NFL Exit Interview: You're never stuck at fantasy football quarterback

There are blurred lines between fantasy football and the NFL. No one disputes this. No astute player misses this. We try to mind the gap, and consistently make the best choices we can.

Every so often, I introduce a new player to the fantasy game. The first point I try to land is that while the NFL is all about the quarterback, fantasy football obviously is not.

In any experienced standard league, you’d be laughed out of the room if you took a quarterback in the first round. And the first manager to take a quarterback usually regrets it, and takes a loss for their trouble.

Patrick Mahomes was the first QB off Yahoo draft boards last summer, with an average draft position (ADP) around 16.6. He finished as the QB4 in cumulative points, and QB5 in points per game. Mahomes didn’t lose your league for you, sure, but he wasn’t a profit pick, either.

If you look at the Fantasy MVPs — the most common players rostered on the 500 best Yahoo public teams — there are zero quarterbacks in the Top 10. That speaks to how this position doesn’t demand the urgency that the other primary spots do. If you can get a star lower than their ADP, that’s great. If you can find a second-tier QB who’s ready to jump into the first tier, that’s even better. If you can stream like am omniscient god, more power to you.

These aren’t new concepts. Tons of ink have been spilled over the case for building your quarterback room on a budget. And obviously every league is different — you know your competition and your league better than an outsider ever will.

Preamble established, let’s try to figure out which fantasy QBs popped in 2021, and what, if anything, we can take away from them.

The QB1 — Josh Allen

Allen was the highest-charting QB on the MVP list, and he outscored everyone at the position. The dots aren’t hard to connect; he’s an elite talent who was entering his fourth season, the Bills brought back all the toys in the offense (including OC Brian Daboll), and Buffalo’s running game was modestly used most of the year, although Devin Singletary got cooking late.

Allen was consistent — if you give him a pass for that wacky Jacksonville loss — and he was efficient. And volume was never a problem here; he finished eighth in passing yards, seventh in passing touchdowns, third in quarterback rushing. He has all the pitches.

Allen wasn’t a giveaway at the draft table, but his ADP (29.7) was a full round after Mahomes.

Unfortunately, this type of season will assuredly raise the draft cost on Allen next year. He’ll probably have an ADP similar to what Mahomes carried this year. That’s a difficult way to make a profit. It’s also possible he’ll lose Daboll, the offense’s architect. Allen’s too good to crater with a new voice in his helmet, but we embrace continuity when we can get it.

Unless the ADP slides into an unexpected value pocket, I probably won’t roster Allen next year. It’s just simple regression at play. The price is likely to rise, and what’s more or a less a career year is very difficult to replicate.

Josh Allen is clearly one of the NFL's best QBs, but it's hard to justify taking him with where he'll go in fantasy drafts next year. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Josh Allen is clearly one of the NFL's best QBs, but it's hard to justify taking him with where he'll go in fantasy drafts next year. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Ascending Stars — Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow

Herbert’s second season was a fantasy windfall mostly through volume — he was second in pass attempts, second in completions, second in yardage, third in touchdowns. His efficiency metrics were almost identical to his rookie season. He was also handy as a runner, although he seldom does so proactively.

It’s a shame the Chargers didn’t make the playoffs. Herbert’s fourth-down coolness in the Week 18 classic against the Raiders left an indelible mark. The moment is never too big for this kid. And man, what a cannon.

Burrow finished as the QB8 compared to Herbert’s QB2, but if your roster pushed you into the playoffs, Burrow was ready to light the cigar. Burrow sprung for a ridiculous 971 passing yards and eight touchdowns in Weeks 16-17, the most prolific two-game passing two-game stretch in NFL history. First he took down the Ravens (the second time he used that defense as a pinball machine), then he solved Kansas City’s so-called improved defense.

Herbert has plenty of fun pieces in Los Angeles, but Burrow might be blessed with better support, given the upside Ja’Marr Chase flashed as a rookie. When Tee Higgins is ostensibly your No. 2 target, your life is pretty good. Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah are reasonable support players, and Joe Mixon has solid pass-catching skills.

Burrow’s biggest area for improvement comes with sack avoidance — sometimes he holds the ball a little too long, and at times the Bengals don’t protect him adequately. If Cincinnati can shore up that area in the next year or two, Burrow has MVP upside.

I suspect Herbert and Burrow will be drafted close to each other next year; the moment one of them is selected, it’s a Pavlov’s response to take the other one. And I’m guessing the ADPs will be reasonable enough that there will still be potential room for profit. I’m willing to think proactively on both of them.

