Fantasy QB Replaceability

JJ Zachariason
Patrick Daugherty breaks down all of Week 16's biggest stories, including Aaron Rodgers' continued struggles

Aaron Rodgers' Rough Year

Patrick Daugherty breaks down all of Week 16's biggest stories, including Aaron Rodgers' continued struggles

Author of The Late Round Quarterback, JJ Zachariason is doing a Rotoworld offseason series on quarterback value in fantasy football. A link to Zachariason's book can be found here. JJ is also on Twitter.

The last time Aaron Rodgers wasn’t a top-3 fantasy quarterback, Justin Fargas was a top-24 running back. LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, Clinton Portis and Jamal Lewis were each top-10 choices. LenDale White – an NFL runner whose website now takes you to an index page for California travel – was a top-15 runner.

Rodgers has been a top fantasy signal calling option for five straight years. His unbelievable arm talent and athletic ability have assisted fantasy teams over this time, and probably more importantly, helped Packers fans forget the historic passer that played before him.

There is no better model of consistency than Number 12. Period. He’s going to be a top fantasy quarterback again in 2013, and he’s probably going to be one in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, too.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we should value him significantly higher than other players in fantasy drafts. Year-to-year consistency, an area in which Rodgers excels, is an overrated metric in redraft fantasy football leagues.

You see, we typically make draft choices based on confidence. How confident are you that Aaron Rodgers will be a top-3 quarterback in 2013? I’d assume very. Now, how confident are you that Marshawn Lynch will finish as a top-5 or -6 fantasy running back in 2013? I’d venture to guess you’d be less confident.

Confidence, though, is an overblown hurdle fantasy owners face when they select their fantasy team. Instead of asking, “How confident am I that Player X will finish as a top fantasy option”, we should be wondering, “How confident am I that, if player X doesn’t perform to his ADP, I can find a replacement?”

The upside to having a top running back is supreme in fantasy football. The top ones, each season, perform at a level unmatched by any other fantasy position. In terms of value, elite running backs outperform the rest of their position by a larger margin, fantasy points-wise, than anyone else.

You want that. You need that. And the most reliable way you can get that is if you draft them early and often.

Throughout this five-article series on fantasy quarterbacks, I’ve mentioned – over and over again – the term “value”. This concept shapes our understanding of which players and positions are most important to fantasy. If a player, for instance, is really good at football and outscores the rest of his position by a whole lot of fantasy points, that player is considered valuable.

On the flip side, value has a not-so-obvious meaning. Instead of thinking what you’re gaining when you have a particular player, you should be thinking of what you’re losing if you don’t have a particular player. In other words, you should always keep in mind how replaceable a fantasy player, or position, is.

Joe Flacco, after above average play for the majority of his career, signed a huge deal with the Ravens after winning the Super Bowl last year. We all know the narrative. Many people saw the deal as ludicrous, but even I, a huge critic of Flacco’s play, knew the huge money-making contract had to happen.

It wasn’t just about what Flacco has accomplished. He didn’t get the monster deal simply because of his stellar play during the Ravens Super Bowl run. Sure, that was part of it, but he was able to ink the contract because the Ravens had no choice. Who would replace the Super Bowl MVP if he were to be let go? Tyrod Taylor? A passer from a poor quarterback draft class? Jeff George?

Joe Flacco and his agent had all the leverage in the world when negotiating one of the most lucrative deals in NFL history because of replaceability. When there’s nobody to come in and take your job, you can get anything you want.

But just because quarterbacks like Flacco aren’t very replaceable in the real sport doesn’t mean they aren’t in the fake one, too. From a week-to-week standpoint, you can easily pinpoint an atypical guy that produces QB1 numbers. There’s an abundance of them, actually.

If you recall from my article on supply and demand, 38 different signal callers turned in at least one top-12 finish in the sixteen fantasy-relevant weeks of 2012. And 26 of them did it four or more times. Considering a 12-team league starts just twelve signal callers each week, it’s pretty clear there’s an excess supply of usable quarterbacks in a given fantasy football week.

Compared to running back and receiver, it was clear that, from a week-to-week perspective, usable quarterbacks could be found off the waiver wire or on the bench in a 12-team standard league.

How do I know they were usable? Well, not only were there a ton of them with multiple top-12 performances, but there’s a predictive value, based on opportunity, with quarterbacks. In other words, it’s easier to tell which middling signal caller will leap to a top-12 performance compared to running back or receiver because of their inherent predictability.

For example, were you confident C.J. Spiller would receive 15 or more carries while Fred Jackson was healthy under the direction of Chan Gailey last season? Maybe not, as Gailey’s erratic running back usage gave even non-Spiller owners headaches.

But would you be confident in thinking Carson Palmer would throw the rock 35 or more times, especially against a poor secondary? Of course; Palmer was the king of garbage time with Oakland, and though he wasn’t all that efficient in silver and black, he had all the opportunity in the world to be effective as a fantasy passer.

That’s another thing; we often make the mistake of translating efficiency with effectiveness in fantasy football. Matthew Stafford and Shonn Greene certainly showed flaws in 2012, but both of them had so much opportunity within their offenses that they were more than fantasy relevant. Ben Roethlisberger, a historically effective quarterback in terms of wins and losses, hasn’t always been the best fantasy option at quarterback. Why? Well, his pass attempt numbers during the first half of his career were constrained by a solid defense and above average running game.

Quarterbacks control their own weekly destinies because they have opportunity. Running backs and receivers are handcuffed by uncontrollable variables. If a matchup on paper looks favorable for both Sam Bradford and Ben Tate, are you going to feel better about Bradford putting up QB1 numbers or Tate putting up starting running back numbers? I’d assume Bradford, as Tate would have to fight for carries, or opportunity, with Arian Foster.

This is actually why the strategy of streaming exists for quarterbacks, and why yearly quarterback consistency doesn’t matter as much as people want it to. When a position is replaceable and predictable in nature, the players who play that position mean less, or hold less value, than players who play less replaceable positions.

Typically, the notion of replaceability goes unnoticed during a fantasy draft. Many select their players centered around Value Based Drafting principles, which is sound, but VBD doesn’t necessarily tell us what happens during the season.

Let’s think of this conceptually. You view Aaron Rodgers as the best player at the position because he’s projected to outscore his passing peers by an incredibly large margin; a margin that is much greater than any running back or receiver. But this margin, or variance, is a year-long one.

What happens in the middle of the season? Rodgers isn’t going to give you top fantasy production every week. Last year, he had seven performances where he didn’t even finish as a top-12 quarterback scorer. Though his cumulative, end-of-season totals look attractive, we have to be aware that things happen during the average football season.

You can manipulate your lineup. You can trade players. You can pick guys up off the waiver wire. These transaction-based acts are the reason replaceability is important to grasp in fantasy football.

If you’re the fantasy player who doesn’t like to pay attention during the season, then sure, drafting a quarterback late may not be your cup of tea. But if you’re that kind of player, maybe fantasy football isn’t the game for you.

Season-long consistency is overrated. What we really should be concerned with is week-to-week predictability. And even though nearly one hundred running backs and receivers finish top-24 in a given week during the season, that doesn’t mean their performances are foreseeable. Only the best runners and pass catchers have predictable top performances throughout a season because they’re the only ones doing it multiple times. Don’t believe me? Alright, good luck playing Jacquizz Rodgers next season with confidence.

I’m fine with drafting a duo of passers who can be played in tandem throughout the fantasy season. The best-case scenario is that one of them ends up being nearly as effective in fantasy as Tom Brady. The worst-case scenario is that I’m forced to trade my acquired depth for one, or snag one off the heavily supplied waiver wire.

Folks, I’ve already written about the depth of the position. You should feel comfortable waiting on your signal caller in 2013 simply because of that. But it goes beyond looking at obvious depth. Drafting your quarterback late is about considering the supply and demand of the position, the opportunity cost associated with drafting the position, and, of course, the replaceability of the position. Your aim should be to maximize value.

These ideas won’t change as long as fantasy lineups remain the same. Become a late-round quarterback believer, and watch the rest of your league suffer the value-draining consequences of selecting one early.

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