Is playing matchups with QBs wise?
Are two midrange QBs better than one early on?
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in June 2011. We are bringing it back slightly updated to reference the 2012 season for your convenience.
It wasn't so long ago that most fantasy players went the time-honored route of selecting a running back with their first two picks. It was simply automatic. But of course, strategies evolve over time as the game itself changes. Now it's not considered shocking if you want to grab a projected-to-be elite quarterback in Round 1.
Certainly by the time the third round of most drafts is completed, it wouldn't be surprising if the top six names -- Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Michael Vick -- were all on somebody's roster.
As a result, many owners have opted to use 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 at signal-caller.
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 is frequently indeed the case.
Note: We're going to throw out instances like 2010's Vick, who 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 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:
Potential star quarterback combos, 2008-2011
Rank is ESPN's preseason rank at QB; NR means outside the top 20
Year QB1 (rank) QB2 (rank) Elite QB (rank) 2008 Brett Favre (11) Matt Ryan (NR) Peyton Manning (2) 2008 Jake Delhomme (18) Joe Flacco (NR) Donovan McNabb (8) 2009 Jay Cutler (12) Carson Palmer (14) Tom Brady (2) 2009 Kyle Orton (16) Jason Campbell (NR) Philip Rivers (6) 2010 Joe Flacco (9) Carson Palmer (19) Tom Brady (4) 2010 Chad Henne (16) David Garrard (20) Drew Brees (1) 2011 Ryan Fitzpatrick (NR) Alex Smith (NR) Philip Rivers (5) 2011 Colt McCoy (NR) Andy Dalton (NR) Ben Roethlisberger (8)
In each of the above cases, if you had made the right call each week, during 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 "Rylex Smithpatrick" could have scored 262 points in ESPN standard play, ranking him eighth overall, two spots higher than Philip Rivers, who managed just 246 fantasy points. Similarly, "Colty McDalton" and "his" 227 fantasy points would have tied for 10th place overall, a good 20 points ahead of Ben Roethlisberger.
But this success assumes that you made the right call each and every week of the season. The monkey in the wrench is actually pulling off the feat. How likely is that to have actually happened?
Ryan Fitzpatrick-Alex Smith combo, 2011
*D-Rank is based on fantasy points allowed to opposing QBs during the 2011 season.
Week Fitzpatrick schedule *D-Rank Smith schedule *D-Rank Matchup W Performer W 1 @KC 11 Sea 6 Fitzpatrick Fitzpatrick 2 Oak t-29 Dal 18 Fitzpatrick Fitzpatrick 3 NE 31 @Cin 9 Fitzpatrick Fitzpatrick 4 @Cin 9 @Phi 13 Smith Smith 5 Phi 13 TB t-29 Smith Smith 6 NYG 24 @Det 21 Fitzpatrick Fitzpatrick 7 BYE -- BYE -- -- -- 8 Wsh 17 Cle 3 Fitzpatrick Fitzpatrick 9 NYJ 5 @Wsh 17 Smith Smith 10 @Dal 18 NYG 24 Smith Smith 11 @Mia 23 Ari 14 Fitzpatrick Smith 12 @NYJ 5 @Bal 1 Fitzpatrick Fitzpatrick 13 Ten t-11 StL 10 Fitzpatrick Smith 14 @SD 22 @Ari 14 Fitzpatrick Smith 15 Mia 23 Pit 2 Fitzpatrick Fitzpatrick 16 Den t-25 @Sea 6 Fitzpatrick TIE 17 @NE 31 @StL 10 Fitzpatrick Smith
As you can see, if you went according to the numbers, the "better" matchup translated into the better performance by the quarterback for each of the first 10 weeks of the season. After that, Fitzpatrick had the far easier schedule the entire rest of the way, yet was the outright better play only twice in that time.
Certainly, because this evaluation was based on the end-of-season stats, it's more than possible that your success rate in picking the best matchup "at the time" might have yielded far more failures. After all, just because the final numbers now give the Kansas City Chiefs a worse defensive rank than the Seattle Seahawks, when Week 1 lineups were being set odds are that you might not have shared that same opinion, given the two squads' preseason expectations. That's why hindsight is not always 20/20.
The upshot, though, remains that while a "perfect season" may well earn this motley pairing more points than Rivers, in the scenario above, blindly going with the "best matchup" each week drops your 2011 point total to a level where you've earned fewer points with your duo than the San Diego quarterback would have gotten you on his own.
If you somehow had gone with your gut each week and managed to make the wrong call for the entirety of the season, you would have ended up with only 146 from your hybrid quarterback entity. That would have been far less than in the scenario in which you simply chose either of these two "lesser" quarterbacks and played them week in week out: Ryan Fitzpatrick had 207 points last season, while Alex Smith scored 201.
To scare you away from the worst-case scenario even further, those 146 points also would have been as many as you could have earned from Tarvaris Jackson all season long and only five more than fantasy owners received from Rex Grossman.
It's just not worth it.
If the numbers still haven't persuaded you to spend an early draft pick on your quarterback, perhaps one last argument will persuade you. Even if you somehow did manage to accurately select the higher-scoring part of your pair each week, you still would have been better off with the elite player.
On a week-by-week basis, Rivers would have tied or outscored "Rylex Smithpatrick" eight times and in two other weeks would have lost by a single point. Roethlisberger topped "Colty McDalton" seven times, and came within three points of the higher scorer of his tag-team competition on another three occasions. That's more than half the season, and no guesswork was involved.
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. Last season's top 12 did pretty well for themselves:
2011 Top 12 ranked fantasy football quarterbacks
Projected Rank Player Final Rank 1 Aaron Rodgers 1 2 Michael Vick 11 - missed three weeks 3 Drew Brees 2 4 Tom Brady 3 5 Philip Rivers 9 6 Tony Romo 7 7 Matt Schaub 20 - missed final six weeks 8 Ben Roethlisberger 13 9 Josh Freeman 17 10 Matt Ryan 8 11 Eli Manning 6 12 Joe Flacco 15
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.
The counterargument will likely be made that I am not taking into account the fact that by selecting an elite quarterback in the first few rounds, my team will sacrifice at the running back and wide receiver positions and that the net loss from that counteracts any gains at the quarterback position.
That doesn't hold water. We're talking about one pick in the first six rounds here. Even if you picked Rodgers first overall and everybody else decided to grab a top-10 running back and a top-10 wide receiver before the snake got back to you, the numbers are still in your favor, and you'd be "on the clock":
2012 Projected points
Pick Projected Points after 2 rounds 1 569 2 466 3 441 4 423 5 398 6 383 7 381 8 367 9 384 10 408
If you happened to be picking at the tail end of the draft, with the No. 10 selection, the numbers still end up in your favor if everybody takes a running back, you take a quarterback and the No. 10 RB and then wait as everybody else grabs their first wide receiver and a second RB before you make your Round 3 pick:
2012 Projected points
Pick Projected Points after 3 rounds 1 686 2 634 3 597 4 586 5 582 6 563 7 554 8 537 9 531 10 720
Besides, the running back position is no more reliable than quarterback is in terms of hitting with the early-round picks. Of the top 12 running backs taken off the board in 2011 drafts, only seven finished in the top 12 scorers at the end of the season.
Marshawn Lynch, who ended up sixth in RB scoring, was ranked No. 30 in the preseason. Darren Sproles (No. 8), Michael Bush (No. 11) and Reggie Bush (No. 12) weren't ranked even that high. So to say you can't take one round out of the early part of the draft to take a quality quarterback because the hit at running back is too great is laughable. This is especially so when you consider that of the 15 running backs who were taken, on average, in Rounds 2-4 last season, more than half finished the year outside the top 20. Six finished outside the top 30.
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