Fantasy football impact of key free-agent signings, trades

From ESPN - March 14, 2018

Editor's note: This column will be updated throughout the early portion of the free-agent signing period, so come back often to see the latest analysis.

For analysis of how the Cleveland Browns' acquisitions of Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry affect their fantasy value, as well as that of their new teammates, click here.

Latest signing news:

RB Carlos Hyde to Cleveland Browns

The Browns' backfield has been simple to sort out in recent years: Isaiah Crowell on early downs and short yardage, Duke Johnson Jr. in passing situations. Moving forward, it should not be much different. On Wednesday, the Browns agreed to sign Hyde, who provides the team with an upgrade on Crowell, who is expected to sign with the New York Jets.

Hyde was a second-round pick by the 49ers back in 2014. He has operated as San Francisco's lead back, when healthy, each of the past three seasons. "When healthy" has been key for Hyde, as he missed 14 games during his first three seasons before appearing in all 16 affairs last year. Hyde enjoyed the most efficient season of his career in 2015 when he averaged 4.6 yards per carry (2.1 after contact).

Running less from the shotgun and seeing more in-box defenders last year, Hyde's YPC dipped to 3.9 (1.8 YAC), but his volume as both a rusher and receiver increased. Hyde ranked 11th at the position with 240 carries and fifth in targets with 87. Hyde was extremely busy near the goal line, ranking second in the NFL in both OTD (12.6) and carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line (16). He hit a career high with eight rushing touchdowns after scoring nine all-purpose touchdowns in 2016.

In Cleveland, Hyde is a good bet to dominate the carries, but figures to see a dramatic drop in targets. Whereas Hyde saw 87 targets last season, Crowell posted totals of 49 and 42 over the past two seasons. With Johnson (93 targets last year) and now Jarvis Landry in the mix, Hyde simply wo not be needed in the passing game as often as he was in San Francisco. He's best viewed as a fringe RB2 option in 12-team leagues, whereas Johnson -- a good bet for a slight dip in targets as the result of an improved supporting cast and regression-to-the-mean in the touchdown department -- is a safer RB2 option in PPR.

Early 16-game projections:

Duke Johnson Jr.: 106 carries, 442 yards, 3 touchdowns; 59 receptions, 512 yards, 1 touchdown
Carlos Hyde: 224 carries, 892 yards, 7 touchdowns; 23 receptions, 152 yards, 1 touchdown

RB Dion Lewis to Tennessee Titans

When the Titans released lead back DeMarco Murray, it appeared 2016 second-round pick Derrick Henry was finally positioned for feature back duties. Instead, the team again clouded the backfield by adding one of the top backs available in free agency.

Lewis, a fifth-round pick in 2011, struggled to make an impact because of injuries and a lack of opportunity with the Eagles and Browns, but finally exploded onto the NFL scene with New England in 2015. Lewis took his game to a new level last year, setting career highs in carries (180), scrimmage yards (1,110) and offensive touchdowns (nine). A terrific weapon as a receiver, Lewis also caught all but three of his 35 targets. Though he was only on the field for 385 snaps, Lewis finished as fantasy's No. 13 scoring running back and ranked fourth in fantasy points per snap. Over the past three seasons, Lewis ranks fourth in the NFL in both yards per carry (4.82) and yards after contact per attempt (2.33) among 63 backs with 200-plus carries during the span.

The elephant in the room with Lewis is his durability, as he has appeared in only 54 of a possible 112 regular-season games during his seven-year career. He has never been on the field for more than 36 percent of his team's snaps in a single season, though he was active for all 19 of New England's games last year.

In Tennessee, 5-foot-8, 195-pound Lewis will be the lightning to 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry's thunder. Both backs figure to play significant roles, with Henry leading the charge on early downs and short yardage, including the goal line, and Lewis playing a significant change-of-pace role with primary passing-game duties. The committee is sure to limit the upside of both backs, but with many NFL teams going the same direction, it's possible both Henry and Lewis will be starting fantasy options (think Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman).

Early 16-game projections:

Derrick Henry: 220 carries, 946 yards, 7 touchdowns; 24 receptions, 219 yards, 1 touchdown
Dion Lewis: 124 carries, 550 yards, 3 touchdowns; 47 receptions, 380 yards, 2 touchdowns

RB Jerick McKinnon to San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers needed a replacement for lead back Carlos Hyde, and former Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon was looking for a destination where he'd be "the guy." Consider both sides satisfied after reportedly agreeing to a four-year, $30 million contract on Wednesday.

Though 5-foot-9, 212-pound McKinnon is a bit smaller than Hyde -- and not quite as effective a runner -- he's an elite athlete and a better receiver (which is not saying much in this case). McKinnon has never exceeded 159 carries in a season (2016), and he's averaging 3.59 yards per carry, including 1.50 after contact, on 309 carries over the past two seasons. Those efficiency rates rank last and second-to-last, respectively, among 22 backs with 300-plus carries over the past two years. McKinnon's receiving volume has been terrific during the two-year span, but his efficiency there also has been weak. Since 2016, he's ninth at the position with 121 targets, but his 7.2 yards per reception ranks 25th among 30 backs with 75-plus targets during the two seasons.

