Fantasy: QB Impact on Skill Positions

| May 30, 2012

It is a quarterback world in the NFL and all the other players are just living in it. The stability of the position is well-known on a week-to-week and year-to-year level. The question arises often in fantasy drafts: Does an owner draft a player higher because of the quarterback on their NFL team? I looked at all running backs and wide receivers scoring 14+ PPG and tight ends scoring 10+ PPG over the last four seasons in PPR scoring looking for trends on their respective quarterbacks. That threshold for production resulted in a sample size of 49 tight ends, 71 running backs, and 79 wide receivers – basically a top-20 RB/WR and a top-12 tight end. I then looked at the final PPG for each player’s quarterback (6 points/TD) that season. The results are pretty clear and speak for themselves:

 

 

Avg. QB RK QB1-10 QB11-20 QB21+
WR 14+ PPG 10.8 58% 30% 12%
TE 10+ PPG 11.6 60% 20% 20%
RB 14+ PPG 16.8 28% 38% 34%

 

For a wide receiver and tight end, the AVERAGE quarterback for a difference-maker in fantasy is essentially a top-10 player. When looking at running back, more are with average to below-average options with anything significant under center. NFL teams without a great quarterback lack the ability to put games and situations on their offensive leader. In 2011, quarterbacks that averaged 20+ PPG put up 0.41 FP/Snap. On the other hand, quarterbacks from the next tier (15-20 PPG) averaged 0.29 FP/Snap. It is no wonder why NFL teams cannot put the game in these middle-of-the-road quarterbacks’ hands. Fantasy owners need to operate the same way. Now looking at top-10 RB/WR and top-5 tight ends, the results are end more slanted towards the quarterback play:

 

Avg. QB RK QB1-10 QB11-20 QB21+
Top-10 WRs 9.6 60% 35% 5%
Top-5 TEs 8.4 80% 10% 10%
Top-10 RBs 17.4 25% 35% 40%

 

For the top-tier of skill position players, the quarterback is even more of a factor. Both wide receivers and tight ends move inside the top-10 on average with running backs paired with quarterbacks outside the top-10 a whopping 75% of the time. The takeaway is to value all positions more based on their team’s quarterback situation. The wide receivers and tight ends need that difference-maker under the center. For running backs, it is an advantage to NOT have a top quarterback. The final question is: Who are the exceptions to this rule? I looked at NFL draft stock as an identifier for the outliers to the quarterback rule.

 

Exceptions Number 1st rounders
Top-10 WR without top-10 QB 16 69%
Top-5 TE without top-10 QB 4 50%
Top-10 RB with top-10 10 50%

 

The exceptions are populated at least half the time by being a 1st round pick at all the positions. There are very few players that beat the odds on the above two criteria in terms of being a fantasy difference-maker. Over the past four seasons, here are the complete outliers:

 

Wide Receivers

 

Brandon Marshall finished as WR3 with QB17 Jay Cutler in 2009. How did he do it? Marshall averaged 9.9 targets/game and caught a career-high 67.8% of those opportunities. Marshall’s 9.9% TD rate also marked the highest of his career, resulting in his only double-digit total to-date.

Smith Smith finished as WR4 with QB26 Jake Delhomme in 2008. The Panthers had limited opportunities in the passing game with just 414 pass attempts on the season. Smith saw 128 of them – a whopping 31% of the receiving chances. Smith’s 18.2 YPC that season marked the highest of his career at that time by over 2.0 YPC.

The other Steve Smith (USC ) finished as WR8  with QB11 Eli Manning in 2009. Manning was very close to the top-10 on the season, but an outlier to this study nonetheless. Smith received 157 targets, nearly as many as his other four NFL seasons combined. His seven touchdowns were more than the rest of his career (5) to this point.

Antonio Bryant finished as WR9 in 2008 with QB16 – a Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese platoon. Bryant had 7 TDs on a team with just 17 passing scores on the year. 2008 marked the only time Bryant had 80+ catches, a career-high in TDs, and one of just two seasons in his NFL career with 95+ targets.

