In the NFL it’s hard to win without a top quarterback. In fantasy football it can be hard to win with one.
I enjoy watching the show “Survivor.” Occasionally there are challenges in “Survivor” in which the winning team gets to choose a reward that makes camp life easier. In one recent season, a team that won a reward challenge was given a choice between a tarp and pillows and blankets. The team leader chose the pillow and blankets. A storm rolled in, and the team that won the reward challenge had no tarp to cover their shelter to keep them dry. The tribe members were wet, cold and miserable. They second-guessed the decision to take the pillows and blankets. Aware of the second-guessing, the tribe leader took on more physical labor around camp in an attempt to prove his worth. He became badly dehydrated, passed out during a subsequent challenge and had to be medically evacuated from the game.
Choosing pillows and blankets over a tarp proved an unwise decision.
Aaron Rodgers, the consensus No. 1 fantasy quarterback going into the season, currently ranks 22nd in fantasy scoring for quarterbacks. Tom Brady ranks 15th. Cam Newton ranks 11th, and Matthew Stafford ranks 20th. Drew Brees is the only quarterback with a top-five preseason ranking who’s currently in the top 10 — he ranks fourth.
The three highest-ranked fantasy quarterbacks at the moment are Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger. All were well-regarded in August but could have been acquired beyond the second round (in some cases, well beyond) in almost every redraft league.
Three games is a small sample size, of course. Barring injury, Aaron Rodgers will not finish out of the top 20 in fantasy scoring. Odds are good that Rodgers, Brady and Brees will all finish in the top five. Newton and Stafford will probably still finish in the top 10.
And it’s not as if quarterback is the only position at which we’ve seen early-season volatility. No one expected C.J. Spiller to rank as the No. 1 fantasy running back at any point in the season, nor did anyone expect Alfred Morris or Andre Brown to show up in the top 10. (They currently rank seventh and eighth, respectively.)
Still, the early results are reminding us of the risk that comes with taking a quarterback in the first or second round of a redraft league. The exception is a league that requires you to start two quarterbacks instead of one. In a two-QB league, you probably need to get your first quarterback within the first two rounds, lest you be forced to start a Sam Bradford-Blaine Gabbert combo. In most leagues you start only one quarterback, but you have to start at least two running backs and at least two wide receivers.
In leagues of 12 or more teams, it can be a challenge to come up with two or more competent starting running backs or wide receivers, especially as the injuries mount and the bye weeks steal players from you. When you draft a quarterback in the first round, you lose an important chance to acquire top talent at running back and wide receiver. You also make it more difficult to acquire depth at those positions because you’re giving opponents a one-round head start to fill those positions.
Early-round quarterbacks are luxury items; early-round running backs and receivers are essentials. In fantasy football, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are pillows and blankets. Marshawn Lynch is a tarp.
Once the season has begin, it’s much easier to patch a hole at quarterback than it is to patch holes at running back and (to a lesser degree) receiver. A lot of the owners who drafted Robert Griffin III drafted him as a backup. Now that they’ve struck gold with RG3 and want him in the lineup every week, many of those owners are willing to move the quarterback whom they drafted to be a starter. Other owners drafted Matt Ryan or Ben Roethlisberger and planned to platoon them with some other non-elite quarterback, playing the matchups from week to week. With Ryan and Roethlisberger both lighting it up, their owners are now starting them full-time and have an extra quarterback to trade.
The price for acquiring a competent quarterback such as Joe Flacco is generally pretty reasonable. The in-season price for acquiring a running back of commensurate value relative to his position — Stevan Ridley or Alfred Morris, for instance — is typically going to be steeper than the going rate for Flacco. Trading for a capable starting quarterback generally isn’t hard. If you’re trading for a capable starting running back, you’re going to pay a high price and might be asked to throw in a pound of your own flesh. Good luck with that, Antonio.
Sure, you can sometimes find RB jewels in the middle rounds (Spiller), the later rounds (Morris) or even the free-agent pool (Brown). But there tend to be far fewer pleasant surprises at running back (and certainly at wide receiver) than at quarterback. At running back, the fantasy-scoring leaderboard is usually dominated by early-round picks. The WR leaderboard is typically smattered with big-name talent. At quarterback, the leaderboard is often speckled with middle- and late-round selections. You have a much better chance of getting lucky with a quarterback than with a running back or wide receiver.
Drafting a tight end in the early rounds is similarly risky, yet this year there was great temptation to do so. Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski had monster seasons last season, and there was no reason to think that either was in for a statistical drop-off. Graham and Gronk indeed might end up matching their numbers from last season, but they are not yet offering the immense positional advantage that their owners were expecting. Graham currently ranks fifth in TE scoring, Gronkowski eighth. Heath Miller and Martellus Bennett rank higher. And it’s the same numbers game that you have at the quarterback position: You start only one per week, so it isn’t hard to find a decent starter.
There’s no denying that marquee quarterbacks (and marquee tight ends, too) have significant value. But because of the quantity issue — the requirement to start more RBs and WRs than QBs and — it can be difficult to leverage your QB strength during the season if you need to improve yourself at other positions. If you have strength and depth at running back or receiver, other owners will be beating down your door with trade offers.
Pillow and blankets provide comfort, but a tarp provides shelter from the storm.