Roster Maximization: The Case for Quarterback Streaming

Pat Thorman focuses on the strategy of quarterback streaming and uncovers evidence that it is a viable technique.

| 4 years ago

Pat Thorman focuses on the strategy of quarterback streaming and uncovers evidence that it is a viable technique.

Roster Maximization: The Case for Quarterback Streaming


As more and more offseason mock drafts take place, not only has it become crystal clear that running backs will once again be valued at an ultra-premium in 2013, it also appears that fantasy owners’ hands are effectively tied in this area. Resistance is futile. Drafting experiments rooted in waiting to select a team’s ballcarriers have invariably ended with gaping holes at running back, non-competitive overall rosters, and muttered variations of “Thank God this doesn’t count” or “That’s why we do mock drafts.”

How then, does one differentiate their roster from the rest of a league in which nearly all other competitors are utilizing a running back-heavy approach in the draft’s early rounds? Aside from the reflexive answer, which is to simply pick better running backs than they do, the just slightly less obvious solution is to draft more of them. Stockpiling the scarcest of commodities will offer valuable flexibility when setting weekly lineups, dealing with inevitable injury attrition, and trading with running back-deficient (aka desperate) leaguemates.

The inherent problem with that is it will leave your team without top-ranked performers at nearly every other position. This is where “streaming” comes into play, as we attempt to approximate the production of early round selections by starting cheaper alternatives only when conditions are ripest.

We recently dove into some tight end streaming data and uncovered legitimate opportunities from last season in which this technique would have worked well. It is certainly not a strategy for the faint of heart, or for someone who does not have the time or inclination to carefully weigh weekly matchups, but it does appear to be one viable option. Below we will turn our attention to the quarterback spot to see if it is a position that is similarly flexible.

Waiting to select a fantasy quarterback is by no means a novel concept. In fact, our own J.J. Zachariason, better known as The Late Round Quarterback, has built a veritable fantasy football media empire around the practice. The relentless forces of supply and demand, not to mention relative value, make putting off drafting quarterbacks a tough strategy to argue with in nearly every common league format (“2QB leagues” would be one notable exception).

By taking a closer look at quarterback performance against top- and bottom-half defenses, we are not trying to reinvent the wheel. In actuality, we will attempt to see if the application of streaming can add supporting evidence to the idea of waiting to draft quarterbacks, while stockpiling other positions (namely, running back) with as many early round picks as possible. If top-tier quarterback production can then be reasonably approximated for a minimal investment of draft or auction capital, the choice becomes even easier to make.

 

OK, let’s get to the numbers:

As we did with the tight end position, let’s take a quick look at passer production against top- and bottom-half quarterback defenses. We will again default to viewing them in groups of 10. Please refer to the bottom of the page for details about the methodology used in collecting this data.

 

QB Group (by Point Total)

PPG against top ½ QB defenses

PPG vs. bottom ½ QB defenses

QB 1 – QB 10

19.8 average PPG

21.6 average PPG

QB 11 – QB 20

13.1 average PPG

19.0 average PPG

QB 21 – QB 30

12.9 average PPG

16.4 average PPG

*- Week 17 fantasy point totals are not included

 

As one would expect, each tier performed better against the lower-ranked defenses. Out of the 30 top scoring fantasy signal callers, only first-tier passers Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady averaged more points per game against defenses that were in the top half of the NFL in defending quarterbacks. The middle quarterback tier, however, shows the largest fluctuation in production – a trait that would lend itself to profitable streaming, since these are typically the players used in such a strategy.

Below we can see the nearly six point-per-game (5.9) difference that the middle tier averaged, when comparing performance against easier versus harder quarterback defenses. That registers as a sizable portion of the tier’s overall average points per game – more than 36 percent. In addition to being advisable to start passers from that group only against favorable defenses, the downside of starting them week in and week out leaves little choice in the matter.

