Free Agency Fallout: Unclaimed Opportunities
Pat Thorman takes a look around the league at post-free agency fantasy opportunities.
Free Agency Fallout: Unclaimed Opportunities
Now that a majority of the free agent frenzy has subsided, a peek at the aftermath reveals more existing fantasy value having been destroyed than new value created. “Good real football move, but bad for fantasy” has been a frustratingly common refrain.
Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Torrey Smith, Jeremy Maclin, and DeMarco Murray, among other fantasy mainstays, changed addresses and saw their expectations adjusted downward. That’s in addition to smaller moves that muddy already murky situations, like Shane Vereen, Roy Helu, and C.J. Spiller being inserted into the Giants, Raiders, and Saints backfields, respectively.
But when one door closes, another one leaves behind unaccounted for rushing attempts and passing targets. Or something like that.
Below we’ll highlight 10 offenses with a noteworthy amount of opportunities available, and discuss which players are favorites to seize them. With free agent signings still trickling in and the NFL Draft on the horizon, these snapshots are obviously just coming into focus. But identifying market inefficiencies and overheated narratives can be useful for dynasty leaguers and those that draft year-round.
Miami Dolphins (-82 Handoffs and -324 Targets)
Jarvis Landry averaged 6.8 catches after midseason, compared to 3.8 in his first eight games, and he’ll pick up a healthy chunk of the departed 324 targets. Jordan “If Healthy” Cameron will absorb Charles Clay’s 81 looks, and Kenny Stills can handle Mike Wallace’s 108 targets. That still leaves plenty of opportunity up for grabs, and Miami isn’t done adding pass catchers. But Rishard Matthews flashed in 2013 and the Dolphins wouldn’t let him go recently when he asked out, which is an oddly positive sign. Damien Williams may be the real gem here, even with Lamar Miller getting more put on his plate. Fantasy succubus Daniel Thomas is finally gone, and Williams should be owned in all dynasty leagues with even moderately-sized rosters.
Indianapolis Colts (-248 Handoffs and -257 Targets)
The Colts stable of skill position players looks impressive before examining their new (old) warhorses, and several remaining roster needs. Andre Johnson will be 34 years old by kickoff, and Frank Gore is almost 32. Johnson’s passing game grade (-0.4) saw him ranked 40th of 78 qualifying wideouts, and it tailed off after midseason. Gore graded 26th-best out of 57 running backs (-0.8) but slipped to 46th from Week 7 on. They’ll eat a good chunk of the departed opportunities to start the season, but not all of them. How long they hold up is the question, and doubling-down on unusual longevity (Gore) or ignoring obvious decline (Johnson) is foolish. Donte Moncrief is being discounted and Dan Herron forgotten.
Dallas Cowboys (-397 Handoffs and -74 Targets)
The unaccounted for targets are essentially all Murray’s (62) and will be distributed among several running backs, including a rookie. Lance Dunbar, who made the most of 20 targets last year (18 catches, 217 yards), could assume the role that had Fantasyland intrigued last offseason. Targets will be up in general without a true workhorse in the backfield. The uber-efficient Tony Romo had the 23rd-most attempts but ranked third in fantasy points per dropback. Dallas had three wideouts place in the top-25 in fantasy points per target, and Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley would be viable with an even modest opportunity bump. Bet on a sizeable chunk of those departed handoffs turning into targets.
Baltimore Ravens (-96 Handoffs and -182 Targets)
With Marc Trestman taking his offensive talents to Baltimore, the big question is who will be the main beneficiaries? Other than soon-to-be 36-year-old Steve Smith, who’s a stretch to duplicate last season’s 130 targets, uncertainty abounds. Justin Forsett’s overall workload is probably maxed-out, even assuming an uptick in targets. Good luck predicting Dennis Pitta’s health, which makes Crockett Gillmore worth monitoring. Plus-sized wideout Marlon Brown flashed as a rookie in 2013 and is the best bet to emerge. Kamar Aiken also has good size, and Michael Campanaro is a name to file away for PPR leagues. They’ll add rookies to the mix, but current Ravens will be forced to pick up much of the slack, so get familiar.
