Fantasy Football Sleepers & Values: Quarterbacks
Updated August 20, 2014
If there's one theme that has been (almost) universally accepted by the fantasy football community over the past few seasons, it's that the quarterback position is extremely deep. The NFL has become a passing league and there is no shortage of quality throwers even when we get into the #15-#20 range in the rankings.
As a result, the prevailing recommendation is to wait as long as possible to draft a QB, either by targeting one of the last few fantasy starters off the board or by ignoring the position until the later rounds and either stream the position (plucking QBs with good matchups on a weekly basis) or play Quarterback By Committee (i.e. drafting 2-3 QBs late in the draft with the idea that you'll play the best matchup each week).
Those owners in multiple leagues may want to consider drafting one of the top 12 in the middle rounds in order to minimize their weekly waiver wire work. I typically fall into this category due to the sheer number of leagues I'm in (along with my weekly duties here at 4for4). Going QBBC will also work, but owners will still have to decide which quarterback to start, adding another decision they have to make every week.
However, owners who don’t mind the work (or are only in 1-2 leagues) will find that streaming quarterbacks or playing QBBC can result in solid QB1-type output without having to spend an early- or middle-round pick on the position on draft day. This means that owners can draft another mid-round RB/WR/TE who just might be the difference between winning a championship. For example, Josh Gordon, Antonio Brown, Pierre Garcon, Ryan Mathews, Jordy Nelson, DeSean Jackson, Vernon Davis, Eric Decker, T.Y. Hilton, LeVeon Bell, Anquan Boldin and Jordan Cameron were all drafted in the 5th to 8th rounds last year and they were all difference-makers at their respective positions.
Meanwhile, Russell Wilson (8.01, QB8), Andy Dalton (10.12, QB4), Philip Rivers (14.04, QB5), Ben Roethlisberger (11.12, QB10) and Alex Smith (13.12, QB13) were all drafted in the 8th round or later and offered up starting-caliber fantasy numbers. Moreover, Nick Foles, Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler/Josh McCown, Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill were drafted late (or not at all) and each had nice stretches of play throughout the season; that means that they were useful as part of a streaming strategy. In the case of Foles, once he won the starting job in Week 6, he was the #4 QB the rest of the way.
Owners who draft a QB in the early or middle rounds may miss out on the next Josh Gordon or Antonio Brown. With this in mind, here are several Values (being drafted in the 8th-10th) and Sleepers (11th round or later) who should be useful-to-good in 2014.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks (11.01)
I recently outlined The Case for Wilson, but suffice it to say, he’s going to be one of my favorite targets this season if his 9th/10th round ADP holds. His detractors say that the Seahawks don’t throw the ball enough and point to his poor performance in the 2013 fantasy playoffs, specifically in divisional matchups against the 49ers and the Cardinals. But he has finished top 9 in each of his first two seasons in the league, and I’d like to remind everyone that he dropped 23.7 points on the 49ers in Week 16 of the 2012 season (after laying 39.4 on the Bills in Week 15), so we shouldn’t let recency bias scare us off. Yes, owners may need to stream another QB in weeks when he has very tough matchups, but if that’s the cost of getting a probable top 10 QB in the other 12-13 games, I’ll take it. Depending on what ADP data we’re looking at, he’s going in the QB11 to QB15 range. If he’s still around after all the other teams have drafted a QB, he could slip into the 10th round or later. Adding him to a team that is stacked at the other key positions is simply unfair.
Jay Cutler, Bears (9.09)
Cutler was the #6 QB through the first six weeks, but finished with the #22 PPG on the year. His early season play is more representative of his potential in Marc Trestman’s offense, assuming he can stay injury-free. Like Romo, injuries are key for Cutler, who has missed 12 games in the last three seasons after not missing a single game from 2007 to 2009. In Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett, Cutler has a ton of receiving talent around him and Trestman loves to throw. But will he hold up physically?
Tony Romo, Cowboys (9.11)
Much has been written about how Romo will thrive under new “Passing Game Coordinator” Scott Linehan. Under Linehan, the Lions threw the ball 62.2% of the time in the last two seasons. Over the same span, the Cowboys threw it 64.3% of the time, so the Cowboys may not be that much more "pass happy" under Linehan, though the total number of plays they run may increase, helping the offense as a whole. The Lions have averaged 1,105 plays in the last two seasons, while the Cowboys averaged just 968 plays, so Detroit ran 14% more plays than Dallas over that span. In other words, the offensive pie has been bigger in Detroit. This bodes well for Romo and Co. if Linehan’s system translates. The key with Romo is his surgically repaired back. If he holds up, a top 12 season seems likely.
Philip Rivers, Chargers (11.02)
Rivers was written off by many after a substandard 2012 campaign, but he bounced back in a big way with a #5 finish in 2013. In fact, he has finished in the top 10 in five of his last six seasons, so why is he the 14th or 15th QB off the board? Malcom Floyd has been cleared to play and Ladarius Green is coming on, so the receiving corps should get a boost. The only real concern is the loss of OC Ken Whisenhunt, who guided Rivers to his bounce back season. New OC Frank Reich was Rivers’ QB coach in 2013, and he should be able to carry the baton.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (12.01)
Despite losing Mike Wallace to free agency, Big Ben finished as the #10 QB in 2013. It was his eighth straight top 17 finish, so Roethlisberger might be one of the safest picks on draft day. The arrival of Martavis Bryant and Lance Moore should offset the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, though it looks like the Steelers are expecting Markus Wheaton (who posted just 6-64 in 12 games as a rookie) to start in Sanders’ place. The Steelers do plan to use more no-huddle in 2014; Roethlisberger played well in no-huddle last year, posting a better YPA (7.5 vs. 7.2) and TD% (6.1% vs. 4.3%) in the hurry-up. Roethlisberger was the #4 QB from Week 9 on, so there is reason to be optimistic about his upside under third-year OC Todd Haley.
Andy Dalton, Bengals (12.02)
For a guy who has finished progressively higher (#17, #12 and #4) in his first three seasons, Dalton doesn’t get a whole lot of respect. He’d be ranked higher this year if not for new OC Hue Jackson’s propensity to run the ball. However, Jackson’s 2011 Raiders threw the ball 52.9% of the time with Carson Palmer under center, which isn’t too far off the Bengals’ 55.0% pass rate in 2013. While we’re expecting fewer pass attempts, Dalton should still be a quality option once the rounds hit double-digits.
Alex Smith, Chiefs (15.01)
Smith posted the #12 average (17.3 PPG) on the season. Prior to the Chiefs' Week 10 bye, he averaged 213 yards and 1.0 TD. After the bye (and including one playoff game), he averaged 253 yards and 2.6 TD. That's 22.7 PPG -- for reference, Drew Brees averaged 22.6 PPG in 2013. We’re not expecting those gaudy numbers to continue, but even though the Chiefs didn’t do much to upgrade the receiver position, Smith should be a good value on draft day. His ongoing contract negotiation is a potential distraction.
Carson Palmer, Cardinals (13.02)
Palmer said recently that he’s much more comfortable in Bruce Arians’ offense and the numbers bear that out. He was the #22 QB through the first eight weeks, but after Arizona’s Week 9 bye he was the #6 QB down the stretch. His receiving corps is good with the steady Larry Fitzgerald and the up-and-coming Michael Floyd, who had a breakout season in his second year. Still, it’s hard to get too excited about Palmer as anything more than a committee type given the fact that one-quarter of his schedule consists of matchups against the Seahawks and 49ers. The good news is that one of those games (against San Francisco) comes in Week 17, when most fantasy seasons are already over.
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins (15.05)
Through the first 15 weeks, Tannehill was the #12 QB in fantasy. Unfortunately, he stunk it up in the final two weeks of the season, posting just 286 yards to go along with one TD and three picks in the final two games combined as the Dolphins skidded out of a playoff spot. Bill Lazor’s up-tempo offense should improve Tannehill’s outlook, though the offensive line is a concern.
Jake Locker, Titans (16.01)
Locker has averaged 15.1 FP in 16 career starts. That extrapolates to 241 points over a 16-game season, or about what Ryan Tannehill scored as the #16 QB in 2013. The problem is that he has only played 18 games in the last two seasons. Health has clearly been his biggest problem, but if he can stay out of the training room, he could grow in Ken Whisenhunt’s offense. Whiz did a nice job with Philip Rivers as the Chargers’ OC in 2013.
Eli Manning, Giants (14.07)
After eight straight top 15 finishes, Manning (and the Giants’ offense) tanked in 2013. He finished #21, but his play seemed even worse than that. A bounce back season is likely given his talent and the arrival of OC Ben McAdoo, who plans to install a quick hitting offense from his days in Green Bay. Hakeem Nicks is gone, but rookie Odell Beckham and third-year wideout Rueben Randle are expected to emerge.
Sam Bradford, Rams (16.01)
Through the first seven games of the season, Bradford averaged 16.9 FP and was the #11 QB before injuring his knee late in a game against the Panthers. Fantasy-wise, he may have turned a corner, but he's going to have to put together a full, productive season to get a sizable extension from the Rams. The team didn’t do much this offseason to improve the receiving corps, though everyone is a year older and Titans castoff/fantasy headache Kenny Britt has been reunited with Jeff Fisher, who coached him in Tennessee. Owners won’t want to depend on Bradford when he plays the 49ers or the Seahawks.
Joe Flacco, Ravens (15.08)
Losing Anquan Boldin to free agency and Dennis Pitta to injury certainly hurt Flacco in 2013; he finished #19 after three straight top 14 finishes. Pitta is back, but Boldin’s absence still stings, though the team acquired Steve L Smith to replace him. Expect more low-end QB2 numbers given all the depth at QB, though the arrival of OC Gary Kubiak (and a quick-hitting offense) could be to Flacco’s advantage.
Josh McCown, Buccaneers (16.01)
I’m starting to warm to McCown as a QB2/streaming option in the Bucs offense given his weapons (specifically Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans) and the reports that he looked sharp in OTAs. He played very well for the Bears last season, and though I’m skeptical that he’ll be able to duplicate his gaudy per game numbers with a new team, he should be capable.
Matt Cassel, Vikings
Cassel averaged around 240 yards, 1.5 TD and 1.2 INT in six starts last season, which equates to 244 fantasy points, which is about what Ryan Tannehill scored as fantasy football's #16 QB. If he's under center, he'll be usable in a streaming/QBBC strategy with Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph to throw to and a strong running game to lean on.
But don't go too far down the rabbit hole -- the flip side of the quarterback-is-deep trend is that the position will start to slip in leagues with very experienced and/or savvy owners, so be ready to pounce on a good passer in the middle rounds if value emerges. Last season, I picked up Peyton Manning at 6.11 in a high-stakes expert league and he carried me to a 2nd place finish.
How do you know if the value is there? That’s where our customizable Top 200 Value-Based Rankings come in. Owners will want to use the Full Impact version if they are in a league with non-standard scoring settings, but these standard rankings indicate Nick Foles is worth a 5th round pick, so I wouldn’t have a problem with picking him in the 6th if he’s one of the top players still remaining on my board. In fact, I recently nabbed Mr. Foles at 6.07 in a recent expert draft, but I’m sometimes willing to use a middle rounder on a QB if it means I don’t have to decide whom to start each and every week – as long as the value is there.