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The Gut Check No. 396: QBs Behind Fantasy-Rich Offenses

Matt Waldman builds a profile of quarterbacks that support fantasy-rich offenses with multiple starting-caliber fantasy pass catchers.

The phrase "too many mouths to feed" sums up a common concern among fantasy footballers. When they see the addition of a free agent like DeSean Jackson to a Tampa Bay roster that subsequently drafted O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin, there's a worry that Jackson won't deliver fantasy starter production because of the other options robbing him of potential targets.

Whether or not Jackson delivers fantasy starter production in Tampa will have more to do with reasons other than the "too many mouths to feed" worry. I've studied 12 years of passing game data and an average of 8.75 offenses per year field at least 2 options that are starting-caliber fantasy options (top-36 for receivers and top 12 for tight ends). And 3 offenses per year field with at least 3 starter-caliber options. 

Simple math from the statement above indicates that, on average, 21 fantasy-starter pass catchers come from these teams each year. That's about two rounds of talent, but we know that not everyone in your league will properly identify that talent within the first 2-4 rounds of a fantasy draft. 

Instead of concerning yourself with "too many mouths to feed," focus on which dining rooms have the layout and personnel to serve a high volume of tasty dishes and incorporate those insights into your summer draft strategies.

The first Gut Check of the 2017 season will profile which types of quarterbacks support these fantasy-rich environments in a passing game and which players are most likely to deliver this fall. Next week's article will do the same with tight ends and receivers.

The Overview 

Let's begin with the broad strokes from the data collected between 2005-2016: 

  • 103 passing offenses fielded at least 2 starting-caliber fantasy receiving options. 
    • 2005: 9 teams.
    • 2006: 7 teams.
    • 2007: 10 teams.
    • 2008: 8 teams.
    • 2009: 10 teams.
    • 2010: 6 teams.
    • 2011: 8 teams.
    • 2012: 8 teams.
    • 2013: 8 teams.
    • 2014: 10 teams.
    • 2015: 9 teams.
    • 2016: 10 teams.
  • 71 passing offenses fielded 2 fantasy options.
  • 31 passing offenses fielded 3 fantasy options.
  • 1 passing offense fielded 4 fantasy options (Denver's 2013 offense with Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas). 

Using this data for the 2017 season, we can estimate that 8-10 teams will have passing offenses that deliver at least 2 starting-caliber receiving options and 2-3 of those teams have 3 options. The odds of a team producing four options is better than the odds of the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions facing each other in Super Bowl LII, but you're not betting with your kid's college fund on either proposition. 

THE PROFILE OF A PASSING GAME WITH MULTIPLE FANTASY STARTERS

Let's begin with the quarterbacks of these offenses and assign labels to classify the style of their games: 

  • Pocket: These quarterbacks are skilled at reading the defense and making tactical and creative decisions within the structure of the offense's design. The best pocket passers have enough knowledge to be unofficial coaches on the field. Think Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees.  
  • Creator: These quarterbacks are skilled at creating outside the structure of a designed play. When a defense foils the offense's play design, these passers have the physical and mental tools to create openings in the passing game. Think Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Stafford.
  • Mobile: These quarterbacks can earn big plays as runners and often require the defense to assign a player to them as a spy. Think Wilson, Rodgers and Tyrod Taylor.

I applied these labels to each quarterback from these offenses. I tried to keep them obvious (although some readers might argue that Ben Roethlisberger is "mobile" as well as a "creator", I don't). My assignments of these labels aren't permanent career labels, either. Younger players like Carson Wentz and Marcus Mariota have potential to evolve into creators, but they aren't there yet, and aging veterans lose their big-play legs. 

Here are the strengths of the quarterbacks between 2005-2017 that helped generate a passing offense with multiple fantasy starters.

Pocket

Every player on the list had pocket skill. This shouldn't be a shocker; if an offense is highly productive, it's likely to have a baseline of high efficiency that leads to good execution within the structure of the offensive design. 

