Each off-season I go through a process to get ready for the upcoming campaign, and it starts with pouring over stats from the previous season and familiarizing myself with the upcoming rookie class. But things always heat up when the league year kicks off and players start changing teams. It’s the first event on the NFL calendar that tangibly effects the fantasy landscape, and while the draft is really the final piece of the puzzle, free agency gives us our first opportunity to really dig in and start analyzing depth charts and slotting assets on a fantasy draft board.
This year’s NFL draft will definitely complicate certain positions this year, namely RB, but overall this year’s early free agent movement has been positive for fantasy football. We’ve seen some QBs get the help they need at receiver and on the OL and some wideouts emerge with better situations, for example. It hasn’t all been positive for our purposes, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far.
In what has become an annual endeavor for me, here’s my look at how I see the marketplace shaking out based on the first week of free agency activity.
Tom Brady (NE) – It’s tough to project the numbers we can expect from Brandin Cooks now that he’s in New England (yet our Graham Barfield tried like heck here). But when it comes to Brady, there’s only upside to having such a dynamic weapon at his disposal. The team lost some multiplicity with Martellus Bennett leaving, but they should make up for that with Cooks, whose straight-line speed and short-area quickness should seriously challenge defenses both vertically and horizontally. They’ve also added TE Dwayne Allen, who’s not quite as versatile as Bennett, but he can do a lot of things Bennett did. I feel the Saints have done only a so-so just using Cooks near the line of scrimmage and that he’s been a little too much of a boom-or-bust guy, as evidenced by how his YPC averaged has gone from 10.4 to 13.5 to 15.0 in 2016. Especially with Michael Thomas emerging, Cooks was trending toward being big-play reliant in N.O. But that probably won’t be the case in N.E., as Cooks can be a devastating weapon for innovative OC Josh McDaniels from anywhere on the field; in almost indefensible short-to-intermediate routes, on screens and jet sweeps, and on vertical routes from inside and outside the numbers. Brady just won the Super Bowl without Cooks and Rob Gronkowksi, and with weapons like Julian Edelman, Malcom Mitchell, Chris Hogan, and versatile RBs Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White at his disposal, it’s a sickening collection of matchup pieces for arguably the most cerebral QB in the history of the game. Brady was going to be a top-5 QB this summer with a full slate of 16 games in front of him, but he’ll now merit serious consideration for the top spot among all QBs in 2017.
Eli Manning (NYG) – Last year, the Giants ran with three wide receivers on the field on 95% of their offensive plays, which led the league. But perhaps one reason Eli had a poor season was because they got very little on the outside from Victor Cruz, and they were breaking in a rookie in Sterling Shepard from the slot along with stud Odell Beckham. Brandon Marshall is a great fit for this West Coast offense because it calls for a lot of quick, in-breaking routes, which Marshall’s huge frame is perfect for. He can also beef up their red-zone production, which featured only 3 TDs scored by TEs last year. The prospect of a production machine like Marshall seeing more single coverage and better matchups than Beckham is very encouraging for Eli’s fantasy worth. And while their OL continues to underwhelm, to be kind, they’re at least addressing it this off-season by signing G/T DJ Fluker in free agency and re-signing starting G John Jerry. If the Giants grab one of the many appealing TEs in this year’s draft, Eli’s prospects this year would be even better, but with Marshall in tow, he’s already a good bet to bounce back with another 30+ TD season.
Jameis Winston (TB) – Acquiring DeSean Jackson was a slam-dunk move for the Bucs and Winston, and it didn’t take long in free agency for it to happen. Winston’s development may have been stifled last year due to the lack of a vertical threat opposite Mike Evans, as defenses were able to roll safeties to Evans’ side, and the passing game was predictable because of limitations opposite their stud #1. Winston is a big-chuck guy when it comes to throwing the football, and 68% of his passing output in 2016 came from yards-in-the-air (passing yards minus yards after catch), which was the highest rate in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. Now Winston has a burner opposite Evans who can still create separation downfield and track down the deep ball with the best of them. Even though Jackson was in his 9th season last year, he led all receivers in yards (579) on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield. The Bucs may not be done adding playmakers to their offensive arsenal, either, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they used a day one or day two pick on a skill player at RB, TE, or even WR (burner John Ross is a Jackson clone and the two are close).
Carson Wentz (Phi) – I listed Wentz as a buy-low keeper prospect earlier this year because he never did make it to fantasy respectability as a rookie in 2016, yet he showed he can play in the NFL and it was clear the organization would go out and get him help this off-season. They didn’t waste much time by adding the top free agent WR in Alshon Jeffery and a legit deep threat in Torrey Smith. Teamed with productive slot guy Jordan Matthews and a solid TE in Zach Ertz, and it’s suddenly a strong and well-rounded receiving corps for Wentz. I’d estimate he’ll need at least another full season until he’s ready to really elevate himself for fantasy, but Wentz is now in the backup conversation for those looking for a potential breakout player with some upside.
Kirk Cousins (Was) – If we can put the organization’s dysfunction and Cousins’ ongoing contract situation with the team to the side for now, I think Cousins’ revamped receiving corps could be as good or even better than last year’s group. By season’s end, the raw Terrelle Pryor was running close to a full route tree for the Browns, and while he’s not a special mover and downfield playmaker like DeSean Jackson, he should be less hit-or-miss and more effective in the red zone. The key, of course, is 2016 #1 pick Josh Doctson, who suffered through a lost rookie season last year. He’s not the same player as Jackson, but he can definitely stretch defenses vertically and make big plays, plus he should be a better red-zone option than Jackson. And given the addition of talented free agent Brian Quick, the Redskins now have incredible size and talent at receiver. With Jamison Crowder mainly playing in the slot, Jordan Reed at TE, Doctson/Quick split out wide, and Pryor likely lining up in a variety of places, the potential is excellent for Cousins if the off-field distractions are kept to a minimum. The Redskins also re-signed veteran Vernon Davis, who was fantastic in this system last year as a vertical threat. He may want out of Washington, but as Cousins told me in February, he’s very much on the same page as HC Jay Gruden, so despite the loss of the up-and-coming offensive mind Sean McVay, there is continuity here still. Cousins has proven to be an excellent distributor if he has weapons, and despite losing Jackson and Pierre Garcon, he still has plenty of them. In fact, his receiving corps may be even better in 2017. Updated: 3/24 (moved from holding steady to upgrade with Quick addition).
Mike Glennon (Chi) – We knew Glennon was going to get a shot somewhere, and in Chicago he lands in a solid spot. The Bears did lose #1 WR Alshon Jeffery, but they still have a solid OL and running game, which should help Glennon. I don’t think Glennon is going to be particularly impactful for fantasy, but I do think he’s capable enough to be a starter, as evidenced by his good 30:15 TD:INT ratio. Glennon has a big believer in GM Ryan Pace, most likely due to his strong intangibles such as his leadership and studious approach to football. And HC John Fox is a guy who took a team to a Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme at QB and won a playoff game with Tim Tebow (impressive). On the field, the 6’6” Glennon has a height advantage over most QBs along with a very strong arm. On the downside, Glennon is a little deliberate and methodical in what he does, doesn’t have much mobility, and on film he’s had problems dealing with pressure up the middle. It’s questionable if he’ll make the players around him better, but we’ve long seen some Matt Ryan in Glennon and there’s some receiver talent on the roster with Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, and hopefully Kevin White (plus some other decent pieces). I’d expect us to rank him only in the 25-30 range in our 2017 QB projections, but he’s good enough to pique some interest for those in large or 2-QB leagues this year.
