Draft strategy: 2-quarterback leagues

Updated: June 24, 2014, 11:09 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's a quarterback-happy NFL world, and as fantasy football owners, we enjoy reaping the benefits of their staggering statistics.

Unfortunately, as quarterbacks seemingly rewrite the record book each passing fall, it is becoming increasingly true that standard, 10-team, one-starting-quarterback leagues force many standout performers to stand on our sidelines.

Consider: In every week of the 2013 season except Week 4, at least one quarterback available as a free agent in at least 80 percent of ESPN leagues (entering said week) scored 20-plus fantasy points (ESPN standard scoring). The leading weekly totals, among players in that group, resulted in an average of 25.4 fantasy points.

That's a lot of production left untouched.

And that's just scraping the bottom of the positional barrel. Leaping a few tiers higher, and again using 2013 data, the collective group of healthy, starting NFL quarterbacks who were owned but benched in at least 50 percent of ESPN leagues averaged 16.6 fantasy points. For a comparison point, the quarterbacks who were started in at least 50 percent of ESPN leagues averaged 17.5 fantasy points.

That's a lot of fantasy owners making the wrong starting decisions many weeks.

Thankfully, there's a fantasy football format that addresses these shortcomings: It's called the two-quarterback league. Its definition is self-explanatory: Instead of one active quarterback in your weekly lineup, you start two. It's a double-dip of fantasy goodness from a position that, also in 2013, accounted for seven of the top eight and 16 of the 19 largest seasonal point totals, and 18 of the 28 200-point campaigns.

If you've found yourself frustrated by making the wrong weekly quarterback choice -- for example, Cam Newton or Nick Foles, Nick Foles or Cam Newton, during the second half of 2013 -- or disappointed that you missed out on exploiting that Josh McCown 38-pointer in Week 14 of last season, switching to a two-quarterback league might be the way to go. That's where this column comes in; let's talk you through the process.

Structure: to 2-QB or not to 2-QB?

The decision to migrate to a two-quarterback league is not one to be taken lightly. As a commissioner creating a new such league, be sure to consider the following factors:

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger is one of those players who seems to benefit more in two-quarterback leagues than one-quarterback leagues.

• How many teams do you want in your league? Mathematically speaking, a two-quarterback league could field as many as 13 teams while guaranteeing an average of at least one NFL starter per available quarterback spot in every eligible week; the only times when there would be an equivalent number of NFL starting quarterbacks and active quarterback spots (26, or two times 13) would be the three weeks in which six teams are on bye, Weeks 4, 9 and 10. Understand that the larger the league, the more difficult it becomes for every team to field two NFL starting quarterbacks every week.

• How many quarterbacks is each team allowed to roster? In ESPN leagues we allow you to dictate position maximums, and as there are only 32 starting NFL quarterbacks at any given time (meaning 32 in weeks without byes, 30 in Weeks 5-8 and 12, 28 in Week 11 and 26 in Weeks 4, 9 and 10), the position's pool of available resources drains much more quickly than in a one-quarterback format. You might want to cap your league's quarterbacks at two per team, meaning the only ones owned are the ones in your active lineup. Perhaps three is a wiser limit, as that affords owners the luxury of a contingency plan for those bye weeks or matchup capability in regular weeks. Or, perhaps you don't feel a maximum is necessary, as fantasy owners should be afforded the opportunity of utilizing "blocking" strategies -- adding a player to prevent your competition from using the player against you -- and be rewarded for being able to stash emerging quarterbacks -- hello, Nick Foles in 2013 -- in advance.

• If you're willing to put in the additional work as commissioner and prefer a deeper league with maximum flexibility, you could also consider instituting a quarterback "rental" system in the event of bye weeks or injuries. Fantasy owners could be allowed to "rent" a quarterback -- add one only for the current week, only to instantly drop him upon the week's conclusion -- when they own one who isn't scheduled to play for either reason. This provides a safety net for those owners in a pinch in certain weeks, preventing them from having to cut a star quarterback who is injured, or start a quarterback guaranteed to net them a zero. As commissioner, this means extra work: I recommend a commissioner-controlled add/drop system by which you process each of these individual (as well as all league add/drop) requests. That way you can prevent owners from freely adding or dropping quarterbacks; if you needed to cut Peyton Manning during his bye week to facilitate a rental, you wouldn't want someone else mistakenly misreading the transaction and adding him.

A commissioner must consider each of these league settings carefully, make educated decisions and communicate them to his or her ownership group as a whole. As with any less common fantasy league format, the intricacies can be tricky, so all owners need to have a thorough understanding of the rules in advance.

That goes for both commissioners and owners, so read up on your rules!

Strategy: It takes two to make a draft go awry

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonCam Newton becomes a much more viable first-round candidate in two-quarterback leagues.

Strategy in a two-quarterback league is vastly different from strategy in a one-quarterback league, and anyone who tells you differently simply hasn't played in enough of the former to gain a thorough understanding. You cannot merely take rankings, or worse, average draft position (ADP) results from a one-quarterback league and cleanly apply them to a two-quarterback league.

I repeat: You cannot merely take one-quarterback rankings/ADP and cleanly apply them to a two-quarterback league.

