I often have conversations with other fantasy football enthusiasts and our discussions tend to focus on specific players. In many cases, I find myself saying, “I like this player in best ball leagues, but can’t start him in weekly leagues.” There is only one reason for this opinion – consistency. Specifically, a lack of consistent and reliable production on a weekly basis. There are numerous cases of players from all positions who score huge fantasy numbers one week and are virtual no-shows the next. As fantasy owners, we are frustrated as we see these players scoring touchdown after touchdown on our bench and it only gets worse as we chase their points and make them a starter the following week, only to be disappointed again.
Defining a Quality Start
With this idea in mind, I set out to identify the players we can count on at each position from week to week. I have borrowed the baseball term “quality start” to label the players who are consistent producers in the world of fantasy football. In baseball, a quality start is the reference used for a starting pitcher who completes six or more innings and allows three runs or less. Baseball statisticians also place great emphasis on the percentage of a pitcher’s starts in which they achieve a quality start. That is exactly what I have done to identify the players who will be consistent starters for your fantasy team. Before I unveil the players you might want to target in your dynasty or re-draft league, let me explain the process I used to identify these players.
I began by looking back at the past three years of fantasy production and started with the quarterbacks, charting game-by-game fantasy points at each position. I calculated the average fantasy score of the weekly QB1, QB2, QB3 and so on all the way through the QB12 over the three year span from 2009-2011. Through this exercise, I established a baseline that fantasy owners would want as a minimum for weekly production in their starting lineup, based on a 12-team league.
The idea is that on a given week, fantasy owners want their starting quarterback finishing among the top 12 passers, giving them a better chance of winning their matchup that week. This obviously gives you an advantage over owners starting quarterbacks outside of the top 12. Later, I will take a look at some specific players who will give you this weekly advantage. For now, here’s a look at how top 12 quarterbacks might score on a typical week.
From this data, I defined a quality start for a quarterback as any weekly performance resulting in 19.8 or more fantasy points. As you are building your team, you want to target the quarterbacks that will most often produce statistics resulting in this amount of fantasy points.The scoring system I used is fairly standard and rewards quarterbacks four points for passing touchdowns, one point per 20 passing yards and -1 point for each interception thrown.
Identifying Targets Based on Quality Start Data
Once I established the baseline for a quality start, I looked back at specific quarterbacks over that same three year period, looking for trends and inconsistencies. To qualify, a quarterback had to total ten or more starts over the three year period. There were multiple players with less than ten starts, many of whom succeeded in achieving one or more quality starts in their limited opportunities.
I identified the number of quality starts a quarterback had in relation to actual games started. This created another interesting outlier. Two players – Titans rookie quarterback Jake Locker and former Bronco Tim Tebow, each achieved a quality start in a game they did not start for their team.
Let’s look at the players with the highest percentage of quality starts. Remember, all data is based on the time period from 2009- 2011.
|Player||Starts||Quality Starts||% of Quality Starts|
There are few surprises at the top, with Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton placing themselves at the top of this list with the most consistent strong performances. Rodgers’ 85% rate means he will only have three games below the 19.8 fantasy point threshold of the QB12. That is very reliable, but nothing we did not know. Thanks to his rushing touchdowns and yardage, Newton places second among all quarterbacks with 81%.
The next name is a bit of a surprise, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has the third highest quality start rate and, like Newton, can thank his running ability for a large part of his success. As I conducted this research, I was surprised to see Vick above such names as Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Brady, Manning and Rivers are always thought of among fantasy football owners as sure-fire studs and are inserted into lineups on a weekly basis with little thought of benching them. The statistics show though that these three passers will only score among the top twelve in approximately ten of their seventeen annual starts and only eight times out of the thirteen week regular fantasy football season.
The name that stands out on this list is David Garrard. In half of his starts, he has scored at least 19.8 fantasy points. While much of that success was back in 2009, this shows me that if Garrard does in fact win the Miami Dolphins starting job, he is a player to acquire cheaply as insurance for your QB1. It is important to note that Garrard’s success was with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The next list includes some quarterbacks who fall below the 50% quality start rate.
|Player||Starts||Quality Starts||% of Quality Starts|
This second tier of quarterbacks features a variety of players, from a 2011 rookie, to veterans battling to keep their job and even a few players who will be backups for their own teams this year.
At the top are two players being drafted among the top ten quarterbacks in dynasty leagues - Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. Both signal callers had a strong 2011 season that saw their overall quality start rate increase. Based on how they produced in 2011 and the focus that each of their team’s have placed on the passing game, I expect their quality start rate to continue to increase in 2012.
Both Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton were somewhat surprising to see in this second tier, but both have also taken themselves off the fantasy radar of many owners as they are now backups for their respective teams.
A few of the players on this list certainly offer the consistency you might be looking for from your backup quarterback, but may lack the upside. In fact, as a dynasty owner, I would be more likely to take a shot on a young or unproven passer who offers upside and has not shown consistency over a player in this tier that will often score in the lower starting fantasy quarterback range. Examples of these players include Alex Smith (42%), Ryan Fitzpatrick (41%) and Matt Hasselbeck (36%). Although he finds himself near the end of this tier, Andy Dalton is another strong candidate to see his quality start percentage increase as the leader of a young up tempo offense.
Finally, here is a look at the last tier. These quarterbacks who have given their owners less than one-third of their starts.
|Player||Starts||Quality Starts||% of Quality Starts|
Most of the names on this list will not be surprising – they are players who have not made the leap that was expected of them (Joe Flacco, Chad Henne, Vince Young), players who have been considered as career backups, but have performed when called upon (Matt Moore, Shaun Hill) and players that fantasy owners still trust will give them a return on their investment (Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford, Blaine Gabbert).