Minding the Gap — Jalen Hurts

Fans, media, the Eagles, no one seems to be sure just how good Hurts really is. The Eagles have said positive things about Hurts in their 2021 post-mortems, but that’s not binding. Organizations have little incentive to tell the public the truth, anyway. Philly has a massive pick surplus for 2022 and there’s no guarantee Hurts will be given much leeway or a significant long-term commitment.

Hurts became the poster child for a player who carries much more value in fantasy football than he did in real life. Philly fans lived and died with the limitations of Hurts — he struggled to play well at the front of games, and didn’t perform well against better competition. Philadelphia’s playoff spot was driven by a bunch of wins over bad teams; the Eagles went 0-7 against playoff opponents.

A running quarterback is the nectar of the gods, and that’s where Hurts buttered his 2021 bread. He led the position in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns, and he managed that despite missing two games. Hurts also did his share of garbage-time stat compiling; his QB rating rose to 105.0 in the fourth quarter. Sometimes it’s more fun to roster a player blindly, rather than living and dying with his every snap.

If we wrote this QB review around Thanksgiving, Hurts would have been viewed as one of 2021’s right answers. Alas, he played poorly in a Week 12 loss to the Giants, and missed a game due to injury. He hardly ran in the New York rematch in Week 16.

Hurts is a reminder that we’re just in this game for the numbers, and proactive running remains a cheat code given how fantasy football is scored. That said, I’d rather look for an affordable version of Hurts next draft season, rather than pay an ADP that’s reflective of how well he scored in our games this year. If the ADP tied rises, I’d prefer to pass.

Jalen Hurts might represent the biggest difference in fantasy and real-life value in the NFL. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Jalen Hurts might represent the biggest difference in fantasy and real-life value in the NFL. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Statue Life — Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford

You can interpret the header two different ways — Brady and Rodgers will have statues built of them someday, and all three of these guys are reluctant runners. Of course Brady still sneaks well and ducks in the occasional touchdown, and Rodgers tacked on three rushing scores of his own. Stafford is the one guy in this group who has no interest in doing anything fantasy-useful on the ground — even with a rushing score in each of the Rams' playoff wins.

Bottom line, if you drafted these players, you need them to throw you to a profit. And Brady and Rodgers did produce a profit, in part because of perfect setups. Brady was surrounded by an extremely deep collection of receivers (albeit that depth eventually got demolished), and Rodgers continues to make beautiful music with Davante Adams, the best QB-WR click in the league.

Stafford finished QB6 in gross points but merely QB11 in per-game scoring. Although Cooper Kupp was unstoppable for the complete season, Stafford dealt with other problems — a finger injury, the loss of Robert Woods. He also led the league in interceptions, and has the worst indexed interception rate (working off the league average) since his rookie season.

I drafted some Brady because the ADP was right. I didn’t draft much Rodgers and didn’t miss him, despite his obvious efficiency and dreamy touchdown/interception rate — the Packers often let off the gas after they build an early lead, and Rodgers only topped 300 yards four times. Stafford’s final numbers were mildly disappointing when you consider how unstoppable Kupp was all season.

I’m not against drafting a run-agnostic fantasy QB, but the ADP needs to come to me. I don’t go after these guys proactively.

And one last thing before I go

Yes, you should try playing in a Superflex format. This is a recording. Start more players, dammit. Reduce variance.

Way Too Early QB Ranks for 2022 (with personal traffic lights)

1. Josh Allen (yellow)

2. Patrick Mahomes (yellow)

3. Justin Herbert (green)

4. Lamar Jackson (yellow)

5. Dak Prescott (yellow)

6. Aaron Rodgers (yellow)

7. Joe Burrow (green)

8. Kyler Murray (red)

9. Tom Brady (yellow)

10. Kirk Cousins (yellow)

11. Russell Wilson (yellow)

12. Ryan Tannehill (yellow)

13. Jalen Hurts (red)

14. Matthew Stafford (red)

• Green: I’ll probably draft proactively

• Yellow: If the ADP is right, I’m in

• Red: I’d probably need a major discount

Take this all with a grain of salt. It’s late January. We’re a long way from draft season. And to be fair, there’s a right point to draft almost anyone. I could list everyone as yellow if I really wanted to. It’s all contextual. It all depends. I'll forget half of this when the NFL draft hits.

We’ll talk again soon.

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