Shawn Siegele covers the fantasy winners and losers in 2020 free agency, and then dives into his favorite sleepers in the aftermath.
Despite the limited moves at wide receiver, 2020 free agency hasn’t been a disappointment. Last week I discussed the shock waves emanating through Superflex leagues, and today we move to the marquee positions with a look at Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and David Johnson.
Since it’s never a bad time to talk sleepers, I also dive into a few of my favorite post-FA values. Advanced stats from the NFL Stat Explorer and RotoViz Screener help us find bargains in the double-digit rounds, while our array of ADP tools tells us what to pay in each format.
David Johnson/Kenyan Drake
Johnson is the biggest winner of the blockbuster trade that brought DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona and caused a fantasy tidal wave. Carlos Hyde was the least efficient running back in football from 2015 to 2018, but moving to Houston brought his first 1,000-yard rushing season. He averaged a solid 4.4 yards per carry and almost broke even in fantasy points over expectation (FPOE). He finished as the RB28 despite catching only 10 passes and represents the absolute floor for Johnson, even the broken version we saw with Arizona last year.
Of course, that assumes the Texans make no more major moves and Johnson plays in 14-plus games. It would make tactical sense to add to this backfield, but Johnson has one big thing working to his advantage. The Texans have been publicly humiliated by this trade. They’re very motivated to make themselves look, if not right, at least borderline competent.
With how his season played out down the stretch, it’s easy to forget that Johnson was an RB1 in five of the six games before his injury and averaged 20.2 PPG in that span. Those are league-winning numbers. He also generated 10.2 receiving expected points (reEP) in that stretch and outperformed them to the tune of 3.1 reFPOE. He was averaging more than 13 PPG just as a receiver.
Fantasy owners have taken note, and Johnson’s ADP has skyrocketed over the last week. By contrast, owners have shrugged at the big transactions involving his peers.
Tyler Loechner breaks down the impact of the Johnson trade for Drake and explains the upside of staying in Arizona with the transition tag. It wasn’t guaranteed that Drake would remain with the Cardinals, but it’s a godsend for owners. His fantasy value would have fallen back into the deep flex range with most other teams.
I’m a little surprised Gurley hasn’t also jumped, but that may occur this week. I recently won him in a dispersal auction and immediately received trade offers on the news. Fantasy owners may have assumed that his contract locked him into either a starting job with the Rams or any team desperate enough to add him in trade, but Los Angeles cut him despite the salary cap ramifications.
He immediately landed in a situation that could be termed beyond-best-case scenario. Following Jordan Howard’s signing in Miami and Devonta Freeman’s Atlanta release, the Falcons were sitting on the weakest RB depth chart. They also offer a steep upgrade in a key category. Perhaps in part due to Gurley’s 2019 collapse, the Rams plummeted to 31st in receiving EP to the RB position.
The Falcons offered almost twice as many reEP to the RB position last season, and much of that departed with Freeman.
As is the case with Johnson, all of this will be moot if Gurley is as limited physically as he appeared last season. He now has the chance to prove his doubters wrong in one of the NFL’s most high-powered offenses.
I also landed Henderson and Phillip Lindsay in that auction, and their values went screaming in opposite directions last week.
Henderson generated plenty of buzz a year ago as the Rams answer to Alvin Kamara, but he played sparingly outside of a three-game stretch at mid-season.
Despite his rookie struggles, Henderson is now free to fly. He ranks No. 3 overall in collegiate breakaway rushes since 2014, a stat that illustrates his explosiveness and may be more indicative of NFL success than you might think.
Eric Ebron/Hayden Hurst
Ebron and Hurst win big with the news that NFL teams still believe in them. Despite all of the negativity, Ebron ranks seventh among TEs in targets over the last three seasons. The Steelers are not a team that has peppered any individual TE with targets, but Vance McDonald did rank 17th during that time period.
Ben Roethlisberger has been efficient when targeting the TE, as his 2018 numbers illustrate.
Although Ebron will not have the weekly floor of elite TE1 candidates, few other landing spots would have given him a chance to reprise his 13-TD season.
Diggs’ move to Buffalo has been controversial. This wasn’t the move Diggs owners were hoping for, but becoming the clear No. 1 in an ascending offense is better than remaining in Minnesota.
Melvin Gordon/Phillip Lindsay
Gurley wasn’t the only RB who saw his performance collapse in 2019. Gordon declined severely as well. Following a brilliant start from Austin Ekeler, the former starter never eclipsed a 54% snap share after ending his holdout. The gaudy efficiency numbers from 2018 evaporated as well.
Gordon averaged 6.8 FPOE/G in 2018, numbers that declined to -0.2 last year. While those numbers might jump slightly again in 2020, it’s important to take season-to-season RB efficiency seriously. Age 27 is also a bad one for RBs. The failure rate jumps and RBs start to hemorrhage points.
The Broncos do not offer the same get-well opportunity for Gordon. Instead of a well-established dome offense with a veteran QB, the Broncos will be trying to develop Drew Lock. Instead of coming into a wide open depth chart, Gordon joins a team with one of the NFL’s better runners.
After going undrafted in 2018, Lindsay quickly ascended to No. 1 in Denver. He ran for over 2,000 yards in his first two years, while scoring 16 TDs and averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He can’t match them as receivers, but Lindsay looks a lot like Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley when taking the handoff.