  • 58 percent of all the offenses in this study had quarterbacks that only had the pocket designation.
  • Of the offenses that produced 2 starting-caliber pass catchers, 59 percent of their quarterbacks only had the pocket designation. 
  • Of the offenses that produced 3 starting-caliber pass catchers, that percentage of pocket-only QBs dropped to 55 percent. 

One of the most compelling points from this examination is that when you're seeking fantasy-rich offenses, it's best to draft from offenses that have an established pocket quarterback. There has been a lot of debate in the football writer community about the merits of Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick as pocket quarterbacks. I think there's a better angle to this argument that people are missing. It's not whether they are or they aren't, but how well they recently functioned in that capacity. Blake Bortles was good from the pocket in 2015 but regressed a year later because he didn't work hard during the 2016 offseason like he did the year prior.

Sometimes poor pocket play is due to a player regressing and/or his teammates regressing. It could also have to do with failures of the system. Mike Vick was much better from the pocket the year he played under Andy Reid in Philadelphia than he was during his entire career in Atlanta. I am not absolving Vick from his lack of work to become a better pocket passer while in Atlanta, but it's not always a simple answer. 

Here's how I'd make it simpler: 

  • Look for pocket quarterbacks that have been QB1 or borderline QB1 producers from the pocket as starters for at least three years.
  • If the pocket quarterback hasn't been a fantasy QB1 for at least five years, stay away from him if the offense is making a dramatic switch to scheme (learning the West Coast Offense for the first time) that is more difficult. 
  • If the pocket quarterback has at least five years of fantasy QB1 production, a switch in schemes is not as likely to hurt him. 
  • If you think the quarterback is pocket-only in designation, avoid him if the offensive line is notably weak. 

NFL quarterbacks I label as pocket-only: Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Sam Bradford, Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer, Cody Kessler, Blaine Gabbert, Josh McCown, Jared Goff, Bryce Petty, Jimmy Garappolo, Landry Jones, Paxton Lynch, Nick Foles, Derek Anderson, Tom Savage, Matt Cassel, Drew Stanton, Scott Tolzien, Shaun Hill, Geno Smith, Mark Sanchez, Connor Cook, Davis Webb, and Matt Schaub

Pocket-Creator

These players are capable of winning inside and outside the structure of the offense as passers. Don't confuse a creator as a player who wins more as a runner. Terrell Pryor was mobile, but he had not become skilled enough as pro quarterback to earn the label of "creator" before converting to wide receiver. Robert Griffin III and Jake Locker were mobile, but not creators.   

  • 36 percent of the quarterbacks from this entire sample had Pocket-Creator as part of their designation. 
  • 34 percent of the quarterbacks delivering 2 starter-caliber pass catchers had Pocket-Creator as part of their designation.  
  • 45 percent of the quarterbacks delivering 3 starter-caliber pass catchers had Pocket-Creator as part of their designation. 

Pocket-Creators are fascinating because there are seven seasons where one of them produced outside the top-12 at their position but still helped their offense produce 2-3 starter-caliber pass catchers. Jay Cutler has run offenses that have helped three pass catchers earn fantasy starter seasons during the same year three times during his career (2008, 2013, and 2014). This matches Philip Rivers (2016, 2011, and 2009) and Peyton Manning (2014, 2013, and 2010) for second in appearances to Drew Brees (2016, 2015, 2012, and 2011). 

Unlike Rivers, Manning, and Brees, Cutler helped deliver this kind of production twice as a fantasy quarterback with individual production outside the top-12. Rivers and Manning are strictly pocket players. Brees and Cutler have Pocket-Creator in their profiles. The insight of note about Pocket-Creators is that they often can support multiple options with starter production despite having not-quite-fantasy-starter production as passers. It sounds odd, but it's how the numbers played out. 

