INTRO TO THE FREE AGENT 50
There are basic similarities between the rookie draft and free agency. Draft boards and free agency wish lists are a product of scouting talent, evaluating team needs, and projecting fit within the team's system and culture.
Last year was my first Free Agent 50. Notable players listed last year include:
- No.38 Anthony Dixon - "He could earn a job elsewhere due to his versatility and surprise as a contributor in a backfield . . . "
- No.16 Emmanuel Sanders - "I think Sanders has the skills to produce as a solid WR2 for fantasy owners on a team with greater emphasis on a vertical passing game, but it's going to take a perfect situation that I can't foresee."
- No.12 Golden Tate - "His upside is limited to WR2 production for fantasy leagues, but he's only 26 and 6-7 more years of WR3 play is more valuable than 1-2 years of WR2 play in my book."
- No.10 Rashad Jennings - "Jennings' production in Oakland since Week 8 has made him the No.8 RB in fantasy football. I'd be surprised if the Raiders don't keep the 29 year-old runner."
- No.4 Eric Decker - "Much will be expected of Decker if he leaves Denver in 2014, but if a team mistakes him for a primary option who can beat double teams I'm dropping the Broncos receiver at least a dozen spots on this list."
- No.3 Ben Tate - "Cleveland is a good fit with Josh Gordon stretching defenses..."
As you can see, it's an early look at the class. I had a good laugh reading a lot of my takes now, especially Toby Gerhart and and Riley Cooper, who were both top-five options on my December `13 list.
Notable potential Free Agents (Real Football):
First, here are some of the real football options who could have an impact on fantasy fortunes of the teams they join. Here's the People magazine version of a list from over 700 possible free agents that caught my eye as options who may not get re-signed by their teams:
DT Ndamukong Suh: Can the Lions keep Suh? Will they? It's one of the biggest questions of the offseason. Only 27 years-old, Suh has at least a few years left of outstanding football in a 4-3 system. Detroit's defense is finally rounding into form so I'd be surprised if he's sent packing, but if he is, his presence in the right system could indirectly benefit his new team's offense if Suh is a good fit for the defensive scheme and not placed out of position (think 3-4 defensive end) where an adjustment might be necessary.
DE Greg Hardy: If Hardy is reinstated for 2015, the 26-year-old defensive end was the among the best edge rushers in the game with his hand in the dirt. Purely from a scheme standpoint, the same teams that would covet Suh would want Hardy: Jacksonville, Seattle, Cincinnati, Minnesota,and Oakland. I'm experience a severe case of wishful thinking, but if the Lions let Suh go, I'd love to see Hardy forced to take a "give me another chance or my off-field behavior" discount and see the Kraken paired with the baddest interior force in the league.
OLB Jason Worlids: I saw Worlids as a potential Elvis Dumervil. The Virginia Tech alum has flashed this skill, but he hasn't put it all together. At 26, he still has a shot at better IDP seasons--even if it's not in Pittsburgh. With no shortage of 3-4 units in the league, keep and eye on the pass rushing specialist because he's the type of option capable of double-digit sacks with the right unit.
CB Darrelle Revis: Finally healthy, I'd be surprised if he doesn't re-sign with New England, but as long as he gets to press receivers where ever he lands, you can forecast at least a slight bump in sack totals from his new teammates along the defensive line and outside linebacker,
T Michael Roos: He's on injured reserve after knee surgery, but if the three-time All-Pro can get healthy he should offer at least a year or two of help as a left or right tackle to team. Atlanta has needed two good tackles for years and only acquired one last year. It's one of the reasons why Atlanta lacks a consistent ground game and cannot throw the ball vertically on a consistent basis.
G Mike Iupati: Matt Maiocco, one of the fine beat writers covering the NFL, reports that the 49ers will be reluctant to pay Iupati what he could command on the open market. One of the better guards in the league, keep an eye on the running backs that benefit from Iupati's arrival. When healthy, he's a hoss for the ground game.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul: After a 17-sack year in 2011, Pierre-Paul has just managed to exceed that single-season total during the past 41 games. The 25 year-old has 9.5 sacks in 2014 thus far--a good sign that he might be back on an upswing. The Newark Star-Ledger reports that the Giants aren't expected to give Pierre-Paul a franchise tag so expect those same 4-3 teams looking at Greg Hardy to consider Pierre-Paul (and maybe first).
OLB/DE Brandon Graham: I drafted Graham in every IDP league I could get him when the former Michigan star seemed like the best defensive end prospect in the draft. If you're an IDP guy then you know the story. Jene Bramel started the Free Brandon Graham campaign two years ago. I have been a sponsor and volunteer behind the scenes. Graham has had a fine season for Philadephia, but I'd love to see him in a 4-3 unit (the same goes for Melvin Ingram III of the Chargers), but I think Graham might be the most likely defensive free agent to emerge from a role player status to statistical stardom.
OLB Justin Houston: Rand Getlin of Yahoo! sports reported in late October that Houston is likely to see the franchise tag or sent packing as a free agent. Houston has only missed five games since he entered the league in 2011 and he's among the most productive pass rushers in the game, with a sack total that is up there with Robert Quinn and J.J. Watt. It's worth noting that among those leaders is fellow Chief Tamba Hali, which may give reason to consider that as good as Houston has been, how good will he be elsewhere? Stay tuned.
Free AGent Top 50
The 50 free agents are ranked based on my informal criteria:
- Age - The player's age before the 2014 season ends and the projected number of three-year windows he can contribute.
- Instant Impact - How likely will that player produce as a starter or frequent contributor during his first year with a new team.
- Athleticism - Does the player's physical skills have few peers (elite); match most starters; meet the needs of a contributor; or make him a reserve?
- Technical/Conceptual Skills - See athleticism.
- Versatility - Can he fit within any system and how many roles can he play in an offense or on special teams?
- Non-IDP Fantasy - I have a mini-list below for real fantasy football, but the actual top 50 includes offensive skill players only.
- Idiocy - See last year's list (or the highlights from above).
I'm beginning with the 50th player and working my way to the top option. I easily pared the list to 60 players before making a second round of cuts. The 10 that didn't survive the second round include players who are career backups (at best) at this point due to age, limited skills, or injury history, including Michael Vick, Colt McCoy, Matt Asiata, Lance Kendricks, Damaris Johnson, and Jeremy Ross.
There are also young options with ability or habits that wasn't great fit with their initial team or they required more development time than the team could afford. They each deserve a little something about them and I've ranked them as the unofficial 54-51 who just missed the cut:
- RB LaMichael James: James is not as rugged as Darren Sproles, but he could fit that role in the right offense, which is why Miami signed him to it's Chip Kelly-inspired system in lieu of the 49ers cutting James this fall. The talent is there for James to contribute, the question is whether he has the dedication and perseverance to keep fighting for an opportunity to show it.
- WR Denarius Moore: The Raider receiver flashed breath-taking catches in contested situations as a rookie that never developed into something consistent. The parade of coaching staffs and quarterbacks that Oakland had during Moore's tenure contributes to the ruination of more than a few young talents. However, much of the responsibility still resides with Moore, whose mistake-filled career may turn off several teams from considering his great raw talent that should be more refined by now.
- TE Demetrius Harris: A notable player on the rise during the Chiefs' summer activities, Harris is a fine athlete still learning the position at 23 years-old. I could see Kansas City keeping Harris because of Anthony Fasano's age and Travis Kelce coming into his own. If not, Harris lacks a portfolio that will draw serious interest from a team seeking a future starter, but it might take a chance on him as a reserve and discover Harris has tools to work with.
- RB Brandon Bolden: I expect the Patriots to part company with Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, but potentially re-sign Bolden, because of his all-around skill and knowledge of the system that will be available at a cheap price tag. If not, Bolden is only 24 and he should latch on somewhere, just not as more than a limited contributor and break-the-glass injury sub.
No.50 QB David Fales: The Bears promoted the quarterback to its 53-man roster last weekend after the Chicago Tribune reported that the Patriots made a push to sign the rookie. I had Fales rated as my No.4 option from the 2014 quarterback class based on long-term developmental upside. He has the conceptual tools to develop into a starter, but arrived in the league with the physical tools of a reserve. A scout I spoke with last year says Fales as a niche market of fans in the league. The fact that the Patriots were one of them makes sense, because Fales has fine pocket awareness and an aggressive mindset based on seeing the field like a pro. Think of Fales along the Brian Hoyer track, but with potentially greater upside if he can develop more arm strength.He's an intriguing QB3 on an NFL depth chart.
