The evolution is clear. The mobile quarterbacks have won. The Konami Code has won. Fantasy quarterback appraisal will never be the same.
I’m not saying I’ll never consider a pocket-only quarterback again, given the right draft price. Tom Brady just had a dynamite age-43 year. Philip Rivers didn’t get a win at Buffalo, but he died with his boots on. Drew Brees still has something to offer. Ben Roethlisberger was a one-man carnival in Pittsburgh’s playoff loss to Cleveland.
But the cheat code is monumentally powerful in today’s fantasy game, and we have to consider that. NFL teams and players are fully aware of how lethal running can be, especially when you consider how hands-off the rules are with respect to quarterbacks. Unless the NFL opts for radical reform someday with respect to how you can defend (and hit) a quarterback, this genie is unlikely to go back in the bottle.
And the athletes at quarterback have never been better.
To be fair, there have been some running waves at this position through the years. I examined every quarterback leaderboard from the 2000s and saw some interesting things. Back in 2001, the Top 10 included six quarterbacks who significantly augmented their value with their running: Jeff Garcia, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Aaron Brooks, Kordell Stewart, and Jay Fielder. (Rich Gannon was on the fence, depending on what 231-and-2 means to you)
But there were many years where the pocket quarterbacks controlled the board. Back in 2007, the first big Brady season, there wasn’t a single Top 10 quarterback who ran his way to fantasy glory. No one in the Top 10 had more than 205 rushing yards, and the only two Top 10ers with three rushing scores were noted non-scramblers Peyton Manning and Derek Anderson.
There have been running waves and non-running waves with fantasy QBs in the 2000s. Here's one year where the pocket guys ruled, 2007. Look at the Top 10, and their rushing columns. We'll never see that again. pic.twitter.com/JpSJuEjF2B
— scott pianowski (@scott_pianowski) January 12, 2021
Aaron Rodgers wore the yellow jersey in 2009, and ran proactively (316 yards, five touchdowns). Everyone else in the Top 10 was a turtle, or at least played like it that season.
Had enough of memory lane? Let’s get back to the present, and the future.
The 2019 season saw Lamar Jackson gallop to MVP, and six of the Top 10 quarterbacks used proactive running to their advantage. And in the 2020 season, a whopping eight quarterbacks in the Top 10 were dual-threat guys. And heck, the two “turtles” on that list, Tom Brady (six rushing yards) and Aaron Rodgers (149 rushing yards), at least tossed in three goal-line rushing touchdowns.
Everyone else ran aggressively between the 20s, or at the goal line, or both. Long live the cheat code.
If we look at the entire QB board, we see 10 quarterbacks had at least 300 rushing yards, and 20 quarterbacks ran in at least three touchdowns.
Guys like Rivers become the fantasy loser in all this. I can’t make him a DFS start or a fantasy pick on the hopes of 270 yards and a couple of touchdowns. If a non-running QB doesn’t project to over 300 passing yards with three or more touchdowns likely, you have to look away. And heck, the Colts occasionally sub out for Rivers, letting Jacoby Brissett handle short-yardage or goal-line work.
My preferred method of attack is to find a quarterback who makes his living with his arm, but can also hurt you with his legs. Josh Allen just had this kind of season, and percolated to the QB1 spot. Russell Wilson’s peak — which, sadly, might be in the rear-view mirror — had this tint to it. Patrick Mahomes, for sure. Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, they also fit the suit.
I’m not going to dismiss players like Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray out of hand — Jackson was a gigantic fantasy profit in 2019 (en route to the league’s MVP Award), and although Murray had a much higher ADP last summer, he also retuned a profit. But for that to be fully sustainable going forward, they need to improve as developed passers. (Getting one more receiver of note in each city would also be appreciated.)
Jared Goff was the No. 1 pick in his draft class, a mere four years back. Today, he looks like the potential dinosaur holding back the L.A. Rams and their fearsome defense. Things change pretty quickly in this numbers racket. I think I’m finally over the idea that I can sit back and pick off Matt Ryan, boring value pick, and win my leagues. Late-round quarterback was often a cheap shortcut to take advantage of a market inefficiency; I’m more likely to shop in the middle of the board, or (gasp) even in the top half of the board next year.
A lot will change between now and the summer. I’ll address the incoming rookies when we know what team they’re on and what’s around him. And yes, please, let’s find a new home for Watson. He deserves so much better. In the meantime, here’s a little something to debate on ...
2021 Way Too Early Quarterback Board
1. Patrick Mahomes
2. Josh Allen
3. Deshaun Watson
4. Lamar Jackson
5. *Dak Prescott (need to monitor progression from the injury)
6. Kyler Murray
7. Justin Herbert
8. Aaron Rodgers
9. Russell Wilson
10. Tom Brady
11. Ryan Tannehill
12. Matthew Stafford (if he leaves Detroit)
Next week, we’ll look at the running backs.