Six major fantasy storylines from early NFL free agency: Can James Conner encore?

Cardinals run it back with 2021 fantasy hits

Arizona hit on a pair of low-risk veteran gambles last year when they signed James Conner to a one-year prove-it deal and traded for Zach Ertz mid-season.

The organization essentially wants to not just double down on those bets but pay major resources to cement them as featured pieces. Conner signed a three-year, $21 million deal and Ertz agreed to a three-year, $31.7 million deal on Monday. Neither player truly tested the market.

Conner is now the NFL’s 11th-highest paid back on a per-year basis and Ertz is 10th at the tight end position.

It’s not as if the Cardinals were flush with cap space heading into this offseason, either. This is a sizable bet on their 2021 core.

Returning to Arizona is certainly a win for both players in fantasy. Conner won’t score touchdowns at that clip again but with Chase Edmonds gone, he should own the three-down role he held late last season for a strong offense. He’s likely to be underrated because he, like all backs, carries injury risk.

Ertz averaged 7.4 targets per game with the Cardinals in 2021 and now we’re looking at a squad that lost two receivers in free agency (Kirk and Green). He’s a good bet to repeat or slightly outkick that volume projection in 2022.

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Now we wait to see if this moves the needle at all in the Kyler Murray contract negotiations. He's clearly holding some of the non-offensive-driven moves against the front office. Maybe this calms the waters.

Jaguars try to help Trevor Lawrence

The Jaguars might be that friend that needs help but doesn’t know how to ask for it.

Making sure Trevor Lawrence’s life was not a living hell for a second-straight year was the No. 1 priority heading into this offseason.

God bless them, they’re trying.

In addition to several defensive players, Jacksonville unloaded the wallet to sign guard Brandon Scherff, tight end Evan Engram and a pair of wide receivers in Christian Kirk and Zay Jones.

The money is aggressive for Scherff, Engram and especially Kirk, but they all address crucial needs.

Scherff is a risk because he’s missed 22 games the past four seasons and hasn't played a full season since 2016 but he’s an elite guard. This signing will look bad if his body has or does break down. But it still makes sense for a team that’s flush with cap space and needs front-line fortification.

Engram is vilified by both Giants fans and fantasy managers alike. However, betting on athletic tight ends during their second contracts has been a wise one recently. Forgive me for assuming he’ll be better utilized in Doug Pederson’s offense as opposed to Jason Garrett having him run Jason Witten’s short hitch route compilation.

Football media erupted and tore itself apart when the initial reports of Christian Kirk’s contract got out. The per-year money is hyper-aggressive, even if the deal ends up actually being $37 million for two years. Still, Kirk is exactly what this offense needed: A vertical slot receiver who can get open against zone coverage and give Lawrence some layups.

The Jaguars are buying a player on the upswing of his career after he was blocked from the slot for years by Cardinals legend Larry Fitzgerald. As long as he’s in his true role Kirk is going to be a strong target in fantasy; funny money aside, he’s a good pickup for Jacksonville.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk (13) has fantasy intrigue
Christian Kirk has flashed for fantasy purposes — will he do so as a Jaguar? (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Zay Jones signing and contract, however, are weird. We can all agree on that one.

Jacksonville is almost certainly not finished. After all this, they still desperately need a vertical, man-coverage-beating outside receiver. It’s hard to say this was the right way to team-build and, again, there’s work still to be done. This is a solid start to making the offense better, even if they paid through the nose to get here.

Browns are re-setting the table for … someone?

Cleveland swung a prudent deal to give Amari Cooper a whirl this year for just a fifth-round pick. It was likely the first domino to fall in their wide receiver room which was utterly barren heading into the offseason; the Jarvis Landry release was easy to see coming. More receivers will be added to this roster, perhaps over the next week or so of free agency and certainly in April’s draft.

The tight end room is also getting a makeover. David Njoku was franchise tagged, another smart bet on an athletic tight end hitting his second contract period, and Austin Hooper was released. Njoku could end up a more featured piece and he’s certainly going to bring more juice to his targets than Hooper. Harrison Bryant will also figure into the mix.

Pass-catcher was a question heading into the offseason but the Browns are re-setting the table there to complement an excellent offensive line and deep backfield.

All the while, the Browns are one of the four teams meeting with and trying to court Deshaun Watson.

Even if Cleveland doesn’t secure Watson, it sounds like they might have burned the bridge with their current quarterback. Baker Mayfield broke his self-induced social media hiatus (a classic move) to post what looked like a goodbye message to the city of Cleveland … even though he’s still on the roster. Perhaps he knows he’s not long for it.

It seems like the friction between Mayfield and the team/the locker room following Odell Beckham’s release was worse than imagined. That’s the only way an outright departure without a Watson trade makes sense.

