Because I often blur the lines between fantasy and reality with my analysis, let's be clear: This week's ranking of 2017 free agents is for fantasy football. I compiled my list from Spotrac.com (If there are inaccuracies, take it up with them.).
My rankings will be grouped into tiers because this is not meant to be an exhaustive study. I eyeballed the list from the site and created a ranking on the spot with a few adjustments as I wrote my comments.
I'm ranking 50, but here are 20 that didn't make the cut that could have value if they find a good fit and opportunity in a new place (or old haunt).
20 lurkers (In no particular order)
Mark Sanchez: This is total speculation on my part, but some quarterbacks perform better on the field when the team only has an expectation of them as backups than starters. This summer in Denver was likely Sanchez's last true bid to remain a starter in the eyes of the NFL. With the pressure off, he could surprise if thrust into a lineup somewhere. That somewhere could continue to be Dallas.
Jordan Cameron: I doubt the collective of NFL personnel directors trust Cameron to stay healthy even if he decides to continue his career.
Blaine Gabbert: His accuracy is all over the place. There are throws that you'd find on the highlight resume of a top quarterback, but Gabbert misses wide-open plays and all too often, he lacks the confidence to fire the ball downfield when the coverage dictates a shot play.
Larry Donnell: The athletic ability is there even if the consistency of his hands and the quality of his blocking is not. Tight ends are a training camp commodity and if injuries strike, he's useful.
Brandon Bolden: There are a lot of backs on the market that are more explosive and younger ones on the way that teams will decide are worth the investment of time and a roster spot. But if a team finds itself desperate for a back, Bolden is smart and versatile. He's also rugged between the tackles.
Jacob Tamme: While watching the Cowboys this year, Tamme's wife asked him why he couldn't get open like Jason Witten. While there's no comparison between the two, Tamme adjusts the ball as well as any tight end in the league. Getting open, blocking as an inline option, and staying healthy? Let's not get into details...
Jeff Cumberland: The former Illini and Jet can block and he's a smooth athlete even if he's not explosive. He can catch and he's not a bad runner in the open field. He's one of those players that could be sneaky-good on a bad (or injury-riddled unit) team with a veteran quarterback that clicks with him.
On Sunday, Shorts dislocated his right knee and tore his ACL, MCL, and PCL. We'll hope for the best, but keep expectations low.
Cedric Peerman: The 30-year-old is a Pro Bowl special teams player who can run the ball well. He chose to remain in Cincinnati last year after entertaining an offer elsewhere in the offseason. A smart team will use him on special teams with knowledge that he can help them with the ground game if the depth chart gets bare. Yes, I still have illogical hope...
Dexter McCluster: I believed that McCluster and Philip Rivers had the potential to develop a productive rapport after Danny Woodhead got hurt. Just as McCluster was getting more comfortable and the red zone targets were coming, he broke his arm. Melvin Gordon III has proven to the Chargers that he can handle the workload as an every-down option. I hope San Diego keeps McCluster if it doesn't keep Woodhead because San Diego is a good fit for his skills and an offseason with Rivers could yield benefits.
Quinton Patton: San Francisco has been a career graveyard for wide receivers since Alex Smith left. Not that Alex Smith was great, but he was the last quarterback with skills in a timing passing game. Patton was an athletic option with limited technical skill. How much he has grown is still speculative. I don't trust San Francisco media to really know since they haven't seen quality perimeter receiver used the right way in several years.
Andre Holmes: He can leap, he can (sometimes) catch, and he's big. He'll give you a puncher's chance in a lineup.
Rod Streater: Holmes' former teammate is trying to fend off the dirt that the 49ers offense is shoveling onto him and his depth chart. His hands are also inconsistent, but he's physical and he can stretch the field.
Landry Jones: He's not a playmaker physically or conceptually, but he has experience in a productive offense and enough physical skill to serve as...a starter you won't start in your fantasy leagues unless you're more desperate than Rob Schneider learning that Adam Sandler has retired from the movie business.
