INtro To The Free Agent 50
There are basic similarities between the rookie draft and free agency. Draft boards and free agency wish lists are a product of scouting talent, evaluating team needs, and projecting fit within the team's system and culture. The 50 free agents below are ranked based on my informal criteria:
- Age - The player's age before the 2014 season ends and the projected number of three-year windows he can contribute.
- Instant Impact - How likely will that player produce as a starter or frequent contributor during his first year with a new team.
- Athleticism - Does the player's physical skills have few peers (elite); match most starters; meet the needs of a contributor; or make him a reserve?
- Technical/Conceptual Skills - See athleticism.
- Versatility - Can he fit within any system and how many roles can he play in an offense or on special teams?
I'm beginning with the 50th player and working my way to the top option.
50. Michael Vick: The Eagles' quarterback still has the ability to start in the NFL, but he hasn't played more than 13 games since 2006. The most important factor against Vick is that he's turning 34 this summer. Joe Montana, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning were passers capable of transforming an offense with their acumen at the line of scrimmage. Vick isn't that caliber of a passer to earn a chance with a team that is only a quarterback away from contending for a championship. Vick should earn invitations to join a team as a first-call backup or temporary starter for a team that drafts a quarterback this spring. He's still capable of helping a fantasy owner, but it's best to let him sit on the waiver wire in both dynasty and re-draft formats until he's named a starter due to injury or a rookie in need of further development time.
49. Dustin Keller: The Dolphins' tight end was supposed to become an integral part of a Miami offense, but he tore his ACL, MCL, PCL, and also dislocated his knee. The only reason Keller is ranked above Vick is that he's four years younger and might still offer similar years of starter production for a team in need. Keller is best-suited as an H-Back or move tight end and it's doubtful he'll be ready physically to begin 2014. I wouldn't be surprised if he retires, but if he returns to his pre-injury form he has low-end TE1 potential as a player to monitor on your waiver wire from afar.
48. Jerricho Cotchery: At this stage of Cotchery's career, he's little more than a slot receiver with red zone prowess for a veteran quarterback. I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers re-sign the former Jets star because of his veteran presence to help young players like Markus Wheaton, Antonio Brown, and the rest of the Pittsburgh depth chart. I project Cotchery as a bye-week option in larger PPR leagues that you can acquire from the waiver wire.
47. Fred Davis: There's still enough residual love for Davis from fantasy owners who remember the tight end's promise before the former Washington starter tore his Achilles tendon. Although Davis' rehabilitation is a success by NFL standards, he hasn't played an entire season since 2010. Davis has only provided two seasons out of six as a receiver and at 6'4", 248 pounds, he's not a versatile run blocker. His best chance to make a fantasy impact will be in a specialized offense and I have doubts any NFL team views Davis as a long-term option due to his health history and not his age (28 in 2014). Then there's the fact that Davis was his own representation in an outrageous court case. Teams only tend to overlook this kind of spectacle if the player is a high-end starter. Davis is not. Unless a team with a barren depth chart at the position signs Davis and doesn't draft a top prospect at the position, Davis will not be a priority for fantasy owners in July and August.
46. Jacoby Jones: Look up the word "tease" in the NFL Football Writers' Dictionary and Jones' picture is in recent editions of the publication. Jones made just enough big plays in Houston to earn a contract with the Ravens, but he has never turned the corner from mistake prone and inconsistent big play threat and return specialist to every-down threat. At age 30, Jones still has a remote chance of developing into more reliable player but no team will target the veteran for anything beyond his special teams prowess and offensive depth.
45. Shaun Hill: Hill's opportunity to compete for a starting job is long gone so I'd be surprised if he and the Detroit Lions don't renegotiate a deal. Hill knows the offense, provides reliable depth, and can produce at a high enough level for a good team to win for stretches without its starter. His fantasy production may not match the cumulative production of any of the players listed after him, but his potential value with Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush as targets when he takes the field is what matters.