No.49 WR Dwayne Harris: The skill after the catch is the key. I doubt Harris becomes a starting receiver in the NFL, but there's enough ability for him to contribute the way Devin Hester and Tedd Ginn have. I like Harris' hands much more than these two veterans. I'm interested to see if a team considers him as a dynamic slot receiver--a more rugged, but not as refined Julian Edelman. It's a long shot, but we've seen glimpses of potential from Harris on a Cowboys roster more interested in keep Harris as a return specialist.
No.48 RB Antone Smith: The former Florida State runner has bounced around the league and confounded local fans who sometimes lobby for him as a potential starter due to his big-play speed that reared its beautiful head during the first half of Atlanta's season on screen passes and perimeter runs. Smith and former Seminoles teammate Leon Washington are cut from a similar mold, which he's more spark plug than starter. However, Smith is also at the possible dawn of an era where more teams could use backs like Sproles in offenses like the Eagles. Of course, we say this every year about some new trend and what we discover is that there are no backs exactly like Sproles or personnel and coaches as good as the original team using the system.
No.47 RB DuJuan Harris: Mike McCarthy took a shine to Harris before the back suffered a major leg injury two years ago. A quick, shifty runner with traces of what made Maurice Jones-Drew a good NFL back, Harris is the better answer for a team thinking about acquiring Jacquizz Rodgers as a free agent.
No.46 RB Lance Dunbar: The love for Cowboys runner Joseph Randle is growing fast this year, but Dunbar held off Randle on the depth chart for a while. The former North Texas State runner is a fine scat back with some Ahmad Bradshaw-like flashes. I don't think he'll ever reach Bradshaw's ceiling, but he'll earn a shot somewhere as a change of pace if the Cowboys don't re-sign him. Don't have high expectations, but do monitor his whereabouts and standing in 2015.
No.45 RB Dan Herron: >The Colts offensive line is bad and Herron has still shown more than what I saw at Ohio State and Cincinnati. He has out-played Trent Richardson since Ahmad Bradshaw's injury, which is more of an indictment of Richardson than praise of Herron. Even so, Herron has earned his stripes as a reliable reserve this season. There's value in that for NFL teams and fantasy owners.
No.44 RB Bobby Rainey: Say what you will about him as a long-term starter (he's not), but Rainey has proven that he's a viable, all-around option capable of starting in a pinch and doing good work. He's a slightly younger Justin Forsett. Put Rainey behind a good offensive line and he'll get the job done. You monitor where guys like Rainey end up, because as much as he has bounced around he's still in the league and still seeing valuable playing time, and that is an indication of talent. The only thing separating Rainey from Herron is a larger portfolio in the NFL, and it might not matter much when viewing reserves. I do think Rainey is more explosive, which is another reason for the slight edge.
No.43 QB Jake Locker: We received this email this morning on our staff communications list.
Greeeting, Well I would like to know whether you sell Tier Locker. Let me know the available sizes/models you have, or a link to look through. Also want to know the types of payment you accept. Hope to hera back from you soon.
I marked it as spam, but Footballguy Austin Lee had a lot more fun with it:
Our Tier Locker is currently out of stock, but could I interest you in a Jake Locker? It's currently located in Tennessee, but that won't last much longer. It has a few nicks and scratches, but has spent most of the past four years unused. If you respond quickly, I'm certain I can secure it for bare minimum pricing.
Hope to hear from you soon,
The Fantasy Football Snake Oil Salesman
Note: Footballguys can't be held responsible for incomplete orders. Past orders of Jake Locker have been completed well under 60 percent of the time and are often intercepted.
I literally typed "Jake Locker" on this page when Lee's email response appeared in my inbox. Bravo, Lee. Bravo.
Can Locker develop into a starting quarterback the Titans hoped? Sure, it's possible, but sort of like it's possible I could decide to drive to Hartsfield Airport tonight, buy a plane ticket to Hawaii, make a beeline to the beach directly from the airport, find a tiger shark, and hitch a ride on its dorsal fin unscathed.
I'm not sure which is the bigger issue is for Locker, his good-form-but-bad-result accuracy or that he has been a magnet for injury. Teams will shy away from both when considering Locker as anything more than depth. He might fit as a backup in Philadelphia if the Eagles part ways with Mark Sanchez and keep Foles as the starter. Note, I'm not saying he'll be a good backup. Possible over time, but you can best believe that I won't be in Hawaii tomorrow.
No.42 WR Hakeem Nicks: It's abundantly clear that injuries have transformed Nicks from a viable primary threat with vertical skill into a shadow of Marcus Colston. Still, Nicks is a strong, sure-handed veteran capable of doing solid work in the middle of the field if called upon and if the Colts don't re-sign him, he might get a call to work in this role elsewhere with slightly better production than his current offense that's croweded with skill talent.
No.41 WR Eddie Royal: Royal completes the trio of players I'd subtitle: There's viable, but limited potential here for deep leagues if they could stay healthy. When he was a rookie, he looked like the next Santana Moss. It goes to show how much "fit" and "effort to learn" matters in a league where there's so little margin for error.
No.40 WR Cole Beasley: The Cowboys' slot receiver might have a shot at developing into a productive third receiver. He has four straight games with at least 40 yards and 3 scores during this span. If you recall, Dallas talked Beaseley out of retiring after a difficult segment of his rookie training camp. I believe Dallas re-signs Beasley over Harris. If not, the young slot man is worth a dynasty league monitor as a deep roster long shot.
No.39 RB Knowshon Moreno: Surprisingly, he performed well enough to rebuff the doubts after offseason surgery and showing up to camp out of shape, but he eventually suffered another knee injury.Not a good sign for a player who was already seen as on his last legs just as his conceptual feel for the pro game was hitting its stride.
No.38 TE Virgil Green: I'm acquiring the Broncos tight end in every dynasty league I can, because he's a more talented pass receiver and runner after the catch than what we've seen in Denver thus far. At least, that's how I saw Green when he was Colin Kaepernick's go-to guy at Nevada. The most surprising thing about Green's career is that the Broncos regard him as its best blocker at the position. The added weight might have changed how dynamic he was a ballcarrier and (potentially) a route runner, but not enough to be dissuaded from taking a shot on him. Although it may seem like remote odds, Julius Thomas might not earn a deal with Denver next year and Green could see more playing time as a receiver. I think it's more likely that Green gets an opportunity elsewhere. Atlanta could use a tight end that can block, catch, and move like a ballcarrier.
No.37 TE Tony Moeaki: I hope the Seahawks keep Moeaki and he can stay healthy enough for the first time since his rookie year to become a player that the team incorporates further into the offensive game plan. Fluid, sure-handed, and a good blocker, the former Iowa star may not have the same downfield speed prior to his rash of injuries that derailed his potential of replacing Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City, but there's no doubt that Seattle has at least taken a temporary shine to him. Keep Moeaki in mind this offseason as a camp monitor or deep dynasty stash.
No.36 WR Nate Washington: He's the wide receiver equivalent of the school or company maintenance man in the same sense that socially shallow people don't want to interact with the janitor unless there's an emergency with bodily fluids--then they're quite chatty and temporarily appreciative until the mess is cleaned up and they can pretend that he's invisible all over again. I'm a fan of Washington's vertical game and as long as he can still run, he'll help a team--and by year's end, someone's fantasy roster when you-know-what has hit the fan.
No.35 WR Miles Austin: Cleveland's loss of Josh Gordon for most of the season is the biggest reason why Austin failed to have the full renaissance to his career that he probably hoped for. However, the veteran stayed healthy and delivered at a reliable clip despite moments where Brian Hoyer's accuracy entered the Bermuda Triangle. Austin is 30, which is still young enough for 3-4 years of viable production as a complementary starter.
No.34 WR Kenny Britt: The last thing I thought I hear his year was that Britt would be an asset to the Rams locker room, but we've heard just that from beat writers. I expected much more from Britt this year, but despite the fantasy disappointment he flashed moments to build on as a still-young, 26-year-old receiver in need of consistent quarterback play. He's unlikely to earn a starter contract as "the guy," but the Rams might re-sign him and hope it can use him to help develop a quarterback. Wow, another sentence I want to laugh at the thought of writing, but could be true.
No.33 WR Rod Streater: Ask me on the hour and Britt and Austin could be above Streater on this list, but for now I'll take youth over age. What concerns me is the Oakland Turnstile Effect that could infect the psyche of every player with at least two seasons of exposure to it early in their careers.
