Free Agency Fallout: The Fantasy Football Impact on Four Top Receivers
While we wait to see where the new crop of rookies will land after the NFL Draft, there’s time to assess what was a very busy NFL free agency season. Big-name receivers like Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins and Michael Crabtree will all have new homes in 2018. Here’s how their fantasy value could be affected by their new surroundings.
Allen Robinson (Jacksonville to Chicago)
After a breakout 2015 campaign in which he accumulated more than 1,400 yards, Robinson’s numbers regressed horrifically in 2016 despite seeing similar target numbers, eventually finishing as the overall WR24 despite being a consensus first-round fantasy draft pick.
Robinson’s 2017 season ended in Week 1 when he tore his ACL, leaving many fantasy owners scarred after back-to-back disappointing seasons. The Jaguars opted to let Robinson walk in free agency and he landed in Chicago, one of the league’s burgeoning young offense alongside Mitch Trubisky and the newly-hired head coach Matt Nagy.
During Robinson’s 2015 breakout season, he mainly relied on the deep ball for his fantasy production, as he led the league in yards on passes that were more than 20 yards. Now, he joins a Bears offense that projects to be more pass-happy in year two of Trubisky’s NFL career. Nagy, formerly the offensive coordinator of the Chiefs, was one of the driving forces behind Kansas City’s offensive explosion in 2017, an underrated aspect of which was getting Alex Smith — essentially the dictionary definition of game manager — to set a career high in average depth of target (aDOT) while chucking bombs to Tyreek Hill.
Obviously, Hill and Robinson have different skill sets: Hill is a pure speedster who can burn an unsuspecting cornerback at any given time, while Robinson is a technician who relies on a rare combination of size and skill to outplay opposing defensive backs. Still, both make their money on splash plays, and Nagy was the OC for an offense that managed to use Hill beautifully. While much of the credit for that deserves to go to Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, it doesn’t make much sense to discredit the work of the man that Reid called “the best head coaching candidate” he’s ever had.
Additionally, the quarterback change from Bortles to Trubisky looks to be a positive one for Robinson, efficiency-wise. According to Matt Kelley of PlayerProfiler.com, Bortles had the fourth-most “danger throws” of all qualified QBs in 2017, meaning he put the ball in danger of being intercepted the fourth-most times of all quarterback last year. Bortles managed to do that despite posting an aDOT of just 7.6, meaning he put the ball in danger a lot despite most of his passes being somewhat near the line of scrimmage. Although Trubisky was rather uninspiring in his rookie campaign, he managed the best overall grade of all rookie quarterbacks according to Pro Football Focus, beating out even Deshaun Watson (PFF later noted that Watson would have had a higher grade if not for the game in which he subbed out for Tom Savage mid-game).
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Trubisky had a satisfactory rookie season despite his best receivers being Kendall Wright, Dontrelle Inman, and Tre McBride. Now, the Bears offense has been completely revamped, bringing in Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton alongside Nagy. Now, many are touting the Bears as the NFL’s next breakout team, the “2018 Los Angeles Rams”, and the parallels are obvious: new offensively-minded head coach, new toys at the wide receiver position, and a second-year quarterback that was highly touted coming out of college.
While “2018 Los Angeles Rams” is probably a stretch, the Bears are expected to take a step forward efficiency-wise in 2018 and that can only bode well for Robinson. However, what’s gained in efficiency from Jacksonville to Chicago could be lost in volume. Robinson had back-to-back 151 target seasons as a Jaguar, but there’s more competition for touches and likely less passing volume as a whole in the 2018 Bears offense compared to the 2015 or 2016 Jacksonville offense.
For starters, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen spearhead a thunder-and-lightning running back duo that squashes any RB tandem Robinson has ever had in Jacksonville, meaning the overall passing volume will not be what it was with the 2015 and 2016 Jags (both the 2015 and 2016 Jags had over 600 total pass attempts). And, although Robinson is the clear No. 1 receiver in Chicago, Gabriel, Burton, Cohen, and second-year tight end Adam Shaheen will not completely disappear in the passing game. The drop in volume for Robinson will not be drastic, as he’s still the clear #1 option in the Bears passing attack, which gives him a floor of around 120-125 targets.
Robinson’s target volume may fall slightly in Chicago compared to what it was in Jacksonville, but an uptick in efficiency (from 2016) should balance out what’s lost in volume. Fantasy owners should expect Robinson to find a middle ground between his breakout 2015 and letdown 2016, similar to his preseason expectations in 2017 before he tore his ACL.
Bottom Line: The move from the Jaguars to the Bears looks to be at worst a lateral one for Robinson and he should be viewed as a mid-WR2, but he has legitimate potential to finish as a low-end WR1/high-end WR2 if the Bears can realize their potential as the “2018 Los Angeles Rams”.
Jarvis Landry (Miami to Cleveland)
After four years of being the epitome of consistency in fantasy football for the Miami Dolphins, Landry delves into the unknown following a trade to the Cleveland Browns. In Cleveland, Landry joins a Browns offense that has been garnering legitimate hype in the media after new general manager John Dorsey added Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde, and obviously Jarvis Landry to an offense that already featured Josh Gordon and Duke Johnson. Despite joining an offense that looks better on paper (what does it say about the current state of the Miami offense that the Browns look better on paper?), Landry faces uncertainty surrounding his fantasy production for the first time in years.
In Miami, Landry was locked and loaded as a low-end WR1 or high-end WR2 in PPR. Now, he joins a Cleveland offense with a lot of weapons and only so many targets to go around. Over his NFL career, Landry has averaged 142.75 targets per year with an aDOT of just 6.60 yards. Tyrod Taylor, on the other hand, has a career aDOT of 9.3, fourth-highest among 2018 projected starters behind Deshaun Watson (who has negative aDOT regression coming in 2018 due to sample size), Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota. Higher aDOT for Taylor obvious bodes poorly for Landry, who survives (and thrives) in the short passing game.
Furthermore, during his years as a starter in Buffalo, Taylor never had a pass-catcher reach 100 receptions and the highest target share any of his pass-catchers saw during his time in Buffalo was 20.6% by Sammy Watkins in 2015. Over his career, Jarvis Landry has a 25.2% target share.
Now in Cleveland, Landry is the clear number two WR in the passing game behind Josh Gordon, arguably one of the most talented wide receivers in football when on the field. According to Mike Tagliere of FantasyPros, no team had two receivers with more than 110 targets in 2017, and only three had two over 100. Put simply, the volume that Landry has depended upon his entire career is going to take a hit and thus, his fantasy stock falls as well.
However, Landry is not going to disappear into the chasm of irrelevancy alongside wideouts like Kevin White and Breshad Perriman. That’s because having a wideout like Landry is valuable for quarterbacks, a receiver that can be depended on for a few quick yards when the defensive line is closing in or when the first down marker is near.
Taylor has had a few underrated receivers during his career – Sammy Watkins, Chris Hogan, and Robert Woods, to name a few – but Landry’s skill set is fairly unique, and, much like how Landry managed to get his with Jay Cutler – who led the DeVante Parker hype train last off-season and caused Landry’s 2017 ADP to fall – Landry will still get his in Cleveland. But still…
Bottom Line: The days of Landry as a surefire high-end WR2/low-end WR1 are (at least temporarily) over, simply due to an incoming volume regression in 2018.
Sammy Watkins (LAR to Kansas City)
After dazzling media members and scouts alike during his three years at Clemson, Watkins was selected fourth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Bills, but he has failed to reach the expectations that came with such a high investment.
Watkins flashed promise in his first two years in the NFL with over 2,000 yards combined between the two seasons, but struggled with injuries in 2016 before being traded to the Rams prior to the 2017 season. In Los Angeles, Watkins was outperformed fantasy-wise by his wide receiver counterparts Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. While an unusually high TD% (>20) kept him semi-relevant, Watkins saw just 14.7% of Jared Goff’s targets and it was obvious Goff favored Kupp and Woods over Watkins.
After some uncertainty about whether or not the Rams would franchise tag him, Watkins entered free agency and signed a three-year, $48 million contract with Kansas. Obviously that’s a hefty price for a wide receiver whose counting stats the last two years are unremarkable. However, Watkins has shown flashes of being the prototypical X receiver NFL teams so desperately crave, and Kansas City clearly was willing to outbid Watkins’s other suitors to secure his services.
This will likely turn out to a better real-life move for Watkins than a fantasy one. In real life, Watkins will line up opposite speedy Tyreek Hill with Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt also heavily involved, meaning opposing defenses won’t be able to focus solely on Watkins. As a fantasy asset, Watkins will have to compete for targets with the aforementioned Hill, Kelce, and Hunt, all of whom have already established themselves in the Chiefs offense.
The case for this being a positive move for Watkins fantasy-wise is simple: no NFL team would sink $16MM a year into a player they didn’t plan to utilize. Not only that, but Watkins is one of the more talented wideouts in the game, his previous situations have just been suboptimal and now he’ll have the chance to succeed in a high-octane offense.
However, Watkins has a ridiculous amount of competition for volume in his way in 2018. Seriously, Tyreek Hill, Watkins, Kelce, and Hunt together is almost a video game-level offense. And, for the real-life Chiefs, this move makes a lot of sense: Watkins is too good of a player for defenses to ignore, meaning defenses can’t key in on one facet of their offense without being burned by another
For Watkins fantasy owners, though, the transition to Kansas City is an unwelcome one, especially after many insiders speculated he’d finally be given the chance to be the No. 1 receiver in a pass-first offense, whether it be with Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco or Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago. As it stands, the Chiefs are projected to sustain an RB1 (Kareem Hunt), a top-tier TE1 (Travis Kelce), and two WR2+ (Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill), all with a redshirt freshman manning the helm at quarterback.
In 2017, no NFL team had a top 12 RB, a top 12 TE, and two top 24 WRs. Watkins, two years removed from his last productive fantasy season, is the obvious candidate for disappointment out of Kansas City’s four main skill players.
Bottom Line: Watkins’s talent/name value has kept his fantasy value afloat over the last few years, as fantasy owners wait for him to realize the potential he flashed in college that earned him his fourth-overall draft selection. However, four years in and with more target competition than ever before, Watkins makes for a risky fantasy proposition in 2018.
Michael Crabtree (Oakland to Baltimore)
Prior to the 2017 season, Crabtree was seen as a dependable WR2 within most of the fantasy community, thanks to being a lock to receive the juicy red zone targets that the high-powered Raiders offense would surely generate. However, the Raiders’ 2017 season didn’t go according to plan, as Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Crabtree regressed significantly statistically and Coach Jack Del Río was canned after a disappointing 6-10 season.
Rumors surrounded Crabtree constantly as free agency neared, with conflicting reports arising regarding his status in Oakland. Finally, the dust had seemingly settled: Michael Crabtree would remain a Raider. At least, until Jordy Nelson was cut by the Packers, which led to the Raiders cutting Crabtree to clear cap space. Ryan Grant then mysteriously failed a physical in Baltimore and Crabtree found himself as the only proven wide receiver in Baltimore.
Now, heading into the 2018 season, Crabtree headlines an otherwise uninspiring wide receiving corps that includes Breshad Perriman and DeVier Posey. Still, despite a suboptimal passing offense, Crabtree joins a team that lost nearly 200 total wide receiver targets from 2017 as well as 79 more from tight end Ben Watson. Volume is king in fantasy football, and there is a lot of volume available for the taking in Baltimore.
Then again, Joe Flacco has never thrown a wide receiver more than 137 targets in a season and is coming off a season in which his average depth of target was a mere 6.8 despite having two field-stretching wide receivers in Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin as well as a competent rushing game for the first time since 2014. Flacco, and therefore the Ravens passing game as a whole, clearly regressed in 2017, throwing for nearly 1,200 fewer yards in 2017 compared to 2016. Part of that can be explained by a drop in overall passing volume, but, while that explanation can provide an excuse for Flacco’s statistical falloff, it’s not too comforting to Crabtree fans hoping for a revival in Baltimore.
Crabtree was also heavily dependent on red zone production during his time in Oakland, totaling fifty RZ targets during his three years as a Raider and finishing each season with at least eight touchdowns. Now, he goes to Baltimore, whose entire wide receiver depth chart combined for eight touchdowns in 2017. Baltimore is quite possibly the worst destination for a receiver like Crabtree who depends on red zone production to maintain his fantasy value.
Bottom Line: Despite being the clear-cut number one option in the passing game in Baltimore, the transition from the Raiders to the Ravens damages Crabtree’s 2018 fantasy stock, but he still should be viewed as a flex option due to the volume he’s expected to receive.