TwoQBs Draft Guide Excerpt: Quarterback Ceilings

Aug 06, 2017
TwoQBs Draft Guide Excerpt: Quarterback Ceilings

The following is a guest post written by Greg Smith of highlighting the type of content you can find in their 2017 2QB/Superflex Draft Guide. Use coupon code "4for4" to save 10 percent off the cover price.

When I started playing fantasy sports, I was an undergraduate working toward a degree in chemical engineering. Math always came relatively easy to me, and I had a fantastic chemistry teacher my final two years of high school (shout-out to Mr. Siddens), so picking a major for my college applications was an admittedly simple and semi-arbitrary choice. Chemistry plus math equals chemical engineering. It made sense at the time.

That sort of “2 + 2 = 4” mentality shows exactly why chemistry and mathematics were so appealing to me. The subjects have rules, order, and balance. If you can, imagine my surprise when I first started to wrap my brain around entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. For the uninitiated, entropy is essentially chaos, and the second law says entropy can only increase or remain constant. Ultimately, the universe lacks predictability, and we are steadily spiraling into more and more disorder. Sound reasonable?

The instability of our existence translates directly to fantasy football, where variance and volatility inherently catch us off guard every season in one way or another. As a result, we are moved to consider ranges of possible outcomes in our forecasts. Terms like ceiling, upside, basement, and floor are fairly commonplace in modern fantasy discussions, but actual highs and lows are still impossible to predict. In the end, all we get are the actual outcomes of games and seasons.

Nevertheless, in an effort to better understand ranges of outcomes in quarterback performances, I dug into the data and determined past floors and ceilings for all the quarterbacks to play each of the past five seasons. My findings on quarterback floors are published in the TwoQBs Draft Guide. Publicly sharing my analysis on QB ceilings felt like the perfect follow-up to help spread the word about our guide, and the folks here at 4for4 Fantasy Football were kind enough to oblige.

How to Build a Ceiling

Let’s kick things off with a quick review of my study’s methodology. In total, there are 25 NFL quarterbacks who played each of the past five seasons and might remain relevant in 2017 fantasy football leagues. I tried to avoid small sample sizes by omitting passers who have fewer seasons worth of production under their belts.

Also, note that the ceiling values for each statistic in this article were pulled individually. That is to say, I didn’t try to qualify which complete season of statistics was a quarterback’s best. Instead, each value represents the player’s single best finish in that particular statistic since 2012. For example, Andy Dalton’s ceiling for total points came in 2013, when he finished as the QB8 (288.02), but his ceiling for points per game came in his injury-shortened 2015 season (20.31). Yes, this method compares numbers out of context, but it eliminates subjectivity. Keep in mind my scoring values use the following settings: 4 points per pass TD, -2 points per INT, 1 point per 25 passing yards, 6 points per rush TD, 1 point per 10 rushing yards, and -2 points per fumble lost.

QB Ceilings in Total Points and Points Per Game

5-year ceilings of total points and points per game
Player GP Total Pts Total Pts Rank PPG PPG Rank
Cam Newton 16 389.08 1 24.32 1
Aaron Rodgers 16 380.02 1 23.75 1
Drew Brees 16 357.68 1 22.36 1
Andrew Luck 16 351.74 2 21.98 2
Matt Ryan 16 347.46 2 21.72 2
Tom Brady 16 343.7 2 21.55 2
Russell Wilson 16 336.36 3 21.02 3
Andy Dalton 16 288.02 6 20.31 4
Nick Foles 13 259.74 11 19.98 3
Carson Palmer 16 309.2 5 19.33 8
Ben Roethlisberger 16 306.78 5 19.17 6
Kirk Cousins 16 300.68 5 18.79 6
Ryan Fitzpatrick 16 285.2 11 18.7 8
Jay Cutler 15 255.58 14 18.26 9
Colin Kaepernick 16 264.28 9 18.22 7
Matthew Stafford 16 289.78 7 18.11 9
Philip Rivers 16 288.32 5 18.02 7
Eli Manning 16 287.54 10 17.97 16
Tony Romo 16 275.02 10 17.75 10
Ryan Tannehill 16 278.9 8 17.43 13
Alex Smith 16 271.24 13 16.95 13
Joe Flacco 16 262.44 13 16.4 18
Blaine Gabbert 9 129.74 29 16.22 24
Brian Hoyer 14 166.64 25 15.15 26
Brock Osweiler 15 168.78 28 14.6 29
Matt Cassel 9 107.98 32 12 35

