Fantasy Winners and Losers from the First Week of 2018 NFL Free Agency

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 19, 2018

Fantasy Winners and Losers from the First Week of 2018 NFL Free Agency

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    With free agency in full swing across the NFL as the 2018 draft draws closer, people across the country are getting the fantasy football itch. 

    For those who play in dynasty formats where rosters roll over from year to year, there is no offseason. Team owners are constantly wheeling and dealing in an effort to either stay on top or get back into playoff contention.

    Even if you won't be selecting a redraft squad until the summer, it's wise to stay on top of player movement and the impact it has on fantasy value. Knowing which players are trending in what direction can give you a decided edge over the competition.

    With that in mind, here's a look at a handful of players who have seen their value change since the opening of free agency. Some have new homes. Others new teammates. Some are moving on up. Others are sliding down.

    All are names worth knowing.

WINNER: Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    This one comes with a caveat.

    It's possible the San Francisco 49ers will use an early draft pick on a running back. Depending on who that back is and when he's drafted, some of the fantasy shine could get knocked off Jerick McKinnon's move to Santa Clara.

    But right now, there isn't a player in the NFL whose value has spiked more after the first week of free agency than the 25-year-old tailback.

    The 49ers opened some eyes when they signed McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract. He has never rushed for even 600 yards in a season and averaged 3.8 yards a carry in 2017 with the Minnesota Vikings. But McKinnon got paid because he opened the eyes of Kyle Shanahan, as the 49ers head coach told reporters.

    "There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do," Shanahan said. "Even though there wasn't a ton of it, you've still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. And whenever he did, he excelled a ton and looked very good at it."

    Shanahan has a history of turning elusive running backs who can catch the rock out of the backfield (like Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta) into fantasy stars. Given the $7.5 million a season McKinnon got, it's a safe bet he's going to be a big part of the 49ers offense in 2018.

    For people in dynasty fantasy leagues who have McKinnon on their rosters, Christmas came early.

    An upside RB2 just dropped into their laps.

LOSER: Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Kirk Cousins is winning at life.

    After Cousins signed a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract to become the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, the only thing that can stop him from sailing past $100 million in career earnings is the apocalypse.

    Cousins also moved from an NFC also-ran to one of the early favorites to represent the conference in Super Bowl LIII. The Vikings are loaded with talent on that side of the ball, from tailback Dalvin Cook to wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

    However, from a fantasy perspective, Cousins' move to the Twin Cities might be a bad thing.

    Over the last few seasons, Cousins has been one of the bigger fantasy values at the quarterback position. In each of those years the 29-year-old Cousins topped 4,000 yards through the air and tossed at least 25 touchdown passes. Cousins was fifth in fantasy points among quarterbacks in NFL.com default fantasy scoring in 2016 and sixth a year ago.

    He's going to be hard-pressed to repeat that production in his new home.

    It's not a matter of weapons. It's a matter of balance. In the nation's capital, Cousins essentially was the offense. The team couldn't run the ball consistently, struggled to prevent opponents from scoring and played from behind more often than not.

    That's not the case in Minnesota. The Vikings were 21st in the NFL last year in pass attempts at 32.9 per game. That's the same number as the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team has a much better ground game and defense.

    Cousins should fare better than 2017 starter Case Keenum, who was 15th at his position in fantasy points per game in 2017. It's not hard to imagine Cousins can function as a decent low-end weekly starter or platoon option.

    But his new team and production the past two seasons will get him drafted as more than that in many leagues.

    The Vikings aren't going to go bananas offensively with Cousins in town. They don't need to. It's not Mike Zimmer's philosophy.

    Beware of the hype.

WINNER: Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    By virtue of their relative Average Draft Positions in 2018, Eli Manning is going to be a superior value to the aforementioned Kirk Cousins—and it's not going to be all that close.

    Yes, the 2017 season was an unmitigated catastrophe for Manning and the Giants. The Giants won all of three games, Manning was benched at one point and the 37-year-old finished the season 23rd in fantasy points among quarterbacks.

    There isn't going to be a stampede to draft Manning in fantasy football.

    But there's value to be had.

    The Giants missed out on Pro Bowl guard Andrew Norwell in free agency, but the consolation prize didn't stink—veteran tackle Nate Solder is a big improvement on Manning's blind side.

    By virtue of that miserable year, the Giants also have the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NFL draft. It's possible the G-Men will use that pick on Manning's successor at quarterback. But it's even more likely the team will use it to add an impact player to help Manning make one last playoff run.

    Imagine, if you will, that Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley joins superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham and promising youngsters Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard as a weapon at Manning's disposal.

    Or that the Giants draft Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson and make the left side of the line a strength as opposed to a weakness—perhaps paired with a tailback like Georgia's Nick Chubb or LSU's Derrius Guice in Round 2.

    The Giants wouldn't have handed Solder $15.5 million a season if they were blowing the team up. This was a playoff team two years ago that was savaged by injuries to the receiving corps.

    Given all those injuries, Manny didn't play that badly last year. He flirted with 3,500 passing yard had a plus-six touchdown-to-interception ratio.

    Manning could sneak into the back end of the top 12 in 2018 with a healthy pass-catching corps and improved protection.

    All for the draft-day cost of a bag of Doritos.

LOSER: Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers

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    Don Feria/Associated Press

    Much like with Kirk Cousins, this "loser" is a matter of being able to separate the NFL and fantasy implications of a signing.

    From the former perspective, there's plenty to like about Jimmy Graham's joining the Green Bay Packers. Even if the ninth-year veteran isn't the player he was during his heyday with the New Orleans Saints, Graham remains a dangerous red-zone threat—as evidenced by his 10 touchdowns with the Seattle Seahawks in 2017.

    With Jordy Nelson gone, that red-zone ability will come in handy in Titletown.

    As to Graham himself, the 31-year-old will once again be catching passes from a quarterback who will one day don a hideous beige jacket at a ceremony in Canton. If you're keeping score at home, Graham has now gone from Drew Brees to Russell Wilson to Aaron Rodgers.

    However, one thing gets lost in all the oohing and aahing about Graham's potential connection with Mr. Discount Double-Check.

    Aaron Rodgers, for the most part, doesn't target the tight end position.

    Yes, both Richard Rodgers (2015) and Jermichael Finley (2011) have posted eight-score seasons in Green Bay with Rodgers. But Richard Rodgers had just 510 receiving yards and finished 11th at his position in PPR fantasy points that year. Finley had 767 receiving yards and finished ninth.

    That ninth-place finish by Finley was the last time a Green Bay tight end cracked the top 10.

    According to Dave Richard of CBS Sports, in the last five years Aaron Rodgers has averaged six targets, four catches and 42 yards per game to his tight ends with 23 touchdowns—one every three games or so.

    That's all of his tight ends—not just his top one.

    The tight end position has become a mess in recent years—so much so that fantasy owners are desperate to find an option capable of top-five production who doesn't carry the price tag of a Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce.

    Plenty of those same fantasy owners are already talking themselves into believing Graham will be that guy in 2018.

    What they're going to get is a letdown—a touchdown-dependent player whose seventh-place finish in 2017 is a lot closer to his fantasy ceiling than his floor.

WINNER: Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    If Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is going to take the proverbial "next step" in his second NFL season, it's imperative that Chicago general manager Ryan Pace improve what was arguably the NFL's worst receiving corps.

    Pace told reporters he believes he's done so with the signing of free-agent wideout Allen Robinson.

    "He's just a big target that knows how to get open," Pace said. "He's a savvy route-runner that can set guys up, and he's just a proven receiver. He's a physical guy that can body and out-position guys, and it's a guy that obviously we targeted and are excited to get here."

    Still, many fantasy owners might have a hard time getting pumped about Robinson in 2017. He missed almost the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, suffered through a down 2016 and will be catching passes from a quarterback who averaged just 182.8 passing yards per game as a rookie.

    However, Trubisky's pedestrian numbers last season aren't solely on him. The Bears' leading receiver was Kendall Wright, who has about as much in common with a No. 1 receiver as Muggsy Bogues did with Patrick Ewing.

    Robinson, when healthy, has shown the ability to function as a legitimate top receiver. In 2015 with the Jaguars, Robinson piled up 1,400 receiving yards and 14 scores. All indications are that the 24-year-old's rehab is progressing well and he'll be a full go for training camp.

    Robinson should also be a target magnet in 2018. The Bears added speedster Taylor Gabriel in free agency and will get back Cameron Meredith this season, but Gabriel has never been a volume target, and Meredith is a complementary receiver.

    Robinson could flirt with the 151 targets he saw both in 2015 and 2016 while with the Jacksonville Jaguars. While Trubisky isn't Aaron Rodgers, he isn't substantially worse than Blake Bortles was at that point in his career.

    This isn't to say Robinson will explode for a top-six season a la three years ago. But assuming the knee's OK and his ADP falls just inside or just outside the top 25 at his position, there's upside to be had.

