Biggest Fantasy Football Winners of 2014 NFL Free Agency
Pee wee football players take note: The big money this NFL offseason went to the defensive players. You build an offense for show, but defense is for the dough, particularly when it came to free agency this spring.
Call it the copycat effect from the Seattle Seahawks' defensive-led Super Bowl victory over the high-powered Denver Broncos, if you will, but teams apparently bought into the notion defense wins championships.
Darrelle Revis, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis and Jairus Byrd got the biggest money deals on the open market. The only offensive skill position players to come close, Eric Decker and DeSean Jackson, had to sign for less than expected. Heck, D-Jack is coming off a career year at age 27 and had to take a pay cut. Prime-aged Knowshon Moreno, 26, was disrespected off a career year, too.
Offensive fantasy football players felt this harsh winter more than most.
The Carolina Panthers are one significant example of putting their money in the defensive basket, re-signing defensive end Greg Hardy to a $13.116 million franchise-tag tender and watching four wide receivers go—Steve Smith, Ted Ginn, Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon.
DeAngelo Williams, a past-his prime, 31-year-old running back—a dinosaur by fantasy football standards—said his fantasy value is through the roof on the NFL Network's NFL AM show last week, as The Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person writes:
I joked with people that my fantasy value went up after we got rid of our four receivers, but it's the truth. I went from probably being drafted in the fifth and sixth round to being in the first round—me and Jonathan (Stewart) alike because we have no receivers.
That is pure hyperbole. No one would draft a 31-year-old back in Round 1 next August. But we did find some fantasy options who should get a realistic fantasy—not a contradiction of terms in our game—bump.
This slideshow presents the top 10 biggest fantasy winners of 2014 free agency. And, no, the Panthers' Williams didn't make the cut, but two defensive units did.
RB Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos Montee Ball is arguably the biggest winner of free agency, doing nothing but watch Knowshon Moreno take a modest one-year contract with the Miami Dolphins.
NFL insider Adam Schefter tweeted at the end of March: "Broncos believe in RB Montee Ball. With Knowshon Moreno off to Miami, Ball's time to shine."
Ball is now expected to assume the feature-back role in a record-setting offense that figures to need to lean more heavily on the running game as Peyton Manning, 38, approaches retirement age. Ball will have the opportunity that allowed Moreno to rush for a career-high 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns, adding another 60 receptions for 548 yards and three scores.
The Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams might not have become a fantasy first-rounder after free agency, but the Broncos' Ball might have, as NFL.com's Michael Fabiano—a cube neighbor of mine from my CBS Sports fantasy days—argues here.
Regardless of whether you have to pick Ball in Round 1, you are going to get first-round production out of him. He should thank goodness the Denver Broncos led the way in spending their offseason dough on defense.
D/ST Denver Broncos
Just follow the money. It talks, while the...ahem...bull droppings walk.
No one is going to put a premium on defense in fantasy football drafts, but you need to raise the Denver Broncos defense/special teams unit up to elite status among them. The borderline backup unit a year ago, per FFToday.com's scoring system, added a cover corner in Aqib Talib, a run-stuffing safety in T.J. Ward and a potentially elite pash-rusher in DeMarcus Ware.
Those are arguably the three biggest additions at those positions this winter, and they all joined forces in one place with Denver. You won't draft the Broncos before the Seattle Seahawks, but you can make a case that they are now in fantasy as good or a mere tick behind the San Francisco 49ers. Regardless, the Broncos are a consensus top-three D/ST unit in drafts.
WR Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
You can debate what player's name we put in the headline of this slide, but you shouldn't question the team. The Indianapolis Colts are going to be an offensive juggernaut, regardless of whether Trent Richardson ever amounts to anything more than a backup in fantasy football there.
The addition of former 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown wide receiver Hakeem Nicks—not to mention a return from reconstructive knee surgery by Reggie Wayne—can make this the most explosive offense east of Denver.
You also need to add in a return to health from in-line tight end Dwayne Allen (hip) and expected strides to be made by young receivers T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers. The Colts won't even need a running game, although a T-Rich emergence could help, while Vick Ballard (knee), Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) return from their own season-ending injuries.
But the change from free agency is Nicks, so he gets the headline for the Colts here. He was a featured part of my story Monday on one-year, "prove-it" deals, where we rehashed Chuck Pagano telling Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star:
There's only one football. When you have great competitors and great players like we have, they all want the rock at the same time. They all certainly know you only have one football. It's a great situation that we have getting those guys back, getting Dwayne (Allen) back, Ahmad (Bradshaw), Vick (Ballard), Reggie (Wayne) and then adding Hakeem. It's a great situation. ...
... (Nicks has) big, big hands, can make huge plays, physical guy. Everybody is going to get up in your face and play bump and run and make it hard for you to get off the line of scrimmage. He gives you a big physical presence. He'll do a great job against press coverage.
Nicks didn't score a touchdown a year ago. We wouldn't rule out him scoring 12-15 with Andrew Luck in that high-powered offense. Nicks is going to be a popular target in the middle rounds after fantasy teams have their starting running backs squared away.
WR Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
Credit Julian Edelman for making the wisest decision of all this offseason, fantasy-wise: He chose to not leave Tom Brady's side.
With a backup receiver in Brandon LaFell the Patriots' lone offensive addition in free agency, retaining Edelman has to go down as a welcome move for fantasy owners. After all, Edelman became the next Wes Welker that Danny Amendola was supposed to be, reeling in a career-high 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns.
With Rob Gronkowski coming off knee reconstruction, Edelman found his best move this offseason was to not move anywhere. Fantasy owners will thank him for that. By staying put, he remains a top-25 fantasy wideout—perhaps a No. 1 in points-per-reception (PPR) formats.
Edelman would have been a fantasy reserve anywhere else.
D/ST New England Patriots
And, because we cannot ignore the money spent on defense this offseason, we turn to the New England Patriots defense/special teams. It was a top-12 unit a year ago, but the addition of arguably the No. 1 player of all in free agency, shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis, figures to raise it to top-eight, if not top-five, status.
Revis is (still) that good.
His presence will not only take away the opposing team's No. 1 receiving threat, but it will also help the pass rush get after the quarterback, which will lead to more turnovers, even if Revis doesn't record a single interception next season. Perhaps equally important, Revis' addition showed a guy like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork the Pats were serious about spending their resources on defense.
Wilfork's return via contract extension and comeback from a torn Achilles tendon will help a run defense that slipped to a woeful 30th in the NFL last year. This is a sure-fire starting fantasy unit now, even if you won't consider picking it until the 10th round in drafts.
RB Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars
After four slides of defenses and wide receivers, we have to go back to the running backs, because that is where the fantasy bones are made—even if the NFL is treating the position worse than its equipment people, as NFL insider Adam Schefter famously tweeted this winter.
The Jacksonville Jaguars allowed aging and injury-prone Maurice Jones-Drew to walk, turning to former Minnesota Viking and Adrian Peterson caddie Toby Gerhart. Gerhart might not wind up as the Jags starter come Week 1—because starting running backs can be found in Round 5 of the NFL draft—but he looks like the best thing going for Jacksonville right now.
Gerhart is smack dab in his prime right now at age 27—roughly the fantasy peak for running backs as Brandon Pilzner (@Bpilzner) displayed via Twitter—and has had limited wear and tear as Peterson's backup for four seasons.
Head coach Gus Bradley told The Florida Times-Union's Hays Carlyon about Gerhart:
He seems like a guy that the more he handles the ball the stronger he gets. He'll pop one. He can make people miss. He has a toughness you can count on, can catch the ball and he's great on third downs. He's going to have a great opportunity.
Until the Jags draft a potential game-breaking running back...if they do...consider Gerhart a viable sleeper among running backs on opportunity alone.
After all, Gerhart did net the biggest deal among free-agent running backs this offseason, according to OvertheCap.com. You don't tend to give three-year, $10.5 million ($4.5 million guaranteed) contracts to running backs who are going to be mere backups.
RB Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns
Like the Jacksonville Jaguars' Toby Gerhart, Ben Tate looks to step off the bench as a career caddie (behind Arian Foster) to start for the Cleveland Browns.
You have to consider Tate a fantasy sleeper for projected role alone.
Sure, the Browns might consider drafting a young feature back like Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, but again, follow the money. Tate netted a two-year, $6.2 million deal, per OvertheCap.com.
Starting running backs coming off 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown seasons, a career year at a prime age like 26 (Knowshon Moreno), don't earn that kind of money in this modern-day NFL. You have to figure Tate, 25, didn't get more money than Moreno to be a backup out of the gate.
Consider Tate at least a top-25 fantasy running back right now, if not a top 20.
RB Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
Blame the Giants offensive woes on the aging, banged-up offensive line. Blame it on Eli Manning and his interceptions. Or the nonchalance of wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle.
Retired offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told me at a Glazier Clinic in Boston this February, the problem was at running back. David Wilson proved incapable of being a feature back and Andre Brown could not stay healthy.
It put too much onus on the passing game and left Manning a sitting duck in pass protection. Rashad Jennings should help change that. He brings a career 4.3 yards-per-carry average, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, and a physical running style to the Giants offense, something it has lacked.
Again, Wilson could return from his career-threatening neck injury to steal carries and fantasy production, or the Giants might consider drafting another young, physical back in the middle rounds. But for now, Jennings is their workhorse and a fantasy sleeper.
WR Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
Wide receiver Golden Tate didn't draw the biggest free-agent dollars at his position this offseason. Eric Decker (five years, $36.25 million, per OvertheCap.com) and DeSean Jackson (four years, $32 million, per Spotrac.com) did.
Neither of those receivers get the passing-offense upgrade Tate gets with his move from the Seattle Seahawks (26th ranked) to the Detroit Lions (No. 3). Decker goes from No. 1 (Denver Broncos) to No. 31 (New York Jets). Even Jackson is downgraded from No. 9 (Philadelphia Eagles) to No. 16 (Washington Redskins).
No, no one will draft Tate before Jackson or Decker, but the hype might be lost a bit in the reality of their situations. Tate now is going to be a No. 2 receiver in a prolific pass-heavy offense. It can mean 70-plus catches, 1,000-plus yards and eight-plus touchdowns for the first time in his career.
He is a sure-fire top-25 wide receiver on draft boards now. Those numbers would make him a top 15 in terms of actual production because of his new surroundings.
QB Josh McCown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Our final slide came down to a tight end or a quarterback. We couldn't completely ignore those positions, even if they weren't kind to them in free agency.
We give quarterback Josh McCown the 10th and final nod in this slideshow, because he goes from career backup to a potential Week 1 starter for the first time in his career. After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed the former Chicago Bear, new head coach Lovie Smith told reporters McCown is his quarterback, according to a tweet by Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times.
We wouldn't advise drafting McCown in most fantasy leagues—like we would Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who becomes Cam Newton's leading (only?) target in the passing game—but McCown does have a deep threat in Vincent Jackson and a potential first-round-caliber fantasy running back in Doug Martin to work with.
McCown is going to have some weeks where he performs among the viable fantasy starters, so consider him a bye-week replacement option in season.
It is a telling aspect of how 2014 NFL free agency played out this offseason, with so much emphasis on defense, that we can list a mere bye-week replacement quarterback among the 10 biggest fantasy football winners.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.