Opportunity and ability are the two biggest drivers of fantasy production. Ability is tough to quantify. Opportunity is easier to spot. Since the free agent market opened last Thursday, we have seen some dramatic changes in projectable opportunity. While many free agents have yet to sign and the NFL draft will further shake our projections, here are some fantasy winners and losers that at this point stand out.
Biggest Fantasy Winners
Jameis Winston – As Warren Sharp has noted, Winston’s passer rating on throws to his deep right was dreadful in 2016, primarily because the Bucs had no one capable of beating coverage on that side of the field. (Mike Evans runs the majority of his routes on the left side.) Jackson has always run most of his routes on the right side and will give Tampa Bay’s offense a new dimension, distracting loaded coverage from Evans and Cameron Brate, and spiking the efficiency of Tampa Bay’s run and pass games as a decoy on some plays and intended deep target on others. Winston is a prime 2017 breakout candidate.
Tom Brady – The rich got richer when the Patriots acquired dynamic playmaker Brandin Cooks from New Orleans and replaced Martellus Bennett with younger combination tight end Dwayne Allen, whose addition will allow the Patriots to continue to create mismatches in “12” personnel packages. With Rob Gronkowski also due back healthy, New England’s passing game looks as explosive as it’s been in years.
Isaiah Crowell – The Browns showed they valued Crowell by tendering him at the second-round level in restricted free agency, then hit the market to get him help. They signed prized RG Kevin Zeitler and ex-Packers C J.C. Tretter, and extended LG Joel Bitonio through 2022. And they did not trade LT Joe Thomas. All but locked in as Cleveland’s feature back, Crowell will have more room to operate in 2017.
Terrelle Pryor – Pryor will experience a mammoth quarterback upgrade going from Robert Griffin III–Cody Kessler–Josh McCown to Kirk Cousins in Washington, where target opportunity abounds. In Pierre Garcon (114) and DeSean Jackson (100), the Redskins have well over 200 missing targets from last year’s roster. Surprisingly forced to settle for a one-year, $6 million “prove-it” deal, Pryor certainly won’t lack for motivation in D.C. Entering only his second full season at wide receiver, Pryor joined a production-friendly situation and should be able to parlay it into a far richer deal next year.
LeSean McCoy – The Bills retained Tyrod Taylor on a restructured deal, ensuring McCoy will continue to benefit from Taylor’s dual-threat presence in one of the NFL’s toughest running games to defend. Buffalo also signed FB Patrick DiMarco, who earned Pro Football Focus’ No. 3 lead-blocking grade in front of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta last year.
Melvin Gordon – Since entering the league, Gordon has averaged 9.1 PPR points per game with Danny Woodhead active compared to 21.1 PPR points with Woodhead on the shelf. Woodhead signed a three-year, $8.8 million deal with Baltimore. The Chargers also landed LT Russell Okung and should field a higher-scoring 2017 offense with Keenan Allen back and Hunter Henry seeing an increased role.
Carson Wentz – Talent shortages around Wentz made him difficult to evaluate last year. He started fast, then fell into a prolonged slump and struggled with mechanics. But he was surrounded by the NFL’s weakest pass-catcher corps. With Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith on the perimeter to go with Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews inside, Wentz’s supporting-cast excuse won’t be acceptable in 2017.
Pierre Garcon – The 49ers love Garcon so much they gave him the second richest wide receiver contract in free agency, behind only ex-teammate DeSean Jackson. As a Redskin, Garcon averaged 9.6 targets per game in two years with Kyle Shanahan coordinating Washington’s offense, and 6.9 targets per game in three years with everyone else. Garcon signed with a bad team that will play from behind, and Brian Hoyer is a competent enough passer to get him the ball. Garcon is going to be a target monster again.
Jack Doyle – New Colts GM Chris Ballard was impressed enough by Doyle’s 2016 tape to make him free agency’s second highest paid tight end and, most importantly, part ways with Dwayne Allen. In Allen’s two missed games last season, Doyle played 88% of Indianapolis’ offensive snaps and averaged 35.5 pass routes per game. Doyle logged only 66% of the snaps and 23.0 routes per game with Allen active. Despite being a part-time player, Doyle led the Colts in red-zone receptions on the season and led all NFL tight ends in catch rate (78.7%). While not a dynamic athlete, Doyle is a trusted possession target for Andrew Luck. Explosive ex-basketball player Erik Swoope should also see an increase in usage.
Robert Woods – Woods wouldn’t be the first boring receiver to make an opportunity-driven fantasy impact. The Rams are currently missing 296 targets from last year’s roster, and Woods was their lone notable free-agent pass-catcher addition. Whereas Woods’ offenses in Buffalo ranked 31st and 32nd in pass attempts the past two years, new Rams coach Sean McVay’s 2016 Redskins offense finished seventh in pass attempts.
Tyler Higbee – Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper will be more popular breakout candidates, but Higbee also looks destined for spiked opportunity following the departure of Lance Kendricks. The 110th overall pick in last year’s draft, Higbee is a converted wide receiver who averaged nearly 15 yards per reception and dropped only one pass as a senior at Western Kentucky. After earning 40% of the Rams’ offensive snaps as a rookie, Higbee should get a chance to become a full-time player in 2017. Tight ends always produced in Sean McVay’s Redskins offenses, from Niles Paul to Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed.
Rishard Matthews – The Titans never got involved in the Alshon Jeffery bidding and let Kendall Wright walk. While Tennessee still seems likely to add wideout help in the draft, at present Matthews is comfortably atop the depth chart entering his second season with Marcus Mariota.
Devin Funchess – A third-year leap candidate, Funchess spent his first two seasons battling Corey Brown and Ted Ginn for snaps. Brown (Bills) and Ginn (Saints) both walked in free agency, setting up Funchess for a significantly enhanced role. Funchess has averaged 15.6 career yards per reception and converted nine of his 54 receptions into touchdowns, statistics that hint at his big-play and TD-scoring potential. Turning 23 in May, Funchess is nearly a full year younger than ballyhooed draft prospect Cooper Kupp.
Paul Perkins – I have doubts about Perkins’ viability as more than a committee back, and it’s entirely possible – if not probable – that the Giants address running back in the draft. I think you could argue that this is a great time to sell Perkins in Dynasty leagues. Still, the increased opportunity Perkins is currently slated to see needs to be acknowledged. Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams are long gone, and the Giants have shown no interest in free agent running backs to date.
Ameer Abdullah – Through two NFL seasons, Abdullah’s sporadic explosive flashes have rendered him nothing more than a tease. Still, his perceived stock is low and his situation appears to be improving. In signing RT Rick Wagner and RG T.J. Lang, the Lions have put together one of the league’s better-looking offensive lines. The biggest obstacle Abdullah will continue to face is his fantasy-unfriendly usage. Theo Riddick curbs his PPR appeal, and the Lions have shown no inclination to use Abdullah at the goal line.
Corey Coleman – Coleman was my favorite receiver in last year’s draft, and I’m not even entertaining the idea of giving up on him after a hard-luck rookie campaign. While quarterback play remains a huge concern in Cleveland, the Browns downgraded by switching out Terrelle Pryor for Kenny Britt, and made no other pass-catcher additions. At the wide receiver position, we have seen many big-time talents produce even without big-time quarterback play. I see Coleman as a big-time talent.
Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman – The Ravens were linked to Brandon Marshall and Torrey Smith, but signed neither. They paid Wallace’s $1 million roster bonus and are looking to 2015 first-rounder Perriman for an increased role. With Steve Smith Sr. retired and Kyle Juszczyk (49ers) gone and Kamar Aiken and Justin Forsett unsigned in free agency, the Ravens are missing 214 targets from last year’s team. 2016 fourth-round pick Chris Moore is another receiver worth mentioning in Baltimore.
Mike Glennon – The Bears are likely to use Glennon as a low-volume game manager in an offense where Jordan Howard is featured, but signing into a starting job at least puts Glennon on the radar in two-quarterback and best-ball leagues. I do expect the Bears to use an early-round pick at his position.
Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington – The Raiders have shown no interest in re-signing Latavius Murray, or any free agent running back for that matter. They do seem very likely to invest in a running back in the draft. In a perfect world, Richard and Washington would be employed as complementary backs. Still, the running back depth chart in Oakland will continue to be worth monitoring behind the AFC’s best offensive line and supported by one of the league’s premier passing games.
Jerick McKinnon – Both in-season and out of season, roles and depth-chart positioning at running back are prone to volatile shifts. The Vikings were at one point connected to free agent Latavius Murray, and GM Rick Spielman hasn’t ruled out bringing Adrian Peterson back. At the moment, McKinnon tops the depth chart with only Bishop Sankey and something named C.J. Ham behind him.
Biggest Fantasy Losers
Kenneth Dixon – Not only was Dixon slapped with a four-game PEDs suspension on the first day of free agency, the Ravens retained restricted free agent Terrance West and signed passing-down specialist Danny Woodhead, a longtime favorite of coaching staffs and quarterbacks who makes himself tough to pull off the field. On March 8, Dixon looked like a prime 2017 breakout candidate. By March 10, Dixon had devolved into a late-round flyer at best.
Sterling Shepard – Although you never felt comfortable starting him, Shepard eked out rookie-year fantasy value with a fluky-high touchdown rate and 105 targets in an offense where Victor Cruz fell off a cliff and the Giants barely moved the ball short of slant-route touchdowns by Odell Beckham. Shepard cleared 60 receiving yards in just 3-of-16 games and scored eight TDs, an unsustainable counting stat for a 5-foot-10, 194-pound, one-dimensional slot receiver. Brandon Marshall landing in New York will nuke Shepard’s targets and production.
Jared Cook – If having the most-productive career possible was Cook’s priority, he would have swallowed his pride and accepted the Packers’ contract offer, which was reportedly worth more than the three-year, $20.25 million pact Martellus Bennett ultimately signed. Instead, Cook overestimated his market and is likely facing a severe quarterback downgrade outside of Green Bay. He remains unsigned as of this posting.
The Free Agent Running Back Class – Their cause not helped by what is considered a strong rookie running back class, this year’s unsigned backs have so far been afterthoughts in free agency. Only two notable backs have signed at all: Danny Woodhead with the Ravens and Jacquizz Rodgers with the Bucs. Latavius Murray, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, and Eddie Lacy have drawn minimal interest.
The Bengals’ offense – What are the Bengals thinking? Not only did they let go one of the best guards in the league (Kevin Zeitler), they also lost perennial Pro Bowl LT Andrew Whitworth to the Rams. Cincinnati is down to Cedric Ogbuehi, Clint Boling, Russell Bodine, Christian Westerman, and Jake Fisher on the line. Boling is the only guy you would consider a quality starter in that group.
Kenny Stills – Stills won’t be panhandling anytime soon after landing $8 million per year from the Dolphins, but his fantasy outlook is bleak. On a decidedly run-first team, Stills returns to compete for targets and snaps with DeVante Parker behind Jarvis Landry. Red-zone weapon Julius Thomas has joined the mix. Stills’ career-high nine touchdowns were fluky last season, and are bound for regression. His overall targets (82) could also take a hit.
Tyler Boyd – Boyd might have looked like a sophomore leap candidate had the Bengals let Brandon LaFell walk, but LaFell was re-signed to a two-year, $9 million deal. A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and Giovani Bernard will also return after combining to miss 20 games. Boyd is stuck in a low-volume slot role.
All the Patriots’ pass catchers – Already one of the NFL’s most volatile week-to-week offenses because their approach is game-plan and opponent-specific, New England’s target distribution is going to be murkier than ever in 2017. In Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, James White, Dion Lewis, and Dwayne Allen, the Patriots have eight different players capable of making weekly pass-catching impacts. It’s great in real life, and likely to cause headaches in fantasy.
Thomas Rawls – Rawls’ value hasn’t taken a substantive hit just yet, but the Seahawks are giving clues that it’s coming. They’ve flirted with Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy, and Latavius Murray, and lost out on a bidding war for free agent OG T.J. Lang. Seattle’s lone offensive line “addition” was draft bust LG Luke Joeckel, who is currently rehabbing a torn left ACL, MCL, and meniscus.
Terrance Williams – Williams conceivably could have taken the Robert Woods route and joined a team where his usage would be greater. Instead, Williams re-signed with Dallas for low-end No. 2 receiver money and will remain a fantasy afterthought on a run-committed team.
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