Marquise Goodwin: This guy was the darling of a lot of media that attended the Senior Bowl. He was also an incomplete player. To his credit, Goodwin has become a more consistent option that can provide a team some useful play on the outside. Despite making some occasionally tough plays in the middle of the field, he's not a physical guy. He's a Ted Ginn Jr-in-training.
Andre Roberts: There's a small disconnect with Roberts' game that separates what he's capable of doing from what he actually does. I don't know if I can explain it any better than this without going into a lot of detail. He's a versatile, serviceable player that the league recognizes as an option that can be plugged in and deliver when called upon.
Russell Shepard: The Buccaneers special teams captain has grown as a receiver. Remember, he was a celebrated high school quarterback that converted to "athlete" at LSU (I refuse to call him a receiver there, he was a space player more than a route runner). Since his initial tour of duty with the Eagles, Shepard is looking more like a polished receiver in Tampa Bay. Having a quarterback with the confidence to give his receivers the chance to win the ball helps. He's developing into a younger version of Andre Roberts.
Vance McDonald: I expected more from McDonald when he landed in San Francisco, but it's been a struggle for him to see the field. One reason is that he was more receiver than blocker. Now that he is seen the field, he's making plays when a quarterback can find him. I'd still keep an eye on him if he gets out of town and lands on a TE-needy team with an offense that targets the position.
Jack Doyle: McDonald has more upside, but Doyle is a safer play. Andrew Luck is a fantastic conductor of an offense so don't look to Doyle as a big-time option despite good stats. He's a smart tight end with skill with the ball in the air and the ability to make plays within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage against zone coverage. These are good skills, but not highly productive unless he has a quarterback with brains who can buy a lot of time.
Reggie Bush: He can still play, but staying healthy and maintaining a consistent workload are big question marks.
The Free agent Top 50
The Fantasy Fringe
Percy Harvin: It's all about health and frame of mind. If he has both and can keep both, vault him to the top 10 of this list. My odds for that happening? 15 percent.
Darren McFadden: Even with the Cowboys' line, a Pro-Bowl-bound McFadden still couldn't find big openings without nearly overrunning them and wasting time and yards in the process. Here's a reminder:
At 29, there could be a team that signs him to a one-year deal with the hope he can provide help as a reserve. Unless the team has a strong offensive line, I'd stay far away.
Bobby Rainey: McFadden has more upside if he finds a gap-heavy run scheme with a great line, but Rainey has more to offer a team that will allow him to produce in a variety of schemes. He can also return kicks and his burst is still with him—something I'm not sure can be said about McFadden. He may still have a shot as a plug-in somewhere.
Robert Turbin: He's arguably "just a guy" at this point. He can catch, block, and run for power. He might also learn a thing or two from Frank Gore while he's with the Colts that could help him elsewhere. Even so, he remains a waiver wire monitor and not a roster stash.
Matt Asiata: His hard-running style and red zone prowess for a team that has fielded awful offensive line play for a few years due to injury are plusses. He could surprise as a goal line vulture somewhere.
DeAngelo Williams: I'd be surprised if Williams wants to play another year if he can't stay in Pittsburgh. If he does, he still has the legs to surprise as a one-year option that could actually make your lineup. If he doesn't retire, he's worth a hold in Pittsburgh. Stay tuned if he goes elsewhere.
Jermaine Gresham: It seems like Gresham has been around forever, but he's only 28 years-old. He's had a minor renaissance reuniting with Carson Palmer in Arizona. Always a good blocker, Gresham wasn't as reliable or as explosive as the Bengals hoped he'd become. But he could stick with Arizona and be a productive fit for an offense that could be in transition next year. Bruce Arians loves to attack down field but with David Johnson as the best player on the offense, it could play to its strengths and lean more on the power game with the heavier involvement of a tight end like it has down the stretch of this yer.
Benny Cunningham: A do-everything back, Cunningham has power, balance, slippery elusiveness, and enough burst to do steady work as a return specialist. He's also a good receiver from the backfield. If Jacquizz Rodgers can have fantasy relevance, Cunningham has the skills to do the same if called upon.
