By: Alexander Amir
While the NFL’s free agent frenzy can shake up the entire league’s balance of power, with star quarterbacks finding new homes, wide receivers sparking an offensive rebuild, and running backs taking on top-dog responsibilities, it also generates some significant risers and fallers in the fantasy world. Players who were once considered late round fliers become solid flex options, and former surefire 3rd round picks drop to a potential bench role. Let’s take a look at 7 notable free agent moves and their fantasy implications.
1) Kirk Cousins, QB: Washington → Minnesota
The “star of this year’s free agent market,” Cousins goes from a Redskins roster with questionable talent to a Super Bowl-caliber Vikings squad with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to throw to. Cousins has finished as a top-10 fantasy QB each of the past three years, while having a consistently injured receiving corps in Washington. His numbers should see a big boost with an upgraded roster. While all the position players on the team should see a boost, Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph in particular will benefit the most, as Diggs is the team’s deep threat and Rudolph is a touchdown machine. Cousins’ presence should also benefit lead running back Dalvin Cook, as defenses must respect a more dynamic QB at the helm than Keenum.
2) Case Keenum, QB: Minnesota → Denver
The QB that Cousins replaced now joins the Broncos, giving the team a massive upgrade at the position over Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. After being a stud fantasy receiver a few years ago Demaryius Thomas dropped off to the 23rd ranked receiver in ESPN standard scoring. Emmanuel Sanders was barely startable this year after three straight 1,000 yard, 5+ TD campaigns, averaging only 4.2 fantasy points per game and surpassing 8 fantasy points just twice. With the consistent Keenum at the helm, Thomas and Sanders should see a significant jump in their numbers, especially in PPR scoring. Due to Keenum’s departure, Vikings receiver Adam Thielen may see a bit of a drop in PPR scoring, as he thrived on short-range plays. Losing Keenum’s safer arm for Cousins’ livelier one could hurt a bit.
3) C.J. Anderson, RB: Denver→ Carolina
There are multiple moves that influence the situation here, as the Panthers let RB Jonathan Stewart leave to the Giants and elected not to sign another one for a while. Everything was pointing to young star Christian McCaffrey becoming the workhorse in Carolina before Anderson’s signing. The former Denver back will undoubtedly steal carries from McCaffrey, but that may not be such a bad thing. Last season, due to the presence of Stewart, McCaffrey played in the slot often times and became a PPR maven. He thrives in the passing game, while Anderson is an early-down back like Stewart. If McCaffrey was in fact going to become the feature back, I’m not sure if he would be able to handle that type of workload at the NFL level. On the Denver side of the ball, 3rd round pick Royce Freeman is all set to take the lead back role, facing minimal competition only from the likes of Devontae Booker.
4) Jimmy Graham, TE: Seattle → Green Bay
Graham used to be an absolutely dominant force with the New Orleans Saints, averaging over 10 TDs a season and over 130 targets per year. He saw a drop off in production when he was in Seattle, in large part due to a lack of endzone usage. Seattle relies much more on the legs of Russell Wilson or one of their running backs to score TDs, and Graham’s fantasy numbers clearly suffered. But now, Graham is going to be paired with Aaron Rodgers, one of the most talented QBs in NFL history. Jordy Nelson used to be the team’s touchdown machine before departing to the Oakland Raiders (more on that later), and Davante Adams can’t shoulder the receiving load all by himself. Look for Graham to return to his old form and challenge Rob Gronkowski for the top fantasy tight end ranking.
5) Jerick McKinnon, RB: Minnesota → San Francisco
The former Vikings back never entrenched himself as the top man, but he has shown flashes of excellence that prompted 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan to sign him as the lead back in San Fran. McKinnon has good strength with great speed and quickness. Shanahan had great success using a running back of a similar mold, Devonta Freeman, in Atlanta, and I expect him to turn McKinnon into a viable fantasy starter. McKinnon should also help improve Jimmy Garoppolo, giving him a receiving threat out of the backfield and forcing defenses to respect the running game. Finally, while Dalvin Cook was always going to be the future of the running back position in Minnesota, he now has far less competition without McKinnon.
6) Jordy Nelson, WR: Green Bay → Oakland
Since 2011, as long as Aaron Rodgers has been healthy, Nelson has been an absolute fantasy monster. From 2011 to 2016, his receiving numbers are as follows:
2011: 1,263 yds and 15 TD
2012: 745 yds and 7 TD
2013: 1,314 yds and 8 TD
2014: 1,519 yds and 13 TD
2016: 1,257 yds and 14 TD
And in 2017, with a healthy Rodgers, he had 6 TDs in 6 weeks. Alas, after Rodgers was replaced by Brett Hundley due to injury, Nelson’s production went down the drain, with no TD’s for the rest of the season. Nelson enters a much better QB situation in Oakland with Derek Carr, but he will undoubtedly see a large drop off in fantasy numbers after leaving the best statistical QB in the league. The Raiders also have a much more stable running back situation than did the Packers. Nelson has made a living off of red-zone TDs, and the Oakland running backs are known for punching the ball in from a few yards out. Raiders backs had 13 TDs last season, while the Rodgers-led Packers RBs in 2015 and 2016 never had more than 7. Finally, Nelson’s presence will hurt Amari Cooper’s production, which was already limited to begin with.
7) Dez Bryant, WR: Dallas → ?
Free agent departures can sometimes be just as notable as acquisitions. While the Cowboys’ all-time leader in touchdowns has been a middling fantasy receiver for a few years now, his departure is pretty significant for other fantasy players (though his fantasy outlook will become clearer once he is inevitably signed). Newly drafted Michael Gallup and free agent signee Allen Hurns should be able to generate decent fantasy value, especially since future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten left as well for retirement. Hurns in particular could be a fantasy dark-horse, as he fills Bryant’s outside presence and had an extremely productive year in 2015 with Jacksonville. Current slot receiver Cole Beasley should see a lot more looks as well on the inside now that Witten and Bryant are gone as well. Not that this was ever a doubt, but Ezekiel Elliott is even more entrenched as the focal point of the team’s offense.