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Monday, August 29, 2011
Can Tony Romo join class of elite QBs?

By Jim McCormick
Special to ESPN.com

What can we expect from the Dallas Cowboys' passing attack?

In the fantasy football cafeteria, six quarterbacks sit together at an exclusive table. The coveted elites in this clique are Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning.

32 Questions

We can find Tony Romo sitting at the next table over, but he just might deserve to be with the cool kids. He is currently being drafted 11 picks past the end of the "six-pack," going 41st overall and seventh among signal-callers in ESPN live drafts.

Although the six elite quarterbacks seemed fixed as the top tier just a few weeks ago, a significant shift is occurring in drafts. In the top tier of the position, a pronounced gap is forming. Rivers has an ADP of 18.7, with Manning drifting into his own draft space at 30.1, while Romo has an ADP of 41.2. Matthew Berry -- never one to shy away from a bold ranking or belief -- has Romo ranked 24th overall, just one slot behind Rivers, while Manning checks in at 51st overall, just after Mike Tolbert, in his Top 250 player rankings. Berry isn't just including Romo at the table here; he's replacing Manning in the group. Growing concerns over the Colts' cornerstone has his draft status in limbo, which equals deflation. Meanwhile, several elements suggest that Romo might be the better value given his ADP (average draft position).

Romo has been out of the discussion in both real and fantasy football for some time given his absence from the field last season and his team's absence from contention. But now that he's healthy and flush with a dynamic arsenal of receiving talents, just what kind of production can we expect from him and his passing crew in 2011?

Tony Romo
Tony Romo was on pace to be an elite fantasy QB last season before going down with injury.

Just based on our projections, Romo is estimated to tally 4,329 yards and 26 touchdowns with 13 interceptions to go with 77 yards on the ground and one rushing score. In his past two full seasons of play, Romo has averaged 4,347 passing yards and 31 touchdowns. If we take the projections of his top-five expected targets -- Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Felix Jones and Martellus Bennett -- the sum of their yardage and touchdown totals is 4,133 yards and 24 touchdowns. We seem to have found a reasonable range for projecting Romo's production given what he's accomplished before.

A fractured collarbone prematurely ended Romo's '10 season, one in which he had been on pace for 4,280 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and an impressive 69.5 completion percentage. Although the sample size was small, he didn't put the ball on the carpet once last season in six games after losing 11 total fumbles in the previous two seasons. If there is a newfound uptick in accuracy with Romo, he's helping to confirm the trend with a 70.3 percent clip so far in the preseason.

With offensive-minded head coach Jason Garrett at the helm, there will be no shortage of vertical work for the talented wideouts with Miles averaging 16.2 yards per catch in his career, while Bryant assuredly has big-play potential. Over the middle there are few better workers than Witten, who is projected to haul in more than 90 catches and 1,000 yards once again. Bennett has yet to live up to his potential but remains a cog in the system. Rookie Dwayne Harris out of Eastern Carolina is showing flashes of big-play potential in the preseason. Jones represents the best receiving back Romo has ever had regularly at his side and could emerge as a PPR maven thanks to an effective screen game.

Although this reads like, and possibly reeks of, a glowing appraisal of this passing game, these are simply the facts. Bryant is a star in the making whom we are projecting to be a borderline No. 1 wideout; Austin is a proven star who has lost some luster (likely due to recent fantasy results); Witten is a perennial Pro Bowler. Jones looks to become the star that fellow Razorback Jerry Jones tabbed him to be, and he showed some life and with solid production when given the requisite work last season. The Dallas passing game is one of the most talented in football as well as one of the most proven in the past several seasons. The baseline for Romo this season is 4,200 yards, and the ceiling is in the career-best range, while a return to the 30-touchdown threshold is quite possible. To remind you of subjectivity here, I am a devout Philadelphia Eagles fan, and even I can't deny that the talent and timing is here for a career year for Romo and a stellar campaign from the offense in whole.

ESPN's Scouts Inc. recently published a list of the top quarterbacks in the league with Romo coming in at 10th overall, detailing that he possesses "above-average arm strength and deceptive athleticism." The article also confirmed the six-pack premise, "Based on our scouting, there are just six elite quarterbacks in the NFL. That's it; just six, and the drop-off after that is clear."

This is where scouting and fantasy scoring disagree: Romo's production puts him right with the top six in fantasy regards. Even better is that you can net him a round later in most drafts. If the scouting report finds a distinct drop-off after the top six in real terms, there isn't such a dip in the fantasy market, with Romo and his ADP peers Matt Schaub (42.5) and Ben Roethlisberger (48.4) providing statistical security beyond the front six. Of these three, I find Romo to be the strongest candidate to produce a monster statistical season.

This is not a referendum on Manning, since his stock is unstable solely because of his health, but rather a confirmation that Romo should be considered as an elite quarterback. And that they need to make room for him at the table.