The first week of free agency is always a madhouse, and this week certainly lived up to the hype. We saw the Giants give $200 million to four players in an attempt to repair their dreadful defense from a season ago, the Eagles attempt to trade away any remaining vestige of Chip Kelly as if he were the deposed king of a rival house, and the Dolphins do the kind of things the Dolphins do.
From a fantasy perspective, however, the biggest moves did not have an immediate effect on playing time or fantasy value. Most of the top names available were on the defensive side of the ball, and while those moves will certainly impact the schedule difficulty of teams in the NFC East and AFC West, those changes are difficult to quantify right now.
That is not to say there were no big moves on offense. From the fallout of Calvin Johnson’s retirement to the offensive shakeup in Houston and all the Coby Fleener-s in between, there is plenty of fantasy goodness to discuss from the first week of free agency.
Texans Make Splash
Perhaps the most surprising move of free agency was the Texans giving Brock Osweiler a four-year, $72 million deal – really a two-year, $37 million deal – to pry him away from Denver. Osweiler is a big, athletic quarterback with a solid arm, but he struggled to consistently move the offense in his only seven career starts before being benched for the rotted husk of Peyton Manning. Bill O’Brien has a history of maximizing the talent of mediocre quarterbacks – see: Christian Hackenberg’s draft buzz two years ago – but it is still not clear Osweiler is even mediocre or better than Brian Hoyer.
The good news is the Texans have played fast under O'Brien, averaging 1,095 offensive plays in his two years in charge and finishing ninth in pass attempts last season. Houston was also top-five in rushing attempts last year despite having no capable running back to speak of, meaning there is plenty of reason to believe both Osweiler and newly-signed Lamar Miller (see below) can get theirs. Osweiler may not be great, but he should finish in the top half of the league in attempts and is throwing to DeAndre Hopkins, who is one of the best receivers around. He has upside QB2 appeal.
As for the Broncos, they are now in a desperate spot at quarterback. They traded a conditional pick for Mark Sanchez, but he has the look of the backup for the eventual starter. The big rumor is the Broncos view Colin Kaepernick as plan B, but it appears trade negotiations have hit a snag. There is a chance Memphis QB Paxton Lynch falls to Denver at the end of the first round, but he will not be ready to start day 1. Signing Ryan Fitzpatrick makes the most sense, but that rumor has yet to pick up steam.
With the options available, it seems clear the Broncos will retain their conservative, run-heavy approach on offense, which could help the value of C.J. Anderson if he sticks around – he signed an offer sheet with the Dolphins – but will severely dent the values of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who were nothing more than lowish-upside WR2s last year. It is difficult to see either being any better moving forward. Both are sells in Dynasty.
Houston also spent money on the running game, signing Lamar Miller to a four-year, $26 million deal and Jeff Allen to a four-year, $28 million contract. Miller gives the Texans a legitimate No. 1 running back to replace Arian Foster, and Jeff Allen should help mitigate the loss of Brandon Brooks to the Eagles.
Miller’s fantasy value also gets a significant boost. The Texans have finished in the top five in rushing attempts in both of O’Brien’s seasons in charge including a No. 1 finish in 2014. Arian Foster had 298 touches that season despite missing three games. After being criminally underused in Miami, Miller should finally have the reins taken off in Houston, a fact which was not lost on him. With an expanded workload, a better offensive line, and an incredible history of per-touch efficiency, Miller is shaping up as a solid RB1.
Running Back Carousel
Miller was not the only running back on the move. Aside from Doug Martin, who signed a new five-year, $35.75 million deal with the Bucs, every other top free agent running back found a new home in the first several days of free agency.
The first spin of the carousel came when the Eagles agreed to trade DeMarco Murray to the Titans for the equivalent of a bag of magic beans. No one was happier about this trade than Murray, who said he “took a year off” in Philadelphia because of the relative lack of work he received. While his 237 touches with the Eagles were considerably less than the almost 500 he had with the Cowboys the year before, it was still a reasonable workload by today’s standards. It was also a big enough sample size to show his legs are no longer the ones which carried him to a rushing title in 2014. Perhaps he can bounce back in a system more tuned to his strengths, but behind a questionable offensive line, it is likely Murray busts again.
Murray’s trade leaves Ryan Mathews as the lone early-down back in Philly. An underrated receiver, Mathews could be a much better fit in new coach Doug Pederson’s offense that it seems at first blush and has proven time and again he can be productive when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, he has also proven time and again he breaks down under a significant workload, and the Eagles will almost certainly add another back before training camp. Still, the Dynasty arrow is squarely pointing up for Mathews, and he has the makings of a risk-reward RB2 if things break correctly over the rest of the offseason.
The most confusing move was the Jaguars signing Chris Ivory to a five-year, $32 million deal. Ivory has been one of the more underrated backs of the last five years, but he has a lengthy injury history, is inconsistent from game to game, and has just one season with more than 200 carries and 1,000 rushing yards. More importantly, the Jaguars invested a second-round pick last season in T.J. Yeldon, who showed well in a three-down role as a rookie. Yeldon was terrible in the red zone in his first year, but Ivory has not exactly been stellar at the goal line either – 10-of-30 inside the five over the last two seasons – and there are much cheaper ways to find a short-yardage back.
The money suggests the two will split carries, and Dave Caldwell said as much in Ivory’s introductory press conference. This is a terrible situation from a fantasy perspective, which is upsetting considering the touchdown progression which looked likely to come for Yeldon before free agency. With the passing game sure to take a step back from a touchdown perspective, the Jaguars should be a heap of fantasy disappointment this season.
The Jets backfield Ivory left is another pit of fantasy despair. Matt Forte looked like the perfect fit with OC Chan Gailey when he signed a three-year, $12 million deal, but the re-signing of Bilal Powell and the low-cost flier on Khiry Robinson puts a serious dent in Forte’s projection. Powell, who caught 47 passes in 11 games last season, should limit Forte’s catch upside, and Robinson is the best short-yardage back of the group. Robinson, who is apparently liked by NFL Twitter much more than NFL teams, only got $80,000 guaranteed, so it is possible he is not on the roster when the season begins. If all three remain, however, Forte will not be the workload monster we have come to expect.
Lamar Miller’s move has already been discussed, but the mayhem it created in Miami warrants some evaluation. The Dolphins spent a fifth-round pick on Jay Ajayi last season, a talented back who slipped because of long-term health concerns. Although he started the year on injured reserve, Ajayi put some of his immense talents on display in spot work as a rookie. With Miller gone, he looked poised to be the hot summer sleeper. The Dolphins had other plans.
Miami signed Broncos restricted free agent C.J. Anderson to a four-year, $18 million offer sheet on the second day of free agency. It appears likely the offer will be matched by the Broncos, who made a disastrous decision by not giving Anderson a second-round tender in the first place, but the situation is still fluid. Dolphins coach Adam Gase did not seem too high on Anderson when he was fired from the Broncos one year ago, but Anderson was very successful under Gase in 2014, rushing for 767 yards on 162 carries (4.73 YPC) over the final eight games of the year. If he lands in Miami, Anderson should be the lead back.
Bengals Receivers Get Paid
Andy Dalton finally had his breakout season in 2015, easily beating his previous bests in touchdown percentage, interception percentage and adjusted yards per attempt. After the first week of free agency, a repeat of that breakout seems less likely. The Bengals lost both their No. 2 and No. 3 receivers when Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu bolted for the Lions and Falcons respectively. Jones is the better player, got the most money -- $40 million over five years – and fell in the more interesting fantasy situation, but Sanu could prove to be something of a sleeper this summer.
With Calvin Johnson now officially retired, Jones is tasked with an almost impossible feat. Johnson has led the Lions in receiving every season but one since 2008, and he has scored six more touchdowns than the next best player since entering the league in 2007. Golden Tate, who exploded for 337 yards and two touchdowns in the three games Johnson missed in 2014, should have a much bigger role, but the responsibility to make big catches and stretch the field will come down to Jones. Stafford was great down the stretch last season and Jones should see more targets than he ever has, but it seems likely this passing game takes a step back.
Sanu also fell into a great opportunity as the clear No. 2 in an offense desperate for someone opposite Julio Jones. Leonard Hankerson averaged almost six targets a game last season, and that was with Roddy White still out there running routes in vain. Sanu is a good bet to top 100 targets for the first time in his career and should see almost exclusively single coverage. He might not be a great receiver, but he could certainly return WR3 value.
As for the Bengals, they will now have to scramble to find someone to complement A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert. They are a strong candidate to take a receiver early in the draft, but the talent available is the definition of meh. The Cincinnati passing attack looks like it will take a step back, but Green could be looking at another 170-target campaign. He could be this season’s Julio Jones.
The other notable receiver moves were Travis Benjamin joining the exodus out of Cleveland by signing with the Chargers on a four-year, $24 million deal, Rishard Matthews moving to Tennessee on a three-year, $15 million contract, and Brian Quick breaking my heart by re-signing with the Rams on a one-year deal.
Of the three, Benjamin is the most interesting. The Chargers had to find a speed complement to technician Keenan Allen, and Benjamin is about as speedy as they come. Malcom Floyd’s 92 target, six touchdown campaign in 2014 feels like a solid baseline to start Benjamin’s projection, and he has the upside for more.
Matthews is also interesting as the “Z” receiver opposite Dorial Green-Beckham with Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker roaming the middle, but targets could be a concern. Targets will also be a concern for Quick, who apparently hates catching footballs and competent quarterback play.
All Eagles Must Go…Unless They Play Quarterback
Presumably with Taylor Swift jamming in the background, the Eagles set out this week to rid themselves of Chip Kelly’s big moves. They accomplished the feat by pawning off DeMarco Murray on the Titans and sending Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to Miami in exchange for moving up five spots in the first round. Both deals were salary dumps, and both deals will likely end up looking good for Philadelphia in retrospect.
Surprisingly, the one big acquisition the Eagles decided to keep was Sam Bradford, who they re-signed to a two-year, $36 million deal the week before free agency. With that signing done, it appeared Bradford would get at least one season under new coach Doug Pederson to show his worth, but as the world’s most endearing college football analyst would say, not so fast.
