Fantasy Fallout of Potential Franchise Tags
A week from now, teams will be able to use franchise tags to lock up their key unrestricted free agents who otherwise might depart the team. Those tags erase a lot of the potential for speculative fantasy moves because they allow teams another option to safeguard their elite fantasy players. However, there are still a handful of situations that are not so cut-and-dry. Let’s look at the major franchise tag candidates at the skill positions to see if there are any moves to be made.
Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
The offseason spotlight will be on the Dallas Cowboys, as Jerry intended, thanks to unrestricted free agents Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray. It is a difficult situation to read because Bryant is the more important player to guarantee his return to the team—keep in mind that the Cowboys had a +55.7-rated run-blocking offensive line that would likely elevate any back they named the starter—but he is also the player the team would likely prefer to sign to a multi-year contract. Either way, it is practically a lock the Cowboys will have Bryant on their roster in 2015, so the No. 38 receiver in standard scoring from 2014, Terrance Williams, remains capped at a WR3.
Murray is the player with the unclear future. Given that his offensive line was at least some part of his success, locking him up after a healthy, record-setting season seems short-sighted, even at age 27 and with fewer than 1,000 career carries. Backup Joseph Randle actually led the league with 4.2 yards after contact per attempt and 6.7 yards per carry with a minimum of 10 carries—he had 51.
That said, Randle has not done himself any favors with his pair of arrests, and it would be an uncharacteristic move for the Cowboys to enter the season without a name brand at the position. Perhaps that is Murray. Perhaps it is Adrian Peterson, who the Vikings could conceivably trade or release after his own off-the-field problems in 2014. Perhaps it will be a rookie running back like Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley. Whatever the case, it may not be possible to speculate on a back with real upside as the Cowboys’ potential new starter.
The move you can make is to trade Murray, who would assuredly end up in a worse situation if Dallas did not retain him. However, Murray will be a starter somewhere next season. Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, and LeSean McCoy may be the entire list of fair returns in a one-for-one running back trade.
Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Early indications are that Peyton Manning will attempt to return in 2015, but the Broncos will have to finally deal with the salary cap implications of an expensive roster aligned with Manning’s limited window. The two major players at the crossroads are two of the team’s biggest fantasy stars, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas. With only $27.8 million in available cap space, the team may not be able to afford to franchise either Thomas while signing the other.
As in Dallas, the wide receiver will likely be the priority, so Demaryius and teammate Emmanuel Sanders remain top 15 options. Julius is really little more than a receiver himself—he had a neutral +1.2 combined pass and run block grade in 2014. And while he could find success with his size and skill set elsewhere, losing Manning would of course be a downgrade for 2015. One way to mitigate the risk would be to trade Julius for a player like Travis Kelce—who has the upside to match Julius and higher floor because of the stability of his situation—and an upgrade at another position.
The team lacks a clear incumbent tight end who could benefit from Julius’ potential departure. Blocking specialist Virgil Green caught four balls, including a touchdown, over the team’s final two games of the season, but that was more than he had in his previous 12 games combined. Meanwhile, Green is a free agent, as well.
Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
While Randall Cobb may not be the 1A option for Aaron Rodgers that Bryant is for Tony Romo or Demaryius is for Manning, it’s tough to argue with a 91-1,287-12 line that was good for sixth place in standard fantasy scoring among receivers in 2014, even if it trailed that of teammate Jordy Nelson. But of all of the premier skill-position free agents, Cobb is the most readily replaced because the Packers drafted Davante Adams prior to last season.
Adams would not be a tit-for-tat replacement of Cobb. Cobb ran 87.3 percent of his routes from the slot last season while Adams ran just 7.5 percent of his there. That was less than half the rate of Nelson, even. But the dual threat of Nelson and Adams on the outside would likely be strong enough to cover for a less experienced or less talented player in the slot if the Packers wanted to spend their money elsewhere.
The team even has two more 2014 rookies, Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis, who could provide internal options if they let Cobb (and Jarrett Boykin) walk. Janis seems like the more natural fit there because of his 4.4 speed—and the fact that he didn’t lose his entire rookie year to a torn ACL—but he remains a deep league speculative play in part because Cobb seems likely to be back in Green Bay next season, either with a tag or a multi-year contract.
As such, I actually think Cobb is the best fantasy value on the roster. Similar to Emmanuel Sanders in Denver, Cobb is frequently not valued as a WR1 in fantasy because he isn’t the No. 1 receiver on his roster, but his fantasy production justifies it.
Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
Similar to Cobb and Adams in Green Bay, Jeremy Maclin has a 2014 rookie teammate that could likely fill the void if Maclin left. Jordan Matthews may not need to be the man in Philadelphia to be a top 20 fantasy receiver, especially given Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. For that reason, Matthews does not offer a ton of potential return on the speculation that Maclin could leave town. Mike Clay ranked Matthews as the No. 22 receiver in his early 2015 rankings even with Maclin’s uncertainty.
The Eagle with the most room to benefit is another 2014 rookie, Josh Huff. Huff saw just 18 targets as a rookie, but he showed his potential with 29.6 yards per kick return on special teams. His +2.7 kick return rating was tied for seventh best in football despite just 15 opportunities. He has the speed on the outside to balance Matthews in the slot. Huff makes sense as a deep league dynasty stash even if the team retains Maclin, which seems likely.
Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
While Bryant, Demaryius, Cobb, and Maclin have all shown the production to justify a franchise tag and the high salary it represents, Torrey Smith falls short of that distinction and is therefore the most likely receiver on this list to hit the open market. With 14-year veteran Steve Smith contemplating retirement, the Ravens could enter the 2015 season with a dramatically different group of wide receivers.
My favorite speculative play is Marlon Brown, who provided an unexpected 49-524-7 line as a rookie in 2013 when injuries hit the first string but declined to just 24-255-0 as a sophomore. However, on a per play basis, Brown improved. After a rookie season with a 59.0 percent catch rate, he led the team at 82.8 in 2014. That was partially the result of a 70.5 percent slot rate and team-low 9.9-yard average depth of target (aDOT), but it was also a reflection of his sure-handedness. Cole Beasley was the only receiver with more than Brown’s 24 receptions who did not have a drop.
Brown has not been the deep threat that Torrey has been so far in his career. He has just one catch on 15 targets of 20 or more yards down the field. However, Brown is 6’5 and 216 lbs. He could become a nice red zone threat if he became a starter. With his low price tag and the uncertainty in front of him, why not acquire him for cheap while things shake out over the next few months.
Scott Spratt was named Newcomer of the Year in 2012 by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He also writes for RotoGraphs and contributes to ESPN Insider as a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt