Change At The Top: Quarterback Edition
As you continue to prepare for your draft, you are going to fall into one of two categories: an owner willing to spend an early pick on a “Big Three” quarterback or an owner attempting to figure out who will finish the season as the next best signal caller.
If you’re the former, there’s probably not much I can write that’ll impact you. You have your preference and you’re going to select the top remaining QB on your big board.
If you’re the latter, you’re probably looking for advice … and lots of it as you can’t afford to swing and miss in this era of gaudy passing numbers. I’ve already detailed what a Top 5 quarterback might look like and now I’ll take a look at what you can learn from last year’s final fantasy rankings.
Since the beginning of 2008, 22 different quarterbacks not named Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers have enjoyed a season in which they finished among the next five best QBs in Fantasy. There have been seven instances where a quarterback followed up a Top 5 finish (again, “Big Three” not included) with another Top 5 finish, but every one of those encore performances have come from one of four players (Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, and Andrew Luck) and six of those seven instances have occurred in the last three seasons. In other words, while there is some volatility at the top of the quarterback ranks, it has stabilized in recent seasons.
So that brings us to this year … what Top 5 finishers from 2013 can repeat in 2014? We are looking at a quintet that includes Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, and Andrew Luck. Lofty numbers aren’t rare any more these days, but finishing among the elite has proven to be a difficult task. History would tell us that one – two at most – has a shot to finish among the Top 5 quarterbacks in 2014.
Dalton (15 percent chance of repeat performance)
What to like: The Bengals still have A.J. Green and figure to lean as heavily on him as ever. They also figure to have Giovani Bernard on the field more (he was on the field for only 56.1 percent of offensive snaps last season, and even then he was asked to block in 21.9 percent of those snaps), giving Dalton a security blanket that he has lacked with BenJarvus Green-Ellis (was on the field 216 fewer times in 2013 than 2012).
What to fear: Half of his games last season resulted in a significantly negative rating, the same number of negative games that Peyton Manning has had since mid-November … of 2008. The Bengals failed to add a reliable second receiver and I have my doubts that Dalton would even consider looking at a second receiver any way.
Verdict: I think it is very possible that we saw Dalton’s fantasy ceiling last season, thus meaning fantasy owners are likely to spend 2014 chasing 2013 numbers that may never re-emerge. The Bengals drafted A.J. McCarron and brought in Jason Campbell, and while I don’t expect either to overtake Dalton, it shows that the organization may not be sold on The Red Rifle being the future of the franchise. If he finishes as a starting quarterback in a standard league, I’d be moderately surprised, making a Top 5 finish a lottery ticket I’m not purchasing.
Newton (25 percent chance)
What to like: The physical tools are about as impressive as they get and he’s proven more than capable of producing at an elite level before. He set career highs in completion percentage (61.7) and passing touchdowns (24) in 2013, a season in which he played all 16 games for the third time in three NFL seasons. Even with a decline in rushing production, Newton ranked as the QB who gained the most value from his legs (PFF Run Rating) for a third consecutive season. The Panthers have capable pass-catching backs in Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart, which may help cover their limitations at receiver if they can stay healthy.
What to fear: Offseason ankle surgery has sidelined Newton for the beginning stages of preseason work, and while all reports have him as healthy, the potential for a shift in game plan is a concern. Steve Smith moved on to Baltimore, and while Carolina addressed his absence in the draft (Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th overall pick), that is a significant dropoff at a position in which the Panthers struggled to begin with. If Newton is going to run less, which is a very real possibility, the fact that the Panthers ranked as the ninth worst pass blocking team really scares me.
Verdict: A player I feel is being severely over-ranked in most early projections; Newton doesn’t enter 2014 with the same sort of upside that he has previous seasons. Is he talented? Yes. Is he physically gifted? Yes. But I don’t think he is actually Superman, and it may take a superhuman effort to finish among the elite QBs with this roster.
Rivers (35 percent chance)
What to like: Rivers led the league in completion percentage (69.5), the second consecutive season in which he saw his CMP% increase and his interception total decrease. After a season in which he was roughed up with regularity, resulting in a career worst 13 fumbles, he did a better job of protecting the ball and fumbled only once in 2013. Keenan Allen is every bit the real deal (23 more catches and twice as many scores in his rookie season as Calvin Johnson had) and it is no coincidence that Danny Woodhead continues to find himself in the middle of high-functioning offenses.
What to fear: The Chargers have major health concerns at the wide receiver position, and while Ryan Mathews played 16 games last season, he is far from the model for a workhorse running back that can offer a consistent run game. Rivers might need to repeat his 2013 completion percentage to finish in the Top 5 again, as he ranked 13th in number of passes thrown last year and has never been a volume passer. Antonio Gates is another year older, and should Father Time take over, Rivers will need to develop pass catchers on the fly. San Diego draws the dreaded NFC West this season, four defenses that constantly give fantasy owners headaches.
Verdict: He’s a talented quarterback with an improving supporting cast, but does he have enough upside? Allen is still a young talent, and expecting him to emerge as an elite receiver in year two is probably a bit too optimistic. I’ve got his completion percentage approaching his career average this season (64.4), thus resulting in lower counting numbers. His efficiency and lack of downside gives him a chance, but in an era of pass-happy offenses, I ultimately don’t think Rivers throws enough passes to finish in the Top 5.
Stafford (85 percent chance)
What to like: Calvin Johnson. That’s the number one and most important fact … and it’s not changing this year. The Lions brought in Golden Tate to complement Megatron, giving Stafford a strong chance to reverse his downward trending yardage and interception totals. With the exception of the Eagles, there might not be a better receiving RB duo than Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. The Lions have plenty of holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, but they elected to draft Eric Ebron with their first round pick, indicating that the franchise is tying their future to the right arm of Stafford, something that should have fantasy owners absolutely giddy.
What to fear: I mentioned that his yardage and turnover numbers are headed in the wrong direction, and that’s a problem. He also has struggled down the stretch in back-to-back seasons (two touchdown passes and ten interceptions during weeks 14-16 over the last two years), a concerning trend as he and the Lions travel to Solider Field when most fantasy leagues are determining their champion.
Verdict: I love the NFC North from a fantasy perspective this season, and Stafford is no exception. The additions of Tate and Ebron should have a significant impact on Stafford’s ability to challenge defenses down the field. His sheer volume of passes, combined with the talent around him, make Stafford a safe play with significant upside.
Luck (70 percent chance)
What to like: Luck completed four more passes last season despite attempting 57 fewer passes than in his rookie campaign, showing growth as a passer well beyond his years. He also cut his interception total in half while continuing to take shots down the field and tally an identical 23 touchdown passes to his first season. The Colts aerial attack added what should be a motivated Hakeem Nicks, a healthy Reggie Wayne, and should also get stronger play from their young tight end tandem of Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. While I like his passing upside, it is his ability to add value via his legs (125 rushes for 632 yards and nine scores) that has him as a favorite to repeat his Top 5 effort.
What to fear: What is the run game going to look like? Is Trent Richardson the answer? What about the injury prone Ahmad Bradshaw? Maybe Vick Ballard? Look at the elite quarterbacks over the past few years and they tend to have a significant contribution from at least one running back (whether it be as a pass-catcher or traditional workhorse back). I’m not in love with the fact that two of the Colts top three receivers come into 2014 with at least a minor health red flag (Nicks and Wayne) or that T.Y. Hilton (5’9” 178 pounds) isn’t exactly built like your standard WR1.
Verdict: The running game isn’t ideal, but I don’t think it is enough to prevent Luck from making a serious run at his third Top 5 finish in as many seasons. The lone question facing the Stanford stud is if he can parlay his increased ball security with the strong fantasy upside that comes with s a strong supporting cast. Luck is a thoroughbred who has a strong shot at finishing the 2014-2015 season with a strong kick as he faces a very favorable schedule following Indy’s Week 10 bye.