In the two-plus weeks since the start of the new league year, the NFL has seen its typical flurry of activity with high impact signings every day and few of the top free agents remaining on the market. In many instances, save for the top of the class at each position, we’ll have to wait and see how things play out in terms of the draft, organized team activities and training camp to gain a true understanding of how the situation looks for each individual player in terms of their 2014 impact but it isn’t hard to assess which players have arrived in more favorable situations and which have found themselves in a less desirable context.
We’re still waiting on a few fantasy relevant names to sign (Update: with DeSean Jackson’s signing, reviewed here, we’re not waiting on all that much…) but these players aren’t likely to have a big 2014 impact and with the signing of Knowshon Moreno by the Miami Dolphins, the last significant offensive domino appears to have fallen.0
Generally speaking, we’ll discuss players who are tangentially affected by a signing as part of the overall winner/loser bullet, unless in those cases where it warrants its own discussion. With that, lets take a look at some of fantasy football’s 2014 free agency winners and losers. The points below are intended to be a high level analysis, rather than deep statistical details but debate is welcomed. Share your views on winners and losers in the comments section.
Free Agency Winners: Quarterback
Josh McCown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A career backup, McCown has earned his opportunity to vie for a starting job. After going 3-2 as the starter in Chicago last season while completing 66.5% of his passes (13:1 TD:INT) it looks like he has the stuff to be at least a league average QB this season. He couldn’t have found himself in a more favorable situation to compete for the job either, with a coach who knows him in Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay’s first year coach who is clearly not as enamored with 2013 rookie Mike Glennon as was his predecessor.
Should he win the job, he’ll find the overall offensive situation less favorable than with the Bears, and he won’t have QB whisperer Marc Trestman on his side. That said, Vincent Jackson represents a very capable WR1 target and if Mike Williams can straighten things out after injury and a tumultuous offseason the top two are a lot better than they could have been in some other potential McCown landing spots. Tampa could still draft a QB, or Glennon could force Lovie’s hand with a strong camp, but for now it looks like we’re going to get a chance to see what McCown can do as starter out of the gate. Those investing in him, beware that if Tampa struggles early it makes sense to give a young guy a shot as the season moves along than stick with a soon to be 35-year-old starter.
Matt Schaub, Oakland Raiders
After a thoroughly disappointing 2013, Mr. Pick Six is getting a fresh start in Oakland. After his signing (and subsequent restructuring) Schaub was immediately named the starter by coach Dennis Allen. It makes sense, despite a strong enough debut from Matt McGloin that the team views him as a strong backup option, Schaub is clearly the best QB on the roster. We’ll talk about the addition of James Jones below, but while Schaub does find himself with a downgrade in overall offensive context, he’s starting somewhere which didn’t project to be the case in Houston.
Still, he’s starting somewhere and with a variety of speedsters on the roster could find that he gets some easy passing yards on screens, slants and the like. You won’t see Schaub in the draftable range in standard leagues next season, but he finds himself with the Raiders in one of the only clear paths he would have had to the starting job.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
I don’t want to make too much out of the addition of Hakeem Nicks, and we’ll discuss his signing as the post moves along, but with a presumed return to the field of Reggie Wayne, Luck finds himself with the best trio of receivers he has had in his brief career with Wayne, Nicks and T.Y. Hilton each filling their appropriate role in the passing game. He’ll get Dwayne Allen back as well, leaving him with three capable receivers and two pass catching tight ends – which is much further along than he was to close 2013 with Droppius Heyward-Bey and co. logging meaningful snaps.
Free Agency Losers: Quarterback
Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As stated above, Josh McCown is the current projected starting QB. Under the Schiano regime, Glennon was ‘the guy’ but it is clear the new guard feels otherwise. Those who thought they’d found some intrigue in dynasty leagues will be disappointed, at least in the early stages of the season.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton has never failed to finish inside the top four at his position in his three NFL seasons, and he has done it without a proven secondary option at WR outside of Steve Smith. Now, he no longer as Smith, Brandon LaFell or Ted Ginn Jr. who each made occasional strong contributions in 2013.
Of course, Newton has done much of his damage with his legs so the lack of proven pass catchers doesn’t tank his fantasy value but ankle surgery and a subsequent four month recovery may slow him down in the early part of the season (though, a healthier ankle should help not hinder his mobility) and will also affect Newton’s ability to get on the same page as a completely fresh receiving corps. We saw in New England last season that the feat is not always easy to achieve, and without time to prepare Newton and the Panthers should be significantly concerned. Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood will be discussed momentarily, and each had some positives in 2013, but we shouldn’t mistake this for anything but one of the least exciting fantasy receiver corps in the league.
Carolina must be going to address the position in the draft, but there certainly isn’t much to like on the roster at the moment, and Newton’s recovery timeline complicates matters. One could argue however, that Greg Olsen is a free agency winner, given the fact that he is the only remaining proven pass catcher with whom Newton has a rapport.
Geno Smith, New York Jets
Whether Michael Vick was brought in to push Geno Smith, or to supplant him as the starter (my present lean is toward the latter, particularly given his familiarity with Marty Mornhinweg’s offense) the veteran’s presence does not signal good things for Smith. Losing Santonio Holmes is a moot point, but whether Vick starts out of the gate or is brought in to replace Smith at some later date the move does not help his value. I don’t see this as the Jets giving up on Smith, but I do think in terms of fantasy value it takes him off the radar for at least 2014.
From a fantasy perspective, Vick remains on the table as a player of interest if he earns the starting nod in New York but his inability to stay healthy in recent years coupled with the downgrade in offensive context (line, receivers, run game, all of it…) precludes him from QB1 consideration while with the Jets. As for Geno, it’s almost a shame as he showed some intrigue in his late season efforts going 3-2 in December with an improved completion percentage and seven total touchdowns to just three interceptions.
Free Agency Winners: Running Back
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
Sproles may not be a massive winner here, as things have worked out pretty well for him in New Orleans as part of an offense that heavily favors the running back in the passing game. With that said, his path to workload should be much more clear factoring in behind McCoy (and alongside, we didn’t see a lot of two RB sets last season in Philadelphia but Chip Kelly is known to be fond of them). After 173 touches in 2011, Sproles has been below the 125 mark in each of the last two seasons and while no one will complain about a 70+ reception season from a back, his opportunities had been limited in a crowded New Orleans backfield. Sproles should have more opportunities to contribute in Philadelphia, where the team doesn’t appear to be fond of last year’s second option Bryce Brown.
Our Chris Meaney shared his thoughts on how this may be good news for LeSean McCoy, and I certainly don’t think it hurts him any great deal. Further, even with the release of DeSean Jackson (he has Riley Cooper returning and hopefully a fully healthy Jeremy Maclin in the fold), I think it is great news for Nick Foles‘ fantasy value. With the second most receptions among RBs in New Orleans last year, he propped up Drew Brees‘ passing numbers by 604 yards (> 1200 total to backs).
Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns
The reason this is a win for Tate is simple. He arrives on a team desperate for production from the running back position and gets his first crack at the starting job. Tate had a bit of a down year in terms of overall production but was never fully healthy in 2013 and played on a Houston offense that didn’t seem to get much right.
In terms of blocking, the move is a bit of a wash as neither line was very productive last season and the Cleveland offense had little to offer outside of Josh Gordon. However, the presence of Gordon and a hopeful upgrade at QB (hard to get much worse) should lead to more room to run for Tate who projects for a significant workload for the first time in his career. He has averaged 4.3 yards per carry in each of the last two seasons and 4.7 over his career so as long as he can stay productive with a heavy workload Tate should factor into the RB2 conversation next season.
Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
After injuries and a down season in 2012 with Jacksonville, Jennings found his opportunity in Oakland (MJD, below, is evidently trying to follow the model). While there the 5th year pro had by far his best season, topping 1000 total yards and scoring six times on just 199 touches. As the season ended, with both he and Darren McFadden slated for free agency we weren’t sure what to expect, but now Jennings finds himself in a new home with an apparent chance to start.
From Week 8 onward, the first time Jennings picked up 20 touches in a game, he was the #9 overall RB in fantasy. This year, he finds himself on a New York Giants team that blocked poorly last season but with Andre Brown set to depart (the free agent remains unsigned) and David Wilson unlikely to contribute this year it looks to be Jennings’ show in the New York backfield. He showed us what he could do with that opportunity this year.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
McFadden benefits from the departure of Jennings, and while the arrival of MJD as a free agent makes his role in the offense murkier than it was a few days ago, a 29-year-old Jones-Drew who saw a limited market for his services is likely slated to back up McFadden, assuming DMC is healthy (he won’t be). Given that fact, the move – while a loss for MJD in terms of overall value – at least keeps him relevant as a spot start in Oakland, worthy of a draft and stash in hopes that he gets a few shots to start and can come through when he does. I could be proven wrong come training camp, but I expect this to remain McFadden’s show with MJD getting some work on a weekly basis which is much better for the oft-injured back than it would have been had the other former Jaguar remained in town.
The resigning of McFadden and arrival of Jones-Drew puts a damper on the Latavius Murray hype, at least for the time being.
Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Simply put with the 2013 departure of Chris Ivory and the above mentioned Sproles signing, Thomas and Mark Ingram (ok Khiry Robinson, too) are the last men standing in the Saints backfield. Long a crowded position, Thomas appears set to benefit from the check downs, screens, and general usage that were bestowed upon Sproles. PT caught 76 balls himself in 2013 so I’m not suggesting he just pockets all of Sproles’ receptions, but the team clearly liked what they saw from him and he projects to build on a productive 2013 season with a career high workload.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
While Rashard Mendenhall‘s retirement wasn’t really a free agency transaction (except in so far that he didn’t receive what he deemed to be suitable interest and thus decided to ‘walk away from the game’), it does make room for Ellington atop the Cardinals RB depth chart.
Last year, coach Bruce Arians said different things at different times about Ellington’s workload, but the prevailing thought was that the team viewed keeping him at 12-14 touches to be the best approach to keeping him effective. Evidently, theyve undergone another about face.
Arians said RB Andre Ellington has added 10 pounds already. “We want to build our offense around him.” #CardsCombine
— Darren Urban (@Cardschatter) February 21, 2014
If that line of thinking holds, he is in for a big uptick in work in his second season. His efficiency numbers (5.5 YPC) should be expected to come down with more work, but overall extra touches should be a positive, particularly if they come in the passing game. Keep an eye on Ellington through camp, but a breakout season appears to be on the horizon.
Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars
Gerhart’s breakout story is one that I’m not necessarily buying. Does he have the speed to be an elite starting RB? I don’t think so, though I do think he’d work well in a complimentary role with Denard Robinson if he morphs into a true running back or another party that Jacksonville chooses to bring in.
According to Gus Bradley, I’m in the minority, as the team sees him ‘feasibly’ earning 18 carries a game. If he gets anywhere near that range, Gerhart is a must own in fantasy formats and he did put together more than 700 total yards in the only season in which he’s topped 100 carries.
Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
Ridley closed the season reasonably well after crawling his way out of the fumbler’s dog house, including two playoff touchdowns, and with LeGarrette Blount’s signing in Pittsburgh, the depth chart in New England is fairly clear – leaving just Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden to share touches with. Assuming all goes well through camp, Ridley should be looking at a comparable role to what we projected for him in 2013, which is much better than things looked mid-season. Blount’s signing should have little impact on his value, he’ll get a few opportunities in Pittsburgh as the primary back up and change of pace but that is Le’Veon Bell’s back field, and Blount shouldn’t take too many touches.
Free Agency Losers: Running Back
Donald Brown, San Diego Chargers
I couldn’t like this signing any less for both the incoming player, or for those still in town. Last season, Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead represented a strong one-two punch for San Diego and fantasy owners alike. In particular, Mathews who set career highs in everything (except for rushing touchdowns by one, but meaningfully in terms of games played). GM Tom Telesco says that he remains the bell cow, but I can’t see how there are enough carries to go around. On that note, whether Mathews truly leads the group or not, the move leaves less work for Brown than you’d have thought he’d earned given his 2013 performance. Brown finished 2nd in the league in terms of yards per carry for all backs with over 100 chances, and contributed as a solid RB2 from Weeks 11-16 after finally taking over a chunk of Trent Richardson‘s workload.
Richardson, meanwhile, is the only party involved positively impacted by this trade as the departure of Brown leaves him with another opportunity to prove he is worthy of remaining as an NFL feature back. Many will express pessimism about his chances of getting there, myself included, but from a fantasy perspective he’s better with another shot than without.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
I’ll be brief on Charles as I’ve covered my reaction to his loss of 60% of an o-line, including his best blockers, elsewhere. He’ll be fine, but, it can’t be viewed as an upgrade.
Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
With respect to Ryan Tannehill and the Miami offense, no one saw their situation change more for the worse than Moreno. We saw it coming, mind you, but while Moreno should remain productive behind a rebuilt, and presumably stronger, Dolphins offensive line he simply won’t do the scoring he did last year. Another 1586 total yards (or another 60 reception season) are a stretch in Miami too, but he won’t have a chance to score 11 times either. Bear in mind that while Moreno should be credited for turning a corner last year, he had just 12 rushing touchdowns in his three year career prior to Peyton’s arrival in Denver.
The move is bad news for presumed starter Lamar Miller as well. Coming off a disappointing 2013, he seemed likely to remain the lead back heading into next season until Moreno’s recent signing. The good news is that Moreno’s arrival should help owner avoid the temptation of trying to capitalize on Miller’s volume, and as a change of pace back I think he’ll be more productive for the offense in general but the move clearly impacts his fantasy value for the negative as well.
Free Agency Winners: Wide Receiver
Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
With 64 receptions for 898 yards as part of the Super Bowl winning Seahawks Tate easily enjoyed his best season as a pro in 2013. In Detroit however, he’ll benefit from volume alone, if nothing else. Seattle attempted the 2nd fewest passes per game in the league, at 26.25. Detroit’s 39.63, meanwhile, were the 5th most. The coaching staff has changed for the Lions but the offense still projects to be considerably more pass heavy than that of the Seahawks.
The team has been searching for a dynamic complement to Calvin Johnson who can take advantage of the space afforded their secondary options when defenses focus on Megatron and appear to have it in Tate. That’s good news for a receiver who projects to be used heavily, and also for QB Matthew Stafford. The arrival with Tate, along with the retention of TE Brandon Pettigrew (not an overwhelming threat on his own, I understand), should mean good things for Stafford as he tries to overcome a poor ‘real world’ close to the season and improve upon his QB7 finish in terms of fantasy scoring.
Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
While Smith was able to maintain his 17.4 yards per reception average from 2012, he seemed to struggle at times when asked to be ‘everything’ for the team. He’ll still be their WR1 but with the arrival of Steve Smith and some help expected at TE, he should find himself with more space to work.
Much like Anquan Boldin (without his size, mind you) Steve Smith factors into the Ravens’ offense as a gritty receiver willing to make plays over the middle and allowing Smith to operate on the outside. Last season, with Smith, Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown all working as big play types, the offense didn’t function very well and Smith occasionally disappeared from the stat sheet (six games with three receptions or fewer). The career Panther’s arrival bodes well for the incumbent Smith’s overall production.
Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
As mentioned above, I’m not willing to make a huge deal out of the signing of a receiver who has undergone two seasons of decline and hasn’t caught a TD since December of 2012 but I will say if anyone needed a change it was Hakeem Nicks.
Still just 26, there is a chance that the team views him as a potential successor to Reggie Wayne alongside T.Y. Hilton. We’ll wait on training camp, and likely into the season to see how the Colts intend to use the three receivers but playing indoors, getting out of New York, and working with Andrew Luck as he continues to develop should all be viewed as good news for Nicks.
Andrew Hawkins, Cleveland Browns
I’d expect the team to make more additions at WR, but as it stands now the depth chart is a lot more clear for Hawkins who should see plenty of work out of the slot for Cleveland. With a young QB likely to arrive on the scene, expect the Browns to use the screen game early and often this season, taking advantage of Hawkins’ talents. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not on your WR3 radar, but the change in context appears to be favorable.
James Jones, Oakland Raiders
Moving away from Aaron Rodgers to Matt Schaub can hardly be construed as an upgrade, but with Jarrett Boykin coming on last season (I think Jones’ departure is a massive upgrade for him, by the way) and Randall Cobb set to start the season healthy, there didn’t seem to be a lot of opportunity in the cards for Jones if he’d stayed in Green Bay. In Oakland, as we’ve mentioned, he’s a good fit given that the rest of the wide receivers are true field stretchers without the size to work over the middle.
At 6’1″, 208 pounds he has considerable size on Denarius Moore and proven production on Andre Holmes (Holmes is four inches taller, but weighs the same and thus while he has reach, he’s not a middle of the field type of guy either). Holmes by the way, is a loser in this transaction as I’d have liked to see him get more snaps after some flashes in 2013. He’ll be a good fit for the not-so-rocket-armed Schaub.
Again, this isn’t an improvement over his 2012 fantasy peak with Rodgers at the helm by any stretch, but relative to last season and to how things would have looked as a Packer in 2014, Jones and his owners will be happier with him in silver and black.
