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Fantasy Football QB Tiers 2021: Quarterback rankings, draft strategy

Sporting News logo Sporting News 9/8/2021

When to draft quarterbacks in fantasy football is one the most difficult puzzles to solve. In single-QB leagues, quarterback obviously takes a backseat to flashier positions like RB and WR, but you still need to enter your draft with a sound strategy for tackling the position. If you aren't going to draft a top-tier QB, should you jump in during the next QB run or should you be patient and target a sleeper after that? Just how far down the rankings can you go and still feel comfortable with your starter?

To clarify, a QB run is when someone drafts a QB and others in your draft quickly follow suit, fearing they will miss out on a "good" option at the position if they don't join in.

Do not fall victim to the QB run early in your draft.

2021 STANDARD FANTASY RANKINGS:

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | D/ST | Kicker | Top 200

This season, three quarterbacks land in our top tier: Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, and Josh Allen. The first name in Tier 2 is Russell Wilson. The following is why tiers matter: If Mahomes, Murray, and Allen come off the board, some might panic and take the next-best quarterback when they're on the clock, but if you view Wilson as a notch below those top three -- and roughly the same as Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott -- you can wait a bit knowing one of those three should be there in a few rounds. Not understanding tiers leads to reaching on a quarterback, which is a good way to miss a lot of value at other positions. This scenario is extra consequential in the aforementioned single-QB leagues. Obviously, there's an appropriate time to start a QB run with the next tier of guys, but understanding the concept of tiers will help you get a feel for when that time comes. 

2021 PPR FANTASY RANKINGS:

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | D/ST | Kicker | Top 200

You also want to make sure you don't miss out completely on a QB run. If two guys from Tier 2 come off the board in a sequence a round or two after the top-tier QBs, then you know you should act if that's the tier you're targeting. If you drafted well at the other positions earlier in the draft, this is your ideal scenario.

2021 FANTASY SLEEPERS:

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | D/ST | Each team

If you miss out on the top two tiers at quarterback -- either on purpose or accidentally -- that's OK. Presumably, the rest of your roster is looking good at this point. Now it would be time to access tiers three and four, finding value in quarterbacks that your leaguemates have minimal interest in.

2021 FANTASY AUCTION VALUES (Standard & PPR):

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | D/ST | Kicker | Overall

A lot of the strategy in fantasy football involves being adaptable and feeling out how your fantasy draft is going. Each league and each draft is different. An understanding of tiers will help prevent reaching for and being fixated on certain players.

There are many strategies when it comes to the quarterback position, including: Take a Tier-1 stud, find value in the early-middle rounds, punt on QB and draft a sleeper late, or stream a different QB each week. This list of tiers will help prepare you for any of those strategies, whether you intend on implementing one of them or not.

DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2021 Cheat Sheet

References to ADP (average draft position) will be to standard leagues and courtesy of FantasyPros. In PPR leagues, quarterbacks fall a bit lower, since RBs, WRs, and TEs all see an increase in points that QBs cannot match. Remember, a QB being ranked ahead of another QB does not mean it's optimal to take the higher-ranked player at their ADP. Finding value when certain quarterbacks slip in the draft is key.

Below, we dive into the tiers and explain why the QBs are grouped together. 

2021 FANTASY TIERS & DRAFT STRATEGY:

Running back | Wide receiver | Tight endD/ST

2021 Fantasy QB Tiers: Who are the best fantasy football quarterbacks?

Tier 1:

1 Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

2 Kyler Murray, Cardinals

3 Josh Allen, Bills

Our first tier consists of the three guys who all have a fair argument for being ranked No. 1 in the overall QB rankings, and for good reason. What do these three all share in common? Young age, rushing upside, rocket arm, surrounded by elite talent, and top-notch fantasy showings in the past.

What will it cost you to grab one of these prized possessions? In standard, single-QB leagues, FantasyPros ADP has each taken within the top 31 picks, with Mahomes penciled in at the first pick of the second round (13.3 in 12-person leagues). So, by the same data, in order to draft Mahomes, you're surrendering guys like Stefon Diggs, Austin Ekeler, Najee Harris, and Joe Mixon, among others. That can be quite a pill to swallow. Drafting Mahomes in the second round guarantees you don't get two stud RBs or two stud WRs (or both). However, you now possess the safest and most reliable stud quarterback in fantasy. Everyone is well aware of his track record, and he has multiple seasons of evidence.

Around eight picks later, Josh Allen could come off the board any minute. Taking him at his ADP of around 22.8 will likely cost you Justin Jefferson, A.J. Brown or Calvin Ridley. Again, a frightening realization. Allen claimed the fantasy QB1 nod in 2020, but we have to remember it was only one season. He has a solid rushing floor, but if he slows down even a little there and maybe isn't quite as sharp through the air, his current ADP is a hefty price to pay.

Among our top-tier QBs, Kyler Murray feels like the best value at his current ADP (33.0). His ceiling is QB1 and his price still allows you to grab studs at the premier positions, depending on which spot you're picking in the draft. If you are among the top-seven picks, you are able to grab Murray after two RB/WR studs. Again, if you're set on drafting a top-tier quarterback, Murray is probably your best value. If you do land Mahomes, Murray, or Allen, chase late-round upside for your backup QB. These guys won't be taken out of your lineup except for bye weeks.

2021 FANTASY CONSISTENCY RATINGS:

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end

2021 Fantasy Rankings Tiers: Second-tier QBs

Tier 2:

4 Russell Wilson, Seahawks

5 Lamar Jackson, Ravens

6 Dak Prescott, Cowboys

Tier 2 presents a lot of value. Among the three guys in our second tier, each has an ADP after the fourth round. Again, that allows you to take three high-level players at other positions before even contemplating taking a quarterback. Of course, Wilson, Jackson, and Prescott could all wind up being first tier when it's all said and done. The tier-2 trio all possess outstanding rushing upside and have ceilings of QB1. The difference is the question marks that follow them.

Wilson looked like the front-runner for the MVP, and more important for our purposes, the fantasy QB1 after the first four games last year. However, he finished at QB6 after slowing down a bit. Looking forward, it can be expected that Wilson will begin to run less as he ages. After all, he did express his frustration with the amount of hits he has taken throughout his career. A slightly improved offensive line and a new OC in Seattle seems to signal more pass, less run. He will be a high-volume passer, but his new presumed rushing ceiling prevents us from listing him in the first tier. As a result, his ADP isn't cost prohibitive. He's coming off the board around pick 45 as the seventh quarterback selected. That screams value in a spot where the upper echelon of RBs and WRs are already off the board.

Jackson has a QB1 finish (2019) on his resume -- and a dang impressive one (six FPPG ahead of QB2), at that. However, he burned many fantasy owners in '20. Prior to that season, everyone banged the table for Jackson to go as high as the first round. If you were among those who took part in that, you didn't win your league (don't lie). Even with another 1,000-yard rushing season, he plummeted to QB10 last year. Defenses are coming around to stopping the rushing QB. In his QB1 season, he threw a touchdown on nearly one of every 10 passes he attempted. That's outright unsustainable. His heavy touchdown percentage tricked fantasy owners into thinking he was a shoe-in to replicate his historic fantasy season. His inaccuracy and low passing volume limits his ceiling moving forward in fantasy, but his second-to-none rushing ability keeps him near the top. His ADP of 40.0 is more reasonable, but if Jackson doesn't fall further than that, you should probably opt to pick up more skill position players and wait for a quarterback who can win in the air and on the ground.

Prescott is the last guy who we can realistically say has a shot at QB1. The Cowboys have stellar weaponry all over the offense, and their bad defense leads to a significant amount of passing attempts. At this point, his passing floor is 4,500 yards over a 17-game season, with a chance to join the 5,000-yard club. If his shattered ankle is fully recovered, you can expect a lot of red-zone rushing attempts. Honestly, in a fantasy setting, his game sees no weaknesses. It seems the ankle is the only thing that can hold him back, but it's tough to place a guy who had an ankle facing the wrong way nine months ago in the top tier. His ADP (41.5) ranks slightly below Jackson's. It's really a preference call there if you want one of the two, but you'll be missing the end of the top-10 WRs at this area in the draft if you go for them.

FANTASY DRAFT STRATEGY:

Snake Draft | Auction | Best Ball | Dynasty/Keeper | IDP

Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: When should you draft a QB?

Tier 3: 

7 Justin Herbert, Chargers

8 Ryan Tannehill, Titans

9 Matthew Stafford, Lions

10 Tom Brady, Buccaneers

11 Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Tier 3 sees a group of four veterans age 33 and older and a quickly rising sophomore. Stafford, Brady, and Rodgers are in highly efficient offenses with prolific passing numbers to make up for their lack of rushing yards. Tannehill and Herbert aren't necessarily considered weapons on the ground, but they do enough of it to elevate themselves into great options in fantasy football. Tier 3 signals the beginning of the end for ultrasafe quarterbacks. While all five seem rock solid, the guys in our Tier 3 rankings could all disappoint for their own reasons. That comes with the territory as we move down the list. 

Herbert has become a little too expensive for our liking. He's coming off the board just two spots after Dak Prescott according to ADP despite having less overall upside and weapons around him. It's unlikely he'll "fall" in your draft, which you means you either have to pay up or miss out. The latter seems like the better move in terms of value.

