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Free Agent Frenzy: Ball, RGIII top list of most fantasy impacted

Brad Evans
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Ball to the wall. A second-year explosion is on the horizon for the ex-Badger. (USAT)

All it takes is a change of scenery.

For some, a fresh start can awake the fantasy beast within, elevating a player into a different statistical realm while handsomely rewarding those who invest in his services.

Take Reggie Bush for instance.

Arguably the most sought after rusher in last year’s free agent class, Kim K’s former canoodler traded in the limitations of Miami for the fast-track of Ford Field, a move that paid a lucrative fantasy dividend. Underused in the pass game under Joe Philbin the year before – he absurdly caught just 35 balls in 16 games with the ‘Fins in 2012 – Bush thrived in Scott Linehan’s vertical offense, resembling the explosive, well-rounded back he once was in New Orleans and earlier in his career with the Dolphins. Working in tandem with bruiser Joique Bell in Detroit, Bush finished with 1,512 combined yards, 54 receptions and seven touchdowns in 14 games. Impressively, he landed inside the RB top-20 in all but three weeks. His resulting 17.7 fantasy points per game was the seventh-best mark among RBs in PPR-friendly formats.

Money well spent.

With the bulk of high-profiled free agents signed, it’s time to examine what players, similar to Bush last year, could excel in their new digs and what commodities on their old teams stand to benefit most.

Whet your fantasy whistle, gamer. We’re only 22 Sundays away from meaningful NFL action. Here are my top Flames and Lames of this year’s free-agency period:

FLAMES

Montee Ball, Den, RB
Early ADP: 19.5 (RB13)
Fawned over by zealots in early drafts last year, Ball failed to measure up compared to fellow RB rookies Le'Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy. A persistent fumbling problem and pass-blocking issue stunted his statistical growth, leading veteran Knowhon Moreno to command the lion's share of touches in Denver's backfield. Though the latter can't be disproved, the former beliefs certainly can. Ball did struggle to secure the rock early in the season, coughing up the ball twice on 31 attempts. However, over his next 110 touches he put the ball on the ground only once. As for his alleged strawman approach versus the blitz ... well ... he actually ranked AHEAD of Moreno according to Pro Football Focus' blocking metrics. Now with Knowshon wading in the statistical swamp of South Florida, Ball is about to become the main man in the Mile High City. A powerful downhill runner with plus hands and an affinity for frog costumes, he stands to make the biggest leap of any fantasy back this fall. C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman are sure to occasionally spell him, but roughly 18-20 touches per game, including most if not all goal-line totes, are in his near future. Against thin fronts – thanks Peyton Manning – he could easily total 1,300-1,500 combined yards with 10-12 touchdowns. A borderline top-five campaign is on the horizon.

Robert Griffin III, Was, QB
Early ADP: 95.7 (RB12)
With Lucifer Shanahan now torching burgers on his backyard grill instead of franchise quarterbacks on the field and with an entire offseason for his knee to fully heal, things are looking up for RGIII. A collective groan was heard from D.C. when Jay Gruden was hired as head coach, but, for fantasy purposes, it was a best-case scenario for the embattled QB. The new skipper recently said he will let RGIII be RGIII, giving his passer the green light to play without inhibition. It's doubtful Griffin will ever match the record-setting rush total from his first year, but without having to constantly look over his shoulder, the psychological boost should reward him, and Redskins nation, wonderfully. The additions of DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts are also an enormous shot in the arm. Griffin ranked 20th in completed passes beyond 20-yards last year. Pierre Garcon turned many short completions into long gains, but few home run connections were made. D-Jax will help immediately in that area. Toss in the likely expanded roles of Jordan Reed and Roy Helu in an offense that called 'pass' 586 times last year, and RGIII is due to turn a lucrative profit. Many will purposely circumvent his services on draft day, but keep in mind even in an underwhelming season he finished No. 12 in QB per game average last year. Given the enhanced receiving corps, vertical-heavy offense and lack of restrictions, it would be no stretch to project 4,000-plus combined yards with 25-30 total touchdowns. And that could be a conservative estimate if Washington's forgiving defense doesn't improve.

Rashad Jennings, NYG, RB
Early ADP: 49.4 (RB23)
An unsung fantasy hero last year when Darren McFadden was 'shockingly' felled by injury, the blue-collar back did it all – blocked, caught passes, gained tough yards, found the end-zone – netting a respectable 4.36 yards per carry, 81.4 total yards per game and five touchdowns in eight starts. Critics will point to his advanced age (29), but keep in mind he's logged only 484 touches since entering the league in 2009. Rumors swirled earlier this month, the Giants might explore the possibility of adding Chris Johnson, however, that seems highly unlikely. Management appears content rolling with a backfield featuring Jennings, Peyton Hillis and possibly David Wilson. Tom Coughlin expressed optimism regarding the latter's availability April 3 remarking the team is "counting on" Wilson to contribute. Still, there's no guarantee he regain a foothold in the backfield. Jennings superb pass-blocking skills and sure hands as a ball carrier/receiver should instantly earn the tough-to-please Coughlin's trust. Among the lower tiered rushers available on draft day, he's a strong candidate to turn a tidy profit on roughly 15-18 touches per game. Reach with confidence.

Emmanuel Sanders, Den, WR
Early ADP: 81.6 (WR33)
Ben Roethlisberger to Peyton Manning. That's akin to trading in your merely suitable 32-inch flat-screen for a lavish Jerry Jones-sized high-definition monstrosity. Sanders, without question, is one of the biggest winners of this year's free agent class. Seeing his first action as a No. 2 in an air aggressive Pittsburgh offense last season, he clearly played second fiddle to Antonio Brown. He experienced an uptick across all categories, but his marginal 67-732-6 line landed him in WR4 territory in 12-team leagues (No. 46 among WRs). When acquired by the Broncos in March, John Elway spoke highly of the wideout's versatility commending Sanders' separation skills and ability to work outside or inside. The receiver does possess reliable hands and forced 15 missed tackles last year, top-10 at his position, but given the spread-the-wealth nature of the Broncos' offense combined with the presence of Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas, he will likely get lost in the shuffle at times. Still, he's locked in as Denver's WR3, which should gift him ample opportunities to produce. If he attracts roughly the same number of targets Eric Decker did last year (136), he should at least crack the WR top-30. However, only a below average red-zone target, don't expect a windfall in touchdowns.

Golden Tate, Det, WR
Early ADP: 79.0 (WR32)
After being an integral part of Seattle's brilliant title run, Tate traded blues, swapping Seattle navy for Detroit royal. The move likely disappointed many in the Emerald City, but it should kickstart his overall fantasy worth. Offensively, the Seahawks and Lions are at different ends of the spectrum. The former leans on stifling defense and ball control in an attempt to slowly suffocate opponents. Meanwhile, the latter, plays a looser style, bombarding the competition with Matthew Stafford's well-worked arm. Though Scott Linehan now calls the offensive shots in Dallas, new OC Joe Lombardi likely won't tinker much with the previous regime's formula. Quarterbacks coach of the New Orleans Saints from 2009-2013, he was an instrumental part of Drew Brees' record-smashing success. Calvin Johnson will continue to be the baddest Decepticon on the planet, but Tate should operate freely underneath and on the outside, an upgrade over departed Nate Burleson and holdover Kris Durham. Equipped with a running back mentality after the catch – he led WRs in forced missed tackles in 2013 – he should see a strong across-the-board rise. Recall he averaged a lowly 6.1 targets per game a season ago, 38th among wideouts. His first 1,000-yard season with 6-8 TDs are highly attainable.

LAMES

Eric Decker, NYJ, WR
Early ADP: 76.4 (WR30)
Train-wreck. Disaster. Multi-car pileup. No, I'm not describing Decker's abomination of a reality TV show, but rather his unfortunate decision-making. Opting for the bright lights and big money of New York, the most desired receiver in this year's free agent market enters into an environment even Krusty the Clown would call a dysfunctional media circus. Trading in a future Hall of Fame quarterback, Peyton Manning, for an oft-injured journeyman passer, Michael Vick, can't lead to a favorable end game. When not getting tackled by ghosts in the open field, Decker was a highly valued WR2 in all formats a season ago. He established new career benchmarks in receptions and yards and finished inside the top-10 among WRs in per game output for the first time in his career. The Jets, at times, were a humiliation of suck offensively last year. Jeremy Kerley was their 'finest' fantasy producer at WR. And he failed to crack the position's top-60. Vick is a slight upgrade over Geno Smith, but Decker, who enticed 25 red-zone targets last fall in Denver, could experience a rather precipitous numbers free-fall. Opportunities near the goal-line could be few and far between. At best, he's a low-end WR3.

Ben Tate, Cle, RB
Early ADP: 34.8 (RB18)
Re-teaming with ex-Houston offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Tate should enter Browns training camp as the unrivaled starter. Due to his downhill running style and strong one-cut ability, he does fit Younger Shany's zone-blocking scheme nicely. On the surface, his situation seems ripe. System familiarity, workload and Josh Gordon's presence paints an encouraging picture. However, he's no Banksy. Tate has shown occasional flashes of brilliance as the lead back. His burly frame and nimble feet make him a plus inside runner. Last year, for example, he coaxed 41 missed tackles, seventh-best among rushers, and tallied 4.63 yards per carry on up-the-gut plows. Still, save for his 120-yard, three-TD shredding of New England Week 14, he underwhelmed for fantasy purposes. Gifted a golden opportunity to cement his standing as a reliable RB2 with Arian Foster sidelined, he, like Houston as a whole, underwhelmed. In seven starts he managed just 71.1 total yards per game, 4.0 yards per carry and three touchdowns. Granted he wasn't close to 100-percent in many of those games, but that should raise a red flag. Since entering the league fours years ago, he's proven to be as durable as an iPhone 5. Over that span, he's missed a whopping 24 games. When also considering the blocking scheme could take time to sink in, and it's safe to say Tate is avoidable at his inflated price point.

Chris Johnson, FA, RB
Early ADP: 55.9 (RB24)
Rumored for weeks, CJ2Lame was finally kicked to the curb by the Titans earlier this month, paving the way for quite possibly the most yawn-worthy RB rotation, currently spearheaded by Shonn Greene, to take shape in Tennessee. As of print time, it's unknown exactly what jersey the former rush king will don this fall. Whispers from Denver to Buffalo to Atlanta to New York have been heard, but it seems the Jets are the only logical landing spot. As the Daily News reported April 7, Jets management is smitten by the idea of a Chris Ivory/Johnson tandem. It's not the most ideal outcome, but Rex Ryan's run-heavy scheme does lend some optimism. However, NYJ's 31st-ranked offensive line from a season ago doesn't. The biggest obstacle for Johnson has and will forever remain his tired song and dance in the backfield. Instead of taking the three-yard gain, he shuffles side-to-side in an attempt to hit the home run. That fatal flaw is why 94 of his 279 attempts (33.6 percent) went for one, zero or negative yards last year. Barf. No surprise, despite quality superficial numbers, he was wildly erratic for fantasy purposes. In exactly half of his games (8), he failed to reach double-digits in fantasy scoring in standard leagues. Let someone else slam head on keyboard.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Oak, RB
Early ADP: 78.8 (RB33)
Oh how the mighty have fallen. Not long ago, the Oompah Loompah was one of the virtual game's most reliable producers. A perennial first-round pick, he was one of the only useful commodities on otherwise ghastly Jaguar teams. However, the physical demands of the job, as it does for almost every high-volume back, eventually caught up to him, tarnishing his star image. Last year, he looked like a rusher clearly in the twilight of his career. He totaled a puke-worthy 3.43 yards per carry, ranked outside the top-20 in elusive rating and crossed the chalk only five times. His subsequent 9.4 fantasy points per game average in standard formats ranked him outside the position's top-24. He's essentially the AFC's version of Steven Jackson, a slow old warhorse one misstep away from the dog food factory. He's expected to tote the heavy side of an undetermined timeshare with delicate Darren McFadden, but Oakland, which has become a salvage for washed up veterans (Matt Schaub? Really?), isn't the most encouraging environment. Unless the Raiders' offensive line, a unit that was the fifth-worst in run-blocking last year per Pro Football Focus, does a 180, MJD is sure to slam into a number of brick walls. Toss in the injury risk and he's nothing more than a bench back in 12-teamers.

Knowshon Moreno, Mia, RB
Early ADP: 62.9 (RB28)
One's surroundings are of the utmost importance in determining fantasy success. Moreno was exemplary of that viewpoint last year. The All-Pro cast around him allowed the RB to operate freely and easily. With defenses scared by No. 18 and Denver's intimidating group of receivers, the rusher faced the fewest stacked fronts in the league, greatly enhancing his overall value. Indispensable whether in standard or PPR leagues, he emerged as a true consistency king, finishing well-inside the RB top-10 in per game average. However, accommodations in Miami won't be as friendly. Because of the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito fallout, the Dolphins offensive line will feature several fresh faces. It could surprise, but often times it takes time for blocking units to gel. Since Moreno is an excellent pass-blocker and safety valve out of the backfield, he should command touches over Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas. Still, with so many question marks regarding the Dolphins offense as a whole, you have to wonder even on 15-18 touches per game just how productive he'll be. He's a bargain buy at his current ADP, particularly in PPR formats, but a substantial drop-off should be expected. A final tally in range of 1,200 total yards and 5-7 TDs would be a victory.

OTHERS IMPACTED

Toby Gerhart, Jax, RB – Undeservedly, people have raked Gerhart over the coals. Yes, he may not be the flashiest back around, but he's proven to be no slouch when thrust into the lead role. In six career starts, he compiled 91.3 total yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. An adept three-down rusher who typically gains appreciable yards after contact, he has a reasonable shot of transforming into a top-20 RB in his new digs. At his 62.5 ADP (RB28), Gerhart is a better value, and probable better producer, than the salivated over Tate. And, no, I'm not overly worried about Jordan Todman.

Hakeem Nicks, Ind, WR – The address change could resuscitate his otherwise flat-lined fantasy career. Andrew Luck is certainly an upgrade over Eli Manning. Reggie Wayne's recovery, which is reportedly way ahead of schedule, along with Nicks' motivation and health will ultimately determine his fate. Still, because of owners' dead-to-me feelings toward him, he'll be worth the minimal investment (99.1 ADP, WR39). There's likely 120-plus targets up for grabs in Indy.

Darren Sproles, Phi, RB – Shockingly pink-slipped by the Saints in mid-March, the Mighty Mouse hopped aboard the Chip train in exchange for a fifth-round pick. At LeSean McCoy's expense, albeit minimal, Sproles should continue to be one of the best receiving backs in the league. Similar to what Detroit did with Bush last year, look for him to be utilized all over the field, functioning as a swing/slot receiver and occasional rusher. Don't anticipate more than 4-6 scores, but another 60-plus catches are likely making the gadget a highly useful FLEX option in PPR formats.

Kenny Britt, StL, WR – In a rather stunning development, Britt was not Tased once by law enforcement last year. Unfortunately, his clean record didn't earn him enough brownie points with the Titans coaching staff to warrant consistent playing time. The former Rutgers standout played sporadically catching just 11 passes in 12 games. Still, the 25-year-old will get every chance to become Sam Bradford's go-to. Consider him a spicy late-round meatball (153.8 ADP, WR58).

Michael Vick, NYJ, QB – Here's the script: Vick wins the Jets starting job by mid-August. He then displays vintage form for 2-3 early regular season games which sends owners into a tizzy. By Week 7 he snaps, shreds, breaks, impales some vital organ/appendage thus ending his season and reinserting Geno Smith under center. Yep, bound to happen.

Andre Brown, Hou, RB – When his lower extremities are not immobilized, Brown is a better-than-advertised rusher. He's explosive, versatile and elusive, as exhibited at times last year. Arian Foster, whose offseason back surgery was more minor than originally reported, will return as Houston's RB1, but his injury risks labels Brown an interesting end-game pick.

Joe Flacco, Bal, QB – "Hey guys, this is THE year Flacco reaches the upper-echelon of NFL quarterbacks." Sound familiar? Many analysts are sure to spew that garbage this summer, but I'm not buying. Even with Steve Smith, Torrey Smith, Owen Daniels and Dennis Pitta in tow, he'll never be a trustworthy QB1 in 12-team leagues, especially if his deep-ball woes (17-for-88 on passes beyond 20 yards) from last year carry over.

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