2016 NFL Free Agent Preview
When the clock strikes 4 p.m. ET this Wednesday, the new NFL year will begin and teams will scramble to sign the top available free agents. If you're anything like me, you love the start of free agency and the flurry of activity that inevitably ensues.
This year, there are some excellent running backs and defensive players on the market, some former stars surprisingly jettisoned from their long-time homes, and -- yet again -- a dearth of talent at the quarterback position.
Although teams can't officially sign free agents until Wednesday, the "legal tampering" period begins Monday at noon ET, so let’s take a look at some of the prominent names that may be on the move, with an eye towards evaluating next season's NFL rosters from a fantasy perspective.
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Top Skill Position Players Available
Later on, I’ll discuss various position groups in more detail, but let's start with a list of the best skill position players available.1
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami – The owner of a career 4.6 yard per carry average, Miller has shown flashes of brilliance at times, most notably during a 1,099-yard rushing season in 2014. Versatile enough to play all three downs (he caught 47 passes in 2015), Miller is a big play threat any time he touches the ball. However, he was woefully underused in Miami. His playmaking ability and age (25 when the season starts) render him one of the most valuable free agents on the market. Whether he ends up back in Miami or somewhere else, fantasy owners should take note. We’ve all been waiting for a true breakout year for him, and 2016 may be Miller time.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay – Affectionately (formerly?) nicknamed Muscle Hamster, Martin is a powerful runner with a low center of gravity. He took the league by storm by rushing for 1,454 yards in his rookie year, then faded into obscurity and fantasy disappointment for two years before another 1,400-yard season in 2015 -- good for second in the league. Tampa Bay will need to make a decision on whether to pay their young, inconsistent back or let another organization gamble on whether the former Boise State standout can repeat his contract year performance.
Matt Forte, RB, Chicago – After eight years as the lead back in Chicago, Forte will hit the market after his first season since 2011 with less than 15 games played and under 1,000 rushing yards. Forte is 30 years old -- usually a breaking point for players at his position -- but still looked like a productive, versatile back last year, finishing with 44 receptions and seven total touchdowns. Whoever signs Forte will get a player eager to prove he still has it -- he's one year removed from catching 102 passes and gaining over 1,800 yards from scrimmage.
Arian Foster, RB, Houston – Released after injuries derailed his season, Foster -- like Forte -- will be anxious to show he still has something left in the tank. Though he’s missed significant time in two of the last three years with injuries, Foster is only a year removed from over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. He’s also a versatile player -- he's averaged 3.3 catches per game over the last three seasons. Foster will be 30 when the season starts, so he’s just as likely to fall into obscurity as he is to shine in a new uniform, but he’s worth monitoring, especially if he winds up in a zone-blocking scheme.
Travis Benjamin, WR, Cleveland – Even though he appears to be a one-trick pony, Benjamin may find success on a team with a more accomplished quarterback throwing him deep strikes than anyone the Browns employed in 2015. Benjamin (5'10", 172) doesn’t have prototypical size to be a consistent outside target, but his 4.36 speed makes him a threat on every passing play and an asset in the return game. He scored five touchdowns last season and came within 34 yards of his first 1,000-yard season. At 26 years old, he still has room to grow and could thrive in the right situation. Ultimately, he's one of the biggest boom-or-bust candidates in this year’s free agency class.
Rishard Matthews, WR, Miami – Although he mostly played on the outside in Miami, Matthews looks to have a future as a slot receiver and could make an impact in the right situation. He averaged 3.9 catches for 60.2 yards per game last season, proving to be a reliable target who can consistently move the chains. If he winds up on a team that throws the ball a lot, he could put up fantasy WR3 numbers.
Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego – Gates suffered through injuries and a suspension last season, but showed he can still be a viable threat, averaging 5.1 catches for 57.3 yards per game -- his highest marks in both of those categories since 2011. Gates is past the point in his career where he can be an elite fantasy tight end, but if he ends up in a situation where he’s the starter, he should still be a quality option in all league formats. He could wind up being a bargain for owners looking to wait at the position.
Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis – Fleener never lived up to his expectations in Indianapolis, but could see an increased role if he finds work elsewhere. In previous seasons, Fleener has had to contend with injuries and competition with Dwayne Allen for snaps in the Colts passing game. In 2015, Fleener was finally healthy while Allen was in and out of the lineup, yet Fleener saw yards per reception drop to 9.1 (it was 15.2 in 2014) amidst a shaky quarterback situation. I'd imagine Indianapolis will re-sign the athletic Fleener, but he could make an impact in a new uniform if he winds up with a starting job and a decent quarterback.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, New York Jets – Teams better be careful going after this Harvard alum if they’re trying to recreate the “Fitz-Magic” that the Jets found in 2015. Fitzpatrick is coming off a career year, but all of his best seasons have come in Chan Gailey’s offensive system. While Fitzpatrick may be able to bridge the gap for a team looking to draft a youngster this year, it’s unlikely that he’ll repeat his past success in a different system. He's an example of a player who should be solid if he re-signs with his current team, but would likely disappoint elsewhere.
Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver – Would the Broncos let their big, young signal-caller walk this year? We’ll find out, but Osweiler is one of the more interesting options on the market. He showed flashes of ability with Denver last year while Peyton Manning was
benched hurt, but never solidified himself as the long-term answer at the position. An aggressive team may look to roll the dice on a 6’8" quarterback who completed over 61 percent of his passes and was 5-2 as a starter last season. Denver will likely try to re-sign the 25-year-old out of Arizona State, especially with Manning announcing his retirement, but Osweiler's price tag may be too high. Wherever Osweiler signs, he’ll be counted on to be a starter, which should make him fantasy-relevant, albeit risky.
Marvin Jones, WR, Cincinnati – Of all available receivers, Jones is most likely to assume the role of primary receiver in a new location. While an injury forced him to miss the entire 2014 season, Jones started 13 games last year and finished with 65 catches, 816 yards, and four touchdowns. Jones (6’2”, 198) has good size and is a capable route-runner who showed flashes of WR1 ability during his first four seasons, highlighted by a 10-touchdown campaign in 2013. His career 37.5% (12-of-32) red zone TD rate is exceptional and will appeal to potential suitors. Jones is only 25 years old and may finally get an opportunity to truly break out.
A Tale of Two Passers
Predictably, the league’s most important position has a lack of options available. It makes sense that teams are reluctant to part with any quarterback that could potentially be a long-term answer because there are rarely good quarterbacks on the market in any given year and teams rarely have sustained success without an impact player at the position.
I mentioned Fitzpatrick and Osweiler as two potential impact quarterbacks for teams looking to upgrade the position. Those two are really the only game in town now that Kirk Cousins has received the franchise tag and the Eagles have locked up Sam Bradford.
Besides Fitzpatrick and Osweiler, the quarterback market is flooded with career backup types who may find similar work elsewhere but are unlikely to start, barring injury. The three Matts (Matt Moore, Matt Cassel, and Matt Schaub) all have value as backups and should find roster spots. The same can be said for Jimmy Clausen, and Tarvaris Jackson.
Sleeper Alert: Case Keenum finished the season as the starting quarterback for the Rams. He went 3-2 as a starter and threw four touchdowns and one interception, completing over 60 percent of his passes. While being the best quarterback for the Rams last season was much like being the best quarterback for the Browns or Texans, it’s still worth noting that Keenum outplayed the more heralded Nick Foles, who was benched in Keenum's favor. Keenum could find himself in a starting role next year as teams try to discover if the 28-year-old out of Houston is anything more than a stopgap. Fantasy owners shouldn’t consider him more than a late round flier, but Keenum could make a difference if he winds up on a team needing a starter.
Hit the Ground Running
While the value of the running back position has diminished over the past several seasons and free agents are often a hit-or-miss prospect (the old adage “if they’re available, there’s a reason” often applies), running backs merely need a good system and enough carries to be solid fantasy options. The wealth of available backs this offseason is more of an indication of the decrease in contract value than anything else, so those backs shouldn't be written off as fantasy options provided they land in a good situation.
I’ve already addressed the top four running backs, but the list doesn’t stop there. Alfred Morris, Chris Ivory, and Chris Johnson are also available, and each of them could make an impact if they wind up in the right place. Morris is a bit of a system guy and can't catch, but if he winds up in a place that takes advantage of his one-cut ability, he could churn out a few more solid fantasy seasons. Due to injury concerns and a lack of pass-catching ability, Ivory is probably best used in a timeshare situation, but when healthy he runs violently and effectively. Johnson had a resurgence in Arizona this year before getting hurt, and he’s a wildcard as a fantasy option depending where he ends up.
