Did Lamar Jackson Break the Late-Round Quarterback Strategy?
It's not a game of chicken. It's a game of value.
That's what I've told people for years about the late-round quarterback strategy in fantasy football. The goal isn't to just be the last person to draft a quarterback. The goal is to maximize value, and maximizing value typically means drafting your quarterback late.
Fantasy managers who took Lamar Jackson last season know what I'm talking about. No quarterback in fantasy football history gave a better return on investment than Jackson less than a year ago. We saw 13 quarterbacks drafted ahead of him according to My Fantasy League's average draft position data, but Jackson emerged as the top signal-calling option.
And I'll be honest, after watching Lamar Jackson do what we did in 2019, I've started to second guess some things. I may have once written a fantasy football e-book titled The Late-Round Quarterback, but has the fantasy football world now gone too far in the other direction? Are we now undervaluing some quarterbacks?
Did Lamar Jackson break the late-round quarterback draft strategy?
A Typically Reliable Strategy
There are four main ideas that come together to show us that drafting a quarterback late in your fantasy football league is optimal: supply and demand, predictability, scoring variance, and opportunity cost. I covered these topics in great detail a couple of years ago, and two of the concepts -- supply and demand and predictability -- really help drive home the main point of the strategy.
Supply and demand refers to the notion that there's an excess supply of passers in your league since every team is starting just one quarterback. That's why you can typically find usable starters on your waiver wire each week.
This also brings down the cost of acquiring a quarterback in drafts. The 12th quarterback, on average, has been selected at Pick 93 over the last decade in single-quarterback PPR leagues, per My Fantasy League's data. That's the last hypothetical starter in a 12-team league. The 24th running back -- the final running back starter in a 12-team league -- has been selected at Pick 67. At wide receiver, the 24th one has been taken at Pick 59.
That's all because teams don't need quarterbacks like they do wide receivers and running backs. That lowers a quarterback's cost. Hence, the late-round quarterback strategy.
Predictability is....well, it's predictability. It's about how accurately we can project quarterback performance on a yearly and weekly basis.
We're way worse at projecting quarterback finishes than you might think when it comes to looking at pre-season expectation against post-season result. A lot of earlier-round quarterback drafters will cite "safety" as a reason to get one in the second or third round, but our ability to properly predict where quarterbacks finish has been no different than at running back and wide receiver.
Don't believe me? Take a look at the r-squared values for average draft position versus points scored among top-12 quarterbacks versus top-24 wide receivers and running backs over the last 10 years.
We're looking at top-12 quarterbacks to top-24 running backs and wide receivers here because, like I said above, you're not starting as many quarterbacks as you are backs and wideouts.
But what these numbers tell us is that average draft position explains top-24 running back and wide receiver season-long fantasy point totals better than it does top-12 quarterbacks. It doesn't do a great job of explaining much since things like injuries happen, but the lesson here is that friends don't let friends draft quarterbacks for "safety."
On a weekly level, quarterbacks are also more predictable. It's easier to forecast quarterback success in a given week than it is at other positions. Without boring you with the data -- which you can find here -- you can just think about this theoretically.
A quarterback usually drops back to pass 30 or more times in a given game, giving us a large sample to work off of when we're projecting. A running back has to actually be on the field, and a coach is choosing whether or not that running back will get the ball. Wide receivers need to get open to be targeted. They -- running backs and wide receivers -- come with more variance because they control less of the game. They're not just handed the rock on every snap.
That, along with an excess supply of quarterbacks on your waiver wire, allows you to stream the position, where you play a different passer each week based on matchup. Streaming just makes quarterback value even weaker.
A Different Animal
What if Lamar Jackson is different?
Like, sure, we probably all understand the concepts I just outlined. Usable quarterbacks can be drafted late and, in sum, we're not all that great at projecting which quarterbacks are going to be good in a given season.
But what if Lamar Jackson is different?
Typically, top quarterbacks in fantasy football aren't giving you the same type of positional scoring edge that you'll find at running back and wide receiver. This is where scoring variance comes into play. A simplistic way to see this is by looking at the top-scoring player at each position by year and comparing him to the worst hypothetical starter. (This, by the way, is the basis of Value-Based Drafting, which has been around forever.)
Since 2011, the top running back, on average, has scored about 218 more PPR points than the 24th-ranked one. At wide receiver, that number's 147. At quarterback, where we're comparing him to the 12th-best starter, it's 123.
On one of my podcasts, which is appropriately called Living the Stream, my cohost and I have successfully streamed (we've kept track of our waiver wire picks) a QB6 to QB8 each season over the last six years. By recommending quarterbacks who were rostered in less than roughly one-third of leagues, we were able to raise that quarterback baseline to more of a QB7 overall rather than the QB12. That would mean the 123-point difference listed above is probably closer to 95.
You can look at how quarterbacks score points in a lot of different ways to show that they're less valuable than the higher-in-demand positions in fantasy football. Points per game shows similar results, as does "usable weeks," which is something I cited in the aforementioned study done a couple of years back.
