Ten most important fantasy moves of NFL offseason

Receiver Brandin Cooks should continue to be a solid fantasy contributor after being traded to the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Receiver Brandin Cooks should continue to be a solid fantasy contributor after being traded to the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

As with every NFL offseason, there were plenty of headlines this year. Multiple Pro Bowl quarterbacks found new homes. Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray remain unsigned. LeGarrette Blount is on his third home in three years, as is Brandin Cooks, he of three straight 1,000-yard seasons.

All that adds up to a vastly different fantasy landscape as the 2018 season approaches. Here are the 10 non-rookie offseason transitions that will affect the upcoming fantasy season the most:

10. Trey Burton, TE, Bears

Ranking Burton’s four-year, $22-million deal with the Bears inside the top 10 is a big bet on him turning into a legitimate fantasy tight end now that he’ll have a substantial role. Burton, 26, spent almost the entirety of his term with the Eagles as Zach Ertz and/or Brent Celek’s backup. But when he got his opportunities, he showed his talent. Take, for example, a Week 14 matchup against the Rams that Ertz missed due to a concussion. Burton finished with five catches for 71 yards and two scores.

Burton is a great athlete and has good size at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. He’s shown he can produce in limited opportunities. But that’s only half of why he makes this list. Burton and Chicago is the perfect match thanks to new head coach Matt Nagy, formerly Kansas City offensive coordinator. Nagy made Travis Kelce into one of fantasy’s truly elite tight ends, and no team targeted the position more than the Chiefs did last year. Kelce, in turn, led all tight ends in targets, target share and yards after catch, per Player Profiler. Both Kelce and Burton have previous experience playing quarterback, and Nagy loved lining Kelce up all over the formation. Expect Burton to be used in a similar manner and be a legitimate fantasy tight end.

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9. Jerick McKinnon, RB, 49ers

Kyle Shanahan used two terrific receiving backs — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — to help power Atlanta’s historically good offense in 2016. In his first year at the helm in San Francisco, Shanahan didn’t have that luxury, so he went out and got McKinnon.

McKinnon is fresh off a career-best 991 yards from scrimmage (570 rushing, 421 receiving) in Minnesota. In the first four weeks after Dalvin Cook went down last year, McKinnon posted 424 total yards and four touchdowns. He remained consistent over the rest of the season, never posting fewer than 47 yards, even as his role diminished with Latavius Murray’s increased early down effectiveness. Fantasy owners won’t have to worry about McKinnon’s usage in San Francisco: He’s the clear front-runner for the starting job and be a big part of every game plan. It will take an aggressive approach to land McKinnon in drafts.

8. Jordy Nelson, WR, Raiders

Seeing Nelson in silver and black is going to be quite strange. He became a Super Bowl champ, a Pro Bowler and one of the game’s best deep threats as a Packer, playing in 136 games over nine seasons. Nevertheless, he’s on to Oakland now with a two-year deal in hand, and he’s there to help restore Derek Carr’s deep ball magic: In 2016, when the Raiders went 12-4, Carr was ninth in the league with a deep ball completion percentage of 41. Last year, he was 27th, completing just 29 percent of his deep balls, per Player Profiler.

It’s important to remember the reason behind Nelson’s own subpar 2017 season (53/482/6) wasn’t really Nelson himself, but rather Aaron Rodgers’ injury. Here are Nelson’s splits:

First five games (Rodgers healthy): 19 receptions, 230 yards, six touchdowns
Final 10 games: 34 receptions, 252 yards, zero touchdowns

Nelson can still really run — he posted 97/1257/14 with Rodgers healthy two seasons ago — and new offensive coordinator Greg Olson should help Carr’s deep ball as well. As Rams QB coach last year, Olson helped Jared Goff to the 13th-best completion percentage on deep balls after Goff ranked 25th in that area as a rookie, per Player Profiler. And for those worrying about Amari Cooper taking away too many targets, don’t: Cooper has ranked 50th and 21st in hog rate in his two seasons as a pro.

7. Michael Crabtree, WR, Ravens

Crabtree is going to Baltimore to be the type of receiver that Breshad Perriman has failed to become: a big-bodied possession receiver who can come up with 50-50 balls and win at all depths. He will make a world of difference for Joe Flacco. Per ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, Flacco had a passer rating of 88.0 with a healthy Steve Smith. That dropped to 82.3 since.

Crabtree provides Baltimore with an outstanding red zone target — he’s one of just five players with at least 25 receiving touchdowns over the past three seasons combined — and that will be his biggest value with the Ravens. Flacco finished 31st in the league in red-zone completion percentage last year at 52 percent, so Crabtree will immediately become his go-to option near the end zone.

