Posted: Wednesday August 3, 2011 12:03PM ; Updated: Friday August 5, 2011 3:20PM
Eric Mack
Eric Mack>INSIDE FANTASY FOOTBALL

Fantasy 2011 quarterback rankings

Story Highlights

Solid running attack, WRs could make Matt Ryan an elite fantasy QB this season

Josh Freeman is likely to struggle to improve against more difficult schedule

Addition of Roy Williams should help Jay Cutler remain solid fantasy option

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Last season Matt Ryan threw for 3,705 yards, 28 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.
Last season Matt Ryan threw for 3,705 yards, 28 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI

Drafting a quarterback won't be the first, second or even third thing you do on draft day. It will be the most important thing you do, though.

Running backs always dominate the early rounds, and some fantasy owners love the diva receivers, but it is often too easy to forget: The highest-scoring player on your fantasy team is going to be your quarterback.

Funny, because the real NFL is determined by the quarterback and we still can forget it in fantasy. Elite quarterbacks win Super Bowls ... and fantasy leagues.

It doesn't mean you should draft your quarterback first, but you should model your entire draft approach around where you want to pick your passer. Decide on your target and draft accordingly.

Here are a few approaches:

1. Hitch your wagon to a stud

If you're one of the few owners thinking of taking a QB in Round 1, take one that won't go down. That makes your pick Tom Brady over Aaron Rodgers (injured last season), over Peyton Manning (coming off neck surgery), over Drew Brees (played with a torn meniscus last year) and, yes even this guy, Michael Vick.

Vick might be the most exciting QB in the league -- maybe even the most promising one in fantasy -- but the way he plays makes it almost certain he is going to miss games. Heck, it even makes his recently signed backup Vince Young an intriguing late-round pick. Young is going to have to start games for the Eagles. Bank on that.

CARROLL: Factoring health in QB ratings

But picking your QB in the first or second round makes it likely you want to use that player every week, regardless of the matchup. You might not even need to pick a backup, just pick one up on that player's bye week. Doing that gives you roster flexibility other fantasy owners don't have. You can load up on running back and receiver fliers -- two positions where the depth is far more useful.

2. Wait, wait and then pounce

While QBs score the most points, most of the starter-quality options score a lot of points together. Six QBs scored more points than all other players at any other position.

So, perhaps your approach will be to draft two -- not one -- of the fantasy-starter quality options and play the matchups. You can maximize your scoring totals week to week, even if you aren't using your first eight rounds of players to fill out starters at QB-RB-WR-TE-FLEX.

Your starting quarterback is always going to impact your team's scoring in a standard league more than anyone but your top running back or receiver. You want to be sure to be covered at the position, even if the RB pool tends to get thinner after the early rounds.

If you draft your quarterback in Rounds 6-9, you can get two potential breakouts. A Matt Ryan-Ben Roethlisberger platoon could make your fantasy team a tough matchup every week.

3. Stud, stud, QB

If you don't decide to use either of the above strategies, the only other way to go is skip the elite tier, draft a few rounds of stars at RB-WR and then get a Tier II or III option. No fantasy team can afford to get shut out at the highest-scoring position.

Michael Vick was a rare case a year ago. Josh Freeman was, too. Big-time fantasy QBs just don't come out of nowhere. There is a very good reason NFL teams waste draft pick after draft pick trying to find their future signal-caller, which was especially apparent in this past draft.

4. You cannot wait to find your QB.

If your wind up being the last owner in your league to draft your signal-caller, you need a lot of things to go right to compete. First, you need all your early-round picks to stay healthy (not easy with RBs) and consistent (tough for top WRs). Then, you need your QB starter to play better than some of those picked many rounds ahead.

Again, it's not impossible to find a Vick-like surprise at the position, but it is improbable.

And, for auction leagues ...

There is a huge difference between drafting QBs and buying them in fantasy auctions. The premium options go for top dollar and everyone else goes for pennies.

This makes the waiting strategy (No. 2) the best. You can lock up two fantasy-starter quality passers (top three tiers) for a total of just $5-$10 of your budget. If you cannot believe that, you likely have never really participated or analyzed a fantasy football auction.