But, uh, Jackson scored 416.4 fantasy points in 15 games last year. His cumulative numbers were 153 points better than the QB12, and he was providing 10-plus more points per game than that player as well. Despite another strong season of streaming on Living the Stream, Jackson was still 8.4 points per game better than our Frankenstein waiver wire quarterback.
Lamar Jackson was a difference-maker.
So, I'll ask the question again: What if Lamar Jackson is different?
A Natural Regression
Jackson may never do what he did in 2019 ever again. It seems weird to say that since it was his first full season as an NFL starter, but math isn't exactly on his side.
He gets deserved love for what he can do with his legs, but what boosted him quite a bit last year was the numbers he posted with his arm. He had the 32nd season in NFL history with 36 or more passing touchdowns and, most importantly to this discussion, he tossed those scores on just 401 attempts. That gave him a touchdown rate (touchdowns divided by attempts) of 9.0%.
We've seen that high of a touchdown rate just once in NFL history among passers with at least 300 attempts. (Peyton Manning had a 9.9% rate in 2004.) Throughout the existence of the league, we've rarely seen quarterbacks hit the 8.0% touchdown rate mark.
|Player||Year||TD Rate||TD Rate Next Season||Difference|
There've been 13 quarterback seasons in NFL history where the passer had an 8.0% touchdown rate or better. Of the 12 with next-season data (Tom Brady's 2009 was used above, for the record), none were able to improve on that touchdown rate. And the average dip in rate was 3.0%.
Had Lamar Jackson thrown at a 6.0% touchdown rate instead of a 9.0% one last year, he would've thrown 12 fewer passing touchdowns.
This doesn't simply mean that Jackson would've scored 48 fewer fantasy points, though. It doesn't mean he'd be scoring 3.2 points per game less than he actually scored last year.
Those touchdowns have to go somewhere. They wouldn't necessarily disappear. Considering he's already the most prolific rushing quarterback we've ever seen, Jackson may have found the end zone a couple of more times on the ground to make up for the loss.
But this does bring up an important point. Not only is Jackson set to regress as a passer, but the Ravens are likely to regress as an entire offense.
Baltimore scored 58 touchdowns last year on offense, tying them for the seventh-most by a team since 2011. You can find the list of teams with 55 or more touchdowns below:
|Team||Year||Total TD||Total TD Next Season||Difference|
Of the 11 teams with next-season data, just one saw an increase in total touchdowns the following year. The average decrease was nearly 14 touchdowns.
Now, some of that decline is skewed by what we saw from Denver in 2014 and Kansas City last year. The gist here is that when teams do really, really well -- when they score lots and lots of touchdowns -- it's typically hard for them to do it over and over again. Even the 14 teams with 50 to 54 touchdowns saw a decline of 11.5 the next season.
...so maybe Jackson's decline in touchdown rate won't be met with an increase in rushing touchdowns?
A Cost to Acquire
The fantasy football world focuses a lot on individual player analysis, and for good reason. We're drafting those individual players.
But every player is a value at some cost. I may hate the idea of buying a Peloton bike because it costs as much as a semester of college, but if that price is cut in half? If it's a quarter of the price? Then we're talking.
The answer to drafting Lamar Jackson this year can't be to simply avoid him because of regression. You're missing a key piece of information when you do that, and that's the cost to acquire him.
"What's that?! It's opportunity cost's music!"
The definition of opportunity cost is "the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen." When you pick Christian McCaffrey first overall, your opportunity cost is Saquon Barkley or any other player you might've selected with that option. When you take Lamar Jackson in the second or third round, your opportunity cost is the running back, wide receiver, or tight end you could've drafted instead of Jackson.
The question surrounding Lamar Jackson in fantasy football shouldn't really be, "Should I draft Lamar Jackson in the early rounds this year?" That puts the focus entirely on Jackson himself. Instead, it should be, "What am I forgoing by getting Jackson at this particular pick?"
According to FantasyPros expert consensus rankings, Jackson is currently being ranked as the 25th-best player in fantasy football. If we assume this is where the market will price him, then we're talking about taking Jackson over players like D.J. Moore, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Leonard Fournette.
That's the opportunity cost in getting Jackson.
Rather than spend our time analyzing the value of those players, let's look at this a little differently. Our goal in fantasy football -- especially in the early rounds -- is to draft a true difference-maker, right? We want players who will dramatically outproduce their competition. That's specifically the case at running back and wide receiver, the most important positions in fantasy football.
How, exactly, do you spot these players? I'm not here to dive into that, per se, though I've written about spotting breakout players in the past. Here, I'm more concerned with where we draw the line of a player being a difference-maker or not.
One way to figure this out is to look at final-season rankings over the last nine years. On average, here's how many PPR points the top wide receiver and running back have scored over this time, along with the second-best one, the third-best one, and so on.
All this is telling us, for example, is that the eighth-best wide receiver over the last decade or so has scored, on average, 269.69 (nice and nice) PPR points. That's about six points worse than the WR7, and roughly seven points better than the WR9.
To reiterate, we're trying to figure out where these difference-makers land at the end of a fantasy season. Or, to think of this another way, we're trying to find where the difference in fantasy points scored from one player to the next starts to slow down and flatten.