Atlanta Falcons (-248 Handoffs and -134 Targets)
Matt Ryan led the NFL in pass attempts over the last seven weeks despite a limited pass-catching menu. Julio Jones (10.7; 4th) and Roddy White (9.7; 10th) both ranked in the top-10 in targets per game, and other than some warm bodies at tight end, reinforcements are yet to arrive. Whoever emerges there, whether it’s Jacob Tamme or someone not on the roster (#FreeHousler), will be boosted by a quarterback and offensive coordinator (Kyle Shanahan) who make good use of tight ends. Leonard Hankerson has disappointed, but his competition is weak and it’s encouraging that Shanahan coached him during his best seasons. Who takes the lion’s share of handoffs in a backfield still under construction remains the big question (Stevan Ridley landing spot?).
New Orleans Saints (-57 Handoffs and -323 Targets)
It’s safe to assume that New Orleans will be more run-committed, but Drew Brees averaged 628 passing attempts since he’s been a Saint, and 659 over the last five seasons. Even if his attempts fall to a 2014 Romoian level, as those Cowboys are a commonly projected model for these Saints, that still leaves roughly 200 unaccounted-for targets. C.J. Spiller slides into Darren Sproles’ former role, where he averaged 106 targets and 87 catches in three seasons on the Bayou. Brandin Cooks’ 6.5 targets-per-game pace will tick up, even if his catch rate falls due to a rising aDOT. The Josh Hill buzz is well-founded, Nick Toon deserves attention, and don’t sleep on towering 2014 draft pick Brandon Coleman.
San Francisco 49ers (-204 Handoffs and -265 Targets)
Most of the focus has been on a Raiders-level offseason melting down across the bay from Oakland. But the many departures have made available 469 opportunities, which equates to a 46.5 percent of San Francisco’s snaps from last season. They’ve imported Torrey Smith, Reggie Bush, and not much else. Carlos Hyde has some red flags, but the loss of Mike Iupati won’t be the crushing blow it’s been made out to be if now-healthy redshirt rookie Brandon Thomas lives up to his predraft billing. Hyde will benefit from taking handoffs from a mobile quarterback and running behind a still-talented offensive line. The stink of a miserable offseason is driving down the value of a number of 49ers, right into value territory.
Kansas City Chiefs (-3 Handoffs and -171 Targets)
Despite fellow Travis Kelce Truthers applauding Anthony Fasano’s departure, it’s at least a little sobering for the #FreeZeus movement that only 36 targets left with him. Surely Kelce’s stats will be buoyed by the outstanding efficiency that allowed him to rank first among non-Gronk tight ends in Yards per Route Run (2.26) and third in fantasy PPR points per opportunity (0.47). But with a relatively modest 171 passing targets unaccounted for, the same coaches in place, and Jeremy Maclin and Albert Wilson slated to figure prominently an offense quarterbacked by Alex Smith, Kelce’s liftoff could easily fall short of overzealous expectations.
Arizona Cardinals (-20 Handoffs and -45 Targets)
They haven’t lost much from last season, but that’s not a good thing for fantasy. Even if Carson Palmer’s knee is back to form—and he’s been a 71.2 percent passer at an 8.4 yards per attempt clip, with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions, when he’s had a clean pocket as a Cardinal—Bruce Arians’ offense spreads the wealth. Three wideouts saw at least 93 targets last year. Then factor in a run-heavier attack in a stiff defensive division, with no up-tempo usage, and the possibility of an Adrian Peterson addition. A healthy and well-protected Palmer will dramatically increase the offense’s efficiency, but if Peterson runs to Arizona, passing volume and receiver values will head further south.
Chicago Bears (-3 Handoffs and -136 Targets)
Since Brandon Marshall was traded, Martellus Bennett’s ADP has risen 7.5 picks in MFL 10 drafts according to the RotoViz Best Ball App, and Alshon Jeffery’s has inched up one slot (to 22.3). That’s probably fair, but pushing them higher is risky. Marc Trestman liberally peppered his Big Four weapons with opportunities, so a change in scheme likely spreads it around more. Plus, the paltry 136 “available” targets will be absorbed primarily by the newly-signed Eddie Royal and an ascending Marquess Wilson. Maybe new coordinator Adam Gase brings Denver’s up-tempo with him to spike play volume, but Cutler’s role is set to be scaled back—and there’s an old saying about dogs and new tricks.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman