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Early Round QB - How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Pick Aaron Rodgers

Early Round QB is a “strategy” that involves using a high pick, likely in one of the first three rounds, on a quarterback. It is a strategy that is ridiculed across much of the fantasy football world today.

Its opposing ideology, the Late Round Quarterback has become so accepted that, for many, taking Aaron Rodgers in the third round is tantamount to taking Justin Tucker in the first.

Editor's Note: Purchase a full season NFL Premium Pass (including Draft Kit + DFS Premium), and also get MLB Premium + DFS for free through October. Premium DFS lineup picks, expert lineups, tools and more - seven days a week. You can see screenshots of our NFL Premium and MLB Premium and DFS tools. What are you waiting for?

 

Drafting Quarterbacks Early

Such a pick is an immediate sign that the Early Round Quarterback drafter is a fantasy newcomer, destined for last place. Well I am here to tell you that this dogma is wrong. The top quarterbacks should go early and the reason is math and the simple reality of fantasy football.

There exists two primary arguments against picking a QB early. The first is positional scarcity. This is the idea that the lack of quality players at one position (RB) is so great that even a mediocre #1 RB is more valuable than a great player from a more abundant position (QB). Such an argument would suggest that the opportunity cost of passing on a #1 RB or #1 WR is far too great to ever justify taking a QB with a second or third round pick. The second argument is a related, although separate, argument based around the potential of QBs that are available in later rounds. This line of thinking goes along the lines of, “Sure Derek Carr isn’t as valuable as Aaron Rodgers, but if you combine a couple of high upside QB prospects chances are you will end up with an elite option!” Both of these arguments are flawed.

 

Position Scarcity

Let’s start off with the first argument about positional scarcity. The abundance at the quarterback position is either exaggerated or misunderstood. In order to understand why, it is important to get a better understanding of scarcity. The idea isn’t that there are a limited number of Running Backs to draft, it’s that there is a limited number of Running Backs who score at least X amount of points. And yes, there is a scarcity of Running Backs who will average say 12 points a game and be a reliable starter. But there is greater scarcity, and thus value, at the upper end of the QB position.

In order to measure scarcity, and as such value, you need a way to compare the scoring outputs of different positions against one another. I use a measure called Value Above Average (VAA). It works similarly to Value Above Replacement Player (VORP). VORP can be difficult for fantasy football because it is hard to find a good replacement level player; VAA doesn’t have this issue. VAA works by subtracting a players score by the average of all starters at their given position (12 QB, 30 RB, 30 WR, 12 TE). You can than compare this output to any player at any position. So for instance, Matt Stafford scored 289.9 points last year. It is more than Devonta Freeman’s 243.9. But Stafford performed worse than the average starter at his position while Freeman performed far above the average at RB. Thus, having Freeman on a given week was more valuable than having Stafford. This is that idea of scarcity at play.

I went through and evaluated the VAA of every player last year. And Cam Newton was the third best player according to VAA. Devonta Freeman was the only RB who was more valuable. This is because the an asset like Cam Newton (Elite Top Scoring QB) was more scarce, and thus more valuable, than most top ten running backs. I can sense many readers doubting the validity of my VAA measurements. Let me use an example to demonstrate. Let’s say you took part in a peculiar league last year. Instead of rostering a regular full roster, let’s say you instead only started one QB and two RBs.

Let’s also say there are only two teams in this league and they go head to head every single week. Team A had Eli Manning (QB10 last year), Doug Martin (RB 3), and Lamar Miller (RB 6). Team B had Cam Newton (QB 1), Frank Gore (RB 12), and Ronnie Hillman (RB 19). So in this example Team B passed up on the ability to take a RB1 and had to settle for Hillman instead. However, Team B actually would have outscored the running back heavy Team A over the course of 2015. The Cam Newton led Team B would have won 9 out of the 17 weeks. Yes, but I don’t draft late round QBs hoping for the next mediocre Eli Manning. I am trying to snag the next Carson Palmer! Well a Cam Newton/Frank Gore combo actually outscored the Carson Palmer/Adrian Peterson Combo last season. This demonstrates the scarcity of the elite QB option.

 

If You've Been Elite, You Can Do It Again

Now many of you are noticing one massive, glaring flaw in my analysis so far. Cam Newton was somewhat of a late round quarterback last year. He was drafted on average in the 6th round last year. What is the point of drafting a QB early if I can just grab the top scorer in a later round? The reason is that last year was an aberration. One of the reasons Cam Newton was pushed down that far was because of the proliferation of the Late Round QB sentiment. After all, if everyone adhered to it than the top scoring QB would always come from the later rounds. Thus, it was a self –fulfilling prophecy. Secondly, it was an aberration. Cam Newton was top 4 QB in each of his first three seasons in the league. This included a top 20 VAA his rookie year. To further demonstrate the absurdity of this, I went through the past ten years’ worth of VAA. Besides bringing up some ghosts of fantasy past (Hey there Visanthe Shiancoe!) it gives you a good idea that only QBs that have performed at elite levels in the past will be able to do so in the future. And since QBs that have previously performed at elite levels are usually drafted high, Cam Newton’s descent in last year’s draft was an aberration.

Over the course of the past ten seasons, a QB has performed at a top 20 VAA (worth a second round pick) level 29 times. 12 QBs have managed this. They are Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Marc Bulger, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, and Matthew Stafford. In 66% of these 29 occasions the QB had performed the feat before. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees accounted for 16 of those 29 times. To be even stricter about defining an elite QB, let’s look at instances where a QB performed at a top 10 VAA level.

Between 2006 and 2015 a QB performed at a top 10 VAA level (worth a first round pick) 13 times. 12 of those 13 occasions where performed by QBs who had already performed at a top 20 VAA in a previous season. The lone occasion was Cam Newton’s rookie year.  In 10 of those 13 times the QB was taken in the top two rounds (exceptions being Michael Vick’s miracle half season with The Eagles, Newton’s rookie year, and Newton last year). At least one QB performed at a top 10 VAA level each season except for 2014 (Aaron Rodgers finished 12th). Five Quarterbacks; Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, and Drew Brees accounted for 12 of those 13 seasons. We can see from this that it is incredibly unlikely that any late round QB, who has likely never performed at this level, will be able to replicate these kinds of numbers. If this was taken into account, Cam Newton, who suffered injuries in 2014, would have been viewed more as a high upside player and likely would have been taken earlier.

 

Conclusion

An elite QB is more valuable than an average #1 RB. It is also unlikely that a Late Round QB will ascend to an elite level. There are reasons to suggest that Cam Newton will see regression in his TD numbers. There is also reason to suggest that Brees is breaking down, and will be unable to perform at previous elite levels. And the suspension of Tom Brady does dramatically affect his value. But it takes everything in my power not to throw my laptop against the wall when I hear someone say Aaron Rodgers is only worth a fifth round pick. Excluding 2013 when he was injured, he has been top 20 VAA in 7 of the 8 years he has played. He is easily worth a second round pick, provided that Jordy Nelson will be returning at even 80% of his old self.

There is a nice comfy feeling being able to start a season with a projected #1 RB and a projected #1 WR and lots of depth and sleepers. Picking a QB early gets in the way of this. That’s the best guess I have why Late Round QB seems so attractive. But this assessment is wrong. It is holding you back and causing you to score fewer points. That late round QB you have in mind will not become an elite QB. If you see Rodgers or Cam in the third round, pick them. Your team will score more because you did.

 

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