Assessing free agents for fantasy
When we talk NFL free agency, we're almost always talking about unrestricted free agents, guys who have four-plus years of service time and whose contracts have expired. The bulk of offseason player movement in 2012 will involve UFAs.
But a rules tweak that resulted from last summer's NFL labor dispute could have ramifications for restricted free agents. (An RFA is a free agent with three seasons of service time whose contract is up.) In the past, if a squad wanted to sign another team's restricted free agent, the maximum compensation it had to give up was both a first- and a third-round draft pick. Under the new rules, now that team's maximum compensation is "only" a first-rounder. However, those same new rules now allow a team to place the franchise tag on RFAs, and of course, any team may still match any offer an RFA receives. Still, in the past when we generated lists of RFAs, it felt pretty nominal; it was highly unlikely for an RFA to change teams. Now, I'm not sure that's true. As a result, you're going to notice two very big-name RFAs on my list below. It's not inconceivable that they could sign elsewhere.
With that caveat, let's get to a list of the most important QBs, RBs, WRs and TEs who may be changing teams this spring and summer.
Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers: I strongly doubt that Green Bay will consider using its franchise tag on Flynn for the purposes of a sign-and-trade, partly because speculation is rampant that it's going to use it on Jermichael Finley, and partly because it won't be in a good negotiating position if a potential trade partner knows it has to deal an ultra-expensive Flynn. Flynn will head somewhere else as a relatively high-dollar signee, and probably be favored to win a starting job. I'm concerned that there are similarities to Kevin Kolb here; any signing team would be wise to implement a system that's similar to that of the Packers. Certainly new Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin has to be considered a possibility (though the Fish reportedly have their hearts set on Peyton Manning). The Seahawks might be a possibility, too.
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers: I'm certainly in the minority, but if I were the Niners, I'd let Smith walk. His heroic effort in the NFC divisional playoffs notwithstanding, he's what's holding the 49ers back. His pocket presence just stinks, and you can't go aggressively down the field with him. But there's little doubt Smith will be back in San Francisco.
Kyle Orton, Kansas City Chiefs: Orton won't be back in Kansas City, but it's not hard to imagine him landing on one of the last musical chairs as starting QB jobs fill up this spring. My guess is he'll be someone's starter, but have a promising younger signal-caller behind him.
Jason Campbell, Oakland Raiders: The dirty secret by the Bay is that Oakland was a better team with Campbell under center than it was with Carson Palmer. But Palmer is entrenched, and Campbell will ply his wares elsewhere. Of course, he's never been anything more than a mediocre fantasy option, and that probably won't change wherever he lands.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans (RFA): Foster is the biggest-name RFA in the game, so an aggressive general manager could conceivably make an offer he can't refuse, and the Texans don't want to match (especially because they have Ben Tate). Certainly, by far the likeliest scenario is the 25-year-old Foster signs a huge deal to stay in Houston, and even if the parties can't agree on a contract, the Texans could franchise him, which would put Foster on a one-year deal somewhere in the $8 million range. (Early speculation was that Houston would use its franchise tag on Mario Williams, but that now seems way too expensive at nearly $23 million.) But if the Texans don't franchise Foster, could a team with a ton of cap room like, say, the Buccaneers or the Bengals blow Foster's doors off with a front-loaded offer the cap-strapped Texans can't match? (Well, the Bengals are notoriously cheap, but you get my point.) It seems more possible now than it did 365 days ago.
Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: Now-deposed Bears GM Jerry Angelo made very little progress toward getting Forte signed during the '11 season, and it caused a lot of fretting and kvetching both in Forte's camp and in the Chicago media. Perhaps Phil Emery, the team's new GM, will fare better. Forte had a strong season before he sprained an MCL in Week 13; he averaged 134 yards from scrimmage per game. Of course, Forte is also famously ineffective in goal-line situations, so he's not quite ready to be super-elite in fantasy no matter where he lands. The franchise tag is very much in play for him, too, though if he's tagged, Forte has intimated that a holdout is possible.
Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks: Lynch will turn just 26 this spring, and he's coming off a truly amazing season in which the right side of his offensive line was poleaxed and his QB played terribly, yet Lynch scored 13 TDs and produced 1,416 yards from scrimmage. He's told reporters he wants to return to Seattle, and that seems likely. Whether or not the Seahawks are willing to give him a multiyear deal is the question. It sounds like Lynch would be willing to play under the franchise tag.
Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders: The first four guys on this RB list probably aren't switching teams, but Bush has a chance to move. The Raiders have Darren McFadden on the books for $5.65 million in '12, and surely they'd have to pay through the nose to get Bush signed to a long-term deal. If they franchise him, well, that's about $8 million. There can be no doubting that the Raiders want Bush back; Run-DMC can't stay healthy, so they need a strong complement. But the Raiders have one of the two or three worst salary-cap situations in the league for this coming season, and would likely have to ditch multiple veterans to fit Bush. If he's just too expensive to keep, Bush will attract interest as the bruising, TD-making component of someone's backfield platoon (but probably not as a clear 300-carry-per-season guy).
Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns: After a season of acrimony and injury, plus a Week 3 game he sat out because of strep throat, Hillis will almost certainly move elsewhere. The Browns will find a less expensive option, perhaps via the draft, and finally attempt to keep Montario Hardesty healthy. Hillis was reportedly looking for at least $5 million per season the last time he talked contract with the team. Fantasy owners know that in the right situation, the 26-year-old Hillis can absolutely be a No. 1 back and a fantasy beast, but he's also a severe injury waiting to happen.
Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals: Benson comes equipped with a giant "Do Not Sign Me" warning slapped on him, but some misguided team will do it anyway. The mercurial Benson will turn 30 in December and failed to average 4.0 yards per carry in either of the past two seasons. He also gives you nothing in the receiving game. The Bengals almost certainly don't want him back. He'd have to land in an unbelievably sweet situation to be worth investing in for fantasy in '12.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England Patriots: The Pats drafted Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley last April with replacing BJGE in mind, but the fact is that Green-Ellis is still the guy Bill Belichick trusts most. The Law Firm still has never lost a fumble in his NFL career, and while he's strictly an early-down rusher, he's reached double-digit TDs in back-to-back seasons. Of course, if he leaves New England's high-octane offense, that probably won't happen again.
Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers: When James Starks was healthy and dominating backfield touches early in the year, it seemed the writing was on the wall for the 29-year-old Grant. He'd leave via free agency. But Starks barely played after Week 11 as he battled a knee problem, and rookie Alex Green tore an ACL in Week 7. Now there's a pretty good chance the Packers will ask Grant to return for relatively short money, after seeing him play with surprising life in his legs this past December. Clearly, though, Grant's days as a fantasy star and feature back seem behind him.
Mike Tolbert, San Diego Chargers: Early reports out of San Diego indicate that Tolbert will be moving on. The team was wowed by Ryan Mathews' sophomore campaign, and believes Jacob Hester (also an impending free agent, but one who'll get far less money than Tolbert) can handle fullback duties. That means Tolbert will look for a spot as someone's bruiser and third-down back, which isn't a bad combination for fantasy value, especially in a PPR league. Tolbert had 54 catches and 10 total TDs in '11. And of course, his absence would be great news for Mathews.
Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions: Smith should come cheap and could be a bargain if he can stay healthy; he's still only 25 and sparked the Lions with some strong play in a few November games. Unfortunately, he battled a high ankle sprain thereafter, and looked lousy as a result. The Lions have a couple of injury-prone RBs on their roster -- Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure -- so one imagines they might not want to invest in Smith, too. But when he's right, there's every-down talent here.
Other RBs of note: Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins; Jason Snelling, Atlanta Falcons; Jackie Battle, Kansas City Chiefs; Maurice Morris, Detroit Lions; Justin Forsett, Seattle Seahawks; Ronnie Brown, Philadelphia Eagles.
Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers (RFA): Like Arian Foster, Wallace is an extremely attractive RFA who could lure a mega-offer and force the Steelers to make a tough decision. If your team could guarantee itself a 26-year-old stud deep threat, might you be willing to give up a first-round pick? Of course, it's far, far likelier that the Steelers and Wallace hammer out a long-term extension. The franchise tag for WRs is expected to be around $10 million, and would be a last resort for Pittsburgh. Remember, though, the Steelers are potentially entering a season of salary-cap hell, and may have to part with a few highly paid veterans.
Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers: The Chargers have already said they probably won't use their franchise tag on Jackson again, meaning he'll likely either sign a long-term deal with the Chargers or leave via free agency. Jackson is 29 and is one of the NFL's elite downfield weapons, meaning a deal within hailing distance of Larry Fitzgerald's eight-year, $128.5 million contract (with $50 million guaranteed) could be a benchmark. Given the tension Jackson and his representatives have had with Chargers GM A.J. Smith in the past, the stud wideout might be the best bet to be the most important fantasy player who changes teams this spring.
Wes Welker, New England Patriots: Nearly two years removed from his torn ACL, Welker was back to being the deadliest possession receiver in captivity, racking up an NFL-best 122 catches (second place was Roddy White with 100) and finishing behind only Calvin Johnson in receiving yards in '11. It almost goes without saying that Welker wouldn't produce anything close to these numbers without Tom Brady, but the Pats know what they have in the 30-year-old Welker, and you can expect to see him in a New England uniform again in '12 (and not just in the Super Bowl). Even if the parties can't come to a long-term agreement, the Patriots will strongly consider slapping Welker with their franchise tag.
Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints: If there's one wideout whose fantasy stock could benefit most from a change of scenery, it might actually be Colston. OK, that might sound pretty stupid, considering Drew Brees throws it to him with the Saints. But Brees is a notorious share-the-love QB, and Colston didn't have a single game with more than eight catches in '11. True, if Colston landed in Jacksonville (another team with scads of cap room) and had Blaine Gabbert throwing it to him, well, that wouldn't help. But if he could find purchase as someone's true No. 1 with a strong signal-caller? He'd instantly merit top-10 consideration. Of course, the Saints may not let him go. They have some cap problems, but should have enough room to give Colston a multiyear deal. If they do, though, they might lose some other veteran free agents, such as Carl Nicks, Aubrayo Franklin and/or Tracy Porter.
Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs: Bowe's free fall from 15 TDs in '10 was eminently predictable, and once Jamaal Charles got hurt the entire Chiefs offense sputtered in '11. Still, Bowe was very clearly the best thing about the Chiefs' offense this past season, and the team will consider using its franchise tag on him if the two sides can't reach a multiyear agreement. They're flush with cap room and certainly didn't see enough from 2011 first-rounder Jon Baldwin to consider making him their No. 1 WR in '12. I won't be stunned if Bowe doesn't sign a long-term contract this offseason, but I'd be shocked if he isn't playing with the Chiefs come September.
DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles: There's no doubting Jackson's speed. Everything else about him, however, is completely worthy of doubt. Jackson complained about his contract and looked skittish on crossing patterns this past season, and it's possible he's forced his way out of Philadelphia. I do think that if Andy Reid decides he really wants D-Jax, he could fit him under the cap, and it's tough to let a 25-year-old burner go. Maybe he re-signs. If not, though, Jeremy Maclin becomes a relatively clear No. 1 WR in a pass-heavy offense. And Jackson? He'd make the most dollars he can, probably for a moribund franchise like the Jaguars or Buccaneers.
Steve Johnson, Buffalo Bills: If Johnson weren't such a knucklehead, the Bills would feel better about giving him a king's ransom. But he keeps drawing the wrong kind of attention with his on-field antics. He'll be 26 this season and is talented enough to warrant a big contract. Reportedly, the two sides have already started negotiating. Smart money says Johnson returns, but if he doesn't, you'll know why.
Brandon Lloyd, St. Louis Rams: There was no way Lloyd was going to come close to leading all WRs in fantasy points in '11 as he did in '10, not after Josh McDaniels left Denver. Similarly, there was no way Lloyd was going to break big in St. Louis after Sam Bradford got hurt. Of course, that doesn't mean he's not worth signing. He's a very good player. But he'll also be 31 when the 2012 season starts and has one 1,000-yard season in his nine-year NFL career.
Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning sounds less likely to return to Indianapolis with each passing day, and certainly if the Colts are in full rebuild mode, they won't be giving Wayne anything close to the $6 million he earned last season. Wayne's days as a deep threat are over, but at age 33 he can still be a valuable possession receiver.
Pierre Garcon, Indianapolis Colts: Considering he's entering only his age-26 season, Garcon is likelier to get a new contract from Indy than Wayne is. But the Colts will almost certainly allow the market to set a price on Garcon before they enter the negotiating fray. They're probably rebuilding, and Garcon hasn't proven he's got the hands to be a cornerstone type of player.
Laurent Robinson, Dallas Cowboys: A breakout star after Miles Austin suffered a hamstring injury, Robinson hits free agency at the perfect time. He scored 11 TDs for the Cowboys, and proved that the size/speed combo that has so tantalized fantasy experts for a few years was valuable after all. Robinson has said all the right things about wanting to return to the Cowboys as a No. 3 WR, but if someone comes calling with starter's money, he's probably gone.
Robert Meachem, New Orleans Saints: Meachem had a few shining moments early in '11 when Marques Colston was injured, but after that Meachem slunk right back into the shadows of the New Orleans offense. A burner with size and a former first-round pick, Meachem has been all tease in his NFL career. Colston is the free agent the Saints will want to bring back most, and my guess is Meachem will have to sign for middling money somewhere else to build his stock back up.
Braylon Edwards, San Francisco 49ers: Somehow, Edwards is entering only his age-29 season, despite annoying fantasy owners for what feels like the past 43 consecutive years. Since his massive '07 campaign, Edwards has been inconsistent at best, and he missed most of 2011 with a knee problem. He'll sign somewhere for short money and try to recapture faded glory.
Mario Manningham, New York Giants: Victor Cruz's emergence combined with a lingering knee problem for Manningham may have sealed his fate in Gotham. There's no question Manningham has some nice speed and elusiveness when he's healthy, but his hands are perennially shaky and injuries or not, he's still coming off only a 39-catch season.
Other WRs of note: Jerome Simpson, Cincinnati Bengals; Deion Branch, New England Patriots; Josh Morgan, San Francisco 49ers; Steve Smith, Philadelphia Eagles; Plaxico Burress, New York Jets; Mark Clayton, St. Louis Rams.
Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers: Speculation has been rampant that Green Bay will use its franchise tag on the drop-prone Finley, in the hopes that it can get a year of more consistent production from him before it breaks the bank long term. But Finley's agent reportedly wants Finley to be considered a wide receiver, which would mean the tag would be around $10 million as opposed to $5 million. One imagines that's not going to fly with the Pack. All indications are that Finley will return one way or another, but don't rule out the possibility of a holdout.
Fred Davis, Washington Redskins: Let's just say Davis could've made a better impression heading into free agency. Suspended for the 2011 season's final four games for marijuana use, Davis may have to agree to a one-year deal to rebuild his value. The Redskins reportedly want him back, so for the moment that seems like the most likely scenario, unless some other team swoops in with a big multiyear offer.
John Carlson, Seattle Seahawks: Carlson missed the entire '11 season with a torn labrum in his shoulder, so he's got much to prove. A 50-catch guy his first two seasons in the league, Carlson has decent downfield talent and would be a fantasy factor if he lands in a good situation. It seems unlikely that the Seahawks would bring him back, considering they paid $17 million guaranteed for Zach Miller last year.
Scott Chandler, Buffalo Bills: Chandler came out of nowhere to score six TDs in '11 (four of which came in the season's first three games), just in time to try to make some bank. He proved he's a decent red zone threat and a pretty good blocker, but battled leg troubles late in the year.
Martellus Bennett, Dallas Cowboys: Bennett drove the Cowboys to distraction for four seasons. Now he's someone else's problem. Massive (6-foot-6 and 267 pounds) with WR-like skills, Bennett couldn't get out of his own way in Dallas, both on the field and off.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.