It’s an exciting time for quarterback play in the NFL. As Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and a golden age of QBs enter the twilight of their careers, young stars like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson have emerged as the future of the sport. Quality at the position has never been higher across the board. The league’s best quarterbacks are more efficient than ever, and few teams are scrambling to find a competent passer. This collection of QBs is unlike any in history, and it’s created a somewhat muddled fantasy landscape at the position.
Looking at both The Ringer’s Fantasy Football Draft Guide and early average draft position data for this year, there seems to be a general consensus of who the top six QBs are. Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Watson, and Kyler Murray are, in some order, the most appealing QB options in fantasy. That list illustrates a change in the league’s quarterback hierarchy, and explains what an elite fantasy starter looks like in 2020. All six of those players are willing and capable deep passers who also add value with their legs. Of that group, Murray has the shortest track record, but given what’s happened in recent seasons, his spot near the top of draft boards makes sense. For the past two years, a second-year QB has caught fire en route to winning league MVP and countless fantasy leagues (three years, if you consider Carson Wentz’s MVP pace during his injury-shortened 2017 season). Murray’s current ADP feels like a direct response to what Mahomes and Jackson accomplished in their second years. Both guys were available in the 10th round or later the year that they won the MVP. This year, Murray is generally going in the fifth. Savvy fantasy players everywhere want a seat on the Murray rocket, and that’s made a ticket pretty damn expensive.
Murray is a unique case, but his outlook and ADP are indicative of a larger trend among fantasy quarterbacks this season. Now that the league’s thrilling young QBs have emerged as top fantasy options, the middle tier at the position has also changed. Upside bets like Murray who might’ve been available in prior seasons have all but disappeared. They’ve been replaced with aging superstars, promising-yet-uninspiring gambles, and late-round dice rolls. When you move beyond the top six and Josh Allen, whose production as a rusher gives him a stunningly high floor, you might as well be throwing darts. And there seem to be discrepancies about which QBs should round out the top 10. The Ringer’s guide lists Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, and Carson Wentz as its next three QBs. The consensus FantasyPros rankings also have Ryan and Wentz among their top 10, with Stafford one tier below at QB12. Based on average ADP, though, it looks like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady are being drafted just ahead of Stafford and Wentz. Let’s untangle that a bit.
There’s a reason Ryan is essentially locked in as the QB7 in drafts right now. Atlanta has been one of the most pass-happy teams in recent years: It led the NFL in passing percentage in 2019, and Ryan has cracked at least 600 attempts in each of the past two years. Ryan’s volatile touchdown totals in the past several seasons have painted a useful portrait of his best- and worst-case fantasy scenarios. After throwing 35 touchdown passes in 2018 and finishing as the QB2, he tossed only 26 touchdown passes last season and finished as QB10 in average points per game. If the Falcons can solve their protection issues and Ryan can create more explosive plays downfield, he could easily finish as a top-five fantasy QB once again.
Ryan’s draw is his enticing floor-ceiling combination. The sheer passing volume in Atlanta’s offense should make him a viable fantasy starter even if he gets unlucky again this season, and you don’t have to go back far to see his upside. This brings us to Wentz. He might not be as consistent as Ryan, but you can apply similar logic to his 2020 fantasy outlook. Wentz finished as the QB9 last season despite playing with arguably the most depleted receiving corps in the NFL. He was without DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery for most of the season, and still threw for more than 4,000 yards with 27 touchdowns. Philly’s injury issues forced Wentz to subsist on short and intermediate throws to his talented tight ends and running back Miles Sanders. Wentz finished 23rd in average air yards per attempt (7.9) and 20th in deep-ball percentage (12.2 percent).
When Wentz was at his best in 2017, he ranked fourth in average intended air yards (9.9) and deep-ball percentage (14.8 percent). In Philly’s Week 1 win against Washington last season, Wentz and Jackson connected on two touchdowns of 50-plus yards. Wentz wants to push the ball down the field, and with Jackson and rookie speedster Jalen Reagor in the mix, the Eagles have the personnel to make that happen. Wentz is currently being drafted as the QB9. That could be his floor if he stays healthy.
Stafford is another intriguing upside option who’s going a touch later in early fantasy drafts. The 32-year-old Lions QB was on pace for more than 5,000 passing yards through nine games last year before a back injury ended his season. In coordinator Darrell Bevell’s vertical offense, Stafford led the league in air yards per attempt (10.7) and deep-ball rate (an absurd 19.2 percent of his throws traveled 20-plus yards in the air). More than a decade into his career, Stafford may seem like a fantasy afterthought, but he offers a considerably higher ceiling than several QBs who are being drafted ahead of him.
According to current ADP data, Brees, Brady, and Rodgers are all going just before or after Wentz in fantasy drafts. It’s easy to be swayed by their résumés, and in Brady’s case, by an alluring group of new receivers. But upside is a concern with all three future Hall of Famers. Brees is still one of the most efficient QBs in the league, on an offense outfitted with All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas and dominant pass-catching back Alvin Kamara. Add Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook to the equation, and Brees seems even more appealing. But take a step back and consider some of the factors at play. Brees averaged 6.7 air yards per throw last season, the fourth-lowest mark in the league. He had 27 touchdowns in 11 games, and threw for a touchdown on 7.1 percent of his passes—the highest rate of his career, and one that doesn’t align with his career average in New Orleans (5.5 percent). If he regresses to that baseline with his 2019 passing volume, you’re looking at about 30 touchdown passes in a 16-game season. That’s solid production, but based on his age and current ADP, it doesn’t seem like a bet worth making.
Both Rodgers and Brady probably have higher 2020 fantasy ceilings than Brees, but extenuating circumstances may also limit their upside. While it’s tempting to look at Brady’s collection of receiving talent in Tampa (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, and Rob Gronkowski) and imagine a resurgence, we’re still talking about a QB who’s about to turn 43 and has started to show signs of decline. Brady’s lack of deep-ball production last year (27th in deep-ball rate, 28th in air yards per target) was compounded by New England’s lack of playmaking speed, but that wasn’t the only factor. Banking on Brady’s arm at this stage of his career feels like a risk. And considering how good the Bucs’ defense might be, the offense could employ a more conservative approach during their second season under Bruce Arians.
Unlike Brady in Tampa, Rodgers is almost completely devoid of receiving options in Green Bay. The Packers wide receiver depth chart outside of Davante Adams leaves plenty to be desired, and the franchise did nothing to address the position this offseason. Rodgers should theoretically see an uptick in passing touchdowns this season; according to Pro Football Focus, he finished third in end zone passes (46) last season while tying for eighth in touchdown passes (26). Yet the fantasy impact of having better luck in that area could get wiped out by a transition to a more run-heavy offense. Green Bay’s front office added bigger bodies as both blockers and runners in the past few months to beef up the ground game.
There are a few other QBs worth mentioning here. Ben Roethlisberger is even less appealing than aging contemporaries like Brees and Brady, and probably shouldn’t be considered a viable fantasy starter in 2020. We saw the best version of Ryan Tannehill last year, and doubts about his chances of repeating that effort seem baked into his 12th-round ADP. Cam Newton is the best upside bet in this range, but there’s no telling what the New England offense will look like with him in the fold—or whether he’s healthy enough to be a significant fantasy presence.
How you approach drafting a mid- to late-round QB this year depends largely on the overall construction of your roster. Stafford and Rodgers are currently going off the board as QB12 and QB13, respectively, which likely positions them as the final starting QBs taken in a 12-team league. The quarterbacks being drafted after them are potentially the no. 2 QB on your roster, which requires a different sort of thinking. Going into the season, I’d rather have Stafford as my starting QB at his ADP than Newton, even if I can snag Cam later on. But if you already have a starter in place—say, Jackson or Watson—Cam’s upside makes him a more worthwhile flier.
Unlike in previous years, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of unearthed value hiding outside the top 10 at QB that could put your fantasy team over the top. But for those who decide to stay out of the early QB fray, it’ll be crucial to identify the options that do provide some hidden upside, no matter how scarce it might be.