Week 16. Fantasy championship on the line. You’ve got Lamar Jackson, whom you were astute enough to draft in the ninth round. Your opponent has been riding Aaron Rodgers all season. Advantage: You. One problem: Your opponent has dropped a bench player to pick up Ryan Fitzpatrick.
There are many dumb ways to lose a fantasy football championship game. But one of the dumbest is to lose because your opponent happened to make an educated guess about the value of a bad defense in a game that only exists to decide draft position. Fitzpatrick gets named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 419 yards and four touchdowns. Jackson gets you three touchdowns of his own and 103 rushing yards, but the advantage you had all season was completely neutered by circumstance.
That circumstance, which has become a plague on the fantasy football landscape, is the undeniable value of streaming quarterbacks. And it’s helping to drive the popularity and value of two-quarterback leagues.
When fantasy football first reached mainstream popularity in the 1990s, having a good quarterback mattered because there just weren’t that many good offenses. In 1990, the top 10 fantasy football players by standard points included three running backs and a wide receiver. In total, 11 of the top 22 players by standard fantasy points were not quarterbacks. In 2019, only five of the top 22 players by standard fantasy points were not quarterbacks. Gardner Minshew II, who started 12 games all season, scored more standard fantasy points than No. 1 overall receiver Michael Thomas.
Now, PPR has caught on for a reason — it has inadvertently made passing-down backs the best players in fantasy football, but at least it has made wide receivers viable. That revolution took years to fight, and it was about a position that had become almost useless to fantasy football. See where we’re going with this?
Just to sample some pre-draft fantasy football rankings that are out, I routinely see Jackson and Patrick Mahomes — the top scorers the last two years, respectively — ranked in the 60s. I see top-5 quarterbacks fall outside of the top 100 because experts have all caught on to the fact that you can grab a Fitzpatrick in a good game script and have it work out better than having to invest a pick in a guy you’ll start week in and week out.
Even though we put a championship face on the problem, it happens every week. None of the top three quarterbacks of Week 16 last year were top-20 overall finishers: Fitzpatrick actually finished third that week behind Andy Dalton and Daniel Jones. If we limit the sample to just Week 14 through Week 16, our top five playoff averages belong to Drew Brees and Jackson, joined by Jameis Winston, Ryan Tannehill and Fitzpatrick. Look through last year’s pre-draft material and you’ll see exactly nobody advocating for any of those last three players as a QB1.
The simple truth is that as it’s become easier for the league as a whole to pass, the teams that defend the pass well and poorly are statistical outliers. Entire fantasy career niches have been created around the idea of streaming quarterbacks. In 1990, there were weeks where you’d be lucky to have two or three 300-yard passers. Now? Arizona allowed an average of almost 300 passing yards per game. The Bengals gave up 20.2 fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks last season. If you could create a fantasy quarterback in 1990 who averaged 20.2 points per game, that quarterback would have finished third in the entire NFL in fantasy points scored, behind Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon. And — in case you think I’m picking on the Bengals — they allowed only the sixth-most fantasy points per game to quarterbacks last year.
It’s an emerging strategy: If good fantasy players can’t get one of the best quarterbacks in the league at a massive discount, they’re often happy to play the wire. Why wouldn’t you be? You can create a Frankenstein of the position just by targeting uninspiring defenses. Yeah, sometimes you’ll slip up and pick the wrong guy — especially early before we’re sure where the dust has settled — but when the playoffs come around, we have a pretty good idea of who to pick on. It makes the quarterback position less of a position where you weigh long-term assets and more of a position where, even in expert leagues, you’re happy to slide in with a minimum waiver bid and yoink the third-most inspiring choice you see.
In short: The position is so deep in fantasy football that it’s devalued almost to the point of being meaningless. Which is odd when you consider that it’s the most important position in the real game, which fantasy purports to model.
Enter two-quarterback leagues.
All of a sudden, just by boosting the number of starting slots, you have created a hundred different strategic considerations — the kind that every other position in fantasy football enjoys. (OK, OK, not kickers.) All of a sudden, the top quarterbacks in the NFL — or anyone considered in that vicinity — is worthy of a first-round pick. And because that creates more early depth at other positions, nobody is forced into taking, say, their seventh-favorite running back in the first round because they happened to be stuck with a late pick. You’ve also created, based on how many teams are in the league, a real underclass line on a weekly basis. If you run a 14-team league, you’re not getting to stream starters against bad defenses unless you’re also okay with streaming, say, recently-named fill-in starters. If it’s 12? You’ve got a little more depth to play with, but you might still see any quarterback who is thought of as good hang on to a roster spot.
You know how sometimes having a good running back sleeper can win a league for you? Welcome to how a good call on a quarterback can change things. One of the leagues I played in last year had a two-quarterback situation, and I wound up waiting around to pick Tom Brady and Kirk Cousins. That team did not win anything because it drafted Odell Beckham Jr. early. But I was able to create top-20 quarterbacks with lower-round picks. That decision actually mattered, and I was able to think about a situation beyond “well, I’ll draft this guy for Week 1 and see how it goes.” It was how the people who had Austin Ekeler or Aaron Jones last year felt.
And if you want to stream quarterbacks? You want to come up with some wacky situation where you’ve targeted the quarterbacks who play the NFC East this year and you’re able to pick up three of them with different weeks you project as booms? Then I’m happy for you — that’s a viable strategy, too. It’s the foresight that makes it interesting and the lack of it that makes the current one-quarterback situation dull. You want to pick out someone you think will get off to a hot start and trade them for someone who gets off to a slow start? Go for it.
Most importantly, all of a sudden there is a deep negative connotation to dropping a quarterback who is on bye. It no longer becomes a rotating roster spot — it becomes a spot where you can drop someone and play the odds, but you are in no way guaranteed to get your Matt Ryan or someone similar back. You might drop a quarterback and find, as one of my league mates did last year, that you were suddenly dropping into a position where you were locking into Andy Dalton or Jeff Driskel for the rest of the year.
This is a move that’s long overdue. It’s the only way that your league can reinvigorate the quarterback position and take it back from the streamers. Let’s face it: Streaming works. It works in a way that’s dull to watch play out every year as you and the other two guys without a quarterback see if you can delay it into the 13th round or not.
Try it this year. It will immediately add a new layer of depth to your fantasy league. Make it so that the guy who walks away with a win in Week 16 at least had to generate some actual strategy. (By the way, I was absolutely the guy with Fitzpatrick last year. I have no shame about that.) It’s become too easy to peg 20-point outbursts for any average starting quarterback.
If you have to grab two, though, that turns the question entirely on its head.