Analyzing fantasy value for players involved in wild NFL free agency
Is it possible the NFL paid attention to the MLB, NBA and NHL at those leagues' most recent trade deadlines and thought, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s pretty fun.” The one major professional league that typically doesn’t have any trades, let alone noteworthy ones, stole the headlines in the middle of the lead-in to the NCAA tournament with a few blockbuster trades, sandwiched by big signings at the start of the free agent period.
What do the moves mean for the fantasy value of the players involved? Let's break them down.
Eagles deal LeSean McCoy to Bills
We probably should have known that this year’s free agency period was going to be crazier than most when this was one of the first moves reported. McCoy was no less than the centerpiece of the Eagles offense. He won the rushing title in 2013 and will still be just 27 when next season begins. He’ll be doing that with a new team for the first time in his career.
What McCoy loses in overall offensive environment he makes up for in focus. McCoy will undoubtedly get the lion’s share of the work in the Buffalo backfield and will likely claim goal line duties, something he probably wouldn’t have had in Philadelphia. The greater concern here is the scheme. McCoy really thrived, especially in 2013, in Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s spread-it-out system. Greg Roman employs more of a power game, and it’s unclear whether McCoy, or the Buffalo offensive line, will be up to that task. If Matt Cassel and the passing game prove unable to take the pressure off McCoy, it could be a tough road ahead for him. For now, McCoy should be considered a high-end RB2 with an RB1 ceiling.
Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks
No one expected McCoy to be traded, but it’s not a surprise to see a running back treated like nothing more than a fungible commodity. That’s why the Saints trade of Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick to Seattle for center Max Unger and a first-round pick was the most surprising move of the trading and free agency frenzy.
Before we get to Graham and the team he left behind, we need to address the biggest winner in this deal. Russell Wilson had already ascended into the top tier of fantasy quarterbacks, finishing third at the position in 2014 behind Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. He did that throwing to a group of pass catchers highlighted by Doug Baldwin. Now he gets one of the league’s most dangerous receivers, a legitimate scheme breaker in the red zone and a presence every team has to account for immediately on every play. Wilson still needs to produce on the ground to remain on Rodgers’s and Luck’s fantasy level, but there’s no reason to expect that to go away. A guy who has made the Super Bowl each of the last two years looks primed for the best season of his career.
As for Graham, this really doesn’t affect his fantasy value. It’s not like he was slumming it with Drew Brees in New Orleans. If anything, he loses some value leaving the Saints’ pass-happy offense for Seattle, which is going to remain a run-first team. He’s still the No. 2 tight end, comfortably behind Rob Gronkowski.
Drew Brees, meanwhile, loses his favorite target. Given that the Saints traded Graham for a Pro Bowl center and brought back Mark Ingram, it’s easy to see a transformation into a more run-oriented style happening in New Orleans. Brees remains a top-five fantasy quarterback, but is no longer in the Rodgers tier. The receivers remaining in New Orleans—Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston—all get a tiny bump in value.
The Rams and Eagles flip quarterbacks
Chip Kelly and the Eagles remained at the center of the action, sending Nick Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. Let’s dispose of Foles quickly because his case is much easier to diagnose. It didn’t take a genius to see that Foles was going to regress after throwing 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 2013. A broken collarbone limited Foles to eight games last year, but he clearly took a step back, throwing for 6.96 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns and 10 picks. His fantasy value takes a huge hit out of the great environment of Philadelphia. Consider him a low-end QB2.
Bradford, meanwhile, becomes an intriguing player joining forces with Kelly in Philadelphia. There’s no denying that Kelly has made useful fantasy players out of Foles and Mark Sanchez, neither of whom possess Bradford’s natural talent. He has the sort of accuracy Kelly prizes and can be effective running the ball in the read-option. His biggest issue, as always, will be health. When you’re a quarterback with as many injuries to your throwing shoulder as Bradford has had, as well as two ACL tears, you’re going to be among the most significant injury risks in the league. We know for now that Bradford will have Jordan Matthews, Riley Cooper and Zach Ertz, but it'll be interesting to see how Kelly fills out the pass-catching weapons around him. Oh yeah, and his former college teammate Murray should help him push the back end of the QB1 class.
Who’s ready for DeMarco Murray revenge games?
When the Eagles dealt McCoy to Buffalo, most everyone wondered if Kelly bought a little too much into his own legend. He definitely had a plan all along, and whether or not it included landing Murray doesn’t much make a different at this point. The bottom line is Murray is now an Eagle, and his very presence could shift the balance of power from Dallas to Philadelphia.
Murray had the best year of his career in 2014, running for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries. There are two primary questions for him in Philadelphia. First, can he sustain his production after last year’s huge workload? Second, how will he fair after leaving behind Dallas’s stellar offensive line? The answers to those questions, especially the first one, will determine how far he can go, but there’s no doubt that Murray perfectly fits Kelly’s system. He’s the sort of back who can make one cut and get up field, and will mix well with read-option concepts. We’re still far away from etching any rankings in stone, but Murray should return as a top-five pick in 2015.
Reuniting 'The U' in Indy
It’s rare when a fan base should get excited about signing two veteran skill players in their 30s, but we have the exception in Indianapolis. The Colts inked Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, giving Andrew Luck two more weapons who can help this offense rise to another level and take those final steps to a championship next year.
Gore continued to defy Father Time last year, his age-31 season, playing all 16 games and running for 1,106 yards and four touchdowns on 255 carries. Even at his advanced age (for a running back in the NFL), he’s a perfect fit for what the Colts want to do. He has always been an excellent blocker and will fill that role beautifully, just like Ahmad Bradshaw did last season. He’s also an authoritative runner who can make the Colts forget the Trent Richardson disaster, to a certain degree. The Colts will keep Gore healthy by mixing in Dan Herron, but he’s going to be the primary back. With his track record and the ceiling of this offense, he should be an RB2.
Johnson, Gore’s teammate in their college days at Miami, has to feel like he has a new lease on life. Just consider this for a second. As great as he has been in his career, the best quarterback he has played with, by leaps and bounds, is Matt Schaub. That’s enough to drive a receiver crazy. Johnson deserves to be playing meaningful games, especially as he enters the twilight of his career, and that’s what he’ll do with the Colts. Even at 34 with a cavalcade of substandard quarterbacks last year, Johnson caught 85 passes for 936 yards and three scores. He’s just two seasons removed from a 109-catch, 1,407-yard season. There’s no doubt he can still get it done, and with Andrew Luck he could potentially have one of the best seasons of his career. Johnson is a rock-solid WR2 in 2015.
Go west, Jeremy Maclin
Given the season Maclin had last year, as well as the other receivers already in Philadelphia, it seemed obvious that he and the Eagles would come to an agreement. That did not happen, however, and Andy Reid struck where he saw an opportunity, luring to Kansas City a player drafted under his watch in Philadelphia.
Maclin returned from a torn ACL in 2014 to have the best year of his career, catching 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns. No one should blame him for chasing the money, especially in this league, but there may not have been a team in the receiver market less appealing from a fantasy standpoint than the Chiefs. Remember, this is a team that didn’t have a receiving touchdown from a receiver last year. Maclin will likely break that drought for Kansas City, but the offense isn’t suddenly going to turn into one that pushes the ball down the field simply because he is in town. The passing game still has to be shaped around Alex Smith’s strengths, and that means Maclin will be catching a whole lot more passes closer to the line of scrimmage than he did last year. He looks like a mid-tier WR2 for the time being.
Shane Vereen trades sides, joins Giants
Vereen was a popular pick last season, especially in PPR leagues. He was never able to carve out a meaningful role, however, in what proved to be his last season in New England. It could be a similarly frustrating season for his fantasy owners in 2015, even though he’s with a new team.
Vereen left a volatile, unpredictable backfield for a crowded one, joining Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and the New York Giants. You might not know it from just remembering what he did from week to week last season, and you certainly wouldn’t hear one of his fantasy owners say it, but 2014 was actually the best year of Vereen’s career. He totaled 838 yards from scrimmage, caught 52 passes and hit paydirt five times. He’s essentially a running back in name only, and he’ll likely remain in that role in New York. Jennings will likely be the nominal starter, with Williams taking over near the goal line and Vereen playing in passing situations. This offense actually has a little bit of juice, thanks primarily to Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz, and that tide could lift all ships. Still, Vereen is going to have an ancillary role, and that likely won’t make him more than an RB3 or potential flex play most weeks.
Julius Thomas flees Eden, lands somewhere far less desirable
In the land of unguaranteed contracts, it's difficult to fault a player for cashing in when he gets the chance. It’s true for Maclin, and it’s also true for Thomas, who left Denver and signed with Jacksonville for $24 million in guaranteed money. After two big seasons with the Broncos, however, fantasy owners will no longer be cashing in if Thomas is their tight end.
As far as overall offensive environment goes, there may not even be a real-life equivalent for a football player going to Jacksonville from Denver. That’s more true for Julius Thomas than it would be for, say, Demaryius Thomas, who’s a freakishly talented receiver. The tight end Thomas attained nearly all his fantasy value on touchdowns, scoring 24 over the last two years. In that same time frame, he caught 108 passes for 1,277 yards. He essentially had zero yardage value last year and was largely non-existent after scoring nine touchdowns in his first five games.
Those touchdowns simply aren’t going to be there in Jacksonville. He’ll be one of the primary options in the passing game, but he’s no more than a low-end TE1, rubbing elbows with Larry Donnell and Jason Witten.
Owen Daniels will follow Gary Kubiak to the ends of the earth
Who do you suppose first learned that the Broncos hired Kubiak to be their head coach? His wife, or Daniels? The coach and tight end team up in their third different city, going from Houston to Baltimore to Denver. This could be the best move yet for Daniels.
Environment means a lot to every player in the NFL, but it perhaps means more to a good, but not singularly talented, player like Daniels. We just talked about how Julius Thomas was able to benefit monetarily after playing with Peyton Manning for two years and not really doing much more than scoring touchdowns. Daniels can inhabit that same role with aplomb. He has a couple serious injuries in his past, but he has been productive when healthy, averaging 60 receptions for 733 yards and five touchdowns per every 16 games in his career. Now that he joins a Manning-led offense, he’s a top-10 tight end.
Torrey Smith joins the 49ers
Nothing has gone right for the 49ers for, oh, about seven months running, but Smith is a great fit for this offense. They desperately need a receiver who can stretch the field, and even though he had his worst season doing that in 2014, Smith is still a dangerous deep threat. Smith caught 49 passes for 767 yards and a career-high 11 touchdowns last year, which gave him the best fantasy season of his career. From the perspective of fantasy points he has been remarkably consistent his entire career, finishing, in chronological order, 22nd, 23rd, 21st and 19th among receivers in standard-scoring leagues.
On paper, Colin Kaepernick, Carlos Hyde, Anquan Boldin, Smith and Vernon Davis comprise an attractive offense. How that all comes together on the field remains to be seen, but, at this point, it’d be foolish to doubt Smith’s ability to be a solid WR2 next season.