Those numbers should be somewhat alarming after the team just made McKinnon one of the five highest-paid backs in the NFL. Of course, volume is what wins in fantasy football, and McKinnon's paycheck suggests he will be the unquestioned lead back come Week 1. He will need to fend off second-year back Matt Breida and Joe Williams, and the team could still add an impact back during the April draft. There's reason to worry about McKinnon's efficiency issues and the fact that he likely has a lower carry ceiling than most, but he's currently positioned for a role that would allow him back-end RB2 production.

Early 16-game projection: 186 carries, 754 yards, 7 touchdowns, 51 receptions, 397 yards, 1 touchdown

QB Kirk Cousins to Minnesota Vikings

The long-rumored connection between the Vikings and Cousins came to fruition on Tuesday, when the two sides agreed to a fully guaranteed four-year, $86 million contract, per Adam Schefter. Cousins joins Minnesota following six seasons in Washington. Initially the backup to Robert Griffin III, Cousins took over as the full-time starter in 2015 and has posted three consecutive top-eight fantasy seasons. Cousins has ranked no lower than 12th in pass attempts, eighth in completions, 10th in yards, 13th in touchdowns, 10th in completion percentage and 11th in yards per attempt each of the past three seasons. He also added 13 touchdowns with his legs during the span, which trailed only Cam Newton (21) and Tyrod Taylor (14).

Cousins put together a strong 2017 season despite struggling to connect with top wide receivers Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder and Terrelle Pryor Sr. and dealing with injuries to standouts Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson. His supporting cast in Minnesota will be significantly better. Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs were both top-20 fantasy wide receivers last season and combined to handle 46 percent of the team's targets. Cousins will also have second-year Dalvin Cook in the backfield and Kyle Rudolph at tight end. Minnesota additionally has one of the league's best defenses, which might limit Cousins' second-half pass attempts but should shorten the field and allow more scoring opportunities.

At worst, Cousins is a solid quarterback with a good group of assets in Minnesota. The Vikings' offense ranked ninth in the NFL in touchdowns per game (2.4) last season and should only be better with Cousins stepping in for Case Keenum. Cousins is a strong bet for another top-10 fantasy campaign, and he has top-five upside.

Early 16-game projection: 365-of-561 for 4,335 yards, 27 TDs, 14 INTs; 47 carries, 136 yards, 2 TDs

WR Allen Robinson to Chicago Bears

The Bears entered the offseason with one of the league's worst wide receiver groups, but they changed the narrative quickly by signing Robinson to a reported three-year, $42 million contract.

Robinson missed all of last season with a torn ACL but previously showed his massive upside with 80 receptions on 148 targets for 1,400 yards and a position-high 14 touchdowns in 2015. Robinson was fantasy's No. 6 wide receiver in what was his second NFL season. He did a significant portion of his damage deep downfield, as his 15.3 average depth of target (aDOT) was seventh-highest and his 17.5 yards per reception (YPR) sixth-highest at the position. Robinson's hefty touchdown total was fueled by 19 end zone targets (fourth-most) and a 10.7 OTD (third).

That data is important as we try to understand why Robinson's production fell so far in 2016 despite his seeing more targets (149). Robinson was limited to 73 receptions for 883 yards and six touchdowns. He ranked second at the position in pass routes (665), sixth in targets, fifth in end zone targets (16) and sixth in OTD (8.2) but finished 25th in fantasy points. Robinson's aDOT fell to 13.3, his YPR to 12.1, his catch rate from 54 percent to 49 percent and his run after the catch (RAC) from 4.4 to 2.8, while the rate of balls directed at him that were off-target jumped from 23 percent to 28 percent.

The big difference? A massive drop in production on the deep ball. On balls thrown 20-plus yards down field in 2015, Blake Bortles connected with Robinson on 15 of 43 targets for 591 yards and two touchdowns. In 2016, Robinson caught one of 24 targets for 24 yards and no scores. We talk often about statistical regression to the mean, but that's an all-timer of an overcorrection.

One thing Robinson was never short on in Jacksonville was target volume. He enjoyed 8.0 targets per game as a rookie, 9.25 in 2015 and 9.31 in 2016. Considering Chicago's underwhelming group of pass-catchers, it's fair to assume that Robinson will handle nearly one-quarter of the targets in 2018. That would be enough to allow him strong fantasy production in what will likely be a pass-first offense under new head coach Matt Nagy. Nagy, of course, comes from the Andy Reid coaching tree, and Kansas City operated a pass-first offense during the two seasons Nagy served as offensive coordinator (2016-17).

