Exit Interview: At QB, pay the top-shelf premium

Brandon Funston
Roto Arcade

Throughout the week, the Yahoo! fantasy team will review each of the four major positions, with an eye toward 2012 drafts. The plan is to take a Q&A approach. We're looking at trends, sleepers, rookies, free agents, potential busts and breakouts ... it's like an early draft of a position primer, basically. Today we analyze the quarterbacks, a group that saw some of its elite members post prolific numbers in 2011.

In 2012 drafts, the once unthinkable just might happen. Fantasy experts nationwide could be advocating for multiple quarterbacks to be taken in the first round of fantasy drafts. That's right, I said it. There's perhaps a better case for such course of action than there has been at any point in the modern fantasy era.

This season, five QBs averaged at least 20 fantasy points in Yahoo! default league scoring (through Week 16). That's unprecedented top-heavy production, as only twice since the 2000 season has as many as three QBs in a single season achieved that average. And this year's Big Five didn't include Michael Vick or Peyton Manning, as breakouts Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford joined the elite conversation. Here's a breakdown of the number of 20-point QBs over the past dozen seasons:

There was also a 2.5 fantasy PPG gap between the No. 5 QB (Stafford) and the No. 6 QB (Matt Ryan). The difference between Stafford and the No. 12 QB (Mark Sanchez) was a hefty 5.1 PPG. That kind of scoring discrepancy after the top 2-3 QBs is extremely rare. Normally QB scoring follows down the line in an orderly, incrementally-declining fashion - check out the regression of PPG scoring from QBs 6-12 below to see what I'm talking about.

Think about the makeup of this top 5 group. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady are well-established future HOFers, while Newton and Stafford were No. 1 overall NFL draft picks, overflowing with talent such that you can't claim that what they did this season was a fluke.

In drafts next year, these guys should stand out from the rest of the QB class. Sure, Michael Vick, Tony Romo and Peyton Manning have at one time or another delivered the kind of elite production in the past that fits with this year's top 5, but there's now a big injury-risk tag affixed to each of those players. And, yes, there's the potential for Philip Rivers, Eli Manning or Matt Ryan to take another step into this area of top-shelf production, but even in their best seasons (which was this year for Manning and Ryan), they really haven't come close to the 20-point plateau.

So, if you account for the divide after the top 5 and for the continued decline of the featured running back, there's a strong case to be made that at least 3-4 signal-callers deserve to have their name called in the first round in 2012 fantasy drafts - and Rodgers and Newton belong in the No. 1 overall conversation. While you're mulling over how many QBs you'd be willing to draft (and how high) in Round 1 next season, let's look at some other big questions heading into the '12 campaign.

Q: Cam Newton crashed into the QB top 5 this season. Will Andrew Luck be able to make a similar impact next season?

A: One axiom that was thrown in the trash in '11 is that you can't even bother with rookie QBs in fantasy leagues. Not only did Newton become a first-season marvel, but Andy Dalton (five games in which he finished among the week's top 10 fantasy QBs) and Christian Ponder (four top 14 fantasy finishes at QB among his nine starts) also proved to be much better than desperation options for fantasy owners. And, although he never started a game, Jake Locker showed enough in three relief appearances for the Titans to get folks salivating about his fantasy potential as a starter.

[Related: NFL playoff picture and scenarios: Who's in, who's out]

So, certainly Luck, considered one of the most complete QB prospects ever to come out of college, is someone that has to be taken seriously next year in fantasy drafts. But, as good as he may be, there's a strong chance that fellow rookie-to-be Robert Griffin III will steal his thunder. RG3's mobility is a big-time threat. And so is his arm - he's accurate, has tremendous arm strength and a Marino-like trigger. Basically, he's the perfect weapon. In fact, I'm willing to bet that some NFL teams will have RG3 ahead of Andrew Luck on its draft board. In the right situation, he's capable of coming in and making an impact like Cam Newton. Ultimately, of course, how much impact either player will make will largely depend on their situation - talent of the team that drafted them, playing time expectations, etc.

Q: Besides the rookies, who are some sleepers to target in '12?

A: One perceived sleeper from this year's draft, Josh Freeman, didn't pan out. But I'd keep my eye on what the Bucs do this offseason. Because a coaching change and some improvements in his receiving corps could put Freeman back in the top 12 hunt for '12. Freeman's passing numbers took a hit this season, but he actually completed a higher percentage of passes and attempted more passes than he did in '10. And, he rushed for 4 TDs after having been held without a rushing TD in his first two seasons.

