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Fantasy Football 2021: 10 winners coming out of NFL free agency, including Patriots quarterback Cam Newton

Fantasy expert Jacob Gibbs took a look at all the moves from an eventful NFL free agency period and broke down which players' Fantasy value rose the most as a result.
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The 2021 NFL offseason has seen several highly-Fantasy relevant players join new teams, and keeping up with it all isn't easy. These moves don't just directly affect the players involved, either. There's a trickle-down effect with any player movement, and as the dust settles on the 2021 free agency period, we have a more clear view of which players' Fantasy value has changed the most.

If you've had a difficult time keeping up with all of the changes, here are the 10 players I believe to have benefited most from the 2021 free agency moves:

Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

With Jamaal Williams moving on to Detroit, there's a possibility that Aaron Jones sees a larger role on passing downs in 2021. I expect A.J. Dillon's role will be expanded from the limited one he played as a rookie, but he seems less likely to sap passing down work from Jones than Williams did.

Jones and Williams split third-down reps nearly right down the middle last year -- Jones played 48 percent of Green Bay's third downs, while Williams was on the field for 46 percent of third downs. Jones was on the field just 39 percent of the time while Green Bay was running its "two-minute" offense, or any play deemed as an obvious passing down. Williams had a 57 percent two-minute rate, for comparison. Meanwhile, Dillon was on the field for just nine third-down snaps all year; he really just doesn't seem likely to take Jones off the field on passing downs.

This is important because Aaron Jones has been really freaking good as a pass-catcher. When Jones is on the field, Aaron Rodgers loves to target him. He was targeted on 24.1 percent of his routes in 2020, compared to just 17.4 percent for Williams. In fact, among running backs with at least 250 routes run, only Alvin Kamara, Nyheim Hines, and J.D. McKissic were targeted at a higher per-route rate than Jones last season. If the number of routes he is able to run increases as a result of Williams' departure, Jones could be looking at a 70-plus target season in 2021.

D'Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions

Who knew that Jamaal Williams switching teams would be so topical? Some may view Detroit's signing of Williams as a negative for D'Andre Swift, but I don't see it that way. It's not as if the Lions were ever going to play Swift on 100 percent of the snaps; adding a change of pace option always seemed to be an inevitability. Also, Detroit acquired Williams for cheap -- nothing about his two-year deal worth a max of $7.5 million suggests that they view him as anything other than a quality backup option.

So, Swift exits his first free agency period with a capable backup, but not one who poses a reasonable threat to his workload. Perfect. Add to that the fact that Detroit let top receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones walk in free agency, and things really are shaping up ideally for Swift as the 2021 offseason progresses.

Swift's involvement as a pass-catcher was perhaps the most exciting facet of his encouraging rookie campaign, and he could have an even more sizable workload as a receiver in Year 2.

The per-route target rates that I reference in the tweet above are my new favorite Fantasy football stat. I wrote in more detail why I believe the stat is important, and I'd encourage you to take a look at that piece if you haven't seen it yet. Also, be sure to be on the lookout for the targets per route run article series that I'll have published on SportsLine following the NFL Draft!

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Detroit Lions

For all the same reasons we should be excited about D'Andre Swift, we should be excited about T.J. Hockenson as he enters his third season. If Detroit doesn't land a stud wide receiver in the upcoming NFL Draft, there's a realistic chance that Hockenson leads the Lions in targets in 2021.

Hockenson ranked fifth among qualified tight ends in targets per route run (TPRR) in just his second year in the league, and he became just the third tight end under the age of 24 to finish with a TPRR above 20 percent in the four years we have that data available. It has gone a bit under the radar because of the team he plays on, but Hockenson's first two pro seasons have been quite impressive for a tight end who was drafted at the age of 21.

For reference, here's how Hockenson's TPRR stacks up compared to George Kittle and Travis Kelce at the beginning of their respective careers (I don't have route run data available prior to 2017, so Kelce's numbers are manually calculated using PFF's route data. I assume it is accurate, but it isn't the source I typically use.):

George Kittle:

Rookie season (age 24) -- 16.8 percent TPRR
Second season (25) -- 26.2 percent TPRR
Third season (26) -- 31.4 percent TPRR

Hockenson demanded targets at a higher rate as a 22-year-old rookie than Kittle did as a 24-year-old rook, but Kittle's ability to demand targets skyrocketed after that.

Kittle stands out as a true outlier in terms of per-route stats, because he simply doesn't run nearly as many routes as someone like Travis Kelce. San Francisco runs the ball far more often than most, and Kittle is used as a blocker slightly more often than Kelce. He also has very little competition for targets and is often the first read on passing plays; when the playbook calls for him to run a route, it is usually with intentionality.

Given the current state of Detroit's receiving corps, Hockenson could be looking at similar types of intentionality on his routes as Detroit's logical top receiving threat for 2021. I still wouldn't expect his TPRR to scale in the same way Kittle's did, though. The more routes a player runs, the harder it is for him to maintain such insanely high TPRR rates.

Tight end route run data is an important topic on its own. Without a good understanding of how often a tight end's team allows him to run routes, TPRR can be quite misleading. Route run data is significantly more important than snap rates when evaluating Fantasy tight ends. I plan to have an article published on this subject in June. If you want an easy way to keep up with all of the information that will be published this spring, this Advanced Fantasy Football Stat Guide will be updated with links to each article as they go live. 

So, Kittle might not be the best comparison. The fact that Hockenson was targeted far more frequently as a rookie who was two years younger is noteworthy, and the parallel in terms of coming into his own as his team's top target is there, but it isn't likely that Hockenson's TPRR progression follows the same parabolic ascent that Kittle's has.

Hockenson's TPRR progression could mirror that of an early-career Travis Kelce, though.

Travis Kelce:

Rookie season (age 25) -- 21.4 percent TPRR
Second season (26) -- 20.7 percent TPRR
Third season (27) -- 22.6 percent TPRR

Outside of the slight dip in Year 2, Kelce's year-over-year TPRR rate has just monotonically increased since his rookie season. So far, Hockenson's rates have fallen in the same range as early-career Kelce's.

If Hockenson's TPRR follows the same type of modest year-over-year improvement that Kelce's career has modeled, a TPRR above 22 percent is within the cards for 2021. That might not sound like much, but Darren Waller, Kelce, and Andrews were the only qualified tight ends to reach that level in 2020. And what if Hockenson's TPRR progression ends up more similar to Kittle's? His age certainly adds volatility to the equation -- Kittle and Kelce were already in their mid-to-late 20s when at the career stage Hockenson is entering. With the amount of vacated targets in Detroit after the departure of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, there's really no telling what the ceiling is for Hockenson's TPRR rate in his third season.

On top of the vacated targets, Hockenson also could stand to benefit from playing with a quarterback who has loved throwing to the tight end position. 24.5 percent of Jared Goff's pass attempts have gone to tight ends over the past two seasons, which is up from Detroit's 21.5 percent mark. And that rate has come while playing in an offense that doesn't allow tight ends to run routes as often as the Lions do. When the Rams' tight ends ran routes, Goff targeted them frequently. Both Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett have a TPRR rate above 21 percent during that time, while Hockenson (20.3 percent) is the only Lions tight end who has been targeted at a rate above 17 percent.

Part of the reason Goff has thrown to his tight ends so much is his natural preference for short passing. Going from Matthew Stafford to Goff will be a big change for this offense -- Stafford had the fifth-highest average depth of target (aDOT) in 2020, while Goff's was the third-lowest.

Even while playing with the man responsible for the league's fifth-highest aDOT, Hockenson ranked just 14th in average route depth and 12th in aDOT in 2020 among 19 qualified tight ends. He has all the makings of Jared Goff's new security blanket.

So far, this offseason couldn't be shaping up better for T.J. Hockenson as he enters his third season. The draft could certainly change things, but Hockenson is currently poised for a breakout into the elite Fantasy TE tier in 2021.

Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Football Team

McLaurin played with the NFL's least aggressive passers in 2020. Among 35 qualified quarterbacks, only Alex Smith (5.1-yard aDOT) had an average depth of target below six yards. Dwayne Haskins (6.7) ranked 31st on that list. Washington's anemic offense produced just 16 passing touchdowns and the league's fourth-fewest air yards. Despite playing in an offense that was liable to implode entirely on any given week, McLaurin still was able to finish as the WR20 in Fantasy.

McLaurin increased his TPRR from Year 1 (20.3 percent) to Year 2 (21.4 percent), and he actually boasted a top-10 rate (23 percent) prior to injuring his ankle in Week 11. McLaurin was listed on the injury report for every game from that point on, but he gutted it out and missed just one game. He was clearly affected, though, as his TPRR rate fell below 20 percent in the final six games, and his yards per route run dropped by nearly 35 percent -- from 2.16 prior to the injury to 1.42 from Week 11 on.

Not only does McLaurin have a full offseason to get his health right entering his third season, but he will likely play a good portion of his 2021 games with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center.

McLaurin was a deadly downfield weapon as a rookie -- he ranked 15th among 94 qualified players with a 14-yard aDOT. Whether it was due to injuries or playing with Alex Smith for half of the year, McLaurin's aDOT fell to 9.7 (exactly in line with league average) in 2021.