Elite QB Baselines

The first thing that jumps out are the top-5 baselines we can draw based on the relationships between peak points, peak points per game (PPG), and peak rankings in those categories, respectively. To finish as a top-5 quarterback in points per game, a passer needs to have 20 PPG within his range of outcomes. Of the QBs in this study, only Nick Foles (in an extreme outlier season under Chip Kelly) was able to post a top-5 finish without a PPG ceiling above 20. He didn’t miss by much, either, scoring 19.98 points per game in 2013, a minor discrepancy we can easily ignore simply by rounding up.

Even if we include quarterbacks who didn’t play all five seasons between 2012 and 2016, only two quarterbacks join the 20 PPG club. Geno Smith makes it on a technicality. He scored exactly 20 points in the single game he played during the 2015 season. Robert Griffin III did it the hard way, averaging 21.17 points per game in his electric rookie season. Oh, what could have been!

All-in-all, the top-5 in PPG is an extremely tough nut to crack. The same handful of signal-callers populates the elite tier: Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Newton, Wilson, and Luck. (The now-retired Peyton Manning figured prominently from 2012 to 2014, as well.) Otherwise, only single-year outliers have earned top-5 distinction. There tends to be just one such party crasher each season and no quarterback has done so more than once since 2012, so expecting a repeat performance of Matt Ryan’s ceiling-defining 2016 season is betting against history.

There’s a similar elite-level threshold for total points. If a QB has a top-5 performance on the books, he likely also has a total points ceiling above 300. Among the quarterbacks in this study, only Philip Rivers broke the trend, finishing as the QB5 in 2013 with 288.32 points. With an average of 261.13 total points per season since 2012, his ceiling-to-average gap is the second-lowest among passers in that span, behind only Matthew Stafford. Like Stafford, Rivers is tremendously consistent, but it’s safe to call his QB5 season a freak occurrence. His next-best total points finishes over the past five seasons were a pair of QB12 campaigns in 2014 and 2015.

Aside from the usual suspects, other notable quarterbacks in the group of 300-point, top-5 finishers are Ben Roethlisberger, Kirk Cousins, and Carson Palmer. At QB21 in TwoQBs’ redraft Average Draft Position (ADP), compared to QB11 for Cousins and QB13 for Big Ben, Palmer is the most interesting potential value. Yes, the Arizona quarterback has age and injury concerns, but so does Roethlisberger. Palmer is only two years older, and he’s only missed three more games than Roethlisberger since 2012. Per Sharp Football, consider Arizona’s forecasted advantage in strength of schedule over Pittsburgh, especially early in the season, and the ADP drop from Big Ben to Carson Palmer doesn’t make much sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not drafting Palmer ahead of Roethlisberger. Unlike 2016, the Steelers should get full seasons from Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant this year, and those players’ contributions can only help Roethlisberger. All I want to illustrate is how deep the middle tier of fantasy QBs can potentially go, relative to ADP. If Palmer has top-5 upside, other quarterbacks in his ADP range might have it as well.

Second-Tier QB Melee

After the fairly solidified tier of top-5 capable quarterbacks, things really open up. In this article’s five-year population, 18 different quarterbacks have posted a PPG finish inside the top 10, and 17 have posted a top-10 total points finish. If we subtract the six elite fantasy QBs from those numbers we see that 11-12 different quarterbacks are fighting over the four remaining top-10 spots from year-to-year. It’s actually more than 11 to 12 QBs because we also need to consider the passers with fewer years of service like Tyrod Taylor and Derek Carr, who didn’t qualify for this larger-sample study.

