This article and the next three subsequent articles will focus on the relationship between fantasy success and NFL success. This study has been an interest of mine for some time now. I have often wondered if there was any connection between fantasy success and NFL success at each position. I also wondered if maybe I was thinking too hard into why one player is better than another for fantasy or if this research would actually have meaning. These findings are not meant to be the be-all and end-all when it comes to rankings or player tiebreakers, but I do believe it carries some weight when it comes to fantasy success. This first article will focus strictly on the quarterback position, with each other position focused on in each subsequent article.
Does a fantasy QB1 have to play for a winning team* in the NFL in that respective year? In addition, what proportion of fantasy QB1’s played for playoff teams in that respective year?
*I am defining a “winning team” as any team with 8 or more wins (.500 or above) in a single season.
For this case study, I looked at each fantasy QB1 in every year since 2000. From there, I found the proportion of fantasy QB1’s that were on a winning team and a playoff team in that respective year. The positional rankings are based on 1 point per 25 passing yards, 4 points per passing TD and -2 points per interception (rushing and receiving stats consistent with PPR scoring). For further clarification, here is how the top-5 looked for 2016:
A “1” in the “Winning Team” and “Playoff” columns indicates that criteria is true. As you can see, Rodgers, Ryan, Luck, and Cousins were all on winning teams, but only Rodgers and Ryan made it to the playoffs. On the other hand, Brees’ Saints failed to register an 8-8 season and missed the playoffs. This was done for every fantasy QB1 since 2000.
Before I finished the results, I took a minute to ponder what I should expect based on my knowledge of the NFL alone. You know that a fantasy QB1 is putting up great numbers statistically, usually over 4,000 yards passing, anywhere from 25-40 touchdowns, and minimal interceptions per season. You would think production like that would mean that NFL offense is very dynamic and would be very successful in terms of winning games. On the other hand, QBs are forced to throw much more if their team is losing as the game goes on. This could mean a QB could be a good fantasy player due to volume, but still be on a losing team (a la Blake Bortles). In short, I didn’t know what to expect.
Here are the results for QB1’s on a winning team:
Before you look too hard into this graph, let me explain what is happening. I broke the top-12 QBs into four subcategories: overall (1-12), top-3, top half (1-6), and bottom half (7-12). The percentage on the left is the proportion of QBs in each subcategory that was on a winning team. The number above each bar is the number of QBs in each subcategory that the percentage is equal to out of however many players in each subcategory (either 3, 6, or 12). Let me break it down:
This is the bar for the overall subcategory, which is all QB1’s 1-12 in each year. What this bar is saying is that nearly 80% of all QB1’s is on a winning team in their respective year. The number above, 9.53, is the expected amount of QBs, out of 12, we can expect to be on a winning team each year. What does this mean for 2017? We should expect that, on average, 9-10 of the top-12 QBs in fantasy for 2017 will be on a winning team in the NFL. The job we have as analysts is to figure out who the other 2-3 QBs are that will finish as a QB1 on a sub-.500 team.
Now that we know that 9-10 of the 12 QB1’s will come from winning teams, let’s dive into the other three subcategories. The first thing you might notice is the significant peak in the second bar, while the fourth bar is the lowest in the graph. I find these two bars to be the most interesting.
The second bar shows the percentage of QBs that finished in the top-3 who were on winning teams. I made this subcategory to represent the elite fantasy QBs on a yearly basis. As you can see, almost 90% of all top-3 QBs since 2000 were on winning teams, which is nearly all 3 players. Similarly, extending the top-3 QBs to the top-6, we see that, on average, 5 of the top-6 QBs play for winning teams.
On the other hand, the fourth bar shows the proportion of bottom half QB1’s (7-12) on winning teams. That percentage is significantly lower than the other three bars at just over 75%, about 4-5 of the 6 players in the bottom half.
Now, here are the results for QB1’s on a playoff team:
This graph reads the same as the previous graph: four subcategories with the expected number of players on a playoff team per subcategory above each bar.
