The NFL free agency signing period begins at 4 p.m ET on Wednesday, March 17, but that hasn’t stopped the league from already performing plenty of transactions. A legal tampering period of sorts is allowed starting Monday, and there were a handful of franchise tags, signings and trades that went down even before this hectic week.
More from PFF's live free-agency coverage:
2021 NFL Free Agency LIVE Deal Grader | The 100 best available NFL free agents remaining | 2021 NFL Free Agency Tracker |
PFF Improvement Index for all 32 teams
What follows is a fantasy football-themed breakdown on every relevant quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end that has been involved in one of the following:
- Free agency signing
- Franchise tag
This article will be updated throughout the week until the last dominos have fallen. Keep in mind that historically new high-priced free agent additions haven’t performed particularly well, but then again all the premiere free agent from last year’s class did was win the freaking Super Bowl. Free agency previews are also available for QB, RB, WR and TE.
Andy Dalton: signed 1-year, $10 million contract with the Bears (3/16)
Dalton struggled mightily out of the gate after Dak Prescott was lost for the season, but he did improve as the year went on and led the offense to at least 30 points in four of his final seven starts. Still, any command that Dalton might’ve had over the offense didn’t exactly lead to bunches of fantasy points:
- Week 6: fantasy QB22
- Week 7: QB27
- Week 11: QB14
- Week 12: QB22
- Week 13: QB18
- Week 14: QB21
- Week 15: QB18
- Week 16: QB4
- Week 17: QB25
Keep in mind that Dalton was working with a far better group of skill-position weapons with the Cowboys compared to what he’ll be dealing with in Chicago. Of course, Allen Robinson is a stud, but he’s unhappy with the franchise tag, and there simply aren’t many proven assets elsewhere. Darnell Mooney flashed some solid field-stretching ability as a rookie; just realize this is anyone’s idea of a below-average receiving group even with A-Rob involved.
Dalton has always been a sum-of-his-parts QB, and right now the sum of his parts is fairly brutal at receiver and on the offensive line alike. His fantasy floor and ceiling are low enough even if we can assume he’ll beat out Nick Foles for the starting job. There simply isn’t much reason for optimism beyond hoping either veteran can play something resembling mistake-free football.
General advice in fantasyland: Stay the hell away from this offense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick: signed 1-year, $12 million contract with the Washington Football Team (3/15)
The Football Team will be the ninth (!!!) team that the artist known as Fitzmagic will have the pleasure of suiting up for. He’s expected to enter camp as the entrenched starter ahead of Taylor Heinicke and is equipped with at least two solid pass-game options in Logan Thomas and (especially) Terry McLaurin. The presence of Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic gives this offense viable weapons all over the field, although clearly it’d be ideal if another high-end receiver of sorts was added to the mix.
Yes, Fitzpatrick is a bit of a boom-or-bust QB. Also yes, we’ve seen way more of the former than the later in recent years. He was fantasy’s overall QB2 in Weeks 7-17 upon receiving the full-time job in 2019 and the QB8 in Weeks 1-6 in 2020 before “losing” the job to Tua Tagovailoa.
I don’t believe the Dolphins’ rookie QB was as bad as many made him out to be last season. The larger issue for Tua was the reality that Fitzpatrick was anyone’s idea of an above-average QB:
- PFF passing grade: 72.7 (No. 21 among 44 qualified QBs)
- Yards per attempt: 7.8 (tied for No. 9)
- Adjusted completion rate: 78.2% (No. 12)
- QB Rating: 95.6 (No. 20)
The man made arguably the single best throw of the season.
Keep in mind that Fitzpatrick was playing behind PFF’s 21st-ranked offensive line in pass-blocking grade and had a combination of mediocre and banged-up receivers to throw the ball to.
Ultimately, Fitzpatrick enters Washington with his most secure starting job in half a decade. Although he turns 39 in November, old man Fitz has managed to continuously provide a fantasy-friendly rushing floor. The Football Team arguably presents an upgrade in terms of skill-position weaponry; at the very least he wasn’t dealing with a great surrounding cast during 2019-2020 anyway.
Believe this: Fitzpatrick is a top-12 fantasy football QB entering the 2021 season, and you probably won’t even have to draft him as such. He’s consistently functioned as just this over the past two years, and he might just find himself in a better overall situation when it comes to scheme and skill-position talent this time around.
In general, Fitpatrick’s signing is great news for everyone involved in the Washington offense. The ceiling is the roof for Terry McLaurin considering the fantasy success of Fitzpatrick’s No. 1 WR over the years. Overall, his No. 1 WR has posted target totals of 128, 128, 137, 134, 141, 146, 148 and 173 in his eight seasons with double-digit starts. McLaurin F1 WR1 szn is alive and well; treat him as such in fantasy drafts starting right meow.
Jameis Winston: signed 1-year, $12 million contract with the Saints (3/15)
Ace Saints reporter Nick Underhill told the PFF Fantasy Football Podcast that Winston would be the man weeks ago. There’s always a chance that Taysom Hill remains far too involved for anybody other than Sean Payton’s liking, but ultimately Year 2 in a system that has consistently ranked atop the league in production seems like the sort of environment to best foster Winston’s need to chill the hell out. Note that Winston led the NFL in yards per attempt last season including playoffs (on a whopping 12 attempts, lol).
Winston is a fearless gunslinger equally capable of throwing a horrendous pick-six or pinpoint dart through tight coverage on any given play. Mr. 33-for-30 ranked dead last in turnover-worthy plays (39) in 2019 but fourth in big-time throws (30) the last time we saw him under center for an extended period of time.
To be fair to Winston, we saw Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck have similar issues with limiting mistakes in coach Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” attack. Winston has regularly ranked near the top of the league in average target depth; it makes sense that he’s had a lower floor than most signal-callers due to the reality that he’s regularly attempted higher-difficulty throws.
The problem: Style points don’t matter in the NFL. Noodle arm and check-down Charlie jokes are fun; just realize the idea that taking easy yards underneath is a weak move doesn’t hold up when (Herm Edwards voice) you play to win the game. Ultimately, the key for Winston with his next opportunity is to find a happy medium between 1) playing within the confines of his offense, and 2) attempting to create magic with his bazooka of a right arm.
The Saints have been intent on spreading the idea that Hill will have a real chance to win this job, but c’mon people. Winston gives this offense the opportunity to take their production to another level, and his presently reduced ADP should be taken advantage of in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes. We fully expect Winston to win this competition, and if/when he does, the man will be anyone’s idea of a top-12-projected player at the position.
Winston is a prime late-round QB option who carries a true top-five ceiling if he manages to start 16 games in 2021. Hill would be a higher-floor QB1 if he manages to win the job. This is your yearly reminder that one doesn’t need to be a good real-life QB in order to function as a great fantasy signal-caller. I’ve heard worse ideas than drafting both players late in best-ball drafts to ensure you have the Saints’ QB1.
Dak Prescott: franchise tagged by the Cowboys as part of 4-year, $160 million contract (3/8)
Technically Prescott was tagged prior to signing his hefty new deal. This was done to ensure 1) the Cowboys wouldn’t lose exclusive negotiating rights, and 2) an absurd one-year payday for Prescott in the incredibly unlikely event that the Cowboys try to tag him for a third time.
While it would’ve been nice if the Cowboys had gotten this done a year ago, it’s tough to critique the deal considering the 2020 version of Prescott was easily the best edition we’ve seen. Sure, he put together one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory back in 2016, but the reality that the Cowboys boasted plenty of skill-position talent as well as the league’s single best offensive line made it tough to give him all the credit.
This changed in a major way in 2020. The Cowboys’ injury-riddled offensive front struggled to get just about anything going after Prescott was lost for the season. Overall, the Cowboys scored fewer than 20 points in seven of their final 11 games without Prescott under center.
There was a time when people actually debated whether or not Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott was more vital to this offense’s success. Let us never speak of this again after what we witnessed in 2020.
Please pay Dak Prescott a ton of money @dallascowboys pic.twitter.com/p1z2tHujSR
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 1, 2021
Only Deshaun Watson (8.9) averaged more yards per attempt than Prescott (8.4) among 44 QBs with at least 100 dropbacks. No QB averaged more fantasy points per game than Prescott (26.9) in 2020; only 2019 Lamar Jackson (27.7) has him beat among all signal-callers to ever play the game.
It remains to be seen how Prescott will look post-ankle injury, but at full health it’s tough to deny the Cowboys have anyone’s idea of a top-10, maybe top-12 if you want to be a jerk, quarterback.
Carson Wentz: traded to the Colts for a 2021 3rd and 2022 2nd round picks (2/18)
Yes, Wentz was borderline atrocious for the majority of the 2020 season. Also yes, he was hardly afforded much help between the Eagles’ banged-up offensive line and underwhelming receiving core. The former No. 2 overall pick surprisingly wasn’t a complete disaster in fantasyland, as Wentz averaged a cool 23 rushing yards per game and found his way into the end zone on five separate occasions as a rusher.
Of course, we shouldn’t count on Wentz’s dual-threat talents continuing to carry him in 2021, but at least he enters a familiar offense with a great offensive line. Michael Pittman and Parris Campbell are fine, and there’s plenty of cap space available to make some noise in free agency. Part of the reason why Wentz was so effective in 2017 was the presence of two solid field-stretching talents in Torrey Smith and (healthy) Mack Hollins; injuries to the likes of Mike Wallace, Hollins and DeSean Jackson made it difficult for the Eagles to consistently threaten defenses deep in the following years.
Wentz shouldn’t be prioritized in single-QB fantasy leagues. He’s also not a prime target in two-QB leagues as he enters a run-first offense that isn’t exactly overflowing with skill-position talent. The good news is Reich and the Colts’ offensive line presents Wentz with a great opportunity to get back to his 2017 form. The bad news is that it’s been three-plus years and counting since we’ve seen that player.
As for Jalen Hurts? We’re looking at a legit fantasy QB1. Perhaps the Eagles add another option under center; just realize the demonstrated dual-threat nature of Hurts’ game is about as fantasy-friendly as we could hope for. The man largely did nothing other than ball the hell out from a fantasy perspective in his three complete starts, posting overall fantasy QB10, QB1 and QB16 finishes.
More: Fantasy football reactions to the Philadelphia Eagles trading Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts
Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff: Stafford traded to the Rams for Goff, 2021 3rd, 2022 1st and 2023 1st round picks (1/31)
Stafford turned in 11-5 and 9-7 records during his only two seasons with a scoring defense ranked higher than 15th in 12 seasons with the Lions. His performance hasn’t consistently been elite, but clearly the surrounding cast has been suspect, to put it nicely. The 2019 season produced the best year of Stafford’s career in pretty much any efficiency metric, while 2020’s dropoff can at least somewhat be attributed to No. 1 WR Kenny Golladay being healthy enough to suit up for just four and a half games.
We already know that Stafford has a bazooka attached to his right shoulder, but there’s a case to be made that the 33-year-old’s ceiling remains untapped. The Rams have consistently utilized a more QB-friendly offense since Sean McVay took over in 2017:
- Play-action rate: Rams No. 1; Lions No. 27
- Pressure rate: Rams No. 12; Lions No. 15
- Screen rate: Rams No. 7; Lions No. 14
- Drop rate: Rams No. 2; Lions No. 13
- Shift/motion rate: Rams No. 7; Lions No. 27
There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about everyone involved in this Rams offense. Stafford shouldn’t be prioritized as a true high-end fantasy asset due to his lack of a rushing floor, but he’s worthy of low-end upside QB1 treatment.
The same point isn’t true for Goff, who has fallen off a cliff after posting back-to-back solid campaigns in 2017 and 2018. About the only thing working in his favor from a fantasy standpoint is the reality that the Lions boast an abysmal defense, meaning volume should be plentiful in this passing game. The problem is that there isn’t a weaker WR room in the league ahead of free agency, and Goff’s utter lack of a rushing floor gives him a scary-low range of potential weekly outcomes. Generally avoiding Lions of all shapes and sizes is probably a good idea in fantasy drafts moving forward.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Matthew Stafford traded to the Los Angeles Rams
BEST OF THE REST
- Ryan Finley (traded from the Bengals to the Texans 3/19): Imagine the possibilities of Finley pushing Tyrod Taylor for the backup role and potentially earning the starting spot if this Deshaun Watson situation continues to turn sour. We’re talking two to three win upside here, people. Finley has played seven career games and by all accounts has been awful the entire way; it was actually Brandon Allen who diced up this Texans secondary back in Week 16. Fade this Texans offense in fantasy football drafts of all shapes and sizes.
- Kyle Allen (1-year, $850,000 contract with the Washington Football Team 3/18): Allen was serviceable in four starts last season but has generally been a below-average to awful QB throughout his three-year career. Of course, “knowing the system” can be good enough to play in the NFL for a long time if you happen to be a backup QB, and Ron Rivera as well as Scott Turner are clearly comfortable with Allen in an pinch. We fully expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to be under center come Week 1.
- Mitch Trubisky (1-year contract with the Bills 3/18): Trubisky will serve as Josh Allen’s backup. The ex-Bears QB is arguably a homeless-man’s version of Allen considering he possesses enough 1) athleticism to take off and run himself, as well as 2) arm strength to force defenses to respect the deep ball. However, Trubisky was PFF’s single worst QB when it came to PFF passing grade and yards per attempt on targets thrown at least 20 yards downfield. Clearly Trubisky still needs plenty of work, but at least he now has a solid coaching staff and fantastic surrounding cast to hopefully turn his career around.
- Mike Glennon (contract with the Giants 3/18): This will be the borderline giraffe’s sixth team in as many years. Don’t expect Glennon to put too much pressure on Daniel Jones, although at least he showed a willingness to throw downfield in his brief stint with the Jaguars. Glennon isn’t a recipe for winning football games; just realize the likes of Darius Slayton and (maybe) Kenny Golladay *should* be able to continue to produce if the Giants are forced to turn to Glennon at some point.
- Tim Boyle (1-year, $2 million contract with the Lions 3/17): Boyle has flashed in the preseason over the years and is never afraid to throw downfield. Still, he enters a crowded QB room featuring Jared Goff and
Alex MoranChase Daniel. It seems unlikely that Boyle sees a regular season snap in 2021, and even if he does, it’ll be tough to expect much from anybody involved in arguably the NFL’s single worst offense.
- Tyrod Taylor (1-year, $12.5 million contract with the Texans 3/16): The artist formerly known as TyGod didn’t have a great 2020, getting his lung punctured by a team doctor before losing his job to stud rookie QB Justin Herbert. However, he could be thrust into action sooner rather than later depending on how the Deshaun Watson saga plays out. The fantasy appeal is clear: Taylor posted 104-568-4, 95-580-6 and 84-427-4 rushing lines in his three seasons as the Bills starting QB. Overall, he ranked as QB7, QB7 and QB17 in fantasy PPG during the 2015-2017 seasons. The key problems: 1) Taylor turns 32 in August, and 2) this Texans offense is far more devoid of talent than anything the veteran QB has dealt with before. Taylor would have an OK floor if ultimately thrust under center, but keep fantasy expectations in check inside of this potential dumpster fire of an offense. It’d be tough to rank Taylor as anything more than a low-end QB2 if Watson is ultimately traded before the season.
- Jacoby Brissett (1-year contract with the Dolphins 3/16): Brissett ranked 37th among 44 qualified QBs in PFF passing grade in 2019; he is far more ingrained as a backup than Fitzpatrick ahead of 2021. Credit to the Dolphins for getting one of the game’s better backups at the position while enabling Tua to improve upon a rookie season that wasn’t as bad as you remember.
Chris Carson: signed 3-year, $24.6 million contract with the Seahawks (3/19)
This is one of those tricky new deals that voids after two years. There’s $5.5 million guaranteed in Year 1, and he can earn up to $6.9 million in 2021. Either way: Carson is the Seahawks’ undisputed starting No. 1 RB and life is good in fantasy land.
The question is just how much Carson has left in the tank. He played just 12 games in 2020 and has battled injuries throughout his career. This is mostly due to the reality that the 26-year-old talent treats every play like his last, running, jumping and generally steamrolling would-be tacklers with shocking regularity. Overall, only Nick Chubb (4) and Derrick Henry (4) have averaged more yards after contact per attempt than Carson (3.4) since he entered the league in 2017. It’s a helluva lotta fun to watch, but probably not great when it comes to a little something called longevity.
Still, at least for 2021, we need to treat Carson as a legit top-12 back in fantasy football. We’ve also seen Carson function as a productive pass-down back, posting a career 101-775-7 receiving line. His seven career drops aren’t egregious, and he’s totaled just four career fumbles outside of his infamous butterfinger-induced 2019 campaign that featured the ball hitting the turf on seven separate occasions. Carson has dealt with ankle, foot, knee and hip injuries over the years. The man has largely done nothing except ball the hell out when healthy over the years; just realize history tells us that this archetype typically ages poorly.
The great news for Carson: He finds himself in arguably the league’s No. 1 projected offense when it comes to establishing the damn run. Does it make sense for the Seahawks to continue to handcuff Russell Wilson? Absolutely not, but that’s the reality we live in, so snagging Carson in Round 3 or 4 when possible is recommended across all fantasy formats. This is awful news for Rashaad Penny truthers; even if the often-injured RB manages to stay healthy in 2021, there’s going to be a clear limit on his ceiling. There’s too much concern surrounding Penny’s standing in the offense at the moment to warrant anything resembling serious fantasy consideration.
Kenyan Drake: signed 2-year, $14.5 million contract with the Raiders (3/18)
Look, I’m pissed off, too. This isn’t good any way you want to cut it. Not for Drake, not for Josh Jacobs, and certainly not for any fantasy football managers involved in the situation.
Perhaps the 2020 Raiders could’ve fostered enough of a fantasy-friendly environment to enable multiple fantasy-friendly backs, but the odd decision to basically cut ties with their entire offensive line makes this a situation we’ll want to approach cautiously from all angles. Yes, Darren Waller and his triple-digit target projection are just fine; otherwise I largely want nothing to do with this offense in fantasyland at the moment.
Jacobs has truly been one of the more talented backs in the league with the ball in his hands. Overall, his rate of 0.23 missed tackles forced per attempt is tied for fifth among 76 backs with at least 100 carries over the past two seasons. The problem is that clearly Jon Gruden doesn’t believe in feeding just Jacobs. We saw this play out in 2019 with Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington getting plenty of backup work, as well as again in 2020 with Richard and Devontae Booker.
The addition of Drake is objectively terrible news for Jacobs’ fantasy stock. There’s little reason to believe Jacobs’ touches as both a rusher and receiver will go up after the news, and there’s a better than decent chance this offense regresses badly due to their offensive line turnover.
It’s not out of the question that Drake winds up taking over at some point. Drake was one of the league’s most efficient backs with the Dolphins from 2016-2018 before he was traded to the Cardinals halfway through the 2019 season. He balled the hell out during the first eight games in his new home, although 2020 was met with more downs than ups. Some slack should be given to Drake for playing through a painful ankle injury with moderate success during the second half of the year, but backup RB Chase Edmonds was far superior on a per-carry (4.6 yards per rush vs. 4.0) and per-route (1.33 yards per route run vs. 0.55) basis.
The 2020 season marked the first year of Drake’s career that he surpassed 225 touches dating back to his time at Alabama; he’s a young 27 when it comes to football years. Still, his average of 4.1 yards per touch last season was a full 0.9 yards removed from his previous career-low mark. There was plenty of reason to be excited about Drake’s potential before the season; it’s just undeniable that he struggled to resemble the same dynamic threat we saw during the first four seasons of his career.
In my professional opinion, the answer to Jacobs vs. Drake in fantasy football is: no.
The biggest winner here is Edmonds by a landslide. Coach Kliff Kingsbury stated before free agency that they view Edmonds as a true three-down back, and he was treated as such when Drake missed time in 2021. Arizona becomes arguably the marquee spot to watch in fantasyland when it comes to additional RB moves, as refraining from adding to the group could leave Edmonds as a borderline RB1 thanks to projected volume alone. This is a fluid situation; somebody will be added. Still, Edmonds is now the frontrunner for lead back duties and a bargain at his present ADP.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Kenyan Drake signs with Las Vegas Raiders
Jamaal Williams: signed 2-year, $7.5 million contract with the Lions (3/16)
Williams is truly a solid RB who is underrated in the fantasy community purely because of frustration stemming from Aaron Jones not getting enough touches.. Now D’Andre Swift managers can partake in the tilt, as Williams is capable of stealing work on all three downs depending on how new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn wants to do things.
Ultimately, I believe in Swift. The 2020 second-round pick was electric as both a rusher and receiver as a rookie, regularly making defenders look silly in space. Swift was the better player by virtually any metric in the run and pass game last season; Lynn has already said he views him as a three-down back.
Swift had 114 carries and 46 receptions last season; he might just have the skill to double those totals while maintaining above-average efficiency. Still, Williams is the type of do-it-all backup that can make a habit of finding a bit more playing time than most would expect — just ask all the A-aron truthers out there. Williams is fun as hell to watch play sometimes — he’s just had the pleasure of playing with one of the position’s more talented players. However, we knew the Lions were going to add another player to this backfield; a veteran backup making $3.5 million annually isn’t exactly the worst-case scenario when it comes to newfound competition for Swift.
There isn’t a lot to like about the 2021 Lions offense other than Swift and TE T.J. Hockenson at the moment. The presence of a new coaching staff warrants some cause for concern in regards to Swift’s chances of obtaining a three-down workload, but we’ve seen Lynn lean on the likes of LeSean McCoy, Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler to great success over the years. Continue to treat Swift as a high-end RB2 despite the potential for this team to be all kinds of bad. The potential for Swift’s versatility to garner a true three-down role remains exciting; I’m still leaning toward buying into higher-floor receivers in the second and third rounds of fantasy drafts. Williams is nothing more than an uber-late-round pick that could annoyingly steal goal-line touches and third-down work.
Carlos Hyde: signed 2-year, $6 million contract with the Jaguars (3/15)
This is not good, people. Even if James Robinson is a better player than Hyde in every facet of the game of football in the year 2021, he didn’t score 35 touchdowns in 21 games with Urban Meyer calling plays back in 2012-2013. The millennial Frank Gore at this point, Hyde is absolutely a threat to the three-down role that made the artist known as RB1son an international fantasy superstar last season.
Touches have typically followed Hyde wherever he goes. Each of the 49ers, Browns, Texans, Seahawks and even the Jaguars have given him at least 60 touches during a season over the years. Credit to Hyde for still serving as a solid between-the-tackles grinder: He’s not bad at football. Still, his unrelenting assault on the fantasy football value associated with some of the game’s better young backs has been nothing short of nauseating.
On the one hand, we already knew the Jaguars were going to add somebody to this RB room; Hyde is hardly the best candidate to steal away work, particularly in the passing game. On the other hand, Robinson doesn’t necessarily have the trust of this new coaching staff, and Hyde represents newfound competition that didn’t exist this time yesterday. It’s very possible the Jaguars add another back in the draft that will be an even larger issue than Hyde when it comes to Robinson’s fantasy value.
I’m treating Robinson as a mid-tier RB2 that is best avoided if you can help it. It’s still hard to rank more than 15 or so RBs ahead of him, but I’ll take the more guaranteed volume from a high-end No. 1 WR in the early rounds of a draft. Drafting one-dimensional grinders like Hyde that don’t have a cemented workload isn’t advised in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes.
Aaron Jones: signed 4-year, $48 million contract with the Packers (3/14)
The Packers surprisingly paid up to keep their stud back. The deal includes a $13 million signing bonus and cements him as a top-10 fantasy option for the foreseeable future.
Yes, devoting large sums of money to running backs is frowned upon due to the NFL’s salary cap. Also yes, there’s an argument to be had that A-aron deserves to be in consideration as one of the league’s single best RBs:
- PFF rushing grade: 90.8 (tied for No. 3 among 52 RBs with 300-plus carries since 2017)
- Missed tackles forced per attempt: 0.19 (No. 14)
- Yards per carry: 5.2 (tied for No. 1)
- Yards after contact per attempt: 3.2 (tied for No. 9)
- Percentage of carries to go for a first down or TD: 25.9% (No. 5)
- PFF receiving grade: 81.1 (No. 13 among 43 RBs with100-plus targets since 2017)
- Yards per reception: 8.1 (No. 17)
- Yards per route run: 1.21 (tied for No. 27)
Jones’ receiving ability might not look all that spectacular at first glance, although his ability to at times dominate when treated as a true receiver has been particularly fun to watch over the years.
Running backs averaging more yards per route run when lined up in the slot or out wide than Aaron Jones since 2017 (PFF):
<end of list> pic.twitter.com/HEyvoBMUWa
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 21, 2021
The 26-year-old back averaged a career-high 3.5 yards after contact per attempt in 2020 and doesn’t seem to be on the verge of falling off a cliff athletically. Be careful before putting too much faith in any second-contract back, but Jones’ reassertion into the league’s No. 1 scoring offense makes him an upside RB1 in fantasy land despite our continued desire for him to receive a season-long touch total starting with a three.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Aaron Jones re-signs with Green Bay Packers
Mark Ingram: signed 1-year, $2.5 million contract with the Texans (3/11)
Ingram finished last season with PFF’s second-worst rushing grade among 76 qualified backs. His average of 4.2 yards per carry didn’t stack up to either Gus Edwards (5.0) or J.K. Dobbins (6.0), as the 31-year-old RB simply looked to be stuck in the mud for most of the season.
Under no circumstances should you draft Ingram in fantasy football this season. At this point in his career the man is nothing more than an early-down grinder, and he now finds himself in what might be the league’s single-worst offense if Deshaun Watson is ultimately traded away.
The biggest takeaway from this deal is that David Johnson now becomes someone that should be treated with extreme caution in fantasyland. We already saw the issues Johnson had with Watson last season when it came to targets and goal-line opportunities; this is unfortunately life for RBs with a dual-threat talent under center. Perhaps Watson’s departure could lead to a more checkdown-heavy option at QB, but that would go hand in hand with a reduction for Johnson’s already-thin scoring opportunities.
Don’t hate players: hate ADP. Anyone can be a value at the right price. Johnson is a fine enough zero-RB target if he drifts out of the top-24 or so backs; just realize an every-down role is unlikely with Ingram now in the fold, and it seems like wishful thinking to expect a return to form from Johnson (30 in December) in potentially the worst offense of his career.
BEST OF THE REST
- Phillip Lindsay (1-year, $3.25 million deal with the Texans): Lmao. Lindsay is expected to join a three-headed backfield also featuring David Johnson and Mark Ingram in an offense that may or may not have the services of Deshaun Watson. With all due respect to the various accomplishments that each back has achieved over the years: I wouldn’t suggest to my worst enemy to draft a RB from this offense.
- Theo Riddick (contract with the Raiders 3/18): Not only do the Raiders refrain from throwing the ball to Josh Jacobs, but they also surround him with backups that excel in the passing game. Sigh. Stay away from this backfield in fantasyland if you can help it, particularly considering the depressed nature of the offensive line after a slew of odd-to-insane roster moves up front.
- Taiwan Jones (1-year contract with the Bills 3/18): Jones will continue to function as a primary special teamer and backup RB. There’d need to be a multitude of injuries for Jones to see anything resembling a part-time role; don’t overthink this one.
- Eli McGuire (1-year contract with the Chiefs 3/18): Damien Williams was released, meaning McGuire might just be the No. 3 RB in Kansas City. Still, he’d need to see both Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams get injured before having anything resembling a fantasy-relevant role, and even then it’d hardly be surprising if the organization brought in additional competition. Good for McGuire for landing with one of the NFL’s most-prime contenders; we don’t need to worry about him in fantasy land at the moment.
- Mike Boone (2-year, $2.6 million contract with the Broncos): The Broncos apparently value Boone more than incumbent RB Phillip Lindsay, as the latter back was disrespected when the organization chose to tender him at the lowest level possible. There’s also possibly some discontent between the Broncos and Melvin Gordon, who didn’t exactly dominate in 2020 before popping up in the news for a late-season DUI charge. It seems unlikely Boone takes over this backfield, but weekly touches might not be a pipe dream even if both Lindsay and Gordon wind up staying. This offense has been missing an explosive element in the run game, and Boone regularly made the most out of his (rare) opportunities with the Vikings. Overall, Boone’s average of 3.5 yards after contact per carry is tied for the sixth-highest mark among 121 RBs with at least 50 carries over the past three seasons. There are worst end of the draft targets in best-ball land than the Broncos’ new theoretical three-down RB.
- Samaje Perine (2-year contract with the Bengals): Perine is buried on the depth chart; he’d need both Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard to get hurt to have any sort of fantasy relevance. This is purely a depth move; don’t mind him in fantasyland.
- Marlon Mack (1-year, $2 million contract with the Colts 3/17): Mack started for the Colts in Week 1 and converted seven touches into 56 yards before tearing his Achilles and missing the remainder of the season. It remains to be seen just how close he’ll be to 100% in 2021, but his return isn’t great news for Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines fantasy managers. We’re already seeing reporters and Colts GM Chris Ballard alike talk about how the organization loves all of its backs. Taylor *should* be the unquestioned starter after dominating during the final month and a half of the season, although he only cracked the 60% snap threshold on three occasions all year. We already knew Taylor would lose pass-down work to Hines; now we could see Mack function as a legit third cog in this committee backfield, at least early in the season in an attempt to keep JT fresh. Obviously having multiple RBs capable of handling the load is a great problem in real life football, but it’s a problem in fantasyland when you have to commit a first-round pick to Taylor in order to obtain his services. He seems like a better bet to finish the season with 250 touches as opposed to 300; I find myself taking the best WR or TE available after the first three backs (McCaffrey, Cook, Henry) are off the board in best-ball drafts at the moment.
- Josh Adams (1-year contract with the Jets 3/17): We could expect Adams to potentially serve as a committee back with Ty Johnson and La’Mical Perine if the Jets decide to do nothing else in their backfield during free agency and the draft. Obviously this scenario is unlikely, and even this best-case pipe dream wouldn’t lead to much fantasy relevance for Adams. Pass.
- Lamar Miller (1-year contract with the Football Team 3/17): Miller caught two passes for the Bears in 2020, marking the first time he appeared in a professional football game since 2018. The ex-Dolphins and Texans back turns 30 in April and seemingly doesn’t possess the same sort of juice that made him one of the game’s most explosive backs earlier this decade. Far from a guarantee to make the roster, Miller is a backup No. 3 RB at best that provides veteran leadership to both Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. His best-case scenario is replacing Peyton Barber’s small early-down role; don’t touch him in fantasy, please.
- Malcolm Brown (contract with the Dolphins 3/16): The ex-Rams RB can do a little bit of everything and is an ideal backup RB. Still, Brown’s presence won’t stop the Dolphins from continuing to address their backfield both through free agency as well as in the draft. There’s little doubt that Myles Gaskin still rests atop the Dolphins’ backfield pecking order; just realize this is a fluid situation that could dramatically change with a single personnel decision. Brown shouldn’t be touched in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes. I’d prefer to let someone else reach on Gaskin at the moment considering the potential for another party to come into the picture and take the hell over.
- Devontae Booker (2-year, $6 million contract with the Giants 3/15): The Giants needed to add a legit backup RB for Saquon Barkley with each of Dion Lewis, Devonta Freeman, Alfred Morris and Wayne Gallman not under contract for 2021. There’s an argument to be made that Booker is immediately one of the better handcuff options in fantasy football. The Giants’ array of backups led to a muddled situation last season, but Booker has demonstrated the ability to function as at least an average back on all three downs throughout his career. Don't expect more than a few touches per game as long as Barkley is active, but right meow the only true handcuffs I'd prioritize ahead of him are Tony Pollard, Latavius Murray, Alexander Mattison, Gus Edwards and A.J. Dillon. This list will undergo some serious changes over the next month; just realize Booker landed in a potentially fantasy-friendly spot if disaster strikes again in the Giants backfield.
Kenny Golladay: 4-year, $72 million contract with the Giants (3/20)
The artist known as Babytron posted 70-1,063-5 and 65-1,190-11 receiving lines in 2018-2019 before being limited to just five games in 2020. When healthy, Golladay combines enough size (6-foot-4, 213-pounds) and speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash) to give any corner in the league problems.
Concerns over Golladay’s separation ability are probably overblown considering his demonstrated high-end contested-catch ability. Overall, he joins Michael Thomas, Chris Godwin and Stefon Diggs as the only wide receivers to catch at least 60% of their contested targets since 2017 among 81 qualified players. Nobody has a higher PFF receiving grade than Golladay (96.8) on contested targets since he entered the league.
Receivers capable of getting consistently open are incredibly valuable; just realize Golladay is a rare breed capable of turning 50/50 balls into 60/40 propositions with stunning regularity. It’d make sense if the 27-year-old talent doesn’t age incredibly with this sort of skill set, but for meow he’s anybody’s idea of a high-end talent on the outside.
The fit with Daniel Jones might just be crazy enough to work. Jones joined Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr and Russell Wilson as the only QBs with a PFF passing grade of at least 96 when throwing at least 20 yards downfield last season. He is also PFF’s ninth-highest-graded passer when targeting a receiver in tight coverage over the past two seasons.
It’s bad news for Darius Slayton, who should be the clear-cut No. 3 WR in this offense moving forward. Sterling Shepard should be able to cause some problems for defenses out of the slot; the presence of Golladay could be a net positive if the reduced volume is met with enhanced efficiency. Perhaps the contract is a little steep, but all in all it’s a good day to be a New York Giants fan.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Kenny Golladay signs with New York Giants
JuJu Smith-Schuster: 1-year, $8 million contract with the Steelers (3/19)
JuJu turned down more money from other suitors in order to stay with the Steelers. From a production standpoint, he made the right decision; there likely isn’t another offense in the league willing to feed him the sort of 128-target workload that he saw in 2020.
Still, it’s what Smith-Schuster does with those targets that will determine whether or not he’ll stay with the organization long term. It’s unclear just how much JuJu was hampered by injury in 2020, as he didn’t miss a game but looked like a shell of his former self athletically. Obviously the 24-year-old talent doesn’t have many miles on the odometer; just realize he found himself in rough company in just about any efficiency metric last season:
- PFF receiving grade: 67.9 (tied for No. 61 among 84 WRs with 50-plus targets)
- Yards per reception: 8.6 (No. 82)
- Yards after the catch per reception: 4.2 (tied for No. 50)
- Yards per route run: 1.29 (tied for No. 68)
Clearly life without Antonio Brown drawing away coverage hasn’t been kind to Smith-Schuster, but what happened to the elusive YAC threat that we saw cause all kinds of problems for defenders in space?
Smith-Schuster is one of just 11 WRs in NFL history with at least 3,500 receiving yards before turning 25; clearly the man is capable of achieving great things at the professional level. He’s shown the ability to operate as one of the league’s most productive receivers; the (literal) million dollar question is whether or not that same player is around these days.
Ultimately, volume is king in fantasyland, and JuJu has plenty of it. Treat him as the definition of a volume-based low-end WR2 right alongside Diontae Johnson. The biggest loser of this ordeal might just be Chase Claypool, who will assuredly be a starter in three-WR sets but will now likely have to be a part of a big-three at the position instead of a big-two. Of course, we already saw Johnson rack up 144 targets in 15 games that included plenty of shortened performances impacted by injuries. Continue to treat Johnson as the No. 1 WR in Pittsburgh; just realize all three of their studs at the position deserve to be ranked among fantasy’s top-36 players at the position.
More: Fantasy Fallout: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster signs with Pittsburgh Steelers
Will Fuller: signed 1-year contract with the Texans (3/18)
It’s hard not to love this signing for the Dolphins. Every week was Will Fuller week until a silly thing known as PED use had to get in the way. The man truly only missed due to 1) limited snaps due to a Week 2 hamstring injury, and 2) playing in a borderline monsoon in Week 10:
- Week 1: 8 receptions-112 yards-0 TD
- Week 2: 0-0-0
- Week 3: 4-54-1
- Week 4: 6-108-1
- Week 5: 4-58-1
- Week 6: 6-123-1
- Week 7: 3-35-1
- Week 9: 5-100-1
- Week 10: 5-38-0
- Week 11: 6-80-0
- Week 12: 6-171-2
We don’t know what Fuller was taking, so speculation regarding whether it was something that helped him not get injured for the first time in his career is fair.
Still, it’s easy to see how having Fuller’s field-stretching speed in the fold can immediately elevate an entire offense. Deshaun Watson has averaged 8.8 yards per attempt vs. 7.6 and 26.1 fantasy points per game vs. 23.1 with Fuller compared to without since 2017, while DeAndre Hopkins was also far better in the fantasy points (20.3 vs. 18.9) and TDs (0.81 vs. 0.43) per game departments with the Texans’ speedster even though he had more targets per game without.
Everyone involved in the Dolphins offense is better with Fuller on the field. He’ll be active in Week 2 after serving the final game of his six-game suspension, and he’s fully expected to start opposite DeVante Parker in two-WR sets. It remains to be seen how the target totals will shake out; just don’t underestimate what Fuller can do if Tua takes a step forward. The PPR WR8 in fantasyland before getting suspended; he’s a legit No. 1 WR who can take a passing game from good to great in a hurry.
Much more: Fantasy Fallout: WR Will Fuller V signs with Miami Dolphins
Curtis Samuel: signed 3-year, $34.5 million contract with the Football Team (3/17)
Early-career injuries limited Samuel to just 22 of 32 games through his first two seasons. Still, the 2017 second-round pick flashed enough ability as both a rusher and receiver to think a breakout campaign could be on the way with a larger role. This volume was afforded to Samuel in 2019 to the tune of 105 targets; the problem was that Kyle Allen failed to provide anything resembling league-average QB play.
Friendly reminder Curtis Samuel would've gone for 1,500+ yards in 2019 with something resembling a professional QB under centerpic.twitter.com/i4yZIrksNr
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 10, 2021
Things improved considerably in 2020, as Samuel posted 77-851-3 receiving and 41-200-2 rushing lines while working as a slot WR/RB hybrid for most of the season. A millennial version of Percy Harvin, Samuel looks plenty comfortable when asked to function as a true RB.
This versatility is what makes the 24-year-old talent so alluring to a Washington offense that is already well aware of his skills thanks to OC Scott Turner’s history with his new playmaker. Samuel has shown the ability to work as an effective rusher and receiver while lining up just about anywhere. This hasn’t translated to a ton of consistent production thus far, but this could also be chalked up to life in a crowded passing game with a combination of injured and erratic QBs under center.
Now Samuel has the most fantasy-friendly QB of his career and a play-caller who knows exactly what he’s getting himself into. Terry McLaurin remains the No. 1 WR in Washington and should be treated as a top-12 fantasy option at the position; just realize Samuel is also a top-30 option who could trend toward borderline WR2 territory the closer we get to September.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Curtis Samuel signs with the Washington Football Team
A.J. Green: signed 1-year, $8.5 million contract with the Cardinals (3/17)
The Cardinals now employ anyone’s idea of two of the league’s best WRs from the past decade of action. Of course, the 2020 version of AJG was a far cry from the beast that averaged at least 65 receiving yards per game in every season from 2011-2018. The 32-year-old veteran was objectively one of the NFL’s worst WRs in 2020:
- PFF receiving grade: 67.1 (No. 63 among 84 qualified WRs)
- Yards per route run: 1.02 (No. 79)
- Yards after the catch per reception: 1.8 (No. 84)
- Yards per reception: 11.1 (tied for No. 62)
All in all Green put up five (!!!) goose-egg performances and was regularly outplayed by his teammates. The longtime stud receiver truly looked like a shell of himself after missing the entire 2019 season due to an ankle injury.
Some have pointed to the fact that Green caught just three of his 24 targets thrown at least 20 yards downfield as a sign that he was held back by Joe Burrow. Well, he was considered open or wide open on just one of those targets. That 0.4% open or wide open rate on targets thrown 20-plus yards downfield ranked 64th among 70 receivers with at least 10 such targets last season. Kyler Murray has a stronger arm than Burrow and graded out far better as a deep-ball passer; just realize the eye test and advanced metrics alike paint a pretty clear picture that AJG, not Burrow, was the primary culprit for their inefficiency in 2020.
Don’t be afraid to be extremely ageist while playing the great game of fantasy football, particularly when it’s a player entering a new offense that didn’t show any ability to enable more than one consistent WR in fantasy land last season. Perhaps AJG gets healthier and has a pissed-off comeback campaign, but I wouldn’t be on it considering his likely decrease in targets as the offense’s No. 2 (at best) pass-game option.
The bad news for DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk is that Green presents them with another aging veteran that likely won’t pull away much coverage. The good news is Green likely won’t demand as many targets as an incumbent option like Larry Fitzgerald or a higher-priced free agent addition like Curtis Samuel or Will Fuller. I’m continuing to treat Hopkins as a top-five fantasy option, Kirk as a borderline WR3 and Murray as a top-five signal-caller ahead of 2021 drafts. I’ll gladly let someone else take a chance on the likely-dusty Green unless he makes it to the final round or two of the draft.
Emmanuel Sanders: signed 1-year, $6 million contract with the Bills (3/16)
This isn’t great for Gabriel Davis, who was expected to function as the Bills’ clear-cut No. 2 outside WR after John Brown was released last week. This is suddenly a crowded group considering Cole Beasley has seen 106 and 107 targets over the past two seasons.
The good news for everyone involved is that this is truly a fantasy-friendly offense. Josh Allen ranked eighth in overall dropbacks last season and second with at least four wide receivers on the field. The reigning No. 2 scoring offense clearly is capable of enabling more than one high-end fantasy receiver; it’s just more unclear than ever who that will be.
Anyone who wants to call Sanders washed hasn’t been watching football in recent years. He was a better ball away from scoring the go-ahead TD late in the Super Bowl all the way back in 2020, and the fact that he managed to go for 61-726-5 in 14 games last season is impressive considering he was working with Drew Brees’ noodle arm and whatever the hell Taysom Hill is.
Our best-case scenario for the Bills offense was clear-cut three-WR formations featuring Diggs, Davis and Beasley. Now we should expect Sanders and Davis to rotate, making Beasley the No. 2 target in fantasyland based on opportunity alone. The Bills’ stud slot WR is worthy of low-end WR3 consideration thanks to his advanced floor, while Diggs should continue to be drafted among fantasy’s top-five players at his position. Davis is the primary loser here; treat both him and Sanders as boom-or-bust WR4 options until we have any sort of confidence that one or the other has the edge in playing time.
Marvin Jones: signed 2-year, $14.5 million contract with the Jaguars (3/16)
Jones scored nine touchdowns in three of the past four years, although he did benefit from playing with both Matthew Stafford and Kenny Golladay. This isn't to suggest that Trevor Lawrence and D.J. Chark aren’t potential upgrades, but at a minimum the situation is murky for the 31-year-old receiver.
There are plenty of unknowns in this Jaguars offense, and Jones’ contract isn’t the sort of deal that guarantees a high-end role. We should still expect Chark and Laviska Shenault to lead the way in terms of targets, while it wouldn’t be surprising to see Urban Meyer and company continue to address the WR and TE positions during the rest of free agency and throughout the draft.
The history of receivers changing teams on the wrong side of 30 isn’t great. Jones also doesn’t exactly enter an uncrowded offense, and life with (an extremely talented) rookie QB could be at least a little rocky to start. Every player is a value at the right price, and credit to Jones for at least moving to an offense he should pick up quickly based on his past with OC Darrell Bevell. Still, don’t expect Jones to put up a career year and flirt with his usual allotment of triple-digit targets. I’m inclined to treat him as a low-ceiling WR5 until proven otherwise.
The move isn’t ideal for Chark or Shenault, although it doesn’t really hurt considering we knew the Jaguars were going to add someone to this group. Jones can still play, but it’s better than if the incumbent talents were being forced to compete with the likes of Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller or an early-round pick.
Corey Davis: signed 3-year, $37.5 million contract with the Jets (3/15)
We saw a few flashes from the former No. 5 overall pick during the 2017-2019 seasons, but it took until 2020 for Davis to truly resemble a high-end receiver. Obviously life as the third option in an offense featuring Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown produced easier matchups than usual; just realize Davis largely did nothing other than ball out last season.
Don’t believe me? Let’s play a game:
First up is Player A:
- PFF receiving grade: 87.2
- Yards per reception: 15.1
- Yards after the catch per reception: 4.4
- Yards per route run: 2.58
And then we have Player B:
- PFF receiving grade: 86.4
- Yards per reception: 15.1
- Yards after the catch per reception: 4.5
- Yards per route run: 2.6
Naturally Davis is Player A; Julio Jones is Player B. Madness.
I’m not here to argue that Davis is as good as Julio. That idea is fiction. Still, Davis does deserve credit for his work in 2020 and has earned upside WR3 treatment with the Jets in fantasyland. The presence of Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder isn’t ideal, but it’s also not exactly the stiffest competition. Ultimately, Davis’ gaudy contract figures to earn him the lion's share of opportunities in the passing game; there are only a few other offenses in the league where he’d be more established as the overall No. 1 WR. Things will continue to be tough for everyone involved for however long Sam Darnold is under center, but Davis could be a serious value at a likely low ADP in pre-draft best-ball contests if someone like Zach Wilson winds up making their way to the big apple.
And then we have the artist known as AJB. The reigning PPR WR12 has made the most out of his opportunities throughout his short two-year career; now 150-plus targets seems like a realistic goal for one of the game’s most talented receivers. The only player at the position I’d definitely draft ahead of Brown at the moment is Davante Adams. Obviously there are conversations to be had surrounding Brown vs. the likes of Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins and more, but the rising third-year receiver is at a minimum firmly in the high-end WR1 tier. After all: It’s always AJB WR1 szn.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Corey Davis signs with New York Jets
Phillip Dorsett: signed contract with the Jaguars (3/15)
The former first-round pick and noted field-stretching talent has largely disappointed with each of the Colts, Patriots and Seahawks during his five-year career. It’s tough to completely blame Dorsett for the latter and most recent stop, as he was placed on the injured reserve in late September with a foot injury.
Either way: We’ve never seen Dorsett 1) catch 35 passes, 2) gain 550 total yards, or 3) score more than five TDs in a season. Speed kills, and his services were available on the cheap: Good for the Jaguars on landing a backup WR that can demand some attention from secondaries based on his wheels alone. Still, don’t expect Dorsett to flirt with anything resembling a featured role in this offense. Excuse me for being a pessimist, but I’m not confident in Dorsett’s ability to take a seventh-year leap after failing to get much of anything going in offenses led by Andrew Luck, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.
Kendrick Bourne: signed 3-year, $22.5 million contract with the Patriots (3/15)
The addition of Bourne now gives the Patriots not one, not two, but three new additions to their receiving core. The ex-49ers slot receiver might have to play on the outside a bit more than he’s used to depending on the health of Julian Edelman. Either way: Expect Bourne to start in three-WR sets with this sort of money attached to his contract.
Although Bourne was undrafted, he has the sort of athleticism (6.73-second 3-cone) to make a marriage in New England productive. Don’t get crazy: This remains a run-first offense, and it’s not like Bourne was operating in anything other than an A+ scheme with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Still, his 42-487-4, 30-358-5 and 49-667-2 receiving lines over the past three seasons reflect the reality that he’s a solid professional receiver, a commodity that the Patriots were severely lacking in 2020.
This Patriots passing game figures to deploy three to four near full-time receivers between Bourne, Nelson Agholor, Edelman as well as Jakobi Meyers and/or a receiver to be named later in addition to their new high-priced TE. The lack of overall opportunities is troubling for the group, particularly considering red-zone scoring chances are few and far between due to Cam Newton’s nose for the end zone. I’m fine throwing darts at Agholor in the later rounds; otherwise consider largely fading this unproven and low-upside crop of WRs.
The departure of Bourne leaves an open spot with the 49ers, although their heavy insistence on two-TE sets and formations featuring Kyle Juszczyk makes it unlikely their eventual No. 3 WR earns a big role. It’s good news for both Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, who are each borderline WR2s in fantasyland with the upside for more if either is forced to miss any time.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne sign with New England Patriots
Nelson Agholor: signed 2-year, $26 million contract with the Patriots (3/15)
It took the Patriots fewer than seven hours to add two solid pieces to their receiving core. TE Jonnu Smith is the high-priced crown jewel, but don’t discount the potential for Nelson Agholor to emerge as the passing game’s No. 1 option.
The Eagles’ fan meme making fun of Agholor’s hands is objectively funny. With that said: Agholor played some truly fantastic football with the Raiders in 2020, emerging as a dangerous downfield threat with solid after-the-catch ability.
Nelson Agholor on the Patriots is pretty, pretty, pretty greatpic.twitter.com/dh709l6IVQ
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 15, 2021
The ex-Eagles and Raiders receiver averaged 2.04 yards per route run in 2020 — 21st among 84 qualified wide receivers. He took things to another level when stretching the field, grading out as PFF's ninth-best receiver on passes traveling at least 20 yards downfield.
Agholor's nine drops were tied for the most in the league. Guess who else had at least nine drops last season? Diontae Johnson, Jerry Jeudy, D.K. Metcalf, CeeDee Lamb, Calvin Ridley and Tyreek Hill. Obviously it’s important for a professional receiver to be able to catch the ball; just realize this metric usually has more to do with 1) volume, and/or 2) getting open, than being one of the league’s worst receivers.
The Patriots certainly don’t offer the most fantasy-friendly offense imaginable, although Agholor should be able to provide boom-or-bust WR3 production. He's an immediate upgrade from Damiere Byrd, who posted a 47-604-1 line on 77 targets last season. Note that 1) Agholor had just 82 targets with the Raiders, and 2) both Derek Carr (No. 3) and Cam Newton (No. 6) ranked among the league’s best signal-callers in percentage of catchable deep balls.
This is still a run-first offense that could certainly feature Julian Edelman as their No. 1 WR if healthy. Still, Agholor provides a far higher ceiling than any other receiver involved, and he’s a worthy late-round target to fill out your fantasy receiving corps.
Perhaps nobody benefits more from this move than Henry Ruggs, who had just 43 targets in all of 2020. The Raiders seem insistent on using Ruggs as more of a field-stretching option as opposed to an underneath threat; the absence of Agholor at least opens up more volume for this role, even if the former No. 12 overall pick would be better served with more of a true alpha role. It remains to be seen if the Raiders will make more moves to their WR room, but at the moment Ruggs (like Agholor) has the look of a boom-or-bust WR3. Volume is king in fantasy football, and both receivers project as top-two, at worst top-three, options in their respective passing games.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne sign with New England Patriots
Chris Godwin: franchise tagged by the Buccaneers (3/10)
Godwin seemingly won’t be going anywhere until 2022 at the earliest. The Buccaneers’ starting slot receiver dealt with some early-season injuries last season before coming on strong during the final month. Postseason drops aside, Godwin continued to show off an elite blend of run-after-the-reception and contested-catch ability.
The problem for both Godwin and Evans in 2020 was a stark decrease in high-end opportunity. Tom Brady generally refrained from force feeding either of his top two receivers. Obviously the real-life results of this decision were great, but in fantasyland the lack of consistent targets were troublesome. Overall, Godwin had at least eight targets in just six games in 2020 after having 10 such contests last season in two fewer games. Evans had more games with fewer than five targets in 2020 (7) than he did in 2014-2019 (5) combined.
Godwin and Evans were the WR15 and WR16 in PPR per game in 2020. Both are legit No. 1 WRs that are putting up WR2 production due to their lack of relative high-end volume. Antonio Brown taking his talents elsewhere would help both in 2021, but even then we should keep overall target expectations in check as long as TB12 is (rightfully) more worried about winning Super Bowls than putting up absurd regular season passing numbers.
Allen Robinson: franchise tagged by the Bears (3/10)
Apparently A-Rob doesn’t plan on signing his franchise tag anytime soon; there’s still a chance the Bears trade their stud No. 1 WR ahead of next season. This would be a shame for them because Robinson is anyone’s idea of an absolute baller.
FREE ALLEN ROBINSON pic.twitter.com/XsqwnKn9s4
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 14, 2021
Of course, it’d be great to see Robinson play with literally anything resembling an above-average QB. Since college he's caught passes from Christian Hackenberg, Matt McGloin, Blake Bortles, Chad Henne, Chas Daniel, Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. Sheesh.
While a new home would be welcomed for Robinson’s efficiency metrics, it could be hard to find another offense willing to feed him 150-plus targets on an annual basis. A-Rob has finished as a top-nine PPR WR in each of the past two seasons; don’t assume a change in scenery will lead to more overall production.
With that said: The ceiling is the roof for Robinson with the right QB under center. It’ll be tough to rank him outside of fantasy’s top 12 receivers regardless of where he ends up; the man is that good.
Tyrell Williams: signed a 1-year, $4 million contract with the Lions (3/9)
The ex-Chargers and Raiders receiver didn’t play a single game in 2020 due to a shoulder injury. Still, Williams made a name for himself over the years with his ability to stretch the field, averaging more than 15 yards per catch in every season from 2016-2019. He’s never been the go-to option in any offense, but when healthy he’s the sort of receiver that can enhance his surrounding cast without demanding an absurd amount of targets.
Williams finds himself as the potential No. 1 option (seriously) in a Lions WR room that consists of Geronimo Allison, Quintez Cephus, Victor Bolden and Tom Kennedy. There will inevitably be more additions to the group, but don’t be surprised if Williams is inside of three-WR sets come September. Don’t expect anything resembling a consistent fantasy-friendly role, although there are worse dart throws in best-ball drafts consisting of 20-plus rounds.
BEST OF THE REST
- Breshad Perriman (1-year, $3 million contract with the Lions 3/18): This was arguably Perriman’s best landing spot in terms of pure projected volume. I’d anticipate Perriman leading the way in this unproven offense over the likes of Tyrell Williams and others; the Lions’ WR room is truly the most shallow group in the league at the moment. Don’t sleep on Perriman; He’s performed well with each of the Browns, Buccaneers and Jets since leaving the Ravens. We saw some great moments in 2020, particularly when Joe Flacco replaced injured slot-feeder extraordinaire Sam Darnold. I plan on attacking Perriman in the later rounds of fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes throughout the offseason.
- David Moore (2-year contract with the Panthers 3/18): Moore will likely settle in as the offense’s No. 4 WR; we should fully expect Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson to function as the clear-cut top-three weapons in this passing game. We’ve seen Moore provide a solid combination of YAC and contested-catch ability over the years; just realize there aren’t too many available targets to go around in Carolina even with Curtis Samuel now out of the picture.
- Keelan Cole (1-year, $5.5 million contract with the Jets 3/18): Cole apparently fetched a fair amount of interest on the open market. He struggled to tie down a consistent role with the Jaguars, although that organization has hardly earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to talent evaluation. The heightened salary here indicates Cole should have a real shot at a consistent role, although three-WR sets are tentatively expected to consist of Corey Davis, Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder. There’s not enough of a ceiling for Cole to warrant fantasy consideration at the moment.
- Trent Sherfield (1-year contract with the 49ers 3/18): Sherfield will likely be fighting for a roster spot come August, and his best-case scenario is likely as this run-first offense’s No. 4 or No. 5 WR.
- Rashard Higgins (1-year contract with the Browns 3/17): We’ve seen some extraordinary chemistry between Baker Mayfield and Higgins over the years. Still, Donovan Peoples-Jones flashed enough as a rookie to likely make the No. 3 WR job in Cleveland more of a committee situation. Throw in the reality that this offense loves to use two-TE sets featuring the likes of Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant as well as David Njoku, and it seems more likely than not that Higgins struggles to emerge as a consistent fantasy producer.
- Robert Foster (1-year contract with the Dolphins 3/17): Tua now has a former Alabama WR to throw the ball to, although it’s not the Heisman winner that most are pulling for. Still, Foster offers a tantalizing combination of size (6-foot-2,196-pounds) and speed (4.41-second 40-yard dash) that was put on display during the back half of his rookie season with the Bills. Overall, Foster ripped off a 3-105-0, 2-94-1, 1-27-0, 7-104-0, 3-108-1, 4-52-0 and 4-21-1 finale to his 2018 season. He’s never seen even five targets in a game since. It’s certainly wishful thinking to imagine Foster finding a way into three-WR sets, although the Dolphins don’t exactly boast the most WR depth in the league. For now, stay away in fantasy land.
- Chad Beebe (1-year, $920,000 contract with the Vikings 3/17): Beebe started getting some actual playing time after the Vikings figured out that playing Olabisi Johnson more than Justin Jefferson was a bad idea. Still, Beebe’s slot role produced more than three targets in a game just twice all season. It’d be surprising to see him again have a home in three-WR sets, and even then he’d be the thinnest of options in this run-first offense. There’s no fantasy value here.
- Zay Jones (1-year contract with the Raiders 3/17): Jones is expected to work as the Raiders’ No. 5 WR again in 2021. He’s averaged just 1.8 targets per game since joining the squad midway through the 2019 season; don’t expect a heightened role to appear out of thin air, particularly after the organization signed Smokey Brown to a one-year deal. Jones is a perfectly fine backup receiver and had that crazy getup that one time; he’s not a realistic fantasy option.
- John Brown (1-year contract with the Raiders 3/17): Brown was a cap casualty after dealing with injuries for most of 2020. The artist known as Smokey put up a 72-1,060-6 receiving line in 2019 and was the Ravens’ best WR in 2018; the man can play when healthy (just ask Stephon Gilmore). He should step right into the field-stretching role that Nelson Agholor thrived with last season, although it’d be surprising if Henry Ruggs and/or Bryan Edwards don’t take steps forward as well. All signs continue to point toward Darren Waller being this offense’s No. 1 pass-game option; I’m inclined to throw some darts at Ruggs but otherwise fade this crowded offense. I’m pessimistic Derek Carr’s late-career blooming continues without the benefit of anything resembling continuity on the offensive line. Smokey is a boom-or-bust WR5 for me who shouldn’t be prioritized in fantasy land.
- John Ross (1-year, $2.5 million contract with the Giants (3/16): The former No. 9 overall pick famously ran a blistering 4.22-second 40-yard dash and turns 26 in November. Ross flashed sporadically during his four-year stint with the Bengals but mostly battled injuries and general inefficiency. He *could* start in three-WR sets opposite Darius Slayton with Sterling Shepard in the slot, although this sort of low-cost deal is a good indication that the Giants aren’t doing addressing this position of need. Either way, Ross gives the Giants a speedy threat on the outside fully capable of impacting games as a complementary WR when healthy. Only Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr and Russell Wilson had a higher PFF passing grade on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield; Ross is a boom-or-bust fantasy WR5 that landed in one of the better possible spots in regards to his potential 2021 production.
- Jamal Agnew (3-year, $21 million contract with the Jaguars 3/15): It remains surprising to see this many dollars spent on Agnew, who has just 26 offensive touches since entering the league in 2017. Still, versatility (and speed) is a major key here, as Agnew spent time as a running back and wide receiver while playing on virtually every special teams unit. The most likely reason for the signing is to provide Urban Meyer with an ace special teamer and backup receiver. Overall, Agnew ranks sixth and fourth in yards per kick and punt return since entering the league in 2017.
- Noah Brown (1-year contract with the Cowboys 3/15): The Cowboys are expected to bring back their entire WR room, meaning Brown will have to battle Cedrick Wilson for backup targets and snaps behind the starting trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. Alone, Brown or Wilson would be a rare “WR handcuff” option at the back of best-ball drafts, but together it’s tough to get behind either player due to the likelihood for extremely limited targets all season long.
Jared Cook: signed a 1-year, $6 million contract with the Chargers (3/18)
Cook seemed to lose a step in 2020, although the presence of noodle-armed Drew Brees and whatever the hell Taysom Hill is certainly didn’t help matters. Still, he’ll be 34 in April; don’t be surprised if the best years of Cook’s career are in the rear-view mirror.
It remains to be seen if the Chargers will bring back Virgil Green and/or Stephen Anderson, but the presence of Donald Parham could limit Cook’s overall target share for the position. Henry didn’t exactly see all the action he could handle last season despite playing a near every-down role, as the Patriots’ high-priced addition averaged a good-not-great 6.6 targets per game and cleared eight targets in a single contest just once.
I’m taking a stand on some of the game’s more elderly players this fantasy football season and refusing to give in to their “value” in new situations. Cook joins my ever-updating ageist list, as I’d rather be a year too early than late when it comes to expecting previously athletically gifted talents to overcome both 1) a new situation, and 2) Father time.
Cook’s presence more than anything is a reason to not invest heavily in Parham. The ex-XFL-er is a talented receiver, but as The Athletic’s Daniel Popper told The PFF Fantasy Football Podcast back in February: Parham just doesn’t have the blocking ability to be an every-down TE at this point. I’d rather target guys like Cole Kmet, Tyler Higbee, Adam Trautman and Gerald Everett in the later rounds of fantasy drafts.
Gerald Everett: signed a 1-year, $6 million contract with the Seahawks (3/17)
Everett is similar to Jonnu Smith in that he simply hasn’t ever been afforded enough opportunity to put up big numbers. The Rams’ athletically gifted TE isn’t afraid to help block, but his receiving ability is the cause for so much optimism with this pairing.
The fit is hardly seamless: Will Dissly isn’t going anywhere, and Jacob Hollister could always come back and make this an annoying three-headed committee. Still, we haven’t seen a single player function as this offense’s undisputed lead TE since Russell Wilson managed to get 10 scores out of Jimmy Graham back in 2017. The Seahawks boast the sixth-highest TD rate on targets to the TE over the past three seasons; there have just been too many parties involved for one single player to benefit in fantasy.
Everett’s true fantasy stock will depend mightily on how the public views his landing spot. If priced outside of the top 12 players at the position: Give me all the Everett. If everyone wants to crown him as a TE1 before we know for sure if he’ll even play half of his team’s snaps on a weekly basis: I’ll pass. Everett is a proven talented player, and Seahawks fans should be happy he chose them; we just don’t know for sure if he’ll have the sort of opportunity to turn his talents into A-level fantasy production.
The other big winner in this equation is Tyler Higbee, who should be priced as more of a middling TE2 after regularly going among the position’s top six players last season following his bonkers end to the 2019 season. Higbee should probably be considered the favorite to function as this improved offense’s No. 3 pass-game option; I’ll happily take him over Everett if their average draft positions wind up skewing heavily toward the Seahawks’ new signee.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Gerald Everett signs with Seattle Seahawks
Hunter Henry: signed a 3-year, $37.5 million contract with the Patriots (3/16)
Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots have landed the top two available tight ends in free agency. Madness.
Last December, Belichick had the following to say about the ex-Chargers tight end:
“Henry continues to be a complete and very, very good football player for them. He runs a variety of routes. He’s come back off the injury and has been a very, very productive player for them along with all the other skill players.”
The five-year veteran dealt with injuries and volume issues throughout his career, but Henry has consistently functioned as one of the better players at his position when healthy enough to suit up:
- PFF receiving grade: 85.5 (No. 6 among 62 tight ends with 100-plus targets since 2016)
- Yards per reception: 11.8 (tied for No. 12)
- Yards per route run: 1.67 (tied for No. 12)
- QB rating when targeted: 122.1 (No. 3)
The Patriots needed to add more than a few high-end additions to this passing game, and they’ve been able to accomplish just that with their plethora of signings.
