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NFL Free Agency Recap

With the “legal tampering” window really just open season at this point, the beginning of free agency week is always a madhouse. While the Rotoworld News Page is the best option for all the up-to-the-second news, the sheer volume of blurbs can make it difficult to pick out the most important tidbits for fantasy football. With that in mind, here is a quick rundown of all the free agency action at the fantasy positions. The Free Agent Tracker and Transaction Tracker are also great ways to stay in the loop.

Trade Machine
It is easy to forget this “free agency period” really started at the end of January when Washington traded for Alex Smith, and the Browns set the market ablaze by making four trades including deals to bring in Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry over the weekend. Along with taking two teams out of the quarterback market, these deals created some interesting fantasy situations.

For Smith, it is tough to see much of a change from a fantasy perspective. Smith actually averaged more dropbacks per game than Kirk Cousins last season and just 1.5 fewer than when Cousins attempted 606 passes in 2016. Certain to convert more of his dropbacks into scrambles – Smith has scrambled on 6.8 percent of his dropbacks over the last three years while Cousins’ season-high over that period was four percent last year – Smith probably will attempt fewer passes than Cousins has averaged since taking over the starting job (563), but their per attempt passing numbers will likely be similar.

Smith can also make up any passing difference on the ground. Those extra scrambles will lead to more rushing yards, and Smith will not be short touchdown opportunities. Even with guys like Cousins and Andy Dalton running the show, Jay Gruden’s quarterbacks have averaged 3.1 rushing scores over the last seven seasons, and Cousins has averaged 4.7 attempts inside the 10 over the last three years. All of that is the long way of saying Smith has a good shot to remain in the mid-tier starter range both he and Cousins occupied last season.

It is tougher to project Landry’s and Taylor’s fantasy futures. For Landry, his value relies on volume. While he can boost his per-catch numbers with good after the catch ability, YAC is not a particularly sticky stat for receivers not named Golden Tate, so relying on it for Landry’s efficiency is foolhardy. More important is his consistent usage near the line of scrimmage, usage Hue Jackson also employed for Mohamed Sanu and Andrew Hawkins in the recent past. Unless he is used more downfield in Cleveland, Landry will once again need elite volume to stick in that WR2 range, and he might not get it.

Josh Gordon commanded a 25.8 percent target share after he returned last season, Cleveland had the fourth-lowest pass rate in one-score games last year, and Tyrod was never asked to throw more than 29 times per game during his three seasons in Buffalo. There is a good chance Cleveland attempts considerably fewer pass than Miami averaged during Landry’s time there, and he has a bigger potential threat to his target share. This feels like a downgrade.

As for Taylor, he will likely continue to do Tyrod things – DeShone Kizer rushed for 419 yards and five scores last season – but his long-term place atop the depth chart is questionable at best. Cleveland is still likely to invest one of their top-five selections in a quarterback, and Taylor will be a free agent after this season. Jackson has said he does not want to start a rookie Week 1, which is why they traded for Taylor in the first place, but it is not tough to imagine Taylor losing his job to the rookie fairly quickly. That possibility does not matter for his streaming value, which should still be substantial thanks to his rushing ability, but it does make him a less appealing option in best ball formats.

As the Quarterbacks Turn
The biggest name in the quarterback market was unquestionably Kirk Cousins, and, unsurprisingly, he landed in the best available fantasy destination. Over the second half of last season with Stefon Diggs healthy, Case Keenum scored the fourth-most fantasy points among quarterbacks and averaged the third-most points per drop back, all without Dalvin Cook in the backfield. Even with the talent Cousins had at his disposal early in his Washington run, Minnesota has more weapons on offense than he has ever played with, and he has matched what Keenum was able to do last season on a per attempt basis in the past. It is tough to see Cousins falling out of the mid-tier starter range he established himself in last season, and he has the upside to be an every-week option in this offense.

Even before the Vikings officially moved on to Cousins, Keenum had found his new home in Denver, a destination which does not offer quite as much as Minnesota but does boast a quality receiver duo. Things went off the rails last season, but Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders averaged a combined 2,277 yards the two years before that with a broken down Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, and Trevor Siemian at the wheel.