Anquan Boldin: Need a move tight end disguised as a slot receiver? Boldin fits the bill and does it as well as anyone. He's no better than a matchup play these days, but it still makes him roster relevant some weeks.
Kamar Aiken: The Patriots liked him for five minutes. The Ravens got about 10 minutes of production from him. He's still young and he's a decent route runner with solid hands. He's just not a great athlete and there are a lot of wide receivers with his skills and better athletic ability.
Pierre Garcon: He hasn't been the same player that he once was since Robert Griffin's quick fantasy decline in Washington. He's a smart, tough veteran who can fill in on a team that runs a lot of routes in the middle of the field, but he's unlikely to deliver fantasy-relevant production on a weekly basis.
Fringe With Intrigue
Brian Quick: It took Quick awhile to earn consistent playing time. Even so, he still displays gaps in rapport with his quarterback. If the Rams coaching staff is truly as bad as every football writer that I know says they are (is there anything more tiresome than 100 well-known football writers acting like Mean Girls with the Rams? It's played out, get an imagination), then Quick should see fast growth with a new team, right? Yeah, I don't think the Rams staff is quite as bad as the Mean Girls say, meaning Quick is only worth monitoring.
Rex Burkhead: We saw a glimpse of what Burkhead could provide as a runner and receiver during the playoffs against the Colts. His quickness is underrated for a guy his size. But with Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard ahead him, he's had no shot at real playing time. He strikes me as a player that the Patriots could like as a reserve that could eventually carve out a role.
Jeremy Kerley: With a decent passer, Kerley is a serviceable player with upside as a slot option. Other than Matt Stafford on a team with better receivers ahead of him, I don't know if he's ever had a decent passer throwing him the ball in the NFL.
E.J. Manuel: The physical skills and even the college experience with a pro-style offense are intriguing reasons why Manuel could earn a shot as a reclamation project for another team. But reclamation projects are even rarer these days than they once were because the CBA and ownership do not encourage a lot of long-term development. Getting him out of Buffalo would be a good start.
Mike Glennon: Although I like Manuel's upside more than Glennon's, I like Glennon a little more as a pocket passer and at this stage of their careers, both are reclamation projects hoping to impress as backups.
Brian Hoyer: We know what Hoyer is and that's good enough for fantasy production on a team poised for a lot of garbage time.
Geno Smith: People I respect are divided on Smith's potential. Some believe he has starter upside and he got a raw deal in New York. Others point to the locker room debacle from last year and don't believe he has the makeup to become a good leader. The physical skills and much of the conceptual acumen required of a passer are there, but it's unlikely he'll find an organization with patience.
Tim Hightower: I could see him re-signing with New Orleans on the basis of their willingness to give him another shot, his fit in the offense, and his age. If not, don't expect much from him because the constant threat of Drew Brees can amplify the value of a back like Hightower in ways it does not with other clubs.
Jared Cook: Only 29 years-old, Cook has 5-6 years of viable production left, in theory. But in theory, he's exactly the type of player who shoudl be tearing it up for the Packers. In theory, he should have been a Pro-Bowl tight end for the Titans two teams ago. In practice, he's serviceable with boom-bust fantasy production—like he's always been.
Justin Hunter: The Bills are placing Hunter in the slot and he's drawing physical mismatches with cornerbacks ill-equipped to handle his speed and rebounding skills. Until he learns to play outside and develop the consistency and work ethic he lacked in college and his first two stops in the pros, he's a tease with epic upside.
Less Tease, More Substance But Monitor Free Agency Before Stashing
Brice Butler: I didn't say "no tease." Butler definitely has the makings of one, but he has improved his routes and his athletic ability has shown up with greater consistency as a result. I'd rather see him stay in Dallas and work towards unseating Terrance Williams. Otherwise, he'll need a great fit with a receiver-poor team that drafted poorly at the position.
Ryan Griffin: I've always valued Griffin as a receiver. Pair him with a better quarterback and I think he could author top-15 fantasy production at his position. But ability-wise, he's a middle-class talent on most depth charts because he's neither a mismatch downfield nor a great blocker.
Jacquizz Rodgers: His production while Doug Martin was out is why I equate running backs to shooting guards. You can get one off the street and get production if he's the right fit with your system. Rodgers has enough versatility to help many teams, but what we saw in Tampa was what we hadn't seen exploited from his game since his days at Oregon State: He's a runner with good balance, great moves, and burst who can gradually wear down and frustrate an opponent. The Patriots, Chargers, and Chiefs would be a good fit for his skills.
DuJuan Harris: I was impressed with what I saw from Harris in San Francisco. If he doesn't re-sign with the 49ers as the primary backup due to the team's admiration of Shaun Draughn, Harris has the physical skills of a starter and I think Running Backs Coach Tom Rathman helped him become a better downhill runner. If Harris can maintain this style elsewhere, he could surprise as a committee back or even a lead back when called upon. He's still young enough and his legs look healthy.
Vernon Davis: I'd like to see Davis on a contender that needs that final piece where he's relied upon as a full-time starter and one of the 2-3 primary options in the offense. In Washington, he has been one of the bottom 3-5 options. It's a slight difference but if not for Jordan Reed's issues, it would have mattered a lot more for fantasy owners. The skills are still there for Davis to thrive. He has always been an inconsistent tease, depending on the season, but there's too much substance to his game to ignore him.
Cordarrelle Patterson: He is only on the field because the Vikings are in crisis mode on offense. He still can't beat the jam and his sophistication as a route runner remains low. He's not a guy that's going to adjust well on the fly with Sam Bradford—that's Stefon Diggs' bag.
He's on the field because he has reliable hands and he's great after the catch. Give him a specific route without a lot of "if-then" based on coverage alignments and he struggles.
If there's a team that wants to incorporate him in structured ways that let him do what he does best and it doesn't make the offense predictable or less versatile, he could thrive. There's still a tease factor and while I don't think it's wise to stash him, you'll probably have to because the rest of your league will be too enamored with his open-field prowess to leave him on the waiver wire.
Deep Roster Stashes
Ted Ginn Jr, Jr.: If the Panthers don't re-sign him, they're foolish. Ginn and Cam Newton have excellent rapport downfield and Newton has the confidence to keep firing away to the receiver despite the penchant for drops. He's one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league. Unless the Panther sign DeSean Jackson, a healthy upgrade to Ginn, this passing game will drown. It's the only reason I recommend stashing him. If Carolina lets Ginn walk, he'll need a great fit with a fearless quarterback to target him downfield despite the drops. There aren't many of them, so he'll likely be droppable.
Dion Sims: A young player who I could see the Dolphins re-signing. At 275-pounds, he's a good blocker, he gets off the line well as a receiver, and he has enough burst to threaten the intermediate seam. What I love is how fluid he is after the catch. He can bounce off contact and make plays in the open field. He's no Jordan Reed, but think Antonio Gates from a few years ago—not as explosive but still capable of consistent plays in the middle of the field—and that's what you could get from Sims.
Brandon LaFell: There's little exciting about LaFell's game, but he has matured enough to deliver when called upon. He's the only proven option on the perimeter in Cincinnati right now so his stats will exceed his actual potential down the stretch. Even so, he has WR3 upside and that's comforting depth for deep rosters.
Kenny Stills: The "book" on Stills is that he has inconsistent hands and he disappears for stretches. The book was written by people who might not have recognized that Ryan Tannehill is a one-read wonder right now and if Stills is sent mostly on deeper routes that are low percentage, there's a high percentage that Stills is rarely Tannehill's first read. Hence the disappearing act. He has issues with drops and despite a good season in New Orleans before going to Miami, his work ethic was a question mark. Although they weren't shopping Stills, it was why the Saints traded him when the Dolphins made them an offer. Even so, I'd stash the receiver to see where he winds up and then decide if he remains on my roster.
