What We Learned in 2018: Quarterback

A look back at what we learned at the quarterback position in 2018

Links to other positions:

RB: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-rb

WR: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-wr

TE: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-te

It was an exciting year for quarterback play - at least early on - but that didn’t exactly translate to an exciting or stimulating year for the quarterback position in fantasy leagues with traditional one starter lineups. There was still plenty to learn to help at the quarterback and as fantasy players in general.

Where Patrick Mahomes II and Andy Reid are going, they won’t need roads

Mahomes destroyed the competition at quarterback, creating the largest gap between #1 and #2 at a position whether you measure by total points or percentage. Mahomes wasn’t even keeping his foot on the accelerator in the fourth quarter of many early games, he lost Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt during the season, and it was only his full season as a starter. Call it a college offense, gawk at Mahomes mechanics, look away in disbelief - no one successfully held him down for an entire game. He never fell below 20 points in standard scoring and was only below 25 points three times through Week 16.

2019 Application

Early indications are Mahomes will cost a late second in 2019 drafts, which is a value in VBD terms. It also means forgoing a low RB1/high RB2, low WR1/high RB2, or elite tight end to lock in an advantage at quarterback. That means you are depending on your ability to find value at those positions later, which is more difficult than finding value at quarterback later. I suspect that if I draw an early first and Mahomes is still there for me in the late second, I’ll be too tempted to pass. There probably isn’t anything remotely resembling a candidate to be Mahomes 2018 out there, but Mitchell Trubisky, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Lamar Jackson are all players who could possibly be much better next season than the last time we saw them.

Quarterback scoring is trending up

Halfway through the season 16 quarterbacks were averaging more points per week than 2017’s QB5, Tom Brady. By the end of the season that dropped to 11. 2018’s QB11 (Mitchell Trubisky) would been 2016’s QB7. Quarterback points are cheaper than ever, and we were already in a period that had made streaming quarterbacks from the waiver wire one of the most viable strategies at the position in start one quarterback leagues.

2019 Application

This will certainly cause most to pass on Mahomes (just that his ADP is so low despite a scoring advantage that historically has put quarterbacks in the first round of drafts is telling), and probably even forgo the Rodgers/Luck/Watson tier that should settle around the fifth round. The case to pass on top-scoring quarterbacks is easy to make when we see the wide availability of replacement level scoring at quarterback compared to other positions. Even though Mahomes had the biggest between #1 and #2, he didn’t have the largest gap between #1 and #12 and that is even more apparent when we measure the gap by percentages.

The way to avoid this development taking the fun out of quarterback drafting and lineup setting is quite simply to add a second quarterback spot to your lineups via a 2QB or Superflex (flex position that includes quarterback) setup. If you’re worried that this will deemphasize the other positions, pushing quarterbacks to the top of the board and making the draft predictable at the other side of the pendulum swing, adding tight end premium scoring (1.5 PPR and even higher yardage scoring) and an extra non-quarterback flex can help offset that issue.

Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff’s 2017 campaigns (and Nick Foles 2017 postseason) were not flukes, but neither was Drew Brees 2017 volatility

The Texans flirted with going run-heavy during the season, but Watson was still hyperefficient for some of those games and hitting his skyhigh weekly ceiling in others despite the loss of Will Fuller V and barely having Keke Coutee on the field. He played through rib and lung injuries to finish as a top five quarterback Wentz got off to a slow start, didnt post a true ceiling game, and got shut down by the Saints, but still showed that his 2017 arrival on the fantasy scene was not an illusion until a back injury sidelined him. Oh, and his backup Nick Foles spun some late season and playoff magic once again - including a championship-winning Week 16 performance. Goff didn’t just match his 2017 breakout, he took it to a new level - at least until December and January. The other “rub our eyes” outcome from 2017 - Drew Brees often coming up small because of a balanced game plan - also carried over to 2018, although his early and mid-season runs of peak games still kept him in the top 10 quarterbacks for fantasy at the end of the season.

2019 Application

The ADP of this group of quarterbacks probably won’t be that much different than 2018. Wentz might trend up after trending down when his return calendar got less optimistic the closer we got to the season. Watson will go between QB2-4 and he has the best chance to emerge as QB2 of that group if he can stay healthy. Goff’s last two months might have left a bad taste for fantasy players, but he’s worth a pick around QB8-10 if he lasts that long - which is he is some early drafts. The real takeaway is to probably not fade Mahomes strictly because of skepticism after he so greatly exceeded expectations, and to not expect Brees numbers and weekly swings to change this year. Baker Mayfield and Mitchell Trubisky are also candidates to build on fantasy breakout seasons, while Josh Allen’s success feels more tenuous.

Rookie first-round quarterbacks are going to play (and Lamar Jackson isn’t the only Konami Code quarterback in the group)

The NFL just can’t help themselves when it comes to starting rookie first round quarterbacks. Despite a lot of lip service to, thinkpieces about, and investments to allow patience, the league followed previous patterns by rushing rookie passers into the lineup. Only the Jets started the season with their rookie in, but all five teams that selected a quarterback in the first finished with their youngster at the helm. Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson laid waste to their passing games. Josh Allen played and produced like a college quarterback, but that could be unsustainable. Baker Mayfield played well beyond his years and helped his offensive coordinator earn a promotion to head coach. Sam Darnold finished the season with his best football and generated a top of optimism entering year two with a new head coach who at least has a reputation (undeserved?) for getting the most out of his quarterbacks.

2019 Application

This year’s quarterback draft class is not the 2018 or 2017 class. Despite quarterback thirst that could induce a team to trade up and overvalue a 2019 rookie, expect any offense that starts a rookie this year to look more like Arizona than Cleveland.

Bet on the playcaller as much as the quarterback

Quarterbacks that took a step forward in 2018 were aided by outstanding playcalling coaches - Jared Goff/Sean McVay, Mitchell Trubisky/Matt Nagy, and there’s an argument to be made for Freddie Kitchens’ effect on Baker Mayfield. Alternatively, Mike McCarthy’s unimaginative gameplans and playcalls seemed to suck the life out of Aaron Rodgers game. A late season outburst pulled Rodgers back into the top ten quarterbacks, but he was barely startable from Weeks 12-15.

2019 Application

We could see Rodgers get a bump from the addition of Matt LaFleur (or even just the eviction of McCarthy). Andy Dalton might benefit from Zac Taylor, who is a bit of an unknown as a playcaller with a very mixed record during his time with those responsibilities. Josh Rosen will gain Kliff Kingsbury, Sam Darnold will get Adam Gase, Dak Prescott will get Kellen Moore, and Mayfield gets a full offseason and install of the Kitchens offense. Lamar Jackson will have Greg Roman calling plays instead of Marty Mornhinweg. Marcus Mariota will get calls from new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Case Keenum will get calls from new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Matthew Stafford will get calls from new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The eventual Miami and Jacksonville quarterbacks will have different playcallers than the 2018 starters. Minnesota will have a full season of Kevin Stefanski. Tampa Bay will get Byron Leftwich. It’s not known yet whether new offensive coordinator Tim Kelly will take over playcalling for the Texans. Yeah, there’s a lot to digest here this offseason.

Andrew Luck’s shoulder is fine, Cam Newton’s on the other hand...

Going into this season, Andrew Luck’s problem shoulder was still an unknown and causing him to fall to end of the QB1 tier in drafts. Cam Newton’s shoulder was battle-tested in 2017 and his shoulder was the source of no concern. After knocking off the rust, Luck picked up where he left off (and gained an excellent set of offensive minds on his coaching staff, led by Frank Reich), while Newton’s shoulder broke down by the end of the season.

2019 Application

Newton had surgery on his shoulder in January, which is better than no surgery and hope that time would fix the problem. He “could be ready for training camp”, but the recent saga with Luck’s shoulder reminds us how much stock we should put in that estimation this far out. Luck’s arrow continues to point up with the Colts likely adding some firepower at receiver this offseason, and he’s not taking as many shots as a runner in Reich’s offense, which should help his longevity. The deterioration of Newton’s shoulder still looms as a warning that these fixes can be temporary. Newton’s early draft ADP isn’t always reflecting the uncertainty, so he’s a pass until we see him on the practice field unless he falls too far - say the 11th round or later.

