The Super Bowl was great, but it’s time to turn our attention to the 2017 season, which officially starts on March 9th with the beginning of free agency. I get to play armchair GM as I lay out the best free agent fits for 7 high profile players from a fantasy standpoint. This isn’t necessarily what I think will happen, but rather, what I would like to see happen as a fantasy owner based on current team needs. For this exercise I looked at only unrestricted free agents also taking into account current salary cap situations as best I could.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
As a lifelong Bears fan it pains me to write this, but Alshon Jeffery needs a change of scenery, and really, who can argue? In the words of Muhsin Muhammad, Chicago is where wide receivers go to die. I’m afraid there may be some truth to that after watching Jeffery and Kevin White the last two years. It hasn’t all been bad though, as Jeffery has shown flashes of being a dominant game-changing wide receiver that keeps defensive coordinators up at night. Jeffery’s 10.24 (89th-percentile) Catch Radius helped to propel his initial ascension in 2013 (89 receptions, 1,421 yards, with seven touchdowns) and highlight-filled 2014 campaign (85 receptions, 1,133 yards, with 10 touchdowns).
Injuries marred the 2015 and 2016 seasons, which saw Alshon Jeffery on the field for only 21 combined games and suffered through the Bears’ mediocre quarterback play when he was on the field. Im skeptical the Bears will let Jeffery go but he could find his forever home in Philadelphia as Carson Wentz’s best friend.
The Eagles are currently in the bottom five in cap space so they’ll have to make a couple roster moves to free up the money Jeffery is looking for but they have a gaping hole at the position and Jeffery would immediately provide the type of weapon Wentz is lacking. Wentz completed more passes over 20 yards than Tyrod Taylor and Brock Osweiler, which is a testament more to the dearth of talent at wide receiver than his accuracy on deep balls. Consider this, Wentz’s 64 percent completion percentage on throws over 20 yards is right on par with a couple guys named Rodgers and Brady. Coincidentally, this is where Jeffery excels. The Eagles know they can’t keep up with the improving offenses in the NFC East without surrounding Wentz with playmakers. Jeffery fits that mold.
Terrelle Pryor, WR, 49ers
Terrelle Pryor in the Kyle Shanahan offense? Sign me up! Shanahan’s offense notoriously force-feeds the WR1 in a way that produces video game numbers. Just look at the table below.
Arguably the two best years of Andre Johnson’s career came in 2008 and 2009 under Shanahan. Julio Jones received an incomprehensible 203 targets with almost 2,000 yards 2015. Pierre Garcon posted the best year of his career in 2013 with 181 targets and over 1,300 yards. Perhaps Shanahan’s greatest feat thus far was when he coaxed 68 receptions for almost 1,000 yards from Jabar Gaffney in a mostly forgettable 2011 season as the Redskins Offensive Coordinator. Simply put, Shanahan’s scheme allows his top wide receiver to flourish, and Terrelle Pryor fits the alpha dog WR prototype.
The 49ers need to solve their quarterback problem, no small feat, but the smartest thing Shanahan can do would be to provide a young signal caller a 6-4 mistake-erasing athletic marvel offering a 128.3 (99th-percentile) Height-adjusted Speed Score (HaSS) at wide receiver. Terrelle Pryor was a revelation in 2016, posting 77 receptions, 1,007 yards, and four touchdowns catching passes from the poo-poo platter of Cody Kessler, Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Kevin Hogan, and the one and only Charlie Whitehurst. His ascension as a true WR1 is possibly my favorite story from the 2016 season. How can you not root for a guy that has worked his tail off learning a new position, overcame numerous obstacles, and is among the most competitive players in the league? Give Pryor competent quarterback play, even from a bridge-year quarterback such as Jay Cutler or Brian Hoyer, and a top ten finish in 2017 with Shanahan is not a stretch. It’s hard to see the Browns letting Pryor walk but a guy can dream, can’t he? This needs to happen.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Raiders
In all reality, the best landing spot for Martellus Bennett may be to just resign with the Patriots, but for fantasy purposes I can’t think of a place better suited for his talents than the Raiders. First of all, the Raiders top two tight ends, Mychal Rivera and Clive Walford both finished outside the top-30 fantasy tight ends in 2016. That creates what I like to call ‘a need’. Bennett would bring an instant punch to an already formidable passing attack, while opening up the outside by making defenses think twice about using a safety to bracket Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree.
