That Just Happened, Quarterbacks, Part I
February 10, 2017 | Scott Cedar
Everyone knows the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the biblical cities rife with corruption and vice, targeted for destruction by God. Being a man (or woman!) of reason, God offered to spare the city if 10 righteous inhabitants could be found. Alas, even that low quota could not be met. Cue the hellfire and brimstone.
That’s about how I feel at the end of the fantasy season. I sink time and money into a fake game so that an Aaron Ripkowski touchdown can ruin my Sunday? I obsessively refresh the box score to monitor Blake Bortles in garbage time of a meaningless game? By Week 17, it’s easy to wonder whether there are any redeeming qualities of fantasy football, or if it would be better to just burn the whole thing to the ground. Flee and don’t look back.
But that feeling never lasts long, so at the risk of turning into a pillar of salt… it’s time to look back. 2016 performance will largely drive ADPs and strategy in 2017, so it’s important to know what just happened. 2016 performance can also be misleading—a small sample size ripe with recency bias. The goal here is to balance those two concerns to put 2016 in the proper context so that we can carry over what’s useful into 2017.
I’m going to start with a macro look at each position as a whole, then take a micro look at the individual players to see where their 2016 performances may be underappreciated or overstated. With that said, let’s get to quarterbacks.
Everyone knows the NFL is a passing league, but passing game production may be nearing its peak. Across the league, teams averaged 35.7 passing attempts, 241.5 yards, 1.5 touchdowns and 0.8 interceptions per game. Up from 5 years ago, up bigly from 10 years ago, but not materially different from 2015. The important takeaway is that in an era where everyone throws a lot, volume doesn’t necessarily correlate to fantasy success. The top 10 quarterbacks in attempts per game in 2016 included Blake Bortles, Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and Carson Wentz. You may know them as the 14th, 19th, 21st, 25th, and 28th ranked quarterbacks in points per game (“ppg”), respectively. On the other end, guys like Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor, and Dak Prescott all put up strong ppg totals despite finishing outside the top 20 in attempts per game.
The one thing that did change in 2016 was rushing. Quarterbacks combined for 108 fewer carries compared to 2015, and amassed 565 fewer rushing yards. The big difference came at the top. In 2015, Cam Newton led all quarterbacks with 132 rushing attempts, Tyrod Taylor and Russell Wilson eclipsed 100 rushes, and Alex Smith provided strong fantasy value with 84 carries. In 2016, Taylor led all quarterbacks with just 95 rushing attempts, with Newton close behind at 90 carries and Wilson a distant 3rd at 72 carries (though Colin Kaepernick’s 16-game pace would’ve put him right at 100 carries). Maybe it’s just a one year blip—these numbers are highly dependent on a few players, many of whom were hurt this year. But maybe that’s the point. The way Newton and Wilson have suffered through injuries, and RGIII before that, combined with increased focus on player safety suggests the halcyon days of the Konami Code may have passed.
5 Year Trends
In the fantasy realm, it was an average year for quarterback scoring. Here’s a chart of the top 24 quarterbacks, measured by ppg, since 2011:
What the graph shows is, both in 2016 and in the 5 seasons prior, QB production flattens out pretty quickly. After the top few guys (or some years, guy), there just isn’t that much differentiation from the back-end quarterbacks. This year, the QB6 was Kirk Cousins at 18.8 ppg. He scored just 1.5 ppg more than Marcus Mariota (17.3 ppg), the QB12 and, theoretically, the last starter in a 12 team league. Mariota, in turn, scored just 1.3 ppg more than Jameis Winston (QB20). That’s not a 1 year blip; since 2011, the QB6 has outscored the QB12 by an average of 1.9 ppg. The QB12 has outscored the QB20 by just 1.7 ppg.
Of course, even this oversells the advantage of the top quarterbacks because it assumes you’re starting the same one every week. You can close this gap, or eliminate it entirely, by streaming the position to take advantage of favorable matchups. 41 different quarterbacks posted a QB1 week (top 12), including the garden variety bad (Sam Bradford, Brian Hoyer) and truly depressing (Case Keenum, Landry Jones, Kevin freaking Hogan). No, this wasn’t just guys sneaking into the top 12. 30 different players posted at least one top 6 finish (again, including crap like Keenum, Jones, and Hoyer).
This needs to be discussed in the context of another trend in recent years—the rise of the back-end quarterbacks. Just look at the right half of the graph—from QB13 on, 2011 numbers are clearly below 2012 numbers, which are clearly below 2013-16 numbers. All of this represents a flattening of quarterback position on the back end several years in the making. Basically, if you didn’t get one of the elites, there were plenty of “good enough” options available.
I’m a late-round quarterback guy, and at least in 2016, everyone else was too. The first quarterback drafted this year, Cam Newton, had an average ADP of just 28th overall. This was a major anomaly. Going back to 2011, the first quarterback drafted went 9th overall, on average, and only once was the top QB taken outside the first round (Drew Brees at 20th in 2013).
It’ll be interesting to see if this carries over into 2017. Again, QB production itself didn’t really change from 2015 to 2016, and that black line in the chart stays pretty much in the middle of high and low performances across the spectrum. There’s no reason for a more robust QB approach in 2017, but I bet Aaron Rodgers ends up as a late 1st/early 2nd round pick, with Tom Brady solidly in the 2nd round and Matt Ryan not too far behind.
Of course, it is tempting to look at the graph and think “I’m targeting a top quarterback in 2017.” Resist the siren’s song. The late round QB argument should be fantasy canon by now, and all these numbers show is that the QB1 usually provides a pretty big advantage, while the rest of the pack flattens out quickly. Unfortunately, finding the QB1 is not easy. The last quarterback to lead the position in ppg in consecutive seasons was Donovan McNabb in 2005-06. Sure enough, three quarterbacks were taken in the top 50 picks in 2016: Newton, Rodgers, and Wilson. While Rodgers finished as QB1, neither Newton nor Wilson cracked the top 12.
Taking a broader look at 2016 ADP vs. performance, only 6 of the first 12 quarterbacks drafted finished top 12 in ppg. Newton, Wilson, Carson Palmer (8th QB drafted, 19th in ppg), and Eli Manning (10th QB drafted, 25th in ppg) were all colossal busts. Philip Rivers and Blake Bortles also significantly underperformed their ADPs. On the other end, there were quite a few late-round bargains. 5 of the top 12 quarterbacks in 2017 were drafted outside of the top 100 (Tyrod Taylor, Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, Marcus Mariota, and Matt Ryan), with Mariota and Ryan going undrafted in many leagues.
The big takeaway is that 2016 was an unremarkable year for quarterbacks. This matters because the fantasy world drafted quarterbacks later in 2016, but I don’t expect this collective restraint to last. If you see quarterbacks creeping back up the draft board in 2017, remember: 2016 provided no reason for a change in course.