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Fantasy Football 2021: Practice Patience When Drafting Your Quarterback

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Patrick Mahomes is fantastic, but that doesn't mean you have to take him early in a standard fantasy league

Big premiums were paid by fantasy owners last year to draft Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in comparison to the other quarterbacks. Each of them finished in the top 21 of ADP as players tried to grab a competitive advantage at a position. The problem was that Mahomes’ 2018 and Jackson’s 2019 didn’t exist in 2020. The true talent level of each quarterback as far as it relates to fantasy football production is high, maybe higher than any of the other quarterbacks in the NFL, but it didn’t matter. You can’t chase outliers at that pick in a standard draft league. Mahomes finished fourth in standard fantasy points. Because he was held out of Week 17’s meaningless contest, he actually narrowly eclipsed Josh Allen among full-time starters as the winner in average fantasy points per week. He had 25.36 to Allen’s 25.32. But you drafted Mahomes to win decisively, and he didn’t deliver that. Ten different full-time fantasy football quarterbacks scored at least 21 points per game in a full-time role, and Dak Prescott was far and away the leader in points per game before he was hurt in Week 5.

Of the ADP leaders in 2020, Russell Wilson was at QB5 — it looked like he was a dominant force and worth the ADP through eight weeks. If you had him towards the end of the season, though, you lived through the fall that forced him to eighth in average fantasy points per game and made him borderline unplayable in the playoffs. Drew Brees was QB7 and was horrific when he was actually healthy enough to play. Matt Ryan was QB8 and finished outside the top 10 in average points per game. Meanwhile, Allen was drafted at QB11, and if you got him, you got all the scoring of everyone who tried to pick out their favorite designer quarterback early on.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t wind up with good production in a middle-round pick, and plenty of those quarterbacks — like Kyler Murray — did deliver some value. But when you see how the position has grown to deliver its value, and how easy it is to find production out of the blue when your league doesn’t have a balancer such as bigger rosters, more teams or a second quarterback starting slot, it just doesn’t make any sense to try to beat anyone to the punch on a quarterback. In an auction, you could try to get in at a smaller price. In a typical snake draft? It’s much harder to justify being aggressive at all.

Wake me up in two rounds

When I do drafts in standard leagues, my philosophy with quarterbacks when I see them on the board is “call me in two rounds.” It’s simply too easy to fill the spot. There are too many players with big upside, and unless you have enormous roster sizes, it’s too easy to play with free agency at the position on a weekly basis. Here’s what Mahomes did over the last five weeks of the fantasy season, Weeks 11-16. And here’s what that looks like next to just playing the waiver wire for people playing bad defenses or pass funnel defenses:

MahomesStandard Waiver Wire Play

Week 11

22.5

25.0 (Goff vs. TB)

Week 12

31.2

26.2 (Cousins vs. CAR)

Week 13

19.3

32.7 (Carr vs. NYJ)

Week 14

21.6

25.6 (Lock vs. CAR)

Week 15

25.9

37.8 (Hurts vs. ARI)

Week 16

20.2

27.6 (Dalton vs. PHI)

Are you always going to hit the best waiver wire quarterback every week? No, you’re not. But did you also get dud games from Mahomes during that same stretch? Yes, yes you did. In Week 16 last year, 16 different quarterbacks scored at least 18 fantasy points. One of them was Brandon Allen! Week 15 delivered 17 different quarterbacks with at least 18 fantasy points. Kirk Cousins, Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Finley all brought value.

So listen, I’m not going to tell you not to draft a quarterback in the first 10 rounds, ever. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t draft players who are a lot of fun to watch or have on your team. I’m going to tell you to look at the ADP you see and just wait a couple rounds on that if you’re in a standard league. You’re going to find a path to quarterback production no matter what you do. Even the best quarterbacks in the league can get tied down with the wrong matchup, as you saw in the Super Bowl. Better not to get mentally attached to the idea that one player is for sure going to win you the league because things change fast in fantasy football.

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Have we learned our lesson yet?

While this is no guarantee of how things come to you as you’re reading this magazine, in the offseason, the only quarterbacks who made the top 40 in ADP were Mahomes, Allen and Murray. That’s a hit compared to where Jackson and Mahomes were last offseason. It’s about even to where Mahomes was coming into 2019 after his 50-touchdown MVP season.

Each of the past three years, with Allen, Jackson and Mahomes, there’s been a quarterback drafted outside of the top tier who has elevated into it. That “bottom to outside of the top 10” tier has reliably returned value between players like Matt Ryan in 2018, Prescott and Jameis Winston in 2019 and Justin Herbert in 2020. Between that and the ability to just stream vs. bad defenses, standard leagues have had a rough time having high-round quarterbacks retain any real advantage. Last year, I would argue, actually went fairly well for early quarterback drafting because there wasn’t a QB who had any real running stats to attach to the position. The 2021 season, I think, may not turn out so well.

This year’s enormous rookie class includes five first-round picks. Most of the first-round picks aren’t going to be on the radar for teams as draft-day hits. But of the first four quarterbacks on the board, all of them have the traits you’re looking to see out of a rookie quarterback. Trey Lance — assuming he can beat out Jimmy Garoppolo — can do it all, will run for scores and is tied to a Kyle Shanahan offense that generates plenty of easy touchdown throws. Trevor Lawrence is with Urban Meyer, a known read-option fan, on a team that is destined to have some shootouts because of its terrible defense. The Bears spent the last six weeks of the season putting Mitchell Trubisky into wildly easy throws, and it’s easy to craft a narrative that the only thing holding that team back was its quarterback play. Justin Fields presents yet another great quarterback prospect with the threat to run. Even Zach Wilson has elements of all these positives and could deliver plenty of off-script throws.

Veterans like Tyrod Taylor don’t seem very sexy, but there are going to be games where guys like him play the Jaguars. Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts both had league-winning weeks in their rookie seasons. Burrow just got a massive wideout upgrade in Ja’Marr Chase. Hurts got DeVonta Smith. Both of them played with their rookie wideouts in college and already have pre-arranged chemistry. Both of them also have defenses that have had massive issues the last two seasons, raising their shootout potential. The league is bursting at the seams with potential quarterback answers right now.

If you have played any basic fantasy league for the last couple of years, you have read the “you don’t need to take a quarterback early” advice at some point if you’ve shown even rudimentary interest in picking up a magazine or reading a column. Yes, this isn’t news by any stretch of the imagination. But the extent to which it has only gotten worse over the last three years should be alarming to anybody trying to play counter-consensus.

You’re going to be tempted. You’re going to read this and think you’re going to beat the consensus. You might be right, you might even get someone who will overperform his projection.

But when you compare it to what you’re missing out on in the early rounds when you take a quarterback prematurely, it’s getting harder and harder every year to justify it. The floor has just risen too much.

— Written by Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) for Athlon Sports' 2021 Fantasy Football magazine.