3 Under-the-Radar Fantasy Football Winners From Free Agency
With every move in free agency, there's a ripple effect. We know Jimmy Graham is moving from a pass-happy system to a more run-oriented one, and that could hurt his fantasy value. But his trade impacts the quarterbacks, wide receivers and even running backs who are rostered on the two teams involved.
It's not just about the player who gets traded, but the impact that player can make -- whether he's staying or leaving -- on other guys on his team.
So with that being said, rather than taking a look at obvious winners stemming from free agency, let's dive into some of the under-the-radar victors -- the players who may be better values thanks to their team environment changes.
1. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
Even before free agency started, Eli Manning was pegged -- or should have been, at least -- as an early sleeper at the quarterback position in 2015.
When Odell Beckham hit his stride last season -- which started in Week 7 -- Manning finished with five top-five finishes over his final nine games of the season. For some context, only seven other quarterbacks finished the season with five top-five performances, let alone accumulating those numbers over a nine-game stretch.
A piece of the Giants' offensive puzzle that was missing last year was in the backfield. Not only did New York finish 22nd in the league in schedule-adjusted rushing efficiency according to our metrics, but neither of their lead backs -- Andre Williams and Rashad Jennings -- were effective through the air.
Last season, Jennings finished with a 0.09 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target average, while Williams, who's known for having stone hands, finished with a 0.18 rate. (Read more about NEP in our glossary.) The average rate among backs last year in Reception NEP per target was 0.33, far more efficient than what New York's backs saw.
Enter Shane Vereen, who has signed with the Giants after making a living catching passes out of the backfield in New England. Over the last two years, Vereen has combined to catch 99 passes in 24 games played. His per-target Reception NEP is an absurd 0.47, far better than even the average in the league at the position.
Vereen is competent as a runner, too, which just adds to his allure in helping Eli Manning. With this, Victor Cruz returning, and one of the best -- if not the best -- wideouts in the game on his side, there's reason to believe Eli Manning could be a top-10 passer this year. Quite easily, too.
2. Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans Saints
Since this was written, Kenny Stills has reportedly been placed on the trading block. Of course. If he stays a Saint, this information remains important. And as you'll see by the numbers, it's unclear why the Saints would want to trade him in the first place.
Kenny Stills wasn't great in fantasy football last year. In terms of cumulative fantasy points scored (PPR), he finished with just under 174 tallies, ranking 38th at the position. Not fantastic. And when you break his numbers down on a week-by-week basis, Stills finished with just three top-24 PPR performances at wideout (WR1 or WR2 performances) -- 40 receivers had four or more last year.
Two things have happened in New Orleans this offseason that will impact their offense: Jimmy Graham was traded, and Pierre Thomas was released. Graham leaves behind an average of 137.75 targets per season in New Orleans, while Thomas had 55 of his own last year. Though the Saints' running backs could easily fill Thomas' role in the passing game, it'd be hard to see third-year tight end Josh Hill and veteran Ben Watson filling Graham's void.
That leaves the wide receivers to gobble up the volume, which is great for Stills, who, according to NEP last season, was the most efficient player on a per-target basis on the Saints. He was so effective, in fact, that his Reception NEP per target of 1.05 ranked first in the entire NFL among receivers with 20 or more receptions.
In other words, it would be foolish for New Orleans to not give Stills a bigger role next season.
(And my goodness, it would be foolish for them to trade him right now.)
If we assume some combination of tight ends see 50 percent of Graham's volume -- which, really, is a fair assumption -- and that players like Travaris Cadet and Khiry Robinson (or CJ Spiller, if that becomes a thing) pick up Thomas' slack, that will leave roughly 60 to 70 targets for wide receivers.
If Stills keeps his fantasy points per target rate that he saw last year (And if he stays on the Saints. Ugh.) -- which was 2.10 -- then we're talking at least 40 more fantasy points (roughly 20 more targets) scored. Scoring 40 more PPR points last year would have catapulted Stills to top-20 status at wide receiver.
Brandin Cooks will certainly continue to be involved in the offense, as will Marques Colston and probably even Nick Toon. But given his efficiency and role in the offense already, we should expect Stills to take a step forward in fantasy football next year.
(As long as he's still a Saint.)
3. Eric Decker, WR, New York Jets
To be honest, putting Eric Decker on this list has just as much to do about what could happen to his perceived value -- his market value -- than anything else. Because with Brandon Marshall in a Jets uniform and no real strong quarterback throwing passes, fantasy owners may shy away from Decker, thinking he's in a position to fail.
I'm clearly not one of those owners.
Second, Eric Decker is so much better at football than the masses want to believe. In 2014, he ranked 19th in Reception NEP with one of the worst starting quarterback situations in the NFL. Decker's 0.78 Reception NEP per target not only ranked 19th out of the 87 wide receivers with 50 or more targets, but it was about twice as efficient as any other Jets player. Now, the personnel on New York was awful, but that still says a lot about how good Decker truly is.
Decker saw 114 targets last season in 15 games, scoring the 26th-most fantasy points at wide receiver (PPR). He ended the year with six top-24 performances (WR1 or WR2), which tied him for 21st in the NFL, so it's not as though he scored his fantasy points in large chunks -- he was relatively consistent.
Many will be turned off by Marshall being there, assuming Decker's volume will decrease. But Marshall can take on a lot of Jeremy Kerley's volume (75 targets), and Percy Harvin, who had 52 targets of his own, is gone. Even if Marshall leads the team in targets, which may not even happen, there's still enough looks to go around to give the two receivers each 100 targets.
Honestly, if anything, Marshall's going to ease things up a bit for Decker.
With Fitzpatrick (or a hopefully-improved Geno Smith), the Jets, too, could become a little more pass-happy. They were a run-heavy team last year, finishing with the fifth-lowest pass-to-run ratio in the NFL. With a currently questionable backfield, the arrow is pointing up in terms of volume in the passing game.
This isn't to say that Decker will be a full-blown WR1 in fantasy, but there's a reasonable chance that we see fantasy owners shy away from him due to false concerns. It'd be surprising to see Decker not reach 100 targets in that offense this year, barring injury, and considering his fantastic efficiency last season, he could be due for even better numbers in 2015.