"The NFL has become a passing league."
How many times have you heard that statement in recent seasons? No longer are championship teams built on the combination of bruising ground attacks and stellar defense. Instead, title contenders now feature elite quarterbacks and pass-first offenses. Want proof? Look at the teams that have reached the Super Bowl over the last three years.
Kurt Warner and the high-flying Arizona Cardinals lost to Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. Next was a clash of two great quarterbacks -- Drew Brees and Peyton Manning -- leading a pair of elite offenses in Super Bowl XLIV. The most recent title contest again featured Roethlisberger, who lost to fantasy superstar Aaron Rodgers in Super Bowl XLV.
The point is that the quarterback position is now en vogue, and the evidence is in the numbers. In 2010, five players threw for 4,000-plus yards and 11 threw for 25 or more touchdowns. Amazingly, 17 quarterbacks threw for at least 20 scores.
In fantasy football, less-heralded field generals often put up elite numbers. Josh Freeman scored just 10.76 fewer fantasy points last season than Brees, who finished just 16.8 points head of Matt Ryan. If you project the numbers Kyle Orton recorded in 13 starts over a full season, he would have finished in a virtual tie with Freeman.
Roethlisberger, who isn't considered an elite fantasy quarterback, would have outscored Brees and finished 2.1 points behind Philip Rivers over a full season. Tony Romo, who's stock could be somewhat underrated in 2011 fantasy drafts, would have finished with 299.3 points based on the numbers from his five full starts.
Based on last year's numbers, Freeman was a much better value than Brees based on their draft positions. This season, Brees will still cost you a second-round pick while Freeman should come off the board in the middle rounds. Who is the better bargain? With a plethora of viable starting options, I find it more difficult than ever to take a quarterback in the first few rounds on draft day. Sure, Michael Vick led countless owners to league championships last season. But can he average close to 30 fantasy points per game again? It's unlikely. I'd rather take a quarterback like Romo, Roethlisberger or Freeman in the middle rounds than Vick or Brees in the first two rounds at the expense of having a backfield I can't lean on for production.
Keep in mind that the rising values of quarterbacks have coincided with the fall of running backs, putting an even greater premium on that position. The days when true featured backs like Marshall Faulk, Emmitt Smith and Shaun Alexander shouldered the load are all but over, as the majority of teams now utilize two or more runners with different skill sets. That makes life tough for fantasy owners because there are no guarantees at the position, save for the small number of featured backs that still remain.
It's those players, the virtual dinosaurs of the NFL who still see a majority of his team's backfield touches, who deserve your early-round attention.
Heading into the 2011 season, there are no more than a handful of runners that owners can trust to see regular touches. Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson top the list, followed by Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Frank Gore, Rashard Mendenhall, LeSean McCoy, Michael Turner, Matt Forte and Steven Jackson. There are others who could fit the bill this season, such as Darren McFadden (who loses some work to Michael Bush), LeGarrette Blount and possibly rookie Daniel Thomas. But that's about it.
All told, there's roughly one featured back available per team in a standard 12-team format, and most leagues these days require two or three runners to be active each week. Clearly, the supply doesn't support the demand.
The same isn't true at the quarterback position.
In a league that would have had former Chargers coach Don Coryell licking his chops, fantasy owners can mix and match signal-callers based on the matchups from both their roster and even the waiver wire. Players like David Garrard, Orton and Fitzpatrick (to name a few) were free agents after most 2010 fantasy drafts. All three threw for 20 or more touchdowns. Owners need to remember there could be even more solid quarterbacks to choose from in 2011, and that isn't an overstatement.
Romo is back from a shoulder ailment and could put up elite numbers. Roethlisberger will be under center for the Steelers for a full season. Matthew Stafford has the tools and weapons to be a top-10 fantasy quarterback. Sam Bradford is a monster sleeper in Josh McDaniels' offense and could turn into a fabulous middle- to late-round choice.
Tim Tebow, who scored more fantasy points than any other player over the final three weeks of the 2010 season, is also a player on the rise. And I haven't even mentioned Matt Schaub, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning or Matt Cassel, who all finished in the top 15 in fantasy points at their position last year.
Clearly, the depth at quarterback is vital to incorporate into your fantasy draft strategies for the 2011 campaign.
That's not to say you should pass on Vick or Rodgers if either falls late into the first round. But owners shouldn't feel pressured to land one of the elite quarterbacks, either. In fact, I wouldn't be afraid to take two running backs, two wide receivers and one of the five premier tight ends in the first five rounds before focusing on a signal-caller.
There will be some terrific values at the position in the middle rounds, so don't be concerned if you're starting someone not named Brees, Rivers or Peyton Manning.