Once again, March Madness – NFL style, hit the sports headlines last Thursday in dramatic fashion. Years ago, attention to the NFL off-season news for me didn’t start until June or July at the earliest. That was when my favorite pro football annual magazines usually came out. The information age really crept up on me and I can’t quite pinpoint when I transited completely away from newsstands. News about NFL free agency in March was something I could wait for well into the summer, as well as the draft and player trades.
Today, it’s quite different. The salary cap changed the NFL in the 1990s making the free agency date something to circle on your calendar. Teams have to strategize around the cap and release some players that they otherwise might want to hang on to. It’s a bit of a ruckus compared to the orderly nature of the draft as a lot of last minute signings, trades and releases fill the headlines. So free agency is the NFL’s big shopping day sale.
Some players secure spots with teams beforehand on agreement as they receive offers unlikely to be matched or surpassed by other interested franchises when the doors open. Sometimes it’s just a team a player really wants to play for and they’ll take a reasonable offer. It’s not unusual for drama to erupt; a tug of war may ensue between two or more NFL teams for a single player. One of the things we’ll be able to gain some insight on after the first weekend of free agency is what positions teams may be focusing on in the upcoming 2017 draft in April.
For Fantasy Football specifically, free agency has direct effect on our early rankings of NFL players. I frankly love this time of year because there is that one guy that I feel has hit a sweet spot and a right fit. I like getting a sense of the long-term potential early so I can get a evaluation on not only the player, but the improvement the player brings to an offense overall. After all, I prefer my fantasy players to be on teams that sustain drives, score points and have low turnovers.
2017 Wide Receiver-Tight End Free Agency
The wide receivers along with quarterbacks were the hot properties to open the free agency market. Not one running back of note apart from Danny Woodhead made the headlines. To read about the quarterbacks and running backs in the free agency, check Michael Trivisonno’s column.
Most of the big names signed within 24 hours of the free agency opening. Most of the surprises were minor ones, but some may have gained or lost fantasy capital where they landed. In many cases, the effect will be felt with players already signed with the teams they are joining.
Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles
Status: Signed 1 year deal worth $14m
Last team: Chicago Bears
Jeffery signed a lukewarm contract, despite his consensus as the top receiver entering free agency. He took this deal with the sense that NFL teams weren’t about to bargain hard for him. The Eagles are a good spot for Alshon however, whether it was the best is very much arguable – and for fantasy. It’s still a plus parking place for a team hungering for that deep threat that just wasn’t happening with either Dorial Green-Beckham or Nelson Agholor.
It’s one of those foundation, or “prove it” type of contracts and Alshon Jeffery certainly has his work cut out for him in that department. A four game suspension for PEDs and short-term injuries left him on the “questionable” list almost every week in 2016. As with any new addition, Jeffery will need to develop a chemistry with Carson Wentz in the OTAs and on into the summer.
I’m generally optimistic for Jeffery in Philadelphia. He comes in as the number one wide in Philadelphia with little or no competition. The ADPs should be fairly robust enough to warrant early round consideration. That said, health is always going to be watchword with Jeffery and those wary may pass on him for other options.
Torrey Smith also joins the team, but this situation does not give him any fantasy boost at all. In fact, he loses ground – if there was any left to lose after San Francisco. However, if Jeffery cannot avoid the injury bug, the waiver wires will race for Smith in a nano-second for an on-spec grab.
Brandin Cooks, New England Patriots
Status: Traded from Saints for draft picks
Last team: New Orleans Saints
The Patriots traded some good real estate to New Orleans to acquire Cooks, but a lot less than if rumors of the 4th year star cornerback Malcolm Butler was included in the package. So it was a draft picks only deal and the Pats gave up their 1st and 3rd for the Saints’ 4th and presto! They have Brandin Cooks.
Tom Brady hasn’t had a receiver like this probably since Randy Moss or Wes Welker. Cooks is a bit of both, almost matching the size of Welker, but with the strength, speed and playmaking ability of Moss. So Brady gets a composite of his best receivers from the past into one guy, Brandin Cooks. The Edel-Gronk offensive era is coming to a close in New England.
The offensive pattern for the Patriots probably follows the same glide path as their formula desires. Cooks was frustrating for fantasy owners on a game by game basis in New Orleans in 2016, despite the numbers still surpassing that magic 1000. In New England, the mouths are fewer, but Gronkowski will maintain his touchdown hoggedness. Cooks has to fit here, and it’s a good fit, but whether his usage stretches equally or beyond his Saints production will remain uncertain for a time.
