Quarterbacks are annually the highest scoring players in fantasy football, but because most leagues only require one QB as opposed to two or three running backs and three or four wide receivers, it's often viewed as a position for which you can wait in your fantasy drafts.That's perfectly logical, but finding the right time to grab your QB -- and the right QB, period -- is often a headache for fantasy owners. Sure, there are plenty of good options, but that doesn't mean there's no difference between, say, the third quarterback drafted and the 10th quarterback drafted. As a point of reference, last season's No. 3 QB, Tom Brady, finished with 408.3 fantasy points in standard leagues; the No. 10 QB, Andrew Luck, had 322.5 fantasy points. That's a difference of over five fantasy points per contest, which could easily be the difference between winning or losing a week.
This season, it looks like there are 13 signal-callers who fantasy owners are willing to trust as their “starter” on draft day, plus up to 15 more QBs who make for potentially intriguing backup options. Let's break them down and find the best values.
If you're in a standard redraft league, then Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning will all likely be off the board by the end of Round 2. That's how it should be. Rodgers and Brees have been the top-two QBs in three of the past four seasons, and they've both been in the top six in each of the past five seasons. Brees gets a bump in value from having head coach Sean Payton back, but Rodgers can get points with both his arm and legs, giving him slightly more upside.
Manning had the second-best fantasy season of his storied career last year, and Denver added Wes Welker to its arsenal. Even at 37 and with a history of serious neck injuries, Manning seems like a lock to produce at a high level.
Draft tip: You'll never be sorry you have Rodgers or Brees on your team, but getting a top-tier RB or Calvin Johnson in the first round, then grabbing Manning in the second round, is likely your best move if you want one of these top-of-the-line QBs.
THE ALMOST ELITE
You could easily put Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford in the “Elite” category, but there are some mild concerns with each. Newton was inconsistent at the beginning of last year and lost his offensive coordinator; Brady lost Welker, Brandon Lloyd and TE Aaron Hernandez, plus could be without TE Rob Gronkowski for part of the year; Ryan has never finished higher than fifth in QB fantasy points; and Stafford was inconsistent for much of last year, finishing as the No. 11 QB.
Here are the counters to those worries: Newton averaged over 30 fantasy points per game in Weeks 11-16, and new OC Mike Shula, who had been the Panthers' QB coach the past two years, said he plans to stick with the style of offense Carolina ran during that stretch; Tom Brady is Tom Brady -- he'll find a way; Ryan has fantastic play-making receivers/backs and is entering his prime; the Lions set an NFL record for pass attempts last year (741), and Stafford's lack of touchdown passes (20) seem fluky, especially when you remember that Calvin Johnson only had five TD catches all season.
Draft tip: All four should be fantasy stars, and it's not crazy to take any in the first four rounds. Newton has the most upside and Ryan is probably the “safest,” but Stafford is providing the most value in early mock drafts. Last season was a disappointment, but keep in mind that only Brees and Brady have thrown for more yards than Stafford over the past two seasons. The touchdowns will return this year, and Stafford will likely contend for top-five status.
THE COULD-BE ELITE
It's always more fun to draft a young, exciting player than a “boring” veteran, which is why Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck will be high on virtually everyone's draft board. But as great as each looked at times last year, all come with risks.
Griffin's recovery from a torn ACL is the most obvious red flag, and even though he's expected to be ready for Week 1, it's unclear if he'll be as mobile or if the Redskins will allow him to run as much. Plus, the threat of another injury will always be present. Yes, we were saying the same things about Adrian Peterson at this time last year, but Griffin will be handling the ball much more than Peterson did.
Kaepernick has only started 10 games in the NFL (counting the postseason), and during his regular-season starts last year, he averaged 20 fantasy points per game -- good but not great. Wilson was similar (20.5), though he improved when Seattle's coaches “took off the training wheels” in the final eight games (27 ppg). The loss of Percy Harvin (hip) hurts his upside (much like the loss of Michael Crabtree hurts Kaepernick's), but Wilson could still do what he did last year.
