2021 NFL Free Agency Losers (So Far)

Malcolm McMillan (@McLateralFF)
The Lateral Editor

NFL Free Agency has come and... is still coming?

Yes, free agency is still very much ongoing and teams are still building their rosters. They also still have many talented players to choose from (particularly on defense). However, when the biggest story on a given day is RB Mike Davis signing with the Atlanta Falcons, it is safe to say that the silly season is slowing down.

So with the risk of Super Bowl champion WR Antonio Brown ruining this article when he signs with someone other than the Buccaneers, let's get into the good stuff... free agency losers! 

These players are losers from a fantasy standpoint. If you are AJ Dillon, not having to put on a ton of mileage during your rookie deal is arguably a win, especially if you still get an upgraded role from the 2020 season. But from a fantasy perspective, the re-signing of Aaron Jones would definitely cap your fantasy value for 2021 and counts as a significant loss. 

Finally, expectations were definitely taken into account when selecting these players. For example, RB James Robinson (JAX) was always expected to have some new teammates in Jacksonville's RB room. Jacksonville adding RB Carlos Hyde did not change my expectation that James Robinson will be an RB2 in 2021, so he did not make the list.

2021 NFL Free Agency Losers (So Far)

RB Josh Jacobs (LV)

No deal so far in free agency has been more baffling than the Las Vegas Raiders signing RB Kenyan Drake for two-years and $14.5 million. Especially since the Raiders already had Jacobs, a top-10 fantasy RB and 2020 Pro Bowl selection on the roster. Did Jacobs have some issues? Sure. He only produced 3.9 yards per attempt, which was the bottom of the pack for NFL starters. But if that is the concern, you do not bring in Kenyan Drake, who produced *checks notes* literally 0.1 Y/A more. 

Drake says that the Raiders brought him in to be a "playmaker" and that he did not prioritize being a starter, but even as a backup it is tough to logically project a $14+ million signing not taking more than Devontae Booker's 20% market share on the ground from 2020 and further capping Jacobs' already low ceiling in the passing game. Especially when Drake saw 239 rushing attempts and 31 targets in 2020 as a starter in Arizona and was a fantasy starter in his own right. Therefore, Jacobs' days as an RB1 are likely over, which a major loss for his fantasy value in 2021.

Then again, it is the Raiders. At this point, anything is possible.

RB Kenyan Drake (LV)

The signing of Kenyan Drake did not only hurt Josh Jacobs, but it also hurt Kenyan Drake! The argument for why Drake's fantasy value is taking a hit is essentially the same as it is for Jacobs: there simply is not enough work to go around for them to repeat their 2020 performances. The good news for Drake fans is that while the workload will certainly be lighter, there is evidence that shows that NFL offenses can support two fantasy starters at RB. Washington, Cleveland, and Indianapolis all had two RBs with top-24 finishes. Even Drake's former team Arizona almost had two fantasy starters in the backfield, with Drake finishing RB16 and Chase Edmonds finishing RB25 (just 0.5 points off of RB24 J.K. Dobbins [BAL]).

The bad news is that none of those teams are the Raiders. In Gruden's current tenure as head coach, the most work a backup RB has seen is DeAndre Washington's 24.7% market share on the ground in 2019 and Jalen Richard's 15.28% market share through the air in 2018. If you do some math using those market shares, Drake's 2020 catch rate and Y/A, and Las Vegas' offense last year, Drake would produce around 141 PPR points before TDs, and that number is heavily boosted by using PPR format (45% of his points would come from receptions). Add in the fact that last year Las Vegas gave Jacobs' a 65.3% market share on attempts inside the 20 (a percentage that only grows the closer you get to the goal line), and the chances that Drake is anything beyond a fringe RB2/RB3 are incredibly small. That would represent a major fall for last year's RB16.

RB AJ Dillon (GB)

Despite using him as an example in the introduction, Dillon almost did not make this list. The Jamaal Williams role in this offense is not insignificant, and Williams will not be returning in 2021. In 2020, Williams saw a 26.86% market share on the ground and only 6.98% of the Packers targets. It would not be a stretch to project a similar workload onto Dillon in 2021, and even if he does not improve on those numbers he should still manage to be a fantasy-relevant RB3. An increased workload from Williams' 2021 share could even provide major value for fantasy managers willing to take a shot on the second-year RB. 

Unfortunately, the fact that he went from potential starter to clear backup through the course of free agency means he had to be included. Still, Dillon did improve his standing from third on the depth chart to second on the depth chart, and that may just be enough to cushion the blow of losing a potential starting role in Green Bay.

TE Jonnu Smith (NE) and TE Hunter Henry (NE)

As if the tight end position was not already difficult enough to hit on, the Patriots went ahead and complicated things by signing two potential TE1s, thereby likely creating zero. Yes, people will point to the 2011 season when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernadez finished as TE1 and TE3 respectively, but do you know what the target share was for those two? 38.79% combined. Nearly four out of every 10 targets went to a TE for the Patriots that season. That is not happening again.

Need proof? The last season the Patriots had a TE1 on the roster was Gronkowski finishing TE2 in 2017 with a 17.98% target share. The next year, all New England TEs combined for just 14.57% target share. The following year? 8.86%. Last year? All New England TEs combined for just a 7.86% target share. Quite a fall from 38.79%.

But maybe Cam Newton can feed the TE? Well the last time that happened, former Carolina Panthers TE Greg Olsen needed a 23.33% target share in 2016 to finish TE3. This is significantly more than the less than seven percent of his targets Newton threw to his TEs last year. Even to produce a single top-12 TE, he would likely need to throw to either Smith or Henry 15.22% of the time, which was the target share that this year's TE12 Hunter Henry saw in 2020. That would represent an just under a 100% increase in the target share compared to what Patriots TEs saw in 2020, and that is just to produce a single top-12 TE. To produce two, Newton would likely need to provide his new TEs with an over 30% target share, a nearly 400% increase. That is simply not happening based on any logical conclusions we can draw from the available data. It would take a literally historic season. 

WR Will Fuller V (MIA)

Most of these players require a lot of analysis as to why they are early free agent losers from a fantasy perspective. Will Fuller V is not one of those players. 

Why? Fuller's new QB Tua Tagovailoa is a downgrade from Deshaun Watson. Even if Tua breaks out next year, it is highly unlikely he will be as good as Deshaun Watson, who was top-10 in just about every statistical category listed on Pro Football Reference. Seriously, go look. It is absurd how good Watson was in 2020. And unlike Kenny Golladay, who was not playing with QB Matthew Stafford in 2021 no matter what, the expectation was that Fuller could genuinely return to play alongside Watson in 2021 (at least before the sexual assault allegations against Watson).

Will Fuller V scored 17.2 PPG in 2020, good for WR6 in PPG (WR32 overall). From Week 6 on, which is when Tua got the start in Miami, the best Dolphins WR in fantasy was Devante Parker... at WR57. Yikes. For now, it just seems impossible to do anything other than downgrade Will Fuller V, even though he is a very likely upgrade for Miami's WR corps.

D.J. Chark (JAX) or Laviska Shenault Jr. (JAX)

This one is tricky because right now we do not know which of these two WRs is going to be likely starter QB Trevor Lawrence's favored target. In fact, it could be neither of them. Instead, it could be free agent signing WR Marvin Jones, Jr., who the Jags brought in on a two-year deal last week. 

Jones' arrival is really the issue here. The Jaguars can likely support two fantasy-relevant WRs, and just as likely cannot support three. Only three teams in 2020 had three top-48 WRs in PPR format. The Cowboys made the cut with Michael Gallup finishing at WR38 to join Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb (both top-24) and the Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers each had a trio of top-24 WRs. 

But that is it. That is the entire list. That is a lot of really good offenses that could not manage to support three fantasy-relevant WRs. The year before was no different. In 2019, only the Jaguars and the Giants had three top-48 WRs each, and of those six WRs only D.J. Chark (WR17) finished better than WR37. Betting on Jacksonville to beat the odds this year would be foolish, so expect at least one of these young WRs to have a down year in 2021.

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