AFC East Depth Chart Review: Quarterbacks
Each week I will go through an NFL division and look at the quarterbacks and their 2021 fantasy football value. I begin this week with the AFC East. The division’s quarterback class is led by last season’s fantasy football breakout star, Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills. Not only is Allen the best quarterback in the division, but the 25-year old could also be the oldest starting quarterback when all is said and done this season. Though most of the signal-callers in the AFC East are young, there is considerable pedigree to be found. The division features six NFL first-round draft picks, including a former NFL MVP and the reigning NFL NVP. What? Don’t tell me you already forgot about Mitchell Trubisky’s Nickelodeon NVP Award. Shame! While you ponder how you could ignore such a prestigious honor, read my AFC East quarterback breakdown.
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AFC East Quarterback Breakdown
Josh Allen entered the league in 2018 with major question marks about his accuracy. Those concerns appeared warranted as he completed just 56.3 percent of passes over his first two seasons. However, the Wyoming product turned the corner in 2020. Allen increased his completion percentage by a whopping 10.4 percent last season. He finished fourth in the NFL among starting quarterbacks by completing 69.2 percent of his throws. Allen was fifth in adjusted completion percentage and both passing yards and touchdowns. He tacked on 421 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground for good measure. The result was Allen leading all quarterbacks in total fantasy points in 2020. It is almost as if maintaining continuity with regards to an offensive scheme and adding an all-world wide receiver can help a young quarterback develop. I will have to investigate this phenomenon further.
The Bills have replaced John Brown with Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver. The move may push Stefon Diggs out wide a little more, but otherwise, I do not expect it to have much of an impact on Allen’s overall production. Allen is an elite fantasy quarterback who still has room to improve in his fourth NFL season. He can provide huge numbers through the air and on the ground. Allen is often trusted as Buffalo’s de facto goal-line back, as he totaled more rushing scores than Devin Singletary and Zack Moss combined. Even if there is some regression on that front, Allen figures to be an every-week starter in virtually every format. Fantasy managers are selecting Allen on average as the second quarterback off the board in 2021 redraft leagues. It is difficult to argue with that stance, and that is where I currently have the Buffalo quarterback as well.
As for the aforementioned Mitchell Trubisky, it appears that Buffalo could be the perfect landing spot for the former Chicago Bears quarterback. He is still just 26 years old and just three years removed from a solid fantasy season. Trubisky was the overall QB15 (and QB11 on a per-game basis) back in 2018. In December of 2019, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to record a game in which he completed a minimum of 70 percent of his passes (minimum 30 pass attempts), threw at least three touchdown passes, ran for over 50 yards, and ran for a touchdown. Make no mistake, there is no quarterback controversy brewing in Buffalo. Allen will remain the starter as long as he is physically up to the task. But in deeper SuperFlex formats, Trubisky is not the worst backup quarterback to target at the end of drafts.
Two years ago, the worst kept secret in the NFL was the idea of “Tanking for Tua”. The Miami Dolphins seemingly led the charge in pursuit of former Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. After Tagovailoa suffered a dislocated hip in a November 2019 contest, questions began to rise. Many wondered if Miami would still covet Tagovailoa as highly as they had before the injury, knowing he might not be ready for Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season. But the Dolphins held firm and selected Tagovailoa with the fifth overall selection in the 2020 NFL draft. Miami had the luxury of beginning the year with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm. The Dolphins began to surprise the league, and the playoffs were a distinct possibility at the midpoint of the season. However, once again the Dolphins stuck to their guns and inserted Tagovailoa as the starter once he was fully healthy.
The results were unsurprisingly mixed. Miami’s offense was uber-conservative with Tagovailoa under center. It often looked as though they were trying to protect the rookie from being exposed. Tagovailoa threw for under 100 yards in one-third of his nine starts last season. That included a game against Las Vegas where he somehow threw for just 94 yards despite completing 17 passes. Following the season, rumors had the Dolphins potentially searching for alternatives at quarterback. Those whispers were quickly quelled, as the Dolphins publicly gave Tagovailoa a vote of confidence and let Fitzpatrick walk via free agency. Miami signed former Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett to replace Fitzpatrick, but his upside is vastly limited. It should truly be Tua’s time in 2021, and he appears to have a wide range of potential outcomes from a fantasy perspective.
As I mentioned, Tagovailoa was not particularly impressive during his rookie season. He barely averaged 200 passing yards per game last year and was the QB23 on a per-game basis in his nine starts. On the other hand, he now has the benefit of an added offseason under his belt. His surgically repaired hip is reportedly feeling “10 times better” and he has looked “more comfortable” according to head coach Brian Flores. That could be classic coachspeak, of course. But Miami signed deep threat Will Fuller to a one-year contract and drafted dynamic playmaker Jaylen Waddle in this year’s draft. The pair should assist in Tagovailoa’s progress and will add explosiveness to an offensive that still carries over DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki, among others. At the very least, the paltry 6.3 yards per attempt that Tagovailoa averaged as a rookie should increase quite a bit.
I also would like to submit that Tua was not as bad as his numbers may have appeared last season. Tagovailoa averaged 7.5 IAY/PA (intended air yards per pass attempt) and 3.6 CAY/PA (completed air yards per pass attempt). Would you like to know what the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Justin Herbert, averaged in those respective categories? 7.4 and 3.6. Yet Herbert is the QB6 per our ADP data and universally considered a starting fantasy quarterback while Tagovailoa is being drafted 20th among quarterbacks. The added weapons around him and better range of motion in his hip should result in increased production from Tagovailoa in his first full season as the team’s starter. I ranked Tagovailoa 18th in my initial rankings last month, and I believe there is room for him to climb throughout the summer. He has considerable upside as a QB2 in SuperFlex leagues.
New England Patriots
A cursory glance at last year’s final fantasy points may indicate that Cam Newton had a relatively successful 2020 season. He likely finished between 14th and 16th among quarterbacks in both total points and points per game depending on your league’s scoring system. But Newton Newton struggled mightily for most of the year, particularly as a passer. After his Herculean effort against what most of us mistakenly thought was an above-average Seattle Seahawks defense in Week 2, Newton fell off dramatically. At least that was the case in games where he was not facing the New York Jets. In his final 11 non-Jets games, Newton averaged just over 12 fantasy points per contest. That would have put him squarely in the Andy Dalton-Nick Foles range in terms of fantasy production. Newton’s 2020 fantasy season does not seem like a success now, does it?
Bill Belichick sees the writing on the wall with Cam and selected Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in this year’s draft. Jones had a tremendous 2020 season as a member of the Crimson Tide. He completed 77.4 percent of his passes and averaged a massive 11.26 yards per pass attempt. Needless to say, those numbers will come down considerably at the next level. But Jones looked very poised in the pocket in college and seems to process information quickly. The question does not seem to be “if” Jones will start games at quarterback for the Patriots, but “when”. You do not draft a quarterback in the first round and then give him a clipboard for the next few years unless you are the Green Bay Packers. To that end, though, we will likely have to rely on Belichick to tip his hand prematurely. Let me know how that works out for you.
The most likely scenario appears to be that Newton begins the year as the starter, with Jones ready to jump in if needed. Though Newton has obvious limitations in the passing game, New England did invest in some weapons this offseason. The Patriots landed the top two tight ends in free agency, adding Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. They also signed wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Given the upgrade to the team’s receiving corps and Newton’s upside as a runner, he makes for a passable Best Ball play as a low-end QB2/high-end QB3. But I certainly would not want to rely on him in standard-scoring leagues. His floor is way too low to start in weekly leagues. Jones is little more than a stash at this stage. If and when he takes the reins, it is hard to envision Jones as a top-20 fantasy quarterback.
New York Jets
Last but not least (just humor me, ok?) we have the New York Jets. The Jets pulled the plug on the Sam Darnold experiment just three years after selecting him with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft. They shipped him off to Carolina and drafted Zach Wilson with the second pick in this year’s draft. The Jets are the first team in the modern era to draft two quarterbacks in the top-three overall in four years. At least they did not throw in three second-round picks to acquire Wilson as they did with Darnold back in 2018, so there is that. Wilson will be the team’s Week 1 starter, as only James Morgan and Mike White are on the active roster. Neither has attempted an NFL pass and the Jets are hoping that they never will.
Wilson took a huge leap in his junior year last season, throwing 33 touchdowns against just three interceptions while averaging over 300 yards per game. The BYU product had shoulder surgery in 2019, which may have accounted for his lackluster 2020 season. But he was all systems a-go last year and flashed top-end potential. He has excellent arm talent and has shown the ability to make plays off-script. But there are questions as to the level of competition that Wilson had to deal with in his breakout season a year ago. He faced a rather easy schedule last year, especially when compared to his first-round counterparts. While Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones were competing in the ACC, Big 10, and SEC, respectively, Wilson was lighting up Troy, Houston, and Texas State. It is fair to wonder what the learning curve will be like for Wilson at the NFL level.
The good news is that he will get every opportunity to succeed. New York signed Corey Davis in free agency and drafted wideout Elijah Moore in the second round of this year’s draft. The pair will join Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder as Wilson’s primary receiving targets. The Jets also bolstered their offensive line by drafting Alijah Vera-Tucker. They are hoping he will play left guard alongside last year’s first-round pick, tackle Mekhi Becton. Still, this offense figures to be a work in progress. There are a lot of new pieces and moving parts, including a new coaching staff and offensive scheme. In redraft leagues, fantasy managers are best suited to pass on Wilson in 2021 drafts. Even through my green-colored glasses, I do not expect Wilson to be more than a fantasy QB3 in 12-team leagues this season.
For more great analysis from Mick, check out his full 2021 Fantasy Football Rankings.
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