Best Free-Agent Fits From A Fantasy Football Perspective - Part 1
With NFL free agency less than two weeks ago, it’s time to start thinking about fantasy football again. You took your month off, assuming you played in a fantasy playoffs league, and now it’s finally time to clean off your computer screen so you can get a clearer look at your Excel spreadsheets.
Here at PFF: Fantasy, we will have updated rapid fantasy reactions as each free agent signs. In this article, I will attempt to whet your appetite for what’s to come. As I break down each player, remember that my “top 20” that I selected for this article is based on a combination of factors. Even after a few good games that have removed him from being considered a complete first-round draft pick bust, Donald Brown won’t make my list.
This is part one of a two-part article. I will feature my top 10 free agents, 1-10 and then next address the free agents I rank 11-20.
*All salary cap information comes from Overthecap.com
Best Fantasy Fit: Denver Broncos
I’m sure you can think of 24 reasons why re-signing with the Broncos is best for his fantasy value—and I was only referring to his touchdown catches in the past two seasons since Peyton Manning took over at quarterback. Here’s one you may not have known: Decker was the best receiver in the NFL in 2013 catching bombs. On passes that traveled 20 yards or more, he caught 15 of 25 possible attempts. Guess which quarterback had the best accuracy percentage on passes of 20 yards or more? Actually, it was Russell Wilson, but Peyton Manning was a tenth of a percent behind him and completed 11 more.
Surprise Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers pose as a poor man’s Broncos for Decker. They have an elite number one receiver to draw coverage away from him and they have a young quarterback who, like Manning, is a great deep passer. Glennon finished fourth-best in accuracy percentage on passes of 20 yards or more.
Prediction: Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have already been linked to Decker in free agency and the pieces are all in place. Colts owner Jim Irsay loves to make big splash moves that invigorate the fan base, and general manager Ryan Grigson isn’t afraid to comply — the Trent Richardson trade proves that. The Colts want a reliable wide receiver who can help Andrew Luck’s development and they currently have the fourth-most salary cap space.
Best Fantasy Fit: New York Jets
Maclin is best suited for a West Coast style offense that allows him to work underneath, catch the ball, and take off. Maclin has experience in the Jets’ offense, as he played under their current offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg before. Maclin’s best season came in 2011, under Mornhinweg, when he compiled the fifth-best catch rate in the NFL on deep passes (42.9%) and had the 11th-best PFF WR rating (104.9). He was the number one target that season, and if he signs with the Jets, he won’t have much competition in becoming the focal point of the passing game.
Surprise Team: Detroit Lions
The Lions have been looking for a sure-handed wide receiver who can work the underneath routes since Calvin Johnson first broke out. Failed attempts to make Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles and even Kris Durham that player have weighed heavily on Matthew Stafford’s development. Now that they brought in Joe Lombardi to run the offense, a receiver like Maclin could have a featured role. Lombardi will bring over with him the Saints’ playbook, which features getting players the ball out in space.
Prediction: Philadelphia Eagles
Recent reports from the media and quotes from Maclin himself paint the picture that he will be re-signing with the Eagles on a one-year “prove it” deal. Now that the Eagles have signed Riley Cooper, this is a mistake for Maclin. Instead of attempting to rehabilitate his value on a team that needs him, he will be returning to a run-heavy offense with two other capable receivers and a coach that likes to use two tight end sets.
Best Fantasy Fit: New England
Since last offseason’s Aaron Hernandez debacle, the Patriots have been looking to find a “move” tight end to fit their offensive scheme. Because of the timing of the incident, they were forced to fit a square peg into a round hole. They used a mixture of Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen, who took Hernandez’s place in the passing game. They couldn’t replace his impact in the running game, however, and by adding a true move tight end, the Patriots offense becomes more unpredictable.
Surprise Team: New York Jets
In 2013, the Jets let go of “move” tight end Dustin Keller — which was largely attributed to salary cap issues. They attempted to replace him with Kellen Winslow, but to no one’s surprise, this was a failure long before Winslow got caught with synthetic marijuana and an open bottle of Vaseline at a shopping mall. With Mike Tannenbaum’s salary cap management behind them, the Jets currently have the 10th-most salary cap space. If and when they release Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie, they will have the fourth-most salary cap room. Who said supplying weapons for Geno Smith had to be limited to just the wide receiver position?
Prediction: Baltimore Ravens
In the end, the Ravens can’t afford to let Pitta walk. They already saw what happened when they got rid of Anquan Boldin last offseason, and getting rid of Pitta would further deplete the weapons that Joe Flacco has to work with. I believe that at first they will try to franchise tag him as a tight end, and if they lose the grievance Pitta’s agent is sure to file, they will settle on a multi-year contract.
Best Fantasy Fit: Denver Broncos
If you project Nicks based on his 2013 campaign, you won’t find a single team that can revive his fantasy value. Nicks finished as the 41st-best wide receiver out of 43 qualifiers and secured just seven out 20 passes thrown to him 20+ yards downfield. Nicks’ trademark ability to win at the catch point on 50-50 and back-shoulder fades was gone. However, if Nicks can return to full health with another offseason, he would fit perfectly in the role previously occupied by Decker. As recently as 2011, Nicks had the 11th-best catch rate on passes 20+ yards.
Surprise Team: Baltimore Ravens
If the Ravens cannot afford to re-sign Dennis Pitta, they could look to add Nicks as another weapon for Flacco. Again, if Nicks can return to full health, he presents a strong outside receiver — Flacco’s favorite type of target. Flacco excels at back-shoulder fades and throwing the ball into one-on-one situations that the receiver must make a play on.
Prediction: New York Jets
Having spent his entire career in Kevin Gilbride’s vertical-based offense, we haven’t had the chance to see what Nicks can offer in a West Coast offense. Nicks, when at his best, displays great acceleration after the catch and great strength at the catch point. He would likely catch more passes for the Jets, but certainly catch more touchdowns with the Broncos.
Best Fantasy Fit: New England Patriots
Julian Edelman’s breakout 2013 season was a product of fortunate circumstance combined with Edelman’s mastering of an offense he had spent so long in. The Patriots’ offense, believed to be one of the more complicated to learn for a new player, can also provide a boost in fantasy value for those players who know it well. Hernandez is probably not walking back through the door and Danny Amendola proved a better fit as an outside receiver in 2013 — re-signing with the Patriots would offer Edelman a chance to build on his 2012.
Surprise Team: San Diego Chargers
After bursting onto the fantasy scene with five touchdowns in the first two games of the 2013 season, Eddie Royal proved what kind of effect a slot receiver can have in Mike McCoy’s offense quarterbacked by Philip Rivers. Of course, Royal’s lack of talent caught up to him and he was rarely heard of again. Edelman, on the other hand, would provide a more dynamic option in the slot. In 2013, Edelman had the fourth-best catch rate in the slot (74.0), as he caught 54 of the 73 passes thrown to him while in the slot. The two players who caught more passes in the slot, ran a combined 176 more routes in the slot.
Prediction: Oakland Raiders
As of now, the Patriots have just over $7 million in salary cap space and Edelman along with Aqib Talib, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Spikes are all unrestricted free agents. Releasing last year’s major acquisition, Danny Amendola, won’t clear up any space, because he carries more dead money than his total cap number. The Raiders are on the opposite end of the spectrum with the most salary cap space. They need to add talent to their receiving core and Edelman could be looking for his first big payday.
Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs
As a former running back, Tate has always been at his best after the catch and in open space. His skill set fits in well with a traditional West Coast offense, and even better with Andy Reid’s version. Reid loves getting a wide variety of players the ball out in space with blockers set up in front of them.
Surprise Team: Seattle Seahawks
With all of the impending free agents that the Seahawks have to re-sign, many people have written off a return for Tate. Tate meant a lot more to that offense and special teams than most give him credit for, and management likely holds a similar opinion. Now the hard part will be figuring out how to outbid his suitors and negotiate a contract that fits into their salary cap.
