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The Elite Quarterback Sponge Effect: Is It Real?

Can fantasy owners reliably benefit from the production of elite quarterbacks without drafting them?

Andrew Luck

I’ve become something close to obsessed with the thought of feeding off the production of fantasy football’s most productive quarterbacks.

Perhaps that’s because I know I’ll never have those high-end signal callers on my fantasy rosters, as they’re drafted — every year, without fail — in the very early rounds by people keen on making Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, and Aaron Rodgers the cornerstones of their fantasy squads.

It’s the Sponge Effect: soaking up the fantasy points brought to life by the NFL’s best signal callers.

I’m hardly the first fantasy writer to trumpet the drafting of receivers, tight ends, and running backs attached to the game’s most productive quarterbacks. Savvy fantasy footballers have done this for years; when in doubt, draft the guy in the high-powered offense headed by the quarterback who racks up yards and touchdowns and general fake football goodness.

This little game of ours is complicated, no doubt, even for those who boil down the game plan to getting the best and forgetting the rest. I do what I can though to seek shortcuts, however small and possibly insignificant, that could offer small edges on draft day and beyond.

We know that a high-end fantasy defense is favored by Vegas and playing at home. We know that solid streaming quarterback options have efficiency — not necessarily volume — on their side, face off against a defense allowing a high completion percentage and  play for the team favored to win the ballgame. We know that short, light wide receivers who finish as top fantasy options have three key commonalities, and that heavy, tall receivers don’t require anything close to an elite quarterback to post top-12 fantasy campaigns.

None of this information offers a beautiful painting of absolutes that we can study in our tireless efforts to win every week, every year, all the time. Fantasy football, contrary to the occasional Twitter warfare that says otherwise, is very much a game of ten thousand shades of grey, which could very well be a blockbuster movie at some point in the next decade.

When fantasy football talk turns to into a black-and-white exchange, leave the computer, go on a walk and consider that it would take you 13.8 billion light-years to reach the edges of the known universe. Trust me on this.

I wanted to know just how often top fantasy quarterbacks help produce the game’s most productive receivers, no matter their size. I looked at top-10 fantasy quarterbacks over the past seven seasons and counted the number of top-24 receivers (WR1 and WR2) they produced.

A lot of this sort of analysis in centered around arbitrary cutoffs — of that I am well aware. I think it was a worthwhile exercise in understanding just how reliable it is to say the following: draft pass catchers attached to top-end quarterbacks and reap the fantasy benefits. If you want to reach further back into the history of the sponge effect to see how many WR1s and WR2s Warren Moon and Joe Montana produced, be my guess and don’t forget to @ me on Twitter, bro.

None of this, of course, precludes the fact that fantasy football is a week-by-week affair, and seasonal examinations of trends make for good beach reading and that’s about it.

Season Number of top-24 WRs produced by top-10 QBs Percentage of top-24 WRs produced by top-10 QBs
2008 12/24 50%
2009 15/24 62.5%
2010 11/24 45.8%
2011 12/24 50%
2012 14/24 58.3%
2013 10/24 41.6%
2014 10/24 41.6%
TOTAL 85/168 50.6%

 

  • There were a couple seasons in which the sponge effect wasn’t exactly a dominant force in fake football. The 2013 and 2014 seasons saw top-10 fantasy quarterbacks produce a grand total of 20 top-24 wideouts, thanks to Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Drew Brees producing precisely zero WR1s and WR2s. For Brees, that was largely because Jimmy Graham became the focal point of the Saints’ passing offense during that span and Marques Colston — a WR1 regular for much of Bress’ time in New Orleans — struggled to stay on the field. If you had an inkling that RGIII and Wilson would be top-end quarterbacks — and some did — you probably didn’t think they’d produce otherworldly passing numbers, but rather earn their fantasy bread on the ground. And you would’ve been right.

 

  • 2012 was quite the season for the sponge effect, with five top-10 quarterbacks producing a duo of top-24 wide receivers: Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, and Drew Brees. Nothing actionable here. Just a note on how potent the sponge effect can be.

 

  • Here’s what is actionable with our cursory look at the elite quarterback sponge effect: there are — and will be — receivers with low average draft positions who play in offenses headed by signal callers who are more than a little likely to post top-10 fantasy campaigns. We have two Luck pass catchers — Andre Johnson going at the end of the fifth round and Donte Moncrief going at the end of the seventh — who could be prime beneficiaries of Indy’s big, bearded sponge. There’s Martavis Bryant, primed to seize a starting role opposite Antonio Brown, being drafted at the start of the sixth round. Larry Fitzgerald is going in the middle of the eighth round, and I’m sure many fantasy owners will forget that Carson Palmer was well on his way to a top-10 fantasy season before his knee exploded. Cole Beasley, fresh off his new contract, will be catching passes from Romo, who should finish as a top-10 guy if he falls out of bed on Sundays and doesn’t injure his back. And if you’re into Teddy Bridgewater and his potential to be a reliable fantasy option, his primary pass catcher, Charles Johnson, is going at the end of the eighth round in early drafts. We’ll reexamine the potential of the sponge effect as the season draws nearer and ADPs swing back and forth, but for now, there are upwards of 10 receivers who could quite easily be connected to a top-end quarterback. And that much hasn’t been baked into their ADPs (yet).

 

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