Understanding the plans for Cooks in 2017 is not your usual plug and play when it comes to the Patriots. He’ll sail off draft boards early, but perhaps not as confidently as the Zero-RB advocates would prefer owing to reasons mentioned above.
Terrelle Pryor, Washington Redskins
Status: Signed a one year $6m deal.
Last Team: Cleveland Browns
Some say a steal, some say a collective, “meh.” Getting a point of view on Terrelle Pryor will serve you a platter of many opinions. He solidified his transition from quarterback to wide receiver with the Browns in 2016 and surpassed 1000 yards with eight touchdowns. Sound good? It does if you lower the bar for praise on his position transition. Some real stinkers and low target outings culminated in some spotty production – especially near the end of the season. He didn’t have chemistry with RGIII at all, but then that’s RGIII.
As for upside, there’s plenty to go around for Pryor in Washington. Two main receivers have left the team, allowing Pryor an opportunity for top dog stardom. Can he do it? Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder are still a fine tandem. Jordan Reed will remain a target hound as long as he wears the uniform. Kirk Cousins plays another season in a situation where he just wants to get it over with. What can this add up to?
Pryor will be among the players I predict getting some overhype as we get into the team activities phase of the off-season. I had my eye on him last season because I could see the growing potential. Many I suspect would be willing to take an early middle round gamble on him because he did prove able to compete with best corners in league. And I don’t think he’s developed to his best yet either. The added upside of gadget plays are bound to give owners that extra something every so often, making Pryor a somewhat “collectible” type of fantasy player.
Desean Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Status: 3 yr $35m with guarantees
Last Team: Washington Redskins
Jackson left the Redskins much in the same way as he left Philadelphia, without a contract extension. Jackson is over 30 now, which is of course not necessarily over-the-hill, but the Redskins were not impressed to enough with his performances to get an extension in DC. Usually a 1000+ yard season, or even close to it, is good enough to gain some hometown interest. He also currently lives in the area, so there was incentive for him to remain with the team.
It was not to be. A once bulging Washington receiving corps with a good balance of youth and experience has now suddenly left a hole with the departure of Pierre Garcon. But I’m digressing into the Redskins woes, which is filling the March sports headlines. This is really about D-Jax and what he can bring to the Buccaneers. The role looks just like the veteran playmaker deputy that Tampa Bay had with Vincent Jackson.
In our recent podcast, it was pointed out by my colleagues that this move helps Mike Evans fantasy value more than Jackson himself. I agree with the assessment. As for Jackson, well, there’s enough in him for another 1000+ year with at least a half dozen or more touchdowns. He’s not the Bucs main guy, but depending on the depth of your league, he could end up as part of your regular weekly rotations as either flex or WR3.
Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers
Status: 5yr $47.5, with guarantees
Last Team: Washington Redskins
His departure from the Redskins was when things surrounding the team started really stirring fan outrage. He leaves for a team that is on its third coach in as many years, a starting quarterback that would be a backup on most teams, and a coaching staff that is basically working up from rock bottom.
There’s a lot of good in the move however. Garcon is almost by default the main target for Brian Hoyer, barring any draft wunderkinds the 49ers may bring along. A prolific target for Cousins in 2016 with the Redskins, but whether that translates to Hoyer will be part of the fantasy discussion in 2017.
It all looks positive at this early juncture. Garcon could be a surpringly strong fantasy grab with Michael Crabtree type fantasy level possibilities. I may be getting ahead of myself, and I probably am, because all the eggs have yet to be counted. Right now however, the arrow is solidly pointing up for Pierre Garcon in San Fran.
Brandon Marshall, New York Giants
Status: 2 yr $11m, with other signing incentives
Last Team: New York Jets
Brandon Marshall is a favorite player of mine. I know his twilight years are upon us now and his once reliably WR1 status is in rear-view mirror. He said New York would be the last team he plays for, well that self destined prediction still holds true with this move to the Giants. He’s good enough to supplant Sterling Shepard as the next up for targets after Odell Beckham Jr.
Much remains open for debate, but with the Giants cutting Victor Cruz in February, there was a comfy spot just waiting for someone like Brandon Marshall to land. His pedigree at this stage in his career is outshines Cruz by a wide margin.
