AFC West Depth Chart Review: Quarterbacks
The AFC West quarterbacks include a former number-one overall NFL Draft pick and last season’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. There is also a guy named Mahomes who I’ve heard good things about. And to think, this division could have also housed Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers under different circumstances. There is still a chance the Packers move their disgruntled quarterback, with Denver being among the likeliest destinations. But with just seven weeks until the regular season begins, time is running out if a move is to be made. For now, I will act as though the Broncos will keep the quarterbacks that are currently on their roster. Even then, there are questions as to whom the team’s signal-caller will be come Week 1. Below are my thoughts on that situation as well as the fantasy prospects for the rest of the AFC West quarterbacks.
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AFC West Quarterback Breakdown
The Denver Broncos have a solid roster that is highlighted by a top-10 defense. Their quarterback room appears to be one of their weak spots, though at least they have two viable options. First is incumbent Drew Lock. Lock played in 13 games for Denver in 2020, his second NFL season. As with many young quarterbacks, he struggled to protect the football. Lock threw 15 interceptions and had eight fumbles, three of which he lost. His turnover-worthy play rate was 31st among 32 qualifiers per Pro Football Focus. Of the 36 quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts in 2020, Pro Football Reference charted Lock with the highest percentage of bad throws (excluding spikes and throwaways) and the lowest percentage of on-target passes. With Lock struggling so mightily in the accuracy department, Denver acquired Teddy Bridgewater just before this year’s NFL Draft.
There are no such concerns when it comes to Bridgewater’s accuracy. Bridgewater had the lowest percentage of bad throws among the 36 quarterbacks in the above sample. His 80.5 percent of on-target passes trailed only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees last season. But there are warts to his game as well. The former Carolina Panther was just 28th in IAY/PA (intended air yards per pass attempt) last season. He also ranked just 27th in PFF’s big-time throw metric. For reference, Lock finished the year third and seventh, respectively, in those metrics. Bridgewater simply does not do much to attack or challenge defenses. He takes what the defense gives him and does little more than that. Despite that, he finished 20th last season in turnover-worthy play rate, so it is not as if he is infallible from a security standpoint.
As training camp begins this week, we still do not know who Denver will tap to be their starting quarterback. Neither is costing the Broncos a ton of money in 2021. Denver will be paying Bridgewater just under $4.5 million this year. Lock is in the third year of his rookie deal and is slated to make just under $1.5 million. I do not believe money will be the deciding factor here. Instead, I think it will come down to which quarterback gives them the best chance to win with what is a very talented roster. Because head coach Vic Fangio comes from a defensive background and that is the team’s strong suit heading into 2021, I believe that Bridgewater has the edge going into camp. Lock is more of a gunslinger and home run threat, but that is not what this team needs right now.
From a fantasy standpoint, it is difficult to get excited about either guy. Bridgewater finished the 2020 season 19th in total points among quarterbacks and 22nd on a per-game basis. And that came on a Panthers team that boasted three top-25 PPR wide receivers. Even if we knew he was starting all 17 games this year, I would have no confidence in labeling him a top-20 fantasy quarterback. Lock was worse than Bridgewater from a fantasy perspective last season. However, he does have a higher ceiling if he can improve his decision-making and ball security. He also has a higher flow and swag ceiling. I see no reason to draft either in a redraft league where each team starts one quarterback. But I do prefer Lock in Best Ball formats. Even if Bridgewater wins the job, his weekly ceiling is painfully low.
Kansas City Chiefs
Did you know that Patrick Mahomes’ father was a pitcher in the Major Leagues? Or that the Detroit Tigers drafted him in 2014 as an 18-year old? How about that he signed the richest contract in American sports history, or that he is a partial owner of the Kansas City Royals? Did you know he has a disturbingly high love of ketchup? The answer to some or all of the above questions was probably, “Yes”. Do you want me to spend the next five minutes convincing you that Patrick Mahomes is a fantasy beast? If you don’t know that by now, I’m not really sure what to tell you. But for the sake of posterity, here goes.
Mahomes has 26 career games in which he has thrown for over 300 yards and 23 games in which he has accounted for at least three touchdowns. He has 24 career interceptions. Those are video game numbers. At times, Mahomes gets himself in a bit of trouble because he believes he can make every play and every throw. Think back to last season’s game in Miami, where he threw three interceptions and took a 30-yard sack. But those games are few and far between for the 2018 NFL MVP. Mahomes is a cheat code at the quarterback position and should be the overall fantasy QB1 in most formats. The only real question is whether the juice is worth the squeeze given his early-third round ADP.
Over the past three seasons, Mahomes has played 45 games. He has scored at least 20 fantasy points in over 85 percent of those games. He has also finished as a weekly top-12 fantasy quarterback over 75 percent of the time. Fantasy managers and pundits have long held the belief not to draft quarterbacks early. And there is an argument to be made that several quarterbacks can perform at a level close enough to Mahomes that it is worth it to take them later in the draft. I believe that the decision on whether to draft Mahomes depends on your confidence level in finding value at other positions. If you are confident that you can grab running backs and wide receivers at a discount in the middle rounds, I do not have an issue going all-in on Mahomes.
Las Vegas Raiders
Derek Carr has been the starting quarterback for the Las Vegas Raiders for the better part of a decade. In that time, he has never had a true breakout season. His best year in many respects is one I will always remain grateful for and took place in 2016. Carr was the overall QB9 that season and led the Raiders to their first playoff appearance in over a decade. Since then, though, the team has struggled, and Carr has yet to exceed his previous fantasy production. His overall finishes in the four years since are QB17, QB15, QB15, and QB13. The last three seasons have come in Jon Gruden’s offense, which Carr will once be running in 2021.
The overall performance of the offense has improved in each subsequent season with Gruden at the helm. After finishing as a bottom-10 unit in terms of both points per game and yards per game in 2018, the Raiders were in the top-10 in both categories last season. Carr has looked more comfortable as he continues to learn Gruden’s offense. He set a new career-high in passer rating last season and was more willing to look down the field. 11.6 percent of Carr’s attempts were at least 20 yards down the field. That was his highest mark under Gruden and helped lead to an 8.5 aDOT (average depth of target), also a career-high. If you remove the Week 15 contest in which he was injured in the team’s opening drive, Carr exceeded 300 passing yards in each of his final four games last season.
While Carr has made improvements to his game of late, his ceiling remains capped in many respects. Over that four-game stretch towards the end of last season, Carr had three rushing touchdowns. That equaled his total over his previous 106 NFL games. I do not expect him to suddenly become a threat near the goal line. In this day and age, that will likely prevent him from being a top-10 fantasy quarterback for a full season. Having said that, there is value here. Fantasy managers are currently drafting Carr as the 26th quarterback off the board. That is where I have him in my most recent set of rankings as well. But the more I think about it, the more I think that we are all a bit too low on him.
The QB17 finish he posted in 2017 was the lowest of his seven-year NFL career. He has yet to finish outside the top 15 under Gruden’s tutelage and has made subtle improvements under his new coach. Carr also has all-world tight end Darren Waller at his disposal, which certainly does not hurt matters. Though the Raiders and general manager Mike Mayock made a concerted effort to address the defense during the draft, I do not expect Las Vegas to suddenly field an upper echelon unit on that side of the ball. That should give Carr enough wiggle room to be able to post QB2 numbers in 12-team leagues. I do not see a need to reach in one-QB leagues, but Derek Carr makes a lot of sense in two-QB and SuperFlex leagues, especially given his relatively low ADP.
Los Angeles Chargers
Of all the AFC West quarterbacks, Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is probably the most interesting to me. I think that if everything else is equal, I think I have a pretty good read on how the other quarterbacks in the division will fare from a fantasy perspective. But with Herbert, I find myself a bit conflicted. The former Oregon Duck burst onto the scene as a rookie last season and finished his first NFL campaign with an overall QB9 fantasy finish, and was seventh-best in points per game. And yet I find it hard to believe he will get better this season, at least from a fantasy viewpoint. Herbert was helped by rushing for five scores last season. Granted, he has excellent speed and burst for a quarterback, but that still feels a little high. Over his final two seasons at Oregon, Herbert totaled just 216 yards and six rushing touchdowns.
I also expect Herbert’s deep-ball game to experience a bit of regression. The average NFL quarterback has been on-target with 42 percent of deep throws over the past two seasons. On average, a touchdown was thrown 10.8 percent of the time. Last year, Herbert was on-target on 40 percent of such throws, yet threw a touchdown 17.9 percent of the time. Neither of those numbers may seem like they make much of an impact. But considering fantasy managers are currently treating him as the overall QB6, I worry about the value there. If Herbert regresses towards the mean in either category, we are potentially talking about five fewer deep touchdown passes and/or a couple of rushing scores. Either scenario could spell the difference between a mid-range fantasy QB1 and a low-end QB1.
Several of Herbert’s PFF metrics seem a bit contradictory. Herbert graded just 25th among quarterbacks from a clean pocket, yet posted the sixth-best grade under pressure. He had a better passer rating when under pressure than he did when clean. That is almost unheard of for any quarterback, much less a 22-year old rookie. Herbert posted the sixth-highest negative grade play rate in the NFL, yet the seventh-best turnover worthy play rate. He was fifth-best in catchable but inaccurate rate, but eighth-worst uncatchable rate. All told, he remains a bit more inconsistent than his final 2020 numbers would lead most to believe. He will also be learning a new offensive system under new head coach Brandon Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. For the record, I think both will do wonders for Herbert long-term. I am just not sold that it starts from Day 1 in Year 1.
I might be overthinking it a bit, but I get a bit of 2019 vibes about Justin Herbert heading into 2021. After his junior season, Herbert was picked by many to be the top selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. He decided to forego the draft and stay in school for his senior year. Herbert played well in 2019, highlighted by his MVP performance in that year’s Rose Bowl. But he failed to reach that next level that many had expected of him. He ended up falling behind two other quarterbacks in the 2020 NFL Draft class. That is sort of how I feel about Herbert’s 2021 fantasy outlook. I think he will be fine, and will almost certainly be a QB1 in 12-team leagues. I just have a hard time buying that he finishes the year as a top-five or six fantasy quarterback.
For more Rankings and Analysis please check out our full 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
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