More than ever the NFL is a quarterback's league, and while not all quarterbacks are equal when factors like consistency and quality of supporting cast are taken into account, a jump in the number of productive passers has made the practice of expending a midround pick on a backup QB completely unnecessary.
In 2010 there were a record 10 quarterbacks who threw for at least 4,000 yards, which amounts to 12% of all of the 4,000-yard passing seasons in league history. The vast majority of fantasy leagues comprise 10 or 12 teams, so with double-digit 4,000-yard passers available, the role of the fantasy backup has been marginalized. Who would bench a 4,000-yard man except due to an injury or a bye week?
Owners will still want to grab those stud backs and receivers first, but there aren't many that rate above a top QB. The proliferation of Wildcat offenses and running back committees has watered down the ranks of top-level rushers. This season, only nine of the 32 teams will employ a "traditional" system with a clear starter who'll receive the wide majority of the carries. The other 23 teams have created a middle class of players, many of whom have the talent to be fantasy first-rounders, but the uncertainty about their workload frequently scares off owners until later in the draft. And while there are still featured pass catchers, all 32 teams employ multiple sets of three, four and even five wideouts, distributing the throws that were once concentrated among two or three receivers.
Grabbing a top signal-caller as early as the end of the first round (say Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning) but no later than the third lets an owner concentrate on building depth at other positions. He can take the top available running back or wide receiver through the middle rounds while others are spending two picks getting a decent QB and a backup. With a little research, those with an ace passer in their back pocket can delay picking their second-stringer until the end of the draft, getting one who simply fits the role they have intended for him—filling in during the bye week.
This might seem to create a team susceptible to injury, but the same NFL rules that have been emphasized and interpreted to open up the passing game have also been created to protect the passer, making quarterbacks more durable than ever. In his two seasons since replacing Brett Favre in Green Bay, Rodgers, the No. 1 or 2 fantasy passer in nearly all evaluations, has not missed a game, and Brees and Manning have been equally durable. Such histories of good health make those players even more valuable.
For a real-world example, look at Week 10 (Nov. 11 through 15), when three of SI's top seven quarterbacks (Brees, Rodgers and Philip Rivers) have byes, creating high demand for a quality backup. While it would be great to fill that spot with Eli Manning or Carson Palmer, the seventh- or eighth-round pick needed to get either of them is better used on a productive running back with notable upside such as Jonathan Stewart, Matt Forte or Felix Jones. The smarter move is to pick up the lesser-valued passers with the best matchups for the week.
In Week 10, Mark Sanchez and the Jets face a Browns secondary that last year ranked 29th against the pass. As of Sunday, Sanchez's average draft position in NFL.com fantasy leagues was 138.3, which places him in the 14th round of a 10-team league. That's a cheap price tag for a guy who should produce a solid performance.
The following page lists SI's top 12 quarterbacks along with favorable backup options for each, depending on bye weeks and the relative security of the starter's job. All a fantasy player's decisions should be this easy.