44. Chad Henne: I'd rather have Hill, but Henne is more likely to land (or stay) in an offense that needs his services. Henne has a big arm, the size to stand in the pocket and deliver, and the experience to perform close to the talent level of his surrounding personnel. On a good team he's serviceable. On a bad team, he has potential for production in garbage time.
43. Scott Chandler: The Bills' current starting tight end is a fine underneath option against zone coverage. He also has a knack for making plays in the red zone when paired with an experienced quarterback. However, Chandler is a better receiver than blocker and he's not a deep threat capable of creating mismatches. Chandler is the type of player who can have a good fantasy season when paired with a veteran on team devoid of experienced receiving talent. If the Bills re-sign the tight end, he could improve upon his production as E.J. Manuel gets better in the red zone. If Buffalo parts ways with the veteran, his outlook is not much different than that of Fred Davis.
42. Aldrick Robinson: The Washington deep threat reminded me a of Emmanuel Sanders requiring additional development time, Robinson's teammate at SMU. If there's a player at the bottom of this list with the upside to out-perform his standing on this list it could be this receiver. I thought Robinson had more route skills than how his current team uses him.
41. Jacoby Ford: The former Clemson receiver showed flashes of play that had us wondering if he might have Steve Smith's upside. Injuries and Oakland's constant state of flux put the kibosh on that development track. If Ford can regain the form where he was making contested receptions and burning defensive backs on short and long targets alike, he could be a free agency steal. It's a long shot, but the talent is there.
40. Anquan Boldin: The only reason Boldin is this low on my list is the fact he'll be 36 next year. He's still physical, crafty, and capable of finding a fit with a team as a contributor. It makes Boldin a worthwhile PPR option in the later rounds if he stays in San Francisco or finds a team with a veteran quarterback.
39. Jeremy Maclin: A fine athlete with skill to make big plays in space as a ball carrier, return specialist, and jump ball receiver, Maclin would be higher on this list if his injury history was the size of a pamphlet rather than a short story. It would also be higher if Maclin could run a wide variety of routes. He's not a one-dimensional receiver, but I haven't seen him in an offense where he has to display skill with a full route tree. I won't be shocked if the Eagles re-sign Riley Cooper, cut Maclin loose, and Maclin never builds on his career production as a high-end fantasy WR3.
38. Anthony Dixon: Versatilty, youth, low mileage, and skill are all factors that elevate Dixon on this list. A big runner with excellent footwork, Dixon failed to impress the Mike Singletary regime as a rookie runner because he didn't make a smooth transition from a Mississippi State offense that featured a lot of counter and draw plays from shotgun to smaller creases in San Francisco that required a more decisive, physical mindset. Dixon has hung onto a roster spot by playing special teams and volunteering to play fullback as needed. If the 49ers don't re-sign Dixon, he could earn a job elsewhere due to his versatility and surprise as a contributor in a backfield that needs a short-yardage option.
37. Ed Dickson: The Ravens' second-string tight end ceded the starting role to Dennis Pitta two years ago; a bit of a surprise after a 54-528-5 season during his second year. Since then, Dickson has failed to catch more than 25 passes and the Ravens preferred the venerable Dallas Clark as the starter while Pitta was rehabbing his broken and dislocated hip. This is a huge indication that the Ravens don't value Dickson as a receiver. Maybe he recaptures fantasy-friendly production elsewhere, but I his career is looking a lot like tight end Alex Smith - more valuable to NFL owners than fantasy owners.
36. Danario Alexander: The Chargers' receiver was on a tear in 2012, scoring seven touchdowns in 10 games. It was good enough production for Alexander to earn a starting role at the start of 2013 training camp. Alexander tore his ACL in August. If you know anything about Alexander's injury history to his knees, it has the length and complexity of Russian Literature. This tear is a clean one, which makes the recovery process more straightforward. If it weren't for the extensive history on Alexander's knees, the 26 year-old receiver with excellent size, strength, and speed would command more attention on the open market. I wouldn't be surprised if Alexander takes a cheaper deal to say in San Diego as a reserve and work his way into a bigger role if he can stay healthy. Big if.
35. Josh McCown: What a stretch the 35 year-old quarterback had for the Bears in relief of Jay Cutler. He was so good, ESPN reported that the Bears defense wasn't happy about McCown's return to the bench before Jay Cutler's start against the Browns in Week 15. McCown has the size, mobility, and arm strength of a quality starter, but it took him years and multiple stops - including a stint coaching high school - for him to grasp the mental-technical side of the game. As good as McCown has been - 13 touchdowns to 1 interception and 8.2 yards per attempt in seven games - no team is investing in the quarterback as a starter. At this stage of McCown's career, I doubt he'll be placing money over organizational fit. He'll be staying in Chicago as the team's capable backup.
34. Bobby Rainey: The second-year runner hasn't come close to earning an opportunity to start for another team during his extended tryout as the Buccaneers' starter, but he should get a shot as depth with special teams skill. If Rainey demonstrated similar production against the better defenses as he did against the poorer match ups, it might have been a different story. Rainey's pass protection needs additional work and his size, and advanced age (27) for an NFL back with only two years of experience work against him. I can see Rainey taking a deal from Tampa Bay to compete with Mike James (ACL tear) and Mike Smith (torn ligament in foot) for a reserve role.
33. Damian Williams: This is total speculation, but I believe Damian Williams' failure to develop into an NFL starter has less to do with his ability and more to do with his willingness to work like a top-notch professional. Williams was benched in Week 15 for an undisclosed violation of team rules, which is often the punishment of violating curfew or arriving late to meetings. Two years ago, a woman accused Williams of assault. Although this became a well-documented case of a victim attempting to entrap a football player and then make a false accusation for financial gain and Williams handled the issue well, this might be the second problem Williams has encountered due to his social life. If Williams matures, works at his craft, and plays to the flashes of potential he showed with the likes of Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, he could develop into an NFL starter and fantasy WR3. Don't count on it, but the skill after the catch, the vertical leap, and knack for adjusting to the ball are all quality skills in Williams' arsenal.
32. Kris Durham: Matt Stafford's UGA roommate sounds like a much better player on paper than he's been. He's a big, tall, and fast receiver with a longstanding rapport with his gun-slinging quarterback. However, Durham's drops, route errors, and mistakes after the catch make his long-term future in Detroit questionable. Durham has been a consistent producer for the past 10 weeks, but the errors have kept that production between 4-9 fantasy points. Even if the Lions re-sign Durham, expect the team to add more talent at the position after Ryan Bryoles suffered another knee injury this fall.
31. Michael Preston: Preston is a small school receiver from Heidelberg with the size (6'5", 206 lbs.) and work ethic that his big-name teammate Williams lacks in Tennessee. Preston has improved enough to earn time with the Titans' starters the past two years. Last weekend, he scored twice on three receptions against the Cardinals when Williams and Justin Hunter were benched for their rules violations. I think the Titans re-sign Preston ahead of Williams and give him a shot to contribute more often. He won't be a player with an average draft position heading into July, but he might have one by the end of August if Williams and Kenny Britt leave town.
30. Brandon LaFell: Ted Ginn Jr (32-484-4) is almost as productive as LaFell (48-614-5) this year. Although this is a testament to Ginn making plays, it also speaks to LaFell's limited upside. The Panthers' receiver earns more catches from his athleticism than he does his technique - and neither are in the upper echelon of NFL receivers. Maybe LaFell finds a great situation with a progression-savvy, hyper-active pocket passer and improves his production, but I'm not holding my breath. Expect LaFell's fantasy future to remain as a low-ceiling flex-play.
29. Tiquan Underwood: The former Rutgers receiver was a teammate of Kenny Britt. Underwood has a good vertical game and he has averaged over 15 yards per catch for the past two seasons, including 18.9 per catch with three touchdowns in relief of Mike Williams this season. I could rearrange Underwood, LaFell, and Preston in any order and have an argument for each. I'm given Underwood the nod for his vertical game.
28. Matt Flynn: Two years ago, Flynn appeared poised to become the next reserve-turned-starting quarterback named Matt (Schaub and Cassel). Now, he's back in Green Bay and just glad he has a job. Expect the Packers to draft a developmental player with starter potential and keep Flynn as the No.3. If not, Flynn will be in a camp somewhere.
27. Maurice Jones-Drew: I want to believe it's the Jacksonville offensive line that has limited the runner to an average of 3.5 yards per carry, but I can't buy it. Jones-Drew's 100-yard effort in Week 14 was his first since Week 3 of 2012. Jones-Drew isn't as explosive as he once was, thanks to the 29 year-old's knees that have seen the surgeon's knife one too many times. These two factors are the reasons I'm skeptical Jones-Drew earns a role as an undisputed starter with another NFL team. At best, he gets a shot doing what LaDainian Tomlinson did at the end of his career in New York. Given Jones-Drew's toughness and all-around skill, I'm not counting him out. With the right team, Jones-Drew's production could remain RB2-worthy and maybe even RB1-worthy in PPR formats if he lands on a team using him a role similar to Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles.
26. Rashard Mendenhall: Considering the history between Mendenhall and Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, I expect Mendenhall to stay in Arizona. The team is 9-5, fighting for a playoff spot, and the offensive line should improve when first-round guard Johnathan Cooper returns from his injury. There's a lot of love for Andre Ellington among fantasy owners, but Arians believes the rookie isn't big enough to earn a role as a lead back. This could change if Ellington adds muscle and maintains his speed in 2014, but the Cardinals will need a hedge and if they don't see enough in Stepfan Taylor then Mendenhall makes the most sense. If he doesn't earn a return engagement in Arizona, he's probably a first-off-the-bench substitute for the rest of his career.
25. Darren McFadden: If he can find a team with a power running game that doesn't need him to be the offense's savior, McFadden could reach his vast potential. Although he's not a great fit in any offense, he's a good receiver and a hard worker who could respond to strong coaching. The Raiders seem ready to move on and the two teams that might have a need for a man-blocking (gap style) back are the Cardinals and Jaguars. Regardless of the team, McFadden will get a chance to turn his career around but the fit will make a big difference and his opportunity might not come right away.
24. LeGarrette Blount: For all the football writers I see on Twitter who turn their nose up when Blount's name is mentioned, the former starter for the Buccaneers is a fine power runner with excellent feet who is among the most efficient in the NFL this year. Blount is averaging 4.5 yards per carry this season and the most consistent player in the Patriots backfield. He may lack up the upside and skill in the passing game to earn a starting job, but his performance this year keeps his name in the conversation as a committee back. He's a more versatile system fit as a pure runner than Mendenhall or McFadden and his mileage as much lower than Maurice Jones-Drew. Personnally, I'd prefer Jones-Drew for one more year or McFadden for three on a contender, but Blount's niche skills might have more appeal to a team at a lower cost and less downside.
23. Doug Baldwin: It seems curious that I would rate Baldwin above this quartet of runners, but it's a close enough call that the Seahawks' receiver and the receiver next on this list could have been listed behind Jones-Drew. The reason they aren't trailing these backs is age, the longevity of receivers compared to runners, and the potential for them to earn a role in the slot for an offense that uses the position in its base sets. Baldwin has a knack for winning the ball down field, but he's not a big enough receiver to earn time on the perimeter as a regular starter and the Seahawks' power running game relies little on three-receiver sets. I can see Baldwin thriving in the slot for a team like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Denver.
22. Andre Roberts: The Cardinals' reliance on a power running game that features man-blocking schemes places a premium on having a tight end and fullback in the lineup. Roberts has excellent hands, good skills after the catch, and has shown potential as a productive slot receiver that can also work the perimeter when called upon. The running backs have more short-term upside, but give Roberts a good fit and fantasy owners could have a bargain value on their hands.
21. Dennis Pitta: I'd be shocked if the Ravens part ways with Pitta. He's not going to defeat man-to-man coverage from outside his opponents' 10 yard-line, but he's a great zone player with excellent hands and a wide catch radius. Expect Pitta to remain a prominent part of the Ravens offense in 2014. If they part ways, his lack of foot speed depresses his value and thus his ranking outside the top 12 free agents. He's a specialty player with a high degree of expertise, but must be a strong fit with scheme.
20. Knowshon Moreno: McFadden and Jones-Drew are more talented runners, but Moreno has more long-term free agency appeal. He is a better pass blocker than McFadden and younger and healthier than Jones-Drew. They're proximity to each other in ranking suggests fit and window of opportunity will factor into a choice among the three. However, I've always been a fan of Moreno's vision and although his maturation was slow, he's making the most of his second chance. The reason Moreno, the No.4 fantasy runner this year, isn't higher on my board is the perception that he's benefiting from Peyton Manning and a quality offense line and he lacks the physical skills to perform this well elsewhere. His fantasy future is too volatile due to his age and lack of elite physical skills to feel confident in his future outside Denver. His best-case scenario might be another year with the Broncos if the front office doesn't feel confident in Montee Ball's early development.Considering how much they value protecting Manning, I think a one-year deal is in Moreno's future.
19. James Jones: Despite a 2012 season as the No.16 fantasy option at his position, the receiver has been little more than a productive understudy in the Packers' offense for much of his career. At age 30, Jones has the potential to deliver 3-4 years of quality production as a starter. However, much of it depends on where he lands and how strong of a producer he can be as a primary option. Because of his age, I don't see him being a great match with a rookie quarterback unless he's the secondary option in the offense. I think he'd be a nice upgrade to Brandon Lafell in Carolina or a fine third option for Matt Ryan in Atlanta.
18. Julian Edelman: The former Kent State quarterback has been most successful as a slot option, but I like the fact that he's still learning the position because there's potential for the Patriots receiver to become a good perimeter option. The injury history is a concern because other than this year, Edleman has had his share of minor injuries that have limited just as he appears to be getting started. This year is the receiver's most productive season and teams will scrutinize Edelman's game to determine if they belief he's a product of a system that they have no intention to adopt. Because Edelman is just coming into his own, he might also decide a hometown discount with New England is his best bet. I think it is.
17. Brandon Pettigrew: I have some ambivalence about Pettigrew's future. There are plays I've seen Pettigrew make where I wonder why I don't see it happen more often. Monday night's reception up the seam in the late fourth quarter where he's bent backwards is a good example. Then I remember that Matt Stafford still needs to get better at spreading the wealth. However, it's not just Stafford's fault. Pettigrew has had his share of drops. Pettigrew is a good all-around player who would be an excellent fit in Arizona's offense where Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald's careers are close to the end than the beginning. If Atlanta isn't confident in Levine Toilolo and doesn't draft one of Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro, or Austin Seferian-Jekins, then Pettigrew is a fine consolation prize. In fact, I'd prefer the veteran in these two situations.
16. Emmanuel Sanders: The Steelers receiver is a strong WR3 in all fantasy formats this year, but his future may hinge on the confidence Pittsburgh has in the development of rookie Markus Wheaton. I think Sanders has the skills to produce as a solid WR2 for fantasy owners on a team with greater emphasis on a vertical passing game, but it's going to take a perfect situation that I can't foresee. His floor is better than all but seven receivers on this list, but he lacks the size and consistency to develop into a top-tier fantasy starter or primary weapon for an NFL team.
15. Josh Freeman: Just 26 years old, Freeman could have another 10-12 years of starter production, but there's a dump truck filled with qualifiers: If he will dedicate the time and effort, if he finds a coaching staff that's a good fit, if the team is a good fit for Freeman's positives while downplaying his negatives, and if Freeman can find his way to the exit of the shell he's been in since the Buccaneers cut him loose. If there are too many knots to untie with Freeman, a team might be better off with a rookie. From a fantasy owner's perspective, Freeman has been no worse than a borderline QB1 for the three seasons prior to 2013. He may never return to these heights, much less exceed them, but his age and baseline ability make him too valuable to ignore if he lands in a good situation as an alternative to rookie quarterback.
14. Jeff Cumberland: This is a surprising spot for Cumberland, but I think he can be a bargain. Averaging 14 yards per catch in an offense with stretches that make the Amityville Horror look as tame as Dr. Seuss, Cumberland has the size and athleticism to get the job done at the line of scrimmage and up the seam. I've been impressed with his skill after the catch and if the Jets don't re-sign him, I think he can be an inexpensive option with red zone skill for another offense.
13. Tarvaris Jackson: I wasn't impressed with Jackson when he began his career in Minnesota. In fact, I was hard on him. After watching him for the past few seasons in Seattle (with a stop in Buffalo in between), I think Jackson has grown a tremendous amount. His accuracy is much improved, he has poise, and he's a big, tough, quarterback capable of helping a good NFL team. I'd be shocked if he doesn't stay in Seattle another year where I think he's a great match for a system and works with a coach who has been with Jackson since the ground floor of the quarterback's development.
12. Golden Tate: I believe Tate is a better receiver than his production suggests, but at the same time I'm probably overrating his potential when team fit will be essential. The Seahawks are a run-first team and Tate has a lot of similar qualities of former Steelers receiver Hines Ward. The difference is route running. Tate is a better man-to-man route runner than Ward, but he's not as good as Ward in zone coverage. I love Tate's ability to win the football, but I think there's still room for improvement when it comes to precision with his routes. It means that I don't believe Tate can be a primary option for a team, but place him in a passing offense with a receiver capable of commanding double teams and the Seahawks receiver is a dangerous player. His upside is limited to WR2 production for fantasy leagues, but he's only 26 and 6-7 more years of WR3 play is more valuable than 1-2 years or WR2 play in my book.
11. Jermichael Finley: If the right team acquires the services of this tight end and asks him to do what he does well, Finley is a fantasy TE1. If Finley joins a squad lacking strong leadership, consistent quarterback play, or the tight end's decision to stop complaining and start playing proves short lived, he could be a massive bust. The ability is there, but the spinal fusion surgery, the possibility of a new team, and the track record of immaturity makes him too risk to place in my top-10 despite the potential of a top-5 free agent option.
10. Rashad Jennings: When I watch Jennings this fall in Oakland, I don't think "good for him." Instead, I'm opining "what a waste of resources." Any scout who watched Jennings at Pittsburgh and Liberty knew he had excellent hands, power, burst, and the ability to carry the load for a team. I don't know what happened in Jacksonville that caused the runner to miss a season, but this promise should have been seen on the field for at least the past 3-4 years. Better late than never, I suppose. Jackson's production in Oakland since Week 8 has made him the No.8 RB in fantasy football. I'd be surprised if the Raiders don't keep the 29 year-old runner.
9. Toby Gerhart: Jennings is more talented, but Gerhart has two years on the Raiders' runner and the gap in athleticism and skill isn't that broad. Gerhart reminds me stylistically of Jamal Lewis. He has good burst and a strong enough initial move to slide to an open hole, get down hill, and split defenders for good yardage. We haven't seen enough of Gerhart because he backs up the best running back on the planet. At age 27 and with little wear and tear I think there's a good argument that Gerhart is the best upside option for team seeking a starting runner for the next 3-4 years.
8. Kenny Britt: The Titans receiver finally got into shape before training camp and looked like the receiver he was before his knee injury two years ago. However, Britt got into a game of brinksmanship with the Tennessee coaching staff and lost. Despite injuries, spats with coaches, and enough off-field incidents to fill a chapter of the Darwin Awards, Britt is only 26 years old. There's a lot of football left in this big, strong, and fast receiver if Britt can grow up. Big if, but big reward coming to the team that wins on that risk.
7. Hakeem Nicks: Nicks should be the top receiver on this list, but his slew of injuries the past few years and uninspired play this year has him ranked 49th among fantasy receivers heading into Week 16. Nicks doesn't have a single touchdown despite averaging 15.9 yards per catch on 50 receptions. I think the relationship with the Giants and Nicks is over. Just 26 years old, I can't think of a team that wouldn't see an upgrade to its starting receiver corps if they added Nicks with the exception of Chicago. I'd take a healthy Nicks over the next two receivers on my list every day of the week if not for his nagging injuries that have limited him for the past three years. It's the only thing that depresses his value.
6. Joique Bell: The Lions' committee back isn't likely to earn a starting job with another team because he's 28 and he lacks game-breaking speed. Bell is a lot like Pierre Thomas, an excellent all-around weapon capable of playing every down and on special teams. I think the Lions keep Bell. If they don't, I don't know a team that is likely to hand Bell a chance to become a lead back so his value might be overstated here. Nonetheless, Cleveland, Arizona, Oakland, and Atlanta could do much worse and pay a lot more money in the process to land a capable starter who doesn't need to leave the field under any circumstance.
5. Greg Olsen: The most under appreciated tight end in football, Olsen has never played with a top-notch pocket passer. Yes, Cam Newton is getting much better, but put Olsen in Atlanta, New Orleans, Green Bay, or New England and he could be an elite fantasy option. He only needs a quarterback with the hyper accuracy and timing to squeeze the ball into tight spots. Tight ends tend to age as gracefully as receivers, so at age 29 Olsen still has 3-6 years of production left in his body if Carolina doesn't keep him. Considering the increase in targets Olsen has received at the expense of Brandon LaFell and Steve Smith - 32 percent of the team's total looks in the passing game over the past three weeks, according to Pro Football Focus - I doubt Olsen is the odd man out.
4. Eric Decker: The Broncos receiver is not on the same plain as Jordy Nelson or Dez Bryant despite stats that put him in the same territory, although I would have argued based on his college game tape that he should be a better football player. What has disappointed me about Decker is untimely drops. This is not something I saw from Decker at Minnesota. The Broncos receiver lacks the speed to develop into a WR1 in most offenses, but he can do a good job as a 1-A type paired with a game-breaking receiver next to him. Put Decker in Detroit and he could have similar production as he's experienced in Denver. Pair him with Drew Brees and I'll be worried about his focus to handle the primary role, but I still think he can be an upgrade to Marcus Colston. But if he goes to a town like San Francisco, I don't think he's a good enough player to help Colin Kaepernick reach that next level of quarterbacking. Much will be expected of Decker if he leaves Denver in 2014, but if a team mistakes him for a primary option who can beat double teams I'm dropping the Broncos receiver at least a dozen spots on this list.
3. Ben Tate: The only concern I have with the Texans' runner is an old ankle injury where he had the metal plate removed earlier than doctors recommended and he's still playing with pain. However, if we all knew about every player's regular pain issues Tate's is probably on the tamer side of the spectrum. The Cleveland Browns have reportedly coveted Tate since last summer and this strong and tough runner with burst is chomping at the bit to be the man for an offense. Cleveland is a good fit with Josh Gordon stretching defenses. Tate has been fantasy football's RB22 since Week 8 despite playing with four fractured ribs. Imagine what he does on a healthy team that isn't fighting for the first overall draft pick?
2. Riley Cooper: If I told you that Cooper would be the No.2 player on this list - much less the No.31 fantasy receiver in 2013 after a certain country music concert this summer - you would have thought I was headlining Cooper in an article titled "Fantasy Advice to Feed Your Opponents." Although Cooper has four games below five fantasy points since he took over as the Eagles' starter, he's also averaging 18.1 yards per catch and I think he's capable of getting better. I'd argue that Cooper has more all-around upside as a receiver than DeSean Jackson and I'm a huge fan of Jackson's game. The reason is the size-speed combination Cooper has to win the ball in coverage, defeat press, and break tackles as a runner in the open field. I hope Philadelphia re-signs Cooper and jettisons Jeremy Maclin, because the combination of Nick Foles, Cooper, and Jackson is just getting started. By the way, here was my take on Cooper - note at the end my prognosis if Foles earned the starting gig - in July. Cooper is not a classic WR1, but his ability to work the middle and stretch the field is a combination of skills that makes him more valuable than any receiver other than a healthy Hakeem Nicks or a focused Kenny Britt. Since both of these guys have to prove they can possess the two qualities they lack, I'm keeping Cooper at the top of the WR free agent heap.
1. Jay Cutler: Shocker, I know. Cutler can play in any offense because he can make any throw and he can beat a defense when the unit calls the perfect play. There isn't a player on this list who can do this as often as Cutler. If the Bears decide to let Cutler go and he winds up in Tennessee - a team rumored to have interest - he's good enough to elevate this unit into a playoff contender in a wide-open division. As much as I hoped for Tennessee to draft Cutler in 2006, I'd prefer to see Cutler stay in Chicago with Marc Trestman because he's finally getting that type of instruction that can elevate him from a good player capable of special moments into a top-notch player. At age 31 and operating behind a young and talented offensive line, Cutler would be wise to take a little less and continue working with the best 1-2 punch at wide receiver in the league. He'll have a good 6-8 years of productivity left if he continues to mature in Trestman's offense and that's enough time for the Bears to retool it's defense, fortify the ground game when Matt Forte gets long in the tooth, and contend for a championship. If you're a dynasty owner, I hope you got him this year when he was cheap. If you're a re-draft owner, his injuries will depress his value enough to keep him a potential value in 2014.
Fantasy Playoff Update
For those curious, here's how I've fared in my playoffs this year:
- Gamebreakers: I earned a first-round bye, but I got cute with my offense and opted to start Da'Rick Rodgers and Marlon Brown over Ryan Mathews. This didn't cost me the semifinal, but the difficult of choosing the correct cornerback and defensive end on a team with Peyton Manning and Jimmy Graham combined with my inexplicable benching of Mathews cost me the points I needed to win.
- Reality Sports Online: I lost to Sigmund Bloom in the quarterfinals when his duo of LeSean McCoy and Shane Vereen went buck wild in Week 14 and left my squad, the regular season points leader in the dust. McCoy was much better in the snow than Calvin Johnson and that was the likely difference.
- Draft Master 100: I narrowed the lead of the top team in this best ball league to 30 points, but my team had its worst week of the season and now I'm down 100 points with either a week or two left as the No.2 team out of 19.
- IOP - My 12-4 team faced division rival Gary Davenport in a showdown that came down to Monday Night with his James Indehigbo and Matt Stafford vs. my Calvin Johson and Stephen Tulloch. I lost by 0.55 fantasy points thanks to that last-minute Stafford touchdown and the Lions refusing to call a timeout to make Baltimore continue running plays at the end where Tulloch might have earned one more tackle. That said, I made three start/sit calls that didn't work out - Terrell Thomas over Troy Polamalu, Shane Vereen over Eddie Lacy, and Cam Heyward over Michael Johnson. Tough loss, but a great game in one of my favorite leagues.
- Footballguys Alpha Staff League - Johnson's drops last night cost me in IOP, but it saved me in my daunting match up with Clayton Gray's Bryant Boats Division-winning team that received an inspired performance from Alex Smith. I earned a five-point win that wasn't over until the final seconds of the Monday Night game. I face John Norton in the Championship for bragging rights as the top dog in the top division of our staff league. He's the No.2 scorer in this league and I'm the No.3 only because I've been hot down the stretch. I barely beat Norton three weeks ago to take the lead in a tight Dodds Wheat Pennies Division.
Good luck in your championships!