Quality Starts: Quarterbacks

Quality Starts for 2018 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 2018 season, the first consideration was to take the No. 12 quarterback for the year (Philip Rivers, 343.1 fantasy points) and dividing his total by 16 for a game average, just like we have used as a baseline in previous years. This approach was flawed because it might be overlooking some quarterbacks who had a better per-game performance but missed playing time due to injury. Once the quarterbacks were sorted by weekly averages, two quarterbacks jumped up on the list – and both from the same team. Ryan Fitzpatrick (203.6 fantasy points in eight games) and Jameis Winston (245.7 points in 11 games) combined for over 449 total fantasy points as the combined quarterbacks for the Buccaneers, and that total (449.3) would have ranked “Tampa Bay QB” as the second-highest fantasy quarterback in the league last year (second only to Patrick Mahomes II at an incredible 484.5 points).

The next question is this: Can we believe that a combination of Winston and Fitzpatrick was fantasy gold last year? Not exactly, which is part of the reason we need to look at the starting lineup each week at quarterback. In three different contests last season, Tampa Bay switched quarterbacks mid-game, and that gave both Fitzpatrick and Winston extra points for the year that no one would have had in a fantasy lineup for that week. For example, Fitzpatrick came in for Winston in Week 4 and racked up over 21 fantasy points in that game. Anyone targeting a lineup decision for a quarterback from the Buccaneers would have chosen Winston for Week 8, and they would have been disappointed by the quarterback change. This is why quarterback starts – and “Quality Starts” – are so important. It does not matter if the combination of Winston and Fitzpatrick had a great game, as most fantasy leagues require one quarterback to be chosen each week – and they get zero credit for any production from the backup. Winston only gets credit for the weeks he was the announced starter, as does Fitzpatrick – and every other starting quarterback each week.

The baseline chosen for quality starts in 2018 is 22.3 fantasy points per game, which was derived by looking at the starts for both Jameis Winston and Mitch Trubisky. Both quarterbacks averaged 22.3 in their respective starts (Winston accumulated 217.2 fantasy points across nine starts, Trubisky had 313.3 points in 14 starts), so that will be the quality line for 2018. This is nearly a full fantasy point higher than just taking the QB12 for the year (Philip Rivers, 343.1 points in 16 starts, 21.4 average), which again speaks to looking at the announced starter criteria. While some of these decisions (targeting QB12 based on two different ranking methods) may seem a bit arbitrary, many second-tier quarterbacks (QB6 to QB17 based on weekly average) all fall into a similar range between 21.4-23.7 points per start. Lastly, overall we are targeting QB12 as a bare minimum of quality, as the 12th quarterback 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 quarterback performances by starters over the season and it becomes evident that the using the 12th-quarterback 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 Range
Bad Start
0 to 16.7
Quality Start
16.8 to 27.9
Excellent Start

Table 1: 2018 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 quarterbacks that started an NFL game. As mentioned in the Ryan Fitzpatrick / Jameis Winston example, if Fitzpatrick starts in Week 4 but then Winston comes into that game (and this did happen), Fitzpatrick is subject to the study (in Week 4) and Jameis Winton (in Week 4) is not. That's an important distinction, as several quarterbacks have had great games in relief yet they should not get counted, simply because no one would have started them on their fantasy roster that week with them expected to do nothing but hold a clipboard on game day. 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-quarterback games spread across 54 NFL quarterbacks from 2018. That’s a very important number – only 54 starters. That number is reasonably consistent across the past several years. Table 2 summarizes the total number of different starting quarterbacks across the past seasons:

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