The offseason fantasy wish list
The 2016 NFL season is officially in the books, and while the rest of the football world takes some time to reflect and decompress – or maybe swear off block pools and prop bets – we here at PFF are always looking ahead. To that end, I thought I’d have some fun and put together a list of the offseason storylines I’ll be keeping an eye on for fantasy purposes. Call it my transaction “wish list,” if you will.
These are more or less the seven transactions I’d most like to see, in no particular order. The obvious caveats apply, namely that it’s the first week of February and we’re still a ways away from the draft and the start of free agency. However, I also don’t want to waste your time with fantasy fantasies (zing!) While each of the situations listed below remain fluid, there is enough smoke to at least consider them viable (and sensible) possibilities. So let’s get to it.
1. Alshon Jeffery to Philadelphia
Over the past two seasons, impending free agent Alshon Jeffery has missed 11 games due to a variety of injuries as well as a PED suspension. Jeffery played through some nagging injuries early in the 2016 campaign and went on to produce his worst statistical output since his rookie year (while catching passes from three future Canton longshots). Those are the main stumbling blocks to a long-term deal with the rebuilding Bears, who are unlikely to hit Jeffery with the franchise tag for a second straight year.
To the rest of the league, however, Jeffery is easily the alpha receiver in this year’s free agent class. Despite his spotty production of late, he still possesses the athleticism and physical tools to be a true game changer on the perimeter, and he’ll turn only 27 on Valentine’s Day. That brings us to the Eagles, who trotted out the most laughable WR corps across the league in 2016. Philadelphia’s sports talk radio airwaves and fan blogs have been abuzz about the possibility of landing a shiny new toy for Carson Wentz (apologies to Kenny Stills truthers).
Reading the tea leaves, the Eagles’ new receivers coach is Mike Groh, who was the Bears’ position coach from 2013 to 2015. Under Groh, Jeffery finished as a fantasy WR1 in both 2013 and 2014. And through nine games before getting hurt in 2015, he was on a 96-1,435-7 pace while ranking first among 79 qualifiers in yards per route run (3.32).
2. Paul Perkins becomes Giants’ lead back
Rashad Jennings averaged a paltry 3.3 YPC in 2016 and will turn 32 in March. The Giants can save $2.5 million in cap room by cutting ties with the veteran, and given how rookie Paul Perkins came along in the season’s backstretch, such a move seems likely.
Not only did Perkins’ involvement increase as the season wore on – he logged double-digit carries in five straight games to end the season and ultimately supplanted Jennings as the starter – but his highest-graded games all fell between Weeks 15 and 17. The Giants still finished 29th in rushing, although perhaps it’s no coincidence that with an extra spark from their ground game, they went on to win nine of their final 11 games to reach the playoffs. And while teammates Jennings and Odell Beckham Jr. both gushed about Perkins at various points last season, there is certainly room for improvement all-around.
Part of that involves making continued strides in pass protection and as a receiver. Last offseason, our draft analysts were pretty spot-on with Perkins’ scouting profile, noting his elusiveness as an initial change-of-pace back but the potential to grow into a larger role with improved blocking. It’s not clear whether the Giants’ front office views him as a three-down back, considering he hardly approached Jordan Howard numbers. Still, there is room for a second-year growth spurt. Perkins’ elusive rating was in line with the rookie year production from guys like Le’Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman, although “Perk” topped both in yards after contact per attempt.
3. Leonard Fournette drafted by Carolina at pick 1.8
There is a healthy debate as to which rookie running back will have the greater impact between LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Both possess game-changing talent and will likely come off the board in the top half of the first round. The Panthers hold the eighth pick in the draft and would be well served to find a replacement for Jonathan Stewart, who turns 30 in March and has seen his yards per carry dip in each of the last three years. Stewart has also missed an average of five games over the past five seasons.
Enter Fournette, an ideal back for Carolina’s power scheme who could pose a potent weapon alongside Cam Newton. Fournette was slowed by injuries this past season at LSU, but his sophomore campaign was so dominant (nation-best 83 broken tackles) that there was once legitimate talk of him sitting out his junior year to protect his draft stock. Of course, Cook led the nation with 90 missed tackles as a rusher in 2016, and a team like, say, the Jets, who own the fourth pick, could certainly use his services.
4. Tony Romo to Denver
There really isn’t much to see in the quarterback market, although Tony Romo is as good as gone in Dallas. With a $14 million base salary in 2017 and two additional years remaining on his current contract, a trade partner could be tough to find, but the Cowboys would save $5.1 million by simply cutting Romo loose. The concerns are obvious: soon to be 37 years old, Romo has finished only two games over the last two seasons and is coming off multiple back injuries.
Still, Romo finished as a QB1 in fantasy for four straight seasons from 2011 to 2014, and he could certainly excel on an offense with some weapons. One logical landing spot is in Denver, where the Broncos have Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and are built to win now. Of course, Broncos GM John Elway last year squeezed a Super Bowl ring out of another aging QB many presumed to be finished. For what it’s worth, count Michael Irvin among those who feel Romo would be a good fit with Broncos new coach Vance Joseph for two or three years.
5. Terrelle Pryor to Tennessee
Is Terrelle Pryor a one-year wonder, or a budding star? The market will soon dictate the answer to that question. Playing the receiver position for the first time in the NFL at age 27, Pryor posted 77 catches (on 132 targets) for 1,007 yards with four touchdowns and was fantasy’s WR22. His average depth of target (15.5) was 16th-best among WRs, as he utilized his athleticism and physical tools to separate and make plays downfield. But can Pryor put up that kind of production elsewhere if he doesn’t end up re-signing with the Browns?
With Corey Coleman injured for much of his rookie year, Pryor was essentially all the Browns had on the outside. While he should continue to improve with the nuances of the position, it’ll be tough to repeat the kind of volume he saw this year, and mind you, Pryor ranked 86th among receivers in catches per target. Marcus Mariota needs a go-to WR in Tennessee, although the Titans are a run-heavy team and there is some bad blood with Pryor. Unless he ends up signing to be a team’s clear No. 1 option, he’s a candidate to be overvalued in fantasy drafts.
6. Adrian Peterson to Tampa Bay
The soon-to-be 32-year-old has expressed interest in his hometown Texans as a possible landing spot, along with the Giants and Buccaneers. But with Houston having already committed to Lamar Miller, the Giants or Bucs would seem more suitable fits. Since I’m already on Team Perk, let’s look at Tampa Bay, which can void Doug Martin’s 2017 salary guarantee because of his PED suspension (not to mention his $7 million price tag). Martin wasn’t particularly effective in the eight games he played this season, averaging a mere 2.9 YPC. Charles Sims failed to prove he’s anything more than a change-of-pace back and wound up taking a back seat to Jacquizz Rodgers late in the season.
Then again, Peterson averaged just 1.9 yards on his 37 carries behind what the Vikings tried passing off as an offensive line, and our analysts graded Tampa Bay as an even worse run-blocking team. Still, he is just one year removed from leading the NFL in rushing with 1,485 yards (4.5 YPC) and 11 TDs in 2015. Peterson has proven doubters wrong before (see: rushing for 2,000 yards after reconstructive knee surgery), so he could certainly serve as a viable short-term bridge if the dollars make sense.
7. Eddie Lacy stays in Green Bay
The public perception of 2013-14 Eddie Lacy vs. 2015-16 Eddie Lacy couldn’t be more disparate. After averaging 1,159 yards and 10 TDs on the ground in his first two pro seasons, Lacy totaled 1,118 yards and three rushing scores over his next two seasons (20 games). But is that perception fair? While his bottom-line production and weight veered in opposite directions in 2015, Lacy ranked seventh out of 25 qualifiers in yards after contact per attempt (2.53), then went on to average 6.3 yards on 24 playoff totes. Though a season-ending ankle injury limited him to only five games in 2016, he still averaged a healthy 5.1 YPC, including a gutsy Week 6 performance against Dallas on that gimpy ankle.
Then again, that perception is the factor that could ultimately land him back in Green Bay for a one-year “prove-it” deal in order to enhance his value and chance at a larger contract. Still just 26 years old, Lacy and Ty Montgomery could form a potent backfield tandem, keeping each other fresh and even giving coach Mike McCarthy some exotic formations to toy around with.
8. Jerick McKinnon’s time to shine?
With Adrian Peterson likely having played his final snap in Minnesota and Matt Asiata headed for free agency, Jerick McKinnon could be quite busy lining up behind Teddy Bridgewater in the shotgun. The Vikings were slated to have the No. 15 pick in the upcoming draft, possibly hoping for Fournette or Cook to fall, but the Eagles now own that pick as part of the Sam Bradford trade. And if the Vikings decide to move on from Peterson in order to clear cap room, does it make sense to pay up for another veteran back?
It’s no secret that Minnesota needs to upgrade its offensive line, as our Sam Monson graded the Vikings’ OL as the fourth-worst unit in the league in 2016. In fact, 60 percent of McKinnon’s rushing yards came after contact. But if you were paying attention late in the year, McKinnon was PFF’s eighth-best-graded running back out of 59 qualifiers from Weeks 11 to 17. A budding PPR weapon, over the season’s final five weeks he averaged a Le’Veon-like six receptions per game and scored three times. If the Vikings invest their resources into seriously revamping their OL, then McKinnon, a former SPARQ legend, could finally deliver on that long-awaited breakout.
Other situations to monitor
- Will the Steelers get the band back together?
There is no shortage of notable storylines surrounding the Steelers’ offense. Ben Roethlisberger is apparently giving some actual consideration to retirement, Le’Veon Bell’s contract is up, Martavis Bryant has applied for reinstatement, and Antonio Brown may or may not have Facebook Lived his way out of town. The guess here is that all four are back doing their thing in black and gold for the 2017 season, and if so, the Steelers offense once again has a chance to put up some prolific numbers.
- Who will Kirk Cousins be throwing to?
Josh Doctson’s rookie year never really got off the ground, and questions remain about his health status moving forward. Doctson was widely considered the most pro-ready receiver prospect in last year’s draft, earning PFF’s highest receiving grade of any receiver in college football in 2015. His jump-ball skills are an enticing match with Cousins’ deep-ball accuracy, but Washington simply can’t put all its eggs in that basket, especially with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon both headed for free agency. First thing’s first, of course — the team also needs to get Cousins signed.
- Will Tyrod Taylor or Jimmy Garoppolo change teams?
Sam Monson recently did a run-down of the QB market, so I won’t rehash his analysis. But from a fantasy perspective, both options could be appealing in the right environment. Taylor apparently hasn’t heard anything from the Bills as far as an offer yet, but some team could certainly use his services. Guiding a run-heavy offense sans Sammy Watkins for most of the year, Taylor finished as fantasy’s No. 8 QB while playing 15 games and was sixth in fantasy points per dropback (0.51). The previous year, he ranked third with 0.58 fantasy points per dropback. Meanwhile, Garoppolo has only a scant amount of live NFL game film available, but he certainly looked the part when called upon during Tom Brady’s suspension and has shown flashes in preseason action.