Fantasy Football 2014: Quarterback Tiers
Oh, you didn’t know?
You’ll hear it every single season, probably for the next five or six years. When it comes to fantasy football, the quarterback position is deep. I’m talking deep sea deep. I’m talking Cory and Topanga, Boy Meets World deep. I’m talking– you get the point. Last season, according to ESPN, a whopping 13 different passers accumulated at least 240 fantasy points, the most since 1960. And in 2012, 21 passers posted at least 200 fantasy points, the most ever. It’s a passing league, and it will continue to be one for a long, long time. As Matthew Berry states, a good quarterback is the new mediocre. And sure, you’ll more than likely have an advantage if you draft an elite passer like Peyton Manning, but it all comes down to roster construction and possessing an advantage everywhere else.
Last year, according to CBS Sports leagues, 25 percent of championship rosters owned the number one running back, Jamaal Charles. However, just 16 percent of such teams had Manning calling the shots, proving that because of the scarcity at running back, and the depth at quarterback, the best plan is to wait, wait and then, right when you feel like you’ve waited as much as humanly possible … wait some more. But, you don’t need me to tell you that, and that’s not what your here. No, you are here to see my quarterback tiers, where I have each group of the games’ best passers placed. This may take a while because, remember, quarterback is deep sea deep.
Let’s go swimming.
Tier 1: Duh
Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees.
There may no longer be a Big Three in Miami, but there is one in fantasy football.
You know them, you love them. Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are the best quarterbacks in the league, and it’s really not close. That’s why they’re in their own tier, you see? We all know the sorcery Manning displayed last year, posting the greatest campaign a quarterback has ever produced. He’s awesome, but I’m not going to pay up for him in the first round when I can get Brees or Rodgers two rounds later. Especially when you consider that Brees has been the most consistent quarterback in fantasy since entering New Orleans.
It’s a Brees
So, since 2006, Brees’ worst fantasy finish is 6th. That’s as good as it gets, and in fact, he’s been a lot better than Manning in terms of consistency.
And then there’s Rodgers, who I have as the number one passer in fantasy this year. The best arm talent in football, Rodgers has unmatched velocity, insane accuracy and mobility to match. His 18 rushing scores since 2008 are the second-most among quarterbacks, and now he finally has a running back in Eddie Lacy. I think, with his weapons, as well as rushing ability, Rodgers has the most upside among the three, given health. But, of course, while there is no such thing, these three are about as close to a lock as you can find, as the last time one of them didn’t finish as the top fantasy quarterback was 2007 (Brady).
Tier 2: The Next Best Thing
Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Nick Foles
This is where waiting pays off.
Each season, a new quarterback emerges. In 2012, we saw not just the big three among rookies, but another upstart in Miami emerge into strong fantasy pieces. Last year, it was the year of Nick Foles, who took the NFL by storm, tossing 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions in 13 games. In fact, no quarterback had more fantasy points per game (24.6) from Weeks 9-17 than Foles, who thrived in Chip Kelly’s scheme. And, via Denny Carter, Foles’ 0.69 fantasy points per pass attempt was easily the highest in football. Of course, some regression is expected, as it’s rare to post a rating of 119.2. The Eagles lost DeSean Jackson, and while I think he’s replaceable, he did make up for over 70 percent of Foles’ targets last year, and 17.4 percent of Foles’ passes from last year traveled 20 yards or more, the highest rate in football, according to Pro Football Focus. Still, he has great upside in this offense, just expect some regression, for sure.
Then there’s the ever popular Andrew Luck, who could compete with the elite tier if the offensive scheme was more fantasy friendly. In each of Luck’s first two seasons, he’s thrown 23 touchdowns, not the most enticing number for owners. But despite the below average touchdown totals, Luck helped with his legs, rushing for 632 yards and nine touchdowns during that span. He makes a serious impact at the goal line, often calling his own number. If offensive coordinator would ever let the reigns off of Luck, he could be the best quarterback in fantasy.
