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Jonathan Bales | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

How to Find Undervalued Quarterbacks in 2013
Ryan Tannehill and Alex Smith

Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. He writes for the New York Times,, NBC, and Dallas Morning News.

The consensus view on fantasy quarterbacks has come a long way in just one year; whereas it was “common knowledge” that you needed to grab an elite quarterback in 2012, it’s very in vogue to wait on the position this year.

Regardless of your strategy, you still want to acquire the best possible value with each pick. That’s easier said than done, especially at a position as consistent as quarterback. Because the quarterback standings typically don’t change that much from year to year, most owners tend to have similar quarterback rankings. The key, then, is identifying predictors of success that will allow you to “buy low” on an undervalued asset.

In writing my fantasy football books, my goal was to research all sorts of fantasy football “truisms” to see which stand up to testing and which are fantasy football folklore. I found that players don’t really break out in contract seasons, nor do running backs actually break down after heavy workloads, for example.

In the revised edition of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft, I used all of the information I uncovered to build the “prototypical” player at each position. Which players need to be fastest? Biggest? The results were pretty surprising. To help you generate as much value as possible from your signal-caller in 2013, check out the section on how to build the prototypical fantasy football quarterback.

For years, pocket passers ruled the NFL. Nowadays, more and more quarterbacks are mobile, running the read-option and using their legs to secure big plays for their teams. While debates will rage on regarding the “better” system, some of today’s young quarterbacks are so talented that they can do both—stand in the pocket to deliver passes with pinpoint accuracy, or use their mobility to steal the show on the ground.

That got me to thinking: if the “ideal” quarterback can beat defenses in a number of ways, what other traits might he possess?

Mobility Isn’t Essential, But It’s Ideal

All quarterbacks need to be able to throw with accuracyóthatís not up for debateóbut the rookies who have found recent NFL success have all been able to make plays with their legs. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and even Andrew Luck have already turned in some of the top quarterback rushing performances of all-time. When selecting a quarterback, try to target one who can give you points as a runner; it increases his value because itís a trait thatís often overlooked in drafts, and it decreases week-to-week volatility.

Efficiency > Bulk Stats as a Predictor

Most fantasy owners pay for bulk stats, and for obvious reasons. You clearly want a quarterback who will throw for a lot of yards and touchdowns, but itís difficult to acquire value by emphasizing those stats since everyone else is doing the same. To truly obtain value, you need to search for predictors of future success, especially for quarterbacks who have yet to break out. Yards-per-attempt is the best of the bunch.

YPA actually predicts future production far better than touchdowns or yards.

Thatís pretty surprising, and it provides an opportunity for you to exploit the tendency of others to pay for yards and touchdowns. When others are jumping on Andrew Luck (6.98 YPA), you can get Ryan Tannehill (6.81 YPA)ónow equipped with new weapons on the outsideóat a bargain.

35 Is the New 25

Thereís no single trait thatís as overlooked as much as player age. Below, I charted historic quarterback production, in terms of total points and points-per-attempt, at each age.

Quarterback production tends to peak around age 29, but most passers reach near-peak efficiency in their mid-20s. Trading for or drafting a quarterback around age 25 is often a winning proposition because his future outlook is brighter than his past production. Meanwhile, try to avoid quarterbacks who have just turned 30, as most see a slight dip in efficiency and total production in the coming years. After that decline, though, most of the gameís top quarterbacks maintain a relatively high level of play well into their 30sómeaning a 36-year old probably isnít much worse off than a 31-year old.

Airing It Out

Quarterbacks are like running backs in that they need a heavy workload in order to post big-time fantasy production. Thatís because the standard deviation of quarterback YPA is minimal; although itís a good predictor of success, the best quarterbacks typically average only a yard or so more per pass than mediocre ones. Meanwhile, some quarterbacks can throw 300 more passes than others, and no realistic amount of efficiency can make up for that. Ideally, youíd like a quarterback in a pass-heavy offense whose attempts wonít be capped at 30 per game.

Bringing it Together in 2013

Letís assume that weíre using a late-round quarterback strategy this year. Which passers with a current ADP in the seventh round or later best match our criteria? Letís first look at just age and mobility:

  Late-Round Quarterbacks
Quarterback Mobility Age
Robert Griffin III x x
Andrew Luck x x
Tony Romo NO NO
Russell Wilson x x
Eli Manning NO NO
Andy Dalton NO x
Michael Vick x NO
Ben Roethlisberger NO NO
Jay Cutler NO NO
Carson Palmer NO NO
Joe Flacco NO x
Philip Rivers NO NO
Josh Freeman NO x
Matt Schaub NO NO
Sam Bradford NO x
Ryan Tannehill x x
Alex Smith x x

Right away, we can take out all passers except RGIII, Luck, Wilson, Tannehill, and Smith. That’s not to say the eliminated quarterbacks can’t offer value, but rather that they don’t match the prototype of past elite passers.

Four of the five players we’ve selected were rookies in 2012, so their first-year efficiency is relevant to us. Luck and Tannehill were both efficient as far as first-year quarterbacks go, but RGIII and Wilson were off of the charts. Smith’s rookie stats really don’t matter much anymore, but he was highly efficient during his last few seasons in San Francisco.

Despite their efficiency, I have reservations about both RGIII and Wilson. The problem is that it’s unlikely they’ll be more efficient in 2013, but we’re not really sure if their workloads will increase. Wilson’s attempts could jump, but he’s also not going to throw a touchdown on 6.6 percent of his attempts like he did as a rookie. Plus, Griffin is an injury-risk I’m not willing to take in the seventh round.

Luck’s efficiency will almost assuredly improve in his second year in the league, but can we count on another top five season in terms of attempts? Probably not. On the other hand, Tannehill was nearly just as effective as Luck on a per-throw basis, but he threw almost 200 fewer passes. With Miami’s commitment to the passing game and Tannehill’s continued development as a quarterback, he’s basically a less-hyped version of Luck—young, relatively mobile, and efficient—but with a much cheaper price tag. Smith is in a similar situation; he’s still just 29 years old, so he should be able to produce at near-peak efficiency, and he’s probably going to see a massive upswing in attempts in Kansas City.

I’m not saying you should draft just Tannehill and Smith and think you’ll ride them to a fantasy championship, but both players make for excellent under-the-radar additions. They’re high-upside options, which is what you want in the late rounds. And if it doesn’t work out, you’ll lose a 14th or 15th-round pick, not a sixth or seventh.

Check out all three of my fantasy football books to dominate your league in 2013.