Andy Reid made Alex Smith, Minnesota’s receivers made Case Keenum, and Jay Gruden might have made Kirk Cousins

Not only did Alex Smith leave a lot of meat on the bone in Kansas City for Patrick Mahomes II to engorge himself on, Smith couldn’t make much out of a passing offense that Kirk Cousins was fantasy relevant in under Jay Gruden. As for Cousins, he had some strong games to start, but his head coach eventually became so frustrated at the lack of running on offense that he replaced the offensive coordinator, which led to Cousins’ value drying up. The guy Cousins replaced was a dud in Denver, even though he had some pretty good receivers there, too. The only winner in the quarterback carousel was Mahomes.

2019 Application

We’ll fade Cousins in drafts with the disturbing trend for his run/pass splits in full view. Washington and Denver should address their quarterback situations this offseason, but likely still have underwhelming offenses. Washington is a candidate to be among the league’s worst.

The Patriots (and Vikings and Seahawks and Saints and Texans) want to be balanced on offense

Tom Brady wasn’t a fantasy bust in 2018, but he did finish outside of the QB1 ranks and faded in the second half of the season once again. New England spent a first-round pick on Sony Michel and they got their money’s worth when Michel was healthy. They want to be a balanced team - even run-heavy by today’s standards.

2019 Application

Brady rightfully might not be drafted as a top 10 quarterback. Cousins is well outside of the top 10 after his team’s late season transformation into a run-first offense. Wilson and Watson’s ADP’s haven’t been dinged by the Seattle successfully morphing into a ground and pound team and the Texans flirting with a similar 25 pass attempt game plan. Both are highly efficient when the run game is clicking and can supplement with big plays and rushing stats. Brees is roughly at the same ADP as 2018, which reflects his boom/bust weekly profile that was confirmed last year.

Tampa can make the air raid work and bring back Fitzmagic

“Buccaneers quarterback” was a top five fantasy option in 2018 even though both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston were benched at different points in the season. Fitzpatrick was far and away the #1 fantasy quarterback through three weeks until he ran into the Bears. Give an assist to the Bucs barely existent run game, barely existent pass defense and outstanding crew of pass catchers who all added gasoline to the fire. Todd Monken brought his air raid sensibilities to the offense and helped create a fantasy wonderland.

2019 Application

Monken has moved on to Cleveland to work for Freddie Kitchens in an excellent development for Baker Mayfield. Bruce Arians, who isn’t shy about the vertical passing game, will take over in Tampa with Byron Leftwich calling plays. All of the talk about Jameis Winston using up his chances in Tampa has quieted. As for Fitzpatrick, he’ll be a free agent. We can’t wait to see which fanbase he’ll win over for a few weeks when an injury forces him into the lineup only to lose their trust by the end of the month.

Blake Bortles and Ryan Tannehill are not good, and the verdict is still out on Marcus Mariota and Matthew Stafford

Bortles finished 2017 with some of the best football of his career and carried that over into 2018 before the bottom dropped out to the point that he was replaced by Cody Kessler. Ryan Tannehill never blossomed under the guidance of Adam Gase even though his knee was repaired and sound last year. Marcus Mariota got a new offensive mind in Matt LaFleur to revitalize his offense, but an early season nerve issue never fully healed and LaFleur left to head up the Packers. Matthew Stafford, once thought of as a rising star in both fantasy and NFL terms, flatlined without Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr and found himself on fantasy waiver wires by the end of the season.

2019 Application

Bortles will be looking for a backup job while Tannehill could back his way into a starting job on a needy team like Washington (yawn). Mariota might not get drafted in many fantasy leagues, although he is probably better situated than Stafford, who is still going in the QB15-20 range. Josh Allen and Mitchell Trubisky fit into the Bortles narrative - quarterbacks who mattered for fantasy but didn’t display the most polished and consistent skills in the process.