In last year's QB position preview, I acknowledged the possibility that the fantasy football landscape had changed based on 2011's extraordinary production at the top of the QB ranks, but ultimately expressed skepticism. In '11, five of the top 10 most valuable players in terms of Value-Based Drafting were quarterbacks. We hadn't seen more than one QB finish in that particular top 10 since '04, and that year, only two did it. And yet the temptation was strong to ignore history and believe that '11 represented the beginning of a trend.
And that, friends, is why we don't let small sample sizes cause us to overreact.
It's not that quarterbacks didn't have a great '12 campaign. They did: Eleven of the 12 highest-scoring players in fantasy last year were quarterbacks. But the fact is that so many QBs played well last season that the difference between them was minimal. The top seven fantasy QBs wound up separated by fewer than three fantasy points per game. And that small spread among fantasy starters led exactly one quarterback to be ranked among the VBD top 10 last year: Drew Brees at No. 10.
I'll discuss why this happened and what it implies in terms of draft strategy at the end of this column. But first let's run through a roundup of the major players at the position.
Aaron Rodgers has been a top-three fantasy quarterback five years running, and there's no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. The Green Bay Packers have questions to answer on their offensive line, as A-Rod was sacked an NFL-high 51 times last year. But even with Greg Jennings leaving town, the Pack has tremendous aerial weaponry. Rodgers should be the first quarterback drafted in all leagues. … Drew Brees is the first NFL quarterback to exceed 5,000 passing yards in back-to-back seasons, and he has led the league in passing touchdowns in four of the past five years. Sean Payton's yearlong suspension threw a kink in the New Orleans Saints' season last year, yet Brees still dominated. … I actually have Tom Brady above Brees in my personal ranks, but it's close either way you slice it. Personally, I prefer Brady's steadiness and lack of negative games; Brees has thrown an NFL-worst 16.6 interceptions per season over the past five years, whereas Brady has thrown 9.3 in that span. Even at age 36, Brady is rock solid. … Peyton Manning dropped off a bit in December last year, especially fluttering deeper passes: In his final four games including the playoffs, his completion rate on attempts longer than 20 yards was 27 percent. Before that, it had been 45 percent. But that merely adds a trace of risk to a guy coming off the second-best season of his illustrious career. With Wes Welker joining Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the Denver Broncos' receiving corps, more strong production is likely forthcoming. … In my own ranks, I actually prefer Cam Newton over Peyton, but again, it's close. Certainly Newton has yet to prove that he belongs among the elite passers in fantasy, especially because the Carolina Panthers don't boast an elite receiving corps. But Newton makes up for any aerial deficiencies with his ridiculous running. It's hard to imagine he doesn't get you 600-plus rush yards and eight-plus rush TDs, plus his size makes him less of any injury risk than your typical running quarterback.
The Next Tier
Matt Ryan leapt forward in passing yards in '12, not because he threw it deep better or more often, but because the Atlanta Falcons developed a deadly screen game. On passes behind the line of scrimmage, the team had 66 more completions and 559 more yards than it did in '11. The addition of Steven Jackson will only reinforce the short game. Only a lack of elite TDs holds Ryan back from the top-five fantasy quarterbacks. … Colin Kaepernick started seven regular-season games last year, and his prorated stats would've been 3,675 pass yards, 544 rush yards, 23 pass TDs and 5 rush TDs. That would've made him fantasy's No. 8 QB, and he was just getting started. And when the San Francisco 49ers unleashed the full power of their read-option attack in the playoffs, Kap was well-nigh unstoppable. It's fair to worry about Michael Crabtree's absence, and the fact that Kaepernick is an above-average injury risk because he runs so much. But the upside here is major. … Russell Wilson is slightly hamstrung by the Seattle Seahawks' conservative game plan, especially near an opponent's goal line. But Wilson's 489 rush yards were third best among QBs last year, and my guess is the Seahawks will open things up with Percy Harvin in the fold. Certainly I think Wilson finishes far above his meager 3,118 passing yards from last year. … There sure are a lot of strong quarterbacks, aren't there? Especially when you consider Matthew Stafford -- who merely set a record for the most passing attempts in a single season last year -- barely cracks the top 10. His line is middling, and he had some shaky moments last year, but Stafford also had to deal with a decimated receiving corps and some unlikely-to-repeat bad luck (Calvin Johnson was tackled on an opponent's 1-yard-line an amazing six times!). Frankly, I'd be perfectly happy waiting to take a QB and having Stafford as a starter in any league. … Getting the picture yet? There are so many good quarterbacks right now. Andrew Luck takes a tumble only because there are concerns that his new offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, may limit the downfield passing game that was Bruce Arians' calling card during Luck's rookie year. But again, if you told me I could wait to take a quarterback and wind up with this guy? Yeah, I'm on board. … Tony Romo comes off a career season in which he bested his previous single-season yardage mark by 420 yards, and he can't get a sniff of the fantasy top 10. Quietly, Romo has been a top-eight fantasy quarterback three of the past four seasons and has one of the game's brightest young receivers in Dez Bryant.
It seems like a long time since Michael Vick was under consideration to be a first-round pick, doesn't it? He hasn't missed fewer than three games in any of his four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he seems like an awful bet to stay healthy in a Chip Kelly offense that designs more runs for the quarterback than Andy Reid ever did. I don't rule out the possibility that Vick begins the year great and wins some fantasy games for you in September. But he'll get hurt soon thereafter. … Josh Freeman finished as fantasy's No. 13 QB last year, but as a group, we at ESPN rank him at No. 20 for the upcoming season. (He's No. 19 on my personal list.) Why the drop? Freeman made too many mistakes and posted a Mark Sanchez-like 54.8 percent completion rate in '12, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are said to be less than enamored with Freeman (having drafted Mike Glennon this spring). Freeman is entering a contract year, and I wouldn't be shocked if he gets benched at some point in '13. … And I believe the San Diego Chargers would bench Philip Rivers if they had anything resembling a viable young option on their QB depth chart. Rivers definitely did not bounce back last year, instead suffering behind a poor offensive line and turning into a chuck-and-ducker who was slow to deliver out routes and turned the ball over 22 times, giving him an amazing 47 turnovers over the past two seasons. You'll hear lots of talk about how Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt will turn things around for Rivers in '13. Don't believe it. Rivers' arm looks cooked.
I am absolutely no fan of late-career Carson Palmer, but even I have to admit that moving from the Oakland Raiders to the Arizona Cardinals, with Bruce Arians as his new playcaller, gives Palmer a bit of fantasy luster. While Palmer still doesn't throw the beautiful deep ball he once did back in his glory days with the Cincinnati Bengals, his arm does seem to have recovered from where it was a few years ago, and Larry Fitzgerald should benefit. Palmer will have to play behind an inexperienced (and often shaky) offensive line, and will make dreadful, fantasy-killing mistakes on a regular basis. But the fact that Arians likes his quarterbacks to be aggressive could lead Palmer to at least fantasy backup status. … Andy Reid will embrace Alex Smith with the Kansas City Chiefs and put him in a low-risk system that will play to Smith's strengths. While I'm highly doubtful that will add up to fantasy-starter numbers, the Chiefs will improve on their dreadful '12 record. Expect low TD and INT totals for Smith, with a competent season in which he'll be near the league's bottom in average yards at the catch, but without too many crushing performances. He's a deep option in a two-QB league. … Matt Flynn made the "Opportunity Knocks" section of this column last year too, only he was wearing a Seahawks uniform. Russell Wilson stole the starting job that was supposed to be Flynn's, and now rookie Tyler Wilson has a chance to do the same now that Flynn is with Oakland. Flynn will probably start, but the Raiders are a disaster area, especially along the offensive line. I'd be awfully surprised if Flynn winds up being rosterable in any fantasy leagues in 2013.
Only three rookie quarterbacks appear to have a legit shot at starting Week 1. I just mentioned Tyler Wilson, who is probably the longest shot of the three, and even if he's under center, he doesn't figure to produce much with the Raiders. Geno Smith looks like the odds-on favorite to replace Mark Sanchez and become the New York Jets' starting signal-caller, but -- stop me if you've heard this before, Jets fans -- his throwing accuracy is a work in progress. And considering New York's receiving corps might be the NFL's worst, plus acknowledging that Smith isn't a running QB, there's very little chance Smith will register on fantasy radar screens in '13. … In fact, while we rate E.J. Manuel lower than Smith in our QB ranks, it's easy to argue that Manuel has significantly more upside than Smith. After all, he's a Cam Newton-sized behemoth who may be nowhere near the runner Newton is, but he absolutely could be a TD-maker inside opponents' red zones. Alas, Manuel's throwing consistency and mechanics were a mess at Florida State, and it's no sure thing he beats out Kevin Kolb this summer.
There's really only one "injury guy" you need to know at QB this year, but he's a biggie: Robert Griffin III. Without the torn right ACL he suffered in January, RG III would be a lock for top-five fantasy QB status, maybe even top-three. As a rookie, Griffin proved he might be the fastest quarterback in NFL history. He scored seven rushing TDs, he eclipsed 60 rushing yards in seven of his 15 regular-season starts, and his 815 total rush yards were the fifth-most ever by a QB in a single season. And he has potential as a passer, though I think folks who proclaim him a "great" deep-ball thrower should reserve judgment, as RG III tied Christian Ponder for 27th in attempts that traveled 20-plus yards in the air last season. Anyway, the real questions about Griffin are whether he'll be ready for Week 1 (it's starting to sound as if he will be), and whether he can be his usual dynamic self so soon after a torn ACL. Will the Washington Redskins allow him to run the way he did in '12? We have no way of really knowing, which could make Griffin one of this year's great value picks. I have him ranked ninth on my QB list, which is also where we put him as a group on ESPN.com.
I put Ben Roethlisberger on the sleeper list in last year's QB position preview, and he played well before being derailed by injury. And that's always likely to be the sticking point with Big Ben: He gets hurt. But before his Week 10 shoulder and rib woes in '12, he was on pace for 4,406 passing yards, 32 TDs, 8 INTs and a 67 percent completion rate. Todd Haley wants to emphasize the quick passing game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that suits Roethlisberger's all-waterbug receiving corps, now that Mike Wallace has left. I won't be shocked if Big Ben posts a top-10 fantasy season, at least on a per-game basis, in '13. … Sam Bradford will officially be out of excuses in '13. The St. Louis Rams spent big to get Jake Long blocking on Bradford's blind side, got a speedy tight end in Jared Cook, traded up to draft Tavon Austin, and now boast one of the fastest offenses in the NFL. Bradford has above-average size, mobility and arm strength. Now is the time. I don't particularly care for Brian Schottenheimer as a playcaller, and the Rams' backfield is unproven, but Bradford could take a major leap forward if he takes advantage of all that speed. … New Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman has an NFL pedigree for creating efficient, short-passing offenses with athletic quarterbacks, and Brandon Marshall is coming off a terrific season. That lands Jay Cutler on this sleeper list for the second straight year. But I don't really believe it. The fact is, until the Bears prove they've fixed their terrible offensive line, Cutler will disappoint. The team spent big for left tackle Jermon Bushrod, but there's a real question about just how good a player Bushrod really is (Drew Brees tends to make his blocking look superb, rather than vice versa), and the disappointing J'Marcus Webb will still start at right tackle. Bottom line? I won't be shocked if Cutler's numbers improve. But I'll be surprised.
I gave two contradictory opinions in last year's QB position preview. On the one hand, I wrote: "I suspect that the top 10 or 12 quarterbacks will be closer-bunched this year than they were last." I believed this because I assumed guys like Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and others would bounce back from disappointing seasons, re-establishing a more viable "middle class" among quarterbacks, and because I thought last year's rookie QBs had a chance to contribute. This led me to the conclusion that it was highly unlikely we'd see anything approaching five quarterbacks in the VBD top 10 again in '12. But on the other hand, I wrote: "Nevertheless … Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Stafford [will] number among my top 11 fantasy players overall this year."
How did I justify this contradiction? Safety. I didn't see enough safe top RBs or WRs to justify late-first-round selection. And lacking studs at other positions I could trust, drafting a QB was acceptable. Though I assumed such a strategy would lead to diminished upside, the trade-off in diminished downside made the strategy acceptable. Questionable high-upside RBs and WRs would still be there in subsequent rounds.
And so I think the major upheaval in QB draft strategy for '13 doesn't really come from the QBs at all, but rather from a different position. There are more attractive first-round RBs this season and, perhaps more important, a remarkable lack of palatable RB options outside the top 10. If you wait for your quarterback, you might get "stuck" with Andrew Luck. If you wait for your RB, you might wind up with Ryan Mathews as your top backfield option. Nobody wants that.
What I'm saying in VBD terms is that I expect the spread among starting fantasy RBs to be enormous, while the spread among starting fantasy QBs will be -- as it was in '12 -- smaller. Because there are perhaps a dozen acceptable top RBs and because the drop-off thereafter seems so severe, I deem it unwise to select a QB in the first round of your draft in '13. (In my overall ranks, I have no QBs in my top 10.) Let someone else have Rodgers or Brees or Brady in a standard fantasy league. Load up on RBs and be happy there are so many excellent QBs out there.
Similar logic applies to auctions. I don't need to be the person who pays an extra $5 for the very best quarterback, not when that money can be put toward shoring up my No. 2 RB spot. Be a patient comparison shopper at quarterback. If I can be one of the final teams in an auction who grabs a starting fantasy signal-caller, I may find some softness in the market. And indeed, 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.