Ten key faces in new places

Updated: June 20, 2012, 10:53 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Change dominated the headlines this offseason.

That is, change of a specific player's address: Peyton Manning's.

You couldn't turn on a TV or radio, pick up a newspaper or browse a sports website anytime during the month of March without hearing or reading a discussion of Manning's whereabouts for 2012. The surefire Hall of Famer was the most hotly contested name on the free-agent market -- his name landed on that list following his release by the Indianapolis Colts the first week of March -- so the landing spot for such a prominent name, naturally, matters.

It matters in the NFL, and it matters in fantasy football.

And when we look at Manning's signing with the Denver Broncos, we can't help but proclaim his the most important fantasy-related address change of the 2012 offseason. Yes, that's even though he's now 36 years old and coming off four surgical procedures on his neck since March 2010. Let's face it: It's not often that the owner of four MVP awards, the third-most passing touchdowns in NFL history (399) and annual averages of 4,218 yards and 31 TDs passing changes uniforms.

The questions surrounding Manning are mostly health-related: Offseason reports on his throwing were positive, but until we see him in game action and he begins taking hits, we simply won't know how substantial the risk of him missing further time really is. Adapting to new surroundings, including a new set of receivers, presents another question, but few doubt that if any quarterback can quickly adapt, it's (a healthy) Manning. As such, he's the ultimate risk/reward player in fantasy; the probabilities of either another 4,000-yard, 30-TD season or a Week 1 sack that ends his career are both nonzero (and by a decent margin for either).

But it's not only the impact upon Manning that matters. His arrival in the Mile High City instantly makes both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker breakout candidates -- the difficulty for fantasy owners is deciding which one they like better -- and it makes running back Willis McGahee a potential value pick in the middle rounds. Remember, during Manning's 13 healthy seasons in Indianapolis, nine times the Colts' starting running back managed a 1,000-yard campaign (2002, 2008, 2009 and 2010 were the only times they fell short), and in 2009, they got an 828-yard, 10-TD season out of Joseph Addai. If anything, that Manning, and not Tim Tebow, is the Broncos' quarterback is a plus for McGahee; it restores his status as the team's most likely candidate for goal-line carries.

Manning's team change was the No. 1 story in terms of player movement this offseason. Now, let's take a look at Nos. 2-10:

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Jerry Lai/US PresswireBrandon Marshall had two 100-catch seasons with Jay Cutler as his quarterback in Denver.

2. Chicago Bears trade for WR Brandon Marshall

This one drummed up much excitement among fantasy owners and Bears fans alike; Marshall is now reunited with Jay Cutler, his quarterback from 2006-08 when the two were with the Denver Broncos. Marshall managed his two best single-season numbers in terms of receptions and receiving yards working with Cutler, and Cutler's best single season (2008), as well as his two best years in terms of completion percentage, came with Marshall as his No. 1 receiver. There's no doubt reuniting them is a boon to both their fantasy values -- runs at top-10 status at their positions for each is possible -- but questions remain: Can Marshall keep his head on straight for long enough to remain focused and on the field for 16 games, can the Bears' O-line provide the necessary protection for Cutler and will coach Lovie Smith finally drop his infatuation with Devin Hester?

3. New England Patriots sign WR Brandon Lloyd

This just in: Lloyd really likes playing for Josh McDaniels. Lloyd's breakout fantasy season of 2009 -- that one his seventh in the NFL -- came with McDaniels as his coach, then he managed four touchdowns in his first six games following a midseason trade to the St. Louis Rams, whose offensive coordinator was … da-da-da-DAAAA! … McDaniels. Now Lloyd joins the Patriots, again following McDaniels, who agreed to become their O-coordinator late last season. Lloyd's stats speak volumes: In 27 career games for a "McDaniels team," he has averaged 4.7 receptions, 78.9 receiving yards and 0.59 receiving touchdowns. In 85 games played for anyone else, his averages in those categories are 2.2, 31.2 and 0.18. Oh, and Lloyd now has the advantage of having Tom Brady throwing him the football. Granted, the Patriots have other pass-catchers on the roster who aren't about to cede targets -- Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez -- but even if Lloyd's volume of targets decreases, might their quality increase? Perhaps, which is why he's one of the more intriguing top-25 wideouts.

4. Kansas City Chiefs sign RB Peyton Hillis

Here's a move that's a no-brainer from a pure football perspective, but represents a dilly of a pickle for fantasy owners. Signing Hillis to help pick up the load that Jackie Battle, Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster could not in the wake of Jamaal Charles' season-ending ACL injury makes complete sense from an insurance-policy perspective; it creates a potential nightmare to Charles' fantasy owners because of the prospect of lost carries, especially at the goal line. This assumes, of course, that Charles' ACL has completely healed, meaning fantasy owners with early drafts need to make the practically mandatory Hillis handcuff. But if it has and Charles is a "go" for Week 1, here's what the Chiefs see: At 5-foot-11, 199 pounds, Charles isn't nearly the natural bruiser that the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Hillis is. Hillis, too, is at least as good a pass-catcher, meaning third-down snaps are also up for grabs. The result: A critical backfield to track this preseason and a high-risk, high-reward tandem.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers sign WR Vincent Jackson

