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The Free Agency Butterfly Effect

A look at how three free agent signees will impact the incumbent players on their new teams.

Most folks my age (36 - let’s not talk about it) remember The Butterfly Effect as a particularly awful 1994 Ashton Kutcher movie. In the film, Kutcher plays a character who travels back in time by reading his childhood journal and attempts to alter the future by changing the past. Predictably, each time he goes back and changes something, it only mucks things up worse in the future for him and the friends he’s trying to help. To wit, Kutcher’s time travel hijinks results in altered timelines where he becomes an insufferable frat bro, prison inmate, and double amputee at various points during the film.

The moral of the story is that even though Kutcher’s intentions to fix the past are good (he wants things to turn out differently for his childhood sweetheart), his actions have lousy unforeseen consequences. It’s not unlike when NFL GMs dole out free agent contracts with the best intentions of improving their rosters, oblivious to the fact their decisions will lead to calamitous fantasy football results.

Rather than focus too much on how the actual free agent signees will take to their new surroundings (which you’ve likely read plenty about already), join me in pouring one out for the fantasy values of the incumbent players who got “Butterfly Effected” in free agency this year.

Latavius Murray signs with Vikings

The Butterfly Effect - As it became clear the Vikings would part ways with both Adrian Peterson and Matt Asiata, it seemed there was at least an outside chance we might get a look at Jerick McKinnon in a feature role. Unfortunately for dynasty owners who had McKinnon stashed, and forward thinking best ball players who thought they were sneaking a starting running back in the 12th round, the Latavius Murray signing means the proverbial ship has sailed on McKinnon as a lead back.

By now, we’re all familiar with McKinnon’s story -- best measured athlete at the 2014 scouting combine, potential home run hitter, preeminent Asiata goal line whipping boy, and guy who generally failed to move the needle on over 200 total touches last season.

While it could be argued McKinnon already flopped in his audition as feature back (he had seven games with 15 or more total touches and averaged just 3.4 yards per carry in 2016), the odds were stacked against him. Minnesota had the second-worst offensive line in the NFL according to our Matt Bitonti’s end-of-season rankings. There was also a clear difference in the way McKinnon was utilized after offensive coordinator Norv Turner surprisingly left the team after Week 8. Turner’s replacement -- Pat Shurmur -- used McKinnon out of the shotgun more frequently. The results were a 20% increase in McKinnon’s rush yards per attempt over the final six weeks (from 3.4 to 4.1), to go along with 35 receptions for 226 yards (he only had eight total catches in the first eight games under Turner).

It would be fun to spin McKinnon’s improved utilization under Shurmur, and the void in the short passing game left by Cordarelle Patterson’s free agent defection, into a positive for McKinnon going forward. But the Murray signing -- although modest at $3.4 million guaranteed for this season -- all but promises it will once again take an injury for McKinnon to see enough opportunity for fantasy relevance. It’s not just because the Vikings obviously brought Murray in for a reason. He excels in some of the same areas as McKinnon (running the ball out of the shotgun, catching passes out of the backfield), has a definitive edge as a pass protector, and converted touchdowns at a 53% clip on runs at the goal line -- where the Vikings staff has never trusted McKinnon.

This isn’t to say McKinnon’s loss is necessarily Murray’s gain. The signing of Riley Reiff will boost the offensive line a bit, but Minnesota’s other free agent acquisition on the o-line -- former Carolina tackle Mike Remmers -- isn’t much of an improvement. If he couldn’t manage more than 4.0 yards per carry running behind Oakland’s top-tier offensive line, it’s easy to envision a bunch of 15 carry, 50-yard box scores from Murray, with his fantasy value dependent almost entirely on whether or not he can fall into the endzone. While that type of player is fine for fantasy if he plays in New England, it’s far from OK in Minnesota.

Eddie Lacy signs with the Seahawks

The Butterfly Effect - Everybody loses in the Seahawks backfield now that Eddie Lacy has signed a lucrative diet plan contract with Seattle. Lacy is far from washed up at 27 years old, despite what the constant jokes about his weight would have you think. According to Adam Schefter, Lacy was once again playing in the 255-265 pound range before suffering a season-ending ankle injury after just five games in 2016.  The added weight didn’t stop him from averaging a career high 5.1 yards per carry, on the strength of an impressive 3.4 yards after contact per attempt (per Pro Football Focus). If not for Green Bay’s reluctance to give him a 20+ carry workload in any game last year (after doing so in about a third of his games in the previous three seasons), the narrative surrounding Lacy today might be different.

Even if Lacy can be as effective as he was during his first two seasons, there’s not a whole lot to like about his situation in Seattle. Yes, he’s a strong stylistic fit in coach Pete Carroll’s offense. And yes, it’s clear the Seahawks still identify as a running team, even after finishing 21st in team rushing yards per game last season. But there are three main problems in projecting Lacy for a return to glory -- and none of them bode well for any Seattle running back.