It’s unlikely that Gordon gets Ekelered in the same way this season – Lindsay won’t carve into those all-important receiving touches – but it’s never good for a former star to join a depth chart where he’s not the best pure runner.
Lindsay is a clear loser in free agency, but he’s now an excellent Zero RB candidate for 2020.
Tyler examines Tom Brady’s move to Tampa Bay and grades it as neutral for Evans and Chris Godwin. I’m a little more concerned about Evans. Winston is both revered and reviled for his gunslinging tendencies. He ranked first in air yards thrown and first in air yards completed a season ago.
|Air Yards Thrown||AY Completed||Conversion|
Those numbers far outstripped Brady and allowed Evans to rank third in air yards despite missing three games.
Some of the differences in passing profile between Brady and Winston were schematic and some based on vertical receiving talent. This isn’t a disaster for Evans by any stretch. (It’s much better than Teddy Bridgewater, for example.) But the quarterback change should benefit Godwin, a more versatile receiver and one less dependent on a bombs away approach. He could be Brady’s new Julian Edelman, a player who finished No. 3 in targets last season.
* Check out the NFL Stat Explorer to peruse the pass location charts for Evans and Godwin.
Hines was one of the bigger disappointments in fantasy last year. While he may never deliver on the promise of his rookie year, Hines wasn’t helped by Jacoby Brissett. The former starter failed to target RBs in either of his two seasons at the helm.
By contrast, the Chargers led the NFL in reEP to the RB position, and did so by almost a 50-point margin.
When you crush the team with McCaffrey, you’ve really accomplished something. For any Philip Rivers skeptics who think of him mostly as the Walking Delay of Game, I thought his ultimately failed battle to get Ekeler 1,000 receiving yards was one of the cooler under-the-radar stories of the 2019 season.
Head coach Frank Reich’s teams have been all over the map when it comes to targeting the RBs, but his 2015 collaboration with Rivers produced 251 reEP to the backs, the fifth most of any team in the last seven years.
Marlon Mack caught 65 passes at South Florida and has the profile of a back who should be more heavily utilized as a receiver. But fantasy owners have left no doubt about who benefits here.
Despite his ADP rise, Hines remains a top sleeper anywhere outside the first 10 rounds.
The Patriots splurged for Harry in the first round a year ago, eager to upgrade their receiving weapons with an Arizona State star who profiled as a rich man’s A.J. Brown.
Harry’s comps remind us that not all stars get off to roaring starts. Alshon Jeffery and Jordy Nelson both struggled before breaking out in Year 2 and Year 3 respectively. In analyzing Harry’s rookie comps using the Similarity Search feature from the Screener, Tyler finds Demaryius Thomas as another key name. Thomas is another third-year breakout who then logged four consecutive top-10 finishes.
These next two seasons are obviously pivotal ones for dynasty owners. Collegiate results still play a large role in projecting second-year NFL performance, and a lesser role in Year 3 before ceasing to be relevant.1
It’s sacrilege to suggest anyone will benefit from Brady’s departure, but the six-time Super Bowl winner had made his feelings about Harry clear. He didn’t like the offensive firepower at his disposal, despite his connection to Edelman and his in-season politicking for Mohamed Sanu’s acquisition.
Harry is a monster at 6-feet-2 and 228 pounds with a 38.5-inch vertical and strength evidenced by 27 bench reps. He benefits from a QB willing to throw it up and let him make a play, a skill set that fit poorly with Brady’s approach. The Patriots brain trust has plenty of incentive to prove themselves right and Brady wrong, and that’s just from a public relations perspective. Their win-at-all-costs head coach will want Harry to thrive to make his offense better.
Harry continues his long offseason slide in best ball and now sits at WR58, 18 places worse than his dynasty ADP. This provides an exploitable opportunity for drafters. Year 2 is the main season for WRs to make the leap. If you like Harry in dynasty, his redraft value is even better.
Irv Smith/Jace Sternberger/Josh Oliver
Smith was a good deep breakout candidate before the Diggs trade, but he becomes a must-own TE in the aftermath. Adam Thielen has jumped 10 slots in the high-leverage rounds, but his outlook is mixed. Thirty-year-old receivers coming off of an injury-based decline have poor track records the following season.
By contrast, TE guru John Lapinski labeled Smith one of his top targets after last year’s draft. Despite concerns that TEs take longer to develop, we do still see Year 2 as the breakout target for top-100 draftees.
Sternberger is another player who fits that category. The Packers’ second-year player did not do particularly well in our TE model, but he had a big final season at Texas A&M with a 33% Dominator Rating. Green Bay has been connected to most of the free agent and draft-relevant names at TE, but all they’ve accomplished so far is the release of Jimmy Graham.
Sternberger and Oliver are wild cards after injuries torpedoed their rookie seasons, but both should have opportunities to prove themselves in 2020. Unlike his peer, Oliver was a star in the TE model and a late target for us in every rookie draft. With the release of Geoff Swaim, he becomes the default starter in what should be an improved offense.
Green Bay and Jacksonville will likely address the position in the draft, but facing rookie competition is an excellent scenario for a TE duo that has yet to establish themselves.