Faces in new places: Jerick McKinnon, Allen Robinson among top fantasy options

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Change: It’s what’s happenin’ during the NFL offseason.

Quarterbacks captured a large percentage of the offseason spotlight, in large part because of the quarterback-rich 2018 NFL draft class, but also because of what seemed like a musical chairs-style cycle of movement among veterans at the position: The Kansas City Chiefs, who wanted to clear their starting gig for sophomore Patrick Mahomes, traded Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins, who let Kirk Cousins escape for big money with the Minnesota Vikings, who allowed Case Keenum to head west and sign with the Denver Broncos, who traded Trevor Siemian to the aforementioned Vikings. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills traded Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns, then signed ex-Cincinnati Bengals backup AJ McCarron.

In the meantime, the Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders overhauled their receiver corps, and the San Francisco 49ers continued their roster reshaping by bringing in a new starting running back. Yes, it was as busy an offseason as ever, and if you missed any of the big moves or perhaps took off a portion of it — hey, those fantasy baseball, basketball and hockey seasons can be distracting — you’ve got a good amount of homework to do catching up.

That’s where this column comes in. What follows whittles all of the NFL’s significant offseason transactions into roughly 4,000 words, saving you hours of research. The 10 transactions that will affect fantasy football the most are ranked at the top — and be aware that includes (as applicable) the entirety of the move’s impact on either the player’s current or former team — and smaller blurbs on other significant moves follow at column’s end.

1. San Francisco 49ers signed RB Jerick McKinnon

Kyle Shanahan’s makeover of the 49ers’ roster took two significant steps during the winter: First, re-signing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million contract in February, after the midseason acquisition led the team to five consecutive wins to conclude the 2017 season, then signing McKinnon to assume the running back duties from the since-departed Carlos Hyde.

Depending upon your opinion of McKinnon, this move might not move the needle much for you in terms of impact, but that’s also probably because you don’t share coach Shanahan’s optimism of the running back’s skill set. Often described a third-down back — and he is quite good in that role, as his 94 receptions the past two seasons combined rank ninth among running backs — McKinnon brings greater balance between rushing and receiving ability than the man he’s replacing, something Shanahan desired, and will be handed a true “workhorse back” role for the first time in his career. The opportunity is tremendous for the fifth-year player, even if his 3.6 yards-per-carry mark the past two seasons combined (on 309 carries, at that) is not.

Bear in mind that Garoppolo was a bit more apt to target running backs than the league’s average quarterback during his season-ending five starts, but he seemed to have much less chemistry with Hyde than his predecessors, Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk earned 20 targets from Garoppolo to Hyde’s 15 in those five games, compared to Hyde’s 57-22 advantage in the other 11 games he and Juszczyk played in 2017. McKinnon should be a critical part of Garoppolo’s/Shanahan’s game plan, and in PPR formats especially that should pay big dividends.

McKinnon is one of the more intriguing selections from this year’s RB2 tier.

2. Chicago Bears signed WR Allen Robinson and TE Trey Burton

They’re listed together rather than separately in part because news of their signings broke on the same day, March 13, but also because they signaled a teamwide overhaul of its receiving corps. One could toss the Taylor Gabriel addition onto the pile, too, if he/she wishes.

With Robinson and Burton on board, not to mention the hiring of pass-heavy head coach Matt Nagy, the Bears look very much to be shifting to a pass-oriented offense. That’s a significant development for a team that has a second-year quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky, who had the league’s second-worst qualified Total QBR (29.2). Robinson, who had the 11th-most receiving touchdowns (20) and 13th-most catches of 20-plus yards (42) from 2015-17 despite missing 15 games because of injury, gives Trubisky a bona fide star to throw to, and Burton, who played fewer than 30 percent of the Philadelphia Eagles’ snaps in each of his four seasons with them, should play a Travis Kelce-like role in Nagy’s offense. While Trubisky’s and Burton’s track records might not show it, they possess generous midrange QB2 and TE1 potential entering 2018, and Robinson, health willing, has a legitimate chance at vying for WR1 status once again, if we’re talking statistical ceilings for each.

