How to Spot a League Winner in 2022: QBs (Fantasy Football)
The phrase “league winner” gets bandied about a lot in fantasy football circles, often carelessly. Sometimes, analysts use this phrase as nothing more than an attention-getter to hype some mediocre player they love. But when used properly, there is truth to this concept – the idea that one single player can dominate for your team enough to nearly guarantee, on his own, a championship for your fantasy team.
Of course, no player can truly win a fantasy championship alone. Even Christian McCaffrey’s historic 2019 season, where he scored a ridiculous 413.2 fantasy points, was only enough to get 48% of his managers into fantasy championships (still an absurd number, by the way). So, fantasy managers still must put together a solid team around a “league winner”, work the waiver wire, and play the matchups. Nevertheless, rostering some players undoubtedly gives fantasy teams an increased chance at a fantasy championship, just like McCaffrey nearly gave his managers a 50-50 shot in 2019.
Last year, I wrote this series and got a lot of great feedback – and the people have demanded its return! I am happy to append my research from last year with 2021’s numbers. Rather than re-post all the numbers in the previous article’s tables, I will simply provide the link here, which you can use to look at it again.
Redefining a QB League Winner
From my analysis, league-winning players typically separate themselves from the pack. That means that the top 1-3 players each year, at any given offensive position, generally score at least 30 points more than their next closest competitor, where the end-of-year rankings start to bunch up. That’s good! We want our “league winner” not just to score a few more points than RB3 or WR2; we want them to score way more points. That means these types of players really do have “league winning upside”.
Last year, we set an arbitrary 380 fantasy point threshold to determine which quarterbacks were league winners. That resulted in eight league-winning quarterbacks from 2016-2020 (see list here). In 2021, three more names eclipsed 380 fantasy points: Tom Brady, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert. Notably, Patrick Mahomes came very close, scoring 374 fantasy points but not quite eclipsing 380. Of further note, these top-4 QBs truly separated themselves from the pack. In fact, Tom Brady scored over 40 more points than QB5 Matthew Stafford. 2021 confirmed the previous year’s finding – that the tippy top QBs, those true league winners, really separate themselves as incredible performers. We want to find that again.
The better news is that 2021 confirmed that the 380 fantasy point threshold is a pretty good threshold for segregating league winners from “the rest”, at least at the QB position. Perhaps a higher threshold is necessary with the 17th game in the NFL season, but over the long run of seven years, 380 is still the pinnacle. That means we are trying to find QBs in 2022 who will score 380 fantasy points.
Unlike the WR and RB positions, we need to be smart about ADP here. Certainly, Josh Allen is a strong bet to score over 380 fantasy points for the third year in a row, but the opportunity cost of drafting Allen is simply too high (ADP of 2.12). That’d be your chance to draft a league-winning WR or RB. Last year, Allen was drafted in the third round, but more notably, Herbert and Brady were both drafted in the 5th and 6th rounds, respectively. In other words, you got a league winner for a 5th or 6th round pick! For this position, we want to be looking for league winners coming from the 5th round at the earliest. The opportunity cost is just too great given the average ADP of previous league winners and the “onesie” nature of the QB position in non-Superflex leagues (by the way, disregard everything I just said, if you play in a Superflex league).
You may recall that I analyzed a ton of data last year. In fact, after analyzing twenty possible statistical factors that explain why some instances resulted in a league-winning season, I discovered that:
- There are two ways quarterbacks become league winners: throw a ton of touchdowns or rush for a ton of yards (or both).
- Only the true GOATs become league winners without consistent rushing: they are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Patrick Mahomes, and Aaron Rodgers, four of the best ever at the position and all sure-fire hall of famers (or already there).
- With regard to the rushing QB subset, rushing alone wasn’t what got the job done. Each of the rushing quarterback league winners also needed an above-average passing year. But these passing stats are not world-beating, like the Mahomes and Rodgers passing numbers. Still, each of the rushing QBs league winners had over 35 touchdowns (with the exception of Kyler who scored a ton of rushing TDs). No matter what, your QB league winner needs to score, usually, about 45-50 total touchdowns, which is a number many NFL teams don’t reach. Thus, our league winner must be on an above-average NFL offense. However, that is typically a given, as good QBs drive good NFL offenses more than the other way around. That said, I think we can all agree that Matthew Stafford is a good quarterback, but he was only able to output league-winning numbers once while on the Detroit Lions (2011). So, we need to identify a good quarterback and at least an average-to-above average supporting cast on offense.
- That said, my previous attempts to find a trend between fantasy point output and offensive line quality failed. So, the lesson is that the best QBs get it done with the time that they have, or they escape the pocket effectively (almost all of our league winners had above-average scramble numbers). The point is we just need a competent OL, and the best QBs will become league winners with the time and protection that they have. League-winning QBs are all great improvisers.
Who is the 2022 League Winner?
As I said above, I would bet money that Josh Allen eclipses 380 fantasy points for the third year in a row. He has everything you want: exceptional offense, strong passing, and an incredible rushing floor. Honestly, the only thing preventing Allen from easily surpassing 380 fantasy points is, god forbid, an injury. If you are the 1.01 in a Superflex, don’t overthink it: Draft Allen. That said, if you are in a standard league, he is simply drafted too high at the moment; you can find another league winner in the later rounds. I want to mention Allen here because I defined “league winner” as scoring more than 380 points. But, I don’t think you are winning your standard league by drafting Josh Allen in the second or early third round. (If he drops to the 4th though, nab him).
