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Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Quarterback Strategy, Rankings & Tiers (2023)

Fantasy Football Draft Primer: Quarterback Strategy, Rankings & Tiers (2023)

There was a time not long ago when you were considered a square if you were one of the first two or three people in your league to draft a quarterback.

Those days are over, my nerdy friends. Even the cool kids are drafting quarterbacks early these days.

There’s good reason for the sea change at the QB position. We are in the age of the dual-threat quarterback, with an abundance of QBs who can amass fantasy points as both passers and runners.

In 2022, five quarterbacks ran for more than 700 yards — Justin Fields, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts and Daniel Jones (and none of them played all 17 regular-season games). There are at least four high-quality passers whom we expect to add tangible fantasy value with their rushing numbers — Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Herbert. And the NFL is welcoming in a rookie quarterback who weighs 244 pounds, has 4.43 speed and had nine TD runs last season for an SEC team — Anthony Richardson.

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Fantasy Football Quarterback Strategy, Rankings & Tiers

Let’s dive into my strategy for drafting quarterbacks.

Why It’s OK to Draft a QB Early

JJ Zachariason, one of the most respected analysts in fantasy football, launched his career in the industry with a 2012 ebook called “The Late-Round Quarterback.” The book was Zachariason’s response to an extreme market overreaction.

A handful of quarterbacks had produced obscene numbers in 2011. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford each threw for more than 5,000 yards. Brees, Stafford and Aaron Rodgers threw for more than 40 touchdowns. Cam Newton threw for 4,051 yards and ran for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns. After the QB fireworks of 2011, Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Stafford and Newton all had first-round ADPs in 2012, according to FantasyPros’ historical ADP data.

Zachariason made a compelling case that 2011 was an outlier season, that the 2012 QB market was askew and that drafting a QB late was the prudent move. The results of the 2012 season supported Zachariason’s points. The top five QBs of 2011 all averaged better than 22 fantasy points per game. None of them reached that threshold in 2012.

In 2020, Zachariason divorced himself from the late-round QB strategy he’d practically patented. Fantasy managers had come to recognize the importance of QB rushing production, and the proliferation of mobile quarterbacks had made the position more predictable. Late-round values at QB had become scarce. As Zachariason noted in a recent podcast about the rise of the early-round quarterback, QB passing numbers fluctuate more from year to year than QB rushing numbers. Now, everyone wants a mobile QB.

The quarterbacks being drafted earliest in 2023 are either prolific runners or high-level passers with some complementary rushing ability — as it should be.

Bottom line: Waiting to draft a quarterback isn’t as sensible a strategy as it used to be.

A Battle Plan for the QB Position

Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts each averaged better than 24 fantasy points per game in 2022, and the scoring gap between those three and QB4 Joe Burrow was significant. Mahomes, Allen and Hurts all have second-round ADPs, according to FantasyPros ADP data.

I want to secure one of the top eight quarterbacks this year in my 1QB redraft leagues, but I prefer not to spend a second-round pick on one. I can’t bring myself to bypass a high-impact RB or WR in favor of taking Mahomes, Allen or Hurts.

The QB4 through QB8 in ADP — Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields, Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence — are typically coming off the board somewhere from the late third round to the late fifth round. The RBs and WRs who come off the board in that range aren’t nearly as appealing as the second-round RBs and WRs, so that group of quarterbacks in the QB4-QB8 is the pond in which I’m fishing.

My favorite target in that range is Fields, who could be the 2023 version of 2022 Jalen Hurts. Fields’ ADP this year is QB6. Hurts’ ADP last year was QB6. Fantasy managers were sold on Hurts’ rushing ability last year but perhaps not on his passing ability. That seems to be the case this year with Fields, who averaged 76.2 rushing yards per game last season but only 149.5 passing yards. Fields was dealing with a patchwork WR group last year, particularly after Darnell Mooney went down with an injury. The Bears have upgraded their receivers and offensive line, and I’m optimistic Fields can make good on the promise he showed as a passer at Ohio State.