6. Case Keenum, QB, Broncos

The reason Keenum is on this list — and the reasons Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith aren’t — is that Keenum is a massive upgrade in Denver. Cousins and Smith are good quarterbacks, but how much of an upgrade they are over their predecessors remains to be seen. Keenum, meanwhile, is a massive upgrade over the combination of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch. Keenum isn’t on this list for his fantasy numbers necessarily, but rather how he will impact the players around him, particularly wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

As for Thomas, 2017 was the first season since 2011 that he didn’t surpass the 1000-yard mark, and he also saw his fewest targets over that stretch (140). Thomas is only behind Antonio Bryant with 575 catches since 2012, and Keenum was among the best short-throw quarterbacks last year, an area in which Thomas excels. The same goes for Sanders, a quicker-than-fast superb route runner who can line up anywhere, similar to Adam Thielen in Minnesota. Keenum helped turn Thielen into one of the best fantasy wideouts in the league last year; expect him to bump Sanders’ numbers up, too.

Case Keenum will help everyone on Denver’s offense in 2018. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Case Keenum will help everyone on Denver’s offense in 2018. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

5. Jimmy Graham TE, Packers

It’s been a while since Rodgers had a legitimate fantasy tight end. He turned Richard Rodgers into a top-10 producer in 2015, but since Jermichael Finley’s career-ending injury, the tight end position has been a revolving door in Green Bay.

The Packers hope that door stops with Graham, who has been a consistent top-five fantasy tight end, even though he wasn’t always the most natural fit in Seattle. Rodgers, who is the epitome of consistent excellence, has been the league’s best when targeting slot and outside wide receivers but fifth when targeting tight ends, per Pro Football Focus. Graham is a big, athletic player who won’t be asked to block as much as he was with the Seahawks. Expect a big year for Graham, perhaps the best tight end Rodgers has had.

4. Jarvis Landry, WR, Browns

The Browns used this offseason to expedite their long rebuild, adding Jarvis Landry to what is a promising receiving corps with what they hope is a full season for Josh Gordon and a healthy Corey Coleman. Landry is an ideal fit in the slot, and the downfield abilities of Gordon and Coleman will open up plenty of room for Landry to operate underneath, where he is terrific.

Landry was 101st in the league in air yards last year (3.1 per target), and that’s where Tyrod Taylor tends to go: His 3.9 air yards per attempt was 18th in the league. Taylor, of course, is coming to a new offense, so those tendencies may change, especially with former Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley running the offense. Still, Taylor isn’t a strong-armed slinger like Ben Roethlisberger is, so Haley will have to make some adjustments. Landry is outstanding after the catch (third in YAC last year) and, surprisingly, he led the NFL in red zone receptions last year with 18. Taylor was 32nd in red zone completion percentage in 2017, so expect him to look to Landry often when near the end zone.

3. Brandin Cooks, WR, Rams

Sean McVay’s offense was terrific last year, but the one thing it didn’t feature was a bonafide deep threat: Jared Goff’s 3.8 air yards per attempt was 19th in the league, and he only attempted 58 deep balls, 20th in the league. Cooks, meanwhile, has consistently ranked inside the top 10 in air yards and yards per target, and he will provide what Sammy Watkins was unable to consistently: win down the field.

In three years under McVay in Washington, DeSean Jackson registered two 1,000-yard seasons and led the league in yards per catch twice. Cooks should have the same impact, and he comes without the injury problems Jackson had. Over the past three years, Cooks has finished 12th, eighth and seventh in total fantasy points among wide receivers. The diminutive speedster should be a top-10 wideout agin in 2018.

2. Allen Robinson, WR, Bears

After a breakout 2015 campaign, Robinson endured a frustrating 2016 season and then caught one pass for 17 yards before tearing his ACL in 2017. So ranking him this high comes with plenty of risk, as does the Bears’ three-year $42-million deal. But when healthy, Robinson is a legitimate top-end talent and early round fantasy pick.

There are a few things that will make Robinson a hot commodity this upcoming campaign: He’s playing in a creative offense headed by Nagy, who was talked about in the Burton section. He’s the undoubted No. 1 wide receiver and a great red zone target with size, strength and route-running ability. With speedy rookie Anthony Miller, slot man Taylor Gabriel and a bevy of tight ends in the fold, Robinson won’t constantly face double-teams like he did in 2016. If healthy, he could post 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.

1. Dion Lewis, RB, Titans

Lewis and Derrick Henry appear primed to split time in the backfield, per what new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur told The Tennesseean.

Lewis is coming off a top-12 standard-scoring performance last year despite splitting time with James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. Lewis recorded 1,110 yards from scrimmage, nearly as many as he did in his first four years in the league combined. And there’s a ton to like about Lewis’ new home. It starts with LaFleur, whose quarterbacks have become terrific at targeting running backs, whether it be Kirk Cousins with Chris Thompson, Matt Ryan with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman or, most recently, Jared Goff with Todd Gurley. Lewis didn’t have a single drop last year, and his 91.4 percent catch rate was tops in the league.

Dion Lewis is a dynamic threat who will add a new dimension to Tennessee’s offense. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Dion Lewis is a dynamic threat who will add a new dimension to Tennessee’s offense. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)