I was twelve years old when I first bore witness to “the fallacy of the QB reach” in Fantasy Football. My buddy and I carpooled to school, and he came from a family of fanatical Green Bay Packers fans. He and his dad collaborated on an annual team, which was an exciting concept to me. After all, Fantasy Football in 2005 was in its infancy, nothing like the behemoth that it is today.
The conversation in the car that day revolved around two words: “Brett” and “Favre”, which in hindsight made sense coming from a car full of Packers fans. Any football fan will recognize the name. Favre is both an NFL and a Packers icon, with numerous accolades under his belt. These include but are not limited to 11 Pro Bowl appearances, three MVP awards, and a Super Bowl ring. The message repeated over and over was the same: “we need to get Favre”.
One might sympathize with a desire to draft Brett Favre prior to the 2005 season. Though 35 years old at the time, Favre had a strong 2004 season, throwing for 4,088 yards with 30 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, and 64.1% completion rate. He ranked in the top five in terms of yards and touchdowns, as he led the Packers to a 10-6 record and an NFC North title.
To my friend’s delight, Favre was available when it was their turn to draft in the third round. They pounced on him and went into the 2005 season with a sense of optimism and hope. What happened in 2005? The Packers went 4-12 as Favre posted the second-lowest Quarterback Rating of his career and threw for fewer yards than 2004. Even more alarming was the drop in touchdown passes (30 to 20) and rise in interceptions (17 to 29, which was a career-high). After the draft, my friend revealed that he passed on Larry Johnson in order to draft Favre. Larry Johnson was effective in 2004, rushing for 581 yards with nine touchdowns. What happened in 2005? Johnson rushed for 1,750 yards with 20 touchdowns and added 33 receptions for 343 yards and an additional touchdown.
The moral of the story is that it is unwise to take a QB early in a draft, if it’s a standard 10-12 team league with one starting QB. There are three major reasons that owners typically ignore this advice.
An undeniably sexy move in any Fantasy Football draft is to jump on a star Quarterback from the previous season. It’ll get people talking when you ride the hot hand so to speak, but the problem is that the hot hand does not usually translate between seasons for QBs, at least to the extent that owners expect. In 2011, Drew Brees had a season for the ages, throwing for 5,476 yards with 46 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The next year, Brees was still outstanding but his yards and touchdowns dropped, while his interceptions rose to 19. By 2014, though still performing at a high level, Brees was consistently in the low to mid 30’s in touchdowns. Good, but not as good.
In 2016, Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,428 yards with 40 touchdowns. Over the following two seasons, Rodgers battled injuries and threw for roughly 6,000 yards and 41 touchdowns combined.
Matt Ryan threw for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns in 2016. The following year, he threw for 4,095 yards with 20 touchdowns.
In 2015, Cam Newton threw for 3,837 yards with 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 636 yards with 10 touchdowns. This led to him winning the MVP award. He threw 41 touchdowns and rushed for 11 more over the following two seasons combined.
As these and other stories highlight, although elite Quarterbacks will often maintain a high level of play over multiple seasons, their numbers from a fantasy perspective often fluctuate due to a variety of sources, such as natural regression to the mean and injuries.
Patrick Mahomes will probably have an outstanding 2019 season. However, he probably will not throw for 5,097 yards with 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and he probably will not average 26.1 points per game in standard ESPN scoring. Owners will reach for him and snatch him off the board, because they expect him to repeat this exceptional performance. “Exceptional” performances are by definition, “unusual”. Expecting the unusual to become the norm is often fool’s gold
As exemplified by my story, there is a substantial opportunity cost when owners reach for a Quarterback. Though this cost may not be as drastic as passing on Larry Johnson to draft Brett Favre in 2005, drafting a QB early will significantly harm the depth of the rest of your team. There are 32 teams in the NFL. Therefore, there are 32 starting Quarterbacks in the NFL. The typical Fantasy Football roster consists of one or two QBs, so in a standard 10-12 team league, roughly two-thirds of these 32 starting Quarterbacks will be rostered.
Per ESPN Fantasy predictions, the QBs ranked #8 through #14 in terms of projected points in 2019 are Ben Roethlisberger, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Mitch Trubisky, and Jared Goff. I’m not entirely convinced about Trubisky and Goff, and Murray is an unproven Rookie, but I’ll gladly “settle” for any of the others. Not to mention, this leaves reliable “bench” options out there such as Philip Rivers and Tom Brady, along with promising young guns such as Josh Allen and Sam Darnold.