Terrell Owens finished as WR10 in 2010 with QB18 Carson Palmer. The Bengals sported the fourth-most dropbacks that season. Owens, long one of the best TD-machines in fantasy, rebounded from a disappointing 2009 in Buffalo for his top-10 finish. His 54.5% catch rate that season was his highest since 2007.

 

Tight Ends

 

Tony Gonzalez finished as TE1 with QB11 Tyler Thigpen in 2008. This was the last of Gonzalez’ truly dominant seasons at a position that was owned by he and Antonio Gates – before the names Gronkowski and Graham were even NFL prospects.

Chris Cooley finished as TE5 in 2008 with QB22 Jason Campbell. Cooley got there on pure volume alone. He amassed 83 catches on 106 targets (career-high 78.3% catch rate) and just 10.2 YPC. He trailed only Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten in tight end targets in 2008.

 

Running Backs

 

The running back exceptions have a common theme: Be an absolute stud or be a PPR monster. The first rounders that fit the mold are Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Joseph Addai, Reggie Bush, and Jahvid Best. Bush and Best have shown to be PPR difference-makers when healthy. Peterson and Tomlinson are two of the best backs in a generation. They can succeed regardless of their situation. Addai had a career-high 61 targets to go along with 13 total touchdowns on the dominant Peyton Manning-led Colts offense.

The non-first round backs to break the mold with top-10 finishes are easy to classify. Three of the five are Philadelphia backs: twice LeSean McCoy and once by Brian Westbrook. Andy Reid loves to pass and loves the running backs in the receiving game. Darren Sproles in 2011 is the fourth outlier. He was signed into one of the most RB-friendly systems in the NFL last off-season. The final back on this list is Steve Slaton in 2010. He finished as RB8 with QB10 Matt Schaub. Slaton enjoyed his career year by far in 2008. He had more touches that season than the rest of his 4-year NFL career combined in the RB-friendly system in Houston.

 

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  • thebenny

    Note that you’ve broken the QBs into uneven groups of 10, 9 and 13. You find that 42 and 40% of 14+ PPG and top 10 RBs play with the 40.625% of QBs ranked 20 and below. Both of those groups are right in line with what would be expected with no correlation. The only groups that eyeball to some correlation would be top-10 RBs, 25% of whom play with top 10 QBs vs. an expected 31.25% (in raw terms 10 rather than an expected 12.5), and 35% play with QBs 11-19 vs. an expected 28.125% (14 instead of 11.25). Again, just eyeballing those, they look like very weak correlations, and probably aren’t significant. I think you’re overselling the data.

  • eraulli

    Found this article interesting, but after doing some of my own research I don’t think the part regarding RBs is really accurate.

    Using team data from 2009 – 2011 I calculated the total fantasy points for each team in both passing and rushing. I then calculated each teams +/- compared to the average fantasy points scored in that category and sorted them from the best passing teams to the worst. The teams ranked #1-8 in passing points were +202 over those 3 years, #9-16 were +217, #17-24 were -38, and #25-32 were -381.

    From this data it would seem that having an above average passing game actually helps the running game score points, whereas a bad passing game makes it very difficult to score points on the ground. This would make sense because a team with a good passing game is much more likely to get the goal line carries that produce 60% of all rushing TDs.

  • Chad Parsons

    Maybe I am misreading the comments, but I don’t really understand the objections. I corrected the size of the groups to be 10,10,12. I will argue that the bottom group being larger actually increases the strength of the impact for WR/TE as that is the exception group. I do agree that the finding for the RB group are less significant than the other two positions. Another article breaking down the WR position further is coming.

    • thebenny

      I wouldn’t agree that “for running backs, it is an advantage to NOT have a top quarterback,” or that “when looking at running back, more are with average to below-average options.” These are still very small variations from the expected distributions that are easier to explain as a result of sampling error rather than QB play.

      The WR/TE analysis is much more interesting than the RB non-impact, anyway.