Editor’s Note: This article was the winning submission of one of our Writing Contest winners from last month – Eric Hardter. It was chosen for a variety of reasons, including its attention to detail and creativity. Team DLF is excited to welcome Eric to the writing group and we know you’ll enjoy much more of his work in the coming months and years. Keep in mind this article was submitted about five weeks ago, before Jake Locker was officially named the starter in Tennessee and before we found out Blaine Gabbert had a pulse in the preseason.
As unconventional as the comparison may be, I liken building a football roster to constructing a house. Obviously you need sturdy walls to hold the place up, similar to a stout offensive line. Additionally, it’s nice to have fancy paint jobs and new appliances that catch your eye, much like explosive wide receivers, shifty running backs and matchup-nightmare tight ends do. You can even build a fence, install a security system, and buy a 120-pound Rottweiler to make your home as impenetrable as the 1985 Bears defense. However, any contractor worth his salt knows that when it comes to building houses, the most important part is laying the foundation. Similarly, head coaches in the NFL know that the success of their team can seemingly be dependent upon one position: the quarterback.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the majority of championship football teams are anchored by elite quarterback play. Mirroring this pattern, the most important real-life position can often times be the biggest fantasy difference maker from week to week, all season long, and possibly for a solid 10+ year run. Owners of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady know what I mean, as they knowingly break into wide smiles and commence in overzealous backslapping. Likewise, the Andrew Luck and RGIII owners, while perhaps more reserved, just know deep down they have it made for the foreseeable future.
Given the relative lack of star power at the quarterback position, you’re likely not as fortunate. Perhaps your championship aspirations tanked due to Peyton Manning’s health, or the regression of Philip Rivers. Maybe Joe Flacco’s rocket to superstardom flamed out somewhere around mediocrity, and crashed into Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub along the way. Bottom line, we live in a world where Alex Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick are viable NFL quarterbacks. Getting back to the original metaphor, you might as well be living in a house of cards!
Nevertheless, hope remains. Over the past few years, a number of quarterbacks were selected early in the NFL draft, likely in the hope they would become franchise-caliber signal callers; the foundations of their respective teams, if you will. It’s time to examine some of these potential up-and-comers, and how they could impact your fantasy roster in the coming years.
This analysis will take into account both statistics and situation for first and second round quarterbacks dating back to the 2009 NFL draft. For simplicity’s sake, it will exclude those already squarely on the QB1 radar (Matt Stafford, Cam Newton), and also those with little to no shot of fantasy relevance (Pat White, Jimmy Clausen). So without further preamble, I present to you your saviors in waiting!
Starting with the Numbers
The table below shows pertinent career figures for the quarterbacks under consideration:
The raw numbers, despite only telling part of the story, can be useful. For example, over the course of multiple seasons, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow all appear to be dink-and-dunk quarterbacks with penchants for poor ball security. While starting much of the 2011 season, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder exhibited similar characteristics. In fact, among qualifying quarterbacks (34) in the 2011 season, all six of the aforementioned players finished in the bottom eight of the yards-per-attempt statistic. Ouch. Compared to the 2011 numbers of the fantasy gold-standard, Aaron Rodgers (68.3% completion, 9.25 ypa, 7.5:1 TD/INT ratio, 122.5 QB rating), these guys seem like they would be better suited to selling popcorn in the stands than buckling up their chinstraps!
Having written that, there are also positives that can be derived from the data. Despite the truncated offseason, 2011 rookie Andy Dalton took care of the ball well, had a top-20 QB rating, and even led his team to the playoffs. Jake Locker, albeit in a limited fashion, displayed playmaking skills (8.21 ypa), didn’t turn the ball over and would’ve had a top five quarterback rating had he qualified.
Another aspect to consider is rushing yardage (and to a lesser extent rushing touchdowns, which, as Michael Vick has proven, can’t necessarily be predicted or replicated). Most leagues are designed to mitigate quarterback scoring, but generally do so by limiting points for passing yards and touchdowns. Consequently, a “running” quarterback can significantly enhance your team’s weekly output.
Of the quarterbacks listed, Tim Tebow is clearly the benchmark, as an amazing 27.1% of his total yards come from rushing! While Tebow is an obvious aberration, both Ponder and Locker offer some upside in the run game as well, as their rushing totals each hover around 10% of their total yards. While not game breaking, these points could provide the edge in a tight matchup.
As previously mentioned, statistics can cover a few chapters, but by no means do they write the whole book. Each quarterback’s situation must also be taken into account in order to tell the full story. When coupled with the stats, the following breakdowns should further serve to clarify the murky waters of each player’s future.
Yikes. With that now infamously awkward exchange, the great Sanchez-Tebow controversy of 2012 officially began. Of course, it’s questionable as to whether there should even be a debate. Since his rookie season, Sanchez has improved upon his completion percentage, passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating each year. He also led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship games in 2009 and 2010. While by no means is he a fantasy stalwart, Sanchez generally won’t embarrass himself if placed in your starting lineup.
Pros: Sanchez was recently awarded a contract extension through 2016, although some cynics saw it as an “apology” for the Jets going after Peyton Manning in free agency. He has decent weapons in Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller and rookie Stephen Hill.
Cons: The Tebow factor. If the Jets don’t start off the season hot and keep pace with the Pats, there will be plenty of clamoring for the backup. Even if Sanchez does play well, Rex Ryan prefers to control the game with power running and suffocating defense, capping his upside.
Hidden Statistic: Rushing touchdowns. Sanchez was often used as the preferred goal-line option last year, resulting in six rushing touchdowns. With a bulked-up Tebow on board, don’t expect a repeat.
Recommendation: Sanchez could possibly realize his potential in a different locale, away from the bright lights and prying eyes of New York. If you own him, make sure you own Tebow. If you’re a believer in his ability, now’s the time for a low-ball offer. Sanchez could be a reasonable QB2 or bye-week replacement down the line.
Synopsis: After a stellar sophomore campaign where he posted 25 touchdowns (to just 6 INT’s), 3,451 passing yards and a quarterback rating of 95.9, expectations for Freeman were through the roof. He responded by regressing in most every meaningful statistical category, including a negative turnover differential as well as a twenty point drop in quarterback rating. While it’s not fair to blame everything on Freeman (his “skill” position players certainly didn’t help), he definitely didn’t silence the critics who predicted his play would slip due to a tougher schedule. It will be up to new coach Greg Schiano to help Freeman turn it back around, and redeem last year’s miserable season.
Pros: Vincent Jackson was signed to a five-year contract in the offseason, giving Freeman a dangerous big-play threat. Rookie Doug Martin should replace LeGarrette Blount as the primary running back, thereby adding another weapon out of the backfield. The Bucs have six games a year against the high-octane offenses of the NFC South, affording more chances for big statistical performances.
Cons: While Greg Schiano’s no-nonsense approach helped turn around a moribund Rutgers program, his preference for a run-heavy offense is well known. According to NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell, Freeman showed little to no improvement from 2010 to 2011, noting “[Freeman’s] erratic accuracy is a serious matter.”
Hidden Statistic: 45% of Freeman’s interceptions last year were intended for tight end Kellen Winslow, who is no longer with the team.
Recommendation: Freeman is worth rostering due to his upside. He will likely never be more than a low-end QB1, but like Sanchez, could serve as your QB2 or bye-week replacement.
Synopsis: Much like Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford’s past two seasons were the definition of Jekyll and Hyde. He showed promise as a rookie, posting a positive TD/INT ratio and 60% completion rate, en route to 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Last year, however, he accounted for a scant six touchdowns, while also missing six games due to injury. Similar to Freeman once again, Bradford will continue his career under a run-first coach in Jeff Fisher.
Pros: The Rams spent early draft picks on wide receivers Brian Quick and Chris Givens, as well as pass-catching running back Isaiah Pead. Bradford will usually be playing from behind, giving him the chance for more passing plays and garbage time points.
Cons: As already mentioned, new coach Jeff Fisher prefers to run the ball. Bradford is saddled with one of the poorer offensive lines in the league, as well as a mediocre set of skill-position players. While not necessarily injury-prone, Bradford hurt his shoulder twice during his junior season at Oklahoma, and missed six games last season due to a high-ankle sprain.
Hidden Statistic: Bradford was sacked on 9.3% of his dropbacks last season, trailing only Kevin Kolb amongst qualifying QB’s. Medic!
Recommendation: Towards the end of last season, it appeared Bradford began to imagine defensive pressure at every turn. It’s no guarantee that he’ll ever calm down in the pocket, as poor offensive lines have permanently scarred other highly drafted quarterbacks, such as David Carr. If you own him, hold him or try to trade him to a believer. There are just too many question marks here to be confident in his long-term prognosis.
