2015 Fantasy Free Agency Preview
Tuesday marks the beginning of the new league year, and at 4pm EST, players with expired contracts will be free to sign new deals with other franchises. Free agency is one of my favorite times of year, because no matter which team you root for, the prospect of signing players off the open market can bring renewed enthusiasm for your favorite team, even if you’ve just suffered through a dismal season. This year, we’ve had an extra flurry of activity, with notable veteran cuts increasing the number of free agents available for teams to sign. This article will take a look at some of the players most likely to move teams, which ones are likely to stay home, and who might make the biggest impact in a new uniform.
As mentioned above, several notable names have entered free agency a bit prematurely, as they’ve been released from their current squads prior to the starting of the new league year. Some, such as Jacoby Jones (San Diego) and Josh McCown (Cleveland), have already signed with new teams, while others are still waiting for the phone to ring. Jones will boost the return game for the Chargers, while McCown will fight with Johnny Manziel and anyone else the Browns bring in to play quarterback next year. The following players have been forced in with the rest of the impending free agents due to a release from their teams:
Pierre Thomas, RB, New Orleans – Pierre Thomas may return to the Saints on a lesser deal, as the team likely wanted to keep him but couldn’t afford his salary. New Orleans is capped out and looking to cut salary right now. Thomas is still a useful back, although he’s unlikely to get more than a dozen touches a game for whichever team signs him. He had only 600 total yards and three touchdowns last season, but was underused in a crowded backfield.
Brian Hartline, WR, Miami – Hartline is miscast as a WR1, but he’s a very serviceable WR2 when he’s healthy. He’s coming off a down year, with a career low 474 yards, but he had over 1,000 yards in each of the prior two seasons. Never a consistent scorer (only 12 career touchdowns in six seasons), Hartline isn’t going to be a top fantasy option. However, in the right situation, he could carve a role with a new team that allows him to repeat his 2012-2013 performances.
Reggie Bush, RB, Detroit – Bush was in and out of the lineup last year for Detroit, and now entering his tenth season in the NFL, he may be approaching the end of his career. He scored only two touchdowns all season and was released in favor of Joique Bell. Bush could catch on with another team, and if healthy wind up with another 800 plus yard season, but it seems just as likely that he struggles to stay on the field once again and that he is nearing retirement.
Harry Douglas, WR, Atlanta – Douglas at one point looked capable of turning into a solid starting receiver in the NFL. However, he’s never really been more than a slot guy and injury filler for Atlanta, and has only scored eight touchdowns in six seasons. He’ll be 31 years old in September, and it seems unlikely he’ll exceed the 550 yards he had last year for whoever picks him up.
Steven Jackson, RB, Atlanta – Jackson took a pounding for most of his career, and it shows now. He looks like a running back that has worn down due to years of abuse, and is now two years removed from his last 1,000 plus yard season. It’s possible that he’ll find success behind a better offensive line somewhere, but it seems likely that his days of 20 plus carries in a game are long gone, and that the 32 year old will struggle to get back to fantasy relevance.
The following players were also released from their respective squads and are joining the free agency crowd, but are less likely to make an impact should they sign with a new team: TEs Zach Miller (Sea) and Anthony Fasano (KC); RB Peyton Hillis (NYG); WRs Lance Moore (Pitt), Ted Ginn (AZ), Brandon Gibson (Mia), and Greg Little (Cin).
Top Players Available
While not all of the impending free agents will change teams, there are a lot of players out there who will be on the market and looking for the best offer. For the sake of this article, players who received the franchise tag (i.e. Dez Bryant) are not included in this list as these players are highly unlikely to move teams. The following players are the top guys and at least reasonably likely to change uniforms, in order of the potential fantasy impact:
DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas – Murray is a dangerous player to sign for big money because of the position he plays and that fact that last season was the first time in his career he’s made it through more than 14 games, and he logged 392 carries last season (7th most in a season all time). However, he led the league in rushing last year, and wherever he ends up, he’ll be counted on for a full load once again. Opportunity makes all the difference at the running back position, and he’ll get plenty of touches after a career year. The Cowboys will likely try to sign him back at a reduced rate, but regardless of where Murray signs, fantasy owners should take notice.
Julius Thomas, TE, Denver – Thomas has struggled with injuries in two of his three pro seasons, but when the 26 year old out of Portland State is healthy, he’s dynamic in the Broncos passing attack. Denver would like to have him back, as they’ll have a hard time replacing his 12 touchdowns per season over the past two years, but Thomas may find a big contract elsewhere. Thomas is a blue chip fantasy tight end, but fantasy owners should be a little concerned with him if he ends up going to a team with a shaky quarterback situation. We’ve seen from other players in the past that going from Peyton Manning to someone other than Peyton Manning can end in disappointment. The 6’5 red zone target is an elite talent though, and odds are he’s going to be productive for somebody this fall.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia – Maclin only found a one year contract waiting for him last year after a devastating knee injury forced him to miss the 2013 season. He responded with a career year under Chip Kelly. Maclin set career highs in receptions and yards, caught ten touchdown passes, and averaged 15.5 yards per reception in route to 1,318 receiving yards. Maclin is still only 26 years old and the Eagles may be reluctant to give him a long term contract after the knee injury from two years ago, but some team is going to pay Maclin to be their WR1, and as long as he’s healthy, he’s shown he can produce top fantasy numbers. Fantasy owners should watch his health status, but should take note wherever he winds up. The Chiefs appear to be the top suitor.
Torrey Smith, WR, Baltimore – The speedy Torrey Smith started last season off poorly, but ended up with a nice year overall, catching a career high 11 touchdown passes, despite only gaining 767 yards. Smith is an interesting option for teams looking for a downfield threat. He likely won’t get overpaid in Baltimore with Ozzie Newsome running the show, but someone may give the 26 year old former Terrapin a big contract. Look for Smith to get an increase in targets with a new team, should he find someone willing to pay him WR1 money, which might increase his fantasy value for 2015. At this point, Smith to the 49ers is being reported as a "done deal."
Michael Crabtree, WR San Francisco – Crabtree has been called the best in the game by his quarterback and coach, but he’s managed only one season over 1,000 yards in his six year career, and at age 27 has yet to look like a consistent fantasy option thus far. His upside is still there however, as his down season last year may have been a result of a struggling 49ers offense that never seemed in synch all year. Some team will likely gamble on the former top ten pick, and if he goes to the right system, with the right quarterback, fantasy owners might just see the 2012 form he showed when he had 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns.
Justin Forsett, RB, Baltimore – Forsett was a journeyman the last few years, but he found a home in Baltimore in 2014. He finished the season with 1,266 yards, eight touchdowns on the ground, and averaged a staggering 5.4 yards per carry! Forsett is 29 years old though, and while he’s accrued a limited number of carries over his six year career, teams start to get a little wary of players pushing 30. Forsett seems like a guy unlikely to repeat his breakout performance, but in the right system, with the right workload, it’s very possible we could see another 1,000 plus yard season from the veteran out of California.
Snagging a Pass Catcher
The wide receiver position is particularly thick this year, with aging veterans flooding the market making it easy for teams to find an experienced pass catcher if they need a temporary upgrade at the position. In addition to the players listed above, experienced names like Reggie Wayne (IND), Cecil Shorts (JAX), Nate Washington (TEN), and Pierre Garcon (WAS) could provide teams with a little extra help as reliable pass catchers. Additionally, teams will have their choice of reclamation projects, as veterans like Kenny Britt (STL), Hakeem Nicks (IND), and Denarius Moore (OAK) hit the market looking to make an impact with new teams after disappointing 2014 seasons. Between the newly arrived released players, a draft with as many as five first round caliber receiver prospects, and this group of free agents, this is definitely the year to look for an upgrade in the passing game.
Disappointing tight ends are also flooding the market this year. While some have just failed to live up to their athletic potential in the NFL like Rob Housler (ARI) and Jermaine Gresham (CIN), others such as Charles Clay (MIA) and Jordan Cameron (CLE) are coming off injury-plagued seasons that create just enough question marks to keep teams from throwing big money their way. Still, the latter two options are the cream of the crop after Julius Thomas this off-season, and with a weak draft at the position, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Clay or Cameron get big money from a team banking on their 2013 production to return. Both could be solid fantasy options if they are healthy and find the right situation.
The Quarterback Problem
This is not the year to need a quarterback. While there are two top level talents in the draft this year, the free agency depth at the position is pretty shallow. Mark Sanchez (PHI) leads the way as a guy with starting experience who has just enough upside left to convince a team that he’s still starter material. Brian Hoyer (CLE) and Matt Moore (MIA) have had some success in the past without a whole lot to work with, and there may be a needy team willing to give one of them a chance in a new location. The oft-injured Jake Locker (TEN) has shown flashes, but he and Ryan Mallett (HOU) are really the only two players that teams might think have any level of real upside for the future. There’s always the chance that Michael Vick (NYJ) gets a call as well, but he seems to be done to me.
Note: As of publishing, Mark Sanchez has re-upped with the Eagles for another two seasons.
The running back position has struggled in recent years from a value perspective. As veterans are seeing their contracts reduce, guys on the decline are having a hard time keeping a roster spot, and stellar rookies are sliding out of the first round. This year, beyond the players listed above, there are versatile backs available like Jacquizz Rodgers (ATL), Bilal Powell (NYJ), Roy Helu (WAS) and Shane Vereen (NE) who will likely catch on somewhere and maintain a similar role to what they’ve held throughout their careers. Vereen in particular would benefit from a change of scenery, where perhaps he would be less vulnerable to Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick’s running back whims. However, the bulk of the running backs on the market this year are guys who may not have much left in the tank. Steven Jackson, Frank Gore (SF) and Ahmad Bradshaw (IND) have been very productive in the past, but fantasy owners should be skeptical as to whether or not they can continue to be productive starters. Gore is reportedly headed to Philadelphia, so the opportunity should be there for him depending on what the Eagles do in the draft. It’s unlikely either player will put up consistent fantasy numbers regardless of where they sign after the years of pounding they’ve taken, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can carve a role. C.J. Spiller (BUF), Ryan Mathews (SD), Darren McFadden (OAK), Knowshon Moreno (MIA), Ben Tate (MIN), and Stevan Ridley (NE) are an interesting group of players coming off down seasons but have shown flashes in the past. It’s likely that at least one of them gets a shot at a starting job with another team, and if they are featured and can stay healthy, they may have an opportunity to enjoy a bit of a career resurgence.
Even though running backs may not be in vogue when it comes to contracts and the draft, the run game is still vital in the NFL, and critical in fantasy football. And in that regard, it’s important to keep an eye on offensive line movement during the free agency period. Guys like San Francisco OG Mike Iupati and Green Bay OT Bryan Bulaga could find new uniforms this offseason, and their addition to any squad could result in a boon to the offensive skill position players they’ll be blocking for. Iupati is an excellent run blocker and could really help a struggling running game if he were to go to a team such as Arizona, Miami, or Buffalo. Likewise, Rodney Hudson (KC) and Stefan Wisniewski (OAK) are experienced centers who can provide starting caliber talent to any team that signs them.
Defensive Impact Players
Whether you’re in an IDP league, or in a league where team defenses make a difference, it’s important to note the following free agents who could have a big impact on a new squad. This category will be limited to only the most notable names that fantasy owners should keep in mind:
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit – Suh has an agreement in principle with the Miami Dolphins and will become arguably the most dominant defensive player to change teams since Reggie White signed with the Green Bay Packers during the original days of modern Free Agency. Suh will add a potent 2-gap penetrator to an already potent Dolphins defensive line, and might shoot Miami into one of the league leading defenses in terms of sacks. This move could launch Miami up the charts as a team defense.
Jerry Hughes, DE, Buffalo – Since being considered a marginal bust in Indianapolis, Hughes has emerged as a pass rushing demon in Buffalo. While an argument can be made that he has benefited from playing on a stellar Bills defense, it’s hard to overlook Hughes’ 19.5 sacks over the last two seasons. If he goes to another good system with one good pass rusher already on board, Hughes could make a good pass rushing team great by providing a second edge rusher. Look out if he ends up on a talented team like the Jets or Giants.
Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina – Off-field issues made 2014 a lost season for Hardy and undoubtedly led to what will be an unceremonious departure from Carolina, but this former sixth round pick out of Ole Miss compiled 26 sacks in in 2012 and 2013 combined and could be a game changer for a team that needs to develop a pass rush. If he winds up in Indianapolis, Chicago, or Jacksonville, he might make one of those teams worth drafting as a top ten fantasy team defense for the coming season.
Several other defensive players could make an impact this year, including LB Jason Worilds (PIT), S Devin McCourty (NE), and DTs Terrance Knighton (DEN) and Jared Odrick (MIA), but the above mentioned players stand the best chance to make the kind of fantasy impact that should cause fantasy owners to raise their eyebrows.
For wonks like me who love the NFL, the free agency period provides an entertaining flurry of transaction headlines and breaking news scrolls. I consistently refresh twitter for updates, and then devour rapid reactions by media and team personnel alike as players sign with new teams and start new chapters in their careers. This is a particularly deep year, with high quality talents on both sides of the ball hitting the open market, and fans should be treated to an active couple of weeks as teams rush to improve their squads. Perhaps most importantly, free agency marks the beginning of a new year of fantasy football, and we can all begin adjusting our draft boards as new information pours in.
Be sure to keep 4for4 bookmarked for all the latest fantasy takes on the key player signings as they occur. Senior Editor John Paulsen will be tracking all the fantasy relevant signings in the 2015 Fantasy Free Agency Tracker.