by Nick Ercolano
July 12, 2018
We're looking at the top 3 quarterback breakout candidates for 2018 fantasy football. Guys who have flashed us some nip, but not the whole rack. Or have been completely covered, sweatshirt and all, but like most prude, high school girls, their freshman year of college is littered with 4 Lokos & booger sugar - in millennial terms, we call that, the breakout. 2018, we ain't saying the car's topless, we saying the titties is out.
Current ADP: Overall 120, QB18
A terrible 2017 campaign leads Mariota to be disrespected by fantasy drafters this summer. After impressive rookie and sophomore campaigns in which he combined to throw for 45 touchdowns to just 19 interceptions, and posting TD percentages of 5.1% (QB15) and 5.8% (QB4), respectively, 2017 was a major step back for the Titans QB and the team as a whole. Mariota's threw a career-low 13 touchdowns and a career-high 15 interceptions last year while posting an awful 2.9% TD rate, 27th in the NFL. Fantasy owners are willing to write the entire year off on behalf of the Titan's geriatric coaching staff. They ranked 28th in the league in pass attempts in 2017 and 26th in the league in pace, seconds/play on their drives per Football Outsiders.
It definitely wasn't all the coaching staffs fault, though. Mariota was bad at times, and their offensive line failed to live up to the hype of being an elite, top-5 line in 2017. They'd finish the year as the 14th best PBing team per FO, they graded high among PFF, but I think at times they were inconsistent, Mariota ranked 23rd among QBs in the Time to Throw category per NFL Next Gen Stats. The line, though, I think at worst will be above average, if not top of the league, they have too much talent up front not too.
The change in coaching staff cannot be understated here. They bring in former Houston DC Mike Vrabel to lead them as their HC, but the most important one here is Matt LaFleur taking over as the OC. If you haven't already heard this narrative 250 times this summer. LaFleur was the QB coach who mentored RGIII back during his rookie year in Washington when he exploded. He was the QB coach in Atlanta under Kyle Shanahan when Matt Ryan had his MVP season. Last year, he was the OC in LA under Sean McVay where we saw that 180 degrees turn around for Jared Goff. You could look at the situation and say, hey well, how can LaFleur fail with this coaches and players around him, and he didn't have much to do with it, but at worst he got to learn under some of the most brilliant, young minds in football, and now he gets to run his own show here based on all the best parts he learned from there. I want you to take alook at this Twitter thread I came across yesteryear.
Along with the coaching staff, Mariota has some legitimate weapons on offense. They bring in Dion Lewis a huge plus in the pass-catching department out of the backfield. Murray was plenty capable but didn't give anywhere near the type of YAC or playmaking ability Lewis is gonna bring to the Titans. We have the always underrated Delanie Walker and Rishard Mathews coming back as reliable possession weapons and former #6 overall pick Corey Davis entering his sophomore year, on the brink of what many believe to be a breakout campaign. I'm pulling the breaks on that, I'm not gonna dive into Davis right, now but I just don't think this offense has enough volume to get Davis to breakout, it's not like anyone left, targets don't just appear out of thin air. I like Davis' talent, but I think we're a year away from a breakout for Davis.
BUT, when the problem in fantasy football is that there are too many weapons, that's when you draft the QB. This is what's happening in Tennessee with Mariota.
The last point to make here, the obvious one, is Mariota's rushing ability. The coaching staff wanted no part of baking that into their game plan last year, but Mariota was still able to pad his fantasy floor with 312 rushing yards and five touchdowns, ranking 8th, and 3rd in those categories in 2017. He had only a single rushing attempt more in 2017 then he did in 2016, it's something we should see an increase in 2018. He's scored 9 times in his first three seasons and has averaged 22 rushing yards/game. That's a great floor.
Current ADP: Overall 135, QB22
Well, here's the thing about Mitchell Trubisky. If he's going to get it done, we're going to know it quickly. After putting just about any weapon around him to ensure success, the Bears are banking on a monster sophomore szn from Trubisky.
With all the changes taking place in Chicago, the popular storyline this year is to draw the parallel of the Bears to the 2017 Rams. They have the new, hot coach in town in Matt Nagy, the former offensive coordinator for the Chiefs. Last year was Nagy's first year as the OC in KC, but we saw a historic season from Alex Smith who profiles with much less upside than a guy of Trubisky's skill set. They also bring in Mark Helfrich to run as the OC. Helfrich has been the Oregon Ducks HC from 2013-2016 and if you know literally anything about college football, you know what kind of offense the Ducks run, it's spread and it's high-flying.
Trubisky is built the part at 6-2, 225lbs. It really wouldn't be fair to judge him based on his 2017 performance, they didn't give him anywhere near enough work on a WoW basis to warrant analysis. We can look at how he progressed over the year though. His first start came in Week 5. From Week 5-12, a 7-game stretch, Trubisky averaged just 6.37 YPA, with a 4:4 TD-to-INT ratio and completed an NFL worst 53.7% of his passes. Over the last five weeks of the season he boosted that YPA number to just under 7.0, 3:3 TD-to-INT but added two rushing scores, and most importantly that completion rate shot up from 53.7% and dead last to 71.8%, 5th in the NFL among QBs.