Supply < Demand
On the flip side, there are over 100 Running Backs in the league and even more Wide Receivers. Depth at these positions is much worse than at Quarterback, and by reaching for a QB, owners will be forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel at later points in the draft. In 2018, Ezekiel Elliott was the only Running Back to average 20 or more carries per game. Only 11 Running Backs averaged 16 or more carries per game. 35 Running Backs averaged double-digit carries, and 62 Running Backs averaged 5 or more carries. Keeping in mind that a typical roster has two or three Running Backs as starters, and needs another two or three on the bench, anywhere from 48 to 72 Running Backs will typically be rostered in a standard 12-team league. The Running Backs taken in early to middle rounds are the only ones that will typically get enough volume to make themselves viable commodities.
Wide Receivers face similar depth-related issues. Though offenses often have anywhere from two to four Wide Receivers on the field for any given snap, volume can be difficult to come by. In 2018, only six receivers averaged double-digit targets per game, and only five receivers averaged seven or more receptions per game. 27 Receivers averaged seven or more targets per game, and 23 averaged five or more receptions per game. 64 Receivers averaged five or more targets per game, and 41 averaged four or more receptions per game. What’s the point of these numbers? Well, they highlight the fact that once you get past the early or middle rounds of the draft, you’ll be taking long-shots when you draft non-QBs. If you do that, you’d better be lucky enough to grab a 2018 Phillip Lindsay, 2017 Alvin Kamara, or 2016 Michael Thomas.
Dime A Dozen
The last reason that you shouldn’t reach for a QB is that it’s often simply not worth it when you analyze the position. Russell Wilson ranked 12th in points per game in 2018, at 18.7. Deshaun Watson, the second QB off the board in most drafts, ranked 4th, at 20.7 points per game. Aaron Rodgers, the third QB off the board in most drafts, ranked 9th at 19.5 points per game. Baker Mayfield, typically the fourth QB drafted ranked 20th, at 17.2 points per game, worse than Josh Allen, Kirk Cousins, Philip Rivers, and Jameis Winston. The point being, that while there may be a QB who has an outstanding year and separates himself from the pack, a la 2018 Patrick Mahomes, most of the pack will be grouped closely together when all is said and done.
Let’s compare Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers. Prescott is typically off the board in the 10th or 11th round, whereas Rodgers is coming off the board in the 4th or 5th round. Per ESPN, the two are projected to average 18.6 and 18.7 points per game respectively. If you make the choice to pass on Rodgers in the 4th round, and select Prescott in the 10th, you’re looking at drafting Running Backs such as Mark Ingram, Marlon Mack, or Phillip Lindsay, rather than Peyton Barber, Jaylen Samuels, or Justin Jackson. Alternatively, maybe you can grab a Cooper Kupp, Kenny Golladay, or D.J. Moore rather than DeSean Jackson, Courtland Sutton, or Tyrell Williams. Perhaps you take the opportunity to draft O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, or Delanie Walker.
You Can Win This Way!
This is a formula that has worked for me flawlessly. I’ve won my league championship three consecutive years, due in large part to this strategy. In 2018, I took the 12th and 13th QBs off the board in my 12-team league. The 12th was Philip Rivers, who wound up ranked as the #12 QB, though he was less than a point per game from being in the top 10. The 13th was a guy by the name of Patrick Mahomes.
In 2017, I employed the same strategy and drafted Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith. Not a sexy combination, but Cousins finished with 4,093 passing yards and 27 touchdowns, while Smith finished with 4,042 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger was 5th in the NFL in both statistics, at 4,251 passing yards and 28 touchdowns, averaging about 0.6 more fantasy points per game than Cousins and 1.0 more than Smith.
In 2016, I took 37-year-old Carson Palmer and 22-year-old Jameis Winston. Palmer finished with 4,233 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, while Winston finished with 4,090 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. Roethlisberger was 6th that year with 29 touchdown passes, and Philip Rivers was 5th in passing yards with 4,386.
What can you do this year? Well, I’d advise that you start with a given. Philip Rivers is the 12th QB off the board, but he’s a near-lock to throw for 4,000 yards and approach or pass 30 passing touchdowns. The Chargers aren’t great, and it’s not a sexy pick, but if you’re looking for reliability and a high floor, Rivers is as good as it gets, especially if Melvin Gordon’s holdout continues into the season. Ben Roethlisberger is anywhere from 13th-16th off the board in most drafts, yet he was 4th in points per game last year and is projected to be 8th this year. His home/away splits are not ideal, but if healthy, he’s a lock to get you at least 4,000-4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. What can you do to supplement this stable, if not exciting pick? Take a shot on Kyler Murray as well, going anywhere from 9th-13th off the board.
Do not draft a QB early. The worst thing you can do is to fall prey to the Fallacy of the QB Reach in Fantasy Football Drafts. If you’re the last team in your league to draft a QB, smile because you may very well win this year.