Before the best quarterbacks threw for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in a season, the argument for selecting elite quarterbacks over elite running backs was that they were safer. With the gap in their production over replacement eliminated in recent seasons, the decision seems easy. I am not so sure. On the whole, quarterbacks have been healthier than running backs, but that is not the only factor in their success.
Quarterbacks rely on their receivers for fantasy production, but some lean more heavily on a single pass catcher than others. It stands to reason that those quarterbacks stand to lose more in fantasy if that keystone receiver were lost.
I listed eight quarterbacks and their receivers who received at least 75 targets from them in 2011, and then I charted their targets and fantasy points in order to create a points per target (PPT) metric. The fantasy points represent what the quarterback scored when they threw to a certain receiver. The scoring is standard, with 1 point per 25 yards passing and 4 points per touchdown. I excluded interceptions.
For each set of quarterback and receivers, I scaled the results into a final metric I called quarterback-weighted points per target plus (qbwPPT+). 1.00 represents a receiver that generated the average fantasy points per target for his quarterback. A receiver with a 1.10 qbwPPT+ provided 10% more value than average, while a receiver with a 0.90 qbwPPT+ provided 10% less value than average.
For the most part, these quarterbacks had an easily identifiable primary target in 2011. For Aaron Rodgers, it was Jordy Nelson. For Drew Brees, it was Marques Colston. For Tom Brady, it was Rob Gronkowski. For Matthew Stafford, it was Calvin Johnson. For Cam Newton, it was Steve Smith. For Eli Manning, it was Victor Cruz. For Tony Romo, it was Laurent Robinson. And for Philip Rivers, it was Vincent Jackson.
These players should not be assumed to be the best or the preferred receivers on their teams. Because this is fantasy, players like Jordy Nelson and Laurent Robinson show high points per target numbers because they caught a lot of touchdowns relative to their target volumes. Their touchdowns will likely decrease in 2012, but is it really safe to assume that the other receivers will absorb the slack?
I went through a hypothetical exercise of removing the primary targets from their teams. I redistributed the targets of the primary receiver to the remaining receivers based on their relative percentages of targets. That allowed me to compare the fantasy points scored via pass by each quarterback with and without their most productive option.
On one extreme, there is Drew Brees. All of the Saints receivers had a similar percentage of the team’s total targets, yards, and touchdowns. Yes, Brees looked to Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and Darren Sproles more than other options, but none showed dramatic differences in effectiveness per target. It is my belief that Drew Brees is the safest elite quarterback. He is the least likely to suffer a production loss should he lose a primary receiver.
On the other extreme, there is Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford. Rob Gronkowski received 20% of the targets but produced 25% of the yards and 44% of the touchdowns for the Patriots. Calvin Johnson received 23% of the targets but produced 33% of the yards and 39% of the touchdowns for the Lions. Simply put, Gronkowski and Johnson did more with their opportunities than their teammates, and that makes Brady and Stafford more susceptible to a decline in fantasy value if either receiver were lost.
The Super Bowl exposed the Patriots for their overreliance on Gronkowski. When he was hurt, their offense stalled. I believe that was a major factor in their signing of Brandon Lloyd. We have seen Brady’s versatility lead him to fantasy success under different offense systems, and I expect he now could adjust to life without Gronkowski if he had to.
I am more nervous about Stafford. Calvin Johnson was so good last year. His +27.0 pass grade was well clear of the second-best receiver in the league. The rest of the Lions wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs combined for a +1.8 pass grade. Stafford may be clear of the injury problems that plagued his first two seasons in the league, but his health as a fantasy star is only as good as the health of Calvin Johnson.
Questions and comments are always welcome via Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt