2012 Free Agency Primer

2012 Free Agency Primer

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor), last updated Jun 1, 2012

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John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 and 2014 seasons, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in both 2012 and 2015 for a total of five Top 5 seasons in the last six years. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-15 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate draft rankings. 

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Free agency begins at 4 p.m. EST on Tuesday, March 13, and due to the changes in last year's newly-adopted Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), it promises to be exciting. No longer do players have to wait until they have six years in the league before they can hit free agency; in the new CBA that number is down to four. Throw in all the players that signed one-year deals in last summer's compressed free agency period and there are plenty of notable names hitting free agency in 2012. When a player changes teams, he alters not only his own fantasy prospects, but also those of his new team and his old team. Throughout the off-season we'll keep you up-to-date on signings around the league as well as our take on the fantasy implications.

Before we start listing the notable free agents, here's a quick refresher on the NFL's (oftentimes convoluted) free agency rules. 
- An unrestricted free agent (UFA) can sign with whomever he wants with no compensation going to his old team. 
- A restricted free agent (RFA) has three years of service in the NFL and an expired contract. He's free to negotiate with other teams, but once he signs an offer sheet, his old team has seven days to match the deal and retain the player. If his old team declines to match, his new team may have to send a draft pick as compensation, depending on what type of RFA tender the old team offered the player.
- A team can apply a franchise tag on a player in order to guarantee that the team retains the player's rights for another season in the hopes that the two sides can work out a long-term deal. The price is steep -- it's a formula based on a certain percentage of the salary cap and the salaries of the top five players at the position. 
- Under the franchise tag, a player can be labeled an exclusive or non-exclusive franchise player. The only exclusive franchise player this year is Drew Brees, and unlike the 20 non-exclusive franchise players, he's not free to negotiate with other teams. Like restricted free agents, a non-exclusive franchise player can sign an offer sheet from another team. If his old team declines to match, they'll receive two first round picks as compensation.
- If a team doesn't apply a franchise tag, it can elect to apply a transition tag instead. The tender is cheaper because it uses the top 10 salaries at the position, but if another team negotiates a deal and his old team elects not to match, they won't get any draft picks as compensation. In previous years, teams could use both the franchise and transition tags, but under the new CBA, a team can use one or the other, but not both.


Received Franchise Tag
Drew Brees, Saints (33 years-old)
Brees and the Saints have been working on a long-term deal but are far enough apart (reportedly as much as $5 million per season) to convince the Saints to slap Brees with the "exclusive" franchise tag. He's apparently "livid" and there's already speculation that he'll skip the team's offseason workouts. We're expecting the two sides to come together and some point, but this is certainly a situation to monitor.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Clearly Manning is the biggest name on the QB free agent market, neck problem or no neck problem. He has visited the Broncos and the Cardinals and at press time, it appears the Broncos have the inside track. Wherever he lands, assuming he's healthy enough to start the season, he'll be a high-risk early- to mid-round pick. If he lands in Denver, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker would both get a huge boost, provided Reggie Wayne doesn't sign with the Broncos as well. If Manning signs with the Cardinals, Larry Fitzgerald's value would go through the proverbial roof. The Dolphins and Titans are also interested, so the situation will obviously be fluid until he makes his final decision. When he does we'll be sure to give our thoughts on the fantasy impact of his choice.
With just two starts in his NFL career, the book on Flynn is thin, but it's a very good read. In 2010, with Aaron Rodgers sidelined due to a concussion, Flynn completed 24-for-37 passes for 251 yards, three TDs and an interception in a near-upset of the Patriots in Foxboro. Last season, with Rodgers resting in Week 17, Flynn had a record-setting day, throwing for 480 yards and six TDs (with just one pick) against the Lions in not-so-great conditions at Lambeau Field. Flynn is a second-tier option after Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, but there are a number of teams looking to shore up their QB situation and Flynn has shown a lot of potential in his two starts. While he doesn't have an overpowering arm, he's accurate and is very poised in the pocket. If he lands in a decent situation, he'll be a middle round fantasy pick best suited for spot duty in a Quarterback By Committee (QBBC).
Smith had a solid yet unspectacular season for the 49ers throwing for 3,150 yards and 17 TDs with only five INTs. Jim Harbaugh didn't ask him to do too much, but what he was asked to do, he did well. Harbaugh has endorsed Smith as the team's QB, and the two sides are reportedly closing in on a deal, with the only hang up being the length of the contract. We're expecting Smith to be a 49er in 2012 and beyond.
Orton landed in Kansas City after beginning the season as the starter in Denver. He threw for 779 yards, one TD and two INTs for the Chiefs and generally looked like what he is -- a fringe NFL starter. The Chiefs have expressed interest in bringing Orton back, possibly to compete with Matt Cassel for the starting job. It all depends on the size of the contract, and what Orton can garner on the open market. He'll have to land as a starter in a good situation to be anything more than a late-round pick in 2012 fantasy drafts.


Received Franchise Tag
Rice is reportedly asking for Adrian Peterson-type money (seven years, $100 million) and who can blame him? Since 1990, Rice is one of just nine RBs to gain more than 6,600 total yards from scrimmage in his first four seasons, and that included a rather quiet rookie season when he saw just 140 touches playing behind Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee. In fact, over the last three seasons, no RB has gained more total yards from scrimmage than Ray Rice, and he even averaged more yards per carry (4.60) than Peterson (4.54) over that span. Rice deserves a big contract and the Ravens know it; it's just a matter of coming to terms. 
Along with the aforementioned Rice, Forte is one of just six RBs who gained at least 4,500 yards from scrimmage over the last three seasons, and with the way the Bears tanked after he was lost for the season with a knee injury, it's difficult to overestimate his importance to the team. He was cleared to play in the Pro Bowl, so the knee is no longer an issue. It's just a matter of the two sides agreeing on a number, and hopefully the contracts recently signed by Marshawn Lynch (four years, $32 million) and Arian Foster (five years, $43.5 million) can speed up the negotiations.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Bush took over for Darren McFadden (foot) in Week 7 and rushed for 839 yards on 213 carries for a 3.9 YPC over the final 10 games. He scored four rushing TDs over that span and added 30-319-1 in the passing game. So as the Raiders' workhorse back, he averaged 14.6 fantasy points per game, which would have ranked #8 among RBs on the season. Oakland is more committed to the run than most teams, but this should give fantasy owners an idea of his potential production if he lands in a situation where he'll get 20+ touches per game. The Raiders elected not to tag Bush, so he's likely to sign elsewhere; Cincinnati has been most often mentioned as his probable destination.
What a crazy season for Hillis. The Madden coverboy followed up a stellar 2010 (1,654 total yards and 13 TDs) with an injury-plagued 2011, managing just 717 total yards and three TDs in 10 games. His YPC dropped from 4.4 to 3.6 and he failed to run with the kind of reckless abandon that he became known for during the previous season. He seemed disenchanted with the Browns for failing to come to terms on a long-term contract, and instead of proving his worth on the field, he spent a lot of time in the training room trying to get healthy. Someone will give Hillis a chance, but it's unlikely to be the Browns given all that's gone down in the last year. The Cleveland Plain Dealer thinks that he'll get an "incentive-rich contract" on the open market, which makes a lot of sense. Some may say that Hillis is worn down, but he only has 512 carries in his career and may benefit from a fresh start elsewhere.
Tolbert was in a definite timeshare with Ryan Mathews to start the season, but after Mathews proved he could carry a bigger load and stay relatively healthy over the second half of the season, Tolbert's touches took a nosedive. Even though he finished the season as the Chargers' short-yardage back (scoring eight rushing TDs), he once again averaged a solid 4.0 YPC. He runs hard and generally gains what is blocked, and he's a threat in the passing game, so there will definitely be a few teams interested in his services. If he lands in a situation where he'll see 15-20 touches per game, he'll be a nice mid-round sleeper in 2012 fantasy drafts.
The Law Firm gained 667 yards on 181 carries (for a 3.7 YPC), but his main fantasy impact came with his role as the Patriots' goal-line back. He found the endzone 11 times, which made him something of a boom-or-bust play in 2011. The Patriots drafted both Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in the 2011 draft, so clearly the team is not completely sold on BJGE as their feature (or even lead) running back. New England is interested in bringing him back, but they don't want to overspend so he'll test free agency to see what he's worth. The Boston Herald is reporting that there is at least one team that is "extremely hot" on Green-Ellis, so he may very well land elsewhere once free agency begins.
Benson had another solid if unspectacular season for the Bengals, rushing for 1,067 yards and six TDs on the year. He wasn't much of a factor in the passing game, catching just 15 passes for 82 yards and zero scores. He was critical of OC Jay Gruden's play-calling in a recent radio interview and says he has yet to be contacted by the team about a new contract. At this point, the writing is on the wall. At 29, he's reaching the end of the line for most RBs, and with younger options like Michael Bush, Mike Tolbert, Peyton Hillis and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Bengals are likely to move on. That's not to say that Benson won't find a job -- he will. It's just unlikely that he'll be seeing 270+ carries again in 2012 and his workload has been propping up his value for the last three seasons.
Smith is an interesting fantasy prospect heading into 2012 given his late-season production (535 total yards and seven TDs in seven games, with a stellar 4.9 YPC), but it very much depends on where he lands. He is injury-prone, so fantasy owners should not expect him to play a full 16-game season no matter where he ends up. The Lions are hoping to have Jahvid Best and Mikel LeShoure back, and if they're able to re-sign Smith, they'd have a potent (if injury-prone) three-headed RBBC. Smith is a fantasy RB2 if he's healthy and starting, but those are two big question marks heading into 2012.
Grant finished the season on a high note, rushing for 243 yards on 42 carries (for a 5.8 YPC) over the last four regular season games. The Packers are reportedly interested in bringing him back, but they want him to hit the open market so that both sides can get an idea of what kind of value the 29-year-old has at this stage of his career. He seems destined for some sort of timeshare in 2012 and therefore won't have much fantasy value heading into the season.
Hightower is a good fit for Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking system, but after a strong start (399 total yards and two TDs in his first five games), he tore his ACL. Never the fastest RB in the first place, it will be interesting to see how much the injury affects his already limited speed. If he does return to Washington, he may take a third-down role due to his decent hands and excellent blocking. We can never accurately predict what Shanahan will do when it comes to his RBs, but it sure looks like this is Roy Helu's backfield at this point. Evan Royster is also a factor.
Battle would like to find himself a bigger role to fill, and with Jamaal Charles coming back from an ACL tear, it probably won't be in Kansas City. Battle is a big, bruising back, who had a nice run during a three-game stretch when he gained 265 rushing yards against the Colts, Raiders and Chargers. After that, he never saw more that 14 carries in a game and was unable to push Thomas Jones or Dexter McCluster completely out of the picture. Battle would like to be a feature back, but barring an injury, he'll be a complementary RB wherever he lands.
Restricted Free Agents
When Matt Forte went down with a season-ending MCL injury, Marion Barber actually took over the RB1 duties in Chicago, at least until his fumble in a tough overtime loss to the Broncos in Week 14. Over the final three weeks of the season, Bell saw 69 touches (55 carries, 14 catches) and gained 349 total yards from scrimmage. His season-long 4.3 YPC indicates that he's a better-than-average runner, so some team might make a run at the restricted free agent and see if the Bears are willing to pony up to keep the versatile back.


Received Franchise Tag
It's a little surprising that the two sides couldn't settle on a long-term deal given Welker's desire to stay with the Patriots, but he didn't express any frustration when he learned that he received the team's franchise tag. We're expecting Welker to be with the Patriots long term. He has been a crucial part of the New England offense, catching 111+ passes in four of the last five seasons, including 122-1569-9 last season. He was overshadowed a bit by the play of Rob Gronkowski, but his fantasy totals trailed only Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson in 2011.
All the changes at the QB position in Kansas City make Bowe's 81-1159-5 season that much more impressive. He scored four of his five TDs with Matt Cassel under center, and averaged 4.6 catches for 74 yards and 0.4 TDs in games that Cassel started. Those numbers are slightly ahead of Bowe's season-long totals, especially in the TD department, so if Cassel comes back strong, Bowe should too. The Chiefs couldn't afford to let their best receiver walk, and waited until there was 20 minutes left before the deadline to apply the franchise tag. Bowe is reportedly asking for a huge contract, so he may end up playing the season under the tag, which means he'll be highly motivated in 2012.
While Jackson did receive the Eagles' franchise tag, it doesn't appear that the two sides are close to finalizing a long-term contract, so Jackson may simply play the season under the one-year tag. He is one of the more mercurial WRs in the league, and while he has outstanding speed, he has a tendency to give up on plays. Jackson certainly seemed to be on the outs in Philadelphia, but the tag has breathed new life into his career with the Eagles. He may be traded, but with the team in "win now" mode, it's rather unlikely.
Unrestricted Free Agents
V-Jax seems to be the most coveted WR on the market, but he was very up and down in 2011 despite his impressive final numbers: 60 catches for 1,106 yards and nine TDs. It's doubtful at this point that he'll return to San Diego, and there doesn't appear to be a WR-needy team that has a QB the caliber of Philip Rivers. So wherever he lands, his 2011 numbers may be his ceiling. The Redskins, Bears and Buccaneers are all reportedly interested in his services.
What Lloyd did in 2011 was rather remarkable. After coming off a career season in 2010 (77 catches for 1,448 yards and 11 TDs), Lloyd was traded midseason to the Rams, where he quickly found a groove with Sam Bradford, catching 51 passes for 683 yards and five TDs over the final 11 games. Given the circumstances, those are pretty impressive numbers. Lloyd has expressed an interest in following Josh McDaniels to New England, where he'd be a great addition to an already stellar receiving corps. He won't have a ton of upside if he lands with the Patriots since there are only so many targets to go around, but he'd add another dimension to a passing game that definitely needs a deep threat.
Once the Saints decided to tag Drew Brees, it became clear that there's a real chance Colston doesn't return to New Orleans in 2012. The oft-injured 28-year-old posted 80-1143-8 last year, which marked the third straight season where he gained at least 1,000 yards and scored at least seven TDs. Teams around the league will have to evaluate Colston outside the potent New Orleans offense, and take his injury history into account as well. Colston looked fine in 2012, but there's no telling how long those knees will hold up. He's a versatile WR with good hands, but there's some risk here.
With Peyton Manning out for the season, Garcon had a career year, catching 70 passes for 947 yards and six TDs. He wasn't terribly consistent -- he caught all six TDs in just three games, and those were the only games where he cracked the 100-yard mark. But there were enough flashes of potential to make Garcon a hot commodity during this free agency period. He reportedly turned down a deal worth $35 million over five years -- in other words, he's looking for WR1 money. He and the Colts have continued to negotiate, so he may very well make his return to Indianapolis, but he's going to test the market first.
Wayne hits the free agent market at the ripe old age of 33, and his best bet is to follow Peyton Manning wherever he goes. He had a decent 2011, catching 75 passes for 960 yards and four TDs, but that was a far cry from the 111-1355-6 he posted in 2010. He can still be a fantasy producer, but he has lost a step and would get a boost if he's playing with Manning in 2012.
Robinson was one of the most surprising stories of 2011. After playing in just nine games in the 2008 and 2009 seasons due to injury, and catching just 34 passes in 14 games in 2010, Robinson joined the Cowboys and caught 54 passes for 858 yards and 11 TDs in 14 games, including 40-625-11 over the last 10 weeks. Those 128.5 fantasy points are the fourth-most amongst all WRs over that span. He has great speed and quickly developed a nice rapport with Tony Romo when Miles Austin missed time due to injury. Talent-wise he's definitely WR2-caliber, but will a team bite on a player with his history of injury?
Meachem was underutilized in New Orleans, but produced when given the opportunity. In fact, his 1.61 fantasy points per target was 6th amongst all WRs with at least 20 receptions in 2011. It wasn't a fluke since he finished 10th in the same category in 2010 (1.42 FP/target). If Meachem finds himself getting WR2 targets in a good offense with a QB that can deliver the ball, he'll have a chance to be a big fantasy surprise in 2012.
Manningham had a great opportunity to grab the Giants' WR2 job and appeared to be poised for a big fantasy season, but he concussed himself in Week 2 against the Rams. That allowed Victor Cruz to establish himself as Eli Manning's go-to WR over the middle, and while Manningham had a nice three-game, midseason stretch where he caught 15 passes for 173 yards and three TDs, he only broke the 60-yard mark one other time during the season (Week 14 vs. the Cowboys). The Giants are almost certainly going to let him walk, so Manningham will be looking for WR2 money in free agency. He's reportedly looking for more than $7 million a year, which seems like a lot given the depth of the WR free agent market.
Restricted Free Agents
The Steelers gave Wallace the first-round tender, which means another team can sign him to an offer sheet, and if the Steelers elect not to match, then they'll get a first round pick in return. Teams that are picking towards the end of the first round may want to consider pursuing Wallace, who is one of only three WRs to gain at least 2400 receiving yards and score 18 TDs over the last two seasons. Restricted free agents rarely switch teams, but the cash-strapped Steelers may have trouble matching a big offer sheet. The 25-year-old speedster is just now entering his prime, and with his combination of talent and age, he is hands down the best WR in free agency.
Other Notable RFA WRs: Danny Amendola


Received Franchise Tag
Prior to being suspended for the final four games due to three failed tests for marijuana use, Davis was on pace to finish the season with 130 fantasy points, which would have left him in a tie for 4th place amongst all TEs. Certainly the suspension raises a red flag, but hopefully Davis learned his lesson and can quit the ganja, at least until his NFL career is over. Since he's proven to be a knucklehead, he'll be a risky mid-round pick in fantasy drafts. But with the Redskins primed to pick Robert Griffin with the newly-acquired #2 pick in the draft, the Washington passing game is looking up.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Shiancoe headlines a rather unimpressive crop of free agent TEs. Still, he's the most proven tight end available, even though he's a few years separated from his career 56-566-11 season in 2009 with Brett Favre under center. With Kyle Rudolph in town, Shiancoe is no longer needed in Minnesota, and he is a capable placeholder at the position for a team grooming a rookie or second-year player.
Tamme showed some serious potential in 2010 filling in for an injured Dallas Clark, racking up 67 catches for 631 yards and four TDs over the final 10 games. Of course, he had Peyton Manning throwing him the ball, so for Tamme to have any serious fantasy value in 2012, he'll have to find a capable QB and an offense that features the TE position.
Clark struggled mightily with drops and a neck injury in 2011 after a wrist injury ended his 2010 season. Given the sad state of the TE free agency market, he may get some attention in a pure pass-catching role, but don't expect him to return to his 2009 form. His best chance for a comeback is to join Peyton Manning wherever he lands.
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Filed Under: Preseason, 2012

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