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Quality Starts: Quarterbacks

Quality Starts for 2015 Quarterbacks

There are some fantasy football players that believe that the lineup you pick can lose you a game just as much as it can win a contest. Having a player that can give you a consistent performance week after week should be considered more valuable than a player who goes off every third week and then takes two weeks off between those fantastic performances. Consistency has a value, and it does not take much of a leap to understand that players that you can rely on for solid games when you need them (such as in your postseason) are a huge advantage.

Baseball has a term called "Quality Starts" for pitchers, which is a statistic that represents how often a starting pitcher will put up a good (not great, just good) performance in a given game. The bar is set neither high nor low (six innings pitched, three earned runs or fewer) so as to gauge a decent performance. The theory behind it is that if your pitcher gives you a Quality Start, your team has a fighting chance to win a given game.

So now we need to translate this to football. What is "quality" for each position? How do we define a "Quality Start" for quarterbacks or running backs or any other position? Looking back at the 2015 season, I decided to take the #12 QB for the year (Ryan Fitzpatrick, 343.35 fantasy points) and take that fantasy total and divide it by 16 for a per game average. Now a case can be made to argue against doing this. I did not account for missed games or a per-start performance metric, but I believe that the numbers will get averaged out by doing this method. Also, taking QB12 seems a bit arbitrary, but then again QB9 and QB13 are all within about 18 points of one another, but an even better reason is that if you are looking for a bare minimum of quality, the 12th QB should be the "worst starter" in your fantasy league.

So now we move on to the next question - one of quantifying the quality. At what point do we decide whether or not a quarterback has given us a quality performance? Here is where it gets a bit murky, but looking at the distribution of QB performances by starters over the season and it becomes evident that the using the 12th QB average and adding or subtracting a percentage gives us a good range for a QB Quality Start.

Using the QB Quality Start range, we can also define a bad performance or an excellent performance as either falling below or exceeding the Quality Start range. Table 1 gives us the fantasy points that it takes to fall in each of the three areas:

QB Start Type Fantasy Points
Bad Start 0 to 16.0
Quality Start 16.1 to 26.7
Excellent Start 26.8+

Table 1: 2015 QB Quality Start and Fantasy Point Ranges

We have one more issue in this study, and that is we need to sift through all the quarterbacks and only look at QBs that started an NFL game. That means if Peyton Manning started Week 10 last year but gets hurt, Manning is subject to the study (in Week 10) and Brock Osweiler (in Week 10) is not. That's an important distinction, as several QBs had great games in relief yet they should not get counted. Before we decide on a fantasy lineup, we usually only know the starters for each week, not who might come in if there is an injury.

Pouring over the games week by week, we find 512 starting QB games spread across 53 NFL quarterbacks from 2015.  That’s a very important number – only 53 starters.  I would dare say that it was a remarkable number, because the number in previous years had usually been in the mid-50s and sometimes over 60.  The total starters for 2014 was 54 while in 2013 it was only 51 - and even fewer in 2012 with just 47 starting quarterbacks, so this trend is something to note.  To put the 53, 54, 51 and 47 starters in perspective, consider that 17 teams had the same quarterback start every game last year and eight of the 12 playoff teams from 2015 had the same starter all year long.  Not even half of the NFL teams needed to use more than one quarterback the past two years.  Further, last season two teams had their top starter for 15 contests and two more had their primary quarterback start in 14 games.  Only six teams across the entire league needed more than two starters (Dallas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston and Indianapolis).  Keep all of that in mind for 2016, as the last four seasons have been unusually healthy years for the quarterback position.  This is either a trend in protecting the quarterback more in the NFL or better health by the players overall.

Table 2 shows us the breakdown of all 512 starts and how many of each type of start resulted for each:

Quarterback Team Excellent Start Quality Start Bad Start Total starts
Cam Newton CAR 7 8 1 16
Tom Brady NEP 6 8 2 16
Russell Wilson SEA 5 9 2 16
Blake Bortles JAC 7 6 3 16
Carson Palmer ARI 4 11 1 16
Drew Brees NOS 4 8 3 15
Aaron Rodgers GBP 3 10 3 16
Eli Manning NYG 5 7 4 16
Kirk Cousins WAS 4 5 7 16
Matthew Stafford DET 3 10 3 16
Philip Rivers SDC 5 7 4 16
Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 5 8 3 16
Jameis Winston TBB 1 13 2 16
Derek Carr OAK 4 7 5 16
Ryan Tannehill MIA 4 9 3 16
Alex Smith KCC 1 11 4 16
Tyrod Taylor BUF 5 6 3 14
Matt Ryan ATL 1 10 5 16
Andy Dalton CIN 3 7 3 13
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 5 2 4 11
Jay Cutler CHI 1 9 5 15
Marcus Mariota TEN 3 5 4 12
Sam Bradford PHI 1 6 7 14
Teddy Bridgewater MIN 1 5 10 16
Joe Flacco BAL 1 7 2 10
Brian Hoyer HOU 2 3 4 9
Josh McCown CLE 2 3 3 8
Andrew Luck IND 2 4 1 7
Blaine Gabbert SFO 1 6 1 8
Brock Osweiler DEN 1 4 2 7
Colin Kaepernick SFO 1 2 5 8
Peyton Manning DEN 0 3 6 9
Nick Foles STL 0 2 9 11
Johnny Manziel CLE 0 4 2 6
Matt Hasselbeck IND 0 4 4 8
Ryan Mallett BAL 0 3 3 6
Matt Cassel DAL 1 0 6 7
Brandon Weeden HOU 0 2 2 4
A.J. McCarron CIN 0 2 1 3
Zach Mettenberger TEN 0 0 4 4
Tony Romo DAL 1 1 2 4
Case Keenum STL 0 1 4 5
E.J. Manuel BUF 0 2 0 2
Kellen Moore DAL 1 0 1 2
Jimmy Clausen BAL 0 1 2 3
Mark Sanchez PHI 0 2 0 2
Matt Schaub BAL 0 2 0 2
Michael Vick PIT 0 0 3 3
Landry Jones PIT 0 0 2 2
Austin Davis CLE 0 0 2 2
T.J. Yates HOU 0 1 1 2
Josh Freeman IND 0 0 1 1
Luke McCown NOS 0 0 1 1
    101 246 165 512