Doubling the active quarterback pool vastly lowers the replacement level -- defined as the expected point total for a typical player available via free agency any week -- granting the better performers at the position additional value. For an individual player example, let's take Ben Roethlisberger: In 2013, his 248 fantasy points ranked 12th among quarterbacks, beyond the 10-man lineup cutoff reflected in a 10-team, one-quarterback league, but well within the cutoff reflected in a 10-team, two-quarterback league. In addition, only four times all season did Roethlisberger score one of the 10 highest fantasy point totals, but on 13 occasions he managed one of the 20 best scores; he was actually a remarkably good starter in a two-quarterback league.

To illustrate this effect upon the position as a whole, let's use value based drafting (VBD) data from the past three seasons. You can read more about VBD here, but to summarize: VBD estimates how much better a player was, statistically, than a replacement player at his position, allowing us to compare different players playing different positions of differing scarcity. For this exercise, let's use 2011-13 statistics -- the average point total scored by each position's ranking spot per year, meaning the average of the No. 1 quarterback's 2011, 2012 and 2013 score, then the No. 2 quarterback's, and so on -- and define "replacement player" as the average point total of the ranking spot of the first player on a bench -- so the No. 11 quarterback in a 10-team, one-quarterback league, No. 21 in a 10-team, two-quarterback league, and so on.

Using this as our VBD model, here's how a one-quarterback and a two-quarterback league stack up. The numbers are VBD rankings among the entire player pool.

That's as compelling an argument as there is for building around quarterbacks -- or at least taking one with one of your first three picks -- in a two-quarterback league as there is. Twelve quarterbacks ranked among the top 30 overall players in terms of VBD, and 19 quarterbacks earned VBD rankings that were the equivalent of first-seven-round picks in two-quarterback leagues; only five quarterbacks ranked among the top 30 and 10 in the first seven rounds in one-quarterback formats. With so many elite quarterbacks these days, it's well worth taking your first one in the first round ... or, at latest, by the second or third rounds.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsOwners in two-QB leagues would've been a lot quicker to use Nick Foles during his 2013 breakout campaign.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsOwners in two-QB leagues would've been a lot quicker to use Nick Foles during his 2013 breakout campaign.

I've played in two-quarterback leagues for 15 years, and in every one of those drafts, as many as 10 quarterbacks were selected by the conclusion of the third round. You can wait if you choose, if you believe in your ability to unearth gems at the position, but even if you do, at some point you're going to be pressed to select one significantly sooner than would be your tastes in a one-quarterback league. Wouldn't you rather that "reach" at the position be an elite passer, a Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, in the first round than a Tony Romo, Philip Rivers or Jay Cutler in the fourth or fifth?

As for what position suffers in a two-quarterback league, as someone has to slip further down draft boards if quarterbacks are being selected significantly earlier, tight ends tend to last longer, by as much as one or two rounds. In two-wide receiver leagues, wide receivers aren't far behind, moving down approximately as much. In three-wide receiver leagues, however, running backs tend to move down almost equally with wide receivers, approximately a round for each position (though neither to the extent of tight end).

Stud-and-streamer: it takes a QB2 to tango

If overpaying for two quarterbacks disinterests you, another angle you might consider is locking in a stud quarterback and using your QB2 spot to exploit matchups. In this arrangement, you'd openly try to select the best QB1 you could: This means most likely spending your first-round selection on whichever of Manning, Brees, Rodgers or even Matthew Stafford is available at your turn.

Then, with your QB2 pick, you'd select two or more mid-to-late round, high-upside quarterbacks in the hopes that one would provide a great return on investment. In the event none does, you'd be aggressive via free agency in-season; but even if you did nab a useful QB2 in the draft, you'd still be proactive with free agents using this strategy.

In 2013, this is a strategy that would have paid off nicely: Three of the top five quarterbacks in terms of ADP, Brees (No. 2), Manning (No. 3) and Newton (No. 5), finished first (Manning), second (Brees) and third (Newton) in fantasy points, giving you an excellent chance at a good return on your first-round investment. Aaron Rodgers (No. 1 in ADP, No. 22 in fantasy points) and Tom Brady (No. 4 in ADP, No. 13 in fantasy points) were the other two probable first-rounders who flopped, but Rodgers' disappointment was a matter of injury.

Now look at where some of the top 20 quarterbacks in fantasy points were selected in the preseason (or as in-season pickups): Andy Dalton (No. 5 in fantasy points, No. 18 in ADP), Rivers (Nos. 6 and 23), Foles (No. 11 and undrafted), Alex Smith (Nos. 15 and 24), Ryan Tannehill (Nos. 16 and 26), Carson Palmer (Nos. 17 and 21) and Geno Smith (No. 20 and undrafted). That's seven of 20 -- or 35 percent -- who returned a good amount of profit on your investment, which is pretty good odds considering the volatility of quarterbacks as a whole after the top 12-14 or so.

Tristan's two-quarterback league rankings

Whatever your desired strategy, formulating a detailed draft sheet is critical to two-quarterback league success. In order to help you on your way, listed below are my personal rankings for the format.

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