Free Agency Winners

Adam Levitan
Justin Bailey reviews the Targets and Touches Report for the AFC in Week 3

The last week has felt like three months. We’ve packed an absurd amount of information into such a short period of time, and it’s all become a blur. Stories that would have been major headline news on our site for a few days are getting blown out of the water in matter of hours.

I highly recommend that you go back read and all of the blurbs we’ve done here. Remember, you can sort by “skill players only.” If that’s too much, you should at least go onto our Twitter page and read the blurbs off all our headlines from the last week. That will get you caught up.

Anyway, let’s get to the white meat. Here are the players whose stock has risen the most during free agency:

1. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Broncos
It’s not a question of whether Emmanuel Sanders’ stock will go up as a Bronco. It’s exactly how much it will rise.

Sanders steps into an offense that boasted five guys with at least 60 catches, four receivers with 10+ touchdowns and two with 1,200+ yards. Eric Decker, now a Jet, accounted for 87 catches, 1288 yards and 11 touchdowns on 137 targets (second on team behind Demaryius Thomas’ 143 targets).

Decker and Sanders are very different receivers. The former goes 6’3/214 while the latter is 5’11/180. Sanders brings far more long speed, but Decker has been far more sure-handed. The key here won’t be catches or yards – we know those are going to come in this offense. As Sanders said, “To play with Peyton Manning is like wide receiver heaven.” The key will be touchdowns.

Some will write off Sanders’ touchdown potential because of his size. Don’t do it. Out of Sanders’ 11 career touchdowns, a whopping nine have come from 11 yards away or closer. Note that five of Decker’s 11 touchdowns last year, just six came from that close in. Also, Wes Welker had 10 touchdowns in 2013 at 5’9/185. In other words, Sanders is a very capable red-zone receiver and Peyton has no problem looking for smaller receivers at the goal-line. He’s going to get at least 1,100 yards and seven scores and will have upside for more.

“He can play inside, he can be outside. He’s explosive,” GM John Elway said of Sanders. “Great separation skills. He can do it all.”

2. Golden Tate, WR, Lions
Golden Tate’s true ability rarely got to shine through as part of Seattle’s run-based, conservative, somewhat uncreative offense. Everyone is going have their eyes opened soon.

Per ProFootballFocus, Tate has dropped just five of his 149 catchable targets over the last three seasons, the lowest “drop rate” of any NFL wide receiver. He has forced 50 missed tackles over the last three years, nine more than any other wideout – even though he’s averaged just 48.0 catches per season. He led the league in YAC per reception at 7.9 in 2013.

The Lions, who have been long-searching for a legit No. 2 opposite Calvin Johnson annually, are going to put these unique skills on display. Unlike in Seattle where Tate was stuck outside at the X spot and never moved around, he’ll play all over the formation in Detroit. The targets from strong-armed Matthew Stafford will surely follow. I mean, Kris Durham and Nate Burleson combined for 139 targets while sharing No. 2 duties last year.

3. Ben Tate, RB, Browns
Any running back going from a backup role to a starting job obviously gets a massive boost. But Ben Tate’s situation in Cleveland is ideal.

Right now, his “competition” for carries is Edwin Baker, Chris Ogbonnaya, Dion Lewis and Fozzy Whittaker. Armed with a two-year, $7 million deal, Tate won’t have to fight at all for his role. So we can project at least 300 touches and move straight to projected effectiveness.

Clearly, the Kyle Shanahan scheme fits Tate – a downhill one-cut runner that thrived in Houston’s zone-blocking scheme (4.73 YPC). He’s just 25 years old and has a concerning durability history, but very little tread on his tires (479 career NFL touches). Tate has also proven to be a playmaker on his own – per ProFootballFocus, he ranked 14th in yards after contact per attempt in 2013 and third in 2011 (he didn’t qualify in 2012 due to a lack of snaps).

Also, the Browns offensive line has plenty of talent but has underperformed badly of late. Transition player C Alex Mack and LT Joe Thomas are two of the best players at their respective positions. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is above average.

4. Toby Gerhart, RB, Jaguars
It’s about volume. The Jaguars gave Adrian Peterson caddy Toby Gerhart three years and $10.5 million to replace Maurice Jones-Drew as their workhorse, not be a complementary piece. Gus Bradley has already gone on the record saying he expects Gerhart to regularly see 15-20 touches per game. That’s 240-320 in a season. Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson are going to be complementary pieces.

So even if Gerhart, who lacks lateral agility and wiggle in the hole, hovers around 3.8-4.1 yards per carry, he’s going to be on the back-end of the RB2 radar. Owners in search of upside will still pass because of how few red-zone opportunities the Chad Henne led Jags project to create.

5. Terrance Williams, WR, Cowboys
It’s shaping up as a perfect storm for Terrance Williams. The Cowboys have brought in effective pass-happy coordinator Scott Linehan, Dez Bryant gets all the attention and the coaches were very happy with how T-Will performed as a rookie. The icing on the cake came when the Cowboys cut Miles Austin.

Williams posted a 44-736-5 line last year while playing on just 700-of-1025 snaps (68.2 percent). Now that number is going to creep closer to 100 percent and he’s going to take a step forward as a second-year player. A breakout is a lay-up here.

6. Joique Bell, RB, Lions
Joique Bell was a restricted free agent. The Lions easily could have just retained him on second-round tender at one year, $2.187 million. Instead, the new Jim Caldwell regime identified Bell as a player they want to have in the fold long-term and signed him through 2016 at a total of $9.3 million. That speaks volumes.

Bell, a former undrafted free agent, earned the contract with his play. In 2012, he was PFF’s No. 12 overall running back. In 2013, he was No. 9. Combining power and special elusiveness, Bell has averaged 4.29 yards per carry and 9.82 yards per reception in his two-year career.

It’s another signal that the Lions plan to utilize a more traditional offense under Caldwell and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Less shotgun and more power runs will mean more snaps for Bell. Reggie Bush’s role projects to decline as more of a strict pass-catching specialist.

7. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
Last year, Joe Flacco’s primary receivers were Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown, Jacoby Jones, Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson. That pathetic lack of weaponry played a major role in Flacco setting a career-low in passer rating (73.1) and a five-year low in touchdown passes (19).

So what did All-Star GM Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens do? First, he re-signed difference-making “move” tight end Dennis Pitta. They also brought back left tackle Eugene Monroe, who was dominant as a pass blocker in 11 games after coming over in a trade last year. And finally, Newsome added declining yet hungry and physical Steve Smith to fill the Anquan Boldin void.

The Ravens also let liability Michael Oher walk to the Titans, opening up the right tackle spot for talented Kelechi Osemele. And Jacoby Jones was brought back cheaply to play his natural situational deep threat role.

So Flacco’s 2014 weapons will be Torrey Smith, Pitta, Steve Smith, Jones and Brown (or intriguing Aaron Mellette. He’s an excellent bet to post his first career 4,000-yard, 26+ TD season.

Darren McFadden – The Raiders surprisingly let Rashad Jennings walk and re-signed the oft-injured McFadden. He’s on top of the depth chart with only raw yet intriguing Latavius Murray to beat.
Julian Edelman – Going somewhere other than the slot spot in a Tom Brady offense would have been disastrous.
Carson Palmer – Left tackle Jared Veldheer and speedster Ted Ginn are underrated yet key acquisitions.
Kenny Stills – With Darren Sproles and Lance Moore now gone, there’s going to be plenty on Stills’ plate.
Rashad Jennings – The Giants showed no interest in bringing back Andre Brown, instead giving Jennings a $14M deal. He’s the No. 1 back even if David Wilson (neck) gains clearance.
Hakeem Nicks – Andrew Luck is a massive upgrade on Eli Manning and Reggie Wayne is coming off an ACL tear. But will Pep Hamilton let Luck loose?