How Does Free Agency Impact Fantasy Production?

How Does Free Agency Impact Fantasy Production?

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor), last updated Sep 12, 2016

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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 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 since 2005 to see if there is anything we can learn. (Note: Free agent data isn’t easy to find, so if there are any major signings that are missing, please let me know.)

Aside from a few exceptions, established players — those who averaged more than 5.0 fantasy points per game (standard scoring) in the two seasons prior to changing teams — generally saw their production decrease with their new teams. Why did I go with a cutoff of 5.0 PPG? That basically equates to top 50 numbers for running backs and wide receivers, so those players have been fantasy relevant in the short term.

Below is a table for each position. We’ll start with the quarterbacks…

 

Production of Free Agent Quarterbacks
Year Player Pos Age Old New ADP 2-Year Avg Y+1 Avg % Diff 2-Year Avg Tot Y+1 Tot % Diff
2014 Josh McCown QB 35 CHI TB 171 17.0 12.3 -28% 136 135 -1%
2009 Matt Cassel QB 27 NE KC 119 15.5 11.2 -28% 249 168 -32%
2006 Drew Brees QB 27 SD NO 111 14.9 16.4 10% 231 262 14%
2014 Ryan Fitzpatrick QB 32 TEN HOU 190 14.8 15.1 2% 198 182 -8%
2006 Aaron Brooks QB 30 NO OAK 126 14.4 6.6 -54% 210 53 -75%
2013 Ryan Fitzpatrick QB 31 BUF TEN - 14.1 15.5 10% 225 171 -24%
2006 Kerry Collins QB 34 OAK TEN 186 13.9 3.5 -75% 202 14 -93%
2009 Brett Favre QB 40 NYJ MIN 124 13.9 17.9 29% 222 287 29%
2015 Brian Hoyer QB 30 CLE HOU 206 12.4 15.5 25% 100 171 71%
2011 Matt Hasselbeck QB 36 SEA TEN 176 11.6 12.0 3% 163 192 18%
2005 Drew Bledsoe QB 33 BUF DAL 154 10.0 13.8 39% 159 221 39%
  Averages           13.8 12.7 -8% 190 169 -11%

 

There haven’t been that many (11) established quarterbacks who have changed teams over the last 11 years, but since QBs are more in control of their own production than the other positions, six of the 11 managed to increase their per game averages in the first season following free agency (Y+1). As a group, their PPG and season totals both dropped by 8% and 11% respectively.

This year, Brock Osweiler and Robert Griffin III will have the chance to establish themselves (or re-establish, in the case of RG3) with new teams. For both players, a best-case scenario is probably 2015 Tyrod Taylor, who won the Bills job and finished with the 7th-highest PPG last season. (By the way, Taylor is one of my favorite sleepers at the position, provided the Bills don’t draft a quarterback.)

 

Production of Free Agent Running Backs
Year Player Pos Age Old New ADP 2-Year Avg Y+1 Avg % Diff 2-Year Avg Tot Y+1 Tot % Diff
2006 Edgerrin James RB 28 IND ARI 9 17.0 10.9 -36% 263 174 -34%
2015 DeMarco Murray RB 27 DAL PHI 17 16.9 9.6 -43% 256 144 -44%
2010 Thomas Jones RB 32 NYJ KC 117 14.8 8.6 -42% 236 138 -42%
2010 LaDainian Tomlinson RB 31 SD NYJ 100 12.8 10.9 -15% 193 164 -15%
2013 Ahmad Bradshaw RB 27 NYG IND 77 12.4 11.6 -6% 160 35 -78%
2014 Chris Johnson RB 29 TEN NYJ 66 12.1 5.8 -52% 193 93 -52%
2013 Reggie Bush RB 28 MIA DET 23 11.5 13.8 20% 178 193 9%
2009 Derrick Ward RB 29 NYG TB 70 11.2 5.3 -52% 128 74 -42%
2013 Steven Jackson RB 30 STL ATL 22 11.1 9.6 -13% 172 115 -33%
2012 Michael Bush RB 29 OAK CHI 111 10.6 6.1 -42% 160 79 -51%
2012 Cedric Benson RB 30 CIN GB 89 10.6 8.1 -23% 164 41 -75%
2012 BenJarvus Green-Ellis RB 27 NE CIN 65 10.5 9.7 -8% 168 156 -7%
2007 Ahman Green RB 30 GB HOU 59 10.4 8.4 -19% 110 50 -54%
2015 Frank Gore RB 32 SF IND 35 10.4 10.3 -1% 166 165 -1%
2007 Jamal Lewis RB 28 BAL CLE 62 10.1 14.7 46% 156 221 42%
2015 Reggie Bush RB 30 DET SF 148 9.9 0.9 -91% 130 5 -96%
2014 Maurice Jones-Drew RB 29 JAX OAK 88 9.9 1.4 -86% 102 17 -84%
2015 Ryan Mathews RB 28 SD PHI 109 9.4 8.5 -10% 122 111 -10%
2015 Chris Johnson RB 30 NYJ ARI 194 9.2 9.6 4% 148 105 -29%
2015 Shane Vereen RB 26 NE NYG 104 9.0 6.2 -31% 101 100 -1%
2008 Warrick Dunn RB 27 ATL TB 168 8.8 8.2 -7% 141 124 -12%
2009 Edgerrin James RB 28 ARI SEA 167 8.8 2.1 -76% 132 14 -89%
2007 Travis Henry RB 29 TEN DEN 17 8.6 8.3 -3% 108 100 -7%
2008 Julius Jones RB 27 DAL SEA 79 7.5 5.9 -21% 119 88 -26%
2014 Rashad Jennings RB 29 OAK NYG 57 7.3 10.0 38% 96 111 15%
2015 C.J. Spiller RB 28 BUF NO 69 6.8 3.6 -47% 86 47 -45%
2011 Darren Sproles RB 28 SD NO 124 6.8 11.6 71% 108 185 71%
2015 Darren McFadden RB 28 OAK DAL 114 6.6 10.0 50% 83 160 93%
2014 Ben Tate RB 26 HOU CLE 63 6.1 6.1 -1% 80 67 -16%
2006 Chester Taylor RB 27 BAL MIN 36 6.0 12.4 107% 93 186 100%
2013 Danny Woodhead RB 28 NE SD 127 5.5 9.5 71% 87 151 75%
  Averages           10.0 8.3 -16% 143 110 -23%
  Averages (8.0+ 2-Year)           11.1 8.2 -26% 160 105 -34%
  Averages (< 8.0 2-Year)           6.6 8.6 31% 94 124 32%

