The one thing that has been consistent at the quarterback position the past three seasons is a late round pick producing like a league winner. Patrick Mahomes in 2018, Lamar Jackson in 2019, and Aaron Rodgers last year.
You may pause at the Rodgers reference, but his ADP was outside the top-10 quarterbacks, one spot behind Josh Allen, who was the other quarterback to surprise in a good way last year. So that leads us to two questions: Who is this year's late-round league winner and will Rodgers and Allen regress the way Mahomes and Jackson did the year after they were No. 1?
We'll get to both of those answers in the sleepers, breakouts, and busts section, but first, we probably need to break down the state of the position.
There's a pretty clear top six for me at quarterback, led by Mahomes and Jackson. But Allen, Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson all belong in the Tier 1 discussion as well. ADP would tell you that Rodgers and Justin Herbert do as well. What's hard to figure is how much of an outlier 2020 was moving forward.
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In 2018 when Mahomes had his breakout, he averaged 32.3 Fantasy points per game and only two other quarterbacks topped 25. In 2019, Jackson averaged 32.5 FPPG and only two quarterbacks topped 25. Last year, 11 quarterbacks averaged at least 25 FPPG, with Prescott, Mahomes, Rodgers, and Allen all between 29 and 30.
My expectation is that last year was influenced by the lack of training camp, poor defensive play, and all the weirdness that came from playing football in the middle of a pandemic. That's why I favor Mahomes and Jackson, because they've shown us the 32-point upside in a 'normal' year.
After that top six (or eight) there are really only a couple of other sure-fire starters. Ryan Tannehill and Tom Brady. Then you get a weird combination of upside and youth (Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence), as well as a veteran who provides stability (Matthew Stafford). There are legitimately 10 other quarterbacks who could give you low-end QB1 production, but it's hard to imagine very many of them giving you a top-five season.
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Quarterback draft strategy
In a one-quarterback league that rewards six points per passing touchdown, Patrick Mahomes is worth a pick at the two-three turn and the rest of the top-six should be drafted in Round 4 or Round 5. If I don't land Mahomes, I'm perfectly happy with the last of the top six. If your league sees quarterbacks drafted early, then I'm very happy with the last of the Herbert, Brady, Tannehill, Rodgers tier. If you miss all of those guys, there's still plenty of upside left, but I would make sure I grabbed two of the top-15 because a lot of the remaining guys have very low floors. I would really like for Justin Fields to be one of the two.
In two-QB or Superflex leagues, the top six should all be first-round picks or early second-round picks at worst, and the top-10 should probably be gone by the end of Round 2. But don't go chasing after that. There's a lot of depth in the QB2 range and there comes a point around Round 3 or Round 4 where Fantasy managers can't pass up the position player depth. That means there's often not much difference between the QBs taken in Round 4 and Round 7 in this format.
One change you need to make when you can start more than one quarterback is to value floor more. Someone like Trey Lance may have enormous upside, but he might not play for a month or more. That hurts you a lot more unless you draft someone like Sam Darnold as a third QB to start over him. As a rule, use my rankings for one-QB leagues but lean more towards the projections below if you can start two.
Now let's take a look at the breakouts, sleepers and busts. As a reminder, sleepers and busts are heavily influenced by ADP, and for this version, we're using CBS ADP.
Jalen Hurts QB
PHI Philadelphia • #1
Age: 23 • Experience: Rookie
There's little doubt Hurts has the upside to be the league-winner. He showed it in the three and a half games he played as a starter last year. In those games, Hurts was on pace for nearly 4,000 yards passing and more than 1,000 yards rushing. Think Lamar Jackson, but with more passing yards. Now he was also pretty inaccurate and the new regime hasn't exactly behaved as if they're sold on him. For Hurts to be the league-winning breakout, he needs DeVonta Smith to be a true No. 1 receiver and his offensive line to not fall apart like it did last year. If those things happen, 4,000/1,000 may as well.
Joe Burrow QB
CIN Cincinnati • #9
Age: 24 • Experience: Rookie
Burrow struggled early in camp as he recovered from last year's ACL injury, but he fits the recent breakout mold remarkably well -- a second-year quarterback who only played part of his rookie year but has massive upside as evidenced by his college production and draft pedigree. Bonus, he may have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL and his defense could put him in a lot of situations where he's chasing the score. The Bengals averaged 40 attempts per game in Burrow's starts last year. If that's the game plan in 2021 and Burrow makes the second-year leap, he could challenge for the league-lead in passing yards.
CHI Chicago • #1
Age: 22 • Experience: Rookie
Fields' first NFL action got off to a rocky start, but he settled in after that and looked like the part of a first-round quarterback. Fields' biggest obstacle to being a league-winner is Matt Nagy's insistence that Andy Dalton is the starter, but it will be hard to stick to those guns if Fields continues to wow. Once he takes over, Fields has elite accuracy as a passer and he's one of the fastest quarterbacks to come into the NFL in recent years. He also has the build to run people over in the red zone, which should lead to plenty of Fantasy production on the ground. There's legitimate top-five upside once he becomes the Bears' starter.
Trey Lance QB
SF San Francisco • #5
Age: 21 • Experience: Rookie
For Trey Lance it's always been about the upside and uncertainty. And it still is after he launched an 80-yard touchdown in his first preseason game, and was underwhelming for most of the rest of his outing. He possesses at least as much upside as Fields, but his path to a starting role appears more difficult, and he doesn't look as polished in the pocket as Fields at this time. Still, in a one quarterback league there are few I'd rather have as my QB2. His upside is that high. A chipped finger will ensure Lance doesn't start Week 1, but I wouldn't make any bets after that.
Josh Allen QB
BUF Buffalo • #17
Age: 25 • Experience: 4 yrs.
Before we go any further I need you to look at my rankings and see that I have Allen as my QB3. I don't think he's bad. I do think taking him in Round 2 is bad, and that's where his ADP is. His ADP is also a round higher than any QB not named Mahomes. I made a similar argument against taking Mahomes and Jackson so early coming off their great year. Allen will likely regress a little bit off his career year and there's an increasing risk each year that the rushing production falls off. Don't draft him before Round 4, and you don't have to worry near as much about him busting.
GB Green Bay • #12
Age: 38 • Experience: 17 yrs.
Speaking of regression, Rodgers posted a 9.0% touchdown rate last year, which was nearly 50% higher than his career mark (6.3%), which happens to be one of the best active marks in the NFL. Rodgers' current ADP at the 3-4 turn is a round higher than Wilson and Prescott, both of whom I'd prefer straight up. It's also three rounds ahead of Ryan Tannehill, who I have projected for two fewer Fantasy points. Rodgers will likely be a top-10 quarterback this year, but don't bet on him finishing top-five again.
Numbers to know
- 3.9 -- Patrick Mahomes has outscored the second-best quarterback over the past three years (Russell Wilson) by 3.9 Fantasy points per game.
- 15 -- Aaron Rodgers would have thrown 15 fewer touchdown passes last year had his touchdown rate been his career norm.
- 6.4% -- Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford both had 6.4% of their passes dropped last year, only Andy Dalton had more.
- 30.7 -- Kyler Murray's rushing yards per game in his final seven games. He only scored once on the ground in that stretch. If that doesn't bounce back, he's not a top five Fantasy quarterback.
- 8 -- Cam Newton only had eight passing touchdowns for the Patriots last year. Mac Jones should at least double that.
- 29 -- Daniel Jones has 29 fumbles over the past two seasons, leading the league each year. Know your scoring rules before you draft him as your QB2.
- 608 -- Matt Ryan has thrown at least 608 passes each of the past three seasons. The arrival of Arthur Smith could impact that number negatively.
Draft to stream
Mayfield's main problem has been pass volume but I wouldn't expect that to be a problem against arguably the best offense in the league. He'll have Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry fully healthy and should throw as much as he does all year.
Like Mayfield, Cousins has generally been good enough in Fantasy as long as his coach doesn't limit him to fewer than 30 pass attempts. Against a suspect Bengals defense in Week 1, that may not even matter.
Jacksonville and Houston could have two of the worst defenses in the NFL this year, which could turn this matchup of quarterbacks outside the top-12 in ADP into a barnburner. I'd prefer Lawrence, but Taylor will probably be available after the draft in most leagues.
Better in leagues that reward 4 points per pass TD: Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, Trey Lance
Better in leagues that allow you to start more than one QB: Matthew Stafford, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins, Ben Roethlisberger, Daniel Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff