With the off-season for dynasty leagues of all types kicking into full gear now, it’s time to start looking towards next year. One of the biggest advantages you can gain over your league-mates (and one of my personal favorites) is analyzing the Free Agent class before your average dynasty player does. If you listen to our podcast Campus 2 Canton, you’ll know that we have had this website in the works for awhile now. So while I had this article finished 2 months ago (you can expect this article to come earlier next year), hopefully this still helps you get a leg up on your league-mates on some less obvious players who are likely to gain value during Free Agency. First up:
Undersized and a sub-par athlete, Lindsay went undrafted out of Colorado in the 2018 NFL Draft despite 3 years of solid to very good production. The Denver Broncos made this hometown kid a priority Undrafted Free Agent and he earned praise and a rotational role right away. He siphoned off a significant chunk of carries as a rookie from the more highly touted Royce Freeman, who was a 3rd round pick in the same year Lindsay went undrafted.
Now, Lindsay is a little older than you would typically like when trading for an RB at age 26, however he has had a relatively light workload thus far in his career. Throughout his 2 full seasons in the league, he has only accumulated 416 carries which amounts to a little over 200 carries per year. He’s been one of the most efficient runners in the league with those carries though, topping 1000 yards in each of the last 2 years while ranking 6th in Rushing Yards over Expectation per Attempt (RYOE/ATT) during his rookie year and 22nd last year (NFL Next Gen Stats). And while no one will mistake him for CMC or Kamara, Lindsay is also a respectable receiving back, garnering 47 targets in year 1, 48 targets in year 2, and totaling 35 catches in each of the last 2 seasons. All of this has led Lindsay to fantasy finishes of RB12 in his rookie year and RB19 last year even though he only saw a 46% and 50% snap share respectively (Fantasy Pros).
Despite a very respectable rookie and sophomore year in the league, Lindsay has flown under the radar this year. The addition of Melvin Gordon this offseason combined with Lindsay’s early season toe injury that cost him 4 weeks has caused many owners to forget about how good Lindsay has been over the past 2 years. Gordon and the injury have managed to relegate Lindsay to a measly 38% snap share this year. Lindsay did also see a bit of a decrease in his usual efficiency this year, dropping to 30th in RYOE/ATT. This has all culminated in Lindsay becoming an after-thought amongst most fantasy players.
Lindsay has been stuck in a committee his entire career so far, and that may not change next year either. He may very well be destined to be a career committee back. But he is a restricted free agent at the end of the year, which may create the opportunity for everyone to see what he can do with a larger portion of the running back touches. Now, the fact that he is an RFA means that Denver can place a tender on him and match any offer he gets or let him walk and receive a pick based on the tender they placed on him. However, the tags for RFA include original round tender (and he was a UDFA), 2nd round tender, or a 1st round tender. And along with the varying degree of draft pick compensation comes the varying degrees of salary if they keep him. The original round tender would give Lindsay a $2.133 million dollar contract for 1 year per NFL.com. So with the Broncos already paying Gordon for next year and Royce Freeman still being under contract for as well, the Broncos very well may opt to let him walk. And if he does get to test free agency, we may see him go to a situation that will allow him to at least revert back to being a 1A in a committee backfield; a role we’ve seen him be a viable fantasy starter in before.
Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffery, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones, James Connor, Chris Carson. The running back class of 2017 has been one of the best RB classes we’ve ever seen, and certainly the best in recent memory. If you drafted one of these guys in 2017, you were ecstatic with your return. The wide receiver class, however, was a different story. Chris Godwin, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Cooper Kupp have been clear hits, but the guys taken in the first round in the NFL Draft (and likely your rookie draft as well) have largely not lived up to their hype. Which brings us to Corey Davis.
Davis checked essentially every box you could ask of a future fantasy WR1. He finished the 2016 season as the NCAA all-time leader in receiving yards with 5,278 and topped 1,400 yards in each of his last 3 seasons in college. He recorded a 96th percentile Dominator Rating and a 96th percentile Breakout Age according to Player Profiler. While he didn’t participate in the combine or his pro day due to an ankle injury, no one was questioning his athleticism. And then comes the draft capital, one of the most predictive measures for success that we have. Not only was Davis taken in the first round of the NFL draft, he was drafted at 5th overall; joining Amari Cooper as the only WRs to be taken in the top 5 in the last 5 years.
Unfortunately, his rookie year was marred by a hamstring injury that limited him to only 11 games played. In those 11 games, he averaged 11.4 Average Targeted Air Yards (ATAY) which ranked just behind Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs (11.5) and just ahead of Amari Cooper (11.3) on NFL Next Gen Stats. But he got healthy at the end of the year and had a big game in the playoffs against the Patriots with 5 catches for 63 yards and 2 TDs. This led to him being hyped up going into his second year, where he was held back a bit by the QB play of Marcus Mariota. He did however still manage a solid 65 receptions for 891 yards and 4 TDs, good for the fantasy WR27 on the year. The aforementioned sub-par QB play did lead to a decrease in Davis’ ATAY to 10.3, which was still just ahead of Calvin Ridley (10.0) and Amari Cooper (9.9). However he did have 35.8% of his team’s Air Yards, good for the 6th highest mark in the league. All of this culminated in another off-season of hype and promise.
