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How Will NFL Free Agency Affect Fantasy Football?

It’s never too early to think about fantasy drafts. Some marquee NFL players are poised to inherit lucrative workloads. Others … not so much.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first few action-packed days of the NFL’s free agency spending spree are among the most exciting on the league calendar. Free agency brings with it the potential to shift the NFL’s competitive landscape and can turn cellar dwellers into contenders. It also brings the potential to drastically affect your fantasy league in 2020. Whether we’re talking about Jameis Winston’s eventual landing spot or which uniform fantasy stalwarts like Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper, and Hunter Henry will wear next season, the next few weeks could bring about a domino effect of moves that create wide-reaching fantasy implications.

With that in mind, here are a few of the most important fantasy story lines worth keeping an eye on when free agency kicks off on March 18th.

The Game of Musical Chairs at Quarterback

When it comes to real football, there’s plenty of reason to doubt any team can consistently win with Winston under center. The 26-year-old passer became the first quarterback in league history to join the 30-30 club in 2019, tossing 33 touchdowns and 30 picks while leading Tampa Bay to a 7-9 record. As head coach Bruce Arians put it after Winston’s game-sealing pick-six ended the team’s season: “You’re going home if you lead the league in giveaways. You’re never going to play in the playoffs.” That sentiment, which I’m guessing is widely held among league coaches and front offices, is the biggest reason Winston may find himself without a chair when the music stops in the next couple of weeks.

When it comes to fantasy football, though, relegating Winston to backup status would be a tragedy. His big arm, short memory, and hero-ball mentality provide the perfect alchemy for fantasy gold―and wherever Winston goes, high-scoring affairs follow. Winston threw a lot of picks, sure, but also passed for the eighth-most single-season yards all time last year (5,109), finishing as the QB2 while helping propel both Chris Godwin (WR2) and Mike Evans (WR4) to top-four finishes in per-game averages in PPR. That’s why I, along with hordes of fantasy managers around the world, will wait with baited breath to find out where the former no. 1 overall pick lands: Tampa Bay is the favorite―familiarity and continuity can go a long way at the position―but I also wouldn’t mind seeing Winston in a Chargers uniform in 2020. In L.A. he could alternate between throwing picks and touchdowns to Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler, and Hunter Henry (if he re-signs in Los Angeles). The Panthers, replete with ascending pass catchers in D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Ian Thomas (oh, and that Christian McCaffrey guy) could also be a dark-horse destination, should Carolina choose to move on from Cam Newton.

While Winston is the big fantasy name to follow, a handful of other fantasy-relevant starters could be on the move this offseason. Drew Brees and Dak Prescott are both likely to return to the Saints and Cowboys, respectively, but Philip Rivers, who moved his family to Florida earlier this year, is a strong candidate to replace Winston in Tampa Bay should the team move on from their incumbent starter. The 38-year-old veteran’s effectiveness nosedived last year, but the thought of a late-career renaissance under Arians―similar to the one we saw from Carson Palmer in Arizona―is certainly intriguing. The whispers connecting the former Chargers signal-caller to Indianapolis have grown in the past couple of months. The Colts don’t boast an embarrassment of riches at skill positions, but Rivers could be an improvement over Jacoby Brissett and provide a fantasy boost for players like T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Jack Doyle, and a handful of others playing under QB-whisperer Frank Reich and behind one of best offensive lines in the league.

Elsewhere, Tom Brady’s tenure as Patriots starter could be coming to an end. As ESPN’s Jeff Darlington said on Adam Schefter’s podcast Monday, “I don’t know where he’s going to play next season, but I would be very surprised―stunned, shocked, if you will―if Tom ends up back in New England.” If Brady does leave, he’d have a chance to rehabilitate his own fantasy value, and perhaps boost those of his new team’s pass catchers. Brady’s arm isn’t what it once was and his efficiency numbers dropped in 2019, but the veteran quietly finished as the QB14 in 2019 while helming a talent-deficient offense. It wouldn’t be totally surprising if he jumped back up into low-end QB1 area playing for the Chargers (where he’d be throwing to Allen, Williams, Austin Ekeler, and possibly Hunter Henry), the Raiders (with Tyrell Williams, Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow, and perhaps a top-tier rookie pass catcher like Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb), or even the Titans (with A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and Jonnu Smith).

