10 players set to benefit most from free agency

Analyst Ryan M. Smith takes a look at 10 players who are primed to benefit in 2017 following the first wave of free agency.

| 3 months ago
(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

10 players set to benefit most from free agency


Typically, the first day or two of free agency in the NFL is one of the most exciting times during the offseason each year. For some, re-signing to stay on board with the team that originally drafted them is the desired route, but for others, a change of scenery (and millions of more dollars) is too hard to pass up.

When a player changes teams via free agency, the move not only directly impacts his own play on the field, but also the play of others around him. With this in mind, let’s take a look at 10 players who are set to benefit from the moves of free agency thus far in 2017:

1. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

After bursting onto the scene with four straight 100-yard efforts in his first four career starts as a rookie in 2015, Gurley failed to reach 90 rushing yards in any game during the 2016 season. Gurley forced an impressive 42 missed tackles on 229 carries his first year, but followed that up with a disappointing 28 in 278 carries during his sophomore campaign.

While Gurley is certainly at fault to some degree for his poor 2016, running behind one of the worst offensive lines in football didn’t help. He carried the ball 59 times for 143 yards (2.4 YPC) running outside the left tackle position in 2016, and the Rams ranked 26th in run-blocking grade as a team.

The team made a huge splash in free agency by luring longtime Cincinnati Bengal left tackle Andrew Whitworth to the organization. Whitworth has graded out at 85.6 or better in every season since 2009, and has four seasons over 90.0 (which is considered elite), including three of the last four years. His presence is an immediate boost to Gurley and the Rams’ running game as a whole. (Gurley’s fantasy stock should jump with this move as well.)

2. Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles invested a ton of ammo to move up in the draft to select quarterback Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. After an up-and-down rookie season, Wentz ended the year as the 21st-ranked quarterback overall in PFF grades.

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From a production standpoint, the Eagles had one of the most disappointing wide receiver units in the league. Wentz had 36 passes dropped on the season, second most behind the Raiders’ Derek Carr (37). The team got significantly better at the position through free agency, where they signed both Alshon Jeffery (a legitimate top-10 talent) and Torrey Smith (a deep threat who should bounce back out of San Francisco).

For comparison purposes, Jeffery has had 19 drops in 323 catchable targets in his career. Dorial Green-Beckham, Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor had 20 drops on 165 targets in 2016 alone. With one year under his belt and a much-improved supporting cast, Wentz is primed for a big year in 2017.

3. Terrelle Pryor, WR, Washington Redskins

There are some notable examples of players who changed positions and succeeded in recent memory, including Julian Edelman (from QB to WR) and Ryan Tannehill (from WR to QB). With that said, it is rare for a player to change positions in the middle of his career at the NFL level, as Pryor did in 2016.

Pryor, a former standout quarterback at Ohio State University, was originally drafted as a signal-caller by the Oakland Raiders in 2011. After struggling to adjust to the position at the professional level, Pryor reinvented himself into a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns in 2016.

His freakish athletic ability made the transition a lot smoother than anyone could have anticipated, as he recorded 77 receptions and 1,007 yards. Arguably the most impressive stat was that he only had six dropped passes; for comparison purposes, All-Pro Julio Jones (who was the top-graded WR in the league at 96.4) also had six dropped passes on roughly the same number of receptions (83) on the season.

Pryor will continue to develop as a wide receiver, and he is now joining an offense with a top-10 quarterback in Kirk Cousins (85.9) and one who lost their top two wideouts to free agency in DeSean Jackson (56-1,005-4) and Pierre Garcon (79-1,041-3).

4. Dwayne Allen, TE, New England Patriots

Fresh off their fifth Super Bowl since 2001, the Patriots wasted no time in the offseason looking ahead to 2017. The team acquired Indianapolis Colts tight end Allen and a sixth-round pick for a fourth-round pick, similar to the deal that brought in tight end Martellus Bennett from the Chicago Bears just one year ago.