Jake Locker is another player to keep close tabs on. Tennessee fans desperately wanted Locker to start the past couple of weeks with Matt Hasselbeck banged up, but head coach Mike Munchak held firm in his allegiance to Hasselbeck. But, with Locker getting solid game experience this season, it's not hard to fathom Munchak turning things over to the No. 8 overall draft pick in '11 instead of the 37-year-old Hasselbeck. If that's the case, Locker has the kind of big arm and rushing ability that propelled Newton into the fantasy stratosphere. If you look at Locker's three games of significant relief, he combined to play about five quarters. And in that time, he accounted for 4 TD passes, a TD run, 530 passing yards, 56 rushing and 0 TOs. Yes, he was in a situation in each game where he was forced into a hurry-up offense because the Titans were trailing badly on the scoreboard. But I think his upside potential given a regular four quarters of weekend work is obvious.

Q: Are there any QBs of note that could find a new team and starting gig via free agency or trade?

A: The two most prominent likely free agents are Kyle Orton and Packers backup Matt Flynn - forget about Drew Brees, he's not going anywhere. As for Orton or Flynn, unless they land in the most ideal of circumstances, they are unlikely to merit more than fantasy backup consideration even with a starting gig in tow come next summer.

The most interesting potential player-on-the-move situation could be Peyton Manning. Colts owner Jim Irsay said recently that he can't envision a healthy Manning playing anywhere other than in Indianapolis next season. But he also said that the Colts would take their QB of the future in the draft if the right one was available, and I'd say that being assured of either Andrew Luck or RG3 would fulfill the "right one available" criteria. With Manning due a $28 million bonus in March, it's far from a slam dunk that the Colts will decide to retain Manning with Luck or RG3 waiting for them come April. You can bet that at least a few teams - like the Jets, Miami, Kansas City and Seattle, to name a few - will make offers to the Colts for Manning that will be hard to ignore. No doubt, Manning will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the offseason.

Q: Where would you draft Tim Tebow next year?

A: Tebow's such a lightning rod topic that he demands a question entirely devoted to him. If Tebow manages to lead the Broncos to victory in Week 17, securing the team's postseason entry, it's hard to believe that he won't head into training camp next summer as the team's starter. If he bombs for the second-straight week this Sunday, his future as the Broncos starter becomes a little more tenuous. But, for the purpose of this question, let's assume Tebow is back in the saddle to open the '12 campaign. If that's the case, I think he's a QB1 bubble boy.

Tebow averaged 18.4 fantasy PPG in his 10 starts this season, which puts him at No. 7 among QBs. But I wouldn't be willing to take him that high. Frankly, I don't think John Elway is going to be overly patient with Tebow if/when things don't fall into place as magically as they did for him this season. A three-game losing streak could impact Tebow's job status more than most QBs in the QB1 consideration because, frankly, Tebow doesn't fit into the traditional box that the NFL establishment prefers. And a commitment to Tebow is a drastic departure from all things that are normal and comfortable to one entrusted with running an NFL franchise, like Elway.

Ideally, Tebow would be a fantastic backup fantasy QB, but that'll never happen in a world where half of the owners in most any fantasy league worship at the turf that Tebow treads. Fact is, there'll be someone that is willing to take him higher than is rational and prudent. So, although his ability to throw the ball is (terminally?) suspect, and job security could be tenuous, you're probably going to have to take Tebow among the top 10 QBs on draft day if you desire his services. Personally, as you'll see below, I wouldn't be willing to reach that high - I have him slotted somewhere in the 11-14 neighborhood for now.

Early QB ranks for 2012, if you made me draft a team today (top 25, sorted into four tiers) ...

Tier 1

Aaron Rodgers
Drew Brees
Tom Brady
Cam Newton
Matthew Stafford

Tier 2

Tony Romo
Michael Vick
Philip Rivers
Eli Manning
Matt Ryan
Ben Roethlisberger

Tier 3 (if everything breaks right, all these QBs have top 12 upside)

Peyton Manning
Robert Griffin III
Tim Tebow
Matt Schaub
Jake Locker
Jay Cutler
Josh Freeman

Tier 4

Carson Palmer
Joe Flacco
Andrew Luck
Sam Bradford
Andy Dalton
Christian Ponder
Alex Smith

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