Fantasy Football: The Safest Elite Quarterbacks

Andrew Luck
Mark L Baer USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football owners who burn an early-round draft pick on a quarterback lose out in two ways: They’ve spent a chunk of their draft day capital on a highly replaceable position, and by paying the high cost of a high-end signal caller, they’ve committed to starting that quarterback every single week — come hell, high water, or unfavorable matchups.

The latter aspect is a little-explored part of the early-round quarterback approach. Committing yourself so fully to one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks means that he is going to be in your starting lineup even when superior weekly plays are waiting on your local waiver wire.

Those with the luxury of a top-end quarterback will sit back and enjoy the onslaught of points for quite a few Sundays during a given season, while hoping that their guy comes through against superior competition. Just ask 2013 Drew Brees owners about his Week 16 game against the brutal Carolina Panthers’ defense.

Brees, objectively, was not a top-10 play against Carolina that day. Guys like Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger, sitting on many a waiver wire that day, had far better matchups against weak secondaries. But you’d never start a waiver wire option over Brees, right?

Brees is better. You invested in him. You trust him. He’s your guy, through thick and thin.

This is the unspoken problem with drafting an elite quarterback — the problem with no name: you’re stuck, you’re trapped, and you feel like you’re betraying your draft day self if you forsake your signal caller when it matters most. This is fantasy football though; allegiance should have nothing to do with your lineup decisions.

If you absolutely must take a quarterback early in drafts this season, it would be good to know which guys not only roast average secondaries on a spit, but who has a provably solid track record against the league’s best pass defenses.

I once again used the wonderful new rotoViz Game Split app to find how the top-12 quarterbacks being taken in mock drafts fare against top coverage units. This information is probably more actionable than the quarterback streaming test I ran this week because if you go with an early-round quarterback, you’re going to want one who is something close to matchup proof.

The “games in split” column shows how each quarterback has performed against top-10 pass defenses, while the “games out of split” column charts how they’ve done in all other games. The far right column, “difference in fantasy production,” quantifies how much better each quarterback is against defenses that don’t rank among the NFL’s best pass coverage units.

Player ADP Games in split/average fantasy points Games out of split/average fantasy points Difference in fantasy production
Aaron Rodgers QB1 27/24.9 60/26.8 7 percent
Peyton Manning QB2 54/18.5 154/24.9 25.7 percent
Drew Brees QB3 35/22.8 76/26.9 15.2 percent
Andrew Luck QB4 11/21.9 21/22.1 .9 percent
Matthew Stafford QB5 21/21.7 40/22.7 4.4 percent
Cam Newton QB6 15/19.7 33/26.7 26.2 percent
Nick Foles QB7 3/20.3 17/21.7 6.4 percent
Matt Ryan QB8 28/17.3 66/21.1 17.6 percent
Robert Griffin III QB9 5/22.5 23/23.3 3.4 percent
Colin Kaepernick QB10 10/14.5 21/18.6 22 percent
Russell Wilson QB11 12/21.2 20/21.1 -.05 percent
Tom Brady QB12 73/20.2 119/22.4 9.8 percent


  • Wilson, just as he did in our search for early-round quarterback draft day equity, stands out in this little exercise. In two years as a pro, Wilson has posted better fantasy numbers against the NFL’s best coverage units than average and bad secondaries. That’s remarkable, and probably a result of defenses being scared witless of Seattle’s relentless running attack. Maybe I’m not giving Wilson his proper due by crediting the Seahawks’ offensive approach. He is, after all, one of the league’s most efficient fantasy scorers — potentially good news for Johnny Manziel. The Super Bowl champ also excels against the worst run defenses, scoring 24.6 fantasy points against the bottom-10 and posting 19.6 points otherwise. Wilson’s occasional game manager role will inevitably deliver some clunkers through the course of a season, but if I were forced to take one of these quarterbacks and start him every week, no matter what, Wilson would be my choice.
  • If you’re drafting Manning at his current ADP, you’re a true believer. There’s no convincing you otherwise. I wouldn’t be too terrified of his split here: in two years in Denver, Manning has a measly 16 percent difference in fantasy production in this top-10 defense split. Manning, as a Bronco, has averaged 24.9 points per game against top-10 secondaries. He’s played precisely four top-10 pass defenses during his time in Denver.
  • Luck would be my second choice here, considering his price is markedly lower than that of Rodgers, Manning, and Brees, and according to equity scores, he has top-2 potential. Luck actually averages more touchdown tosses against elite secondaries (1.6) than against everyone else (1.4). He’s one of only four or five guys who have a legit shot at finishing the season as fantasy’s No. 1 signal caller, and for those who roll with him in 2014, it should be comforting to know that there’s hardly any drop-off against the best coverage units.
  • Newton’s huge disparity between splits is more evidence that he’s the direct and complete opposite of what we’re looking for in our search for an unquestioned every week fantasy starter. He’s up, he’s down, he’s all over the damn place. His split in yards per pass attempt — 6.5 in unfavorable matchups and 8.5 otherwise — makes him an easy fade against top-end secondaries. The Panthers’ ferocious defense doesn’t help matters, leaving little reason to let Cam off the chain to pour on the passing and rushing yardage. Newton posted just six top-12 finishes in 2013. I’m only going to invest in Cam if (or when) his ADP drops.
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