Don’t Sleep on Gardner Minshew in Fantasy Football
Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Gardner Minshew with the fifth pick of the sixth round in the NFL Draft. They'd already signed Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million deal to be their starting quarterback earlier in the offseason, but an injury to Foles in the season opener paved the way for Minshew Mania and the unexpected success of the late-round pick in his rookie year.
Jacksonville's offseason moves -- trading Foles to the Chicago Bears, signing only Mike Glennon to serve as a backup, and waiting until their 10th pick in this year's NFL Draft (a sixth-round selection) to select prospect signal caller Jake Luton -- indicate they're willing to give Minshew a legitimate shot at being their long-term quarterback after he flashed as a rookie.
Does Minshew have the upside to be worth taking in the late rounds in fantasy football? Let's dive in.
Scouting Reports and Prospect Evaluations
In a league where teams value quarterbacks immensely, high-end prospects at the position don't slide to the sixth round. As one might deduce from his fall, Minshew's not loaded with tantalizing tools. The scouting grade NFL.com placed on Minshew entering the draft was tied for just 12th-best among quarterbacks in the class.
NFL Draft analyst Lance Zierlein comped Minshew to long-time backup quarterback Chase Daniel. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report graded Minshew as a backup caliber quarterback in his evaluation and comped him to Brian Hoyer. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 169th-best prospect on last year's top-250 big board.
Despite Minshew's modest ranking on Pro Football Focus's big board, Austin Gayle penned a highly complimentary piece about the quarterback. Included in the piece were some eye-catching statistics Minshew posted as a member of Washington State in his final collegiate season -- such as his 89.1 Pro Football Focus passing grade, 80.7 percent adjusted completion percentage, and 1.69 percent turnover-worthy play percentage, numbers that ranked seventh, first, and third, respectively, among 2019 NFL Draft-eligible quarterbacks.
Gayle went so far as to conclude his piece saying, "his commitment to preparation combined with his impressive accuracy bodes well for his floor in the NFL, and as for the height of his ceiling, he should surprise many with just how high he climbs at the next level."
As I noted in the intro, Minshew was thrust into action in Week 1 last year. In all, he played in 14 games, starting 12 of them. Even though he didn't enter the NFL with much fanfare, his play stacked up well against other rookie quarterbacks over the last five years. As you can see in the following table, out of 17 rookie quarterbacks who dropped back a minimum of 200 times since 2015, Minshew tied Carson Wentz for the sixth-best Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back.
|Rank||Year||Player||Team||Drop Backs||Passing NEP Per Drop Back|
Minshew's accuracy was his calling-card tool, and it lived up to the hype last year as measured by NFL Next Gen Stats' expected completion percentage, putting him up there among the best rookie seasons in recent years. NFL Next Gen Stats only go back to 2016, so Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota won't be in the forthcoming table after appearing in the previous one.
As you can see above, Minshew tied for the second-best expected completion percentage among rookie quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs since 2016. He also ranked well in traditional measures. After excluding Nick Mullens and Mason Rudolph from Pro-Football-Reference's table of quarterbacks who've attempted at least 200 passes in their first year (Mullens and Rudolph made their first game appearances after spending a year on the practice squad and the bench, respectively, thus their need to be excluded) since 2015, Minshew ranks sixth in passing yards per game (233.6), fifth in passing touchdowns (21), sixth in touchdown percentage (4.5 percent), second in fewest interceptions (6), second in interception percentage (1.28 percent), and tied for the fourth-highest adjusted yards per passing attempt (6.44).
In addition to posting stellar passing numbers, Minshew unexpectedly ran well, too. His running ability earned him a nod in numberFire colleague Cody Parker's recent piece about late-round quarterbacks who offer rushing upside. I don't have anything to add to his great insight into Minshew's running work as a rookie, and I advise you check out that article -- if you haven't done so already.