James Starks, Lance Dunbar, LeGarrette Blount, Joique Bell, and Ronnie Hillman are more names to keep an eye on. These are all players with talent and specific skill sets that may allow them to contribute in the right situation.
Sleeper Alert: Christine Michael is a restricted free agent for the Seahawks, and while he’s been maddening and frustrating to figure out during his short career, he’s worth noting. The Seahawks may lose Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch both this offseason, and if they re-sign Michael and don’t make any other significant moves at the position, he could be Thomas Rawls's handcuff. Furthermore, if Seattle doesn’t make any major moves, then it could be interpreted as a long-awaited endorsement of the power runner out of Texas A&M, who had over 100 yards in a Week 17 victory over the Cardinals to close the regular season.
Veteran Pass Catchers
The popular thing to do this offseason is let your veteran wide receivers walk or release them from your roster.
Long time fantasy stalwarts like Roddy White and Marques Colston were released after a combined 21 seasons with the Falcons and Saints, respectively. Both are legends for their former teams and their leadership will be missed, but their teams could no longer justify giving them prominent roles after injury-plagued seasons where they looked like they lost a step. Still, these two players can provide veteran leadership and savvy route-running, and either could post WR3 fantasy numbers in the right situation.
Similarly, the Colts gave up on last year’s big free agent signee, Andre Johnson, after one season while the Eagles finally cut Riley Cooper from the roster. Both players have limited value at this stage in their careers and are longshots to hold any fantasy value unless they end up in a very favorable situation.
Anquan Boldin is available and could find starting a role for a team looking for consistent possession receiver in the slot. He can still go across the middle and be a tough safety valve. Even though he’ll turn 36 in October, he’s only a year removed from back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. In the right situation, Boldin could at least repeat his 789-yard, four touchdown performance from last year.
In addition to the veterans listed above, several available pass catchers are players who haven’t quite blossomed into stars, but have shown potential at times. Rueben Randle, Percy Harvin, and Brian Quick are all players who have shown the ability to be starters, but have ultimately disappointed, whether due to injury or inconsistent play. It’s worth monitoring whether or not any of these players get a larger role with a new team, potentially making them worth a fantasy flier.
The tight end position is also littered with veterans who've had productive fantasy seasons in the past, some more recently than others. Vernon Davis, Marcedes Lewis, and Jared Cook will all look to prove they still have what it takes to be reliable starters. Fantasy owners should also keep an eye on Ladarius Green, Jermaine Gresham, and Scott Chandler, who have been productive in small spurts but have been largely inconsistent. Any one of those three players could be successful in the right situation.
Sleeper Alert: Jermaine Kearse and Chris Givens are both players who have shown big play ability at times during their short careers in the league, but haven’t been given enough opportunities to fully thrive. Givens has never had consistent quarterback play, but has rare speed and good ball-tracking ability. Kearse has been stuck competing with other young receivers for targets on a Seahawks team that didn't emphasize the pass for the majority of his tenure. If he gets an opportunity to start in a more pass-friendly system, he could be a steal both in free agency and in fantasy drafts. Additionally, tight end Dwayne Allen has been an excellent pass catcher in Indianapolis but has always struggled with injuries. In a new spot, away from the shadow of Fleener, Allen could absolutely thrive with the right team.
Blockers for Hire
In addition to adding a running back, teams can also provide a boost to their running game by adding a reinforcement up front. The offensive line has long been an unheralded part of football, and you can expect a few teams to make locking up one of the top available big guys a priority.
This year, there are a handful of blockers worth keeping an eye on. Not only is it important to note a team's key free agent additions, but also their key losses.
For example, the Pittsburgh Steelers have spent the past few years building a solid offensive line, but are in danger of losing OT Kelvin Beachum and OG Ramon Foster. If they lose one or both of them, then it could be a long season for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell.
This year, there are three potentially elite blockers looking for new contracts:
Russell Okung, T, Seattle – Okung has been elite at times as a blind side tackle in Seattle, but injury issues have kept him from being ranked among the best at his position. While the risk in adding Okung is high due to his shaky medical history, he provides an immediate upgrade at the all-important left tackle position for anyone who signs him. He’s a capable blocker in all facets and could be tremendous addition for a team like the Giants, who have struggled with blocking up front and released LT Will Beatty this offseason.
