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Quarterback Bypass
Paul Sandy

In 2001, Steve McNair averaged about one point less per game than Kurt Warner among fantasy leagues using a typical performance-based scoring system. This being the era of Arthur Andersen, I won't blame you if you're skeptical of this figure. After all, Warner is the field general for "the greatest show on turf." He's the grocery bagger turned NFL MVP and was selected in the first round of nearly every fantasy draft last year. And what of McNair? The Titan quarterback has never lived up to the hype. He plays in an offense geared toward the running game and is a perennial mid-round draft pick.

Despite the seemingly cavernous gap between the fantasy values of Warner and McNair, the single point difference is indeed accurate. And while many owners will pooh-pooh this Warner/McNair comparison, others will recognize that it's not merely a fluke. Instead, it's an indication that the importance of drafting a quarterback early is often overstated.

That's not to say you shouldn't take a quarterback in the first, second or third round. Quite the contrary; outfitting your roster with Warner or Manning virtually assures you'll get a minimum of two touchdowns and 250 yards per week. And that's on a bad week. No question, securing one of the league's premier quarterbacks is an attractive strategy that could position you to win a championship.

Rather than suggesting that drafting a quarterback early is a bad strategy, the goal of this article is to point out that drafting your starting quarterback after Round 5 is an option that merits consideration. At the heart of the Quarterback Bypass strategy is the idea that when you draft your signal caller early, you needlessly sacrifice quality at the other key positions. By dedicating the first five rounds or six rounds of your draft to acquiring running backs and receivers, you can more than make up for not having a top tier quarterback. 

Economics 101

Did you ever hear the fable about the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike to keep the water from breaking through and destroying his town? The fantasy football version of this bedside story will have owners desperately trying to plug holes in their rosters during a brutal stretch of bye weeks.

If you thought the running back position was thin in years past, things will really get ugly in 2002. Due to the NFL's decision to expand, from Weeks 3-10 four teams will be on bye each week. This means a minimum of four starting players will be unavailable in a position that's already too thin. Any owner worthy of competing in your league will take note of the bye weeks and employ a draft strategy that lessens their impact; however, there will clearly be an abundance of owners scrambling to fill the holes.

Basic economics dictates that when supply is low and demand is high, costs skyrocket. Apply this theory to fantasy football and it's clear that any owner who has an ample supply of quality running backs will rule the roost. Judging by many pre-season mock drafts, the legitimate starting running backs begin to dry up in Round 5. Any ball carrier you select after this point will likely either be a sleeper, a backup or will split carries. By this time, if you don't have three quality backs, it's a good bet that injuries and bye weeks will have you scouring the waiver wire for the likes of Terrell Fletcher or Zack Crockett at some point during the season.

While most owners would agree budgeting a few early round picks for running backs makes sense, the majority would scoff at the idea that drafting wide receivers takes precedence over quarterbacks. But by round six of a 12-team draft, all the receivers who will consistently provide your team with solid production (10-12 points per week) will have evaporated. Gone are Keyshawn Johnson, Tim Brown, Plaxico Burress, Kevin Johnson and Ed McCaffrey. Thus, you'll be left to deal with the frequent disappointments of James Thrash, Curtis Conway and Willie Jackson.

If the supply of starting-quality running backs and receivers begins to plummet in Rounds 5 and 6, what happens on the quarterback front? Honestly, it begins to tail off in Round 3. But the key here is that the supply of quality quarterbacks never plummets. It is the nature of fantasy football that each team only starts one quarterback, thus supply is abnormally abundant at this position. While the NFL consists of 32 starting quarterbacks, a benchmark fantasy football league only starts 12 per week. Assuming each owner has one backup (typical for most leagues), on any given week you'll have access to 10 quarterbacks (two on your roster and eight free agents). In smaller leagues this number swells to 12 or even 14.

Many would argue that the quality of these free-agent or late-round passers is suspect, but it simply isn't the case. In a league that uses a standard performance-based scoring system, any owner would be happy to get 20+ points from their quarterback. Bargain-basement-priced Jay Fiedler reached this mark in five games last year - the same amount as Brett Favre. What's more, Kordell Stewart notched six 20+ point games, surpassing the highly-coveted Green Bay gunslinger. 

Admittedly, the quality of mid-round quarterbacks will vary from draft to draft. Steve McNair might not be available. But the point is there are always options, be it Stewart, Brunell, or even Couch. Worst-case scenario: None of the mid-round quarterbacks you draft pan out. In this situation, you're still able to platoon among the remaining free agent passers. It's not an exact science, but by studying the match ups you can still earn adequate production from the likes of Collins and Flutie. The same cannot be said of running backs and receivers. Even the most seasoned veteran has suffered the humiliation of being forced to start Travis Minor at running back or Jake Reed at receiver.

Understand the quarterbacks you select in the middle rounds are not likely to win many games for your team. But by dedicating the first five or six rounds of your draft to acquiring top running backs and receivers, your quarterback won't have to score 20 points per game. All he'll have to do is put up 10, 12 or 14, and in doing so, not lose games for your team.

