Late-Round quarterback, or the fantasy football strategy of filling out your roster and even drafting multiple backups of non-QB positions before selecting a quarterback. The strategy was first penned by JJ Zachariason in 2012 and has come closer to being the standard approach to the QB position every year since its inception. The 2020 NFL season saw a number of middle-round passers exceed expectations which is going to lead to an influx of quarterbacks being selected higher than usual in fantasy drafts. Should the QB renaissance of 2020 have us shifting to a Mid-Round QB strategy for next year? Let’s find out.
Why Late-Round QB Struggled in 2020
There are a myriad of reasons that waiting to take a quarterback is a profitable strategy but I’ll try to distill it into a few basics and then we will have a platform to understand why it didn’t work as well this year. One of the greatest aspects of the strategy is that we can’t predict quarterback performances particularly well. The early quarterbacks are better bets than the later quarterbacks but not to the extent that most people think. The correlation between ADP and fantasy points for passers is relatively weak — more on that later. Couple this with the flat scoring nature of quarterbacks (the best passers aren’t giving your team the same advantage that Alvin Kamara does over other running backs) and the biggest difference between a Round 4 passer and a Round 10 passer is the price.
The reason Late Round QB didn’t find as much success in 2020 as previous years is that we were significantly better at pegging breakouts. Based on ADP from last year, the stretch of Round 7 to Round 9 contained five quarterbacks. Of those five, four finished the year as top-six fantasy passers. This means that the ranks of the QB1 cohort were populated by the quarterbacks drafted in the middle and high rounds. There were three passers taken outside of the first ten rounds who finished inside the top-12. Only two were true Late-Round QBs as Tom Brady was taken with the first pick of the 11th round.
Will Things Turn Around in 2021?
The operative question will be if we can expect this level of accuracy in ADP going forward. There’s really no way of knowing. There are a few things working in favor of yes being the right answer and Mid-Round QB being the new optimal approach. The offensive boom we experienced this year hit in the most predictable ways. Much of the increase in scoring can be attributed to the quarterbacks we as a fantasy community liked getting even better, spearheaded by Josh Allen. The proliferation of running quarterbacks combined with fantasy drafters realizing the value of these players also boosted the right choices in ADP, most notably Kyler Murray. The breakouts were mostly young players as well. Deshaun Watson progressing in his fourth NFL season at the age of 25 was arguably more predictable than the average QB1 outing. All of these things point to it being fine to draft a quarterback in the latter half of the double-digit rounds but waiting excessively may still be the best choice.
This isn’t the first season we’ve seen the correlation between ADP and fantasy points strengthen. In 2016, the r-squared between ADP among the QB1/2 group and their end-of-season fantasy points was .298. That fell to .115 in the following year. What these numbers roughly translate to is ADP was as accurate as it gets in 2016 and then returned to a useful but still very volatile predictor in the following year. In 2020, that same metric was at .267 which was a high dating back to the 2016 season. Maybe it sticks and we have solved the QB game but we've also been here once before and that was nothing more than a blip on the radar.
Even if we are getting better at projecting quarterback performances, 2021 could present a setback in our forecasting. Over a third of the league will likely be starting a new face under center and many of those quarterbacks are going to be young players or players still in their prime simply switching teams. All of this turnover could easily ruin our ability to call the correct quarterbacks and make the end of the draft just as useful for acquiring passers as the earlier parts of it.
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New Late-Round QB Approaches
The biggest advantage to be had in drafting quarterbacks is still getting those who can get it done on the ground. Jalen Hurts and Taysom Hill both fall into the category of game-breaking runners for fantasy purposes. In the timeframes that they started, both players were QB1s on the back of gaudy rushing numbers. Hill scored four rushing touchdowns and four passing touchdowns in as many starts. Hurts averaged 12.7 carries for 79.3 yards in the three games he was allowed to start and finish. Both players are far less than guaranteed to be their team’s starters in 2021 but the risk-reward proposition on them is easily worth taking some late-round shots on.
Another edge present in drafts could be chasing rookie quarterbacks. Conventional wisdom has said to fade the first-year slingers because they rarely put up comparable numbers to the veterans. However, the last few years have shown that each situation deserves its own consideration. Justin Herbert finished as a top-12 passer without starting in Week 1 and Joe Burrow was en route to a solid rookie season before suffering a season-ending injury. The NFL game is continuing to emulate and iterate upon college concepts making the jump to the pros easier than ever. Young quarterbacks are also increasingly able to take off from the pocket, giving them outs when pressured and increasing their fantasy appeal. Trey Lance, the hyper-efficient and incredibly athletic prospect from North Dakota State, has the skill-set to break out as a rookie and will likely cost nothing even if he’s drafted to a team that will start him immediately.