The bigger concern is Keenum regressing from his career effort last season. Before last year, Keenum had never completed more than 61 percent of his passes, had never had a touchdown rate above 3.6 percent, and had never had an adjusted yard per attempt average over 6.9. Those numbers were 67.6 percent, 4.6 percent, and 7.6 last season. Perhaps he is just a late bloomer and this is his new normal – he did only have 777 career attempts coming into last season – but it would not be surprising to see him regress. It will be tough to invest in Keenum as anything more than a late-round flier or two-quarterback option.

The other early quarterback news came from the Cardinals, Jets, and Bills, with New York and Arizona both agreeing to terms with two signal callers during the tampering period. New York signed the more interesting duo in Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater while Arizona “addressed” their literal hole at the position by signing both Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon. Especially with both teams likely to add a quarterback in the draft, there is not much to get excited about here, although McCown has reportedly been told he will be the starter and averaged the 15th-most fantasy points per game among quarterbacks last season.

As for Buffalo, they at least waited until free agency officially opened to sign A.J. McCarron to a two-year deal. McCarron did not do much to suggest he is going to be a fantasy star in his essentially five-game run as the Bengals’ starter in 2015, especially with the pass-catching talent available in Buffalo, and the Bills are reportedly still going to be aggressive as they attempt to move up for a quarterback in the draft. At this point, there is little reason to get excited about McCarron’s fantasy prospects.

Why Dion? Why?
Heading into this week, Dion Lewis seemed as if he would emerge as the most fantasy appealing of all the free agent backs. Arguably the top back available, Lewis seemed destined for a situation in which he could finally assert his dominance, becoming the solid RB1 his career .76 fantasy points per touch average suggests he can be. Unfortunately, he signed in Tennessee, a backfield he will have to at best share with Derrick Henry.

On the bright side, there is reason to believe this situation will create enough opportunity for both Lewis and Henry to be fantasy factors. New OC Matt LaFleur was in Atlanta when both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman finished as top-20 running backs in 2016, and LaFleur coordinated an offense which gave Todd Gurley a whopping 343 touches in just 15 games last season including 87 targets. Barring injury, it seems unlikely Lewis gets enough work to be a top-12 option, but he can still be a solid RB2 even with Henry around.

With Lewis out the door, the Patriots were facing a potentially big hole at running back, but they helped fill the gap by re-signing Rex Burkhead to a three-year contract. Burkhead was only healthy for 10 games last season and only touched the ball 10 or more times in five of those contests, but the opportunity is there for a much bigger role if New England does not bring anyone else in during the rest of free agency or the draft. Unfortunately, it is likely they will, and it is tough to judge how valuable Burkhead can be without knowing who that player is, how much New England spends, and what happens with Mike Gillislee, who could still be cut.

It would have been nice to see Lewis land in San Francisco, but they ended up bringing in a different intriguing fantasy asset in Jerick McKinnon. Occasionally given a starter’s workload but more often a complementary player in Minnesota, McKinnon’s four-year, $30 million contract strongly suggests the 49ers plan for him to be more than that, and he is entering a situation short 240 carries and 88 backfield targets following Carlos Hyde’s departure to Cleveland. If he commands a large chunk of that, McKinnon will be in a good position for fantasy success under Kyle Shanahan, who has coached a top-15 fantasy back in six of his 10 seasons running an offense including five of the last six.

~Hyde’s new situation is not as exciting, but it could be if the Browns actually commit to using him. Despite losing Joe Thomas, the Browns still have one of the better offensive lines around, the running game was relatively effective last season when they got the chance, and it would be tough for their game script to get much worse – Cleveland trailed on 76 percent of their offensive snaps in 2017. All of that said, Isaiah Crowell paints a troublesome picture for a player of Hyde’s skill set in this offense.

