No period exemplifies the old NFL adage of “no offseason” better than free agency. For at least a week the sports world is fixated on which free agent lands where, how much they make, and how humorously we can compare their “pittance” of a salary to those of athletes in other sports, some of which have their regular season overshadowed by the NFL’s “offseason.”
Along with the madness happening in the real league, free agency is also an exciting time for fantasy players. Opportunity is the foundation of fantasy success, and there are plenty of teams bursting at the seams with available targets or carries who will make a splash this spring.
That said, not all opportunity is created equal. Despite somewhat surprisingly re-signing Jeremy Kerley, the 49ers are set to lose around 200 targets, and there is not much in the way of competition for a new No. 1 receiver. Unfortunately, San Francisco does not have a quarterback. That is not hyperbole, either. They literally do not have a quarterback on the roster.
Perhaps they sign or draft a reasonable starter out of whom new coach Kyle Shanahan can coax a respectable season, but the 49ers are not an exciting destination for a player like Alshon Jeffery. The situation is similar for the Vikings’ running game, which is set to lose Adrian Peterson and almost 200 carries but also plays behind perhaps the worst offensive line in the league.
It is not all bad, however. There are plenty of high-upside landing spots at every fantasy position.
Broncos: Denver has a lot of work to do on the offensive line, but their pros outweigh the cons. They have two outstanding receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, a backfield which should produce if the issues up front are fixed, and a defense which will consistently put the offense in good positions. Add in a quality offensive coordinator, and this attack has a chance to be very good with the right quarterback.
Texans: Perhaps no team has ever been more “a quarterback away” than the Texans. In fact, Houston has many of the same things working in its favor as Denver. The receiver weapons are not quite as good, but DeAndre Hopkins is a high-end No. 1, Will Fuller should be more dangerous with a competent quarterback, and C.J. Fiedorowicz is a quality tight end. Lamar Miller is a high-end back who should only become more effective if defenses have to worry about the passing game, and the defense is one of the best in the league. Like the Broncos, the Texans’ biggest concern other than quarterback is the offensive line, but it is still a great destination.
Honorable Mention: The Browns were originally listed with the top two teams because they are quietly pretty similar on offense. Cleveland has a great offensive mind at head coach, a solid backfield duo, a pass catching tight end with an albeit limited history of success, and a stellar receiver duo…or at least they had a stellar duo. Corey Coleman is there for the long haul, but it now looks likely Terrelle Pryor will bolt in free agency, making the decision not to tag him despite cap space which rivals the Republic of Kiribati’s GDP questionable to be kind. If they end up reaching a deal with Pryor, the Browns will quietly be a solid landing spot for a quarterback.
The 49ers, Bears, and Jets all offer immediate starting opportunities, but the surrounding talent is bad to terrible in all three spots. The 49ers have one of the worst receiver depth charts in the league, the Bears are looking at an unproven Kevin White and Cameron Meredith as their top receivers, and the Jets will be left with Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson if Eric Decker follows Brandon Marshall out the door.
Buffalo will be another interesting destination if they move on from Tyrod Taylor, and the Jaguars and Cardinals are teams to pay attention to in Dynasty formats. Carson Palmer could be entering his final season, and Blake Bortles may end up getting run out of Jacksonville if he struggles again.
Raiders: Oakland has been trying to replace Latavius Murray for two years, so it would be shocking if he re-signs. Even with complementary backs DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard stealing work, Murray topped 225 touches and saw 43 targets in 2016. Perhaps the Raiders want to get Washington and Richard, who are basically the same player, more involved moving forward, but it is more likely they are looking for a back who is hopefully more dynamic than Murray to fill a similar role, a role with offers top-20 touches behind one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Patriots: Even if LeGarrette Blount bolts in free agency, New England will not be staring into a bare cupboard. Dion Lewis is a dynamic back when healthy, and James White was serviceable and at times stellar, Super Bowl especially, down the stretch. Neither of those backs can fill the role Blount has occupied, however, and that role comes with significant fantasy upside. Blount was a monster with 18 touchdowns in 2016, and while that explosion was bigger than ones he has provided in the past, Blount’s time in New England has been marked by stellar touchdown production. He has 34 touchdowns in 49 games with the Patriots, and he had 16 scores in 33 games entering last season, almost an eight-a-season pace. Those touchdowns will have to go to someone if Blount leaves.
Packers: Ty Montgomery had his moments as the lead back and proved he needs to be involved as a runner moving forward, which is not surprising to many who watched him at Stanford, but it is unlikely he alone is Green Bay’s answer at running back. Even after Montgomery took over in Week 7, the Packers’ other running backs averaged more carries per game combined in the 13 contests in which Montgomery played. He had more than 10 carries only three times and more than 11 just once in that run. Montgomery is going to have a role, but there is room for a 12-15 carry back with solid touchdown upside in this offense assuming Eddie Lacy signs elsewhere.
Honorable Mention: Both the Vikings and Giants have some degree of an opening at running back, but they are hardly situations to target. Neither Jerick McKinnon nor Paul Perkins appear to be going anywhere, and neither running game has been good enough to support one fantasy back let alone two. Perhaps that changes if either team miraculously fixes their offensive line, but for now there is not much to be excited about.
The Bengals and Saints form another group of running back needy teams which have nominal starters but heavily use complementary backs. Cincinnati is the more interesting of the two on the surface because Jeremy Hill is not very good and headed into the final year of his deal, but Giovani Bernard should return relatively early in the season, putting a damper on the redraft upside. 2016 seventh-rounder Daniel Lasco is an interesting name, but he and special teamer Marcus Murphy are the only two backs currently under contract behind Mark Ingram. Considering Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet combined for 199 touches in 2016, there could be a pretty big role waiting for a free agent or rookie in New Orleans.
Finally, the Eagles, Bucs, Ravens, Colts, Panthers, and Lions make up a group of teams who have a starter or stable of backs with serious questions marks. Of these, Philly seems like the best landing spot because Ryan Mathews both has an injury question and looks unlikely to return, but Tampa Bay if they do not retain Doug Martin or Carolina if they decide to move on from Stewart will be just as interesting as Oakland, New England, and Green Bay.
Redskins: With both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon set to leave in free agency, Washington is easily the best fantasy destination for wide receivers. The Redskins are currently scheduled to lose over 325 targets, easily the largest total in the league, including their top two receivers and their top pass-catching running back. Some of those lost targets will hopefully go to 2016 first-rounder Josh Doctson, who missed much of his rookie season with an Achilles’ issue. Jamison Crowder also should take on a bigger role, and Jordan Reed should top his target total from last season if he can stay healthy. Still, there is at the very least room for a new receiver to see 100 targets in a passing game which has at times been stellar the last two seasons, and that is assuming everything else works out for the rest of the pass catchers on the roster. This is a team to watch closely over the next couple weeks.
Titans: With the running game putting idiot doubters (aka yours truly) in their place, the Titans’ next great obstacle on offense is surrounding Marcus Mariota with weapons. While Tennessee is not set to lose many targets – Kendall Wright is the only free agent of note, and he saw just 42 passes thrown his way last season – they do sport a bottom-half receiver depth chart. Rishard Matthews is a quality No. 2, but Tajae Sharpe is unlikely to become a game-changing receiver while Harry Douglas is not going to be an important cog in any well-functioning passing game. Tennessee needs a No. 1, and Mariota played well enough last season to suggest that player will be a high-end asset in fantasy once they land him.
Eagles: There will never be any Jordan Matthews bashing in this space, but it was fairly clear last season the Eagles need a true No. 1 receiver to aid in Carson Wentz’s development. Dorial Green-Beckham does not appear like he will develop into that guy, and Nelson Agholor is not even a quality No. 3 option. If Philadelphia is able to land a quality receiver, that player could take on a majority of the 143 looks which went to DGB and Agholor last season while almost certainly having more success than those two. Even with Matthews – it is doubtful he is traded despite rumors – and Zach Ertz set to retain big roles in the offense, there is room for more.
Ravens: It is too difficult to split between the Ravens, Eagles, and Titans to pare this list down to three. Unlike Tennessee and Philadelphia, Baltimore did actually lose a receiver of note when Steve Smith Sr. decided to hang up his cleats. With Kamar Aiken looking likely to bolt in free agency, that leaves the Ravens with a big hole to fill even if 2015 first-rounder Breshad Perriman is able to find his footing in year three, and that hole will get even bigger if they decide to move on from Dennis Pitta and the 121 targets he garnered in 2016. Brandon Marshall would be a perfect fit here, and he will be a quality WR2 with upside if he lands in Baltimore.
Honorable Mention: The Bears, Rams, and 49ers all have a ton of targets up for grabs, but the quarterback situation in each destination is questionable at best. Shockingly, the Rams are in the best position of the three with Jared Goff getting to work through his first real NFL offseason with Sean McVay at the helm, but he has a long way to go before fantasy players will feel comfortable owning his pass catchers. The Bears might be in second on this list with rumors they are going to land Mike Glennon, but that might not happen and Glennon might not be any good anyway. The 49ers currently do not have any quarterbacks under contract, and they might be setting up to endure a season very similar to the one from which the Browns just escaped.
The Bills, Bengals, Cowboys, Giants, Steelers, and Bucs all have quality No. 1 receivers, but they will be on the lookout for a secondary option. It sounds like the Bucs are going to land theirs in DeSean Jackson, who is both a great complement to Mike Evans and a great fit with Jameis Winston. Jackson should have plenty of fantasy success in that offense. As for the rest of the group, Buffalo might be the best landing spot assuming they hold onto Tyrod Taylor. Sammy Watkins is a stud when healthy, but when healthy looks like a qualifier which will end up defining his career. Like Robert Woods has in the past, the Bills’ next No. 2 will likely have to step into the No. 1 role at some point this season.
The Cardinals, Panthers, Lions, and Dolphins might not appear to be great fantasy destinations, but all four offer sneaky opportunity upside. Set to lose Kenny Stills and his 81 targets in free agency, the Dolphins are the least sneaky of the group, and they are also the most interesting. While 2016 third-rounder Leonte Carroo could be in line to take on some of Stills’ work, his game does not match up with what the Dolphins asked Stills to do, and there are rumors he is not a favorite of coach Adam Gase.
Jaguars: There are not many great spots for tight ends to land, but Jacksonville is a solid destination. Following the trade of Julius Thomas, the Jaguars are left with a big hole at tight end and basically no one to fill it. Thomas only saw 51 targets last season, but those came in just nine games (5.7 per game). Jaguars tight ends accounted for 20 percent of the team’s total targets in 2016, and that was with replacement-level talent occupying the position most of the season. Considering only nine tight ends saw more than 90 targets each of the last two seasons, any quality tight end who lands in Jacksonville should return immediate value.
Packers: While Jared Cook solved the Packers’ tight end problem for one year, he has still not been re-signed heading into free agency. While he only managed 30 catches last season, Cook showed he is the type of weapon Green Bay has needed for quite some time, and a better, healthier version of him could break out with Aaron Rodgers throwing them the ball. Not for nothing, Cook’s and Richard Rodgers’ combined stat line of 60 catches for 648 yards and three touchdowns would have put them 17th among fantasy tight ends last season, and neither of them is particularly good.
Giants: While they did bring back Will Tye and Matt LaCosse, the Giants still need a true No. 1 tight end. Tye just is not that guy, LaCosse is unproven despite promising camp reports last season before he went down with an injury, and Jerell Adams is an unknown as well. Even without quality talent at the position, New York funneled 113 targets to tight ends in 2016. If they bring in a big-time player, he should see the vast majority of those looks.
Honorable Mention: There are a bevy of teams with questionable starters or unsettled situations at tight end. The Steelers top the list because of offense’s upside, but the Ravens, Raiders, Bears, and Broncos deserve a mention as well. Of those, the Raiders are the most interesting because of their need for a third weapon behind Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, the inability of Clive Walford to fill that role, and the upward trajectory of the offense as a whole.
The Jets and Cardinals also have openings at tight end, but they fall under the “who cares?” category. New York is certain to use the tight end more in the passing game – Austin Seferian-Jenkins paced their tight ends with 17 targets in 2016 – now that Chan Gailey is gone, but their quarterback situation leaves much to be desired. Arizona did target Jermaine Gresham a surprising 61 times last season, but coach Bruce Arians has a long history of ignoring the position.
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