Markus Wheaton: I've talked to a scout that still believes Wheaton can be a good player in the league but doesn't fit in the role he has with Pittsburgh. It wouldn't be the first time a wide receiver didn't do much with the Steelers in recent years and was much better elsewhere. I've always questioned the rapport Wheaton had with Ben Roethlisberger as well as the type of routes he was targeted that didn't the quarterback's skill set.
Kendall Wright: I see a few possibilities why Wright hasn't been more than a one-season wonder. He simply could be not nearly as good as we thought when he was at Baylor. The vertical game seems missing from Wright's repertoire in the NFL when it was a strength at Baylor. The Bears had the likes of Josh Gordon and Terrance Williams during Wright's tenure and Wright could have benefited in this respect. Another possibility is that Wright stopped working at his craft and lost his edge. Justin Hunter and Dorial Green-Beckham were sent packing because they didn't work at the game to the satisfaction of the staff. Wright might have slipped while being a part of this group. The third possibility? He's no longer a good fit in this offense. Stash and wait and see where he signs before deciding to keep or drop.
Stashes for Most Rosters
Danny Woodhead: A torn ACL puts a damper on his upside on the open market. So does his age and system fit. I'd still hold him, but I wouldn't be stubborn about dropping him if he's slow with his recovery or he's on a team where he's likely a "nice to have" player that doesn't know how to use him.
Marquess Wilson: Only 24 years old, Wilson has played in the league since he was 20. Despite never breaking out or starting for long stretches, it's a positive for a player this young. Wilson wins the ball in the air and impressive quickness that helps him get on top of defenders early and earn yards after the catch. While there's still a chance he can develop into a good primary receiver (top-15 fantasy option), I think it's safer to consider him a potential top-30 option if paired with a good quarterback. The failure potential remains higher than most in this tier, but youth is on his side.
Eddie Lacy: He'll be a lot higher on most lists and I value what he can do on the field. I just wonder how much he wants it. I hate to say it because it's so speculative to get into the mind of an NFL player, but Lacy did P90X and watched his diet during the offseason and the results were not as dramatic as when Le'Veon Bell or Jalen Strong reshaping their bodies. It's also possible that Lacy gets a lot of pressure from the organization to change his body type and he could be left alone a bit more elsewhere and produce. It's a tough situation to analyze so it makes him a higher risk. If his mind is right and his heart is in it, he's a terrific runner. I wouldn't trade for him, but I would hold onto him if I already owned his rights—at least until I see where he goes.
Kenny Britt: He's still under 30 despite it feeling like he's a part of a past generation of receivers. That's what happens when fellow draft class alum Hakeem Nicks is no longer in the league, I suppose. Britt has been making stride for the past 2-3 years and despite the instability of the Rams offense, he has revamped his image on and off the field. How much so will depend on what type of offers he gets elsewhere.
Martellus Bennett: I'd be a little surprised if the Patriots don't re-sign him. Bennett has been a good soldier on the surface, playing through a high-ankle sprain for most of the year. When healthy, he's a great blocker, good receiver, and one of the best in the league after the catch. I don't see why New England would abandon its plan for two-tight end sets unless it knows that Rob Gronkowski's back issue is bad enough to make him a significantly worse talent. If Gronkowski's injury is bad, Bennett is the kind of insurance plan New England could use.
LeGarrette Blount: I want to put Blount much higher on this list. I initially had him in the first tier, but I ultimately dropped him here because he's 30, there's a new wave of talented backs arriving in the draft, and he's not much of a passing-down player. Even so, he's an underrated runner that will perform no worse than an RB2 if he earns another one-year deal in New England. I hope Blount is wise enough to know that his value is year-to-year in the NFL at this point.
Michael Floyd: Physically and technically, he should be a top-15 receiver every year. It tells me that something is missing with how he prepares. He'll be a hot name for the next 8 months and a lot will be expected from him. I need more evidence. Larry Fitzgerald was placed in what easily could have been a supporting role in the Cardinals offense, but Floyd couldn't elevate his game. To be fair, pass protection fuels the vertical passing game and the Cardinals lack it. The dropped passes are on Floyd. He's the greatest boom-bust option on this list.
Christine Michael: I hope Seattle's decision to cut Michael didn't screw up the running back's frame of mind about football. He made real strides this year and it was noticeable with his consistency on the field with the things that he could control. I'd stash Michael because he could easily get a prove-it, one-year deal in Green Bay if the Packers let Lacy walk and they draft a back. I think this is why that added him mid-year and I don't think Green Bay would have seriously sniffed in Michael's direction before his maturation. It's a positive worth noting for those scared off by his long-term status as a tease. He's still a tease, but there's some nuance to the status.
Robert Woods: He could be a sneaky steal for the team that signs him. Injuries and Buffalo quarterbacks have kept him from showing his value on the field. Woods' strength is route running and catching the ball in the middle of the field. Tyrod Taylor has an earned reputation for not throwing in the middle of the field as often as he should. Not a burner, he has more speed than his injury-riddled career has displayed thus far. Woods would make a great No.2 option for Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz, or Washington's starter.
Andre Ellington: Woods might be the Andre Ellington of receivers. You know he can play, but you don't know for how long. He's still young enough to earn a real shot somewhere, but with this incoming class, it's tough to consider Ellington as anything more than a high-upside option with a one-year deal to prove he can be the man. I can't imagine any team taking the risk to make him its top guy from the beginning. If he earns a starting job, he'll be a signed as a reserve who either blows everyone way in camp or takes over for an injured starter and plays so well that he sells the team. I'd put the odds of it happening at 35-40 percent.
Latavius Murray: The Raiders back is finally showing signs of developing greater consistency on a carry-to-carry basis. I don't know if he's there, but he's closer than ever. If Oakland lets him walk, which I bet it was planning when it drafted DeAndre Washington but now has second thoughts, I also wonder where Murray goes and actually earns more than a one-year, prove-it deal for a team that also drafts a running back from this rich class. I'd rather see him stay in Oakland, but it will be interesting if the two sides can reach a deal. I also can't help but imagine Leonard Fournette in Oakland doing an enhanced rendition of Tyrone Wheatley for the Silver and Black.
Kirk Cousins: This tier for Cousins is contingent upon him staying in Washington. If he walks, there are only a few teams I'd be interested in seeing him go: Houston, Buffalo, and Miami. Buffalo is (sadistically) intriguing if it kept Charles Clay, Robert Woods, and Sammy Watkins got healthy. Cousins would be an upgrade at spreading the ball around and targeting the middle of the field, but he'd need an upgrade at right tackle or else, forget about it working out well. A warm-weather team is probably the best fit for Cousins, who thinks he has a better arm than he does. Considering that Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, and Ryan Tannehill could wind up in new places next year, Cousins might not get what he's seeking in 2017.
Alshon Jeffery: He's going to be the most desirable receiver in this tier for most fantasy owners. I get it, but his health remains a consistent source of concern. He's the type of player that the Panthers hope its receivers can develop into and he'd be a good fit in Carolina if the Devin Funchess experiment is aborted at season's end.
DeSean Jackson: Jackson isn't a player I'd want to build and offense around, but he could be a fantastic final piece to the puzzle. I'm not using this cliché in the context of a team ready to become a Super Bowl contender, but as a final piece to the offense. There's talk about him returning to Philadelphia, which would be a good fit if the Eagles add another reliable receiver, but I'd prefer to see him with an accurate deep passer. Carson Wentz has been inconsistent in this area as a collegian. Arizona and Carolina would be good spots.
Terrelle Pryor: He professed his loyalty to Hue Jackson so if the Browns keep Jackson, Pryor will stick around. If not, some team is in line for a player emerging into an elite receiver with a long career of top-15 production ahead. I've been as impressed with his transition as any conversion prospect at receiver that I've seen and the credit goes to Pryor for doing the work. I can't think of a team that wouldn't want him now.
Le'Veon Bell: It would be a major shock if Bell doesn't re-sign with Pittsburgh (if not tagged in 2017, which is more likely), but he's a free agent so you know the drill.