When You Should (and Shouldn’t) Stack Teams Drafting Top Quarterbacks

By Kyle Dvorchak
Kyle Dvorchak

Joe Burrow QuaterbackThe Bengals are all but locked into making LSU quarterback Joe Burrow the first pick in the NFL Draft. This means Cincinnati players are going to go from catching passes and playing on an offense led by Andy Dalton to one under the best single-season NCAA quarterback in the history of football.

This makes them a very obvious target from a fantasy perspective: the offense they're on is about to take a massive leap forward. Or is it? Situations in flux are a great place to mine fantasy value but not every change is immediately a positive for offenses and, in turn, fantasy points.

The Study

Since 2010, there have been 13 quarterbacks taken in the top five picks (all have actually been taken at one, two, or three). We'll look at how much their offense improved compared to the prior season based on two metrics: yards per play and points per play. Outside of receptions-which are largely a product of efficient offenses that stay on the field and accrue catches-yardage and touchdowns are how fantasy points are scored. The reason we're looking at these measures on a per play basis is that, like receptions, fantasy points are gained on efficient offenses.

There are exceptions-like the Panthers last year who had a WR1 and the highest-scoring running back overall-but things like garbage-time or offenses that rack up fantasy points inefficiently are rare and impossible to predict. For every 2015, garbage-time world champion Jacksonville Jaguars there are 10 offenses that look like the 2019 Chicago Bears.

So, did getting a top passer in the draft guarantee offensive improvement?

Good...But Not Great

Teams took a quarterback in the top-five of the NFL Draft increased their points per play and points per game by .06 and .32 respectively. Without context, those numbers mean nothing.

Last season, the Bengals were 32nd in the NFL in yards per play. Adding .06 would've made them the 22nd team, just above Oakland.

The Jets were last in yards per play at 4.6. Adding .32 would've brought them to 28th.

The improvements were meaningful, especially in the points department, but not drastic. These teams were typically toward or directly at the bottom of the league in either metric and teams at the bottom tend to rise even without selecting a quarterback in the draft. Those teams often suffer injuries or can fill quarterback holes through free agency. Simply stacking the players on a team destined to take a top-five passer won't print money.

Cutting the Deck

Two obvious ways to break apart this already small sample are by draft selection and games started. Splitting out by players who were taken first overall increased both averages but five of seven first selections played a full season. Jared Goff and Baker Mayfield were the two who didn't.

Removing those two increased both averages even further but the real key was simply starting 15 or 16 games.

Teams that drafted a quarterback in the top-five and then started them for at least 15 games increased their yards per play by .71 and their points per play by .09.

The average team ran roughly 64 plays last year. Based on that, the starting passers increased their team's totals by 45.4 yards and 5.8 points per game. That also doesn't include any increase in the number of plays run per game, which should be expected when an offense becomes more efficient.

Six passers started 13 games or fewer and their offenses did not fare well. They gained a lackluster .02 points per play but actually got worse in the yardage department. These teams lost .13 yards per play compared to the previous season.

The reason these splits are so drastic is two-fold. Quarterbacks who start 16 games keep a backup-level passer off the field but they also inherently had to look good enough to earn that job. On the opposite end, Mitchell Trubisky was not good enough in practice to earn the starting gig because he's not an accurate quarterback. On top of that, his starting weapons now have to build rapport with a new passer and the team may not be able to create an offense that caters to both passers' strengths. The benefits of a 16-game starter and downfalls of a QB controversy inherently compound their effects.

Using this Information

The evidence is pretty clear: if Joe Burrow is going to be the Week 1 starter for Cincinnati, their fantasy options should be appealing. The only issue with this is the Bengals still have Andy Dalton on their roster. He's clearly not an awfully talented passer but Dalton is a premier NFL backup. If he hangs around on the team, it's very possible he draws a few starts before Burrow sees any action.

If Cincinnati finds a trade partner for Dalton or outright releases the Red Rocket, it's wheels up for Burrow and the Bengals offense and their minimal ADP's:
Tyler Boyd - WR29
A.J. Green - WR35
John Ross - WR56
Ross started the 2019 season with back-to-back 100-yard games and scored three times in that span. The Bengals putrid offense and clavicle injury might as well have ended his season there because he recorded just 236 yards in his remaining six games. His athleticism combined with Burrow's arm makes Ross an incredible value in early drafts.

After Burrow, this information makes it pretty easy to ease off the other teams eying a passer in the top-five. Washington appears out of the conversation at two but the Dolphins are poised to snag Tua Tagovailoa at five. However, with a competent backup in Ryan Fitzpatrick, they could easily let Tua sit for multiple games or even the entire season.

Although they are a pick outside the top-five, the Chargers fall into the same bucket. After making no moves to replace Phillip Rivers under center, they appear ready to roll out Tyrod Taylor in Week 1 even if they do take a passer. Taylor is a conservative passer prone to taking off when pressure arrives. He may cap the ceiling of his team but a mid-season switch to a quarterback who isn't ready to start could cause the floor to drop out on this team. Goff's rookie campaign is a prime example of this.

It's unreasonable to expect the Chargers or Dolphins to thrive with questions around who their starter will be and a possible switch in the middle of the year. The Bengals, on the other hand, are going to be a great team to own stacks of this season.