Despite seeing 88 targets last season, Hyde is not effective in the passing game – he was benched at times for his performance last year – and is certainly not a better option than Duke Johnson. As it did with Crowell, that puts a cap on his potential usage, and his scoring upside is at best questionable playing for a team which scored on a league-worst 22 percent of their drives last season. There is still upside here on a roster which is better than people think, especially with what should be an improved quarterback situation, but this has to be viewed as a downgrade for Hyde.

Finally, Crowell found himself a new home after leaving Cleveland, signing a three-year deal with the Jets. With Bilal Powell around to steal touches like Duke Johnson did with the Browns, a worse offensive line, and a scarcely better offensive situation, it is tough to see this move as an upgrade for his fantasy value. Barring a change, Crowell still looks like a bottom-barrel RB3 type.

He got how much?
Of all the money spent over the first several days of free agency, some of the more interesting contracts came at receiver. That said, the top of the market looks reasonable, with Allen Robinson landing a three-year, $42 million deal from the Bears and Sammy Watkins nabbing a three-year, $48 million contract from the Chiefs.

Of the two, Robinson is the more interesting fantasy asset. Entering a situation with nearly 300 targets up for grabs, little target competition outside of Cameron Meredith – if another team does not poach him with an offer sheet – and new additions Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel, and a good offensive coach in Matt Nagy, the opportunity is there for Robinson to return to the WR1 ranks if he is healthy and Mitchell Trubisky takes a step forward.

That said, Robinson was not great the last time we saw him in 2016, dropping nine of 82 catchable targets according to Pro Football Focus and averaging just .85 fantasy points per target, and he is coming off a serious injury. Those concerns will hopefully keep Robinson’s draft cost manageable, but his evident upside may prove too difficult for the drafting public to overlook. As an aside, Gabriel is suddenly very interesting in an offense coordinated by the guy who helped Tyreek Hill to a top-five fantasy season last year.

Watkins’ landing spot comes with considerably less opportunity than Robinson’s. In the 15 games they played together last season, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce commanded 45 percent of Alex Smith’s targets with Kareem Hunt soaking up another 12.5 percent. Watkins certainly was not given all of that money to ride the bench, but it is fair to wonder how high his target share can climb with those three players also in the offense. Add in the fact he will be playing with a first-year starter on an offense which has not attempted more than 550 passes since Andy Reid took over, and it is difficult to see a path to 110 targets. Perhaps he can score enough touchdowns and make enough big plays to climb into the top-24 on that workload, but that might be his ceiling barring an injury.

The rest of the market was interesting. The Ravens were one of the most receiver-needy teams, so it is in no way surprising they landed two pass catchers early in free agency. The first of those deals, a one-year, $5 million contract for John Brown, looks like good business. Brown was on the path to stardom before injuries derailed his career the last two seasons, and taking a one-year flier on a guy who could be the No. 1 option in the passing game makes a lot of sense.

Ryan Grant’s four-year, $29 million deal with $14.5 million guaranteed is more difficult to comprehend. Grant did play reasonably well in a bigger role with Washington last season, parlaying 65 targets into 45 catches for 573 yards and four scores, all career-highs. Still, he did not look like a guy you build your passing attack around, and nothing in his profile screams No. 1 receiver. Perhaps he is this year’s Robert Woods, but betting on him in fantasy is a pure opportunity play, especially considering the offense he is joining.

Albert Wilson, who joined the Dolphins on a three-year, $24 million contract, would have been a much more interesting volume flier than Grant coming off a solid season in Kansas City, but the air was taken out of his balloon when Miami added Danny Amendola on a two-year, $12 million deal a few hours later. With Jarvis Landry and his 161 targets out the door, there is room for a high-volume receiver in this offense even if DeVante Parker finally takes a step forward, but picking the right guy could prove difficult.

The same thing can be said of Jacksonville after they re-signed Marqise Lee and brought Donte Moncrief into a receiver room already featuring Dede Westbrook, Allen Hurns, and Keelan Cole. After fielding 21.8 percent of the targets when he was healthy last season, Lee will likely return as the No. 1 option, but that role was barely enough to get him in the top 50 among per game scorers in 2017. With Moncrief added to the group and Westbrook and Cole potentially taking a step forward in year two, this could again be a receiver corps to avoid for fantasy purposes.

