Maybe a sea change is coming. Maybe the days of treating fantasy quarterbacks like commodities are ending. Maybe it pays like never before to make sure you grab an elite QB in the first couple rounds of your draft.
Certainly, that was the case in 2011. The elite fantasy QBs outscored the merely good ones by such an immense degree that five of the top 10 most valuable players in terms of Value-Based Drafting were signal-callers. We haven't seen more than one QB finish in that particular top 10 since '04, and that year, only two did it.
I'm not sure if that's repeatable. Last season wasn't just a case of the NFL suddenly becoming incredibly pass-heavy, and that's why you should now consider taking a QB in the first or second round. No, while the league is throwing more in recent years, the change has been gradual:
NFL Play Breakdown, Past 4 Seasons
The play-calling change from '10 to '11 simply doesn't explain a dramatic change in the best QBs' VBD ratings. Nor (as you can see above) does league-wide average "yards at the catch" (Avg. Y@C) suffice as an explanation; teams may be passing it to receivers who are slightly further down the field, but the year-over-year change isn't enough to describe why the best QBs were suddenly so much better than the rest. Indeed, to see five QBs in the VBD top 10 necessarily means that only a select few QBs have taken some kind of giant step forward. The merely good among QBs have remained merely good.
It's an open question whether these top signal-calling options can keep producing numbers that are so much better than their merely-good peers. Let's run through a roundup of the major players at the position, then reconvene to draw conclusions.
I've seen some folks straying from Aaron Rodgers as their top fantasy QB this year, but I think that's a case of over-cleverness. The only argument against A-Rod I can see is that he has missed a game in each of the past two seasons (once because of injury, once because of rest), and I don't find that persuasive. He was still fantasy's No. 1 QB (and top point-gainer overall) in '11 while shattering his career high with 45 TD passes (his previous best was 30). The difference between Rodgers and the rest of his top-spot competitors is rushing; he's averaged 284 yards and four rushing TDs during the past four years. Tom Brady finished only 19th in average yards at the catch last year, but still threw for 5,235 yards, meaning he's an exception: A guy who doesn't have to throw long passes to be dominant in fantasy. The last time Brady and once-and-future offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels teamed up for a full season, Brady tossed 50 TDs. He should continue to be as safe as they come. Drew Brees has all manner of drama surrounding him entering '12; the New Orleans Saints franchise-tagged him and a long-term contract is a bone of contention, plus Sean Payton will be suspended for the entire season. Robert Meachem has departed the Big Easy, as has Carl Nicks, perhaps the best left guard in the game. But this is a guy who just set a record for most yards ever thrown in a single season, plus threw 46 TDs. He'll make it work. Matthew Stafford finally stayed healthy in his third pro season, and the Detroit Lions' screen game became the NFL's most prolific. It's fair to be afraid of a mediocre-looking offensive line and a potentially anemic running game, but considering Stafford led the league in pass attempts last season, I'd say if he's healthy, he's still going to have tremendous fantasy value.
Don't remain in love with Matt Schaub, who threw for 4,770 yards and 29 TDs back in '09. The Houston Texans are a different team now, much more focused on the running game. Even before he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 10 last season, Schaub was in the process of disappointing his fantasy owners, with only two 300-yard passing days in his 10 starts. I like the Texans in the AFC South and expect Schaub to have an efficient season worthy of being a fantasy starter in deeper leagues. But I suspect the volume just won't be there for him to poke his head too far above 4,000 yards for the season. Carson Palmer is another famous name about which you shouldn't reminisce. Palmer isn't the same player we all remember from the first half of his career; he's morphed into a high-INT, low-TD risk-taker without the consistently big arm needed to cash in on big plays. That wouldn't seem to make him a good fit for the Oakland Raiders' new West Coast offense, plus Oakland's receivers are always hurt. I'm not saying Palmer is at the end of his usefulness, because he'll convert some deep shots in '12, but I'd feel more comfortable with him as a fantasy backup. Tim Tebow finished 18th among fantasy QBs last season despite (a) getting his first start in Week 7; and (b) completing a pathetic 46.5 percent of his passes. He's obviously a fantasy asset mainly because of his running, which can be prodigious, and I do think Tebow should be drafted in all leagues this year. Heck, I'd rather own Tebow than Mark Sanchez, whom I expect will get benched after his first poor game of '12. But the fact remains that to begin the year, Tebow is once again buried on someone's depth chart, and that uncertainty means he can't be relied on as more than a lottery ticket.
