Anticipating the Breakout: Quarterback Trends & Breakout Candidates (Fantasy Football)

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To close out my Fantasy Breakout series, we get to dive into the Quarterback position. Surprisingly, since 2000, this position offers the lowest number of top-12 breakouts among drafted players at only 2.3 per year. For reference, below are the average top-12 breakouts per skill position (drafted players only):

  • Running Backs: 3.7 Top-12 Breakouts per Year
  • Wide Receivers: 3.3 Top-12 Breakouts per Year
  • Tight Ends: 3.0 Top-12 Breakouts Per Year

Considering Quarterbacks have a longer career span, it makes sense that we see less turnover when it comes to top-12 fantasy producers. However, history tells us that we should expect at least one or two Quarterbacks to emerge each season. To identify who those potential breakout candidates could be, I analyzed 22 years of fantasy data to find trends and similarities among the players that emerged during this timespan. Before we dive into the data, here are the parameters of my analysis:

  • The timeframe of my dataset spans from 2000 to 2021 (sourced from Stathead)
  • To identify the breakout seasons in that timespan, I filtered on players drafted since 2000
  • A breakout season for a Quarterback is identified as a top-12 fantasy season (min. 8 games played)
  • My sample size only includes players that were drafted and exclude UDFAs
  • Sample Size: 51 Breakout Quarterbacks

Breakouts by Draft Capital + Hit Rates

If we dissect the data by draft capital, the first round stands out with the highest total of Quarterback breakouts at 31 (60.8% of the total). This is clearly depicted in the chart above as no other draft round has accounted for more than five Quarterback breakouts over the last 22 seasons. Furthermore, if we compare this to other offensive positions, Wide Receivers rank a distant second with only 40.2% of breakouts coming from first-round players. In short, if we expect a Quarterback to emerge this season, it will likely come from a day-one prospect like Trevor Lawrence or Zach Wilson.

The significance of draft capital is further confirmed when analyzing each round’s breakout hit rates (Breakouts ÷ Total Players Drafted). To calculate this metric, I trimmed my sample size to Quarterbacks drafted from 2000 to 2015, highlighting a group of players who have had at least seven seasons to break out for fantasy. Interestingly, we see a sizable number of Quarterbacks selected in each round. However, the number of breakouts varies significantly. The first round clearly leads the way with a 50% hit rate, while the 3rd round is a very distant second at 20%. With this information in mind, we should probably temper expectations for the 2022 class. While the situations for Desmond Ridder or Sam Howell could provide a path to a starting gig, due to their lower draft capital, it is unlikely their teams simply hand them the QB1 role. It would also not surprise me if both the Falcons and Commanders went back to the draft in 2023 to address their QB situation, especially if Marcus Mariota and Carson Wentz are unable to produce this season.

Lastly, per the data below, the average fantasy finish for a Quarterback breakout campaign is around QB7 or QB8, averaging around 16 to 17 fantasy points per game. However, with the rise in rushing production at the position, we have seen those numbers steadily increase. Since 2015, the average production for a breakout campaign has improved to 19.9 points per game, despite a similar average finish of QB7. Furthermore, we see below that a breakout season for a first-round player will usually lead to multiple QB1 campaigns, with an average of roughly 4.0 per career. The more shocking numbers are the average top-12 seasons among day two and three breakouts. But while those numbers might seem encouraging, keep in mind that these averages are slightly skewed due to the small sample size within each group. The three most glaring outliers skewing the data are Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson. However, if we exclude those three Quarterbacks, the average QB1 seasons among day two and three breakouts drop significantly to 1.8 per career.

