It’s not just about how you get there. The journey matters, too.
In fantasy football, we often look at cumulative season results to draw conclusions about a player. “Player X finished as the 11th-best wide receiver, therefore Player X was the 11th-most valuable wide receiver,” someone will infer.
But as we all know, fantasy football is a weekly game. We’re not drafting a team, letting it go and never touching it again (unless you’re in a best ball league, of course). We’re plugging in different options at running back, getting a stud off the wire at tight end (hey there, Julius Thomas) and trading players who we want to sell high on. Our teams change - each and every week.
Sometimes cumulative data can tell the wrong story. After all, what if a player has 100 points, but scored 99 of them in Week 7?
(OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but you get the idea.)
Instead of looking at the year-to-date rankings and saying, "Yes! I own Cam Newton! I have the third-best quarterback in fantasy!", let's dig deeper and see how consistent that quarterback actually was on a week to week basis. And rather than mentioning the lower-tiered guys like Jason Campbell or Geno Smith, who make post a top performance here and there, let's take a stab at dissecting the options who rank in the top 15 at the position through 14 weeks of pretend pigskin.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Cam comes in as the third-best fantasy quarterback in the league, making it appear as though he was a fantastic pickup for fantasy football owners this year. But, per Rich Hribar (a writer for XN Sports and here at numberFire), Cam’s finished in the weekly top 12 in just six of his 13 games this year. Keep in mind, teams start just one quarterback per week in a 12-team league, so that’s a pretty discouraging ratio.
For some comparison, Matthew Stafford, who trails Cam by a little over one point on the season, has 10 top-12 finishes. The reason for Stafford’s lack of cumulative success (if we want to call it that) is because he has yet to have a top-three weekly performance at quarterback this year.
Newton’s been solid this season, ranking 13th in our Passing Net Expected Points metric. Really though, his advanced passing statistics are nearly identical pace-wise to what he’s done historically. His rushing metrics are what catapult his ranking in fake football, and because ground numbers are usually more touchdown-dependent - that is, touchdowns can sway the number of fantasy points scored more dramatically - there’s a constant struggle in the consistency department for a guy like Cam.
Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
It's hard to believe, but Alex Smith is the 12th-best quarterback in fantasy football right now. But it hasn't been an easy path, as I'm sure a lot of Smith owners can attest to.
Smith has posted fantastic fantasy performances against softer defenses (Denver twice, Cleveland, San Diego, Dallas, New York), but has also failed miserably in other cake matchups (Oakland, Buffalo). I don't care if game flow was a factor - I, and we, care about production in fantasy.
Smith doesn't have the upside that other top-15 fantasy quarterbacks have, as the best he's finished in a given week is number five at the position. Ryan Tannehill and Matt Ryan are the only two quarterbacks in the top 15 who haven't finished in the weekly top 5, but they're also three and four notches lower than Smith in year-to-date rankings.
The Chiefs passer has been serviceable for quarterback streamers this year, but inconsistent nonetheless. Most owners have to cross their fingers and hope that he doesn't fall victim to game flow in some of his easier matchups, thanks to Jamaal Charles and that defense. That, and Smith has simply looked bad at times this season.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Roethlisberger sits as the ninth-best quarterback in fantasy, but has hit the top 12 in a given week just five times. Moreover, Big Ben was the 12th-best passer in two of those top-12 performances – there’s an easy chance that his “five” could be “three.”
So why the disparity? Well, Ben’s posted two four-touchdown games this season, as well as a contest this past week against Miami where he threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns, totaling 24.8 standard fantasy points. Though he’s been consistent at putting up QB15-20 numbers, scoring fewer than 10 points in every week since Week 1, Pittsburgh’s quarterback has benefited greatly from a few monster performances.
Fortunately, his big games have come in the latter part of the season, making his roller coaster season not nearly as unpredictable as a player like Newton. Ben’s been a legitimate QB1 for weeks now, so perhaps including him on this list is a little unfair. But even still, because of his early-season struggles, some of his late-season gems have been wasted on the waiver wire.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Like Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton has just five top-12 weekly finishes, even though he’s the number 10 quarterback in fantasy.
Unlike Roethlisberger, Dalton’s peaked relatively haphazardly throughout the season. He’s seen four top-five weekly quarterback finishes this year, but they came in Weeks 6, 7, 8 and 14 – Roethlisberger’s have been rolling in over this second half of the season.
Cincinnati’s favorite ginger also has three performances where he scored fewer than 10 fantasy points. Alex Smith and Tom Brady are the only top-15 quarterbacks who also fall into that unfortunate category, but they also rank lower than Dalton from a cumulative perspective.
I recall writing about Dalton’s streakiness earlier in the season, and we’ve certainly felt it throughout the season. His team is winning, but it’s not solely on him – he’s the 15th-best passer according to our Passing NEP data, too.
Honorable Mention: Colin Kaepernick would be on this list, but currently ranks as the 16th-best standard-scoring quarterback.