Fitz on Fantasy: 2020 Quarterback Rankings, 1-10
Pat Fitzmaurice finished second out of 160 experts in FantasyPros’ 2019 preseason rankings accuracy contest, and he’s now No. 1 in multi-year preseason rankings accuracy for 2017-2019. Fitzmaurice’s full 2020 redraft rankings are posted here, but this series of articles helps explain the thinking behind the rankings. Please check back often as more rankings will be rolled out in the coming weeks.
1. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
A lot of sharp people zeroed in on Jackson last summer because it was easy to envision a hefty return on a modest price. His 2019 ADP was QB12, according to FantasyData.com, and he was typically going in the seventh or eighth rounds of drafts.
It was the fantasy football equivalent of the game show “Card Sharks,” with the dealer having flipped over a 3. “Higher!” shouted the astute fantasy managers, and of course it was the right call. Now that there’s a jack on the board, yelling “higher” again would seem to be an unwise choice.
When I put together my initial set of offseason rankings in January, Jackson wasn’t my top-rated quarterback. I was instead drawn to Patrick Mahomes and his more traditional path to QB value. My friend Michael Salfino of The Athletic has theorized that Jackson doesn’t have “a sustainable business model.” The model wasn’t particularly sustainable for Michael Vick, who finished as the QB1 once and as the QB2 twice but had just one other top-10 season.
Then I talked to Rich Hribar of Sharp Football, who made an interesting point during a guest appearance on my podcast, Fitz on Fantasy.
Jackson averaged 27.1 fantasy points a game in 2019, and that was with things going very much according to plan for the Ravens, who went 14-2 in the regular season and outscored their opponents by an average of 15.6 points per game. Then came the playoffs, and things went sideways for Baltimore in a 28-12 loss to Tennessee. Playing from behind for all but 3 minutes and 42 seconds of that game, Jackson threw for 365 yards and ran for 143 yards, exceeding his regular-season scoring average despite throwing for only one TD and running for none.
Hribar noted that if things don’t go as smoothly for the Ravens this year and Jackson has to play more hair-on-fire games like the playoff loss to the Titans, he could have even more of those weeks where he puts up such. ridiculous point totals that fantasy teams with Jackson aren’t losing that week unless an opponent hits Yahtzee on the first roll.
So yes, maybe we could see the dealer flip over a card higher than a jack for Jackson this year.
2. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
What a blessing that perhaps the best running quarterback ever AND arguably the best throwing quarterback ever are playing in the league right now, each still in the ascendant phase of his career.
And do I even have to bother with mincing, fraidy-cat language like “perhaps” and “arguably”? I’m certain that Lamar Jackson is a more dangerous, more electrifying runner than Michael Vick was, and who else even belongs in the conversation? (Cam Newton? Randall Cunningham?) As for best thrower, if I had to pick one QB in NFL history to save my life by slinging a ball through the open window of a moving car from 30-40 yards away, I’m choosing Dan Marino. But Marino was almost always stationary when he worked his magic. Patrick Mahomes’ ability to make pinpoint throws while on the run allows him to perform parlor tricks that Marino could never pull off.
Mahomes is only 24, has averaged 303.6 passing yards and 23.0 fantasy points per game, and he’s already recorded a 50-TD season. Jackson and Mahomes are the steak and lobster of the QB position.
3. Deshaun Watson, Texans
There’s a broad consensus that Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes are on their own tier, and that Tier 2 is a four-man group with Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson. On FantasyPros.com, Watson’s ADP and ECR (expert consensus ranking) are both QB6, putting him at the bottom of Tier 2. I think that’s Looney Tunes.
Watson has averaged 21.6 fantasy points per game for his career. Wilson has averaged 19.3, Prescott 18.4 and Murray 17.8. No doubt the faith in Watson has been shaken by the defection of DeAndre Hopkins. But does the loss of Hopkins bridge the point gap between Watson and the other QBs on this tier? I think not.
ESPN’s Mike Clay has noted that Watson has a slightly higher completion percentage and has averaged more yards per target for his career when throwing to WRs other than Hopkins. And it’s not as if Watson is bereft of capable receivers. Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks are both explosive playmakers, and Randall Cobb and Kenny Stills are quite competent. Yes, Fuller is brittle and Cooks has a troubling concussion history, but if those two can stay healthy, this group will be no worse than average. RBs David Johnson and Duke Johnson are both accomplished pass catchers.
But let’s not skew the order of things here. It’s Watson who stirs the drink. He’s never been a product of his pass catchers. Hell, Darren Fells is a geriatric blocking tight end with the speed and movement ability of Frankenstein’s monster, and Watson made him fantasy-relevant last year.
A little respect for Watson, please.
4. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
“Let Russ cook!”
This battle cry from Seahawks fans, fantasy managers and cerebral football fans everywhere reflects bewilderment that a team quarterbacked by a future Hall of Famer has one of the NFL’s run-heaviest offenses year after year.
Wilson’s fantasy finishes over his eight-year career: QB11, QB8, QB3, QB3, QB11, QB1, QB9, QB4. Imagine what those numbers might look like if Wilson played for someone who indeed let him cook. Alas. Pete Carroll is the NFL’s version of Ted Allen, host of the Food Network show “Chopped.” To the extent that Wilson is allowed to cook, he’s asked to make a delicious meal out of dandelion greens, cactus pears and salmon jerky.
The hope is that Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer give Wilson full access to the pantry this year. They might have to, because the historically strong Seattle defense is starting to look a bit tattered. A frayed defense would mean more negative game scripts for the Seahawks, which would presumably mean more pass attempts for Wilson.
5. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
Prescott has an ADP of QB3, and the enthusiasm is understandable. He finished QB2 last year, with a career-high 4,902 yards and 30 TD passes, and the Cowboys added stud WR prospect CeeDee Lamb to a WR group that already included Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup.
Dak shattered his previous single-season high in yardage by more than 1,000 yards and beat his previous high in TD passes by seven. The boost was largely driven by passing volume. Prescott averaged 492 pass attempts in his first three seasons and had 596 last year.
Also, not even the CEO of Waste Management Inc. cashed in on garbage time more than Dak did last year.
Garbage-time value for quarterbacks is one of the great myths of fantasy football. There are still fantasy managers who will eagerly start a quarterback from a team that’s a double-digit underdog based on the promise of a negative, pass-heavy game script. The reality is that these garbage-time bonanzas rarely materialize, and even when they do, they rarely move the needle for QBs in any sort of meaningful way.
Still, it’s worth noting that Prescott REALLY piled up the numbers in lopsided losses to the Packers, Vikings and Bills. In those three games combined, Prescott threw for 738 yards and four TDs after the Cowboys had fallen behind by more than two touchdowns in the second half. (We’re talking about less than 180 minutes of game clock.) So 15.1% of his passing yardage and 13.3% of his TD passes came in 66 minutes and 28 seconds worth of garbage time.
I’m not dissing Dak. I think he’s one of the league’s better starting QBs, and his supporting cast is grade-A. But his QB2 fantasy finish last year was aided by a spike in passing volume and some unrepeatable garbage-time numbers. I think Prescott is being slightly overvalued.
6. Kyler Murray, Cardinals
I like Murray enough to have drafted him at 1.10 in a superflex dynasty startup this spring, but some rankers have him as high as QB3 for redraft leagues, and that’s a bridge too far for me.
Yes, Murray’s talents as a runner and thrower are obvious. He finished QB8 as a rookie, and the addition of DeAndre Hopkins obviously helps. There’s a lot to like here.
If only the Cardinals were as attentive to their offensive line as they have been to their WR corps. Arizona finished 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric last year and 22nd in the adjusted line yards run-blocking metric. Rookie tackle Josh Jones was a nice get in the third round of this year’s draft, and the Cardinals signed veteran Kelvin Beachum for depth, but it seems like the franchise hasn’t had a truly good offensive line since the Dan Dierdorf/Conrad Dobler era – which, for perspective, roughly coincided with the disco era.
There was a school of thought that Kliff Kingsbury’s version of the air raid offense would de-emphasize O-line performance through a quicker tempo and quicker releases for Murray. Well, Murray took 48 sacks, tied for the league high, yet the average depth of his throws was 7.6 yards, which ranked 27th among QBs who made at least eight starts. So, yeah, pass protection was a problem.
Again, I like Murray and agree that he belongs on Tier 2 of quarterbacks. But Watson and Wilson are still better players than Murray, and Prescott probably is, too.
7. Josh Allen, Bills
When Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong was young, he asked his guitar teacher how to write a song.
“All he said,” Armstrong told Rolling Stone magazine, “was, ‘It’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus — mix it up any way you want.’ ”
Josh Allen has been squeezing fantasy value from a similarly basic but effective formula: ↑, ↑, ↓, ↓, ←, →, ←, →, B, A. Better known as the “Konami Code,” it’s a video game cheat that the aforementioned Rich Hribar famously repurposed for fantasy football, suggesting that quarterbacks who derive significant value from their running ability are fantasy cheat codes.
Allen has been highly effective as a runner, with 1,141 rushing yards and 17 TD runs in his first two NFL seasons. He’s been… um, significantly less effective as a passer. But just as The Ramones rocketed to stardom on the strength of three chords and rudimentary melodies, Allen’s pell-mell style produced a QB6 finish last season and suddenly has some fantasy managers eagerly buying tickets for another go in the mosh pit.
The prog-rock elitists are having none of it, mocking Allen’s scattershot accuracy and dubious decision-making. The aesthetics of Allen’s quarterbacking leave something to be desired, as do the numbers: He finished out of the top 25 in completion percentage and yards per attempt last year, and he was 24th in passer rating.
But what if Allen starts to “get it” as a passer? It’s not as if he has a shortage of arm strength. Maybe accuracy can’t be taught, but surely the 24-year-old’s mechanics can be spruced up a bit. Perhaps young quarterbacks are like new rock bands.
“New rock bands are very fragile,” Gene Simmons of Kiss told Rolling Stone a few years ago. “They’re like babies. You need to give them love and caring and give them a chance to come up with their better stuff so that they start with ‘Love Me Do’ end up writing ‘A Day in the Life.’ The same band. They had the time to mature and grow.”
Allen probably isn’t ready to record his first masterpiece yet, but I’d like to believe he has the capacity for growth and the potential to turn into something other than a three-chord QB. The rushing ability sets a solid floor, and if Allen starts to figure it out as a passer, he could turn a profit on what many consider to be an inflated price.
8. Matt Ryan, Falcons
The yardage is bankable – Ryan has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in nine straight seasons, and he’s averaged 302.9 passing yards per game over the last two seasons – but the TD totals have vacillated wildly. Ryan’s yearly TD passes since 2015: 21, 38, 20, 35, 26.
Since the 4,000-yard streak began in 2011, Ryan has averaged 28.3 TD passes, and that seems like a reasonable baseline. If that’s where his TD total lands, he’ll be a solid back-end QB1. Enough said.
9. Carson Wentz, Eagles
Wentz managed to exceed 4,000 passing yards last year and finish QB9 despite not having a single wide receiver reach 500 yards. Late last season, when Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor were hurt, Wentz’s No. 1 receiver was Greg Ward, an undrafted former college quarterback.
The Eagles supped up the WR position in the offseason and now have no shortage of speed. They took Jalen Reagor of TCU in the first round of the draft, added burners John Hightower and Quez Watkins on day three, and signed fleet-footed ex-49er Marquise Goodwin. DeSean Jackson also returns after making it through only three games last year.
Wentz also has the best TE combo in the league in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and young RB Miles Sanders was marvelous in the passing game last year.
Now that his arsenal has been upgraded, Wentz just needs to stay healthy. After missing time in 2017 and 2018 with a torn ACL and fractured vertebra, respectively, last year he managed to play all 16 regular-season games for the first time since his rookie year in 2016.
There’s top-five potential here if the North Dakota kid can keep his body intact.
10. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Spare us the platitudes about needing to wait several years before a draft can be fairly evaluated. Packers GM Brian Gutekunst bungled the 2020 draft so badly that it’s reasonable to wonder whether he could competently manage a Dairy Queen franchise.
The Packers needed help at receiver and were presented with an exceptionally deep, talented rookie WR class, but Gutekunst chose not to draft a single receiver. He dealt away a fourth-round pick to trade up in the first round for QB Jordan Love, then claimed Rodgers would continue to be the Packers’ quarterback for the foreseeable future, even though it would be silly to have Love sit on the bench for multiple years, negating the advantage of having a highly drafted young QB signed to a cheap rookie contract. Gutekunst then tried to gaslight fans and the media by claiming that Love simply “fell to us,” even though Gutekunst had traded up to take him.
(Gutekunst’s second-round selection of one-dimensional RB A.J. Dillon was probably even more inane than the Love pick, but never mind.)
QB10 might seem like an aspirational ranking for Rodgers after the Packers did nothing to upgrade his pass-catching group other than signing heavy-legged WR Devin Funchess. Rodgers certainly isn’t the player he was seven or eight years ago, and some of his stats suggest that he’s become little more than an average starting quarterback.
Passer rating and yards per attempt aren’t exactly bulletproof metrics, but together they offer a pretty good back-of-the-envelope illustration of QB effectiveness. Rodgers ranked 13th in passer rating in 2019 and 12th last year, and he’s ranked 17th in YPA in each of the last two seasons. He doesn’t add as much value with his legs as he used to either.
And please don’t buy the preposterous narrative that Rodgers is going to go nuclear this year because he’s mad about Gutekunst drafting Love and not bringing in any WR help. Does anyone really think that while Rodgers is standing in the pocket trying to read a defense, decide on a target and keep an eye out for malevolent pass rushers, he’s thinking to himself, “Fuck Gutekunst. I’ll show him” … and then concentrates harder on completing the pass than he would otherwise?
I still like Rodgers a little more than Matthew Stafford and oldsters Drew Brees and Tom Brady, but I’ve been drafting around Rodgers rather than buying him at his QB10 ADP.