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Fantasy Football 2019: The Butterfly Effect of NFL Free Agency

Fantasy Football 2019: The Butterfly Effect of NFL Free Agency

Fantasy Football 2019: The Butterfly Effect of NFL Free Agency

Every year free agency comes along and changes the NFL landscape. The part we as an industry mostly focus on is how it changes things for the players who move — but what we need to look for as fantasy analysts is how it can change things for offenses as a whole. Last year, for example, free agency decimated Seattle's defense. Was that going to help open up their passing game? Did the losses actually matter all that much? I wrote about how I thought it would improve the outlooks for Tyler Lockett and Russell Wilson. Seattle ran a very run-heavy offense under Brian Schottenheimer, limiting Wilson's upside, but Lockett still had a breakout season.

Sometimes, fantasy football is about taking a stand on how the new pieces will fit together. Here's where I am on some of the big offseason free agency moves.

Nick Foles will help a Jacksonville fantasy football receiver generate value in 2019

Foles isn't a dynamic playmaker, but what he can do that Blake Bortles couldn't is pretty evident: Foles will be consistent enough to actually hit throws. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is comfortable with Foles' strengths from their time together in Philadelphia, and the offensive line won't be as big of a crater as it was in Minnesota.

So now we come to the question of exactly who that receiver is. Foles is not renowned for his deep ball, although he can occasionally complete one. On the balance of the season, though, his average intended air yards per throw of 6.7 was the lowest of any qualifying quarterback. That leads me to believe that a lot of the offense will be volume-based on screens, slants and RPO witchcraft.

Which leads me to the conclusion that Dede Westbrook is the player who is going to benefit the most from Foles. Westbrook is generally the YAC receiver, and that will play into Foles' hands as a quarterback who targets separation often. All boats in Jacksonville should rise at least a little bit, but if I had to stake a claim on someone to get massive value here, it would be Westbrook. 

Josh Allen's rushing output will decrease, but the offense around him should help

The Bills went on a shopping spree, bringing in Ty Nsekhe, Mitch Morse, John Brown and Cole Beasley. While I have my doubts about how repeatable Allen's rushing output from last season is, the offense around him got much stronger and is squarely focused on his strengths. Brown's ability as a deep receiver is unparalleled when healthy, and that plays right into Allen's hands. Allen led all NFL quarterbacks last year with an average depth of throw of 11.5 yards. With Robert Foster and Brown lined up on opposite sides of the field, the Bills hope to take away a lot of the underneath attention on Beasley.

That could be a major benefit to Beasley if Allen can increase his accuracy. Beasley wasn't an impact player for the Cowboys, but when the top was taken off a defense, he was consistent and had great hands.

The more likely scenario to me is that we have a general offensive boost that hits everybody, and a player who I think will benefit is LeSean McCoy. He was still breaking plenty of tackles in 2018 even with all the extra attention on him. Tied to an actual passing game, I think he might surprise and become a top-20 running back value.

Related: Welcome to Positionless Football

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The power vacuum at running back for the Kansas City Chiefs has become more important than ever

Tyreek Hill's uncertain status throughout much of the offseason was a big reason why Chiefs traded up in the draft to take Mecole Hardman. They spent most of free agency retooling their defense with Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu. But one thing they did almost nothing about was their lack of a proven running back after the release of Kareem Hunt.

Damien Williams handled most of the workload once Spencer Ware was hurt, and Ware has now moved on to greener pastures in free agency. Williams was in danger of being overvalued in fantasy football drafts by virtue of his big couple of games as a runner (against Indy) and as a receiver (against New England) in the playoffs. Fortunately for Williams, the Chiefs provided him with little in the way of competition. They signed veteran Carlos Hyde to a one-year deal with only $1.5 million in guaranteed money, and they drafted Darwin Thompson with the last pick of the sixth round.

Needless to say, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid's designs make the Chiefs a bulletproof offense regardless of whether Hill plays. Anybody who gets a big share of the running back playing time in 2019 is going to have fantasy football value. Both Williams and Hyde have experience being parts of an effective passing game, although I would argue that Williams has a deeper route tree.

The simple solution? Try to grab them both. It's not often I think handcuffing is a great idea, but this backfield is much too dynamic to let sit around. It's something I did in the mock draft that ran in Athlon Sports' fantasy preview magazine and something that I think will be important as the battle for the spot rages on. As we get closer to the season, don't be surprised if Hyde starts making inroads to more playing time than expected.

Jared Cook's big year versus his role with the Saints

One of the sneakier signings of free agency occurred when Jared Cook left Oakland and met a somewhat cold market. The Saints ponied up two years and $15 million for the journeyman tight end.

Cook had never really been the focal point of an offense before, but his breakout 2018 season has always been within the grasp of his talent. Cook will improve New Orleans' offense by virtue of being a viable target next to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara in 2018.

But fantasy football owners are going to have to ask themselves: Is it Cook or Tre'Quan Smith who will really be that third wheel? Smith has an edge in the offense and played well at times last season. The Saints are always a dynamic offense, and there are scenarios where the defense struggles and both Cook and Smith blow up. The 2016 Saints were able to carry three 100-target receivers. The player who grabs more target share is capable of turning in a big year even with a stout defense and run game leading to more blowouts and less passing. Whoever wins the higher share of the role could be a fantasy football league winner.

Chase the post-hype sleeper: Albert Wilson 

Not only did the Dolphins hire a new head coach, but they also signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and traded for Josh Rosen, then lost Ja'Wuan James to the Broncos and released Josh Sitton. On the surface, the Dolphins are a disaster area headed for one of the worst records in the NFL.

But someone has to get run even in disaster zones, and while both Rosen and Fitzpatrick should mesh pretty well with Kenny Stills' deep speed, Albert Wilson might be the player who benefits the most from the extra targets. Bill Belichick disciple Chad O'Shea is the new offensive coordinator here, and that points to the Dolphins running a system that heavily targets the middle of the field and the running backs for easy points. Last year, Miami's target leader was Danny Amendola, and his departure frees up a lot of targets over the middle for Wilson.

Wilson performed extremely well in a small sample for the Dolphins before a hip injury, catching 74.3 percent of his targets and reeling in four touchdowns in just three starts. The circumstances are favorable for him to create a big role for himself in 2019, if he can stay healthy. 

— Written by Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) for Athlon Sports' 2019 Fantasy Football annual