He did this without a resemblance of a good weapon. Now, as you've heard upwards of 30 million times, they bring in Allen Robinson to be their WR1. Taylor Gabriel to open up safeties hips, signed Trey Burton to be their starting TE to occupy the middle of the field and traded up in the draft to grab stud slot WR out of Memphis Anthony Miller in the 2nd round of the NFL draft. Nagy is going nuts about Tarik Cohen as well, comparing him to Tyreek Hill, who of course we just saw Nagy produce a monster year from Hill. Cohen will be moved all over the field, it's going to be exciting to watch.
The difference in offensive schemes should make all the difference in the world. Last year under Uncle John Fox, the Bears offense that ranked 31st in play volume and dead last in pass attempts. Nagy and Helfrich will take what they've learned from the past and use it to run their offense to Trubisky's strengths: being his athleticism, mobility and big arm. They'll utilize a ton of shotgun-heavy sets. Per Evan Silva's Bears outlook, "Nagy's 2017 Chiefs led the NFL in the percentage of Run-Pass Option plays (18.1%)", this will be really good for Trubisky's rushing ceiling and floor. Trubisky ran for 20+ yards in 5 games last year and went for 44+ in 3 of them. Despite only starting 12 games, he ranked 12th in the league among QBs in total rushing attempts. Look for that to a big part of Trubisky's fantasy production in 2018.
We also look at the Bears strength of schedule:
Warren Sharp has the pegged as having this year’s fifth-easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses. I'm not going to get into the rankings of his SoS, but nothing on here scares me much until almost double-digit weeks.
Lastly, the Bears have a plus offensive line. They were killed with injuries in 2017, per PFF 9 players saw at least 100 snaps on their offensive line. So, given health, they should match their 11th overall graded line per PFF they had last year. They did lose Josh Sitton to the Dolphins via FA, but grabbed a James Daniels, a kid from Iowa with one of their 2nd round picks to mitigate that loss.
Again, it comes back to what I said before. All the pieces are there. Coaching, weapons, schedule, offensive line. We'll know quickly what we have with Trubisky. And if I had to bet on one side or the other, I think given his rushing upside, he's going to be a very good fantasy QB in 2018, that you barely have to pay for.
Current ADP: Overall 136, QB21
People aren't realizing how useful Winston was in fantasy last year when healthy, and you can take advantage of that in 2018. A shoulder injury cost Winston 3 games, but in reality, 5. In two of those five games Winston threw the ball just 10 and 13 times, so I'd like to discount those for predictive purposes.
In those 11 games, Winston averaged more than 38 pass attempts/game equating to 307.5 passing yards per and 1.73 touchdowns... Pace that out to a 16-game szn, which is what he's played in his first two szns in the NFL, and you're looking at over 4,900 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. Those numbers would've had him at QB2 in fantasy last year only behind Russell Wilson.
Winston also set a career-high in completion percentage in 2017, 63.8%, and that was while leading the NFL in aDOT (11.0). Deshaun Watson had a higher one but this is for qualified QBs who played at least half a szn. That's very impressive, for your completion percentage to jump up despite throwing long balls frequently, which is what that aDOT tells us.
And I get it, the Bucs were bad, they didn't have a run game, they want to use him less, but I actually don't believe that. Well, for one, I don't believe that the Bucs will be good, I absolutely hate this coaching staff and front office, I think they're straight trash, and I don't think they're going to win with them, but when you look back at the numbers last year, they wanted to throw with Winston, and throw a lot. They ranked 3rd in the NFL in passing volume, both overall attempts but more importantly, the % of their plays that were passes vs. the run. Again, you could say it was because they were bad and losing a lot, but I looked at their pass/run split when they were losing trailing by 6 points or less, so less than a touchdown, they were actually the 2nd heaviest passing team. Then I looked at pass rate when they were either tied or leading, guess what, still the 3rd heaviest passing team in the NFL. They want to throw with Jameis, simple.
You look at the group around him, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, now Ronald Jones, Charles Sims back healthy. Winston has no reason not to massively outperform his current ADP and finish among the top 5-7 QBs in fantasy.
The obvious one that wasn't on this list is Patrick Mahomes. Something in my gut tells me not to put him on here, though. Pat Mahomes, I'll tell you what man, I think he's gonna be good, even very good, but I think his rookie year as a fantasy QB is gonna be a little disappointing, for those drafting him inside the top-12, add expecting a monster breakout. The Chiefs schedule is brutal, especially to begin the year, playing at the Charges, at the Steelers, a lighter game vs SF, but then @ DEN, against JAX, @ NE, against the Bengals, who most people don't realize were 3rd in the NFL in defensive YPA behind just JAX and MIN, then DEN again. Like their 1H of the szn schedule is brutal for Mahomes. And it's very likely they lean heavily on the ground so he doesn't get his confidence smushed against these defenses to start his real career. Per Walter Sharp, of Sharp Football Stats, the Chiefs have the 2nd hardest overall SoS, and 3rd hardest for passing purposes. I guess I could have put Jimmy G on this list too, but I felt like that was too easy.
by Nick Ercolano
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