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Fantasy Playbook: When Is the Time to Bail on an Underperforming Quarterback?

Waiting to draft a QB is a popular strategy that hasn’t paid dividends thus far. Is it time to cut your losses and pivot to the hot hand?

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There’s been plenty of discussion about the drop in offensive numbers across the NFL so far this season, from the dip in passing efficiency to the nosedive in rushing numbers to the decrease in overall scoring. And while Week 3 featured easily the most exciting and fun slate of games we’ve gotten this year—and hopefully foreshadowed more to come—we still saw a lot of inconsistency at the position where that matters most: quarterback.

Anytime the week’s headliners include Vikings backup signal-caller Case Keenum (369 yards, three touchdowns), Jaguars passer Blake Bortles (244 yards, four touchdowns for a 128.2 rating), and Jets journeyman tank-commander Josh McCown (249 yards, one touchdown, and a 126.3 rating), you know things are getting weird league-wide. And three weeks into the season, it’s still just about impossible to know what to expect from a chunk of the league’s veteran quarterbacks nor its exciting young signal-callers. Whether you’re talking about Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Tyrod Taylor, Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, or even Trevor Siemian, the best way to describe their collective play is probably with the word erratic.

A lack of dependability and consistency in quarterback play has shaken things up, and will continue to, in the NFL standings. And it’s probably had a similar effect on your fantasy football league.

A frequently utilized fantasy draft strategy is to wait a bit on the quarterback position and let the suckers over-bid or take one of the top-scoring quarterbacks in the early rounds. The reasoning behind that is simple: Passing numbers across the league have exploded over the past decade—25 quarterbacks topped 200 fantasy points last year—so the bump you’d get in scoring from prolific passers like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees over, say, lower-tier guys like Rivers, Roethlisberger, or Matthew Stafford wasn’t always worth the opportunity cost (in the form of high-volume running backs or receivers).

This year, that wait-on-a-quarterback plan may not be working out quite as well as expected. Sure, if you grabbed Alex Smith (who has thrown seven touchdowns and no picks over three games and averaged 20.8 points per week in standard formats) or Trevor Siemian (six touchdowns, 17.6 points per game) in a late round, you’re probably doing just fine. At least, so far. But unless you were in a super-deep 16-team league, you weren’t going to play those guys from the jump anyway, and most of us have probably already missed out on the spikes in production. Smith’s opening-week performance (368 yards, four touchdowns) looks more like an outlier, and as he shifted back to game-manager mode over the past couple of weeks, you can’t expect him to maintain a high-floor scoring potential week in and week out. Siemian, who looked like a Pro Bowler over the first two games as he tossed six touchdowns and rushed for another, fell all the way back to earth last week, too, completing just 60 percent of his passes for 259 yards and two picks in Denver’s 26-16 loss to the Bills.

Most of the big-name passers that were available after the first couple of rounds have shown the same type of inconsistency thus far, too. Look at Derek Carr, who started the year strong, but fell on his face in Week 3. The Raiders quarterback completed 75 percent of his passes for 492 yards and five scores in wins over the Titans and Jets, but he threw two picks and managed just 118 yards on 31 passes on Sunday Night Football against the Redskins. Which version of Carr should we expect next week when he takes on the No Fly Zone of the talented Broncos pass defense?

Then there’s Cousins, who started slow, completing 61 percent of his passes with two touchdowns, one pick, and an 82.9 passer rating over his first two games before lighting it up against Oakland to the tune of 365 yards and three touchdowns for a 150.7 rating in a 27-10 win. Your guess is as good as mine as to which version will show up next week against Kansas City’s stout pass defense.

You could say the same thing about Wilson, whose Seahawks face the Colts next week, but then draw the tough defenses of the Rams and Giants after that. Wilson exploded for 373 yards passing and four touchdowns in Seattle’s 33-27 loss to the Titans on Sunday, but he never really got himself into a rhythm until the fourth quarter of that game. In his other 11 quarters of play this year, Wilson’s offensive line hasn’t been able to protect him, and the run game has yet to gain much traction. Additionally, Seattle’s still not using Wilson as a runner consistently (most of his 100 yards rushing have come on scrambles, and he’s yet to find the end zone via his legs). Even with that big passing output against the Titans, Wilson has completed just 57 percent of his passes this year for a meager 6.3 yards per attempt, and Seattle’s offensive woes are far from being solved.

Newton’s had a similarly slow start. Through three games, the Panthers signal-caller has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 566 yards, two touchdowns, and four picks at 6.8 yards per attempt. He’s always been an aggressive thrower that typically tries to push the ball downfield, but a late return to the field following offseason shoulder surgery meant Newton saw very few preseason reps, and the former league MVP has struggled to regain his typical form. It doesn’t help, of course, that he just lost tight end Greg Olsen (foot) for six to eight weeks, and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s on the shelf for the time being with a knee injury. On the ground, Newton’s rushed only 14 times for 46 yards and a touchdown. There’s no rest for the weary, either, as the Panthers have three tough opponents (New England, Detroit, and Philadelphia) next on their slate.

Dalton looked downright benchable (in real life and on your fantasy team) in his first two starts before throwing two touchdowns against the Packers on Sunday. You can say almost the exact same thing about Manning, who played terribly in the first two weeks before finding the end zone three times against the Eagles this week. Roethlisberger completed just 56 percent of his 39 passes in Chicago on Sunday for 235 yards and a score. And while you can almost always expect Big Ben to post a better performance at Heinz Field, it sure looks like he’s planning on playing at a Brock Osweiler level on the road again this year. Even the league’s reigning MVP, Matt Ryan, has seen his production drop this year compared with last.

Add in wild cards like Philip Rivers, who is prone to three-pick meltdowns like we saw on Sunday, and Jameis Winston (three picks vs. the Vikings), who's shown a similar disregard for downfield defenders at times, and it’s tough to know what to expect from almost any given offense in any given week. That’s sure to produce plenty of upsets and drama as the year goes on, but it also makes setting your fantasy lineup a bit of a conundrum.

The only quarterbacks that look like reliable high-floor starters week in and week out are Brady, Rodgers, and Brees. Then again, Brady stunk it up against the Chiefs in Week 1, Rodgers didn’t exactly light up the Seahawks in the opening week, and Brees is well off his usual pace for a 5,000-yard season. (He’s on pace for “just” 4,624 yards right now.) But if you came into the season with the thought that you’d spend a higher pick or a bigger portion of your auction budget on any one of this trio, you’re probably sitting pretty right now.

For the rest of you, the question is: When is the right time to bail on your underperforming QB? Should you drop Roethlisberger, Rivers, or Wilson and roll the dice with Keenum or McCown? Well, no. You may have to live with wild swings week-to-week, but it’s still too early to abandon all hope for a bounce back to something closer to consistency. Wilson always gets better as the year goes, Rivers still has plenty of talented targets in the passing game, and Roethlisberger has high upside every week just because of the fact he’s throwing to Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Le’Veon Bell.

But in the meantime, it may be worth it this year more than most to dedicate an extra roster spot to a backup quarterback and take a flier or two on potential breakout stars at the position. At this rate, even passers like Jared Goff, Jacoby Brissett, and Deshaun Watson could outscore some established fantasy starters.

Sure, the odds are low that the Rams will continue to outpace the Greatest Show on Turf, and you can’t expect Goff to complete 79 percent of his passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns every week (like he did against the Niners on Thursday Night Football). But it’s becoming more and more apparent that Sean McVay is turning the former top-overall pick into a professional passer, and with McVay calling plays and Todd Gurley turning swing passes into defender-hurdling touchdowns, the second-year passer could end up being a better option than some of his more experienced counterparts.

You could say the same types of things about Watson and Brissett. Watson still faces a pretty steep learning curve in Bill O’Brien’s complex passing offense, but we saw him do plenty of the things that made him a national champion at Clemson last Sunday in New England. The first-round pick showed glimpses of his ability to put the offense on his back and attack the defense with aggressive downfield throws—and when all else fails, he’s also proved that he can force-feed the ball to DeAndre Hopkins or pull off a Houdiniesque escape to keep plays alive. Brissett showed a similar dynamic skill set on Sunday, passing for a touchdown and running for another two. Though Andrew Luck may return to practice next week, his path back to the field remains foggy. Per reports, the Colts plan to play Luck this year no matter what their record is after the next few weeks, but if Indianapolis loses another couple of games and finds itself all but out of the playoff running, the team may be hesitant to put Luck out there and risk reaggravating his shoulder injury. Brissett could end up being the starter the rest of the way—and his ability to score points with both his arm and his legs could make him a fantasy boon.

Then there’s Teddy Bridgewater, who is eligible to come off the PUP list in three weeks. The Vikings’ former starter is reportedly ready to go should the Vikings need him—and with uncertainty surrounding Sam Bradford’s knee combined with the fact that Keenum has a career passer rating of 80.3, Minnesota just might. We saw what Keenum can do passing to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen last week, so Bridgewater’s ceiling is as high as it’s ever been.

As the year goes on, we could see the league’s passing efficiency pick back up and the scoring totals start to approach last year’s numbers, and plenty of the league’s established quarterbacks could go back to playing like we expected them to play. But based on the first few weeks of the season, there's a chance a few of them—whether it’s Dalton, Newton, Wilson, or Roethlisberger—may not. It might be worth having that backup plan in mind.