HSAC’s Fantasy Football Preview: Quarterback Sleepers & Busts

by Danny Blumenthal

Fantasy football is a game of unexpected results. Sometimes, waiver wire pick-ups emerge as superstars, and sometimes, players who are projected to excel struggle mightily. For example, Lamar Jackson, last season’s top quarterback, was projected to finish as QB16 before the season started. Therefore, it is worthwhile to prepare for your draft by investigating which players might break out. As in other sleeper/bust articles, these are not necessarily players who will dominate or bomb in 2020. Rather, these players have been hyped up too much (or not enough) and their production might not match up with their Average Draft Position (ADP) on ESPN. With that in mind, here are some quarterbacks we at HSAC think will either exceed or fall short of expectations.

Quarterback Sleepers

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (ESPN ADP: QB13, Pick 124.0)

Compare the following quarterbacks’ numbers through their first 8 full games last season:


Passing YardsPassing TDsInterceptions2019 Fantasy Points
QB A2324162164.7
QB B2504188169.7
QB C2499195166.6

While these players’ styles may differ, their fantasy production is quite similar. As you may have guessed, QB A is the ultra-conservative Aaron Rodgers (ADP of QB10, Pick 101.6), QB B is Matt Ryan (ADP of QB9, Pick 92.0), and QB C is Matthew Stafford. Stafford started 2019 red-hot, ranking as QB4 on a per-game basis before getting hurt. The Lions’ signal-caller is now fully healthy, and is accompanied by up-and-coming pass catchers Kenny Golladay and T.J. Hockenson, as well as a strong receiving back in rookie D’Andre Swift. These weapons should see a lot of work from Stafford, as the Lions will likely throw the ball often as they seek to come from behind. Finally, quarterbacks who throw deep tend to be stronger fantasy quarterbacks than real-life performers (e.g. Jameis Winston), and no quarterback had more intended air yards per attempt than Matthew Stafford. Even though Stafford put up comparable per-game numbers to Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers last year, he is going more than 20 picks after both of them. Look for Stafford to shake his QB2 projection and become a top-ten quarterback in 2020.

Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (ESPN ADP: QB6, Pick 54.8)

As with Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott threw a lot of deep passes in 2019, ranking 2nd in air yards. Those passes were already quite efficient for Prescott, as Pro Football Focus (PFF) rated him as one of the top deep passers in the league. With the addition of high-flying rookie CeeDee Lamb, Prescott’s deep passing is likely to become even more effective. This is especially true in the NFC East, which hosts three teams with weak secondaries. On top of his strong arm, Prescott is also sensational with his legs. No quarterback has more rushing touchdowns since he entered the NFL in 2016. 

Even as he finished as QB2 last year, Prescott may have actually underperformed his talent level. His teammates consistently underachieved, dropping a league-leading 36 passes in 2019. As a team, Dallas left a lot of points on the table, pacing the league in yards while finishing only 6th in points. Since yards per point and drop percentage are not so consistent from year to year, the Cowboys’ offense could get even stronger in 2020. With players ahead of him like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray potentially slowing down this year (more on them soon), Prescott’s ADP of QB6 is far too low.

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (ESPN ADP: QB17, Pick 150.4)

Joe Burrow dominated last year, posting one of the greatest seasons ever by a college quarterback while piloting LSU to a national championship. After being a fringe-Day 3 prospect before the season, he parlayed his sensational performance into the #1 overall pick. Many top picks go to terrible teams and struggle early on, but that might not be the case for Burrow. The Bengals have a talented receiving corps, led by A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, and should improve after being quite unlucky in one-score games last year. However, the Bengals defense will probably still struggle. While that isn’t good news for the team, it should prop up Burrow’s fantasy numbers as the Bengals throw the ball often in an effort to come from behind.

In addition, some fantasy managers are hesitant to grab rookies for their teams. They think that rookies will struggle to open the year, since they have had less time to get integrated into their new teams due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the 2011 season (after the lockout) poses a decent comparison group. When Michael Salfino investigated this set of rookies for FiveThirtyEight, he found that the 2011 draft class performed even better than others. Therefore, there shouldn’t be much to worry about in regards to Burrow and his peers. Since he is only being drafted in under half of ESPN leagues, Joe Burrow could be a high-upside QB2 near the end of the draft.

Quarterback Busts

Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (ESPN ADP: QB2, Pick 18.0)

Again, placing a player in this category does NOT mean that they will struggle in 2020, but that they may not live up to expectations. Lamar Jackson was sensational in 2019, winning MVP in real football and ranking as QB1 in fantasy. However, no quarterback has repeated as QB1 since Drew Brees in 2011-2012, and Jackson will probably not snap this trend. Last year, Jackson threw touchdowns on 9.0% of his passes, becoming only the 4th quarterback to reach that figure since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger:

NameYearYear 1 TD%Year 1 Passing TDsYear 2 TD%Year 2 Passing TDs
Lamar Jackson20199.0%36??????
Aaron Rodgers20119.0%457.1%39
Peyton Manning20049.9%496.2%28
Ken Stabler19769.3%276.8%20

The following year, these quarterbacks all got worse. If Jackson follows their trend without an increase in volume, he will be due for a double-digit decline in passing touchdowns. Even if Jackson was not likely to regress this year, it still would not be wise to take him at his current ADP in the 2nd round. Per RotoWorld’s Hayden Winks, the drop-off between the top quarterbacks and the next tier (players such as Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson) is much smaller than it is for players at other positions. You can get similar value in later rounds, so it doesn’t make sense to reach for a quarterback early.

Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals (ESPN ADP: QB5, Pick 54.3)

While many predict a break-out year for the Cardinals quarterback, especially after the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, it might be a good idea to pump the brakes. When too many pundits project a player as a star, that player can become over-hyped and his ADP will soar too high. 

When HSAC explored the “sophomore slump” among players in their second years in the NFL, no position saw a bigger drop-off than quarterbacks. Many impressive rookies have tumbled back to Earth in their second seasons, such as Robert Griffin III, Dak Prescott, and Baker Mayfield. On average, strong starters (the green line on the graph below) see their numbers fall by about 12% in Year 2. 

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Kyler Murray was very lucky last year, so he too, could become a victim of the sophomore slump. For example, his receivers had one of the lowest drop rates in the league. Since catch rate tends to regress to the mean, don’t expect the Cardinals pass-catchers to keep this up in 2020. Murray was also sacked 48 times last year, tied for the most in the NFL. While the Cardinals upgraded their offensive line during the offseason, many of Murray’s sacks were self-inflicted. If he keeps getting battered, Murray may have a heightened risk for injury. Given the inflated expectations for Murray, as well as the possibilities of injury and a sophomore slump, his ADP of QB5 is too lofty this year.

Stay tuned for HSAC’s projections at other positions!

Editor’s Note: If you have any questions about this article (or fantasy football in general), please reach out to HSAC on Twitter – @Harvard_Sports – or on email at harvardsportsanalysis@gmail.com.

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