 

QB Rank (Point Total)

Average Points/Game

Against Bot ½ vs Top ½

Percent Difference

QB 1 – QB10

20.7 PPG

+1.8 PPG

+8.7%

QB 11 – QB 20

16.2 PPG

+5.9 PPG

+36.4%

QB 21 – QB 30

14.6 PPG

+3.5 PPG

+24.0%

*- Week 17 fantasy point totals are not included

 

Also illustrated is that the top tier of quarterbacks tends to see their performance fluctuate the least, no matter what caliber of defense they are facing. This admittedly is a solid argument for drafting one of them and enjoying the stability that comes with it. Again, a lot of the appeal of this strategy depends on how hands-on the individual fantasy owner happens to be.

The one statistic that jumps off the page is how the middle tier can be started against bottom-half quarterback defenses to produce a very reasonable approximation of the top tier’s average points per game. In fact, the QB11-through-QB20 tier averages 91.7 percent of the top tier’s overall point-per-game average (19.0 vs 20.7 PPG), when streamed efficiently. This is an even higher portion of the top tier’s PPG average than we saw in the tight end study, when the corresponding tiers registered a 90.6 percent number.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that running backs acquired in the middle rounds of a draft will have about as much chance of being successfully streamed to within 90 percent of the top 10 rushers’ average points per game, as Mark Sanchez does of sharing Pro Bowl practice snaps with Kevin Kolb and Brandon Weeden.

 

Fun with ADP cherry-picking:

While every draft is unique, it is always noteworthy (in a 20-20 hindsight kind of way) to check out some of the average draft position (ADP) data on My Fantasy League to see what players were passed over in favor of selecting quarterbacks. It gets particularly interesting at the back end of the first tier (QB6 through QB10). In 2012, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo rounded out the top 10 quarterbacks, based on ADP – and they averaged being chosen between 43rd and 58th, overall. Running backs that were selected after Manning (43rd), based on ADP, included Frank Gore, Doug Martin, Reggie Bush, Stevan Ridley and C.J. Spiller. Ridley and Spiller actually were picked after Romo (58th), on average. Some receivers with ADPs after Manning’s included Dez Bryant, Marques Colston, Percy Harvin, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Vincent Jackson.

That group of quarterbacks, four of which played full seasons, collectively averaged 18.6 points per game (Vick played eight games and averaged 18.9 PPG). Three of the next six quarterbacks chosen, based on ADP, averaged more points per game (Robert Griffin III, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck). Nine quarterbacks selected after that group wound up scoring more than that 18.6 points per game average when they were matched up with bottom-half quarterback defenses (plus Nick Foles tied it). Heck, even Kolb averaged 18.4 points per game against bottom-half quarterback defenses, albeit in a limited four-game sample.

It is easy to cherry-pick a few statistics to prove just about any point you want to make. In this case, however, it does not require much searching to come up with multiple instances where a fantasy owner would have been far better served to pass on a quarterback in favor of increasing depth at hard-to-fill positions. Below are some other numbers that stood out, followed by the methodology used to gather the data, and finally a full rundown of the top 36 scoring quarterbacks and their per-game averages.

 

  • Roethlisberger averaged 21.3 points per game against bottom-half quarterback defenses. Only five passers had better overall PPG averages (Brees, Rodgers, Brady, Newton, Griffin III).
  • Vick’s 20.7 points per game against the weaker defenses, albeit achieved in just three total contests, slides in right behind Roethlisberger at seventh on that list mentioned above.
  • Eli Manning averaged over nine more points per game against bottom-half quarterback defenses (19.7 PPG vs. 10.5 PPG), the largest such point differential in the league.
  • Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco posted meager 12.9 and 12.6 points per game averages, respectively, against top-half quarterback defenses.
  • Young gun passers Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick shredded bottom-half quarterback defenses to the tune of 22.9 and 22.1 points per game, respectively. But unlike Wilson, whose per-game average dropped to 14.3 against the tougher units, Kaepernick registered a respectable 17.2 PPG in those contests.
  • Mark Sanchez was pathetic against the better defenses, averaging a paltry 7.3 points per game in seven contests, the worst mark in the league. Even Brady Quinn was better (7.8 PPG) against top-half quarterback defenders.
  • Tom Brady averaged over three more points per game against top-half quarterback defenses. He also played 11 such opponents, which was the most for any passer. Matthew Stafford saw the second most with 10 – the only other quarterback in double digits for top-half defenses faced.
  • Luck faced the easier half of quarterback defenses 11 times. Only two others saw similar double-digit games – Ryan and Josh Freeman (10).