Let’s also quickly talk about our GOATs: Mahomes, Rodgers, and Brady. I have no qualms with you drafting any of these guys. The fact that we are doubting Mahomes and Rodgers because of question marks at the pass-catching positions is probably going to make us look foolish. 35+ passing touchdowns for Mahomes, Rodgers, and Brady seems like the absolute floor for each of them, which represents value for everyone except Mahomes, who is being drafted in the third round. Still, getting to 380 fantasy points with passing alone is simply the exception, not the rule, even in each of these three magnificent careers. I am not picking any pure passers as league winners this year, but I picked Brady last year as a league winner, which proved to be an excellent choice, and proving that the model has room for pocket passers. It can be done, and probably will be done. Notice: in each of the past two years, the NFL output three or four quarterbacks that exceeded 380 fantasy points, and two of those league winners in 2020 and 2021 were pure passers. It’s likely to happen again, simply given the tendency of modern NFL offenses to pass more often than run. By the way, if I had to pick a pure passer for 2022 as a league winner, it would be Justin Herbert.
I also want to quickly mention Trey Lance. Lance undoubtedly has the rushing upside we are looking for in this analysis, but I don’t think he will have the above-average passing year required to attain league-winning status. I think Lance is very much on pace for a Jalen Hurts (2021) season, which resulted in 321 fantasy points. Don’t get me wrong, 321 points are great, and ought to outperform his ADP. He’s a value, just not a league winner.
In the WR League Winner Article published last week, I picked A.J. Brown as a league winner. I did so by projecting the Eagles’ offense to throw the ball more than 600 times, which seems like a bold prediction considering how run-heavy Philly ended up playing in 2021. But in fact, this prediction is considered bold only if you ignore the first part of the Eagle’s season. Still, it’s my belief that Philly went run-heavy because they had to be run-heavy, not because they wanted to be run-heavy. Their WR position was in bad shape, outside of an exciting rookie in DeVonta Smith. Their former leading target, Zach Ertz, was aging and unable to carry that burden any longer (before he got traded). Plus, the Eagles tried to be pass heavy for 6 weeks! In Weeks 1-6, the Eagles had a 61% pass-to-run ratio, but it just didn’t work. So, Nick Sirianni flipped the script. He leveraged Jalen Hurts rushing ability and leaned on his strong offensive line and solid running backs, resulting in a playoff berth.
However, it’s unequivocal that Sirianni wants to be a pass-first offense. Look at the team actions: they drafted Smith in 2021, and then they traded a first-round pick for A.J. Brown! I see no reason to doubt that the Eagles do anything other than spend the first half of the year trying to be a modern, pass-heavy offense.
But while this happens, Hurts isn’t going to stop being mobile. The Eagles will mix in some designed runs for Hurts, just like they did in 2021. There may be fewer designed runs for Hurts, but they will still exist. That gives us that nice rushing floor we need for a league winner. Add in that Hurts is bound to throw the ball more to an ascending second-year player and one of the best WRs in the NFL, and you have your above-average passing statistics necessary to elevate him.
Jason Moore picked Jalen Hurts as a “My Guy” last week, so this might sound a bit like an echo chamber. But, Jason never mentioned the possibility of the Eagles passing more or their 2021 offensive tendencies, so hopefully, my post here offers some unique takes on Hurts and even more evidence to sway you toward Hurts.
The idea that a coaching staff would “Let Russ Cook” captivated the fantasy community a couple of times over the years, but in truth, it never really happened. His career high for passing attempts was 558 still only 7th in the league. For comparison, the most passing attempts in 2020 was 626, and last year it was 719 (*17-game season). Even in a year where Russ threw a lot of passes for him, it still wasn’t a lot leaguewide. The reason for this depressed passing volume is simple: Pete Carroll loves to establish it.
But, as we learned in the offseason of 2021, just about anything can change in the NFL. Russell Wilson was traded to the Denver Broncos and given an entirely new coaching staff. Of particular note is offensive coordinator, Justin Outten, who previously spent time with the Packers and the Falcons. In particular, when Outten was the offensive assistant for Atlanta from 2017-2018, Atlanta was in the top-3 in pass/run ratio in the league. It makes sense why, after being hired as offensive coordinator in February, one of the first things the Broncos did was trade for Wilson. It’s my opinion that Russell finally has found a team willing to let him cook.
Wilson is not the prolific rusher that Hurts or even Lamar Jackson is, but that doesn’t mean he never leaves the pocket. In 2020, his last healthy year, he had 83 rushes for 513 yards. Certainly, he did not rush nearly as often in 2021, but Russ was injured and clearly pressing for much of the season. Also, Seattle involved the running back position even more often than in previously run-heavy seasons.
Lastly, we have a situation where an underutilized quarterback changes teams, thereby improving his circumstances. Essentially, the same thing happened to Matthew Stafford last season, who finished the year QB5, but Matthew Stafford doesn’t run. (32 rushes for 43 yards in 2021). Part of “letting Russ Cook” is letting him get outside the pocket and scramble when necessary or even have a few designed runs. It also means continuing to let him air it out deep, which he is very good at historically. Also, the Broncos are poised to make the leap offensively as a team, thereby checking off our “strong offense” need.
Russell Wilson is about to be fully unlocked, which will bring him to league-winning status.