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Which Quarterbacks Were Better/Worse Than Expected in 2020? (Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 23, 2021

Aaron Rodgers will regress in 2021. The only question is: How much?

We often talk about opportunity for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, but what about the guy who touches the ball on every play? That’s right, the quarterback.

Every time a quarterback drops back, there’s an expected fantasy outcome. Where they’re at on the field certainly matters, as a pass attempt on their own 10-yard line isn’t worth as much as one on their opponent’s 20-yard line. It’s not just passing attempts, either. Every time they take off running the ball, that also has an expected fantasy outcome.

This isn’t an exact science, as every time Lamar Jackson takes off running, the expected fantasy output is more than it is every time Matt Ryan takes off, but it’s as close as we’re going to get, and it’s not like Ryan’s rushing attempts are heavily impacting this score (he barely runs). What this study highlights is that it’s good to play in an up-tempo, fast-paced offense where you rack up the pass attempts/rush attempts, which equal expected fantasy points. Now, who did more/less than they were expected to based on the opportunities they received in 2020?

Passing Only

In general, when a quarterback drops back to pass, the expected fantasy output is 0.53 fantasy points. But we’re not doing general here. We’re looking at each pass and where it was thrown. A pass from the 20-11-yard line was worth 1.01 fantasy points, while a pass outside inside the 10-yard-line was worth 2.38 fantasy points. Based on the expected fantasy output each quarterback had when it came to passing only, who outperformed expectations?

Top-12 Passing Quarterbacks (Above Expected)

Rank Player Pass Diff
1  Aaron Rodgers 122.1
2  Ryan Tannehill 69.9
3  Kirk Cousins 67.0
4  Patrick Mahomes 60.6
5  Russell Wilson 59.3
6  Josh Allen 50.6
7  Tom Brady 47.1
8  Drew Brees 40.0
9  Deshaun Watson 36.6
10  Justin Herbert 23.7
11  Lamar Jackson 23.4
12  Matthew Stafford 22.9

 

I legit almost spit my water out on my screen when I saw the number Rodgers posted last year. On 526 pass attempts, Rodgers scored 122.1 more fantasy points than he was supposed to. That means his average pass attempt was worth 0.23 more fantasy points than the average quarterback. When a quarterback throws the ball 35-plus times per game, that amounts to a lot. Knowing that his number was essentially double what any other quarterback’s number was, you can safely project him to regress in a big way. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you dialed Rodgers’ touchdown rate in 2020 back to his career rate (6.3 percent – still elite), he would’ve finished as the No. 10 quarterback rather than the No. 2 quarterback where he did.

While looking at the numbers, you can see tiers, but what you don’t see is that these 12 quarterbacks were the only ones who posted more than 8.7 fantasy points over expectations. Crazy, right? After Matthew Stafford, it was Philip Rivers at No. 13 with 8.7 more points than expected. I don’t think the names on this list are particularly shocking to anyone, though some might be surprised to see Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins that high. Had Tannehill been simply “average” while throwing the ball, he would’ve finished as the No. 13 quarterback rather than the No. 7 quarterback he did. This is a Matt Ryan stat for 2021 (keep in mind Ryan doesn’t have the rushing chops Tannehill does).

Bottom-12 Passing Quarterbacks (Below Expected)

Rank Player Pass Diff
69  Andy Dalton -24.1
70  Teddy Bridgewater -26.6
71  Tua Tagovailoa -28.9
72  Dwayne Haskins -32.0
73  Drew Lock -35.2
74  Cam Newton -35.6
75  Carson Wentz -36.0
76  Joe Burrow -36.5
77  Alex Smith -36.7
78  Nick Foles -40.7
79  Sam Darnold -43.9
80  Daniel Jones -59.5

 

This isn’t great for a few quarterbacks some are projecting to “break out” in 2021. Seeing Daniel Jones scored 59.5 fewer fantasy points than he was supposed to is far and away the worst score on the list. And keep in mind he missed two full games, which could’ve dragged down his number even more. Both Sam Darnold and Teddy Bridgewater are on this list, though one of them played for Adam Gase. Speaking of Bridgewater, his new teammate/competition Drew Lock is also on this list, performing well below expectations in 2020.