Of course, to lure Brady in free agency, the Titans would have to pass on retaining Ryan Tannehill. The 31-year-old veteran seems almost perfectly suited for Tennessee’s run-based, play-action heavy scheme, so a reunion there seems like the most likely scenario, but Tannehill should have some suitors after resurrecting his career last season. Tannehill, who helped unlock rookie pass catcher A.J. Brown and ranked third among quarterbacks in fantasy points from Week 7 on, could make sense for teams looking for competition under center, like the Bears, Colts, or Chargers. The same could be said for impending free agents like Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater. Add incoming rookies like Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Jordan Love, and Justin Herbert into the equation, though, and it’s clear there will be more than one of these free-agent quarterbacks without a starting job once the dust settles.

Which Running Backs Will Get Big-Money Deals?

Recent history suggests that teams who give running backs big guarantee-heavy contracts quickly regret it. The Cardinals virtually can’t cut David Johnson (he has a $16.2 million dead cap charge) and it’s unlikely anyone wants to trade for him; the Falcons are reportedly considering cutting Devonta Freeman (who comes with a $6 million dead cap hit); the 49ers have gotten zero games out of Jerick McKinnon after signing him to a four-year, $30 million deal back in 2018; the Rams likely can’t get out of the Todd Gurley deal (which has $12.6 million in dead cap this year) for another two seasons; and the Jets seemed to have buyer’s remorse almost immediately after inking Le’Veon Bell to a four-year, $52.5 million deal last spring. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are strapped for cap space and could lose both star corner Byron Jones and receiver Amari Cooper in free agency in part because of their decision to give Ezekiel Elliott a six-year, $90 million deal. Those moves don’t bode well for the free-agency prospects of top runners Derrick Henry, Melvin Gordon, and Kenyan Drake.

Henry is coming off a season in which he led the league in carries (303), rushing yards (1,540), and touchdowns (16)―numbers that up until just a few years ago would’ve all but guaranteed him a record-setting long-term deal. In the current market, I’m not so sure; teams may balk at Henry’s workload and worry about injuries and regression, and it doesn’t help that he will have to compete with what’s shaping up to be a very talented group of rookies in the upcoming draft. It’d be fun to see what Henry could do in a Steelers, Lions, Bills, or Colts uniform, but it’s unclear if any of those teams (or any others) will be willing to shell out a top-of-market contract to make him a centerpiece of their offense. I’d give the best odds on Henry landing back with the Titans, perhaps on the franchise tag―and that’d probably be a best-case scenario for him fantasy-wise. He’d likely be locked in as a fantasy first-rounder in 2020 if he remains in Tennessee.

Gordon is another potential fantasy star to keep an eye on in the next few weeks. After holding out the first four games of the 2019 season, the 26-year-old runner returned for the Chargers’ final 12 games and finished the season with 612 yards and eight touchdowns rushing while adding 42 catches and 296 yards and another score through the air. It’s unlikely he’ll get the type of top-of-market deal he was looking for when he held out last season―ironically, his backup, Austin Ekeler, got his second contract first—but a return to Los Angeles, where he could continue to platoon with Ekeler and handle majority of the team’s goal-line carries, would keep him firmly on the fantasy radar. It’d also be interesting to see him playing in Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, or maybe Houston, among other teams.