Many of the same thoughts about seeking quality pocket passers apply to pocket creators:

  • Look for quarterbacks that have been QB1 or borderline QB1 producers from the pocket as starters for at least three years.
  • If the quarterback hasn't been a fantasy QB1 for at least five years, stay away from him if the offense is making a dramatic switch to scheme (learning the West Coast Offense for the first time) that is more difficult. 
  • If the quarterback has at least five years of fantasy QB1 production, a switch in schemes is not as likely to hurt him. 
  • If you think the quarterback is pocket-only in designation, avoid him if the offensive line is notably weak. 

I'd be more willing to take a chance on a young player with a pocket-creator profile if he's had early success. However, if they lack the mobility aspect to the profile, it's still a riskier proposition to take a younger fantasy option as a lead QB for your roster. 

Here is my list of Pocket-Creators (I'm also including Pocket-Creators-Mobile in this list while separating them in a later list): Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Blake Bortles, Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Matt Moore, Patrick Mahomes, Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Trevone Boykin, David Fales, Teddy Bridgewater, and Chad Kelly. 

  

Pocket-Mobile

Not as many of these passers show up in the sample. These players create best within a structure that doesn't break down, but they are athletic enough for a team to design running plays for them. However, they aren't as effective when forced to create outside that structure. They may create the occasional big play due to their athletic ability when things go awry, but they aren't as adept as the creators. The only player I assigned this designation from the sample was Marcus Mariota

Here is the list of Pocket-Mobiles: Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz, Colin Kaepernick, Tyrod Taylor, Robert Griffin, Alex Smith, and Ryan Tannehill.

Only Mariota made this sample, which indicates that players who can run don't spread the ball around as effectively or, they lack that creative element to take "good risks" which can lead to conservative play that sticks to the script at the cost of big plays that creative types act on successfully. It may also be a reflection of the defensive-minded coaches that sometimes have these types of quarterbacks paired in systems that lack true imagination.  


Pocket-Creator-Mobile

These are the type of young quarterbacks that I'll take a chance on in fantasy leagues. They only account for 10 percent of the performances on the list, but there aren't many of them, either: 

*I'm not confident these three earn the mobile tag, but I'm listing them for consideration for the future based on their play in college. As much as I like these types of players, Rodgers has been the only option with the surrounding talent along the offensive line and at receiver to earn multiple years in this sample. We're still waiting on Wilson and Luck's surrounding talent to help them fill their immense fantasy potentials. 

Takeaways

When considering wide receivers and tight ends that aren't the No. 1 target on the team, consider the following: 

  • The best places to seek wide receivers and tight ends who earn starter-caliber fantasy production from the same offense in a given year is to draft them from teams with pocket and pocket-creator types at quarterback.
  • Avoid early and mid-round picks of secondary wide receivers and tight ends in offenses with an established primary option paired with quarterbacks lacking the pocket label (regardless whether the player or the scheme is the root issue). 
  • Pocket-only passers tend to rely more on spreading the ball around. The best are extensions of coaches on the field. The better the player is at pre-snap/post-snap diagnosis, the more efficient he is at spreading the ball around. 

When considering quarterbacks as your fantasy starter, keep these things in mind: 

  • Quarterbacks lacking three years of experience are risky as your fantasy starter unless you've identified a Pocket-Creator-Mobile type with at least a solid year or two of play in the league. 
  • Quarterbacks with Pocket and Pocket-Creator labels and at least three years of experience in the same offensive scheme are the safest types. 
  • Quarterbacks with the Pocket-Mobile label are worth the risk if paired with a strong ground game (RB and O-line) and at least one year of continuity in the scheme (think Kaepernick in his statistical prime with Harbaugh-Gore-great line and Mariota with a good line and Murray last year). 
  • Pocket-only quarterbacks that lack five years of continuity in the same system are at risk for down years when there's a significant scheme change. 
  • Pocket-Creator types incur less risk with scheme changes when it comes to delivering receiver-tight end production despite them seeing a dip in their own fantasy output. 
  • Pocket-Mobile-Creator types are rare. 