3. Washington Redskins traded for QB Alex Smith, signed him to four-year extension through 2022

The earliest big-name transaction of the offseason — the news broke on Jan. 30, even if the trade couldn’t officially be announced until the start of the new league year on March 14 — Smith’s move east not only set into motion the aforementioned game of quarterback musical chairs, but it also gave the Redskins quite the contrast in style of quarterbacks, going from Kirk Cousins to Smith.

Smith’s game is predicated on more conservative throws, a hefty reliance on his tight ends, plus his own scrambling ability — his 111 rushing attempts the past three seasons combined are third most among quarterbacks — whereas Cousins was much more apt to throw the ball downfield and rarely attempted to run. There is little doubt that this will have a pronounced impact on the Redskins’ receiving game, where a sure-handed, pass-catching running back like Chris Thompson or tight end Jordan Reed could capture more of Smith’s looks, while more of a downfield threat like Josh Doctson might see his numbers dwindle. Smith could struggle to post better than midrange QB2 numbers, and this could be a wiser year to pick Jamison Crowder than Doctson.

Perhaps more importantly, Smith’s departure from Kansas City paves the way for Mahomes, who completed 63 percent of his passes for 284 yards and 10.36 fantasy points during his Week 17 audition against the stingy Denver Broncos defense, to start. Mahomes has a cannon arm (with accuracy) and has an impressive array of receivers to throw to in Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins. Mahomes will be a popular breakthrough pick on many 2018 lists, with the skill set to make a case for QB1 consideration, but you might have to pay that price tag to secure him.

4. Green Bay Packers signed TE Jimmy Graham

The Packers’ passing-game changes captured several headlines this offseason, but not always for positive reasons. In addition to signing Graham, the team released veteran wideout (and favorite Aaron Rodgers target) Jordy Nelson and replaced both offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt with Joe Philbin and Frank Cignetti Jr., with some of the losses reportedly drawing displeasure from Rodgers. We’ll see whether that has any bearing on Rodgers’ play once the season arrives, but for now, Graham’s addition gives Rodgers a red zone target like few he has had in his career — and a better tight end than any he has had previously.

Graham is coming off a 2017 during which he led the league in red zone targets (24) and target share in the red zone (37 percent of the Seattle Seahawks’ total) and was second only to DeAndre Hopkins (25) in end zone targets (19). Jermichael Finley’s 17 red zone and 13 end zone targets in 2011, which was Rodgers’ best season, was the only Packers tight end season that was even close to that. It’s a good arrangement for the new passing-game partners, but one must wonder whether it’s better news for Rodgers, the No. 1 fantasy quarterback, or Graham, a borderline top-10 option at his position.

5. Tennessee Titans signed RB Dion Lewis

For five days in early March, between DeMarco Murray’s release and the news breaking that Lewis would sign with the Titans, it appeared that third-year player Derrick Henry would finally get his chance to be a starting NFL running back. Now the two appear set for a timeshare in the Titans’ backfield, with the big, bruising Henry complementing the quick Lewis nicely, even if it means potential week-to-week headaches for their fantasy managers. Lewis appears more likely to handle third-down duty, while Henry is more likely to handle short-yardage work, including goal-line carries, but outside of that there’s sure to be a pretty even division of the rushing labor between the two. Lewis’ injury history — he missed 18 games during his three-year New England Patriots career — is what makes him the less-appealing fantasy pick of the two, a midrange flex pick, while Henry’s upside continues to make him a borderline RB2.

6. Minnesota Vikings signed QB Kirk Cousins

Cousins might be hard-pressed to improve the Vikings’ passing game compared to last season’s unit, but that’s mainly because it’s difficult to improve upon what was the league’s best team in terms of Total QBR (67.9), second best in completion percentage (67.7) and fifth best in touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.13) in 2017. What Cousins brings, however, is a better natural talent at the quarterback position than Keenum, who enjoyed a truly magical campaign, giving the team a great chance at merely spinning its wheels statistically on the passing side of the ball. But could there be improvement? Perhaps, as new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was instrumental in Carson Wentz’s and Nick Foles’ success in Philadelphia the past two seasons, has spent the offseason working with Cousins on polishing the quarterback’s play in the red zone, after Cousins posted a well-below-league-average 27.4 QBR in those situations in 2017. Cousins’ own prospects for fantasy success couldn’t be much better, now that he’ll work with a deeper receiving corps while complemented by a far stronger running game, and a top-five fantasy season at the position is a possibility. He also should help maximize the fantasy output from wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, tight end Kyle Rudolph and running back Dalvin Cook.

