Tiered fantasy QB rankings: Deshaun Watson doesn't make Tier 1

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Matt Harmon’s 2018 fantasy football position tiers
Quarterback tiers.
Running back tiers.
Wide receiver tiers.
Tight end tiers.
Live cheat sheet for tiers.

In my view, fantasy rankings are taking a linear thought process into an inherently fluid decision-making exercise. I often find there’s a heavy amount of frivolous debate on subjects like “why do you have player-x at No. 12 but player-y at No. 15?” I don’t think it does the reader a service to try and take the numerical order as a one-to-one comparison, nor do we learn anything of use or substance about the players or how they will score us fantasy points on a week-to-week basis in the discussion. For all the hype surrounding the event of the draft, winning weekly is still the name of the game in the vast majority of fantasy formats.

With that school of thought established, I do believe that using tiers by position helps offset some of the uselessness of rankings. It helps take some of the frivolity of arguing a few spots difference in the order. Most of the players in one tier have roughly the same value, whether they fall first in the set or last. It provides more actionable information for fantasy owners to use during drafts, specifically in terms of helping us imagine the range of outcomes for players from both a season-long and weekly standpoint. We get too caught up in where we think a player will rank at the end of the season, but tiering can help remind us that the goal soon enough will be all about constructing teams that are best set to win us one week at a time.

The quarterback position is deeper than ever before. You can get into the mid-20’s of the position before starting to scoff at your options. Tiers are especially helpful with this position, as clear cutoffs begin to form when deciding to finally bite the bullet and select a fantasy passer. Waiting on the position will always be the optimal approach and tiering quarterbacks can help us keep a player’s range of outcomes, from a weekly and season-long perspective, in mind when we finally opt to snag them.

Tier 1 – Favorites to be the QB1 overall

1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
2. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
4. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Tier 1 of quarterbacks is filled with four passers who carry the best odds of finishing as the QB1 overall. Aaron Rodgers returns to his rightful throne atop the quarterback crop in 2018. As long as he avoids injury, there is nothing standing in the future Hall of Famer’s way of another dominant fantasy campaign. Russell Wilson was the top-scoring quarterback last year and despite the coaching staff’s strange desire to take the team back to the football stone age, a deconstructed defense will force the Seahawks to the air on offense.

Cam Newton is the most aggressive placement in the first tier of quarterbacks, although he’s been a top-four finisher in five of his seven NFL seasons. It’s easy to argue that the 2018 Panthers boast the most diverse, deep and talented group of pass-catchers of the Newton era. There’s at least a chance Newton sets career marks in passing efficiency this season and we should believe we’ll see a dip in his rushing attempts when we actually see it.

Tier 2 – At least one flaw off away from Tier 1

5. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
6. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Tier 2’s collection of fantasy passers are likely QB1s who should be weekly starters. Carson Wentz would be in the first tier if he weren’t coming off a late 2017 season-ending injury. While Wentz looks likely to start in Week 1 but it’s worth wondering if he’ll jump right back into MVP-caliber form. At a minimum, we could see his 4.9 rush attempts per game dip as his mobility is compromised early.

Deshaun Watson typically goes off the board as the second or third player at the position. Not only is Watson’s rookie season 9.3 percent touchdown rate a stone-lock to regress but the return of several defensive stars will also negate the shootout situations where he racked up production. Houston ran 57.9 percent of their plays while trailing in 2017 (10th most). He should bring QB1 value to your fantasy teams but he’s a red-light pick at current cost.

Tier 3 – Likely every week starters

7. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
8. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
9. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Andrew Luck is ranked optimistically as the QB7 in Tier 2. All reports have been positive from the offseason but we’ve been fooled before. He’s a value at his current 126th overall pick ADP but would be a risky pick, even if 100 percent healthy, in this range. Injury optimism is one of the great diseases of the fantasy community and it’s much wiser to admit we don’t know if Luck will just moonwalk right back into top-five form.

Marcus Mariota is a value at his QB15 price tag with an offensive overhaul on hand in Tennessee. The Titans were a boring, stale offense and ranked 28th in pace of play in 2017, per Football Outsiders. The team will get a shot in the arm with an influx of new and healthy talent under the direction of Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay disciple, Matt LaFleur as offensive coordinator. This ranking shows confidence in that transformation.

Tier 4 – High-end streamers with potential every-week upside

10. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
11. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
12. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
13. Alex Smith, Washington Redskins
14. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers\
15. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
16. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Matthew Stafford has finished outside the top-12 just once since 2011. Detroit may try to rein in their 63 percent passing play percentage (second-highest) but an enviable wide receiver corps should keep Stafford’s efficiency afloat. Kirk Cousins drops into an offense overflowing with skill position talent but one that will be more run-heavy than what he left behind in Washington. Patrick Mahomes is unproven but finds himself in a situation almost too good for him to fail. With a running back going inside the top-10 picks overall, two top-30 wide receivers and Travis Kelce as the TE2 overall in ADP, the simple math adds up to Mahomes as a QB1.

Alex Smith might be the most underrated quarterback in fantasy football playing in a pass-friendly Washington offense (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Alex Smith might be the most underrated quarterback in fantasy football playing in a pass-friendly Washington offense (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

My projections were quite kind to Alex Smith. Washington, by necessity or design, often leans toward the pass and has an intriguing cast of weapons assembled around their new starting quarterback, who they believe is an upgrade. Smith might be the best value at the position and you’re not paying anything close to his outlier QB4 overall performance of 2017. The Jimmy Garopplo-led 49ers boasted the NFL’s best drive success rate and should convert more of those field goal attempts into touchdowns. He should go in the range of solid veteran QB1 options with appeal, like Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, but not miles before.

Tier 5 – Streaming quarterbacks

17. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
18. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
19. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
20. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
21. Eli Manning, New York Giants
22. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
23. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders

Defensive improvements and a run-based offense will keep Jared Goff’s volume down and block the type of QB1 finish some drafters hope for. Eight of his touchdowns last season came on throws behind the line of scrimmage, a touchdown-inflating number unlikely to repeat. Everyone hates Dak Prescott after a clunker finisher to his second season and a questionable pass-catching corps slated to accompany him this year. Yet, Prescott was a difference-maker in fantasy football the first half of the 2018 season and has the rushing chops to give him a viable season-long floor. Mitchell Trubisky’s offense got a gorgeous on-paper facelift this offseason. He’s an intriguing breakout candidate operating in an up-tempo spread offense after spending his rookie season in the John Fox stone age.

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Eli Manning is destined to outkick his ADP with his top wideout, tight end and running back all going inside the top-five of their respective positions. However, Pat Shurmur’s offenses have ranked inside the top-11 in rush attempts in all but one of the last five seasons. He won’t have the volume for a weekly floor but his supporting cast can help him access a ceiling. Andy Dalton and Philip Rivers also play on potential high-flying offenses but come with weekly volatility. Each will offer their fair share of QB1 weeks but aren’t stable enough to trust each outing.

Tier 6 – Should be higher, but…

24. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
25. Tyrod Taylor, Cleveland Browns

If we could project them for a full season, both of these players would be bumped up at least one tier. Tyrod Taylor will play with the best supporting cast of his career by a good margin and always punches above his weight thanks to his rushing numbers. He will always have Baker Mayfield looming over his shoulders, no matter how much he helps your fake teams. Draft him and start him early, just don’t get attached.

From a pure projections perspective, Jameis Winston makes an argument to fight for a spot in the third tier. The Buccaneers are stocked with talent, should find themselves in pass-leaning game scripts and Winston finished strong with QB3 and QB4 weekly finishes in two of his three final 2017 games. The trouble comes with deciding what to do about Winston’s three-game suspension to start the season. With how deep this position is, it makes little sense to draft and hold him even if he offers strong upside upon his return.

Tier 7 – Low-end streamers but will offer acceptable weeks.

26. Case Keenum, Denver Broncos
27. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Sam Bradford, Arizona Cardinals
29. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
30. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
31. Josh McCown/Sam Darnold, New York Jets

Case Keenum could offer solid weeks on a Broncos offense with a mix of strong veterans and intriguing youth. Blake Bortles always offers appeal for his spike weeks but has no semblance of a floor with how run-heavy Jacksonville wants to be. Please join me in hoping we see Joe Flacco give way to Lamar Jackson sooner than later. Baltimore’s offense suddenly has more appealing pass-catchers than we’re used to seeing.

Tier 8 – Good luck to you.

32. Buffalo Bills QB

The Buffalo Bills will send their signal-caller out behind a stripped-down offensive line to look out upon a vagabond cast of pass-catchers. It also sounds as if A.J. McCarron, Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen may all get a crack at this honor. If Allen secures the job, he might offer a sliver of weekly upside, but it’s best just to just completely stay away in drafts outside of Superflex and 2QB formats where all options must be on the table.

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