No.32 WR Jarrett Boykin: The Packers' receiver gets a slight nod over the four options named before him because he benefits from the Packer Shine--a solid option with some productivity in a winning, productive system. It doesn't mean this is the correct perspective: Boykin didn't build on his production last year and he didn't hold off Davante Adams this year. Still, youth, athleticism, and a good system may afford Boykin a greater opportunity and it's a close enough deal among these four receivers to give the former Hokie the nod.
No.31 WR Jermaine Kearse: All I ever hear about is Kearse's excellent catch radius. Like Boykin, Kearse hasn't built on 2013's production, but some of it is attributable to the Seahawks' offensive line woes. Most of the receivers in this tier aren't options I expect to become productive fantasy starters in 2015. Kearse is young enough, and has developed fast enough from a non-factor UDFA, that he could be the exception.
No.30 WR Louis Murphy: The Buccaneers option is a younger Nate Washington. I wish I knew someone in the league who could speak to Murphy's inability to build on the flashes of productivity he has shown. It may go back to the Oakland Turnstile Effect. Murphy concludes this tier of wide receivers capable of starting, but you'd rather have as contributors on your NFL and bench depth the deeper dynasty rosters.
No. 29 TE Owen Daniels: It's been far from a scintillating year for Daniels, but he's had five games with at least 40 yards receiving. With Dennis Pitta out for another year, the Ravens could choose to keep Daniels around while it grooms a younger option. He's still a capable starter, which translating to fantasy football means he's still a bye-week option capable of starter-worthy match-up plays.
No.28 TE Jermaine Gresham: He's only 26 years-old and he's had two fantasy TE1 seasons during the past four years. With a better quarterback and a system that involves him, Gresham has potential as a low-end TE1 once again. The fact that he's a solid run blocker will give the Bengal some appeal on the open market. He's more of a build-up speed/power ballcarrier with consistent enough hands to use him, but not to expect dynamic play-making. Put Gresham on a team like Atlanta, which has strong options elsewhere and can afford Gresham easier opportunities, and there is some fantasy potential.
No.27 TE Niles Paul: I thought Paul would get converted to running back before a team would consider him an H-Back, and I didn't think anyone was considering a conversion from wide receiver and return specialist for the rugged and speedy Paul. He's had moments as a move tight end that I think a team will want to see him build on. His big-play ability has been evident when he wasn't dealing with a concussion.
No.26 RB Ahmad Bradshaw: How he's even halfway down this list as a too small, too light, and chronically injured, 28-year-old runner is a testament to how good Bradshaw is. Since the most recent injury is a broken bone, Bradshaw could earn another shot to test the resolve of another young, mercurial runner elsewhere, if the Colts move on from the veteran. As long as the NFL's version of Monty's Python's black knight is still in the game, I'll have space for him on my fantasy bench in August.
No.25 RB Roy Helu: There is a camp of people who believe Helu is more talented than Alfred Morris, but the idea of benching a back that was performing well wasnt' a good idea. Helu is faster and he's a better receiver. He's not as determined a runner, but the starter strength and power is there as an athlete. Helu belongs in a tier of free agent runners who won't be acquired as starters, but can be called upon to do the job.
No.24 QB Ryan Mallett: How frustrating it must be for a young player like Mallett to wait years behind a stud, get acquired in a deal-as-audition for the future starting gig, perform well in one game, and then tear a pectoral and be lost for the season. Tom Savage will need football faeries to arrive in the middle of the night and instill the capacity to read a football field like a veteran for him to make the Texans forget about Mallett. Don't be surprised if Mallett re-signs in Houston for a short-term, low-cost deal and he earns a shot to start an entire season.
No.23 WR Reggie Wayne: I think his career as a starter might be over, but his production only recently dipped consistently after injuring a triceps. He's a best a one-year stopgap for a new team, but if that team is a team like Denver, who might not re-sign Demaryius Thomas or Wes Welker, and may need a veteran teacher for Cody Latimer . . . get the picture?
No.22 WR Wes Welker: I think may keep Welker around one more year if Manning is still playing. He's still capable of strong games, but the Broncos have moved to more of a ground-based attack in recent weeks. If this trend continues and becomes the plan for 2015, Welker could be replaced with a perimeter veteran like Wayne if one or both Thomases aren't re-signed. He's a boom-bust, low-cost, one-year fantasy option at this place on the list.
No.21 RB Darren McFadden: While it's true I've always thought McFadden was an overrated a player, I'm sad that there are veterans with more tread and less athleticism that I have higher on this list. There's still potential for McFadden to land somewhere and shine for a few seasons, but he has earned a reputation as a runner with mediocre vision for a starter and it could pose scheme limitations on teams interested in his services. The injury history is also too prevalent for suitors to consider him more than a talented complement in a rotation. If fantasy owners can strip away the paint of reputation, there are a lot of similarities with the careers of McFadden and Locker.
No.20 RB Frank Gore: You'd like to see him retire as a 49er, but is Gore ready to hang it up? If not, we might see him in a uniform that doesn't fit quite right and his play doesn't look quite right, either. The veteran still can give a team stretches of strong play and earn time as a compliment. If the New England Patriots sought a smart, physical, and versatile back to help teach a young guy, Gore could be a great fit, and earn another shot at a ring. Gore has 907 yards and 4 touchdowns as committee back this year. I think that's his upside somewhere else in 2015. There's still reason to consider Gore in your 2015 fantasy story line, but it's more as a late-round backup than a mid-round starter.
No.19 RB Justin Forsett: I doubt the Ravens' runner thinks he's earned a big contract for his fine work in relief of the Ray Rice Disaster in Baltimore. However, Forsett has earned more work because of his performance. I would bet the veteran gives a hometown discount to Baltimore as a thank you to Gary Kubiak giving him a shot to play.
No.18 WR Andre Holmes: I believe Holmes is too high on this list, but he's 26 and the only reasonably consistent young receiver performing for the Raiders. The athleticism is there even if the refinement as a budding technician of the game is not. I imagine the Raiders want him back, but then again, who are the Raiders? Looks like we''ll be finding out next year, and if it follows the pattern of recent history, the year after that . . . and the year after that . . . and . . .
No.17 RB Chris Polk: The big question is whether Polk can stay healthy as a regular contributor who sees 12-15 touches per game. He has flirted with that figure three times this year, but he still has never exceeded 11 opportunities in a game. Polk carried the mail for the University of Washington, but draft stock dropped in part to shoulder issues, which is a discouraging sign for a running back's long-term future. If Polk is healthy, he's a solid all-around back capable of approximating Frank Gore in an offensive system.
No.16 RB Shane Vereen: If Polk's injury history wasn't a concern, I'd have him head of Vereen. I've long been a fan of Vereen's potential, but few teams will consider him more than a change of pace with the type of receiving skills that can only be exploited by a quarterback with enough cajones to targeted him in ways that few will. The teams that use players like Vereen probably have a player like him as a starter, which means Vereen is likely playing a backup role with upside in 2015.
No. 15 RB Stevan Ridley: The top-15 RB talent is still there for Ridley, but is the confidence to hang onto the football? We don't see quarterbacks benched every time they throw an interception, but forget about a running back's career prospects if he fumbles the ball a few times during his career. I was never even a huge fan of Ridley's. Still, I thought it was a shame to see him phased out this way. Only 25, Ridley has the potential to shine elsewhere, but keep in mind that there's a boatload of excellent rookies at this position arriving at the dock in May.
"Area 51 Free Agent" Ray Rice: Based on ability, age, and what I saw during the preseason, Ray Rice would be ahead of all the running backs listed at this point. I'd be tempted to place him in the same range as my next back on the list if I had more confidence that he'll earn a starting role from the jump. The feature back ability is still there despite the lazy analysis of "he averaged 3-point-something yards in 2013, and he's older." The Ravens offensive line was horrible last year. This year, Justin Forsett is a viable fantasy option. The burst, agility, and power were all back for Rice heading into the season. I think Rice has at least a year, if not 2-3 of starter ability left in him. He's never had a significant knee, shoulder, or ankle injury in college or pro football.
No.14 QB Mark Sanchez: Fantasy disappointments aside from those who saw mixed results from him this season, Sanchez just may have done enough to earn a shot to compete for a starting job somewhere. He might be little more than a career placeholder starter/backup at this point, but since Week 9 Sanchez has been a top-15 fantasy QB and currently No.11 heading into Monday night. Not many teams have a young passer with a lot of franchise-caliber assets to his resume. Even if Sanchez never becomes the franchise the Jets hoped, he has regained the attention of fantasy owners as a player worth consideration.