Brian Hoyer (SF) – I initially left Hoyer off this list because 1-2 weeks ago it seemed like Kirk Cousins to the Niners was a possibility. That's probably a pipe dream, though, at this point. Hoyer is back with Kyle Shanahan, with whom he had his most success during the 2014 season in Cleveland, when Hoyer went 7-6 as a starter and threw for 7.6 YPA. Hoyer did play well for Chicago in 2016, throwing for 6 TDs without an INT and going for more 300+ yards in all four of his starts in Weeks 3-6. Hoyer did average a miserable .48 fantasy points per pass attempt – the league average was .53 – so a lot of his production was driven by volume, but he also had just one turnover on a lost fumble. If the 49ers don’t swing a deal for Cousins, Hoyer should be a lock to be their Week 1 starter. His value is up from where it was in February, so he's included here, but he's clearly one of the 5-6 least desirable starters in the league. The team did add the rock-solid Pierre Garcon, who also played for Shanahan, but they're really starting from the ground up and have one of the worst receiving corps in the league. In fact, when I asked Shanhan about that corps and if anyone stood out, he shrugged his shoulders and basically said "no one."
Josh McCown (NYJ) – Similar to Brian Hoyer, McCown isn't someone I plan on pushing at all, but his value has risen considerably since he landed what is likely the starting job to open the season for the Jets, who gave him a one-year deal with $6 million guaranteed. This was a good move in terms of giving youngsters Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg a veteran who can help mentor them, but McCown is also an aged player who threw 6 TDs and 6 INTs while completing only 54.5% of his passes on a bad Browns team. And the Jets may be as bad as Cleveland was last year. McCown is a bridge starter at best, but he'll have to rank in our top-35 if he's clearly their best option. But he'll only be worthy of consideration in leagues where a starting QB with a pulse has value, no matter who he is.
LeSean McCoy (Buf) – This is more of a slight upgrade than an enthusiastic one, but considering he was in danger of losing QB Tyrod Taylor, things are looking up for McCoy, whose Bills also cornered the FB free agent market by adding two excellent FBs in Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert. DiMarco is an excellent lead blocker, which is good news for McCoy, and even Tolbert can help out in terms of blocking, particularly on passing downs. McCoy is a big believer in Tyrod, whose mobility is an asset for McCoy and the running game, and earlier this year I was told by someone close to the team that Taylor had a lot to do with McCoy taking off-season workouts more seriously. The results in 2016 were evident (McCoy younger and fresher), so while McCoy will be 29 in July with an alarming 2280 career touches, I’m inclined to believe in him as an RB1 for at least one more season in 2017, especially with noted TD vulture Mike Gillislee off to New England. Updated: 4/25
Melvin Gordon (SD) – Gordon last year followed up his poor zero-TD rookie campaign with what can only be described as a breakout season in 2016. He ran very hard, and he showed a significant increase in power and decisiveness, even behind a shaky offensive line. One basic explanation as to how he improved was the fact that he was on the field more and was able to find his groove as a runner and receiver, and clearly Danny Woodhead’s injury helped in that regard. In 13 games, Gordon had eight finishes as a top-12 RB, including two finishes as the #1 overall PPR RB. Excluding Week 14, when he was injured early in the game, Gordon had 20+ touches in 10 of 12 games, which is about as good as it gets for a RB in terms of volume. Woodhead in 2015 was a threat in the passing game, but also as a runner near the goal, since he had 20 red-zone carries and 6 goal-line totes compared to only 12 and 2 for Gordon, their #1 draft pick that year. Gordon has had a serious injury in his first two seasons, but with Woodhead gone and very little competition currently on the roster, plus with new HC Anthony Lynn’s recent positive track record with running game and an OL that added Russell Okung, Gordon’s poised to excel and receive a ton of touches in 2017 and stay in his 75.1% snap share neighborhood from 2016 - as long as the team doesn't use an earlier pick on one of the many quality RBs in this year's draft.
Isaiah Crowell & Duke Johnson (Cle) – The Browns have already done a lot of things this off-season, and some of those things may go down as being very bad (like paying Kenny Britt more than they likely could have retained Terrelle Pryor for). But one area they addressed that will garner no complaints from fantasy people are the additions they made to their OL. Free agency can be hit-or-miss in general, but teams looking for OL help can usually and reliably find their help in free agency, and that’s what the Browns did by adding stud G Kevin Zeitler and versatile interior guy JC Tretter. Tretter has had injury problems, but he did a nice job last year for the Packers when he played, and Zeitler is one of the top guards in the league. Additionally, they extended G Joel Bitonio’s contract, and he was a revelation for them last year. Now Cleveland’s OL (from L-R Joe Thomas, Bitonio, Tretter, Zeitler, and the weak link Cam Erving) should be one of the ten best OLs in the league. We still don’t know the QB will be, but this line looks very good on paper, which is positive news for Crowell and Duke (Note: Crowell is a RFA with a 2nd-round tender, so he could possibly still sign with another team).
Mike Gillislee (NE) - I'm honestly not 100% sold on Gillislee being an "upgrade" in New England, since his new backfield is one of the more crowded ones I've ever seen. And we know how the Patriots are matchup-specific in their utilization of certain positions, namely RB. But ultimately, as much as I was intrigued by their signing of Rex Burkhead, I have to submit that Gillislee - who got a longer 2-year deal and more money than Burkhead - is probably a little more talented than Rex, and Gillislee's body of work, while not extensive, is larger than the former Bengals' is. Gillislee last year got the chance to be the primary backup to LeSean McCoy and took full advantage of his opportunity. He finished with 101/577/18 rushing (5.7 YPC) and 9/50/1 receiving on 11 targets (good 81.8% catch rate, 5.6 YPR) in 15 games. Gillislee averaged an impressive 1.14 fantasy points per touch – the league average for the position was .70. Per PFF, Gillislee was also top-8 in the NFL in his elusive rating, yardage after contact, and his number of 15+ yard runs. He also led all runners with 100+ carries with his impressive 5.7 yards per carry average, so there's a lot to like by the numbers. OC Anthony Lynn preferred Gillislee down near the goal line by the middle of the season, and he ended up vulturing Shady quite a bit and had just one fewer goal line carry than McCoy last year. What's interesting to me about this signing is my opinion that Gillislee might to be better off coming off the bench, as opposed to truly carrying the rushing load, but that could be a moot point in this crowded backfield. I see Gillislee as a 150-175 touch guy this year on the Pats, and if he's the clear goal line back then he'll have a chance to settle in as a solid RB3/flex. But if Rex is well involved in short-yardage and/or gets opportunities on all three downs, Gillislee should be close to what he was last year, which is a productive guy who is hard to trust on a week-to-week basis. Updated: 4/25
Joanthan Williams (Buf) - I did list Williams as a viable buy-low keeper back in February, and things are looking up with Mike Gillislee signing with the Patriots. But this could be only a temporary upgrade pending a deep RB draft this week. Our Greg Cosell did like his college tape a lot (he played at Arkansas with Seahawk Alex Collins) and felt his skill set translated well to the NFL as a lead back. Williams didn’t play much as a rookie, but considering their depth at the position, it was kind of a surprise he played as much as he did (12% of the snaps in his 10 appearances). He didn’t exactly stand out, and he did lose two fumbles, plus Williams was charged with driving while intoxicated in Arkansas before the start of training camp and could face NFL discipline next season. I can actually seeing SELLING Williams right now as a viable move, especially before the draft kicks off this week, but for now he's a viable upgrade as a young and talented back who is currently in the driver's seat behind McCoy. Updated: 4/25
Brandon Marshall (NYG) – As soon as Marshall was released by the Jets, the Giants were the first team I thought of as a landing spot, and it made so much sense that it happened very quickly. As mentioned in the Manning writeup above, Marshall is a perfect fit in this offense due to the high number of quick slants and in-breaking routes, plays that he can maximize due to his size and physicality. And after a slow start to his career in terms of scoring TDs, Marshall’s been a beast in the endzone, with 11.25 TDs per season from 2012-2015 (excluding last year’s horror show), and Big Blue can use some help there (only 3 TDs by their TEs last year). He’ll enjoy improved and consistent QB play with Eli Manning, but I’m most encouraged by his position as the #2 WR opposite Odell Beckham. Upon signing, Marshall himself said that Beckham remains the #1 WR here and that he’s the #2 (he said he and Shepard both are). Marshall should then consistently get better matchups, whether they be against lesser corners or just no double-teams, so he’ll be in a fantastic spot. There are some legit concerns that stem from his targets going down from, for example, where he was in 2015, but I do think Marshall can be much more efficient in this offense, particularly when it comes to scoring TDs.
