How to Spot a League Winner in 2023: 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! I am happy to append my research from last year with 2022’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 one to three 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 eleven league-winning quarterbacks from 2016-2021. In 2022, three more names eclipsed 380 fantasy points: Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Jalen Hurts. Notably, these top-three QBs truly separated themselves from the pack. Only Joe Burrow came anywhere close to 38o fantasy points with 369, but after that, the QB5 had a mere 314 fantasy points. 2022 confirmed the previous 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 2022 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. 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 and Patrick Mahomes are strong bets to score over 380 fantasy points, but the opportunity cost of drafting Allen or Mahomes is simply too high (both second-round draft picks, according to ADP). That’d be your chance to draft a league-winning WR or RB. Last year, Jalen Hurts was drafted in the 6th round. In other words, you got a league winner for a 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 in the past. 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 was 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 2023 League Winner?
Similar to the above, I would bet money that Josh Allen eclipses 380 fantasy points for the fourth 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. Similar caveats apply to Mahomes, who never seems to disappoint. Still, the rules I set above require a player drafted in the 5th round or later. Both Allen and Mahomes are being drafted in the second, which is extremely high for the quarterback position. The “5th round or later” rule also rules out Burrow and Lamar – again good options, just good options coming at a high opportunity cost.
Justin Fields is exactly the archetype we look for in a league-winning quarterback. He runs…a lot. Last year, he set the record for most scrambles ever by a quarterback and ran for the second-most rushing yards in a season by a quarterback ever. In fact, he probably would have surpassed Lamar Jackson‘s 2019 rushing record if the Bears had allowed him to cook in the first six games of the year – he went from 2.1 designed runs per game to 5.33 after Week 6. If he had 18 more designed rushes in the first half of the year, do you think he’d have gained an extra 64 yards? His average yards per carry sure does (7.1 YPC in 2022).
Last season, Justin Fields wasn’t the world’s greatest passer (60.4% completions, 2,242 yards passing, 17 passing TDs), and yet, he still finished the year as QB6. So, essentially we have the best, or one of the best, rushing quarterbacks of all time as our baseline in Justin Fields. Our worst-case scenario is essentially QB6 (even though he’s being drafted as QB7). And now? The Bears added weapons for Mr. Fields, most notably DJ Moore. Darnell Mooney is healthy again, and Chase Claypool still has a chance to make an impact. The buzz out of camp is that Fields’ passing looks much improved.
It’s worth noting that this is Fields’ first year in the pros where he isn’t learning a new offensive system, new terminology, and new concepts. Obviously, Fields’ rookie year was a transition as he moved from his college offense to the pros. Then, Matt Nagy was immediately fired, so Fields had to learn Matt Eberflus and Luke Getsy’s offense in 2022. This year, there is continuity, which has led to very positive comments from the coaching staff.
Lastly, the Bears invested in their offensive line by drafting Darnell Wright at pick 10. Better protection may negatively impact Fields’ number of scrambles, but it should be completely offset by his ability to make plays through the air to his new favorite target, DJ Moore. All these factors point to better passing numbers for Justin Fields, with some projecting that he’ll be the first Bears QB ever to surpass 4,000 passing yards.
The only knock against Fields being a league winner is that he may not play for a strong offense. However, after Week 6 (when the Bears started really using Fields’ legs), the Bears were actually the 17th-best offense. We’d love a spectacular offense, but a top-three offense isn’t required to be a league-winning quarterback. We just need an offense to be above-average. If we are really buying that Fields’ passing will improve, would it be crazy to say that the Bears are a top-12 offense? QBs drive offensive output, so if Fields is ready to make the leap, then you have to believe the Bears, as a whole, will improve as well. Even so, Kyler Murray has proven that otherworldly passing numbers are not required to be a league winner, just competent passing numbers, which are well within the Fields’ range of outcomes.
Context is important, and the Bears’ awful first half killed their season-long numbers, but their post-Week 6 numbers are encouraging. We learned this lesson with the Detroit Lions from 2021-2022. Jared Goff was awful in the first half of 2021, but he was pretty good in the second half of 2021, which led to a really strong 2022 for both Goff and the offense. Teams that improve in the latter half of the season tend to carry over that improvement into the next season. I think the same happens with Fields, which makes him my top QB target for 2023.
Lawrence completely fits the mold as that “throws a ton of TDs” league winner. Lawrence threw 25 touchdowns last year, but I think he was just scratching the surface. His entire set of weapons from last year is returning, and they upgraded Marvin Jones to Calvin Ridley.
The real excitement surrounding Trevor Lawrence comes from his playoff performances. He threw five interceptions, but he also threw five TDs, and most importantly, he didn’t give up against the Chargers as he led an amazing comeback after being down 27 points late in the second quarter.
I told you that the pocket passers who exceed 380 fantasy points are the true GOATs. Would you really be surprised if Lawrence is talked about in the same sentence as Brady and Rodgers? Just remember, he was the most sure-fire QB prospect since Andrew Luck. Plus, Lawrence has a great coach in Doug Pederson who is ready to give him more responsibilities as he sees Lawrence’s confidence grow.
Lawrence did all the things you’d want to see in his second year out of someone ready to level up. He more than doubled his touchdowns (12 to 25), he cut his intercepts by more than half (17 to eight), and he increased his completion percentage from 59% to 66.3%. He threw for almost 500 more yards on 20 fewer passes. What’s stopping him from taking that next step? The Jaguars are clearly a team on the rise. Every GOAT had a breakout season, most recently Mahomes in 2018. This might be your last year to get Lawrence at a discount after he throws 40 TDs this year.