He’s that good.
Finally, Matthew Stafford is the ideal combination of talent and volume. His 2,024 passes over the last three seasons are the most in NFL history during a three-year span, and even with Scott Linehan gone, this offense is going to air it out. Detroit has the best receiver in football, two 50-catch backs, three capable tight ends and just added Golden Tate to the mix, a great fit for this offense. Last year, Detroit wideouts dropped the most passes in football, while Tate dropped just two passes on 94 targets last year. Stafford can easily be a top-five quarterback in this offense, just pray nothing happens to Megatron (via RotoViz).
Tier 3: Our Defense Sucks!
Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III, Tony Romo
Last year, Matt Ryan was almost a top-10 fantasy quarterback, despite having some horrible luck. First of all, he was the most pressured passer in the league, being under pressure on 154 of his pass attempts last year. He was also sacked 44 times, the third-most in the league. He also lost Julio Jones for the season, had zero running game and a banged up Roddy White throughout the season. But Ryan played one, and posted respectable numbers, and with the horrible defense behind him, Ryan should throw the ball a ton again (2nd in attempts in 2013). Last year, Atlanta threw the ball 69 percent of the time, and Mike Clay already projects them to lead the NFL in passing play percentage. With a healthy receiving corp and an addressed offensive line, Ryan should return to fantasy dominance.
Meanwhile, Robert Griffin III was a shell of his rookie self, looking timid on throws, not always fully stepping into them. He was barely a QB2 for fantasy owners last year, but expect a major bounceback. Relatively pass-happy Jay Gruden is calling the shots, and the team brought in DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts in the offseason. Last year, RG3 posted an accuracy percentage of just 30.4 on his deep passing, the second-lowest in football. Meanwhile, Washington as a team attempted just 39 passing plays of 20 yards or more (30th). Jackson’s presence should help Griffin immensely, who was a terrific deep ball passer during his time at Baylor, as well as in 2012. And the Redskins defense was bad last year, too, allowing their offense to average 69.2 plays per game (4th) in their attempts to play catch up.
Finally, there’s the always overlooked Tony Romo, who has been a top-10 fantasy passer in each of the last three years, and now has Linehan calling the plays. Linehan’s offenses since 2006 have ranked inside the top-10 in pass attempts in all but one year, and Romo was already throwing the ball 530 times a year. Heck, Daunte Culpepper was the highest-scoring fantasy passer under Linehan from 2002-04, and with Romo’s weapons, as well as the worst defense in football, Romo could legitimately flirt with 700 attempts this year.
QB Finishes Under Linehan
Tier 4: Keep waiting…
Cam Newton, Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick
A lot of people are down on Cam Newton, and I get it. His pass-catchers are less than desirable, he’s coming off surgery and the offensive line took a major hit. And, technically, I’m down on him, too, moving him to QB9 in my ranks. Yeah, a guy who has been a top-five fantasy passer in each of his first three seasons, Cam is outside my top-seven. But there is value to be had here. He keeps falling drafts, going in the 8th round at times. Sure, Steve Smith is gone, but he was really tailing off, and Cam may actually have more passing touchdown potential with his new targets. And, of course, he’s going to run, and when he does, he’s the most dangerous quarterback in the league, rushing for over 2,000 yards and 28 scores. And when Carolina gets up close, it’s either Cam or Mike Tolbert scoring, as the two combined for 16 of the Panthers’ 21 carries from inside the five last year.
You’ve heard it before. Jay Cutler and Josh McCown combined to score the third-most fantasy points among signal callers last year. The offense is one of the best in football, with a top-five back and two elite wideouts, Cutler has top-five fantasy potential. He just needs to stay healthy, which has been a bit of an issue. But passers with two top-10 fantasy wideouts tend to have great fantasy success themselves, so I’m not counting Cutler out.