By points per game, 17 active quarterbacks (enjoy your retirement, Mr. Romo) have at least one top-10 finish under their belts, and all of those passers have a ceiling of at least 18 PPG. That club includes the nine QBs from our top-5 analysis above, plus Palmer, Roethlisberger, Cousins, Stafford, Rivers, Fitzpatrick, Cutler, and Kaepernick. After the QBs with top-10 performances in their PPG range of outcomes, there’s a significant drop to the next highest ceilings, namely Ryan Tannehill and Alex Smith topping out with QB13 finishes. That means our top-12 quarterbacks each season since 2012 have been composed of players in the top-10 club, plus some other random players who haven’t played in all of those seasons or are no longer relevant:

Top-12 Fantasy QBs (PPG) Since 2012
PPG Rank 2012 2013 2014 2015* 2016
1 Drew Brees Peyton Manning Aaron Rodgers Cam Newton Aaron Rodgers
2 Aaron Rodgers Drew Brees Andrew Luck Tom Brady Matt Ryan
3 Tom Brady Nick Foles Russell Wilson Russell Wilson Tom Brady
4 Robert Griffin Aaron Rodgers Z. Mettenberger (7 GP) Andy Dalton Drew Brees
5 Cam Newton Cam Newton Peyton Manning Drew Brees Andrew Luck
6 Peyton Manning Andrew Luck Ben Roethlisberger Blake Bortles Kirk Cousins
7 Matt Ryan Philip Rivers Drew Brees Carson Palmer Colin Kaepernick
8 Tony Romo Andy Dalton Ryan Fitzpatrick Tyrod Taylor Tyrod Taylor
9 Andrew Luck Matthew Stafford Jay Cutler Marcus Mariota Ben Roethlisberger
10 Russell Wilson Tony Romo Cam Newton Ben Roethlisberger Dak Prescott
11 Ben Roethlisberger Josh McCown (8 GP) Matt Ryan Aaron Rodgers Derek Carr
12 Matthew Stafford Sam Bradford (7 GP) Tony Romo Andrew Luck Matthew Stafford
*Note: Geno Smith (1 GP) & E.J. Manuel (2 GP) were omitted from the 2015 PPG ranks for lack of sample size.
One notable omission thus far from the broad group of middle-tier quarterbacks is Eli Manning. Despite total points and PPG ceilings on par with others in the tier, Manning’s best PPG finish is QB16. His top mark between 2012 and 2016 led to a finish of QB17 (17.97 PPG). At this point, Eli’s 2017 fantasy value is being propped up by brand-name awareness and drafters mistaking his 80-of-80 possible games played since 2012 for consistency of actual production. Check out my Quarterback Floors article in TwoQBs Draft Guide for a deeper dive on Manning’s general riskiness and lack of consistency in week-to-week and season-to-season scoring.
On a more positive note, Eli Manning’s ability to stay on the field does equate to a better ceiling in total points, but he’s not alone in that regard. Seventeen different quarterbacks from this study have achieved a top-10 finish in total points. Eli’s ceiling tops out at QB10, but the most total points he’s scored since 2012 is 287.54, which ranks 14th among this group of passers. The upside is clearly there for Manning; however, there’s a huge dropoff to his basement of production. Here is a list of passers to play at least 12 games in each of the past four seasons, sorted by their differences between ceiling and floor in total points:
Ceiling vs. Floor from 2012–2016
Player GP Diff. Total Pts. Diff. PPG Diff.
2 140.1 7.37
Eli Manning 0 117.22 7.33
Matt Ryan 0 113.52 7.1
Ryan Tannehill 3 100.04 6.25
Tom Brady 4 92.18 5.83
Ben Roethlisberger 4 84.98 3.03
Philip Rivers 0 80.08 5.01
Andy Dalton 4 71.2 6.76
Russell Wilson 0 68.3 4.27
Drew Brees 1 54.8 3.42
Matthew Stafford 0 38.2 2.39

Predictably, two of the three biggest differences between floor and ceiling belong to Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. They posted two of the most explosive individual seasons of quarterback production in our five-year range, 389.08 points for Newton in 2015 and 347.46 points for Ryan in 2016. Matt Ryan’s previous four seasons were all fairly pedestrian, so last year’s output was a big departure from the norm. Newton set his 2012–2016 floor in a season where he missed two games. If he had played those games, the gap between his floor and ceiling would be smaller, but he’d likely still have the widest chasm thanks to his disappointing numbers from 2016.

While Newton and Ryan make the list thanks to positive outlier seasons, the guy sandwiched between them, Eli Manning, makes the list because of negative outlier seasons. Most incredible is how Manning generated such a wide floor-to-ceiling gap despite playing 16 games every season. So, even if Eli’s total points ceiling is on par with other top-10 finishers from the past, the risk of his basement is much scarier than other QBs in that tier. This goes to show ceiling isn’t everything when evaluating a player. You must consider the entire range of outcomes. If you don’t, you might conclude Cam Newton and Matt Ryan are locks for the top-5, or that Eli Manning is a lock for the top-12, which simply isn’t true.

Late-Round Quarterbacks Have Feelings Too (and Top-15 Upside!)

I would be remiss (and my TwoQBs partner Salvatore Stefanile might rip out my throat ala Dalton from Road House) if I didn’t dig a little deeper and talk about Alex Smith. Many 2QB and Superflex drafters are rightfully scared of relying on these sorts of quarterbacks from the low-end QB2 ranks, but players like Smith, Ryan Tannehill, and Joe Flacco still hold value, especially in two-quarterback formats.

Think of Smith, Tanny, and Flacco as the Frank Gores of the QB position. They’re not going to wow you with a lot of big weeks, but they’ll still sprinkle infrequent jackpot games into a steady baseline of production. If you can cement an advantage at RB, WR, and/or TE during the early rounds of your draft, a predictable stream of 15 points per game from a boring late-rounder might be all you need at QB for a competitive roster.

The key is players like Alex Smith will still have big weeks, and because performance is more predictable at quarterback than other positions, we can more easily identify potential blow-up weeks for passers based on match-ups. If we stream our quarterbacks properly, we are rewarded with more ceiling-level output on a week-to-week basis, allowing our combined QB production to surpass the independent ceilings of our rostered quarterbacks.

For example, Alex Smith has a seasonal ceiling of QB13 on his own, and so does Ryan Tannehill. Their seasonal ceilings are a combination of different weekly outputs, though. Both Smith and Tannehill had five weeks of top-10 production in 2016. Smith finished top-10 in Weeks 1, 7, 11, 16, and 17. Tannehill did so in Weeks 2, 3, 10, 12, and 14. If you drafted and started both in every week of last season, they gave you at least one QB1 performance in 7-of-13 regular season weeks (and 2-of-3 playoff weeks). Considering the low investment required to draft players of their ilk, it’s not difficult to team them up with one or more other quarterbacks and create weekly top-10 potential from both quarterback spots in your starting lineup.

Properly playing match-ups is admittedly easier said than done, but we should still try to make it work if we can. It’s all about balancing cost versus depth. Drafting quarterbacks early is a commitment to playing them in more weeks, regardless of match-up. The quarterbacks available later are generally not every-week starters, so it pays to draft extras and give yourself more angles to attack the weekly match-ups.

According to the findings in my article on Startable Quarterback Percentage (SQB%), the breaking point between viable match-up plays and unusable quarterbacks tends to land around QB24 or QB25 in ADP. As you’ve seen in this article, even guys like Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill are capable of desirable weekly and seasonal ceilings. Inside the top 25, passers still post plenty of top-20 scoring weeks, while also putting up more top-10 weeks than bust weeks. If you can land at least three quarterbacks from that range, you will set yourself up well to exploit the NFL schedule and find fantasy success in two-quarterback formats.

Need more 2QB/Superflex analysis? Satisfy your craving by purchasing a copy of the TwoQBs 2017 2QB/Superflex Draft Guide. With 170 pages of content dedicated to 2QB/Superflex leagues, it's an invaluable tool that will help you win your league. Use coupon code "4for4" to save 10 percent off the cover price.

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