The first, big wave of NFL free agency is over, and it’s time to look at the changes in the fantasy football landscape that resulted. There are many more free agents out there, and the NFL draft invariably scrambles everything again. Odell Beckham might still get traded to the Rams, or Ndamukong Suh might sign to play quarterback for the Jets. Lord knows they need one. But, for now, there are plenty of winners and losers emerging from a fantasy standpoint.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers
One of the most divisive signings of the free agency period came in San Francisco, where the 49ers spent the offseason making it rain. Jerick McKinnon shocked the football world by signing the richest running back contract this side of Le’Veon Bell in years. The 25-year-old signed a $30 million deal to be the man in San Francisco, replacing oft-rumored castoff Carlos Hyde. But what does this mean for his fantasy value?
Based on his production in Minnesota, McKinnon’s contract was laughed right off of Twitter. Good teams pay for future production, and the 49ers might get some huge production out of him, especially if he is on the field more often. And he should be. Just look at this beautiful quote from head coach Kyle Shanahan:
"We brought him here to be our starting back," Shanahan said. "Feature back, starting back, obviously, that's what we think of him and that's why we got him here, but you can use backs in a lot of different ways. There's lots of things you can do with them and when you have a guy like Jerick, when he's on the field, he's not on the field just to [catch] passes. He's not on the field just to run the ball.”
That is simply beautiful music to the ears of fantasy football owners. McKinnon was 18th in fantasy scoring in PPR formats last season on just 202 touches behind a bad offensive line. His predecessor in San Francisco was eighth.
Minnesota Vikings Offense
Look. Case Keenum did a marvelous job last season. Against all odds, he took over for china doll Sam Bradford and led the McKinnon’s former team to the cusp of a Super Bowl berth. In so doing, receiver Adam Thielen became a household fantasy football name, and Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph had some big games at wideout and tight end.
Now, before anyone calls me a Cousins apologist, let me caveat that by saying I think Cousins is an average overall quarterback. But there is no denying that he is an upgrade over Keenum, and that means one particular thing for Vikings skill players -- consistency. While Thielen, Diggs, and Rudolph all put up some big numbers — both receivers were in the top 20 in fantasy scoring, to boot — there were many frustrating weeks where one or more of them disappeared. Cousins should remedy that if he fulfills his contract potential.
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
There was dancing in the fantasy football kingdom when the Tennessee Titans released DeMarco Murray, followed by weeping and gnashing of teeth when they turned around and picked up Dion Lewis. Never fear, Derrick Henry truthers, he is still going to benefit from free agency goings on.
True, Lewis got a healthy four-year deal, but that doesn’t mean he will be guaranteed the same stubborn workload Murray got last season. Lewis is going to be lightning to Henry’s thunder in 2018, primarily as a pass-catcher. Where Lewis won’t likely cut into the incumbent’s production is at the goal line.
Henry is a primary down and goal line back with massive upside. He may not be a three-down back, but he doesn’t have to be in standard leagues.
Jeremy Hill, RB, New England Patriots
One man’s trash is Bill Belichick’s treasure.
Jeremy Hill was part of a woeful Bengals running back rotation last season, and his free-agent stock clearly suffered. Well, that and he was simply awful before his season ended with ankle surgery. He averaged just 3.1 yards per carry before electing to repair his ankle, a move that will no doubt help him get to full strength well before the preseason.
Dion Lewis signed a big deal with the Tennessee Titans, leaving a big hole in the rotation in New England. Hill’s game is antithetical to Lewis’, but the newly minted Patriot could conjure up similar production to LeGarrette Blount during his tenure there. Of course Belichick might well cut Hill in Week 3 for all we know, but for now this seems like a great thing for Hill’s fantasy stock.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers
What did Jimmy Graham do to deserve his quarterback karma? First he gets drafted onto Drew Brees’ team, then he gets traded to Russel Wilson’s. Now he catches passes from Aaron Rodgers? Tony Gonzalez would have broken all of Jerry Rice’s records if he had that kind of luck.
Graham is in the twilight of his career, unable to rely on his athleticism to produce like he once did. But Rodgers represents an upgrade at quarterback — as good as Wilson is, Rodgers is the best of his generation — and Graham is poised to put a Green Bay tight end back into the fantasy limelight. This is the song that never ends.
Patrick Mahomes II II, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
He is going to be too hot to handle in fantasy drafts this offseason, but Pat Mahomes deserves most of the hype coming his way.
The Chiefs got rid of Alex Smith after getting absolutely everything they could out of him on the field at Arrowhead. The future was Mahomes once they drafted him, but the second-year quarterback got the benefit of a year of tutelage before getting thrown into the fire.
Now he gets the benefit of throwing the ball to Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and newcomer Sammy Watkins to go along with Kareem Hunt out of the backfield. Mahomes is going to make mistakes at a far greater clip than his predecessor, but he is also liable to make a ton of big plays. If he can replicate Smith’s positive production, the extra turnovers aren’t going to matter much in the fantasy football realm.
Paul Richardson Jr, WR, Washington
Potential has never been the issue with Paul Richardson Jr. Health has simply gotten in the way. Well, that and other wide receivers in Seattle.
Richardson no longer has one of those impediments in Washington, where he garnered an eye-opening $40 million deal. Richardson is going to play a much bigger role in that offense, and he will be catching balls from Alex Smith, who helped propel Tyreek Hill to a top-5 fantasy finish last season.
Richardson has to stay on the field, of course, but a healthy season could mean big fantasy numbers for the fifth-year wideout. Last year was his healthiest, and he scored six touchdowns on just 80 targets (only 44 of of which were caught, to boot). He will do a lot of damage if that number hits triple digits next season.
Cleveland Browns Offense
Framing this one is a bit of a challenge. The Browns, after all, have undergone a radical overhaul on the offensive side of the ball. It’s tough to predict how all the new parts are going to fit together, but there is a ton of talent there. Thanks, Sashi Brown.
The key will obviously be at quarterback, always and forever in Cleveland. The Browns traded for Tyrod Taylor, a massive upgrade at the position. They will also have their pick of the talent-rich litter in the draft. If Taylor falters, there is theoretically a good quarterback waiting in the wings this fall.
Receiver Jarvis Landry and running back Carlos Hyde join Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, Duke Johnson Jr, and David Njoku to create one of the most exciting skill groups in the league. Imagine, for a moment, that these guys were on the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots. Excited, aren’t you? There are a lot of fantasy points to be had in Cleveland, although projecting them to individual players might get tricky. More on that later. Taylor himself might be the biggest prize in fantasy football to come out of Cleveland this season. He finally gets to play with a proper offense.
Potential and reality are, of course, two very different things. We have been fooled before by this organization. But this time seems different. The Browns are going to be good. There is absolutely no way that I am being bamboozled.
Eric Ebron, TE, Indianapolis Colts*
The asterisk stands for “Andrew Luck’s Shoulder.”
If General Luck returns fully healthy, Eric Ebron stands a chance to finally become a force in fantasy football. Luck is notoriously good for tight ends, whereas Matthew Stafford tended to spread the ball around in Detroit. Ebron wasn’t exactly Rob Gronkowski himself, but it’s easy to forget he is headed into his fifth year in the league at age 25. The talent is there, and he is liable to tap into it in his prime.
Lucy is holding that football, all Charlie has to do is kick it, right?
Marqise Lee, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Granted, the Jaguars signed Donte Moncrief to a ridiculous deal, but what has he done to deserve a big share of the passing offense? Lee’s biggest issue is going to be injuries — he has only played one full season, and last year wasn’t one of them. If he can stay on the field for 14-plus games, 100-plus targets are coming his way. Hopefully he can convert those into fantasy points.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
Jonathan Stewart, RB, New York Giants (until they draft Saquon Barkley)
New York Jets Offense (no matter who they draft, but especially if it’s Josh Allen)
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
There is this delusion that the Chicago Bears have found the same secret formula the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles did to dramatically improve last season, particularly on offense. Perhaps that is the case, but it’s a lot more difficult to replicate that kind of shocking turnaround than it is to trick the sports world into thinking you’ve improved. Just ask the Cleveland Browns. Well, until they do just that this season.
Matt Nagy isn’t the first offensive-minded rookie coach to be touted as the next great thing. Mitch Trubisky isn’t the first sophomore quarterback “ready to make the leap.” The Bears aren’t the first team to throw money at a problem. This isn’t our first rodeo.
Granted, all those things could come together to put egg on my face, but I just don’t see an improved situation for Allen Robinson. He was great when healthy a couple of seasons ago in spite of Blake Bortles being his quarterback, but Robinson has arguably taken two steps backward with Trubisky at the helm. Unless the second-year quarterback can, indeed, take that Jared Goff-like sophomore leap, there wasn’t much positive to take away from his rookie season.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Miami Dolphins
There is no delusion that Frank Gore is going to be a feature back. The 35-year-old Miami native is coming home to be a rotational player. But his arrival combined with Miami’s serious interest in DeMarco Murray signal that the Dolphins aren’t ready to give Kenyan Drake serious touches. Either that or they are trying to emulate the highly successful Philadelphia Eagles blueprint of a deep running back rotation.
Drake is a home run hitter, to be sure, and he will be the best back in Miami next season. But if his touches are impacted by Gore and whoever else is in that backfield, Drake is going to be a huge headache in season-long leagues.
Buffalo Bills Offense
In all seriousness, Taylor was underappreciated in Buffalo to the point where he was traded to the Cleveland Browns for a third-round pick in order to ride or die with A.J. McCarron and, perhaps, a first-round rookie.
Taylor had his faults, to be sure, but he was a dynamic quarterback who lifted his team’s performance more often than not. The problem was there wasn’t much to uplift. Quick, name Buffalo’s top wideout last season without looking. If you answered Deonte Thompson with 430 yards, you cheated.
Now a pass-catching group that is getting worse is supposed to do better with Andy Dalton’s backup throwing the ball?
Jordy Nelson, WR, Oakland Raiders
This one is quite straightforward -- Derek Carr is a severe downgrade from Aaron Rodgers. Who knows whether the Raiders will throw the ball as much as they had in recent years, but new head coach Jon Gruden seems to want to get back to the old smashmouth football days. That would mean more running and fewer targets to go around.
Target potential aside, Nelson is a 32-year-old shell of himself playing second banana to Amari Cooper at wide receiver. The downgrade in role, quarterback, and offensive efficiency in general will be a huge drag on Nelson’s fantasy output.
Jack Doyle, TE, Indianapolis Colts
Doyle has been a reliable safety blanket in Indianapolis, particularly in short yardage and goal line situations. Even without Andrew Luck, Doyle was a great fantasy option at times last season. But Ebron’s arrival means Doyle’s time as a fantasy starter are coming to an end. Even if they play in a lot of two-TE sets, Doyle’s target count is going to shrink barring injury or severe underperformance from his new teammate.
Jarvis Landry, WR, Cleveland Browns
Didn’t I just get done singing the praises of the Cleveland Browns offense 10 minutes ago?
You may recall that bit about figuring out how the fantasy points will be divided, yes? That’s where Landry’s fantasy stock is going to take a hit. The Miami Dolphins made it an excruciating point to get Landry the ball, scheming him open on many occasions. He caught a lot of screen passes and other types near the line of scrimmage, and the Dolphins relied on his abilities after the catch to produce yardage. He still averaged just 8.8 yards per reception last season (10.1 for his career). High volume has been Landry’s saving grace in fantasy football, and the fifth-year wideout reached new heights in PPR scoring last season as a result. He was fourth-best scorer in the league at his position in spite of the fact he didn’t crack 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdowns. That is tough to do.
Unfortunately for his fantasy stock, his new team has many mouths to feed. That is ultimately going to be a good problem to have for the Browns, but Landry’s 161 targets are liable to shrink to double digits. He might still hover near 100 for the season — a decent number for any receiver — but that would constitute a massive decline in fantasy scoring for him. The caveat here, of course, is whether the Browns utilize him differently. Namely, if Landry becomes a downfield or red-zone threat, the calculus changes and everything we know about his NFL production gets thrown out the window. Given the talent around him, though, Landry and the Browns will be best-suited doing what he has always done in the NFL.
Duke Johnson Jr, RB, Cleveland Browns
Isaiah Crowell, RB, New York Jets
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals