Fantasy winners and losers from the first weekend of free agency
Like March, the first week of free agency came in like a lion and out like a lamb. We saw a flurry of action with a number of this year’s biggest names agreeing to terms well before the 4 p.m. EST kickoff on Thursday. But then the action slowed to a mere crawl by weekend’s end. With the dust somewhat settled, here are the winners and losers of this year’s free agency.
With several receivers on the move, the quarterback landscape looks a little different that it did just a week ago. Perhaps the biggest move so far what the Patriots’ blockbuster trade for Brandin Cooks. Tom Brady is already the greatest quarterback of all time, but he’s rarely had a dynamic weapon at receiver like Cooks. Brady enters his age-40 season, but is coming off arguably his best year as a pro where he topped 8.0 yards per attempt for just the third time in his career. With the addition of Cooks, Brady remains locked in the elite fantasy tier of quarterbacks.
The other two upgraded quarterbacks are on the opposite side of the age spectrum from Brady: Jameis Winston and Carson Wentz. Tampa Bay has deployed a very one-dimensional passing game in Winston’s first two seasons, but that will change this year with the addition of veteran WR DeSean Jackson. His field-stretching ability will take attention off of Mike Evans and will finally give Winston a deep threat to take advantage of his big arm. Entering his third year, Winston is in the back-end QB1 conversation.
Philadelphia took major steps to upgrade what was one of last year’s worst wide receiver groups, adding Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. That duo plus Jordan Matthews now gives the Eagles one of the league’s best set of wideouts with Jeffery as the prototype No. 1, Smith as the field stretcher, and Matthews as the slot. Wentz got off to a hot start in his rookie season, but cooled down the stretch. With this fleet of receivers, he’s set to take a step forward in Year 2. That being said, it’s a bit ambitious to consider him more than a QB2 option.
Running backs trending up
Say what you will about the Browns, but Cleveland’s football team now has one of the league’s best offensive lines with the additions of C J.C. Tretter and RG Kevin Zeitler. They also managed to keep Joel Bitonio and Joe Thomas. That means good things for Isaiah Crowell. Cleveland’s projected starting offensive line combined for an average of 2.49 yards before contact per attempt last year. Only Buffalo averaged a higher number last year. Crowell has a career average of 2.5 yards after contact per attempt, but that number was an impressive 3.2 last year. Even if he dips to his average, Crowell is set up to average in the range of 5.0 yards per carry. He’s arguably running back’s biggest breakout candidate in 2017.
Detroit also upgraded along its offensive line, signing Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang. The Lions ranked 31st in yards before contact generated with just 0.94 per attempt. Their 2017 projected line averaged a combined 1.43 in 2016, which isn’t a massive upgrade, but it will still help the Detroit run game. Ameer Abdullah has been cleared from the foot surgery he underwent for a torn ligament back in September. He figures to be the lead for early-down work, with Theo Riddick in the passing-down role.
The Ravens added veteran RB Danny Woodhead, who is coming off his second major injury in the last three years and is entering his age-32 season. However, Woodhead will likely have strong value in September, with Kenneth Dixon slated to serve a four-game suspension. However, the real winner of this signing is Melvin Gordon. Following Woodhead’s injury in Week 2 Gordon averaged a massive 25.3 touches per game until he too was injured in Week 14. The huge workload figures to continue for Gordon, all but locking him in as an RB1.
There are also a few placeholders as winners of free agency at running back. The Oakland duo of DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard tentatively sit atop the depth chart after the Raiders let Latavius Murray walk. Likewise, the Vikings didn’t pick up Adrian Peterson’s option, which is potentially a good thing for Jerick McKinnon. Paul Perkins also appears to be in a good spot after the Giants let Rashad Jennings go. However, there’s certainly the chance all three teams either sign a back or address the position in the draft.
Pass catchers on the up and up
Several wide receivers and tight ends were either directly or indirectly impacted by free agency. One of the biggest winners resides in Indy. The Colts traded Dwayne Allen to the Patriots, a move that left Jack Doyle in the driver’s seat to be Andrew Luck’s primary tight end target. Doyle is coming off a career-best 72 targets in 2016, and projects to see even more volume this year. He’s very much in the TE1 conversation.
Tyler Higbee also gets an upgrade at the tight end position after the Rams let Lance Kendricks walk. A former wide receiver, Higbee has a very athletic profile that we only saw brief flashes of in his rookie year. He’ll have an opportunity to play in the very productive Jordan Reed role in Sean McVay’s offense.
Let’s not forget the Black Unicorn. Martellus Bennett jumped ship from the defending Super Bowl champions to join forces with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Bennett is a strong upgrade over Jared Cook, who remains unsigned, and projects as a solid TE1 option provided he can stay healthy.
Speaking of McVay, his former receiver Pierre Garcon gets an upgrade after he reunited with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Sure, the 49ers are still a long way away from being a powerhouse squad, but the X receiver role in Shanahan’s offense has annually been one of the most productive in the league. The last time Garcon played that role, he posted a league-leading 113 catches on 174 targets. Garcon doesn’t possess a massive ceiling, but his floor is in the WR3 range and he figures to see enough volume to produce WR2 numbers in 2017.
Second-year receiver Corey Coleman gets a value boost after the Browns swapped out Terrelle Pryor for Kenny Britt. Coleman slots in as the top target in the Cleveland offense and is poised for a potential breakout year. Likewise, perennial fantasy hype candidate Breshad Perriman sits in a good position after Baltimore made no moves at wide receiver. Perriman has legit deep speed and figures to see a sizeable uptick from the 64 targets thrown his direction last year. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Ted Ginn, who is arguably the biggest beneficiary of the Brandin Cooks trade. Ginn signed with the Saints and will fill the field-stretcher role for Drew Brees. That’s not to say that you should go out and draft Ginn in the fourth round, but he’s going to surface on the fantasy radar in 2017 and will likely be a weekly DFS tournament option.
A bad year to be a running back
Today’s NFL just isn’t friendly to ageing – and by ageing, I mean 26-or-older – running backs. This year, we had several former marquees names at the position: Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy and Latavius Murray. The first weekend of free agency is in the rearview and none of these four has signed a deal. Worse yet, the market for these players seems to be pretty sparse. Given the depth at running back in this year’s draft class, there’s a good chance we’ll have to wait a while for any of them to sign. That isn’t good for their 2017 fantasy prospects.
There were also some non-free agent running backs who lost out last week. Perhaps the biggest losers were Cincinnati’s duo of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. With the departure of LT Andrew Whitworth and RG Kevin Zeitler, the Bengals currently sit with a downgraded offensive line that will rely on Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher at the tackle spots. Both players graded out extremely poorly last season.
Pump the brakes on the Sterling Shepard breakout
Fantasy breakout narratives start brewing as early as January every year. One of the most popular to make the rounds this year was a Year 2 breakout for Giants WR Sterling Shepard. This hype train essentially ground to a halt after the Giants added veteran Brandon Marshall to their roster. Marshall’s addition won’t impact Odell Beckham Jr.’s production. He’s going to get his no matter what. But Shepard now figures to play third fiddle in the Giants’ passing game. Keep in mind that Ben McAdoo runs a ton of three-wide sets, so Shepard won’t be nonexistent. But with Marshall in town, it’s going to be very difficult for Shepard to see enough volume to truly produce breakout numbers in 2017.
The Texans’ starting quarterback is …?
Currently, Tom Savage would be the answer to that question after the Texans cut bait on free agent bust Brock Osweiler in one of the strangest trades in recent memory. “Tony Romo to Houston” rumors remain rampant, but the move has yet to happen. If it doesn’t, it’s going to be tough to endorse the Texans’ skill-position players for fantasy purposes this year.