Tuesday's free agency happenings were a bit of a bore outside of the Patriots continuing their March world championship run. Nevertheless, there are fantasy implications to discuss for the well-adjusted folks who will be thinking about fantasy football on St. Patrick's Day.
Let's get into it.
New England signs Hunter Henry to three-year, $37.5 million deal
There are two ways to evaluate the Patriots gobbling up free agency’s top tight ends, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry: Assuming there are no known unknowns about New England’s grand, expensive plan to overhaul their horrid offense, or assuming there are known unknowns that could change everything we think we know about Smith and Henry as fantasy producers.
That’s right. We must evaluate New England’s free agent signing blitz through a Rumsfeldian lens.
We’ll start with the former scenario -- one in which we know (almost) everything about how the Pats will operate their offense in 2021. The recently re-signed Cam Newton is at the head of the offense in such a scenario, quarterbacking one of the run-heaviest units in the NFL. Maybe it won’t be as run-crazy as it was in 2020 -- when only the Ravens threw fewer passes -- but we’ll assume the Patriots are bottom-five in passing attempts here.
Neither Henry nor Smith would be reliable fantasy options in this world. Jakobi Meyer, thanks to a stretch in which he dominated targets for New England, led the team last season with a humble 81 targets. Damiere Byrd finished second with 77 targets. Outside an outrageous touchdown rate for one of both of the team’s new tight ends -- and even if the Pats lead the league in 12 personnel -- Smith and Henry at best will be frustrating to roster in 12-team leagues. At worst, they’ll be spot starters -- streamers in decent matchups. It doesn’t matter that Smith and Henry are good, and represent vast upgrades to the team’s tight end group. There simply won’t be enough opportunity to spread around.
Henry could have the statistical edge in this scenario. Smith -- unfortunately for fantasy managers -- is an excellent blocker. He was, in fact, Pro Football Focus’ seventh best blocking tight end in 2020. In 2019, he was ninth. New England very much values a dominant run-blocking tight end; that’s exactly what they have in Smith. Henry, on the other hand, was PFF’s 56th best pass blocking tight end in 2020. He was 19th in run blocking -- an improvement over his 2019 PFF run blocking grade of 43rd. No team was going to sign Henry because they needed a superb blocker. A more traditional in-line tight end like Henry could easily run more pass routes and out-target Smith if the team’s offense isn’t revamped.
We now shift to the other scenario, the one where we know close to nothing about Bill Belichick’s long-term plan for 2021. Perhaps the reports of New England aggressively scouting the NFL Draft’s top quarterbacks are spot on and the Patriots start 2021 with a rookie QB who -- unlike late-career Newton -- can run a more balanced offense. Maybe we get training camp reports that Josh McDaniels has overhauled the team’s offense, keen on using their new weapons to the fullest extent.
It’s in this outcome that the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez chatter becomes slightly less risible. Citing statistics from 2011, when Gronk drew 124 targets and Hernandez saw 113 targets in 14 games, is meaningless if the Patriots Offense is similar this season to what it was a year ago. Why? Because the team threw 611 passes in 2011, the third most in the NFL. Six hundred and eleven attempts would have been the second most in 2020. If Smith and Henry were used exactly like Gronkowski and Hernandez -- who commanded a combined 38.8 percent target share in 2011 -- and the Patriots Offense didn’t change all that much, Henry and Smith would split 168 targets. That would likely make both guys every-week starters in 2021. But projecting any tight end duo like the greatest tight end duo in league history is quite presumptuous.
If Belichick really is determined to return to the glory days of 2011 with his new tight ends, I’d be remiss -- and I’m never remiss -- to mention Smith’s potential rushing opportunity. Hernandez logged ten rushing attempts in three seasons with the Patriots, and Smith -- an athletic marvel -- leads all active tight ends in rushing attempts (six rushes in the past two seasons). Smith brings the sort of versatility that could have McDaniels line him up in the backfield to force mismatches with defenders. Smith, a YAC king, could very well excel in such a role.
Burgeoning fantasy football folk legend Donald Parham is -- for now -- presumably atop the Chargers’ tight end depth chart with Henry going to New England. The one-time XFL superstar is an athletic marvel: At 6’8” and 240 pounds, he sports a 94th percentile burst score and a 92nd percentile catch radius.
