News & Analysis

How the quarterbacks put together their fantasy totals

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 27: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins throws a touchdown pass to Leonte Carroo #88 in the 4th quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Hard Rock Stadium on November 27, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***Ryan Tannehill

If you ignore once-or-twice-a-year receptions on trick plays, I feel like you can break quarterback fantasy production down to three things: passing yards, passing touchdowns, and rushing production. Put together all the quarterbacks since 2007, and you can see how much fantasy production comes from each of the three categories:

Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing
% fantasy production 58.7% 36.1% 10.6%

(Note: The percentages total more than 100 because this ignores turnovers.)

Using these numbers, I wanted to look for outliers over my data. But first, I wanted to find the platonic ideal of quarterback production, the quarterback whose ratios most closely aligned with the above percentages.

Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins, 2016
(58.2% passing yards, 36.9% passing TDs, 10.9% rushing)

Unsurprisingly, rushing production sees the widest year-to-year swings in this collection of data — Tannehill has ranged from 7.4 percent (in 2015) to 16.6 (in 2012). But in 2016, he offered just about the ideal breakdown of production for the position. This feels like a good answer — Tannehill has been a largely average fantasy quarterback over his career, and now here is some data that shows he really does exemplify that.

Now, let’s look at the outliers at each percentage, and what it means.

Passing yards

Highest percentage

2007-2017: John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals, 2012 (100.6%/17.8%/1.1%)

Skelton passed for 1,132 yards in seven games in 2012 (barely 160 a game). He had two touchdowns, but more than offset those with nine interceptions. If you’re generous and round up to whole numbers, he contributed one fantasy point with his five rushing yards, but by and large, this was a guy contributing just his passing numbers, and they were incredibly meager.

2017: Tom Savage, Houston Texans (79.6%/28.2%/0.3%)

Savage was supposed to be the Houston starter, then wasn’t supposed to see the field because of Deshaun Watson, then got thrust back into action when Watson got hurt. For his career now, Savage has five touchdowns against seven interceptions in four seasons, and heads over to New Orleans to back up Drew Brees. He’s not John Skelton, but he’s never going to be a fantasy option.

The lesson: Bad quarterbacks live here

There are a lot of guys' last seasons in this group. Peyton Manning’s 2015 (83.3 percent from passing yards), Steve McNair’s 2007 (85.6 percent), and Brett Favre’s 2010 (79.7 percent) all show up, as do the final seasons for Skelton, JaMarcus Russell (90.3 percent) and other relative disappointments. Sam Bradford’s 2011 is ninth in the sample at 80.9 percent, but him aside, you won’t find a name in the top 20 of this list who went on to have a fantasy-relevant season after that, and even if you stretch it to the top 30, only Eli Manning’s 2013 and Alex Smith’s 2007 showcased quarterbacks who were fantasy-relevant again after that.

Lowest percentage

2007-2017: Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos, 2011 (32.8%/22.8%/47.5%)

For the most part, this part of the list is populated by mediocre passers who were helpful fantasy performers because of their legs, and Tebow is the that-iest quarterback we’ve ever seen. He is one of only two quarterbacks in the PFF era to put up more fantasy points as a rusher than via passing yards, and his legs exceeded his arms by 14.7 percentage points — the other name on the list is Michael Vick in 2010, whose legs bested his arm by only 0.3 points. There’s a reason teams weren’t high on Tebow as a quarterback even after his playoff run.

2017: Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans (38.8%/43.4%/22.2%)

The other side of the Tebow lesson is that a quarterback doesn’t have to be a bad or near-out-of-the-league quarterback to show up on this end. Cam Newton’s MVP season in 2015 finished second here, with 10 touchdowns rushing against 35 passing, with 3,837 passing yards. Watson’s abbreviated rookie year last year is fourth since 2007, but his 22.2 percent rushing total is the lowest among the top 15. That’s because 43 percent of Watson’s fantasy production last year came via his 19 passing touchdowns, a rate that screams regression.