The problem is that neither tight end should be viewed as anything resembling a high-end fantasy football asset. Either Smith or Henry would be a top-six option at the position in this offense by themselves. Together, it’s tough to treat either as a legit top-12 player considering the likelihood that their opportunity is split inside of this run-first offense.
The history of multiple tight ends balling out in the same offense isn’t rich. In fact, only the 2011 Patriots (Rob Gronkowski TE1, Aaron Hernandez TE3) and 2019 Eagles (Zach Ertz TE4, Dallas Goedert TE10) have enabled multiple top-12 fantasy TEs over the past decade. Smith and Henry certainly boast the sort of talent to become the third such pairing, but they face an uphill battle considering they lack the same sort of 1) continuity, and 2) high-end passing volume, as the previous winners.
I’m inclined to let someone else take a chance on either TE in fantasy football drafts of all shapes and sizes. Opportunity isn’t everything in fantasy football; it’s the only thing, and neither TE looks like they’ll be seeing a ton of it.
I’d also be careful before assuming Donald Parham is a can’t-miss prospect to focus on. The Athletic’s Daniel Popper told The PFF Fantasy Football podcast that, while the receiving ability is there, Parham’s limitations as a blocker make it unlikely he sees a true every-down role anytime soon. The likely addition of a more well-rounded TE would likely leave Parham without enough snaps to make a true impact in fantasy land.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Hunter Henry signs with New England Patriots
Rob Gronkowski: signed a 1-year, $10 million contract with the Buccaneers (3/15)
The move isn’t a surprise; Gronk seemingly has no intentions of playing football again if it’s not with longtime BFF Tom Brady. The NFL is better with Gronk in it, although expecting more than another borderline TE1 performance in fantasyland is probably wishful thinking. Overall, Gronk had five or fewer targets in 11 of 20 games last season — the first time since his rookie year that he notched a total higher than eight.
Of course, part of Gronk’s allure is his ability to dominate as a blocker and essentially serve as a sixth offensive lineman. The likes of Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard and Tanner Hudson combined for 60 targets last season; Gronk had 77. He joins Mike Evans as the team’s top two red-zone threats; we just shouldn’t expect a true return to form from arguably the best TE to ever play the position.
Gronk is a low-end TE1 who figures to vie for the position’s lead in scores; just be careful before assuming we’ll see a high weekly floor inside of this still-crowded passing game. Howard (19) had more targets than Gronk (14) during their four games together last season; it’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to lead the position group in targets.
Jonnu Smith: signed a 4-year, $50 million contract with the Patriots (3/15)
The Patriots have been early players in free agency and managed to land one of the top two available tight ends in this class. Sure, they paid a steep price to gain the services of Smith, but this has been a dire position of need ever since Rob Gronkowski retired following the 2018 season. Overall, Smith has caught 84 passes for 955 yards and scored 13 total TDs while Patriots TEs have totaled 55 catches for 673 yards and just three receiving scores over the past two seasons.
Coach BIll Belichick didn’t exactly hide his adoration of Smith when asked about the ex-Titans TE in the past:
“He’s just a really good tight end. Can do a lot of things. Blocks well. Runs well. Is a good receiver. Played him at tailback, he looked pretty good back there. He’s a very athletic player. Hard to tackle. Catches the ball well. (He’s) great after the catch, probably the best in the league. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone better than him after the catch.”
Belichick is right: You can’t name five tight ends who are scarier with the ball in their hands than the artist known as Jonnu.
PATRIOTS GOT JONNU SMITH AND HE'S REALLY GOOD AT FOOTBALL pic.twitter.com/LmBbPvgUvX
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 15, 2021
Targets have been tough to come by in the Titans’ multi-TE and run-heavy offense, but Smith has always made the most of his opportunities. Overall, only George Kittle (7.8) has averaged more yards after the catch per reception than Smith (7.1) since he entered the league in 2017.
The Patriots passing game certainly didn’t resemble a world-beating unit in 2020, but Smith has a real chance to break triple-digit targets for the first time in his career inside of this barren group. Greg Olsen averaged 115 targets during the 2011-2016 seasons with Cam Newton under center; it’s not hard to imagine Smith putting up high-end TE1 production with anything resembling that sort of workload in 2021.
We should keep expectations in check for Smith; recent history tells us that things don’t work out too well when high-priced players at the position switch teams. Still, Smith has demonstrated the ability to function as one of the league’s most efficient tight ends already, and now he’s looking at career-high volume in an offense that *should* know how to get the most out of his elite-YAC ability. At the moment, Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Darren Waller, Mark Andrews and T.J. Hockenson are the only players at the position that I’d definitely rank ahead of Smith in fantasy land.
The signing is good news for restricted free agent Anthony Firkser’s chances at locking down a full-time role in 2021. The 26-year-old TE has posted 8-113-1, 5-51-0 and 3-19-0 receiving lines in his only three career games with more than five targets and finds himself in an offense completely devoid of target competition outside of A.J. Brown. Obviously the artist known as AJB will continue to function as a weekly WR1, if not *the* WR1, but Firkser is now arguably the next-most enticing Titans receiver. We’ll see who winds up replacing Corey Davis if the former No. 5 overall pick ends up taking his talents elsewhere; just realize whoever starts at tight end will find himself in one of the NFL’s most shallow offenses in terms of competition in the passing game.
More: Fantasy Fallout: Jonnu Smith signs with New England Patriots
BEST OF THE REST
- Kyle Rudolph (contract with the Giants 3/18): The ex-Vikings TE isn’t washed by any stretch of the imagination, but he was forced to work evenly alongside the talented young Irv Smith over the past two seasons. It seems unlikely Rudolph is afforded the opportunity to serve as the Giants’ clear-cut No. 1 TE; expect Evan Engram (if back) and/or Kaden Smith to also be involved. I’ll be looking elsewhere in fantasy land than this muddled, low-ceiling situation. Rudolph’s best-case scenario is emerging as the go-to red-zone threat, but even then don’t expect a role amounting to more than a few targets per game.
- Blake Bell (1-year contract with the Chiefs 3/18): Bell played with the Chiefs previously before serving as a backup for the Cowboys in 2020. Don’t expect more than a target or two per game at the most for the “Belldozer” — and a starting role is far from guaranteed if Travis Kelce happens to miss time *knocks on wood*.
- Ryan Izzo (traded from the Patriots to the Texans 3/18): The move comes after the Texans released Darren Fells. Izzo figures to compete for snaps alongside Jordan Akins, who is the real winner in all of this. Perhaps Kahale Warring could earn a small role himself, but this situation finally seems to be pointing in the direction of Akins. Of course, we’ll value Akins far differently depending on whether Deshaun Watson or Tyrod Taylor are under center.
- Anthony Firkser (1-year contract with the Titans 3/17): Firkser has experienced moderate success in brief stints as the Titans’ No. 1 TE over the years and figures to see his role expand in 2021 with Jonnu Smith now playing for the Patriots. Still, expectations should probably be limited: Firkser has played more than 50% of the offense’s snaps in just two of 47 career games. He should be considered the favorite to lead this TE room in production; just realize other parties will be involved in this run-first offense. Firkser is absolutely fine as a late-round option at the position; let’s not get crazy and treat him as a legit top-12 TE just yet.
- Pharaoh Brown (1-year contract with the Texans 3/17): Brown caught 14 of 16 targets for 163 yards and a pair of scores in 2020 while serving as the No. 3 TE behind Darren Fells and Jordan Akins. Perhaps Brown could flirt with something resembling fantasy relevance if 1) either Fells or Akins miss time, or 2) Deshaun Watson doesn’t leave. Even then, Brown isn’t someone worthy of selecting in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes at the moment.
- Geoff Swaim (1-year contract with the Titans (3/16): There’s plenty of available opportunity in the Titans’ TE room, but don’t expect Swaim to see many of the targets. That fantasy-friendly role should go to Anthony Firkser, as Swaim has caught fewer than 15 passes in all but one of his six NFL seasons. The Titans make a habit of feeding backup tight ends and the occasional eligible tackle near the goal line; just don’t expect Swaim to carry anything resembling a fantasy-viable role in 2021.
- Chris Manhertz (2-year, $7.25 million contract with the Jaguars 3/15): Manhertz has caught 12 passes for 142 yards and one score since entering the league in 2014. The block-first TE is not exactly what most had in mind for a team that was expected to spend fruitfully in free agency. At the moment, Manhertz would be expected to split snaps with Josh Oliver, although it’d be surprising if another option isn’t added to the room. None are expected to be relevant fantasy options in 2021.
- Cethan Carter (3-year, $7.8 million contract with the Dolphins 3/15): The FB/TE hybrid should see plenty of time as the offense’s H-back. Mike Gesicki is basically a full-time wide receiver that we call a tight end for whatever reason; don’t expect Carter to see more than the occasional target or two. The ex-Bengals talent has a career 7-66-1 receiving line in 46 games since entering the league in 2017.
- Lee Smith (traded to the Falcons in exchange for a 2022 late-round pick): Don’t worry, Hayden Hurst fantasy managers: Smith is nothing more than a block-first TE who honestly might be better off labeled as an offensive tackle. Overall, the 33-year-old veteran has caught 12 or fewer passes in each of his 10 career seasons.