Using Advanced Stats to Identify 7 Breakout Quarterbacks (and Busts)

Jun 14, 2016
Using Advanced Stats to Identify 7 Breakout Quarterbacks (and Busts)

When searching for breakout candidates in fantasy football, we can often look for players that have performed well in limited roles and hope that their success continues with an expanded workload. A perfect example of such research can be found here.

When searching for breakout quarterbacks, though, we don’t always have that luxury. Because playing time at the quarterback position rarely fluctuates, if a passer performs well in a statistical category such as fantasy points per snap, that number will likely already be reflected in their end-of-season fantasy rankings. Hence, at the quarterback position, there aren't so much breakout candidates as there are undervalued commodities.

Rather than examining individual metrics, studying a team’s overall offensive success could lend some insight into which quarterbacks should have performed better (or worse) than they actually did in 2015.

Quarterback Fantasy Points and the Yards Per Drive Correlation

In recent history, the offensive team stat that stands out as one of the best reflections of expected fantasy points for quarterbacks is yards per drive (Yds/Dr). Intuitively, this makes sense -- offenses that can move the ball effectively usually have good quarterbacks, and good quarterbacks usually score a lot of fantasy points.

The following graph illustrates just how strong the relationship has been between Yds/Dr and quarterback scoring:

This visual representation explains that 65 percent of the variation in quarterback fantasy points per game (FP/G) from 2010-2014 can be explained by the relationship with Yds/Dr. Put into terms that 4for4 readers might be more familiar with, the correlation between quarterback FP/G and Yds/Dr is historically .81 -- a very strong correlation.

2015 Was an Outlier Season for Quarterback Scoring

Given the strong relationship between Yds/Dr and quarterback FP/G game, one should expect that the most efficient offenses will continue to produce the best fantasy quarterbacks. In 2015, however, that wasn’t the case:

Last season, Yds/Dr and quarterback FP/G had a correlation of just .40 and only 16 percent of the variation in quarterback scoring can be explained by the relationship with Yds/Dr. Based on recent history, 2015 seems to be an anomaly -- a lot of good fantasy quarterbacks came from inefficient offenses, and vice versa -- and this relationship should correct in 2016.

If we compare a team’s Yds/Dr rank with their quarterback FP/G rank from 2010-2014, there were only nine instances where the difference in ranking was 10 or more spots. In 2015, there were 13 such instances:

Notable Differences in 2015 Yds/Dr Rank vs QB FP/G Rank
Team Yds/Drive Rank QB FP/G Rank +/-
Falcons 4 26 -22
Cowboys 12 31 -19
Vikings 17 30 -13
Buccaneers 5 16 -11
Steelers 7 18 -11
Bears 16 26 -10
Titans 31 21 10
Texans 27 17 10
Jets 20 8 12
Raiders 27 15 12
Packers 26 13 13
Panthers 17 1 16
Jaguars 22 4 18

Using Yards Per Drive to Calculate Expected Fantasy Points Per Game

Since Yds/Dr and quarterback FP/G have traditionally had such a strong relationship, the f(x) equation of our trend line from 2010-2014 can help us calculate how many fantasy points we should expect a team’s quarterback to score, given their team's Yds/Dr. While this admittedly isn’t a perfect way to project fantasy points, it should offer a rough idea of the quarterbacks that are likely to be undervalued or overvalued going into 2016, assuming that there hasn’t been too much change in their respective offenses.

Notable 2015 QB FP/G vs Expectation
Team Yds/Drive QB FP/G Expected FP/G FP/G Over Expectation
Cowboys 31.1 11.2 16.72 -5.52
Falcons 34.2 15.0 19.10 -4.10
Vikings 29.9 12.8 15.79 -2.99
Buccaneers 34.1 17.3 19.03 -1.73
Raiders 27.3 17.9 13.79 4.11
Packers 27.8 18.8 14.18 4.62
Patriots 31.2 21.5 16.79 4.71
Jaguars 28.6 20.3 14.79 5.51
Panthers 29.9 24.9 15.79 9.11

Undervalued Quarterbacks to Target in Fantasy Drafts

Tony Romo, Cowboys

No team’s quarterback scored further below expectation than the Dallas Cowboys. When a team loses their starting quarterback, running back, and number one wide receiver for the majority of the season, it usually isn’t a surprise when that team does not produce offensively. Despite those losses, though, the Cowboys still ranked 12th in Yds/Dr, mostly because of a great offensive line. The problem was that they couldn’t convert their drives into scores.

