2021 Review: The Rise And Fall of The Dual-Threat QB
The 2021 season was a verifiable nightmare scenario for fantasy managers laser-focused on scooping up dual-threat quarterbacks.
Fantasy players who faded the league’s top rushing signal callers and failed to exploit our game’s most glaring scoring inefficiency were supposed to go to bed filled with angst, racked by FOMO-induced night terrors about rolling into the season without all the valuable rushing yards and touchdowns we saw from QBs during the surreal COVID season of 2020.
Missing out on the premiere dual-threat guys turned out not to be a fantasy death sentence.
2021 Review: The Dual Threats
Almost nothing went according to plan following the meteoric rise of the rushing QB in 2020: Lamar Jackson missed four games; Jalen Hurts’ ankle issue effectively stripped him of his rushing upside in the season’s final six weeks; Taysom Hill couldn’t beat out Jameis Winston for the Saints’ starting gig; Kyler Murray missed four games and was hampered by an ankle issue in other contests; Deshaun Watson (22 sexual harassment lawsuits) was inactive all season; Justin Fields and Trey Lance were relegated to clipboard duty for much of the season and/or criminally mismanaged by their coaches; Zach Wilson didn’t run nearly as much as many (me) believed he would; and Russell Wilson, in part due to injury, logged the fewest rushing attempts of his ten years in Seattle.
Josh Allen, with a career-high 122 rushes for 763 yards and six touchdowns, was the lone bright spot for QB rushing truthers in 2021.
Those setbacks plus the league’s emphasis on calling holding penalties at any and every opportunity plus some natural touchdown regression led to 40 fewer quarterback rushing scores from 2020 to 2021. That’s 240 fantasy points on touchdowns alone. That’s a lot, per the analytics.
It wasn’t just touchdowns that fell off for the NFL’s dual-threats. Rush attempts and rushing yardage also dipped in 2021.
The Hurts ankle injury -- which came in Week 12 against the Giants -- ruined what could have been a massive end-of-season rushing line for the Eagles quarterback. He was fantasy’s top-scoring quarterback headed into Week 12, about ten points clear of Tom Brady, averaging 10.37 rushes and 56.18 rushing yards per game in the extremely run-heavy Philadelphia offense. From Week 12-18, Hurts notched a far more meager 6.25 runs and 41.5 yards per contest. Hurts logged a mere nine total rushes in his final two regular season games. His upside was destroyed, and his chance to be fantasy’s top-scoring player was no more; he couldn’t possibly compensate for the loss of rushing production in an offense that passed it as seldom as possible. A league-winning campaign was derailed. Also -- and this shouldn’t be forgotten when we’re prepping for the 2022 season -- Hurts was spectacularly unlucky with a 3.7 percent passing touchdown rate, 24th among qualifying QBs. He threw a touchdown on 4.2 percent of his attempts in four 2020 contests.
Jackson’s rushing, meanwhile, saw a slight drop off in 2021. He averaged 11.08 rushing attempts in his 12 starts, down from his career average of 12.55 rushes per contest. Considering Baltimore’s shift to a more balanced offense in 2021 -- the Ravens’ pass rate jumped from 45 percent in 2020 to 56 percent in 2021 -- Jackson’s small rushing drop-off was encouraging. He was the team’s primary rusher in 2021; perhaps that changes if the Ravens don’t have the running back injury Armageddon they faced last summer. Missed game action and more passing in the red zone led to fewer rushing chances near the paint for Jackson: After logging 16 rushes inside the ten yard line in 2020, he had just seven in 2021. Baltimore’s lack of a legit back led to a career-high six Jackson carries inside the five yard line. Jackson’s touchdown rate, meanwhile, continued its precipitous decline last season. After his ridiculous 9 percent TD rate in 2019, Jackson had a 6.9 percent rate in 2020 and a 4.2 percent rate in 2021 -- Teddy Bridgewater and Baker Mayfield territory. He could be in line for TD rate bounce back, however minor, in 2022.
A 2021 season that started with Murray as an elite fantasy producer fizzled out after a Week 8 ankle injury that proved far more serious than initially believed. His rushing attempts dropped by more than two per game compared to 2020, and his running touchdowns plunged from 11 in 2020 to five in 2021. Noticeably slower and less willing to flee the pocket upon return from the ankle injury, Murray was often chased down by defenders who would normally have no chance of keeping up with the fleet-footed QB. Horrifyingly enough, Murray managed just two rushing scores in his final 11 starts of the season. The barely-visible silver lining: Murray averaged 0.79 rushing attempts per game inside the ten yard line in 2021, in line with his 2020 numbers. Amid all the talk of Murray wanting to be a pocket passer, the Cardinals remained keen on using his mobility where it counts the most.