Peyton Manning has much to prove with the Denver Broncos. Will his surgically repaired neck continue to bother him, or put him at risk of greater injury if he takes a big hit? Will his arm strength, which has reportedly returned this offseason, tail off as the season progresses? And will the Broncos become the Indianapolis Colts West, using Peyton's plays and veering far from the run-heavy game plan that got them into the AFC playoffs last season? Surely, in the rosiest scenario, Manning will reassume his rightful place among the game's elite fantasy QBs. But if something bad happens to Peyton, fantasy owners could be left holding the bag. A decade ago, folks wouldn't believe Mike Martz leaving your team would mean potential liberation for the quarterback. But the pro game had passed Martz by, and the Chicago Bears suffered as a result. I'm not saying new offensive coordinator Mike Tice is ready to be the perfect play-caller, and in fact I won't be shocked if the run-pass mix in Chicago stays similar. But I think Tice will be more dedicated to keeping Jay Cutler upright by sending fewer receivers into pass patterns, and I think having Cutler's old security blanket Brandon Marshall at WR could rejuvenate a stagnant aerial attack. Of course, that Bears O-line still looks a wreck. Other than Peyton Manning, Matt Flynn was the only free-agent QB of significance to change teams this winter, and he'll almost certainly start Week 1 for the Seattle Seahawks. Flynn learned at the foot of Rodgers in Green Bay, though it's probably a mistake to get overly excited about Flynn's 480-yard, six-TD effort in Week 17 last season. In Seattle, he'll have one of the league's shakiest receiving corps, and Flynn just isn't a big-armed gunslinger. My guess is that he'll be a game manager for a Seahawks squad that will focus on Marshawn Lynch, but there's certainly a chance for Flynn to be on fantasy radar screens as never before.
Robert Griffin III will have far higher fantasy expectations in his rookie year with the Washington Redskins than will Andrew Luck with the Colts. In part, that's because RG3 heads to a Mike Shanahan offense that in theory should be a great fit for Griffin's skills, whereas Luck goes to a 2-14 franchise that is changing philosophy and personnel at a breakneck pace. Plus, it just so happens that RG3 is maybe the fastest QB prospect ever to enter the NFL. Redskins fans have visions of a potentially more-accurate-passing Michael Vick dancing in their heads, and of course, we all saw Cam Newton rush for a whopping 14 TDs in his rookie year. But Griffin is three inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Newton, which means he won't be quite so unpleasant to tackle, and which means durability problems could abound for Griffin, a la the Mad Scrambler himself, Mr. Vick. Luck is no slouch athletically, either; in fact, his 40 time was almost identical to Newton's last year. And Luck is considered the NFL's most polished passing prospect since Peyton Manning. However, even Manning struggled during his rookie campaign, and I'm not optimistic about the mishmash of aging, injury-prone veterans and uninspiring draftees at the WR position in Indy. Long term, it's fair to suggest that Luck is a better fantasy prospect. But this year, forced to choose between them, I'm definitely drafting Griffin's running upside. Lost in the hype of two QBs being selected with the first two picks of April's draft are the other two first-round QBs. Ryan Tannehill went No. 8 overall to the Miami Dolphins, and Brandon Weeden went 22nd to the Cleveland Browns. Weeden appears to have a significantly better chance to be his team's Week 1 starter, and he's bigger and has a stronger arm than incumbent Colt McCoy. But again, this looks like a situation where a QB will be severely limited by his squad's offensive philosophy (likely to be heavy on Trent Richardson this season) and his crummy wideouts. Meanwhile, Tannehill figures to at least sit out September.
About 365 days ago, some folks were excited about Kevin Kolb starting for the Arizona Cardinals. I didn't number among them, though. I viewed (and still view) Kolb as a moderately talented game manager who needs a clean pocket and open receivers to be great. Last year, Kolb battled concussion problems, and overall was probably outplayed by John Skelton. Kolb figures to get the Week 1 starting gig in the desert again in '12, but the hook could be quick. Kolb tossed eight picks and fumbled eight times (he lost three of those) in about half a season in 2011, while Skelton led the team on a late-season win streak. Matt Moore has shown promise in two of the past three seasons while mopping up for a terrible team that was long since out of the playoff race. In the second half of '11, Moore had a 15-to-5 TD/INT ratio, just as in the final five games of '09, he tossed eight TDs and zero picks for a bad Carolina Panthers team. The Dolphins don't figure to be AFC East contenders, but as they rebuild, they may want a veteran under center. But as I mentioned above, the Dolphins spent a top-10 pick on Tannehill, plus they have David Garrard around, so Moore is guaranteed nothing. Regardless, you're probably better off not investing in any of these guys in a redraft league. With Brandon Marshall gone from South Beach, the Dolphins have zero proven outside wideouts. The Tennessee Titans came close to a playoff berth in '11 and figure to make some noise again this season, though their QB situation is potentially in flux. On the strength of his decent first month last season, Matt Hasselbeck again looks like the Week 1 starter, but he could be pushed in training camp by Jake Locker, who played well in a few cameo situations in '11. The fact is that after his first four games last season, Hasselbeck averaged 202 passing yards per game and had 10 TD passes and 11 INTs. Hass enters his age-37 season knowing he's not the future of the Tennessee organization; the only question is whether Locker's accuracy -- long questioned both in college and during his rookie campaign -- improves fast enough for him to see significant action this season.
