While I suspect New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will end up winning the NFL's MVP award, he really didn't make the largest impact at his position for fantasy football owners. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick outscored Brady and every other signal caller in the league, and while the pessimist points out he didn't play every game -- for example, Week 17, as well as Weeks 5-7 -- that doesn't really diminish his importance. Every week that Vick played a full game, he gave you -- and the Eagles -- a terrific chance to win.
This was an odd season for fantasy quarterbacks, and not merely because the top fellow wasn't drafted in most leagues and had last been a relevant statistical provider in 2006. While Brady, Vick and shocking Tampa Bay Buccaneers sophomore Josh Freeman tossed precious few interceptions, quite a few big-name options struggled in this capacity, from league leader Eli Manning to Drew Brees and even Peyton Manning. If your league scoring really penalized picks, that was a problem. Some of the league's worst teams provided some of the surprise quarterback performances -- Kyle Orton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, backups in Detroit and Dallas -- and by December a rookie with a decorated college resume, not the one that went with the first overall pick, by the way, was supplying 20-plus fantasy points per week.
Let's take a look back -- and forward -- at the quarterback position and finish up with some rankings:
What went right: Brees and Aaron Rodgers were first-round picks in ESPN average live drafts, and while there were occasional hiccups -- Brees throwing to the other team, Rodgers missing a game and a half -- I don't think those owners can complain much. Rodgers played fewer games than Brady but still had more fantasy points. Despite having to do it with a different set of receivers almost every week, Philip Rivers led the league in passing and was on pace for a 5,000-yard season as late as Week 10. The Manning brothers were a bit less valuable than expected but hardly busts. Freeman broke out with one double-digit performance after another, and Ben Roethlisberger was a steady performer once his suspension ended. And if you relied on Matt Cassel, David Garrard and even Carson Palmer, you generally got more than you expected.
However, one could argue no team's quarterback play was as surprising as the 4-12 Denver Broncos. Orton reached 20 or more fantasy points in four consecutive weeks early in the season, and delivered 27- and 25-point outings just before the fantasy playoffs. Then, as we'd been predicting as a harbinger of doom much of the season, and to the great shock of angry Orton fantasy owners, he was replaced by rookie Tim Tebow. Normally, we flood fantasy owners with reasons to avoid rookie passers, but Tebow scored 22, 22 and 27 points the final three weeks. He looks pretty legit! For the season, Orton plus Tebow equaled 295 fantasy points, or the exact same number provided by Patriots quarterbacks Brady and Brian Hoyer.
What went wrong: Shall we start with the Brett Favre fiasco? Briefly, he went from top-five quarterback in 2009 to two double-digit fantasy games all of 2010, so it is quite the drop. Favre was the eighth quarterback off the draft board but early on it was apparent he couldn't be trusted, tossing 16 of his 19 interceptions through nine erratic games. It's hard to believe performance could fluctuate like that -- Favre was terrific in 2009 -- but let this be a reminder.
There were other disappointments. Defending league passing yards leader Matt Schaub delivered only three double-digit performances in the first eight games, and his owners flocked to other options. He ended up fine, though, ninth in scoring among passers. New York Jets sophomore Mark Sanchez was streaky and unreliable, with each of his worthy fantasy outings coming in three-week stretches (Weeks 2-4 and 9-11) but offering little else of value. St. Louis Rams rookie Sam Bradford nearly outscored Sanchez, but down the stretch he didn't help much. And quite a few teams had such awful quarterback play that fantasy owners just had to avoid them altogether, led by the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Owning Donovan McNabb, Chad Henne and whatever the Tennessee Titans threw out there wasn't such a picnic, either.
Five quarterback stats of the year:
1. Top scorer Vick was the most-owned player by playoff teams in ESPN standard leagues at 21.8 percent.
2. Vick was owned in 3.5 percent of leagues on opening weekend.
3. His eventual backup, Kevin Kolb, was a top-100 draft pick, selected 12th among quarterbacks.
4. Four qualified quarterbacks threw fewer than seven interceptions (Vick, Brady, Freeman, Roethlisberger); in 2009, no quarterbacks did.
5. Ten quarterbacks reached 4,000 passing yards in 2009; in 2010, only five did (the Mannings, Rivers, Brees, Schaub).
My top 10 for 2011:
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
2. Michael Vick, Eagles
3. Tom Brady, Patriots
4. Drew Brees, Saints
5. Peyton Manning, Colts
6. Philip Rivers, Chargers
7. Matt Schaub, Texans
8. Tony Romo, Cowboys
9. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
10. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
11. Matt Ryan, Falcons
12. Eli Manning, Giants
Just missed: Joe Flacco, Ravens; Jay Cutler, Bears; Tim Tebow, Broncos; Matt Cassel, Chiefs.
What will happen: While I'm tempted to predict great things for Tebow, Bradford, Matthew Stafford and others, the fact is there are easily more than 10 or 12 reliable quarterbacks, so minimizing risk is the wise course for most owners. Will Tebow, for example, net more fantasy points than Joe Flacco or Eli Manning in 2011? Perhaps he will, but there is certainly more risk with him than the proven veterans. Fantasy owners will likely overlook Tony Romo and Roethlisberger next season, since the first guy missed half the season and the other appears to have marginal stats. Romo remains near-elite and should recover well from his shoulder injury. He has terrific weapons, as well. Roethlisberger scored 201 fantasy points in 12 games; extrapolate his numbers and he would have finished with more fantasy points than Brees, sixth overall. So there was really no problem with him.
The quarterback position appears relatively deep for next season, so much so that I couldn't fit the younger Manning or Flacco in the top 10, nor Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons. I don't see any of that trio as being terribly high-upside, but a fantasy owner could obviously do worse. See how far they slip and pair them with a Tebow or Bradford and playing the matchups could be just as valuable as owning a Rivers or Romo.
Coming soon, running backs!