How Does Free Agency Impact Fantasy Production?

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By John Paulsen (Senior Editor) on March 29, 2013

John was named FantasyPros Most Accurate Expert of 2010, was runner-up in 2011 and finished 4th in 2012 for in-season rankings accuracy. He also won the Fantasy Sports Trade Association award in 2011 for the most accurate preseason rankings. Follow John on Twitter: @4for4_John.

Free agency is fun to follow, but it's often overrated in the world of fantasy football. For every 2008 Michael Turner (1,699 rushing yards, 17 TDs after signing with the Falcons to be their starter), there are three players who go the way of 2006 Edgerrin James, who gained 655 fewer total yards as a Cardinal than he did in the previous year as a Colt.

I compiled all the major (and moderate) free agent signings from recent years to see if there is anything we can learn.

Aside from a few exceptions, established players -- those who averaged more than 6.0 fantasy points per game in the two seasons prior to changing teams -- generally saw their production decrease with their new teams. There was a small subset of unestablished players -- those averaging less than 6.0 FP per game -- who saw a big increase in playing time and enjoyed a corresponding increase in production.

Below you'll find two tables, one for established players and one for unestablished players.

 

Year Player Pos Age Old Team New Team 2-Year Avg Y+1 Avg % Diff 2-Year Avg Tot Y+1 Tot % Diff
2009 Matt Cassel QB 27 Patriots Chiefs 15.5 11.2 -28% 249 168 -32%
2006 Drew Brees QB 27 Chargers Saints 14.9 16.4 10% 231 262 14%
2006 Aaron Brooks QB 30 Saints Raiders 14.4 6.6 -54% 210 53 -75%
2005 Drew Bledsoe QB 33 Bills Cowboys 10.0 13.8 39% 159 221 39%
2006 Kerry Collins QB 34 Raiders Titans 13.9 3.5 -75% 202 14 -93%
2011 Matt Hasselbeck QB 36 Seahawks Titans 11.6 12.0 3% 163 192 18%
2009 Brett Favre QB 40 Jets Vikings 13.9 17.9 29% 222 287 29%
2012 BenJarvus Green-Ellis RB 27 Patriots Bengals 10.5 9.7 -8% 168 156 -7%
2008 Warrick Dunn RB 27 Falcons Buccaneers 8.8 8.2 -7% 141 124 -12%
2008 Julius Jones RB 27 Cowboys Seahawks 7.5 5.9 -21% 119 88 -26%
2009 Edgerrin James RB 28 Cardinals Seahawks 8.8 2.1 -76% 132 14 -89%
2007 Jamal Lewis RB 28 Ravens Browns 10.1 14.7 46% 156 221 42%
2006 Edgerrin James RB 28 Colts Cardinals 17.0 10.9 -36% 263 174 -34%
2012 Michael Bush RB 29 Raiders Bears 10.6 6.1 -42% 160 79 -51%
2009 Derrick Ward RB 29 Giants Buccaneers 11.2 5.3 -52% 128 74 -42%
2007 Travis Henry RB 29 Titans Broncos 8.6 8.3 -3% 108 100 -7%
2012 Cedric Benson RB 30 Bengals Packers 10.6 8.1 -23% 164 41 -75%
2007 Ahman Green RB 30 Packers Texans 10.4 8.4 -19% 110 50 -54%
2010 LaDainian Tomlinson RB 31 Chargers Jets 12.8 10.9 -15% 193 164 -15%
2010 Thomas Jones RB 32 Jets Chiefs 14.8 8.6 -42% 236 138 -42%
2011 Zach Miller TE 26 Raiders Seahawks 10.8 3.2 -70% 162 48 -70%
2008 Alge Crumpler TE 31 Falcons Titans 9.9 3.7 -62% 149 56 -62%
2011 Sidney Rice WR 25 Vkings Seahawks 9.0 6.7 -25% 110 61 -44%
2006 Antonio Bryant WR 25 Browns 49ers 7.4 6.5 -12% 115 91 -21%
2006 Brandon Lloyd WR 25 49ers Redskins 6.8 2.4 -65% 98 37 -62%
2012 Pierre Garcon WR 26 Colts Redskins 8.3 8.8 6% 125 88 -29%
2012 Mario Manningham WR 26 Giants 49ers 7.8 4.8 -38% 113 57 -49%
2012 Jerome Simpson WR 26 Bengals Vikings 7.6 2.3 -70% 71 27 -62%
2006 David Givens WR 26 Patriots Titans 6.9 2.1 -69% 97 11 -89%
2012 Laurent Robinson WR 27 Cowboys Jaguars 7.1 3.6 -49% 99 25 -75%
2007 Donte Stallworth WR 27 Eagles Patriots 8.6 5.6 -35% 120 89 -26%
2012 Robert Meachem WR 28 Saints Chargers 6.1 2.1 -66% 98 32 -67%
2011 Braylon Edwards WR 28 Jets 49es 7.1 2.0 -72% 113 18 -84%
2008 Bernard Berrian WR 28 Bears Vikings 7.7 8.8 14% 120 141 18%
2005 Plaxico Burress WR 28 Steelers Giants 8.0 10.2 28% 105 163 56%
2012 Vincent Jackson WR 29 Chargers Buccaneers 9.7 11.7 21% 107 186 74%
2010 Nate Burleson WR 29 Seahawks Lions 9.9 7.6 -23% 56 107 91%
2010 Antonio Bryant WR 29 Buccaneers Bengals 8.5 0.0 -100% 127 0 -100%
2007 Kevin Curtis WR 29 Rams Eagles 6.1 9.2 51% 98 147 51%
2012 Brandon Lloyd WR 31 Rams Patriots 10.8 7.2 -33% 168 115 -32%
2005 Derrick Mason WR 31 Titans Ravens 10.6 7.8 -26% 169 125 -26%
2009 T.J. Houshmandzadeh WR 32 Bengals Seahawks 9.7 6.8 -30% 152 109 -28%
2009 Laveranues Coles WR 32 Jets Bengals 8.2 5.2 -37% 115 82 -28%
2006 Joe Jurevicius WR 32 Seahawks Browns 6.3 5.2 -17% 88 68 -22%
2005 Muhsin Muhammad WR 32 Panthers Bears 10.8 6.6 -39% 170 99 -42%
2009 Torry Holt WR 33 Rams Jaguars 8.1 4.8 -41% 130 72 -44%
2006 Terrell Owens WR 33 Eagles Cowboys 15.3 12.3 -20% 158 196 24%
2006 Keyshawn Johnson WR 34 Cowboys Panthers 8.0 7.0 -13% 128 112 -13%
2009 Terrell Owens WR 36 Cowboys Bills 12.8 7.8 -39% 198 124 -37%
2008 Isaac Bruce WR 36 Rams 49ers 7.5 7.8 5% 113 125 11%
  QB Totals             -11%     -14%
  RB Totals             -23%     -32%
  TE Totals             -66%     -66%
  WR Totals             -28%     -23%
  All Positions             -26%     -26%

 

I can hear some of you yelling -- WHAT AM I LOOKING AT, PAULSEN?!?

For each player we have the year(s) he was a free agent, position, age, his two-year FP per game average prior to becoming a free agent, his FP per game average (Y+1 Avg) in his first season with his new team, and the percentage increase or decrease (% Diff) from his two-year average. I've also included each player's season-long totals for reference.
 

Key Takeaways:

- As a group, established players saw an average drop of 26% in both per game averages and season-long totals. This makes sense. Players become free agents because they couldn't come to terms on fair compensation with their original teams (the ones that know them the best). So they leave an established role to join a new offense for more money, and production often drops.

- Free agent quarterbacks fare better (-11%) than other positions, which is not unexpected since they have quite a bit of control over their role in the offense. Drew Brees was good with the Chargers so it was not a shock that he was good with the Saints. The same goes for Brett Favre, Drew Bledsoe and Matt Hasselbeck when they changed teams. As for Matt Cassel and Aaron Brooks, their situations didn't improve when they changed zip codes. (Note: For Cassel, I only used his 2008 season total because he didn't play much at all in 2007.)

- Twelve out of 13 established RBs saw their production decline (for a full-group average of 23%) with their new teams. The only exception was Jamal Lewis, who gained 1,552 total yards and scored 11 TDs in 2007 with the Browns. This doesn't bode particularly well for Steven Jackson or Reggie Bush, but both players appear to be landing in better situations in 2013.

- The TE sample size is way too small to trust, but neither Zach Miller nor Alge Crumpler did much in their first season with their new teams.

- Twenty-two of the 28 established WRs saw their production decline with their new teams. The exceptions were Pierre Garcon (+6%), Bernard Berrian (+14%), Plaxico Burress (+28%), Vincent Jackson (+21%), Kevin Curtis (+51%) and Isaac Bruce (5%). Four of those six WRs were 28 or 29 years-old when they hit free agency, while Garcon was promoted from WR2 in Indianapolis to WR1 in Washington. This is good news for Greg Jennings, who won't turn 30 until September and should see an increase in targets with the Vikings.
 

Below is a table of unestablished players (those who averaged 6.0 fantasy points per game or less in two seasons prior to free agency) who were considered good prospects heading into free agency.

 

Year Player Pos Age Old Team New Team 2-Year Avg Y+1 Avg % Diff 2-Year Avg Tot Y+1 Tot % Diff
2006 Jon Kitna QB 34 Bengals Lions 5.7 14.7 158% 22 236 973%
2008 Michael Turner RB 26 Chargers Falcons 3.8 17.3 355% 53 276 421%
2006 Chester Taylor RB 27 Ravens Vikings 6.0 12.4 107% 93 186 100%
2005 Lamont Jordan RB 27 Jets Raiders 3.9 16.1 313% 62 225 263%
2012 Martellus Bennett TE 25 Cowboys Giants 3.0 9.2 212% 45 148 229%
2007 Ashley Lelie WR 26 Falcons 49ers 4.5 0.8 -82% 70 12 -83%
2007 Wes Welker WR 26 Dolphins Patriots 3.7 10.6 186% 60 169 184%
2008 Bryant Johnson WR 27 Cardinals 49ers 5.1 4.5 -12% 82 73 -10%
2008 Ernest Wilford WR 29 Jaguars Dolphins 4.2 0.4 -90% 67 3 -96%
2008 Jerry Porter WR 30 Raiders Jaguars 3.6 2.4 -32% 54 24 -56%
  All Positions             106%     106%

 

Key Takeaways:

- Jon Kitna obviously skews the numbers since he went from being a backup in Cincinnati to starting in Detroit, so I did not include him in the "All Positions" averages.

- The three RBs in question benefited from promotions with their new teams. Chester Taylor's touches increased from 159 to 354 (resulting in a #12 RB finish in 2006), and then the Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson, so Taylor became a backup again. Lamont Jordan's touches increased from 108 to 342 after leaving the Jets for the Raiders. He was the #8 RB that year. Michael Turner left 75 touches in San Diego for an mind-boggling 382 in Atlanta and became one of the biggest free agency success stories of all time, finishing as the #2 RB in 2008. The lesson here? Look for talented (and reasonably young) backups who change teams looking for a bigger role. One player that might fit the bill this season is 26-year-old Mike Goodson. Here are my thoughts on Goodson from our 2013 Free Agency Tracker:

It appears that Goodson will compete with Bilal Powell for the RB1 job, though the duo could very well split the workload. Goodson has a career 4.5 YPC, but has averaged nearly 4.9 YPC in the last three seasons. He has proven to be adept in the passing game, catching 40 passes for the Panthers in 2010. At just 26 years old, he's in his prime. Consider him a RB sleeper until the Jets' depth chart shakes out. For what it's worth, the Jets RB coach Anthony Lynn recently said that the starting gig is "wide open" and that he has been watching the "fast" and "quick" Goodson "for a long time."

Goodson did fumble four times (losing two) on 143 touches in 2010, so that's something owners should be aware of when targeting him in the middle/late rounds. For what it's worth, he did not fumble on 51 touches in 2012.

It's interesting to look at the ADP of these players heading into their breakout seasons. Jordan was going 3.08 in 2005, Taylor was going 4.06 in 2006, and Turner went 4.08 in 2008. They all finished as fantasy RB1s.

- It's tough to label Bryant Johnson, Ashley Lelie, Ernest Wilford and Jerry Porter as "unestablished" players considering how long each player had been in the league at the time of his free agency. Other than Wes Welker (who was actually a Restricted Free Agent and traded to the Patriots), WRs who didn't establish sustained production with their original teams also didn't fare very well with their new teams. Porter's two-season average was dragged down by a brutal 2006 season, where he was suspended due to a conflict with head coach Art Shell. Otherwise, he was pretty good for the Raiders in three of his last four seasons with the team. That success didn't translate to Jacksonville.

- Martellus Bennett is an example of a young, talented player -- like the aforementioned RBs -- who left a bad situation (as the backup to Jason Witten) to become the starter for the Giants.
 

CONCLUSION

Generally, in-prime or past-prime players that make lateral moves to new teams are going to see a small-to-major drop in production, but there are the occasional exceptions, so each move needs to be evaluated on its own merits. However, when a young player who flashes talent as a backup is promoted to starter status with a new team, fantasy owners should take notice. That's how you find emerging stars like 2005 Lamont Jordan, 2006 Chester Taylor, 2007 Wes Welker and 2008 Michael Turner. Goodson fits the bill this season, but I'm not quite as optimistic about him as I was about Jordan, Taylor and Turner when they changed teams.

Mike Wallace, Wes Welker and Greg Jennings all fit the "established" player profile, but Jennings (being 29-30 this offseason) also fits the profile of several WRs who fared well with their new teams. We're expecting more quanity and less quality from Jennings in Minnesota (i.e. more targets, less efficiency on those targets). 

Reggie Bush and Steven Jackson also fit the "established" profile. Jackson is joining a much better offense, so if he gets all of Turner's goal line work, he should have a chance to improve on his 2012 numbers. (Turner had almost twice as many red zone touches as Jackson did last season.) Bush's value should increase in PPR formats, but he may see fewer carries. In PPR, he looks like a high-end RB2 and in standard formats, he is likely to be a mid- to low-end RB2 due to Mikel Leshoure's likely goal line carries.

 

Filed Under: 2013, Preseason