I’ve probably already lost some of you with the title alone, but that’s a chance I have to take. You see, every year we become hypnotized by the latest quarterback, tight end, and defense that sets the league on fire. We can’t help ourselves. Do you remember when Twinkies were briefly out of production? Hostess filed for bankruptcy, and they ceased production of all products–most notably Twinkies. How did everyone respond? Panic of course. Some people were paying more than $50 to get a box on eBay.
Twinkies were suddenly on everyone’s mind, so people were doing whatever they could to get them. You literally couldn’t find them on store shelves; I tried. Now, they are back on shelves and no one really cares again. Well in fantasy this year, the must-have quarterback is Patrick Mahomes…he threw 50 touchdowns in his first full season!
Then there is George Kittle; he will not only replicate but beat last season’s numbers! Don’t get me started on that Chicago defense; it’s totally worth the early pick! I don’t buy it, and I am here to shake you free from your 2018-induced stupor. I want to remind you why we wait on quarterbacks–even amazing sophomore quarterbacks in Kansas City who throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns. Let me explain to you why I won’t be drafting Patrick Mahomes in any league this year, and hopefully, I can save you from the same fate. If you’re still reading, then congrats: you are on the road to recovery. Let’s start by going back to last season.
The year is 2018. Aaron Rodgers is the first quarterback off the board, and he’s going in the 3rd round. Deshaun Watson is following in the 4th, and Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are close behind in the 5th. As far as quarterback ADPs go, this is pretty tame. In fact, 2018 and 2016 were the only years since 2010 where a quarterback wasn’t going off the board in the first or second round.
How did our picks fare? Aaron Rodgers finished 7th, Deshaun Watson was 4th, Tom Brady was 11th and Russell Wilson was 8th. They all finished top-12, so that counts for something. What rounds were the top-3 quarterbacks drafted in? Coincidentally, Patrick Mahomes, Matt Ryan, and Ben Roethlisberger all had an ADP in the 10th round. So at least for last year, we saw a wild swing at the top from expectation to reality and a glut of cheap talent.
Mahomes went on to torch the league, throwing for multiple touchdowns in 14 of his 16 games. On top of that, he had 300+ passing yards in 10 games, and he broke the 20 fantasy point margin 13 times. He was usable in nearly every single game; that’s impressive even by QB1 standards. By all accounts, Patrick Mahomes is already a star player and he should be treated as one. He has more MVP awards than Drew Brees! What possible reason is there not to take him?
Historical #1 Quarterbacks
We are going to start our research by looking at past quarterbacks who finished on top and seeing how they performed the next year. Typically, things just didn’t go as well following a monster season. This assumes, of course, that your name isn’t Aaron Rodgers. Looking at every quarterback who finished number one since 2001, seven guys were outside the top-12 in their next season.
What if we remove all QBs who were injured the next year? The average finish is QB4 the following season. That’s not so bad, right? It actually is a huge change: the difference between the first QB off the board and the 4th this year is the difference between an early 3rd round pick and a late 5th. Do you see a difference between T.Y. Hilton (3.02) and Calvin Ridley (5.07)? How about Aaron Jones (3.02) and Derrius Guice (5.09)? On top of the change in ADP, only two quarterbacks since 2001 have finished first multiple years in a row: Daunte Culpepper and Aaron Rodgers. History certainly doesn’t bode well for Mahomes. Here’s a look at all top finishers since 2001.
|#1 Fantasy QB||Fantasy Pts.||Next year finish||Fantasy Pts.|
|2001||Kurt Warner||313.2||44th (injury)||57.5|
|2002||Rich Gannon||309.2||36th (injury)||72.8|
|2004||Daunte Culpepper||378.3||34th (injury)||88.7|
|2007||Tom Brady||398.0||61st (injury)||3.0|
|2014||Andrew Luck||366.7||27th (injury)||147.8|
So unless Patrick Mahomes is one of the all-time greats in the making and he is also extremely lucky, it’s doubtful that he will repeat his performance from last season. History tells us to expect either an injury or a decline back to the pack. Just remember when people gush about Mahomes that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees have never gone back-to-back as the #1 fantasy quarterback; it’s incredibly hard to do.