Michael Thomas and Willie Snead (NO) - These two were so obvious, I initially left them off the list. The Saints did sign veteran speedster Ted Ginn (who you could argue is also an upgrade), but with Brandin Cooks shipped out of town, things are looking particularly good for Thomas, who is just about a lock to have a top-12 WR ADP. Thomas led the Saints’ wide receiver corps last year in the following categories: targets, receptions, yards per game, touchdowns, and red-zone targets. And now Cooks is gone. Over the last three seasons, no Saint receiver saw more than a 19% target share, so Thomas (18% last year) and Snead's (17%) targets may only be going up 1-2 a game. But that's still an increase for both, as Ginn won't likely see the number of targets Cooks did. Thomas will operate as the top outside receiver with Snead likely sticking to his slot role. Snead ran over 70% of his routes from the slot—but he did catch four or more passes in 10-of-15 games and his 1.89 yards gained per route run was fourth-best among qualified slot receivers, per PFF. In fact, only Jarvis Landry, Julian Edelman, and T.Y. Hilton gained more cumulative receiving yards in the slot than Snead did in 2016, so the appeal to him with Cooks off the roster is obvious. In fact, Snead could easily end up being the better draft value of the too, as his ADP will likely be 30-40 slots lower than Thomas'.
Terrelle Pryor (Was) – Pryor is moving to a new team, which can be disruptive, but I like how it’s a 1-year “prove it” deal, since Pryor proved a lot in 2016. I was skeptical in the preseason, but his growth last year was pretty remarkable; he went from running only a few routes early on to running damn near a full route tree by season’s end. Pryor posted 77/1007/4 as essentially a 27-year-old rookie wideout, and he did so with SIX different QBs, none of them particularly good. Pryor will have to learn some new terminology, but it’s a similar system to Cleveland’s, as Brown HC Hue Jackson has ties to Redskin OC Jay Gruden from their days in Cincinnati. To put his fantasy prospects into perspective, consider this: No team in NFL history has ever lost two 1000-yard-yard WRs in an offseason. With the loss of Jackson/Garçon, 35% of their team share of targets (214 total targets) and 32% of their red-zone targets from the 2016 season are open for Pryor and John Doctson to claim. I do like Doctson a lot if he’s healthy, but Pryor is also appealing in this very good situation, assuming Kirk Cousins is on the team. Pryor can likely replace some of the downfield receiving they will miss with Jackson gone, but I see Pryor doing a lot of damage on shorter passes after the catch in this offense. He should be a nice low-end WR2 for fantasy even if the ‘Skins continue to spread the ball around, and he’ll have low-end WR1 upside if Doctson has more health issues and/or if injury-prone TE Jordan Reed misses considerable time.
Cameron Meredith (Chi) – Meredith in 2016 went from fighting for a roster spot in August to eventually leading the team in receptions and receiving yards, as the second-year receiver (and former QB) out of Illinois State had a surprising breakout season. Meredith got a lot of love from fantasy owners during the season, and the Bear coaches were also singing his praises for his versatility, improved hands, and overall consistency and reliability. With Alshon Jeffery gone, Meredith is now a good bet to open the season as their top passing target, pending the status of former #1 pick Kevin White. I don’t have a lot of confidence right now in White, so I see Meredith, who played a lot in the slot last year but played all three receiver spots, to be their top guy on the outside, with Kendall Wright likely playing mainly their slot receiver. Meredith will have to work with a new QB in Mike Glennon, but it didn’t take him long at all to get on the same page as journeyman Matt Barkley, so his growth pattern should continue to point upward in 2017, and he’s going to be a solid selection 60-75 picks into a fantasy draft.
Pierre Garcon (SF) – I was able to ask new HC Kyle Shanahan about his receiving corps earlier this month, and he basically shrugged his shoulders and said that no one really stood out to him on the roster, so it’s no surprise that he brought in a guy he’s familiar with in Garcon, who led the NFL in receptions in 2013 with Shanahan as the Redskins’ OC. A physical route runner with sure hands, Garcon is very steady, and he’s seriously durable, having not missed a game over the last four years. It’s also worth noting that Garcon’s role increased in the second half of the year last year, and from Week 10 on he averaged 14.9 FPG, tying him for 16th at the position, which is a glimpse into his potential as a featured guy in the 49er passing game. Garcon at 31 years old isn’t going to win based on explosiveness and athleticism, but he has plenty left in the tank, and he’ll immediately be the top target on the outside for (at least for now) QB Brian Hoyer. Depending on the QB situation and play, Garcon could be anywhere from a low-end WR2 to a high-end WR3 this season, so I’ll proclaim him a mild upgrade from where he was with a lesser role in a better offense in 2016.
Robert Woods (LAR) – I’m usually all about exciting upside-oriented players, but in some cases I make exceptions when we’re dealing with heavy volume and/or serious affordability in terms of the draft, DFS, etc. Woods is a good example of a non-exciting player whom I kind of like. The UCS alum is back home in Southern California, and he landed a fat contract to boot ($15M guaranteed). Woods is getting a QB downgrade from Tyrod Taylor to Jared Goff, but it’s possible Goff can close that gap in his second season, at least in terms of getting Woods the ball over the middle and in the short-to-intermediate level (Taylor’s deep passing should continue to be superior to Goff’s indefinitely). If Goff can take a considerable step forward, then Woods has a shot to be helpful for fantasy, since he’s due for a big bump in target share, as Kenny Britt alone leaves a void of 111 targets (and a strong 22% target share) in Los Angeles’ attack. What will be interesting is how he fits in here, though, since Woods ran almost half of his routes from the slot in 2016 and the Rams obviously have Tavon Austin, who lined up in the slot about 55% of the time for the Rams last year. Given the drop-off at QB but the increase in targets, Woods is holding steady at worst and a fair upgrade, but he’s still only an appealing option for larger/deeper leagues, and very late in drafts.
Martellus Bennett (GB) – The Packers have had some bad TEs the last 2-3 years, but we did get a glimpse into what a strong pass-catcher can do in this offense with Jared Cook late in 2016. In their final 10 games (including the playoffs), Cook averaged a strong 4.2/55.3/0.3 (7.2 targets) per game while seeing 18.7% of the Packers’ targets. With that type of usage and production over a full season, Cook would have ranked 6th (tied) among all TEs in 2016 target share and as the TE11 in PPR points/game at the position. Especially when you analyze Cook’s run late in 2016, it’s obvious the Packers have missed having an athletic receiving prospect at the position. The Packers give up a little athleticism going from Cooks to Bennett, but they get more versatility and better blocking. They’re not without weapons otherwise, though, so Bennett’s fantasy value likely hinges on his usage in the red zone and inside the 10. The good news is Aaron Rodgers throws to his TEs when they’re in scoring position. Over the last three years, a solid 19% of his throws from inside the 10-yard line have been to a TE. Yes, another free agent pickup, Lance Kendricks has been a noted TD vulture (at TD catch for every 12 catches over his career), and his presence could conceivably cap Bennett’s upside, but honestly, we as a staff are having a hard to coming up with even 7-8 TEs we’ll like better this year, so we’re calling Bennett an upgrade in GB.
Tyler Higbee (LAR) – Now that Travis Kelce has fully busted out, I’ve moved on to Higbee as my next pet project at TE – and there’s a lot of Kelce in the athletic Higbee’s game. The former WR played 16 games and 40.2% of the snaps as a rookie, but he was barely involved in 2016. Things are looking up for his future, though. For one, the team let veteran Lance Kendricks go, opening up a huge opportunity for Higbee. But more encouraging is the addition of HC Sean McVay, who has experience with athletic TEs, notably Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis this past year in Washington. A lot needs to go right for Higbee to be impactful in 2017, including improvement at the QB position, but at least until this year’s tremendous TE group officially joins the league, Higbee is the best under-the-radar breakout candidate at the position for the next 1-2 years. Incidentally, at the Combine, Higbee’s name was brought up several times at the podium by GB Les Snead and McVay; it’s clear they view him as a potential fixture in this offense.
Jack Doyle (Ind) – I had a running joke on the radio last year about Doyle, who’s named reminded me of a private eye or a guy you call if you’re in some sort of pinch. My line was, “If you have a problem, call Jack Doyle.” It was a funny bit for about a week, but there was a lot of truth to it. Doyle is beloved in Indy for his lunch pail approach and reliability. In addition to re-signing Doyle, the Colts traded Dwayne Allen to the Patriots, so things have gone well this month for Doyle and his fantasy prospects. The final piece to his 2017 puzzle will likely come down to the draft and whether the team snags one of the many impressive TE prospects. But even if they do, Indy is one of the heaviest 2-TE teams in the league, as TE-friendly OC Rob Chudzinski loves multiple-TE sets, and Doyle has something that should be very valuable: the complete trust of his QB Andrew Luck. Regardless of what happens at the position in the draft, Doyle now looks like a safe and steady TE2 with some upside from there if things work out well for him in the red zone. If they don’t add another TE of note (they do still have Eric Swoope, who flashed some last year) it’s not outlandish to think Doyle can hit double-digit TDs in 2017 given his savvy in the red zone and chemistry with Luck.
Andy Dalton (Cin) – The Bengals did retain veteran wideout Brandon LaFell, and he was solid for them last year, as was rookie receiver Tyler Boyd, who told me at the Super Bowl he’s more comfortable in the slot. Those two, along with stud AJ Green, make up their top WR trio, but their depth is seriously lacking, and they could use another strong contributor, such as a rotational depth threat to go along with these wideouts and TE Tyler Eifert. But the main question with the Bengal offense right now is their OL, which just lost two key starters in LT Andrew Whitworth and G Kevin Zeitler. Keep in mind Dalton got sacked 41 times last year, which is a high number for him and this team. It’s not a particularly good OL class in the draft, at least not at tackle, and the Bengals do now have a serious issue at tackle, which has to be accounted for when handicapping Dalton in 2017. When we do that, Dalton’s a downgrade from where he was before free agency kicked off.
Mark Ingram (NO) - As noted in Graham Barfield's overview of Adrian Peterson signing with the Saints, Saint RBs have ranked 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 1st in PPR points among all NFL squads over the last five seasons, and not surprisingly Saint RBs have ranked 1st, 4th, 1st, 1st, and 1st in cumulative team receptions at the position over that span. That's fairly enoucarging for Ingram, since only 20.9% of Peterson’s career PPR output has been derived via the passing game while 52.2% of the Saints backfield’s PPR output came via the passing game in 2016. Ingram's averaged 3 catches a game the last three seasons, and Peterson still looks like he''s wearing a full suit of armor when he's out there trying to catch passes out of the backfield. I'm sure the Saints will utilize a third back whether it be receiving specialist Travaris Cadet or the intriguing Daniel Lasco (who had a 33-catch season at Cal), or someone else, but Ingram is clearly a better pass-catching option than Peterson, and Ingram is expected to remain the "starter." Ingram (12.8 attempts/game) effectively split time with Tim Hightower (8.3 attempts/game) and still managed to finish as a top-12 (RB1) in PPR points per contest for the third-straight year in 2016. But compared to where he was before the team added AD, and even compared to where he was splitting some touches with Hightower the last two seasons, Ingram's stock clearly takes a hit. HC Sean Peyton will run the rock at times, and early in his career in N.O. he leaned heavily on Deuce McAllister as a runner, but no matter how you slice it, the Saints didn't sign Peterson to give him only 5-6 caries a game or relagate him to closer duties. He's Adrian Peterson, so we have to believe he'll get about half of the rushing work if his body holds up. Ingram is indisputably a downgrade with Peterson added, but that doesn''t mean he can't still be appealing. In fact, he could even go down as a value in 2017 if his ADP drops enough. Updated: 4/25
Kenneth Dixon (Bal) – Veteran Danny Woodhead is 32 years old and has suffered a major injury in two of the last three season, including an ACL in 2016. He’s missed 27 of 32 possible games in 2015 and ‘16, yet he’s still one of the best check-down RBs in the league, and his presence is a crusher for Dixon. The team claims they would have had strong interest in Woodhead no matter what, but the fact that they signed the veteran on the same day they announced Dixon was suspended four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs is worrisome. I was actually more concerned for Dixon about the Ravens adding more of a foundation back in free agency or the draft, and that’s not Woodhead. But they want more playmakers, and Woodhead is definitely that. The Ravens often used FB Kyle Juszczyk as 3rd-down back, in part because both Terrance West and Dixon struggled to pick up the blitz last year, but Woodhead is a pro in that regard. The Ravens do like throwing to their RBs – Joe Flacco targeted a RB 21.9% of his attempts last year, 7th-highest rate in the league – and Juszczyk and Justin Forsett represent 76 departed targets, but no matter how you slice it, Woodhead’s presence crushes Dixon’s fantasy potential in 2017, making him more waiver wire fodder than draftable asset for many.
Carlos Hyde (SF) - Hyde in 2016 had an excellent overall season, posting 217/988/6 rushing (4.6 YPC) and 27/163/3 receiving on 33 targets (6.0 YPR, 81.8% catch rate). He ranked tied for 10th among RBs with 15.1 FPG and was a top-8 RB five times in 13 games and a top-24 RB in four more contests. However, for the third time in as many seasons, Hyde failed to play in 16 games, appearing in just 13 in 2016. Hyde missed Week 17 with a torn MCL, and earlier in 2016 missed two games with a shoulder injury. He has now missed a total of 14 games in three seasons, nearly a full-season’s worth of action. I was initially excited for Hyde about the addition of Kyle Shanhan in San Francisco, but then I was able to talk to the new 49er HC at the combine, and my excitement waned. For one, Shanahan downplayed any advantage Hyde could potentially have in his scheme. Shanahan also told me that Hyde is "not yet the finished product," which surprised me, since Hyde's entering his fourth season. The 49ers then re-signed DuJuan Harris, who in theory can challenge Hyde for reps as a runner and receiver. But the bigger concern is their April 1st signing of veteran Tim Hightower. Hightower played for Shanahan in Washington back in 2011, and he's been a very effective player the last two seasons. This move is of particular concern because Shanahan last year played a #2 RB in Tevin Coleman on 41% of the snaps. Coleman surprisingly emerged as a moveable chess piece for Shanhan, and he put particular stress on defenses as a receiver lined up all over the formation. I don't exactly envision Hightower replicating what Coleman did for the Falcons last year, but Hightower does have 34 catches the last two seasons on only 39 targets, plus he's averaged over 10.0 yards a catch in New Orleans in 2015-2016. Hightower may not be as talented as Hyde, but he's more reliable, and he's more than capable of handling 40-50% of this backfield's touches. Given Hyde's new competition for touches and his history of injury problems, Hyde's ADP (around 20 overall before this move) is going to have to drop beyond the top-36 for him to be palatable, in my opinion. Updated: 4/1
Latavius Murray (Min) – Murray’s a guy I really liked as a 2015 sleeper, and he was a top-10 back in scoring (PPR), but I still viewed him as a disappointment. His 2016 season was similar, as he posted top-12 numbers (195/788/12 rushing (4.0 YPC) and 33/264/0 receiving on 43 targets (8.0 YPR, 76.7% catch rate) but was still a volatile fantasy asset. 34.3% of Murray’s total scoring came from TDs, a relatively high number. I do not view Murray as a good replacement for Adrian Peterson, but I can see why the Vikings had interest because he’s very good in pass-pro, and unlike AP, he can run well out of the shotgun, so he’s probably a better fit for this offense than Peterson. But I also think the Vikings will use Murray similar to how Oakland did last year (only 52.9% of the Raiders’ snaps when active), so I think Jerick McKinnon will be a significant factor still, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings used a mid-round pick on one of the many good RBs in this year’s draft class. Murray’s guaranteed only about $3.5 million for 2017, and the team could get out of his contract in 2018. But the main reason for the downgrade is the fact that Murray’s going from one of best OLs in the league to one of the worst, which is a problem for a guy who is mainly a straight-line runner with so-so lateral ability. Murray will always be an upright runner, and I know the Raiders were a little frustrated with him because he doesn’t often enough run to his excellent size and impose his will on defenses (only 22nd in yards after contact in 2016). Murray’s a good goal-line back and he can catch the ball a little better than Peterson, but I view him as more of a role player, and now he’s a role player on a team with a bad line, so he’ll probably once again be very TD-dependent.
Jeremy Hill (Cin) – I’ve made excuses for Hill in the recent past, but the fact is, even though he ran better in 2016 than in 2015, he’s fallen flat since his impressive 2014 rookie campaign. Luckily for him, the team lost the underrated Rex Burkhead, so that was one bullet dodged. Hill’s chances may be running out still, and we’ll see about the rest of free agency and the draft. But for the immediate future and in terms of what we know now, things aren’t looking as promising because Cincy just lost their best two O-lineman in G Kevin Zeitler (Cle) and T Andrew Whitworth, who is long in the tooth but an absolutely massive individual still playing at a high level. They now have major issues at tackle and guard, which is very concerning for a guy like Hill, whose margin for error doesn’t seem nearly as large as it was two years ago.
Thomas Rawls (Sea) – Rawls is a player we hated as a draft pick last summer, and the Seahawks clearly have serious reservations about him as well, since they used a 3rd-round pick on C.J. Prosise in 2016 and also used a 5th-round pick on RB Alex Collins last year. And then this month they courted several high-profile free agent RBs and signed Eddie Lacy to a 1-year “prove it” deal. I know they are still quite high on Prosise and have big plans for him, so the addition of Lacy is a more so a problem for Rawls. Sure, Lacy will initially provide stiff competition for Rawls and others, but he’s a good fit for the offense – unlike Adrian Peterson, who visited Seattle, he’s a one-cut runner who run well out of the shotgun – and based on his high salary (reported to be worth up to $5.5 million with $3 million guaranteed), one has to think Seattle expects him to handle a healthy number of touches. They clearly don’t trust Rawls to stay healthy, and Prosise is also a major injury risk, so Lacy made sense in that he can be a three-down back for them if need be. Rawls will be a free fantasy draft pick for most, but assuming Lacy is healthy and in decent shape, a safe assumption is that Lacy and Prosise will handle the bulk of the touches in Seattle this year. Lacy was reportedly weighed at 267 pounds in March, but HC Pete Carroll actually said that they “want him big,” and that’s likely to help him carry the rushing load. They just don’t want him that big. If Rawls has serious fantasy value this coming season, it will likely come in dribs and drabs due to missed time by Lacy and/or Prosise.
James White (NE) – White had a game for the ages in the Super Bowl and could have easily taken home the game’s MVP award – yet knowing the Pats, they could cut him this summer. I’m not saying White’s roster spot is in jeopardy, but I do think that with Brandin Cooks and the versatile Rex Burkhead in the mix, White’s value to the team takes a hit. The Pats love White’s reliability and receiving skills, and they’ve used him flexed out and lined up as a receiver, usually in the slot, but that could be minimized by the presence of Cooks. White’s not going to replace LeGarrette Blount as their inside thumper any time soon (that will be another new-higher, Mike Gillislee), so the Cooks and Burkhead additions could make White even more game-flow specific than he’s been, and he’s been quite game-flow specific. Like he’s going to kill you unless they’re down by two touchdowns in the second half. Updated: 4/25
Julian Edelman/Chris Hogan/Malcolm Mitchell (NE) – New wideout Brandin Cooks was phenomenal in New Orleans, but he did benefit greatly from an extremely pass-happy team, as the Saints have trailed on half of their offensive snaps over the last two seasons. Over that same time, the Pats’ have trailed at much lower rate (18%; lowest rate in the league). In addition, 87% of their pass targets in 2016 are still on the roster, with the lone exception being TE Martellus Bennett. But even with Bennett gone, they’ve brought in Dwayne Allen, and I assume he will get some targets. This really begs the question: Where are Cooks’ targets going to come from? He’s averaged 123 a season (7.7/game) the last two years. The Pats could certainly get more pass-happy with Cooks in the fold, but the answer is likely from Edelman, Hogan, and Mitchell. It’s particularly an issue for Edelman, since there’s no way he’ll approach last year’s fat target share of 29% (tied with Mike Evans for league-best).
Sterling Shepard (NYG) – Snaps shouldn’t be a problem in 2017 for Shepard, since the Giants played with 3 WRs on the field almost 95% of the time last year, tops in the league. But what will be a problem is Shepard’s target share, especially in the red zone. Shepard was helped last year by a disproportionate number of his red-zone targets going for TDs – he saw just 13 targets inside the 20, but turned 6 into scores. Shepard was predominantly the Giants’ slot option, but he could lose some snaps in the slot to Brandon Marshall, who can line up anywhere and does typically line up in the slot. Marshall over the last two seasons saw 29% of the Jets’ red zone targets, so you have to think he will negatively affect Shepard this year inside the 20. He’ll also command a lot of targets in general, as Marshall has never seen fewer than 8.1 targets/game over the past 10 years. I still like Shepard and think he’ll be a tough cover for years to come, but expectations need to be tempered for this year with Marshall in the mix.
