Cockcroft: Top 10 NFL faces in new places
Quite an eventful offseason that was, wouldn’t you say?
We had a trio of running backs past their 30th birthdays change teams, with one of them coming out of retirement to do so (Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson, with Lynch the one who “unretired”). We saw the Super Bowl champion beef up its receiving corps (Brandin Cooks) for the mere price of draft picks. We saw a team lose its big-play receiver (DeSean Jackson), only to replace him with another (Terrelle Pryor Sr.). And we saw the league’s leader in rushing touchdowns wait a whopping two months before finding a landing spot (LeGarrette Blount).
In case you missed any of those moves or simply took off a portion of the fantasy football offseason, don’t forget to do your homework catching up on what’s changed in the NFL in terms of player personnel. This column comes in handy particularly for that, whittling down all of the significant offseason transactions into 3,500 words, saving you hours upon hours of research.
They’re ranked by the 10 transactions that affect fantasy the most — and be aware that includes the impact on all players affected by the move, rather than simply upon the player himself. It also addresses, where applicable, the impact on the player’s former team created by his departure.
1. New England Patriots trade for WR Brandin Cooks
Perhaps the offseason’s most-anticipated move, Cooks’ trade to New England gave the perception of a significant shift in fantasy value for a pair of WR1s from a year ago — Cooks himself, and Michael Thomas, now Drew Brees‘ de facto No. 1 target for Cooks’ former team back in New Orleans. In reality, what the trade did was enhance both the statistical ceilings and the repeat prospects of both wide receivers — as well as Cooks’ quarterback, Tom Brady — as both could thrive due to their being excellent fits for their new roles in the offense.
Cooks gives the Patriots a speed element that has been lacking in recent years, and it’s no surprise that owner Bob Kraft therefore compared Cooks’ possible impact to that of Randy Moss. It’s an aggressive prediction for sure, but it underscores the possibility that Cooks could enjoy a bump from his nine (in 2015) and eight (2016) receiving touchdowns from the past two seasons. Thomas, meanwhile, could graduate into a role as a rare “go-to” receiver for Brees, much in the mold of Marques Colston in 2007 — although let’s not overlook that even in that year, Colston scored only 26.5 PPR and 20.5 non-PPR fantasy points more than Thomas did in 2016, while playing one more game in that season than Thomas did last season.
Ultimately, Cooks and Thomas might simply spin their wheels in terms of fantasy production, but the move did strengthen their values, if only because it beat sticking with the status quo. Target share is the challenge: Cooks will battle Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, James White, Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis, Dwayne Allen and a host of others for Brady’s throws. Brees’ 11-year history with the Saints, meanwhile, shows that he rarely ever latches on to one receiver, pushing that individual’s number into league-leader territory. During that time, 150 wide receivers have enjoyed a season of more than 130 targets, and Colston (2007, 144) is the only Saints receiver included.
Draft Cooks and Thomas with confidence — as a midrange WR2 and low-end WR1, respectively — and don’t get overzealous with your projections for either.
2. Oakland Raiders trade for RB Marshawn Lynch, who came out of retirement
You know what they say: The Skittles are always greener on the other side of the fence. After months of rumors that he was reconsidering his March 2016 decision to retire, Lynch made his much-ballyhooed return official, arranging a heavily incentive-laden deal with the Raiders that first necessitated his trade from the Seattle Seahawks. Lynch takes over as the team’s clear starter, but he also does so at the age of 31, in an unusual and unprecedented circumstance. To that point, Ricky Williams is the only other relatively recent comparable example, but he returned from retirement as a 28-year-old in a time-share with Ronnie Brown in 2005 to the tune of 134.6 PPR and 117.6 non-PPR fantasy points, with Williams’ biggest “post-retirement” campaign coming at the age of 32 in 2009 (247.5 and 212.5), one year older than Lynch will be in 2017.
There have been other running backs age 30 and older who have missed the entirety of the preceding NFL campaign and offered quality fantasy production:
Lynch also will be running behind a Raiders offensive line that by all accounts is one of the game’s best and might stake a claim as No. 1, so he’ll get plenty of quality assistance in his comeback
The questions, however, center around how much rust Lynch must shake off after a lengthy absence — especially after an injury-plagued 2015 — and whether his age, historically an obstacle for players at his position, might hamper his comeback. He’ll also probably be minimally involved in the Raiders’ passing game, a negative in an era of PPR-angled fantasy scoring. As much as Lynch’s situation gives the perception of risk/reward, he might truly be a high-floor, low-ceiling RB2.
3. New Orleans Saints sign RB Adrian Peterson
Perception, rather than true value, largely drives the first three moves on the list, as Peterson has been one of the most publicized names in fantasy among running backs during the past decade: In his 10 NFL seasons, he owns six of the 63 seasons of 250-plus PPR fantasy points, six of the 43 seasons of 230-plus non-PPR fantasy points, and four seasons of RB2-or-better production in non-PPR scoring. Unfortunately, Peterson’s is the first move that results in frustration for fantasy owners, as his arrival in New Orleans results in questions about a possible time-share (and, not to mention, leaves another time-share behind him in Minnesota).
Mark Ingram‘s presence in New Orleans might make weekly projections of Saints running back touches challenging, as he’s a slightly less talented rusher — downgrading Peterson only due to his now-32 years of age — but a slightly more talented receiver of the two. An arrangement of Peterson as a two-down back and Ingram on thirds and pass plays shouldn’t be assumed; the two might play rotationally, and that’s before addressing coach Sean Payton’s inexplicable tendency to relegate Ingram to his doghouse at times in 2016. Peterson perhaps has the clearer path to the greater rushing campaign of the two, but in the PPR-heavy fantasy age, Ingram is probably the wiser pick — yet neither seems especially likely to approach his 2015-16 combined fantasy production (Peterson finishing the RB7 in non-PPR, Ingram RB11 in PPR, during that two-year span). “Name value” here is a probable trap.
Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, Peterson’s departure resulted in the selection of Dalvin Cook in the NFL draft and the free-agent addition of ex-Raiders running back Latavius Murray, to add to incumbent Jerick McKinnon (himself likely now third on the depth chart). Though Cook is the most intriguing for fantasy purposes, the queue will result in groans about time-shares from prospective owners.
4. Philadelphia Eagles sign RB LeGarrette Blount
Strangely, the highest-scoring player in non-PPR leagues from 2016 who changed teams during the offseason — and the seventh-best scorer in those formats among all running backs — lingered on the free-agent market for two months longer than most of the other names on this list. The Eagles, who were running back starved exiting the NFL draft, scored a potential coup, inking Blount to a one-year deal on May 17. He fills a gaping hole for the team as its obvious early-down and goal-line back; Darren Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey appear ticketed for passing downs and minimal rushing work. Wendell Smallwood is more of a change-of-pace option, and Ryan Mathews might not even break camp with the team.
Again, though, the “time-share” label reappears, as Blount is a distant long shot to repeat 2016’s 299 rushing attempts or 12 touchdowns on 24 carries inside the opponent’s three-yard line (the 24 carries was the most by any player this century). His numbers will surely regress, perhaps within range of his 2011, 2013 or 2015, but he also is more likely to cut into the other backs’ opportunities more than Mathews did in 2016.
Even more frustrating: Blount’s departure from New England significantly clouds the Patriots’ backfield, and let’s not forget how little forthcoming coach Bill Belichick is with his plans. Anyone care to guess which from Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis or James White will have the best fantasy season? Grab your dart board …
5. Washington Redskins sign WR Terrelle Pryor Sr.
Pryor’s transformation into a star-caliber NFL wide receiver became complete in 2016: He finished 20th in PPR fantasy scoring (213.4), 18th in non-PPR (136.4), exceeded 1,000 yards receiving and had 11 plays of 20-plus receiving yards and four of 40-plus receiving yards. What’s more, he did so for a Cleveland Browns team that finished 30th in Total QBR. Now with the Redskins, Pryor slides into the perimeter/deep threat role vacated by DeSean Jackson’s departure, and the contrast going from the Browns’ to the Redskins’ offense couldn’t be much greater: The Redskins finished sixth in Total QBR, while completing 69 more passes and throwing for 10 more touchdowns than the Browns in 2016. What’s more, the Redskins excelled in the vertical passing game, which suits Pryor’s skill set nicely, finishing second in completion percentage (54.9), first in passing yards (1,925) and third in touchdowns (12) on throws that traveled 15-plus yards downfield.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers sign WR DeSean Jackson
That’s not to knock Jackson’s landing spot. He moves into what’s developing into a loaded passing offense helmed by Jameis Winston, giving the third-year quarterback a speedy deep threat. Between Jackson, Mike Evans, Adam Humphries, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, the Buccaneers’ passing offense stands good odds of ranking among the best in the game in 2017, news that probably suits Winston best. Jackson’s arrival might pay greater dividends for his quarterback — and to a lesser degree, the other receivers — thanks to his ability to stretch the field and keep opposing defenses honest. From 2014 to 2016, Jackson’s 54 percent catch rate on throws of at least 15 yards downfield ranked 14th among 125 receivers with 30-plus such targets, and his 11 touchdowns on said throws tied for 10th. His fantasy value might fit the “spinning wheels” description, but Winston’s ceiling is absolutely in the QB1 conversation.
7. Seattle Seahawks sign RB Eddie Lacy
Now here’s a head-scratcher. Just two years after Thomas Rawls broke through with a 127.6-point PPR campaign that made it seem like he would inherit the throne from the aforementioned Lynch, and one year after the Seahawks spent three of their 10 draft-day selections on running backs, two of whom (Alex Collins and C.J. Prosise) remain on the roster, the team added Lacy — an extreme disappointment for the Green Bay Packers in each of the past two seasons — to the mix. Queue: Running back by committee? Lacy’s weight — a primary cause of his poor 2015 and 2016 numbers — is reportedly not an issue, according to coach Pete Carroll in advance of training camp, but Lacy provides the team no greater guarantee of production than the team’s alternatives. What’s more, his arrival clouds Rawls’ role, though it does have one benefit: It makes it pretty clear that Prosise will be the team’s passing-down back and a good PPR flex-tier pick.
8. San Francisco 49ers sign WR Pierre Garcon
One of the most sure-handed receivers in the game, Garcon’s move west was one of the sneaky-good ones of the offseason. Though the 49ers’ offense around him is in flux, he’ll provide a reliable, go-to target for whomever the quarterback is, be it Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley or “other.” Garcon caught 71 percent of his 111 targets, while committing only one drop in 2016. The primary knock on him in fantasy terms was a lack of touchdown production, which last season was as much a product of bad luck as his role. In San Francisco, Garcon might get more looks in scoring position, and he’s highly likely to lead the team in target share, considering the alternatives on the roster. The result might be a mere WR3, but he might come even more cheaply than that.
9. Philadelphia Eagles sign WR Alshon Jeffery
The Eagles invested quite a chunk of change in Jeffery and Torrey Smith this offseason and with good reason; The team got just 1,849 yards, eight touchdowns and 92 first downs out of its 2016 wide receivers, all of those ranking in the bottom two in the league. Though Smith’s arrival also helps, Jeffery’s transaction is the one that made greater waves, as it provided second-year quarterback Carson Wentz a go-to option in the passing game. Jeffery’s injury history is a concern — he has missed 13 games combined due to injury in his five-year career and played at noticeably less than 100 percent in several others — but he’s a target hound, ranking 13th among wide receivers in the category (477) over the past four seasons combined, with 63 of them end zone targets (seventh-best). Expect much improvement from Wentz, who could be a reliable midrange QB2, and WR2 production from Jeffery.
10. Baltimore Ravens sign RB Danny Woodhead
There have been only nine instances of a running back catching at least 75 passes in any of the past five seasons, and Woodhead had two of them (2013 and 2015), despite being fully healthy for only three of those five campaigns. He is a welcome addition on passing downs for the Ravens, a team that targeted running backs the second most often in the league in 2016. In PPR leagues, Woodhead should get enough looks to warrant flex status, but his arrival in Baltimore somewhat clouds the value of Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon and, to a lesser degree, Javorius “Buck” Allen.
More moves of note
Listed in alphabetical order below are some of the offseason’s other notable team switchers — those who failed to earn a place in the top 10 but could still be significant.
New England Patriots trade for TE Dwayne Allen: Though he’ll slide into Martellus Bennett‘s vacated spot as the No. 2 option behind injury-prone Rob Gronkowski, Allen isn’t the healthiest fella himself, having missed 23 games combined over the past four seasons. Allen could be a touchdown-dependent option with greater appeal during Gronkowski’s absences, but this move was actually much better news for the tight end left behind in Indianapolis, Jack Doyle, who should see many more targets. Doyle has the much better chance at borderline TE1 production.
Green Bay Packers sign TE Martellus Bennett: Last season’s TE10 in PPR formats despite playing a noticeably lesser percentage of his team’s snaps than in preceding years, Bennett lands in a dream situation in a pass-heavy offense, even if he’ll likely only wind up as Aaron Rodgers‘ No. 4 target. Bennett might have his frustrating weeks, but he’s a fringe TE1 in Green Bay.
Cleveland Browns sign WR Kenny Britt: He posted a remarkably good fantasy season for a player on such a weak offensive team, but Britt also scored 40 percent of his PPR points for the season in the four games in which he had a touchdown. Though he’ll likely start in Cleveland, he’s not in a much better situation for his fantasy prospects and should be used only as the matchups dictate.
Denver Broncos sign RB Jamaal Charles: Injuries have held him to a combined eight games during the past two seasons, and he’s now 30 years old, so the odds of Charles recapturing past glory are long. The two backs likely ahead of him, C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker, aren’t insurmountable obstacles, but Charles has a lot to prove before becoming more than a late-round fantasy flier.
Oakland Raiders sign TE Jared Cook: If you’ve owned Cook in fantasy, you know how frustratingly inconsistent he can be. Oakland might be a relatively good landing spot for his fantasy prospects, but he’s a weekly risk/reward, low-end TE2.
New England Patriots sign RB Mike Gillislee: One of the better per-play fantasy running backs of 2016, Gillislee steps into a dream situation as the Patriots’ leading candidate to be their early-down and goal-line back — assuming coach Bill Belichick doesn’t employ the kind of maddening rotation he has in the past. Gillislee is quite the risk/reward pick in his new surroundings.
New Orleans Saints sign WR Ted Ginn Jr.: He enjoyed quite a career rebirth in Carolina, and now he moves to a volume-rich passing offense where he’d have a difficult time not at least repeating his 94 targets of each of the past two seasons. Ginn could be a flex-tier matchups play and isn’t bad depth to get in the late rounds of your draft.
Chicago Bears sign QB Mike Glennon: He had more matchups appeal — and more so in 15-plus-team or two-quarterback leagues at that — before the Bears subsequently traded up to draft Mitchell Trubisky. Glennon is seemingly more of a placeholder until Trubisky is deemed ready, which could happen in September, December or 2018.
Buffalo Bills sign WR Andre Holmes: The Bills’ receiver depth is precariously thin, so Holmes at worst should begin the season third in their pecking order, and the top man, Sammy Watkins, has an injury rep. Holmes could be a worthwhile late-round flier if he has a strong training camp.
San Francisco 49ers sign QB Brian Hoyer: He’s reunited with coach Kyle Shanahan, with whom he worked in 2014 in Cleveland, and will almost assuredly be the team’s starter come Week 1. Hoyer has been known to drop the occasional big fantasy game on an unsuspecting defense, but his typically erratic play makes him a low-end matchups play in two-quarterback leagues.
Baltimore Ravens sign WR Jeremy Maclin: This was a heck of a late-offseason pickup by the Ravens, who needed the wide receiver depth and got a player who is just three years removed from a 276.8 PPR fantasy-point season. Maclin should be a weekly starter for the team and his fantasy owners, and it’s not unthinkable he could lead his new team in fantasy points.
New York Giants sign WR Brandon Marshall: Between the additions of Marshall and Evan Engram, Eli Manning has a heck of a lot of weapons at his disposal entering the 2017 season. Marshall will surely see plenty of time working in three-receiver sets with the Giants, but his target total can’t possibly approach the 172 he had in 2015, and it much more likely will be around or less than his 125 in 2016. He’s a dangerous pick because his name value might push him higher on draft boards than his true value as a WR3/4.
New York Jets sign QB Josh McCown: Though the Jets claim to have a training-camp quarterback competition, McCown looks like the early favorite to run away with the gig. He has a much weaker receiver corps than his predecessors, however, and is merely matchups material in deeper leagues.
Minnesota Vikings sign RB Latavius Murray: He seemingly would have fit as the team’s early-down and goal-line back, before the Vikings also added Dalvin Cook in the draft. Murray, who underwent ankle surgery shortly after signing, might now wind up a backup and/or change-of-pace back to begin the season. He’s late-round fodder, barring an eye-opening training camp.
Philadelphia Eagles sign WR Torrey Smith: As mentioned above, Smith is another piece that significantly upgrades the precariously weak receiving corps that Carson Wentz had at his disposal in 2016. Smith might not put up the kind of consistent numbers that Jeffery could, but he’s a quality deep threat who could post useful fantasy scores, especially against more porous defenses.
Miami Dolphins trade for TE Julius Thomas: The Dolphins have spent the offseason raving about Thomas’ fit in their offense and, like their options at tight end before him, have nothing but optimistic projections for him. His injury track record as well as the team’s disappointing recent history with tight ends, however, cannot be ignored. Thomas is a “prove it” late-round tight end.
Chicago Bears sign WR Markus Wheaton: Injuries and inconsistency plagued Wheaton during his years in Pittsburgh, and the reality is that he’s not much more guaranteed a starting job with his new team than with his old team. He would need to open some eyes in training camp to be more than late-round bench/matchups fodder.
Los Angeles Rams sign WR Robert Woods: Don’t read too much into his five-year, $39-million contract; the best thing that can be said for it is that it will assure him a prominent role in the Rams’ offense. He offers little hint of a breakthrough despite that arrangement, however, due to his small size, injury history and lack of production in the red zone. Consider Woods mere bench depth.
Editor’s note: Eric Decker’s outlook with the Tennessee Titans will be added to this column soon. He agreed to terms with the team soon after this column was originally published.