News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: How have high-priced free agent additions historically performed?

Dec 26, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) talks to head coach Bruce Arians before a game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Player movement in the NFL isn’t quite as robust as it is in baseball or basketball, but there's still a solid chunk of talented athletes who switch teams during the course of any given offseason. This year will be no different, as numerous fantasy-relevant players will be wearing new colors once Week 1 comes around.

The question for today’s article is simple: How often do players who join a new team during the offseason work out?

Subscribe to

I believe that we generally overvalue rookies in terms of immediate fantasy football success simply because we devote the majority of February through April to analyzing this group of players, but a similar argument could be made for free agency classes. I looked at every QB, RB, WR and TE who has changed teams during the free agency offseason cycle since 2016 to get an idea of how often players have thrived upon joining a new squad. Note that this doesn't include players who changed teams during the season.

Special thanks to OverTheCap for all contract-related information.

Quarterback

There have been roughly 61 QBs who signed a contract with a new team during the 2016-2020 offseasons. Of course, plenty of those players were brought in to either provide backup depth or minimal competition. For this reason, we'll focus on the cases in which a team signed a QB with every intention of making him their starter. These 13 instances were as follows:

Note that 2017 Foles (Eagles) and 2017 Keenum (Vikings) would ultimately go on to lead their respective squads to plenty of success, but they weren't signed to be their team's Week 1 starter.

Neither Newton, Hoyer, Fitzpatrick nor McCown received over $12 million for their services. They were more or less spot starters who could occasionally move the offense while their teams attempted to find a better long-term solution.

This leaves us with nine players over the past five offseasons who were signed to big-money contracts on a new team to be the QB1:

  • 2016 Osweiler (Texans): 4 years, $72 million
  • 2017 Glennon (Bears): 3 years, $45 million
  • 2018 Cousins (Vikings): 3 years, $84 million
  • 2018 Bradford (Cardinals): 2 years, $40 million
  • 2018 Keenum (Broncos): 2 years, $36 million
  • 2019 Foles (Jaguars): 4 years, $88 million
  • 2020 Brady (Buccaneers): 2 years, $50 million
  • 2020 Rivers (Colts): 1 year, $25 million
  • 2020 Bridgewater (Panthers), 3 years, $63 million

Obviously, not all NFL contracts are created equal. There are plenty of outs and non-guaranteed salary that essentially allow teams to judge the QB for a season or two before having the opportunity to part ways if they desire. This reality makes the Glennon contract a bit easier to stomach.

Other than that: Cousins, Rivers and of course Brady are essentially the only QBs who have changed teams, landed a big-money deal and provided anything resembling above-average production. The Osweiler and Bradford situations were comically awful, Keenum was traded after one very-meh season, Foles struggled to keep sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew on the bench and Bridgewater ultimately threw just 15 scores in 15 games despite being surrounded by high-end receivers.

The free agent QB market hasn't been kind to buyers in recent history. Our only examples of moderate success involved 1) a mistake from one of the league's worst-run franchises (Washington), 2) the undisputed GOAT moving to a loaded offense, and 3) old-man Rivers game-managing his way to a first-round playoff loss. This tells us that if a team has had the opportunity to groom a QB for an extended period of time, didn't try to fetch a solid trade package and ultimately didn't want to cough up the sort of long-term money to keep him around, then there's a good chance that player won't suddenly take his game to the next level in a brand-new environment.

Potential 2021 qualifiers:

The following QBs are presently free agents and could find a suitor willing to start them as soon as Week 1, 2021:

    • Dak Prescott: Fully expected to be franchise tagged and stay with the Cowboys, but you could imagine.
    • Jacoby Brissett: Showed the ability to make the occasional big play off-script in 2019; a new team would have to expect heavy improvement from a year spent behind Philip Rivers.
    • Mitchell Trubisky: Wouldn’t be surprising to see him wind back up with the Bears; it wasn’t that long ago that the reigning NVP resembled an above-average dual-threat talent for an extended period of time.
    • Ryan Fitzpatrick: The best QB on the Dolphins last season is (somehow) still a legit top-16 option at the position.
    • Andy Dalton: Improved as the season went on behind the league’s most banged-up offensive line.
    • Cam Newton: Seems like a return to the Patriots is on the table; at least Newton’s athleticism didn’t seem washed up in 2020.
    • Jameis Winston: The favorite for Saints QB1 duties, Winston was arguably the most underpaid player in the NFL in 2020, making just $1.1 million.
    • Alex Smith: a non-top-30 QB by just about any metric you want to look at, but crazier things have happened.

Running back

There have been roughly 60 RBs who signed a contract with a new team during the 2016-2020 offseasons. Of course, plenty of those players were brought in to either provide backup depth or competition.

This leaves us with 28 cases in which a team signed a RB with the intention of making him their starter or at least a key part of the offense:

Intriguingly, there doesn't appear to be a ton of difference in production based on how much money each of these players made. There have been more than a few instances of cheap RBs making major impacts with their new squads. Turbin scored eight touchdowns in 2016 while making just $760,000; Hunt rebounded from his suspension to provide top-level production as a complement to Nick Chubb down the stretch in 2019; and the likes of Williams as well as Burkhead went on to help their respective teams with clutch playoff performances despite not having anything resembling a huge contract.

Still, each of these ultimately positive situations were a bit unique and required a number of factors to fall in that RB's favor. Generally, RBs haven't received featured Week 1 roles with contracts under $10 million. The aforementioned exceptions clearly show this isn't always the case, but usually money talks.

Only 12 RBs have gone to a new team and received a contract worth at least eight figures since 2016:

  • 2016 Ivory (Jaguars): 5 years, $32 million
  • 2016 Miller (Texans): 4 years, $26 million
  • 2016 Forte (Jets): 3 years, $12 million
  • 2017 Murray (Vikings): 3 years, $15 million
  • 2018 McKinnon (49ers): 4 years, $30 million
  • 2018 Lewis (Titans): 4 years, $19.8 million
  • 2018 Hyde (Browns): 3 years, $15.25 million
  • 2018 Crowell (Jets): 3 years, $12 million
  • 2019 Bell (Jets): 4 years, $52.5 million
  • 2019 Ingram (Ravens): 3 years, $15 million
  • 2019 Murray (Saints): 4 years, $14 million
  • 2020 Gordon (Broncos): 2 years, $16 million

Note that the Jaguars were so far under the minimum salary cap threshold in 2016 that they essentially had to overpay Ivory in order to reach the required percentage of money spent.

This has by and large been a mess. The likes of Ivory, Lewis and Hyde were outplayed and eventually surpassed by younger RBs. Veteran backs like Forte, Murray (twice), Crowell and Gordon provided some value but were still utilized as committee backs despite their fairly high-priced deals. It took poor McKinnon two seasons to even find his way into a backup role with San Francisco.

There have been basically three examples of RBs receiving a bunch of money from a new team and accordingly getting a featured role: Miller, Bell and Ingram. The former two backs suffered massive efficiency declines behind their suddenly porous offensive lines (funny how that works). The latter RB was great in Baltimore in 2019, but we saw the likes of Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins emerge as more viable ball carriers in 2020.

RBs *matter* in that they need to be good enough to beat out competitors for a starting job. Still, recent history tells us that even the league's perceived more talented backs haven't managed to provide their usual value without the same caliber QB and offensive line around them in a new home. Big-money deals remain a solid sign that a player will probably receive a good amount of opportunity, but it appears evaluating the RB position independent of the player’s supporting cast remains as difficult as ever.

Potential 2021 qualifiers:

The following RBs are presently free agents and could find a suitor willing to give them at least a somewhat large role as soon as Week 1, 2021:

  • Aaron Jones: The crown jewel of this free agent class at the position, Jones sure looked like one of the league’s better backs with the Packers; just take a long look at his potential new suitor before projecting him for the same sort of upside that we saw with Aaron Rodgers under center.
  • Chris Carson: I’m not a doctor, but it’s tough to see Carson aging particularly well given the man has made a living running straight through professional defenders for the better part of the last half decade.
  • Kenyan Drake: Quietly came on strong at the end of 2020; historically backs paired with rushing QBs hasn’t been great for fantasy business so a new team might not actually be bad for fantasy business.
  • Todd Gurley: Washed is probably an understatement; it’s tough to imagine anyone signing up to give Gurley a true featured role again.
  • James Conner: Much like Gurley, it’s tough to imagine a new team signing up to give Conner the sort of workload that we saw enable him to great fantasy heights back in the day.
  • Mark Ingram: Reputation figures to land him at least the chance to earn an early-down role somewhere; just don’t expect a return to featured back duties.
  • Duke Johnson: Played through some pain in 2020; was one of the league’s most-efficient backs during the first five seasons of his career. My dreams for Duke three-down RB szn are all but over; just realize the man is still anyone’s idea of a plus receiving back.
  • Tevin Coleman: Hasn’t been anything close to healthy with the 49ers; the soon-to-be 28-year-old back hasn’t looked like the same dynamic player we saw with the Falcons.
  • James White: The reunion with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay simply makes too much sense for everyone involved.
  • Mike Davis: PFF’s 2020 fantasy football most-improved player offers legit three-down ability and had a higher rate of broken tackles per touch than everyone other than Nick Chubb.
  • Leonard Fournette: Truly made some special plays during the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run, but it seems unlikely a true three-down role emerges anywhere.
  • Devonta Freeman: Briefly took over the Giants’ banged-up backfield before getting injured himself; he’s the type of veteran back that some coaches might remember fondly enough to give him a chance to earn some early-down work.
  • Adrian Peterson: Please refer to the second half of the above Freeman blurb.
  • Frank Gore: Please refer to the AP blurb.
  • Le’Veon Bell: The reality that basically nothing good came from the Kansas City marriage reflects that the best years of Bell’s career are almost certainly in the rear view mirror.
  • Marlon Mack: The nightmare scenario in fantasyland is if the Eagles decide to bring in Mack to alleviate some of Miles Sanders’ early-down work.
  • Phillip Lindsay: Restricted free agent who will probably (?) make his way back to the Broncos and continue to serve as an early-down committee option.
  • Gus Edwards: Ditto but with the Ravens.

Wide receiver

There were roughly 106 WRs signed to a contract with a new team during the 2016-2020 offseasons. Of course, plenty of those players were brought in to either provide backup depth or competition.

There are 47  cases of a team signing a WR who went on to have at least a decent-sized role in their new offenses. The simple reality that most offensive plays consist of at least two (usually three) WRs makes it unsurprising that we see such a large increase in our player pool. We'll combat this by drawing a line at the $15 million mark. Some low-cost players such as Ted Ginn (with the Saints), Danny Amendola (Lions) and Randall Cobb (Cowboys) proved to be plenty capable of filling their role as a more-than-solid complementary piece of the offense, but John Brown (Ravens), Alshon Jeffery (Eagles) and Nelson Agholor (Raiders) are largely the only sub-$15 million players in this study to work as their new team's No. 1 WR. The former two receivers accordingly received much larger contracts after outperforming their respective one-year deals.

This leaves us with 25 cases in which a team signed a WR to a big-money deal with the intention of making him their starter or at least a solid part of the offense:

Among these WRs, Britt is really the only player who couldn't even find a full-time role with his new team. Sure, guys like Benjamin, Richardson and Humphries hardly proved worthy of their high-priced deals, but they at least were regulars in their team's respective three-WR sets when healthy.

Still, it's tough to call a lot of these guys successful signings, particularly when we take a closer look at those whose contracts were worth at least $30 million:

  • 2016 Jones (Lions): 5 years, $40 million
  • 2016 Sanu (Falcons): 5 years, $32.5 million
  • 2017 Garcon (49ers): 5 years, $47.5 million
  • 2017 Woods (Rams): 5 years, $39 million
  • 2017 Jackson (Bucs): 3 years, $35 million
  • 2017 Britt (Browns): 4 years, $32.5 million
  • 2018 Watkins (Chiefs): 3 years, $48 million
  • 2018 Robinson (Bears): 3 years, $42 million
  • 2018 Richardson (Redskins): 5 years, $40 million
  • 2019 Williams (Raiders): 4 years, $44.3 million
  • 2019 Tate (Giants): 4 years, $37.5 million
  • 2019 Humphries (Titans): 4 years, $36 million

There are certainly more hits here compared to the QB and RB groups. At the very least, these WRs were almost exclusively signed to work as one of the top two WRs in their new offenses.

We still don't see many players posting career-best seasons after changing teams. Perhaps that could change with better QB play in the future, but keep in mind that even high-priced WRs haven't always provided a steady source of value or production in their new homes. Continuity continues to seem awfully underrated when accessing the fantasy landscape.

Potential 2021 qualifiers

The following receivers could at best see a huge role, and at worst feasibly wiggle their way into three-WR sets, for a new employer in 2021:

  • Allen Robinson: The king of this free agency class is more likely to be franchise tagged and traded as opposed to outright signing elsewhere.
  • Chris Godwin: Another candidate for the franchise tag, it’s unlikely we see Godwin play elsewhere until 2022.
  • Kenny Golladay: The franchise tag seems less of a certainty for Golladay, although my money would still be on him remaining with the Lions. If not, any team would be happy to add a player with Golladay’s elite mix of field-stretching and contested-catch ability.
  • Corey Davis: Only Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones averaged more yards per route run than Davis in 2020. Your passing game is in great shape if Davis is your No. 2 or No. 3 option.
  • Curtis Samuel: Offers the ability to line up just about anywhere on the field and doesn’t turn 25 until August. My free agent grade for literally anyone that signs Samuel is an A+.
  • Will Fuller: Every week was Will Fuller week until a silly thing known as PED use had to get in the way. Health has never been a guarantee, but Fuller’s speed makes him one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league and worthy of a spot in quite literally any three-WR set across the land.
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster: I’ll take the under on JuJu seeing 128 targets anywhere in 2021. His career-low 8.6 yards per reception reflected the eye test that the man simply wasn’t the same caliber athlete. Of course, injuries might’ve had something to do with it, and there will likely be a few teams interested in paying a handsome sum for the 24-year-old talent.
  • Antonio Brown: Probably earned himself a bit more money elsewhere thanks to his 1) good behavior, and 2) good, albeit not spectacular, play. The artist known as Mr. Big Chest turns 33 in July but can still play after earning PFF’s ninth-highest receiving grade among all receivers with at least 25 targets.
  • Nelson Agholor: The dropping baby meme remains funny, but all Agholor did in 2020 was ball the hell out. One of just 22 receivers to average at least 2.0 yards per route run with a minimum of 50 targets, Agholor has earned a chance to make more money and continue to stretch the field somewhere in 2021.
  • A.J. Green: 33 in July, it’s clear at this point the best years are behind the longtime stud receiver. Still, a low-guarantee and short-term deal should be on the table for a number of receiver-needy teams.
  • Dez Bryant: He caught it. Things didn’t look great with the Ravens, but then again what receiver has looked great with them in recent memory. Regardless, don’t expect anything resembling a featured role for the X-man at this point in his career.
  • T.Y. Hilton: Simply hasn’t been the same receiver without Andrew Luck under center during the course of his career. It’s unlikely we see a team feature the 31-year-old receiver as their primary pass-game option again.
  • Adam Humphries: Was the recipient of an odd bidding war between the Patriots and Titans during the 2019 offseason; don’t be surprised if he’s the starting slot receiver somewhere come September.
  • Danny Amendola: Don’t be surprised if he’s the starting slot receiver somewhere come September.
  • Sammy Watkins: The Week 1 and playoff superstar didn’t live up to his gaudy contract with the Chiefs, but there should be plenty of suitors at a lower price point. The former No. 4 overall pick is somehow just 27 years old.
  • Marvin Jones: Scored nine times in three of his last four seasons and proved fairly capable of operating as his passing game’s undisputed No. 1 option with Kenny Golladay mostly sidelined in 2020. 
  • Breshad Perriman: Has truly been #good with the Browns, Buccaneers and Jets alike over the past three seasons. He’d be a brilliant low-cost signing for the Chiefs to replace Watkins.
  • John Ross: As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.”
  • Kendrick Bourne: Natural fit in the slot with the Jets under ex-49ers assistant-turned OC Mike LaFleur if Jamison Crowder winds up being a cap casualty.
  • Chris Conley: The proud promoter of Club TopShot has the sort of size (6-foot-2 and 213-pounds) and speed (4.35-second 40-yard dash) to continue to earn a job somewhere.
  • Demarcus Robinson: Does the little things right that the Chiefs love; just don’t expect too many targets for the block-first receiver.
  • Josh Reynolds: Couldn’t replicate Brandin Cooks’ field-stretching ability with the Rams and it’s tough to see someone getting more out of him than Sean McVay managed.
  • Tim Patrick: Underrated because of the Broncos’ younger receiver, Patrick regularly made the most of his opportunities in 2020 and is an under-the-radar option to ball out elsewhere with an enhanced role.
  • Zach Pascal: The sort of solid enough receiver that you’ll inevitably overlook only to be shocked that he’s starting ahead of your preferred rookie come Week 1.

Tight end

There were roughly 64 TEs who signed a contract with a new team during the 2016-2020 offseasons. Of course, plenty of those players were brought in to either provide backup depth or competition.

It's honestly easier to just point out the few stories of success than by approaching the group as a whole: Eric Ebron had a great season with Andrew Luck in 2018; Jared Cook did some good things with both the Raiders and Saints over the years; and Ben Watson proved to not be washed just yet during short stints with both the Ravens and Saints.

Other than that, it's a bloodbath. Pretty much every TE to garner a contract worth at least $15 million since 2016 has been a disappointment:

As was the case with QBs, RBs and most WRs: The grass is typically not greener on the other side when free agent TEs switch teams.

Potential 2021 qualifiers

There are a handful of TEs that might be capable of earning something resembling consistent targets somewhere in 2021:

  • Jonnu Smith: Probably the most sought-after free agent from the group, Smith combines freaky athleticism with underrated pure receiving ability. It’d be fun to see what he’s capable of with a healthy season in a pass-first offense.
  • Hunter Henry: The most-complete TE in the class is tentatively expected to re-sign with the Chargers and become a pretty, pretty, pretty rich man.
  • Rob Gronkowski: Mr. two TDs in the Super Bowl clearly isn’t washed just yet, although expecting him to leave Tom Brady seems silly.
  • Jared Cook: Didn’t seem to possess the same sort of seam-stretching ability in 2020, but playing with a noodle-armed QB/borderline TE also could’ve had something to do with that.
  • Tyler Eifert: Has somehow played in 31 of 32 games over the past two seasons; the problem is now that the 30-year-old TE doesn’t look like the same caliber athlete that scored 13 times in 13 games back in 2015.
  • Gerald Everett: Hasn’t been able to fully show what he can do behind Tyler Higbee, this receiver-first TE might just have the highest ceiling 2021 outside of the clear-cut top-two options.
  • Jordan Reed: Briefly looked like a healthy baller in 2020 before the familiar injury bug hit. But you could imagine.
  • Trey Burton: Has pretty much always made the most out of his opportunities with Frank Reich involved.
  • Robert Tonyan: The restricted free agent is fully expected to return to the Packers.
  • Anthony Firkser: Sneaky restricted free agent to watch if Smith ultimately signs elsewhere
  • Mo Alie-Cox: Another restricted free agent. It’s hard to communicate just how big this man looks on the field. Like, 6-foot-4 and 262-pounds can’t be right. The (wait for it) former basketball player would be a key late-round TE option to watch if a team is willing to feature him as *the* guy.
  • Dan Arnold: Another restricted free agent. The man is more of a wide receiver than tight end, which is useful in fantasyland if a team is down with that sort of thing.

Fantasy Featured Tools

  • Sort projected player stats and fantasy points by position, week, and category.

    Available with

    Edge
  • Research past fantasy performance with sortable player stats including PFF-exclusives like aDOT and fantasy points per opportunity.

    Available with

    Edge
  • Create winning NFL Daily Fantasy Sports with PFF’s DFS Lineup Optimizer. Set custom exposures and team stacks to optimize lineups effectively before exporting and uploading the unique lineups to DraftKings, FanDuel or Yahoo DFS.

    Available with

    Elite
  • Available with

    Edge
  • PFF’s Fantasy Strength of Schedule (SoS) metric provides a league-wide, season-long view of opponent matchups for each fantasy position.

    Available with

    Edge
Pro Subscriptions

Unlock NFL Player Grades, Fantasy & NFL Draft

$9.99 / mo
$39.99 / yr

Unlock Premium Stats, PFF Greenline & DFS

$34.99 / mo
$199.99 / yr