Rushing Quarterbacks Are Still Fantasy Football Game-Changers
It's been almost six years now since Rich Hribar's numberFire article coining rushing quarterbacks the "Konami Code" of fantasy football. He identified that quarterbacks that ran the ball at least 100 times on a season put up disproportionately strong season-long fantasy finishes.
Both fantasy football and the NFL landscape have changed a lot since then, though. Fantasy football has grown, and as the average player has become sharper, targeting rushing quarterbacks in fantasy has become commonplace. And with the rise in best ball leagues and daily fantasy, it can be just as important to know how things shape up on a single-game basis instead of just looking for season-long inefficiencies.
The 2018 season was also huge for rushing quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson averaged 17.0 carries per game in seven regular season starts, putting him on a 16-game pace for 272 -- more than twice what Michael Vick ever recorded in a single season. In fact, Vick's career-high carry total of 123 doesn't even match what Jackson did in a partial season, tallying 143 despite being a gadget player in the first half of the year.
Last season also saw five quarterbacks record at least 75 rush attempts, which has only happened once in a season since 2002 (a stretch that includes two seasons in which no quarterbacks ran the ball 75 times).
With the increase in high-volume rushers at the position, it's worth knowing exactly what you're getting with this unique set of players.
Has the Market Adjusted in Season-Long Leagues?
If you've been playing fantasy football for long, you know just how much harder the game is getting. As fantasy sports have exploded in popularity, the amount of good information available for savvy players has ballooned. There was a time when waiting on the quarterback position was a controversial idea in standard leagues. Now there's only one quarterback with an average draft position (ADP) inside the top 60 on Draft.com over the past month.
Once something becomes common knowledge, the edge in acting on that information can disappear. In extreme cases, the market can even overreact, and there ends up being an edge in doing the opposite of what used to be the profitable play. So first we should identify whether the market has removed the edge in targeting quarterbacks that run the ball.
Of the 30 quarterback season with at least 50 carries over the last three years, 19 passers finished ahead of their ADP, with a better rank in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks than their draft rank at the position.
That's not a huge hit rate, especially over such a small sample, but if we adjust for quarterbacks that didn't play a full season (including extrapolating from Lamar Jackson's seven starts last year), that jumps to 21 -- or 70% finishing above where they were drafted
Two of the quarterbacks in that group weren't even being selected high enough to register in MyFantasyLeague's ADP data, but even if we exclude them, the group finished an average of 1.75 spots higher than they were drafted. Making those same adjustments for partial-season passers, they outperformed their draft spot by a much bigger average of 3.39 spots.
With kneeldowns counting as rush attempts, this data could get skewed. Quarterbacks who are playing well are likely to be winning more games, so they're likely to kneel more. But even if we exclude the passers who didn't eclipse 50 non-kneeldown rushes in that group, we see them outperform ADP by 3.32, so the kneeldowns didn't prove especially relevant.
This isn't a large cohort of passers, and 16-game NFL seasons don't give us huge samples to work with. But the trend here has been pretty clear -- even with increased awareness in the value of rushing quarterbacks, they're still being under-drafted in season-long leagues. This is especially the case in typical (non-best ball) leagues, where there's not much downside if your quarterback gets hurt and you have to stream the position, making the per-game numbers more meaningful than season-long numbers for those passers with shortened seasons.
Do They Really Have a Higher Weekly Floor? (They Do)
With quarterbacks so easy to stream on a week-to-week basis and the rise in daily fantasy sports, it's also important to know what's going on with these players from a weekly standpoint.
The idea of this high weekly floor is probably not new to you, as the perceived safety and high floor is at the core of the what rushing quarterbacks are typically talked up for. Lamar Jackson was a DFS cash game staple late last season, since his rushing stats were good for about nine fantasy points per game before you even got to factoring in his more high-variance passing production.
This is no myth, either. If we look at the 2,726 regular season games in which a quarterback attempts at least five passes over the last five seasons, rushing quarterbacks were a lot less likely to leave you with a dud.
|Rush Attempts||<10 Fantasy Points||<12 Fantasy Points|
Whether we use 10 or 12 fantasy points (or pretty much any value) as a cut-off for a "dud" week, quarterbacks quickly become less likely to bust as they run the ball more often. Quarterbacks with at least five carries in a game are only about half as likely as the entire group to fall below 12 fantasy points, and are only 38.9% as likely to give you fewer than 10 fantasy points.
Again, kneeldowns can skew this data some, but that doesn't change things too drastically. Quarterbacks scoring at least 12 fantasy points average 2.4 fantasy points per game from rushing stats -- 3.6-times more than the sub-12 group, despite the fact that kneeling the ball generates negative fantasy production. Quarterbacks that finish with 10 to 12 fantasy points have also seen an average of 13.3% of their fantasy production come on the ground, compared to an only barely-higher 13.9% for the sub-10 group. Kneeling may inflate their rushing volume slightly, but since it does nothing to add to their production, this shows value in the rushing production itself.
