Every successful fantasy team has a high performing quarterback. Whether you draft a QB early or wait on the position, you can’t truly contend for a fantasy title without strong production from the position. This is especially true in leagues where you start two quarterbacks. However, only one signal-caller will finish the season as the overall top-scoring QB, and we’re going to examine which six quarterbacks (the top 5 options plus one dark horse) have the best chance to achieve that.
Let’s begin with the reigning champ…
When evaluating each quarterback’s chances of finishing as the top dog this year, it makes sense to open with the man who achieved that feat last season. Patrick Mahomes was a revelation last year, the only quarterback to score over 400 fantasy points on the back of 5,097 yards passing and 50 TDs. How likely are his chances of defending the crown? What if I told you Mahomes could be even better this year. Mahomes watched 35 of his passes get dropped by his receivers last season, the third-most of any quarterback in the NFL. Imagine if that gets cut in half.
Additionally, Mahomes’ PFF grade (94.2) on passes outside the pocket was best in the league. You can see the skill at work below:
Notice the instinctual pocket presence, nimble athleticism, accuracy and arm strength needed to flick the ball side-armed on a dime 25 yards downfield across his body to a receiver in full stride on a crossing route the other way. That’s the impact Mahomes has when his pocket collapses, let alone what he’s capable of when he doesn’t have to buy himself time to throw. With an offensive line ranked 17th best in football with room to grow on the shoulders of tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, he should have time to throw more often than not.
The Chiefs face one of the worst schedules for quarterbacks this season, but that was largely the case last year, too. With Kareem Hunt gone, Kansas City is likely to lean even more heavily on its franchise quarterback. Star receiver Tyreek Hill has avoided a suspension and should continue to beat defenses deep; former top-10 pick Sammy Watkins has the attributes to be a dynamic number two wideout. All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce continues to dominate in the middle of the field. Expect to see some touchdown regression from last year’s video game numbers, but will it be enough to keep Mahomes from leading the pack once again?
The Comeback Kid
Andrew Luck looked finished. His shoulder had been shredded into pulled pork, and his arm had devolved into a wet noodle. Everyone was already preparing tomes of what could have been if he had only been able to stay on the field. Then came 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns, a career-high 67.3% completion percentage, and over 320 fantasy points. The accuracy and athleticism have always been hallmarks of Luck’s game. Case in point…
What you see in that clip is Luck running for his life before making a play, as he so often did at the beginning of his career. However, unlike earlier in his career, he’s finally playing behind a top-5 offensive line. PFF rates the Colts’ line as the 5th best in football after investing two top-40 picks in No. 6 overall pick Quenton Nelson and No. 37 Braden Smith, picking up the quality of play of the entire line with them.
The additions of wide receivers Parris Campbell and Devin Funchess to pair with T.Y. Hilton should once again make 40 touchdowns a genuine, perhaps even likely, possibility. While Hilton has made it easy for the Colts to stretch the field, they tried to balance their passing attack with an abundance of screens but were largely unsuccessful at doing so last year given the lack of an impact receiver in the slot. As Evan Silva pointed out on Twitter, no wideout in college football averaged more yards per target on screens in 2018 than Parris Campbell. Campbell led the Big Ten in yards per route run in the slot, where he will line up frequently in three-wide sets with Funchess and Hilton flanking him.
At age 29 after what seemed like a career-ending injury, Luck isn’t running as he used to earlier in his career; his 148 yards on 46 carries were the lowest carry and yardage totals of his career. However, Luck has never been surrounded by more offensive weapons. Moreover, head coach Frank Reich has designed an offense to capitalize on Luck’s strengths, so his best season may yet still be ahead of him. If there is a negative argument here, it would be expected regression given that 44% of Luck’s fantasy points came on touchdowns, though Mahomes’ 45.1% was even higher.
For years, the Texans’ season-long aspirations have withered under the likes of David Carr, Matt Schaub, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. Those are the names of the signal-callers who have started the most games for the franchise since its inception in 2002. Deshaun Watson is undoubtedly the savior Texans fans have been waiting for, and it’s quite possible Watson assumes the mantle as fantasy’s QB king this season, as well. It helps when defensive players are comparing you to Michael Jordan.
If you’re wondering how a quarterback could elicit such a comparison playing behind a sieve of an offensive line that has ranked as the worst unit in football throughout his young career, plays like this will illustrate why.
Watson was a top-five graded quarterback according to PFF on plays outside the pocket last year. His 69.1% completion percentage was better than Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Luck. In addition to throwing for over 4,000 yards in just his second year, a feat he likely would have achieved his rookie season had he not torn his ACL, Watson is also a prolific runner. It’s all the more remarkable that he ran for 481 yards on 107 carries last season just one year removed from repairing that ACL.