Draft tip: Each of these four players could easily finish as top-five QBs, but the key is not to reach too far for them. Luck is the best example of a guy who can go from “overdrafted' to “value pick” if you just wait a couple rounds. He put up big numbers last year, but he had the second-lowest completion percentage among qualified players (54.1) and took 41 sacks (fourth most). He also padded his stats with five rushing TDs, something you can't necessarily count on. Oh, and he lost his offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians. The fifth round is about right for Griffin, Wilson and Kaepernick, but try to hold out until the sixth or seventh for Luck.
Tony Romo has averaged 336.5 fantasy points the past two years (seventh most), and Eli Manning has averaged about 4,294 yards and 29 TDs over the past three years. They also both have a stable of play-making receivers and play the Eagles and Redskins twice a year -- teams that finished first and tied for second in TD passes allowed last season.
Both might be safer than the four dual-threat youngsters we just mentioned, but if you're the last owner to draft a starter, you'll likely wind up with one of these guys. Romo is especially undervalued right now, as he could easily be put in the Brady-Ryan-Stafford class.
Draft tip: It's not a bad idea to grab Romo and Manning with back-to-back picks in the seventh and eighth rounds, giving you a top backup if your starter disappoints.
Andy Dalton finished 12th among fantasy QBs in points last season, so you could easily lump him in with Manning and Romo, but fantasy owners don't seem too excited about his prospects, which is why he's being undervalued as a backup (along with Romo or Manning, whichever isn't drafted as the last starter).
But aside from Dalton, there are plenty of big names among the backups: Joe Flacco, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Josh Freeman, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler and
The arrow is seemingly pointing up on Flacco (last year's postseason run), Vick (Chip Kelly and his fast-paced offense in Philadelphia) and Cutler (QB-guru coach Marc Trestman in Chicago). But Flacco lost two of his top receivers (Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta) and has only once finished among the top-12 QBs (12th in 2010); Vick is still a major injury risk and doesn't have the full confidence of his coaching staff; Cutler has been down this road before with a new coordinator, but he still only has one legit receiver (Brandon Marshall). It would be a surprise if any cracked the top-12 QBs.
Freeman also has confidence issues with his coaching staff even though he finished as the No. 13 QB last year; Roethlisberger is injury prone and lost his top wide receiver (Mike Wallace) and TE (Heath Miller, ACL) for part of the year; San Diego is moving from a vertical passing attack to more of an intermediate passing attack under coach Mike McCoy, which might help Rivers cut down on turnovers but makes it more difficult for his fantasy numbers to really take off given his receivers; Schaub and the Texans don't throw as often anymore; Palmer has a poor offensive line and turns it over too much; Flynn is unproven and has questionable receivers, and the trio of Locker, Tannehill and Ponder have accuracy issues and lack more than one play-making receiver apiece.
That leaves Bradford and Smith as the main breakout candidates. Some might scoff at Smith being listed here, but if you take his average yards per attempt (7.3) over the past two years in San Francisco and the average number of attempts Andy Reid's Eagles had per game the past three years (36.1), it yields a pace of about 4,200 yards for Smith. Also, in 14 seasons in Philadelphia, Reid's teams only thrice threw for fewer than 21 TDs. Given his new system and running ability (at least 130 yards in each of the past two seasons), Smith could be a top backup.
Bradford has even more upside. Last year he finished as the No. 17 fantasy QB, and this year he'll finally have the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons. With play-making receivers like
Draft tip: Some fantasy owners try to find backups with the best matchups during their starter's bye week. It's a nice idea in theory, but you're better off just finding the best backup. Matchups in Week 6 or 7 could look a lot different in October than they do in August.
Matt Lutovsky is a fantasy football writer for Sporting News' Fantasy Source. You can read more of his work on the Fantasy Source football homepage. (EDITOR'S NOTE: http://fantasysource.sportingnews.com/football/free?affiliate_code=sn_navigation is the link)