In Allen, the Patriots are getting another big-bodied (6-foot-3, 265) red-zone threat to pair with the best tight end in football, Rob Gronkowski. Injuries are always a concern for Gronk, who missed the last eight games of the regular season and all of the playoffs recovering from another back surgery.

If Gronkowski is unable to stay healthy again, Allen would play a crucial part in arguably the league’s best offense. With that said, a healthy Gronk will not take away from the value of Allen for a team who has traditionally played a lot of two-TE sets over the years.

5. Whoever is playing quarterback for the Cleveland Browns

At this point, who is taking snaps under center for the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 of the 2017 season is one of the league’s biggest unknowns. With that said, it is safe to assume that whoever it is will be well-protected behind arguably the most-improved offensive line in the league.

Left tackle Joe Thomas is undoubtedly on his way to the Hall of Fame and has graded out at 86.7 or better in every season since being drafted in 2007. Unfortunately for the Browns, the rest of the line hasn’t been so stable. The team surrendered a league-high 33 sacks in 2016, and 197 total pressures (ninth most).

The additions of center J.C. Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler through free agency have turned a major weakness of the Browns to one that is now the strength of the roster. Whether the team decides to start second-year quarterback Cody Kessler or a rookie through the draft, the quarterback will have every opportunity to succeed in 2017.

6. Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Giants

Marshall had the worst season of his career in 2016 (71.7) since his rookie year of 2006. Poor quarterback play and overall the dysfunction of the New York Jets’ offense can largely be blamed for the sudden decline. He recorded only 59 receptions on the 121 times he has targeted, giving him a catch percentage of 48.8, which ranked 114th out of 119 wide receivers.

Although Eli Manning is on the downswing of his career, he is a clear upgrade over the Jets’ quarterbacks of a season ago. Marshall will line up opposite one of the most exciting players in the game in Odell Beckham Jr. and standout rookie Sterling Shepard in the slot.

The Giants played a three-WR formation 90 percent of the time in 2016, by far the highest in the league and well above the league average of 59 percent. With a better supporting cast and the motivation of playing on a contending team, Marshall should bounce back in a big way in 2017.

7. Dante Fowler Jr., Edge, Jacksonville Jaguars

Fowler was drafted with the third overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but missed his entire rookie season after suffering a torn ACL on his first day of mini-camp. In his first full season as a starter, Fowler graded out well against the run, but struggled as a pass-rusher, registering just four sacks on the year.

There is plenty of reason to believe Fowler will have a much better 2017, aside from the fact he will be two full years removed from a major injury. The Jaguars made two significant moves in free agency that should help Fowler’s progression as a player in defensive lineman Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye.

(Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Campbell (90.4) and Bouye (90.9) ranked second and third at their respective positions in 2016. In the case of Campbell, he will be paired inside with defensive tackle Malik Jackson (84.0), making it likely that Fowler will see a lot of one-on-one matchups off the edge. Bouye will team with rookie standout Jalen Ramsey (who was the top graded corner in the league Weeks 13-17) to present matchup problems on the outside, making a formidable pass-rush more likely for Fowler and company.

8. Ted Ginn Jr., WR, New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints needed to find a down-the-field threat to replace Brandin Cooks and they were able to address that need in free agency with Ginn, actually bringing him in before the Cooks trade was even official. The former first-round pick has graded out at a respectable 72.9 in back-to-back seasons after struggling to contribute much aside from special teams earlier on in his career.

In Ginn, the Saints are getting a player who is dangerous on deep balls (20-plus yards), where he recorded all four of his touchdowns in 2016. Cooks was targeted on these routes 24 times and with him no longer in the fold, Ginn should be the clear beneficiary of that role in New Orleans.

Another factor working in Ginn’s favor is moving from the Panthers (typically a run-first, clock-killing offense) to the Saints (a faster-paced, more vertical offense). He has never played with a quarterback on the level of a Drew Brees, who can still sling it, as evidenced by his 1,250 yards on deep balls a season ago, second most in the league.

9. Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Winston finished the 2016 season with a grade of 77.5, 20th at the quarterback position. The former No. 1 overall pick failed to take his game to the next level in his second season, which led to the team addressing his weapons through free agency in 2017.

Tampa Bay has one of the most dynamic playmakers around the league in wide receiver Mike Evans, but little else behind him. Evans was targeted 39 times on deep balls, which resulted in 13 receptions, 372 yards and six touchdowns. The rest of the Buccaneers’ wide receivers combined for 25 targets (six receptions, 168 yards and four touchdowns).

Insert DeSean Jackson — one of the best deep threats in the league since being drafted in 2008. Jackson was targeted on deep balls 32 times in 2016, resulting in 16 receptions, 579 yards and three touchdowns. 36.0 percent of his targets all season long were on deep throws, third most in the league. Getting Winston a strong second weapon should be a boon to his development.

10. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

When future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson suddenly retired following the 2015 season, there was reason to believe that Stafford would take a step back in 2016. Surprisingly, Stafford actually recorded the best-graded season of his career (85.4), despite playing the end of the season with a dislocated finger and torn ligaments in his hand.

The Lions made two of the biggest splashes in free agency when they landed right tackle Ricky Wagner (84.5) and guard T.J. Lang (87.0). Not only does each of them significantly improve what was a weak offensive line unit, it is worth pointing out that the strength of each is the pass-blocking aspect of their game.

With one of the best offensive lines in football in front of him and presumed health coming into the season, Stafford has the opportunity to improve upon his career-best year in 2017 for the Lions.

| Analyst

Ryan Smith has been an analyst for Pro Football Focus since 2015. He is featured on the weekly ACC podcast, and is also the Philadelphia Eagles Media Correspondent for PFF.

  • Phong Ta

    I’m excited to see Stafford play this season. I was a firm believer that he’d actually benefit from Megatron’s retirement because he would finally be forced to go through all of his progressions. With Calvin Johnson around Stafford formed a bad habit of going through just one or two reads and if they weren’t immediately open he’d just chuck it Johnson’s way, double/triple coverage and all

    In 2016 though Stafford made a huge leap in his ability to scan the field because he no longer had Johnson as a safety blanket to default to. Between his progression into a more cerebral QB and what should be an improved O-Line in 2017 I think that trend will continue as he takes another step forward in his development

    • MikeD_VABeach

      Yeah…. That, and Calvin Johnson seemed to always hit the ground after every catch the past couple seasons. Not a ton of YAC yards…

  • Ian MacDonald

    You can take Dante Fowler off this list. Calais Campbell just took his spot. Jaguars may be using him more as a stand up linebacker and weak side pass rusher, rotating with Yannick Ngakoue. This may help him on third down, but he’s going to have less snaps this year.

    • Ryan Smith

      Fowler only played about 50% of the snaps last year and it was essentially his rookie season. Highly doubt he’s going below 50 as a top-5 pick entering his second full season

      • Ian MacDonald

        As I said, they may use him more as a stand up/strong side linebacker, actually closer to what he played in college. Calais Campbell will be the starter at RDE and Yannick Ngakoue will be the starter at the LDE.

        Fowler will be on the field on third down/passing situations when Abry Jones comes off the field. Campbell will kick inside and Fowler will be the RDE with Ngakoue at LDE. He will rotate some with Ngakoue at LDE, but Ngakoue showed he is the better pass rusher at that position last year and will play more snaps there than Fowler will.

        Regardless of what you don’t know about the Jaguars roster, Fowler is not the greatly benefitting from the Campbell signing, certainly not enough to make this top 10 list.