Breakouts

Matt Ryan, Falcons -- Yes, he is already good, but he won't be drafted in the top six in most leagues and might provide more value relative to draft position than anyone not named Brady. Roddy White is a star, the Falcons are an elite contender with a great running game and Julio Jones is getting buzz in training camp. Ryan is well-positioned to take the Rodgers/Rivers step into fantasy elite-dom.

Eli Manning, Giants -- If he can cut his turnovers in half -- with that receiving corps -- he could be a candidate to enter the elite among fantasy passers. Hakeem Nicks is ready to take a huge step as a third-year WR and Mario Manningham has become a very good No. 2. If Manning didn't lead the league in turnovers a year ago, he would already be an elite-tier fantasy option. Instead, he is going to get picked among the last starters at the position.

Busts

Tony Romo, Cowboys -- It depends on what your league thinks of him, but if Romo is drafted among the first or second tiers, you're likely to be disappointed. He is a fantasy starter, just not an elite one. He hasn't been that but one year (2007), when Terrell Owens was crying, "That's my quarterback!"

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers -- He enjoyed a breakthrough season a year ago, but a tougher contender's schedule should make it difficult to duplicate statistically. It should be noted he only passed for more than two TDs once (shredding the Seahawks late with five). He is more of a 1-to-2 TDs QB. That makes him merely a fantasy backup. He is going to be mistakenly picked as a starter in many leagues, because his breakthrough 2010 offers false hope of more improvement. This will be a year of regression, no matter what you think of Freeman long term.

Sleepers

Jay Cutler, Bears -- You are going to giggle at this one, but you should love when perception exceeds reality in dragging down a fantasy pick's value. Cutler is still a threat to become one of the best QBs in the NFL statistically. He has already done plenty with little in Chicago and now gets a big target in Roy Williams via free agency. Don't be one of those giggling again. Picking Cutler will help you be the one giggling come the holidays.

Tim Tebow, Broncos/Vince Young, Eagles -- If Cutler is the lone starting NFL QB to be drafted as a fantasy backup to perform like a fantasy starter, Tebow and Young are the true NFL backups who could perform like elite starters come midseason. Neither entered training camp as a starter, but their talent and rushing ability could make them this year's potential Vick surprise. Don't draft Tebow as if he is a starter, but if you get either of these diamonds in the rough late, they can really take off when -- not if -- they get snaps and starts.

Quarterback tiers

The options are many. Let's sort through the shopping list.

Rank The Game-Changers Team Tier
1 Tom Brady Patriots 1
2 Aaron Rodgers Packers 1
3 Peyton Manning Colts 1
4 Drew Brees Saints 1
5 Michael Vick Eagles 1
Rank Other Must-Starters Team Tier
6 Philip Rivers Chargers 2
7 Matt Ryan Falcons 2
8 Matt Schaub Texans 2
Rank Fall-Back Starters Team Tier
9 Eli Manning Giants 3
10 Tony Romo Cowboys 3
11 Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 3
12 Joe Flacco Ravens 3
13 Jay Cutler Bears 3
Rank Wild Cards Team Tier
14 Josh Freeman Buccaneers 4
15 Matt Cassel Chiefs 4
16 Kevin Kolb Cardinals 4
Rank In Development Team Tier
17 Matthew Stafford Lions 5
18 Sam Bradford Rams 5
19 Tim Tebow Broncos 5
20 Mark Sanchez Jets 5
Rank Fantasy Backups Team Tier
21 Donovan McNabb Vikings 6
22 Kyle Orton Broncos 6
23 Ryan Fitzpatrick Bills 6
24 Matt Hasselbeck Titans 6
25 Chad Henne Dolphins 6
26 David Garrard Jaguars 6
27 Colt McCoy Browns 6
28 Alex Smith 49ers 6
Rank Marginal Options Team Tier
29 Tarvaris Jackson Seahawks 7
30 Cam Newton Panthers 7
31 Jason Campbell Raiders 7
32 John Beck Redskins 7
33 Andy Dalton Bengals 7
34 Vince Young Eagles 7
Rank Untouchables Team Tier
35 Rex Grossman Redskins 8
36 Blaine Gabbert Jaguars 8
37 Jake Locker Titans 8
38 Christian Ponder Vikings 8
39 Carson Palmer Bengals 8
40 Charlie Whitehurst Seahawks 8

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy.

ORDER NOW: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Available in mid-August.

 
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