Is Tony Romo the Ideal Late-Round Quarterback to Target?
Around this time of the year I get a number of questions from friends and family looking for fantasy football advice. And one common question that I often get is when they should draft an elite quarterback.
And each year, I give each and every one of them the same answer: you don't.
Our Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason explained the reasoning for this perfectly; essentially, the benefits to taking a top-ranked quarterback early in the draft does not outweigh the opportunity cost of passing on an elite option at the running back or wide receiver position.
So with that being said, two questions naturally arise, "When should fantasy football managers target their starting quarterback in drafts? And who should they target?"
For me, I'm looking for guys being drafted in the mid-to-late rounds, who perhaps have fallen out of favor for various reasons (health concerns, a down year the season before, etc.) but have the opportunity and upside to bounce back into elite quarterback territory.
And for this season, I would argue that there's no better candidate to target at quarterback in the late rounds than Dallas Cowboys signal caller Tony Romo.
With his value depressed due to a run-heavy game plan in 2014 that overshadowed his efficiency season and with everything pointing toward Romo taking on a heavier workload in 2015, Romo gives owners the perfect mix of risk and reward this year that fantasy football managers should be looking for at the quarterback position.
Romo Hitting Peak Performance
A full season removed from a back procedure Romo underwent at the end of 2013, quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson has said Romo is now "light years ahead" of where he was last season.
And when we look at Romo's performance on a week-by-week basis, we see that Romo actually started rounding back into his Pro Bowl form by midseason of 2014.
Romo produced eight top-12 performances last year, which was actually the same number as Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. Even more encouragingly, all of these came after his slow start over the first three weeks of the season, including four top-five performances from Week 10 and beyond.
Overall, while Romo's volume was down, his efficiency was at an all-time high.
Romo's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back of 0.31 was second in the league to only Aaron Rodgers (0.34). Beyond this, Romo's mark was actually the 16th-best tally for all quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs since 2000.
For those unfamiliar, NEP is our signature metric which measures a player's contributions to his team's chances of scoring, above or below expectation. If he improves his team's chances of scoring above expectation, he receives a positive mark, and vice-versa if he does the opposite. To learn more about it, check out our glossary.
So essentially, on average Romo was contributing nearly a point to his team's score every three pass drop backs.
Romo also managed a career high in completion percentage (69.9%) and tallied his second-best marks in yards per attempt (8.5), touchdowns (34), and a career-low in interceptions (9).
So while this means Romo's efficiency may be a candidate for regression this year -- especially if he's asked to shoulder a greater workload in DeMarco Murray's absence, it also means that Romo is nowhere near past his prime and might just be hitting his stride with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan calling the plays in Dallas.
A Supporting Cast Built to Air It Out
Last season the Cowboys coaching staff asked the running game to carry the load while Romo got his feet under him.
This season, the coaching staff may be asking Romo to return the favor.
This year's Cowboys backfield features an unproven Joseph Randle alongside underperforming former-Raider Darren McFadden, and Seattle Seahawks castoff Christine Michael. And while Randle recorded a career high 6.7 yards per carry last year, and had a Rushing NEP per attempt of 0.11 that tied him with Kansas City's Jamaal Charles for fourth in the league in this metric, he did so on a very small sample size of just 51 carries.
Much has been said about the strength of this Cowboys offensive line, which ranked second in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus, but the fact of the matter remains: this stable of running backs is far from proven and it's unknown whether this year's cast can replicate the production Pro Bowl running back Murray gave them the year before.
Luckily, this offensive line was also quite adept at pass blocking, ranking fourth in this category as well. And following the acquisition of first-round talent La'el Collins, this line is only expected to get stronger. This unit will form the pocket in which Romo will tear apart opposing defenses, throwing to a bevy of receiving targets including All Pros Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, and the talented, if not inconsistent, Terrance Williams.
Indeed, Bryant and Wiliams ranked near the top of the league in receiving efficiency last season, with their 0.94 and 0.95 Reception NEP placing them fourth and third in this metric, respectively among all receivers with at least 50 targets.
And while many have written Witten off as "over the hill," as our Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason has noted, Witten actually finished as a top-10 tight end last year and in terms of efficiency. Having one of the best years of his career, Witten recorded a 0.82 Reception NEP per target that was just behind more heralded tight ends Rob Gronkowski (0.86) and Travis Kelce (0.83).
So with the run game fielding less than Pro Bowl-worthy talent, an aerial attack filled with Pro Bowl options, and with Romo finally fully healthy to start the year, it wouldn't surprise me to see Linehan dial up a game script closer to the pass heavy schemes he called in Detroit. There his offenses ranked in the top-10 in pass-to-run ratio in four of his five years with the team, including leading the league in 2011 and 2012.
A Favorable Schedule
If all this hasn't convinced you that Romo is an excellent late round quarterback to target, maybe this will: Romo faces perhaps one of the easiest schedules of all signal callers in 2015.
For those looking to stream quarterbacks based on matchups, Romo actually begins the year with an incredibly favorable slate of games, starting the year facing off against the Giants (22nd in schedule-adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play), Eagles (20th), Falcons (28th), and Saints (29th) before going up against the New England Patriots (4th).
And while the Patriots ranked near the top of the league in defensive efficiency against the pass last season, their turnover of Pro Bowl talents in the secondary makes them a far less formidable opponent this season compared to their Super Bowl squad the year prior.
All in all Romo plays 11 games against team's that ranked in the bottom half of Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play last season. This includes two games against the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and Washington Redskins (32nd). And as Pat Thorman wrote for Pro Football Focus two years ago, there's a significant benefit to playing a bottom half-ranked pass defense.
It just goes to show that if you're an elite quarterback, it pays to play in the NFC East this season.
Currently being draft in the middle of the seventh round with an ADP of 78, as we've just discussed Romo certainly warrants a look in the later rounds of your draft as a high upside option.
Due to a greater reliance on the Cowboys' passing game, combined with Romo's health, and favorable schedule, everything could converge this season to vault Romo back into elite quarterback territory.
And at the very least, all this certainly makes him a great streaming option for at least the first quarter of the season.