Is Aaron Rodgers in the process of doing the impossible? Is he about to lay claim to being that rarest of beasts: The stud fantasy quarterback you automatically consider drafting in the first round?
Rodgers probably isn't a significantly better passer than the other elites at this position. In fact, he has never finished higher than fourth in single-season passing yards, touchdown passes or completion percentage. But he provides an incredible combination of near-elite passing chops and running excellence. In each of the past three seasons, he has been good for four or five rushing touchdowns and between 200 and 400 rushing yards, and that's why he has racked up more fantasy points than any other quarterback during his three seasons as the Packers' full-time starter (finishing second, first and second, respectively, in QB fantasy points from 2008-10).
The truth is that in a 10-team fantasy league, quarterbacks call to mind the 1980s U.S./Soviet Cold War. It's (quite literally) an arms race: You get your star, he gets his star, she gets hers and I get mine. They'll all rack up an obscene number of fantasy points but roughly cancel one another out on a weekly basis. That's why I tend to recommend waiting on drafting your signal-caller, because getting Philip Rivers in the fourth round isn't all that different than taking Drew Brees in the second, and in the meantime you can beef up the more difficult-to-predict positions.
But Rodgers might be flipping that script. Despite his sometimes-shaky pass protection and the resulting concussions that caused him to miss playing time last year, it's not difficult to make the argument that he has been a notch above his elite brethren. Compare Rodgers circa 2010 to Brees: Each man lost big chunks of his running game because of injuries and ineffectiveness, yet while Brees hurt his fantasy teams by tossing a career-high 22 interceptions, Rodgers stayed relatively mistake-free and picked up some of the running slack himself. His only obvious downside is injury, but I daresay that's a concern with any quarterback. For the first time in recent memory, one signal-caller stands above the crowd and might well be worth reaching for as early as No. 4 overall. I have to admit, I never thought I'd write that.
Let's take a look at the roundup of this position then reconvene afterward to discuss the full implications on your draft strategy.
Rodgers also reduced his sacks from 50 in '09 to 31 in '10, which helps solidify his spot as "relatively safe," as well as "excellent." Personally, I'd put Brees right after Rodgers, if only because he's one of just two quarterbacks who have finished among the top 10 in fantasy each of the past seven seasons. You don't need to have your fantasy signal-caller score you 30 points per game. You just need him to put you near the top of the heap each week. However, as an aggregate group, the ESPN Fantasy gang actually prefers Michael Vick to Brees, rating him No. 2 at the position. The reasons are obvious: Vick is an even more incredible runner than Rodgers and last year added nine rushing scores to his fine passing output. This summer I enumerated the reasons Vick scares the bejeezus out of me personally, but if I'm wrong about him, and he winds up staying healthy all year, he has top-overall-player-in-fantasy upside. I wouldn't draft him in the first round of fantasy drafts. But someone in your league will. It's pretty harsh to put the NFL's MVP -- a guy who posted 36 touchdown passes versus just four interceptions last season -- No. 4 at his position, but that's what we've done with Tom Brady. (Again, personally I'd take Brady over Vick.) Brady might actually have lost fantasy value last year because he was so dominant. The Patriots often found themselves running to kill the clock late in games last year, and Brady finished only 11th in pass attempts despite playing 16 games. You also have to keep counting Peyton Manning among the elites when he's on the field, even at 35 years old and even after minor neck surgery that may cost him Week 1 of the season. He's coming off his career-best yardage total, he tied his second-best TD season last year with 33, and he did it without Dallas Clark and Austin Collie for much of the year. Yes, his interceptions were up and his yards per attempt were way down. But it's easy to see the Colts leaning heavily on Manning again in '11, perhaps even to the tune of matching last year's insane 679 attempts pace once he's back under center.