The big X factor for Robinson's production will be second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky. The 2017 second overall pick showed well despite a poor supporting cast and an ultra-conservative, uncreative offense as a rookie. He was effective overall and, perhaps more importantly as Robinson is concerned, did well throwing the deep ball (10-of-29 for 323 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions).

As long as Trubisky is solid under center, Robinson's inevitable high-end volume should allow him solid WR2 numbers with room for more.

Early 16-game projection: 141 targets, 75 receptions, 1,053 yards, 7 TDs

TE Jimmy Graham to Green Bay Packers

The Packers entered free agency as one of the league's neediest teams at tight end. The void is filled after the team signed Graham to a three-year contract. The Packers also released WR Jordy Nelson, which only adds to the likelihood that Graham will handle a significant offensive role.

As Graham's fantasy value is debated in upcoming months, expect to hear a lot of chatter about the Packers' not using the tight end much in the passing game. Ignore it. Aaron Rodgers has played eight full seasons in the past decade, and Green Bay tight ends rank 22nd in receptions but seventh in touchdowns and 17th in fantasy points. That's with the likes of Jermichael Finley, Richard Rodgers, Donald Lee, Andrew Quarless and Jared Cook soaking up many of the snaps.

Graham is now 31 years old and fresh off a season in which he paced all non-running backs in OTD (10.3) and all tight ends with 10 touchdown receptions. He finished fourth at the position in pass routes and has finished top-10 in routes, targets and receptions in six of the past seven years. In fact, Graham has played in all 16 regular-season games four of the past five years, with the only exception being the 2015 season in which he tore his Achilles. Graham settled in as a short-area option (7.7 aDOT) last season, which limited him to an extremely low 5.5 yards per target (third-lowest at the position).

Graham might not stack up with the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz in the target or reception department, but he's one of the game's most-utilized weapons near the goal line and will be working with the league's best quarterback. Even a slight dip from the 18 percent target share he enjoyed each of the past two seasons would easily allow him his ninth consecutive top-12 fantasy campaign.

Early 16-game projection: 86 targets, 56 receptions, 665 yards, 8 TDs

WR Sammy Watkins to Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are in the midst of a bit of an overhaul, and their latest move on the offensive side of the ball was the reported signing of Watkins to a three-year, $48 million contract.

As with Robinson above, who agreed to sign with the Bears, Watkins' best season was 2015, when he caught 60 of 93 targets for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns with the Bills. The 2014 fourth overall pick finished 20th among wide receivers in fantasy points in only 13 games and seemed to be well on his way to joining the league's elite wide receiver class in 2016. Instead, Watkins missed half the season with a foot injury, and his extrapolated 16-game stat line of 96 targets, 56 receptions, 860 yards and 4 touchdowns was massively disappointing. The Bills traded Watkins to the Rams last offseason, and he settled in as the team's No. 3 wide receiver behind Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. The Rams paced the NFL in three-plus wide receiver sets when passing (92 percent), so Watkins was on the field for a hefty 88 percent of the team's pass plays when active. That was not enough to generate much volume, as he was limited to a career-low 14 percent target share (he averaged 25 percent in Buffalo). The result was 39 receptions on 67 targets for 593 yards and eight touchdowns. The inflated touchdown total allowed Watkins a 41st-place finish in fantasy points, but his 4.2 OTD and six end-zone targets suggest that it was a fluky number.

Watkins is only 24 years old and an extremely talented player with major upside, but he has several road blocks to success in Kansas City. The first is competition for a large target share in an offense that needs to support Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt, the latter of whom Reid said he plans to throw to more in 2018 and beyond. Watkins should improve on the 4.5 targets per game that he saw in Los Angeles but likely not to the extent that you'd expect from a player once viewed as a franchise player.

The Chiefs also changed from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, which is probably good news for field-stretching Watkins, as Mahomes is less conservative and has a bigger arm. Of course, we knew Smith was a solid, efficient passer, whereas Mahomes has one NFL game under his belt and is a relative unknown. If the 2017 first-round pick proves to be the real deal, Watkins will benefit.

Finally, there is the durability question mark. Watkins rested in Week 17 last season but otherwise appeared in every game for the Rams. Prior to that, he missed 11 of his previous 21 games (as well as preseason games) due to glute, calf, ankle and foot injuries. This will raise questions about his ability to play a full season, but it should not be overly concerning after he held up well in 2017.

Assuming Watkins winds up third for targets in a low-volume but pass-first Kansas City offense, Watkins is best viewed as a flex option with some upside in the event that Mahomes explodes onto the fantasy scene.

QB Case Keenum to Denver Broncos

WR Paul Richardson to Washington Redskins

WR Albert Wilson to Miami Dolphins

TE Trey Burton to Chicago Bears

Arizona Cardinals sign Sam Bradford

Other notable moves


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