In the quarterback preview I wrote for our 2008 Draft Kit, I wondered aloud whether Tom Brady's insane 2007 season had redefined the fantasy game. For more than a decade before '07, quarterbacks were mostly the "paper clips of fantasy football." It didn't matter much which one you had on your roster. The standard deviation of the fantasy points scored by the highest- and, say, the 12th-highest-scoring quarterback was small compared with running backs or receivers, so waiting to take your starting quarterback was sound strategy.
Of course, Brady's 50 touchdown passes in '07 pretty much blew that theory out of the water.
Survey says the latter.
Despite some good top-line numbers, 2008 wasn't a year in which the top fantasy quarterbacks differentiated themselves from the next tier. Sure, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers were the two top-scoring players overall in standard ESPN fantasy leagues, Philip Rivers was fourth, and Jay Cutler, Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning were sixth through eighth, respectively. In fact, 10 quarterbacks finished in the top 20 in total fantasy points, and that's the point. Without any one or two signal-callers leaping ahead of the pack, you were better off not having reached for any of them in your draft. In 2007, Brady was better than the "average" player at his position by more than any other man at any other position, but that was only the second time since 1996 that a quarterback had claimed that honor; Manning's 49-touchdown effort in 2004 also turned the trick. Could Brees make that happen in '09? In other words, could he be so much better than his fellow quarterbacks that he's worth taking in the first round of your draft? It's possible. But recent history suggests the "waiting" strategy will win out again.
Drew Brees has scored more fantasy points than any other quarterback over the past three years, and that level of consistency is thanks to a few factors. First, he's excellent throwing on the run. Second, he's a very accurate deep passer. And third, coach Sean Payton doesn't buy into all this conservative-offense hogwash that grips about three-quarters of the NFL. The Saints have thrown more passes than any team in football in each of the past two seasons, and there's little reason to believe they won't at least come close again in '09. That kind of steadiness makes Brees our top choice at this position. Of course, Tom Brady will have his backers as the No. 1 fantasy quarterback; after all, who knows what heights Brady might've hit had Bernard Pollard not blown out Brady's knee in Week 1 last year. The fact that New England traded away Brady's backup (as much because of salary concerns as anything else) indicates the Pats believe "Tom Terrific" will be perfectly healthy for Week 1, and there's every reason to believe he will continue to throw a ton to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. But admit it, there's just the tiniest bit of doubt about Brady's vaunted "quickness in the pocket," the instinct that kept him from getting crunched for so many years. That tiny doubt is the reason we have him No. 2, and not No. 1. What more does Peyton Manning have to do? I mean, he wins the 2008 MVP award, and we rank him third? Well, Manning will be without Marvin Harrison for the first time in his career, and those 107 targets from '08 will have to go elsewhere. He also lost his offensive coordinator and his offensive line coach. But this is Peyton Manning, and barring injury, he'll get you at least into the mid-20s in touchdown passes, and well above 4,000 yards passing. Steadiness like that is delectable.
Jay Cutler's image took a hit this winter, as he kvetched and whined about the coaching change in Denver, then asked for a trade, in what to me looked like a transparent grab for a massive new contract. He's a talented kid, for sure, and he deserves to be a fantasy starter, but how can you argue his prospects aren't worse when he leaves Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal and pass-loving coach Josh McDaniels and joins up with Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and an arch-conservative coach in Lovie Smith? Even if Matt Hasselbeck's balky back is healthy, his '09 prospects look shaky to me. The Seahawks have a nondescript running game and a leaky offensive line, and while the team did sign T.J. Houshmandzadeh, he's the only reliable weapon Hasselbeck has (and Housh is, of course, learning a new system). Hasselbeck will have the occasional good game if he can remain healthy, but I also see a lot of bruises in his future. Has any signal-caller in recent memory had his image take a bigger hit thanks to a single game than Jake Delhomme did after last year's playoff loss to Arizona? Five interceptions for the heavily favored Panthers in that loss have left Carolina fans cold, even after the cap-friendly extension Delhomme signed this winter. The team's O-line is terrific, especially its run blocking, which means coach John Fox's squad will continue to milk the ground game and hope Delhomme doesn't kill the team with aerial mistakes. Jason Campbell already wasn't going to be a great fantasy option, but the fact that the Redskins openly lusted after Cutler and Mark Sanchez this winter makes Campbell's entire situation untenable. A free agent after this season, Campbell will be under enormous scrutiny in D.C., and I wouldn't be surprised to see him replaced if the Redskins start slow.
Matt Ryan delivered a stunningly good rookie season in which he made himself fantasy-relevant right away. Now, he did fade in the fantasy playoffs, which wasn't any fun for his owners, but you have to expect that Ryan will have a better grasp of the zone looks that bothered him so much in '08. With Tony Gonzalez aboard, Ryan has a chance to be a top-10 fantasy quarterback. Matt Cassel's real opportunity came last year, when Brady's knee exploded and the Patriots gave Cassel the keys to their high-octane offensive machine. Cassel didn't disappoint: He finished seventh among quarterbacks in fantasy points. Now, Dwayne Bowe isn't exactly Randy Moss, and a latter-day Bobby Engram isn't Wes Welker. But with new Chiefs head coach Todd Haley running the show, expect Kansas City to throw a lot. Kyle Orton doesn't have starter-worthy fantasy skills, but at least he's getting out from under the slogging mess that has been the Chicago offense over the past several years. I think Orton beats out Chris Simms for the starting gig in Denver, thus getting to helm an aggressive aerial show. Can he be accurate enough to be a fantasy starter? Not quite. But as a bye-week fill-in, Orton is more usable than ever. Shaun Hill has rescued the 49ers' offense in the second half of the past two seasons. Now Hill gets a crack at starting to begin the year. He's a scrappy, accurate passer who lacks a big arm and likely will play in '09 for one of the NFL's most conservative offenses. But if Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan are his outside receivers, there's some upside here.
Matthew Stafford has gotten rave reviews from his coaching staff at Lions workouts thus far, but isn't that what the team is supposed to say? Sure, there's a chance Stafford (April's first overall draft pick) starts in Week 1, but that would say more about incumbent starter Daunte Culpepper than it would about the rookie. By November, expect to see the Georgia alum slinging it to Calvin Johnson. Hey, Megatron can make anyone look good, but Stafford was known as a loose cannon in college, and he'll make a series of whopping mistakes in Detroit in '09. The Jets traded up to get Mark Sanchez in April's draft, and traded away one of his possible competitors, Brett Ratliff, in the process. So it's just Sanchez and Kellen Clemens in Gotham. The winner of that training camp battle should inherit a pretty solid running game behind a good offensive line, and with a swarming defense to back him up. But even if Sanchez wins the competition (I'm not counting on it), does that sounds like a job that'll produce huge fantasy numbers? Josh Freeman was the apple of Tampa Bay's eye all winter, and new Bucs coach Raheem Morris (who worked with Freeman at Kansas State) got his man. However, with Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown entrenched above him on the depth chart, Freeman seems unlikely to play much in his rookie year unless Tampa Bay's season goes downhill in a huge way, and fast. Freeman has a lot to learn. The Dolphins drafted Pat White to play quarterback, just as White hoped when he decided not to work out for teams as a wide receiver. To begin his career, though, White will be Miami's third-string quarterback, and leading Wildcat option under center. He'll probably make a few spectacular plays with his legs in '09, but won't be worth starting in fantasy.
Speaking of the Dolphins, Chad Pennington was nearly the NFL's MVP last year, but he enters '09 with Chad Henne breathing down his neck. Don't get me wrong, Pennington is obviously the Week 1 starter. But too many reports out of South Florida have indicated that Henne has a strong chance of taking over the starting gig for there not to be some truth to the rumor. Pennington is a solid, take-few-chances option, but he's never going to lead a team to a Super Bowl because he just doesn't throw it downfield well enough. Henne does. Sage Rosenfels signed with the Vikings to be their starter, then coach Brad Childress made all kinds of noise this spring about how Tarvaris Jackson still had a solid chance to recapture the gig. But all that was before the Brett Favre madness gripped the Twin Cities. But now that Favre has decided to stay retired, Rosenfels appears poised to be the starter once again.
I've mentioned Brady's knee and Hasselbeck's back, so let's talk about two potentially elite players who have proved brittle in the past. First up, Kurt Warner is a highly touted fantasy option in the desert, laden as he is with sweet receiving options such as Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin (unless his contract keeps him out) and Steve Breaston. But did you know that 2008 was the first time Warner played in 16 games since '01? He'll be 38 by Week 1, and he does take his share of hits. As a group, we here at ESPN Fantasy have him rated No. 4 among all quarterbacks, but I must admit I'm probably a little lower than that on Warner because of the circumstances. Surprise teams who lose in the Super Bowl have an awful record of success the following year, and one way the Cardinals' season could go down the tubes quick would be if Warner got hurt. Be a little wary. The other guy among our top 10 who inspires cold sweats is Matt Schaub, who has missed 10 out of 32 regular-season games since he came to Houston. His yards-per-attempt average in '08 was a whopping 8.0, second highest in the NFL, and the Texans definitely like to throw. If Schaub stays healthy (it has to happen one of these days, doesn't it?), he has it in him to be a top-five fantasy quarterback. But make sure you pack the antacid.
You'll get wildly varying opinions on Carson Palmer this year. On the one hand, he missed all but four games last season because of an elbow injury that he didn't address surgically this offseason; he lost his favorite target, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, to free agency; and he's left with a whining Chad Ochocinco as his primary deep threat. On the other hand, Palmer was a lock for at least 3,800 yards and 25 touchdowns before his injury, and Cincy acquired tough-as-nails veteran Laveranues Coles to replace Housh. The Bengals' D figures to be improved this season, and if they accidentally stumble upon a decent running back -- pardon me for not jumping on the Cedric Benson bandwagon just yet -- Palmer may find the sledding a little less difficult than it first appears. We know he has 30-touchdown pass skills, but can he get back on track? Eventually, Terrell Owens will be bad for Trent Edwards. He'll rat him out to the media or berate him on the field. But T.O. is known for his honeymoon periods, which gives Edwards a window to be a fantasy option. I can't say I'm sure coach Dick Jauron will suddenly shirk his run-first ways and go nuts downfield, which is what keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending Edwards. But with Owens and Lee Evans, you have to admit Edwards has one of the most talented receiving tandems in the league. He could be interesting.
In a 12-team fantasy snake draft, I'm rarely tempted to take one of the game's top quarterbacks, for precisely the reasons I noted at the beginning of this preview. There's typically far less difference between the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks than there is between the top rushers or receivers. Just ask yourself, would you rather have Donovan McNabb as your starter and Ronnie Brown as your second running back, or reach for Brady and then make do with LenDale White as your No. 2 back?
Could someone from the quarterback ranks rise up and submit a season like Brady did in '07 or Peyton did in '04? Sure, it's possible. But how good are the odds that that man will be the guy you reach for in the first or second round? After all, before his massive '07 campaign, Brady was considered the third-best quarterback option behind Manning and Palmer. (By contrast, Manning was the consensus No. 1 signal-caller, barely ahead of Culpepper, in '04.) In other words, even if you convince yourself that someone's going to have an '09 season that dwarfs all other fantasy quarterbacks, you have to figure out who it'll be.
If recent history is a good indicator, you're better off letting your league mates take their starting quarterbacks while you're still stocking up on rushers and receivers, then happily take the No. 10 or 11 guy on your board. In other words, take your No. 1 quarterback in the fifth or even sixth round. Then if you're in a shallow league, don't even bother with a backup (or take one much, much later). Since the members of the vast middle of the quarterback group are liable to be fairly close to one another pointswise, select lottery-ticket running backs or wide receivers in the middle/later rounds instead.
The same logic applies to auctions. Are you better off spending $40 for Brees or Brady, or spending $12 on Cutler? (Those are actual auction values in an experts' league I did this spring.) Methinks you can find some mighty nice purchases with the $28 difference. That said, if you're playing the "Studs & Duds" strategy in your auction, I actually think $40 for the No. 1 quarterback in the NFL isn't a bad price at all. (In fact, in the auction I just mentioned, I was the guy who paid $40 for Brady.) That definitely doesn't result in good value, though. In general, my preference is to save on quarterbacks so I can splurge on rushers and receivers. And if you're going to draft a fantasy backup (which is really necessary only in deeper leagues), make sure you don't spend more than a buck or two.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.