This time, he flopped spectacularly: finishing 2019 as the WR64 with 43 receptions for 601 yards while watching AJ Brown usurp him as the Titans’ WR every fantasy player wanted to own. Brown even had a larger share of his team’s air yards as a rookie with 29.8% compared to Davis’ 22.32%. That 22.32% of his team’s Air Yards is still a respectable number, comparable to guys like Calvin Ridley (23.2) and Will Fuller (22.2). It was this off-season leading into 2020 when even the most diehard Davis-truthers had finally reached the point where they were hopping off the hype train.
With low to no expectations coming into 2020, Davis has actually been a serviceable fantasy option averaging 13.7 fantasy points per game and finishing as the WR30 overall. He did even increase his percentage of his team’s Air Yards to 28.84%, which was 25th in the NFL. That did still trail AJ Brown (30.6%) on his own team however. With the Titans declining his 5th year option and his contract up after this year, Davis may be looking for a fresh start on a team that is better suited to his skillset.
Davis may never be the alpha WR1 we all hoped he would be after being drafted 5th overall in 2017. But, he is still a talented player who could become a solid fantasy starter and is likely a player that other owners in your league are not overly attached to. With the depth of WR projected to be in this year’s rookie class and the unavoidable rookie hype that will continue to steadily build until the season starts next year, you can likely acquire this former 1.03 rookie pick from 2017 (according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com) for a bargain.
Listed as an RB coming out of high school, Samuel was converted to WR by the lauded Ohio State WR coaching staff. Position change aside however, he still saw more career carries than receptions in his time at Ohio State. This includes his 74-catch season in his final year as a Buckeye, where he received 97 carries that year as well. He was still the 8th pick in the 2nd round of the 2017 draft, largely due to his top end speed (4.31 second 40 yard dash) and versatility that made him a potential mismatch nightmare for defenses. Unfortunately for Samuel, the team that drafted him had already drafted an elite mismatch weapon on offense and his name was Christian McCaffery.
During Samuel’s rookie year in 2017 (the same as McCaffery), he saw limited early season work. This is typical of rookies entering the league, especially those who haven’t really had a true position in college. He saw action in 9 games before being shut down for the year with a broken ankle that required surgery. The following year Samuel played in 13 games and finished with a mediocre 39 catches for 494 yards and 5 TDs to go with 84 rushing yards and 2 TD on 8 carries, good for the WR42 on the year. While his counting stats were not all that impressive, he did finish a respectable 33rd in the league in Targeted Air Yards as he was continuing to learn the WR position at the NFL level.
Then, 2019 served as Samuel’s coming out party. Samuel finished the year playing in 15 games and recorded 105 targets. He turned these targets into 54 catches for 627 yards and 6 TDs to go along with 130 yards and 1 TD rushing on 19 carries on his way to being the WR36 on the year. And while that may not seem like a “coming out party” on the surface, if we were to dig a little deeper we would find that Samuel ranked 12th in the league in Average Depth of Target (ADOT) with 14.6 yards and 18th in the league in % of Team’s Air Yards according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Showing himself as one of the league’s most effective deep threats, Samuel looked poised to increase his role going into 2020.
As was the case for most of us, 2020 brought about a series of substantial change for Samuel including the turnover in the Panther’s coaching staff, the addition of the conservative Teddy Bridgewater at QB, and the addition of an equally effective deep threat in Robby Anderson. Ranking a distant 3rd on his team in Percentage of Team Air Yards with a 17.13%, Samuel has seen his role shift away from being the deep threat option for his team. While this has led to an increase in Samuel’s catch percentage (79.38%, ranking 2nd in the league), Samuel started the season slowly not scoring in double digits in fantasy points until week 7. He did finish strong at the end of the year however, recording at least 5 catches and 68 yards in each of the last 6 games he played except for 1 game against Green Bay where he finished with 4 catches for 42 yards. Thanks in large part to that strong stretch run, Samuel finished the year as the WR24 on the year- one spot ahead of his more highly regarded running mate DJ Moore.
A change of scenery and offensive scheme going into next year may allow Samuel to truly realize his potential. If he goes to a scheme that is willing to utilize his versatile skillset, and one that doesn’t already have a swiss army knife like McCaffery, Samuel could be poised for a substantial growth in his role on offense. But if Samuel does re-sign with Carlina, acquiring him may backfire as McCaffery will be returning next year and will presumably resume the touch-dominant role he has seen the previous 2 years when he was healthy. Acquiring Samuel now will require a bit of a leap of faith that he will move on in free agency. But if he does, and he lands on a team that will use him similarly to the way the 49ers use Brandon Aiyuk/Deebo Samuel, the way the Chiefs use Tyreek, or the way Pittsburgh uses Diontae Johnson this could bring on a massive return on investment.
Relatively unknown last year out of tiny Tulane, I would be willing to bet that Darnell Mooney went undrafted in the vast majority of dynasty drafts. According to DLF’s post-draft rookie ADP, Mooney was coming off the board with the 60th pick. Most rookie drafts do not even have that many picks. However, despite being unheralded amongst most of the dynasty community, Mooney actually had a fairly strong analytic profile. Mooney had the requisite athletic testing numbers to signal potential sleeper status after testing in the 71st percentile for burst score and clocking in at a 4.38 40 time according to Player Profiler. Add in his very impressive 93rd percentile breakout age at 18.9 years old, his 71st percentile College Dominator rating, and his 84th percentile Yards Per Reception and it’s easy to see the makings of a waiver wire darling. And while his 5th round draft capital may not impress most and does put him in a category of players who do not often experience much fantasy success, it was still encouraging to Chicago draft him at all.
Entering a bizarre off-season with a virtual rookie camp, a shortened training camp, and essentially no time to stand out as a rookie, it’s all the more impressive that Mooney was able to earn a starting role in 3 WR sets for week 1. In a year where rookie WRs seemed to take the league by storm, Mooney’s very solid rookie performance can often get overshadowed. Mooney finished 16 games with 61 catches on 98 targets for 631 yards and 4 TDs including an 11 catch, 93 yard finale against Green Bay in week 17. This was good enough to earn him the 50th overall WR fantasy finish in his debut season. And while that may not seem impressive on the surface, we need to dig a little deeper to truly appreciate the type of rookie performance he put on.
Although he was 71st in Catchable target rate and experienced some of the worst QB play in the league, Mooney was able to have himself a very efficient season. Mooney ranked 29th in the league in Air Yards and 44th in Air Yards share despite ranking 10th in unrealized Air Yards and having a bonafide stud in Allen Robinson ahead of him in the pecking order (all according to Player Profiler). Mooney ended up surpassing Anthony Miller in the WR hierarchy for the Bears, receiving 20 more targets than the former 2nd round pick. By the end of the year, Mooney finished 2nd in snap percentage on the team with a 76.4% snap share, behind Robinson’s 88.3% and ahead of Miller’s 56.4% (Player Profiler).
After a year of climbing the depth chart to play second fiddle to Robinson, Mooney may very well end up in the first chair sooner than expected. Robinson is set to be an Unrestricted Free Agent this off-season and all indications are that he wants to play for a Super Bowl contender. Do the Bears fit that description? Some super fans in the state of Illinois may try to build a case, but I’m not convinced they are. I believe that this will cause Robinson to look elsewhere in March and find a better team with a more stable QB situation. And if he leaves, he opens up that WR1 role on the Bears for next season.
21st in the league with a projected -$510,000 in cap space, the Bears are certainly not in salary cap hell, but they can also ill afford to play fast and loose with their cash either. And there is also the recent rumor floating around about the Bears possibly trading for Carson Wentz to consider as well when factoring in their financial situation for 2021. This does not however preclude them from spending significant capital on a WR either in FA or the draft. This tactic has been their style in the past like with Brandon Marshall and Allen Robinson in FA and Alshon and Kevin White in the draft. Additionally, all of the WRs they invested significant capital on in the past fit the more traditional alpha WR profile, as all of the aforementioned players are 6’2” 215lbs or bigger and possess a 60th percentile or better burst score and a 78th percentile or better speed score (Player Profiler). Mooney on the other hand does not fit that mold at 5’10” 176lbs. The Bears may need to settle for a less expensive model of big bodied WR than are used to like a discounted AJ Green in FA or a Seth Williams in the draft. If it’s the former situation, expect Mooney to still have a productive and fantasy relevant role for the Bears in 2021. If it’s the latter, expect Mooney to be touted as a sleeper for 2021 and finish as a fantasy WR who will crack many starting lineups.
There is a laundry list of quality players who could potentially be switching teams in Free Agency this offseason including guys like Juju Smith-Schuster, Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson, Aaron Jones, Leonard Fournette, Jonnu Smith, and even Dak Prescott. The difference between these players and the players from this article is that the previously listed players are likely going to be significantly harder to acquire. The point of this article was to find players who could see a large increase in value post-free agency. In any type of Fantasy Football league, we are always searching for ways to give ourselves a leg up over the competition. It is my hope my debut article will serve that purpose for you, the reader, and allow you to get an early edge on some players who will likely see a rise in value this offseason and a potentially increased role next year on a new team.
Stats courtesy of nextgenstats.nfl.com, Player Profiler, teamrankings.com, and FantasyPros. Contract and salary info courtesy of spotrac.com