Philadelphia shocked the world by giving Chase Daniel, who played for Pederson in Kansas City, a whopping $21 million over three years including $12 million guaranteed. He can earn another $15 million through incentives. The deal is not a big as Bradford’s, but it is much larger than the average “backup” quarterback's.
The Eagles have already said they brought in Daniel as a backup, and it make sense to pay up for a quality No. 2 when your No. 1 is Bradford, who has played 16 games twice in six seasons. Still, there will be rumblings about Daniel talking over throughout training camp, and those rumblings will only get louder with every interception and misplaced pass.
From a fantasy perspective, there is unlikely to be much value for whoever ends up the starter. Kansas City never finished better than 20th in pass attempts with Pederson and his mentor Andy Reid in charge, and they finished in the bottom five in pass attempts each of the last two seasons. Alex Smith has found pockets of fantasy success the last three years, but much of that came down to his ability as a runner, which is not something to expect from Bradford or Daniel. Smith averaged 480 passing attempts, 3,355 yards, and just over 20 passing touchdowns a season over the last three. That is a good place to start for whoever wins the starting job in Philly.
Tight Ends on the Move
The most interesting free agent situation at the tight end position resided in Indianapolis. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener were destined for free agency with the Colts unable to retain both. The conventional wisdom had been Indy would opt to keep Fleener, but they ended up giving Allen a four-year, $29.4 million deal on the first day of the tampering window. With the Colts poised to be a three-receiver base offense moving forward, Allen is a better fit as the hybrid blocker and receiver you need in a spread scheme. If he can stay on the field, which is a big if, he will be a nice upside TE2 pick this summer.
Spurned by the Colts, Fleener landed on his feet with a five-year, $36 million deal with the Saints. Fleener should immediately step into the detached tight end role which led Jimmy Graham to fantasy stardom. Fleener is not as dynamic a weapon as Graham, but with both Ben Watson and Marques Colston gone, he should be the primary threat both across the middle and in the red zone, making him a great bet to top Watson’s 74-825-6 line from a season ago. On a team which has targeted its starting tight end 132 times per season over the last five and consistently targets their top option, Fleener is dripping with top-five upside. He should among the first 10 tight ends off the board this draft season.
In the most #AsExpected move of the week, Antonio Gates re-signed with the Chargers and will head into his 14th season with the organization. Gates continued to be consistently involved in the offense last season, garnering 7.7 targets per game and 13 red-zone targets in 11 appearances. Heading into his age-36 season, Gates can still be a valuable back-end TE1.
Unlike Gates, his old running mate Ladarius Green decided to leave San Diego behind, signing a four-year, $20 million deal with the Steelers to replace Heath Miller. Green is one of the most physically gifted tight ends in the league, and he showed well with Gates out of the lineup last season. Miller has finished in the top 13 of tight end targets three of the last five seasons and finished in the top five four years ago. Green is never going to top the target list with Antonio Brown eating up 180 a season, but he could easily reach 90. Considering his 1.55 fantasy point per target average over his career, even 90 targets would get him into the back-end TE1 conversation, and there is upside for more.
What May Come
The quarterback market will be dominated by the dueling sagas of Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Kaepernick will likely be traded to the Browns or Broncos in the very near future, which could set up the potential suitors for Fitzpatrick. It makes so much sense for the Broncos to go after Fitzpatrick, a veteran game manager who would offer a solid bridge to a young quarterback, but that idea could be dead after they traded for Mark Sanchez. A return to New York is the most likely outcome for Fitzpatrick. The specter of Robert Griffin III also still looms.
For the running backs, C.J. Anderson’s situation will be the most interesting to watch over the weekend, but there are other storylines as well. If Anderson bolts for Miami, both Arian Foster and Alfred Morris would be interesting options for Denver. Foster excelled with coach Gary Kubiak in Houston and would be a great fit in the offense. He is coming off an Achilles’ injury, however, and has not been able to stay healthy the last three seasons. Morris would cost less than Foster and was extremely successful in a similar blocking scheme under Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington. Morris has been on a steady decline since his rookie season, but a return to the system he thrived in could jump-start his career.
The wide receiver market was never great and is especially barren at this point in free agency, but there are some interesting storylines to watch. Mike Wallace is the most interesting name left. Can he revive his career by finding an offense which suits him? The enigmatic Rueben Randle’s market has been predictably quiet, but there is talent locked up in there somewhere. Can he find the right situation to bring it out? Brian Quick broke my heart by re-signing with the Rams. Will Andre Holmes do the same by going back to Oakland or will someone offer him more playing time?
The most interesting remaining tight end situation is in Chicago. The Bears have seemed poised to move on from Martellus Bennett for months, but they have yet to make a move. They have also yet to re-sign Zach Miller, who looked good filling in for Bennett last season but is already 31 and spent three seasons out of the league. The Bears have the cap room to keep Bennett, but he seems to be a poor fit in the locker room. They should move on at some point before the draft.