Advertisement

NFL Free Agency Primer: Notable fantasy football players hitting the market and more

With the franchise tag deadline come and gone, we now know which free agents will actually be available. The reality of the open market is always less dreamy than our fantasies from January and February but there are still quality players to be found. Here, we’ll go through each position to give an overview of the market and try to identify the best talents available.

Quarterbacks

Finding a starting-caliber solution at quarterback in free agency is nothing short of rare. Most of the time, if a guy hits the open market, there’s a reason. And that explanation is usually based on their flaws. This year, we might have at least one and maybe two unique cases where a team can sign a guy they can sell to a fanbase as a multi-year starter.

Either way, if 2023's quarterback injuries taught us anything, some of these guys will be starting for teams this year.

Kirk Cousins

For the second time in his career, Cousins appears to be the rare exception to the rule that clearly above-average passers don’t make it to the open market. That alone gives him incredible leverage. Cousins was enjoying a significant rebound season in terms of touchdown rate (5.8) and adjusted yards per attempt (7.9) before his Week 8 Achilles tear. That injury at his age — he turns 36 in August — makes his future projection cloudy but you can still expect him to be coveted and pursued as an answer for a needy team.

Baker Mayfield

Mayfield threw for 4,000 yards for the first time in his career and the Bucs ranked eighth in dropback EPA under his watch. He’s still a tough quarterback to rank league-wide given his volatile career. His best-case scenario would be to return to Tampa Bay, even amid an offensive coordinator change. Mike Evansre-signing should make the concept an easier sell. Yet, you could imagine a quarterback-starved team making him an offer he cannot refuse.

Russell Wilson

The Broncos were willing to absorb an outrageous $85 million in dead cap to part ways with Wilson; the previous record was $40 million. And basically, every football observer agreed with the obvious decision. That should tell you where Wilson is at this stage of his career. He can probably give you low-end starting-level play if you’re desperate but whichever team signs him should also have one eye toward the future.

Gardner Minshew

Don’t let anyone gaslight you into thinking Minshew played at anything more than a solid backup-quarterback level. He is still quite mistake-prone and has some arm strength limitations. But there are still plenty of teams across the league who could use a guy of this caliber to compete or operate as a bridge to a developmental rookie.

Jacoby Brissett

Brissett’s strong run with the Browns, where he had them as a top-12 passing offense in EPA per dropback before Deshaun Watson’s return, has stuck with me. He had some great flashes late in the year with Washington, too. I’d rather sign him as a short-term starter, a quality bridge option than some other, more heralded names.

Joe Flacco

Flacco’s Cleveland run brought some high moments but plenty of volatility. He probably can’t return to Cleveland as his presence would make things uncomfortable if Watson struggles again. Flacco would be my favorite pure backup option on the market.

Ryan Tannehill

At this stage of his career, I don’t think Tannehill is at the level where you can sell him to a fan base as a starting option. He’s a quality backup.

Jameis Winston

Fantasy Twitter still has a weird obsession with Winston that I do not share. Something tells me that he ends up in Denver in a massive and slightly strange quarterback competition ... likely involving Sam Darnold — sure, why not?

Running Backs

Last offseason’s franchise tag deployment and the overall league-wide bear running back market have created a glut of big names set to hit free agency this March. This position is a fascinating one to track over the next few weeks. Teams can find a quality back who fits their system and go to work building a quality run game with haste. Yet, how the league has treated veteran running backs with ambivalence of late makes you wonder how these guys will be received on the open market. One way or another, team changes by the players to follow will send massive ripples across the fantasy landscape.

Saquon Barkley

Barkley is an injury risk and saw his yards per carry and rushing success rate drop as he slogged through a miserable Giants offense. He’s still a high-end starting back who is loaded with natural talent. I can be convinced that he can find a successful second-act with a better team.

Josh Jacobs

Jacobs is a good back. He can handle a significant rushing workload and operate on passing downs. There’s an extra benefit that he’s quite a bit younger than some of the other backs available. If I were an ascending team with cap room to burn, Jacobs would be my top choice.

Derrick Henry

I want to see Henry’s last dance with a power run team and a quality offensive line. He still averaged 3.06 yards after contact per attempt last year. I saw plenty of gas left in that tank.

It’s mega chalk but, come on — the Ravens need to make this call.