The Raiders passing attack bogged down toward the end of the year as they became too reliant on their star wide receivers. In addition, Martellus Bennett will bring added toughness to the Raiders after he gutted through an ankle injury the majority of 2016. With Gronk already under contract through 2019 my guess is the Patriots won’t want to tie up any more money in the tight end position with another long term contract. This may force Bennet to cash in on another lucrative contract while he can. The Raiders should happily make that happen.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Patriots
Aren’t you just a little intrigued to see if Eddie Lacy can regain his 2014 form as the Patriots ‘big back’? I sure am. Wouldn’t it also be a typical Patriots move to shut the door on the LeGarrette Blount era a season after he scores 18 touchdowns? Blount has clearly bought into the ‘Patriot Way’ and was a significant bargain in 2016 but he’s crossed the infamous age of 30 years old for a running back and just fumbled in the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick has traded players for lesser crimes.
Enter Eddie Lacy, who is coming off two very forgettable and injury-marred seasons in Green Bay. He would be a perfect fit alongside James White and Dion Lewis in the Patriots backfield, assuming Blount’s role. The bromance between Belichick and Nick Saban has also given Belichick an affinity toward former Alabama stars. Lacy allows the Patriots to get younger at a position that will be vital to take pressure off Tom Brady, especially if he expects to play another five years. This may be a long shot but depending on how the free agent running back market plays out, Lacy may be willing to take a smaller one year deal to prove himself. Meaning, he could fall into the Patriots’ lap.
Kenny Stills, WR, Panthers
The Panthers really need to get Cam Newton some weapons. What is this, 2011? Is it just me or have we said this every year since Newton burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011? Aside from Greg Olsen, the Panthers pass catchers were largely a disappointment in 2016. Kelvin Benjamin flashed his 2014 form in Week 1 and then remained on a milk carton the rest of the season. Devin Funchess? He may be the Coby Fleener of wide receivers. Ted Ginn was Newton’s most reliable wide receiver but he’s now a 32 year old free agent who still hasn’t found a cure for his case of the dropsies, despite medication.
If the Panthers are smart, they’ll reach out to Kenny Stills’ agent immediately when the NFL’s Approved Collusion Window opens on March 7th, the first day teams can contact agents. I’ve been slow to the Kenny Stills hype train but after the season he just had, 3rd in the league at over 17 yards per catch, powered by a 4.38 (95th-percentile) and 104.0 (80th-percentile) HaSS. I’m a believer. Stills is a perfect fit on the outside in Carolina, replacing Ginn as Newton’s deep threat. Again, this makes too much sense not to happen.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Packers
We know Ted Thompson treats free agency with contempt, but it’s hard to ignore the fit here. Despite this, the Packers do have some history taking a chance on a high profile free agent coming off a disappointing year with a division rival with something left to prove. This situation is oddly similar to the Julius Peppers signing in 2014, who was coming off his worst year as a pro with the Bears. Add Aaron Rodger’s comments about reloading and I get the feeling the Packers may be a little more active in free agency this year. If you didn’t hear Aaron Rodgers comments, Keegan Michael Key, the NFL’s new Anger Translator, summed them up:
Here’s @KeeganMKey absolutely nailing it as @AaronRodgers12‘s “Anger Translator” pic.twitter.com/ORkfQxAP1A
— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) February 5, 2017
Yes, Ty Montgomery flourished at the end of the season when Mike McCarthy finally committed to him as the lead back but he did struggle at the goal line, where Peterson excels. Apologies to the remaining Christine Michael truthers out there but I don’t see him as the answer. Even if he is, the Packers can’t get caught with an empty backfield again, not if they want to maximize their Aaron Rodgers championship window. Adrian Peterson‘s mythological reputation alone would help keep linebackers in the box, just enough to give Packers receivers a sliver of daylight that Aaron Rodgers requires. If the Packers are serious about reloading and winning now, the team should bolster their backfield with Adrian Peterson.
Latavius Murray, RB, Colts
Look, I like Frank Gore as much as the next guy but eventually the fountain of youth will run dry. Gore will be 34 before the 2017 season starts and has over 3,000 career carries including playoffs! Let’s take a moment to give the man his due but then we need to realize the Colts need to inject some youth to their backfield. The Raiders seem content with a Jalen Richard/DeAndre Washington combo which makes Latavius Murray an intriguing name in free agency. Im legitimately concerned Andrew Luck’s arm might fall off so it makes sense to add a workhorse like Murray.
Frank Gore is due $3.5 million in this final year of his contract and is a candidate to be cut. Latavius Murray is 27, only has 543 career carries, and is coming off a top 15 finish in standard scoring leagues on less than 200 carries. Murray still has room to grow and I think playing alongside Luck will bring out his best.