Kelechi Osemele, G, Baltimore – Osemele is unlikely to switch teams because the Ravens will try very hard to re-sign their young interior lineman. If he does move on, he'll provide immediate improvement wherever he signs. Osemele has steadily progressed from quality youngster to consistent starter during his five year career.
Alex Mack, C, Cleveland – One of the best players at his position, Mack voided the final years of his deal with the Browns to become a free agent this year. While he’s said not to rule out a return to the Browns, Mack will command a lot of money as the best center on the market. He'll solidify the run blocking for whatever team ponies up.
In addition to the players mentioned above, keep an eye on the following veterans to see where they end up. While none of these players are elite at this point, any of them could provide upgrades to a starting unit:
Ryan Harris, T, Broncos; Bobby Massie, T, Cardinals; Jeff Allen, G, Chiefs; Zane Beadles, G, Jaguars; Donald Penn, T, Raiders; Mitchell Schwartz, T, Browns; Andre Smith, T, Bengals; Alex Boone, G, 49ers; Jahri Evans, G, Saints; Evan Mathis, G, Broncos; Stefen Wisniewski, C, Jaguars; Tim Barnes, C, Rams; Lyle Sendlein, C, Cardinals
Sleeper Alert: Ronald Leary lost his job as a starting guard for the Cowboys last year, but he’s an experienced starter who could provide a boost to the interior offensive line of any team that snatches him up. He should come at a reasonable price brings a pedigree as part of the great Dallas offensive line from 2014. While one could argue Leary benefited from the talent around him, he seems like a player who at the very least could provide a team with a plug-and-play starter adept at paving the way in the running game.
Defensive Difference Makers
Like running back, most defensive positions are deep this year in free agency. Defensive talent can be important in IDP leagues, but certain signings can alter team defense rankings as well. Here are a few of the top players available:
Malik Jackson, DT, Denver – Jackson was a monster in the Super Bowl and if he moves on, it’ll be for big money. Paired with fellow free agent Danny Trevathan, the Broncos’ athletic coverage linebacker, a Jackson departure could move Denver out of the top spot for fantasy defenses and could elevate a team willing to break the bank for defensive line help.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants – A wildcard after an injury to his hand last summer in a fireworks incident, Pierre-Paul was still productive when he took the field. Teams will want to check him out thoroughly before handing him a big contract, but his blend of size and athleticism coming off the edge could boost a team's sack totals considerably.
Update: The Giants re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul to a 1-year deal, delaying his unrestricted free agency for at least another year.
Damon Harrison, DT, New York Jets – The player affectionately known as “Snacks” was a load in the middle of the Jets’ defensive line. Harrison personifies the traditional nose tackle role and his addition could dramatically improve the run defense of whoever acquires him. Similar players like Ian Williams of the 49ers and Terrance Knighton of the Redskins could have a similar impact on new squads, but Harrison’s talent level at the position is rare.
Pass rushers are not usually available in free agency, but this year may be an exception. In addition to Pierre-Paul, players like Bruce Irvin, Mario Williams, and Charles Johnson are on the market, all of whom could substantially improve a team's pass rush.
Update: As is typical, pass rushers didn't last long on the market. Prior to the 4pm EST start time, Mario Williams was signed by the Miami Dolphins to a 2-year $17 million contract, and the Panthers brought back Charles Johnson on a 1-year $3 million deal.
Also, don’t forget to mark where Adam Jones ends up. Long removed from his early troubles, he’s been starting at cornerback for the Bengals for the last six years and is a very capable return man as well. He could be worth consideration in IDP leagues that reward return specialists.
Sleeper Alert: Secondary players like Janoris Jenkins, Eric Weddle, Sean Smith, and Reggie Nelson should all make an impact wherever they wind up, but a name to keep an eye on if you’re looking for a sleeper is Patrick Robinson. Robinson struggled early in his career, but enjoyed a nice season for San Diego last year and could be in line for a true breakout year in 2016 if he winds up in the right spot. Hindered by a lack of defensive talent up front in both New Orleans and San Diego, the aggressive Robinson flashes true press coverage skills and could be a steal for a team with a solid defensive foundation in place. If he winds up with a team like Carolina or New England, he could be a name to know in IDP formats.
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1. I didn’t include guys who received the franchise or transition tag this year, as these players are not likely to switch teams. Otherwise, Alshon Jeffrey, Kirk Cousins, and Justin Tucker would make this list.