No.13 TE Charles Clay: A running back 'tweener converted to H-Back, Clay came into his own in 2013, but the writing is on the wall that he'll be elsewhere in 2015. He has the potential to rebound as a top-10 fantasy tight end next year if he joins a team that can move him around the field. It's a risky spot to have Clay this high, because tight end upside isn't as great as that of the other skill positions. However, his floor is probably higher than the options I listed before him.
No.12 TE Jordan Cameron: A horribly disappointing year for Cameron, who was the people's vote as an emerging fantasy force in this Kyle Shanahan offense. Injuries and Gordon's suspensions but a huge damper on it all. How big of a rebound depends on where he signs. He might be the Eric Decker of this class: If he's not expected to be the weapon, I'm more optimistic. This has less to do with his ability than his position and the way the league regards it.
No. 11 WR Cecil Shorts: The Jaguars receiver has had his documented share of drops, but as Rivers McCown writes, "The playbook didn't engineer many easy targets." This article was from 2013, but having a rookie quarterback and an injury that limited him this summer hasn't helped, either. Shorts is my nomination for the player most likely to replicate Emmanuel Sanders' success with a new team. I'm not counting on it, but the talent is there if the opportunity matches it.
No. 10 WR Jeremy Maclin: I fear that Maclin is more of system player than perceived, because he has upped his yardage and yards per catch production a significant amount from any prior season. Of course, maybe it also means that he wasn't utilized well in the Andy Reid system. Duly noted, right? Well, more systems are like Reid's than Kelly's in the NFL and it's one of the reasons why I can envision the possibility of Cecil Shorts having more post-free agent success than Maclin. There's nothing extraordinary about Maclin that's tangible, but he is a better than average athlete, a tough football player and willing worker.
No.9 RB Ryan Mathews: When the physical talent shined, his understanding of what it took to be a professional was missing. Now that he has matured, his body betrayed him a bit more over time. In this respect, Mathews' career is a lot more common in the NFL than many think about. Fortunately, Mathews' hasn't experienced a major injury requiring months of rehab that will accelerate the wear and tear of joints. I fear that his early-career reputation will put him in a spot where the only opportunities he earns are as a committee option or as a placeholder for a talented rookie who may (or may not) earn the cut into Mathews' playing time. Ability alone, makes Mathews a top-10 fantasy free agent heading into the offseason.
No.8 WR Torrey Smith: I don't believe Smith has really ever played in a system as remotely as pass-friendly as what we've seen from Maclin this year, but I think he's a better talent at the position. Neither Smith nor Maclin strike me as do-it-all primary options and I do have concerns that Smith is more Chris Chambers and Lee Evans incarnate than desired. If the Ravens don't re-sign Smith--and they should--his ranking here could be as variable as any on this list. The fact that Steve Smith, who was mistakenly labeled "too old," came into town and took the primary job remains an unsettling fact for Smith owners who thought the Ravens receiver has greater potential. I could go back and forth on Maclin and Smith's rankings on this list, but today I'm still a little more optimistic that Smith has been shackled by quarterback and system a little more than his peer up the road.
No. 7 RB Mark Ingram II: It beguiles me that Ingram will only be 25 heading into 2015. It has been a long road for the Alabama back, who until this time last year was considered a gigantic fantasy bust. Now, he's on the precipice of a free agent deal where he could earn a feature role. Running back is tricky in the NFL, especiallywhen it comes to free agency vs the fresh legs of the NFL Draft. Fortunately, fresh legs has been the theme of Ingram's performance for the past 16-18 games in the league. Finally healthy, I think Ingram could earn a shot with a power running game as its lead back, especially when you consider he's an experienced runner with talent, but only a little more than half the touches you'd see from a power back in as many NFL seasons.
No.6 RB DeMarco Murray: Can the Cowboys lock up Murray and still keep the other pivotal players headed to free agency? Not without some of them accepting a hometown discount because they think they have a shot to win it all. Because running backs have a limited career span to make their money, I have some skepticism that Murray will be one of those players open to this scenario because he could earn pressure from his agent to maximize his pay day, but if you'll indulge me in a little arm chair psychology, I got the sense that Murray is the type of player who doesn't give lip service to the cliche "championships are more important to me than money." Murray would also get to stay with this offensive line again, and there's no guarantee he'll find a quintet of blockers nearly as talented. Regardless if he stays or goes, it's unlikely Murray repeats what has been a career year in 2014. Even so, he's still a 1200-yard talent with enough youth and versatility on his side to keep fantasy owners happy.
