Every year a new crop of free agents is released into the wild. Players will inevitably change teams for one reason or another, leaving both fans and fantasy football diehards alike dreaming about the possibilities from the change of scenery.
My question is simple: Just how often do free agents who join a new team work out?
I've often believed that we over-value rookies in terms of immediate fantasy football success simply because we devote the majority of February-April to analyzing this group of players, but a similar argument could be made for free agency classes. I looked at every QB, RB, WR and TE that has changed teams during the free agency offseason cycle since 2016 to get an idea of how often players have thrived upon joining a new squad. Note that this doesn't include players who changed teams during the season or via trade.
Special thanks to OverTheCap for all contract-related information. Make sure to monitor our 2020 Rotoworld Free Agency Tracker for updates on this year's class.
47 QBs have signed a contract with a new team since the 2016 offseason. Of course, plenty of those players were brought in to either provide backup depth or soft competition. For this reason we'll focus on the nine cases in which a team signed a QB with the intention of making him their starter. Note that 2017 Nick Foles (Eagles) and 2017 Case Keenum (Vikings) would ultimately go on to lead their respective squads to plenty of success, but they weren't signed to be their team's Week 1 starter.
These nine instances were as follows:
- 2016: Brock Osweiler (Texans)
- 2017: Brian Hoyer (49ers), Josh McCown (Jets), Mike Glennon (Bears)
- 2018: Kirk Cousins (Vikings), Sam Bradford (Cardinals), Case Keenum (Broncos)
- 2019: Nick Foles (Jaguars), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Dolphins)
None of Hoyer, Fitzpatrick or McCown received over $12 million for their services. They were more or less spot starters that could occasionally move the offense while their teams attempted to find a better long-term solution.
This leaves us with six QBs over the past four offseasons that were signed to big-money contracts on a new team:
- 2016 Brock Osweiler (Texans): 4 years, $72 million
- 2017 Mike Glennon (Bears): 3 years, $45 million
- 2018 Kirk Cousins (Vikings): 3 years, $84 million
- 2018 Sam Bradford (Cardinals): 2 years, $40 million
- 2018 Case Keenum (Broncos): 2 years, $36 million
- 2019 Nick Foles (Jaguars): 4 years, $88 million
Obviously not all NFL contracts are created equal. There are plenty of outs and non-guaranteed salary that essentially allow teams to judge the QB for a season or two before having the opportunity to part ways if they desire.
This reality makes the Glennon contract a bit easier to stomach.
Other than that, Cousins is essentially the only QB that has changed teams, landed a big-money deal, and provided anything resembling above-average production. The Osweiler and Bradford situations were comically awful, Keenum was traded after one very-meh season, and Foles struggled to keep sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew on the bench.
The free agent QB market hasn't been kind to buyers in recent history. Our only example of success involved a mistake from one of the league's worst-run franchises (Washington). This tells us that if a team has had the opportunity to groom a QB for an extended period of time, didn't try to fetch a solid trade package, and ultimately didn't want to cough up the sort of long-term money to keep them around: There's a good chance that player won't suddenly take his game to the next level in a brand-new environment.
TL;DR: Good teams don't let good QBs walk in free agency.
50 RBs have signed a contract with a new team since the 2016 offseason. Of course, plenty of those players were brought in to either provide backup depth or competition. More players suffered injuries that resulted in an extremely limited amount of snaps with their new team.
This leaves us with 22 cases in which a team signed a RB with the intention of making him their starter or at least a key part of the offense:
- 2016: Chris Ivory (Jaguars), Lamar Miller (Texans), Matt Forte (Jets), Robert Turbin (Colts)
- 2017: Latavius Murray (Vikings), Danny Woodhead (Ravens), Eddie Lacy (Seahawks), Rex Burkhead (Patriots)
- 2018: Jerick McKinnon (49ers), Dion Lewis (Titans), Carlos Hyde (Browns), Isaiah Crowell (Jets), Chris Ivory (Bills), LeGarrette Blount (Lions), Damien Williams (Chiefs), Frank Gore (Dolphins)
- 2019: Le'Veon Bell (Jets), Mark Ingram (Ravens), Latavius Murray (Saints), Tevin Coleman (49ers), Frank Gore (Bills), Kareem Hunt (Browns)
Intriguingly, there doesn't appear to be a ton of difference in production based on how much money each of these players made. There have been more than a few instances of cheap RBs making major impacts with their new squad. Robert Turbin scored eight touchdowns in 2016 while making just $760,000, Kareem Hunt rebounded from his suspension to provide top-level production as a complement to Nick Chubb down the stretch in 2019, and the likes of Damien Williams as well as Rex Burkhead went on to help their respective squads with clutch playoff performances despite not having anything resembling a huge contract.
Still, each of these ultimately-positive situations were a bit unique and required a number of factors to fall in that RB's favor. Generally RBs haven't received featured Week 1 roles with contracts under $10 million. The aforementioned exceptions clearly show this isn't always the case, but usually money talks.
Only 11 RBs have gone to a new team and received a contract worth at least eight figures since 2016:
- 2016 Chris Ivory (Jaguars): 5 years, $32 million
- 2016 Lamar Miller (Texans): 4 years, $26 million
- 2016 Matt Forte (Jets): 3 years, $12 million
- 2017 Latavius Murray (Vikings): 3 years, $15 million
- 2018 Jerick McKinnon (49ers): 4 years, $30 million
- 2018 Dion Lewis (Titans): 4 years, $19.8 million
- 2018 Carlos Hyde (Browns): 3 years, $15.25 million
- 2018 Isaiah Crowell (Jets): 3 years, $12 million
- 2019 Le'Veon Bell (Jets): 4 years, $52.5 million
- 2019 Mark Ingram (Ravens): 3 years, $15 million
- 2019 Latavius Murray (Saints): 4 years, $14 million
Note that the Jaguars were so far under the minimum salary cap threshold in 2016 that they essentially had to overpay Ivory in order to reach the required percentage of money spent.
This has by and large been a mess. The likes of Ivory, Lewis and Hyde were out-played and eventually surpassed by younger RBs. Veteran backs like Forte, Murray (twice) and Crowell provided some value, but were still utilized as committee backs despite their fairly high-priced deals. Poor McKinnon has yet to play a regular season snap with San Francisco.
There have been basically three examples of RBs receiving a bunch of money from a new team and accordingly getting a featured role: Miller, Bell and Ingram. The former two backs suffered massive efficiency declines behind their suddenly-porous offensive lines (funny how that works). The latter RB was great in Baltimore last season, but it's fair to wonder how much different the Ravens Offense really would've been if they'd leaned on Gus Edwards and Justice Hill instead of Ingram.
RBs *matter* in that they need to be good enough to beat out competitors for a starting job. Still, recent history tells us that even the league's more-talented backs haven't managed to provide their usual value without the same caliber QB and offensive line around them. Big-money deals remain a solid sign that a player will probably receive a good amount of opportunity, but it appears evaluating the RB position remains as difficult as ever.
As was the case with free agent QBs: The grass usually isn't greener on the other side for veteran RBs.