The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Quarterback (Dynasty Football)
Welcome to the final installment of “The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Player!” To conclude the series, we shift our focus to the Quarterback position, where the career arc is understandable longer than any skill position player. With that assumption in mind, how likely is it for a quarterback to perform well into their mid 30’s? When do most quarterbacks peak for fantasy? Should we expect rookies to finish in the top-12? Using fantasy data from 1990 to 2020 (31 seasons), I attempt to answer those questions in my analysis below!
If you are interested in a similar breakdown for the skill position players, be sure to check out the following articles:
- The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Wide Receiver
- The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Running Back
- The LIfecycle of a Dynasty Tight End
For reference, the following quarterback analysis assumes “4 points per passing touchdown,” with a minimum of 8 games played. As always, this data was sourced from Pro Football Reference.
Historical Top-12 and Top-3 QB Finishes by Age
We begin our analysis by reviewing the number of top-12 finishes by age. For quarterbacks, we see that most QB1 seasons occur between the ages of 25 to 30, with each age accounting for about 8% of the total sample size. The only exception in that range is age 26, where we see a brief dip to 6.45%. In short, if we expect a player to finish as a top-12 quarterback at some point in their career, it will likely occur during the peak years of 25 to 30. Surprisingly, after the age of 30, we see the sample size decrease steadily by about one or two percentage points each year. Starting at age 39, the sample size diminishes to less than 1%, which makes it all the more impressive when a player finishes in the top-12 past that threshold. In my sample size, only four quarterbacks finished as a QB1 at age 39 or older:
Focusing on the early years of a quarterback, the data set is not as optimistic. According to the graph above, it is very unlikely for a player to produce a top-12 season at age 22. In other words, quarterbacks who declare early and enter the league after their Junior season are rarely immediate fantasy superstars. We do see the sample size increase to 5.11% at age 23 – 2.96 percentage points higher than the previous age – implying that the learning curve is not as steep. Regardless, among the 76 rookie quarterbacks in my data set, only eight produced a QB1 season. Interestingly, six of the eight were drafted over the last decade. More on that in a later segment.
If we take a brief look at all top-3 QB seasons (league-winners) over the last 31 years, the mid-20s continue to be the sweet spot. In fact, we see that most top-3 QB seasons occurred at ages 26 to 27, with each age accounting for at least 11% of the sample size. And while the age distribution is a little more scattered in this graph, it is still evident that the most productive years occur between the ages of 25 and 33. Furthermore, this once again confirms that an impactful rookie season is very unlikely for a 22 or 23-year-old quarterback. This puts into perspective just how special Justin Herbert’s season was in 2020, finishing as the QB7 in points per game. In fact, Herbert’s season is the second-highest fantasy finish for a rookie QB in NFL history (minimum eight games played), behind only Cam Newton’s QB3 finish in 2011.
And to conclude this segment, listed below are some of the most productive fantasy QBs since 1990:
- Peyton Manning leads all QBs in QB1 finishes (15 total)
- Aaron Rodgers lead all QBs in top-3 QB finishes (8 total)
- Tom Brady is the oldest to finish as a QB1 at age 43
- Tom Brady is also the oldest to finish as a top-3 QB at age 39
Sample Size from 1990 to 2020
The Lifecycle of a Quarterback – The Early Years
To better understand the career arc of a quarterback, I isolated my sample size to a specific group of players. I wanted to highlight quarterbacks who had the opportunity to play in the league for at least 10 years to give us an idea of the ebbs and flows of their career arc. As a result, my graph below depicts the lifecycle of all quarterbacks drafted between 1990 and 2005. Furthermore, because we only truly care about the players that start for their team, I removed all quarterbacks who started in less than 90% of their active career games. This gives us a list of 16 quarterbacks, headlined by some of the greatest of all time: Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady.
At first glance, this confirms our initial theory that quarterbacks are least productive in their early years. Among the 16 total seasons in my sample size before the age of 24 (11 different quarterbacks), only 5 of them finished in the top-12 (31.3%). So while most quarterbacks enter the league at age 22 and 23, we see that the per game average does not begin to peak until age 24, indicating that it takes a couple of years for a quarterback to acclimate to the league.
For this year’s rookie class, keep in mind that Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields declared early, with each one at age 22 or younger. Since 1990, only 10% of all rookies – ages 22 or younger – have finished as a QB1 (3 total). Furthermore, we have to remember that not all quarterbacks start for their teams immediately. Players such as Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers were on the bench for a few seasons before receiving an opportunity to start. So as disappointing as it might be, it is more than likely that none of the quarterbacks from this class finish within the top-12 in fantasy points per game in their rookie year.
The Lifecycle of a Quarterback: The Peak Years
If we observe the peak years of the quarterback, ages 25 to 33, we see the total production increase significantly. While part of that is due to the fact that ALL quarterbacks in my sample size are now starting for their teams, we also see that the per-game production has improved as well. Furthermore, out of the 139 seasons in this age range, 57.5% resulted in a QB1 season – which is a significant improvement from the previous age group. Interestingly, starting at age 34, the total production and per-game average trend in opposite directions. Part of that is due to Aaron Rodgers suffering a collarbone injury at age 34. On the other hand, we also have quarterbacks such as Kerry Collins, Steve McNair, and Drew Bledsoe experiencing a significant dropoff in production after age 33. Interestingly, all three quarterbacks declined after signing with new teams towards the end of their peak years. This might indicate that quarterbacks benefit from continuity and familiarity when staying with the same team through the peak and end of their careers.
Finally, I charted out below the peak years for each quarterback in my sample size. To no surprise, 68.8% of the quarterbacks experienced their best fantasy points-per-game season between the ages of 25 and 33. Interestingly, you do see a few quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, and Ryan Fitzpatrick performing at their peak at age 36. The oldest peak age in this chart, however, is owned by none other than Peyton Manning, who had his 55 touchdown season at age 37.
The Lifecycle of a Quarterback: The Elite Remain Productive
As mentioned previously, the number of active (and productive) quarterbacks begins to decline at age 34. However, the elite quarterbacks maintain their high-end production well past that age threshold. In my sample size, 9 of 16 quarterbacks had at least one QB1 season after the age of 35. Those players are:
- Aaron Rodgers
- Peyton Manning
- Drew Brees
- Tom Brady
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Brett Favre
- Carson Palmer
- Philip Rivers
- Ryan Fitzpatrick
Considering this group consists of multiple future hall-of-famers, it should not be a surprise that they managed to produce past their peak. Here are a couple of observations from this group of players:
- 7 of 9 were drafted in the 1st or 2nd round
- 5 of 9 had double-digit QB1 seasons before age 36
- The group averaged 7.7 QB1 seasons before age 36
- 6 of 9 had a late-career QB1 season for the team that they played for during their peak
In short, these nine players are clearly outliers. As we saw in my first graph, only 11% of all QB1 seasons since 1990 occurred after the age of 35. However, it is fairly evident that quarterbacks who produced for multiple years during their peak have a much higher chance of remaining QB1s for fantasy later in their career.
The Quarterback Position is Changing
To conclude this article, I do want to highlight the transformation of the quarterback position. Over the last three decades, we have seen quarterbacks become more productive and efficient. In fact, as you can see in the chart above, the threshold to finish within the top-12 at the position has increased by about 5 fantasy points per game. In other words, it is becoming more and more difficult to finish as a QB1 for fantasy. Part of the increase in production is due to the overall improvements in the passing game. Since 1990, the average passing attempts per game for a QB1 has increased by about 11.3% (+3.5), while their yards per attempt is up about 5.4% (+0.4). In other words, quarterbacks are slightly more aggressive at targeting players downfield, while their total volume has increased as well.
While improved passing volume has certainly helped, it is the increased rushing production at the quarterback position that has been the difference-maker. Over the last three decades, we have seen the rushing production per game among top-12 QBs improve by about 50.3%. In fact, over the last two seasons, we have seen the QB1 rushing yards-per-game average peak at about 24.5, which would be a 17-game pace of about 416 yards.
Lastly, as you can see in the chart above, QB1s are becoming slightly younger over the last decade. In my first chart, the most concentrated QB1 age groups were between ages 25 and 29; this most recent chart (dating back to 2011) leans towards the ages of 23 and 24. Part of this transition is directly linked to the improvement in rushing production. Among the 29 QB1 seasons for those 24 and younger, 18 of them finished the season with 300+ rushing yards since 2011. In other words, the rise of the rushing quarterback has led to an influx of young QB1 producers.
Earlier in this article, I also mentioned that only 8 rookie quarterbacks finished within the top-12 for fantasy since 1990. Of those eight rookies, four quarterbacks finished the season with 400+ rushing yards, while seven finished with at least four rushing touchdowns. In other words, while there might be a learning curve in the passing game, young quarterbacks can lean on their rushing ability to produce for fantasy. And while he is by far the youngest quarterback in this class, if he does start for the majority of the season, Trey Lance has the rushing upside to finish as a QB1 as soon as this season.
Hopefully, this information was helpful as you build your championship rosters for the 2021 dynasty season. To summarize, here are some of the key takeaways from this article:
- Age 21 to 24: As with most players, these are likely the most unproductive years. However, we have seen this trend slowly change over the last decade, especially with the addition of several dual-threat quarterbacks. Regardless, 22-year old quarterbacks have rarely finished as QB1s over the last 31 seasons. Therefore, temper your expectations for Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, especially in their rookie year.
- Age 25 to 33: These are by far the most productive years of a quarterback, where we see most players produce their first QB1 season. By the end of this age range, the elite quarterbacks will have already emerged as they have likely produced multiple QB1 seasons by age 33. Ideally, you want to see them produce at least seven QB1 seasons if we expect them to remain productive beyond this age range. A few players who meet this threshold are Russell Wilson (7) and Matthew Stafford (7).
- Age 34 to 35: This is the beginning of the end for most quarterbacks, which means the non-elite producers tend to fall off around this age range. Therefore, if a player is not on a trajectory to produce seven to ten QB1 seasons by the end of this age range, I would trade them at maximum value during their peak. A player who fits these criteria is Kirk Cousins.
- Age 36 and older: Only the elite players continue to produce QB1 seasons after the age of 36. If you held on to a player this long, their value is likely the highest on your roster. Hold on to them until they retire. And who knows, you could be holding on to the next Tom Brady, who might just play several years into his 40s.
If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out on Twitter @FF_MarvinE.