I like Colin Kaepernick to really breakout in 2014, just as long as Michael Crabtree can stay on the field. According to Jamey Eisenberg, in the 12 contests without Crabtree, Kaepernick posted 19 or more fantasy points just five times. However, in the eight games with Crabtree in the lineup, Kaepernick posted 19 or more points seven times. Also, once Crabtree returned in Week 13, Kaepernick had the 3rd-highest QBR in football from then on. I like the 49ers to throw the ball a bit more than usual this year, too, and when you combined his running ability, he makes sense for a big season.
Tier 5: QB1 or QB2?
Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger
Don’t look now, but Ben Roethlisberger is one of the most underrated passers in fantasy. Last year, he was very quietly a top-10 quarterback, and it helped that Pittsburgh let him run with the offense, implementing an effective no-huddle. Pittsburgh started using it in Week 9, and from then on, Ben averaged almost 23 fantasy points per game (3rd-most), was sacked just 11 times (32 prior games) and the Steelers offense scored almost 70 more total points. He has strong weapons in the passing game, and Pittsburgh is no longer a run-first football team.
To be simple, Tom Brady was not Tom Brady last year. The loss of Rob Gronkowski obviously hurt, but Danny Amendola was hurt, the offensive line wasn’t his best and the receiving corp went through it’s ups and downs. Brady’s deep ball accuracy and fantasy points per dropback have decreased in each of the last three seasons, according to PFF and last year, he completed just 57.6 percent of his passes when under pressure, 28th among quarterbacks. Still, he did get a bit unlucky, too, as the Patriot receivers dropped the second-most passes in football, while they were tackled at the one-yard line eight times, more than any other team. If Brady can have Gronk for a full season, he’d be fine, but we never know if that’ll be the case. With the way New England is transitioning into a run-oriented team, especially from up close (56 rushing scores from inside 5 since 2010), Brady no longer has QB1 upside.
Meanwhile, Philip Rivers had a major rejuvenation last year under Mike McCoy, but I wouldn’t be too comfortable with him as my starting fantasy quarterback. During the second half of the year, the Chargers looked to run the ball more and keep the opposing offense off the field. They finished the year running the ball 47 percent of the time, while quietly ranking 6th in rushing attempts per game (30.2). They only threw the ball 53 percent of the time, 26th in the league.
Rivers’ 2nd Half
Finally, Russell Wilson has been a top-10 fantasy passer over the last two seasons, and has been as efficient as they come. However, you never know when he is going to throw the ball 30 times or 17 times, which can be very frustrating in a volume-based game like fantasy football. The scary part about Wilson is that being the 10th-best fantasy passer is his floor, not his ceiling.
Tier 6: Stream Weaver
Ryan Tannehill, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning
I really believe that Ryan Tannehill also breaks out this year. In his sophomore season, he doubled his touchdown total and posted solid numbers, despite being the most sacked passer in the league. If he can stay upright, Bill Lazor’s new scheme should help him in a big way, and allow him to see significant volume, as he’s averaged 73.8, 72.6 and 75.5 plays per game during his three seasons at Virginia.
Carson Palmer has been drawing a lot of sleeper buzz as a potential quarterback one. It makes sense, as he has two stellar wideouts in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, as well as a very explosive pass-catching back behind him. He, too, needs to stay protected, as he was sacked 41 times. But when he had a clean pocket, he was very good, completing over 70 percent of his passes for 21 touchdowns and seven picks, according to PFF. Arizona addressed their line by adding a very good tackle in Jared Veldheer.
Finally, who can forget the 27 interceptions from Eli Manning last year? It was a Giant collapse (see what I did there?), but Manning still has streamer appeal, especially in the fantasy juggernaut that is the NFC East. Plenty of shootouts are coming, and Manning, though bad, was only really to blame for three of those picks, using the bad decision rare (via ESPN). It’s hard to imagine he won’t bounceback.
Quarterback is crazy deep, y’all.
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