Every fantasy player is searching for the coming season’s new league-winning quarterback. The guy you pick up in the later rounds who leads you to the promised land. Sure, you could spend an early pick on the boring, safer options like Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, but that’s not where the value is! You want to fill your team with stud running backs and receivers, then pick up your signal caller in the later rounds.
Last year, everyone knew who the guy was. The Denver offense was primed to break out. They had a new head coach, a great surrounding cast, a solid but not-too-stingy defense and the guy we all want to see cook, Russell Wilson. Pete Carroll had for years stifled Russ and leaned on the run game; now it was time for Wilson’s breakout party. *QB17 finish occurs* Well, that was disappointing! Instead of wasting your 6th-round pick on the next hot fantasy darling, let’s look at how to pick the true sleeper quarterbacks before the season starts (and how to avoid the next Russ).
For the sake of this article, we’ll assume the following players were sleepers, as they all provided good weekly production when healthy and were available late in fantasy drafts (or later than they should have been). (Note: PPG refers to Points-per-game, a ranking that reduces the impact of injury, 4-point passing TDs are assumed, and only Weeks 1-17 were used. ADP is from FantasyPros consensus).
Jalen Hurts – QB3 (QB1 in PPG) – Available in the 5th round
Justin Fields – QB5 (QB5 in PPG) – Available in the 12th round, later a free agent in most leagues
Geno Smith – QB6 (QB8 in PPG) – Free in drafts
Daniel Jones – QB7 (QB10 in PPG) – Free in drafts
Trevor Lawrence – QB8 (QB12 in PPG) – Available in 13th round, later a free agent in some leagues
Kirk Cousins – QB9 (QB13 in PPG) – Available in 10th round, often later or as a free agent
Jared Goff – QB10 (QB14 in PPG) – Free in drafts
Tua Tagovailoa – QB15 (QB11 in PPG) – Available in 11th round, often a free agent after his injury
We’ll be looking at five things you can look for when drafting your QB in 2023. Naturally, our goal is to find what makes a good late-round gamble. While many of these categories lead to high-risk, high-reward prospects and will hence often lead to a bust too, when selecting a late-round QB, that’s usually worth the gamble.
- Find a QB who runs
For years, fantasy owners have understood the benefits of a running QB. Fantasy studs like Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick and, of course, early-career Russell Wilson have all parlayed 500+ yard rushing seasons into fantastic fantasy finishes. Even mediocre QBs like Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, DeShone Kiser, Alex Smith, Marcus Mariota and Mitch Trubisky have sat comfortably on fantasy rosters due primarily to their rushing ability. But this year, running QBs have been the only option. Every Top 10 (in PPG) quarterback was hitting double-digit rushing yards weekly in 2022, with the majority running for 300-400 yards this season. That may not seem like much, but that’s 30-40 points in a season, and that can make all the difference.
Geno Smith is a prime example. Not a known runner, he surprisingly acquired 315 rushing yards, which was the difference between his QB8 (in PPG) finish and a QB17 (in PPG) finish. That’s massive. Daniel Jones also benefited from his legs. While we’ve always known he can run, in 2022, he jumped from under 300 yards to over 700 yards. Even taking his 2021 rushing total, he would have finished below Derek Carr as the QB21 in PPG. That’s right, Jones’s breakout was due to one key factor, a massive increase in rushing volume. Every other 700+ yard rusher (Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen, Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson) finished in the top 6 in PPG. If you can find elite running quarterbacks, you have a fantasy cheat code.
