To start off my series of draft strategy investigations, I’m going to target the QB. Although the most important in real life football, the QB takes a back seat to the flex positions in most scoring formats. For the sake of simplicity and to reach the broadest redraft audience, I’m focusing on 12-team PPR formats with 1 QB, 2RB, 2WR, TE, and Flex. All ADP research comes from myfantasyleague.com after Aug 1 with respect to each year, and point leader research comes from FantasyPros.com. For the sake of my investigations and because of the availability of their information, ESPN is my source for championship fantasy teams. Pro-Football-Reference is the source for all other data.
Wait on QB. That’s the strategy you’ve been hearing for years… and years… and years… But as a fantasy community, we don’t seem to be following this strategy, though we have gotten progressively better, most likely because this narrative is continually put forth by writers and analysts. However, the community at large hasn’t entirely been following this advice. Although 2-QB and Superflex leagues throw the ADP data off, even if we consider only 1-QB leagues, we as a community have been consistently drafting the first QB as early as the third round for the past three years. Can a QB meet third-round value? Yes. Patrick Mahomes actually earned the number five overall spot for total value in 2018, proving that QBs can earn a top spot, but still the strategy is weighing the chance of picking a top QB against the potential value of other picks around that individual’s draft price.
ESPN’s records for championship team composition is limited, but it gives us a brief glimpse of useful information. Since 2015, ESPN champions rostered the QB1 in at least 19.6 % of squadrons. But each year is different, and in 2016 a whopping 51.2% of champions owned Aaron Rodgers. It’s clear that having the best at the position is a distinct fantasy advantage. But what are the chances of your pick returning on value, and what are the chances that you’re actually drafting the best QB?
Knowing what we know about top QB performers, it might seem prudent to look at Patrick Mahomes’ 3rd-round ADP in 1-QB formats and think, “that’s probably a good idea.” Sometimes, it absolutely can be. While there have been some significant names on the board year after year, it is incredibly important to note that over the past decade, the top drafted QB has never finished as the best. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are outstanding in that only they have beat or matched a QB2 draft price (Rodgers four times, Brees twice). That level of consistently high play gives drafters good reason to pull the trigger, but only if the price reasonably demands their draft. In 2018, Aaron Rodgers was the first QB off the board with an ADP of 21, meaning he didn’t even make it to the third round of most formats, but he finished 2018 as the QB6. Not bad, but hardly worth the price.
2018 was a rather extraordinary year for fantasy quarterbacks, with sophomore, NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes scoring an average of four points more per game than the next closest QB. With his high draft pedigree, a year to learn from a veteran, and his surrounding cast in an explosive offense, we really shouldn’t have been surprised that he outperformed his ADP, though we couldn’t have predicted that level of play.
Although he stood atop, he did not stand alone, as Matt Ryan (QB2) and Ben Roethlisberger (QB3) averaged draft prices in the seventh round or later in twelve-team leagues. Mahomes’ ADP? Sixteenth QB off the board and 117th overall player. There were plenty of drafts where Mahomes was not even picked up.
Even though 2018 was a bit out of the ordinary, it by no means broke from what we traditionally see. Consider these factual tidbits about the last three years:
The average draft position of the QB1 was Round 6 (twelve-team drafts)
The average finish of the top drafted QB was QB17
50% of the top 12 QBs drafted each season were not worth a starting spot
Each year, an average of two of the top six QBs can be found after pick 100
I did a little digging into data over the last decade with the goal of spotting a broader trend with quarterback scoring. Below is the graph of the last decade of top-12 fantasy QB production in standard scoring.
The two trendlines in overlay represent the average of the top three QBs in blue and the averages of QBs 10 through 12 in orange. Immediately a number of important things become clear. It’s no surprise that there is a steep drop off in production from the top players that levels out as the position deepens. This is true of all positions. As we can see from both trendlines, quarterback production is increasing over time. Although it’s perhaps not so readily visible, the two trendlines are also slowly approaching each other. For the sake of simplicity, I used a linear projection for the trends, but it is still clear even with imperfect analysis, that all QBs are scoring more, and the ones at the bottom are closing the gap with the ones at the top. I also see that the top line for QB1 is usually significantly higher than QB2, especially in more recent years.
To be more precise with the data, I took the averages of the top QBs compared to QBs 10-12, as those are basically the “worst starters,” which is the value format you should be using when evaluating final season scoring leaders. A decade ago, the top three QBs averaged 315.3 points, compared to 241.6 points for the worst starters, or a difference of 30.5%. If we take this trend into 2019, the top QBs will score an implied average 358.6 points while the worst starters will score 285.3 points or a difference of 25.7%.
This isn’t so dramatic, but it is important to understand the trends, and they basically are as follows: all QBs are scoring more, the top QB plays way above the rest of the field, and the drop off for the position as a whole is leveling out. What does this mean for fantasy? It means if you can’t get the best QB, you’ll find more value in a worst starter.
Excluding 2-QB leagues, Patrick Mahomes will be the first QB off the board in round three, but as mentioned, the top drafted QB has never actually finished there. Does this mean I think anybody has better odds to finish at the top? No, it’s just that the chance Mahomes returns on value isn’t that great. Although I am fully on board the ‘wait on QB’ approach, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are both technically discounted compared to their historical performances and ADPs. There is absolutely no chance I’ll be drafting Mahomes in redraft. Generally, my rule is to wait for at least one full round past a QB’s ADP to pull the trigger if they are still available. This becomes increasingly easy as the draft progresses, especially if your league-mates all decide to fill that QB spot early on.
Given the impact the top QB has on fantasy teams, I’m also steering clear of guys like Philip Rivers who almost always finish around their ADP. Predictable ADP like that means you’re not risking much, but there’s not enough room for growth. Rivers might get you 3rd place, but you’ll never take home the championship. Instead, I’m going to look for players who either have finished at the top and have fallen from grace as well as unknown quantities with virtually free ADPs.
A quick look at current ADP shows Ben Roethlisberger as 15th off the board. This is easily a market overcorrection to the loss of Antonio Brown, considering Derek Carr’s ADP hasn’t risen to meet the move. Roethlisberger has had numerous seasons at the top and his supporting cast is still great. Cam Newton’s rushing potential, QB12 ADP, and history as fantasy MVP are also appealing. Dak Prescott at QB20 is a free potential worst starter.
For deeper dives, I’m into unrealized potentials like Josh Allen (QB18) and Lamar Jackson (QB21). Unfortunately, rookie Kyler Murray does not carry a dart-throw draft capital even though there is little we can know about him. I’ll mostly avoid him.
Finally, although I used to be a one-QB drafter, I think it’s time to switch to two. Traditionally, I either don’t draft a defense or kicker unless league rules require it and if I do, I’ve always done it with my last two picks. I think I’ll bump them up one round each and use my very last pick on a super deep dive. I’ll certainly wait on QB, but waiting on QB increasing one’s chances of being stuck with a loser, so drafting two can mitigate the chance of entirely busting at the position. As well, I’m reminded of rookie seasons like Dak Prescott’s and Carson Wentz’s in 2016 and the first year starts like Jimmy Garappolo’s 2017 and Patrick Mahomes’ 2018. All of these players were essentially free, even in twelve-team leagues, and rose not only far above their ADPs, but even all the way to championship teams.
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