However, according to Pro Football Focus, more than half of those rushes were QB scrambles as you can imagine from the clip above. Watson’s faced the second most drop-backs under pressure behind only Kirk Cousins. Unfortunately, PFF once again ranks Houston among the worse lines in football heading into 2019, though that largely hinges upon how well their top two 2019 draft picks perform in Tytus Howard and Max Scharping. Currently, only Howard is projected to start this season at right tackle.
Lastly, PFF also rates Watson’s schedule the fifth most challenging for a quarterback. That in itself is not a disqualifier, but the slightly worse schedule coupled with a questionable line is enough to keep Watson’s odds slightly lower than Andrew Luck’s when discussing potential usurpers to Patrick Mahomes’ crown. More than anything, the play of Houston’s offensive line and the health of receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee will likely determine how high Watson can soar this year.
The Aging Gunslinger
Aaron Rodgers has been to the top of this mountain before. For years, he was not only the most physically gifted quarterback in the game, but he was the unquestioned top fantasy starter at the position, as well. After all, very few quarterbacks can throw a pass 35 yards downfield into the end zone on a rope the way Rodgers can.
Entering his age 36 season, Rodgers can no longer lean on his athleticism and young cannon for an arm the way he did ten years ago. After averaging 35 touchdowns in all but two seasons in which he played all 16 games from 2008 – 2016, Rodgers could only muster 25 TDs in 16 games played last year. Much of that underperformance has been dropped at the feet of former coach Mike McCarthy’s stale offense that failed to consistently scheme receivers open, but Rodgers will be learning a new system under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, a system that will require far more work under center than Rodgers has been doing for most of his career.
Tailback Aaron Jones looks like an ascending franchise back who can contribute in the passing game, and there is an argument for Davante Adams as the best receiver in football. Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling represent two exciting, though unproven, young talents that could give Rodgers both a short-to-intermediate weapon and a deep threat. If his receivers can step up, this will be more than fortuitous since Rodgers doesn’t have a passer rating below 111.0 when targeting receivers in the PFF era.
It’s also worth noting that Rodgers played most of 2018 with an injured knee. A return to full health, younger and more dynamic weapons at his disposal, and an offensive-minded coach implementing a system proven to work at the NFL level all bode well for Rodgers’ chances of finishing this season as the top overall fantasy QB. Your faith in Rodgers’ ability to take back the throne that was once his likely rests on how much faith you have that an old dog can learn new tricks and his new receivers’ ability to develop.
The Next Big Thing
Baker Mayfield might be the most hyped quarterback entering the 2019 season. His rookie year certainly showed flashes of where his ceiling sits, as he dug the hapless Browns franchise out of despair and put them into the playoff conversation heading into this season. In 14 games (only 13 started), Mayfield threw for 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns. Among rookie quarterbacks last year, take a look at how Mayfield ranks in both his passing and running grades according to PFF.
|Player||PFF Passing Grade||PFF Running Grade|
As you can see, as a passer Mayfield’s production dwarfed his fellow rookies. His rushing grade was built on 39 carries for 139 yards, though he will likely expand on that number with a full season of games started.
According to PFF’s “Big-Time Throws” metric, which rates passes thrown 15 yards or more downfield, Mayfield’s 27.8% ranked 4th in football behind Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Ben Roethlisberger. Mayfield’s PFF Grade on tight-window throws over the last two years (57.0) is better than both Rodgers (56.6) and Luck (54.4) and topped only by Mahomes (60.8) among the game’s best quarterbacks. He was also 3rd in deep-ball accuracy percentage. Here’s a great example of both “tight window” and “Big-Time Throw” with some deep ball accuracy.
Both Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. rated in the top 10 in yards after the catch (YAC) from 2014-2016 when each had the luxury of competent if unspectacular quarterback play from Ryan Tannehill and Eli Manning respectively. Baker Mayfield posted PFF’s 6th best accuracy percentage last season. Mayfield will have to improve on the 14 INTs he tossed last year, but it should be noted that the Browns led the league in sacks taken in the first eight games (33) under Hue Jackson and Todd Haley but allowed the fewest sacks in the final eight games (5) once Freddie Kitchens took over the offense, going from among the worst in the league in touchdown drive frequency to 4th in the league over those aforementioned stretches.