 

For running backs, I wanted to look at starting-caliber backs (i.e. RB1s & RB2s) versus the flex- or backup-type runners, so I divided the position into those who averaged at least 8.0 FP and those who didn’t. Those who scored more had farther to fall, and fall they did by an average of 26% (PPG) in Y+1. In fact, 14 of the 23 backs who averaged at least 8.0 FP over the two previous years saw their production drop by at least 10%.

Nine RBs in the the 8.0-plus group were drafted (on average) in the first six rounds and had an average 17% drop in per game production and a 24% drop in yearly fantasy points.

The under-8.0 group saw an average 31% increase in PPG and 32% increase in end-of-year fantasy points, spearheaded by 2006 Chester Taylor, 2013 Danny Woodhead, 2011 Darren Sproles and 2015 Darren McFadden.

Two players who didn’t make the minimum 5.0 PPG cut were 2005 LaMont Jordan and 2008 Michael Turner, who finished #8 and #2, respectively, the year after free agency. On the flip side, I thought 2014 Toby Gerhart had a good chance to emerge in Jacksonville, but he suffered an ankle injury early on and never really got going.

This year, we have a number of high-profile backs changing teams. Lamar Miller should be fine with what should be an increased workload in Houston, while Matt Forte and Chris Ivory may see a decrease in touches as they join new teams. Alfred Morris will compete with the aforementioned McFadden in Dallas. The 29-year-old Arian Foster is still waiting to find a team.

 

Production of Free Agent Wide Receivers
Year Player Pos Age Old New ADP 2-Year Avg Y+1 Avg % Diff 2-Year Avg Tot Y+1 Tot % Diff
2006 Terrell Owens WR 33 PHI DAL 26 15.3 12.3 -20% 158 196 24%
2009 Terrell Owens WR 36 DAL BUF 38 12.8 7.8 -39% 198 124 -37%
2013 Wes Welker WR 32 NE DEN 40 12.1 10.6 -12% 194 138 -29%
2014 Eric Decker WR 27 DEN NYJ 81 11.9 8.4 -29% 190 126 -33%
2005 Muhsin Muhammad WR 32 CAR CHI 82 10.8 6.6 -39% 170 99 -42%
2012 Brandon Lloyd WR 31 STL NE 58 10.8 7.2 -33% 168 115 -32%
2005 Derrick Mason WR 31 TEN BAL 81 10.6 7.8 -26% 169 125 -26%
2015 Jeremy Maclin WR 27 PHI KC 55 10.3 10.5 3% 160 158 -1%
2010 Nate Burleson WR 29 SEA DET 158 9.9 7.6 -23% 56 107 91%
2013 Mike Wallace WR 27 PIT MIA 62 9.8 7.9 -19% 153 126 -17%
2009 T.J. Houshmandzadeh WR 32 CIN SEA 40 9.7 6.8 -30% 152 109 -28%
2012 Vincent Jackson WR 29 SD TB 61 9.7 11.7 21% 107 186 74%
2014 DeSean Jackson WR 28 PHI WAS 54 9.6 10.2 7% 134 154 14%
2013 Greg Jennings WR 30 GB MIN 84 9.5 7.0 -27% 105 104 0%
2015 Andre Johnson WR 34 HOU IND 48 9.1 4.6 -49% 141 74 -47%
2011 Sidney Rice WR 25 MIN SEA 83 9.0 6.7 -25% 110 61 -44%
2015 Torrey Smith WR 26 BAL SF 111 8.7 5.6 -35% 140 90 -35%
2015 Percy Harvin WR 27 NYJ BUF 163 8.7 6.2 -29% 91 31 -66%
2014 James Jones WR 30 GB OAK 156 8.6 6.4 -26% 131 103 -22%
2007 Donte' Stallworth WR 27 PHI NE 91 8.6 5.6 -35% 120 89 -26%
2010 Antonio Bryant WR 29 TB CIN 187 8.5 0.0 -100% 127 0 -100%
2012 Pierre Garcon WR 26 IND WAS 76 8.3 8.8 6% 125 88 -29%
2009 Laveranues Coles WR 32 NYJ CIN 94 8.2 5.2 -37% 115 82 -28%
2009 Torry Holt WR 33 STL JAX 101 8.1 4.8 -41% 130 72 -44%
2006 Keyshawn Johnson WR 34 DAL CAR 102 8.0 7.0 -13% 128 112 -13%
2005 Plaxico Burress WR 28 PIT NYG 85 8.0 10.2 28% 105 163 56%
2012 Mario Manningham WR 26 NYG SF 165 7.8 4.8 -38% 113 57 -49%
2014 Steve L. Smith WR 35 CAR BAL 141 7.8 8.9 14% 121 143 17%
2008 Bernard Berrian WR 28 CHI MIN 92 7.7 8.8 14% 120 141 18%
2014 Golden Tate WR 26 SEA DET 85 7.6 10.0 32% 118 160 36%
2012 Jerome Simpson WR 26 CIN MIN 167 7.6 2.3 -70% 71 27 -62%
2015 Eddie Royal WR 29 SD CHI 124 7.6 3.3 -56% 117 30 -75%
2008 Isaac Bruce WR 36 STL SF 137 7.5 7.8 5% 113 125 11%
2006 Antonio Bryant WR 25 CLE SF 110 7.4 6.5 -12% 115 91 -21%
2011 Braylon Edwards WR 28 NYJ SF 121 7.1 2.0 -72% 113 18 -84%
2012 Laurent Robinson WR 27 DAL JAX 160 7.1 3.6 -49% 99 25 -75%
2015 Greg Jennings WR 32 MIN MIA 218 6.9 1.7 -76% 107 27 -75%
2006 David Givens WR 26 NE TEN 138 6.9 2.1 -69% 97 11 -89%
2006 Brandon Lloyd WR 25 SF WAS 155 6.8 2.4 -65% 98 37 -62%
2015 James Jones WR 31 OAK GB 176 6.8 8.6 27% 101 137 35%
2015 Michael Crabtree WR 28 SF OAK 150 6.4 9.1 43% 64 146 127%
2014 Brandon LaFell WR 28 CAR NE 188 6.3 8.7 37% 95 139 46%
2014 Hakeem Nicks WR 26 NYG IND 128 6.3 4.0 -36% 88 65 -27%
2006 Joe Jurevicius WR 32 SEA CLE 138 6.3 5.2 -17% 88 68 -22%
2007 Kevin Curtis WR 29 STL PHI 114 6.1 9.2 51% 98 147 51%
2012 Robert Meachem WR 28 NO SD 91 6.1 2.1 -66% 98 32 -67%
2015 Cecil Shorts WR 28 JAX HOU 192 6.1 5.9 -2% 79 65 -17%
2015 Dwayne Bowe WR 31 KC CLE 190 5.8 0.8 -87% 86 5 -94%
2014 Emmanuel Sanders WR 27 PIT DEN 65 5.7 12.4 119% 91 199 119%
2015 Stevie Johnson WR 29 SF SD 140 5.6 6.8 20% 70 68 -3%
2008 Bryant Johnson WR 27 ARI SF 143 5.1 4.5 -12% 82 73 -10%
  Averages           8.3 6.6 -21% 118 95 -19%
  Averages (8.0+ 2-Year)           9.8 7.4 -24% 137 109 -21%
  Averages (< 8.0 2-Year)           6.7 5.7 -16% 98 81 -17%

 

Generally, free agency isn’t good for receiver production, with 21 of the 26 WRs in the 8.0-plus group seeing their PPG decline by an average of 33% in Y+1. The group as a whole saw a 24% decline in PPG and 21% in total fantasy points.

The ten receivers in this group that were drafted in the first six rounds saw an average drop of 17% and 8% in PPG and total points, respectively.

The under-8.0 group didn’t fare much better with an average drop of 16% in PPG and 17% in total points, though there have been situations where players have flourished with new teams. 2014 Emmanuel Sanders, 2015 Michael Crabtree, 2015 James Jones, 2014 Brandon LaFell, 2007 Kevin Curtis and 2014 Golden Tate are the best examples. This group saw their targets increase by an average of 45%, with Jones being the only player to have his targets drop year to year.

2007 Wes Welker increased his per game production by 186% when he left Miami for New England, but he didn’t make the 5.0 PPG cutoff.

This year, Marvin Jones (7.7 PPG over his last two seasons) joins the Lions and will be asked to replace at least a portion of Calvin Johnson’s production. I think his production has a chance to increase given a larger role in the offense.

Mohamed Sanu is also getting a promotion as he becomes the #2 option in Atlanta. His targets should double from the 49 he saw last year. He was the #30 fantasy receiver in 2014 when he was targeted 98 times due to injuries to both A.J. Green and Jones.

I’m not terribly bullish on Travis Benjamin, who will be hard-pressed to match the 125 targets he garnered in 2015. His QB situation is improving dramatically, however, so there is some upside there if he somehow works his way into the #2 option in the San Diego passing game. Unfortunately, he could be as low as 5th behind Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, Stevie Johnson and Danny Woodhead.

The dark horse of this free agent class is Rishard Matthews, who was on pace for a 67-1059-6.4 breakout season prior to injuring his ribs. He’s landing in Tennessee, which in recent years hasn’t been a hotbed of passing efficiency. But with Marcus Mariota under center and a less than stellar depth chart (Dorial Green-Beckham, Kendall Wright, etc.), I wouldn’t be shocked if Matthews finishes the season as the Titans’ top fantasy receiver.

And don't forget about Chris Hogan, who may end up starting for the Patriots. If he wins the job, he should be able to post 2014 Brandon LaFell-type numbers.

 

Production of Free Agent Tight Ends
Year Player Pos Age Old New ADP 2-Year Avg Y+1 Avg % Diff 2-Year Avg Tot Y+1 Tot % Diff
2011 Zach Miller TE 26 OAK SEA 137 10.8 3.2 -70% 162 48 -70%
2015 Julius Thomas TE 27 DEN JAX 95 10.0 6.3 -37% 136 76 -44%
2008 Alge Crumpler TE 31 ATL TEN 130 9.9 3.7 -62% 149 56 -62%
2015 Jordan Cameron TE 27 CLE MIA 90 7.2 3.5 -51% 94 57 -40%
2015 Owen Daniels TE 33 BAL DEN 120 6.9 4.4 -37% 60 70 16%
2015 Charles Clay TE 26 MIA BUF 165 6.5 5.4 -17% 99 71 -28%
2013 Martellus Bennett TE 26 NYG CHI 135 5.8 6.6 15% 90 106 18%
  Averages           8.1 4.7 -42% 113 69 -39%

 

The data for the tight end position is pretty thin, though the seven players who qualified saw their PPG drop by an average of 42% and their full-season production drop by 39%. Only 2013 Martellus Bennett was able to raise his PPG in Y+1.

However, these numbers don’t include 2012 Martellus Bennett (+212%) or 2013 Delanie Walker (+113%) since they didn’t meet the 5.0 FP threshold.

Bennett and Walker bode pretty well for Ladarius Green who had produced when given starter’s snaps, but simply hasn’t had the opportunity to carve out a role playing behind future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates. Green joins a high-octane Pittsburgh offense that will be without its primary red zone target (Martavis Bryant).

Coby Fleener meets the 5.0 FP threshold, but he’s no longer in a timeshare with Dwayne Allen and has produced strong TE1 numbers when Allen has been sidelined. The future looks very bright for both Green and Fleener.

 

Bottom Line

Generally, in-prime or past-prime players that make lateral moves to new teams are going to see a small to significant drop in production, but there are exceptions, so each move needs to be evaluated on its own merits. While Matt Forte and Chris Ivory may be entering timeshares, Lamar Miller should see plenty of touches in Houston's run-heavy offense.

When a young player who flashes talent as a backup is promoted to starter status with a new team, fantasy owners should pay attention. That's how you find emerging stars like 2005 LaMont Jordan, 2006 Chester Taylor, 2007 Wes Welker and 2008 Michael Turner.

This year, I'm very optimistic about Coby Fleener and Ladarius Green, who both fit the bill. I'm also feeling good about the opportunity that Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu will get in Detroit and Atlanta, respectively.

Filed Under: Preseason, 2013

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