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For Quarterbacks drafted in the 1st Round, in their breakout season:

  • The average fantasy finish is QB7
  • The average Points per Game production is 17.1
  • Average 4.0 Top-12 Seasons In their career
  • 61.2% Finish Career with +2 QB1 Seasons

For Quarterbacks drafted in Rounds 2 – 3, in their breakout season:

  • The average fantasy finish is QB7
  • The average PPR per game production is 17.4
  • Average 4.3 Top-12 Seasons In their career
  • 57.1% Finish Career with +2 QB1 Seasons

For Quarterbacks drafted in Rounds 4 – 7, in their breakout season:

  • The average fantasy finish is QB8
  • The average PPR per game production is 16.7
  • 37.5% finished within the top 6
  • Average 3.2 Top-12 Seasons In their career
  • 50% Finish Career with +2 QB1 Seasons

Breakouts by Age

Breaking down my sample size by age, it becomes inherently obvious that most breakouts occur relatively early in a Quarterback’s career. So while they do have a much longer career span than most offensive players, we rarely see a breakout campaign beyond age 26. In fact, 82.3% of breakouts have occurred before a player’s age-27 season. In other words, if a Quarterback has not emerged by the end of their rookie contract (around age 25 or 26), they have likely missed the window of opportunity to break out for fantasy.

If we break this down further by draft capital, the data shows that day one prospects could emerge as soon as age 22 or 23 for fantasy – which we most recently saw with players like Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert. This should not come as a surprise as most first-round Quarterbacks are immediate starters for their respective teams. We saw this come to fruition with nearly every Quarterback in the 2021 class, though surprisingly not a single one of them finished within the top 12. In addition, we do see a strong sample size among age-25 breakouts, indicating that some Quarterbacks emerge slightly later in their careers. In fact, this age group is headlined by several accomplished players such as Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers, who all broke out multiple years after their rookie season. As for day two and three prospects, not a single one of them has emerged before age 24. Keep this in mind when rostering rookies like Matt Corral or Malik Willis, as it is very unlikely they contribute at any point this season.

With this information in mind, the Quarterback battle in Carolina will be an intriguing storyline to keep an eye on this season. With two former first-round picks battling for a starting opportunity, neither one has achieved a QB1 season for fantasy. Sam Darnold has shown very little progression, while Baker Mayfield has yet to finish higher than QB20 in points per game in his career. In addition, we have only seen one first-round Quarterback emerge after age 26 in my sample size (Alex Smith). This would make Mayfield, who is currently 27 years old, an outlier if still managed to achieve a top-12 season at any point in his career. In addition, similar to other offensive positions, we rarely see breakouts occur after a player switches teams, as 82.4% of breakout Quarterbacks were still with the team that drafted them. In other words, while I do think Mayfield could provide an upgrade for this offense, the odds are against him finishing as a QB1 this season.

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Lastly, below are the average QB1 seasons based on breakout age, which only solidifies the data we reviewed above. If a Quarterback can emerge by the end of their age-26 season, we do see that most players continue to produce multiple QB1 campaigns in their careers. 

  • Ages 22 – 23: 4.1 Career Top-12 Seasons
  • Ages 24 – 26: 4.3 Career Top-12 Seasons
  • Ages 27 and older: 2.1 Career Top-12 Seasons

Breakouts by Career Year and Experience

If you have followed this article series, you already know that Breakout Age is only one piece to the puzzle as prospects enter the NFL at varying ages. As a result, using Years of Experience to identify breakouts can help complete the picture. Interestingly, since 2000, 74.5% of breakouts occurred within the first three years of a Quarterback’s career. The highest concentration among that group was in Year 2, where we saw a total of 18 breakouts, equating to 35.3% of my sample size. Based on the data, one could argue that if a starting Quarterback has not broken out by the end of their third season, dynasty managers should likely move on. At the very latest, they should emerge by Year 4, as we have only seen 15.7% of breakouts occur after that threshold. This further emphasizes how critical it is for Daniel Jones to finally emerge in his fourth season, especially since the Giants declined his fifth-year option. But with an upgraded coaching staff and a healthy receiving corps, Jones should have every opportunity to emerge in the final year of his contract. On the flip side, this data also implies that we should not expect every Quarterback to produce a QB1 season in their rookie year, with only 15.7% of breakouts occurring in Year 1. This offers hope for players like Mac Jones or Trey Lance, who showed some promise in their rookie year despite not achieving a top-12 season.