No.5 WR Randall Cobb: While unlikely that Cobb becomes a free agent after the year he had, good teams often believe in farming its young talent to replace established stars on the cusp of a big payday.With the Packers signing Jordy Nelson to an extension during the season, it's possible Green Bay will take its chances with Davante Adams' staying on a fast track to starter production and a developmental talent. If so, can you imagine Cobb in Philadelphia or New England where they'd know how to use his versatility? If Cobb lands on a team with a polished, smart. and athletic quarterback, he could produce as the top option regardless of what receivers are there to take the heat off him. But there aren't many of those type of passers in the league. Russell Wilson would be a fantastic fit for a player who resembles a lot what Seattle hoped it got from Percy Harvin, but the scheme and offensive line need some tweak first. Cam Newton needs an offensive line, but Cobb would serve as an excellent complement to Kelvin Benjamin if the Panthers can belie its reputation as an inept staff of strategists. Robert Griffin has the intelligence to turn things around fast, but he has a long way to go in a short period of time. Those are my list of qualifiers. Otherwise, Cobb could be a minor fantasy disappointment if you expect him to produce as anything more than a WR2 outside of Green Bay.
No.4 WR Michael Crabtree: I like Cobb more than Crabtree as an all-around football player, but not by much. However, Crabtree is a fantastic route runner playing with a quarterback who is a see-it, throw-it passer and may never possess the touch or conceptual feel for the timing passing game to maximize Crabtree's potential. Ask a prospective NFL receiver who is a great route runner in the professional ranks and one of the first options mentioned is Crabtree. Trust me, I asked that question last year at the Senior Bowl to six receivers in different areas of the room and Crabtree was the the only player they mentioned. They all commented on how smooth his routes are. It's possible both coaching staffs showed tape of Crabtree at position meetings, but I doubt it. I'd love to see the big slot receiver with enough speed to work the perimeter on a new team. Give him a timing passer, and Crabtree will earn a lot more yards after the catch. Currently, he's 60th and Anquan Boldin is 39th. Both are asked to face up the QB or win jump balls with their see-t, throw-it quarrterback.
No.3 TE Julius Thomas: There are six tight ends with borderline wide receiver athleticism in the vertical game or after the catch ability in this league and Thomas is one of them. He's not the most complete option and he's not the best against physical defenses, but he'll stretch the field, make the athletic play in the end zone, and get you yards after the catch. Denver opted to table free agency discussions until the offseason and it needs to sign one of the Thomases to franchise the other. It's a risky move. If I were making the call, I'd let the tight end walk because it's harder to find a replacement for the alternate scenario.
No.2 WR Demaryius Thomas: And letting this guy walk is that other option. No thank you, Denver. Tight ends run more limited route combinations than wideouts, and as long as Peyton Manning is calling the shots, you want the guy who has earned his certificate from the Manning Route Academy. There aren't many options with Thomas' size, speed, power, hands, and routes that you can move around a formation. The No.4 player in the NFL in YAC this year, and No.2 among receivers, Thomas could easily make an argument for being the No.1 player on my list. However, I judge my receivers heavily on contested plays and my next option is even more of a marked man in every scenario, and still comes through as a stud.
No. 1 WR Dez Bryant: If Bryant and Thomas switched teams and roles, I think Bryant would be as successful as Thomas, if not moreso. Based on plays in tight coverage down field that Bryant makes, I'm not sure Thomas would equal Bryant. It would be close--we're talking about the difference between No.1 and No.2 after all--but Bryant is the more dynamic option with he ball in the air. The general thought on Bryant's free agency potential is that he'll work a compromise deal with Dallas to keep the nucleus of this team in place. Bryant is trying to maintain a balanced approach in the media where he's willing to work with the team, but he still wants the team to work hard to make it worth his while in the long run. If he leaves town, Bryant may not be as good of a person as Thomas--something Thomas once said about Bryant as a rookie--but he's also not in a system with as many easily engineered targets. I'll take the receiver whose lessons have been earned the hard way on and off the field.