Table 2: 2015 QB Start Types By Player Sorted By Total Starts

That's a lot of info to digest, so let me help. First, we see that 246 of 512 starts fall in the middle - "Quality Starts" - and that only about 20% of all quarterback starts (101) are considered Excellent Starts. Over the years, the results have been mixed, partly due to quarterback healthiness but also due to the change in the NFL towards more productive quarterbacking.  Between 2008 and 2009, the threshold for an Excellent Start score jumped over 10% (20.1 and above in 2008, 22.5 and above in 2009).  That resulted in fewer Excellent Starts in 2009 and 2010 and highlighted the importance of elite quarterback play in fantasy leagues.  More quarterbacks started to perform well in 2011, upping the number of Excellent Starts significantly (150 in 2011, only 127 in 2010).  Four seasons ago saw another quantum leap in fantasy quarterback production, pushing the Excellent Start threshold up once again by almost two more points per week (24.4 and above in 2012, 22.6 in 2011), which dropped the number of Excellent Starts again (126 in 2012, 150 three years ago).  Three seasons ago in 2013 it was an exact match to 2012, but the pass-happy NFL has raised the bar again in 2014 by almost another fantasy point.  Last year in 2015 in rose even more to 26.8 or more fantasy points - another 1.5 point climb, and over 30% higher than 2007 and 2008.  Clearly the NFL is a pass-happy league, and the elite passers are worth their weight in gold. 

A summary of these trends is provided in Table 3:

Year Excellent Start Score Excellent Starts Quality Starts
2007 20.1+ 158 186
2008 20.1+ 157 211
2009 22.5+ 132 195
2010 22.5+ 127 216
2011 22.6+ 150 216
2012 24.4+ 126 226
2013 24.4+ 134 236
2014 25.3+ 103 257
2015 26.8+ 101 246

Table 3: 2007-2015 Excellent and Quality QB Starts

Now, to dig deeper, let's look at the numbers distributed in two different ways. First, I need to define a valuable starting quarterback in this system. We want a quarterback that will win more fantasy games than lose them, so we want either "Quality" or "Excellent" starts. Using a simple formula of scoring each type of start, we can define the value of a given starting NFL quarterback. Here is the formula:

STARTING FANTASY QB VALUE = EXCELLENT STARTS - BAD STARTS

We can afford to overlook the "Quality Starts" category because they neither win games nor lose them on average - they are just average quarterback performances. We only really care about how often he helps our team vs. how often he hurts it. Giving a "-1" value to bad starts and "+1" to excellent ones does this for us.

On with the results, sorted by value:

Quarterback Team Excellent Start Quality Start Bad Start Total starts Net Value
Cam Newton CAR 7 8 1 16 6
Tom Brady NEP 6 8 2 16 4
Blake Bortles JAC 7 6 3 16 4
Russell Wilson SEA 5 9 2 16 3
Carson Palmer ARI 4 11 1 16 3
Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 5 8 3 16 2
Tyrod Taylor BUF 5 6 3 14 2
Drew Brees NOS 4 8 3 15 1
Eli Manning NYG 5 7 4 16 1
Philip Rivers SDC 5 7 4 16 1
Ryan Tannehill MIA 4 9 3 16 1
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 5 2 4 11 1
Andrew Luck IND 2 4 1 7 1
Aaron Rodgers GBP 3 10 3 16 0
Matthew Stafford DET 3 10 3 16 0
Andy Dalton CIN 3 7 3 13 0
Blaine Gabbert SFO 1 6 1 8 0
E.J. Manuel BUF 0 2 0 2 0
Kellen Moore DAL 1 0 1 2 0
Mark Sanchez PHI 0 2 0 2 0
Matt Schaub BAL 0 2 0 2 0
Jameis Winston TBB 1 13 2 16 -1
Derek Carr OAK 4 7 5 16 -1
Marcus Mariota TEN 3 5 4 12 -1
Joe Flacco BAL 1 7 2 10 -1
Josh McCown CLE 2 3 3 8 -1
Brock Osweiler DEN 1 4 2 7 -1
A.J. McCarron CIN 0 2 1 3 -1
Tony Romo DAL 1 1 2 4 -1
T.J. Yates HOU 0 1 1 2 -1
Josh Freeman IND 0 0 1 1 -1
Luke McCown NOS 0 0 1 1 -1
Brian Hoyer HOU 2 3 4 9 -2
Johnny Manziel CLE 0 4 2 6 -2
Brandon Weeden HOU 0 2 2 4 -2
Jimmy Clausen BAL 0 1 2 3 -2
Landry Jones PIT 0 0 2 2 -2
Austin Davis CLE 0 0 2 2 -2
Kirk Cousins WAS 4 5 7 16 -3
Alex Smith KCC 1 11 4 16 -3
Ryan Mallett BAL 0 3 3 6 -3
Michael Vick PIT 0 0 3 3 -3
Matt Ryan ATL 1 10 5 16 -4
Jay Cutler CHI 1 9 5 15 -4
Colin Kaepernick SFO 1 2 5 8 -4
Matt Hasselbeck IND 0 4 4 8 -4
Zach Mettenberger TEN 0 0 4 4 -4
Case Keenum STL 0 1 4 5 -4
Matt Cassel DAL 1 0 6 7 -5
Sam Bradford PHI 1 6 7 14 -6
Peyton Manning DEN 0 3 6 9 -6
Teddy Bridgewater MIN 1 5 10 16 -9
Nick Foles STL 0 2 9 11 -9
    101 246 165 512  

Table 4: 2015 QB Start Types Sorted By Value

This is a lot of information once again, but some names leap out at us. It should come as no surprise that Cam Newton (+6), Tom Brady (+4) and Blake Bortles (+4) top the chart, as both were fantasy gold mines last year.  These three signal callers were the only quarterbacks able to have +4 or better Net Value and start all 16 games.  After these three Pro Bowl quarterbacks comes a few interesting name, highlighted by another Pro Bowler in Russell Wilson (+3) and then come Carson Palmer (+3) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (+2), two savvy veterans who led their teams to winning seasons (and a playoff run for Palmer).  All six quarterbacks at the top of this chart started all 16 games.  Tyrod Taylor rounds out the Top 7 with a +2, highlighting him as a sleeper value if he hits that mark again in 2016.   

Lastly I will sift through all the numbers for you and get right to the heart of the matter with our final table. Here we have the results sorted by value for the Top 30 QBs on the 2016 ADP list.

Quarterback Team Excellent Start Quality Start Bad Start Total starts Net Value ADP
Cam Newton CAR 7 8 1 16 6 31
Blake Bortles JAC 7 6 3 16 4 79
Tom Brady NEP 6 8 2 16 4 83
Russell Wilson SEA 5 9 2 16 3 48
Carson Palmer ARI 4 11 1 16 3 82
Tyrod Taylor BUF 5 6 3 14 2 142
Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 5 8 3 16 2 163
Andrew Luck IND 2 4 1 7 1 44
Drew Brees NOS 4 8 3 15 1 58
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 5 2 4 11 1 68
Eli Manning NYG 5 7 4 16 1 95
Philip Rivers SDC 5 7 4 16 1 101
Ryan Tannehill MIA 4 9 3 16 1 151
Aaron Rodgers GBP 3 10 3 16 0 34
Andy Dalton CIN 3 7 3 13 0 122
Matthew Stafford DET 3 10 3 16 0 125
Derek Carr OAK 4 7 5 16 -1 104
Jameis Winston TBB 1 13 2 16 -1 111
Tony Romo DAL 1 1 2 4 -1 117
Marcus Mariota TEN 3 5 4 12 -1 150
Joe Flacco BAL 1 7 2 10 -1 166
Brock Osweiler DEN 1 4 2 7 -1 182
Kirk Cousins WAS 4 5 7 16 -3 121
Alex Smith KCC 1 11 4 16 -3 211
Matt Ryan ATL 1 10 5 16 -4 138
Jay Cutler CHI 1 9 5 15 -4 167
Sam Bradford PHI 1 6 7 14 -6 254
Teddy Bridgewater MIN 1 5 10 16 -9 201

Table 5: 2015 Top Drafted QBs Sorted By 2015 Value

Note that two quarterbacks (rookie Jared Goff and Robert Griffin III) are absent from the above list for the simple reason that they did not start any games last year.  Both are expected starters this season, but are at or near the bottom of the ADP list.

Judging from last season, it would appear that a few quarterbacks mentioned earlier (Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick) have an ADP well above 100 yet are at or near the top of the chart from 2015.  Two others are also worth a mention with Philip Rivers (ADP of 101) and Ryan Tannehill (ADP of 151) looking like solid values if they fall past Round 8-10 of drafts.  On the flip side, Derek Carr (-1) and Jamies Winston (-1) are all being well overdrafted if you only consider last year’s performances.  That's the biggest warning here - there is no reason to believe all of these numbers as indications of 2016 performance, but having this information available should give you more to think about when deciding who you will have leading your fantasy team this year.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.