If we filter and split the sample size by draft capital, we see a similar trend as most breakouts occur within a player’s second and third seasons. Surprisingly, when we remove players drafted after 2015, the highest concentration among day one and two prospects is actually Year 3, totaling 41% of the sample size. And while it is not as common for Quarterbacks, we have seen some impressive players break out in their first year, with Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson among the few to achieve this. On the other end of the spectrum, the two outliers that emerged much later in their careers are Josh McCown and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Finally, highlighted below are the average career top-12 seasons based on breakout year. By far the most shocking number is the sizable increase among Year 3 – 4 breakouts. This should not necessarily come as a surprise when multiple elite players headline this group, including Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers. Those three alone have combined for 41 QB1 seasons, heavily boosting the average we see below.

  • Breakout in Years 1-2: 3.5 Career Top-12 Seasons
  • Breakout in Years 3-4: 5.2 Career Top-12 Seasons
  • Breakout in Years 5-6: 1.8 Career Top-12 Seasons
  • Breakout in Years 7-10: 1.3 Career Top-12 Seasons

Potential Breakouts: Which Quarterbacks Meet Our Thresholds?

To summarize, the most common breakout Quarterback…

  • Was drafted in Round 1 (50% hit rate)
  • Is in the 22 – 26 age group
  • Is currently within the first 3 years of their career
  • Is currently still on the team that drafted them (82.4% of QB breakouts)

Which QBs fall into these categories heading into the 2022 season?

Trey Lance has by far the highest upside of any second-year Quarterback heading into the 2022 season. Even in limited action last year, we saw glimpses of how special he can be for fantasy managers. In the games that he played more than 50% of the snaps, he averaged 18.01 points per game, ranking within the top 13 in two of those weeks. Even more impressive, Lance accounted for 33% of the team’s rushing opportunities as a starter, which would have ranked QB2 on the season only behind Lamar Jackson. In fact, since 2013, Quarterbacks with at least a 25% rushing share for a full season have averaged about 20.7 points per game and an average season finish of QB8. Assuming Lance continues to assume a significant rushing share in the 49ers offense, he is almost guaranteed to finish within the top 10.

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Tua Tagovailoa is in a perfect situation to produce his first QB1 campaign. In his third season with the Dolphins, the team has surrounded him with plenty of weapons to finally take that next step. Not only did they add Terron Armstead to boost their offensive line, but they also acquired one of the most dynamic receivers in the league in Tyreek Hill. Combine that with a more experienced Jaylen Waddle, and the Dolphins might just have one of the most talented WR duos in the NFL. And while Tua has not been the most productive fantasy QB, his efficiency was actually near the top across several metrics last season. Not only was he the most accurate QB on deep throws (50%) and inside the red zone (64.9%), but he also finished within the top-6 in Completion Percentage Over Expected (+3.1). And when we factor in the creative, offensive mind of new head coach Mike McDaniel, Tua should be primed for the best season of his young career.

Zach Wilson had one of the most inefficient seasons for a rookie Quarterback over the last decade. Not only did he rank QB25 in Fantasy Points Over Expected (-1.32 per game), but he averaged the lowest Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE) among all QBs in 2021. So why should you be optimistic regarding Wilson’s Sophomore season? For one, the Jets should have an improved offensive line after a season in which they averaged the 4th worst adjusted sack rate at 8.6%. Newly-signed, Pro-Bowler Laken Tomlinson should provide an immediate upgrade at Left Guard, while starting tackle Mekhi Becton continues to recover from his knee injury with hopes of returning at some point this season. Furthermore, the Jets have surrounded Wilson with a plethora of weapons that should elevate this offense even further. With the additions of Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall, the Jets arguably selected the top prospect at wide receiver and running back in this year’s draft. As a result, I fully expect this offense to be improved, making Wilson an intriguing late-round selection at his QB24 ADP.

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