Every offseason I stare wide-eyed at our free agency tracker imaging the various scenarios of where the top offensive skill players might land. I will immediately gravitate toward what might be the ideal landing spot for each player. Of course, that doesn’t always happen, and sometimes the reverse is true, like last season when New Orleans signed Adrian Peterson and drafted Alvin Kamara, tanking the dynasty value of Mark Ingram … or so I thought at the time.
In this exercise, I’m shooting for offseason optimism, and looking at what I see as the six most ideal offseason moves for fantasy owners. These might not be the six most likely moves across the offseason (though they’re all plausible) — rather, they’re the six could-happen moves that would be the most exciting for fantasy owners across the landscape.
(Editor’s note: Over the next three weeks, we’ll perform this exercise for every team across the NFL, identifying the three most interesting moves each team could reasonably make, strictly for fantasy purposes. Follow along at the bottom.)
1. Kirk Cousins to the Denver Broncos
Last week, Washington traded for Alex Smith (you can find my analysis on the situation here), essentially ensuring Cousins’ departure. While I’m uncertain whether a move to Denver would be an upgrade for Cousins’ fantasy stock, it will most certainly be an upgrade for two of fantasy’s most dependable wide receivers.
Over the past three seasons, Demaryius Thomas has ranked ninth, 16th, and 16th among wide receivers in fantasy points. Emmanuel Sanders has ranked 18th, 20th, and 59th (the latter coming in only 12 games played). This is despite Denver ranking second-worst in team passer rating (75.8) over this stretch. For perspective, over the same span, Cousins ranks sixth of 39 qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating (97.5).
Cousins will be leaving Jay Gruden, who is well-known for running a quarterback-friendly offense, but Denver appears to at least offer a superior receiving corps to what Cousins was forced to deal with in 2017. Terrelle Pryor suffered an ankle injury in Week 2 and never fully recovered, Chris Thompson played only 10 games, and Jordan Reed played only six games. By the end of the season, his leading receivers were Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson, a 33-year-old Vernon Davis, and Ryan Grant, who eclipsed 300 receiving yards for the first time in his career. In spite of all of this, Cousins still finished fifth among quarterbacks in raw fantasy points.
Drew Brees would also be an ideal (though unlikely) candidate for Denver, after New Orleans adopted a more run-heavy approach in 2017 and Brees dropped by 4.2 fantasy points per game and 7.9 pass attempts per game over his trailing five-year average.
2. Saquon Barkley to the Indianapolis Colts
Barkley was our highest-graded draft-eligible running back this season, and our own Steve Palazzolo is projecting Barkley to be drafted as the first running back off the board (and inside the top 10) in his latest mock draft. Owner Jim Irsay has also hinted at the possibility of drafting Barkley at No. 3 overall. Barkley appears to have all of the makings of a true bell-cow running back (something the Colts have lacked during Andrew Luck’s tenure), ranking 25th in rushing yards and first in receiving yards last season.
Since Luck entered the league, his top-scoring running back has averaged 13.3 fantasy points per game and as a team his running backs have averaged 21.3. For perspective, those numbers would have ranked 18th- and 23rd-best, respectively, this past season. While that doesn’t look especially attractive, those numbers are likely deflated by poor talent at the position – names like 32- to 34-year-old Frank Gore, Trent Richardson, Donald Brown, and end-of-his-career Ahmad Bradshaw have been the team’s primary ball-carriers over that stretch, not exactly a murderer’s row.
What we do know is running back fantasy point totals correlate strongly to team points scored, and Indianapolis averages 25.2 points per game with Luck in the lineup, or what would have ranked ninth-best this past season. If Luck is passed with a clean bill of health, I’d feel confident pushing up Barkley to the near-RB1 range, despite lacking any NFL experience.
3. Jarvis Landry to the Indianapolis Colts
It appears we have a lot riding on the literal shoulders of Andrew Luck. Luck missed all of 2017 with a shoulder injury, but early reports are that he is “very close” to resuming his throwing routine. In 2016 he was our second-highest-graded quarterback. Luck’s health marks the difference between Indianapolis being a fantasy gold mine or a fantasy wasteland.
Landry is an unrestricted free agent and recent contract negotiations have “turned ugly,” at least according to one report. Throughout his career, Landry has run 70.7 percent of his routes from the slot. Since entering the league in 2012, Luck has targeted slot wide receivers on 23.6 percent of his attempts, or sixth-most of 34 qualifying quarterbacks over this span. This had been T.Y. Hilton’s role in recent years (which of course somewhat skews these numbers), but in 2017, Hilton ran just 36.8 percent of his routes from the slot. They also tend to work in different areas of the field – over the past four seasons, Hilton more than doubles Landry's average depth of target (13.3 yards to 6.6).
Landry would give Luck a dependable secondary receiver and underneath option, on what should be one of the league’s best passing attacks. In games Luck has played, the Colts average 278.9 passing yards per game, which would have led the league last season.
4. Dion Lewis to the New York Giants
Last offseason, I highlighted Dalvin Cook as a strong fantasy value due to offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s proclivity to highlight a bell-cow running back within his offense. Among all active play-callers with more than one full year of experience, his RB1s led in weighted opportunity percentage. This season, Cook averaged 19.7 carries and 4.3 targets per four quarters, before leaving in the third quarter of Week 4 with a season-ending ACL injury. After that, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon served in a timeshare, but from Week 5 to the end of the season, both still finished as top-15 fantasy running backs. Over the past two seasons with Ben McAdoo as head coach, Giants running backs scored the eighth-fewest fantasy points of any offense. With Shurmur as head coach and offensive play-caller it’s a good bet we see these numbers turn around in 2018.
There are certainly valid questions whether Lewis can stay healthy or handle a bell-cow workload for a full season, but he’d offer elite upside in this offense if that were to be the case. Over the past three seasons, among all 50 running backs with at least 300 touches, Lewis ranks [takes a deep breath] fourth in fantasy points per snap, third in yards per carry (4.82), sixth in yards after contact per attempt (2.96), and first in missed tackles forced per carry (0.24). Among all 29 running backs with at last 100 targets over this stretch, Lewis ranks 12th in yards per target (6.89), eighth in completion percentage (0.84), and first in missed tackles forced per reception (0.42).
5. Tyler Eifert to the New Orleans Saints
This would be a dream landing spot for fantasy owners if two things go our way:
- Eifert, who has played on only 24 of his team’s last 65 regular-season games, manages to stay healthy.
- The Saints cut Coby Fleener, costing only $4.8M in dead cap.
Prior to Fleener's arrival, the Saints ranked top-six in fantasy points scored by tight ends in seven of eight consecutive seasons. This includes two seasons when Jeremy Shockey led the position in targets. This also includes 2015, when a 35-year-old Ben Watson finished the year as fantasy's No. 7 tight end. Since signing Fleener, they’ve ranked 19th and 32nd.
Eifert, though injury-prone, offers immense upside when on the field. Throughout Eifert's career, Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks (mostly Andy Dalton) average a 123.9 passer rating when targeting him – second only to Rob Gronkowski. In 2015, Eifert led all tight ends in touchdowns per game (1.0) and, remarkably, fantasy points per target even when removing every touchdown from every tight end. He ranked fifth in fantasy points per game that season and second in fantasy points per game in 2016 (when excluding all games played where he failed to eclipse 15 snaps).
6. Sammy Watkins to the Baltimore Ravens
I considered Allen Robinson here instead of Watkins, but it seemed like an unfair and only lateral move sending him from one subpar quarterback to the next. For Watkins, the volume-boost should be enough to make this a more attractive situation.
Watkins ranked fourth on his team in targets in 2017, on a potent but diluted passing attack, ranking 49th at the position in fantasy points per game. His per-target efficiency remained high, however, ranking third at the position (min. 75 targets) in passer rating when targeted (121.9). He’s dealt with multiple injuries throughout his career, but put together a truly historic sophomore season in 2015.
Baltimore has been the league’s most-pass-heavy offense over the past three seasons, and Watkins would easily slide in as the team’s top receiving option. Last season Baltimore failed to post a single wide receiver or tight end grading among the top-50 at their respective positions as a receiver.