WATCH: How Kirk Cousins could help the Vikings take the next step
We can’t evaluate NFL talent in a vacuum. It’s not like the NBA, where we know LeBron James will get his stats no matter where he plays. And it’s not like MLB, where we can isolate statistics independent of surroundings.
In the ultimate team sport, NFL players are extremely dependent on their coaches and teammates. So the most important part of evaluating free agency fallout isn’t talent — it’s fit and opportunity. So here are the biggest winners and losers in NFL free agency from a fantasy football perspective as of Wednesday morning.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, 49ers
There’s a perfect storm brewing in San Francisco. We already knew the offense would be transformed by Jimmy Garoppolo, who led the Niners to a 5-0 record and 28.8 points per game in his five starts last season. Now the front office has let Carlos Hyde walk and brought in SPARQ freak McKinnon as their starting running back.
The four-year, $30 million contract that McKinnon reportedly will receive would make him the fourth-highest-paid running back in the league — so he’s coming in to be featured. Of course, the Kyle Shanahan scheme has a long history of maximizing talent and installing successful run schemes. Devonta Freeman, Alfred Morris and Steve Slaton are examples of running backs who had massive seasons under Shanahan’s watch.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings
Cousins’ supporting cast in Washington last season was downright poor. Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson struggled badly to replace Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Jordan Reed appeared in just six games because of injuries, the Redskins’ offensive line couldn’t even field five healthy bodies for much of the season, and flashy passing back Chris Thompson went down in November.
Now Cousins reportedly will enter one of the best possible situations in Minnesota, where Case Keenum finished as the QB14 in fantasy football last season. Cousins will have two elite wideouts in Adam Thielen/Stefon Diggs, a red-zone dominator in Kyle Rudolph, an elite three-down back in Dalvin Cook, nine dome games and a defense that should tilt time of possession in his favor. Already one of the highest-ceiling fantasy quarterbacks on a weekly basis, Cousins’ value is enhanced by his move to Minny.
Trey Burton, TE, Bears
Burton was buried in the sizable shadows of Eagles tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek for his first four NFL seasons, but we saw glimpses of unique talent whenever he got opportunities. He posted a 33-295-4 career preseason line on just 275 snaps (roughly four full games worth), and he stepped up with a combined 7-112-3 line when Ertz missed two regular-season games last season. So we can be confident Burton is #good, and the NFL knows it as he reportedly secured a four-year, $32 million contract from the Bears.
Burton should slide right in as the “F” or “move” tight end in new Bears coach Matt Nagy’s offense, leaving Adam Shaheen as the in-line tight end. The move role is where Travis Kelce dominated for Nagy as a Chief.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams
Sammy Watkins fled for Kansas City and is expected to be replaced in-house by Josh Reynolds. Although Watkins averaged just 4.6 targets per game last season, he did get six inside the 10-yard line. There’s an opening here for Kupp, who showed elite chemistry with QB Jared Goff as a rookie last season.
Note that losing Watkins especially will hurt Robert Woods, as Watkins often drew the opponent’s best perimeter corner. Now, as Fantasy ADHD pointed out, Woods will be the one to square off with Patrick Peterson, Casey Hayward, Xavier Rhodes, Darius Slay, Marshon Lattimore, etc. Kupp, who avoids these elite corners by operating out of the slot, should be the first read on a ton of Goff’s dropbacks in 2018.
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
As I mentioned in my free agency preview, Dion Lewis can ball. He led the entire NFL in Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating and ranked third in yards after contact per attempt last season. He’s also excellent in the passing game, proving it by catching 33 balls over the Patriots’ final seven games (including playoffs).
So when the Titans reportedly gave Lewis a four-year, $20 million contract with an eye-opening $11.5 million, it spelled bad news for Henry. Lewis is a far, far better player than the 2017 version of DeMarco Murray, who inexplicably played ahead of Henry all season. Expect another relatively even split in the Titans’ backfield in 2018.
Paul Richardson, WR, Redskins
P-Rich will go from one of the most aggressive, creative quarterbacks in the league to one of the most conservative. Whereas Russell Wilson had to carry the Seahawks on his back, the Redskins will ask Alex Smith to manage the game. Even last season, when Smith allegedly “turned over a new leaf,” he still ranked 33rd in Average Depth of Target. Wilson ranked fourth. So it’s not a great fit for the speedy Richardson, who also will have to compete for targets with Reed, Doctston, Thompson and Jamison Crowder.
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