The 2016 NFL free agency period begins March 9. Each year, dozens of players change NFL teams. And each year, fantasy football owners have renewed optimism when certain players fall into seemingly ideal situations. Perhaps their skill set matches nicely with the offensive scheme of his new team. Maybe the lack of quality players on the team’s depth chart points to a sneaky sleeper candidate. Or maybe the new teammate goes from a poor offense to a juggernaut offense. Or just the opposite, the team gets the play-maker it was in need of.
Fantasy owners probably salivate over a few of the scenarios that free agency seems to create for the upcoming season. Take a spin of the fantasy roulette wheel. But what does history show? Most fantasy owners will admit that not every situation will pay dividends, but many will still hold to the premise that a player’s talent and ability will overcome any negative situation.
Last season, Jimmy Graham was traded from pass-happy New Orleans to pass-unhappy Seattle. Yet optimistic fantasy owners still had Graham ranked 2 – and perhaps justifiably. In all fairness, Graham did miss 5 games, but still managed to maintain his yards-per-game average from the year before (55.0 ypg with Seattle compared to 55.6 ypg with the 2014 Saints). Graham’s drop came in the redzone, as Seattle was more likely to run in a TD rather than pass it. (Graham averaged a TD in 18% of his Seattle games compared to 62% of his Saints games.) The Seahawks passing game didn’t take flight until both Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls were injured. Coincidence?
Comparing similar free agents is no guarantee of success either. For example, both QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and Nick Foles were heading to different teams in 2015. Neither was projected to be a fantasy starter, nor were they even projected to be backups in 12-team formats. But both were projected to have some upside and were ranked similarly. Fitzpatrick however won the starting job and out-performed his 2014 fantasy statistics.
Another comparison was 2015 free agent RB’s LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray. Both were top-10 projections – McCoy was going to play for a historically consistent run-first coach, and Murray was going to the fast-paced Chip Kelly offense. The potential upside on the workloads was mind-boggling. Unfortunately, neither met their projected success.
One 2015 running back that flourished on his new team was Darren McFadden, but he was only projected to be a tier 4 RB. Remember, Jerry Jones was very vocal about his praise for Lance Dunbar. Future criminal Joseph Randle was also ahead of Murray on the depth chart; not to mention that Dez Bryant seemed to be the focal point of the offense. A few unforeseeable injuries and arrests catapulted McFadden to fantasy relevance.
Our last comparison from 2015 features a trio of free agent receivers: Brandon Marshall, Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace. Marshall seemed to be on his way down as he wore out his welcome in Chicago, going to a rebuilding Jets team. Maclin was leaving a highly productive Eagles team to be reunited with a less-than-productive Andy Reid. And Wallace was sailing off to the Vikings to provide an improving Teddy Bridgewater a reliable target.
All 3 wide receivers were ranked very closely as tier-3 wideouts. Marshall far exceeded expectations. Thanks to some late-season consistency, Maclin actually met his projections (probably to the chagrin of his fantasy owners). And because Teddy did not take the next step in his progression, Wallace pretty much sailed off the fantasy map.
Just based on 2015, I would hardly say free agents Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall are the litmus test on success. Generally speaking, free agents do not do well on their new teams as evidence by the aforementioned comparisons. The same is true if we were to look at other fantasy free agent seasons. In 2014 Toby Gerhart was to emerge from the shadows of Adrian Peterson as the feature back in Jacksonville – Gerhart remained in the fantasy shadows.
Also in 2014, Eric Decker and Emmanuel Sanders were both projected to be taken in the same round. Decker wasn’t just leaving Peyton Manning’s arm for Geno Smith’s; Decker was to be the feature WR on the Jets, and Sanders was replacing Decker in a crowded receiving corps in Denver. While Decker had a huge game (221 yards) in week 17, he was otherwise well behind on his previous season’s totals. Meanwhile, Sanders doubled his production from the year before.
Of course looking back on previous free agent seasons, it all makes so much sense to see how some free agents did well while others did poorly, but one thing’s for sure: this year will be different! Or will it?
How will we rank our free agents on the fantasy roulette wheel in 2016? If free agent history is any indication, we may be playing Russian roulette.
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