Let’s ignore for a moment how hard it is to stay at #1. Are we at least good at predicting #1 finishers right before the season starts? Here is a look at the ADP of the first QB to come off the board each year as well as the ADP of the eventual top finisher. I’ve highlighted every year when the preseason #1 and the actual #1 were the same player.
|Top ADP Quarterback||Preseason ADP||Top Quarterback||Preseason ADP|
|2007||Peyton Manning||1.10||Tom Brady||3.09|
|2008||Tom Brady||1.06||Drew Brees||2.12|
|2009||Drew Brees||1.11||Aaron Rodgers||3.03|
|2010||Aaron Rodgers||1.07||Aaron Rodgers||1.07|
|2011||Michael Vick||1.05||Aaron Rodgers||1.09|
|2012||Aaron Rodgers||1.02||Drew Brees||1.07|
|2013||Drew Brees||2.07||Peyton Manning||3.08|
|2014||Peyton Manning||1.06||Andrew Luck||4.11|
|2015||Andrew Luck||1.10||Cam Newton||10.08|
|2016||Cam Newton||3.04||Aaron Rodgers||3.08|
|2017||Aaron Rodgers||2.08||Russell Wilson||6.03|
|2018||Aaron Rodgers||3.06||Patrick Mahomes||10.08|
Over the last 12 years, fantasy drafters have spent an average of the 2.01 on locking down the first quarterback each year, and the actual best quarterback doesn’t go until 4.02. The trend is even worse if we limit our search to the last 5 years; over that time, the top ADP quarterback costs an average of the 2.07 while the best quarterback doesn’t go until the 7.02. This five-year trend would suggest that we are throwing away five rounds of value. The problem with spending this early pick goes deeper though.
In most fantasy leagues, players are typically asked to start one QB. A league usually has 12-teams, and each manager will take one quarterback; some will draft two, but it’s uncommon for more than 18 quarterbacks to be taken on draft day. Since there are 32 teams in the NFL, we have roughly 14 quarterbacks available on waivers at a given time.
What kind of value can be found late in the draft or undrafted, though? Let’s look at the best quarterbacks who went in the 8th round or later since 2007. (Note: I chose the 8th round because this would give you time to grab 3 running backs, 3 wide receivers, and a tight end before addressing the position. My personal strategy is usually to wait until the 10th round or later, but I realize that I like to wait longer than most.)
|First Choice||ADP||Finish||Second Choice||ADP||Finish||Third Choice||ADP||Finish|
|2007||Derek Anderson||Und.||5th||Ben Roethlisberger||10.02||6th||Brett Favre||10.11||7th|
|2008||Aaron Rodgers||11.02||2nd||Jay Cutler||8.01||3rd||Philip Rivers||10.07||4th|
|2009||Brett Favre||9.01||5th||Ben Roethlisberger||9.05||8th||Eli Manning||10.05||11th|
|2010||Michael Vick||Und.||2nd||Josh Freeman||Und.||7th||Matt Ryan||8.05||8th|
|2011||Cam Newton||13.10||3rd||Eli Manning||9.02||6th||Mark Sanchez||13.01||10th|
|2012||Robert Griffin III||8.11||5th||Andrew Luck||9.12||8th||Russell Wilson||10.11||11th|
|2013||Andy Dalton||10.12||4th||Philip Rivers||14.04||5th||Russell Wilson||8.01||8th|
|2014||Russell Wilson||9.10||3rd||Ben Roethlisberger||11.05||6th||Ryan Tannehill||Und.||8th|
|2015||Cam Newton||10.08||1st||Blake Bortles||Und.||4th||Carson Palmer||11.10||5th|
|2016||Matt Ryan||Und.||2nd||Kirk Cousins||10.02||5th||Dak Prescott||12.06||6th|
|2017||Alex Smith||14.05||3rd||Carson Wentz||12.01||6th||Philip Rivers||9.06||7th|
|2018||Pat Mahomes||10.08||1st||Matt Ryan||10.02||2nd||Ben Roethlisberger||10.04||3rd|
This is a mountain of info, so let’s run through some of the highlights:
- In each of the last 12 years, a top-5 QB was available in the 8th round or later.
- In eight of these years, we could’ve snagged a top-3 option in the 9th round or later.
- 20 of the 36 quarterbacks listed above were top-5 players.
- In each of the last 12 seasons, there were 2+ options who finished 8th or better overall while being taken in the 8th round or later
- And finally, in nine of the last 12 years there were 3+ quarterbacks available in the 8th round or later who finished in the top-8 QBs that season.
The point I want to get across is that it’s not hard to find late-round values at the quarterback position. In more years than not, there are at least two top-6 choices that are forgotten.
Even though late picks frequently succeed and others have failed to repeat, I still haven’t addressed Mahomes’ situation head on. Sure, other guys failed. They were unlucky though or just frankly not as good. Mahomes could easily lead the league again; he’s better than anyone we’ve ever seen, right? You’re right–he could be that good. He probably won’t repeat, however, due to a likely incoming touchdown regression.
This is the biggest red flag against Mahomes, and it’s one you should certainly know about before taking him this season. We will analyze touchdown regression using touchdown percentage–the number of touchdown passes thrown by a quarterback divided by the number of passes they attempt. Here’s a quick example: if I throw 100 passes and 8 of them are touchdowns, my TD% is 8/100 or 8.0%. Here are the touchdown percentages from the top QB each year from 2001-2018. I also included their career TD% for comparison.
|Fantasy QB #1||TD%||Career TD%||% Difference|
This is an impressive list of names, and a couple of things stand out to me. First, most quarterbacks tend to see a spike in their TD% numbers in the season they were number one. In total, 76.5% of quarterbacks saw a TD% jump of some amount and 52.9% saw a jump of greater than a percentage point. Of those who saw a 1% or greater jump, none have repeated as #1 the following season. How much of a difference is a percentage point over a season though?
Let’s say you’re a QB and you throw 500 passes in a season. One percent of that would be 5 touchdowns. So if you typically throw 500 passes and you average a TD% of 5, you expect to throw 25 touchdowns. If we increase that number to 8.3%, like Mahomes’ incredible mark last season, then we are now talking 43 touchdowns for the same 500 attempts. That’s the difference between an average year and an MVP season. This number can be volatile from season to season, but it tends to land somewhere between five and six for most elite quarterbacks.
Since Patrick Mahomes has only played one season, I didn’t think it made sense to include his career TD% in the table; one standout season is not indicative of likely career numbers, and it’s highly doubtful he stays this high. Deshaun Watson had a TD% of 9.3 in his first 6 games as a rookie starter. Last year, he still played well but he had a rate of 5.1% (If Watson had matched his 9.3% from the season before, he would have thrown 47 touchdowns last year and been the QB1).
Let’s assume Mahomes’ TD% is destined to fall in line with some of the best quarterbacks of all time: Peyton Manning (5.7%), Tom Brady (5.5%), Drew Brees (5.3%), and Aaron Rodgers (6.2%). These numbers would tell us that Mahomes is due for some heavy regression. If we adjusted his touchdown percent to match Rodgers’ 6.2% career mark (the NFL record in the modern era), Mahomes would have had 36 touchdowns last season.
The fantasy difference would be 56 points or enough to make Matt Ryan and Patrick Mahomes comparable options last year. This is still an amazing first year for a QB, but one with inflated value. People are paying for that inflation right now when they spend their 2nd or 3rd round pick.
Analyzing Winning Teams
Okay, so Mahomes is most likely going to regress. I still want to discuss one more reason I wait at QB: past fantasy football champions and their teams. Here, we can see which players were most common on championship fantasy teams last year; this gives us an idea of how valuable it was to own different players at their respective ADPs. Value, in this case, is derived not just from how well a player plays but also their draft cost.
Christian McCaffrey, Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Adam Thielen, and Nick Chubb headline the list and each was found on 31.8% or more of fantasy champion rosters. Some–like Christian McCaffrey, Travis Kelce, and Adam Thielen–had high ADPs that they simply outplayed. Others, like Patrick Mahomes and Nick Chubb, helped you by having a dirt-cheap draft cost and by performing like studs. Either way, these were vital pieces to your success. Here are all quarterbacks that were on at least 15% of championship rosters last year:
|Quarterback||% owned (by champions)||ADP||Fantasy Pts|
So of the 45 players listed, only 2 were quarterbacks and both were drafted in the 7th round or later. What about in 2017?
|Quarterback||% owned (by champions)||ADP||Fantasy Pts|
Once again, we see a limited number of quarterbacks that were instrumental to success; only 3 regularly appeared on championship teams, and two of them were available in the 11th round or later. We see the same in 2016 (Matt Ryan was on 22% of championship rosters and he went undrafted) and 2015 (Cam Newton was on 19.6% of championship rosters and went in the 10th round). Successful managers tend to wait at the QB position and grab value late in the draft. They don’t spend up if they don’t need to.
Okay at this point I’ve either convinced you to wait on drafting your quarterback or I never will. If I have, an obvious question comes to mind: who should you take instead? There are a few different options worth considering on draft day. They are listed according to ADP, and I think all of them make for better options than Mahomes given their current draft costs. (If every single player in the league had the same cost, Mahomes would be my easy #1.)
Aaron Rodgers (ADP 5.03): If you still want an early QB, Aaron Rodgers is an excellent alternative to Mahomes. Despite playing hurt from game one on last year, he still posted 4,400 yards, 25 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions. His TD% was 4.2, and regression to his average would have given him 12 more touchdown passes…enough to jump him from QB7 to QB2 last year. We know Rodgers has a long history of success, and we are getting him at a rare discount. I think Rodgers could easily finish above Mahomes, and I’ll happily take Rodgers over Mahomes this year given his ADP in the fifth round.
Drew Brees (ADP 7.03): At an even greater discount, we can grab future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. Brees was off to a hot start last season (29 touchdowns through 11 games) before he slowed down in the last 5 games. If the pace had held up, Brees would have finished with 42 touchdowns. I blame the late decline on Brees’ age, and I expect another hot start this year as the Saints chase a Super Bowl; Just be ready to pivot to another option if we see the same late drop-off happening again this year.
Russell Wilson (ADP 8.02): What if you could get a young, mobile quarterback who has finished in the top-10 for five of the last six years, including a QB1 finish in 2017? What if he was also available in the 8th round instead of the 3rd? Russell Wilson threw only 427 passes last year, but he still put up 35 touchdowns. Isn’t he due regression like Mahomes? Sure, but after seven seasons we can confidently say his TD% is right around 6.0. We can also wager he will attempt a lot more passes: Wilson was 20th last season in pass attempts while the year before he was 6th.
Jared Goff (ADP 9.08): Jared Goff is a bit of an overlooked name, so here are some stats on the late 9th rounder: He threw for 4,600 yards, 32 touchdowns, and only 12 interceptions last season despite a disastrous game against the Bears with 0 touchdowns and 4 picks. He had TD%s of 5.7 and 5.9 in his last two seasons, and he leads one of the most prolific offenses in the league. Whether or not you love the real-life player, Jared Goff the fantasy option is a bargain.
Mitch Trubisky (ADP 13.07): If you want to completely punt the QB position, Mitch Trubisky is a great last option. In 2018, he had 7 multi-TD games, he ran for 400 yards on the ground, and he averaged 20.6 fantasy ppg over his last 12 starts. Had Trubisky held that scoring pace all year, he would have been the QB6 last season. Trubisky also has the benefit of one of the league’s best offensive systems under Coach Matt Nagy, and he’ll enjoy an offseason with only minor changes to the offense. For comparison, last year the Bears hired a new head coach, signed Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel, and drafted Anthony Miller. I expect Trubisky to finish as a top-12 quarterback as he grows more comfortable in Nagy’s system. He’s a favorite target for me this year.
Featured image by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)