        • Ryan Smith

          Ngakoue was actually far worse than Fowler last year – he was graded as our 103rd out of 109 qualifying edge players in the league last year and was dead last in run defense. Considering that, Campbell being 30 years old and the fact his percentage of snaps has dropped in each of the last 4 years, and the fact the team invested a top 5 pick in Fowler and is finally going to be 100% healthy, I think it’s fair to go with that..

          • Ryan Smith

            For that reason, and since Fowler was much better against the run, he is far more of a lock to open the season as a starter. If a guy was the worst edge guy in the league defending the run, he shouldn’t be playing on running downs, especially not over a guy who was just drafted in the top 5. Jags have to see what they have in the kid, again it’s important to point out 0 chance he was 100% healthy last year just a year removed from a torn ACL, he should be much better this year, thus being mentioned here.

          • Ian MacDonald

            Then why do depth charts have him listed behind Ngakoue? Fowler will be a bust if they continue to play him in the edge rusher position. Yes, he’s a good run defender, but he was drafted to pressure the quarterback, something he has not proven to be able to do consistently. And that is without mentioning the bad penalties he took. While at Florida, he was most effective when coming from a stand up position, not a three point. Even with that, he had only 10.5 sacks in his career against Power 5 teams. Not to mention he turned in a 3 cone drill that is worse than many Defensive Tackles. I agree, he will play because they need to see what they have, but they need to go back and evaluate how to best use him, and that’s not as a defensive end in their current scheme. The Otto position would have suited him well, but that may be gone under the new DC. All in all, the edge rusher position will be a committee for Jacksonville until they find a capable player of filling that role. Ngakoue is not the answer and neither is Fowler, but they are both solid rotational pieces.

          • Ian MacDonald

            Here is Fowler’s scouting profile from your very own Nathan Jahnke at PFF:

            “While he is suited to play on any team, he would be better off in a 3-4 because he has been more successful rushing from a linebacker position. When the opposing quarterback had a five-step drop, Fowler had a Pass Rushing Productivity of 16.8 when rushing as a linebacker, and 7.9 as a defensive end. When the quarterback went on a seven-step drop, he had a PRP of 41.3 from a linebacker position on 23 rushes compared to 15.9 from his 33 snaps as a defensive end.”

          • Ryan Smith

            It’s not even fair to say “this is what Fowler is” considering he was coming off a major surgery. Clowney struggled with injuries and then look what he turned into when he got healthy. I’m not saying Fowler is Clowney, but you can’t label a guy a bust or someone who isn’t productive without a fair assessment of him. The guy is going to get every chance to make it happen this year for various reasons stated. I stand by this – you can get back to me in December if Fowler is playing 45% of the snaps and has 4 sacks haha

          • Ryan Smith

            Where did I say he wouldn’t be more effective in a 3-4? Jags don’t play a 3-4, so there’s nothing more to even say. Guys adapt and adjust with more playing time and experience, again the guy is coming off his first year in the pros. Whether he is playing OLB or DE, the point remains the same.

          • Ryan Smith

            Like I said, if Fowler is a complete bust this year you can let me know about it so we’ll pick this up at a different time. You can follow me on twitter @RSmith534 and we can chat some more – it’s all in good conversation!

          • Ian MacDonald

            This proves my point. He’s not a hand in the ground pass rusher. Should they move him to OLB, now Pozlusney or Jack has to sit. If he was head and shoulders above Ngakoue it would have shown, and the coaches would have started Fowler over him. The defense just got deeper at his position, and could get even deeper with the development of Jonathan Woodard and the possibility of Solomon Thomas at No. 4. I’d be willing to bet there are plenty of other players out there that benefitted greater. How about Isaiah Crowell? Tom Brady? Or as someone else mentioned Cameron Meredith? Derek Carr? Dante Fowler is not the clear beneficiary of Campbell’s arrival, and there are certainly others in the league that have benefited greater from their teams moves.

          • Ryan Smith

            Tom Brady just had arguably the best season of his career and won another Super Bowl – the intention of this article is to talk about guys who can take their game to another level based on what’s happened in free agency.