Ben Roethlisberger wasn't having a particularly good fantasy season in '11 even before suffering a high-ankle sprain in Week 14 (take away a five-TD game, and he had 16 passing scores and 11 picks to that point). The Pittsburgh Steelers' O-line was an injury-wrecked disaster. The franchise has tried to rebuild its line and get younger to keep Big Ben healthy, plus they brought in Todd Haley (who once oversaw some pretty terrific Kurt Warner seasons in Arizona) as offensive coordinator. Considering that Rashard Mendenhall is coming off a late-season torn ACL and the Steelers figure to look at some combination of Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer at tailback, I feel safe saying this team will go as far as Roethlisberger can throw them. That might not be a recipe for a Super Bowl title, but I say Big Ben bounces back fantasy-wise. Josh Freeman is two seasons removed from throwing 25 TDs and six picks, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers added Vincent Jackson. Certainly, no matter how disappointing Freeman was in '11 (and he was awful), that should be enough to make him a fantasy sleeper. We're talking about a great athlete who ran to better effect last season than he did in '10, and a guy who has the wing to throw it deep to Jackson. Now, Tampa also drafted RB Doug Martin in the first round and hired conservative Greg Schiano to be head coach, so perhaps Freeman will have to rein it in some. (And maybe that's a good thing, considering the dude tossed 22 INTs in '11.) That said, I think there's a significant chance we get the top-10 fantasy season out of Freeman in '12 that we expected last season. Personally, I'm not a big fan of Andy Dalton, but I know that many of my ESPN colleagues like him a lot, so I'll mention him here. The logic goes that the Cincinnati Bengals continue to be an up-and-coming squad, Dalton was efficient and effective in his rookie season, and his top target A.J. Green is such an immense talent, he may drag Dalton kicking and screaming into the ranks of the fantasy elite. I'm concerned about Dalton's late-season regression as his schedule got tougher (he tossed for an average of 178 yards in Cincy's final five games), and I remain unsold on his arm strength. But I admit Dalton already exceeded my expectations for him when he passed for 20 scores last season, and if he improves significantly, he could be a fantasy asset.
The top five fantasy QBs of '11 -- Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Newton and Stafford -- numbered among the top 10 fantasy MVPs. Newton stands out from this group as a potential fluke (14 rushing TDs will do that), which is why I didn't include him among the "elites" at this position, but it's fair to argue that he might improve significantly as a thrower and perhaps tickle the top five once more. However, I'm not going to make that argument, because I need to see a longer track record to consider spending a first-round pick on a QB. However, the other four (Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Stafford) number among my top 11 fantasy players overall this year.
"But wait a minute," you say. "Didn't you spend the introduction of this column convincing us how unlikely it is that so many QBs will wind up in the VBD top 10 again in '12?" Indeed, I did, and I stick to that argument. I suspect that the top 10 or 12 QBs will be closer-bunched this season than they were last, if only because I think Vick, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, among others, have a chance to bounce back. My guess, based on the past 10 years' worth of data, is that perhaps two or three QBs will wind up in the VBD top 10 this season. But that doesn't stop me from recommending my top four QBs as first-round (or borderline first-round) selections. Why? Because what are the alternatives? After the first four running backs and perhaps the first one wideout, confusion reigns. There just aren't as many RBs or WRs as usual that I feel happy about selecting them in the first round. At least in the case of Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Stafford, I feel relatively safe that they're not going to crush me, and they've just finished a season in which they proved their ample upsides.
Now, if I don't happen to select one of those guys in the (very) early rounds, I'm willing to wait on selecting a QB. I can absolutely envision scenarios where Newton, Vick, Peyton or Eli Manning, Rivers and/or Tony Romo can jump out of the second tier and into the super-elites, but it's easy to poke holes in the candidacies of all of them. And that's why I don't particularly care which guy I get. In Rounds 2, 3 and 4, I'd rather stock up on RBs and WRs, risky though they be, and get a QB of similar quality several rounds later.
Similar logic applies to auctions. This year, for the first time in memory, I'm willing to spend a few extra bucks for Rodgers, Brady, Brees or Stafford; in standard leagues, getting any of the top four guys in the mid-$40s or so sounds about right. But if I wind up not getting any of those true elites, I'll become a patient comparison shopper. If I can be one of the final teams in an auction who grabs a starting fantasy QB, I may find some softness in the market. And indeed, in such a case, my preference would be to save on quarterbacks so I can splurge at other positions. Finally, if you're going to buy a fantasy backup (which is necessary only in deeper leagues), make sure you don't spend more than a buck or two.