7. Los Angeles Rams traded for WR Brandin Cooks

Not all offseason transactions represent good news. The acquisition of Cooks was a good one from a team/on-field aspect, as he steps into Sammy Watkins’ former deep-threat role and deepens the offense, but his arrival in L.A. also clouds things for the Rams’ receivers from a fantasy perspective, himself included. Cooks had the league’s third-largest average depth of target (15.06) last season, but quarterback Jared Goff wasn’t really any more apt to throw that far downfield than an average quarterback did (7.56 aDOT, NFL average was 8.12). Part of that can be attributed to Watkins’ inconsistent play, but it also casts doubt upon what will be the pecking order between Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, especially gauging it on a week-by-week basis in fantasy. Cooks’ big-play potential might capture the most attention from prospective fantasy managers and Kupp’s red zone success last season shouldn’t be overlooked, but the case can be made that all three of these receivers deserve rankings between 25th and 35th at the position, with their order a matter of personal preference.

Cooks’ departure from New England depletes the Patriots’ options at receiver, a problem that was compounded when it was announced in June that Julian Edelman is facing a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy.

8. Oakland Raiders signed WR Jordy Nelson, traded for WR Martavis Bryant

The Raiders moved quickly at the start of the new league year to replace Michael Crabtree with Nelson, who had just been let go by the Packers, but added two years of age, more than $5 million in salary and only 80 percent of the fantasy production (using 2017 numbers) in the process. That’s why chatter that Amari Cooper, a disappointment to this point in his NFL career, will take on a more prominent role in Jon Gruden’s offense should be taken seriously, though Nelson will still play a critical role for the team just as Crabtree did. Nelson was one of the most productive receivers in the game as recently as two years ago, and working with Derek Carr this season instead of Brett Hundley for most of last should fuel a partial rebound. Still, Nelson probably won’t play a large enough role in a run-oriented offense to be much more than a WR3/flex option.

As for Bryant, he’s one of the most dynamic talents at his position, but like Nelson suffers from questionable opportunity (especially because he’ll begin the year third on the depth chart at best). Those seeking risk/reward candidates for their bench can speculate on him late, but the real benefit is his arrival giving Carr a better chance to rebound.

9. Cleveland Browns traded for WR Jarvis Landry and QB Tyrod Taylor, signed Landry to five-year extension

That’s not the entirety of what was an effective Browns makeover this offseason: The team also signed Carlos Hyde (see further below) and drafted quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb and wide receiver Antonio Callaway. After many years of offseason overhauls leading to disappointment, it would be understandable if everyone approached these moves with skepticism, but this was a much larger-scale retooling than most of those from the past. Landry’s arrival gives Taylor — or Mayfield, if he somehow emerges as the team’s starter before season’s end — one of the most sure-handed receivers in the game, though it’s a virtual certainty that Landry’s number of receptions will take a steep nosedive with the move, perhaps to the point that he’ll struggle to be much more than a WR3, even in PPR formats.

Taylor, who is expected to start in Week 1 and probably possesses better-than-even odds of holding the job all season (health willing), should benefit from a much more talented set of receivers in Cleveland than in Buffalo last season, between wide receivers Landry, Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman and Callaway, running backs Duke Johnson Jr., Chubb and Hyde, and up-and-coming tight end David Njoku. The Browns are likely to be a trendy sleeper team entering the season, and while that could produce fantasy dividends across the board, it also brings the danger of overinflating draft stock. Tread carefully, but monitor how roles shake out during training camp.

Back in Miami, Landry’s departure significantly expands opportunities for fourth-year receiver DeVante Parker, like the aforementioned Cooper a disappointment to this stage in his career, as well as Kenny Stills and free-agent signee Danny Amendola.

10. Baltimore Ravens signed WRs Michael Crabtree and John Brown

Neither move was earth-shattering, but Crabtree’s arrival in Baltimore was a significant boon to his fantasy value, considering his beneath-the-radar domination in terms of targets, especially in the red zone. Despite playing across from Amari Cooper, Crabtree managed the league’s eighth-most targets during his three-year career in Oakland, and his 47 red zone targets during that same time span ranked 10th. Plus, as more of a possession receiver, Crabtree should mesh well with Joe Flacco, whose yards-per-attempt numbers have been in steep decline in recent years. All in all, Crabtree and Brown landed on a team that was starving for receiver help, and both should enjoy substantial roles with the Ravens. Crabtree has WR3 potential, and Brown, who has flashed big-play potential throughout his career but has been limited because of injuries related to a sickle cell trait, could be an intriguing upside pick as you round out your bench.

