Free-agent movement often has ramifications for more than just the player who is changing teams. Who are some players whose fantasy stock is on the rise due to a separate signing or trade made by their existing team?
Dan Hindery: Tee Higgins is likely to benefit when all is said and done. The Bengals free agency moves point to them drafting offensive lineman Penei Sewell at No. 5 overall in the draft. The team still has multiple holes to fill on the offensive line, even after signing right tackle Riley Reiff to a one-year deal. The Reiff signing came with a lot of talk about his flexibility to play guard if needed and does nothing to solve the offensive tackle need long-term. If the Bengals had been more aggressive filling offensive line holes in free agency, maybe they would have drafted a player like Ja'Marr Chase or Kyle Pitts at No. 5, but it’s hard to see that happening now.
Cincinnati’s head of personnel talked glowingly of Higgins as an emerging star and he projects as Joe Burrow's WR1 moving forward. Assuming the Bengals add Sewell to Reiff and a healthy Jonah Williams, the ingredients are there for a solid offensive line. Improved line play should enable the passing game to take off in Burrow's second season and Higgins looks like the main beneficiary.
Andy Hicks: Speaking of offensive lines, New England also made significant improvements up front. Cam Newton and his pass-catchers are the obvious beneficiaries but don’t forget about Damien Harris (and maybe even Sony Michel).
Bill Belichick won’t give us many hints about his backfield rotation, but with Rex Burkhead no longer on the team, there are fewer mouths to feed (at least for now). Both Harris and Michel averaged more than 5.0 yards per attempt last season, but Harris will be much higher in my initial rankings due to the burst he showed when used in a featured role in 2020.
Sigmund Bloom: Andy, the Patriots were in on the free-agent running back market and could still end up signing or drafting someone. Stay tuned.
Andy Hicks: Oh, I fully expect it Sig. Harris and Michel combined for 12 catches last year. Even with James White returning, it wouldn't be shocking if they grab another pass-catching back. But if they add a more prominent running back like Leonard Fournette or James Conner, my enthusiasm for Harris will plummet.
Jason Wood: Andy raises a good point about Cam Newton -- as long as Belichick doesn't draft a rookie to take his job. The offensive line looks better, the Patriots invested in two talented tight ends who excel at running routes in Newton's preferred throwing lanes, and the receiving corps got a shot in the arm too. Neither Nelson Agholor nor Kendrick Bourne is a future All-Pro, but they fit well into McDaniels' scheme and will give Newton quality tertiary targets to go along with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
Phil Alexander: I’m looking forward to seeing what the Rams pass-catchers can do with Matthew Stafford. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp have each been productive in Sean McVay’s system with Jared Goff at quarterback, and now they should finally get some accurate downfield targets to work with. DeSean Jackson was even a sneaky-good signing to give Kupp, Woods, and Tyler Higbee more space to operate for as long as he can stay on the field. Stafford on the Rams is a rising tide that should lift all boats in LA, including running back Cam Akers. As it stands today, prioritizing Rams players is a big part of my draft plans.
Chad Parsons: Currently, the biggest winners are the incumbent running backs who are still alive to be their team’s clear starter in Week 1:
- Chase Edmonds’ stock is up in Arizona after Kenyan Drake took a quality-offer from the Raiders. Edmonds has been productive in his few starting opportunities to date. Day 3 running backs don’t typically have much job security, but between Drake’s departure and Arizona otherwise ignoring the running back position in the early days of free agency, Edmonds has cleared the first hurdle towards becoming a starter.
- Myles Gaskin benefits from Miami not bringing in Aaron Jones or another splashy running back signing. The Dolphins are likely to add a notable back between now and the end of April, but Gaskin was a serviceable performer in 2020 and is the starter until we see another substantial addition to the backfield.
- Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland sit atop Pittsburgh’s depth chart with James Conner still unsigned.
Jordan McNamara: Atlanta is another running back situation to consider with Mike Davis and Ito Smith currently at or near the top of the depth chart. Depending on how the rest of free-agency shakes out, one could survive the NFL Draft and land the starting job.
Sticking with the Falcons, Matt Ryan restructured his contract to free up 2021 cap space, while also essentially guaranteeing he will be back with the team in 2022. The new contract terms also make it less likely Atlanta drafts a quarterback in April. New Head Coach, Arthur Smith, is one of the brightest offensive minds in the league and Ryan could be in for a bounceback year.
Jeff Haseley: It’s too early to tell who is on the rise or decline. Teams can still bolster their position groups with more free agents or draft picks. Arizona deciding to let Drake walk opens the door for Chase Edmonds (and Eno Benjamin), but what if they decide to draft a player like Michael Carter from UNC? I’m not there on Edmonds making a leap until the dust completely settles on the offseason.
Jason Wood: I couldn’t agree more, Jeff. Any enthusiasm for the incumbent running backs is far too premature. Many of those backs will enter training camp in stiff competition with rookies, and I would bet on those rookies winning the No. 1 roles over most of the names we’ve covered so far. Once we've had the April draft, if any of the veteran running backs somehow avoided real competition, then we can get excited about breakout seasons.
Chad Parsons: I agree with you guys, but the running back depth charts I pointed out are the most ambiguous right now. In dynasty leagues, it’s important to know who the current projected starters are because now might be the best time to sell-high on them.
Jason Wood: Fair enough, Chad. My running back whose situation improved the most is a free agent who didn’t change teams. Not only did the Seahawks give Chris Carson a ton of money to come back, but they’ve also given him an excellent run-blocking tight end in Gerald Everett and bolstered the offensive line by trading for Pro Bowl-caliber guard Gabe Jackson.
Troy Smith: Melvin Gordon is another running back whose outlook has improved. With Phillip Lindsay now on the Texans, Gordon is the undisputed starter in Denver. In a timeshare last year, Gordon Finished as the RB14 and nearly rushed for 1,000 yards. Denver’s offense should improve as a whole in 2021 and Gordon’s only competition for touches is now Royce Freeman.
Jason Wood: At wide receiver, I'll highlight Terry McLaurin. Not only does he get a quality running mate in Curtis Samuel to draw defensive backs' attention, but he'll get either Ryan Fitzpatrick under center or a rookie who's playing well enough to keep Fitzpatrick on the bench. Either way, that means McLaurin will have vastly better signal-callers getting him the ball in 2021.
Sigmund Bloom: McLaurin was the first name that came to mind when I read this question. We have no idea what he is capable of when he is not playing with one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. And now he gets a quarterback who has been maxing out the value of his targets for three years straight.
Honorable mention goes to Logan Thomas and Antonio Gibson, who are also worth a lot more with Fitzpatrick at quarterback. I also have James Robinson as a winner, assuming the Carlos Hyde signing means that the Jaguars aren't going to take a first or second day running back in the draft. And Tyler Higbee should get a chance to be the primary receiving tight end for the Rams with the departure of Gerald Everett.
Jeff Haseley: We haven’t talked much about tight ends yet. The decision to move on from Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith in Tennessee opens the door for Anthony Firkser’s targets to increase. Tennessee also just acquired Josh Reynolds for receiver help and has Cameron Batson, who can do some nice things after the catch. As of right now, all three could see an increase in production, especially Firkser who nearly had 40 receptions last year in a part-time role last year. Provided Tennessee doesn't sign or draft a blue-chip tight end, Firkser could be a fantasy starter in 2021.
Jason Wood: At the tight end position, Irv Smith's time to shine has arrived. In the final month of the 2020 season, when Kyle Rudolph was inactive, Smith’s per-game pace would have been good for 60 receptions, 732 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Now that he's assured 70-80% of the Vikings offensive snaps, he'll be an every-week fantasy starter.