- Look for QBs with receiver upgrades
An elite wide receiver can move a quarterback from good to great. Jalen Hurts flourished with AJ Brown out wide, Trevor Lawrence benefitted from expensive free agent signings Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, Jared Goff found Amon-Ra St Brown and DJ Chark early and often, and Tua Tagovailoa had the explosive Tyreek Hill. This isn’t a new concept. Kirk Cousins jumped from QB18 to a top 12 QB with Justin Jefferson, and Cooper Kupp elevated Matthew Stafford to new heights, then showed how much Stafford struggles without him, as was the case with Tom Brady without Chris Godwin or Mike Evans. It’s not always the decisive factor, though. Derek Carr couldn’t make the most of Davante Adams, for example, and DeAndre Hopkins didn’t elevate Kyler Murray to a new level. So if your QB just received a great new weapon or two, that’s good news, but it’s not everything.
- Look for pocket passers with great offensive lines and scrambling QBs with awful offensive lines
The O-line can be the decisive difference between success and failure, especially for a pocket passer. The Eagles had, without doubt, the best O-line this year, and it made a massive difference to Hurts’s ability to utilize his downfield weapons while also allowing for great success in the scheduled QB run game. In fact, the majority of our sleepers had strong offensive lines. Confusingly, an awful offensive line can also be beneficial if it causes your quarterback to run a lot. Justin Fields broke out on the back of his ability to run, and he had to scramble most plays, as his teammates were rarely able to establish a clean pocket or get open. That was also a key feature in Daniel Jones’s high finish this year, a lot of scrambling yards. This has long been the case, with Kyler Murray’s forced scrambling leading him to regularly high fantasy finishes. Just remember, though, a bad O-line can lead to quarterback injuries.
- Look for quarterbacks with awful defenses
Quarterbacks score points when they need to score points. That’s a pretty obvious statement, and it has a few implications; the greatest of these is that a team with a good offense and a poor defense will be forced into a lot of shootouts. That was certainly the case for a few of our sleepers. The Bears, Cardinals, Lions and Vikings all conceded Top 5 numbers in points against, so it’s no surprise their quarterbacks were all very busy, while the Seahawks and Dolphins were all in the Top 10. Even fellow awful defenses like the Texans and Falcons saw their quarterbacks outperform expectations, with only the Raiders (who got by on their run game) and the Colts (who were just plain awful in offense at times) didn’t get the bad-defense boost.
- Look for QBs with new play callers
Most coaches don’t just randomly change their whole offense between seasons. The best way to stimulate change in an offense is to change the coaching staff. This can mean a new play caller, a new OC or even a new head coach. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to some big, positive changes in quarterback production. Let’s look at our sleepers: Jalen Hurts got a new play-caller in mid-late 2021, and Justin Fields gained a new head coach, OC and play-caller this year. So did Daniel Jones, Trevor Lawrence, Kirk Cousins and Tua Tagovailoa, while Jared Goff had a new play caller and OC. Meanwhile, Geno Smith had a new team since he was last a starter, and hence a new coaching staff, for him that is. So that’s… everyone! So that’s it, right? Look for players with new play callers? Well, no, it’s not quite that simple. Here are some other QBs with new play callers: Davis Mills (eeek), Derek Carr (blurgh), Jameis Winston (ouch), Baker Mayfield (LOL), Josh Allen (OK, that one actually worked out), arguably Mac Jones (ewww) and oh yeah, that guy, Russell Wilson. So a new play caller can absolutely go either way. One thing you can expect, though, is that without a new play caller, you’re unlikely to see a big jump in fantasy production from your quarterback.
So there you have it, five things to look for from your 2023 sleeper QBs. But we’re missing just one thing, literally the title of the article, how do you avoid busts? Let’s have a quick look at what led to dud seasons by QBs drafted in the top 12 (according to consensus ADP from FantasyPros). Here’s the list of QBs we’re considering busts:
Justin Herbert – QB12 (QB17 in PPG) – Drafted as the QB3 in the 3rd round
Tom Brady – QB11 (QB16 in PPG) – Drafted as the QB8 in the 6th round
Russell Wilson – QB17 (QB25 in PPG) – Drafted as the QB9 in the 6th round
Aaron Rodgers – QB14 (QB26 in PPG) – Drafted as the QB10 in the 7th round
Matthew Stafford – QB32 (QB33 in PPG) – Drafted as the QB12 in the 9th round
Please also note that injuries were not considered. While Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott and Trey Lance were all drafted high, they all either performed effectively before injuries or were injured so early that we never got to see what they could do. Other quarterbacks who clearly busted, like Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston and Matt Ryan, were drafted so low it’s hard to argue they badly affected your team unless you’re playing Superflex or in a very big league. So let’s look at what went wrong:
- Quarterbacks who don’t run are very risky.
Unsurprisingly, if running is a fantasy cheat code, not running is playing Call of Duty with the sound off. It’s possible to have success, but it makes it very hard. While Brady is a known statue, -1 rushing yards is a low for even him. Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers are both guys who don’t rush a lot, but their numbers in 2022 also had drops, which didn’t help. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson is no longer the dangerous scrambler he once was in his youth, and Justin Herbert halved his rush yard total from 2021, a drop which otherwise would have at least seen him inside the top 10. So should you totally avoid QBs with low running totals? No, not necessarily. Joe Burrow had under 250 rushing yards (though he still doubled his total from 2021), Dak Prescott is no longer the rusher he once was (though without the injury, he was on pace for about 250 yards), and Tua Tagovailoa is the primary exception to running QBs, the QB11 in PPG had only 70 rush yards. Every other top 12 QB had at least 280 rushing yards, and only one QB outside the top 12 passed that threshold, Marcus Mariota. Get a QB who runs.
- Injuries to, or loss of, key players
It’s hard to throw for a lot of yards when you have nobody to pass to. Guys like Justin Fields can make up for this with their legs, but as we’ve already established, none of our busts can run. To compound this, they all battled with injured receivers. Herbert lost Keenan Allen and Mike Williams at times, Brady struggled when Godwin and Evans were out and rarely had Julio Jones or Russell Gage healthy, Wilson lacked Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and KJ Hamler for patches of games, Aaron Rodgers lost Davante Adams to the Raiders while every single one of his receivers missed at least a quarter of the season, and Matthew Stafford had no Cooper Kupp for half the year, enough said there. Receivers are the lifeblood of QBs. Can you predict these? Well, if your QB has their lead receiver leave the team, then yes, of course. Otherwise, it’s often just bad luck.
- Avoid pocket passers with bad offensive lines
The Chargers, Rams and Broncos all had massive O-line issues, while the Buccaneers were badly hurt by a lack of Tristen Wirfs. A bad O-line makes it very hard for your quarterback to throw for big numbers.
- Beware an average defense
I’m not sure exactly why, but all five of our busts had defenses that finished 11th-22nd in points against last season. My supposition is as follows: Bad defenses mean quarterbacks need to pass a lot to chase points. Good defenses lead to a lot of turnovers and a lot of possession, leading to a lot of points. Average defenses do neither. Of course, it’s also possible that bad QB play by our busts led to otherwise solid defenses conceding more points, so I’m not convinced this is a predictive stat.
- Beware the veteran QB
At some point, even the greatest quarterback falls away and can no longer produce like he used to. This can happen for a number of reasons: an inability to run or get out of trouble, an expensive contract meaning the rest of the team is mediocre, a natural drop in skills, a lack of drive, and a tendency for veterans to want to control the decision making. Regardless of the reason, veteran QBs really struggled this season. Brady, Rodgers, Wilson and Stafford all made our bust list while others such as Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton are other 30+-year-old quarterbacks who struggled this year. In fact, Kirk Cousins and Geno Smith were the only older QBs to break the trend, and Smith barely counts. It’s a young man’s league. Maybe leave the older guys on the shelf unless their value falls into bargain territory.
I hope this look at 2022 sleeper and bust QBs has will help you in selecting your teams for 2023. Next time, I’ll be looking at the running backs. If you have any thoughts or questions, you can find me @thefantasyfirstdown on Instagram (where I answer all questions) and @fantasyfirstdwn on Twitter.