Matt Cassel finished 12th in QB fantasy points last year, but as a group, we rate him significantly lower than that for the '11 season. Through November of last year, he was borderline dominant (22 TDs and just four INTs, plus a 60.3 completion rate), but his December and January opponents were demonstrably tougher, and he fell apart down the stretch. Given that the Chiefs featured the NFL's rush-heaviest attack last year, we just don't see Cassel coming close to his '10 output. David Garrard always seems to produce slightly better seasons than you might realize; last year he missed two-plus games yet still finished a respectable 14th in fantasy points, braced by a career-high 64.5 completion percentage and five rushing scores. But in April the Jaguars traded up to draft Blaine Gabbert, who now looks to be the clear quarterback of the future in Northern Florida. Garrard will start Week 1, but he's so injury-prone that Gabbert likely will get a chance to start later in the year. Through Week 10 last season, Kyle Orton was legitimately in the Pro Bowl conversation, with 16 touchdowns, just five picks and an average of nearly 312 pass yards per contest. But he fell apart during a Monday night game in San Diego, and by Week 15, Tim Tebow was starting. In '11, Orton looks like the Week 1 starter, but if a QB-needy team comes calling he could get traded, and if the Broncos struggle (which seems likely) new coach John Fox may give Tebow another audition. Either way, this figures to be a far more conservative offense with Josh McDaniels gone and Fox around. I was ready to believe in Jason Campbell in his first season with the Raiders, and I'm still not dismissing him outright. It's clear former Oakland coach Tom Cable strongly preferred Bruce Gradkowski, but new man Hue Jackson is much more of a Campbell guy. That said, the next time Campbell exceeds 20 touchdown passes in a season will be the first. Sure, keep an eye on the guy, but there's no reason to draft him in a 10-team league.
Josh Freeman was completely off the fantasy radar screen to begin 2010, but he finished the season as the game's No. 7 point producer. His improvement was stunning. I mean, the dude went from 10 TDs and 18 INTs with a 54.6 percent completion rate in basically a half-season in '09 to 25/6/61.4 in the same respective categories last season. He's Tampa Bay's unquestioned starter and has several exciting young weapons around him. Plus, despite finishing second in rushing yards by a quarterback last year, he never once made it into the end zone, a fact I can't see repeating itself in '11. So even if his interceptions go up, some rushing TDs should cushion the blow. Expect him to be among the top 10 quarterbacks in fantasy this year. Sam Bradford set a NFL rookie record for completions and consecutive passes without an interception last year. In '11, he'll have aggressive new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels calling plays instead of West Coast conservative Pat Shurmur, so while Bradford probably won't throw fewer than his 15 interceptions from last season, I'm betting he easily eclipses his 18 TDs and 3,512 yards. The Rams' receiving corps is still a wide-open question, but presuming someone steps up, Bradford will have fantasy-starter upside. One of these years, Matthew Stafford will stay healthy and make his owners very happy. He's played only 13 out of a possible 32 games in his two-season NFL career and needed surgery on his throwing shoulder this winter. But the law of averages gives Stafford a decent chance at finally avoiding the serious-injury bug, which would allow him to take advantage of an offense replete with playmakers. I mean, would you rather take a chance on him as your fantasy backup or someone such as Matt Hasselbeck? Kevin Kolb finally got his wish: He got traded out of Philadelphia where Vick is entrenched, and is finally a team's unquestioned starter. It doesn't hurt that he'll have Larry Fitzgerald as his top target in Arizona. I've never been as enamored of Kolb as some folks; I see a decent system QB who struggles when his first read isn't available. I'm guessing he'll produce some strong starts in '11, but will also kill his fantasy owners on occasion, and will wind up about a league-average signal-caller. But at least he gets his chance to try. Donovan McNabb is probably cooked. But it's hard to argue opportunity isn't knocking for him. The Vikings dealt for Donny Football this summer and will install him as their Week 1 starter. Any QB who's got Adrian Peterson lining up behind him has a chance to see single coverage on his wideouts, and there's little question that Bill Musgrave's new offense in Minnesota is a better fit for McNabb than Mike Shanahan's was last year. I'm not saying you have to draft McNabb. I'm just saying I expect somewhat better results this year than last.
It was quite an April for quarterbacks. Cam Newton went first overall in the NFL draft. Jake Locker and Gabbert were top-10 picks, and Christian Ponder was also a first-rounder. Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick went early in the second round. And even Ryan Mallett made tons of news by free-falling into the third round. Of those seven rookies, it seems clear that Newton and Dalton are really the only ones with a shot to start Week 1. Newton "only" has to beat out Jimmy Clausen and Derek Anderson to win the Panthers job. He has excellent potential running the ball, so even if Newton doesn't win the starting job outright, he's a good bet to take advantage of the NFL's new third-QB rules, in which a team may keep an extra quarterback active on game days. Surely, the Panthers will install some gadget running plays for Newton. However, as a starter he'd likely scuffle to read pro defenses in a major way. Dalton reportedly also has a pretty good chance of starting Week 1. Carson Palmer seems dead-set on never playing for the Bengals again, and word out of Cincinnati is that the Bengals acquired underwhelming journeyman Bruce Gradkowski to be a pure safety net. Unless plans change, you're looking at Dalton under center in early September, though it's a smart bet to say Gradkowski will get significant work at some point this year. Dalton doesn't have a big arm, but he has fine accuracy and will be entering a West Coast system (in Cincy's case, new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will call the shots). Ponder is a nice fit for the same Vikings offense that looks like a good fit for McNabb, and if Donny Football struggles, I won't be surprised to see Ponder play. He's poised and accurate, and his lack of a big arm won't hurt him in Minnesota. Certainly, the Vikings have better skill-position players than any of the other teams with rookie QBs, so Ponder might succeed if forced into action. Locker will likely sit behind new Titans QB Hasselbeck for as long as Hass stays upright, but realize the veteran has missed at least two games in each of the past three seasons. Locker is nearly Newton's equal as an athletic specimen, but has major questions to answer when it comes to throwing accuracy. Gabbert will sit for a while behind Garrard in Jacksonville, and Kaepernick will sit behind Alex Smith for the 49ers. Mallett will likely be the third-stringer in New England.
Will the Redskins really go with either John Beck or Rex Grossman under center? Do the Seahawks really trust Tarvaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst? Does Tebow have a chance to unseat Orton, and will Newton hold off his competition, and go from an unknown juco player to a No. 1 overall NFL pick and Week 1 starter in little less than a calendar year? Suffice it to say, quarterback was the one position most jumbled by the league's labor troubles, and it landed a few teams with rather ugly scenarios. I've heard many folks nominate several teams in the "Suck for Luck" lottery, since presumably the league's worst squad this year will line up to select Stanford QB Andrew Luck next spring. One thing is certain: You don't want any of these guys playing prominent roles on your fantasy team this fall and winter.
The fantasy world has fallen out of love with Joe Flacco a little. Anquan Boldin's acquisition didn't do much for him, and Flacco's yards per attempt (7.4) stayed at a pedestrian level, commensurate with an offense that didn't have a single field-stretching weapon. Now, I'm not ready to say speedy rookie Torrey Smith suddenly cures all ills. But in general, I think Flacco is underrated. It's true he started '10 crushingly slowly, at least in part because of a difficult schedule, but he did end the season with a fine 25/10 TD/INT ratio. He's at least knocking on the top 10. I was never aboard the Jay Cutler bandwagon last year; the Mike Martz factor wasn't enough for me to overcome glaring concerns about the Chicago O-line and receiving corps. But I don't buy all this "toughness" garbage that has plagued Cutler since he had to leave the NFC Championship Game. This is a kid who has played with diabetes his whole life and has regularly taken insulin injections on the sideline. He finished 17th among fantasy quarterbacks last year, and I'm guessing he betters that by a few spots in '11. I'm not a big believer in Ryan Fitzpatrick, but I understand why some folks think he's a value play in deeper leagues this year. In Steve Johnson, Fitz has a fine downfield weapon. Plus, Fitzpatrick is perhaps one of the NFL's five best running quarterbacks, and he produced 269 rushing yards last season on his way to a top-20 fantasy season among QBs. But remember that the Bills' Week 1 starter hasn't exceeded 374 attempts since J.P. Losman in 2006.
I know Vick will go in the first round of most fantasy drafts this summer. I know he'll likely go No. 1 overall in some of them. But Rodgers is the only quarterback I'd consider in the first round this year. As I mentioned earlier, to me he's the guy with the fewest warts who also has elite upside. I'd have said the same thing about Brees until last year, but his 22 picks were brutal.
After Rodgers, I'd wait. I know in standard leagues quarterbacks get you the most fantasy points, and that might tempt you to believe you have to get one of the elite guys right away. But time and time again that proves not to be the case. You can do just fine with Schaub or Rivers or Roethlisberger. With scarcity becoming such a huge problem at the running back position, other things being equal, I'd rather fire my early-round draft picks at running backs who feel on the safer side, instead of being left to pick from among the platoon dregs.
That's why I tend to wait to grab a quarterback in a 10-team league. I don't mind loading up on running backs and wide receivers early, especially in a season in which there's more uncertainty than ever at those positions, then grabbing a QB toward the bottom half of my top 10 in perhaps the fifth, sixth or even seventh round. Then, because it's a shallow league, I don't worry much about a backup until far later than that. Quarterbacks are commodities, people. There were 28 players who scored 200 fantasy points or more last season. Sixteen of them were quarterbacks.
The same logic applies to auctions. Are you better off taking Rodgers or Brees for $40 or spending $12 on, say, Ryan or Flacco? I think you can find some mighty nice purchases with the $28 difference. That said, if you're playing the "Studs and Duds" strategy in your auction, I actually think $40 for the No. 1 QB in the NFL isn't a terrible price. In general, my preference is to save on quarterbacks so I can splurge on rushers and receivers. And 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.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.