News & Analysis

Metrics that Matter: How do free agents fare after switching teams?

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 6: Sammy Watkins #14 of the Buffalo Bills catches a touchdown pass against the Houston Texans during NFL game action at Ralph Wilson Stadium on December 6, 2015 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

(Metrics that Matter is a regular offseason feature that examines some aspect of fantasy through a microscope to dive into the finer details.)

In an article from several months ago, I wrote, when speaking of Terrelle Pryor’s struggles in Washington, “Wide receivers who change teams in free agency tend to be overvalued in fantasy drafts. (Expect an in-depth study from me on this in the offseason.)”

In 2016, Pryor ranked 21st among wide receivers in fantasy points, despite catching passes from a committee that consisted of Cody KesslerJosh McCown, Robert Griffin III, Kevin Hogan, and Charlie Whitehurst. After signing with the Redskins in the offseason, fantasy analysts catapulted Pryor up their rankings, assuming the better quarterback situation would result in more fantasy points. Instead, Pryor went from averaging 13.3 fantasy points per game in 2016 to 5.6 fantasy points per game with Washington in 2017. There were a few reasons for this, including injury, but mainly, it supports a theory I’ve held for some time — fantasy analysts are typically too high on wide receivers changing teams in free agency or via trade.

Why is this the case? I’m not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with quarterback chemistry and adjusting to new schemes. Is this the case? Well, Rich Hribar certainly found this to be true.

In an effort to determine how changing teams impacts a player for fantasy, I decided to mirror Hribar’s methodology and run it across all positions to see if the wide receiver position had an especially low hit rate.

Looking back at all players (within a certain ADP threshold) since 2010, here’s what I found:

Quarterbacks

Among all 11 quarterbacks (since 2010) who changed teams and still ranked top-24 in ADP that year, only Peyton Manning (2012), Alex Smith (2013), and Tyrod Taylor (2015) beat their ADPs in that year. Manning was coming off of a year-long absence in the NFL thanks to a very serious neck injury, Smith had just lost his starting job in San Francisco, and Taylor had never started a game in the NFL. The implication here is that it might only be worth targeting a quarterback on a new team only if public sentiment is already fairly low. The other trend is that none of these quarterbacks had an ADP rank within the top-10 at their position.

Although top quarterbacks rarely changed teams in previous seasons, that’s hardly the case this year with Kirk Cousins (ADP QB10), Alex Smith (ADP QB23), Case Keenum (ADP QB33), and Sam Bradford (ADP undrafted) having already changed teams. I’ve already written of my disdain for Smith’s landing spot here, but his ADP is so far out of line with his prior year fantasy finish (third at the position in fantasy points per game), that he may prove to be a strong value in Jay Gruden’s quarterback-friendly offense. In the case of Cousins, Jeff Ratcliffe already explained why we should be optimistic Cousins can at least match last year’s production, and I agree. Although changing schemes should always be a concern, he gets a massive upgrade in receiving talent by moving to Minnesota.

Running backs

Among all 35 running backs (since 2010) who changed teams and still ranked top-36 in ADP that year, only six would go on to beat their ADP, while only 12 of the 31 (who stayed healthy that year) would improve in fantasy points per game. If this seems like an extremely low hit rate, that’s because it is, but I’m not entirely sure what’s causing it. Are teams forcing running backs into a scheme that doesn’t suit their talents? Are running backs underperforming solely because of the bigger contract? Are teams signing running backs after massive workloads in the previous season, and the wear and tear impacted their performance in the following season? In any case, this doesn’t seem to give us much cause for optimism regarding the running backs who have already changed teams in Dion Lewis (ADP RB33), Isaiah Crowell (ADP 39), and Jonathan Stewart (ADP RB52). Though I will say it’s much easier for a player to be a bust than to beat ADP, and I suspect that might be truer at the running back position than at any other position. (Expect an article on this later in the offseason.)

Wide receivers

Running contrary to my initial thesis within this article, wide receivers had the highest hit rate at beating ADP among all positions (35 percent), but they also had the lowest hit rate in terms of improving in fantasy-point-per-game average (31 percent). The implication here is that maybe fantasy drafters already had tempered expectations for wide receivers heading into a fantasy season, but, clearly, rightfully so. This season, I’ll be on the lookout for wide receivers who saw very little (or negative) movement in ADP following an offseason team change, but while keeping in mind their chances of improving in fantasy points per game is still very low. Obviously, this has a direct impact on wide receivers Jarvis Landry (ADP WR12), Jordy Nelson (ADP WR19), Allen Robinson (ADP WR24), Sammy Watkins (ADP WR32), Danny Amendola (ADP WR70), Paul Richardson (ADP WR76), Albert Wilson (ADP undrafted), and Ryan Grant (ADP undrafted).

Tight ends

Among all 15 tight ends (since 2010) who changed teams and still ranked top-24 in ADP that year, none would go on to beat their ADP. Of course, in fantasy football it’s much easier to bust than exceed expectations, but a bust rate this low should have us legitimately cautious regarding tight ends moving teams. Looking at our sample of 15 tight ends, seven at least matched their fantasy point per game totals from the previous year, so it appears the issue is more about excessive optimism from fantasy drafters than mere production concerns. Jimmy Graham (ADP TE6) and Trey Burton (ADP undrafted) have already switched teams, and notable names in Tyler Eifert (ADP TE12) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ADP TE18) might be on the move as well.

I think we need to be extremely cautious if any of these tight ends see a massive ADP bump after changing teams. Take for instance Jimmy Graham. Graham ranked eighth in fantasy points per game (10.5), despite ranking 20th in yards per game (32.5), thanks to massive involvement near the end zone. Graham ranked first or second among all receivers in targets inside the 5-, 10-, and 20-yard lines, and in end-zone targets. Absurdly he saw 14 targets inside the 5-yard line, while the third-closest player only saw five. The move to Green Bay can complicate our analysis a few different ways. Will he be used as extensively near the end zone in 2018? Will he be asked to block more in 2018? Graham pass-blocked on only 5.7 percent of his offensive plays last season, which was far less than what Green Bay asked from Martellus Bennett last season (11.0 percent). Can Graham be Green Bay’s first productive tight end in the Aaron Rodgers era? Only twice of the past 11 seasons has a Green Bay tight end posted top-10 numbers at the position. Although fantasy drafters will sit wide-eyed and drooling imagining the prospects of Graham with future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers (and without Jordy Nelson), the data suggests we should be far more skeptical, and I am.

For a thorough analysis on all individual players changing teams, check out our free agency landing page here.

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