The big guy has to be a welcome sight for Eli Manning. Brandon Marshall will serve well as a compliment to Odell Beckham Jr. with an additional headache for defenses. I don’t care what anyone says, Marshall at 33 still has plenty in the tank. If anything, the value threat is to Sterling Shepard. The only issue to halting Marshall’s output is Eli himself. He is not far behind his famed elder brother in the decline of physical mechanics. Something fantasy followers need to monitor this off-season.
Selected wide receivers worth mentioning in brief…
Torrey Smith, Philadelphia Eagles
As mentioned with Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith comes in a capacity that doesn’t inject much fantasy adrenaline for 2017 interest. However, the fragile Jeffery could make Smith a late round spec stash as drafters fill out rosters.
Kenny Stills, Miami Dolphins
The perennial deep-threat remains with Miami after a brief test of the free agency market. His value will remain virtually unchanged from 2016.
Kenny Britt, Cleveland Browns
Britt woke up fantasy interest in 2016 and became a waiver wire star in deep leagues. His production waned after Jared Goff entered the starting quarterback position. With the Browns, he likely needs another connect with a rookie quarterback. It could be back to the fantasy shadows for Britt.
Markus Wheaton, Chicago Bears
A dilapidated receiving corps in Chicago won’t help Wheaton gain fantasy weight and the only upside is opportunity.
Ted Ginn Jr., New Orleans Saints
Ginn Jr. is now part of the melting pot of Saints receivers and Drew Brees will likely get him involved in games with bombs bursting in air. Michael Thomas is far and away the best fantasy football own now in New Orleans with Willie Snead next up doing some of the grunt work.
Martellus Bennett, Green Bay Packers
Status: 3 yr $20m+
Last Team: New England Patriots
Hard to believe that Jared Cook was offered slightly more and turned it down. Rodgers works in his new people by increment, but I’m sure he’ll speed up the process with this guy. Bennett was the offensive sustaining glue that kept the Patriots game plans on track during Rob Grownkowski’s absences. He was ownable even in the duty share with Gronk.
In Green Bay, the team now has two sure handed tight ends, something Jared Cook was oft criticized for not having. This despite spectacular performances late in the 2016 season and especially the playoffs. Bennett will appeal to fantasy fans for his clutch ability and Red Zone instincts.
A big loud blip on the fantasy radar that’s for sure. Whichever method you choose to draft the tight end position, Bennett threatens top five production and has to targetted. He is scheduled for off-season ankle surgery and knee rehab, but there’s no other reason for Bennett to not be flying off draft boards among the early choices for tight ends.
Julius Thomas, Miami Dolphins
Status: Traded with a salary restructuring deal, 2yr $12m+
Last Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
Thomas never quite clicked with the Jaguars and missed time with various injuries that more than annoyed fantasy football. The production never looked ever coming close to equalling his Denver numbers with Peyton Manning. I don’t think he is totally to blame. Gus Bradley was a system type of coach and getting the ball to Thomas was never a priority.
In Miami, with a restructured contract and reunited with his old OC from Denver, there’s better than just mild optimism that Thomas could pull in better numbers than in Jacksonville.
Despite some better promise in Miami, I’m having trouble buying in on Thomas. When the OTAs start spinning wonderful stories about Thomas, which I’m sure they will, I’m going to try hard and avoid the superficial. So should you. I’ll draft him from a lower tier as it stands here in March. Could I change my mind? Sure. But not from stuff like “Thomas making heads turn in Miami OTAs.” None of that please.
Selected tight ends worth mentioning in brief…
Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens
Pitta avoided a certain chop from the team with a contract restructure. Pitta is to be commended for overcoming his hip injuries, which were severe, but the era of his fantasy relevance is in the past.
Jared Cook, Free Agent
As mentioned with Martellus Bennett, Jared Cook had everything and basically threw it away by overplaying his hand. The Packers saved money and got a better tight end. Cook loses value wherever he ends up.
Vernon Davis, Washington Redskins
Davis still holds some value as a handcuff tight end to Jordan Reed, but he’ll remain in the player pool after most drafts again in 2017.
Jack Doyle, Indianapolis Colts
Doyle cracks the high tier tight end barrier. A quiet, but very sly draft choice in 2017. Potentially the tight end who makes the big splash in fantasy for next season.