Arm Strength and Deep Ball Accuracy
One of the recurring themes among the negatives in the previously cited scouting reports was the perception Minshew possessed lackluster arm strength. In Zierlein's scouting report, he wrote in his weaknesses section, "scouts are concerned by perceived lack of arm strength." Miller's scouting report stated in the weaknesses section, "average to below-average arm strength that shows up when asked to put the ball on a rope and hit targets in stride."
Gayle's write-up painted a more optimistic picture stating, "NFL teams were less concerned with Minshew's arm strength than the media, saying he had 'plenty of arm' and that he met the NFL threshold." Gayle and the evaluators who said he had "plenty of arm" appear prescient after Minshew's showing on deep balls last year.
Johnny Kinsley has charted quarterback accuracy on throws 21-plus yards down field each of the last six years for an annual piece called The Deep Ball Project. Out of the 32 quarterbacks he charted for 2019, Minshew graded out as the seventh-most accurate quarterback on such attempts. In the linked piece, you can see a more detailed breakdown of Minshew's accuracy by various yardage ranges (i.e. 21 to 25, 26 to 30, etc.), throwing direction, under center or shotgun, clean pocket or versus pressure (also broken down by where the pressure came from), in the pocket and out of the pocket, and throwing into an open window or tight window.
Charting can be subjective, so it's promising to see he also graded out impressively on deep balls according to Sports Info Solutions. In fact, saying he graded out impressively is underselling Minshew. Out of quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 passes, Minshew ranked first in Sports Info Solutions proprietary metric IQR on deep balls (which they define as throws where the target depth was at least 20 yards).
Minshew should be aided this year by a few notable additions. The Jags spent a second-round pick on Laviska Shenault, signed tight end Tyler Eifert, and signed pass-catching running back Chris Thompson. The third member of the trio provides a double whammy of positives in the passing game as a talented pass-catching option and by, presumably, reducing the receiving workload of Leonard Fournette.
Out of 40 running backs targeted at least 35 times last year, Thompson ranked 20th with 0.1 Target NEP per target. Conversely, Fournette checked in 39th with -0.1 Target NEP per target. Back in 2017, Thompson's 0.58 Target NEP per target ranked first out of 45 backs targeted at least 35 times. Even if Thompson fails to turn back the clock and is merely average to above-average, he'd offer a sizable pass-catching upgrade over the extremely inefficient Fournette.
Perhaps the most helpful offseason addition for Minshew's 2020 fantasy outlook isn't a fellow player, it's new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Washington's former head coach was fired during the season in 2019, ending a head-coaching tenure that began with Washington in 2014. Prior to serving as a head coach, he was the offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2011 through 2013.
Under his watch, Andy Dalton ranked as QB12 in scoring during the fantasy season (Week 1 through Week 16) in 2012 and QB5 in 2013, and Kirk Cousins finished as QB9 in 2015, QB4 in 2016, and QB6 in 2017, according to FantasyPros. Both quarterbacks were drafted earlier than Minshew in their NFL Draft classes, but neither was a blue chip prospect -- with Dalton selected at pick 35 in 2011 and Cousins snatched up at pick 102 in 2012.
As far as fantasy goes, Minshew is currently being selected as the 26th quarterback off the board in best-ball formats. The expert consensus ranking from FantasyPros is a touch more optimistic, ranking him 24th at quarterback. Our projections have him a wee bit higher than both, projecting him to finish 23rd in scoring at the position.
If Minshew was a higher-profile prospect coming off of the rookie year he had, he'd almost certainly be generating more buzz, likely getting drafted in the teens at quarterback. I'll gladly gobble up the discount that seemingly accompanies the concern about him being a late-round quarterback with ho-hum scouting reports.
He's my kind of low-cost, young QB2 who has a chance to obliterate his draft position -- aided by his running ability -- and jump into fantasy starter territory if he makes strides in his development. Yet, if Minshew flops out of the gate, he can be dumped early for a bye week fill-in or a hot free agent.