Fortunately for Dallas, they will return arguably the best offensive line in the league, in addition to their regular offensive weapons. When healthy, Tony Romo has as much upside as any signal caller in football, as demonstrated by his 5.7 percent career touchdown rate (third highest among active quarterbacks). Dez Bryant is arguably the best red zone threat in the league, Terrance Williams's explosiveness is highlighted by the fact that he has scored on 8.9 percent of his career targets from Romo, and Ezekiel Elliott is expected to have a 2014 DeMarco Murray-like impact on the offense.

Matt Ryan, Falcons

With Devonta Freeman's emergence and Julio Jones entrenched as one of the top wide receivers in the league, the fact that the Falcons ranked fourth in the league in Yds/Dr in 2015 shouldn’t shock anyone. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Matt Ryan was unable to translate that offensive efficiency into fantasy success. Based on the expected points model, Ryan should have averaged 19.1 FP/G, which would have ranked 11th in per-game scoring last season.

That number isn’t out of Ryan’s range of outcomes, as he averaged 18.4 FP/G in Julio’s first four seasons in the league. With the addition of Mohamed Sanu and rookie tight end Austin Hooper, Atlanta should be able to maintain a relatively efficient offense and offer plenty of value to owners that recognize Ryan’s 2015 as a likely aberration.

Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings

I’m not advocating drafting Teddy Bridgewater as a potential starter -- he hasn’t been good. However, given that the Vikings offense collectively ranked in the middle of the pack in Yds/Dr, Bridgewater should have been at least marginally better. With the addition of Laquon Treadwell, Bridgewater will have the opportunity to turn Minnesota's positive drives into scores, and potentially be a solid streaming option or number two in 2QB leagues.

Jameis Winston, Buccaneers

Probably the most glaring reason for Winston not scoring more fantasy points in 2015 was Mike Evans’ inability to find the end zone. Though the opportunity was there for Evans (he led Tampa Bay in red zone targets), the second year wide receiver scored just three touchdowns, after finding paydirt 12 times in his rookie season. Maybe some of that struggle was caused by Winston's inaccuracy, but there’s historical evidence that quarterbacks of his pedigree usually improve in their second season.

Since 2000, quarterbacks drafted in the first round that started at least eight games in each of their first two seasons saw an average increase of 19 percent in their per game fantasy scoring from year one to year two. This offense's ability to move the ball should support that jump for Winston and allow him to flirt with QB1 numbers in 2016.

Overvalued Quarterbacks to Avoid in Fantasy Drafts

Cam Newton, Panthers

Cam Newton may very well finish as the QB1 again in 2016, but the chances that he does it by such a wide margin are very low. Carolina didn’t even rank in the top half of the league in Yds/Dr, but still finished tops in quarterback fantasy points. Relative to Yds/Dr, Newton had the most fantasy points over expectation of any signal caller since 2010, and was only the second quarterback to score at least six FP/G over expectation in that time span (Aaron Rodgers, 2011; +7.11 FP/G).

One of the biggest reasons that Cam scored so many points over expectation was his 10 rushing touchdowns, but anyone that is counting on a repeat of that is setting themselves up for disappointment. In addition to the unsustainable number of rushing touchdowns, history says that quarterbacks simply can’t keep up Newton's fantasy pace: Newton was just the 15th quarterback since the merger to score at least 350 fantasy points, and the previous 14 saw their FP/G drop by an average of 20.4 percent the following season.

Blake Bortles, Jaguars

Although Jacksonville ranked just 22nd in Yds/Dr in 2015, only three teams put up more fantasy points from the quarterback position than the Jaguars. Their quarterback FP/G rank relative to their Yds/Dr rank is the highest of any team since 2010, and only three teams before 2015 had more quarterback fantasy points over expectation. Most of Blake Bortles' scoring can be attributed to pass-friendly game flow and a grossly unbalanced red zone attack.

Jacksonville scored 88 percent of their red zone touchdowns via the pass, and 20 of Bortles' 35 touchdowns came when trailing by seven or more. With an improved defense, the Jaguars should be in fewer must-pass situations, and red zone splits tend to regress from one year to the next.

Derek Carr, Raiders

Ranked 27th in Yds/Dr, but 15th in quarterback FP/G, Oakland is another team that saw inflated quarterback scoring because of a red zone anomaly. The Raiders scored 83 percent of their red zone touchdowns through the air, despite throwing on just 55 percent of their red zone plays. Carr converted 32 percent of his red zone passes into touchdowns, eight percentage points over the league average.

Like red zone splits, touchdown rate is a stat that tends to fall back to the mean for all positions. Even if Carr sustains an impressive pace, his touchdown volume could easily fall, as Oakland’s running backs are likely to turn their red zone touches into scores at a better rate than they did last season.

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