Laquon Treadwell (Min) – Someone beat me to the punch at the NFL Combine earlier this month by asking HC Mike Zimmer about Treadwell, but I at least was there for Zimmer’s take on Treadwell. Zimmer didn’t actually seem that frustrated with their 2016 #1 pick and attributed most of his rookie problems to injury (mainly an ankle issue). That’s fine, but the team’s courting of stud wideout Alshon Jeffery does not reflect well on Treadwell in my opinion. Jeffery would be an upgrade for the Vikings and most teams in the league, but WR was not a pressing need for a Viking team with major OL issues. Maybe I’m overreacting here, but the Vikings have some nice secondary receivers already, like the re-signed free agent Adam Thielen, so I viewed their willingness to pay for the #1 wideout on the free agent market as an indictment on Treadwell. At this point, I’ll need to see an extremely positive summer from Treadwell to feel good about using a draft pick on him.
Clive Walford (Oak) – Opportunity can be fleeting in the NFL, even if you’re a talented TE who was the 68th pick of the draft like Walford. An early-May ATV accident in which he hurt his knee did Walford no favors in year two, and for the second season he was underwhelming. The TE was not an important position for the Raiders this past year, possibly because of him, and only once all year did an Oakland TE turn in a top-12 week (Walford did it in Week 2 with 6/50/1 receiving). But that was the only time all year he topped 3 catches in a game, and his overall numbers - 33/359/3 receiving in 15 games, on 52 targets (10.9 YPR, 63.5% catch rate) – were unimpressive despite playing a solid 67% of their snaps. It was becoming clear at season’s end that Walford isn’t what the Raiders were hoping for, and now that they’ve added a better athlete in Jared Cook, Walford looks destined to be a lost cause for fantasy. Cook’s been an underachiever himself, but he’s coming off an impressive run late in 2016 and he’s a better fit for their offense. Over the last two seasons, Raider TEs lines up in the slot 47% of the time, and Cook (who’s lined up in the slot an equal 47% of the time over the last two years) is superior to Walford when detached from the formation.
Ryan Tannehill (Mia) – Tannehill intrigues me because at this point there’s almost nothing but upside to drafting him, and because I like his chances to grow in year two in Adam Gase’s offense. I asked Gase about Tannehill at the Combine earlier this month and based on his reaction and talking to Dolphin beat writers, it’s clear Gase believes in Tannehill, who impressed the head coach by becoming a coach on the sideline while he was out late last season. His numbers weren’t great, but some of that had to do with opportunity, as he threw the ball fewer than 30 times a game. He did improve for fantasy late, throwing for multiple TDs in four of his last five games, and Tannehill was efficient, averaging .69 fantasy points per pass attempt (league average was .53). He also showed improvements in pocket presence (2.2 sacks/game, down from 3.6), and deep-ball throwing (7.7 YPA up from 7.2). Miami will have balance with Jay Ajayi, which helps Tannehill, but I’d expect them to throw it a little more in 2017, and Tannehill gets to throw it to the re-signed Kenny Stills, plus they should see increased production from the TE spot with Julius Thomas added.
Sam Bradford (Min) – New LT Riley Reiff is probably better off playing on the right side, as he did last year for the Lions, and he’s probably an average-at-best left tackle in the NFL. But “average” at LT is a big upgrade for Bradford in Minnesota. Also, while new RT Mike Remmers had a rough go in pass-protection last year, he was stuck at LT for the Panthers and is much better suited to the right side, so the hope is that he can provide an upgrade from 2016. If so, the Viking OL might be average in 2017, and for Bradford’s sake, I consider an “average” line as an improved line. Also, while I’m not a big fan of Latavius Murray, he is a huge body in the backfield and likely a better pass protector than Peterson, so Bradford should get some help from his top RB. And finally, you have to like the fact that 2017 free agent Adam Thielen is back, since he and Bradford clicked so well last year.
Spencer Ware (KC) – Ware is about as unexciting as it gets at the RB position, but he’s a solid receiver and, even though he wasn’t a big TD guy in 2016, he certainly has the size to be a factor when they’re on top of the goal. You’ve have to think the team will be adding another back to compete with Ware and Charcandrick West for touches, but for now with Jamaal Charles out of the mix, Ware’s in line for another large workload in 2017. At this point, it would be a mild surprise if they added someone truly capable of taking meaningful snaps and touches away from Ware, but if they used a first or second-round pick on a back, that would be a game-changer. For now, Ware’s holding steady.
Jerick McKinnon (Min) – I have a feeling the Vikings will be drafting one of the many quality backs in this year’s draft class, but in the meantime, I don’t see the addition of Latavius Murray as a huge problem for McKinnon, who is not true foundation back, anyway. In fact, given Peterson’s need for heavy volume, McKinnon is better off with Murray in the mix, as opposed to Peterson still on the roster. It’s easy to envision a very active role for McKinnon in 2017, since Murray played only 52.9% of the Raiders’ snaps when active last year. Like Raiders Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, McKinnon can be an active complement to Murray in the running and passing games, so the key to his 2017 value should be whether or not the grab a quality back in the draft. Richard and Washington played 46% of the snaps combined last year, but neither was a serious fantasy force because they hurt each other’s production. If they don’t add another back of note this off-season, McKinnon should be in line to play a solid 40-50% of the snaps unless injuries slow him down again. He’s not considered a great pass protector, but keep in mind the Vikings will be more pass-happy this year, and McKinnon averaged a healthy 5.2/35.3/.33 receiving per game in Weeks 12-17 (prorated over 16 games, that’s 83 catches).
Ameer Abdullah (Det) – Abdullah is a guy I listed as a buy-low keeper a few weeks ago, despite the fact that I don’t expect him to ever be a high-volume guy. But I do still think he’s a very skilled runner and a versatile weapon who can be a strong fantasy asset. It might have happened in 2016, since he looked great in the preseason and for the 1.5 games he played in the regular season. In those six quarters, Abdullah put up 18/101/0 rushing (5.6 YPC) and 5/57/1 receiving, so the numbers were very good. We probably can’t just assume a huge role for Abdullah, since Zach Zenner emerged late last year and pass-catching stud Theo Riddick will cap Abdullah’s upside. The reason for the optimism now is that, even though they lost guys on the OL in Riley Reiff and Larry Warford, they’ve upgraded with Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang. These guys represent better news for QB Matthew Stafford in terms of pass protection, but there’s also clearly a sense of urgency to improve a run game that’s been stuck in the mud for years. Combine these additions with the addition of TE Darren Fells, one of the league’s best pass-blockers at the position, and the Lion OL could finally be a real strength in 2017.