Quarterbacks Most likely to Support a Fantasy-Rich Environment in 2017

This is not a list touting quarterbacks to select, but figureheads of offenses that will produce multiple fantasy starters at wide receiver and/or tight end. The list is sorted in order of safest to riskiest covering half of the league's offenses. 

Bank Vaults Of Fantasy Richness (Safe And Flush With Cash)

Tom Brady: He's an extension of the coaching staff on the field because of his knowledge of defenses and mastery of his scheme. Because he's not a great deep thrower, this offense is built to generate big plays by confusing the defense with pre-snap movement and relying on Brady's diagnosis and execution. It means spreading the ball around and keeping the defense off-balance. This is the mission of all offenses, but the Patriots are among the best at actually doing it. 

Drew BreesWillie Snead...Lance Moore...Devery Henderson...Robert Meachem...they are all skilled players to make the NFL and contribute, but when viewing them within the scope of NFL talent at the position, it's an indication that Brees could rub two sopping wet sticks together at the bottom of the Marianas Trench and generate a raging bonfire. 

Aaron Rodgers: While Rodgers can create and win with his legs when plays break down, he runs the West Coast Offense that is predicated on getting rid of the ball fast and he has veteran receivers that he's worked with for at least half of his long career. 

Philip RiversAlthough the offense changed in recent years, Rivers experience and caliber of surrounding skill talent makes him a safe bet to spread the ball around—especially as a consummate pocket passer. I also added the "creator" label to his game, because he's underrated at avoiding pressure and finding open options when plays break down. In his case, it's more like a Get Out of Jail Free card that has a limited number of uses available. The quality of the receiving depth at wideout and tight end also increases his chances of successful targets. 

Brinks Trucks (Some Risk, But Unlikely A Problem)

Kirk CousinsWashington has a few years of continuity with its starting quarterback and scheme. Cousins, like Brady is a consummate pocket quarterback who performs when given time and space to step through his release. Although Cousins lost Pierre Garcon, his offense acquired Terrelle Pryor and he's gained an additional year rapport with Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, and Vernon Davis. However, the risk for Cousins is that his assigned primaries will be Pryor and Josh Doctson, who don't have the years of rapport built up with the quarterback. I still like Washington as a fantasy-rich source because Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson's schemes are closely related and Pryor was successful despite working with multiple quarterbacks last year.

Russell WilsonConsidering that Wilson delivered two top-10 receiving options (Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham) last year despite suffering two injuries that would have put most starters on the bench and gutted through a horrific performance from an inexperienced offensive line, it's only the line play that keeps the Seattle quarterback from the top tier. Remember, in addition to Baldwin and Graham, the Seahawks have big-play options Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson, who have fantasy starter potential. The offensive scheme has continuity, and Wilson has elite fantasy QB1 upside. 

Eli ManningI am not a fan of drafting Manning, but he has supported fantasy-rich environments with players that aren't top talents. This year, the roster is flush with receiving talent. While Manning and Brandon Marshall don't have any experience working together, both are veterans that have worked with multiple professionals and have performed well with short transition times. If Marshall doesn't work out, there's depth with Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram. It's possible Manning delivers three fantasy starters in the passing game this year, but there's also a larger boom-bust element to this environment due to the offensive line and the youth and/or age of the three receivers not named Odell Beckham, Jr.  

Jameis WinstonDespite Dirk Koetter taking the ball from Winston's hands against the Panthers last year and pounding Jaquizz Rodgers into oblivion, Winston was a fantasy QB1 and he supported a WR1 and TE1 with a young offensive line and reserves at receiver and running back. And remember, that TE1 was a borderline reserve until Austin Seferian-Jenkins drank himself out of town. The addition of DeSean Jackson should give Winston upside to deliver three fantasy starters, especially if O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin can be effective as rookies. 