This offseason, many owners have pegged Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman as a breakout candidate, but these numbers suggest otherwise. In his three year career, Freeman only has thirteen fantasy quality starts. His owners were disappointed with a subpar 2011 campaign, but in this category, he has been fairly consistent and subpar each year. With a new head coach and an option like Vincent Jackson to throw to, his percentage could certainly increase, but I would not count on him as a QB1 in dynasty leagues.
I have actually been a proponent of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez this year based on his finish as the QB10 in 2011. Looking at this data, I am being swayed back to the popular opinion that Sanchez is not a reliable option in fantasy leagues. Even though he did produce some impressive statistical performances (keyed by six rushing touchdowns), only half of his games in 2011 qualified as a quality start. It’s infuriating to own a player like this as you never know when to start him.
The name that really stands out to me is Rams signal caller Sam Bradford. If you own Bradford in your league, you know he has been disappointing and you know he has not been startable for any contending fantasy team. But did you know he’s been this bad? In 26 starts, Bradford has only managed four quality starts. For a little perspective, that is less than Shaun Hill and Rex Grossman, even though Bradford had ten more starts than those two players. Bradford has dealt with injuries and has had almost no offensive weapons at his disposal, but the same can be said for many players above him on this list. Maybe this is the year that Bradford turns things around, but I would be considering selling on him based on this inconsistent and disappointing play.
Finally, I cannot end this without pointing out the ineptitude that is Blaine Gabbert and Jimmy Clausen. In a combined 24 starts over this three year span, these two high draft picks have managed zero quality starts. That is zero games between them with more than 19.8 fantasy points. Clausen was relegated to the bench after one season and with Chad Henne having a slightly more impressive quality start percentage, Gabbert may not be far behind.
“Quality is nice, but I want elite!”
In conducting this study, I learned a lot about who is and is not reliable as a fantasy quarterback. It has led to me adjusting my rankings for some players like Michael Vick, Sam Bradford and Ben Roethlisberger. After all of this research, I was still left wondering how beneficial it was to know the quality start percentage of these players. As I mentioned, many were not surprising, such as Aaron Rodgers and Blaine Gabbert. As I looked back over the data, one thing continually jumped out to me and that is the difference between a top starting quarterback, scoring as much as 35 fantasy points on a weekly basis, and a lower end QB1, barely eclipsing twenty points weekly. While those twenty points will give you an advantage over some teams with poor quarterback play, they will not put you over the top, nor give you hopes of making a deep playoff run. What we all want and need are the top players at each position. This truth led me to return to my original data and define another new term – elite starts.
Unlike my identification of a quality start, when I set the bar at QB12 and above, when defining an elite start, I wanted the data to speak for itself and create the top tier. For me, this tier was QB4 and above, quarterbacks who average 27.2 or more fantasy points per game. Looking at the passers who qualified for quality starts was exhaustive and included a large percentage of the quarterbacks in the game today. Finding the elite players would be much easier as they have separated themselves from the pack, just as the term elite would suggest.
Now, with a goal of identifying the players who consistently produce elite fantasy weeks, I took a deeper look at the individual games from 2009- 2011. Here is what I found:
|Player||Starts||Elite Starts||% of Elite Starts|
Also near the top of the list are Brees, Brady, Stafford and Peyton Manning. One small surprise is to see Michael Vick ahead of each of those players, achieving an elite start in 40% of his NFL starts the past three years. Much of this success dated to 2010 when Vick compiled seven elite starts in only eleven NFL starts for the Philadelphia Eagles as a replacement for Kevin Kolb.
Looking at this data, the first thing I notice is that nearly every quarterback can produce the occasional elite start (greater than 27.2 fantasy points). The players I want to focus on are the ones that can score this well for fantasy teams consistently. Again, there are few surprises at the top with Panthers rookie sensation Cam Newton posting elite starts in an amazing 50% of his starts last year. This is obviously a small sample size compared to some of the other players on the lists, but impressive nonetheless.
Looking down the list, the only surprises are some mild disappointments with how low some of the young starters around the league rank. Matt Ryan has only compiled four elite starts, despite having Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones catching his passes in Atlanta. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford and Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman again fall well short of expectations with only one career elite start each.
How can we use this information?
Use this information to formulate your draft plan for your redraft or startup dynasty league, or to create a list of players to target in your established league. Pairing this with average draft position data is the best way to create a plan for your team. I will certainly be targeting Michael Vick a round or two later than Brees, Brady, and Stafford in redraft leagues.
Another relatively inexpensive option in any format is Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. He has qualified for a quality start in very respectable 44% of his starts the past three seasons and even put up elite starts in 17% of those games. With wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey added to the team, those numbers could increase this year.
Looking at average draft position, I see that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo can be had several spots after Chargers passer Philip Rivers, yet produces both quality and elite starts at nearly the same rate. Wait a round and take Romo in your upcoming draft.
Finally, I think fantasy owners, especially in dynasty leagues, are often too focused on identifying and acquiring players with supposed upside. These are usually young players who may have flashed some talent and potential, either in college or briefly in the NFL. These players gain fantasy value quickly and the hype surrounding them begins to grow among fantasy owners. This hype machine often leads to owners making poor draft, trade or lineup decisions based on the possibility they will “hit” on a specific player. On the occasions these upside players do display continued success, their increased value is maintained, but this is not always the case. Owners selecting the safer and more consistent players at specific positions gain flexibility in building their rosters at other positions and can successfully field a winning team.