Austin Ekeler

Maybe his days as a fantasy RB1 and high-volume workhorse have come to an end. But there’s still a place in the league for Ekeler. I can envision him in a receiving-heavy role complementing a power back on a contender.

Tony Pollard

Pollard told me in February that he didn’t feel like his old self until Week 11 last year. Even with that in mind, last season still raised questions about his ability to operate as a workhorse back on a good rushing offense. He’d make an excellent lightning candidate in a split backfield.

D’Andre Swift

Swift is a bit too inconsistent to be a standalone starter. The Eagles run game was an issue last season, which wasn’t all Swift’s fault, but he needs to wear some of the blame. He’s another change of pace committee back on a market quietly crowded with those types.

JK Dobbins

Dobbins is a quality talent who has unfortunately had his career ruined by injuries. I’d love to see him added as a reclamation project in a backfield that has an opportunity for him to rise.

Zack Moss

Moss really stood out to me in his weeks replacing Jonathan Taylor. He was incredibly productive on zone runs (613 yards, five touchdowns) for the Colts, per Fantasy Points Data. Several teams run that offense and Moss would be one of my favorite value signings for one of those operations.

Wide Receivers

Wide receivers are becoming quite like quarterbacks: you don’t find great ones in free agency, or at least your true No. 1 wide receivers don’t hit the open market. You either trade for them or you draft/extend them. This is the way.

That said, basically every team needs receiver help at some scale since it’s a premium position and so many need to take reps for you in-season. With the right quarterback fit and system landing spot for some of these players, we can find some appealing bets for them as complementary options.

Calvin Ridley

After re-signings and franchise designations, Calvin Ridley is the best wideout on the open market by a long shot. Ridley got over-hyped and over-ranked in fantasy football last summer but he was still, overall, a good player with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2023. Ridley is a pure route runner and separator but did struggle with press coverage for his first time playing football in almost two years. He strikes me as an excellent No. 2 receiver for a passing offense that can move him around the formation more than the Jaguars did last year.

Marquise Brown

Brown is a bit of a mercurial player as he’s played for two NFL teams pretty young into his career. There are clear limitations to him, mainly brought on by his size — struggles with press man coverage, not a ball-winner and uninspiring YAC threat — but there’s a place in a receiver room for his speed. He can be a quality zone-beater who wins in the intermediate area. I’d love him as a No. 3 receiver.

Gabe Davis

Davis is who he is. He doesn’t separate enough to be a reliable starting No. 2 receiver and the volatility will drive you nuts. Still, his field-stretching ability and downfield chops as an X-receiver have some value. He’s like a rich man’s Marquez Valdes-Scantling, whom you’ll remember fetched quite a bit of cash from the Chiefs in free agency a few years ago. I bet Davis brings more tactical value to his next NFL team than he will to fantasy football appeal.

Curtis Samuel

I’ll always keep the candle lit for Samuel, who remains an underrated player. I hate when guys like this get pigeon-holed into silly little gadget roles, as well. He can beat man coverage and get open down the field. There are injury concerns but overall, he’s my favorite available player after the big names.

Odell Beckham Jr.

Showed last year that he can still get deep and be a part of a rotation. Beckham just can’t be a featured piece in a passing game at this stage. You wonder if he’s content to take less money and just go back to Baltimore this year after they overspent to acquire him last spring.

Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Baltimore Ravens
OBJ can still play, but the NFL mega-star days are likely behind him. (Photo by Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images) (Robin Alam/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

Darnell Mooney

Mooney’s role completely evaporated in the Bears offense last year. I don’t think there is anything special here but Mooney did have an 81-catch season in 2021 and has speed. Something tells me he’s a future Chiefs WR — OC Matt Nagy was Mooney’s head coach during his first two seasons — which is … fine. He brings inside-outside versatility most offenses love.

Kendrick Bourne

Bourne was off to a really nice start with the Patriots last season before he tore his ACL. That complicates his future projection but I like him as a man-coverage-beating role player for a quality receiver room.

Tight ends

Every now and again, you’ll find a big tight-end free agency success story. That’s because, unlike wide receiver and running back, conventional wisdom accepts that this is a slower-developing position in the pros. So big-time players can break out on their second contracts.

This year’s market doesn’t have many of those dice rolls, however.