Synopsis: As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em…trade for ‘em! The Jets did just that, pairing him with previously profiled fellow former first round pick Mark Sanchez. While Sanchez is the unquestioned starter (for now), Tebow will be counted on to play up to 20 snaps per game, including reps as wildcat quarterback, and also on special teams. However, should Sanchez and the Jets struggle early, the clamoring for Tebow might be too loud for Rex Ryan to ignore.
Pros: Last year Tebow averaged 47 rushing yards per game, to go with six rushing touchdowns. As the presumed goal line back, he’s a good bet to equal or better the latter. He’s also a born leader and who commands his teammates’ respect, which are the types of intangibles you want in your franchise quarterback.
Cons: His throwing mechanics are still a work in progress, as evidenced by a career completion rate of below 50%. He’s not guaranteed to start at all this year, meaning those in shallow leagues could be wasting a coveted roster spot on him.
Hidden Statistic: Four of the Jets’ first eight games are against 2011 playoff teams: the Steelers, 49ers, Texans and Patriots. If they go .500 or worse, expect to see more of Tebow following the week 9 bye.
Recommendation: Don’t you get the impression that coaches are always going to give this guy a chance? He’s a legitimately good person, and a proven winner. While unorthodox, Tebow offers QB1 upside due to his running ability. Hold for now, and sell high after a few big games.
Synopsis: Locker was drafted by the Titans to eventually take over the reigns from an aging Matt Hasselbeck, and it’s looking like 2012 could be the year it happens. In spot duty last year, Locker didn’t disappoint, flashing big-play potential while avoiding turnovers. Locker can also make plays with his legs, forcing the defense to respect both the run and the pass.
Pros: If stockpiling offensive talent is akin to an arms race, the Titans just went nuclear. First-round rookie receiver Kendall Wright joins vertical threats Kenny Britt and Jared Cook, veteran receiver Nate Washington, and running back Chris Johnson. In addition to these weapons, Locker has also had a year to study under consummate pro in Hasselbeck.
Cons: While Locker undoubtedly learned the ropes from Hasselbeck, he’s still in a fight to usurp his position. Locker has also struggled with accuracy dating back to college. Potential primary target Britt is an oft-injured perpetual suspension risk.
Hidden Statistic: Total number of Locker’s passes intended for Britt and Wright last year: zero. Both should be available in 2012 and beyond.
Recommendation: Buy, buy, buy. Locker oozes potential, and is surrounded by one of the elite skill position groups in the NFL. He has QB1 upside, but should be paired with a veteran while he continues to develop.
Synopsis: Anytime a quarterback’s statistics (shown earlier) evoke comparisons to Jimmy Clausen, warning bells should be sounding…loudly. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, Gabbert’s returns upon investment so far most closely resemble a dot-com stock, circa 2001. New coach Mike Mularkey will try to get Gabbert’s career untracked, but didn’t give him a vote of confidence by signing former Dolphin Chad Henne.
Pros: Gabbert looks the part, and has a big arm to match. The Jaguars dramatically upgraded their wide-receiving corps with the additions of free agent Laurent Robinson and rookie Justin Blackmon. The coaching staff is backing him, so far, to be the starter.
Cons: Much like Bradford, Gabbert sees ghosts in the pocket, and just doesn’t seem to have a feel for the game. His scattershot accuracy certainly wasn’t aided by a poor group of receivers, but is a big problem nonetheless. He now has serious competition from Henne, and it wouldn’t be a huge financial burden for the Jaguars to cut ties with him if doesn’t improve.
Hidden Statistic: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew had 386 touches last year, and is the obvious focal point of the Jaguars’ offense.
Recommendation: It would be disingenuous to completely rule out Gabbert becoming a viable fantasy quarterback. However, his poor pocket presence may not be fixable. Gabbert should only be rostered in the deepest of two-QB leagues, and even then, take what you can get for him.
Synopsis: When the Donovan McNabb Rejuvenation Experiment (version 2.0) resulted in a 1-5 start, the torch was passed to rookie Christian Ponder. While he only produced one win in eight starts, Ponder’s insertion into the starting lineup had a galvanizing effect on the offense, leading to an increase of five points per game. Most notably, he developed a tangible connection with jack-of-all-trades Percy Harvin. While Ponder missed time at the end of the year due to a concussion, he’s expected to remain the Vikings’ starting quarterback in 2012.