Somehow, someway, Tannehill finds himself in our third tier without a high-volume passing attack or insane rushing ceiling. The key is his efficiency. His APD is at 79.0 (QB10). You read that right, 79 -- the seventh round. You will have completed much of your starting lineup by then. If he's available around this point in the draft, he's a great "value" option. Aaron Rodgers is coming off the board an entire two rounds before him (53.3). Tom Brady's ADP sits at 71.0. We like Tannehill more in our rankings, and it's an easy call when you factor in ADP.

Stafford also screams value at his 86.5 ADP. There must be drafters out there that missed he's now in a Sean McVay offense with a lot of weapons and mediocre run game. Take advantage of that if he's still around.

Age is the main worry with Rodgers and Brady, who finished as the Nos. 3 and 8 fantasy QBs last year, respectively. It seems like both will play at high levels forever, but keep in mind both are just one year removed from finishing at Nos. 10 and 12, respectively. Obviously, Brady's situation is significantly different, but he was a mere 42 then as opposed to 44 like he is now. Rodgers averaged 27 total TDs in 2018-'19 before going off for 51 last year. It's likely he drifts back much closer to '18-'19 levels and merely be very good as opposed to great. 

All of these QBs are great starting options who could produce top-five numbers if everything breaks right, and considering you don't have to pay that level of price for any except maybe Herbert, they make for great targets in the early-middle rounds. 

MORE 2021 FANTASY RANKINGS:

Superflex Top 200 | Superflex Top 200 PPR | IDP | Rookies | O-lines

Fantasy QB Tiers: Best backup quarterbacks

Tier 4:

12 Jalen Hurts, Eagles

13 Joe Burrow, Bengals

14 Kirk Cousins, Vikings

15 Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars

16 Matt Ryan, Falcons

17 Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

Tier 4 is a mix of established pocket passers and a few exciting youngsters. Most of these guys will be drafted as backups in 12-team leagues, but at least one figures to be starting in fantasy leagues in Week 1.

Hurts has a wide range of outcomes. He could land in the top tier or be buried on the waiver wire by season's end. He's on an exclusive list of elite rushing quarterbacks with Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson, which would make him a safe play if he's the starter for the entire season. However, he's not a safe play because of the presumed lack of job security. The organization has failed to commit to Hurts as their bonafide franchise quarterback, largely because of the glaring inaccuracy issues he showed last year (52-percent completion percentage). For now, consider him a high-risk/high-reward player you should target if he falls past his current ADP of 83.0, but don't make it a point to reach fo himr. He's the perfect backup if you take someone like Stafford or Brady, but if you draft Hurts as your starter, draft one of the stable veterans in this tier shortly after

Burrow and Lawrence are in similar territories. Both are unproven at the NFL level, at least over the course of a full season, but have really solid pieces around them. Honestly, Lawrence's ADP of 106.3 (QB14) makes him an attractive value. In some leagues, he'll fall even further as many are reluctant to trust rookies. Just as a reminder, Andrew Luck had a QB10 fantasy season as a rookie, posting 4,400 yards, 23 touchdowns, 18 INTs, and five rushing touchdowns. It's not too difficult to imagine Lawrence exceeding those figures. He has a Tannehill-like rushing profile and is being selected in the AJ Dillon-ZacK Moss territory. Again, at the right value, he looks to be a solid pick. The same goes for Burrow, who is flush with weapons around him. He certainly has injury worries after tearing an ACL last year, but if he can stay in piece, he'll be a high-volume producer.

Since becoming a starter in 2015, Cousins has finished QB13 or higher in every season except one (2019). In three of those seasons, he finished among the top 10. However, this year, he's being drafted as the 21st quarterback (136.6 ADP) off the board. That's criminal. He could arguably be your full-time starter -- at only a 12th-round price (where Nyheim Hines and Jonnu Smith are being drafted). So far, he takes the crown as the best value. If you already took a QB, Cousins is more than worth a cheap backup, and you'll might have the chance to trade him high when other QBs disappoint. 

Ryan and Roethlisberger are set to be high-volume passers, but for different reasons. We've seen the kind of prolific numbers Ryan has produced in Atlanta, and once again, their defense is putrid. He's a very up and down fantasy player, but his explosive weeks place him comfortably in this tier even with Julio Jones in Tennessee.

Roethlisberger is a risky play at the position. We could see a performance reminiscent of 2020 Drew Brees (mostly washed up). Roethlisberger used to be closer to Tier 2, but his age has brought him down. Even with Najee Harris in the lineup, Pittsburgh's rushing attack will likely be weak again due to poor offensive line play, setting Roethlisberger up for a million pass attempts. As disastrous as Big Ben's '20 season might have seemed, he did finish as the QB14 and is being drafted this year in the QB23 range. Don't rely on him as your starter, but his value as a backup is undeniable given the weapons around him.

MORE 2021 FANTASY HELP:

Mock Draft Simulator | Position battles | Bye weeks | Best team names

Fantasy QB Rankings Tiers: Backups, bouncebacks, and sleepers

Tier 5:

18 Jameis Winston, Saints

19 Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins

20 Derek Carr, Raiders

21 Baker Mayfield, Browns

22 Justin Fields, Bears

23 Trey Lance, 49ers

24 Daniel Jones, Giants

25 Carson Wentz, Colts

Let's call Tier 5 the "decent upside at a discount" tier.

Winston already has a QB3 finish on his resume (2019) in a year when he threw 30 INTs. For that reason, he has the highest upside in this tier by a significant margin. If he's named the starter in New Orleans, his ADP (currently 186) will definitely see a huge uptick. If you're drafting before the Saints name a starter, he's cheap to take a gamble on. If Taysom Hill is named the starter, you drop Winston and pick up a different quarterback. It's really that simple.

Mayfield is currently the highest drafted player in this tier based on ADP (QB21 at around pick 121). He's probably not worth it. His passing numbers are limited due to the lack of passing volume. So, while you might consider him "underrated" because of his relative safety, the other guys on the list all possess more upside at a cheaper cost. Carson Wentz (foot) was going about three picks after Mayfield, but with half of his season in jeopardy because of a foot injury, he's obviously not someone who should be drafted. When he returns, he has this type of upside, but the Colts low-volume passing attack will limit his ceiling.

Next is Tagovailoa. coming off the board about 19 picks later than Mayfield. In this tier, we're looking for a solid second-string quarterback who possesses high upside. Tua fits the bill perfectly. His weaponry saw a huge upgrade in the offseason, and he has shown the ability to be mobile. His college production checks all the boxes, and his talent is undeniable. Miami wants to evaluate what they have in Tagovailoa over a full season, so expect him to get his fair share of attempts. We like his value at this point in the draft.

Derek Carr always hovers around 4,000 yards passing, but he hasn't been able to put on a great fantasy season. The hope is the Raiders passing attack finally all comes together. Carr is a notable backup, but he's more in the territory of a streamer.

If Jones doesn't produce this year, he's likely going to be out in New York. For the first time in his young career, he has plenty of firepower. In a 12-person league with 15 rounds, his ADP of 181 puts him as undrafted. His rushing ability gives him top-12 upside, so he's worth an extremely late flier, especially if you've already taken a Tier 1 or 2 QB.  

Fantasy QB Streamers and 2-QB Starters

Tier 6:

26 Teddy Bridgewater, Broncos

27 Zach Wilson, Jets

28 Mac Jones, Patriots

29 Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers

30 Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington

31 Jared Goff, Lions

32 Tyrod Taylor, Texans

33 Sam Darnold, Panthers

Tier 6 consists of several guys who have some early-season value but could be benched at some point in the season. Even if they're not, they're likely going to be on and off waiver wire all year.

Bridgewater and Jimmy G are slated to be Week 1 starters, but the writing is on the wall. Unless the 49ers try the Alex Smith/ Patrick Mahomes experiment, Trey Lance will enter the lineup at some point, obviously bringing Garoppolo to a whopping zero point total thereafter. Teddy Bridgewater was brought into Denver as insurance if Lock fails once again in 2021. Lock already has, but that doesn't mean Bridgewater is the "future" for the Broncos -- certainly not like Jones is for New England. See if you can find room to roster Lance or Lock if you're considering Jimmy G or Bridgewater.

We've seen time and time again what Fitzpatrick brings to the table. He's on his ninth team for a reason. But we also know he can have monster weeks early in the season. All of a sudden, Washington has solid weapons, so it wouldn't be too surprising to see him have a few explosive outings, but we know a three-INT game is right around the corner. Don't spend draft capital on him in single-QB leagues.

With Goff and Wilson, it would be surprising if they weren't the 17-game starters. The Lions are rebuilding and their wideout group is laughable. Wilson's Jets saw an upgrade at wideout in the offseason, but their offensive issues aren't going to go away overnight. They'll be in their lineups every week, though, and that has value in two-QB leagues on draft day.

Taylor and Newton are merely placeholders at the moment. Whether Taylor is replaced by Deshaun Watson or Davis Mills, he's not worth a draft pick. As long as Newton is the starter, he's at least worth monitoring for his high red-zone rushing usage. Both have upside because of their rushing abilities, but they're merely streamers and watchlist guys.

Darnold should look somewhat better in Carolina, but you aren't going to feel good pressing the draft button on him even with two solid receivers.

Fantasy QB Deep Sleepers

34 Andy Dalton, Bears

35 Drew Lock, Broncos

36 Taysom Hill, Saints

Dalton, Lock, and Hill will likely be decent backups/streamers if they're starting, but none are guaranteed to stay in the starter's role even if they have the jobs.

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