Parham dominated would-be defenders on many of his 20 targets in 2020 -- three of which he nabbed for touchdowns. With Henry sidelined in the season’s final two weeks, Parham caught five of seven targets for 84 yards and a score in limited route running. Parham -- for now -- shapes up as an ideal late-round pick who could have a starting role in one of the league’s most productive passing attacks. He comes with touchdown upside, if nothing else.
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Washington signs Ryan Fitzpatrick to one-year, $10 million deal
Nothing brings universal joy to fantasy Twitter quite like a Ryan Fitzpatrick signing. I hope he plays for another 15 years.
Terry McLaurin, Logan Thomas, and the rest of Washington's pass catchers get a major boost with Fitz coming to D.C. -- or more specifically, Maryland. McLaurin and Thomas should both benefit from Fitzpatrick's aggressive, come-what-may play surrounded by a talented cast of offensive players.
Thomas, if he continues to dominate snaps and pass routes like he did in 2020, should wind up in high-end TE1 territory. We don't have to look back all that far to find tight end success with Fitzy: In 2018, O.J. Howard caught 34 of 49 targets for 565 yards and five touchdowns with Fitzpatrick under center for Tampa. That same season, Fitzpatrick connected with Cameron Brate 30 times for 289 yards and six scores. Suffice it to say Thomas' 2021 pass routes will be slightly less empty than they were in 2020.
McLaurin in 2020 finished 20th in fantasy points per game (14.9) while catching passes from the erratic, awful Dwayne Haskins and the painfully limited Alex Smith. No one would be shocked if Fitzpatrick locks on to McLaurin this season and force feeds the Football Team's unquestioned No. 1 receiver. He should join a lengthy list of WR1s to reap the benefits of Fitz's gunslinging ways.
As for Fitzpatrick, we'll get another season of high-value streaming potential in one-QB leagues and a solid later-round pick in superflex formats.
Buffalo signs Emmanuel Sanders to one-year, $6 million deal
A career-prime Sanders would have been a major problem for Gabriel Davis. At 34 entering his 12th season, that’s probably not the case. Sanders will certainly be part of Buffalo’s wideout rotation since they occasionally run four-receiver sets, but Davis’ fantasy value hasn’t been railroaded in free agency -- yet, anyway.
Remember though: almost no receiver is set for more touchdown regression than Davis in 2021.
Broncos extended a second-round tender to RFA Tim Patrick
Patrick posted the Broncos’ third highest target share of 2020 (14.8 percent), well behind Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant. He was second on the team in air yards, miles behind Jeudy, who had the sixth most air yards among all pass catchers in his rookie campaign.
Patrick will likely stay in Denver and be an inconsistent fantasy producer who would need Jeudy to miss time if he's going to be an every-week starter in 12-team leagues.
Dolphins sign RB Malcom Brown to one-year, $1.75 million deal
Are you yawning? I am yawning. Miami’s top running back probably isn’t on the roster today. It certainly won’t be Brown, who was known in LA as a fantastic blocker -- a destroyer of blitzers.
Last year for the Rams, Brown had 101 carries for 419 yards and five touchdowns, with 23 catches for 162 yards. Brown will be nothing more than a depth option for the Dolphins.
Kansas City release RB Damien Williams
The most significant COVID opt out won’t return to the Chiefs Offense in 2021 after the team parted ways with Williams to save $2.2 million against the salary cap. Williams, almost 29, should catch on with another team in the coming weeks -- most likely as a pass-catching back or as part of a backfield committee on a team without a workhorse. I’ve seen the future and Damien Williams is a sensible target for Zero RB drafters.
Williams’ departure from KC leaves Clyde Edwards-Helaire as the unquestioned RB1 for the moment. CEH had an utterly disastrous rookie season and still ended up with 217 touches (16.7 per game) in the NFL’s best offense. For some reason he saw nine carries inside the five yard line in Patrick Mahomes' offense -- the same number as Aaron Jones and Kareem Hunt. No other Chiefs back saw more than 76 touches in 2020. Edwards-Helaire could be tough to fade for fantasy managers who forgo running backs in the first couple rounds, while robust RB drafters rightfully turn up their nose at the second-year back.