Noah Fant

Fant is an athletic young tight end who is about to hit his second contract. There have been some recent success stories at tight end that fit that mold.

Hunter Henry

Henry is a capable in-line tight end who can operate in both phases. He is a solid blocker and reliable, but not a spectacular receiver. He would fit well with a young quarterback who simply needs an outlet pass-catcher.

Gerald Everett

You can find a strong cohort of fantasy analysts who are still intrigued by Everett.

I am not among them.

He and the entire Chargers tight end room were a net negative in the run-blocking department for years and while a solid receiver, he's not a difference-maker. Maybe the perfect landing spot could boost his fantasy outlook beyond the streaming territory but you’re not going to find many quarterbacks better than who he is leaving.

Mike Gesicki

He was nearly invisible in the Patriots offense last year and in complete transparency, I almost forgot to include him in this list. I am willing to excuse a forgettable season with the hilariously bad New England offense. Still, he’s always been a better idea of a player than an actual on-field application.

Offensive linemen

Offensive line is a premium position but you can find some answers on the open market. It’s a tricky proposition because typically teams don’t let great players leave the building to test free agency and the starting five is such a communication-based unit. However, almost every team needs to bolster their line so these players will be coveted for the right price.

Tyron Smith

Smith may well find himself fitted for a gold jacket someday. He was still a rock-solid pass protector at age 33 last season. A contending team should make him a nice offer.

Michael Onwenwu

He’s 26 years old and is a proven quality starter. Those players tend to fetch big-time deals on the open market. How can the cap-flush Patriots justify letting him walk?

Kevin Zeitler

Zeitler has been a tremendous player for a long time but showed some signs of decline late last season. Is that a blip or the sign of the end for the 34-year-old? A short-term deal to try and help a quality line would make sense.

Jonah Williams

Williams got bounced to right tackle after the Bengals signed Orlando Brown and played solid football. He would be a solid “double” as a signing.

Jonah Jackson

Jackson is one of the lesser known men on the Lions offensive line but he’s been a quality starter. His attitude and efficiency in the run game could be a tone-setter for another team.

Notable defensive difference-makers

Just like the entire market, if you looked at a free agency list in early February you were gassed up about the names set to be available. Then we saw several stalwart veterans hit with the franchise tag and the whole proceeding became relatively less enticing at the top.

Nevertheless, I’d still argue that the defensive class of free agency is stronger overall this year than the offense and provides much more depth. Let’s take a look at some of the remaining big tickets who could make a big splash with a new team.

Chris Jones

Part of me struggles to see Jones in another uniform. The other part of me knows that if Jones hits the open market, a team that thinks they are right on the fringe of true contention with a lot of cap room (Texans?) will open up the vault to pay for the right to sign the closer.

Christian Wilkins

Miami’s cap problems are likely to force Christian Wilkins to another team. He’s a force in the middle of a defense coming off a career-high in sacks. He’ll be coveted.

Danielle Hunter

Hunter has been a stalwart on the edge in Minnesota for what feels like ages. He’s a fantastic pass rusher who has cleared 10 sacks in four of the last five seasons and is coming off a career-high 16.5. Despite entering his 30s, I see a contending team aggressively securing his services.

Jonathan Greenard

Broke out as a perfect complement across from Will Anderson in Houston. There are plenty of teams with great pass rushers on the edge who could use a Robin to their Batman. Greenard is a tough rugged player who could be a favorite for many GMs.

Bryce Huff

The Jets really only trusted him to be a situational pass rusher. There is always some level of “buyer beware” with those types of guys when they change teams if his next club plans on increasing his snaps. Still, in a league hungry for passing-game disruption, expect Huff to get a big deal.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

Versatile piece for any secondary looking for a tone setter. This will be Gardner-Johnson's second year in a row hitting free agency, which is notable.

Leonard Williams

It certainly looks off in hindsight that the Seahawks sent a second-round pick to the Giants to get Williams for half a season. Especially since their defense got worse down the stretch. I’m not sure how much that has to do with Williams specifically and I bet he can still cash in one last big deal with a contender.

Patrick Queen

Call me basic, but let me eat the chalk; it just makes all the sense in the world for Queen to follow Mike Macdonald to Seattle to help install that system. Queen didn’t really turn the light on in Baltimore until Macdonald came along, and the team traded for Roquan Smith anyway.