I'm not sure if it was due to the offense seeming tailored for Tua Tagovailoa to take over, or maybe the injuries to DeVante Parker and Preston Williams forced the issue, but whatever the case, Miami's passing offense wasn't as downfield oriented in 2020 as previous "Fitzmagic" offenses. Still, since the start of 2019, Fitzpatrick ranks 10th (just behind Patrick Mahomes) among 37 qualified QBs with an 8.6-yard aDOT. That's great news for McLaurin.

Fitzpatrick also has displayed a propensity to pepper his No. 1 wideout with targets. In the eight seasons he has started at least 10 games, Fitz's top wideout has averaged 142 targets and never had fewer than 128. McLaurin has 93 and 134 targets in his two seasons in Washington. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him push for 150 if Fitzpatrick starts the majority of the games in 2021.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Washington Football Team

McLaurin being a 'winner' certainly doesn't preclude new teammate Curtis Samuel from making the list as well. Samuel's play had begun to earn him a larger piece of the pie in Carolina as 2020 progressed, but no matter how well he played, he still was going to have to compete with Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson, and D.J. Moore if he remained in Carolina.

Don't expect Samuel to be a target hog in Washington -- McLaurin, Logan Thomas, and some combination of J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson are all going to have a role to play in the passing game. The only player from that list whose usage profiles similarly to Samuel is McKissic. And given the amount of money Washington spent to acquire Samuel after his 2020 breakout, it seems unlikely that McKissic will stand in his way.

Samuel ranked in the bottom-10 percentile among wide receivers in both average route depth (6.9 yards) and aDOT (7.3) in 2020. In 2021, I'd expect him to work as a complementary underneath target while McLaurin works to stretch the field. This isn't necessarily a dream landing spot for Samuel, but he could have done much worse than a gig as the No. 2 weapon on what could be an above-average passing attack with Fitzpatrick at the helm.

Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

2020 wasn't a great season for Newton, but he also wasn't dealt the most favorable hand in terms of his middling supporting cast and a midseason bout with COVID-19. He showed enough for New England to bring him back for 2021 and completely revamp his receiving corps. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry will provide a massive upgrade at the tight end position, and both profile similarly to the type of big-body weapons Newton has preferred throwing to in the past.

The additions didn't stop at tight end, though -- New England also brought in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne to bolster a depleted wide receiver group.

Bourne wasn't a big-name free agent addition, but he put together a solid 2020 campaign and is a definite improvement over the receivers Newton threw to last year. Even while playing in an offensive environment that was far from ideal, Bourne ranked inside the top half of the league in yards per route run and had the highest passer rating when targeted among all of San Francisco's wide receivers. On paper, he presents a clear upgrade over N'Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd.

Agholor's inconsistent play early in his career earned him quite a few critics, but his play in 2020 should have quieted those who were paying attention.

Agholor adds a much-needed field-stretching element to this offense -- his 439 receiving yards on deep targets in 2020 was more than all of New England's pass-catchers combined.

Even in his age-30 season, Newton's rushing role is among the most Fantasy-friendly of any QB in the NFL. Only Lamar Jackson had more rushing attempts among QBs, and Newton was in a tier of his own when it came to red zone rushing. His 22 attempts from inside the 5-yard line doubled the next-highest QB -- in fact, only Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook (26 each) finished with more attempts from inside the 5. Newton's red zone rushing role is even more ridiculous when you consider the fact that New England's offense finished with the ninth-fewest red zone plays of any team in 2020. There could be even more red zone opportunities for Cam if this offense is better in 2021!

With a revamped supporting cast, Newton offers significantly more upside than his average draft position is likely to reflect in 2021. He's one of the clearest winners of the 2021 free agency period.

Mike Davis, RB, Atlanta Falcons

Mike Davis was far better than most people realize in 2020. He led the NFL in broken tackles per attempt and was third in PFF's elusiveness rating. He also ranked 10th in yards after contact per attempt.

Those stats all just point towards Davis being a competent rusher; what we really should be excited about in regards to his new landing spot is Davis' ability as a pass-catcher.

Atlanta's offense could look a bit different in its first season without Dan Quinn directing the show, but this still projects to be one of the most pass-heavy attacks in the NFL. Matt Ryan has made a habit of throwing to the RB position, and Davis will be the best receiving back that Matty Ice has played with in some time.

