Opportunity and ability are the two biggest drivers of fantasy production. Ability is tough to quantify. Opportunity is easier to spot. Since the free agent market opened last Thursday, we have seen some dramatic changes in projectable opportunity. While many free agents have yet to sign and the NFL draft will further shake our projections, here are some fantasy winners and losers that at this point stand out.
Biggest Fantasy Winners
Jameis Winston – As Warren Sharp has noted, Winston’s passer rating on throws to his deep right was dreadful in 2016, primarily because the Bucs had no one capable of beating coverage on that side of the field. (Mike Evans runs the majority of his routes on the left side.) Jackson has always run most of his routes on the right side and will give Tampa Bay’s offense a new dimension, distracting loaded coverage from Evans and Cameron Brate, and spiking the efficiency of Tampa Bay’s run and pass games as a decoy on some plays and intended deep target on others. Winston is a prime 2017 breakout candidate.
Tom Brady – The rich got richer when the Patriots acquired dynamic playmaker Brandin Cooks from New Orleans and replaced Martellus Bennett with younger combination tight end Dwayne Allen, whose addition will allow the Patriots to continue to create mismatches in “12” personnel packages. With Rob Gronkowski also due back healthy, New England’s passing game looks as explosive as it’s been in years.
Isaiah Crowell – The Browns showed they valued Crowell by tendering him at the second-round level in restricted free agency, then hit the market to get him help. They signed prized RG Kevin Zeitler and ex-Packers C J.C. Tretter, and extended LG Joel Bitonio through 2022. And they did not trade LT Joe Thomas. All but locked in as Cleveland’s feature back, Crowell will have more room to operate in 2017.
Terrelle Pryor – Pryor will experience a mammoth quarterback upgrade going from Robert Griffin III-Cody Kessler-Josh McCown to Kirk Cousins in Washington, where target opportunity abounds. In Pierre Garcon (114) and DeSean Jackson (100), the Redskins have well over 200 missing targets from last year’s roster. Surprisingly forced to settle for a one-year, $6 million “prove-it” deal, Pryor certainly won’t lack for motivation in D.C. Entering only his second full season at wide receiver, Pryor joined a production-friendly situation and should be able to parlay it into a far richer deal next year.
LeSean McCoy – The Bills retained Tyrod Taylor on a restructured deal, ensuring McCoy will continue to benefit from Taylor’s dual-threat presence in one of the NFL’s toughest running games to defend. Buffalo also signed FB Patrick DiMarco, who earned Pro Football Focus’ No. 3 lead-blocking grade in front of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta last year.
Melvin Gordon – Since entering the league, Gordon has averaged 9.1 PPR points per game with Danny Woodhead active compared to 21.1 PPR points with Woodhead on the shelf. Woodhead signed a three-year, $8.8 million deal with Baltimore. The Chargers also landed LT Russell Okung and should field a higher-scoring 2017 offense with Keenan Allen back and Hunter Henry seeing an increased role.
Carson Wentz – Talent shortages around Wentz made him difficult to evaluate last year. He started fast, then fell into a prolonged slump and struggled with mechanics. But he was surrounded by the NFL’s weakest pass-catcher corps. With Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith on the perimeter to go with Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews inside, Wentz’s supporting-cast excuse won’t be acceptable in 2017.
Pierre Garcon – The 49ers love Garcon so much they gave him the second richest wide receiver contract in free agency, behind only ex-teammate DeSean Jackson. As a Redskin, Garcon averaged 9.6 targets per game in two years with Kyle Shanahan coordinating Washington’s offense, and 6.9 targets per game in three years with everyone else. Garcon signed with a bad team that will play from behind, and Brian Hoyer is a competent enough passer to get him the ball. Garcon is going to be a target monster again.
Jack Doyle – New Colts GM Chris Ballard was impressed enough by Doyle’s 2016 tape to make him free agency’s second highest paid tight end and, most importantly, part ways with Dwayne Allen. In Allen’s two missed games last season, Doyle played 88% of Indianapolis’ offensive snaps and averaged 35.5 pass routes per game. Doyle logged only 66% of the snaps and 23.0 routes per game with Allen active. Despite being a part-time player, Doyle led the Colts in red-zone receptions on the season and led all NFL tight ends in catch rate (78.7%). While not a dynamic athlete, Doyle is a trusted possession target for Andrew Luck. Explosive ex-basketball player Erik Swoope should also see an increase in usage.
Robert Woods – Woods wouldn’t be the first boring receiver to make an opportunity-driven fantasy impact. The Rams are currently missing 296 targets from last year’s roster, and Woods was their lone notable free-agent pass-catcher addition. Whereas Woods’ offenses in Buffalo ranked 31st and 32nd in pass attempts the past two years, new Rams coach Sean McVay’s 2016 Redskins offense finished seventh in pass attempts.
Tyler Higbee – Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper will be more popular breakout candidates, but Higbee also looks destined for spiked opportunity following the departure of Lance Kendricks. The 110th overall pick in last year’s draft, Higbee is a converted wide receiver who averaged nearly 15 yards per reception and dropped only one pass as a senior at Western Kentucky. After earning 40% of the Rams’ offensive snaps as a rookie, Higbee should get a chance to become a full-time player in 2017. Tight ends always produced in Sean McVay’s Redskins offenses, from Niles Paul to Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed.
Rishard Matthews – The Titans never got involved in the Alshon Jeffery bidding and let Kendall Wright walk. While Tennessee still seems likely to add wideout help in the draft, at present Matthews is comfortably atop the depth chart entering his second season with Marcus Mariota.
Devin Funchess – A third-year leap candidate, Funchess spent his first two seasons battling Corey Brown and Ted Ginn for snaps. Brown (Bills) and Ginn (Saints) both walked in free agency, setting up Funchess for a significantly enhanced role. Funchess has averaged 15.6 career yards per reception and converted nine of his 54 receptions into touchdowns, statistics that hint at his big-play and TD-scoring potential. Turning 23 in May, Funchess is nearly a full year younger than ballyhooed draft prospect Cooper Kupp.
Paul Perkins – I have doubts about Perkins’ viability as more than a committee back, and it’s entirely possible – if not probable – that the Giants address running back in the draft. I think you could argue that this is a great time to sell Perkins in Dynasty leagues. Still, the increased opportunity Perkins is currently slated to see needs to be acknowledged. Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams are long gone, and the Giants have shown no interest in free agent running backs to date.