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Do Wide Receivers Need a Top QB to Have a Dominant Fantasy Season?


Wide receiver is the premiere fantasy football position, so figuring out which WR are likely to produce at a high level is an important endeavor. One factor that could affect WR performance is quarterback play.

Should we worry about receivers who are stuck with weak QBs? What if the WR or QB changes teams? Should we upgrade or downgrade the WR on the basis of who their QB is?

These are complex questions and we won't get a complete answer here. What we can do is take a look at what the data show, and prompt further conversation and research. Here's how I approached this question.

 

QBs that Produced Elite WR Fantasy Seasons

I took the top 12 WRs in seasonal PPR performance for the past six years (72 seasons total) and matched them up with their principal QB. Then I added in the quarterback's positional finish.

QB FINISH PCT OF WR1 SEASONS
TOP 6 45.8%
TOP 10 62.5%
TOP 12 70.8%

 

The average QB positional finish was 9.1, and top 12 WR played with a top-six QB almost 46 percent of the time. Almost 71 percent of top-12 WR seasons came with a top-12 QB.

On the surface, it sure seems like top WR seasons and top QB seasons go hand in hand. This makes intuitive sense: it seems like it would be hard to be great at catching passes if you didn't have somebody great at throwing them to you.

Is that the end of the discussion? Not so fast.

 

QB Roll Call

Our 72 top-12 WR seasons were produced by 31 different QBs or QB combos. As you'd expect, the list of QBs is littered with elite names. 64 percent of the top WR seasons involved one of these QBs: Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Stafford, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, or Carson Palmer.

There's a whole lot of "very good" as well as a healthy bit of "outright elite" names in that list. But let's turn it around and look at the flip side. About a third of top WR seasons came with QBs who didn't have a dominant season. Indeed, Jay Cutler shows up four times, and Andy Dalton three times. Other names include Blake Bortles, Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, Derek Carr, Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Bryan Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Matt Moore, Christian Ponder, Ryan Tannehill, and even Kevin Kolb and Jon Skelton, who combined to help Larry Fitzgerald to a top-12 season in 2011.

Let's take that table from the previous section and flip it around.

QB FINISH PCT OF WR1 SEASONS
Worse than 6 54.2%
Worse than 10 37.5%
Worse than 12 29.2%

 

What this tells us is that you can get a top-12 WR season with a QB that's outside the top 12 almost thirty percent of the time. You can do it more than half the time with a QB that's outside the top six.

Our takeaway from this section is that while it's certainly a good thing to have your WR connected to a top QB, it's not absolutely necessary.

 

Just Who Are These WR Anyway?

One important thing we haven't considered yet is the direction of causality. We can see from the tables above that top WR seasons and top QB seasons are strongly correlated, but we haven't established whether or not a top QB season causes a top WR season.

Remembering that there are 72 qualifying WR seasons, I think it's interesting that just two of them involved Tom Brady. He's a good QB. Maybe it's just because Rob Gronkowski takes so many targets that no WR can really get the volume for a top season. But Drew Brees played with Jimmy Graham for many years, and Brees is connected to twice as many top WR seasons.

Allen Robinson produced with Blake Bortles. Alshon Jeffery did it with Jay Cutler. Brandon Marshall has done it with Cutler, Matt Moore, Josh McCown, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Let's put some numbers to this. These are the WR that have produced a top-12 season.

WR Draft Pick Number Cumulative Pct
Top 10 7 17.9%
First Round 17 43.6%
First two rounds 27 69.2%
Top 100 32 82.1%

 

For reference, the 72 WR seasons we're looking at were compiled by just 37 unique players. 82 percent of those players were top-100 draft picks. Almost 70 percent were taken in the first two rounds. 43 percent were first-round picks, and 18 percent were top 10 picks.

Using draft position as a proxy for "talent" brings up some questions of its own, but it gives us a quick sense of something very important to consider. Let's run through some of the WR1 names: Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, Jordy Nelson, A.J. Green, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Evans. Did those players really need "a great QB" to produce a top WR season? Maybe, maybe not, but I think you could make a good case for doing this article in reverse: "Does a QB need a top WR in order to have a good fantasy season?"

 

Conclusion

I think this question is more complex than I can answer in one article. Variables like opportunity should also be considered. Golden Tate has a top-12 season to his credit but failed to repeat the following year. Both the top-12 season and lack of repeat can probably be attributed to Calvin Johnson, who missed extensive time in Tate's top year, but returned healthy the subsequent year and took the opportunity away from Tate.

I will say that having a good, or great, QB is obviously a good thing for a WR. But it also doesn't seem to be a requirement. Really good WRs seem capable of producing top seasons whether or not they have a good QB. And perhaps the reason those QBs are good is because of the presence of the WR.

If you've got a WR who's produced at a high level in the past, I'd continue to bet on them producing at a high level in the future, regardless of what happens at QB. If your league mates think differently, try to take advantage. Someone down on DeAndre Hopkins because he had a down year with Brock Osweiler? Remember that Hopkins had a top season with Brian Hoyer, and make an offer.




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