Predicting the Next Wave of Elite Fantasy QBs
With training camps just around the corner, now is a good time to address the imminent changing-of-the-guard among a few of the top-tier quarterbacks in fantasy football. If there was a Mount Rushmore of fantasy QBs, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees would undoubtedly be on it. However, Manning will be 39 this season, Brady will be 38 and Brees will be turning 36. Father Time always wins at some point but is 2015 that point? And if so, who might be ready to step into the top-five of fantasy QBs? For those paying close enough attention, there are signs of a burgeoning youth movement upon us. Below, we’ll take a look at the current landscape and a few candidates perhaps ready to make the leap into the top QB tier.
The Ol’ Sheriffs
The NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown passes fell off the proverbial cliff after Week 13, averaging 234 passing yards with more interceptions than touchdowns over the Broncos’ last five regular-season games. Concerns over Manning’s diminished arm strength aren’t going anywhere, but previously preferred targets Julius Thomas (Jacksonville) and Wes Welker (golf course?) already have. And then there is the matter of new coach Gary Kubiak, who has made it clear he wants to run the ball. Still, Manning did post yet another top-five fantasy QB finish last year and, like the other two guys below, has been a poor choice to bet against for many years.
The loss of Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills from Brees’ arsenal begs the question of whether the Saints may lean more run-heavy in 2015. Brees was a volume passer in 2014, leading the league in passing yards for the fifth time in his career and finishing just a couple of spots behind Manning as the No. 6 fantasy QB. However, he did that on an offense that went to the air on 62 percent of its snaps while Brees’ 6.93 net yards per attempt was his lowest mark since 2010. Along with the aforementioned departures, Marques Colston is now 32 and the team also signed C.J. Spiller and Mark Ingram to share the backfield load.
It might seem silly to consider the reigning Super Bowl MVP as fading, but the fact remains Brady barely cracked the top-10 fantasy QBs last season after finishing No. 14 in 2013. He has long turned water into wine with lesser weapons at WR, but vintage Welker and Randy Moss aren’t walking through the door anytime soon. We are now left to wonder if coach Bill Belichick is expecting too much from his longtime gunslinger these days. Brady also faces a four-game suspension to start the season, meaning his days as even a top-10 QB could very well be over.
New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has installed outside zone concepts to try and rejuvenate a running game that has finished 24th or worst in the NFL in each of the last three seasons. Considering that only the Saints aired it out more last year, this could be a case where less is more if it means Ryan can stay upright and cash in on play-action opportunities. After leaning on future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez for several years, the Falcons got virtually nothing from the tight end position last year, another area that Shanahan will surely look to change in 2015. Ryan has finished inside the top-10 fantasy QBs in four of the last five years. He also still has the luxury of playing indoors and throwing to one of the game’s premier WRs in Julio Jones along with a veteran complement in Roddy White.
Wilson wants to be the league’s highest-paid quarterback, and it’s not like he doesn’t have a case. All he’s done since entering the NFL in 2012 is win Rookie of the Year and then lead his team to back-to-back Super Bowls. Wilson is by no means a volume passer, although he has seen his attempts and yardage totals rise steadily in each season as coach Pete Carroll has loosened the reins a bit. Impressively, his interceptions have also dropped from 10 to nine to seven, although last year he managed only 20 passing TDs after notching 26 in each of his first two campaigns. Of course, with Wilson, the added draw is his rushing prowess, as he ran for 849 yards (7.2 YPC) and six TDs in 2014. His heavy usage in the ground game is a long-term concern, and perhaps the only one, although it’s hard to envision the Seahawks suddenly shying away from what’s produced such great results to this point. Still, if he were to significantly dial back that portion of his game, his passing averages would render him as JAG (just another guy) among his peers.
Tannehill has made tangible progress in each of his first three pro seasons, finishing last year as fantasy’s No. 8 QB. This offseason, the Dolphins pushed their chips to the middle of the table behind Tannehill as the franchise QB. The team rewarded him with not only the security of a shiny new contract but also a sizeable upgrade in supporting cast. New weapons include Kenny Stills, Jordan Cameron along with rookies DeVante Parker and Jay Ajayi. The front office is also widely reported to be kicking the tires on top-rated free agent guard Evan Mathis to help bolster an offensive line that struggled with injuries in 2014. Also consider last season was Tannehill’s first in new coordinator Bill Lazor’s offense, and he now has a full handle on the scheme. On top of all that, reports out of OTAs observed that Tannehill made noticeable strides with his deep ball. Of course, we won’t find out until the bullets are live if he’s made similar strides in terms of pocket awareness and red-zone success.
Although not a traditional pocket passer, health concerns are the only thing keeping Newton from elite status. While no one can predict injuries, with Newton, you almost can. The guy has been hit or sacked 578 times since entering the league in 2011, nearly double that of any other QB in that span. He missed two games in 2014 with a rib injury and a back injury from a car accident, and he also dealt with a nagging ankle injury. The Panthers just gave him a $100-million contract in the offseason, but Newton said he has no plans to change his style of play. He does also boasts an array of big red-zone targets in Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen and second-round pick Devin Funchess.
I know, I know. Been there, done that. Still, like Tannehill, Stafford also had to learn a new offense last year while integrating several new pieces to the offense. The seventh-year pro is certainly not without his faults in terms of mechanics and decision-making, but ultimately it takes time for even a veteran to take full command of a new scheme (see Eli Manning). Stafford admitted to playing too cautiously at times, leading to missed opportunities but also the second-best completion percentage (60.3) of his career. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said he’ll take a few more shots with Stafford this year. The former No. 1 overall pick still has all the tools in the belt (plus several team and league records) and is just 27 years old, three years younger than Ryan. A full year with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate along with recent draftees Eric Ebron and Ameer Abdullah, combined with some better luck in the red zone, could lead to 2015 being the year it finally all comes together. The key, as it always will be for Stafford, is to be able to put up big-boy numbers while keeping the turnovers to a minimum.
If Bridgewater’s ADP remains in the Round 11 neighborhood, he’ll be one of the better value picks out there as a backup with potential to become a weekly starter. The reigning Rookie of the Year came on strong down the stretch, throwing multiple TDs in four of the last six games and averaging 273 yards over the final quarter of the season. He finished with an 85.2 QB rating and completed 64.4 percent of his passes, albeit in a training-wheels version of the offense that called for mostly short throws. Bridgewater displayed a solid rapport with fellow 2014 draftee Charles Johnson and now welcomes Mike Wallace as a deep threat along with some guy (Adrian Peterson) to help balance the offense and open up the play-action game.