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Fantasy Football 2015: Breaking Down The Free Agents

Adam Pfeifer looks at the fantasy football impact of a very busy first day of NFL free agency.

Jimmy Graham

Many believe that people shouldn’t be discussing fantasy football in March. Many people also believe in Santa Claus, Big Foot, The Easter Bunny, and Trent Richardson.

Wow. Two T-Rich insults in one week? Just call me… well, everybody else, really.

Free agency is in full swing, which means familiar faces in new places. It’s incredibly exciting to see big name players head to new teams, playing under new coaches, in new systems. Players are going to continue signing with new teams, which means fantasy there are fantasy implications to be had. So here I am, writing about fantasy football in March, breaking down some of the free agency fallout. Because it’s never, ever too early.

27 more Sundays, y’all.

Note: Both Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas have been franchised tagged.

Jimmy Graham dealt to Seattle

Wow.

Minutes before the official start of free agency, the New Orleans Saints broke Twitter, sending All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks, in exchange for stud center Max Unger and a first round draft pick. It’s actually a good return for New Orleans, and one year after handing the ball off at a more frequent clip, look for the Saints to continue to pound the rock with Mark Ingram, especially considering Drew Brees is entering his age 36 season.

As for the Seahawks, Graham’s value doesn’t really change much. The tight end position is still Rob Gronkowski and then everyone else, with Graham coming in at number two. But I’m going to have Russell Wilson everywhere in fantasy leagues. Seattle has already increased their passing play percentage in each of the last three seasons, and now they have their best pass-catcher in years. He was already the number five quarterback in fantasy last season, and I love him to finish around that same area in 2015. Interestingly enough, Wilson didn’t target a tight end once during the Super Bowl, the first time in his career he failed to do so. He’ll have a field day with the likes of Jimmy Graham.

If only they had Graham with 25 seconds left in the Super Bowl…

Cobb Leaps Back To Lambeau

With the two aforementioned names being franchised, Randall Cobb immediately became the number-one wide receiver on the open market this week. And after some speculation that he would look for more money and potentially accept big offers from teams like Oakland or Jacksonville, Cobb stayed in Green Bay, a smart decision, considering you will continue to play with the best quarterback in the NFL in Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers inked Cobb to a four-year, $40 million dollar deal, and at just 24-years old, Green Bay will have the talented wideout for his 25-28 prime years. In 2014, Cobb finished as the number-six receiver in fantasy, as he did most of his damage out of the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, no one in the NFL had more receptions (75) or targets (106) out of the slot than Cobb, who caught 82 percent of his total passes in the slot. Cobb also was crazy efficient in the end zone, tallying a healthy 17 end zone targets in 2014, converting 10 of them into touchdowns.

Feel free to snag Cobb as a low-end WR1 in fantasy drafts again in 2015.

Maclin Reunites With Andy Reid

Chip Kelly has a plan.

Whether it’s traditional, bizarre or mysterious, it’s obvious that he has one. However, it does not involve the likes of LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and now Jeremy Maclin, who has agreed to join the Kansas City Chiefs and former head coach Andy Reid. The Eagles were willing to offer Maclin around $9 million dollars, but Maclin thought he was worth more. So the Chiefs will be paying him around $11 million per year, a rather high number for a guy coming off his first career 1,000-yard campaign in six seasons. Kansas City is now expected to release Dwayne Bowe, making Maclin the clear-cut number one wideout. But there will be a downgrade.

Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, Maclin saw an aDOT (average depth of target) of 14.2, the ninth-most among qualified wideouts. However, new quarterback Alex Smith was one of, no– the worst in terms of aDOT, averaging just six yards per throw last year. Of course, everyone is going to continue to throw the stat around involving the fact that zero Kansas City Chiefs’ wideouts found the end zone last season, and while I don’t see that happening again, it’s pretty obvious that Maclin is going to see a hit in fantasy value. Especially in an offense where running back Jamaal Charles has seen a whopping 163 targets over the last two seasons combined.

As for the Eagles, sophomore wideout Jordan Matthews will see an uptick in targets, as he is now easily Philadelphia’s most talented receiver. I’m very interested to see how the Eagles use him, as he operated out of the slot an insane 93 percent of the time during his rookie season, which was the highest percentage in the NFL. He excelled in that role, too.

Matthews in the slot

Slot

 

He was essentially the second-best slot wideout in football, behind Randall Cobb.

Ingram Stays Put

Zero.

That’s how many running backs in the NFL saw more carries from the one-yard line than Mark Ingram last year, who enjoyed a career-high nine rushing touchdowns. He also led the league in carries within five yards of paydirt, too, with 20 totes. And, according to Mike Clay of PFF, Ingram led all running backs in Clay’s metric OTD. Now with Pierre Thomas gone, Ingram could be a low-end RB1 in fantasy leagues next year, especially after coming off a season where he finished as a top-15 running back, despite missing four games due to injury. It was also interesting to see the Saints transition to a more balanced offensive approach, and when they got in close, they ran the ball quite a bit, ranking ninth in the league in rushing touchdown percentage (33 percent). That bodes well for Ingram, serving as the short-yardage back in an offense that ranked third in the league in red zone scoring attempts per game last season (4.1), and has ranked at least inside the top-eight every season since 2008. Drew Brees is 36 years old, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Saints commit to the run even more in 2015.

From Manning to Bortles

Going from Peyton Manning to Blake Bortles is like going from a nice Chicago deep-dish pizza to DiGiorno.

It’s not delivery. It sucks.

Julius Thomas has agreed to join the Jacksonville Jaguars on a five-year deal that is close to $45 million dollars. Over the last two seasons with Denver and that offensive juggernaut, Thomas hauled in an awesome 24 touchdowns, serving as one of the most targeted red zone players in the NFL during that span, seeing 33 looks from inside an opponent’s 20-yard line. He’ll go from a top-10 passing offense to last year’s worst-ranked aerial attack in Jacksonville, on an offense that hasn’t really targeted the tight end position a whole lot. Granted, they never had a talent like Orange Julius, but I don’t think Thomas is talented enough to serve as a top-five fantasy tight end in Jacksonville. I’ll gladly take guys like Travis Kelce, Antonio Gates and Greg Olsen over him in drafts.

As for the Broncos, a likely candidate to replace Thomas would be Owen Daniels, who played with Gary Kubiak in both Baltimore and Houston. These offenses tend to be very tight end friendly, and we’ve seen tight ends post strong numbers alongside Peyton over the years.

Reunion in Indy

Cold feet Frank.

After agreeing to join the Philadelphia Eagles, Frank Gore backed out of the move and will now be heading to the Indianapolis Colts to play alongside Andrew Luck. He’ll be making $12 million dollars over the next three seasons, and is probably a better fit in Pep Hamilton’s offense than he’d be in Chip Kelly’s, to be honest. Gore will be 32 years old when the season starts, but the concept of him being “injury prone” is vastly overrated. From 2008-2010, he missed nine games combined, and hasn’t missed a game since then. As an elite pass-protector, Gore will be on the field a ton for the Colts, and should see plenty of short-yardage work in an offense that averaged a healthy 3.6 red zone scoring chances per game last year (10th). And Gore said that a big reason he chose Indy was the presence of offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton. This move likely means the end of Trent Richardson‘s time in Indy, as he becomes a likely candidate to get cut, especially if the Colts want to retain Ahmad Bradshaw.

Andre Johnson might very well be next to join the Colts.

As for the 49ers, while their roster is in complete disarray, their running back position appears to be stable. Sophomore runner Carlos Hyde will become the primary running back in this offense. Hyde was very impressive when given opportunities during his rookie season, and on a per attempt basis, ranked eighth in the NFL in yards after contact. He also scored four touchdowns and rushed for 333 times on 83 carries. Hyde will emerge as a legitimate low-end RB1 candidate, as he should see around 285-300 carries this upcoming season.

49ers land Torrey Smith

With the way things are going in San Francisco lately, the 49ers might need to start scoring more points. And with Michael Crabtree gone, the team has signed Smith to a five-year, $40 million deal, including $22 million guaranteed. He’ll join a San Francisco offense that doesn’t throw the ball down field a whole lot, as Colin Kaepernick ranked as the 10th-lowest quarterback in terms of aDOT (9.5), according to PFF. His value definitely takes a hit, as he was able to see looks down the field in Baltimore thanks to Joe Flacco‘s cannon of an arm. But, of course, Kaepernick has a laser in his own right, so I’d like to see them take some deep shots, with Anquan Boldin operating the intermediate passing routes. All in all, I think this is a better real life move than a fantasy one.

Brandon Marshall joins Gang Green

Copy and paste essentially everything we said about Eric Decker‘s fantasy prospects heading into last season.

We’ll see how far Marshall slides down fantasy boards, especially if the Jets enter the season with Geno Smith under center. New offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has been known to lean towards the pass during his days, and if the Jets are trailing in games, there should be decent volume heading Marshall’s way. Even in the Jets offense, Marshall should still be a solid PPR contributor, as he’s accumulated 100 catches in five of his nine seasons in the league. It wouldn’t shock me if he hauled in around 80 catches, but will the touchdowns be there? The Jets have finished towards the bottom of the league in red zone chances in three straight years, and I’m not sold on them being able to consistently move the ball up and down the field. And even when they do get in close, the Jets have run the football into the end zone more often than they do pass it.

Look for Alshon Jeffery to obviously see an uptick in usage, as he averaged 9.5 targets per game during the four contests Marshall missed. Martellus Bennett will also benefit from Marshall’s absence, even after coming off a season where he was the one of he most targeted tight ends in the league.

G-Men add a back to rotation

The Giants have signed running back Shane Vereen to a three-year, $12 million dollar contract. New York now has a bit of a three-headed monster with Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and now Vereen. I’d expect Jennings to see featured work on first and second downs, while Vereen handles most of the passing work. Last year, Eli Manning targeted the running backs 16 percent of the time, so I’d imagine Vereen will see around 10 percent of the Giants’ total targets this season, which could vault him to the 50 or 60 target plateau.

Ryan Mathews bolts to Philly

After flirting with DeMarco Murray for a bit, the Eagles have agreed to bring in Mathews as their primary running back. There’s still no clarity on the money and years, but per Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports, all indications are that Mathews is expected to sign with the Eagles. Despite battling injury for much of his career, Mathews has been a pretty productive runner when on the field, and his 2013 season had fantasy owners excited, as he played 16 games for the only time in his career, rushing for 1,255 yards and six scores. Those numbers were good enough for him to finish as the number-12 fantasy running back, which made him an RB1.

The fit with Philly, from a pure running style, is nice for Mathews. No team in football executed more plays per game than the Eagles last year (70.7), while they ranked seventh in rushing attempts per game (29.8). With no stable quarterback and suddenly one of the worst receiving corps in the league, I’d expect them to run the ball quite a bit again this year, and Mathews should be behind a healthy, strong offensive line, headlined by All-Pro Jason Peters. This is a very good move for his fantasy value.

Stay tuned, as Day 2 of Free Agency could be highlighted by the landing spot of star running back, DeMarco Murray.

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