News & Analysis

The season that was: Fantasy QB lessons from 2017

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 01: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Houston Texans pumps up the crowd after a touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins #10 in the first quarter against the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Throughout the fantasy season I offered up my weekly top picks to stream at the quarterback position, and more often than not, the fantasy leaderboard is littered with QBs who are either widely available or are parked on fantasy benches. We harp on it often here at PFF: there is simply little to be gained by investing an early-round draft pick on a quarterback these days, and 2017 was another season to support that case.

In each of the past three seasons, no more than six of the top-12 fantasy QBs had an average draft position inside the top-12 going into the season, down from seven in 2014 and nine in 2013. In other words, it’s become less predictive to guess which names will finish as QB1s. A couple of perennial elite fantasy QBs were hurt for much or all of the 2017 season in Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. We also witnessed the breakouts – and subsequent season-ending injuries – of next-generation stars Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz. Jimmy Garoppolo certainly looks like he belongs in that conversation after posting the third-best passing grade upon making his 49ers debut.

Digging into some notable trends, in each of the previous five seasons, there were six quarterbacks with at least 600 pass attempts. But in 2017, not a single QB had that many pass attempts. There were also eight QBS with at least 4,000 passing yards in 2017, down from 13 the year before. Taking a look at the top-12 fantasy QBs from each of the past five years, 2017 marked the fewest aggregate dropbacks, attempts, passing yards – virtually every passing metric was down. Granted, Carson Wentz (QB7) playing only 13 games weighted the numbers down. So, let’s view the data on a per-game basis:

While the per-game numbers did dip some in 2017, note that the average fantasy points per dropback and points per game has remained pretty consistent over the past five seasons. While running backs have made something of a comeback in recent years in terms of how they are valued across the NFL, it is still very much a passing league. As mentioned above, the value (and opportunity cost) remains with those who wait until the later rounds to draft a quarterback. With several of the perennial top fantasy QBs getting up there in age, a changing of the guard to the next generation of elite signal-callers will soon be upon us.

Before closing the book on 2017, let’s look back at the season’s top-12 fantasy QBs, and the key factors that led to their success.

QB12 – Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams

Goff looked more like a former No. 1 overall pick in Year 2, although he’s certainly still got plenty of room for improvement. Goff was accurate on 42.1 percent of his deep throws, the sixth-best mark out of 23 qualified QBs. What’s more, he boasted the league’s best passer rating when getting rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less (112.9). And yet, Sammy Watkins managed only 39 catches in his first season with the Rams.

QB11 – Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

The Saints shifted to a more run-heavy offense this season, as Brees finished with his fewest pass attempts (536) since 2009. Still, Brees posted the fourth-best overall QB grade and was the league’s most accurate passer (80.7 adjusted completion rate). He also led the league in completions (386), completion percentage (72.0) and yards per attempt (8.1). The more balanced attack saw Brees pressured on a league-low 22.6 percent of his dropbacks.

QB10 – Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

He started somewhat slow, but Roethlisberger posted PFF’s third-best overall QB grade by season’s end. In fact, he was the top-scoring fantasy QB over his final six games, averaging 24 PPG. Better yet, his 91.7 passer rating in road games was a stark improvement on last year’s 78.4 road rating. One problem area, however, was a 31.8 adjusted completion rate on deep throws, the third-worst mark in the league.

QB9 – Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

His rookie-year total of four interceptions was never sustainable, although Prescott still took relatively good care of the football with 13 picks in Year 2. Ultimately, fantasy owners will remember that he threw for less than 200 yards in six of his final eight games and threw for zero TDs in six games. Much of that came during Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, as Prescott struggled to put the offense on his shoulders. The Cowboys could use another weapon on the perimeter, as Dez Bryant has not eclipsed 1,000 yards since 2014.

QB8 – Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

Rivers enjoyed a resurgent season, cutting his interception total down to 10 after a league-high 21 picks in 2016. He finished with the sixth-best QB grade and posted solid PFF metrics pretty much across the board. In addition to PFF grade, Rivers also ranked inside the top-10 in adjusted completion percentage (seventh), passer rating under pressure (fifth), accuracy when kept clean (seventh), and average time to throw (seventh).

QB7 – Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles

Up until his season-ending knee injury in Week 14, Wentz was fantasy’s No. 2 QB and led the league with 33 touchdowns, 10 of which came on passes targeted 20-plus yards downfield. Wentz ranked just 26th in adjusted completion percentage (69.6), although his average yards per attempt jumped from 6.2 to 7.5 as he took more shots downfield in Year 2. The second-year QB kept cool under duress, posting the fourth-best passer rating when pressured (81.7).

QB6 – Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Stafford was the No. 9 fantasy QB in 2015, No. 7 in 2016, and No. 6 this season. He’s shown a real command of Jim Bob Cooter’s short passing attack, which is designed to get the ball into the hands of receivers in space and let them do the rest. Still, Stafford was the league’s fourth-most-accurate passer on passes targeted 20-plus yards downfield, as he sported a 45.7 adjusted completion rate and a 111.6 passer rating on deep throws.

QB5 – Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins

Continuing to be one of the more underrated quarterbacks in fantasy, Cousins finished as the QB5 for the second straight season and was top-10 in fantasy scoring for the third straight year. The deep ball remains Cousins’ biggest weapon, as he posted a 106.4 QB rating on attempts targeted 20-plus yards downfield (he had a 118.1 QB rating in 2016). Cousins also had a 118.7 passer rating on play-action, compared to just an 87.4 rating with no play-action.

QB4 – Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

Labeled as a game manager for much of his career, Smith was actually the most effective deep-ball passer in the league in 2017, leading all QBs in deep passing yards (1,344), completions (33), touchdowns (12), accuracy (56.5), and passer rating (131.4). Still, Smith did fade a bit down the stretch – he was outside the top-10 fantasy QBs over his final seven games – and the Chiefs do have Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings. Smith will likely be the subject of trade rumors throughout this offseason.

QB3 – Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Like a fine wine, Brady continues to get better with age. The 40-year-old posted the top overall grade among quarterbacks, along with far and away the top passer rating when pressured (96.6). Other than some reported friction between him and Bill Belichick, there’s not much reason to believe he won’t continue to play at an elite level for the foreseeable future. Brandin Cooks proved a vital addition, crossing the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season and averaging a career-best 16.6 yards per catch.

QB2 – Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Newton’s return to the elite fantasy QBs can largely be attributed to his career-high 754 rushing yards and six TDs. He turned in PFF’s No. 35 overall grade and was the second-least-accurate passer in the league with a 69.2 adjusted completion rate. The emergence of Devin Funchess made Kelvin Benjamin expendable, while rookie Christian McCaffrey helped make up for Greg Olsen’s nine-game absence.

QB1 — Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Wilson led the league with 34 passing TDs, although his 3,989 passing yards were his fewest since 2014, which was also the year he led all QBs with 849 yards and six TDs on the ground. Still, Wilson scored 28 more fantasy points in 2017 than he did in that 2014 season despite averaging 0.06 fewer fantasy points per dropback. Ultimately, he dropped back to pass 109 more times in 2017 than in 2014, and he was also pressured more frequently than any other quarterback (41.6 percent of dropbacks).

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