If the quarterbacks in the QB4-QB8 range slip through my fingers, I’ll try to grab either Deshaun Watson or Dak Prescott soon after. If I miss out on them, I’ll try to land either Daniel Jones or Anthony Richardson, who both have high-level rushing potential, and then draft a high-floor backup.

A Word About Superflex Leagues

Quarterback draft strategy is different in superflex leagues, which allow you to start a second QB in one of your flex spots. Quarterbacks generally score more points than players at other positions, so in a league where you’re able to start two of them, and where everyone is rostering more quarterbacks than in a 1QB league, the position becomes hugely important, just as it is in the real game.

Quarterbacks will inevitably dominate the first round of a superflex startup draft. Once the draft is over, good QBs will always be expensive in the trade market.

The consequences of punting the QB position in a superflex league are daunting. It’s hard to win games when you’re starting Jared Goff and Sam Howell, and your opponents are throwing Mahomes/Prescott and Allen/Lawrence combos at you.

Ideally, you’ll draft an anchor quarterback in Round 1 or Round 2. Beyond the first two rounds, things get tricky. The goal is to draft opportunistically at the QB position in order to maximize value, but also to not get left out in the cold. It’s a difficult balancing act because quarterbacks are almost always overdrafted from Round 2 on in superflex leagues. You may be forced to abandon value-seeking principles when addressing the QB position.

Draft Wizard

Quarterback Rankings & Tiers

Here are the top 25 quarterbacks in my redraft rankings, sorted into tiers, with thoughts on some of the players from each tier.

Tier 1

  • Patrick Mahomes
  • Josh Allen
  • Jalen Hurts
  • Lamar Jackson

Mahomes, Allen and Hurts are the top three quarterbacks in ADP for good reason. Mahomes is the best pure passer in the league and could eventually go down as the best pure passer in NFL history. Allen and Hurts are prolific runners and effective passers.

The other quarterback in this tier is Jackson. His ADP isn’t as high as the other three after a season in which Jackson missed five contests and averaged 186.8 passing yards per game. With apologies to Michael Vick and others, Jackson might be the best running QB of all time, and he might do more throwing this year with Todd Monken replacing run-happy Greg Roman as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator. We already know what sort of upside Jackson has — he averaged a preposterous 28.1 fantasy points per game in 2019.

Tier 2

  • Justin Fields
  • Joe Burrow
  • Trevor Lawrence
  • Justin Herbert

Barring injury, Burrow is pretty foolproof. He’s proven to be one of the best pure passers in the game, he has terrific wide receivers, and he added some rushing value last year after being two seasons removed from a torn ACL. There might even be a smidge more upside to be found with Burrow. The Bengals tried to upgrade their offensive line before the 2022 season, but the new-look unit didn’t immediately gel. The Cincinnati O-line offered Burrow better protection as the season wore on. He wasn’t sacked more than twice in any regular-season game after Week 8. And the Bengals have added another key piece to the offensive line: former Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who’s one of the best in the league.

Not even Urban Meyer could ruin Lawrence. After a nightmarish rookie season under Meyer in 2021, Lawrence flourished in 2022 under Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson, a former quarterback himself. Lawrence finished QB8 in fantasy scoring last year and seems poised to take another step forward with help from an important off-season addition, WR Calvin Ridley.

Herbert has a rocket arm but averaged a ridiculously low 6.4 intended air yards per pass attempt last season. The Chargers jettisoned Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator and hired former Cowboys OC Kellen Moore, who’ll hopefully make the Chargers’ offense less horizontal and more vertical.

Tier 3

  • Deshaun Watson
  • Dak Prescott
  • Daniel Jones

Watson was a top-five fantasy quarterback for three consecutive seasons from 2018 to 2020. He was clearly rusty last season upon returning from his forced NFL hiatus. It’s possible he never gets back to the level he reached in Houston, but we know what the upside is, and Watson is far more affordable than the other QBs with top-five upside.

Prescott had a disappointing, injury-marred, interception-heavy 2022 season, but let’s not forget that he averaged 302.9 passing yards per game over a three-year span from 2019 to 2021.