What About Upside?
There's only so far a high floor can get you though. Yes, it's useful if you're trying to play a near-minimum salary quarterback in DFS cash games, but that's about it.
In best ball leagues, 12 fantasy points are incredibly replaceable, and with multiple quarterbacks vying for your starting spot you want to hit with a big game. If you're paying up for a quarterback in cash games, 12 fantasy points isn't anywhere near the value you need. If you're playing in DFS tournaments, you're gunning for first place and floor is all but meaningless.
Here are the average rushing attempts per game and the percentage of fantasy points coming from rushing stats (again -- we don't want to confuse the causation between kneeling the ball and productive games) for quarterbacks that hit a few of the more appealing fantasy benchmarks.
|Fantasy Points||Average Rush Att.||Rushing FP %|
We aren't just dealing with a couple of high-volume outliers skewing these averages, either. Here's a look at what percentage of performances above various fantasy scoring thresholds hit certain minimum rush-attempt marks.
|Fantasy Points||<3 Carries||3+ Carries||5+ Carries||7+ Carries||10+ Carries|
The frequency of high-volume rushing games increase steadily as your goal fantasy score increase. And, of course, looking at it the other way, big fantasy games become more frequent as rushing volume increases:
|Carries||15+ FP||20+ FP||25+ FP||30+ FP|
This trend jumps out about as clearly as possible. It doesn't really matter what benchmark you're using to qualify a "boom" game from a fantasy quarterback -- the more they run the ball, the more likely they are to hit those marks.
What it Means
It's all well and good to know the trends, but what's really important is what we can do with this knowledge -- so here are some actionable takeaways from the data.
When in doubt, choose the quarterback that runs.
The edge with rushing quarterbacks isn't big enough that you can just blindly put all of your faith in them. But it's certainly pronounced enough that if you're stuck pondering a toss-up between a rushing QB and a non-rushing QB, you want the one who's going to run the ball -- whether you're making a season-long or one-week decision.
Rushing quarterbacks are great cash game plays.
A quarterback that notches at least five carries in a game has been 17.49% more likely to record at least 15 fantasy points than the position's average over the last five years and have been 13.92% more likely to hit 20 fantasy points. They've also been 16.7% less likely to fall below 12 fantasy points. Those are big edges, making them much safer plays than their counterparts.
Rushing quarterbacks are great tournament plays.
A reduced bust potential doesn't mean their "boom" is limited, either. Over one third of all the passers to hit the 25 and 30 fantasy-point marks over the last five years recorded at least five rush attempts, and quarterbacks who recorded at least seven rush attempts hit 30 fantasy points over 10% of the time -- more than twice as often as all quarterbacks.
Don't be afraid to reach for a rushing quarterback.
This is especially true in typical 12-team leagues where it doesn't matter much if your quarterback gets injured because the position is very replaceable. Quarterbacks that run the ball have finished ranked over three spots ahead of where they've been drafted over the last three seasons, so if you're hesitating to pull the trigger on one because you're a round ahead of his ADP, you can still feel good about the value you're getting.
The market is slow to adapt.
Rushing quarterbacks' value is nothing new. My introduction to the concept came in 2013 from Rich Hribar's article that I linked at the top of this piece. This is not some niche idea that is counter-intuitive and hotly debated. There's a reason Lamar Jackson was a chalky DFS play through much of the second half of the season. But in redraft leagues, the edge still hasn't been adjusted for.
This is important to note not only for this concept, but for any edge in fantasy football. Even as an idea becomes commonplace, the market may not have fully adjusted for it. There are still hold-outs drafting quarterbacks early, despite the fact that even your friend from high school who does no research beyond skimming a magazine he bought on the way to the draft has probably read that you're better off waiting on the position. Yes, fantasy football players are getting sharper, but when you find an edge, you can feel good about attacking it relentlessly.
Last season saw historic rushing volume at the quarterback position, and nothing going on in the league suggests we're likely to see that change much. Two first-round quarterbacks from 2018 averaged north of seven rush attempts per game, and 2019's first-overall pick was a quarterback that ran the ball 140 times in his final NCAA season, averaging 10.0 per game, while the third quarterback off the board averaged 5.6 carries.
The three quarterbacks that had a top-10 fantasy finish and fewer than 40 carries last season had an average age of 36.7. Josh Allen averaged only 0.2 fantasy points per game fewer than Tom Brady. While the value of an elite pocket passer may still reign supreme in real football (a topic for another, probably even lengthier article), what Hribar said in 2013 is as true as ever:
As fantasy football author C.D. Carter reminds us all of the time, fantasy football is a football-based math game, not a math-based football game.
Whether rushing quarterbacks can provide an edge in real football isn't relevant for our purposes. They provide a very clear edge in our game, and you should take full advantage of it.