The NFL free agency period always offers the potential for excitement, and the 2014 open market has been no different. Big names changing teams, massive salaries being cut, and players getting traded can change the hopes of some NFL teams, while illustrating others that are in obvious rebuilding mode.
Who makes the reach for the big signings and who stands pat can separate the men from the boys during the offseason. Though it can just mean a paper championship. In other words, the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles in recent years prove that money doesn’t always buy top level production. More importantly, it doesn’t always buy you wins.
However, when it comes to fantasy football, owners only want to know which big moves can translate to fantasy success. If a quarterback changes cities, what will it mean for his numbers and those of the new toys around him? Will that big name running back be a true sleeper, or will he fall woefully short of expectations in his new town? None of this can really be answered until the games start being played come September, but those who bleed fantasy football know it’s never too early to prognosticate.
With the 2014 fantasy football season creeping closer, let’s take a look at the top free agent moves that could have the biggest impact on how you draft in your league:
Josh McCown, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
McCown experienced a career revival last year with the Chicago Bears. He even created a bit of a quarterback controversy with Jay Cutler thanks to tossing 13 touchdowns to just one pick. His success clearly stemmed from “quarterback whisperer” head coach Marc Trestman – though he was always a fine athlete with a good arm. McCown had the proper coaching, weapons and system around him, and like magic, crushed it for fantasy owners who needed him in the middle of the year.
Heading to Tampa, McCown will reunite with head coach Lovie Smith (whom he played under in Chicago), and will have a slew of stellar weapons like Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and the newly acquired Brandon Myers. It’s entirely possible that the 34-year old journeyman passer will crater and be a bust, but with stocked talent and a firm backing as the new starter, it’s also possible he picks up where he left off in 2013. At the very worst, McCown will enter 2014 as a high-end QB2 and should be on everyone’s late-round sleeper board.
Ben Tate, RB, Cleveland Browns
Arguably the biggest name to hit free agency for fantasy purposes, Ben Tate finally latched on with the team rumored to want him all along. Now in Cleveland, he will assume lead back duties for the Browns, and as long as he stays on the field, should turn in high-end RB2 production at the very worst. His main knock while with the Texans was an inability to stay healthy. If he can get past that, Tate absolutely has the build and speed to be a very solid fantasy back. He’ll begin 2014 as a middle round value pick and RB2, but could quickly ascend to RB1 status.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Gerhart is one of the best free agent acquisitions in the fantasy realm because he’s a hidden gem that will finally get a shot at being “the guy.” Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley is running a system very similar to the Seattle Seahawks, where he relies on ball control offense and elite defense. With Jacksonville piecing together an improving defensive unit, all they really lacked was a strong power rusher to get the job done on the offensive end. While not a burner or all that explosive, Gerhart packs a major punch as a downhill runner, while also offering nice versatility and underrated speed. He should figure to get 15-20 touches in the early going, and if successful, could quickly turn into a very solid RB2 for fantasy owners.
Eric Decker, WR, New York Jets
Decker was, without a doubt, the top wide receiver on this year’s open market, so how can he not make our list of potential high impact free agents? While he gets knocked for playing with Peyton Manning and operating out of an awesome system, Decker actually brings excellent size and ball skills to the table. He also runs solid routes and possesses underrated speed. Though he absolutely benefited from Denver’s system, there is every reason to suggest Decker can be successful outside of it. After all, this is still the guy who was able to score eight touchdowns with Tim Tebow as his quarterback.
It still might be tricky for him to put up the numbers many will expect, since Geno Smith (or possibly Michael Vick) will be his quarterback, and neither are particularly encouraging. There also isn’t a lot of help in New York, which means Decker will have to be the guy Gang Green paid to get: a legit number one wide receiver. As good as he is, it might be a reach to say he’s a true go-to guy. Aim a little lower on his projection if you can. If you land Decker as a WR3, you should be right on target. Hopefully he then works his way up to WR2 status and becomes a value buy, rather than a terrible reach.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos
Where Eric Decker found great success (cue the Borat voice), the much more explosive Sanders could as well. Sanders has dealt with injuries and inconsistency throughout his brief tenure in the league, but he did post career numbers during a contract season in 2013. He absolutely has enormous upside by joining the most prolific offense in NFL history. Assuming he can stay healthy, and the wheels don’t fall off under Peyton Manning, Sanders should vie for the type of targets and overall production Decker did.
These are by far the biggest league acquisitions that translate to the fantasy world. We’ve yet to see what happens with guys like Knowshon Moreno and others, but even after they settle on a new team, it’s likely they won’t trump what the five aforementioned players have to offer.
Of the five, it’s probably down to Gerhart or Tate to be the biggest impact free agent for fantasy football in 2014. The early lead goes to Tate, sheerly based on upside. However, he has had trouble staying healthy in his career, and he is still playing for a team in Cleveland. That means Gerhart is probably the safest free agent addition and you may want to add him to your sleeper list.