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Is Peyton Manning a Sneaky Safe Pick?
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Image via Football Schedule/Flickr

If you participate in a 12-team fantasy football league in which every owner is evenly matched, you’ll have an 8.3 percent chance to win the championship, i.e. you’re an underdog from the start. Because of the nature of fantasy football, it’s typically best to implement a high-risk draft strategy. By seeking high-risk, high-reward players, you’ll maximize your chances of long-term success.Having said that, I typically advocate utilizing a low-variance strategy early in drafts—the first round or two—emphasizing safety over upside. Every player has a high ceiling in the initial portion of drafts, meaning you have the most to gain by maximizing the floors of your selections. That’s the primary impetus behind the popularity of drafting elite quarterbacks; Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees & Co. have value in being so reliable from season to season.

Of course, you can’t seek consistency at all costs. Every draft pick comes with at the price of forgoing other selections, and drafting a quarterback early could leave you bare at other positions. Further, quarterback is a relatively deep position—you can find a Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo, or Matt Ryan in the middle rounds—whereas potentially elite running backs are much scarcer. The cost of obtaining the consistency of a player like Rodgers is passing on the scarcity of a running back like Doug Martin.

It sure would be nice if there were an elite quarterback who didn’t cost a first-round pick. One who has a track record of big-time fantasy success. One with play-makers at wide receiver and a talented defense to get him the ball. One with both the safety and upside of his more highly-coveted counterparts.

Oh, now wait. There’s a quarterback just like that getting drafted in the back of the second round, and his name is Peyton Manning. Surprised? So was I.

Using the custom QB Similarity Scores App, I calculated the upside and downside for the draft’s top four quarterbacks—Rodgers, Brees, Brady, and Manning—by charting the fantasy points scored by their top four and bottom four comparables, respectively, in each statistical category (minimum of six games played).

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In terms of upside, the quarterbacks are all grouped together pretty tightly. Rodgers has the advantage because of his rushing ability and age, while Brees is right behind him since he could very well become the first quarterback to throw 6,000 passes in one season. For the most part, though, there’s not a massive difference here. Now let’s take a look at the players’ floors. . .

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You can see that Manning’s bottom four comparables in each category have generated a floor that’s nearly two fantasy points per game higher than the comparables for Rodgers, Brees, and Brady. You could argue that Manning has the best offensive weapons of the bunch, and he posted 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns in his first year in Denver. There’s even more upside to be had as Manning’s comfort level with his teammates and new town grows.

Now let’s talk about the obvious perils. As Frank pointed out in his analysis of Matthew Stafford’s ADP, it’s not like one season of solid play completely erases all risks that Manning assumed entering the 2012 season. He’s still pretty fresh off of four neck surgeries, and at 37 years old, Manning is right on the edge of the historic quarterback production cliff.

As it is with any player, the question is if the risks outweigh the rewards. As I mentioned earlier, the risk is a late-second round pick—significantly better than the mid-first to early-second you’d have to spend on Rodgers, Brees, or Brady. Actually, Manning’s current ADP is at least eight spots behind each of the other three passers. Nonetheless, I’d argue Manning is nearly as safe as the trio.

To get a decent sense of the risk/reward surrounding each player, I added the ceiling and floor production—the average points per game for the top four comparables plus the average for the bottom four comparables in each statistical category.

1. Peyton Manning: 34.7

2. Aaron Rodgers: 34.5

3. Drew Brees: 34.0

4. Tom Brady: 32.0

Pretty good for a player getting selected just a few spots ahead of Robert Griffin III. It’s also worth noting that Manning was the only quarterback of the four that had all of his comparables play in the majority of games. While the average games played for the comparables of Rodgers, Brees, and Brady was between 13.7 and 13.9, Manning’s comparables participated in 15.2 games per season.

Ultimately, I think the QB Similarity Scores App paints a pretty picture for the veteran quarterback. There are of course concerns, but even considering Manning’s age and potential neck problems, his floor is at least similar to “The Big Three” first-round quarterbacks. If that’s the case, he’s quality value at his 20th overall ADP.

Further, if you can draft Manning in the back of the second round, you won’t have to worry as much about missing out on running back scarcity. With an elite runner in the first round and another top back in the third, you could legitimately be looking at a core of Arian Foster/Doug Martin, Peyton Manning, and Stevan Ridley/Matt Forte.

If Manning is able to make it through another 16-game season in 2013, you could potentially have your consistency cake and it eat it too.

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