If Kyle Shanahan can stomach a true commitment to Trey Lance -- who should take over as the Niners QB after Jimmy Garoppolo sinks some other team in free agency -- the sophomore should have all the rushing upside your degenerate heart could hope for. In two 2021 starts, Lance logged an eye-popping 24 rushes. Shanny called a design run for Lance on 31.77 percent of his rookie year snaps. It doesn’t matter all that much that he averaged a lowly 4.42 yards per carry or that he converted a single rushing score all season -- it’s opportunity we’re seeking, and it should be there even if Shanahan talks a good game this summer about needing a quarterback who’s comfortable as a pocket passer. Lance will run. Lest we forget he ran for 1,110 yards and 14 touchdowns in his final college season.
That Matt Nagy devised game plans as if Justin Fields were Vinny Testaverde should be expunged from the fantasy manager’s mind this offseason. A laughable 10.5 percent of the rookie’s snaps were designed runs, a lower rate than Trevor Lawrence. When Fields ran the ball, he was good, as you might expect for an elite athlete who can outrun anyone on the field at any moment. In five games where Fields rushed at least eight times, he averaged 58.2 yards, an average largely helped by a 103-yard Week 8 performance against the 49ers. Fields racked up 14 rushes of more than ten yards in his 12 games, more than every QB besides Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Jalen Hurts. Hopefully the Bears’ new coaching staff will recognize their quarterback isn’t a plumber in 2022.
2021 Review: The Pocket Passers
Eight of fantasy football’s top-12 quarterbacks in 2021 were more or less traditional dropback pocket passers. Statues named Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford ended up as top-five options. Derek Carr was the QB11. Aaron Rodgers had fewer rushes (33) than any other full season in his lengthy career and scored more fantasy points than all but six quarterbacks.
It was all very tilting for those of us who summarily dismissed the pocket passer as a dinosaur unworthy of our attention and draft capital. These QBs, of course, rely on passing touchdowns to keep pace with the guys piling up rushing yards and touchdowns. Below is a look at pocket passers’ 2021 touchdown rates and how they compare to career numbers.
And now a quick look at QBs with the highest 2021 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), a stat measuring the average yardage of a quarterback’s pass attempts while accounting for touchdowns and interceptions. It’s a solid measure of a passer’s overall performance.
It’s clear that the 2021 parity between rushing QBs and pocket passers was largely generated by inflated touchdowns rates among passers in the league’s most productive offenses. Stafford landing in LA catapulted him back into elite touchdown passing territory (and the second-highest AY/A of his career) after years of wildly low TD rates in Detroit; Prescott’s late-season TD surge compensated for some mid-season issues; Brady continued piling up touchdowns in the Bucs’ pass-first-pass-always offense; and Joe Burrow’s had a nuclear December, with 11 touchdown tosses over his final four games.
Not pictured above: Patrick Mahomes’ AY/A falling off the face of the flat earth. His 2021 AY/A -- as Kansas City flailed away, trying to combat two deep safeties -- plummeted to 7.6, down from 8.9 in 2020 and his career high mark of 9.6 in 2018. Mahomes’ air yards per attempt of 7.3 -- 25th in the league, tied with Davis Mills and trailing Taylor Heinicke -- represented a massive drop off from the once-high flying KC offense. Mahomes from 2018-2020 was seventh in air yards per attempt before teams forced the Chiefs to plot their way downfield the hard way. You won’t be shocked to learn Mahomes’ average depth of target also fell off in what was a disastrous 2021 for anyone who spent mid-round draft capital on the KC quarterback. The formula for defending Kansas City’s passing offense unveiled for all to copy, the mega-upside of pre-2021 Mahomes may never return, though he should be buoyed by an offense with the league’s highest pass rate over expected.
Rodgers continued his machine-like ways in 2021, slicing and dicing all comers. His astounding 7 percent touchdowns rate was only the fifth highest of his 17-year career in Green Bay. What he did this season is very much repeatable, and with the Packers ready and willing to move heaven and/or earth to keep Rodgers and Davante Adams on the roster, there’s little reason to think Rodgers won’t be among the most dependable fantasy quarterbacks in 2022. The Packers will continue with their offensive plan of having Rodgers and Adams play catch for 60 minutes. Don’t immunize yourself against drafting the polarizing quarterback next summer.
Burrow, thanks to his burgeoning national profile, his mind-bending performances during the 2021 fantasy football playoffs, and his boyish good looks and attention-seeking outfits, will likely be the most overdrafted QB in 2022. I, for one, am old enough to remember Burrow barely being a top-12 fantasy quarterback ten weeks into the 2021 season. The Bengals were sticking to their bold balanced-offense-at-any-cost approach, with a pass rate of just 57 percent, the 18th highest in the NFL, headed into Week 11. From there, Zac Taylor unchained Burrow and Cincinnati was the second pass-heaviest offense in the league, trailing only Tampa. His return from a catastrophic rookie season knee injury led to fewer rushing opportunities: Burrow’s runs per game dropped from 3.9 in 2020 to 2.5 in 2021. While Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins should provide a stable touchdown floor for Burrow, I would be wary of drafting the fashionista expecting he can repeat his downright silly late-season production. Of course, his 2021 league-leading completion percentage over expected could be a harbinger for me furiously eating my words.
In the Rams offense, with excellent weapons surrounding him, Stafford should have a high touchdown floor year in and year out. Anyone who questioned whether Stafford was a major upgrade over Jared Goff should feel bad about themselves. LA had the eighth highest expected points added (EPA) per play in 2021; they were 23rd in EPA in 2020. He might be boring without a shred of rushing appeal, but Stafford should be a reliable fantasy producer in 2022.
Probably Herbert hasn’t so much as sniffed his fantasy potential. In 2021, he bested his excellent 5.2 percent rookie season touchdown rate and his 2020 AY/A of 7.3 while guiding a Chargers offense that finished fifth in EPA per play and seventh in EPA per dropback. The Bolts’ offense has been an efficiency machine in Herbert’s first two years. It doesn’t hurt that the Chargers once again were near the top of the league in offensive snaps per game. A little more rushing from Herbert -- hardly a slouch as an athlete -- and we might get a nuclear fantasy season in 2022. He averaged 3.7 rushing attempts per game in 2021, a tick higher than his 3.6 rushes per game in 2020. Pro Football Focus graded Herbert as the league’s sixth-best running QB. Brandon Staley should consider using his guy on the ground more next season, per the analytics.
Cousins is infuriating on every level. Like Garoppolo, he shines in nearly every peripheral statistic while managing to play incomprehensibly bad football from time to time. Last season, he had beauties like his Week 11 domination of Green Bay’s secondary, and hideous outings like his 87-yard stinker in Week 15 against Chicago. He again was among the league leaders in AY/A and touchdown rate with Justin Jefferson making Cousins too big to fail. Perhaps McVay disciple Kevin O’Connell can get Cousins to improvise a little more (and better) in 2022, unlocking a high-ceiling fantasy campaign in the process. Or maybe Cousins is who he is.
Russell Wilson’s 2021 … wasn’t terrible? It wasn’t even bad by many measurements. I know, it makes no sense in a season that saw Wilson largely fall out of fantasy relevance for the first time since his rookie season in the run-first Seattle offense (he was QB13 in fantasy points per game). Wilson’s touchdown rate was right around his career mark, as was his completion rate and AY/A. He led the league with a 10.4 average depth of target. A mere four QBs had a higher completion rate over expected than Wilson in 2021, and no signal caller had a higher air yards per attempt. His depressingly inefficient performances after rushing back from a serious finger injury dragged down his season-long numbers enough for fantasy managers to consider Wilson a 2022 afterthought. A change of scenery -- we can hope it’s an offense that tries to score points -- could vault Russ back into the every-week starter conversation in 12-team leagues. It should be noted that no team ran fewer offensive plays per game (56.1) than the Seahawks in 2021. Wilson’s aforementioned lack of rushing attempts as he heads into his age-33 season should hold him back from top-tier status though.
2022: The QB Discourse Will Change
There will be discourse next summer imploring fantasy managers not to be enamored with dual-threat QBs who can blow off the proverbial roof with rushing yards and touchdowns. It didn’t work in 2021, the argument will go. You can get by with a boring dropback passer who couldn’t run for ten yards if his life hung in the balance. What this ignores is the wretched 2021 fortune of dual-threat signal callers and the mouth-watering appeal of a return to 2020 rushing quarterback production, or something close to it.
The ascendence of Fields and Lance, healthier seasons for Murray, Jackson, and Hurts, a new team for Watson, the addition of potential Konami Code King Malik Willis, and the possibility of starting gigs for guys like Marcus Mariota and Taysom Hill, should provide fantasy managers with more dual-threat quarterbacks than ever.
Everything went right for mobile quarterbacks in 2020. Everything went wrong in 2021. I will welcome widespread hesitance in 2022 fantasy drafts to go in on the game’s top rushing signal callers, whose range of outcomes includes the kind of ceilings that can compensate for major holes in your fantasy roster and can deliver week-winning performances any time they step on the field.