More moves of note

Listed in alphabetical order by player, below are some of the offseason’s other notable team-changers, those who failed to earn a place in the top 10 but for whom their transactions could still be significant.

Miami Dolphins signed WR Danny Amendola: He’ll probably absorb some of the departed Jarvis Landry’s targets, thanks in large part to his 86.2 percent catch rate the past three seasons combined (second among wide receivers with at least 10 games played), but the Dolphins seem likely to mostly divide those up between Amendola, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant.

Carolina Panthers signed RB C.J. Anderson: The Panthers might’ve landed themselves an upgrade on Jonathan Stewart in Anderson, but Christian McCaffrey’s continued development will mean minimal (if any) receiving work and perhaps fewer carries for the ex-Bronco. Stewart finished as RB42 in what was a similar role in 2017, but Anderson’s bar is probably slightly higher than that.

Dallas Cowboys traded for RB Tavon Austin: He’ll be utilized in a variety of ways in Dallas, from running back to perimeter receiver to slot man, and that’s a team that’s not especially deep in receiving depth. Austin is still too gimmicky a player to be much more than a late-rounder in deeper (read: 14-plus-team) leagues.

Detroit Lions signed RB LeGarrette Blount: His two touchdowns don’t give him the look of it, but Blount has one of the better reputations among goal-line backs around the league, mainly because of how difficult he is to tackle (2.16 yards after contact per rush from 2013-17, sixth best in the league). He’ll presumably serve as the Lions’ early-down and goal-line back, though this team has a reputation for committee-style backfields that could cap his fantasy potential in the flex-play class.

New York Jets signed RB Isaiah Crowell: Oh goody, more running backs to stand in Bilal Powell’s path to regular carries! Crowell put up serviceable numbers for the Browns in his four years with them, contributing as both a runner and receiver, and perhaps that will make him the leading man in a probable three-man committee (Elijah McGuire being member No. 3). There’s sure to be some shuffling of the chores from week to week, however, and with it will come fantasy headache.

Indianapolis Colts signed TE Eric Ebron: His arrival will generate little more than groans from Jack Doyle’s prospective fantasy managers, as Doyle had a fifth-among-tight-ends 105 targets last season and is much more sure-handed than drop-king Ebron. Ebron should serve as little more than the second man on the depth chart, à la Dwayne Allen in 2016, keeping him outside of the draft-worthy pool.

Miami Dolphins signed RB Frank Gore: He’ll serve as competition for touches for Kenyan Drake, but Gore’s age (35), 3,669 career total touches and declining yards per carry (he has averaged beneath 4.0 in each of the past three seasons and a career-low 3.7 in 2017) suggest he’d be better served in a backup/change-of-pace role. He’s mere handcuff material for managers who draft Drake.

Dallas Cowboys signed WR Allen Hurns: Opportunity knocks, as Hurns — who averaged 11.8 PPR fantasy points per game during his four-year career in Jacksonville despite struggling with injuries, serving as a No. 2 target and having Blake Bortles as his quarterback — has (currently) a clear path to claiming the role as Dak Prescott’s top receiving target. There’s quite a bit of potential profit here.

Cleveland Browns signed RB Carlos Hyde: His arrival in Cleveland was bad news on multiple fronts. First, he’s joining a team with one of the best pass-catching backs in the league in Duke Johnson Jr., limiting Hyde’s potential in that department, and second, Nick Chubb’s selection in the draft provided competition for first- and second-down carries. This team could quickly morph into a maddening committee, so be cautious chasing last year’s RB1 numbers (or anything close to them).

Buffalo Bills signed RB Chris Ivory: He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in his two years in Jacksonville and is now 30 years old, making him a mere fantasy handcuff consideration as LeSean McCoy’s primary backup. It’s unclear just how much Ivory could contribute if pressed into starting duty, but at least he’s on a run-heavy team.

Denver Broncos signed QB Case Keenum: His career year was fueled by an astonishing improvement in terms of his accuracy, as his 67.6 percent completion rate was second best in the league and more than 9 percent better than his career number entering 2017. He’ll have productive receivers to throw to in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but the team’s passing-game depth isn’t quite equal to the Vikings’, and the regression bug seems destined to drag Keenum back into the QB2 class (and probably the low end at that).

Green Bay Packers traded for QB DeShone Kizer: The Browns’ 2017 starter, Kizer isn’t even guaranteed the backup job to Aaron Rodgers. The Packers saw something they liked in Kizer, however, and perhaps can develop him into a viable future piece. Dynasty owners, keep an eye on that Kizer-Brett Hundley battle.

Oakland Raiders signed RB Doug Martin: Call him an insurance policy for Marshawn Lynch if you wish, as handcuff to the veteran running back is Martin’s best-case scenario in fantasy entering 2018. Martin has had quite the boom/bust career, and he’s probably not even draft-worthy in 12-team leagues on a team that also has Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington in its backfield.

New England Patriots signed WR Jordan Matthews: He has his sights set on sliding into the departed Danny Amendola role as the Patriots’ slot receiver, but that might not result in a large enough target share to be more than fantasy bench fodder. The Patriots do have a fair amount of competition on their hands at receiver entering camp, however, so it’s possible Matthews could carve out a larger role.

Jacksonville Jaguars signed WR Donte Moncrief: There’s more opportunity in Jacksonville for Moncrief than he had in his four years in Indianapolis, but also more competition, including Marqise Lee (ticketed for the No. 1 role), Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole and D.J. Chark. Moncrief is a mere roll of the dice in the final rounds.

New York Jets signed WR Terrelle Pryor Sr.: Following a miserable, injury-marred one-year stint in the nation’s capital, Pryor moved on to the Jets, whose quarterback situation isn’t anywhere near as good. He still brings a good amount of size to the table and, if healthy, could rebound to WR3 numbers in the best-case scenario, making him worth a late-round flier.

Washington Redskins signed WR Paul Richardson: His contract assures he’ll carve out a somewhat sizable role, but as a deep threat in a passing game that should lean more short range, he’s a bit of a square peg for the round hole. Richardson is worth a late-round flier, but would need to impress in the preseason to warrant better.

Jacksonville Jaguars signed TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins: After reporting to Jets camp last summer in much better football shape, Seferian-Jenkins got off to a hot start to 2017 before cooling significantly late. He re-established himself as a productive, sizable target, but he’s also moving to a run-heavy offense with a so-so quarterback. Consider him no more than a low-end TE2.

Minnesota Vikings traded for QB Trevor Siemian: He’ll serve as Kirk Cousins’ primary backup, and should be one of the more talented backups around the league come Week 1. Players like this can easily be scooped off the waiver wire in the event of catastrophic injury to the starter, however.

Carolina Panthers traded for WR Torrey Smith: His career seems to have stalled since he left Baltimore following the 2014 season, and Smith will once again this season be competing for targets on the Panthers behind Devin Funchess and D.J. Moore. It’s not a great enough opportunity to make Smith more than a late-round flier in larger (read: 12-plus-team) leagues.

New York Giants signed RB Jonathan Stewart: His addition was far more exciting from a fantasy perspective before the Giants selected Saquon Barkley No. 2 in the draft, as Stewart will now be the “change-of-pace” back behind one of the few running backs who will rarely require many breathers.

Philadelphia Eagles signed WR Mike Wallace: Few players have provided the level of fantasy production despite limited attention during the past half-decade as Wallace, but he’s unfortunately moving to one of the worst situations of his 10-year career, fantasy-wise. He’ll be at best third on the Eagles’ wide receiver depth chart, behind Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor.

Kansas City Chiefs signed WR Sammy Watkins: He’s still a young (age 25), dynamic talent, but to this stage of his career he has struggled to turn it into consistently elite production. Watkins could be quite the deep threat for first-year starter Patrick Mahomes, but he probably won’t get frequent enough targets behind Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to be more than a WR4/flex.

New Orleans Saints signed TE Benjamin Watson: He has quietly put forth a pair of extremely productive fantasy campaigns in 2015 and 2017, the former coming with these Saints. Watson’s high catch rate should once again earn him a good number of looks from Drew Brees, making him a high-end TE2.



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