The Dark Horse
The narrative surrounding Jameis Winston is that he is not the winner he was in college, when he won the Heisman and a National Championship, prompting the Buccaneers to take him with the number one overall pick. After early promise, the last two seasons have been marred with regression and off-field incidents, with Winston repeatedly benched while the Bucs floundered to 5-11 records in back-to-back seasons.
Once Tampa Bay committed to him for the final seven games of 2018, Winston seemed to rediscover himself, tossing 13 touchdowns to only four interceptions and a 91.3 passer rating. That was enough for ownership to initiate an overhaul, with Winston remaining the centerpiece of yet another rebuild. Offensive guru Bruce Arians felt inspired by the talent on the Bucs roster enough to take the job and further Winston’s development. Recall that Arians also mentored Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and Carson Palmer to wildly successful offensive heights. The team also hired new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles who will be given the task of keeping the Bucs in games so Winston doesn’t feel like he has to do it all alone every Sunday. However, which quarterback is Arians getting in his first year with the team? The one with the 91.3 passer rating during last season’s final seven games, or the one with a passer rating of 74.7 who tossed 10 INTs and only six TDs in his first four appearances of 2018?
In Winston, Arians will inherit a 25-year-old quarterback with 39.6% of his passes going for first downs between 2015-2018, good for second-best in the league behind only Matt Ryan. Winston is more than capable when it comes to moving the ball downfield. Winston’s career passer rating with a clean pocket is 94.1. Anyone who watched the Bucs last year knows that Ryan Fitzpatrick and Winston combined for 5,358 yards and 36 touchdowns. The Bucs lead the league in passing offense last year. However, the 26 interceptions and constant benchings between the two are what kept owners from being able to trust either one.
Fitzpatrick is in Miami now, and Winston has been drawing praise from Arians all offseason while he devotes time to improving his footwork and developing a better rapport with some of the team’s receivers. Let’s not forget that Winston gets to throw the ball to All-Pro receiver Mike Evans, emerging stud Chris Godwin, and former first-round tight end O.J. Howard.
Critics will cite Winston’s poor offensive line (PFF has them ranked 24th heading into this season), but he knows how to move in the pocket and find his receivers. Note that no quarterback over the last three years has a higher percentage of air yards in a season than Winston does. Take a look at this clip to see what I mean.
Winston can escape a collapsing pocket, as evidenced above. Winston also rushed for six touchdowns in his rookie season. He ran for nearly 300 yards last year in only 11 games. He might be the most mobile signal-caller Arians has ever coached. The marriage of coach and player here plus Wintson’s innate talent and the talent surrounding him could be the recipe for a QB1 overall finish if he can learn to take better care of the football.
Many other talented quarterbacks should have strong years, but most have enough red flags that it’s hard to consider them as viable threats to finish the year as the number 1 overall QB. Drew Brees has already begun to show signs of decline, and his game now rests on efficiency. Matt Ryan touched the stars with Kyle Shanahan calling plays, but Shanahan is in San Francisco now. Cam Newton and Carson Wentz haven’t been able to stay on the field, though both should easily post solid numbers if healthy. Ben Roethlisberger lost both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, depressing his upside somewhat. Russell Wilson has watched the Seahawks return to a run-first offense. Kyler Murray (ADP 102, 12th overall QB taken in drafts this summer) has generated a lot of hype, but he’s still a rookie quarterback who has never thrown an NFL pass, playing for a rookie head coach who doesn’t exactly have the most sterling college record either. Mahomes still had a full year sitting behind Alex Smith, learning Andy Reid’s system, and Reid has a much better NFL track record than Kliff Kingsbury. Nonetheless, any of the aforementioned names have the talent, upside and surrounding team to finish the year as the number one overall signal-caller, but the obstacles are great enough to make them all long shots behind the six names mentioned above.
So, how do you proceed on draft day? If you want Mahomes (ADP 18.0), you’re going to have to spend a second-round pick to acquire him. Will his production far outweigh the field again to warrant passing on a stud receiver or running back that early? Regression, coupled with what should be strong output from the other candidates, suggests passing on Mahomes might be prudent, though he does have the best odds to finish as the highest-scoring quarterback this season. Depending on your scoring setup, you may want to target Luck (ADP 45), Watson (ADP 49), or Rodgers (ADP 52), thus allowing you to fortify your team with at least two or three stars at other positions before investing a higher pick on a quarterback.
If waiting on a quarterback is your preferred strategy, then Mayfield (ADP 63) allows you to take QB1 overall upside at a fifth-round price. Finally, for those of you who tout the Zero-QB approach but want huge upside, Winston (ADP 110) in the ninth round represents by far the greatest value, but unquestionably the greatest risk among the names on this list.
(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire)