Free agency not only helps a football player’s financial situation, but in many cases it also helps his fantasy value.
Fantasy football unwritten rule No. 413: A player’s fantasy value usually goes up when he changes NFL teams. This is because he will normally be given a larger role and more scoring opportunities than he had with his former team.
While this logic might not always hold true—Sidney Rice and Santonio Holmes owners can attest to that—more times than not it does. Chicago’s Brandon Marshall, Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson, San Diego’s Danario Alexander and Houston’s Shayne Graham are prime examples of players who switched teams in 2012 and watched their fantasy values skyrocket like Jim Harbaugh’s blood pressure after a blown call.
Free agents have been signing multimillion dollar deals with teams like crazy since March 12, so here are four NFL players whose fantasy values are soaring after free agency:
Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons (RB)
Jackson should be applauded and lauded for rushing for 1,000 yards for eight consecutive seasons with the St. Louis Rams, especially when many of those teams had lackluster lines blocking for him and weak passing attacks, allowing defenses to stack eight players in the box against him.
Jackson will not have to worry about the latter anymore, that’s for sure. With Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez keeping safeties from creeping toward the line of scrimmage, Jackson should enjoy less attention from defenses and more running room.
Jackson should also see his touchdown totals increase in Atlanta. After only scoring 20 times over the past four seasons, Jackson will receive as many scoring opportunities as Ryan Gosling this year thanks to Atlanta’s high-powered offense constantly getting inside the red zone.
The departed Michael Turner rushed for 59 touchdowns between 2008 and 2012. Someone has to pick up that scoring slack down by the goal line, and it won’t be scatback Jacquizz Rodgers. Jackson will be called upon for those one-yard dives and two-yard plunges.
Jackson should rush for 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns without much difficulty, along with adding 200-300 receiving yards. If Father Time does not subtract a step from his speed, Jackson could have his best fantasy season since 2006.
Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams (TE)
I just went on about how Jackson’s fantasy value will improve now that he has left St. Louis. Now it is my turn to say how Cook’s fantasy value will improve because he has joined St. Louis. Fantasy football is a funny game.
Not many tight ends were as misused as Cook was by the Tennessee Titans. For a guy with a 6'5", 248-pound frame who can run as fast as many wide receivers, Cook was a figment of everyone’s imaginations on too many Sundays last season.
Cook’s 44 receptions for 523 yards did fantasy owners no favors. Tennessee’s plan of watching Chris Johnson fall down for one-yard gains and having its mediocre quarterbacks throw to their mediocre receivers while Cook watched helplessly was ridiculous.
Cook was not paid $35 million over five years by St. Louis to block, be a decoy and flex his muscles. The Rams will do anything and everything to integrate him into their passing attack. They have been lacking for talent at receiver and tight end since the Kurt Warner years, and Cook has all the physical tools to be a beast.
Because St. Louis is not New England and quarterback Sam Bradford is not Tom Brady, you have to temper your projections for Cook a bit. But with Cook finally being a top target in an offense, you have to think a career year is coming. I would pencil him in for 800 yards and seven touchdowns.
Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins (WR)
How can signing himself away from Ben Roethlisberger be a boon to Wallace’s fantasy worth? Because Wallace will be 100 times happier than he was last season, and happy receivers normally make their fantasy owners happy. That is fantasy football unwritten rule No. 499.
Between his year-long contract squabble with the Pittsburgh Steelers and an offense that was suddenly more worried about running the ball and spreading out short passes to several receivers instead of throwing deep to him, Wallace’s 2012 season was very Malcom Floyd-like.
Wallace finished with just 836 receiving yards after racking up 1,257 in 2010 and 1,193 in 2011. And having Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich throwing at his feet for a couple of games did not help his numbers, either.
Wallace runs fly patterns and go routes as well as Bo and Luke Duke evade the police in high-speed chases. Sure, he can catch wide-receiver screens and slants when he has to keep cornerbacks honest, but Wallace’s bread and butter is running under 50-yard rainbows and turning them into touchdowns.
Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill can throw long, and head coach Joe Philbin knows a thing or two about designing pass attacks from his Green Bay days, so Wallace being the top target should translate into 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, which was what he was putting up when all was right in Pittsburgh.
Look for Wallace to sprint back into fantasy football’s top 15 at wide receiver as long as Tannehill is not tackled by the sophomore jinx and regresses. Wallace has too much speed and talent to just be an 800-yard WR two years in a row.
Dustin Keller, Miami Dolphins (TE)
You do not need Bill Polian to spell this one out on ESPN for you. Keller goes from being the top tight end in an inept New York Jets offense with an inept Mark Sanchez throwing over him to being the top tight end on a quickly improving Miami offense with the exciting Tannehill throwing to him.
Keller’s 2012 numbers should be thrown out with the Sunday trash. Injuries and Sanchez ruined his entire season and forced him into a career-low 28 receptions for 317 yards and two touchdowns. Calvin Johnson probably did that over six quarters.
But Keller only suited up for eight games, so if you double his stats for what would amount to a full season, his numbers fall in line with what he has done throughout his career. And just in 2011, he had the best statistical season of his career with 65 receptions for 815 yards and five touchdowns.
Keller should return to his normal output in Miami. The Dolphins will definitely be upping their pass attempts now that Wallace, Keller and Brandon Gibson are in town, and because Reggie Bush is no longer around to hand off to, 700 yards and five TDs sound about right for Keller.