Online Banking (You Rely On It, But You Know It Could Turn Bad Really Fast)

Derek Carr Four years into his career, Carr has a solid grasp of the Raiders' scheme and he has a rapport with excellent route runners in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Jared Cook is, as always, a boom-bust component. If Marshawn Lynch stays healthy and displays his 2014 from behind a strong offensive line, Carr is capable of supporting a fantasy-rich environment. There's a little more risk with the Raiders than the top tier or with the first two players in this tier because Cousins, Wilson, and Manning have better depth and/or that mobile-creator component to their profiles. If Oakland's receiving corps suffers and injury, Carr might have greater difficulty. 

Andrew LuckLike Wilson, Luck has been creating fantasy-rich environments despite a lackluster offensive line that has allowed the Colts quarterback to moonlight as a heavy bag for defensive linemen. T.Y. Hilton is one of the more underrated big-time options in the league and Donte Moncrief and Jack Doyle present just enough depth that regardless of how much Phillip Dorsett progresses, I'll take the risk that Luck isn't sent to the training room for an extended period of time. 

Ben RoethlisbergerDespite a good offensive line, a great primary wideout in Antonio Brown, and a potential co-WR1 in Martavis Bryant, the Steelers make its fans neurotic for a lot of reasons. Roethlisberger is a tough guy but breaking down—maybe not with big-ticket injuries, but a lot of minor injuries that cost him 1-3 games. Bryant has flashes of greatness on the field, but his track record off the field means he could let the team down at any moment. And Sammie Coates can give fantasy owners big days as long as Roethlisberger is willing to target Coates three times as much as it would require a reliable primary option to earn the same production. Outside of Brown, the Steelers have been an odd kind of boom-bust team and it impacts fantasy production. You have to seriously consider the upside, but it's kind of like giving your grandfather an online banking account when you know he's prone to opening and responding to emails about Nigerian princes and Irish inheritances.

Money Clubs (If You Choose Wisely, It's Effective. If Not, You Could Get Cheated Out Of Your Investment)

Alex SmithThe Chiefs are like a good, reputable money club that I saw in action when living in the Caribbean. You won't get rich, but it will help you build a solid financial foundation if used skillfully. Smith supported Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill last year. Jeremy Maclin should be healthy enough that there's even a slight chance that Smith can support three options. Don't count on it, but two options look pretty good.  

Marcus MariotaI love the direction of the Titans offense and Mariota has performed well as the executor of a run-heavy scheme that uses play-action passing to deliver in the passing game. Corey Davis has the talent to deliver immediately, but his chances of doing so could be lower because the Titans are limiting him in minicamp to make sure his ankle is fully healed and more importantly, it's still questionable how much rapport Mariota can establish with Davis early on. Rishard Matthews had one excellent year. It's not enough of a track record to become bullish about the passing offense as fantasy rich, but the strong ground game, offensive line, and last year's performance are enough to take the chance. 

Matthew StaffordIt went bad for Stafford last year after Marvin Jones got hurt and double covered. However, a healthy Jones, Ameer Abdullah, and Theo Riddick could help Jones and Golden Tate become fantasy starters. There's always the possibility that Eric Ebron takes that next step, too. It's risky but the talent is there. 

Blake Bortles: The fact that Tom Coughlin picked up Bortles fifth-year option tells me that he's convinced that Bortles has spent the offseason working rather than hitting the nightlife. The offensive line has been bad but Bortles delivered top-5 fantasy production with it in 2015 so I'm convinced the work ethic was the difference between his 2015 and 2016 seasons. Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns are still capable of WR1-WR2 fantasy production and Marqise Lee showed signs of emerging into the talent many expected from him. Dede Westbrook offers underrated and compelling depth. It's risky if the competent version of Bortles doesn't return or gets hurt, but the weapons are there in a division with two weak defenses, too. 

Andy DaltonI love A.J. Green's game and I love the idea of Tyler Eifert and John Ross' games. However, Eifert and Ross have to prove that they can stay healthy and Ross has to prove he can win against physical play and adjust to a new level of football. Throw in two major losses to the offensive line, and the image of this passing game looks great on a glossy brochure but there are enough concerns after 15 minutes of research to be skeptical.

Next Week:, I'll build wide receiver and tight end profiles from the same data.

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