Fantasy Football Exit Interview: Will messy QB season change market behavior?

It’s always been one of the contradictions of NFL versus fantasy football. In the NFL, the quarterback is everything, the position that keeps you up at night. In fantasy, quarterback is something you can solve fairly easily, the least of your worries.

At least, that used to be true. It sure wasn’t this season. If 1991 was The Year Punk Broke, 2022 was The Year Quarterback Broke.

This morning I was having some fun with the preseason top 30 quarterback list, wondering how often a pick clicked versus how often a pick missed. I used a very general “green, yellow, red” grading system — a green pick means you feel great about it in hindsight, a yellow pick meant middling returns, and a red says you ran away screaming, scarred from the experience.

The results were not pretty. I counted eight green picks among the top-30 quarterbacks, five yellows and 17 reds. Not even half of these guys came through for fantasy purposes, using this admittedly simplistic measuring stick.

The eight greens — the “right answers” if you will, all came very early or very late. You had to pay up in ADP for Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts or Joe Burrow. And you probably could name your price on Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Daniel Jones or Jared Goff. (If you look outside the top 30, you also come up with Geno Smith. And Brock Purdy had some fun moments late in the year.)

If you didn’t draft into that green pool, good luck to you. It’s tough sledding out there.

Because quarterbacks are the connective tissue of every NFL offense, I’m going to give a brief post-mortem to everyone in the top 30.

Green-light QBs

Let’s first talk about the happy stories, the guys who popped for us.

Josh Allen — He was drafted as QB1 and finished QB2. That’s a win every time. The shift in offensive coordinators did not hold Allen back.

Patrick Mahomes — No Tyreek Hill, no problem. If you saw Jerick McKinnon catching nine touchdown passes (eight of them from December onward), I’d like tomorrow’s lottery numbers, please.

Jalen Hurts — The Eagles were the Fantasy Offense of the Year, and Hurts was the perfect triggerman. A.J. Brown fit like a glove.

Joe Burrow — The sack problem was ironed out in the second half of the year, and sacks are more of a quarterback stat than they are an offensive-line stat.

Trevor Lawrence — If you got through the first half unscathed, Lawrence was a needle-mover down the stretch. Shifting from Urban Meyer to Doug Pederson surely helped, along with a fresh coat of paint for the pass-catching room.

Daniel Jones — He finished at QB9 despite pedestrian wideouts; Brian Daboll is a miracle worker, but Jones also improved his play (and made fewer mistakes). The Giants need to figure out how to keep him.

New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones built his fantasy value on his ability to scramble.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Justin Fields — The team set him up to fail, and Fields still needs significant improvement in his pocket awareness. The Bears probably should trade down from the No. 1 pick and collect multiple choices. But improvements are also needed on defense, of course. Fields is an electrifying runner, but how sustainable a business model is it?

Jared Goff — The Rams will never regret the Matthew Stafford trade (banners hang forever), but Goff shockingly won Year 2 of the breakup, posting a QB10 season with an ADP outside the Top 200. The Lions might not be able to keep well-regarded offensive coordinator Ben Johnson.

Geno Smith — His breakout year at age 32 was one of the coolest stories of the year. But Smith wasn’t great in the final quarter of the season, and the Seahawks might draft a quarterback anyway. Like Russell Wilson regularly did in Seattle, Smith often struggled with sack avoidance.

Yellow-light QBs

I might get a few arguments on the ranking, but I don’t think Kirk Cousins and Tom Brady drove teams to fantasy titles. As always, your mileage will vary, and you know your league better than I ever could.

Justin Herbert — His late-summer ADP was loftier than Mahomes, an industry mistake. To be fair, the Chargers ran very unlucky with injuries, as Herbert was injured in September and his top-three wideouts all dealt with physical problems. The Chargers also failed to upgrade a slow group of receivers, both in the offseason and at the deadline.

Tom Brady — The Buccaneers routinely struggled to score in the early stages of games, then crammed production into the desperate fourth quarter, like a lazy college student who finishes his term paper the morning it’s due. Brady’s touchdown passes by quarter: 2, 6, 4, 13. Brady led the league in attempts and completions for the second straight year, but most of his metrics were under the league median.

Dak Prescott — A busted thumb cost him five weeks, though his post-injury production was about what you’d expect (five top-10 weeks, five weeks between 11-18). Prescott no longer runs proactively, especially at the goal line.

Tua Tagovailoa — For much of the year, he made beautiful music with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, clicking in the Mike McDaniel offense. But multiple concussions might sideline Tagovailoa through the playoffs, and his future is as murky as ever.

Kirk Cousins — Maybe I’m too tough a grader and Cousins belongs with the greens — he did chart QB8, after all, beating his ADP. But given that Justin Jefferson is a demigod and the Vikings shifted to an offensive-minded head coach, it was disappointing to see Cousins’ metrics fall in several key categories. Cousins had seven starts inside the QB10 cutline, and five others QB20 or worse. Spin the wheel.

Red-light QBs

These won’t be fun, and I’ll try to be brief.

Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Trey Lance, Matthew Stafford and Ryan Tannehill all got hurt. Jackson’s season was the funkiest — he was a god in September, all but forgotten after Halloween. Tannehill had very little to work with. Lance has barely played any football in three years. Murray returns to an Arizona organization that’s brand new almost everywhere — the head coach and general manager are gone.

Russell Wilson looked broken for four months, though he played better after overmatched coach Nathaniel Hackett was fired.

Aaron Rodgers didn’t have a single 300-yard game all year, and he had just one start with three touchdown passes. For a player coming off two straight MVPs, the upside hissed quickly out of the balloon.

Jameis Winston didn’t win the gig. Andy Dalton was better in the metrics than he was in fantasy.

Matt Ryan, Zach Wilson, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz and Baker Mayfield all got benched after various forms of middling play.

Deshaun Watson was absurdly rusty, and that’s all I want to say about him.

Mac Jones didn't have much help, but he definitely regressed. Davis Mills played like a placeholder QB, which he obviously is.

The quarterback takeaways

• Running is as important as ever at this position. Everyone in the top 9 at the end of the year had a running component — aside from Cousins — with either proactive scrambling, goal-line equity or both. The best of the pass-only contributors (Cousins, Goff, Herbert, Brady) finished QB8 and then 10-12 in a row. That's useful, but not needle-moving.

• I suspect the market will correct next summer and the better quarterbacks will go earlier than they traditionally have. If you want to draft into a superstar QB, it’s going to cost you.

• What made Mahomes, Allen, Hurts and Burrow especially valuable is that you likely could have paired them with a difference-making teammate. I know stacking is not a new fantasy concept, but I’m going to try to do this more proactively next year. The only top-10 QBs who lacked a stacking partner were Fields and Jones.

• Quarterback is the least age-sensitive of the four major fantasy positions, but enough veterans struggled last year that I’ll at least consider a more escalator-driven strategy at this position next summer. If nothing else, I’d like to draft players who probably haven’t had their best season yet.

• The Kyle Shanahan system apparently is QB-proof, at least when you consider San Francisco’s skill-position riches. The Niners threw the ball far less proactively when Brock Purdy was forced into action, but his efficiency stats were almost identical to Jimmy Garoppolo’s. Whoever takes their snaps next year, I want that guy.

It’s January. This is all a sketch in pencil. This is an open ticket. We’ll tackle the running back Thursday, and the other two key positions next week.