The Weekly Gut Check No. 195 - Dangerous Picks That Can Damage Your Draft Part I Quarterbacks
By Matt Waldman
July 6th, 2010

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

If there is one thing you have learned, as a regular reader of this column is that I love to explore risk. However, it's not that I love being contrary for the sake of being different. I want to challenge you to think twice about conventional views or strategies used in fantasy football. When I find views or strategies that run against this year's current of thought, and I can provide a sound explanation to support them, I believe I'm giving you a chance to have an edge in your drafts.

My explorations have led me to examine players that I believe pose a risk to executing a successful draft. Some of these players I would love to have on my roster, but not at their current value. However, I believe you will compound your potential issues as your draft progresses if you take these players near their average draft position. This week, I'm profiling the dangerous plays at quarterback. Part II will cover dangerous plays at running back and Part III will feature receivers and tight ends that pose a danger to your selection strategy. All average draft values (ADP) are from Fantasy Calculator.

Aaron Rodgers (ADP 1.10)

Rodgers is a great young quarterback - probably one of my favorite "new" starters in the league and I believe a strong bet to repeat top-five fantasy totals at his position. His performance was so good that fantasy owners are vaulting him over Drew Brees and Peyton Manning as the No. 1 preseason pick at the position. It's hard not to argue when you watch Rodgers play. He has great poise and guts, shows promise of maneuvering effectively in the pocket, and he can spray the ball around the field with accuracy. With his strong receiving corps, it seems like Rodgers has good odds to repeat as the top producing fantasy quarterback in 2010.

Viewing the average fantasy points for starting quarterbacks for the past 12 years, it can pay to have the top player at the position, but is it generally worth the cost?

Average Fantasy Points For Quarterbacks

Years
QB1
QB2
QB3
QB4
QB5
QB6
QB7
QB8
QB9
QB10
QB11
QB12
2007-2009
428.7
385.3
369.7
364.3
353.3
339.3
337.0
333.3
324.0
312.7
308.7
293.3
2004-2006
381.7
360.0
328.0
321.3
315.7
310.0
297.3
290.3
285.3
279.3
274.0
270.3
2001-2003
372.3
354.3
338.7
331.0
327.0
320.7
313.3
312.3
304.7
298.3
285.3
278.0
1998-2000
416.3
382.3
346.7
330.7
321.0
313.7
293.3
285.0
276.3
270.0
261.7
253.0

For the past three seasons, the average difference between the QB1 and QB2 was just less than 44 points. We're talking about a 2.7-point per game difference, which is a healthy advantage. However, that gap was only 1.4 and 1.1 points per game when you view the three-year increments of 2004-2006 and 2001-2003, respectively. The gap is a healthier 2.1-point per game difference from 1998-2000, but that is almost half of what it was from 2007-2009. What this table hints is that there are some years with really wide gaps between the QB1 and QB2, but is it worth counting on every year?

The Gap Between QB & QB2

Year
QB1
QB2
Gap
PPG
2009
410
382
28
1.8
2008
406
376
30
1.9
2007
470
398
72
4.5
2006
371
328
52
3.3
2005
330
324
6
0.4
2004
444
428
16
1.0
2003
340
332
8
0.5
2002
385
371
14
0.9
2001
392
360
32
2.0
2000
418
403
15
0.9
1999
397
390
7
0.4
1998
434
354
80
5.0

Judging from this information, it's a toss up at best. If you consider a solid difference to be at least two points per game, then technically 4 of the past 12 years have been good (although you could fudge it to 6)- especially Tom Brady's record-breaking 2007 and Steve Young's combined 42-TD, 1998.

But for 6 of the past 12 years, the gap has been a point per game or less, including Kurt Warner's 41-TD 1999, and Daunte Culpepper's breakout in 2000. Even in a league where the scoring of touchdowns and interceptions creates a larger gap in fantasy points, the toss remains the same. The only difference is Brady and Young's seasons create an even greater gap for those individual years.

Personally, I'm not crazy about trying to hit the bull's eye on the No. 1 fantasy quarterback with my first (and in most cases my second) pick in the draft. In the past 12 years, the difference between the QB1 and QB12 is generally smaller than the difference between the WR1 and WR36 in most fantasy leagues. Even when quarterbacks had big years and the difference is minimal, there are three to four times as many starting receivers in the average fantasy league.

Because the top-12 fantasy receivers tend to hold their value from year to year better than running backs, the smarter play in most leagues is to take receivers if you have a pick at the end of the first round. In most years, I'm going to create an equal or greater points gap with two top-12 receivers - and have a better chance of picking them - than hoping I took the No. 1 QB with my first pick. In fact, the odds might be in your favor of landing two, top-five wide receivers.

This point really comes into focus when you consider that Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo captain offenses loaded with weapons and Matt Schaub and Tom Brady also have very similar skill, at least one great weapon, and a few more with potential compete with Rodgers. Half of these players will be available in rounds 3-5. Even if I were to take a quarterback in the second round, I'd prefer Manning or Brees after selecting a strong WR1 with my opening pick, because at least they have demonstrated more season-to-season consistency as a top-five starter.

