Oh, Tom Brady. Why must you make our lives difficult?
Before Brady's ridiculous 2007 season, calling quarterbacks the "paper clips of fantasy football" was still mostly accurate. It mattered which start-worthy quarterback you had on your fantasy roster just about as much as it mattered whether your penny was minted in Denver, Philadelphia or San Francisco. The standard deviation between the highest- and, say, 20th-highest-scoring quarterback was quite small compared to running backs or wide receivers, so you could feel secure waiting in your draft. Sure, you don't get Peyton Manning often, but you also don't have to use Ron Dayne as your No. 2 rusher most weeks.
But such tidy positional guidelines have begun to wear away. Brady threw 50 touchdown passes last year and led countless fantasy teams to the playoffs, no matter who was in their fantasy backfield. Despite a late-season slowdown, Brady was still the highest-scoring player in fantasy football last year in terms of VBD ("Value Based Drafting," in which a player's fantasy points are compared to the fantasy points of the baseline player at his position), only the second time since 1996 that a running back failed to take the top spot in that category. (Manning's 49-touchdown 2004 season also led the league in VBD terms.) Plus, there was a bigger raw fantasy point gap between Brady and the second-place fantasy point-gainer (another quarterback, Tony Romo) than any player since Dan Marino in 1986.
What's most interesting, though, is that in the 13 seasons from 1984 to 1996, quarterbacks led the league in VBD fantasy value seven times. In other words, during those years, it paid to have the best quarterbacks because they tended to score further above the "average" quarterback than the best running backs scored over the "average" running back. That has changed in the last 10-plus years. But now we need to ask ourselves: Was Brady's insane 2007 season just pure silliness that can, for the sake of trends, be ignored? Or was it an indication that the good ol' days for quarterbacks are returning? Should we be thinking quarterback earlier than ever in our fantasy drafts?
Let's take a look at the leading stories at quarterback for 2008, then get back to this question.
Only two players qualify as "elite" at quarterback, and their names won't shock you. Tom Brady finds himself in a perfect situation: An aggressive coaching staff, a good offensive line (Super Bowl performance notwithstanding) and perhaps the premier receiving corps in the game. Oh, yeah, and he's pretty talented, too. We don't believe for one second that Brady is throwing 50 scores again. After all, the season after the previous record-holder threw 49 (we'll get to that guy in a minute), he came back and had a decent campaign, tossing "only" 28. Defenses will adjust to the Patriots' crazy passing ways and force the running game to beat them more. Nevertheless, Brady still should have one whale of a season. Peyton Manning has never failed to throw 26 touchdown passes in a season, and he's failed to reach 4,000 yards passing only once in the last nine years. He's rarely the top quarterback in fantasy football from season to season, but he's the only guy who's always in the top three. Consistency like that makes him more valuable than a whole lot of running backs, which means you must consider him in the first few rounds of your draft.
Poor Eli Manning. Here he is, a Super Bowl winner, and we're about to knock him. But despite the younger Manning's playoff heroics, you shouldn't pay top fantasy dollar for him. He has thrown 17, 18 and 20 interceptions, respectively, the last three seasons (he tied for the league lead in '07), and he also lost seven of 13 fumbles last year. Manning has not posted a passer rating higher than 77.0 for a season, including a lowly 73.9 rating in '07, and seems to go through maddening accuracy problems almost weekly. Is it possible he has put it all together now that's a champion? Yes. But we wouldn't want him as our fantasy starter until we know for sure. Heading into 2007, Philip Rivers was compared favorably to Troy Aikman: A steady hand who liked to throw to the tight end, on a run-focused team, didn't make mistakes and won an awful lot. Coming out of '07, Rivers had earned a reputation as a mercurial loudmouth who often couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. He jumped from nine picks in '06 to 15 last year, and his yardage and touchdown totals declined. Plus, he tore his ACL in the playoffs and is still rehabbing. The Chargers will be good, but Rivers isn't the guy we thought he was. Don't make the mistake of drafting Jon Kitna as if Mike Martz were still his offensive coordinator. Sure, Kitna will still have a nice stable of aerial weaponry in Detroit, including Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. But new coordinator Jim Colletto is going to lay off the pass-heavy offense that led to Kitna's big numbers the last couple years. That'll probably be good for Kitna's health, since he has been sacked more than 50 times ("leading" the league) each of the last two seasons and has regularly been at or near the league lead for interceptions. But it also means the days of 35 attempts per game are behind him. Vince Young was probably the most disappointing quarterback to own in fantasy football last year, at least among guys who didn't suffer a major injury. He threw nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions, and rushed for only three scores after registering seven in 2006. VY's worst problem is accuracy, and we don't believe changing offensive schemes (as the Titans are) will fix that entirely. Young is an acceptable flier as a No. 2 fantasy quarterback, but he has no business being counted on as your starter.
The Texans will be a chic pick to contend for a wild-card spot this winter, both because of their improving defense and because Matt Schaub should be back. When he was healthy enough to be on the field last year, Schaub's completion percentage was fifth-best in the NFL (66.4 percent), and he threw it down the field to the tune of a third-best 7.8 yards per attempt. If he and Andre Johnson stay healthy, and Houston can muster some semblance of a rush game, Schaub has fantasy-starter upside.
Hey, did you hear some guy named Favre was traded? Aaron Rodgers grabs the reins in Green Bay, and definitely has the keys to a pretty nice offensive machine. The Packers' receiving corps is as deep as anyone's in the league, the offensive line is good, and Ryan Grant was stellar in the second half of '07. Rodgers will have to stay healthy -- in his short career, he has gotten seriously injured in two of the three games in which he has played significant minutes -- and he probably won't leap right in and put up Favre-ian numbers. But West Coast offenses can be quite fantasy-friendly to quarterbacks, and the Pack is expected to run more of a pure West Coast system with Rodgers at the helm.
JaMarcus Russell has a big arm and what looks like a pretty solid running game, while the Raiders have a favorable schedule this season. Does that mean Russell is ready to be a fantasy star? Maybe not. But we know Oakland likes to go vertical, and it's possible opposing defenses go overboard preparing for Darren McFadden and Co., giving Russell some space. He'll probably make too many mistakes to be fantasy relevant just yet, though. Derek Anderson was an unbelievable story in Cleveland last year, and he got a nice contract extension for his troubles. But that deal is essentially a one-year, $8 million pact, which means the Browns aren't tied to him long-term, and Brady Quinn could eventually get a chance this year. After all, we still don't know for sure yet that Anderson isn't just a one-hit wonder. Would anyone be shocked if he struggles for a Cleveland team that has high expectations, a tougher schedule and a former collegiate stud sitting on its bench? We're not saying it'll definitely happen, but Quinn makes for an interesting fantasy sleeper.
Matt Ryan was the consensus top quarterback in this April's draft. Too bad for him, because while he does get to earn a whole lot of green, he also must play for the Atlanta Falcons, who don't figure to be good this year, and maybe next. Ryan doesn't have the biggest arm in the world, and he did throw a lot of picks at Boston College, but he's a mature leader, a smart guy, and with NFL talent around him, he figures to be a lot more accurate. Expect him to start for the Falcons in Week 1, but Ryan doesn't figure to be fantasy-relevant in '08, except in keeper leagues. Joe Flacco was this year's leading cannon-armed prospect. He finds himself in Baltimore, which is pretty ironic, considering the Ravens drafted another cannon-armed prospect by the name of Kyle Boller in 2003, and that didn't work out well. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely Flacco will be the team's Week 1 starter -- that honor will likely go with Troy Smith. But as is the case with Ryan, it won't be a surprise to see Flacco get some starts by midseason. Unfortunately, also like Ryan, Flacco would be playing behind a relatively inexperienced offensive line. Chad Henne has an NFL-caliber arm but didn't always make big plays in key situations at Michigan, and he's currently penciled in as the Dolphins' second-stringer, behind Pennington. Henne does have upside and has shined in camp, but he has to be tagged for clipboard duty this year. Brian Brohm is a good fit for Green Bay, where his lack of elite arm strength won't hurt him and his intelligence and accuracy will be prized. Of course, the Packers are already going with an untested commodity at starter (Aaron Rodgers), so it's unlikely that Brohm will earn the backup gig. He'll probably be third-string in '08, behind an as-yet-unsigned veteran.
The Cardinals have one of the league's most intriguing quarterback controversies, considering the winner gets to throw to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Matt Leinart was the starter last season, but even before he was lost for the year because of a broken collarbone, Kurt Warner was playing some minutes and perking up a lethargic Arizona offense. This year, the two men entered training camp in competition for the starting gig, and insiders thought Leinart once had the edge. However, Leinart didn't do well in camp, and Warner did. He might not keep it all season, but Warner will start Week 1, and he proved last season he has major upside as the starter.
Mike Martz has brought his "pass first, block later" offensive coordinator act to San Francisco, and he has a history of producing fantasy star quarterbacks on his teams (at least among the guys who didn't get slaughtered by onrushing defensive players). That's why it'll be so interesting to see how the 49ers' quarterback situation plays out. We thought Alex Smith would be favored to start, but J.T. O'Sullivan has the job in camp, and
Shaun Hill is definitely in the mix, too. The problem here is that Niners quarterbacks were already getting sacked a lot. Now that Martz is here, and since the team's scheme is likely to emphasize three- and four-receiver sets at the expense of blocking, we're concerned none of these guys will make it through an entire season intact. The Bears figure to struggle on offense this season, at least partially because of the mess that continues to plague them under center. Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton are once again the only options at quarterback in Chicago, as the organization stubbornly refused to draft a signal caller. As it stands now, Orton has the job. But Grossman is the bigger-armed swashbuckler, while Orton is painfully conservative. Each guy has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in his career, though, and neither guy figures to have fantasy relevance in '08.
In 2007, for a fourth straight year, Donovan McNabb missed time because of injury. The good news, though, was that as the season wore on, McNabb's surgically repaired ACL seemed to bother him less, and his mobility returned. In his final four games last year, McNabb completed 65.3 percent of his passes, and on the whole wound up posting the second most accurate season of his nine-year career. The worry when it comes to Donny Football is he just has a ough time making it through a full season. If he does, though, he's a worthy starting fantasy quarterback. Marc Bulger got utterly pummeled in '07, partly because of a tattered offensive line, and partly because he has become something of a piñata over the course of his six years as a starter in St. Louis. He suffered concussion and rib troubles last year, and also has had shoulder issues in the past. If Orlando Pace and the rest of the line become healthy again, Bulger and his new offensive coordinator Al Saunders could have something pretty nice in store. But Bulger always seems like he's one hit away from loopy-land. Jake Delhomme was on track for a nice season in Carolina last year when he felt his elbow pop in Week 3. He needed Tommy John surgery. Now he's back, and the Panthers say he's 100 percent. But until he starts taking hits and making meaningful throws, we won't really know for sure. No star quarterback has ever undergone the ligament-transfer surgery, and Carolina's offensive line doesn't figure to rank among the league's best. If he's truly healthy and stays upright, though, Delhomme does have some weapons at his disposal. The Redskins changed offensive systems yet again this summer, meaning -- in addition to recovering from a dislocated kneecap -- Jason Campbell will have to learn his seventh different offense in eight years. But Jim Zorn was an important reason why Matt Hasselbeck was able to become a solid fantasy player, so Campbell does have upside.
While we have Jake Delhomme and Jason Campbell rated well outside our top 10 among quarterbacks, we can envision scenarios in which they overcome the obstacles before them (Delhomme's is his elbow, Campbell's is his kneecap and a new offensive system) and become starter-worthy players. Aaron Rodgers could step right into the Brett Favre role and be a very good player right away, although some struggles (and possible health issues) should probably be expected. If someone like Alex Smith is able to grab hold of the 49ers' job and stay upright all season, he'd be a very nice sleeper in a Mike Martz-led offense. Right now, Smith is a backup, though.
As I mentioned in this article's introduction, there's some evidence to suggest the golden age of fantasy running backs is winding down. As running back committees become more rule than exception, and as restrictions on defensive backs grow, it's possible the game will see more superstar seasons like Tom Brady's last year, where he so outdistances the "average" player at his position that he's worthy of an early first-round fantasy pick. Are the elite quarterbacks once again ready to be far superior to the average (a la Steve Young, Brett Favre and Randall Cunningham, back in the day)? Brady certainly has a chance to be great in '08, and deserves to be a first-rounder in all fantasy drafts, and we'd consider taking Peyton Manning in the second.
However, remember this: While Brady and Tony Romo were spectacular outliers among quarterbacks last year, they were the only ones. It wasn't as though five or six signal-callers finished among the top 10 in VBD fantasy points ("Value Based Drafting," see above). So while it mattered if you were lucky enough to draft Brady or Romo, getting anyone else pretty much would've put you right back in the great middle again, where it almost didn't matter who you had at fantasy quarterback. And this is the crucial part: Predicting that Brady and Romo would've produced such outlier seasons before the '07 schedule began was nearly impossible. Neither had shown any indication that they were ready to be top-10 VBD players.
That's why I wouldn't reach for players like Romo or Drew Brees or Ben Roethlisberger in the first couple rounds of your fantasy draft. Is it possible they give you a great outlier season like Brady did in '07? Yes. In fact, I bet someone on our list below Brady and Manning will. But we just don't know who. Calling your shot with a specific player is just too difficult. I'll stay with just Brady and Manning in the first two rounds, and if you don't get them, I say wait and 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 points-wise, select some lottery-ticket running backs or wide receivers in the middle/later rounds instead.
If you buy our argument about the tippity-top quarterbacks potentially being worth as much as all but the upper echelon of running backs, you'll probably need to spend in excess of $55 or $60 to get Brady or Manning (in a league in which you have a budget of $260), which will likely lock you into a "studs-and-duds" strategy (you go top-heavy at key positions and try to fill in with cheap, high-upside draftees everywhere else). Failing that, though, I'd spend less money at quarterback, because as I've said ad nauseum in this column, on average there just isn't a ton of difference among the rest of the quarterbacks. Can a Tony Romo jump out of nowhere again and turn in an outlier season? Sure. But can you be sure you have the right guy? No, if you're Brady- and Manning-less, it's safer and saner to wait on your starting quarterback, pick up a couple bargains with nice upsides, and spend the extra dough on the rusher or receiver you desperately want. 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 baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports.
You can e-mail him here.