The lesson: Runners, runners, runners

The names in the top 10: Tebow, Newton, Vick, Watson, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson. Tyrod Taylor sits at 13th and 14th. That crazy Nick Foles 2013 season appears, but other than that, every quarterback in the top 25 has a serious reputation as a runner. It’s not damning to appear on this end of the list, but know that you’ve likely found a guy who relies on his legs.

Passing touchdowns

Highest percentage

2007-2017: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos, 2013 (50.7%/50.9%/0.7%)

I don’t guess it’s a surprise that the guy at the top of the list is the guy who set the single-season touchdown record and had a rushing yards total in the negative over the last decade of his career. Moving on.

2017: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (48.6%/46.4%/9.1%)

Rodgers typically puts up 10-15 percent of his fantasy production on the ground, but he never found the end zone as a running last year, limiting that total to 9.1 percent, the second-lowest percentage of his career. Mix that with a surprisingly high rate of touchdowns to passing yards (the eighth-highest rate in our sample), and you get an out-of-the-ordinary Rodgers season.

The lesson: Lucky touchdown rate plus legs of lead

This is the place the all-timer seasons go. Manning’s 2013 (and 2014), Tom Brady’s 2007, Drew Brees’ 2012, Carson Wentz’ near-MVP 2017 … they all appear in the top 20 here. Ignore small-sample inclusions from Quinn Gray, Gus Frerotte, and Sage Rosenfels, and the list is made up of Hall of Famers or big stars.

Lowest percentage

2007-2017: Robert Griffin III, Cleveland Browns, 2016 (49.9%/11.3%/43.7%)

Griffin isn’t only at the bottom of the list here, he’s at the bottom by a lot — second-worst was McNair’s 2007, at 15.4 percent. Griffin still had his legs to an extent, averaging almost 40 rushing yards a game and scoring twice, and only threw for two touchdowns in five games.

2017: C.J. Beathard, Snn Francisco 49ers (57.8%/16.2%/31.9%)

Each San Francisco quarterback played in six games last year. Beathard relieved Brian Hoyer in one game, and Jimmy Garoppolo relieved Beathard in one. Despite that, Beathard had 67 more dropbacks than Garoppolo and 11 more rushes. And despite that, Garoppolo topped Beathard by 130 passing yards, meaning he averaged 8.76 yards per attempt compared to Beathard’s 6.38. And that also helps to explain why Garoppolo had seven passing touchdowns against Beathard’s four. (Also, Beathard had 136 rushing yards and three scores, while Garoppolo had 11 and one.)

The lesson: Bad quarterbacks live here, too

2012 Brady Quinn, 2010 Jimmy Clausen, 2013 Terrelle Pryor Sr. … Once again, guys who don’t fare well here tend to not get much chance to fare well anywhere afterward.

Rushing production

Highest percentage

2007-2017: Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos, 2011 (32.8%/22.8%/47.5%)

Yeah, we’ve already been here. Tebow’s numbers are just so far out of line with normal quarterbacks that he should be his own topic.

2017: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (41.9%/27.9%/35.4%)

I suppose it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that there’s a lot of overlap between “quarterbacks who get the highest percentage of their scoring on the ground” and “quarterbacks who get the lowest percentage of their production through passing yards,” but it’s true nonetheless. Last year was only Newton’s third-highest year by these standards, and the quarterbacks ahead of him include Griffin, Kaepernick, Vick, and Wilson. Again, no surprises.

Lowest percentage

2007-2017: Kerry Collins, Tennessee Titans, 2010 (60.8%/46.7%/-1.2%)

I’m including this just for a sense of thoroughness. This section is basically just quarterbacks who didn’t run. Nos. 2, 3, and 4 on the list are all late-era Peyton Manning seasons, but Collins is the only quarterback whose rushing production was below negative-1.0 percent of his total.

2017: Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers (64.0%/39.7%/-0.1%)

Rivers was one of 22 players around the league who had negative rushing yards in 2017, and he was the only quarterback to do so in more than three games played. You can’t learn much from this part of things, except that you shouldn’t look to Rivers (career-long run: 18 yards) for ground production.

And I’ve made a game of that:

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