Rodgers might be my top-ranked quarterbacks for re-draft leagues, but in the context of a draft, wide receiver - and often running back - is a better value for at Rodgers' current ADP. Rodgers looks the part of the next superstar quarterback, but it was just one season. The potential damage to your draft is losing your best shot at getting more elite players at WR or other positions because you had to go for the bull's eye.

Phillip Rivers (ADP 4.1)

I expect Rivers' value to continue sliding as long as Vincent Jackson remains a hold out, but there is a chance that the public remains overly optimistic that Rivers can remain a top-tier quarterback with or without his star receiver. Rivers was the No. 3 fantasy QB in 2008 and the No. 7 QB in 2009. In 2007, he was No. 15 overall.

How does this correspond to Vincent Jackson? Jackson was the 13th and 10th-ranked fantasy receiver in 2008 and 2009, respectively. In 2007, Jackson was No. 52 among fantasy receivers. Antonio Gates was the No. 3 and No. 4 TE in 2008 and 2009 and in the WR-barren year of 2007 for the Chargers, Gates was the No. 2 TE despite Rivers performing as a committee fantasy starter that year.

It takes either two strong receivers or a top-tier receiver and a top-tier tight end for a quarterback to elevate his numbers to that of a fantasy starter. Malcolm Floyd might be having a splendid camp, but I think his production will be in the range of the WRs20-48 - still a value for Floyd, but it doesn't elevate Rivers to the top half of fantasy starting quarterbacks.

The rest of the Chargers receiving corps are nothing to write home about. Josh Reed is a slot receiver that might surprise with a smart quarterback like Rivers, but I doubt his bump in production will be more than 800 yards. Craig Davis still has trouble with routes and his hands. Legedu Naanee has enticing athleticism, but he is not going to distract defenses consistently. UDFA Jeremy Williams has the skills of a 3rd or 4th round pick, but he'll be a major surprise if he contributes as even a part-time starter this year. It means Darren Sproles might be the next best receiver after Gates - good for fantasy owners looking for a late-round pick, but not great for Rivers' stats.

The potential damage with taking Rivers at the end of round three-top of round four is that you are trading a WR2-WR3, or even a potential RB1-RB2, for a passer who has "committee starter-weapons", at best without Jackson. If Jackson returns to the fold by late July-early August and Rivers' value slips between now and then, the Chargers quarterback might become a value. But as long as the Chargers lack a true primary threat and its quarterback doesn't get the chance to work with one by August, Rivers can really hurt your draft if you think his fantasy production is an island onto himself.

Kevin Kolb (ADP 6.05)

Kolb is currently QB8 and as of me writing this piece the Eagles new starting quarterback is ranked above Brett Favre, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Donovan McNabb. I know just spent four paragraphs demonstrating why Rivers doesn't stir his own fantasy drink but at the same time, I don't believe the Eagles offense will continue to thrive at the same rate without Donovan McNabb. Everyone else seems ready to anoint Kolb more fit to start in Philly and become as good or better than McNabb as a fantasy starter after two productive - but not necessarily effective - performances in McNabb's absence. The reasoning often begins with "it doesn't make sense to extrapolate two games over the course of a season, but (insert platitudes here)..."

I like Kolb as a prospect. I thought he acquitted himself well as the starter for the Houston Cougars when I watched him maneuver away from the top-ranked Miami Hurricane pass rush a few years ago. I was impressed with his arm and overall decision-making. As a pro, his two big starts last year were against Kansas City's putrid defense and the Saints in "protect the lead" mode. Not impressive. The nearly $13 million dollars in guaranteed money signifies the team's confidence in him and the common refrain is that the Eagles traded McNabb to a division rival and Kolb has great weapons in Philly.

But is it really true that the Eagles have the surrounding talent to elevate Kolb? Or is it more likely that McNabb had more to do with elevating the surrounding talent than those receivers, tight ends and backs had to do with McNabb's success? We might gain a little more insight when Kolb takes the field as the Eagles' starter in 2010, but for now let's have a look at McNabb and his receiving corps over the years.

Donovan McNabb and His Surrounding Talent

McNabb
Rank
Missed Gm
1000 Yd WR
800 Yd WR
600 Yd WR
TE
RB
2009
11
2
1
1
2
1x900
1x300
2008
7
0
0
1
1
0
2x300
2007
12
2
1
1
2
0
1x700
2006
16
6
0
1
2
1x600
1x700
2005
20
7
0
0
1
1x600
1x600
2004
3
1
1
1
2
0
1x700
2003
13
0
0
0
0
0
3x300
2002
13
6
0
0
3
0
1x500
2001
8
0
0
1
1
0
1x600
2000
5
0
0
0
1
1x700
3x200
1999
36
0
0
0
1
0
0

The table shows McNabb's ranking, games missed and baseline yardage marks his receivers, tight ends and backs met. For the TE and RB columns, I used the shorthand of 1x900 to indicate there was at least one player on the Eagles roster at that position with a minimum of 900 yards.

During McNabb's 11-year career, the Eagles QB had an end of the year fantasy ranking as a QB1 six times, but for only half of those seasons did he have a player gain 1000 yards receiving. For three of those top-12 seasons McNabb also missed at least one game. Prior to 2004, McNabb's years of starter-quality numbers despite low totals for his receivers had more to do with his totals as a runner.

But a common thread is the lack of productive receiving talent in Philadelphia during McNabb's career. You could argue that with McNabb missing at least one game during 6 of his 11 seasons and 24 games total during his career that these receivers experienced a drop off in production because they were paired with a second-string quarterback that lacked McNabb's skill and the rapport with his teammates. Yet another thing to consider is to determine how many Philadelphia receivers had productive careers after they left Philadelphia?

Although we have to take into account that some of these receivers might have been past their physical prime after they left the Eagles, I don't think this was the case for Freddie Mitchell, Hank Baskett, Reggie Brown, Billy McMullen, Todd Pinkston, Gari Scott, Na Brown, Charles Johnson or Dameane Douglas. I think the only receivers you can say had decent careers after a stint in Philly were Terrell Owens and much lesser extents, Donte Stallworth and Greg Lewis.

Although Brian Westbrook is known as a great receiving back, he never exceeded 800 yards as a pass catcher. The best production McNabb ever got from the tight end position was a 900-yard season from Brent Celek last year. In fact, Celek's 900 yards, DeSean Jackson's 1100 yards and rookie Jeremy Maclin's 700 yards in the same year is the best trio of help McNabb has ever got. McNabb still ranked no better than 11th overall among fantasy passers last year. Even if he didn't miss two games and performed to his average points per game for 2009, he would have ranked no better than 10th overall. In fact, there are several seasons where McNabb performed better with less talented receivers and if he didn't miss games, it would have been more accurately reflected in his fantasy rankings.

What Might Have Been - McNabb's Projected Rankings

McNabb
Rank
Missed Gm
FPts/Gm
Proj Rk
2002
13
6
26.9
1
2004
3
1
24.8
3
2005
20
7
22.1
1
2006
16
6
24.9
1
2007
12
2
19.3
9
2009
11
2
20.9
10

If McNabb maintained his fantasy points per game average in half of the six seasons he missed time, he would have been the overall No. 1 fantasy quarterback. Sure, it's not entirely accurate to say he'd be as good as his projected ranking, but it is very reasonable to say McNabb was on track to attain a significantly stronger ranking in at least three of his six seasons where he missed time due to injury - and he did it without two quality receivers we often see in other offenses where quarterbacks achieve equal or greater production.

Although I believe Jackson, Maclin, Celek, and Jason Avant constitute the best aggregate of talent the Eagles have had on the same team since McNabb became the starting quarterback, it doesn't mean they are unquestionably a strong corps relative to other NFL passing games. Jackson might be the most elusive open field runner at his position in the game, and combined with his vertical speed, he's one of the most dangerous threats catching the ball outside the hash marks. But neither Jackson nor Maclin has a strong inside presence as receivers in the middle of the field beyond the crossing route. Avant has decent skills in the middle of the field, but he lacks vertical speed. Maclin still has plenty of potential left to reach, but I doubt he will make the leap to 1000-yard performer this year with a new quarterback. I also think Brent Celek's 2009 production was probably at his ceiling.

This all reinforces the thought that Kolb is a risky pick this year. I understand why some people believe the quarterback has potential to be a top-five fantasy passer if Jackson, Maclin and Celek produce to their potential in 2010, but it takes a great deal of rapport and on-field recognition of defenses by the quarterback for it to happen. I don't believe Kolb will demonstrate these two skills consistently enough to be as good as McNabb was in 2009.

There is also talk that Kolb is more mobile than McNabb is at this point in his career, but I will be shocked if this observation isn't proven false after ore than a few games. Kolb can move in the pocket - especially after he dropped weight between his junior and senior years at Houston - but I'm looking forward to seeing the young quarterback cope with the pass protection McNabb dealt with regularly.

The fact that there are enough fantasy owners taking Kolb over Jay Cutler, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Brett Favre, Carson Palmer, and even Joe Flacco - all players available 1-3 rounds later who I think have better or more proven skills and receiving corps - is mind-boggling. I think people are overreacting to Aaron Rodgers' success post-Brett Favre and/or they simply never respected Donovan McNabb as a player. I wouldn't be surprised if McNabb in a new town statistically out-performs Kolb. McNabb has always been more judicious with the football and talent wise, I would take Chris Cooley and Fred Davis over Brent Celek. Nor do I think Santana Moss is that much of a drop in talent from DeSean Jackson. If the Redskins either get Devin Thomas to play to his potential or they acquire another starter by August, McNabb could be in for a nice year.

I can get these quarterbacks 1-3 rounds later than Kolb and in round six have several quality receivers available such as Hakeem Nicks, Santana Moss, Donald Driver, Hines Ward, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Or, I can grab productive RBs that will begin the year as significant RBBC contributors at worst: Justin Forsett, Ricky Williams, Jerome Harrison, and Marion Barber. All four of these backs have a similar ADP to Kolb. Taking a first-year starter as my QB1 in the top half of a fantasy draft with more proven talent at his position, and others, is too great of a risk - even for me.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.