A few weeks ago in this newsletter, I wrote about the idea of avoiding "small wins" in your Fantasy Football drafts, and I think that concept especially applies to quarterbacks.
My strategy for quarterback this season is to either go for one early or two late. That means a lot of Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, or Lamar Jackson, or a lot of fliers on high-upside QBs late. The idea there is I'm looking for difference makers at the position -- not just guys I'm happy to start, but players who have a chance to significantly increase my chances of winning a championship.
But what am I actually looking for when I talk about "high-upside QBs" and "difference makers?" I wrote about that for the CBS Sports 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Guide magazine -- and you can read that piece here -- but, at the risk of oversimplification, it comes down to passing volume and rushing ability. Quarterbacks in high-volume passing offenses -- especially offenses that push the ball down the field -- will always have high weekly and season upside, and those who can run the ball effectively have even more.
As an example of the former, look to Tom Brady in the middle rounds or Ryan Fitzpatrick in the late rounds; for the latter, Trey Lance and Justin fields are your rookie ceiling plays, and Cam Newton and Tyrod Taylor are your late-round dart throws. Picking two of those running quarterbacks to go into the season with is one of my go-to strategies in drafts this season.
Those principles also guide my approach to identify sleepers, breakouts, and busts at the QB position, which is what we're focusing on in today's Fantasy Football Today newsletter. If you've got a chance to throw the ball 600 times and a bevy of talented playmakers or could rush for 400 yards, you've got sleeper or breakout potential. Playing in a projected low-volume offense without much rushing ability? Well, I'm probably not picking you.
That's what we're talking about in today's newsletter, but if you want to see more about my general approach to the position and my rankings -- plus Heath Cummings' stat-packed QB preview -- make sure you check out yesterday's edition of the newsletter. And, for those of you in two-QB or SuperFlex leagues, make sure you bookmark Heath's top-200 rankings for those formats. Later this week, we'll be taking a look at the tight end position heading into the 2021 season, with more insights from Heath, Jamey Eisenberg, Dave Richard, and myself, but for now, let's look for some sleepers, breakouts, and busts at QB.
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Sleepers, Breakouts, and Busts
Sleeper [ slee-per ] (noun) -- A player whose price doesn't reflect the impact they can make for your team.
- Drew Lock -- I'm not convinced Lock is a particularly good player -- strong endorsement, right? -- but I'm pretty intrigued by his potential if he wins the Broncos starting job. He's a plus athlete for the position and an aggressive passer (8.8 intended air yards per attempt in 2020), two good traits if you're looking for a QB sleeper. Of course, that aggression has gotten him in trouble more often than not so far in his NFL career, and with Teddy Bridgewater around, the leash will be short even if he does win the job. But if he can reign in the mistakes, the Broncos have the kind of playmakers around him who can make the most out of the easy throws and the big shots. Lock does need to improve from what we've seen at the NFL level, and one decent preseason performance doesn't mean much in that regard. But, if he wins the job over the steady-but-unspectacular Bridgewater, that would be some potential evidence that he's sanded down some of the rough edges. If that's the case, he could be a useful matchup-based option. And if he takes a big step forward, it's not out of the question he could be a top-15 player at the position with those weapons.
- Tyrod Taylor -- Taylor is being mostly ignored in Fantasy, but if you're looking for someone who could be a useful starting option early on in the season for dirt cheap, Taylor could be it. He's got great matchups in Weeks 1 and 3, and even the matchup against the Browns in Week 2 could go OK for him thanks to his rushing ability and the expected added volume from a potential blowout loss. That's what it comes down to, ultimately. Taylor probably won't start all season for the Texans, but he had 103 yards and a touchdown on the ground in his two full games as the Browns starter back in 2018, averaging 21.0 Fantasy points per game in those starts. The Texans are going to need to manufacture offense somehow, so figure Taylor running the ball will be part of the game plan. He's a perfect late-round option in two-QB leagues especially.
- The entire FFT team has broken down their favorite sleeper quarterbacks. You can find the rest of those picks here. Also, check back on CBSSports.com/Fantasy/Football in the coming days and you'll find our staff's favorite quarterbacks bust and breakout picks.
Breakout [ breyk-out ] (noun) -- A player who can take their game to another level this season.
- Tua Tagovailoa -- Tagovailoa wasn't great as a rookie but I'm optimistic he's going to take a big step forward in year two. Partially, it's because I'm a big believer in his talent and think he's going to show it now that he's a year further removed from the hip injury that ended his college career. But it's also because I have a lot more faith in the offense around him this season. Just 30% of Tagovailoa's targets in 2020 went to his top two targets, DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki, who dealt with injuries down the stretch. Gesicki and Parker figure to be his No. 3 and 4 targets now with the addition of Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller, who both bring the ability to make big plays both with the ball in their hands after the catch and down the field. Actually, all four of them do -- it's a very underrated group of weapons. By all accounts, Tagovailoa has looked much better in training camp than this time a year ago and is especially drawing praise for his work on the deep ball. Tagovailoa isn't far off from Joe Burrow as a prospect in my eyes, and his receiving corps might be just as talented. Snag Tagovailoa as a discounted breakout candidate in the late rounds.
- Jalen Hurts -- Hurts kind of the platonic ideal of the "Konami Code" QB. Whether he's a good enough passer for the Eagles to invest in long term is still very much an open question, but it's also largely immaterial to his Fantasy prospects. He's such a dangerous rusher that as long as he's not "so bad he gets benched" bad, he's probably going to be worth starting for Fantasy. In his three full games as a starter, he rushed for 238 yards, a 1,200-yard pace for a full season. I'm skeptical he would be able to keep that up over a full season, but it's worth noting that he rushed for 92.7 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game at Oklahoma, while Kyler Murray averaged 71.5 yards and 0.86 touchdowns the previous season in the same number of games. He has as much rushing upside as anyone short of Lamar Jackson at the position and will be a top-12 QB for as long as he remains the starter.
Bust [ buhst ] (noun) -- A player who could really let you down this season.
- Ben Roethlisberger -- I feel pretty confident saying Roethlisberger had one of the worst 33-touchdown seasons in NFL history in 2020. Despite throwing the ball 608 times, the third-most attempts in the NFL, he finished just 16th in passing yards, ranking 29th among qualifiers in yards per attempt. I could see him taking a step forward a year further removed from his elbow surgery, and he's certainly got the talent around him to put together one last big season if he's right. However, Roethlisberger didn't look comfortable dealing with the pass rush last season, and I'm not sure Pittsburgh's offensive line is likely to be any better. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada is expected to install more play action elements and incorporate a lot more pre-snap motion into the offense, which could be what the Steelers need to get this thing going, but I also worry that asking Roethlisberger to re-introduce elements like playing under center rather than in the shotgun at this point in his career might carry with it enough growing pains that it ends up not being worth it. Roethlisberger is a boom-or-bust candidate at QB, and I think there's a chance the bottom completely falls out in 2021.
- Baker Mayfield -- This is less of a "Baker Mayfield is going to play significantly worse than he did last season" thing and more of a "I just don't have any interest in drafting Mayfield" thing. He's ranked 30th for me at the position, and while I think there's a pretty good chance he outperforms plenty of the players ahead of him, I'd still rather take my chances on the upside of Taysom Hill, Jameis Winston, Trey Lance, Cam Newton, or Justin Fields than settle for Mayfield. He has value as a streamer opening the season against the Chiefs and Texans, but it's worth remembering he finished just 26th in points per game last season. Playing in what will likely be a low-volume passing offense and without much rushing upside, Mayfield would probably need to play like a top-five passer in the NFL to be a top-12 QB, and I'm just not willing to bet on that. He's a decent high-floor QB2 in leagues where you can start two, but you should be aiming for difference-making upside at QB, and Mayfield just doesn't have an easy path to that.
So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen's huge season, and find out.
Injuries, News, and Notes
- Stefon Diggs (knee) has missed six straight practices -- The Bills aren't concerned about the injury right now, but it was hard to ignore that coach Doug McDermott added an "at this point" when talking about not expecting the injury to linger into the regular season. Assume it won't for now, and the Bills really don't have any reason to rush Diggs back after he proved he is more than up to the task of being the No. 1 option last season, but we'd like to see him out there at least by the last week of practice before Week 1. He's still in the top-5 WR discussion, but if you wanted to move someone like DeAndre Hopkins ahead of him for now, that's reasonable.
- Chase Claypool left practice Tuesday with an ankle injury -- Claypool had to be helped off the field by teammates and wasn't able to put any weight on his leg, but it sounds like he avoided a serious injury. The Steelers will likely do some more testing in the coming days to be sure, but it doesn't sound like there is much to worry about here right now.
- Justin Jefferson (shoulder) returned to practice Monday -- Jefferson wasn't a full participant, but it was still good to see him back there after leaving practice a few weeks ago with an AC joint sprain. The injury was never expected to linger into the regular season, and it doesn't look like that is a concern at this point. He remains a top-10, possibly top-eight WR for Fantasy coming off his historic rookie season as long as he can avoid any kind of setback.
- Darren Waller was back at practice Tuesday -- We didn't have many details about Waller's injury, but it has been reported to be an ankle that kept him out of practice for two weeks. The lack of details was what was more concerning than anything else, but now that he's back at practice, it seems like something we can put in the rearview mirror. Waller is one of the top three tight ends and should be drafted before the end of the third round in all leagues -- and I would be willing to take him and George Kittle in the second round.
- Melvin Gordon has a groin injury -- That's why Gordon wasn't active for the first game of the preseason against the Vikings Saturday, though I'm sure a chance to see Javonte Williams with the first team for an extended stretch was a nice side effect. It doesn't sound like the groin injury is expected to be an issue for Gordon, but the Broncos know what they have in him, so he doesn't have much to prove. He figures to split time with Williams early on, but could cede more and more playing time as the season goes on. He's a decent RB3 target if you need an early-season fill in, but his value may have an expiration date.
- The Dolphins will use their running backs "situationally" -- That seemed obvious enough after watching Malcolm Brown work as the lead back with Myle Gaskin as the complementary option in the preseason. And maybe it should have been obvious all along -- Brian Flores is a Bill Belichick guy, after all. Flores did note Gaskin is someone he trusts on all three downs, and that much was clear in how he used Gaskin last season -- he played 65% of the snaps in every game he appeared in. That was the main thing Gaskin had going for him as an RB2 for Fantasy, and it may still be worth betting on him getting that role again -- Brown shouldn't really be a hindrance to playing time if Gaskin is making plays. Still, you have to push him down into the RB3 range at this point, because there's no guarantee he gets that role early on. Just remember how frustrating Brown's usage was for Cam Akers last season.
- Devonta Smith (knee) participated in team drills -- That's a good sign for the rookie, who suffered a knee sprain earlier in camp. The injury wasn't expected to linger into the start of the regular season, but rookies can use all the reps they can get in training camp, so hopefully, he'll be a full participant later this week and will be fully up to speed by Week 1.
- The Jets are aiming for a return next week for Elijah Moore (quad) -- Moore avoided a serious injury, but he'll still likely have to miss the second preseason game as well, and there's no guarantee he'll get out there in Week 2. He's drawn rave reviews throughout his rookie offseason and remains an excellent late-round sleeper, but you'd feel better about him if we saw him do it in game action, too. Don't draft Moore expecting you'll be able to lean on him early. Just remember to be patient.
- Joe Burrow will not play in preseason Week 2 -- Burrow may not play at all in the preseason as he continues to get back up to speed coming off knee surgery. The good news is, after a rough start to training camp, it sounds like he's been a lot more comfortable lately. He has no shortage of weapons in this offense and Burrow could be one of the biggest breakouts at the position in 2021.
- Amari Cooper may make his preseason debut this week -- Cooper got off to a delayed start to camp coming off ankle surgery, but at this point, it looks like he'll be fully ready to go by Week 1. Getting into a preseason game would be confirmation of that, so hopefully, we can see him out there for the first time. His ADP has slipped behind teammate CeeDee Lamb's, but if Cooper is at 100%, I would rather have him than Lamb for 2021.
- Zack Moss (hamstring) has been back at practice -- Moss missed the first game of the preseason, and Devin Singletary looked solid in his absence. But Moss has been the lead back in camp, by all reports, and he'll look to get back into the driver's seat in the coming days. I'm low on Moss because I still expect this to be a committee in a backfield that has produced fewer Fantasy points for running backs over the last three seasons, but if you could get him as your RB4 around 100th overall, he could be a useful fill-in option -- especially if the Bills opt to have Josh Allen run less near the goal-line now that he's locked in for a long-term mega-extension.
- Tre'Quan Smith (leg) returned to practice for the Saints -- Smith had missed a few weeks with the injury, and with Michael Thomas (ankle) also out, Marquez Callaway has apparently been the best receiver in camp for the Saints. He looked the part in the preseason opener, playing every snap with the starters and earning four of Taysom Hill's 12 targets. Smith has good size and speed, but he hasn't emerged as a reliable option through his first three seasons, so I would rather take a later-round flier on Callaway at this point. But Smith is an interesting target, especially if Jameis Winston wins the starting job.
- David Johnson is preparing for a reduced role -- It sounds like the preseason opener usage may not have been a fluke. Johnson played just two snaps compared to Phillip Lindsay's eight with the starters, and that was without Mark Ingram active. It sounds like Ingram and Lindsay are likely to split early-down work, with Johnson serving as more of a third-down back. He can still be an effective playmaker as a receiver, but unless the Texans make him a focal point like James White has been, it will be tough for him to be Fantasy relevant. It'll probably be tough for any of them to be relevant if they truly are going to split work three ways on a bad offense, so none should probably be drafted inside of the top 100 at this point.