Each week leading up to the NFL pre-season I’ll be bringing you an overview of those fantasy players that I consider to be starting caliber. This is to say, the top 12 quarterbacks, 24 running backs, 36 wide receivers, and 12 tight ends. As each grouping of these players represents a different position on a fantasy starting lineup, they are being presented in groupings of twelve each week. This week, quarterback:
What makes a good fantasy quarterback? As real-life quarterback skills and team success don’t always correlate with fantasy value (see Tom Brady, 2014 AFC championship contender and fantasy clown car), what can we look for as signals of an upcoming great season? A strong combination of the following factors is usually an indication of fantasy relevance:
- Powerful offensive system
- Strong, reliable offensive line
- Capable pass-catching running back
- Strong pass-catching tight end
- Bad defense
For some reason, I’ve found that last point to be a sticky one. The concept of a team tending to chase from behind and get into high scoring contests seems to be one of contention. Let me offer then, the following from last season; looking at the top ten passing yardage teams in the NFL, the top three had incredible, year over year top fantasy picks in Manning, Brees, and Stafford. Among the other seven teams, six had defenses in the NFLs bottom ten by total yards allowed. The Chargers, Packers, Patriots, Falcons, Eagles, and Bears all finished with bottom ten defenses, and top ten passing yards. Teams do, in fact, throw more when behind.
Rank. Name – Team [consensus ranking for comparison]
1. Peyton Manning – Denver 
Peyton Manning, the Charizard of fantasy football. It is both a simplification and a correct statement that Manning is very, very good. The man hasn’t been under four thousand passing yards for almost a decade (2005), and has only been under thirty touchdowns once in that span. If he is healthy and not in retirement, he is the uncontested best quarterback in both the NFL, and in fantasy.
2. Aaron Rodgers – Green Bay 
The reigning king of fantasy efficiency, Aaron Rodgers has not finished outside the top five in yards per attempt for five seasons running. The beauty of his game is he doesn’t have to get the kind of volume that quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Matthew Stafford get gifted to them every year. Green Bay last year finished 6th in passing yards, compared with 18th in pass attempts. For those who would chalk that up to Rodgers being absent with injury for half the year, those numbers for 2012 and 2011 are 9th/16th, and 3rd/14th respectively.The addition of powerhouse running back Eddie Lacy last year will help tremendously this upcoming year both by forcing defenses to respect the run game, and by adding another receiving option.
3. Matthew Stafford – Detroit 
I’m a Matthew Stafford fanboy. Saying that up front is probably a good idea, as I haven’t seen many people with Stafford higher than 4th in their rankings. However, on top of his massive pass attempts year after year, the pieces falling into place around him are astoundingly good. He has the best receiver in the world, a very good offensive line, and two capable pass catchers in the backfield. He had all that last year, but in the offseason the Lions have added another high quality wide receiver in Golden Tate, and drafted a pure-receiver tight end at 8th overall in Eric Ebron. Add all that to the fact that they play Chicago during the fantasy playoffs twice, and I will likely have him on many of my teams this year.
4. Drew Brees – New Orleans 
It’s hard to not like Drew Brees as a fantasy quarterback. Consistency is a huge pro in his column, along with his almost romantic football relationship to Sean Peyton, a tried and true system, and arguably the best redzone target in football. He, however, will likely not end up on any of my fantasy teams this year. The reason for this seemingly contradictory statement is that while I’ve ranked him as my fourth quarterback, most have him higher, and he likely won’t slip to a round where I would feel comfortable drafting him (4th). The cons against him are the loss of Darren Sproles, the contract arguments with Jimmy Graham, a one-year-older-and-slower Marquess Colston, and talks that the team wants to go more run-heavy.
5. Andrew Luck – Indianapolis 
Another year, another improvement in Andrew Luck’s situation. The Colts enters the year with their best receiving corp under Luck yet, and hopefully with the system adaptation struggles of Trent Richardson behind them. The thing people don’t seem to realize is that on top of an impressive arm, this man can run very fast, and with more power than most 6’4″, 240lb quarterbacks. He’s had nine rushing touchdowns over the last two years, the same number as Colin Kaepernick. Luck’s stock is rising quickly and If I found myself in a startup draft for a dynasty league, I would be hard pressed to find a quarterback worth taking over him.
6. Matt Ryan – Atlanta 
Realize, please, that Matt Ryan is a highly skilled quarterback. With the assumption of a fully healthy receiving corp, I don’t understand the lack of trust with regards to his fantasy game. If you had asked me last year at this time to name the top four receiving options in Atlanta last year, I would have rattled off the names Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White, and Steven Jackson. Three of those four sustained serious injuries and either missed a large number of games, or played very poorly through them. Proving his value, Ryan proceeded to make a fantasy relevant receiver out of Harry Douglas, a name I wouldn’t have been able to recall last year at this time. Matt Ryan could not have had a worse situation last year, and still finished top five in passing yards, and top ten in touchdowns. He is being comically under-drafted.
7. Tony Romo – Dallas 
Speaking of under-drafted. When looking at Tony Romo’s outlook this season, I can’t help but draw comparisons with Matt Stafford. He has one elite wide receiver, one very good wide receiver, a pass catching back, a good (not great like Detroit) offensive line, and a catastrophic defense (worse than Detroit). Not to mention the best quarterback-tight end relationship in football. Dallas is going to be playing from behind very often, and doing so under a coaching staff both used to and comfortable with putting it all on Tony Romo.
8. Colin Kaepernick – San Fransisco 
Near Super Bowl contender and weird last name-haver Colin Kaepernick has proven that he’s a highly dangerous quarterback capable of single-handedly winning games. The tools around him are the best they’ve ever been. Michael Crabtree is healthy heading into the season, and having him around seems to be a great thing for Kaep. While he typically reserves use of his legs for the playoffs, I’m not convinced the SF defense is going to be as elite as they are known to be this year. Add that to the fact that they play in the best division in football, and I can see him being forced to take games into his own feet more often this season. I am a little worried about the 49ers facing off against the Seahawks twice in the fantasy playoffs, but Kaepernick can overcome that, especially if they are competing for a wildcard spot late in the season. The last time those two teams squared off he had the equivalent stats of a 21 point fantasy day. Against the best defense in the league, that’s more than good. If you’re worried about it, trade him away after his inevitably great first half of the season.
9. Robert Griffin III – Washington 
The addition of DeSean Jackson is certainly a good thing for Griffin, as are the glowing reports out of D.C. on Jordan Reed. The most promising aspect of his season though, is the hiring of Jay Gruden as the Washington head coach. Having spent the last two years making a relevant fantasy quarterback out of a sub-par talent in Andy Dalton, I’m excited to see what he can do with a much more talented passer. The only reason I’m a little lower on him than consensus is that he is the first passer on this list that presents a significant injury risk, and I don’t think the new offense will have a chance to jell for a few games.
10. Tom Brady – New England 
I had a hard time between Tom Brady and Nick Foles, which is far from a problem I would have expected six months ago. All indications point to Brady having his favorite target back for the start of the 2014 season. This is great news because the rest of his receiving corp has proven to be very useful. Julian Edelman is reliable, Shane Vereen is the best safety valve one can hope for, and Aaron Dobson is entering what could be a very promising second year. It’s weird to see Brady down this far, but it’s appropriate.
11. Nick Foles – Philadelphia 
It is undeniable that the stats resulting from Foles’ 2013 season were impressive. He put up huge games, tied an all time NFL record, and saved many Aaron Rodgers owners who picked him up after Rodgers went down that same week with his collar bone injury. The trouble is, the stats were impressive, but Foles himself really wasn’t. He threw a ton of jump balls that could have come down either way and happened to be nabbed by the receiver in green. I remember a particular pass to Jackson in which he dangerously under-threw him and Jackson had to make an incredible catch to bring it down. It is unfathomable that he only threw two interceptions in 2013. That will not be happening this year, both because throwing 50-50 balls is not a sustainable passing tactic, and because DeSean Jackson has departed for Washington. I would take him in the 10th round or so, but there is zero chance of him landing that far.
12. Jay Cutler – Chicago 
Jay Cutler isn’t the most incredible quarterback in the land. He doesn’t have to be. All he has to do is be reliable enough for Marc Trestman, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery to work their absolute magic. He is certainly reliable enough for that to happen, and he has landed in the top 12 because of it. Jay Cutler is a beneficiary of his circumstances being better than his natural ability, similar to Montee Ball and Greg Olsen. They should get together for a card game or something.
I firmly believe all of these boxes to be correct. The only controversial ones are: Washington’s defense, who had a perception of being bad last year, but actually finished middle of the pack. Frank Gore’s receiving ability. His total receptions have been down the last three years, but he used to be a 50-60 catch running back, something which he certainly can do.
Any of these are comfortable starting quarterbacks. The lack of some big names on here (Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton) is a testament to just how deep the position is. You can safely draft quarterback as your last starting position and be in a great place. Hell, you can even take some backups first.