Finally, Paul Richardson landed a five-year, $40 million contract which included $20 million guaranteed from the Redskins. It is a rich deal for a player who struggled with injuries early in his career and just topped 300 yards for the first time last season. He went for 44/703/6 last year, however, and has all the makings of a dangerous deep threat.

Like the receivers in Miami and Jacksonville, his biggest fantasy concern moving forward is target congestion, but it is less of a concern than it might appear. Jordan Reed will demand targets when he is healthy, but the “healthy” part is a major concern. Josh Doctson is talented, but he has yet to prove he can be a consistent contributor.

Moreover, Richardson does not need to see 125 targets to be fantasy useful. DeSean Jackson finished as the WR17 on 95 targets in 2014 and the WR30 on 100 targets in 2016 as the deep threat in this offense. Richardson is not the deep threat Jackson was, but considering what Alex Smith was able to do down the field last season, there is reason to believe he and Richardson can recreate that kind of production. He may not out produce the top two guys, but he is the most interesting of the also-rans.  

Golden Graham
After signing a three-year contract with the Packers, Jimmy Graham looks extremely likely to remain a locked-in TE1. His new team is quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers, and there are red-zone targets up for grabs with Jordy Nelson out the door. That said, it might be wise to temper the fantasy excitement at least a little bit.

Green Bay has not been a quality offense for tight end production since Jermichael Finley finished as the TE5 in 2011, and while the level of talent at the position certainly has something to do with that, Jared Cook floated in and out of the offense even when he was healthy two years ago while Martellus Bennett averaged 36 yards with zero scores in the six games he played with Rodgers last season.

More than that, Graham was not particularly good last season despite scoring 10 touchdowns. He caught under 60 percent of his targets while averaging a paltry 9.1 yards per catch despite playing with Russell Wilson. Of course, Graham did catch 10 touchdowns, and scoring opportunities should be aplenty in Green Bay. Still, a big bounce back in the yardage department may not be as likely as it appears on the surface.

The other big signing at tight end was Trey Burton, who got a four-year, $32 million deal from the Bears as they look to remake their pass-catching corps. It is a lot of money for a player who has 63 career catches to his name, but there are reasons to believe he can be a top-12 fantasy tight end.

Burton played four games without Zach Ertz in the last two seasons, averaging three and a half catches for 45 yards and a touchdown in those contests including a 5/71/2 performance against the Rams late last year. Bears coach Matt Nagy also oversaw an offense in Kansas City which topped the league in tight end target rate each of the last two seasons. There is a real concern Burton ends up overvalued, but TE1 upside is there.

The Road Ahead
Watching Jordy Nelson late last season, it is easy to understand why many would think he is washed, but there is at least some reason for optimism. In the five full games he played with Aaron Rodgers last season, Nelson averaged 4.4 catches for 52 yards and 1.2 touchdowns while catching 64.7 percent of his targets. The worst of those games came when Rodgers came back late in the season, however, and aside from the touchdowns, those numbers would still have been a big decrease from where he was in 2016. His landing spot will be interesting, but it will be important not to overvalue him regardless of where he lands.

It was not surprising to see Eric Ebron get cut, but it is worth noting the perception of him as a player probably undersells his talent. He certainly has been infuriatingly inconsistent, but Ebron averaged 47 yards per game with three scores and a 66.7 percent catch rate over his final 10 games last season, ranking in as the TE6 over that span. Still not 25 for another month, it remains likely Ebron’s best football is ahead of him. He remains a solid buy-low in Dynasty.

It is not particularly surprising the Seahawks are completely remolding their backfield after what has happened the last two seasons, but it was still interesting they did not even tender Mike Davis or Thomas Rawls. Chris Carson, C.J. Prosise, and J.D. McKissic will be back, but this feels like a prime landing spot for an overvalued veteran like DeMarco Murray.

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