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Free Agency Roundtable: Butterfly Effects

Eavesdrop as various staff members share their views on the 2017 free agency period.

With the dust settled on the first wave of NFL free agency, a group of our staffers got together to discuss the fantasy impact of the player moves. In this fourth installment, they highlight notable players whose fantasy prospects have changed as a result of other players finding new homes. If you missed any of the previous Free Agency Roundtables, check them out at the links below:

Terrelle Pryor to Washington New England Running Backs Under the Radar Moves

About a week ago, I wrote an article titled The Butterfly Effect (I’m not above cheap plugs) that focused on how certain free agent signings could work out poorly for the new teammates of recently signed players. Which recently relocated player do you see having a substantial fantasy impact on another player from their new team - positive or negative?

Quarterbacks

Sigmund Bloom: The presence of DeSean Jackson in Tampa should open up the Bucs offense in a way that we haven't seen yet in Jameis Winston's young career. Jackson is an ideal #2 receiver to keep pressure off of Mike Evans, so any loss of targets for Evans should be offset by less attention from safeties. The middle of the field should open up for Cameron Brate with a legit deep threat in the offense, and the running game should also benefit. The offensive pie should be larger in Tampa with Jackson, with Winston getting the biggest fantasy bump.

Jeff Haseley: Agreed, Sigmund. The addition of Jackson should elevate Winston into the 30-touchdown club. He was quietly only two shy of this number last year. A top-10 fantasy finish is definitely in the cards, after he just missed that mark last season.

Mark Wimer: You guys are right on about Winston - we'll see what the draft brings to add on to Jackson - but he is a maturing signal caller who has a team coalescing around him, and a high-scoring division to play in. The NFC South should be a real horse-race this season in my opinion, with several shootouts among the contenders.

Chad Parsons: The two quarterbacks I was watching closely for a weapons boost this offseason were Marcus Mariota and Carson Wentz. Both have shown promise early in their careers with minimal help around them. Wentz even threw the fifth-most passes in the NFL as a 2016 rookie. Brandin Cooks ended up not going to Tennessee, as was speculated, and the Titans have done nothing of note to upgrade Mariota's weapons. However, I do see Tennessee having strong odds of spending one of their Round 1 picks on a receiver.

Wentz, however, saw a significant upgrade. Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham were disappointments in 2016 (and that's being kind) leaving Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz as Philadelphia’s lone weapons of consequence. Torrey Smith upgrades the deep threat role and Alshon Jeffery is one of the better receiver talents around the NFL. Both are on one-year deals with 'prove it' implications for their future paydays. Wentz finished outside the top-25 fantasy quarterbacks in 2016, but with improved weapons I project him firmly in the upside QB2 zone, where pairing him with a steadier veteran forms an ideal lower-investment committee.

David Dodds: Eli Manning is currently being drafted after Blake Bortles and Andy Dalton (MFL has him slotted at QB19 currently) despite adding Brandon Marshall to a team that already had Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard at wide receiver. Before the season starts, Eli will be drafted as a top-12 QB in all league formats.

Chad Parsons: Great call, David. Since Odell Beckham's arrival, Manning has been a top-12 fantasy option most of the time. Adding Brandon Marshall is a sizeable upgrade over the snap-wasting Victor Cruz of 2016. Even without a tight end presence, Manning projects for a top-8 finish.

Mark Wimer: I agree, Manning was a big winner with the signing of Marshall. There is gas left in Marshall's tank and he also tends to work hard early in his tenure with the club he is currently employed by, before wearing out his welcome.

Jason Wood: The Bengals have to be a part of this discussion. The team let two high-end offensive linemen walk out the door -- Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. Andy Dalton was already a quarterback most doubted, but now he's a clear avoid in 10- and 12-team leagues.

Mark Wimer: Jason makes a great point about offensive line play having a huge impact on the quarterback. The signings of Ricky Wagner and T.J Lang mean Detroit’s offensive line is headed in the opposite direction of Cincinnati's. While this will be good news for the Lions running backs, I am also excited for Matthew Stafford, as Detroit was in the bottom 12 teams in the NFL with 37 sacks allowed last year (tied for 21st in the NFL with Atlanta). Just a little more time in the pocket should improve Stafford's fantasy numbers this season.

Andy Hicks: Wagner and Lang are significant upgrades over the linemen they’re replacing, Larry Walford and Riley Reiff. Stafford already proved there is life after Calvin Johnson, and I expect to see even more from him if Detroit can improve the receivers around him. Maybe Detroit can even develop a decent running game now to take some pressure off Stafford.

Chris Feery: The signing of Josh McCown confirms we are looking at a very long season for the Jets. While not much was expected of this squad to begin with, it’s pretty tough to envision a scenario in which McCown was the missing piece that will give New York’s offense a kick in the pants. McCown is a fine a backup - and even a good stopgap starter while a rookie gets ready - but he’s not a starter who will set hearts aflutter with his performance on the field. We can downgrade the Jets skill position players even further as a result.

Running Backs

Will Grant: The Cowboys took two big hits to their offensive line, losing Doug Free to retirement and Ronald Leary to the Broncos. Much of their success last season was owed to their road grading offensive line opening up holes for Ezekiel Elliott to run through and giving Dak Prescott the protection he needed.

Even being a Cowboys fan, I felt like they had a better record than they probably deserved last year, and the loss of Leary and Free could really set them back. Elliott is going to be a high first round pick in most drafts, and if the losses on the offensive line translate into fewer open running lanes for him, it could be a very painful season for some folks.

Justin Howe: It’s not likely to be a popular opinion, but I’m on board with Will. I expect a noticeable fall to (or near) Earth for Ezekiel Elliott. He's still a clear-cut upper-tier RB target, but I don't view him in the same tier as David Johnson and LeVeon Bell (not for 2017, anyway). Elliott is a great young back, but his gaudy totals were largely a product of a truly elite run-blocking line. That line, after all, led Darren McFadden in 2015 to his best season in half a decade. I'm sure they'll remain a top-tier unit, with three mega-studs still on board, but a dip in Elliott's effectiveness is well within reason.

Sigmund Bloom: Speaking of the Cowboys, the Browns appear to be taking on their plan of building an offensive line as the cornerstone of their offense instead of big investments in skill players (aside from the signing of Kenny Britt). The extension of Joel Bitonio and signing of JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler in free agency gives them one of the strongest lines in the league and should benefit Isaiah Crowell, who was productive when the team was even marginally competitive.

Jason Wood: A few of you touched on Lang and Wagner’s impact on Stafford, but what about whoever runs the ball for Detroit? The Lions are going to run more in 2017, and no other team improved their line as demonstrably.

Jeff Haseley: Sticking with Jason’s theme of unknown running backs benefiting from their new surroundings, keep an eye on the landing spots of this year's crop of rookie running backs. There are several backs with the potential to hit the ground running in their rookie year, but whoever ends up in Indianapolis and Tampa Bay will have a great opportunity to excel. I'm intrigued most by Christian McCaffrey, simply because he is more than a running back. If he is drafted to the right team, he could have a huge impact in year one, which would yield tremendous fantasy value. Think how successful Danny Woodhead was fantasy-wise in the last few years. McCaffrey can be that and more, especially with the right team. If he goes to Indianapolis, New Orleans, Denver, Tampa Bay and possibly Carolina, my eyebrows are raised.

I also don't think people are giving Spencer Ware enough credit. The release of Jamaal Charles makes Ware an intriguing option this year. The Chiefs may still acquire a veteran back before training camp begins (or maybe they already did when they acquired C.J. Spiller this off-season?). But let's not forget Ware had 1,369 yards from scrimmage in 14 games, including a 13.5 yards per catch average. Any back who is that efficient as a receiver should expect his coach to feed him the ball time and time again. Ware (age 25) is in the prime of his career, and I have a feeling the Chiefs will utilize him often in 2017.

Chris Feery: Spot-on with the Ware optimism, Jeff. It’s his time to be the man in the Chiefs backfield, and there’s nothing to suggest that the Chiefs will suddenly implement an offense that doesn’t lean towards the conservative side.

Will Grant: Jordan Howard is going to be a mountain of touches this season. The Bears dumped big chunks of their offense and have not added much via free agency. Mike Glennon is questionable at best and Mark Sanchez isn't going to push him for any playing time at quarterback. If the Bears add a rookie QB in the draft, they will have precious little to surround him with.

Injury-prone Kevin White becomes the de facto #1 WR in Chicago for whatever that’s worth. Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright and Dion Sims were all added, but none of them represent anything more than a flyer in most fantasy leagues. Howard is the only guy in this offense the Bears (and fantasy owners) will really be able to count on.

Phil Alexander: Funny you mention Howard, Will. In the article I linked at the beginning of this chat (I’m not above multiple cheap plugs), I expressed concern the Bears offense might end up so dysfunctional it has a negative effect on Howard despite his projected workload. Do you share those concerns at all?

Steve Haynes: I’m looking forward to Will’s answer here. I don't put Jordan Howard in the same neighborhood as Todd Gurley, who despite being drafted as a top-5 fantasy back a year ago, managed only 3.2 yards per carry, 885 rushing yards and 6 total touchdowns because he was dragged down by the Rams inept offense. It is definitely possible for Howard's touches to remain high, while his production and efficiency fall back.

Will Grant: I guess I’m a little worried, but it's hard to imagine more dysfunction than last season. Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley were functional fantasy QBs, but no one that you could count on from week-to-week. Alshon Jeffery didn't have a 100 yard receiving game after Week 1 and actually missed four games with PED suspension. The Bears are going to need to lean on Howard, especially if they ever manage to get a lead.

The other thing to think about is Howard racked up over 1,600 yards from scrimmage despite having limited action for the first three games of the season. As things wore on, he got stronger. When the Bears were in free-fall the second half of the year, Howard was the #6 fantasy back with 920 yards from scrimmage and 4 TDs. I think he'll be fine next year.

Jeff Haseley: The Raiders may have started a new era of running backs with the departure of Latavius Murray to Minnesota. Barring any draft-day selection worth mentioning, the Raiders plan to enter 2017 with Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington as their top options in the backfield. Both backs averaged at least 5.4 yards per carry in 2016. I generally like to target backs on winning teams. They tend to see a lot of scoring chances, plus with their team in the lead, the running game is relied upon more often. As it stands now, Richard and/or Washington have a chance to be impact fantasy running backs in 2017.

Jason Wood: I mentioned the Bengals offensive line downgrade hurting Andy Dalton earlier. The same goes for the Giovani Bernard/Jeremy Hill committee.

Wide Receivers

Phil Alexander: So Jason, you’re clearly down on the Bengals passing game and running game due to o-line concerns, but haven’t mentioned A.J. Green yet. Do you think he's able to rise above the situation in Cincinnati and remain a top-5 fantasy wide receiver?

Jason Wood: Freudian slip on the omission of Green. I do think he's a transcendent player, and will put up top-10 numbers in a healthy season regardless of the state of the Bengals offense.

Alessandro Miglio: A bunch of you were on Eli Manning as a beneficiary of the Brandon Marshall signing. What about Marshall himself for fantasy this year? Odell Beckham hasn't really had a running mate of his caliber, though Marshall might be entering the twilight of his career. The entire offense should get a boost from having a solid No. 2 punch to go with Beckham, but could Beckham thrive even more with some attention diverted away from him?

Jason Wood: I think Marshall basically steps into the role we might otherwise assume would belong to a playmaking tight end in today's better offenses. I see him being the guy Eli can trust in tight coverage and the red zone. I'm still working on my first set of 2017 projections, but off the cuff I could see Marshall being an 800-yard, 10-TD guy this year. A more optimistic outlook would be to suggest Marshall = Cris Carter while Beckham = Moss...but Sterling Shepard is too talented to make that analogy hold.

Sigmund Bloom: The Ravens lost Steve Smith to retirement and Kamar Aiken to free agency, and did not make any corresponding moves to replace them. While they did pick up a modest 4.75 million dollar option on Mike Wallace, the bigger beneficiary here is Breshad Perriman, who flashed at times in 2016 as a part-time receiver and should be given every opportunity to increase his target load and production.

Phil Alexander: I love that call, Sig. Perriman strikes me as a guy whose ADP will pick up a lot of steam in the hardcore fantasy football community as we get into the summer months, but will remain a steal in casual leagues since he hasn’t proven much in the NFL since being drafted by the Ravens in the first round.

Jeff Haseley: How have we not talked about Michael Thomas yet? The departure of Brandin Cooks to New England and the signing of Ted Ginn to fill his place is enough for me to push my chips in on Thomas. Ginn is capable of reaching double-digit touchdowns, but that was on a Carolina team that relied on him for down field plays. If you recall, it was the year Kelvin Benjamin was out with a torn ACL. Ginn will be a complementary receiver with New Orleans. He may stumble into 4-5 touchdowns, but the bread winner on the team from a receiving standpoint is going to be Thomas.

Drew Brees has thrown for 37, 32, 33, 39 and 43 touchdowns in the last five years. Even if he slows down in the sunset of his career, we can all agree he's still capable of 30 touchdowns. Who's going to catch them? With Cooks out of the equation, someone is going to have to pick up the slack and the obvious answer is the best receiver on the team, by far - Michael Thomas.

FYI, here’s last year's passing touchdown distribution for the Saints, by position:

RB: 10

WR: 24 (Cooks 8, Thomas 9, Snead 4, Coleman 3)

TE: 4

Chris Feery: Yeah, we really buried the lead, Jeff. Cooks moving to the Patriots is a gigantic boom for the fantasy prospects of Thomas. He was already in line to build off of his impressive 2016, and the sky’s the limit now that he’s the clear cut number one target of Brees. You’ll want to walk into your drafts with Thomas firmly positioned on your short list.

David Dodds: Thomas is on a course towards greatness. He flashed great skill last year and now should see a large increase in targets. I would go as far as to say he has the potential to finish the year as a top-3 fantasy wide receiver.  

Chris Feery: Sig and I are singing from the same hymn book on DeSean Jackson. He’s a home run threat who just may find a bit more daylight than normal while opponents attempt to mitigate the damage Mike Evans does to them.

Jeff Haseley: John Brown had a down season in 2016, mostly due to the issues he had with his sickle cell trait. It is apparently under control now and should not pose an issue for the 2017 season. In 2015, Brown finished with 65 receptions for 1,003 yards and 7 touchdowns. He may not reach those levels in 2017 with an older Carson Palmer at quarterback, but an improvement over last year's 77th ranked finish, is expected. I realize he hasn’t necessarily been impacted by a free-agent signing, but I had to slip him into the discussion since he’s being grossly undervalued at the moment.

Justin Howe: Don’t worry, Jeff. If you hadn’t brought up Brown, I would have. I spent last offseason hyping him as a clear-cut WR2; I think I was a year too early, but here it comes. If he plays 16 games, Brown should be looking at 120 targets - and he's about as explosive as they come. An 80-catch season probably means a run at 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns. And at the moment, he's roughly the WR50 in terms of MFL10 ADP.

Jason Wood: How about the impact Tony Romo will have on the pass catchers wherever he lands? The Cowboys are playing coy right now by not releasing Romo, but he'll end up in either Denver or Houston soon enough. Whichever team gets him, you can raise their fantasy outlooks up markedly. If he lands in Houston, you can vault DeAndre Hopkins back into top-6 territory, and Will Fuller would be an intriguing breakout option. If Romo ends up in Denver, Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius jump back into the low-end WR1 tier, for sure.

Justin Howe: Please let Romo end up in Houston. If it happens - and I give it better than 50/50 odds - we could see truly huge things from the Texans’ offense. It's a unit that's finished Bill O'Brien's three seasons eighth, first, and fifth in offensive plays. And it features two mega-talented young wideouts: DeAndre Hopkins, who's drawn 343 targets over the last two years (just 4 fewer than leader Antonio Brown), and Will Fuller, who drew 6 targets per game as a rookie and offers one of the best size/speed/college production profiles of recent memory.

Hopkins' upside is clear - his 111-catch, 1,521-yard, 11-touchdown line from 2015 shows us he can produce at top-3 levels. But Fuller could be an even bigger value steal from the ninth round or so. As a rookie, he drew 92 targets while hitting a major midseason wall. If we can project him to, say, 110, and boost his catch rate with an NFL-caliber passer, we can set a midlevel expectation of 65 catches or so. And Fuller's catches could carry a lot of weight. He was a deep-ball dominator at Notre Dame, yet was utilized heavily underneath as a rookie. I have to assume he'll finish significantly higher than 72nd in Yards at the Catch, so 65 catches could easily mean 1,110 yards and a healthy TD count.

David Dodds: Romo will absolutely catapult Denver or Houston's wide receivers depending on where he lands. My gut tells me Houston gets him, so I agree with Justin, Will Fuller (at WR51 in PPR leagues) is grossly undervalued today.

Sigmund Bloom: The signing of Brian Hoyer to start at quarterback for the 49ers didn't get much attention in fantasy circles, but judging by the before and after pictures of the Houston and Chicago passing games the last two years with and without Hoyer, he should represent a big possible improvement for Vance McDonald and the potential for fellow free agent signing Pierre Garcon to put up his second straight 1000 yard season.

Jason Wood: Speaking of Garcon, Jamison Crowder no longer has to share the spotlight with him or DeSean Jackson. Crowder is now a good bet to push for 100+ receptions as Kirk Cousins' primary target, particularly in short and intermediate routes.

Jeff Haseley: I’ll wrap up the wide receiver discussion by digging deep. Provided the Panthers don't select a big name wide receiver draft prospect, there's a good chance Charles Johnson or Russell Shepard could see a significant increase in involvement compared to last season.

Tight Ends

Phil Alexander: Dwayne Allen's departure from Indianapolis should put Jack Doyle at the top of your list if you plan to wait on drafting a tight end this year. Even with Allen only missing two games last season, Doyle's cumulative numbers made him a fringe TE1 last season. With his snap count set to increase, Doyle should be the main beneficiary of Andrew Luck's love for tight ends in the red zone. Since Luck came into the league in 2012, 27% of the Colts red zone passes have been aimed at tight ends. For context, only six tight ends exceeded a 27% red zone target market share last season.

I'm also mildly interested in Colts backup tight end, Erik Swoope. After playing only one game as a rookie, Swoope saw limited action in all 16 games last season and flashed big play potential. His eye-popping 13.5 yards per target average placed him behind only Rob Gronkowski among tight ends who saw at least 20 targets. While I fully expect the reliable Doyle to be the starter in Indianapolis, the Colts play with two tight ends a lot, and I wouldn't be shocked if Swoope (tight end who played college basketball alert!) carves out a role in year three.

Justin Howe: Yes, Doyle needs to be prioritized in anyone's draft plans. He has the look of a 2017 TE1, but won't be drafted as such. Andrew Luck's track record of throwing touchdowns to TEs - I've written on it extensively - is sometimes eye-popping, and Doyle is the team's only startable option. He's been efficient, so another 60+ catches looks like a gimme (or at least a March gimme), and I'm confident my projections will peg him for 8-10 touchdowns.

Jeff Haseley: Doyle is a player I’ll be targeting also. The Colts were impressed by his breakout season in 2016, enough so to let Dwayne Allen walk. Erik Swoope is a decent complementary player, but unlike Phil, I don't think he's ready to be a key member of the offense. In fact, he may never be - but Doyle certainly  is.

It wouldn't shock me to see Doyle improve on his 59-584-5 season in 2016. Colts tight ends have accounted for 12 and 18 touchdowns in Andrew Luck's last two full seasons. I say full, because of the injury-plagued 2015 season that Luck endured. Doyle is poised to become a big fixture of the Colts offense and many people aren't giving him enough credit in early 2017 mocks.

Chris Feery: There’s not much of a point to be made about Doyle the guys haven’t already. He jumps out as a tight end to have firmly on the radar as we enter draft season.

Devin Knotts: I guess I’ll be the contrarian of the bunch, who doesn't think Doyle's role will change much -- and may actually decrease -- next season. Allen got a lot of love as a fantasy tight end when the Colts elected not to re-sign Coby Fleener. But Swoope is much bigger and more athletic than Allen, and has the potential to cut into Doyle's role more than Allen did last year.

Swoope has Jimmy Graham upside (as Phil mentioned, he played basketball at Miami of Florida during college). At 24 years old, he should be expected to step into a big role this season. Doyle is a fine player, but he had 75 targets last season. With Donte Moncrief healthy for the entire season, do we really think that his role is going to grow just because of the loss of Allen, whose career best was 521 yards in a season back in 2012?

Jeff Haseley: Sticking with my theme of undervalued players who may not have been directly impacted by a free agent move,  I would not be shocked to see Jesse James continue to grow at tight end for the Steelers. I'm not sold on Ladarius Green, and Ben Roethlisberger has spoken highly of James as a player he can rely on, and someone who is poised to make an impact in the coming years. If Roethlisberger likes him, we need to take note.


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