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Fantasy Football: Dark horse quarterbacks with top-five potential in 2020

The late-round quarterback has become an increasingly popular strategy in fantasy football. Lamar Jackson was the perfect example last year as he steamrolled the NFL with 27.7 fantasy points per game, the most ever by any player. Fantasy owners who took a late-round shot on Jackson had a 69% chance of making their league playoffs.

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It was not just Jackson, either — the late-round quarterback had a banner year in 2019. The list of the top eight quarterbacks is littered with players who had ADPs outside the top-10.

Player ’19 ADP ’19 Fantasy Finish
Lamar Jackson QB11 QB1
Dak Prescott QB18 QB2
Jameis Winston QB15 QB3
Russell Wilson QB10 QB4
Josh Allen QB21 QB6
Kyler Murray QB13 QB7

Who will be this year’s late-round quarterbacks to smash their ADP and rocket up the positional leaderboard?

The following five quarterbacks are prime candidates. Each has an ADP and PFF consensus ranking outside the top-14 but could finish the 2020 season inside the top five if things break optimally.

Cam Newton (ADP: QB14 | PFF consensus rank: QB14)

Newton has been a fantasy superstar for most of the last decade. Here is a breakdown of his fantasy finishes by year:

  • 2018 – QB13
  • 2017 – QB2
  • 2016 – QB17
  • 2015 – QB1
  • 2014 – QB17
  • 2013 – QB3
  • 2012 – QB4
  • 2011 – QB3

That is five top-five fantasy finishes in his last eight healthy seasons. Though Newton is coming off a serious foot injury, he has played at least 14 games in every other season in his career. Newton’s QB14 ADP is too cheap considering his ceiling is literally the roof. On a per dropback basis from 2011-2018, Newton has ranked inside the top seven QBs in every season but one (he was the QB12 in 2016).

Rushing ability is the cheat code to capturing top-five upside in a quarterback. Newton has 2,307 rushing yards after contact since entering the league in 2011, 940 more than any other QB. In fact, Newton has three of the five highest rushing attempt totals by a QB in a season since 2006 (Lamar Jackson has the other two).

Newton also leads all QBs with 23 rush attempts from inside the 5-yard line since 2015, five more than any other QB. Conveniently, Tom Brady has the second most with 16 — lots of goal-line quarterback sneaks could be in Newton’s future.

New England’s receiving corps looks bleak this year, but if Bill Belichick lets Newton run free, he would be a dark horse to finish as a top-five fantasy QB. The Patriots have the sixth-easiest strength of schedule for QBs this season.

Ben Roethlisberger (ADP: QB16 | PFF consensus rank: QB18)

An arm injury wrecked Big Ben’s 2019 season, but fantasy folks are overlooking the NFL’s passing leader from 2018 when he had a whopping 675 pass attempts for 5,129 yards and 34 TDs en-route to a QB3 fantasy finish.

Pittsburgh has explosive weapons throughout the skill positions. Juju Smith-Schuster was stymied by injuries last season but was a legitimate superstar in 2018 with an 81.8 PFF grade (15th) and 2.08 yards per route run (18th) while racking up 1,426 receiving yards (fifth). Diontae Johnson is everybody’s favorite breakout wide receiver, and he led all WRs with 18 forced missed tackles last season.

Vintage Roethlisberger can sling it all over the field, as he led the NFL with 15 TDs on deep passes 20-plus yards downfield in 2018. That is where James Washington comes in — he hauled in eight deep balls last year for 335 yards (17th), an extremely impressive total considering the QBs on the other end.

The Steelers offense was a mess last season with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges — we can just pretend that never happened. Perhaps Big Ben regains his 2018 form and is once again a top-five fantasy QB — Pittsburgh has the No. 1 easiest strength of schedule for QBs this season.

Baker Mayfield (ADP: QB17 | PFF consensus rank: QB22)

Mayfield feels like the perfect post-hype breakout. Last year was a disaster for Mayfield as the biggest disappointment at the entire QB position — he had an ADP of QB4 while finishing as QB20. However, the hiring of Kevin Stefanski brings hope — he was the NFL’s fourth-best playercaller last season and worked wonders with Kirk Cousins in Minnesota. In Weeks 5-11 last season, Cousins was the overall QB2 while tossing an absurd 18 TDs over that stretch. Anyone can have a hot seven-game streak, but that is the type of upside Stefanski brings to Cleveland.

Think back to Mayfield’s rookie season in 2018 when he took the NFL by storm (83.2 PFF grade, 11th). His deep ball (20-plus yards downfield) was electric — 1,008 yards (sixth) and 11 TDs (sixth) despite starting only 13 games. That big-play upside is precisely why fantasy owners were salivating over Mayfield prior to last season.

The key for a breakout Mayfield season will be to lean on his offensive playmakers. Odell Beckham Jr. labored through injuries last season to average a career-low 1.81 yards per route run. There is no reason that a healthy OBJ cannot return to the mega-stud form we have seen throughout his career and as recently as 2018 (90.0 PFF grade, fifth). No one takes a five-yard slant to the house quite like Beckham — his 22 TDs on catches of 20-plus yards are third-most among all WRs since 2014.

The Browns also boast Jarvis Landry (78.2 PFF grade, 20th) in the slot — he averaged 2.04 receiving yards per route (15th) and hauled in 11 deep balls (10th). Free agent acquisition Austin Hooper (78.3 PFF grade, eighth) will be a great safety valve for Mayfield, as he only dropped two passes and his targets generated a solid 114.5 passer rating last season (14th). Rounding out Cleveland’s quartet of receiving playmakers is Kareem Hunt, who had 37 catches (fourth) and 15 receiving forced missed tackles (second) after returning from suspension in Weeks 10-17.

A quarterback is only as good as his weapons — perhaps Mayfield can break through in his third season into the top five QBs.

Joe Burrow (ADP: QB18 | PFF consensus rank: QB15)

The No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft is coming off a college football season for the ages (95.0 PFF grade, highest by a college QB since 2014). His numbers are something you put up on rookie mode when playing the NCAA ’14 video gameL 5,668 yards, 60 TDs and a 143.7 passer rating (all first). He was an assassin with the deep ball, putting up 1,711 yards (first) and 26 TDs (first) on throws 20-plus yards downfield.

Of course, Burrow will not approach that stratosphere of numbers in the NFL, but they do offer insight into his skill level relative to other rookie quarterbacks entering the league. Kyler Murray was QB8 in his rookie season, and it is not too crazy to think Burrow can best that mark. Though Murray is the more electric runner, Burrow is no slouch — he racked up 555 rushing yards and five rushing TDs last season. Additionally, Burrow’s weapons dwarf what Murray had in Arizona.

The Bengals boast a trio of talented pass-catchers in A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and rookie Tee Higgins, along with the electric Joe Mixon out of the backfield. Last week, I detailed why Boyd has dark horse top-five potential, and a lot of that reasoning rests on a Burrow breakout. The last time the Bengals had two healthy exceptional wide receivers was Weeks 1-8 in 2018 in Green and Boyd. Over that eight-game stretch, Green was the WR6, Boyd was the WR12 and Andy Dalton was QB12. Higgins (90.5 PFF grade, fifth among all college WRs) is a monster in his own right and had 565 deep receiving yards last season (seventh).

Burrow’s 2020 outlook resembles Dak Prescott’s situation as a rookie in 2016 when he finished as the QB6. Dak rode Dez Bryant (Green comp), Cole Beasley (Boyd comp), Terrance Williams (Higgins comp) and Ezekiel Elliott (Mixon comp) while rushing for 281 yards and six TDs. Further, Zac Taylor is a McVay disciple who utilizes the same offense that elevated Jared Goff to the QB7 finish in 2018.

Joe Burrow is my favorite dark horse QB on this list who could break into the top five. The Bengals have the ninth-easiest strength of schedule for QBs in 2020.

Gardner Minshew (ADP: QB26 | PFF consensus rank: QB19)

Minshew is the biggest long shot on this list to finish in the top five, but rushing upside is the name of the game. He racked up 350 rushing yards on scrambles last season, second-most among QBs behind only Lamar Jackson. Minshew tucked the football and ran at the first sign of trouble — his 50 scrambles were the most in the NFL.

The Jaguars are in tank for Trevor mode and will be trailing early and often in 2020, which means garbage time fantasy points galore. Minshew is unafraid to push the football downfield, as he had a pristine 129.0 passer rating on passes beyond 20 yards, tops among all QBs in the NFL. When Minshew hurls it deep, D.J. Chark is typically on the other end — 13 catches (seventh), 424 receiving yards (10th) and four TDs (eighth).

Do not count Minshew out for a Year-2 jump — his 70.3 PFF grade was highest among all rookie QBs last season. A potential top-five season may be a little overzealous, but Jameis Winston is the perfect example of a quarterback riding an aggressive downfield mindset and garbage time into the top five. You could do far worse at the end of fantasy drafts than taking a shot on Minshew.

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