Finally, keep an eye out for Cardinals free agent Kenyan Drake’s eventual landing spot. After being traded to Arizona midway through last season, he rushed for 643 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry in his new team’s final eight games, finishing as the PPR RB4 from Week 9 on. He proved to be an excellent fit in Kliff Kingsbury’s wide-open scheme, and for fantasy purposes, a return to the desert could give him the opportunity to be a very high fantasy pick heading into 2020. The only impediment to that marriage made in heaven, though, is Johnson’s contract. The Cardinals may be wary to commit much more money to the running back position until Johnson comes off the books. Other intriguing fits for Drake include the Lions and Falcons.

Veteran Wide Receivers Deserve Love, Too

Everyone’s excited about the upcoming class of rookie receivers (as they should be), but there’s a handful of veteran pass catchers who could change teams in free agency and affect the fantasy landscape. Amari Cooper, 25, is the headliner. The receiver will most likely end up back in Dallas, but with cap constraints and ongoing contract negotiations with Prescott hanging over the Cowboys’ heads and limiting their franchise tag options, it’s not inconceivable that Cooper could find himself in another jersey this fall. The free-agent receiver, who reeled in 79 passes for 1,189 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 to finish as the overall WR10 in PPR leagues, has gone over 1,000 yards in four of his past five seasons and remains one of the best route runners. He’d remain a top-tier fantasy option in Dallas, but that’d be true if he was playing for a good number of teams. The Eagles, Ravens, and Colts are just a few that come to mind.

A.J. Green is another free-agent receiver to watch. The 31-year-old is likely to search out a contender and would be a fun fit in New England, Green Bay, or maybe even New Orleans. But the Bengals will have the opportunity to franchise tag their longtime star to keep a veteran go-to guy around for the team’s presumptive top pick, quarterback Joe Burrow. Green should be an intriguing fantasy option wherever he lands. Jets free-agent receiver Robby Anderson could be another hot commodity in this shallow free-agent class. The speedster finished 2019 with 52 catches for 779 yards and five touchdowns and is reportedly open to a return to New York. I’d rather see him in a higher octane passing attack like that of Kansas City or Arizona, for instance, either of which would make him one of the most intriguing sleeper receivers heading into 2020.

Finally, keep an eye on the smorgasbord of former first-round receivers set to hit the market. Buccaneers free agent Breshad Perriman is the headliner of that group after reeling in 36 balls for 645 yards and six touchdowns last season (he was the WR3 in half PPR from Weeks 13 to 17), and he’ll have the chance to follow DeVante Parker as a late-blooming breakout star in 2020. He’ll be joined by the Patriots’ Phillip Dorsett, Eagles’ Nelson Agholor, Cowboys’ Tavon Austin, and Vikings’ Laquon Treadwell on the free-agent market.

Big-Name Tight Ends Could Be on the Move

Two of the top-eight fantasy producers in PPR points per game in 2019 could find themselves on new teams in 2020. Falcons free agent Austin Hooper, who caught 75 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games last season (to finish as the TE3 on a per-game basis), is expected to test the free-agent market―and he should garner enough interest to price himself out of Atlanta. He’d be a natural fit for a team like the Packers, Colts, or Steelers, but the landing spot will be a big deal for the 25-year-old tight end. Fantasy managers may end up wary of expecting too much from Hooper in another scheme: Is he a big-time playmaker who can create on his own, or was he the product of a system in Atlanta that provided him with a lot of one-on-one situations and easy dump-offs underneath? I lean toward the latter, but in a shallow fantasy position, Hooper is still likely to be in heavy demand in fantasy drafts this fall.

Hunter Henry, meanwhile, has a chance to join Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and George Kittle as one of the top-tier players at the position in 2020. The Chargers free agent brings high-end TE1 upside wherever he goes as a true mismatch threat in the red zone, and he brings seam-stretching ability everywhere else. Henry is expected to end up back in Los Angeles―either by extension or the franchise tag―but would be a fun theoretical fit with the Patriots (or wherever Brady ends up) or Packers. The 25-year-old tight end caught 55 passes for 652 and five touchdowns in 12 games last year.