            Carr was a legitimate MVP candidate before he went down hurt so again, what’s the sense in talking about the game’s elite from a season ago? They are already at the top of their game…

            Meredith? Sure, I guess you could say that. But it’s not like he wasn’t the #1 WR for half of last year with Jeffery’s issues. Plus White is going to be back this year as well.

          • Ian MacDonald

            Brady just added Cooks, arguably the best WR he’s had since Moss, Burkhead, and Dwayne Allen, on top of what he already had. He’s still benefitting more than Fowler.

            Carr finally got a legitimate TE in Cook, added another deep threat in Patterson. Still benefits more than Fowler.

            Meredith is the WR1 now. White can’t stay healthy, and hasn’t flashed solid play much when he was.

            Crowell just added two solid/great pieces to the offensive line in front of him. He now runs behind Joe Thomas, Kevin Zeitler, and JC Tretter. He’s perhaps benefitting more than Gurley on this list. The same type of argument could be made for Ameer Abdullah.

            Melvin Gordon? They added a LT finally in Russel Okung, and the thorn in his side, Danny Woodhead is gone. Benefits more than Fowler.

            Breshad Perriman? Steve Smith retired and Kyle Juszczyk and Kamar Aiken are gone. 200+ targets to make up for.

            The list goes on, but I won’t. There are plenty of people that benefitted far more than Fowler.

          • Ryan Smith

            You’re missing the whole point of the article. If you want to tell me that Tom Brady has a better season than he had a year ago, which is literally almost impossible, then okay.

            I had a post about the Browns’ offensive line additions already……

            Carr is going to take his game to another level because they signed a huge bust WR that hasn’t contributed off of special teams his whole career?!?!

            Come on man lol. You’re mentioning a bunch of guys who already had a great last season (they aren’t exactly coming out of nowhere) or a guys who are already considered the best at their position……

            Nice chat – take care!

  • Frank Yi

    Didn’t Jameis have deep accuracy issues last season? Does he benefit from having DeSean, who is one of the best deep threats in the league, or does he waste that with his accuracy problems? I could see arguments to be made for both sides: QB with deep accuracy issues could misfire on a lot of targets (ie Brock Osweiler – not that I’m saying that these two are anywhere equivalent, but that Brock didn’t help his WRs at all), or a great WR helps his QB look better (ie Randy Moss with every QB he ever played with)

  • crosseyedlemon

    If things go bad for the Giants offense the NY media won’t waste a second trying to create a controversy involving Marshall and Beckham. It’s going to be very interesting to see if these guys can keep their egos in check under that kind of pressure.

    • Ryan Smith

      Good point, that is definitely something to consider

      • crosseyedlemon

        For players in New York, the media is often a more relentless opponent than the guys on the opposite sidelines.

  • Dale Crawford

    Cameron Meredith?

    • Ryan Smith

      He’s another possibility, only had room for 10 haha

  • crosseyedlemon

    The 49ers punter will have a golden opportunity to shine this year if Brian Hoyer is put in charge of the offense.

  • Pig Skin

    Why is Todd Gurly at number one? Is one offensive linemen really gonna make that much of a difference to put him an number one? I don’t think so, sure Andrew Witworth is great but…

  • Pig Skin

    I never questioned Gurleys talent. This list is about how much a player is going to improve after this offeseason, but there offesnisive line is still not sturdy enough just like last year. Hes not going to see a huge leap in production for two reasons. Number one he’s already fairly productive as is. You even said yourself that defenses need to focus their attention on him. Secondly the signing of Andrew Whiteorth is not impactful enough run blocker to boost Gurly up to the number one spot by himself. Sure he can pass block but the focus is Todd Gurley. I’m not saying it’s not going to be impactful at all I’m saying it shouldent be at the number one spot.

    • Ryan Smith

      The list isn’t ranked in any particular order 1-10, it’s just simply 10 players in general….