Wait... but not too long

Although it's critical to assemble a strong collection of running backs and receivers, it'd be foolish to go any further than the seventh round without drafting a quarterback. Beginning in Round 7, it's common for a couple panicky owners to begin drafting backup quarterbacks. It's imperative that you get in on the action at this point, otherwise the pickings will be too slim. In fact, if you're bypassing the top quarterbacks until Round 5 or beyond, it's highly advisable to draft two prospects by the end of the eighth round. In doing so, you'll beat the onslaught of owners who are looking to backup their upper-echelon quarterbacks, and you'll land two capable starters.

So exactly what type of quarterback should you target in the middle rounds? The smart money is on those crafty passers who aren't afraid to tuck it in and scramble. In most fantasy football leagues, players are awarded one point per 10 yards rushing and one point per 20 or 25 yards passing. Likewise, rushing touchdowns are typically worth six points while passing touchdowns count for only three or four. Thus, if McNair passes for 175 yards, throws one touchdown, and scrambles for 50 yards, he'll nearly equal Warner's 250 yards and two touchdowns.

Secondarily, you should consider quarterbacks who operate within offenses geared toward the passing game. It goes without saying that most of the quarterbacks who fit this description will be taken early (Warner, Garcia and Favre); however, less glamorous passing teams like Seattle, Kansas City and even Baltimore could spawn sleeper quarterbacks.  

With this in mind, there are several middle-round quarterbacks who you'll want to scout throughout the preseason. These quarterbacks, and others, are capable of equaling or even outscoring players taken several rounds earlier.

Steve McNair
McNair is a poor man's Donovan McNabb. It's a little known fantasy football fact that the Titan passer has averaged more than 16 points per game over the past four seasons. Toss out an Eddie George-dominated 2000 campaign and this statistic balloons to nearly 19 points per game. And while he has amassed numbers on par with many of the top fantasy passers, "Air" McNair continues to fly under the radar of most fantasy football owners. Many publications are suggesting that a healthy George reduces McNair's value. Don't buy it. The Titans have an experienced group of receivers and will continue to leverage McNair's talents in 2002. With his shoulder and ankle problems behind him, we can safely expect McNair to throw for 18-20 touchdowns and rush for another five.

Kordell Stewart
Early reports from the Steelers training camp suggest Jerome Bettis will play a less prominent role in the offense this year in an effort to prevent him from wearing down. This is good news for Stewart, who tallied eight passing touchdowns in three games toward the end of the 2001 regular season. With receivers Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward growing in confidence, Stewart has the potential to approach 18 passing touchdowns. More importantly, the Steelers may be more apt to give him goal line carries to further ease Bettis' workload.   

Jay Fiedler
Fiedler logged a surprising 20 passing touchdowns in 2001. While common sense dictates that the addition of Ricky Williams will cut into Fiedler's stats, don't write off the Dolphin passer just yet. Last year the anemic running of Lamar Smith led to countless third-and-long passing scenarios, which in turn resulted in Fiedler throwing 19 interceptions. By adding Williams to the mix, the Dolphins should significantly reduce the third-and-long situations. As a result, Fiedler will remain on the field longer and will have more red-zone opportunities. Barring a sophomore slump by Chris Chambers, Fiedler should provide adequate passing production to add to his usual rushing statistics.

Mike Vick
Predicting anything more than 12-15 passing touchdowns for Vick would be ludicrous. Aside from being a second-year player, the Falcons own one of the league's most inexperienced receiving corps. The recent acquisition of Willie Jackson and the off-season tutelage from Steve Young will help, but Vick will struggle to find an open man all year. That said, the former Heisman Trophy winner has talent and speed that strikes fear in the eyes of every defensive coordinator. It would not be presumptuous to predict that Vick will approach Randall Cunningham's fabled 1990 season, wherein he rushed for an NFL record 942 yards. Whether or not Vick can get to this level as soon as this year is anyone's guess.

Trent Dilfer
Ridiculed for much of his career, Dilfer boosted his standing in the fraternity of NFL quarterbacks by leading the Baltimore Ravens to an NFL championship in 2000 and by leading his teams to 15 straight victories. While this hasn't necessarily translated in to fantasy bliss, there is reason to believe Dilfer is primed for success in 2002. Mike Holmgren has assembled a respectable group of receivers and enters every game with a pass-first mentality. Dilfer should open some eyes this season and could even approach 25 passing TDs.  

Trent Green
After a nondescript first year in Kansas City, it remains to be seen whether Dick Vermiel can duplicate the offensive fireworks he helped ignite with the Rams. If Vermiel is able to get his team on track, Green's value would instantly skyrocket. Replacing Derrick Alexander, who had a propensity for tripping over his skirt, with former Lion standout Johnnie Morton should help. Morton has always seemed to have a knack for finding seams in opposing defensive secondaries. If you're considering Green, be sure to keep a close eye on the Tony Gonzalez contract negotiations. Should Gonzalez extend his holdout into the regular season, it would likely have a detrimental impact on Green's ability to score red-zone touchdowns.