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Advice for April Rookie Dynasty Drafts: Part I, Quarterbacks

Matt Waldman shares his rookie quarterback choices that are best investments for the unique nature of April dynasty drafts. 

Advice for Dynasty League Rookie Drafts Pre-NFL Draft: Part I, Quarterbacks

Welcome to the frontier. If your dynasty league picks rookies before the NFL Draft, that’s where you are. I applaud you guys for having the stones to pick players without a landing spot.

If you’re in a league where you don’t have that information before making your picks, you need to think about the draft a little differently.

There aren’t many players with the skills to transcend their landing spot. So unless you are sold lock, stock, and smoking barrels on a specific player’s talent  (Ezekiel Elliott for me at this time last year), you need at least a basic plan tailored for each phase of the draft. Even if your rookie drafts take place after the NFL’s selection weekend, this series of four articles will help you identify players at each position who can help you formulate a strategy with a level of risk that suits your style.

The Basics

After splitting the draft into the typical three phases of early, middle, and late rounds let’s categorize the type of talents that will likely be available in each:

Early Round Types (Rounds 1-2, and possibly the 3rd round in rookie drafts with at least 9 rounds)

  • Transcendent: Prospects with enough versatility to pay in any scheme early on. There aren’t many of them in any draft, and it’s even rarer to find them after the early rounds.
  • Only a Dysfunctional Organization Screws This Up: Prospects with great talent, but their style or skill is specialized to a specific type of system. Although these players have more limitations than transcendent talents, they are often as productive when paired intelligently with a scheme that maximizes their talents. Sadly, there are organizations that screw this up. When it happens, heads roll but these prospects often get left behind in the transition because a new scheme or coaching regime may not be the best fit.
  • Name Brand: Prospects with a strong resume bullet points that NFL front offices use to justify early-round picks, including prototypical height-weight-combine data, big-name college program, few health issues, and strong statistical production.
  • Great Athlete: Prospects with elite physical attributes for their respective positions but limited technical skills and/or flaws that early on could restrict them to a narrow role, at best.

Mid-Round Types (Rounds 3-5, depending on the size of the draft)

  • Great Athlete: See above.
  • Off-Brand Name, Talented Game: NFL front offices like early-round picks that have justifiable resume points of the Name Brand types, but these players lack one or more of these bullet points despite possessing the talent and skill of future starters.
  • Off-Field Issues: Prospects with Early-Round talent but off-field risks.
  • Health Concerns: Talents with starter potential but could be 1-2 years away due to recent injuries.
  • Over Achieving Technician: Prospects with greater football skill than athletic talent but enough physical skill to play in the NFL.

Late Round Types (Rounds 6-9, depending on the size of the draft)

  • Great Athlete: See above.
  • Off-Brand Name, Talented Game: See above.
  • Off-Field Issues: See above.
  • Health Concerns: See above.
  • Over Achieving Technicians: See above.

When you sort players by categories of risk, it will help you identify contingency plans or mid- and late- round values. This article will cover early-round picks of each type and some mid- and late-round contingencies if the desired early picks are gone or you aim for value.

The profiles below are neither scouting reports nor an inclusive list. For an exhaustive look at 22 quarterbacks and 136 other skill prospects, including rankings, tiers, scouting reports, and breakdowns you won’t see anywhere else, download the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.

You can take the tour of the RSP here:


Quarterbacks

Rookie passers are a little different than the rest of the skill positions. The NFL inflates the value of rookie quarterbacks because of the difficulty of the position and its high failure rate. Appropriately so, many fantasy owners pay more attention to the failure rate than the draft position, and it often leads to average draft positions near the cusp of the early and middle rounds.

Keep these points in mind when you see the word “transcendent” associated with these prospects. This label is more theoretical than practical. If NFL organizations were better at matching scheme to prospect and taking the longer path towards development, there wouldn’t be as much desperation to find talent at the position. Presently, the NFL points the finger at the college game when it should be held more accountable than it is.

These dynamics at play in the league are why I don’t recommend taking rookie quarterbacks. Unless the dynasty league has large rosters or you’re a new owner in a league hoarding its starters and you lack the resources to trade for a good one, it’s best to pay the premium for an established starter who can give you at least 6-8 seasons of QB1 production.

If you must draft a quarterback, I believe in picks with upside. My first recommendation requires some explanation about the overly academic nature of quarterback analysis.

Early Rounds


Transcendent

Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech: The general characterization of Mahomes in the media is that he’s a boom-bust prospect. However, if you truly consider the bust rate of all top prospects at the position, then almost every quarterback entering the NFL Draft is a boom-bust guy.

The NFL likes “safe” choices in the first round—players with resume bullet points that present a justifiable risk to the general public. In addition to the high-profile program, strong production, prototypical physical dimensions and athletic ability, front offices want first-round quarterbacks that fit as many of the academic ideals of the position as possible:

  • By-the-book footwork with drop-backs and set-ups.
  • Strict release mechanics.
  • Experience under center.
  • Conventional decision-making processes that lead to logical successes or explainable mistakes.

These are all good qualities, but the best quarterbacks possess a blend of this academic play and the creative improvisational skills to execute winning decisions that transcend by-the-book process. When a passer is lacking in one of these two areas, the odds of them becoming a top-tier starter are low.

Since the NFL likes “safe” choices, organizations err on the side of players with a strong academic game. However, a quarterback lacking the creative-intuitive-improvisational in his game is often hesitant to pull the trigger on open throws downfield, overly conservative, and unable to create big plays when the defense foils the game plan.  

Alex Smith, a technically sound and strategically smart passer, is a fine example of a player who has honed his academic skills to a razor-sharp point but lacks the other aspect of quarterbacking to be great.  Since Alex Smith’s flaws are rooted in conventional processes, his bad decisions seem sophisticated because his failures can be intellectualized. While a harsher parallel than Smith deserves, he’s in some ways the NFL version of the corporate wonk who fails upward.

There’s no shame that most NFL quarterbacks can’t execute at the level of the elite passers. However, most people don’t make the connection that it’s far more difficult to teach confidence, creativity, daring, and intuition than it is strategy and technique.  The problem is that those people include NFL decision makers who allow cover-your-(hind parts)-thinking to outweigh long-term talent.

The NFL prefers these academic prospects because the opposite kind that leans too hard on intuitive and creative play can make flawed decisions that are harder to explain. It’s why many media analysts, scouts, and front office types celebrate the academic side of the most successful quarterbacks.  

Even when they analyze intuitive-improvisational passers like Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, the points they emphasize are often academic. They want to sell the audience that development of the conventional skills and techniques of the position made these players great, but it’s the creative side that truly separates them.

If a young player with Roethlisberger’s or Rodgers’ bold, creative flair makes poor decisions early in his career, the problems make front offices and coaches look bad because these decisions are often unconventional and lacking an explainable set of steps. Simply put, creative and intuitive quarterbacks look dumber than their academic counterparts when they fail and front offices appear even dumber for choosing them. 

This is why Patrick Mahomes is troubling to many NFL draftniks and analysts who are rooted in mimicking the NFL’s failing perspective on this position.  Mahomes is clearly outside the boundaries of the early-round academic quarterback prospect:

  • He didn’t play in a pro-style offense.
  • He often created successful plays with an improvisational style.
  • His playing style includes a lot of unconventional processes with his feet and arm.

Regardless of which side of the quarterbacking spectrum you prefer to err, this is not an attempt to explain away his flaws. He tried too hard to be a hero in the red zone and he threw passes he shouldn’t. He also missed opportunities because he had time to be technically sound but didn’t make the effort.

However, many of the literary critics of quarterbacking characterize Mahomes as a completely reckless option with minimal technical skill. They often fail to notice that Mahomes throws the ball away more often than any top prospect in this class, his feet are extremely quick and often far more precise than characterized, and when he spots an opening he has the accuracy and confident to make the play.

Mahomes will have to learn his athletic limitations and refine the academic skills of the position, but he has an intuitive grasp of the position that gives him the greatest upside of the prospects in this class. His floor is lower because the cover-your-(hind parts)-thinking is so pervasive in the NFL that he could earn a quicker hook than the robo-stiffs who quarterback by the numbers but can’t create.

Give Mahomes time and patience, and he has the physical and mental tools to play in any system. It would be best if he begins his career with a team that doesn’t use the west coast offense unless that WCO team sits him for at least a year.  

For those of you seeking in-depth analysis on Mahomes, here are three videos I produced on his game. The first is a short look at one play. The second two are longer shows, including an episode of the RSP Film Room with guest Mark Schofield at Inside The Pylon: 

 



DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame: Kizer’s build, arm, and skill from the pocket and on the move bear stylistic similarities to Andrew Luck. He is the best blend of athlete and pocket passer in this class. He lacks the confidence to act to the speed of instinct on a consistent basis with what he processes, which could make him one of the NFL’s highly paid robo-stiffs that are just good enough to start but will need a ton of help to make a team a serious contender. Still, he has the tools to develop quickly enough in any system to earn playing time and the flashes of serious talent to perform well. 

Here are three videos I produced on Kizer's game:

 

 

 

 

Name Brand

Deshaun Watson, Clemson: Watson excels in the short game and the touch throws in the intermediate and deep game at the sideline. He has enough skill to develop into a starter, but the players listed above him have the physical and/or technical tools to survive the harsh wilderness of the NFL as developmental options that Watson lacks. The arm velocity issue only matters if he’s in an offense that demands a lot of deep outs, deep digs, and skinny posts. Give Watson a few seasons of training in a West Coast Scheme and he could deliver competent production.  Even so, I don’t expect his play to meet or exceed his college reputation.

 Here are two videos I produced on Watson's game:

 

 

Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina: Trubisky is arguably the best runner of the top four quarterbacks in consideration of a first or second-round pick. His athletic ability, pocket presence, and decision-making (good and bad) also remind me of Blake Bortles. If Trubsiky works like Bortles did between years one and two, Trubisky could become a reliable fantasy starter. If enjoys his fame and fortune like Bortles did during the 2016 offseason, forget it. Trubisky is more scheme transcendent than Watson, but his decision-making is a greater boom-bust nature. 

