Fantasy values that could change the most in free agency
NFL free agency is just days away from being officially underway, but you never know when new contracts will be leaked. Adam Schefter might have scooped some details as you read this. As you prepare for your 2018 fantasy football seasons, best-ball leagues, DFS, and your upcoming dynasty league season, it’s important to get ahead of the changes in value that free agency should bring for a wide variety of players once free agency is through.
Below, we’re breaking down the players who could very likely see the biggest swings in value after this year’s free agent period. The goal is to help you get out ahead of the game in dynasty leagues while also giving you players to put on your target and do-not-draft lists for all other formats.
Mack flashed as an elusive runner who can force missed tackles at the NFL level when finally given more of an opportunity to do so down the stretch run of the 2017 season. With Frank Gore set to hit free agency and unlikely to return, Mack is already a popular sleeper candidate for the 2018 season. That could change fast if the Colts allocate some of their $72 million-plus in salary cap space to the running back position by going after Lewis or Hyde. Even if Mack owners fade free agency, they have to also fade the possibility of the Colts selecting Saquon Barkley with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft or some other potential starting option in the second round.
Like Mack, Gallman has gained some steam (though less) as a possible sleeper for the 2018 season after somehow managing to average more than 4 yards per carry behind the Giants’ porous 2017 offensive line. Gallman averaged 3.5 yards per carry after contact in 2016 at Clemson and displayed the ability to create after first contact as a rookie as well. If the Giants cannot re-sign Orleans Darkwa, they could opt to wait until the draft to add to the running back position given their limited cap space and greater needs at other positions. This would immediately put Gallman in a position to start the 2018 season as the lead back in a new offensive scheme run by an offensive play-caller whose Vikings finished No. 7 in rushing with the third-most rushing attempts in 2017.
The Raiders seem likely to bring Lynch back, and after finding success late in the 2017 season after the Raiders committed to the run game, his arrow should be pointing up. However, Lynch needs the volume to return fantasy value given his brand-name status. The Raiders are already interested in free agent Doug Martin and expected to make a “strong push” to sign him. Lynch could once again end up more name than game as a fantasy asset in 2018.
Case Keenum, QB
Keenum has been linked to the Denver Broncos in free agency and some have made the case that he can maintain his surprising 2017 value on a roster with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. In reality, it will be a lot harder for Keenum to maintain his value due to two major factors. The first is the loss of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. In Minnesota, Shurmur ran a quarterback-friendly offensive scheme that ran the ball a lot to set up a play-action passing game that did an excellent job mixing in running backs screens, mesh concepts underneath, and deep shots. The second factor is the dropoff from the Vikings’ offensive line to the Broncos’. Keenum is a risky bet to reach the level of fantasy success he found in a near-perfect 2017 situation.
Dion Lewis, RB
Lewis was one of the best running backs in football independent of his blocking per our elusive rating last season, and this was especially true during the stretch run. If Lewis lands with the 49ers he could end up emerging as a sure-fire RB1 in an offensive scheme that best fits him and will surely utilize his skill set in the passing game. Lewis has performed well as a receiver throughout his Patriots tenure, but New England had too many other options in the passing game at the running back position and he was unable to fully unlock his potential as a receiver. That could change fast depending on where he lands in free agency.
Carlos Hyde, RB
On the surface, it would seem like a change in scenery would be good for Hyde’s fantasy value, as his running style was never a good match for Kyle Shanahan’s blocking scheme in San Francisco. However, Shanahan leaned on Hyde early in the 2017 season and built up his fantasy value by using him in the passing game in creative ways like we saw him do with Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman during his tenure as Falcons offensive coordinator. A change in scenery could actually end up derailing Hyde’s value if he joins a team that views him once again as a traditional two-down back like he was before Shanahan arrived in San Francisco.
Gillislee is a sneaky buy-low candidate in dynasty leagues and also a post-hype sleeper for all other formats. Patriots running backs Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead are set to hit free agency, as the team is unlikely to re-sign either player before Wednesday. Lewis is a long shot to return, which could open the door for Gillislee to step into his role for the 2018 season. Gillislee, who is still just 27 years old, will reportedly get another chance to stick with the Patriots, and if Lewis moves on, he is the front-runner to step into his role.
Jerick McKinnon, RB
McKinnon was the slow-developing dynasty gem with an incredible size/speed profile and a career yards per route run that had owners drooling. He finally got his chance in 2017 with the perfect match of offensive mind and player. Former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is a big believer in the running back screen pass and wasn’t afraid to use McKinnon. Now, a free agent, McKinnon could find a difficult time finding another situation as perfectly-suited for him as he had with the VIkings in 2017.
Jimmy Graham, TE
Graham re-emerged as a semi-valuable fantasy asset in 2017 because he was oft-targeted and nearly unstoppable in the red zone. Seattle never found a way to utilize Graham in other areas of the field and now fantasy football managers will have to decide if this was due to Graham’s limitations as a player or if the fault is on the coaching staff. It’s fair to wonder if Graham is no longer the player he once was after dealing with a series of injuries throughout his career highlighted by a very serious patella ligament tear back in 2015. If Graham can reunite with Sean Payton in New Orleans, it should improve his fantasy value, but it could also skyrocket his ADP as fantasy owners look to latch onto the nostalgic days when he was the best tight end in fantasy football. Graham could ultimately gain fantasy value by moving on from Seattle while at the same time becoming a player you want to immediately trade.
Tyler Eifert, TE
Eifert and the Bengals seem headed for a breakup this offseason and that’s not a good thing for his fantasy value going forward. On the Bengals, Eifert was prioritized in the red zone where he quickly built an undeniable rapport with quarterback Andy Dalton and trust in the coaching staff to throw him the football. Injury risk aside, Eifert is a risky investment even if you can guarantee his health. Eifert could end up signing with a team that doesn’t have the same kind of red-zone role in mind or can’t find a way to get him the same kind of high-percentage targets the Bengals could offer him. It will also take Eifert time to build chemistry with his new quarterback. Even if Eifert joins an ideal situation on paper, we’ve seen those situations fail in the past (see: Julius Thomas with Adam Gase; Coby Fleener with Sean Payton, etc). We’re selling big here.
Sammy Watkins, WR
Watkins made the most of his limited opportunities with the Rams in 2017, but he was used far more often as a vertical knife in the defense to open up the field for other players. However, it’s important to keep in mind Watkins beat the “always injured” label and performed well in limited opportunities. If he finds the right situation in free agency, Watkins could once again emerge as one of fantasy’s elite WR1s. Re-signing with the Rams is one of the worst options for Watkins’ fantasy value, and although there has been some optimism he could return, the Rams’ recent aggression on the trade market make it unlikely he is back with the team in 2018.
Davis’ fantasy value in 2018 could largely depend on how the Titans attack free agency with just over $60 million in salary cap space — per OverTheCap.com — and Eric Decker set to hit the open market. The Titans offense will look at a lot different with offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur arriving after a year as the understudy to Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams. Depending on how the Titans attack the offseason at the wide receiver position, Davis could end up the Sammy Watkins in LaFleur’s offense or a more explosive version of Robert Woods. Davis, who was PFF’s No. 5 overall player on its big board in the 2017 NFL Draft, did some of his best work in the slot during his collegiate career.
Paul Richardson, WR
Richardson’s free agency could follow an eerily similar path to surprising 2017 breakout wide receiver Robert Woods. Like Woods, Richardson wins with his suddenness in his route-running and has been extremely productive when healthy during his rookie contract with the Seahawks despite never seeing a high volume of targets. If Richardson can sign to a similar situation to the one Woods found himself last offseason (see: Bears, Jets, possibly Bills), he could end up following a similar path to fantasy success in 2018.
Cole came on strong over the final month of the 2017 regular season while doing most of his best work out of the slot for the Jaguars and developing a nice rapport with Blake Bortles. The Jaguars are bringing Bottles back, but the same cannot necessarily be said about wide receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee. Both players could return, but they could also seek greener pastures on the free agent market. Cole is an unheralded dynasty prospect who could end up seeing a major uptick in value depending on where Robinson and Lee sign.
John Brown, WR
Brown has made his way onto fantasy football “sleeper” lists over the past two seasons, but his inability to stay healthy has prevented him from reaching his potential. In 2017, an injury to Carson Palmer also derailed any chance of him reaching his potential. Brown needs a specific fit in free agency on a team that likes to attack the field vertically with a quarterback who can get him the football down the field. If he finds it, he will certainly be worth rostering.
Donte Moncrief, WR
Moncrief has long been a favorite of metrics-driven fantasy analysts who have never been able to get past his ridiculous height/weight/speed combination. Like Brown, injuries have derailed Moncrief’s career, both to him and his quarterback. If Moncrief can land in the right situation and become a larger part of the passing game (see: 49ers, Jets, Bears), he could finally live up to at least some of the hype. After all, he has added value as a red-zone threat throughout his career.