LOSER: Carlos Hyde, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    In 2017, Carlos Hyde piled up 1,288 total yards and scored eight touchdowns for the San Francisco 49ers en route to an eighth-place finish among running backs in PPR fantasy points. It marked the second consecutive season that Hyde topped 1,000 total yards, scored at least eight times and finished inside the top 20.

    It's also as good as things are going to get for the 27-year-old Ohio State alum and Cincinnati native, who is returning to the area after signing a three-year deal with the Cleveland Browns.

    There are too many things working against Hyde in Cleveland. For starters, Hyde has never gained 1,000 yards on the ground in a season. Last year's career numbers were buoyed by his 59 catches (more than his other three seasons combined) on 88 targets. Those 88 targets gave Hyde a 14.5 percent target share for a Niners team that was second in the NFL in pass attempts.

    The Browns are not going to attempt 600-plus passes in 2018. In fact, the team would probably like to reduce last year's total of 574 by actually staying in a few games. Even if the Browns did sling it around that much, Hyde won't be getting the targets. Cleveland has an accomplished passing-down back in Duke Johnson, who also topped 1,000 total yards in 2017.

    Last year, Hyde averaged a career-low 3.9 yards a carry playing behind a line that ranked 11th in the NFL in run blocking, per Football Outsiders. This year Hyde will tote the rock behind a line that finished the season three slots lower—and just watched left tackle Joe Thomas call it a career.

    Hyde also saw more than two carries a game more with San Francisco last year than Isaiah Crowell did with the Browns. And Hyde has played in all 16 games in a season once—last year.

    Never mind the possibility that the Browns will draft a tailback early this year.

    Hyde isn't going to sniff the top 10 this year. Top 20 might be pushing it.

    And to be brutally honest, in PPR formats Johnson looks like a superior value on draft day.

WINNER: Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    It isn't just the players who have switched teams who saw their fantasy fortunes impacted by the first week of free agency.

    New faces on an NFL team can also boost (or hurt) the fake football fortunes of the guys around them.

    Especially when that player is a quarterback.

    Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas suffered through a disappointing fantasy campaign in 2017. Sure, Thomas' 83 catches for 949 yards and five scores wasn't a terrible stat line, but it marked the first time since 2011 that Thomas failed to hit the 1,000-yard mark.

    Things were much worse for Emmanuel Sanders. After topping 1,000 yards in each of his first three years in the Mile High City, Sanders missed four games and pulled in a depressing 47 catches for 555 yards and two touchdowns.

    From 2014 to 2016, Sanders and Thomas were both top-20 fantasy options in leagues that award a point for receptions. Both placed inside the top five in 2014. Last year Thomas salvaged a 16th-place finish, but Sanders free-fell outside the top 50.

    Now, Denver's miserable quarterback situation wasn't solely to blame for those down years. But it was far and away the predominant cause. Whether it was Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch, the Broncos' passing game was stuck in the mud most of the season.

    No one's going to confuse Case Keenum with Drew Brees or Tom Brady anytime soon. But in leading the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game last year, Keenum threw for a career-high 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns.

    More importantly, Keenum spurred Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to seasons that looked a lot like what we've come to expect from Thomas and Sanders. Thielen's 91/1,276/4 stat line ranked him eighth among PPR wideouts. Diggs finished the year 19th after going 64/849/8 in 14 games.

    Sometimes in fantasy football you have to possess a short memory—a willingness to look past last year's disappointments to see this year's values.

    This is one of those times.

LOSER: Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    It was all coming together.

    After a promising second season in which Derrick Henry clearly outperformed veteran DeMarco Murray, the Tennessee Titans cut Murray loose. Henry was going to be elevated to "bell-cow" status behind a solid offensive line.

    The 247-pound bruiser was going to spend the 2018 season cramming the ball down opponents' throats, and fantasy owners were going to be as big a beneficiary as the Titans.

    And then the Titans ruined everything.

    Granted, the acquisition of Dion Lewis in free agency isn't a death knell for Henry's fantasy value. Lewis told reporters he believes he and Henry can combine to become a formidable "thunder and lightning" backfield:

    "I think it will be a huge challenge for defenses. You have a guy a lot bigger than me [in Henry], and then you have a guy like me who is quick and can break tackles, too. So, I definitely think it will keep the defenses on their toes with who is in the game."

    Teamwork is wonderful.

    Except in fantasy football.

    This has the makings (provided Lewis stays healthy, which is no sure thing) of a full-blown timeshare. Henry will serve as the between-the-tackles grinder, short-yardage guy and clock-killer. But Lewis is the much better back in both pass protection and the receiving game. The Titans didn't pay Lewis $5 million a season to give him half a dozen touches a game.

    Not only does this split cap the ceiling of both players in so-so RB2 territory, but their usage could vary from week to week. If the Titans get a lead, it will be a Henry day. Fall behind and it's more Lewis. Eighteen touches one week, eight the next.

    It may have been a shrewd move for the team so far as winning games goes, but it was a kick in the shins for those of us who only care about stats.

WINNER: Tyrod Taylor, QB, Cleveland Browns

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Tyrod Taylor is the Rodney Dangerfield of quarterbacks.

    Despite leading the Buffalo Bills to their first postseason appearance of the 21st century, Taylor was cut loose by the team—traded to the Cleveland Browns for the 65th pick in April's NFL draft.

    Getting the ax in favor of Nathan Pickserman (not his real name but should be) is more cold-blooded than an iguana in an icebox.

    It's a little more understandable that Taylor mostly elicits yawns from fantasy owners. Taylor was 20th among quarterbacks in fantasy points last year with the Bills. In the two years before that, Taylor was 19th and 18th.

    Taylor was at least consistent, but he was consistently mediocre.

    However, there's cause for optimism moving forward.

    For starters, Taylor's numbers in Buffalo aren't as bad as they look. In every one of those three seasons, the Bills were the most run-heavy team in the AFC. No team in the conference threw the ball less than Buffalo from 2015 to 2017.

    That statistic had less to do with Taylor's limitations as a quarterback than it did a receiving corps that went from bad to awful to Zay Jones. This isn't to say Taylor is a great passer, but it's hard to get going when there's no one to throw the ball to.

    On paper, that isn't the case in Cleveland. If Josh Gordon can stay out of trouble, he's as talented as any wideout in the NFL. Recently acquired Jarvis Landry led the NFL in receptions in 2017. David Njoku is an athletic field-stretcher at tight end. Duke Johnson was fourth in catches among running backs.

    Even if the Browns don't add anyone else, Taylor has better targets with the Browns than he ever did in Buffalo. He's also going to be the Week 1 starter for a Browns team that falls behind approximately every week.

    This isn't to say Taylor should be snatched up on draft day and plugged in as a weekly starter in 12-team leagues. However, if you're the type who likes to wait a while at quarterback, you're looking for a backup with the potential to outperform his modest asking price and/or you play in 2QB or "superflex" fantasy leagues, Taylor is working his way into late-round consideration.

    No respect, I tell ya.

LOSER: Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    A year ago at this time, Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders was an ascending young talent at the quarterback position. Despite the broken leg that cut his 2016 season short, Carr was a few months shy of landing a monster contract extension and was being talked up as a potential top-five fantasy option.

    Then Carr followed up that big payday with a clunker of a season that saw his passer rating drop by over 10 points. At season's end Carr finished lower in the fantasy standings than the injury-shortened campaign that came before—19th at the position.

    Given how this offseason has gone, Carr may not even hit that mark in 2018.

    There hasn't been a more confusing move in free agency than Oakland's wide receiver swap. It was a little disconcerting when the team released Carr's favorite target (especially in the red zone) in Michael Crabtree. But that was ostensibly done to clear badly needed salary-cap room.

    Room that the Raiders used to sign Jordy Nelson to a deal that cost the team almost the same amount Crabtree would have.

    That would have been a fine idea in 2014, when Nelson was one of the league's best receivers. But the soon-to-be 33-year-old (over two years older than Crabtree) just had his worst season since 2009. The whole "but he didn't have Aaron Rodgers" caveat doesn't hold up either since in Oakland he won't, um, have Aaron Rodgers.

    Never mind that Davante Adams did fine with Brett Hundley.

    The Raiders still have Amari Cooper, but Cooper is also coming off the worst season of his career—an injury- and drop-filled mess in which Carr all but ignored Cooper for stretches.

    When the pressure was on the past two years, Carr looked to Crabtree. He's gone now, replaced by a receiver who looked finished last season. Oakland's answer (so far) to a moribund run game was to back up Marshawn Lynch with Doug Martin—another move that would look a lot better three years ago.

    It's almost as if the Raiders' new head coach hasn't prowled a sideline in a decade.

               

    Gary Davenport was the Fantasy Sports Writers' Association 2017 award winner as Fantasy Football Writer of the Year.