Similar to the first graph of QBs on a winning team, this graph shows a similar distribution. The second bar remains to be the highest, while the fourth bar is still the lowest. This would make sense because the general rule of making the playoffs is being on a winning team, but not every team above .500 makes the playoffs. In fact, on average we can expect 18 teams to meet or exceed 8 wins per season, but only 12 of those teams make the playoffs.
Looking at the graph, we see that 7 of the 12 QB1’s were on playoff teams. This means that, on average, 2-3 QB1’s on winning teams will fail to make the playoffs. These are the QBs that lead their teams to 8-8 or 9-7 seasons that miss the Wild Card or even winning their division. Last year we saw three such QBs: Andrew Luck, Kirk Cousins, and Marcus Mariota.
Looking at the rest of the graph, we see the percentage of bottom half QB1’s on playoff teams drops significantly, with only 2 of 6 players on playoff teams on average. This is a big drop compared to the number of bottom half QB1’s on winning teams (4-5/6).
Numbers are nice and all, but what does this actually mean? By my interpretation, the majority of fantasy QB1’s will be on winning teams and being on a winning team helps to elevate your ceiling regarding fantasy production. This is especially the case for the elite fantasy producers like Rodgers, Brady, Wilson, or even Peyton Manning. Their offenses run through the passing game, and their team’s success hinges on the success of the quarterback.
On the other hand, while a QB on a sub-.500 team can still finish as a QB1, it significantly lowers their ceiling regarding fantasy production, unless you are an elite talent. In fact, here is the list of QBs to finish in the top-3 on a losing team since 2000: Brees, Rodgers, Vick, Culpepper, and Garcia. (Like I said, elite talent). These quarterbacks were probably the sole reason as to why their team even won games at all. Looking at the list of QBs on losing teams that finished as fantasy QB1’s, the biggest similarity between them is a weak defense. This makes sense because their defense could not stop the opposing offense from scoring, which meant more work for the QB playing catch-up.
Another similarity for most of the QB1’s on losing teams is a weak run game. This also makes sense since an elite rusher would still command carries, even in losing situations. Also, most workhorse running backs are usually supplanted by a passing-down back when a team shifts to playing catch up. This has usually been the case for teams like the Saints, Lions, and Giants, whose QBs are great fantasy talents, but suffer from weak defenses and run games. This forces these QBs to have to throw more to keep their team in the game.
While it may make sense that most top-12 fantasy quarterbacks come from successful NFL teams, it is very interesting to see just how the top-12 is expected to shake out. Though it is not a requirement for a top-12 fantasy QB to be on a winning team, it does elevate their ceiling for better fantasy production. This is especially the case for elite fantasy QBs, who not are not only on winning teams but also playoff contenders. The top of the food chain is controlled by elite passers who are relied on by their teams for real-life success. If they fail, the team fails. Think Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson.
On the other hand, a quarterback can still produce top-12 numbers on a losing team, but their ceiling is capped in terms of fantasy production. Volume can only take you so far; it’s what you do with the volume that matters. This is shown by the fact that the majority of QB1’s on losing teams fail to finish inside the top-6, except in extreme cases. The bottom of the food chain is controlled by above average passers on below average teams. Think Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor, and Matthew Stafford.
When you break down the top-12 even further by QBs on playoff teams, you get an even clearer image of what is happening. As mentioned above, the elite fantasy passers are not just on winning teams, but also playoff teams. The bottom half of the top-12 is where things get interesting. Though we can expect 4-5 of the 6 QB1’s in the bottom half to be on winning teams, only 2 of them will be on playoff teams. These are quarterbacks whose team around them is stuck in the middle. The QB play might be there, but the rest of the team isn’t ready and they are stuck at 9-7. The middle of the food chain is run by playoff hopefuls that fall short come January. Think Marcus Mariota, Kirk Cousins, and Philip Rivers.
Keep watch for the rest of this series, as each new article will dive into a different position. Next up is running backs, followed by receivers and tight ends. Stay tuned!