Fantasy football season is not simply an August-to-January endeavor. Monitoring free-agent moves in March and April can be keys to draft success, as a new home can suddenly turn a player into a fantasy stud.
Or, in the the case of the backs that changed teams this offseason, knock them down a peg.
In 2011, playing for a new team and in a new offense turned Darren Sporles into a fantasy star, and returned Willis McGahee to a starting fantasy running back. In 2010, as the Chargers' No. 3 back, Sproles finished 43rd among running backs in fantasy points, scoring 5.61 points per game. McGahee took a back seat to Ray Rice in Baltimore that season and was ranked 50th among backs, scoring 5.17 fantasy points per week.
Sproles became one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets in New Orleans and excelled in the spread offense in 2011, moving up to 10th among backs at a clip of 11.58 points per game. McGahee went from backup to starter when he joined Denver, and the Broncos’ rush-first attack helped owners who took McGahee, as he scored the 21st-most fantasy points for running backs (10.27 per game).
Several things determine a player’s desire to test free agency and subsequently what team to join. A better chance to win, more money and more playing time are often the top factors.
Here’s a look at five notable backs who changed teams this offseason, and how their fantasy value will be affected. (A full fantasy analysis of the wide receivers who changed teams can be found in the 2012 PFW Fantasy Football Guide).
(The 2012 fantasy player rankings used below are from Pat Fitzmaurice's preseason draft board.)
Bears RB Michael Bush
2011 fantasy RB ranking: 9 (11.66 points per game)
2012 preseason RB ranking: 43
Bush turned out to be a fantasy steal last season after Raiders RB Darren McFadden got hurt. Even when McFadden was healthy, Bush remained Oakland’s go-to back at the goal line. In Chicago, though, Bush joins an offense with a more durable, workhorse back in Matt Forté, and an offense with more goal-line options in the passing game (WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery). As productive as Forté has been, the Bears often have gone to someone else to punch it in for six, and Bush should still get touchdown opportunities, but not as many as he did in Oakland — though he now has a better chance to be on a winning team.
Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
2011 fantasy RB ranking: 24 (9.29 points per game)
2012 preseason RB ranking: 30
The Law Firm presents an interesting situation for fantasy owners familiar with his past two seasons of success with the Patriots. The Patriots were far from a run-first team, but that set up big holes for Green-Ellis when he did get touches, and New England’s efficiency gave him ample opportunities for touchdowns (24 the past two seasons). In Cincinnati, Green-Ellis could be a bigger focal point of an offense lacking many weapons outside of WR A.J. Green and TE Jermaine Gresham, but the Bengals don’t have the firepower that New England did, and Green-Ellis might see a dip in his touchdowns. Bernard Scott also should get his share of carries.
Chiefs RB Peyton Hillis
2011 fantasy RB ranking: 41 (8.87 points per game)
2012 preseason RB ranking: 35
Hillis won’t put up his Madden-cover-contest-winning 2010 numbers in Kansas City, where he is the complement to the dynamic Jamaal Charles, but he should improve on last season’s disappointing numbers. Hillis clearly should benefit from a change of scenery, and he joins a Chiefs team that is primed to be one of the best rushing clubs in the league. As electric as Charles can be, he’s coming off an ACL injury and has only 12 career rushing touchdowns. Hillis should get more carries than Bush does in Chicago, and his goal-line opportunities increase his fantasy value.
49ers RB Brandon Jacobs
2011 fantasy RB ranking: 30 (8.56 points per game)
2012 preseason RB ranking: 62
Jacobs’ rushing yards in New York decreased each of the past three seasons after rushing for 1,089 yards in 2008. He still notched seven rushing touchdowns last season and joins a 49ers club that is very adept at moving the football on the ground, but his new team poses a few problems for Jacobs’ fantasy value. San Francisco added WRs Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins in the offseason, which should improve the passing game. Jacobs might have a nose for the endzone, but 49ers starting RB Frank Gore is no slouch punching it in. Plus, Jacobs enters a very deep RB corps that includes youngsters Kendall Hunter and LeMichael James. Jacobs comes into the season as the team’s No. 2 back, but it’s a situation worth monitoring in the preseason to see where to pick Jacobs. His overall numbers should decrease from ’11.
Panthers RB Mike Tolbert
2011 fantasy RB ranking: 22 (10.09 points per game)
2012 preseason RB ranking: 70
The bruiser who was so successful in San Diego joins a Carolina team with a wealth of rushing options, and Tolbert should see a big drop in his fantasy numbers. Jonathan Stewart is generally the Panthers’ goal-line back, but QB Cam Newton might be the team’s best option when it comes to rushing the ball in the endzone (14 rushing TDs last season). DeAngelo Williams is more than capable of racking up fantasy points as well, putting Tolbert fourth in the team’s pecking order for running the football. Unless the Panthers see great value in using Tolbert in goal-line situations, his days as a fantasy starter are over.
Note: Two other big-name running backs, Ryan Grant and Cedric Benson, remain free agents, hoping to land on a team in training camp. Benson finished 23rd among backs in fantasy scoring last season (9.93 points per game), Grant was 36th (6.65 points per game), but neither should expect to rack up much production in 2012.