Using 2018 Fantasy Projections to Create On-Field Quarterback Tiers
In 2012, Chase Stuart of Football Perspective ran a study to find the answer to this question: Which passing stats correlated the most with winning football games in the NFL? The answer was Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt or ANY/A, which measures how many yards a quarterback gains on a drop back, including sacks, while also attributing the value of 20 yards for a touchdown pass and -45 yards for an interception thrown.
In an August climate dominated by fantasy narratives, we decided to look at quarterbacks’ projected stats in 2018 based on what Stuart deemed to matter for winning football games. Unfortunately, because most fantasy stat projections do not include sacks and/or sack yardage, we were unable to measure ANY/A, but settled on Adjusted Yards per Attempt or AY/A. AY/A is simply ANY/A without taking into account for sacks and sack yardage, a blind spot for fantasy projections. In the context of AY/A, the stats that matter are 1) pass attempts, 2) passing yards, 3) passing touchdowns and 4) interceptions.
The three sources of stat projections that we chose to look at were ESPN, Fantasy Pros and FFToday, as they all had projections for those stats available (some websites did not include pass attempts in their projections.) The projected AY/A of the NFL overall varied a bit, with ESPN’s numbers coming out to 7.09, FantasyPros’ numbers coming out to 6.93 and FFToday’s coming out to 7.12. By juxtaposing each website’s projected AY/A for the overall NFL to the projected results of individual quarterbacks, we can find the projected value, in yards, for each quarterback.
AY/A Value (Yards vs Average]: (Individual Player Projected AY/A-NFL Projected AY/A)*Attempts
Above are the results for every quarterback projected to throw 200 or more balls by all three websites. They are ranked by the average AY/A Value of these three projections. As you can see, they’re fairly homogenous. Of the 16 quarterbacks who average out to have a positive year, all but one (Tyrod Taylor) is projected by all three websites to have an above average season from an AY/A perspective. Of the 17 passers who would be labeled as below average from this perspective, only two (Sam Bradford and Andy Dalton) are even projected by one website to have a positive value season.
Overall, you can basically break up the projected quarterback play in the NFL into four tiers.
Tier 1: Tom Brady
Going into his 19th NFL season, there’s not really much left to say about Tom Brady. I’m going to save my breath here. What is significant about Brady going into 2018 is how much more valuable he’s projected to be than anyone else in the league. Only one quarterback (Drew Brees) is projected to even have half as much positive value as Brady this year. The distance between Brady and the QB2 in these projections is wider than the difference between QB2 and QB14 (Kirk Cousins.)
These are the usual suspects. Collectively, these 13 quarterbacks have made 46 Pro Bowls in their NFL careers. It is the belief of the fantasy projections that Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo, who would be labeled as the inexperienced passers on this list, are going to be able to repeat what they did last year. If you believe these numbers to be accurate, Alex Smith moving to Washington and Kirk Cousins moving to Minnesota will not lead to a drop off in their careers, either. Somehow, despite the fact that he has to serve out a three-game suspension, Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston is projected to make up for missed time and wind up as the 13th-most valuable passer in the league this year.
Tier 3: Indifference and Question Marks
These are the passers who, at least from a projected efficiency through volume perspective, would be labeled as average. There are some players coming off injury (Sam Bradford, Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson and Ryan Tannehill), some players starting for the first time with new teams (Tyrod Taylor, Patrick Mahomes and Case Keenum) and some players who are coming off of down years (Andy Dalton, Dak Prescott and Marcus Mariota.) The numbers are very neutral on these passers.
Tier 4: Projected to Hurt Their Team
To put this tier into perspective, Oakland’s Derek Carr has the highest projected value at -178 yards vs the average NFL quarterback. Wentz, who was an MVP candidate last year, is only projected to outplay the average quarterback by 152 yards in 2018. The quarterback projections in this tier are like having the inverse of an MVP candidate dropping back to pass.
At the same time, some of these numbers can get tricky. There are no quarterbacks in our first two tiers who are projected to play efficiently and lose their starting job. Both AJ McCarron and Josh Allen, two quarterbacks co-existing in Buffalo, are projected to be two of the seven most costly passers this year. Collectively, they are projected to be worse than Joe Flacco (33rd of 33 passers projected to throw 200 or more passes in 2018), but because Flacco isn’t projected to lose his job, he is ranked lower than McCarron and Allen.
Efficient quarterbacks tend to keep their jobs. Inefficient quarterbacks tend to lose their jobs. One of the flaws of AY/A Value is that what it really measures on the low end is how inefficient a quarterback is without losing starting reps. This also impacts Josh McCown, as two of the three projections had rookie first-round pick Sam Darnold throwing 200 or more passes for the New York Jets this year. The low end of this list (I would say 27th on) doesn’t truly “rank” quarterbacks by on-field value but actually measures the juggling act between inefficiency and opportunity.
These projections are by no means perfect. As an I mentioned before, it would be more accurate if we included sack data. It would also be valuable to measure results versus a defense faced, but I have yet to find a website that projects the pass attempts, passing yards, passing touchdowns and interceptions for every quarterback-defense matchup this season.
This also doesn’t include the nuances of quarterbacking (example: getting your team in the right play at the line of scrimmage) that cannot be measured in the box score. While it doesn’t include rushing numbers, rushing efficiency not a primary factor for winning football games and we know that most rushing touchdowns in the NFL are scored from or within the three-yard line. For the most part, what we think of as rushing success is defined by volume (which is strongly dictated by the situation) and goal line success, which comes to who the play caller decides to get goal-line touches in short yardage situations. These stats also don’t account for a quarterback’s supporting cast, but frequent drop-offs in team passing efficiency when starting quarterbacks go down (think 2017 Packers and Texans) suggest that the primary driver of passing efficiency is, in fact, the person who touches the ball on every passing play.
Even if the projections and methods aren’t fine-tuned perfectly, this is probably as close as we can get to “getting it right” before the games play themselves out.