The Output of Free Agent Wide Receivers
What happens when wide receivers become free agents and move on to a new team? In this article, we will look back over the last few years to find this answer and sum up the findings.
Headline 2018 Free Agents-
Dez Bryant was an elite wide receiver throughout his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He consistently finished as a WR1 or at least a WR2 when playing the majority of a season.
Bryant was released after the 2017 season following on from 8 seasons in Dallas before signing with the New Orleans Saints. Things did not work out following this move as unfortunately he tore his Achilles tendon only days after signing a $1.25million one-year contract. He never played a game for the Saints. Bryant spent the next year rehabbing and did not sign with a franchise in 2019 but was finally signed to the Baltimore Ravens early during the 2020 season playing in 6 games.
Watkins signed the biggest free-agent contract of the year following on from leaving the Rams. He moved to Kansas City to join Patrick Mahomes in his first year as the Chiefs starting quarterback. He would likely have bettered his 2017 showing should he have stayed healthy for the full year. Unfortunately, he missed 6 games and finished with fewer touchdowns than the previous year, although considering he moved to a team that boasted Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill this is not unexpected.
Allen Robinson had a slightly underwhelming 2018 following his exit from the Jacksonville Jaguars, however, he was coming off a season-ending injury that may have affected him after signing for the Chicago Bears in 2018. It wouldn’t be till the following season where we would see the old Robinson once again where he would return to a high fantasy level.
Due to the injury in the 2017 season, he will not feature in our chart at the end of this piece. However, if we look at his 2016 year for a comparison we can see there would still be a small drop off in fantasy finishes although as previously stated he would shoot back up to the levels we expect to see from an elite wide receiver like Allen Robinson in the following season.
38 wide receivers finished within the top 120 at their position and of those players we can break down the following. Below we will see a breakdown of the numbers. Players are ranked in groups of 12. For example to be a WR1 they must come between finishing overall between 1 and 12 in half PPR fantasy formats.
Did not play the following year- 23.7% (9 players)
9 of these players did not play the following season for various reasons, such as injury or retirement.
Moved up at least one wide receiver grouping- 13.2% (5 players)
5 players moved up at least one grouping and gained fantasy value following on from joining a new team.
Moved down at least one wide receiver grouping- 55.3% (21 players)
Held fantasy value (finished in the same grouping)-7.9% (3 players)
2019 Headline Free Agents-
Antonio Brown has had an interesting few years. He was consistently a WR1 while he was part of the Pittsburgh Steelers but found himself as a free agent following another strong showing in 2018. He was originally traded to Raiders but was later released in September of 2019. On the same day as he was released the Patriots pounced and signed him to a one-year contract. Due to various allegations, he was released once again following his debut for the Patriots. This would be his only game of the 2019 season and he would not play again until week 9 of 2020 following his suspension from the league. Brown would get the last laugh, however, as he would help Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory.
Cole Beasley/John Brown-
Cole Beasley had the second most targets for his teams in both seasons however, the big difference that allowed his fantasy output to improve was mostly due to the rushing game of both. Beasley had the most targets of any Cowboys receiver in 2018 and was only behind Elliot, while in Buffalo he was also 2nd in targets, this time behind newly signed John Brown.
John Brown joined Beasley in Buffalo after signing from the Baltimore Ravens. In 2018 Brown would finish with top in yards and receiving touchdowns while only having 3 fewer targets behind Michael Crabtree. After traveling to Buffalo, Brown would have the highest catches, targets, and yards of his career which would make him a valuable WR2 in all formats.
Williams played for the Chargers in 2018 and was part of a competitive wide receiver room that also boasted Keenan Allen and Mike Williams amongst others. Tyrell Williams finished 4th in targets behind the two receivers named above as well as running back Melvin Gordon.
After the season Tyrell Williams moved to the Raiders who gave him the highest contract of this particular off-season, a four-year $44.3million with $21m of this being guaranteed. As we can see from the above comparison of key statistics we can see that Williams posted almost identical results and if we didn’t know better we might have thought he had not moved on at all.
Before the 2020 season began, Williams suffered an injury that would see him not play at all and was released following the conclusion of the year. He will be one to watch in a future edition of this piece after signing a contract to play in Detroit.
Using the same breakdown as for the 2018 free agents we can see the following results.
Total 2019 top 120 fantasy finishing free agent wide receivers to change teams- 34
Did not play the following year- 8.8% (3 players)
Moved up at least one wide receiver grouping- 23.5% (8 players)
Moved down at least one wide receiver grouping- 64.7% (22 players)
Held fantasy value (finishing in the same fantasy grouping) - 2.9% (1 player)
2020 Headline Free Agents-
Emmanuel Sanders became the first player to catch a pass in each game week (17) due to the timing of his 2019 trade between the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers. Following the move, he would share the field with Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne (amongst others) and registered the 3rd highest receiving yards total behind George Kittle and Samuel, while collecting more than Bourne.
In 2020 Sanders signed a 2 year $24million ($18m guaranteed) with the New Orleans Saints. He would play the majority of the season without primary target Michael Thomas and finished second in receiving yards with 30 fewer than Alvin Kamara. Sanders did finish the season by leading the receiving room in receiving touchdowns.
Following the season's conclusion, Sanders was released and has moved to the Buffalo Bills to add depth to Josh Allen’s weapons.
Cobb played his only season for the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 where he would finish 3rd in targets and yards behind fellow wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup and the same number of targets as tight end Jason Witten.
Cobb would sign the highest salary contract of the 2020 free agents with the Houston Texans (3 years for $27million, $18m of which would be guaranteed). He would unfortunately only play 10 games following a toe injury which would ultimately place him on injured reserve. Despite this, he would still finish third in receiving yards behind Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller V.
Agholor was part of an injury-hit wide receiver group in 2019 with many of the core not managing to complete a full slate of games. Due to the missed games, Agholor only managed the 5th most receiving yards for the team, coming in behind tight-ends Ertz and Goedert, running back Miles Sanders, and fellow receiver Jeffery (who played one game less).
2020 was a bounce-back year for Agholor who signed a one-year contract worth $1.047million with the Raiders. During the 2020 draft, the Raiders spent high draft capital on rookie receivers Ruggs and Edwards. A lot was expected of them, however, it was Agholor who would produce at the wide receiver position. He would finish the season with the most targets, touchdowns, and yards of all wide receivers with only Waller finishing the season with more.
Following this stellar season, this earned Agholor a contract with the New England Patriots so keep your eyes peeled for a follow-up on this story next off-season.
Using the same breakdown as for the 2018 and 2019 free agents we can see the following results.
Total 2020 top 120 fantasy finishing free agent wide receivers to change teams- 24
Did not play the following year- 29.2% (7 players)
Moved up at least one wide receiver grouping- 8.3% (2 players)
Moved down at least one wide receiver grouping- 62.5% (15 players)
Held fantasy value (finishing in the same fantasy grouping) – 0.00%
The below table will summarise the fantasy finishes before and after players became a free-agent and changed teams. For example, the WR grouping they are placed in is for the season immediately before they became a free agent, and the font color states where they finish the following year. Only players who finished in the top 120 each year are included.
Key- The player stayed in the same grouping. The player moved up at least one grouping. The player moved down at least one grouping. The player did not play.
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