The Browns' options are now: Trade for Watson (a tangible upgrade), trade for a possible lateral move (Jimmy G type), an incredibly awkward final season with Mayfield or walk willingly into the quarterback wilderness. The outlook for players like Cooper, Njoku, Nick Chubb and any other pass-catchers added hangs in the balance.

Miami starts tweaking

The Dolphins went into free agency with a boat-load of cap room and a still-flawed roster despite their recent major rebuild. Through the early action, they’ve only made some small tweaks … which isn’t a bad thing.

New head coach Mike McDaniel came from the 49ers as a key architect of their running game and their first move of free agency was to add Cardinals back Chase Edmonds.

Edmonds had primarily been a later-down scatback for the Cardinals. He’s a good between-the-20’s rusher and in the passing game. Edmonds will get the first crack at being the lead back in Miami and should absolutely help out the offense. This running back room has been a colossal wreck for the last couple of years and it’s due for an overhaul.

It was easy to see that while Edmonds is Step 1 he was never close to the last. On Wednesday evening the Dolphins signed Raheem Mostert to a one-year, $3.1 million deal. This one was "Sebastian Joseph-Day to the Chargers" of offensive free agent signings; as in, easy to see coming from a mile away. Mostert should immediately step in as the early-down back, leaving Edmonds to his natural late-down back.

And if McDaniel brings over the frustrating tendencies from the 49ers way, someone with a much lower pedigree could pass up Edmonds and Mostert at any moment in the pecking order.

Miami also added Teddy Bridgewater and a pair of former Cowboys in Cedrick Wilson and Connor Williams. The latter is likely the only one who will be a true starter. Williams isn’t a star but he’s a functional, starting-caliber offensive lineman. Those were in extremely short supply last year in Miami. Wilson brings depth to a wide receiver room that doesn’t have much going for it beyond Jaylen Waddle.

Every insider made sure to include the word “backup” in their tweets announcing Teddy Bridgewater’s signing. Perhaps one doth protest too much there but it’s clear Miami will give Tua Tagovailoa every shot to hold this starting job with authority. If he fails, the team now has a proven veteran who should be a good fit in this system.

Antonio Gibson roller coaster

Anyone who rostered Antonio Gibson in 2021 is used to a rocky road. We got another volatile ride on Tuesday.

News broke that running back J.D. McKissic was signing a two-year deal with the Buffalo Bills and fantasy Twitter erupted with glee over Gibson’s 2022 prospects. Gamers can’t stand McKissic because he’s simply too good. Whine all you want but he’s a good role player in the passing game and a team that employs him has zero incentive to not use him more in that role in favor of the back on your fake team.

On that note, the team that employs him this coming season will remain the same as last.

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McKissic did a 180 and decided to return to Washington after they offered him an identical deal to what the Bills presented. Remember: This was during the legal negotiating window prior to free agency where no deals are official.

Gibson is still going to be a good fantasy pick; he just might be blocked on passing downs once again. Washington’s offense is likely better for bringing McKissic back into the fold. We’ll just have to deal with that.

Things slowed down after a wild opening

Last week was flush with news between Aaron Rodgers returning and the Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz trades. It ended with the conclusion of Deshaun Watson’s grand jury saga and the upturn in his trade speculation. The weekend also provided plenty of juice when Tom Brady decided to return to the NFL, Amari Cooper was dealt and the Vikings snuck in that Kirk Cousins extension.

Monday also provided a flurry of wild moves when the NFL’s legal negotiating window was kicked wide open. Then things came to something of a crashing halt — or, at least, cooled to a simmer — Tuesday evening into Wednesday.

There have been a few educated guesses as to why.

First is that Trent Baalke broke the free-agent market and threw subsequent negotiations out of whack with his early spending spree. You could see how that would make a ton of sense at wide receiver.

The second is that the NFL and perhaps some available free agents are waiting for the Watson domino to fall. Jimmy Garoppolo’s trade will certainly follow Watson’s as it’s clear no one had the 49ers starter as their Plan A this offseason. Other quarterbacks on the market and perhaps a deposed starter like Matt Ryan or Baker Mayfield could end up moving as a result of their team’s flirtation. Perhaps some of the offensive players on the market are waiting to follow Watson wherever he goes — if Atlanta is his next home, they sure could use a wide receiver or two.

Maybe the NFL as a whole is just biding their time until this whole thing is settled.

Either way, the stall here might not say anything about a remaining player’s individual market. Remember that Kenny Golladay spent quite a bit of time on the open market while other wide receivers took less before getting a massive payday from New York.

We could see a repeat of that story. More action is a lock.

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