Football fantasizers… Fake GM/coaches everywhere… this is your time of year. The NFL preseason is underway, fantasy football drafts are coming soon, and you are scheming and dreaming of bragging rights and possible cash payouts based on a crapshoot of NFL stat collection.
While the casual fan and novice fantasy player thinks they must land Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, or Tom Brady with their first pick in order to win a fantasy football league, the fact is that running backs are often more important to draft early since productive workhorse backs are rare these days (and most leagues have you starting 2 RBs, plus another RB possible in the flex position, while only staring one QB each week).
Last year I employed the “wait on a QB” strategy, popularized by J.J. Zachariason of The Late Round QB and championed by many other fantasy football writers, by setting my sights on Atlanta’s Matt Ryan or San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who last offseason were usually ranked well below the QB elite and even behind guys like Mike Vick, Tony Romo, and Matthew Stafford in most rankings. (Luckily I landed Ryan, as he certainly made the leap while Rivers struggled.)
This year you probably won’t luck out and get Matt Ryan if you wait to draft a QB. And with the influx of new starters (and bankable starting fantasy QBs) in Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson, there are plenty of flashy big names for your league rivals to flock to early in your draft. The quarterback position is suddenly pretty deep, and I’ve yet to even mention Cam Newton or either of the Manning brothers.
So who should you target as a late-round QB while everyone else drafts the above-mentioned QBs in those early rounds as you’re stockpiling RBs?
There are several options, and obviously they all come with some risk but also offer a lot of value if you land a solid starter in the later rounds of your draft. I’d like to say that Rivers is due to bounce back in San Diego, but I’m skeptical the Chargers can overcome the injuries and lack of weaponry around him.
Other late-round fantasy QB’s like Joe Flacco in Baltimore and his division rival Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh will likely have up and down fantasy production. Either one is capable of the occasional big statistical breakout game, but I think both will continue to be much better real-life QBs than they are fantasy stars.
If you really wanna strap on a big set of balls, you could grab new Cardinals starter Carson Palmer and hope Larry Fitzgerald can put Palmer in a time machine set for 2004. Or you could go for Alex Smith, the Kansas City Chiefs new signal-caller. (In fact, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell had a good breakdown on why the Chiefs should certainly be improved.) Alex Smith could be a nice dark-horse sleeper QB in fantasy football this year, especially given new coach Andy Reid’s career-long fascination with calling way more pass plays than runs… but even the most strict followers of the “late-round QB” strategy would have a hard time rolling with Smith as their starting QB.
So who does that leave us with? I’m gonna give you two names that won’t wow you, and might scare you and could possibly lead to severe liver damage if you have to get through the year with either of them as your starter: Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler and Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton.
In Chicago, Cutler has a proven stud WR in Brandon Marshall, a solid RB in Matt Forte (who also excels as a pass catcher), and a 2nd-year WR in Alshon Jeffery who’s had a great camp and should benefit from all the attention defenses will give to Marhsall. Cutler’s cause will also be helped by a beefed up offensive line and an added weapon in free agent TE Martellus Bennett. But most of all, Cutler could be in store for a big year due to the presence of new head coach Marc Trestman. An innovative offensive mind, Trestman returns from Canada after building an NFL resume filled with gaudy offensive numbers. And wouldn’t it be typical poetic justice for the Bears, so long defined by dominant defense, to finally put an offensive juggernaut on the field soon as their defense begins slipping following the firing of their defensive coach and the retirement of LB Brian Urlacher?
Of course, Cutler has also been known to come down with a touch of Headcase-itis every now and then… but despite how late he should be available in most fantasy drafts, I can see him having Top-10 fantasy production this year.
Then there’s Andy Dalton. Now, no one wants their season hinging on a guy named Andy with red hair that clashes with his orange uniform. And who wants to risk relying on any Cincinatti Bengals for anything? But Cincy’s got a really good defense that can get Dalton the ball back in good field position. He’s surrounded by offensive weapons: WR A.J. Green is a consensus Top-5 WR, and veteran TE Jermaine Grisham is joined by rookie stud TE Tyler Eifert out of Notre Dame. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a serviceable RB, but they’ve added potentially dynamic rookie RB Giovani Bernard to the mix as well.
But really… Andy Dalton?? Of the Bengals?!?!! Are we sure he’s not just Blaine Gabbert with a better supporting cast or a red-headed Mark Sanchez who just got lucky for a couple years? Well… as CBS Sports Senior Fantasy Writer Dave Richard pointed out, Dalton’s 47 passing TDs in his first two seasons rank behind only Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52) for most scores thrown by a quarterback in his first two years. For some context, in his first two years as a starter, Tom Brady had 46 TD passes. Rivers managed 43 (but his first two years as a starter came in his third-fourth seasons). In fact, Dalton’s 47 TD passes in his first two years compares quite favorably with more recent examples: Cam Newton (40), Matt Ryan (38), Joe Flacco (35), and Ben Roethlisberger (34) were the Mt. Rushmore of early QB success until Luck/RG3/Wilson/Kaepernick showed up.
A quick look at ESPN, CBSsports, Yahoo, and NFL.com fantasy player rankings finds Dalton somewhere around 15–18 among QBs and Cutler in the 18–23 range. That means they’ll be free for the picking in later rounds, after you’ve feasted on plenty of RBs, WRs, and TEs while the rest of your league was racing to draft the pretty faces at QB who might get out performed by these two ugly ducklings.