For instance, at running back, there's a 10.1-point difference between the RB8 and the RB9. Once you get to RB9, you start to see a consistent drop in overall points that's about half of that. That tells us the RB8 spot is sort of a turning point in terms of being a difference-maker for your fantasy team.
At wide receiver, that looks to be WR9, but it's less glaring and obvious.
Let's use those two spots as what we're striving for when we say "difference-maker." We're looking for a top-nine wide receiver and a top-eight running back. In an ideal world, we'd have a top-two or three-player at these positions, but we've got to be reasonable.
(This is still an article on Lamar Jackson, I promise.)
If we're nervous about taking on too high of an opportunity cost when selecting Jackson early, then we should see where these top-eight running backs and top-nine wide receivers have traditionally been drafted. Because if top-eight running backs have usually been selected in the double-digit rounds, then why wouldn't we get Lamar Jackson in the second round? If we're that pathetic at projecting the running back position, why not take on a quarterback early?
We're pathetic, but we're not that pathetic.
|Drafted Top 10||Drafted 11-30||Drafted 31-50||Drafted After 50|
The chart above shows where the top-eight running backs and top-nine wide receivers have been drafted over the last nine years. We've seen 29.2% of top-eight running backs, for example, drafted in the top-10 picks of fantasy drafts during this time. Roughly 62.5% of top-eight backs have been selected in the top-30.
You can use this chart to really grasp the idea of opportunity cost. If you were to take Jackson in the top 30 picks, let's say, then you'd be missing out on a much higher chance at a difference-maker at running back and wide receiver.
Historically, running backs and wide receivers drafted in the 30s and 40s haven't brought a whole lot of heat. And even though the "drafted after Pick 50" column looks strong, it's really only because there are so many running backs and wide receivers drafted after Round 4. The hit rate isn't very good at all.
What this is telling you -- screaming at you -- is that there's very little reason to select a quarterback in the first two-and-a-half rounds of drafts. You shouldn't be thinking about a passer until, at the earliest, the middle of Round 3. Even then, it's probably too early.
A Questionable Projection
"With everyone opting to go with a late-round quarterback strategy, doesn't that make early-round quarterbacks a little bit more valuable?"
In theory, yes. If everyone's waiting on a quarterback, that would mean a player like Jackson would slip past where he's typically being selected, making him more of a value.
Timing your early-round quarterback selection is key, though. And it's something that often goes overlooked in these discussions.
When you take your quarterback early, you better hope other teams follow suit. Otherwise, with each passing round, your pick becomes less and less valuable.
Let's say you get Lamar Jackson at the start of the third round, right where fantasy analysts are ranking him. Patrick Mahomes, you'd think, would get picked up soon after. But he doesn't. Teams keep passing on Mahomes, and it gets to be Round 8. Finally, someone snags him rather than grabbing their fifth wide receiver.
The team getting Mahomes clearly extracted a lot of value with their pick. And you, the person who selected Jackson, ended up getting owned. Considering how the rest of the draft room felt about the quarterback position, you likely would've been able to wait longer to get Lamar Jackson. Even if you missed on Jackson, getting Mahomes that late would've still been the better pick.
Yes, I just described a "draft run" in a convoluted way. No, I don't regret it.
The main reason to bring this up sort of relates back to the scoring variance point from earlier. How big of an edge is Jackson giving you? Is it enough to potentially lose an advantage if and when the rest of your leaguemates go with a late-round quarterback approach?
Today, my projections have Lamar Jackson as this year's top fantasy football quarterback.
|Player||Pass Yards||Pass TDs||Rush Yards||Rush TDs||INT||Fantasy Points|
But not by much.
|Player||Pass Yards||Passing TDs||Rush Yards||Rush TDs||INT||Fantasy Points|
That doesn't make drafting Lamar Jackson early a must.
An Unchanged Strategy
Lamar Jackson shouldn't force us to take a quarterback in the first three rounds of fantasy drafts. The opportunity cost in doing so is high. He's likely to regress. There are handfuls of usable quarterbacks late in drafts. And if you're the first team to take a quarterback, you run the risk of openly overvaluing the position more than your leaguemates.
In the middle of the fourth round when opportunity cost drops? Sure, fire away.
You know, the truth is, the question about the late-round quarterback strategy in fantasy football this year shouldn't really revolve around Lamar Jackson. It shouldn't be about whether or not you're willing to take Jackson in the top-25 or the top-30.
Instead, our focus should be on the fact that the fantasy football world has gotten smarter.
In the past, a season like Ryan Tannehill's 2019 would've almost assuredly catapulted his cost the following year into the top-10 at the quarterback position. Yet, today -- the following year -- he's being drafted as a mid-range QB2.
Historically, fantasy managers didn't put a premium on quarterback rushing production. They ignored what's been dubbed The Konami Code of fantasy football. We don't see that anymore. The consensus top-seven quarterbacks this year are all players who bring extra juice with their legs.
So, no, Lamar Jackson isn't what could break the idea of drafting quarterbacks late in fantasy football.
As the fantasy football world gets sharper, the late-round quarterback strategy may slowly morph into the middle-round quarterback strategy.