The closest thing to a genuine No. 1 wideout on the free-agent market this offseason, Jackson might have landed in one of the very few places likely to mute his fantasy value. Besides the considerable downgrade in his quarterback, going from Philip Rivers to Josh Freeman, new Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano's run-heavy offensive philosophy, stemming from his days at Rutgers, hints that Jackson might have a difficult time exceeding any of his past categorical bests: 68 receptions, 1,167 receiving yards or 9 receiving touchdowns, all of those set in 2009 (the TDs matched in 2011). Jackson's arrival is a plus for Freeman, who might have a shot at approaching the 25 TDs he threw for in 2010 if he's allowed to throw often enough, but it's a minus for fellow Buccaneers wideouts Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, ruining Williams' bounce-back and Benn's sleeper potential.

6. San Diego Chargers sign WR Robert Meachem

Although the aforementioned Vincent Jackson's departure adversely impacted the Chargers, by adding Meachem, it's not like they're substantially worse in the passing game. Granted, per 16 games played the past three seasons, Meachem managed 20 fewer receptions (63-43), 470 fewer receiving yards (1,120-660) and two fewer receiving touchdowns (9-7) than Jackson, but remember, Meachem's numbers arguably suffered because of Drew Brees' spread-it-around approach. That's not to say Meachem is Jackson's equal; it's saying that he could develop into a similarly productive No. 1 wideout, because his skills are underrated and he now has the opportunity. It's a matter of "what we know" versus "what we might learn"; Meachem's arrival prevents Philip Rivers' fantasy stock from plummeting, and it puts himself on the list of mid-round sleepers.

[+] EnlargeFlynn
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesMatt Flynn has passed for 731 yards and 9 TDs in his two starts.

7. Seattle Seahawks sign QB Matt Flynn

For all the buzz surrounding Flynn's arrival in Seattle and the comparisons made to another ex-Green Bay Packers quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck making the trip northwest, let's remember two key facts: Flynn has all of two career NFL starts, and he has attempted but 132 career regular-season passes. Throw in the considerable downgrade in receivers between what Flynn was throwing to with the Packers last Week 17 and what the Seahawks will roll out in 2012, and you'll need temper your expectations. Flynn does have the advantage of four years' tutelage under Aaron Rodgers, as well as a reputation for good decision-making; in those two starts, he did throw for at least three touchdowns in each. But he's fantasy-backup material with his new team, a speculative option you stash, not pick to lead your squad.

8. Cincinnati Bengals sign RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis

The Law Firm's arrival in Cincinnati is an interesting one; while he's a more recently successful short-yardage option who possesses better hands than the man he replaced, Cedric Benson, Green-Ellis' "starter's" upside really isn't any greater than that of his predecessor. Although Green-Ellis' yards per carry mark the past two seasons combined (4.1) exceeded Benson's (3.7), he's not much more than your average two-down back with the additional advantage of goal-line work. There's an opportunity here for backup Bernard Scott that wasn't quite present during Benson's days, and it's worth pointing out that the Bengals, unlike the Patriots, might not provide Green-Ellis with nearly as many scoring chances. To that end, Patriots running backs totaled 32 plays -- carries or targets -- within the opponent's five-yard line last season. The Bengals? They totaled 18.

9. New York Jets trade for QB Tim Tebow

Tebow, Tebow, Tebow. Surely you've heard of this guy, right? Let the three-ring circus begin in the Meadowlands, as "Tebowmania" was the perfect tonic for the headaches of Mark Sanchez, a quarterback who, through three NFL seasons, has fallen short of expectations. (Previous sentence reeking of sarcasm.) Tebow begins 2012 as a novelty for the Jets, his most fantasy-relevant impact the likelihood that he'll vulture rushing touchdowns from Shonn Greene, but you can be sure that the catcalls for Tebow to start will quickly commence … perhaps as soon as Week 1. Look at that Jets September schedule: versus Buffalo Bills (added Mario Williams), at Pittsburgh Steelers, at Miami Dolphins, versus San Francisco 49ers. It's as if Tebow starting by October was destined, but what's maddening about that is that if it takes that long, he'll be draft-irrelevant, and once he emerges regularly under center, he'll drain almost all of the value out of every Jets receiver.

10. Chicago Bears sign RB Michael Bush

You might think that a running back's arrival on a team that already has Matt Forte, who averaged 13.1 ESPN standard fantasy points per game before spraining his knee in Week 13 last season, wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but … remember that Forte and the Bears have squabbled over his contract for more than a year now, not to mention that process has brought to light the team's questions about his durability. A Forte holdout is a distinct possibility, but Bush also provides valuable insurance for the Bears in the case their concerns for Forte's health turn out to be valid. Bush, at the very least, is a 6-foot-1, 245-pound bowling ball who makes scads of sense for a Bears team that got an 0-for-7 performance from Forte on plays within the opponent's 5-yard line last season. Bush's basement fantasy value is that of a goal-line back and handcuff; but if he's pressed into starter's duty, he showed over short spurts that he can be a handy No. 2 option.

The chart below lists a few other notable offseason moves, albeit ones that failed to crack the top 10: