AFC South Depth Chart Review: Quarterbacks
I say this quite a bit but things change so quickly in the NFL. Take for instance the AFC South quarterbacks. A year ago, Minshew Mania was running rampant throughout the league. Remember Bud Light offering fantasy players the chance for a season’s worth of Bud Light if they drafted Gardner Minshew in the first round? Talk about your lose-lose propositions. Minshew was unceremoniously benched halfway through the season and now will need to be traded if he is to become fantasy relevant anytime soon. Six months ago, Philip Rivers was throwing for 300 yards in a playoff game for the Indianapolis Colts. Now he is coaching a high school football team in Alabama. And more recently than the now-retired Rivers playing in an NFL playoff game, we all thought Deshaun Watson was as good a guy as he was a football player. So yeah, some stuff has changed.
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AFC South Quarterback Breakdown
In my most recent rankings update, I listed Deshaun Watson as my QB22. My logic is that last season, Joe Burrow was the overall QB23. He played 10 games before he was lost for the season due to injury. Dak Prescott was the overall QB30, having played just five games. I would say Watson is closer to Prescott than Burrow from a fantasy perspective. My guesstimate here is that Watson misses roughly half the season. That is conjecture on my part. He could miss more time or less, and if I had to guess, I believe he misses more than eight games. Here is the rub, though – we often forget that fantasy football is a weekly game. Even if I am correct about Watson finishing the year at or around QB22, he will likely never finish that low in the weeks in which he plays.
So, while I am not in a rush to draft Watson in redraft leagues (especially given the circumstances), I can certainly understand the desire to in Best Ball formats or leagues with long benches. He could be a difference-maker in the second half of the season. Or he could not play at all. It becomes a matter of risk management and cost assessment for fantasy managers. Right now, Watson’s ADP is right in between Cordarrelle Patterson and Todd Gurley. If I were drafting tomorrow, I would take Watson over those two players 100 times out of 100. Patterson is a gadget guy at best, although I would like to see the Mike Davis truthers freak out if Patterson approached triple digits in carries. And Gurley is still without a home. A football home, that is. I am sure that the former Pro Bowler has at least one residence or dwelling.
Assuming that Watson misses a good amount of time, we must turn our attention to America’s favorite would-be starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor. Taylor was supposed to the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in 2018, but that only lasted a couple of games before ineffective play led to Baker Mayfield taking over in Week 3 of that season. After backing up Philip Rivers in 2019, last year was supposed to be Taylor’s shot at redemption. Perhaps “shot” is a poor choice of words. You see, Taylor was suffering from bruised ribs heading into Week 2 of last season when the Chargers team doctor accidentally punctured Taylor’s lung while administering a pain-killing injection. Taylor would only take one snap the rest of the year as rookie Justin Herbert emerged to capture the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
When Taylor last saw significant playing time, he was a top-15 fantasy quarterback in three consecutive seasons for the Buffalo Bills. However, that was largely due to his rushing prowess in an era when quarterbacks did not run as much. I realize we are only talking about a handful of years, but I will reiterate that things change quickly in the NFL. Taylor ran for at least 400 yards in all three seasons in Buffalo. The rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL combined for seven such seasons in those three years. Last year, eight different quarterbacks ran for at least 400 yards. Taylor’s rushing production is no longer a competitive edge and is counterfeited by many of his current peers. He will also be 32 in August, so he may not run as much as he used to in his heyday.
Even though the Texans would like to establish the run, their defense will be among the worst in the league. That means that Taylor could be forced to throw the ball quite a bit, which may lead to a big game here or there. But overall, he is not a recommended fantasy option. I could see taking Taylor as a QB3 in a SuperFlex format if the NFL suspends Watson for the season. However, I would not draft Taylor with the expectation that he will suddenly be a top-15 fantasy option again. Treat him like a QB3 and hope you get occasional QB2 production. His current ADP is QB37, so he would still be a bargain at that draft price.
