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Fantasy Football: Is it Time to Draft a Quarterback Early?

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Jonathan Bales

For the last two decades, running backs have ruled the fantasy football world.  In the 90’s (before fantasy football went mainstream), workhorse backs such as Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith were king.  I know this because I participated in “mail-in” leagues as early as age nine.  What was my mother thinking?

This workhorse running back trend carried all the way into the early-2000’s, when players like Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes nearly single-handedly carried fantasy owners to championships.

Recently, though, the value of the running back position has been steadily decreasing.  One reason for the decline is the shift to PPR (point-per-reception) leagues.  I personally participated in just three non-PPR leagues last season.  This may sound like a lot, but let’s just say these three leagues composed less than 10% of the those in which I participated.  Don’t judge me.

In any event, PPR leagues have created a more NFL-like dynamic in which wide receivers are nearly as valuable as running backs.  It isn’t uncommon to see three, even four wide receivers get drafted in the first round of twelve-man fantasy leagues nowadays.  I wrote an article on PPR scoring that was reviewed and labeled as “outstanding,” “literary genius” and “the best piece of writing I’ve read in the past 25 years.”  Yeah, I was the one who reviewed the article–so what?

Another reason for the decline in running back fantasy value is the manner in which backs are now utilized in the NFL.  Very few workhorse RBs exist anymore–only six running backs had more than 300 carries last season, and only nine had more than 250.

Instead, nearly all teams implement two or three-back systems to limit the damage to each running back and increase their effectiveness.  This has made the few top-tier running backs who are left (Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, for example), very valuable.  After those type of players, though, there seems to be quite a drop-off.

So how does this relate to fantasy football draft strategy?  Well, I never thought I’d say this, but 2010 might be the year to select a quarterback in the first round.

In prior years, this strategy was frowned upon.  The reason was simple.  Although quarterbacks have always racked up a lot of fantasy points, the difference (or standard deviation) between the top-tier quarterbacks and second and third-tier signal-callers was not overwhelming.

Why take Quarterback A (380 projected points) in the second round, for example, when you can take Quarterback B (360 projected points) in the sixth round?  The 20 point gap in projected points is more than made up for by the VORP (Value Over Replacement Player).  This is a term I discussed at length in my article on fantasy football and game theory.

Recently, however, the standard deviation among quarterbacks has increased.  The difference between a top-notch No. 1 quarterback (Drew Brees, for example) and a low-end No. 1 quarterback (Matt Ryan, for example) is vast.

This trend is exemplified in the graph above (provided by Advanced NFL Stats).  In a recent article, I explained how to read the chart:

The most important part to fantasy owners is not the height of the curves, but rather their slope.  A steep slope means a larger disparity between players, and therefore a larger VORP.

In previous years, the quarterback slope would have been flatter.  The example I used above with Quarterbacks A and B would be a representation of a flat slope quarterback projection.

As you can see in the graph, however, the quarterback slope is the steepest of all positions.  The NFL’s transition into a pass-happy league has not only increased the overall projected fantasy points for the entire quarterback position, but it has also made it increasingly valuable to snag one of these top-tier QBs.

Click “2” below to continue.

Like my analysis?  Sign up for our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.

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7 Responses to Fantasy Football: Is it Time to Draft a Quarterback Early?

  1. moses says:

    I found the differential between RBs less than that of QBs. If I couldn’t get a top 5 RB, I went with the top QB. It is a passing league now so I would also concentrate on top tier WRs. I got good value in the 5th and 6th rounds with RB.
    I got Thomas Jones, Cedric Benson and Ray Rice late!

  2. That’s nice…and exactly what I’m talking about in the article. There are lots of good backs to be had in the middle rounds. Let the other owners take a mediocre RB at the end of the first when you can have a top-tier QB/WR and still grab a RB combo like Moreno/McCoy later. Three or four high upside RBs with a top-tier QB/WR combo is now the way to go.

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  4. craig says:

    BUTTT….

    If you almost completely neglect getting a qb maybe waiting around for a jay cutler or a kolb, you also have the option of grabbing qbs that are playing weak defenses. And there is always a large supply of starting qbs.

    on the other hand there is a much smaller supply of starting rbs.

    so while brees will undoubtedly outscore cutler. will he really destroy cutler plus 5 other qbs who get to play the rams every week (ie start the qb maybe matt moore if he is playing a not so special d).

    And while qbs are the high point machines, they are also much less dependable. Yet they are the most predictable. While it is tough to guess a breakout game for a wr, a qb is usually (and this is just what it seems) hot against bad defenses (especially if that team can stay in the game with a good O) and weak against the opposite.

    My strategy over that last few years has not been to undervalue a qb, but to grab three later qbs and pick the one who looks to have the good game. Rather than get brees in the first maybe cutler young and matt moore.

  5. My strategy in recent years was similar: draft two quarterbacks, often back to back, in the middle rounds. A few years ago, my Roethlisberger/Hasselbeck combo could match any top-tier QB.

    The game is changing, though, and securing a top QB (esp in 2 QB leagues) is imperative. I currently have Rodgers (far) ahead of every other QB. How much? 364 projected points compared to just 301 for the second QB. That difference is enormous and a big reason I will be selecting Rodgers in the first round of a ton of drafts this season.

    After that, I see seven QBs in the second tier. . .Romo, Schaub, Manning, Brees, Brady, Rivers, and Cutler. There is a dramatic dropoff after this tier, so I will be sure to nab at least one of them in every draft.

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