Jerricho Cotchery, Carolina Panthers
Cotchery actually finished as the #31 overall wide receiver in fantasy last year. As with many of the others, we’re not calling this win a projection of improvement in his final scoring, as I don’t envision him repeating a surprising ten touchdowns in Carolina but he wasn’t going to repeat them in Pittsburgh either.
What is presented to Cotchery, as it stands now, is an opportunity to stay relevant. He seems likely to start if the offense doesn’t undergo significant changes, and should eclipse his 46 receptions from last season if that is the case. Like Hawkins, I don’t think you’re drafting Cotchery as a fantasy starter and we’re going to want to see how things play out through the offseason but he has leap-frogged a peg or two on the depth chart to be sure.
Lance Moore, Pittsburgh Steelers
Moore meanwhile arrives in Pittsburgh to replace the departed Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders. He had his worst year as a receiver since 2007 when he was with the Saints primarily as a punt returner but I believe that was as much the result of the teams anti-WR pass philosophy than it was a decline in production. In Pittsburgh, while Markus Wheaton hopes to vie for snaps (and the departures of Cotchery and Sanders allow him a more direct opportunity, also a win for the 2013 rookie) Moore should be expected to see regular action out of the slot and perhaps make hay near the endzone in Cotchery’s 2013 role
Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
Following the dominoes, we land with Emmanuel Sanders in Denver who, in the opposite effect of Knowshon Moreno, moves into one of the best offensive situations in the league. He’ll factor in opposite Demaryius Thomas with Wes Welker maintaining his role in the slot, and while Sanders doesn’t project as the TD machine that Decker has been over his career with the Broncos, he is a part of an offense that’s going to put up plenty of yards and points yet again.
Coming off a 67 reception season, but with a notable decline in yards per reception, there is room for growth this year for Sanders. Expect 80 catches and 1000 yards just from Peyton proximity. Meanwhile, enthusiasm for Andre Caldwell and his role in the Denver offense dampens considerably.
Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
When both Cooper and Maclin reupped with Philly my immediate reaction was that the latter’s return would negatively impact 2013’s breakout star. With yesterday’s ouster of DeSean Jackson, the two will go ahead as key cogs in a productive Philadelphia offense. The absence of Jackson leaves Cooper to fill the down field role with Maclin operating as a quick hit/YAC receiver, roles they were both built to play.
Of course, the still-green Cooper could struggle with opposing defenses shifting their attention to him with the void created by Jackson’s absence but he and Foles showed enough together in 2013 to suggest that they’ll continue to make connections. Similarly, Maclin will have to prove that he is fully recovered as the offseason progresses to warrant heavy fantasy investment but there is plenty of upside for both. It is conceivable that the team seeks to replace Jackson through the draft, but as long as the selection comes on day two or later (i.e., isn’t a move up to select Mike Evans) the rookie should take on more of the also departed Jason Avant’s workload than he will change the roles of Cooper and Maclin – at least in year one.
Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys
As part of Dallas’ cap shedding moves this season, Miles Austin was let go, leaving Terrance Williams as the team’s #2 wide receiver. Of course, with Austin injured and underwhelming in 2013 the rookie spent much of the season unencumbered by his presence as it was but moving into his second year with a hopeful improvement in his 61.1% catch rate (including four drops that felt like 40), and maintenance of an impressive 17.0 YPR Williams should see his role in the offense grow and his production alongside it.
Free Agency Losers: Wide Receiver
Eric Decker, New York Jets
Decker’s loss is obvious, and while he has cashed in, in terms of his contract and reality TV spillover effects, Michael Vick and Geno Smith don’t measure up to Peyton Manning even when you add them together at this point in their respective careers.
He’s the unquestioned top dog right now and should draw plenty of targets, but I’d expect significant declines in both yardage and scoring. Of course, you didn’t need me to tell you that.
Free Agency Transactions: Null Effect
Steve Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens – Same role, new QB.
Brandon LaFell, WR, New England Patriots – Perhaps he makes good on his potential with a veteran QB, but there are depth chart limitations here.
Tiquan Underwood, WR, Carolina Panthers – Showed a few things when Mike Williams went down, but, Carolina can’t be planning to go into the year with him as their WR1/2 can they?
Brandon Myers, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Tampa lacked a pass catching TE last season, but New York didn’t have one either and his production dropped significantly from 2012 in Oakland.