The perception that quality fantasy football quarterback depth is as great as it has ever been has some validity, but in some ways the past year represented a downward trend for the position, at least among top starters.
After two seasons in which the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks averaged 300 or more fantasy points and at least five passers racked up a season total of 300 or more points, 2013 saw the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks tally an average of 289 points and saw only two passers reach or exceed the 300-point bar.
That trend might not change this season, and thus makes fantasy quarterback management as important as ever, so let's take a look at each of the major players at this position and get an idea of where they should be valued in most draft rooms.
There are many reasons to think Drew Brees could have a season akin to Peyton Manning's record-setting 2013 campaign. He has an upgraded receiving corps that includes a potential year-two breakout wide receiver (Kenny Stills) and a pro-ready rookie (Brandin Cooks). Add that to a highly favorable schedule (seven games against teams that finished in the bottom quarter of the league in fantasy quarterback points allowed last year), and the sky is the limit for Brees. ... Aaron Rodgers is a bit riskier selection than in past years because of the state of his receiving corps (James Jones is in Oakland, Randall Cobb is an injury risk, Jermichael Finley might or might not be back) and because the Packers have one of the strongest rushing attacks in the league and will lean on that aspect of their offense quite often. ... Peyton Manning trades a hugely favorable schedule this past season for a much more difficult one that includes four games against NFC West defenses. The Broncos might have a better overall offense this year, but that likely won't translate into equal fantasy numbers for Manning. ... Cam Newton has placed in the top four in quarterback fantasy points in each of his three pro seasons and has done so with subpar or questionable pass-catching talents. The rebuilt Carolina receiving corps isn't going to be a hindrance to his reaching that level once again.
The next tier
Matthew Stafford should benefit from Detroit's vastly upgraded receiving corps. Golden Tate led all WRs in vertical air yards per target last year (26.2) and placed second in vertical yards per reception (31.0) (Note: vertical is defined as aerials that travel 11 or more yards downfield). The Lions also added a potential year-one impact tight end in Eric Ebron. Stafford might throw the ball less often under new head coach Jim Caldwell, but this could be a case in which an increase in quality more than offsets a decrease in quantity. ... The Colts might now possess one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL, with the development of T.Y. Hilton, Da'Rick Rogers, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen to go alongside the additions of Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief. Trouble is that in all of his years under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's guidance, Andrew Luck has operated a system that leans on the rushing game and never fully lets him cut loose in the passing game. There is little reason to think that will change, so he might not contend for true elite status. ... It might seem like Mike McCoy's offense is too dink-and-dunk oriented, but Philip Rivers racked up 120 fantasy points on vertical passes in 2013, a total that ranked third in the league. That's why Rivers scored 18 or more points eight times. A full season with Keenan Allen operating at top efficiency could help Rivers replicate that performance. ... Tom Brady's decline from top-five quarterback status actually began late in the 2012 season and dropped him outside of top-five fantasy QB status prior to last year. The latter part of the 2013 campaign -- 18.6 points per game in Weeks 9-17, which ranked fourth among fantasy QBs -- shows that he has the ability to return to the top, but New England's upgraded pass defense might be a sign the team wants to lean on the run game more. They can't do that as easily if the other team can throw the ball at will, and this could be a signal the Patriots are not going to rely on Brady's abilities quite as much as they used to. ... The big questions for Russell Wilson are will Seattle finally be able to get more run/pass balance in its offense? And, if the Seahawks are successful in this endeavor, will that translate to better overall numbers for him? The math on this suggests it would add some points to Wilson's bottom line, but it likely won't be enough to move him to the next tier in fantasy football. ... There are few quarterbacks who have a pass-catching quartet the caliber of Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson. Colin Kaepernick is also a superb ground gainer (524 rushing yards -- fourth in 2013). He only missed being a top-five fantasy QB in 2013 because of single-digit scoring in three of his first five starts, so don't be surprised if he ends up at that level this year. ... Nick Foles might be the best upside candidate at this tier. Jeremy Maclin had better vertical numbers than DeSean Jackson in 2012. Giving Chip Kelly an offensive weapon the caliber of Darren Sproles ought to be a violation of the Geneva Convention. Jordan Matthews was once a part of arguably the best quarterback-wide receiver combination in the SEC and has the look of a first-year impact rookie wide receiver. Also, in 2013 Foles led the league in the bad decision rate (BDR) metric, which measures how often a passer makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity.
On the edge of QB1 status
Matt Ryan seemingly has all of the passing and receiving tools to be a surefire QB1 but is beset with too many question marks. Prime among them are that his head coach, Mike Smith, still wants to operate a run-first offense, his wide receivers can't stay healthy and the Falcons' offensive line needs improvement. He's a good QB1 alternative for those fantasy owners who want to draft a quarterback a bit later than most owners. ... Marc Trestman pulled off a miracle by getting Jay Cutler to finally abandon his penchant for making an insanely high rate of bad decisions. Some of that was due to scaling back the downfield passes, as Cutler ranked 16th in vertical attempts per game (10.7). Unless and until that changes, he will always be on the border between QB1 and QB2 status. ... Tony Romo ranked ninth in quarterback fantasy points per game (16.8) and was within two points per game of ranking fifth in that category. Health is a potential issue, as 34-year-old passers coming off two back surgeries in less than a year are typically not the type of players fantasy owners want to put in the starting lineup each week, but a more vertically oriented offensive scheme could open things up in the Dallas offense and vault Romo to upper-tier starting status for those willing to take the risk. ... Robert Griffin III had great vertical passing numbers in his Heisman Trophy season at Baylor and in his rookie NFL campaign, so take his vertical issues last year (9.65 vertical YPA, which ranked 31st) with a grain of salt. The addition of DeSean Jackson, who had more vertical receiving yards (905) than the top two Washington receivers combined last year (Pierre Garcon and Aldrick Robinson, 813) will help resolve the downfield passing problem. Another positive for RG3 is a weak Redskins pass defense that almost assures this team will see its share of shootout contests. Don't be shocked if he gets back to his rookie season fantasy production level.
Backups with upside
Ben Roethlisberger lost Mike Wallace last year and now loses Emmanuel Sanders. Talented as he is, it will be hard to rate Roethlisberger any higher as long as the Steelers keep asking him to deal with these personnel changes. ... We're soon going to find out how much of the Bengals' passing success was due to Andy Dalton and how much was due to Jay Gruden. My gut feeling is Dalton owners are not going to like the answer to that question. ... Alex Smith proved that a low vertical pass volume (7.9 vertical attempts per game, good for 44th) doesn't preclude a solid fantasy football point showing (238 points last year, good for 15th). Smith could be an incredible bargain as a next-to-last-round QB2 or QB3 candidate in many draft rooms. ... The Dolphins' new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, is dedicated to finding myriad methods to get Mike Wallace the ball. If he succeeds, Ryan Tannehill could have some incredibly strong fantasy games. ... Carson Palmer operates in a Bruce Arians offense, so a ton of vertical passes (213 last year, tops in the league) is par for the course. The development of Michael Floyd is another big potential plus. Bad news is bad decisions are also a part of Palmer's game, as his 2.2 percent BDR tied for 32nd. ... Only three of Eli Manning's interceptions last year were the result of a bad decision. The Giants' new West Coast offense will be a transition, as will adjusting to many new pass-catchers, but the potential for QB1 performance is there. ... Josh McCown was an injury replacement for Cutler and posted more fantasy points per game (16.4 for McCown, 14.6 for Cutler). In Tampa, he has a great receiving trio of Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans (who had superb metrics at Texas A&M) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who at times in college looked ready to be the next Tony Gonzalez.
It all starts with Brees, as he is the only quarterback worth paying a first-round premium for in standard scoring leagues.
Once Brees is off the board, the depth of quality fantasy quarterbacks means that their relative value will decline at about equal level through the rest of the draft. In other words, the cost/reward value of picks will stay roughly constant in every round, so don't feel rushed to pick a passer if your team has a pressing need elsewhere.
A caveat to this line of thinking is fantasy quarterback upside potential is much higher than at any other position of the draft. For example, if Robert Griffin III returns to his 2012 performance level of 303 fantasy points, it will be a 103-point upgrade over his 2013 performance level of 200 fantasy points.
That might mean one can justify taking a high-upside quarterback early in a draft, but another option here is to approach it like many NFL teams do with their draft picks and go for a numbers approach. The owner who takes RGIII, Tannehill and Manziel might not look to have a slam dunk QB1, but that owner will have three players to rotate into a starting QB role, and if one of these pans out to his high-end potential, the payoff could be substantial. An alternate approach could see a bona fide QB1 selected to assure a certain performance level and then two lower-cost, high-upside picks in later rounds to aim for a potential 300-point candidate.
This same approach can be used in the auction strategy realm. Paying for a top-flight passer can be worth it at certain price points (especially Brees), but the biggest bang for the buck can occur in the later rounds. While other owners are vying to cull through the second-tier running backs and backup wideouts, wise auction owners will save some funds to make sure they can outbid those owners for the low-cost, high-upside quarterbacks.