A turnover machine during his first three NFL seasons, Jones had a league-best 1.1% interception rate in 2022 under first-year Giants head coach Brian Daboll. Jones ran for 708 yards and seven TDs last season, and he may have untapped passing upside that could emerge with the help of an improved group of pass catchers.

Tier 4

A year ago, we weren’t sure if Tagovailoa was going to be a good NFL passer. Tua laid that question to rest, averaging 272.9 passing yards per game in 2022 and leading the league in yards per attempt (9.2) and TD percentage (6.3%). The concerning issue with Tua now is his health. He had two confirmed concussions last season and one possible concussion. Another one could be career-ending.

Richardson is an inexperienced passer who probably won’t produce a lot of passing yardage or TD passes as a rookie, but his size, speed and college rushing production suggest that he’ll be one of the NFL’s better running quarterbacks from the jump.

Tier 5

Geno Smith already had WRs D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and now he gets more WR firepower with the addition of rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba. But I worry about drafting a quarterback who’s coming off his first good season in a 10-year career. We also saw a late-season slowdown from Geno in 2022. In his first 12 regular-season games, he had a 72.7% completion rate, a 108.7 passer rating, 22 TDs and six INTs while averaging 8.1 yards per pass attempt. The rest of the way, he had a 63.3% completion rate, 83.9 passer rating, eight TDs and five INTs while averaging 6.2 yards per attempt.

Rodgers will probably be a better real-life QB than fantasy QB. He doesn’t run much anymore, and while Rodgers will probably be an efficient passer, he’s unlikely to be a prolific passer, because the Jets don’t need him to be one. The Jets’ defense was one of the best in the league last year and should be again, which means Rodgers probably isn’t going to be involved in many shootouts, so his weekly ceiling isn’t going to be very high. The Jets’ new offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, was the Packers’ OC from 2019 to 2021. During those three years, the Packers ranked 28th, 32nd and 32nd in offensive pace.

Some people envision a strong comeback for Russell Wilson after a disappointing 2022 campaign, with help from new Broncos head coach Sean Payton. I worry that Wilson has lost his extraordinary ability to escape the pass rush and make plays on the move. If that secret sauce is gone, so is Wilson’s upside.

Tier 6

In fantasy leagues with large rosters, it might be feasible to stash a player you won’t be able to use right away. It’s tougher to carry those types of players in leagues with smaller rosters. The size of your roster might determine your willingness to draft Murray, who’s unlikely to be ready for the start of the season after tearing his ACL last December but has shown the ability to pile up fantasy points.

Love is a mystery-box quarterback. He’s been a backup to Aaron Rodgers for three years. Love had played 157 NFL snaps and thrown 83 passes. He has an NFL-caliber arm and some mobility, but he’s also going to be playing with the youngest, most inexperienced group of pass catchers in the league.

Final Thoughts

A few final thoughts about drafting quarterbacks in 2023:

  • The smaller the league, the greater the incentive to draft a top quarterback. In a 10-team league, every roster will have ample star power, and managers will be able to start high scorers at almost every position. To wait on drafting a quarterback in a smaller league is to put yourself at a competitive disadvantage at the position. (This holds true for tight ends as well.) In a 14- or 16-team league, it’s not as urgent to draft a top QB because every team is bound to have a weakness at one position or another. If you draft a top quarterback in a large league, you’re sacrificing firepower at another position.
  • If your league has 12 or fewer teams, and your draft goes 16 or fewer rounds, it’s perfectly fine to draft just one quarterback. When it’s your starter’s bye week, or, heaven forbid, he gets hurt, you can pluck a quarterback off waivers to fill the void. In small or medium-sized leagues, there are always going to be usable QBs on the waiver wire, and you’ll often have the luxury of choosing based on a favorable matchup in the week ahead.
  • If your league structure makes it prudent to draft two quarterbacks, pay attention to potential QB pairings, which are as important as food and wine pairings. Pairing red wine with fish is a faux pas, as is pairing two QBs who repeatedly face easy or tough defenses in the same week. As luck would have it, FantasyPros has a tool for this sort of thing — a Quarterback By Committee Finder that pinpoints optimal QB pairings based on schedules.

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