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Looking Back on QB Performance vs. Quality of Defense

Most fantasy football players now understand you don’t need an elite quarterback to win fantasy football matchups. As a result, QB-by-committee (QBBC) and QB streaming approaches have become popular fantasy football strategies.QBBC allows owners to spend higher equity draft picks on more valuable positions, but still garner good weekly fantasy production by playing QBs in advantageous matchups. In this review, I look at how QB scoring is affected by the matchup (or quality of the passing defense).

Methods

In single-QB leagues, I looked at the number of fantasy points each QB scored with respect to the pass defense matchup. Two goals of the QBBC and QB streamer approaches (which I will refer to as QBBC for simplicity) are to start bargain QBs who:

  1. Score a lot of fantasy points, and
  2. Don’t underperform so poorly that it negatively impacts your team’s chance of winning.

Therefore, I quantify scoring output as:

  • “Quality start” when a QB scores ≥ 19.9 fantasy points (in 2016, the QB12 averaged 19.9 points per game).
  • “Stud” when a QB scores ≥ 22.3 fantasy points (in 2016, the QB6 averaged 22.3 points per game).
  • “Dud” when a QB scores ≤ 16 fantasy points (in 2016, the average weekly QB18 scored 16 fantasy points. QBBC is detrimental to your roster if you are not able to select a QB who outscores the weekly QB18).

To account for the quality of an opposing pass defense, I grouped weekly fantasy points with respect to passing defense DVOA (pdDVOA)- a metric that compares the outcomes of every passing play a defense faces to a league-average baseline.

While there are weaknesses to using pdDVOA – it is a metric that retrospectively determines defensive efficiency using end of year stats and, therefore, does not reveal the perceived strength of a passing defense going into that specific week – it will, on average, give us a good idea of the quality of the pass defense matchup.

The 10 best pdDVOA teams all had a negative score, while the 11-32 ranked pdDVOA teams all had a positive score. Fantasy football owners usually start QBs in good matchups against weak pass defenses, therefore, I further broke down the favorable matchups (against pdDVOA 11-32) into excellent matchups (against pdDVOA 23-32).

Results

In this first data set, I show QB weekly fantasy points against all opponents.1

QB vs all

This table reveals many trends that we remember from 2016: Aaron Rodgers was dominant, Matt Ryan and Dak Prescott were two of the most consistent QBs, and Alex Smith was a horrible fantasy option.

However, we don’t make start-sit decisions in a vacuum — we also look at the difficulty of the matchup. Therefore, I looked at the weekly fantasy production with respect to the quality of the opposing pass defense in order to determine how predictable the fantasy outcome was. Below is the fantasy football production against favorable pass defenses (pass def DVOA 11-32).

QB vs 11-32

We are even more likely to start a QB in an excellent matchup against the weakest pass defenses (pass def DVOA 23-32):

QB vs 23-32

What strikes me immediately is that even when we control for the quality of the pass defense, the top tier still dominates the highest percentage of quality and stud starts as well as the lowest percentage of dud starts. However, we expect that – that is why a fantasy owner would be willing to draft a tier 1 QB. We clearly see the value the top quarterbacks provide compared to the rest of the field.

QBBC Application

But what does this data reveal about the QBBC strategy? In order to make a more general claim, I grouped the data according to three approximate tiers, and looked at their weekly fantasy points against difficult opponents (pdDVOA 1-10), favorable opponents (pdDVOA 11-22), and the weakest opponents (pdDVOA 23-32).

tiers vs 1-10tiers vs 11-22

tiers vs 23-32

Analysis

These findings reveal what we already know: from both a floor and ceiling perspective, rarely play a tier 2 or 3 QB against a difficult opponent, and almost always play a top tier QB in a favorable or easy matchup. Only play a second tier QB over a top tier QB if the former QB is playing against a very weak pass defense and the latter QB is facing a more difficult pass defense.

When selecting a QB with a high floor, the goal is to avoid a dud. In 2016, a tier 2 QB in an excellent matchup had a slightly lower probability (-4 percent, on average) of having a dud performance than a tier 1 QB against difficult opponents. A tier 3 QB should not have been selected based on floor, except only on certain instances when the choice was between a tier 3 QB in an excellent matchup and a tier 2 QB in a difficult matchup (-11 percent).

Stud performance is the desired outcome when evaluating the ceiling of a QB. In 2016, tier 2 QBs against the weakest opponent were much more likely (+32 percent) to have a stud performance than tier 1 QBs against difficult opponents. Tier 3 QBs should only have been selected for ceiling when in the easiest matchups and tier 2 QBs were in the most difficult matchups (+16 percent).

Lastly, if you want a QB to perform as a startable fantasy QB, look at the differences in quality starts. On average, choose a QB in a favorable matchup over a QB in the most difficult matchups. If all QBs have either a favorable (pdDVOA 11-22) or easy (pdDVOA 23-32) matchup, Tier 1 > Tier 2 > Tier 3.

Key Takeaways

In order to gain an advantage over opponents, savvy fantasy football players have developed the QBBC strategy to minimize the cost of their starting QB, yet still find respectable weekly fantasy QB production. This data reveals matchups that we can leverage (on average) to select low-cost QBs who outproduce more valuable QBs – schedule matters! QB performance can be further evaluated by looking at other factors that positively correlate with fantasy football points, such as playing at home, injury to opposing defensive players, and high implied Vegas total, among others. Also, finding metrics that reflect our judgment of a matchup going into a week will strengthen the power of this study.

You can find me on Twitter @Michael_Dubner. Always looking to talk football. 

  1. 2017 ADP is based on RotoViz’s Best Ball ADP App.  (back)

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