Fantasy Football: Is the Late-Round Quarterback Strategy Dead?
A group of conspiracy theorists believe that the world ended in 2012.
Yes, our world. The one you're reading this from. The one I'm writing this from. It actually ended, some think, nine years ago.
We still exist in a world, but not the same one from your childhood. According to believers, our consciousness has shifted to a new universe, and that movement explains some of the seemingly strange things that have happened across the globe in recent history.
Maybe that universe alteration is the reason we saw such a change in fantasy football, too. Back in 2012, we watched five quarterbacks get drafted, on average, across the first round and a half of fantasy drafts. Eight different passers had average draft positions in the first four rounds.
Early-round quarterbacking had blatantly arrived to the fantasy football world.
And it was a terrible, terrible idea.
Quarterback costs have steadily dropped since that point in time. At least, until this season.
While a late-round quarterback approach to fantasy football has made sense for years and years, the market -- the fantasy community -- seems to be shifting gears a bit in 2021. What was once an obvious way to gain an edge in your fantasy league, late-round quarterbacking now seems less optimal.
A Changing Landscape
About a year ago, yours truly sat down and analyzed whether or not Lamar Jackson broke the late-round quarterback strategy. The reason the question was being asked was pretty straightforward: it was clear the league was changing. More and more quarterbacks had dual-threat ability to go along with their strong arms when, historically, it had typically been a "one or the other" thing. It was rare to find quarterbacks who could pass the ball efficiently all while capturing 500 yards on the ground.
And that was important. Rushing quarterbacks have been known to break fantasy football leagues given the way the game is scored. So if these mobile quarterbacks were now matching passing numbers with traditional pocket throwers, then, unlike previous seasons, they were bound to give you a real edge in fantasy football.
It seemed like quarterbacks could become important again.
This is an excerpt from the conclusion of the article written last season:
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.
We're now seeing this middle-round quarterback method play out today, and it all stems from what happened during the 2020 season.
But that hasn't exactly been the case. Here's a look at the correlation between average draft position (where a quarterback was selected on average in fantasy drafts) and post-season result (how that quarterback finished in points scored) among top-24 quarterbacks each season since 2011:
In 2012 and 2013, we were pretty good at predicting which quarterbacks were going to perform well in fantasy football. The R-Squared values being more significant shows that.
Post-2013, things got pretty rough. Not only was it becoming rarer for quarterbacks to really separate themselves from the rest of the pack in fantasy points scored, which lowered their overall value, but the market was, to put it kindly, absolutely horrific at predicting which quarterbacks would be strong ones in fantasy football. (For the record, these numbers were lower than other positions in fantasy football.)
The 2017 season is a great example. The R-Squared value, as you can see, was zero that year. That tells us that there was absolutely no correlation between where you drafted a top-24 quarterback and how they finished. Average draft position didn't explain a quarterback's finish at all. That season, there were more quarterbacks drafted at QB10 or later who finished as top-six passers than quarterbacks who were drafted inside the top-10.
If you glance at the 2020 line in the chart above, you'll notice a stronger correlation between pre-season expectation and post-season result. The 2020 season gave us the most predictable quarterback outcome that we've seen since 2013.
In turn, fantasy football managers are now finding it easier to draft their quarterbacks in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds.
But is that a logical reaction? Should one season of stronger forecasting really shift the way we view the position?
Passing Regression Is Real
Our poor ability to project the quarterback position in fantasy football through the years may seem a little odd. With the same elite passers sticking around year after year, wouldn't we expect there to be more stability?
Not exactly. The position is scored in a way where passing touchdowns matter a whole lot more than yardage totals. As a result, we get variance.
Touchdown rate, or touchdowns divided by attempts, is one key way to measure this.
The scatterplot above is showing touchdown rate on the x-axis, and then how that touchdown rate changed the following year on the y-axis. The sample includes all quarterbacks who had 300 or more attempts in back to back seasons since 2011.
Essentially, this chart is showing regression. Of the players who had a touchdown rate of 7% or better, none improved on that rate the following year. On the reverse side, among players with a 3% touchdown rate or worse, every single one saw an improvement the following season.
If we know touchdown rates fluctuate, and if we know touchdowns are really important to scoring, then it would make sense to see that variance reflected in our forecasts.
So, then, why did the correlation between pre-season expectation and post-season result get stronger specifically in 2020?
Well, the market finally properly factored in rushing.
There's no doubt that the NFL has morphed into a league that features mobility at the quarterback position. Just take a look at the percentage of rushing yards and rushing touchdowns that have come from quarterbacks over the last decade:
|Year||Percent QB Rushing Yards||Percent QB Rushing Touchdowns|
We've slowly seen an increase within both categories, with the percent of rushing yards and rushing touchdowns coming from quarterbacks peaking last season.
This translates to fantasy football.
|Year||Total Points||Points From Rushing||Percent From Rushing|
Over the last two years, we've seen a much, much higher proportion of top-12 quarterback fantasy points come via the ground than in previous seasons. Last year in particular, we saw this insane combination of incredibly high passing totals with incredibly high rushing totals.
We've already seen that the rate in which quarterbacks throw touchdowns regresses year over year. With rushing, that's not the case.
Using the same sample of quarterbacks since 2011 who hit 300 or more pass attempts in consecutive seasons, let's look at how well touchdown rate correlates year over year compared to rushing yards per game.
|Rushing Yards Per Game||0.72|
Predicting which quarterbacks are going to run the ball well is far easier than predicting which quarterbacks are going to throw the ball well. At least when we're focused on fantasy football.
And now that the NFL game is shifting and we're getting more than just a couple of true dual-threat quarterbacks, we, collectively, can place those dual-threat quarterbacks at the top of our rankings, resulting in better average draft position predictability at the position.
The Death of the Late-Round Quarterback?
Similar to what was said last year, this whole idea of whether or not you should go after a late-round quarterback depends entirely on the market. It depends on how fantasy football managers draft. And it's always depended on that.
If the market continues to put a premium on quarterback rushing, as it finally started doing last year, then it's going to be more difficult to accurately predict which late-round quarterback is going to hit. We've seen how important that element is to a quarterback's ceiling, and if there aren't any to choose from in the later rounds, then you'll be forced to select a quarterback earlier in order to have a shot at a high-ceiling quarterback. Otherwise, you're simply betting on variance -- you're betting on an outlier season from a passing touchdown standpoint, similar to what we saw from Aaron Rodgers last year.
But, no, this doesn't mean the late-round quarterback strategy is dead.
Most leagues have 10 or 12 teams in them. If the true dual-threat quarterback pool grows to a number that matches or exceeds that, then it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to reach for a quarterback. Because you'd get a dual-threat quarterback. And you'd get a dual-threat quarterback. And you'd get a dual-threat quarterback.
Everyone would get a dual-threat quarterback with a true QB1 ceiling.
And, interestingly enough, we've got a quarterback class that just entered the fantasy football world that consists of some really good rushing quarterbacks. If any of them hit, then we're getting even closer to the point in time where the selection of high-impact quarterbacks is deep.
Will that happen this season? We probably shouldn't bet on it. But if we go with a late-round quarterback strategy -- if we get caught without one of the mobile quarterbacks in the middle rounds -- we should still strive for the dual-threat upside.
That's why, for anyone going with a late-round quarterback approach, this season may be the year of the rookie quarterback.