Paul Perkins (NYG) – Perkins has been a tougher call dating back to when he was WW fodder in the second half of his rookie 2016 season. I knew an opportunity was coming, but I really didn’t push him as hard as I typically do a young back about to get a chance because I was skeptical he’d have legit fantasy value. Turns out that was the right approach, since Perkins did get a great opportunity, yet he didn’t make much of a fantasy splash. Perkins posted a decent 4.1 YPC and 10.8 YPR, but only 9 of his 136 opportunities came in the red zone (6.7%), which made scoring TDs a lot harder than usual. When we watched his college tape, we felt Perkins needed to be a dual backfield with another back worked in liberally. The team did recommit to veteran Shane Vereen (there were some rumors he could be released early this year), but so far in free agency, they’ve only added veteran journeyman Shaun Draughn. Draughn can be a solid stopgap, but he’s just a guy. It doesn’t appear now as if the Giants will be bringing in a higher-profile back like Adrian Peterson (although never say never), so for now the next – and possibly last – concern for Perkins is the draft. If they don’t take a RB of note in a deep RB class oor sign LeGarrette Blount, then Perkins should be in line for the 200+ touches he is now. Updated: 4/25
Alshon Jeffery (Phi) – Jeffery decided to bet on himself again after playing on the Franchise Tag in 2016 by signing a one-year deal with the Eagles. I haven’t been a big Jeffery supporter in the past for a couple of reasons, availability being the biggest one, but I don’t question this guy’s ability to ball out. Jeffery had just one 100-yard game in 2016, as he dealt with a revolving door at QB, but he did have five games with 85+ yards in 12 games total. Jeffery averaged just 1.59 fantasy points per target – the league average for the position was 1.93, so I’d expect an improvement this year with more stability at the QB position. Jeffery will reunite with his old WR coach Mike Groh, with whom he had his best season in Chicago in 2013, and while I sometimes question Jeffery’s motivation, that shouldn’t be a problem for him in 2017, as he’ll be working for quite possibly the biggest contract of his career. He cited the QB in Philadelphia as a big reason to join the team, and I do love Carson Wentz, but given Jeffery’s spotty recent past and the fact that Wentz is obviously still a work in progress, I’d feel a lot better about Jeffery as a WR2 or a fantastic WR3 than a WR1. But compared to last year and his prospects had he stayed on the Bears, he’s holding steady.
Kenny Stills (Mia) – At the combine, I was standing next to Dolphin HC Adam Gase when the coach was asked about whether the team would be able to retain Stills, and his words and body language when answering the question were revealing. Gase clearly lost some sleep over the prospect of losing Stills, but luckily for Gase, despite a strong market for his services, the club shelled out considerable money to retain the wideout. Stills was TD/big play dependent, and he was only 50th in total WR scoring, but he also averaged an impressive 2.11 fantasy points per target (league average for WRs was 1.93), and he did play 84% of the snaps and had a very decent 17.5% target share. Stills also ranked third in the NFL in YPR (17.3) for players with 30+ catches. He’s still only 25 years old, and Gase loves Stills’ vertical speed, and at a healthy 16.7 yards per reception for his career, he’s a better route runner than most vertical threats. If Gase and the team had more confidence in DeVante Parker they might not have paid as much for Stills, but their willingness to pay Stills as only their #3 is probably a reflection of Parker’s shaky career thus far. If Parker’s out of the mix, then Stills’ target share and fantasy reliability will increase; otherwise, Stills will probably remain a better real-life player than a fantasy player, but the continuity of his returning is probably a positive for his fantasy worth.
Rishard Matthews (Ten) – Not a huge deal here, but it’s worth noting that the Titans were rumored to be in the mix to acquire Brandin Cooks, but that obviously didn’t happen. In addition, the team lost veteran Kendall Wright, which helps assure a large role for Matthews. Free agency isn’t over, and they could still draft a top wideout, but for 2017 it’s already clear that Matthews is going to be a key receiver for Marcus Mariota, as he was in 2016. Matthews smashed previous career-highs in all categories last year, and his 0.480 fantasy points per route run in 2016 was the second-best rate for Tennessee WRs over the past six years and was actually the eighth-best rate among qualified receivers in 2016 alone. He’s probably best suited to play second fiddle to a prototypical #1 “X” receiver on the other side, but there’s no question the guy can play. Even if Tennessee uses a Day 1 or 2 pick on one of the top wideouts, Matthews should be in a good spot this year. Currently, he stands along as their only viable fantasy WR.
Julius Thomas (Mia) – After getting a huge 5-year, $46 million deal ahead of the 2015 season, with $24M guaranteed, Thomas caught just 76 passes for 736 yards over the past two years with Jacksonville. He missed more games (11) than scored TDs (9) and was held to fewer than 50 yards receiving in 15-of-21 games with the Jag. He’s looked like an old man out there the last 1-2 years, but when he was healthy, Thomas was a TD machine with Peyton Manning at the controls and with Miami HC Adam Gase at the OC in Denver, scoring an outstanding 24 times in 27 games. Thomas gained a solid 1.34 receiving yards per route run while in Denver, but was at only 1.03 yards per route in Jacksonville, so his numbers were way down in all areas. TEs haven’t necessarily been a huge part of Ryan Tannehill’s passing attack, as just 12.4% of Tannehill’s passing yards have come from TEs alone (for reference, 19 TEs saw at least 13% of their teams’ targets in 2016). However, I do think Gase’s offense can be TE-friendly, as it was for Thomas in Denver, and Tannehill does throw to his TEs when Miami’s inside the 10. Tannehill targeted Anthony Fasano, Charles Clay, and Dion Sims (signed with Chicago in 2017) on 34% of his pass attempts in 2012-14 and 2016. And last year, Sims’ 30% target share inside of the 10-yard line was very high for a TE. Thomas isn’t a good blocker, but the team has brought Fasano back, and he’ll pick up most of the slack there. Thomas will be 29 in June, and based on his injury history and tape the last two years, he’s not someone to truly count on. But back with Gase and with a fresh start, and reportedly finally healthy, he has a chance to produce top-15 totals provided he’s seeing close to previous Dolphin TEs’ activity in the red zone. He’s a good bet to be more TD dependent than most top TEs, but thing could work out well for him in the TD department for sure.
Eddie Lacy (RB, Sea) – Lacy was a better fit for the Seahawks because, unlike a guy like Adrian Peterson, he has good versatility. He can be a three-down back and active and effective in the passing game, for example, and he can run well out of shotgun, which is key in Seattle’s offense. If you squint, you can see Marshawn Lynch in Lacy’s game, and HC Pete Carroll was able to revitalize Lynch’s career in Seattle. He’ll try that with Lacy on a 1-year deal and also a reported $385,000 bonus that is tied to his weight. This addition shows they want to refocus on having a tough, physical running game, which was a missing element last year without Lynch and with Thomas Rawls missing a lot of time. This signing indicates a complete lack of trust in the oft-injured and inconsistent Rawls, but Carroll loves competition, so this pair should battle it out for the early-down work. There are several things that could go wrong for Lacy in Seattle, as he goes from running behind a very good OL in Green Bay to one of the ten worst in Seattle (rated 32nd by PFF in 2016), and there are questions about his long-term health (ankle). He could certainly lose out to Rawls for the early-down work, and C.J. Prosise will have a say in how they divvy up the touches, especially in passing situations. But Lacy’s conditioning or lack thereof is probably his biggest obstacle. He was better than some of his numbers suggested in 2016 (0 TDs hurt), but it’s worrisome how his weight apparently ballooned late in the preseason as he entered the final year of his rookie deal. I’d guess his ADP will settle into the 50-70 range, but even with that discounted price, there will be some risk to drafting Lacy on a team with no long-terms ties to him and several other capable backs on the roster.