Prediction: Cleveland Browns
The Browns have the second-most salary cap space, and an owner who wants to put his team back on the map right away. Everyone in the Browns organization can agree on one thing for sure — the whole offense will benefit if they can sign a wide receiver to take away coverage from Josh Gordon. Tate can be that receiver, while also projecting as a great fit in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme.
Best Fit: San Francisco 49ers
Boldin immediately developed chemistry with Colin Kaepernick that was present even in some of the games that Kaepernick struggled in. Boldin had his best season in a while, posting his most yards (1,179) since the 2006 season to go along with 85 receptions and seven touchdowns — numbers he hasn’t eclipsed since the 2008 season with Kurt Warner. Boldin was especially successful in the slot, where he caught 40 of 59 targets and only dropped one total pass. Kaepernick is likely to improve going forward, which will only help Boldin, who showed no signs of slowing down in 2013.
Surprise Team: Indianapolis Colts
Don’t be surprised if Jim Isray goes after Boldin if he hits the open market and if they can’t come to an agreement with Decker. As I mentioned above, the Colts like to make name brand signings and they need a reliable, big outside receiver to help aid Luck’s development while also helping in the run game.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers
At this point in his career, Boldin wants to win and he knows that there’s no reason to mess with something that works. Boldin should sign a team-friendly contract in the coming weeks before free agency kicks off.
Best Fit: Cleveland Browns
Tate and the Browns might present the best overall fit from a fantasy football perspective in all of free agency. As I mentioned above, the Browns have the second-most salary cap space to work with, so signing multiple players shouldn’t be a problem. Tate is at his best in a zone-blocking scheme where he can plant his foot and go north-south in a hurry. Shanahan is bringing over his zone-blocking scheme and he is looking for a back who can “get downhill and always get good yards per carry.”
Surprise Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
Like the Browns, the Jaguars have a ton of salary cap space — the third-most to be exact. They are likely to let Maurice Jones-Drew sign elsewhere, which leaves just Jordan Todman as the only capable back on the roster. Tate would fit in well with the Jaguars zone-blocking scheme that they introduced last season.
Prediction: Cleveland Browns
The Browns have the cap space, the need and Tate fits exactly what they are looking for in a running back.
Best Fantasy Fit: Denver Broncos
James Jones struggled to top his obviously unrepeatable 14 touchdowns from 2012, but to be fair he had Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien as his quarterback for several games. Jones, now 30, has greatly improved his craft and cut down on his drops in the past two seasons. He remains a big, outside threat who can get deep and win in a one-on-one jump ball situation.
Surprise Team: Carolina Panthers
Because it is a buyer’s market at wide receiver, there is a solid chance that Jones receives faint interest in the first couple of weeks of free agency. With both Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn set to become free agents, the Panthers need to add another receiver to play opposite Steve Smith. Jones could present a cheap option at a position of need for a team that just mortgaged their future for immediate salary cap relief.
Prediction: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers seem like a great fit for both Jones and Cam Newton. I do not see them breaking the bank on other free agent wide receivers.
Best Fantasy Fit: Minnesota Vikings
Trust me, I am not a supporter of Michael Vick as a plus starter in the NFL — he commits way too many turnovers, he is not particularly adept at reading the defense and he is injury prone. Having said that, why have we never had the opportunity to watch him in a vertically based offense? If he signs with the Vikings, he will finally have that opportunity. The Vikings hired Norv Turner to run the offense, and that means a strong foundation in running game and vertical shots often generated from play-action. Vick could actually become a QB1 again in this offense with a solid offensive line and Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Kyle Rudolph as his weapons. That is, until he got injured, of course.
Surprise Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars need to make some sort of move that will rejuvenate their fan base. Bringing in Vick will do that, and also give them their best option at quarterback since David Garrard in his short-lived prime.
Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ roster is not too far off from competing against any team. New head coach Lovie Smith will want to bring in a veteran quarterback who can manage the offense, but also provide the occasional big play. Vick, will likely chose this option over his other options — the Jaguars and Raiders.