Free Agent RBs: Winners and Losers
This year’s free agency period was a bit of a letdown from a fantasy perspective because, as PFF’s Pat Thormon pointed out in his “Unclaimed Opportunities” piece, more fantasy value was lost during free agency than new value created.
But not every player saw their fantasy value decrease year-over-year. In fact, of the 10 biggest free agency running back moves, it was nearly split perfectly between players who saw their value rise versus decrease.
Of course, that paints it in the most positive light possible. The truth is that the running backs that saw their value increase the most are secondary fantasy options, at best, and those that saw their value decrease or remain the same were among the elite.
Here we will go over the 10 big running back movers, ranking them in order of fantasy value gained or lost.
From Oakland To Dallas
The fact Darren McFadden tops these rankings should give you an idea — and drive home the point made earlier — of how underwhelming free agency was for fantasy running backs this year. A perennial disappointment, McFadden gets perhaps his best chance yet to prove what he’s been trying to prove since entering the league: That he can be a successful lead back in real football and a solid RB2 for your fantasy team.
McFadden joins the Dallas Cowboys, who had the second best run blocking unit in the league last year (+55.7), per PFF grades. He leaves behind the Oakland Raiders, whose team run blocking grade was -46.4, third worst in the league.
Even the most anti-McFadden fans out there will acknowledge that the move is good for McFadden. But the fact remains that over the past three years, McFadden’s PFF grade has been fifth worst, second worst and worst among running backs, respectively. He’s just not that good of a player. Additionally, McFadden did not play a full 16-game season until last year, his eighth in the league.
McFadden is a tail-end RB2 by virtue of his landing spot, not his talent. That’s not typically a recipe you want to bank on. But his ADP is still low — it’s currently at 8.10, up from 11.01 prior to his signing with Dallas — so there’s currently not too much risk associated with drafting him.
As far as free agency running back moves go, McFadden was the clear winner.
From Buffalo To New Orleans
Spiller had a fantastic season for the Bills in 2012, gaining over 1,700 total yards, but his other four seasons in Buffalo fell short of expectations. He gets a “fresh start” with the Saints, and despite the presence of Mark Ingram, who finally came into his own in 2014 and solidified himself as the starter, Spiller still has RB2 upside in PPR leagues. That’s assuming he can step into the Darren Sproles/Pierre Thomas role.
In just 11 games last season, Thomas notched 45 receptions with the Saints. Extrapolated over 16 games, that’s 65 receptions, which is about where we expect Spiller to land. Thomas led all running backs in receptions in 2013, while Sporles (with the Saints) led all running backs in receptions in both 2012 and 2011.
The point: Recent history indicates that Saints running backs can succeed as pass catchers. There’s no reason to believe Spiller won’t thrive in a similar role — it fits his strengths, and it’s clear that Sean Payton and Drew Brees know how to make use of running backs with Spiller’s skillets, something his Buffalo coaches seemed incapable of doing at times.
Ingram’s presence obviously lowers Spiller’s ceiling, but New Orleans is a solid landing spot nonetheless.
From San Francisco To Indianapolis
Frank Gore’s decision to not join the Philadelphia Eagles after giving them a reported verbal agreement was the catalyst for a lot of change this season. One could argue that Gore’s decision led to the Foles-Bradford trade, DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews signing with the Eagles, Andre Johnson signing with the Colts and Trent Richardson joining the Raiders.
But while his decision had a major ripple effect on the rest of the league, it didn’t have quite the same impact on his fantasy value. He does see a slight boost by signing with the Colts, but he remains an RB2 option.
We project Gore to be as effective as he was last season — roughly 250 carries for 1,000-1,100 yards — but his touchdown and reception totals should rise. That’s because the Colts’ offense is much more lethal than San Francisco’s, so Gore figures to see a handful more attempts from scoring range.
Gore is a low-end RB2 in Indanapolis, and while he may be an unsexy option, he’s one of the most reliable backs in the low-end RB2 range. His ceiling is not all that high (Indianapolis’ offense will certainly go through Andrew Luck, not Gore), but his floor makes him a relatively safe bet. Chuck Pagano reportedly wants to use Gore as an every-down back.
From Philadelphia To Buffalo
McCoy’s move from Philadelphia to Buffalo and the impact it has on his fantasy value is one of the more intriguing conversations in regards to running backs on new teams this year. Some fantasy players hate the move, and some love it. The truth, as it tends to be, is more in the middle.
McCoy’s remains an RB1 option in fantasy leagues and should have no troubles eclipsing 300 touches. However, he’s no longer one of the top five fantasy backs. This would have been the case had McCoy stayed in Philadelphia, too, which makes his move up north to Buffalo a side-grade from a fantasy perspective.
And yes, I know McCoy was not a free agent and that he was traded. But it happened during the same time period, so I am counting it here.
From New England To New York Giants
As you can see from the above chart — comparing Vereen’s 2014 production to his 2015 projections — this is a textbook definition of a “side-grade,” which is why he lands smack dab in the middle of these rankings.
Veeren had a higher ceiling in New England (he caught 11 passes in the Super Bowl, for example), but he should be more consistent in New York. The Patriots cycle through running backs on a weekly basis, which made it hard to trust Vereen week in and week out. In New England, his value was strictly tied to individual matchups.
From Washington To Oakland
Helu will likely be a bench warmer for your fantasy team all season, but he may have some value as a spot Flex starter in PPR leagues.
His value in Oakland is not all that different from what it was in Washington. There is no Alfred Morris-like incumbent that will automatically command the vast majority of carries in Oakland right now — though Latavius Murray looks in line to be the starter — so Helu has a chance to see more carries in 2015 than he did in 2014.
Unlike Morris, however, Murray can catch, which means Helu’s skills as a receiver may not be called upon quite as much as they were last year. What he gains in additional carries he may lose in receiving output.
From Dallas To Philadelphia
Thing were looking great for Murray after he signed with the Eagles. That is, of course, until Ryan Mathews signed not too long after to crowd the backfield. Now Murray will have to share snaps with Mathews and Darren Sproles.
Murray will lead the charge, but it’s clear he won’t be leaned on quite as much as he was in Dallas last year. He is a tail-end RB1 in 2015. While still highly valuable as a fantasy chip, Murray fell from the upper deck of fantasy running backs after signing with the Eagles (and after Mathews join him in Philly). Had he remained in Dallas, Murray would have been a top five fantasy back.
From Detroit To San Francisco
A big name, Bush gets more attention than he really should. His move from Detroit to San Francisco actually hurts what fantasy value he still holds. Carlos Hyde figures to lead the backfield in San Francisco, and Bush will also have to compete with Kendall Hunter for snaps and carries.
Bush retains some fantasy value in PPR leagues, as he figures to be the 49ers’ main pass-catching threat out of the backfield. However, his contributions as a receiver won’t be any better than they were when he was on the Lions. This, coupled with the fact he will be turned to less as a rusher, causes Bush’s move to San Francisco to be among the worst for running backs this year.
From San Diego To Philadelphia
Mathews’ decision to sign with the Eagles was a real head scratcher, and one that eviscerated his fantasy value. He steps into a clearly defined backup role behind Murray, and won’t see much action in the passing game because of Sproles.
Mathews is currently projected to finish with over 140 carries — not bad for a backup by any means — but he’ll lose out on goal line touches. From a fantasy perspective, Mathews is now an insurance policy and late-round flier that can be filled in on bye weeks.
From Indianapolis To Oakland
Should he make the team, Richardson sits squarely behind Latavius Murray and Roy Helu on Oakland’s depth chart. Obviously, his fantasy value evaporated because of his play on the field, not because he signed with the Raiders. With that said, Richardson technically could have landed somewhere as a backup, not a third stringer. Either way, it wouldn’t have been enough to save his “fantasy value” — such that it is.
* denotes stats averaged and extrapolated over 16 games.