Here are three videos I produced on Trubisky's game. The last is an extended look. 

 

 

 

 

Mid Rounds

The best alternatives to Transcendent options will be Off-Brand Name, Talented Game. Other likely alternatives will be Health Concerns or Off-Field Issues.

Transcendent/Off-Field/Health Concerns

Chad Kelly, Ole Miss: Kelly’s run-ins with coaches and teammates early in his career at Clemson and a scuffle outside a bar headline his off-field issues. In addition to ADHD, Kelly's injury history is recent and notable. He suffered an ACL tear last year and once he was given permission to hold a pro day workout, he injured his wrist and will need at least three months of recovery time before he can throw the ball again. Add a past shoulder injury and a sports hernia procedure to the list, and Kelly looks brittle.

If Kelly is maturing fast enough to stay out of trouble, the off-field issues that sank his draft stock could be a blessing in disguise. An NFL guy that trust a lot believes that Kelly's long-term health isn't a major issue if he can spend a full year on the bench and work on reconditioning his body.  

It's likely that a team will view Kelly as a low-risk, high reward long-term investment because his value as a late-round pick or priority UDFA is much lower than his actual talent. When examining Kelly solely on the merits of his play, he is arguably the most talented quarterback in this class. 

He has the arm, athletic ability, toughness, confidence, fast processor, pocket presence, and accuracy to become a franchise starter. Like Mahomes, Kelly is creative, but he's even better at operating within the structure at this stage of his career. Because the NFL is such a wilderness for young quarterbacks, I’d rather let owners take the brand name passers early and consider Kelly as a cheaper investment. He’ll be available in the late rounds of fantasy drafts. 

Here is an RSP Film Room I did with Sigmund Bloom on Kelly:

 

Off-Brand Name, Talented Game

Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech: If you don’t get a shot at Kizer, but Mahomes and Kelly are too risky for your temperament, Evans has starter potential. Tall, sturdy, and a capable runner, Evans is an aggressive, vertical passer with underrated skill in the pocket and reading the field. If Evans, a junior college transfer, had 2-3 seasons at Virginia Tech, there’s a good chance his play could have commanded first-tier consideration from scouts.  Although Watson and Trubisky could earn an opportunity to play earlier than Evans due to draft status, I don’t think he’s far away from either player as a talent and his upside is at least as strong. 

Here is a video I produced on Evans' game:

 

Late Rounds

There’s a strong possibility that Kelly and/or Evans drops to the later rounds, which makes them even more appealing as pre-NFL Draft dynasty options. The players actually listed in the final tier aren’t options I recommend unless you’re in a league with deep rosters that hoards quarterbacks. Even so, each player has at least 2-3 athletic or technical traits that make them intriguing low-risk, long-term developmental investments.  

Great Athlete

Trevor Knight, Texas A&M: There’s a possibility that a team asks Knight to convert to wide receiver. At 6’1”, 219, his 40-yard dash (4.54), 20-shuttle (4.14), 3-cone (6.94), and vertical jump (35.5 inches) are more favorable than the likes of receiving prospects JuJu Smith-Schuster, Malachi Dupre, Carlos Henderson and Josh Malone. However, Knight’s quarterbacking skills are worth a team’s consideration as an athletic project worth refining into a first-call backup (think Matt Flynn with better physical tools). He has a big arm, mobility, and an aggressive attitude that are capable of becoming consistent positives. Knight is worth a late-round investment on deep rosters as a practice squad option who could return on his investment at one of two positions.   

Antonio Pipkin, Tiffin: Pipkin’s operation of a spread scheme and small-school background will keep is stock low. So will a passive and tentative Senior Bowl practice performance. Pipkin’s game film reveals a big-armed, confident, and aggressive thrower with vertical accuracy and the legs to buy time and break the pocket. Fantasy owners should only consider an investment in Pipkin if they’re willing to hold him for two years as a practice squad project.

Mitch Leidner, Minnesota: After earning the attention of scouts prior to the 2016 season, Leidner didn’t do enough to build on that initial interest. However, he’s fundamentally sound, he worked in a pro-style offense, and he has the prototypical dimensions and athletic traits of an NFL starter. Some players require a longer development timeline, and while I think he’s a future backup, at best, he could exceed expectations.

Over Achieving Technician

Cooper Rush, Central Michigan: Rush has potential as a first-call backup with the refined technical and conceptual acumen of a part-time starter. He operated a pro-style offense, ties his footwork to his routes, and maneuvers the pocket effectively. If he develops better arm strength, his upside could be even higher. Compared to the three great athletes above, Rush is the safest option to become meaningful fantasy depth in deep leagues that hoard quarterbacks.  

Remember, for an exhaustive look at 22 quarterbacks and 136 other skill prospects, including rankings, tiers, scouting reports, and breakdowns you won’t see anywhere else, download the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.

Part IV, Tight Ends

Part III, Wide Receivers

Part II, Running Backs