Fantasy football: Is the top tier at QB worth drafting aggressively?

Is it no longer the norm to wait on drafting your fantasy football quarterbacks? If so, which ones should you grab first? Getty Images

For several years now, fantasy managers have embraced the mantra to wait on drafting quarterbacks, recognizing that the depth at the position lessened any advantage that having one of the position's best could provide.

That might well be changing.

Yes, quarterback scoring has reached record-setting levels, with three of the four 400-point fantasy seasons in history coming in the past four years, while the position (as a whole) managed its three best fantasy point totals in those same four years (2020, 2021 and 2018, with 2019 placing fifth). Yes, the bar for what constitutes a "good" fantasy quarterback remains sky-high, as the 11 signal-callers to score 300-plus fantasy points matched 2021's total for the most in any single year in history.

Still, 2021 signaled a downturn, albeit a slight one, in overall QB fantasy production. Additionally, the recent rise in mobile quarterbacks across the league has directly influenced roster-building strategy. Both factors have restored some of the appeal to having one of the position's very best. To be clear, I said some.

The 17-game schedule

First and foremost, the fact that the NFL extended its schedule by one game last season provided the position a noticeable advantage, at least from the seasonal-totals perspective cited above. Adjusting 2021's totals to compare seasons over an equal number of games -- in other words, scaling back to 16 -- the overall position's total (its total fantasy points scored) from last year would have been only the fourth-best in history, trailing 2020, 2018 and 2015, and only barely edging out 2019. Additionally, only 14 quarterbacks would have managed as many as 240 fantasy points, fewer than the number that hit that benchmark in seven out of the eight seasons that preceded it.

Perhaps the ideal way of illustrating this effect, however, is to compare the position's overall fantasy point per game average. In 2021, starting quarterbacks averaged 16.2 fantasy PPG, a sharp decline from 2020's 17.7.

The extra game did wonders to mask the drop-off, giving the perception that quarterbacks on the whole maintained record-setting production, when in reality they took a collective step backwards. That decline was especially evident beneath the top tier, as the top four scorers (Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes) were mostly in line with the average top-four scorers of 2019 to 2021, while the next 16 scorers saw their totals decline by nearly 20 points apiece compared to that three-year span.

In other words, the NFL's truly elite quarterbacks mostly maintained their record-challenging fantasy production, as Allen, Herbert, Brady and Mahomes still placed among the top-40 historical QB seasons after adjusting for the added game (using 17-game totals, the quartet managed the fourth-, 11th-, 14th- and 21st-most single-season fantasy points). The bar for what is now considered to be a "replacement-level" fantasy quarterback, however, took a step backwards.

A changing of the guard?

One potential reason for this is what might well be the start of a changing of the guard at the QB position. Since the beginning of the 2019 preseason, the position has seen three retirements from among the aforementioned top-40 historical seasons in terms of fantasy points: Andrew Luck (29th, 2014) during the 2019 preseason, Drew Brees (7th, 2011; 25th, 2013; and 33rd, 2012) following the 2020 season and now Ben Roethlisberger (39th, 2018) this past January.

Additionally, the position is probably not far off seeing a few more notable retirements, as three of last year's top-20 quarterbacks, Brady (3rd, age 45), Aaron Rodgers (5th, age 38) and Matt Ryan (19th, age 37) enter this season aged 37 years or older. That's not to characterize this season as the one in which to expect significant downturn, but the position could be headed in that direction if its younger talent doesn't step up to equally fill their shoes.

It's also worth pointing out that quarterbacks typically don't deliver their most productive seasons late in their careers. Yes, modern quarterbacks have been awfully good at advanced ages, but history's stacked odds show that there have been only nine quarterbacks to score 300-plus fantasy points and just 23 with 240-plus at the age of 37 or older, with Brady himself responsible for three and eight of those seasons. Brees accounts for another two and three, respectively.

The success of the 2021 NFL draft's quarterback class will have a significant say in the depth at this position over the next two to three seasons, especially in light of what was advertised a relatively weaker class this April. While Mac Jones had a standout rookie campaign, all of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields were relative disappointments, and each will be under the microscope entering 2022.

Part of your opinion, and resulting roster-building strategy, at quarterback therefore needs to be tied to your level of confidence in those five sophomores. I'm cautiously optimistic about Lawrence, Wilson and Lance, but if at least two of that trio can't take big steps forward, not only might this position spin its statistical wheels in 2022, it could ring this column's bell even louder, strategically speaking, entering 2023 (something that will be especially true should Brady and/or Rodgers retire next offseason).

The mounting importance of mobility

Speaking of those rookie classes, a particularly interesting development from the five draft classes that preceded 2021's (and, really, 2021's as well) was an elevated number of mobile, scrambling-style quarterbacks. There have been only 17 seasons in history during which a quarterback rushed at least 120 times, accomplished by nine different quarterbacks. Of those nine, four were selected between the 2018 and 2020 drafts (Allen, Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray). Deshaun Watson, a 2017 first-rounder, joined them as one of the seven quarterbacks with an 80-attempt rushing season in any of the past three years -- 2011 draftee Cam Newton and 2012 draftee Russell Wilson were the others.

This is especially important to our draft strategies because of what mobile quarterbacks can provide us. Sure, as a result of their putting themselves at substantially greater risk of taking brutal hits than their pocket-passing brethren, they're more susceptible to injuries and missed time. When they do play, however, they generally possess higher statistical floors and higher statistical ceilings.

To illustrate that point further, consider that six quarterbacks last season averaged at least five rushing attempts per game while starting at least half of their teams' games at quarterback -- Allen, Fields, Hurts, Jackson, Daniel Jones and Murray. Four out of that group -- Allen, Hurts, Jackson and Murray -- averaged greater than 20 fantasy points per game. This group also accounted for 21% of the top-10 weekly QB performances, and 31% of the top-two QB efforts, for the entire season.

That five-carry threshold is important, because the numbers bear out that number as being your target from a mobile quarterback. From 2019 to '21, quarterbacks who carried the football at least five times in a game scored you at least 15 fantasy points -- a plenty serviceable, yet not league-winning total -- 70% of the time. Quarterbacks who had fewer than five carries, by comparison, did so only 54% of the time, to address those statistical floors. As for the statistical ceilings, quarterbacks with at least five carries scored you at least 25 fantasy points (much closer to a matchups-winning number) 27% of the time, compared to only 13% of the time for those with fewer than five carries.

None of this is to say that a quarterback must reach the five-attempt rushing average for the season as a whole. Of the 11 quarterbacks to score 300-plus fantasy points in 2021, six managed at least three rushing attempts per contest, with Herbert (2nd in fantasy points, 3.7 attempts per game), Mahomes (4th, 3.9) and Dak Prescott (7th, 3.0) joining Allen (1st, 7.2), Hurts (9th, 9.3) and Murray (10th, 6.3). It comes as no surprise, therefore, that you'll find all six of those quarterbacks, as well as Jackson, whose total mostly suffered because of illness-related absences (COVID-19 included), universally regarded as top-10 positional selections entering 2022, with most top-five lists comprised of players among that group.

What I'm doing with my drafts

I've long been a proponent of selecting two quarterbacks and then mixing and matching them as matchups dictate throughout the season. After all, the goal at the position remains not to draft "name brands," but rather simply the best single-week statistics possible. In short, you still want 20 points from your quarterback, every week, regardless of who the individual is or which defense he's playing.

With that in mind, it's all the more important to lean into the league-wide, mobile-QB trend, and that does mean drafting them more aggressively than you might have one, two or even five years ago. In fact, considering the risk/reward profiles of these quarterbacks (the former part tied almost exclusively to injury risk), the wisest angle might be to draft yourself an Allen/Jackson/Murray, and then pair him with a reliable, lower-cost pocket passer type, like a Matthew Stafford/Derek Carr/Kirk Cousins.

In my most recent mock draft (granted, a 14-team FSGA league), I was the first to dip into the quarterback pool accordingly, selecting Allen at No. 34 overall (a third-round pick). That came on the heels of the great disappointment in our in-house June 23 mock, in which I missed out on Allen (No. 42 overall pick, fourth round) by one selection, settling for Mahomes instead. In both cases, the collective perception that one had to painstakingly wait on quarterbacks was evident in the draft room and made both quarterbacks great values.

Remember the final part of my mantra regarding quarterbacks, which I cite frequently: It's not about waiting on quarterbacks, it's about waiting for your quarterback to slide, to be gifted to you in a particular round.

Entering 2022, if Allen is sliding as far as the 40th or 45th pick, consider it a gift. Accept it. Then you can approach the next few positional names accordingly in the following rounds.