As we gear up for the 2021 fantasy football season, I think it is important to look back at the previous season and remind ourselves of what the hell happened. You’ll be forgiven if your attention wasn’t 100% on football amidst a pandemic and an election. That’s what the next series of articles will be about. Catching you up and informing you of some trends that we will use to look forward on. There are some universal lessons that we can take away from every season and then apply to future years. We will start by taking a look at the Quarterback position and see how those fantasy signal callers helped your team achieve victory.
This table shows the offseason rank from EPA, cumulative season rank and fantasy points per game rank. It also recaps our targets and potential league winners.
Reviewing the top ten
*Disclaimer: QB scoring is something that varies wildly from league to league, second to probably the scoring on DST. Depending on how many yards it takes to earn a point, 4 vs 6 for a passing TD and -2 vs -1 for INTs. Your league scoring might look very different, but my guess it is all the same players.
Three close together at the top
Kyler Murray (387 total, 25.8 ppg)- Not a complete surprise to see Murray finish number one on the season. One of several Konami Code QB’s to finish in the top 10. I had him pegged as a league winner headed into drafts thanks to his rushing upside. That mixed with the addition of Deandre Hopkins to elevate the passing game along with normal sophomore gains at QB built a recipe for fantasy success. Murray played exactly to his profile, finishing second in rushing yards and TD’s from the QB position. He added 148 total points from his legs, six more than Lamar Jackson (thanks to the TD output), to lead the quarterback position in rushing points. That high rushing production combined with top fifteen finishes in passing yards and touchdowns gave him a slight edge over the next two on our list. Murray is proof that a league average passer mixed with elite rushing upside will outperform even the best pure pocket passers.
Josh Allen (385 total, 25.65 ppg)- What a year for Josh Allen. Ascending into the MVP discussion after carrying the Buffalo offense on his back through the regular season. I was lower on Allen headed into the season because I thought his work on the ground was bound to regress headed into his third NFL season. What we didn’t see coming was the Bill’s joining the top of the leaderboards in pass rate and catapulting Allen into top five finishes in passing yards and touchdowns. What a difference an elite WR makes. Allen traded 100 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground for 1500 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air from ’19 to ’20. He has put in a lot of work to transform himself from his rookie year and the Bills have given him all the tools to succeed. The combined organizational success mirrors what we saw from the Ravens in 2019 around Lamar Jackson, and gives us a hint of what to look for as we move forward: teams investing in young quarterbacks via scheme and personnel.
Patrick Mahomes (380 total, 25.36 ppg)- The only quarterback in the top three to mostly rely on his arm. Mahomes added 42 points with his legs on the season. Only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers added less among top ten QB’s. Instead Mahomes returned closer to his 2018 MVP form, playing in every game of the fantasy season (sat out week 17) and finished second in passing yards and fourth in passing touchdowns. Mahomes came with a steep price on draft day, but you got what you paid for. I would still prefer to wait a little longer and get a QB in the second or third tier of drafts (where Murray and Allen were both being taken this season), but it is nice to get elite production if you are going to pay top dollar.
The Next Best
Aaron Rodgers (361 total, 24.08 ppg)- Proof that aging isn’t linear. Rodgers had appeared to be on a slight decline the last few seasons, while only throwing for 40 TD’s once in the last eight seasons. The fantasy community was down on him, his team appeared to be down on him, and he received zero reinforcements from the draft and free agency to his offensive skill positions. Despite all of this, in year two of LaFleur’s system, Rodgers excelled and posted an MVP campaign. He led all quarterbacks with 48 touchdown passes while throwing the fewest interceptions (five). It’s a good reminder that continuity from a HC/OC and QB is important and again, that aging isn’t linear.
Russell Wilson (355 total, 23.64 ppg)- Finally! Russ got to cook, and it was good. Through week eight of the NFL season, Russ was the number one quarterback in fantasy scoring and likely MVP, playing only seven games. Then back to back losses to the Bills and Rams derailed the #LetRussCook movement and Pete Carroll reigned in his MVP QB. There is a lot of chicken and the egg talk about what caused the Seahawks to re-embrace their running game. It is true that Russ threw 7 INT’s in a four week stretch from weeks seven to ten. Only three of these games had an INT and all were losses. Russ is like most QB’s and tends to throw more INT’s when his team is losing (because he is trying to bring them back). No matter the root cause, it lead to the Seahawks changing their offensive approach and from weeks nine to sixteen Russ was QB12. He averaged more than 12 fewer points per game over the second half of the season than his MVP first half. Word from Seahawks camp is that they would like to continue with the conservative game plan in 2021, which doesn’t bode well for Mr. Unlimited.
Deshaun Watson (350, 23.3)- A very polarizing player in this offseason. Watson is one of the best QB’s when he is on the field, but it is unknown what team he will play on next season or if he will be allowed to play. I can’t speak to his legal status or what these impending lawsuits will mean for his playing career. All I will say is believe victims. It takes a lot for them to speak out and more often than not their is truth in their words. Looking back at his 2020 season we see a team that was known to be in flux going into the year. I had knocked Watson down slightly in my rankings due to the loss of Deandre Hopkins and uneasiness with the coaching situation. And although he wasn’t a top five quarterback lack he had been in each of his previous seasons, he was QB6. If he plays in 2021, he will again be closer to the top of the leaderboard than the middle.
A mixed bag closes out our top ten
Ryan Tannehill (322, 21.46)- There is a concept that I believe wholeheartedly that I will go into in a separate article (probably rookie QB’s). Every player, specifically quarterback, has a wide range of outcomes based on the team they are drafted to. More specifically based on the coach and coordinator on that team. There is no better example of this than Ryan Tannehill. Cursed with playing with the league’s worst Offensive Coordinator during his time in Miami (Adam Gase), Tannehill was dumped onto Tennessee, where he outshined Marcus Mariotta and ascended to the NFL elite at the QB position under Arthur Smith. Tannehill now has back-to-back top ten points per game finishes while under center in Tennessee. It will be fascinating to see what he does with a new OC running a similar system in 2021. This should also give us hope for Sam Darnold if he sticks as the Jets QB or gets traded to a team with a solid OC, and bodes well for continued growth from Baker Mayfield.
Tom Brady (319, 21.24)- I guess it really was the lack of weapons holding Tom Brady back his last two seasons in New England. The Super Bowl winning QB showed us exactly what we had dreamed of after his trade to Tampa Bay. The years of decline were immediately reversed as he threw for 40 touchdowns for only the second time in his career. Only Drew Brees had less rushing yards than Brady on the season. He is the anti-Konami code which will always cap his ceiling, but at a reduced cost on draft day he gets the job done. There isn’t much else to say about Brady that hasn’t been said before. The only real lesson to take away is that a QB with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and others is a lot better than one with a banged up Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers. It doesn’t always have to be hard.
Lamar Jackson (317, 22.61)- Lamar did not pay off his draft day price. We talked a lot in the offseason about how he wouldn’t be able to lead the league in passing touchdowns again. Still, Lamar gives you more with his legs than almost any other quarterback. Lamar has the three highest seasons in terms of rushing attempts and two of the three highest in rushing yards. That high usage continues to give him one of the highest weekly floors of anyone at the position. If the Ravens can bring in another solid pass catcher to join Mark Andrews and Hollywood Brown, then Lamar will again challenge for top QB overall. The lesson here is regression always wins and you need to properly account for it when you are drafting.
Justin Herbert (310, 22.13)- Oh what would have been had the Chargers doctor not punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung with a needle in week two. Herbert was abruptly thrust into the spotlight and he shined. Even amongst the dysfunction and injuries in Los Angeles he thrived from day one and showed that he has an incredibly bright fantasy future. He isn’t the rookie that we were highest on coming into the year, but he has the highest fantasy potential in the immediate future. A reminder in this upcoming draft that even though Trevor Lawrence is the best QB prospect we have seen since Andrew Luck, it could be a mixed bag of fantasy success and he might not have the highest ceiling as the other rookie quarterbacks, especially in year one.
What did we get right?
I always hate bragging about right calls, but I think it is important to look at what we got right from the preseason to help with future decision making.
League Winners- Three projected league winners hit in the top ten, including two of the top three. These were players who had within their range of outcomes the ability to carry you to a fantasy title. Kyler and Lamar had the type of rushing season we hoped for, while Mahomes got it going with his arm again. Big Ben rebounded nicely from his injury finishing at QB12 and Jared Goff finished in the top half of starters, out-producing his draft day cost. The real bright spot here is Dak Prescott and the ultimate “what could have been?” season. Dak played in five games (four full games) and lead the league with over 31 fantasy points per game in those four full games. He was a top target at his cost on draft day and would have likely remained a league winner had he stayed healthy.
The preseason QB primer talked about how half of the top ten finishers come from outside the top ten in ADP and that remained true. We correctly predicted five of the top ten and although we were lower on Watson, Allen and Rodgers then the consensus, we were higher on Russ, Brady and Tannehill.
Bounce-back seasons for Big Ben and Cam were in the works until Cam caught Covid and fell apart. Still, I was way above consensus on Ben all offseason and his finish was not disappointing even if watching him get there was tough at times.
Staying away from rookies and QB’s that changed teams was probably the right call for a draft strategy. Herbert is somewhat of an exception as it would have made little sense to draft him with anything other than your last round pick (and he helped more than one of my best ball teams where I did exactly that). Bridgewater, Rivers, Cam and Foles all finished well outside the top ten. I don’t think we will need to avoid uncertainty quite as strongly in 2021, but it was a winning strategy at the QB position in 2020.
Overall, our general approach to the QB position was a good one. Wait out the first tier and target the back-end of the second tier in the mid rounds of drafts. I had eight QB’s in that second tier and amongst them three finished in the top ten and another would have with a healthy season (Dak).
What did we get wrong and what can we learn?
Josh Allen is the biggest missed call from me of the offseason (and related Stefon Diggs). One of my favorite analysts was touting Allen as the best long shot bet for MVP there was. We knew the Bills had the fast track to the division and that Allen would be the main driver of the offense. What no one expected was the way in which Allen succeeded. Becoming one of the most accurate passers in the league at the rate the Bills threw was out of my wildest imagination. It was easy to see Diggs making him a better QB, but adding 111 attempts would have been an obscene prediction in the preseason. Allen should get all the credit for his gains as it must have taken him an immense amount of work to turn himself into the player he is today. Now can he do it again?
I knew we needed to embrace rushing quarterbacks in our ranks, and yet I wound up expecting far too much from three statues. Matt Ryan failed to do much throughout the season without Julio Jones in the lineup. Drew Brees had shown such promise the year previous when he was healthy, but couldn’t replicate that magic this season and again missed an extended period of time. Carson Wentz did see the Eagles invest in offensive weapons and fell apart anyways. Other than dismissing Rodgers, these three wound up being the worst calls and Brees was really the only one I was higher on consensus on in the preseason. It’s hard to glean too much from the failure of these players as it was difficult to predict these outcomes in the preseason. They remain reminders of the unpredictable nature of football and how much one player’s performance depends on the team around him.
I think my biggest disappointment is looking back at my ranking of Daniel Jones. He is a player that I have never been high on. At one point I had written up how terrible he actually was before deciding it was too mean and deleted the post. Still, I ranked him in my top twelve making him a starter in most leagues. I saw the sky-high ceiling he had shown in multiple games as a rookie and dreamed of what he could do with a healthy supporting cast. Well, his supporting cast wasn’t healthy for long and he did not show the growth we would normally like to see in a second year player. The addition of Kenny Golladay will make him a popular sleeper pick headed into year three, many will tell you that he is this year’s Josh Allen, but I am not buying at where I think his price is going to land.
My other disappointment in ranking goes the other way. I loved Ryan Tannehill this offseason and thought he became the real deal. Looking back I am surprised he was still ranked outside the top twenty. I was still higher on him than most at QB21, but I would have loved to have been more aggressive in my preseason ranks and had him around QB15. High enough that he was your back-up QB on every team. We won’t make that mistake again, even though the loss of Arthur Smith has me worried about what that Tennessee offense will do.