In the four years for which I have TPRR data available, Davis' 22.1 percent rate ranks 10th among 37 qualified RBs. That's not inflated by playing the "CMC role" either, as his 22 percent TPRR rate in 2020 was right in line with his rate while playing in Seattle and Chicago. Davis has consistently shown an ability to get open and draw targets while playing in a variety of different offenses with different quarterbacks.

The same can not be said for the man Davis is replacing. Statistically, Todd Gurley has been the NFL's least efficient pass-catching RB over the past two seasons. He has the highest drop rate and the lowest yards per route run of any qualified RB during that time. Despite Gurley's presence, Atlanta's RB group still accounted for 106 targets in 2020. Ryan has fed his RB group 110 targets per year since 2015, and barring a big-name RB addition in the NFL Draft, a good portion of the 110-ish targets Atlanta RBs should have this year should be expected to go to Davis.

Josh Reynolds, WR, Tennessee Titans

The NFL Draft could still change things, but as it currently stands, Reynolds projects to play an every-down role in a Tennessee offense that suits his strengths. Reynolds played a field-stretching role in his time with the Rams, but as discussed with T.J. Hockenson, Jared Goff isn't really one to chuck it downfield if he can avoid it.

The same cannot be said for Ryan Tannehill, whose 8.82-yard aDOT since joining Tennessee is the league's seventh-highest mark during that time. The only quarterbacks who threw for 10 or fewer air yards on a lower percentage of their throws during that time are Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Matthew Stafford. Those are some real YOLO-chucker types, and Tannethrill has proven capable of chucking it with the best of them. To make matters easier, the threat presented by Derrick Henry makes it tough for opposing safeties to play deep enough to give Tannehill's deep ball the respect that it deserves.

This, of course, manifests itself in the absurdly efficient play action passing numbers we have seen Tennessee's offense put up over the past two seasons. The Titans lead the NFL in play action passing yardage since the start of 2019, even though five teams have more PA passing attempts during that time. Tannehill has averaged a silly 11.02 yards per attempt on PA passes since 2019; for reference, Matthew Stafford's 10.01 average is the only other double-digit rate among qualified QBs.

As is the case with most receivers, Reynolds' efficiency rates have all skyrocketed when targeted on PA passes over his career. He should feel right at home in Tennessee, and the move from Goff to Tannehill cannot be overstated. Until we see what Tennessee does in the NFL Draft, Reynolds is just a late-round flier. If he's still projected to be Tennessee's No. 2 WR by the time July rolls around, Reynolds will likely slide up my rankings into the top-60 Fantasy receivers.

Gerald Everett, TE, Seattle Seahawks

32 tight ends have at least 500 routes run since the start of 2019. Gerald Everett ranks seventh in TPPR and 11th in yards per route run during that time. Everett has also been great with the ball in his hands. He ranks ninth among qualified tight ends in yards after contact per reception since 2019, and only George Kittle and Noah Fant ranked ahead of him in that category last season. Injuries and inconsistency have prevented us from getting a large sample size on Everett to this point in his career, but with an 86th percentile SPARQ-score and a second-round draft capital, there is plenty of reason to be excited by his strong underlying advanced metrics -- even if they came on a relatively small sample.

It takes a bit of digging, but plenty of reasons for optimism that Everett is an above-average pass-catcher can be found. Reasons for optimism regarding his situation are not hard to find, though, which is why I believe he's one of the biggest winners of free agency.

With both Jacob Hollister and Greg Olsen no longer on the team, Seattle had a clear need at tight end. Everett should have no trouble finding his way on the field, and his chances at securing Seattle's largest target share behind DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett make Everett well worth a late-round flier in Fantasy drafts.

Myles Gaskin, RB, Miami Dolphins

As is the case with several free agency winners, Myles Gaskin's Fantasy outlook remains liable to be negatively impacted by the NFL Draft. Still, though, Miami's coaching staff really seems to love Gaskin; it remains a possibility that he fills the same featured role he occupied when he was healthy in 2020. Any of Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Kenyan Drake, James Conner, or Leonard Fournette landing in Miami would have put a real dent in Gaskin's Fantasy outlook, but the only back the Dolphins brought in was Malcolm Brown.

Brown isn't any more of an established presence than Jordan Howard or Matt Breida were, and Gaskin concisely made both 2020 offseason acquisitions irrelevant when given the opportunity. If anything, the signing of Brown could suggest that Miami is less likely to add a running back in the draft; it wouldn't be much of a surprise if their current RB room -- Gaskin, Brown, Salvon Ahmed, and Patrick Laird -- is the group that Miami enters the 2021 season with. And if that ends up being the case, Gaskin has all the makings of a top-20 Fantasy RB.

Jacob Gibbs
Jacob GibbsDFS Guru