McVay was still being heralded as the greatest offensive mind in football. His QB, Jared Goff, was 24-7 through two seasons, ranking behind only Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees in ANY/A (7.70), and had finished as a fantasy QB1 in back-to-back seasons. The following year Goff led the league in pass attempts (626). The following year — this offseason — McVay felt the difference between Stafford and Goff was worth two first-round picks and a third. (Who am I to disagree?) Stafford finished 4th in FPG in 2019 (20.8), but struggled through a plague of injuries (both to himself and his teammates) last year. Now, he'll be playing alongside the most competent play-caller and the greatest supporting cast of his career.

2. Another non-Konami Code QB I like is Ryan Tannehill. Since taking over as Tennessee's starting QB in Week 7 of 2019, he ranks 1st in YPA (8.54), 1st in AY/A (9.29), 1st in PFF Grade (94.6), 2nd in fantasy points per dropback (0.68), and 4th in fantasy points per game (22.2). And yet he ranks just 10th at the position in ADP. And that’s despite the unmistakable upgrade from Corey Davis to Julio Jones as his WR2. This being said, there’s significantly more risk and less upside betting on Tannehill’s hyper-efficiency than, let’s say, Hurts’ rushing volume. And the time to draft him was probably last year (as we argued in this column last year) when he was six rounds cheaper.

3. A lot of the arguments we made of Trey Lance can also apply to Justin Fields. He’s one of the most athletic QBs to ever play the game, running a 4.46 forty-yard-dash (4th-best since 2000) at 227 pounds (3rd-best Speed Score since 2000). Like Lance, he was fairly productive as a runner in college. He averaged 10.2 rushing FPG and 64.6 rushing YPG in 2020, after averaging 9.2 and 49.1 in 2019. He’s no slouch as a passer either. But, simply, I just like Lance and his situation quite a bit more at a similar pricetag.

4. The last time Carson Wentz played alongside Frank Reich, he finished 3rd in FPG (21.7). Of course, he ranks just 17th, 15th, and 22th over the past three seasons, but that’s the upside argument with him. It’s a longshot no doubt, but still, that upside argument might be all you need to justify taking him at his current ADP (QB18).

5. So, uhhh… Ryan Fitzpatrick has an ADP of QB24. He’s played in 32 games over the past three seasons. But he’s started in only 27. And of those, he’s finished (playing on at least 90% of the team’s snaps) only 23. In those 23 games, he averages 22.6 FPG. For perspective, only two QBs average more FPG over this span — Patrick Mahomes (24.5) and Lamar Jackson (24.2). Wild. His upside probably isn’t anywhere near this high, but, also, is there anything more fun that beating your opponents with Fitzmagic at QB?

Scott Barrett combines a unique background in philosophy and investing alongside a lifelong love of football and spreadsheets to serve as FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and Lead DFS Writer.

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