Danny Woodhead (RB, Bal) – It was a little surprising to see Woodhead land in Baltimore, but much less so once the news of Kenneth Dixon’s 4-game suspension came down. Raven GM Ozzie Newsome learned a lot working under Bill Belichick in Cleveland, so it makes sense that they viewed him as their type of player. Woodhead finishes his Chargers career averaging a healthy 4.5 catches a game, and while it’s tough to see him duplicate that number in Baltimore, it is possible. For one, the Ravens threw the ball a whopping 678 times in 2016 compared to only 589 attempts per season in Woodhead’s four seasons in San Diego. And even without a stud pass-catcher like Woodhead in the backfield last year, Joe Flacco targeted a RB or FB on 21.9% of his attempts last year, the seventh-highest rate in the league. The Ravens do want to run the ball more effectively, but they still lack a true foundation back in terms of running the ball, so they may stay north of 600 in terms of their pass attempts. In addition, with Dixon set to miss the first four weeks of the season, Woodhead should quickly carve out a larger role in the passing game. Woodhead probably won’t have as much fantasy juice as he did in his strong 2013 and 2015 seasons, but he should be a nice PPR bench piece at worst, as Kyle Juszczyk and Justin Forsett represent 76 departed targets from last season. It’s also possible he’s utilized as a runner and receiver inside the 10, due to his slipperiness and pass-protection, which would further boost his production.
Adrian Peterson (RB, NO) - From where he was as the bell-cow for the Vikings as recently as the opening of the 2016 season, Peterson is a downgrade. But from where he was the first few months of 2017, without a job, Peterson is merely holding steady. As mentioned above, only 20.9% of Peterson’s career PPR output has been derived via the passing game while 52.2% of the Saints backfield’s PPR output came via the passing game in 2016, so to have strong fantasy value in New Orleans, a RB usually needs to catch the ball, and Peterson has always looked uncomfortable catching the rock. Peterson does go from one of the five worst OLs to one of the 12 best, which is important because his skills are diminishing. And he's in a great overall offense playing with Drew Brees. As noted in Graham Barfield's overview of Peterson signing with the Saints, 80.8% of Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower’s cumulative carries came with Brees under center in 2016. That's important because, throughout the course of his career, 94.6% of Peterson’s attempts have been with a quarterback either in I-Formation or in a Singleback set. HC Sean Peyton will run the rock, and early in his career in N.O. he leaned heavily on Deuce McAllister as a runner, so it's not like Peterson is joining a run-and-shoot offense. I'm sure the Saints envision using Peterson as a closer at times, which is great in theory, but the Saint defense usually forces them to pass more than most teams. New Orleans did run the most plays in the league last year, which is encouraging, but it's a stretch to believe Peterson can get the kind of volume he's used to receiving, and it's fair to question his effectiveness with a minimized role. Fewer touches may help keep him fresh and extend his career, but he could still be very TD-dependent with an average stat line looking something like this: 12 carries for 49 yards with 1 catch for 6 yards. And that's assuming he's healthy. Ultimately, I don't expect to be targeting Peterson on the Saints. Updated: 4/25
Andre Ellington (RB, Ari) – I thought maybe Ellington would move on and find a larger role elsewhere, but he re-signed with the Cards on a 1-year deal. Upon the announcement of the signing, longtime Cardinal beat writer Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic reported that the Cardinals actually plan to use Ellington at WR on occasion. That makes sense based on the fact that HC Bruce Arians told me Ellington runs routes better than most of their WRs. But he told me that three years ago, so it’s curious how little he’s been used the last two years. Granted, David Johnson commands a huge workload, but even though Ellington is still in his prime at 28 with minimal usage over the last two seasons, Ellington is nothing more than a last-pick-of-the-draft option this summer.
Brandin Cooks (WR, NE) – I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what we can expect from Cooks this year in New England, but I know this: He’s good. Still only 23 years old when the ‘17 season kicks off and in the final year of his rookie deal (the team has a 5th-year option for 2018), Cooks is 28th in receiving yards/game (68.1) and 8th in receptions/game (5.12) among receivers all-time in their first three years as a pro. As mentioned above in this article, 87% of their pass targets in 2016 are still on the roster, with the lone exception being TE Martellus Bennett, who has been replaced by Dwayne Allen. Common sense says Cooks’ targets will come at the expense of all their other receivers as opposed to 1-2 of them, and as long as he can pick up this offense relatively well, he should be a devastating weapon for innovative OC Josh McDaniels, who can use him anywhere on the field and challenge defenses both horizontally and vertically. For fantasy, the key is where does Cooks’ ADP settle into. Before the trade, his early ADP was in the low-20s, or a late 2nd-round pick for most, which is too high for Cooks on a new team with a plethora of receiving options. But if he slips in the 45-55 range overall, he’ll be a lot more palatable, and at that point I’d likely sign off on him as a good pick given the obvious potential.
DeAndre Hopkins/Will Fuller (WRs, Hou) - Obviously, all Texan receivers are effected by the team's QB situation, and a marriage with (the retired) Tony Romo appears to be a major long-shot at this point, but their top two wideouts should be most affected. As things stand now in early April, Tom Savage is the starter for the Texans, and that's a drop-off from the potential Romo would bring to the table. Savage, who will be on the last year of his rookie deal in 2017, may at least be an upgrade over 2016 starter Brock Osweiler. Savage averaged 7.2 and 6.1 adjusted yards per attempt in his two full starts, Osweiler managed just 5.0 adjusted yards per attempt on his 510 attempts in 2016. Savage entered a Week 15 game and immediately infused some life into Hopkins in particular, and his high-end arm strength was on display. Unfortunately, Savage flopped in Week 16 and then got hurt in Week 17 and the team went back to Osweiler for the playoffs. Savage has the tools to be an effective player, but given his unimpressive three year NFL career thus far, backing him is a leap of faith. The best we can hope for with these two WRs is either for the light to go on for Savage or the team using a first or second-day pick on a QB and that QB perform well. We'll see what the draft has in store, but there's no question Romo's decision to retire and enter the broadcast booth hurts Hopkins and Fuller's chances in 2017. Added: 4/4
Kenny Britt (WR, Cle) – I’ve been a big Britt supporter in the past, but he’s been hard to back for fantasy the last few years, so he’s only been a player we’ve recommended as a very late-round flyer. He delivered majorly on that very minimal investment as the clear #1 for the Rams last year, posting a strong 68/1002/5 season with Jared Goff and Case Keenum at quarterback in 2016. I feel confident the Browns will regret signing Britt over the younger Terrelle Pryor, but we won’t be able to handicap him until we see the roster completely fall into place. Britt has turned his career around after he nearly fell out of the league after five years in Tennessee, but I doubt he’ll have the same target share as he had last year (22%), since the Browns have guys like Corey Coleman and Gary Barnidge who’ll command a lot of looks. And if they don’t somehow land a good QB like Jimmy Garoppolo, Britt will likely have a tough time duplicating last year’s digits.
Jared Cook (TE, Oak) – Cook’s leaving a very good situation in Green Bay, but this landing spot could work out fine for him. After a mostly underwhelming first regular season with the Packers, Cook tore it up in the playoffs, posting 18/229/2 receiving and averaging 17.6 FPG in three games. A change of scenery really helped Cook to tap into some of his potential in his eighth season. Raider TEs lines up in the slot 47% of the time, and Cook (who’s lined up in the slot an equal 47% of the time over the last two years) is superior to Clive Walford when detached from the formation, so he should jump to the top of the TE depth chart. The Raiders are clearly weary of Walford, as they have been looking for a legitimate threat for several years now, and Cook has the speed down the seam they’ve been looking for, plus he gives Carr a dangerous big body in the middle of the field and in the red zone. His presence should help their WRs on the outside. Cook has never been a consistent fantasy option and is a career underachiever, plus he’ll need to pick up his second offense and develop with his second QB in as many years. But playing with Derek Carr puts him in the 12-15 range in drafts this year as long as he’s picking things up well this summer.