The biggest shocker on this list is Joe Burrow, who played just 10 games in 2020, which means that number may have been even bigger had he played all 16 games. To those who’ve paid attention to this series of articles, you know that nearly every Bengals offensive skill player performed below expectations, which points to Zac Taylor’s offensive scheme. Knowing he’s still there as the head coach, it’s a reason to dial back expectations for Burrow in 2021, especially when he may be limited with his mobility coming off the ACL injury.

Rushing Only

As stated in the introduction to this article, the rushing portion isn’t a perfect science, as quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Josh Allen should be expected to outperform expectations. But still, there just might be a few surprises in this section.

Top-12 Rushing Quarterbacks (Above Expected)

Rank Player Rush Diff
1  Kyler Murray 46.1
2  Lamar Jackson 34.9
3  Ryan Tannehill 30.9
4  Carson Wentz 15.5
5  Jalen Hurts 13.3
6  Daniel Jones 12.4
7  Sam Darnold 11.6
8  Russell Wilson 10.5
9  Teddy Bridgewater 9.1
10  Aaron Rodgers 8.9
11  Taysom Hill 7.3
12  Jake Luton 6.4

 

Again, we expected Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson to be at the top of this list, but Ryan Tannehill? It makes sense when you see he rushed for seven touchdowns on just 43 rushing attempts, though eight of them took place inside the 10-yard line. Carson Wentz is also a shock to see on this list considering how poor he was from a fantasy standpoint in 2020. But he threw his gained fantasy points on the rushing side away when he totaled -36.0 points through the air.

One big takeaway I have from this chart is that Jalen Hurts finished with 13.3 more fantasy points than he was expected to, and that’s despite starting just four games last season. It’s very likely we see him up near the likes of Jackson and Murray next year in this category, which means he just needs to be a competent passer in order to hit top-tier fantasy numbers.

Bottom-12 Rushing Quarterbacks (Below Expected)

Rank Player Rush Diff
69  Andy Dalton -6.5
70  Justin Herbert -6.5
71  Kirk Cousins -6.9
72  Jameis Winston -7.8
73  Deshaun Watson -8.7
74  Jared Goff -9.1
75  Philip Rivers -10.1
76  Tom Brady -11.0
77  Dwayne Haskins -13.8
78  Cam Newton -15.1
79  Ben Roethlisberger -19.7
80  Baker Mayfield -20.0

 

This chart has to strike some as odd, as both Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson scored fewer fantasy points than the average quarterback would’ve on the carries they were given. Sure, Cam Newton had 11 rushing touchdowns, but did you know he had 31 carries inside the 10-yard line, including 19 of them inside the 5-yard line? That’s quite a bit of expected fantasy points. He also had four more rushing attempts than Kyler Murray, but 227 fewer yards. If Newton’s rushing touchdowns decline, he’s in a really bad spot. As for Watson, this one is a shocker. His 90 carries netted 444 yards and three touchdowns, which isn’t horrible, but it’s still below average for a quarterback (8.7 fewer fantasy points to be exact).

It’s odd to see Baker Mayfield finish with 20.0 fewer rushing points than he was expected to, as he’s a younger guy who showcased some mobility in college. Had he been average with his rushing attempts, he would’ve finished three spots higher in the quarterback standings at the end of the season. Justin Herbert was the other guy on this list that was semi-surprising, but his -6.5 number highlights that had he scored just one more rushing touchdown, he would’ve been very close to average, so we don’t need to dive into that too much.

Overall (Passing and Rushing Combined)

Now that we know who produced more/less than they were supposed to both on the ground and through the air, which quarterbacks outperformed expectations when we combine both numbers?

The Top-12 Overall Quarterbacks (Above Expected)

Rank Player Pass Diff Rush DIFF Total DIFF
1  Aaron Rodgers 122.1 8.9 130.9
2  Ryan Tannehill 69.9 30.9 100.9
3  Russell Wilson 59.3 10.5 69.8
4  Kirk Cousins 67.0 -6.9 60.1
5  Patrick Mahomes 60.6 -1.4 59.2
6  Lamar Jackson 23.4 34.9 58.3
7  Josh Allen 50.6 -0.3 50.3
8  Kyler Murray -4.6 46.1 41.4
9  Tom Brady 47.1 -11.0 36.1
10  Drew Brees 40.0 -4.0 36.0
11  Deshaun Watson 36.6 -8.7 27.9
12  Justin Herbert 23.7 -6.5 17.2

 

Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Tannehill played on a different level in 2020, but we really should expect them to come back down to earth in 2021. They can still be elite, but even falling into the 50-70 points over expectations area would make sense. Based on strictly opportunity and expected points among quarterbacks, Rodgers should’ve finished as the No. 11 quarterback last year, not the No. 2 quarterback that he did. Tannehill should’ve finished as the No. 17 quarterback based on the opportunity he had, and not the No. 7 quarterback that he did. Both are going to need more volume in 2021 in order to compensate for their regression in the points department. Tannehill should have it with an added talent in Julio Jones and the dismissal of Arthur Smith. Rodgers… well, he might not even play.

As you can see, Kyler Murray is the only quarterback on this list who performed below average in the passing department, which highlights just how much his mobility means to his fantasy value. If he doesn’t score a lot of rushing touchdowns, he’s likely going to disappoint fantasy managers who are drafting him as a top-three option.

There are just three quarterbacks who hit double-digit in both rushing and passing points over expectations: Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, and Lamar Jackson. All three of them are being undervalued in early drafts.

The Bottom-12 Overall Quarterbacks (Below Expected)

Rank Player Pass Diff Rush DIFF Total DIFF
69  Matt Ryan -18.8 -2.0 -20.7
70  Nick Mullens -23.1 -4.9 -28.0
71  Andy Dalton -24.1 -6.5 -30.6
72  Sam Darnold -43.9 11.6 -32.3
73  Tua Tagovailoa -28.9 -4.7 -33.6
74  Drew Lock -35.2 0.2 -35.0
75  Alex Smith -36.7 -4.9 -41.5
76  Joe Burrow -36.5 -5.1 -41.6
77  Dwayne Haskins -32.0 -13.8 -45.9
78  Nick Foles -40.7 -6.3 -47.0
79  Daniel Jones -59.5 12.4 -47.1
80  Cam Newton -35.6 -15.1 -50.7

 

This list isn’t shocking, especially knowing who’s on the top-12 list (the best-of-the-best). Again, the one who stands out to me is Joe Burrow, who scored 41.6 fewer fantasy points than he was expected to in just 10 games, which means he was on pace to be the worst quarterback in the league from an efficiency standpoint. Look, I like Burrow a lot as a quarterback and expect him to get things back on track, but he wasn’t good in 2020.

The only quarterbacks who finished with 10-plus fewer fantasy points than they were expected to both on the ground and through the air were Cam Newton and Dwayne Haskins. While Haskins is an afterthought, Newton showing up as the worst quarterback in 2020 doesn’t bode well for his opportunity to hold onto the starting job in 2021 while battling with No. 15 overall pick Mac Jones.

Key Takeaways

Most people don’t think about offensive pace when it comes to fantasy football. They think about volume when it comes to other positions, but to quarterbacks, it makes a big difference as well. But the cream of the crop at quarterback typically force their coach’s hand and make them tilt the offense in their favor. If these lists did anything, it was prove that the best in the game outperform expectations rather consistently.

  • Aaron Rodgers breaks efficiency, but regression is a lock.
  • Stop dismissing Ryan Tannehill as a system quarterback. If anything, he made the system look that much better.
  • Joe Burrow might not be as good as we thought or hoped. Maybe it’s Zac Taylor (I hope).
  • Cam Newton is likely at the end of his career, even as a rusher.
  • Daniel Jones is going to have a tough time breaking out unless he has a new arm.
  • Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater were both well below average passers in 2020.
  • Kyler Murray needs a lot of rushing touchdowns to finish as an elite option.


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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