  • Thomas Rawls - Rawls -- who rated as Football Outsiders’ most efficient running back in 2015 by a wide margin -- isn’t going to disappear, which threatens to make this backfield a headache for fantasy purposes. Considering the best parts of Rawls’ game (power running, making defenders bounce off him) coincide with Lacy’s, the only safe bet in terms of early-down workload distribution is that it will be decided in-game by which back has the hot hand. Don’t expect a clear favorite to emerge at the goal line either. Both Lacy and Rawls are owners of career ~50% goal line touchdown conversion rates -- well above league average.

  • C.J. Prosise - Prosise’s value takes a clear hit -- not because his role as primary pass catching back is threatened by Lacy, but since he no longer has a 50-50 chance of beating out Rawls for the starting job in training camp. With Lacy and Rawls presumably hogging carries, Prosise’s value becomes almost entirely reliant on his big play ability. Expect extreme week-to-week volatility from the second-year back (if he can stay on the field). What’s more troubling is that if Prosise’s role as primary receiving back is in fact safe, it limits the fantasy upside of both Lacy and Rawls -- even if one of them were to run away with the starting job.

  • The Offensive Line - Seattle’s offensive line was a bottom-third unit by most metrics last season, most notably Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, which takes all running back carries, assigns responsibility to the offensive line, and adjusts for down, distance, situation, and quality of opponent. The only major move the Seahawks have made to address the line thus far has been to add 2013 draft bust Luke Joeckel, in a move that made Gregg Rosenthal’s list of worst free agent signings. Even if they bolster the line in the upcoming draft, Seattle will only be adding more youth to a unit that ended the season without a starter who had more than three years of NFL experience.

If there’s any upside to be salvaged from the Lacy singing, you won’t find it in Seattle. But at least his departure opens up a spot in Green Bay’s elite offense for a potential high impact fantasy running back.

Mike Glennon signs with Bears, Alshon Jeffery leaves Bears for Eagles

The Butterfly Effect - This might qualify as a hot take, but Jordan Howard is frightening at his early ADP. Howard is generally off the board in MFL10s by the mid-second round (and has gone as high as eight overall), which means many owners are comfortable with him as a RB1.

It makes sense on the surface. Howard finished as last season’s cumulative RB10 despite not starting the team’s first three games. Chicago will bring back one of the best interior offensive line combinations in football, we know head coach John Fox emphasizes the running game, and Howard projects as one of only about six or seven backs who could realistically handle over 70% of his team’s total backfield touches. He also looked the part as a rookie, exhibiting vision and wiggle not ordinarily seen from a 230 pound running back.

What scares me about Howard is whether he’s good enough to overcome what’s shaping up as one of the league’s worst offenses. The Bears averaged 17.4 points per game in 2016, which was fourth-fewest in the league. Their average scoring margin of -7.5 was fifth-worst, and while the Bears have done a decent job shoring up their defense in free agency, to say they haven’t done as well rebuilding on offense would be an understatement. In fact, here was Howard’s reaction to the news Alshon Jeffery would be heading to the Eagles, after the Bears declined the franchise tag:

Chicago will hope to replace Jeffery with some combination of Markus Wheaton (an abject disaster of a signing), Kevin White (health and performance have raised way more questions than answers in two pro seasons), Cameron Meredith (promising 2016 but still a former UDFA facing competition for snaps) and Kendall Wright (admittedly a nice, inexpensive acquisition). For this receiving corps to be better off without Jeffery, it would take a major leap from White and/or Meredith, which can hardly be counted on.

Then there’s the issue of who will be throwing the ball to those receivers. The “prize” of the free agent period for the Bears, Mike Glennon, gets a lot of credit for a passable 2013 rookie season and tidy career 30:15 TD:INT ratio. It can be argued Glennon can’t be much worse for the offense than the unholy trinity the Bears trotted out at quarterback last year (Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley), but do you really want your second round pick tied to the fortunes of a guy with this résumé?

  • Career 59.4% completion percentage

  • Ranked dead last out of 37 qualifying players in yards per pass attempt in 2013

  • Defenses seem to figure him out as games go along. In 2013, Glennon accumulated 1,551 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions in the first half of games (215 attempts), but had only 1,054 yards, and a 6:7 TD:INT ratio in the second half of games (201 attempts).

  • Replaced in-season twice by a McCown brother

  • People mistake his neck for a mozzarella stick

Kidding aside, when spending a premium pick on a running back, ideally you want that player to be a workhorse with plenty of touchdown potential. Given the Bears outlook, Howard only checks off one of those boxes. Chicago ran 17 plays from their opponent’s 5-yard line or closer last season, which ranked 24th in the league. As a result, Howard scored on just 2.5% of his total touches, which ranked 19th out of the 25 running backs who touched the ball at least 200 times. The switch to Glennon and a downgraded receiving corps doesn’t inspire much confidence Howard will see the rise in scoring chances he needs to justify his ADP.