 

A few notes about the data:

The methodology used when gathering the data attempted to capture a more relevant snapshot of what fantasy owners experience. Week 17 data was eliminated, as most leagues do not utilize them – and those that do are often subject to anomalies stemming from NFL teams that do not play their starters or treat their games, for various reasons, as they normally would. Games in which a player was injured early in the contest (before halftime), and did not accumulate a significant amount of statistics, were similarly stricken from the data. In grouping the quarterbacks, they were ordered by total fantasy points scored, sans week 17, according to Pro Football Focus data.

When assigning “bottom-half” or “top-half” quarterback defenses, 2011 “points against” rankings were used for both Week 1 and Week 2. This was done because until new defensive ratings stabilize, the most actionable opinions are based on the previous season’s data. Also, there is significant carryover from one season to the next. 2012’s rankings included 22 teams that remained in the top or bottom half of quarterback defenses, versus only 10 that moved up or down to the other group. The common sense approach, when attempting to attack a defense that is weak against a certain position, is to utilize that most recent data – and that holds true for NFL offensive coordinators as well as fantasy owners.

 

Player

Games Played

Avg PPG

Avg vs Top ½ D

Avg vs Bot ½ D

PPG Difference

E. Manning

15

14.8

10.5

19.7

+9.2

K. Kolb

6

15.3

9.2

18.4

+9.2

R. Wilson

15

17.7

14.3

22.9

+8.6

N. Foles

7

13.9

10.3

18.6

+8.3

A. Dalton

15

17.8

12.9

21.1

+8.2

J. Flacco

15

16.6

12.6

20.2

+7.6

R. Fitzpatrick

15

15.2

11.8

19.2

+7.4

M. Sanchez

14

10.4

7.3

13.4

+6.1

C. Ponder

15

12.8

10.5

16.3

+5.8

R. Griffin III

14

22.1

19.3

25.0

+5.7

T. Romo

15

19.1

15.4

22.3

+5.6

P. Manning

15

20.0

16.7

22.2

+5.5

S. Bradford

15

14.9

12.5

17.7

+5.2

Roethlisberger

11

19.1

16.4

21.3

+4.9

C. Kaepernick

7

19.3

17.2

22.1

+4.9

B. Gabbert

9

11.2

9.8

14.2

+4.4

M. Cassel

8

12.6

9.9

14.2

+4.3

M. Schaub

15

15.1

13.0

17.0

+4.0

Alex Smith

8

15.3

12.8

16.8

+4.0

J. Freeman

15

17.0

14.9

18.1

+3.2

C. Palmer

14

17.4

15.6

18.7

+3.1

M. Vick

8

18.9

17.7

20.7

+3.0

A. Luck

15

19.2

17.4

19.9

+2.5

J. Cutler

13

14.3

13.0

15.5

+2.5

D. Brees

15

22.4

21.2

23.2

+2.0

R. Tannehill

14

13.4

12.7

14.7

+2.0

P. Rivers

15

14.9

14.2

15.9

+1.7

C. Newton

15

21.9

21.2

22.3

+1.1

M. Stafford

15

18.4

18.0

19.1

+1.1

J. Locker

9

16.1

15.5

16.6

+1.1

M. Ryan

15

20.5

20.0

20.8

+0.8

B. Weeden

15

12.4

12.2

12.6

+0.4

M. Hasselbeck

6

13.4

14.0

12.0

-2.0

C. Henne

6

16.4

18.2

15.6

-2.6

T. Brady

15

21.9

22.7

19.6

-3.1

A. Rodgers

15

21.8

23.3

20.1

-3.2

 

Follow Pat on Twitter: @Pat_Thorman … and our main feed: @PFF_Fantasy



Pat Thorman is a lead writer for PFF Fantasy and a Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner.

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