We made it, people. Draft strategy has dominated our fantasy football thoughts for months, but the 2017 regular season is finally upon us. It’s time to put our best laid plans to work and see how good our rosters really are. The stress tests begin here with the Week 1 Rankings.
If you followed my rankings last season, you might expect to find a link to the Game Flowbotics spreadsheet below. Unfortunately, the driving force behind Flowbotics, Football Outsiders’ DVOA, won’t be available to us until after the first week of games. Without DVOA, I’ve leaned more heavily on my preseason analysis and the Vegas betting lines to gauge player values relative to their matchups.
You’ll find my Week 1 rankings at the bottom of this article. Just use CTRL+F or an equivalent and search for “Positional Rankings” to jump ahead. For the space between, please indulge me while I squeeze in one last piece of 2016 hindsight analysis.
The Case for Ben Roethlisberger and Why His Home/Road Splits are Overblown
Ben Roethlisberger is notorious for his home-road splits. The dude largely hasn’t performed well away from Pittsburgh over the past few years, but I’m here to tell you that doesn’t matter. Roethlisberger remains a valuable fantasy quarterback, and he is currently undervalued because drafters can’t deal with the stigma of his struggles on the road.
Let’s begin by breaking all the rules of fantasy analysis. That’s right, it’s time for anecdotal explanations based on small samples sizes. If you haven’t already covered your eyes and run away screaming, thanks for keeping an open mind. I won’t blame you for aggressively scrolling through this section to find the more data-driven analysis below (Pro tip: search for “Beyond Ben” and you’ll get there even faster), but I urge you to stick around and see if I can sell you my case without a ton of context.
You see, I was curious about Big Ben’s home-road splits last season. He already had a track record of discrepancy between home and away games, and the trend seemed to bear out for the most part through his 2016 campaign. He posted at least 17 fantasy points in all the home games he played and finished with single-digit points in four-of-eight road contests.
But something didn’t sit right with me. Looking at the weekly matchups for my rankings and Game Flowbotics articles, I found myself able to explain away a lot of the duds Roethlisberger posted on the road, and he had plenty of quality weeks away from home as well. Take a look at his game-by-game road results in 2016:
|Week||Opp||Comp||Att||Pct||Yds||Yds/Att||TD||Int||QB Rating||Att||Yds||Yds/Att||TD||Fantasy Points|
Now let’s quick-hit each of these performances and try to construct narrative explanations.
Week 1 at Washington
Washington was a choice matchup for fantasy quarterbacks last year, and this game was all about their terrible defense. The Steelers marched up and down the field at will, and Roethlisberger had no problem posting a QB9 finish on the road.
Week 3 at Philadelphia
Entering Week 3, Philly had only beaten Cleveland and Chicago, and I expect Roethlisberger and the Steelers took the contest too lightly. In that sense, the road-struggles shoe fits, but let’s give the Eagles some credit. Their defense was much better at home than on the road in 2016, especially early in the season. They didn’t give up more than 15 points at home until Week 12 against Green Bay. Over the entire season, Philadelphia gave up an average of 15.5 points per game at home versus 25.9 points per game on the road. Perhaps this was simply a bad matchup for Big Ben.
Week 6 at Miami
Jay Ajayi went nuclear in this tilt. He rushed 25 times for 204 yards, and the Steelers’ time of possession was a paltry 23 minutes and 30 seconds.
Week 9 at Baltimore
I’ll admit Roethlisberger played poorly for most of this game, but the 21-0 deficit he faced into the final quarter created a script where he threw a ton in comeback mode. His fantasy day was salvaged with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, one through the air and one on the ground.
Week 11 at Cleveland
This was a blowout against a bad team. Roethlisberger didn’t need to do much because Le’Veon Bell touched the ball 36 times and the Browns offense couldn’t keep up on the scoreboard.
Week 12 at Indianapolis
Roethlisberger duplicated his efficient performance against Washington here against Indy’s awful defense. This could have gone the way of the Cleveland game, but he threw three touchdowns on only 20 attempts.
Week 14 at Buffalo
Another admittedly poor outing for Big Ben, but this game ultimately did go the way of the Cleveland game. Bell had 42 touches against Buffalo’s shoddy stoppers. The game looks closer in the box score than it was in reality thanks to a pair of garbage time touchdowns from the Bills.
Week 15 at Cincinnati
Cold-weather games late in the season are often bizarre, and this was no exception. Both teams played extremely conservatively, with eight combined field goals accounting for 55 percent of the game’s points. Roethlisberger was largely held in check, but he delivered when it counted, connecting with Eli Rogers for the game-winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
All in all, we see a mixed bag of results from Roethlisberger on the road. He fared well in most of the good matchups. In the two where he didn’t (Cleveland & Buffalo), it seems he was the victim of game planning. Le’Veon Bell’s usage in those contests was extreme, to the point where the run-heavy scheme was likely by design. The Steelers understand Big Ben’s health concerns better than anyone, so when they face teams with bad rushing defense like the Browns and Bills, it makes sense to protect their quarterback from harm by taking the ball out of his hands and emphasizing the running game. Keep an eye out for similar pitfalls in 2017.
Beyond fantasy point production, the table above shows plenty of red flags for Roethlisberger away from Heinz Field. He only avoided interceptions in three road games, twice against bad defenses (CLE, IND) and once when Pittsburgh played ultra-conservative (CIN). Other struggles can be seen for Big Ben in completion percentage, quarterback rating, and yards per attempt. He couldn’t consistently perform by any of those measures on the road, but we have evidence of him succeeding in certain scenarios against mediocre and bad defenses.
Statistical Splits Beyond Ben
So yes, the home-road splits are real to some extent, but they’re not a total death sentence to Roethlisberger’s fantasy appeal. First, consider how incredible he is in home games.
Among active quarterbacks, only Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers averaged more fantasy points per game at home than Ben Roethlisberger between 2013 and 2016. Only Brees has thrown for more yards per game at home than Big Ben in that same span. Roethlisberger’s road numbers don’t look great comparatively, but only because his home numbers are so prolific in the first place.
Next, remember that most players fare worse on the road, Brees and Rodgers included. I used the Rotoviz Game Splits App to put together this spreadsheet with home-road splits for 2017’s top 16 quarterbacks according to ADP.
You’re doing yourself a disservice if you only use the splits for fantasy points per game to render your verdict on Roethlisberger. Yes, he has the largest points per game gap among top-16 quarterbacks, mostly because he’s far and away the worst among this group in pass TDs per game on the road (1.23). But we know touchdowns are fickle. You can point to the four-year sample size and attempt to explain away TD variance, but remember his value of 1.23 TDs per game only applies to half the four-year sample. Two season’s worth of games (with some missed to injury in Ben’s case) is still small enough to include some random touchdown fluctuation.
If you don’t regard my narrative case above as a valid explanation of how that TD fluctuation might occur, look at Ben’s efficiency statistics on the road and compare them to other passers at the top of ADP.
He has a road completion rate since 2013 (64.64%) better than 11 of the top 16 guys, including Aaron Rodgers (63.04%), Tom Brady (62.51%), and Andrew Luck (60.67%). Roethlisberger’s yards per attempt on the road since 2013 (7.34) is better than Rodgers’ (7.26), Brees’ (7.25), Luck’s (7.25), Matthew Stafford’s (6.82), and Cam Newton’s (6.73).
Ben Roethlisberger’s disparate splits boil down to his troubles scoring touchdowns on the road and not much else. With a full season of Le’Veon Bell, the return of Martavis Bryant, and new potential touchdown threats in Vance McDonald & JuJu Smith-Schuster, Big Ben is set up for more red zone success across the board. Get ready for him to smash the perception of his bum-on-the-road persona, starting with his Week 1 contest in Cleveland. You’ll find him at QB5 in my rankings below, two spots ahead of FantasyPros’ expert consensus ranking.