Commentary

The two-quarterback conundrum

Are elite quarterbacks worth early-round picks, or will a two-QB rotation work?

Updated: July 7, 2011, 4:27 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

To Brees or not to Brees? That is the question.

It wasn't so long ago that most fantasy owners went the time-honored route of selecting a running back with their first two picks. But of course, strategies evolve over time, as the game itself changes. Now it's not considered shocking if an owner grabs a projected-to-be-elite quarterback in Round 1. By the time the third round of most drafts are completed, it wouldn't be surprising if the top six names -- Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers -- were all on somebody's roster.

As a result, many owners have opted to utilize the counterstrategy of waiting on their quarterback, collecting as many of the top running backs and wide receivers as they can in the early draft rounds before ultimately selecting two middle-of-the-road options to fill their QB slot. The presumption is that by playing the matchup game, an owner can turn his "lemons" into sweet lemonade and actually end up outscoring those owners who invested in the so-called "sure things."

But does this theory actually bear fruit? When it comes to fantasy football, are two heads really better than one? An initial look at the past few seasons seems to indicate that this frequently is, indeed, the case.

Let's examine, but first, a note: We're going to throw out instances like Vick in 2010. He actually ended up as the highest-scoring quarterback in ESPN standard leagues despite not being ranked in the top 25 on the initial preseason list. Injuries like the one that befell Kevin Kolb of the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1 and thrust Vick into the spotlight, or the one that sidelined projected No. 1 overall quarterback Tom Brady in 2008 and turned Matt Cassel into a surprise top-10 signal caller, are impossible to predict.

As it turns out, by guessing correctly on the better of two lesser options each week, it's not that hard to trump a far superior option with no safety net. Check out the following chart outlining just a few combinations that would have done the trick:

In each of the above cases, if you had made the right call each week, over the course of the season you would have ended up with more points from your hybrid quarterback than the named successful solo artist at the position.

Let's take a closer look at last season's numbers. The quarterback known as "Joe-Car Flamer" (Joe Flacco and Carson Palmer) could have scored 290 points in ESPN standard leagues, ranking him third overall, one point higher than Tom Brady. Similarly, "Chadvid Hennard" (Chad Henne and David Garrard) and "his" 267 fantasy points would have slotted in nicely between fifth-ranked Philip Rivers and sixth-ranked Drew Brees.

But this success assumes that you made the right call each and every week of the season. The wrench in the spokes here is actually pulling off that feat. How likely is that to have actually happened? A closer look seems to indicate that the answer is "not very."

As you can see, if you went according to the numbers, the better matchup translated into the better performance by the quarterback only seven times in 17 weeks of play, and two of those were bye weeks, where the choice would have been made for you.

Certainly, because this evaluation was based on the end-of-season stats, it's possible that your success rate in picking the best matchup "at the time" might have yielded a few more successes, but it also could have yielded more failures. The upshot remains that although a "perfect season" might well earn this motley pairing more points than Tom Brady, in the scenario above, going with the "best matchup" dropped their 2010 point total from 290 down to 216.

That's pretty much no difference from the scenario in which you simply chose one of these two quarterbacks and played them week in and week out: Joe Flacco tallied 221 (standard) fantasy points last season, while Carson Palmer had 212. A season full of similar matchup-based calls with Henne and Garrard earns you only two points more than simply running the table with Garrard himself, who ended up ranked 14th among quarterbacks for the season.

It's just not worth it.

If the numbers still haven't convinced you to spend an early draft pick on your quarterback, perhaps one last argument will. Even if you somehow did manage to accurately select the higher-scoring part of your pair each week, you'd still have been better off with the elite player.

On a week-by-week basis, "Joe-Car Flamer" bested Tom Brady only six times. Drew Brees was outdone by "Chadvid Hennard" a more respectable eight times, but in three of those weeks the difference was three points or fewer -- and again, it requires you make that right call. Guessing wrong in those three "close weeks" results in a 16-point swing in favor of the New Orleans quarterback.

More often than not, with the exception of when injury strikes, quarterbacks expected to finish at the head of the class do indeed end up there:

Tony Romo was well on his way to a top-10 finish, and Michael Vick took over Kolb's spot and ran to the top of the list. Other than that, only Brett Favre, who played much of the season injured, and Jay Cutler could be considered "busts" on this list. In 2009, Matt Ryan was the only member of the preseason top 10 who did not finish in the top-12 overall when all was said and done.

Call me crazy, but I'm not going to mess around with such a crucial part of my fantasy lineup. Sure, there's a chance I might get unlucky and watch in horror as a hard hit prematurely ends my quarterback's season before it begins. But if that happens, I'm no worse off than the random shots in the dark the "tag-team twosome" strategy has to offer.

And for those of you who think you can't afford to draft a quarterback early because you feel a need to load up on those precious running backs instead, consider that of the nine running backs taken in the 7-29 range last season (the spots where our top six quarterbacks are projected to be taken this year), only four finished the season in the top 20 at their position. Generally speaking, the backs and receivers who will be taken in that range are not nearly as sure a bet to outproduce their alternatives as are our six stud quarterbacks.

To Brees or not to Brees? The answer is clearly "to Brees." Of that, I have no lingering doubt.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.

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