Pros: There’s solid young talent on offense, including Harvin and emerging tight end Kyle Rudolph. The Vikings also improved at wide receiver, signing free agent Jerome Simpson and drafting Greg Childs. Moreover, they spent their first-round draft pick on the consensus number one offensive tackle prospect, Matt Kalil.
Cons: When healthy, Adrian Peterson will be the focal point of the offense. Ponder has a bit of an injury history, including elbow and shoulder injuries in college. Despite the addition of Kalil, the Vikings still have a fairly weak offensive line.
Hidden Statistic: 10,232. That’s how many passing yards the Packers and Lions combined for last year. Like Josh Freeman, Ponder will have to put up big numbers to keep pace.
Recommendation: Said to have “advanced light years” during the offseason, Ponder is someone to stash on your roster as a developmental quarterback. Improvement in the passing game, coupled with moderate rushing yardage, gives Ponder high-end QB2 or even low-end QB1 upside.
Synopsis: The Red Rifle had the best season out of any rookie quarterback not named Cam last year, leading the Bengals to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. In doing so, he posted a touchdown to interception differential of +7, while passing for nearly 3,400 yards in the brutal AFC North. Dalton also formed a solid rapport with fellow rookie AJ Green, which is likely to strengthen over time.
Pros: Dalton showed incredible poise as a rookie, steering the Bengals to nine wins in a division that boasted two other playoff teams. He has a young group of core players to work with, including Green, tight end Jermaine Gresham, and rookie receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones.
Cons: Opposing defenses appeared to figure Dalton out down the stretch, as he only passed for more than 200 yards once in his last five regular season games. His lack of arm strength, while somewhat overstated, is a poor match for the late-year Cincinnati weather. Coach Marvin Lewis wants to return to a run-based offense, signing free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Hidden Statistic: Zero, as in the number of playoff teams Dalton beat last season. He’ll have to improve upon that stat to become a truly great player.
Recommendation: He’s worth rostering as a bye-week replacement (or low-end QB2 in a two-quarterback league), but may lack the physical tools to join the ranks of the elite. If you own him, hold tight, as his value should only increase.
Synopsis: Drafted as the quarterback of the future for San Francisco, Kaepernick rarely saw the field as starter Alex Smith had a career year. Expect this trend to continue, as Smith was re-signed to a three-year contract.
Pros: Kaepernick has a big arm, and wheels to match. He also has ideal stature, at 6’4” and 230 pounds.
Cons: As mentioned, he’s the backup until Alex Smith regresses or gets hurt. He was drafted as a project, and still needs work with his mechanics.
Hidden Statistic: Number one. This is the pick where another Jim Harbaugh disciple, Andrew Luck, was chosen in the 2012 NFL draft. The man knows quarterbacks.
Recommendation: You should really only own him if you’re in a deep (or 2QB) league where you also own Alex Smith.
What does it all mean?
Given the combination of statistics and circumstance, and adhering to the initial analogy, here’s how I’d rank each player:
Tier 1 – The Mansion
Jake Locker: Locker appears to be in a league of his own, and has the most potential to become a superstar quarterback.
Tier 2 – Top Floor Apartments with a View
Josh Freeman and Christian Ponder: They need to show improvement, but have the tools to become low-end fantasy starters.
Tier 3 – The Creaky Victorian
Sam Bradford: The talent is there, but his body and mind might not be strong enough to ever truly flourish.
Tier 4 – The Quaint Cottage
Andy Dalton: A relative lack of physical attributes will hold him back, but he should remain a solid NFL starter, and fantasy bye-week fill-in.
Tier 5 – The Attached Duplex
Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow: The growth of Sanchez and Tebow will be stunted until their “dueling banjos” situation is resolved. You shouldn’t expect much production from either as long as they’re sharing the same playbook.
Tier 6 – The Fixer Upper
Colin Kaepernick: He has potential if only due to his physical makeup, but likely won’t have the chance to realize it anytime soon.
Tier 7 – Building Condemned
Blaine Gabbert: Lacks the charisma to be an above average quarterback, and simply isn’t worth owning.
For one reason or another, you might be looking to upgrade the foundation of your team. Hopefully this analysis has given you some insight into how to go about choosing the “right materials.” After all, building properly can help to ensure that you’re lining your mantle with championship trophies instead of fixing the cracks in your league cellar!
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