The Indianapolis Colts have not had a quarterback make a Week 1 start in consecutive seasons since Andrew Luck did so in 2015 and 2016. They will use their fourth starting quarterback in as many seasons in 2021. Indianapolis traded for former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz back in February. Wentz regressed in a major way last season before being benched for Jalen Hurts. At the time of his benching, Wentz led the NFL in interceptions, fumbles, and sacks allowed. He still finished the season with a league-high 50 sacks allowed despite playing just 12 games. Wentz ranked 28th of 32 quarterbacks last year in Pro Football Focus’ turnover-worthy play percentage metric and 31st in on-target percentage. There are not many positives you could glean from Wentz’s 2020 performance. So is he just doomed to a future of mediocrity?
My first inclination was to say yes. In fact, in my last rankings update, Wentz is outside the top 20 quarterbacks. However, I may have been a bit harsh in a couple of respects. First, Wentz held the ball for at least 2.6 seconds on 51 percent of his pass attempts last season. The league average was 41 percent, and Wentz himself maintained a rate between 40 and 43 percent in each of his first four seasons. Why was he holding the ball so long? There is likely more than one reason, and he certainly bears some responsibility. But he also did not have the world’s most experienced wide receivers. Greg Ward is a converted quarterback, Jalen Reagor was a rookie, and Travis Fulgham might as well have been. Perhaps Wentz simply did not trust that his receivers would be where they were supposed to on a given play.
Philadelphia’s offensive line also performed at a lower level than they had in recent seasons. After earning a collective top-10 pass-blocking grade for four consecutive years, the Eagles offensive line finished just 16th in that department last season. It is possible that the line had protected Wentz from himself in previous years and was simply unable to do so last season. To that end, Wentz should benefit greatly from his recent change of scenery. The Indianapolis Colts boast one of the best O-lines in all of football. New left tackle Eric Fisher may not be ready for Week 1, but the team has some solid depth if Fisher misses time in the early going. Indianapolis has a largely unproven receiving corps beyond veteran T.Y. Hilton, but there is some upside with players like Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr.
The Colts will also feature second-year running back Jonathan Taylor to help keep opposing defenses honest. Taylor finished third in the NFL in rushing as a rookie and should see a rise in his volume this year. His presence should also take some of the pressure off his new quarterback. 2020 was a down year for most of us. Maybe a fresh start and a reunion with Colts head coach Frank Reich will breathe new life into Wentz. I am not ready to declare that Wentz will go back to being a fantasy QB1 as he was in 2017 and 2019. But I am willing to revisit my ranking of him a bit. His ADP is 20th among quarterbacks which seems fair. I think he can settle in as a mid-range QB2 when all is said and done.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will also have a different starting quarterback for the fourth straight season come September. They are hoping to buck that trend for the foreseeable future with the selection of top overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence had an outstanding collegiate career and is one of the most highly-regarded quarterback prospects in recent memory. He led Clemson to a National Championship and an undefeated season as a true freshman. Though Clemson would not win under title under Lawrence’s leadership, he certainly held his weight during his final two seasons. Lawrence posted PFF grades of 91.1 in his sophomore and junior seasons while accounting for 7,586 total yards and 77 touchdowns in 25 games. To steal a line from Coming to America, “That boy is good!” And no, he is not good and terrible.
There is a lot to like about Lawrence from a fantasy perspective. He processes information quickly and has incredible arm strength. His ability to deliver the deep ball was nearly unparalleled in the college game. The Jaguars may have lost 15 games to close the 2020 season, but they are not bereft of offensive talent. D.J. Chark eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards two years ago with Minshew as his quarterback. Free-agent signing Marvin Jones is old and boring, but he has scored 18 touchdowns in 29 games over the past two seasons while averaging just over 60 yards per game. And the Jaguars boast a couple of interesting young players who can potentially fill multiple roles in Leviska Shenault and Travis Etienne. Etienne played alongside Lawrence at Clemson and should be a trusted safety valve on passing downs.
I am very curious to see how the new coaching staff in Jacksonville will affect Lawrence. New head coach Urban Meyer tends to favor a one-back offense, where he uses spread concepts to run the football. Darrell Bevell is the team’s new offensive coordinator, with Brian Schottenheimer serving as the passing game coordinator. Both men had served as offensive coordinators for the Seattle Seahawks in recent years. That tandem may cap Lawrence’s ceiling from an opportunity standpoint early in his career. The main reason that “Let Russ Cook” has become a popular catchphrase in recent years is that Seattle would seemingly not let Russell Wilson air it out despite him being universally considered one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Wilson set a career-high in attempts last year, but it was still good for just 10th most on a per-game basis.
Having said that, Wilson has had a significantly higher IAY/PA (intended air yards per pass attempt) than the league average over the past three years. So while the number of attempts under Schottenheimer was underwhelming, he did take chances down the field. The same can be said for Bevell during his most recent stint as Detroit’s offensive coordinator. Matthew Stafford was in the top five in IAY/PA in both of Bevell’s years in the Motor City. I believe that Jacksonville will take plenty of shots down the field, which could lead to big plays for Lawrence. I also do not expect Lawrence to suffer from a lack of volume in the same manner as Wilson. Part of the reason that Wilson did not need to air it out every week is that Seattle usually featured a solid defense before last season.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville’s defense is expected once again to be the Achilles heel of the team. That may not please the Duval faithful, but it works out just fine for fantasy purposes. Even with Bevell’s run-first tendencies, Detroit still threw the ball at the fourth-highest rate last season. That is because they were often playing from behind due to a porous defense. A similar scenario could follow him to Jacksonville this year. I would not be comfortable with Lawrence as my QB1 in a 12-team league right away, but it would not shock me if he finished the year in that range. I currently have him as my QB15 overall, so is he certainly worthy of a mid-late round selection in all formats. In my opinion. Lawrence’s ceiling for 2021 is similar to the last of the AFC South quarterbacks I am about to discuss.
Of all the AFC South quarterbacks, Ryan Tannehill is likely to be the one with the most experience in the division. He has had a career resurgence in his two seasons in Tennessee. Tannehill was a top-10 fantasy quarterback on a per-game basis in 12 games in 2019. He followed that up with an overall QB8 finish last year. And he has done so with painfully little volume. Tennessee threw the ball on just 50 percent of offensive plays last year. Of course, it is hard to blame them when Derrick Henry is their lead running back. The 50 percent pass rate was the third-lowest rate in the NFL, and the two teams below them (New England and Baltimore) featured quarterbacks who ran the ball a combined 296 times in 30 games last year. Yet Tannehill has thrived in Tennessee due to his hyper-efficiency in the passing game.
Tennessee’s offensive philosophy is similar to what I suspect Jacksonville is striving towards. The Titans establish the run with Henry and then make explosive plays in the passing game. Tannehill trailed only Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston in IAY/PA in 2019. Tennessee did not take as many shot plays last year, as Tannehill’s 8.4 IAY/PA was in the middle of the pack. But when they did, boy were they effective. His 7.3 CAY/Cmp (completed air yards per completion) and 4.8 CAY/PA (completed air yards per pass attempt) were second-best in the NFL behind Deshaun Watson. Tannehill averaged a whopping 9.7 yards per attempt on play-action passes a season ago. And oh, by the way, they also have Julio Jones now. The Titans traded for the former Falcon last month, and he will play opposite emerging star A.J. Brown.
Jones has accumulated nearly 13,000 receiving yards in his illustrious 10-year career in Atlanta. Jones is still an elite NFL wide receiver. He finished 13th in PFF’s receiving grade and fourth among full-time wideouts in yards per route run last season. Interestingly enough, Brown finished third in both categories. Jones often gets an “injury-prone” label, but he has played in 135 of 160 regular-season games in his career. Last year was the first since 2013 in which he failed to play at least 14 games. Tannehill will have the most dominant running back and wide receiver tandem in the NFL at his disposal. I expect Tannehill to throw more than the 481 times he did a season ago. But I also do not believe Tennessee will deviate too far from their offensive DNA just because Jones is in the fold.
One thing to note is that Tannehill rushed for seven scores a season ago. Though he is a relatively mobile quarterback, I do not see a repeat of that performance. Before last season, Tannehill had rushed for 10 touchdowns in 100 career games. I believe that most of the gains Tannehill makes via the air this year will be negated to a degree by fewer rushing scores. I still believe that Tannehill is a QB1 in 12-team leagues. That makes him a buy for me at his current ADP, which is QB13. He is also my favorite fantasy play among the AFC South quarterbacks. However, I think it would be a mistake to assume that the addition of Jones suddenly bumps Tannehill up another tier towards top-five territory.
For more Rankings and Analysis please check out our full 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
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